Friday 25 December 2020

Creating the Old Testament: The Emergence of the Hebrew Bible.

Creating the Old Testament: The Emergence of the Hebrew Bible.

Edited by Dr Stephen Bigger

Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1989. Available: print on demand.



We know for certain very little about the history and times in which the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) was written. But the books were written (by anonymous writers), the last, Daniel, being completed by the second century BCE. This book starts from what we know, that is the contents of the books and the apparent intentions of the writers where that can be surmised. In other books, the emphasis is on reconstructing history (always a parlous exercise) or expounding religious doctrine (be it for Judaism or Christianity). Removing these two agendas allows the texts to speak for themselves, often with surprising results.


Although the work of fifteen scholars, all connected with the Society for Old Testament Study,  it is designed to flow as a whole. It asserts no doctrinaire theological position and the different writers come from different faith and theological positions. It has one starting point: the Hebrew Bible was written by persons usually unknown, for a purpose largely unexplained. It emerged over time between 3000 and 2000 years ago; it was adopted as the Christian Old Testament, creating the idea of an old dispensation prior to the ‘New Testament’. That is our bottom line and we are interested in what they said and meant. Those writings have been used by Jews, Christians, Muslims and Baha'is in different ways and have caused both joy and conflict, freedom and oppression. In the interests of inter-faith dialogue, this literature has never been so significant. Religion is also in dialogue, or conflict, with secularity and it is important to break down barriers here also.


Understanding the issues in this book therefore are essential as we move into the 21st century.



1.      The Hebrew World.

2.      The Authority and Use of the Hebrew Bible in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Humanist tradition

3.      Symbol and metaphor

4.      Genesis: History or Story?

5.      Moses

6.      Covenant and Law

7.      The Former Prophets

8.      Jerusalem

9.      Stories of the Prophets

10.  Prophesy and the prophets

11.  After the Exile.

12.  The Psalms.

13.  The Wisdom Books.

14.  The Five Megilloth (Scrolls)

15.   The Other Books.


Note:  'AD' and 'BC. derives from early Christian scholarship, This dating-system is in common use in most cultures but, in the interests of neutrality, CE (Common Era) is used in this book to replace the Chrisrian designarion AD (Anno Domini, 'in rhe year of the Lord'), in accordance with the common usage in religious studies, BCE (Before the Common Era) similarly replaces BC (Before Christ).

In retrospect, I regret that there was no chapter on Feminist Interpretation. When I asked for volunteers in 1987 at the Society for Old Testament Study (SOTS) this was a new field. Two writers would happily have jointly written such a chapter, had I thought to ask them. That field has produced extensive literature since that time.


The concept of 'Old Testament', the old covenant as contrasted to a newly emerging covenant, emerged before the Christian era. The prophet Jeremiah saw the possibility of a new covenant written on the heart, a spiritual faith in which all will know God. It would replace the Sinai covenant made after the exodus from Egypt, which had been broken so often and so completely. Greek translations preferred the word 'testament' (diatheke) to 'covenant' (suntheke), perhaps because 'testament' left the initiative in God's hand, while 'covenant' suggested a relationship of mutual influence.


Paul - a Jew, and a Pharisee turned Christian - spoke, in a vein similar to Jeremiah, of the Torah of Moses as the old 'testament' or covenant, a written code which kills, a 'dispensation of death, carved in letters on stone' (2 Corinthians 3.6-16). Its injunctions were so far-reaching that no one could hope to obey them perfectly, and all must live with their failure and its im­plications. The early Church regarded the Hebrew Bible as scripture, often quoting it as an authoritative text. Melito of Sardis (died c.190 CE) and Tertullian (c.160-225 CE) are the first known writers to call the books 'Old Testament' - the first in Greek, and the second in Latin. By the third century CE, Christian writers had begun to contrast the Hebrew Bible with the New Testament writings, often with pejorative overtones, to create the impression of a group of archaic books, of little value except for Messianic prophecies foretelling Jesus's mission - that is, to create the idea of an Old Testament which looked forward to the coming of Jesus and Christianity, preparing the way for something better. The contributors to this volume wish to allow the Old Testament writings to speak for themselves, helping the reader to understand what they are trying to say, and to appreciate the books for what they really are.


The books of the Hebrew Bible were created by anonymous writers during the first millennium BCE. Their messages and concerns are the central theme of this book. Ours is the story of how the writings which make up the Hebrew Bible emerged from their mouths and from their pens as expressions of their great creativity, interpreting life as they saw it and conveying meanings they glimpsed. Others appreciated their ideas, preserved their words, and developed their teaching, sometimes in new directions. It is easy for readers to get lost in the minutiae of biblical criticism, interested for so long primarily in historical reconstruction; but this book encourages those who will, to listen to the words themselves with an open mind, and to allow the messages of the Hebrew Bible to emerge once again after centuries of Christian interpretation, which has been selective in its concerns and has obscured by reinterpretation some of the in­trinsic value of the Hebrew books. The Christian dimension is not unimportant - but it is a secondary dimension, involving reinterpretation, and should not blind us to other perspectives.


This book is not an introduction to the books of the Hebrew Bible, nor yet another history of Israel. It is, in essence, an exploration, inviting the reader to set off on an expedition of discovery. It often perplexes the general reader that, on virtually every issue in the study of the Hebrew Bible, scholars disagree, often fundamentally. In this book, issues are raised and explored to enable the reader to observe how decisions are made, on what evidence, how hypotheses are formed and how the so-called 'assured results' of scholarship are constantly tested. In following this path, readers are encouraged to develop their skill in evaluating historical data, recognizing textual problems, interpreting symbolic language and exploring the deep concerns of the biblical writers. They will explore different and varied exegetical traditions. They will be stirred to reflect on what the biblical books have to say for life today, whether viewed from a Jewish, a Christian, a Muslim or a secular perspective.


The fundamental aim of this volume on the Hebrew Bible is encourage readers to understand the text and its implications. Since the text was handwritten, mostly in Hebrew (some portions are in Aramaic) we need to explore whether the text has been accurately transmitted. For example, 1 Samuel 13.1 notes that 'Saul was son of one year when he became king, and he ruled over Israel for two years.' The Revised Standard Version assumes that the numbers have dropped out and leaves a gap; the New English Bible somewhat cavalierly inserts numbers from guesswork; Saul becomes fifty years old, and reigned for twenty-two years! The early Greek translation, the Septuagint, also had trouble with this verse, so the corruption had taken place at a very early stage. There seem also to have been different families of manuscripts with different readings. The 2000-year-old texts found near Qumran (the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls), differ in very many respects from the Hebrew text used as the basis of English translations - which is scarcely 1000 years old. Sometimes the New Testament, when quoting a passage from the Hebrew Bible, differs considerably from the Hebrew text that we know (compare, for example, Acts 15.17-18 and Amos 9.11-12). Another question to be asked is whether we should understand passages literally or symbolically. Augustine of Hippo, writing in the fifth century CE, looked for solutions to problems raised for example by Genesis 1-11, where we find great ages, sons of God and giants. The Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) explained problem passages in the light of the world as he knew it: miracles and supernatural events must have rational explanations! Both writers recognized descriptions of God as metaphor - God has no body or emotions, and is beyond human understanding.


In studying the Hebrew Bible, we spend most of our time reflecting on a wide range of interpretation, rather than on the text itself. A translation is itself an interpretation which selects one line of thought: the original writer would have been acutely aware of the wide range of meanings in a word and intended these to interact. There are also traditions of modern interpretation which are hard to break through: notably the Hebrew Bible is viewed from the standpoint of Christian theology, which can blind the reader even to the obvious. Detailed interpretation of the text is called exegesis - drawing out meanings and interpretations. In the Jewish tradition the same general process of interpretation is called midrash.


No interpretation of any text is 'just a matter of opinion'. To reach an informed view, the. reader has to develop a careful methodology. D. J. A. Clines describes these (in Rogerson, 1983: 26-43) as 'first-order methods', dealing with our understanding of the text; and 'second-order methods', using the text for other purposes, such as historical reconstructions. His first­order methods are


·         historical-grammatical criticism: to discover the natural sense of a text, for the authors in their own time;

·         textual criticism: to examine the original texts, and in so doing seek to resolve problems of detail;

·         redaction criticism: to examine the literary artistry of the writers (called here redactors or editors), and to discover why a work has been constructed in the way it has been. (This is sometimes called literary analysis or literary criticism.)


 His second-order methods are 

·         historical criticism: using the text to reconstruct, as far as possible, what actually happened.

·         source criticism: examining sources if known and reconstructing hypothetical sources behind a work.

·         form criticism: reconstructing the (now lost) oral process, and the hypothetical oral layer underlying a text.


Priority has often been given to these 'second-order' tasks, alongside historical-grammatical commentaries. The interest in literary questions ­of a text’s flow and artistry - is relatively recent. Robert Alter (1981, 12f) argues that the major emphasis in biblical studies had been 'excavative', ­searching the text for data about history - with astonishingly little interest in developing a disciplined way of studying the text itself, as one might with Shakespeare or Tolstoy. Literary studies have mushroomed over the past decade, and Alter's work is now viewed as 'pioneering'. R. Polzin (1980: 5), in agreeing with Alter, called the results of historical­-critical analyses of biblical material 'disappointing and inadequate'. The present work strikes a balance between literary and historical methods, in the belief that each is essential to the task of developing our understanding and appreciation of the texts of the Hebrew Bible.


The divine name in the Hebrew Bible is written with four letters, YHWH, which Jewish readers have traditionally read as Adonai ('my Lord') in case the divine name is uttered 'in vain' - so contravening the third commandment. Attention here is focused on the dangers of insincerity. In Hebrew YHWH is vocalized with the vowels Adonai, reminding readers to make the replacement: this produced in English the hybrid name 'Jehovah'. To find the appropriate vowels, scholars went to eatly translations and transliterations (e.g. writing Hebrew in Greek characters). Critical works normally refer to the Israelite god as Yahweh, or God if the reference is more general. This convention has been followed in this volume because of its wide audience; Jewish readers are asked to bear with this usage and make their own mental adjustments. English translations generally replace Yahweh with 'the LORD' and this too has been followed in biblical quotations.



Friday 12 May 2017

The Israelite Woman, and a Thesis.

I am reading and rereading the excellent works of Athalya Brenner, on a feminist approach to the Bible. I start with an apology, and some context. It relates both to my PhD thesis and my volume Creating the Old Testament. Please note I am putting this online at

Context first. My PhD thesis was on Ancient Hebrew Marriage and Family Customs. There will be more about that somewhere else. I had studied in Manchester with Arnold Anderson, a new program on Hebrew Social Institutions. It was different and new, and I was newly married, so that was my PhD. There had been little done recently on the topic. What had been done was based on faulty anthropology, so mine was one of the first studies ever to engage with anthropology. More of that later. There was no such thing as feminist study at that time, Phylis Tribble's work came a few years later, which I read in a study break in Lancaster in 1979. My PhD passed unproblematically but it had flaws. It assumed that a socio-historical approach would offer insights. This was then the fashion, influenced by Albright, Bright and others. I now think not. The Old Testament, my focus, is and was a series of narratives which supported a political agenda. History is no way involved. Abraham and King David, and all between, are on a level with Robin Hood and King Arthur. We should read the story to decode the politics.

So, my apology, having just read Athalya's new preface. First, we met and talked around 1985-6 which I see was an emotionally significant time for her. My wife was then vociferously anti-feminist (though in fact was and is an unreflective feminist) and I asked Athalya about this. She was upset, and I am sorry. I now know why. Secondly, I was putting together Creating the Old Testament using scholars in the Society for Old Testament Studies (SOTS). It was a complex book and there was no section on feminist interpretations. This was normal for the time, but I regret it. The book structure militated against it  but had Athalya been on the writing team that could have been solved.

On The Israelite Woman, she wonders if her text was tough enough. Bearing in mind we were boldly going where no woman had been before, it's probably a criticism unnecessary to make. I am considering rather if my texts were tough enough. On Creating the Old Testament, Athalya needed to be on the writing team with a free hand. She has more than compensated with here feminist OT studies series, so it was my loss.

On my thesis, there were examples of social justice expressed through the stories of Hagar, Dinah, Tamar and the Levites' concubine (and of course others) but it was inchoate. The fact that my topic was too broad for depth (despite it being close to 200,000 words long) was an issue. Breadth and depth are hard to balance in a PhD. in the 1970s it was a matter of go away and get on with it.

It is hard to know if a man writing on feminist issues would have fared any differently from a woman writing on them. There were no university posts in the 1970s so a decade as a secondary school teacher did not leave much time to do active research. There was no tradition then of publishing raw theses, for which I am grateful. I would not now want the thesis published, but there has been a bit of an explosion of marriage and feminist literature.These posts are my way of getting my ideas on the topic into shape in my head, and into the public domain, but it is too late to hope for a publication.

One last point. Athalya's description of being refused tenure rings a loud bell. I too was refused a professorship for no reason given, though I had the same number of publications as a senior manage who did, and 20 times more than another senior manage who received on, without PhD, or research students, or publications. My crime was to have researched and written on the wrong topics, published in the wrong places. Such professorships, I decided, have no value (though in my case this had no salary implications).

As I now read The Israelite Woman, I am sure I will have points to add, but these will not be hostile.

Monday 8 May 2017

The Sons of God and the Flood

Genesis 6.1-4   "When mankind began to increase and spread over the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of the gods (God) saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; so they took for themselves such women as they chose. But the LORD said, 'My life-giving spirit shall not remain in man for ever; he for his part is mortal flesh; he shall live for a hundred and twenty years'. In those days, when the sons of the gods (or God) had intercourse with the daughters of men and got children by them, the Nephilim were on earth. They were the heroes of old, men of renown."

The story has progressed beyond Adam and Eve and their sons Cain, Abel and Seth, through generations with exaggerated life spans, the oldest, Methuselah almost reaching a thousand years old. There is no natural explanation, but we are in the realm of folklore. The end of this line is Noah, who we will shortly meet in the flood narrative. We can't say that females were not being born, because wives were married and bore each generation so the daughters in the story above are simply mentioned there as the focus of the story. The sons of God were in Hebrew Bene Elim. The second word,being plural (i.e. ending in -im) is why NEB translates the term 'sons of the gods'. Although the normal Hebrew term for God is also plural (Elohim) it is the standard name for God in the singular. We know from other ancient near eastern texts, such as from Ugarit, that bene elim were divine beings in the divine court. This is evidence that an earlier strand of mythology lies behind the Bible, and especially Genesis, so that scholars read Ugaritic myths with great interest. I had a class on Ugaritic with Prof Terry Fenton in Manchester University in 1968, reading the Baal text and the story of king Keret. The bene elim appear in these polytheistic myths. The  various parts of the section do not appear to fit, but the final compiler undoubtedly had a purpose. The divine beings were randy, the women needed not to be immortal. Were the heroes /men of renown the offspring of these unions. It doesn't quite say so but the reference is otherwise inexplicable.

The passage continues with a discussion about the great flood. As I write Stephen Fry has been accused of blasphemy (and vindicated) for saying God is capricious and responsible for creating an unjust world. Given that members of his family were killed in the holocaust, it was a reasonable response. We have already seen God repenting from the creation of humanity, with the worry that they become as wise as the gods (the 'we' in the verse). At the beginning of the flood narrative, God repents from creating humanity at all because of their wickedness and decides to kill them all in a great flood. But one man is righteous and is allowed to survive, with his family. Instructed to build an 'ark' (boat) they took on board animals to repopulate the earth afterwards. This was a fresh start. At a great cost to life, human and animal. So the human race, according to this story, is descended from Noah's three sons Shem, Ham and Japheth (and of course their wives). Genealogies track their tribal descendants, Shem in the middle east (Semites), Ham in Africa and Japheth further north. Canaan was son of Ham, a non-semitic neighbour and enemy in Palestine.

Dating these stories is difficult. There were mesopotamian flood stories which may have been encountered by exiles in Babylon. There were two intertwined narratives, one bring the animals into the ark two by two, the other having seven pairs of clean animals (and perhaps linked with the levitical laws of holiness which are usually dated after the exile. There was a great concern about intermarriage after the exile (see especially Ezra and Nehemiah) so some categorisation of foreign nations would be natural. The genealogy was then the way to define relationships.

One post-flood story is enlightening. Noah planted vines, made wine and became drunk. He lay naked on his bed: whilst two sons covered him up without looking, Canaan did look at his nakedness and was cursed. This explains the enmity between Hebrews and Canaanites that we see in lawcodes like Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Canaanites were not regarded as semitic and intermarriage should not take place. We will return to intermarriage in a later post. The attitude to male nakedness is so peculiar that it is worth quoting in full:
"When Ham, father of Canaan, saw his father naked, he told his two brothers outside. So Shem and Japheth took a cloak, put it on their shoulders and walked backwards, and so covered their father's naked body; their faces were turned the other way, so they did not see their father naked. When Noah woke from his drunken sleep, he learnt what his youngest son had done to him, and said, 'Cursed be Canaan, slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers'. And he continued: 'Bless, O LORD, the tents of Shem, may Canaan be his slave. May God extend Japheth's bounds, let him dwell in the tents of Shem, may Canaan be their slave" (Genesis 9:22-27).
It seems unfair to blame young Canaan for his father's indiscretion. Canaanites shared the Hebrew language and even their alphabet in the early stages and mythology of Baal and Asherah. Within the Ham genealogy are Cush, Egypt (Mitzraim), and mighty Nimrod ancestor of Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians. Again the quote is curious and may indicate post-exilic authorship:

"Cush was the father of Nimrod, who began to show himself as a man of might on earth; and he was a mighty hunter before the LORD, as the saying goes 'Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the LORD".
Nimrod was an ancient city. The name has led to folklore about his relationship to the tower of Babel, and to Abraham but most of that is creatively derived from Genesis. Several interpret the phrase as "a mighty hunter against the LORD" as Nimrod represented the Hebrew enemy. Relationships were represented by genealogies in the Pentateuch so all the know peoples of the world are incorporated into this family tree of Noah, the Levant for Semites, the south and East for Ham and the west for Japheth. This was not an account of a Palestine herdsman, or even a priest. It required deep understanding of what we would today call globalism. Above all the world of foreigners are all related to each other, a genuine family, however mythic. The human race were the human family. The author was a geographer who had pieced together a list of nations beyond Babylon, Egypt and Greece. The list is neutral: only Canaan is the one that stands out.

The genealogy adds details of Canaan:
Canaan was the father of Sidon, who was his eldest son, and Heth [the Hittites], the Jebusites [in Jerusalem], the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Archites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites. Later the Canaanites spread, and then the Canaanite border ran from Sidon towards Gerar all the way to Gaza; then all the way to Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim as far as Lasha. (Genesis 10:15-19).
Many of the names we don't recognize but it is clear that Semites only occupied the hills, not the coastal plane. Scholars will disagree about whether this was the situation in the early years (pre- 1000BCE) or in post-exilic years (after 500BCE). In my view, given that the flood narrative owes a debt to Babylonian myth (as also does the creation account) the detail is post-exilic and represents the  returned Judaic community struggling with the aboriginal community.

Sunday 7 May 2017


After their expulsion from Eden, Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel. The story is well known: Cain was a farmer who offered crops to God, Abel a herdsman who offered a lamb. God accepted the lamb but not the crops, so Cain in anger killed Abel. The story is certainly a defence of animal sacrifice, emphasising the battle between herders and farmers. The story ends with Cain sent east of Eden, that is towards India, to "the Land of Nod" [meaning wandering]. This implies Cain represents desert nomads. Cain and his descendants received the 'mark of Cain' so people would see it and not harm them. What that mark or sign has been much discussed. There has been claims from ancient times that it was dark skin and this played a part in racist and slavery discourses. There is a presumption in the story that there were other humans on earth - "anyone who meets me can kill me" (Genesis 4.14). Cain needed protection from others, and found a wife with whom he began a dynasty. Any death of a descendant of Cain would be punished sevenfold - perhaps a reference to traditions of blood revenge (vendetta) among nomads.

His genealogy has some interesting reading. The similarity of the name Cain and the Kenite tribe (more similar in Hebrew than in English) is curious. The Kenites were favourably remembered and instrumental in the development of Yahwism. If we follow the Genesis narrative tenaciously, then all descendants of Cain were killed in the flood, but we are not necessarily justified in connecting the stories and expecting inner logic.

Cain was cursed as the ground had received Abel's blood: it would no longer be productive. Cain would be a "vagrant" and a "wanderer" and not a farmer. Cain's first job (beside fathering a son called Enoch) was build a city called Enoch. A few generations went by before the birth of Lamech:
Lamech married two wives, one named and the other Zillah. Adar bore Jabal who was the ancestor of herdsmen who live in tents, and his brother's name was Jubal; he was the ancestor of those who play the harp and pipe. Zillah, the other wife, bore Tubal-cain the master of all coppersmiths and blacksmiths, and Tubal-cain's sister was Naamah. Lamech said to his wives: 'Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, mark what I say: I kill a man for wounding me, a young man for a blow. Cain may be avenged seven times, but Lamech seventy-seven,"
This extrudes into a generally prosaic set of genealogies. At a very early supposed date, humans were developing cities, metalwork and music. This describes the Kenite clan of which Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, was the most famous member. It is possible that the deity Yahweh, worshiped by the Hebrews, originated among the Kenites in Midian. Our story here says: "At that time men began to invoke the LORD's [Yahweh's] name" (Genesis 4.26). Clearly, Cain's descendants survived the flood and nurtured the primitive religion of Yahweh. They were smiths, metal-workers, a nomadic group who could turn their hands to anything. And they worshipped Yahweh. Moses, as fugitive, married Jethro's daughter. The theophany at the burning bush we all know.

There are questions. Naamah, detailed above, is unusually named but without detail. she is an example of censored women. What did she do? Why is she remembered? Polygyny was often reported in non-Hebrew circles, such as Esau and the Edomites. There is a pretense of monogamy in Hebrew lineages before the monarchy, though Abraham and Jacob each had multiple marriages and concubines.

Saturday 6 May 2017

The Bible and Modern Marriage

 1. Relevance of the Bible today: a rational perspective.
Attitudes to marriage and divorce have deep roots in Christian teaching both in Europe and in Africa. To be properly critical, we need to ask searching questions about the relationship between modern attitudes and religious texts. The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is a foundation document of Judaism and Christianity. Attitudes to this range from conservative to critical, the former believing the Bible be inspired word of God, the latter denying this. I  suggest that we approach the Bible  as an historical document, without supernaturalist assumptions.

The Bible has a cultural relevance even if it has no personal authority for an individual. All the good and moral things of life are claimed to be Christian (or Jewish) even if they are just common sense social rules. The Bible also contains material which is contrary to common sense, such as the curse or poison ordeal for a woman's adultery (Numbers 5) so the texts have no extrinsic authority. . The task for education is to examine religious texts such as the Bible to gain some understanding about the time for which they were written. There is no guarantee that any of it will apply to modern day issues.

2.  The Bible as history: some issues
There has been optimistic assumptions in conservative theological circles that the Hebrew story as set out in the Old Testament really happened in history.  Their theological underpinning is the doctrine of divine inspiration, that is that the Bible is the word of God. That is what I was brought up to believe, but even as a teenager that never made any sense. The creation timescale of big bang to humans within six days is a case in point. Genesis paints the picture of all human peoples as one big family, being refined in the telling to the Hebrew family. There are some contemporary monuments produced by victorious monarchs in Egypt and Mesopotamia and eventually these begin to mention some kings that we know about. We actually cannot have any certainty about whether Joseph, or Moses, or even David were real people whose stories described what they really did. They are stories, folk tales, much like King Alfred and his cakes, Robert the Bruce and his spider, and Robin Hood's merry men. Whether David wrote psalms or Solomon wrote wisdom books must be open questions.

What we do know is that someone created and recited the studies. These people lived in time, had their own interests and theologies, and had reasons for writing. Most were men, and powerful men, and their writings were designed to persuade. That is, the writings were political. I recognize the Bible as history only in this precise sense.

3. Hermeneutics: applying the Bible for today.
I have great hesitation in this aspect. Times now are different from time then. Where texts assume the best in human nature, such as love and social justice, an application is easy to see. However much of the Old Testament has a much more dubious message, even on occasion advocating genocide. Preachers pick out a verse here or there to hang a sermon on, but this is not the same as applying a whole text. New Testament verses are more commonly used for preaching, and are much more appropriate in format. My general assumption as that hermeneutic applications will be very limited.

The Old Testament does not easily translate to marriage today. Polygyny is assumed, the royal family being rather excessive. There are slave marriages, prejudices against intermarriage and harsh judgements on female sexuality and homosexuality. The place and status of women is mixed, but in general demonstrates neglect

4. Divorce in the Bible: some issues.

We see relationships terminated in an unsatisfactory manner, such as Hagar's expulsion, left to die with her child. Divorce is not presented as a great issue, though there are not many examples. The law in Deuteronomy 24 mainly preventing remarriage afterwards. There are a few metaphorical uses in the works of the prophets.

Marriage, God's Sacred Institution?

May Day 2017. Republican Congressman Randy Weber has just spoken to a Christian conservative rally in America. "Father we've trampled on your holy institution of holy matrimony" referring explicitly to same sex marriage, sometimes called  marriage equality. This is by way of a fact check.

Across the world girls barely teenagers are married to someone of their family choice, someone they may previously they have only met briefly and sometimes not at all. The illusion of consent may be promoted, although in reality the girl may feel that the match is a fait accompli, and that saying no will heap trouble on themselves. Or there may be no pretense of consent.

It has been a modern aim to set a minimum age of 16, the effect of which is to disrupt the girl's education and future career prospect. Such marriages give the husband unfettered sexual access resulting in a career of childbearing which prevented social progress. There is a class divide, since wealthy families can encourage their daughters into law of medicine and hire very cheap servants to look after the children. Families who marry their daughters at 16 in many cases take them out of school just before their GCSE exams resulting in early pregnancy and no qualifications. Across the world, this happens in all religions.

It is clear that marriage is a social institution to protect a daughter's sexuality and fertility to serve family needs. The husband may be a cousin to keep matters in family. In large extended families there may be dozens of eligible family members and parents may seek an early understanding even when the daughter is very young. The function of such marriages may be to promote migration to the west.

The tradition of making one's own choice of a spouse is in historic terms a recent phenomenon. In the west we take it for granted when from a global perspective we shouldn't do so.

So how does this relate to marriage being a holy institution? The context is an attack on same sex marriage based on the assumption that marriage is ordained for the production and upbringing of children. I have been married for almost fifty years, so i have no ax to grind. Maybe my choice of PhD, on marriage in the Bible (Old Testament) was influenced by my getting married as a student. We didn't I am afraid fulfill the stated purpose of marriage as we had no children. Marriage created a status in law providing tax and pension advantages and security if a spouse died. When a broader range of relationships became regarded as socially acceptable, it became increasingly difficult to prevent same sex couples having the same benefits.

Not all include themselves in regarding this as acceptable, and in particular conservative Christians and in America the 'Bible Belt' of fundamentalist Christians, represented here by Weber. The new President did a deal for votes which may lead to this minority attitude attacking same sex relationships. Although there is no chance of influencing conservative Bible interpretation, I am engaging here in an analysis of its basis. Brought up by evangelical Christians, I challenged their position even as a teenager and suffered the full wrath of offended believers.

Marriage was declared a sacrament by the early church and this influenced the language of the marriage service. One passage seems to prevent divorce, regarding remarriage after divorce as adultery. A parallel passage adds the words "except for porneia" (porneia possibly meaning fornication here) causing the early exception in law to cases where a guilty spouse had committed adultery. There is no great narrative evidence for marriage practice in the New Testament, Jesus not being presented as being married. With asceticism in the wings, marriage was on occasion not even advised, with Paul suggesting that it was for people without self control. In the Old Testament, marriages are arranged by Abraham for Isaac and in cases when a husband of a child-bearing wife died, she was passed on to the next son. That it is true that many instances subverted traditional custom this was not within the context of marriage being a holy institution. It was a social institution which was protected to some degree by law and custom.

Same sex relationships are criticised via an ancient 'law' from the Holiness Code fixing the death penalty to homosexual sexual relations. This came in a long list of sexual offences, including incest and adultery but we do not know if this was ever an exacted law. Some of the discourse around gay bishops presumed that they are not sexually active. The story of Onan in Genesis 38 appear to imply that the purpose of the sex act is to impregnate, and any deliberate waste of sperm is itself a sin. This has had an effect on some Christian views of birth control. Paul also condemned homosexuality in the New Testament.

Evangelical Christian assumptions are based around this muddled mess of folklore and church order and realistically has no place in modern discussions. I can hear evangelicals shouting back at me on Adam and Eve, so that will take a separate post. Then Abraham, and then the rest.

Adam and Eve

As promised in my last post on marriage, this is a discussion of Adam and Eve the first married couple and the ancestor/ancestress of the human race. If you find stuff problematic, its probably because you need to up your education.

The Bible (Old Testament) starts with creation, all taking place in seven days which includes a rest day. God, whatever His/Her qualities, found creation quite tiring. Humanity was created on day six, a day after sea monsters, although as we know  human monsters are much more fearful than sea monsters. Except this primal being was a vegan, eating only vegetation so was probably reasonably calm and empathetic. Humanity was created male and female, which medieval Jewish writers thought meant hermaphrodite, beings with dual gender. This is because in the next chapter God divided them into two different sex beings by cutting the primal being up. The male was called man,'adam, the woman Eve or 'issah, woman  as she came out of man's side. The same logic could have claimed that man came out of woman's side as they were equally divided. Sure we regard them as two separate contradictory creation stories, but the same writer or editor placed the stories side by side and had an agenda. And it was a patriarchal agenda -  Adam, the man, needed a playmate, not vice versa. The marriage and childbearing side does not happen yet, this is a result of sin. Without that the two would have enjoyed an eternal love affair.

They lived in a garden called Eden, whose location is specified through rivers. It was in ancient Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. There was a marsh there, studied by Wilfred Thesinger in The Marsh Arabs, well worth following up. The dictator Saddam Hussein drained the marsh to destruction to starve out the local population, though it is now recovering.

So to our romantic couple. There were two sacred trees that must not be touched, the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. Everything else was available for food. So the first couple was to be deprived of knowledge and were not to live for ever. The US President will be relieved by the former and depressed by the latter. Give human's something to think and worry about and they will get depressed. Far better just to party all day and night. who needs education. Adam was fine about that since there was food aplenty, and no doubt drink too. The woman was not so sure. She wanted to see through this shallow life. There must be more than naked dancing and eating bananas. She was prodded by a thought, described as a serpent within her or hanging off the tree branch, or indeed walking over since the serpent then had legs. This voice said Wait, surely knowledge must be a good thing to have? Wouldn't it be good to see and think as Gods? Why should the Gods have it all to themselves. And she saw that the fruit is good. So she picked and ate, and gave to Adam who was a mite peckish and ate without much thought.

The soundtrack crashes since the world as it was has ended and a new order has come in. (Remember a myth in those days was rather like a soap today). Before the conservative Christian voice gets me in their cross-hairs, let me quote exactly - "And the LORD God said, The man [i.e. human] has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live for ever" (Gen 3.22 NIV).

Hold it there. Humans have wisdom equivalent to God, understanding good and evil, so God's only edge is eternal life. Eve fought for it in principle, but Adam benefited because of his greed. God's goal is achieved through banishment, far away from this equally attractive tree. The first symptom of the new knowledge was to cover their nakedness - their frolics were over, they now took to underwear and skirts. In the story it doesn't make much sense, unless they don't want God to see them naked - but it explains why the human race cover up. Mostly.

But hold on. Eve discussed wisdom and thought the fruit good to eat. God's position was a exercise of power, Do as I say or you will surely die. And the rebellion caused divine panic. The man would have to eke food out of the soil as a farmer, the woman would bear children in pain, and the serpent would slither and be in danger of being trodden on, and endanger human heels. Thus human marriage as we know it started with a curse. We have no idea how humans reproduced before this (they were told to be fruitful and multiply) but it is clear that marriage as we know it is a punishment. Across history, Eve has taken the bulk of criticism for the situation as the one who ate the forbidden fruit and persuaded her man to do likewise.

Two verses are interesting:"For this reason a man will leave his mother and his father and be united with his wife, and they will become one flesh" (Genesis 2.24); and  "Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you" (Genesis 3.16). The first we could read as location of the couple. Robertson Smith long ago suggested he went to live with her family. Those were times of extended families so if it means setting up a separate home, it may have relevance to tent communities. Or it could refer to relationship - before the husband was responsible for his parents, and now his wife. However there is no indication that he ceased to be responsible for his parents. So in deciding on an answer we have to take full note of the phrase "one flesh". The New Testament made something of it in terms of divorce: "What God has joined, no man should put asunder". Marriage is thus a special relationship, different from consanguinity. We can't change our blood relatives, but have to broaden our relatives through marriage (affinal kinship). This presupposes affection between husband and wife,

In this 'myth', the experienced world is given some explanation. On death, the body returns to dust is one of these; the relationship between humans and snakes are another. This explanation of marriage is an ideal, a couple in love. The second quotation offers the flip side, patriarchy. The rule, or mastery, or hegemony may be benign, but maybe not. A patriarch in the stories that follow have the power of life and death.

As a model for 21st century relationships, all this is a non-starter..A woman's husband may be her choice or her families, but the man you thought you knew does not always turn out well. Better quick divorce than long-term pain. Marriage should be entered into with concent, but it is a rolling consent. One act of consent cannot define the next 20 or 50 years. if either side no longer consent years later, then rearrangement of relationships is in order. It is the maintenance of children which may complicate decisions..

Genesis 1-3 do set up an ideal. Husband and wife helps each other, loves each other, discusses with each other. Until things were disrupted, their relationship was good, no embarrassment. The gaining of 'knowledge' disrupted this. Nakedness became a problem, and animals had to he killed to provide clothing. Humans ceased to be vegans and became carnivores. God however preferred non-thinking creatures to be without knowledge or intellect. The 'Fall' into sin may not therefore have been a fall at all but a positive development of intellectual life.