Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Her witchcrafts are so many? (Exod. 22:18 et al., witches)

A girl I briefly dated in college with whom I was friends for quite some time used to always say of the Salem witch trials, "Why is it that people always say that it's a shame that these women were falsely accused of being witches? Does that imply that if any of them were actual witches (which a few of them may have been) that would make it morally acceptable to kill them?" It was a rhetorical question in her view; of course it would not be morally acceptable. I think when it comes to the Bible, these questions need to be given some more comprehensive treatment.

Exodus 22:18 simply reads "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." However, the issues brought up are far from simple. There are two terms here that need to be explored: "witch" and "live". The latter turns out to be the most simple. It may be that the command here is not to kill a witch so much as to cast her out of the community in some manner. The Hebrew verb here may actually have to do with prosperity rather than physical life, implying that if there is a woman offering some sort of service termed as "witchcraft", then you should not solicit her. (While the term is not used there specifically, King Saul solicits a woman who "hath a familiar spirit" to help him in 1Sam. 28. It seems pretty clear that this was a bad idea.) While the possibility exists, (and note that the way in which she should be killed is not specified) it is likely that the intention here is that witchcraft be a capital crime. Either way, be it "kill witches" or "ensure witches do not prosper", there's clearly a command here to be prejudiced sharply against them.

Having already discussed capital punishment, I therefore turn to a discussion of the term "witch". Even in modern English, the term is rather vague. Judging by the pop culture phenomena of "Harry Potter", "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" and "The Wizard of Oz", witches are human-like (but somehow not quite human) individuals that have the ability to change reality around them by waving sticks at things. While this particular idea of what witches are like is probably not, nor has ever been, realized in the non-fictitious world, the truth is that witches do exist.

While the term "witch" is used informally by many as an epithet for a woman who is ugly and/or spiteful, in a more technical sense, the term still refers more specifically to a person (more commonly female, but not always) who either practices magic in some unspecified manner, or more likely a practitioner of the religion known as Wicca. For those not familiar, Wicca is:
A polytheistic Neo-Pagan nature religion inspired by various pre-Christian western European beliefs, whose central deity is a mother goddess and which includes the use of herbal magic and benign witchcraft. (American Heritage Dictionary)
So which of these witches is the sort that is supposedly to be killed? While I think we can rule out the sort that is simply fitting of the epithet, it's worthwhile to note that the supposition that many have is that many of those who were killed in the Salem witch trials were of this type. (I don't like the way she looks/acts, so I'll call her a witch and let the authorities handle it.) I am going to assume the Bible however is not referring to this sort of person.

So this leaves two possibilities which are not necessarily distinct. Although Wicca as we know it today did not exist in those days, there no doubt were similar pagan religions, and magic, be it of the showy, supernatural sort or simply some sort of "herbal magic" could easily have existed at pretty much any time in history. What would make either of these wrong?

Well, the pagan one is easy. If I have talked about religious intolerance in the Bible before now, I don't recall, but this is as good a place as any to address it. As I've said in my other blog, here in America, we have a nation that promises by its Constitution certain freedoms, including freedom of speech and religion. I'm all for it. Despite being a "fundie" who will be among the first to tell you that I believe Jesus offers the one and only path to the salvation of your soul, I am glad to share this nation with atheists, pagans, Muslims and even Scientologists. But that's not what ancient Israel was all about. While we here are trying to build a society from a variety of cultures that will strengthen each other through diversity, God's aims in creating Israel was to have a nation that would be uniformly existing for the sole purpose of glorifying Him. Now that brings up other philosophical issues that libraries of books no doubt have been written about, this is the Bible, and this is God speaking to His people, and within that context, God is free to say essentially "My way or the highway!"

As I said in the post on capital punishment, there are essentially three things you could be killed for in Israel: murder, sexual impurity, and improper religious practice. The third category exists because especially in this case, God is trying to create a new religion more or less from scratch. His people have lived in the midst of pagan nations, well, since forever. Abraham lived among pagans in Ur, and he moved to Canaan where he lived among other pagans. His great-grandchildren, the sons of Jacob, moved to Egypt and spent 400-odd years there among yet another pagan society. Now that they are finally big enough to be their own nation and they are (supposedly) about to have their own land, God is demanding a cleansing. Many Biblical scholars have noted that there is a parallel in these stories to the concept of Baptism, a Jewish ritual that of course was taken up in a big way by Christians. This is a fresh start for the nation, and God has them pass through the waters of the Red Sea, drowning the Egyptians. God is washing the pagan-ness out of these people, and He wants them to stay clean.

As for magic, God simply doesn't want people to depend on any power other than Him. This may also be related in a more direct way to paganism, of course, but there is certainly a sense in which God is warning them away from anything supernatural that is not God Himself, because it is very likely something evil.

I hope this is coming across clearly enough. I've been stalling on this one not because it's a difficult one per se (in the way that the abortion and capital punishment posts were), but in such a small verse, there are some big issues to deal with, and I've spent far too much time mulling it over in my mind, and probably overcomplicated it in the end. I hope that's not entirely the case.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

O thou oppressed virgin (Exod. 22:16ff; fornication, rape, virginity, marriage)

You know, I have to admit; I've been stalling on this one. There are different reasons that certain topics are less than savory to talk about. As I expressed previously, abortion is a topic that I hate to discuss because it seems to be impossible to discuss without starting a fight. This time however, there are multiple reasons for me to dread this post.

While the subject of the verse (Ex 22:16) that leads to me making this post is really premarital sex, it interrelates with a number of other topics, including rape. I don't know why it is, but on a purely personal level, rape disgusts me. I'm not just talking about moral indignation, the thought of somebody being forced into sex against their will makes me feel like vomiting.

On a less personal level, and more a matter of the nature of this blog, I admittedly am not happy with the way the Old Testament deals with a number of these issues. While I do intend to address them as best I can, I'm willing to say that I've never been completely happy with the Biblical treatment of most of the subjects I intend to cover here. Nonetheless, there are indeed things to be said in defense of them, and you can judge for yourself.

You of course have to understand that in most of the Middle East even unto the present, it is understood that women are akin to property of their fathers until they get married, at which time they become akin to property of their husbands. This is not to say that they are like livestock, with the owner having completely free reign in all things, such that he might sell her, beat her, or kill her at his own whim. No, wives are still human beings, and are treated better than slaves, concerning whose rights I have already written.

A big part of the cultural norms of the area and the time, as most of you probably know, is that a woman ought to be a virgin on the day she is first married. If a woman was not a virgin, then her husband had a right to reject her, which is covered in great detail in Deuteronomy 22. This was serious business, and apparently the possibility existed that a woman caught out in this way might end up being stoned to death. It's interesting to contrast certain verses from Exodus 22 with similar verses in Deuteronomy 22, and see that being engaged was considered as serious as being married. A woman who was still a virgin, but was "betrothed" would be considered to be adulterous if she had sex with a man that was not her husband. (No word is given that I can find stating what happens if she has sex with her fiance.)

Now one of the few things that I am going to go to the New Testament for in this matter is the story of Mary and Joseph, which I think illustrates an important point. In the beginning of Matthew, Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, but he knows it's not his child. At this point, he has the right to ask that she be put to death, but he decides rather to divorce her (even though they have not yet married, as I said, that's the way engagement was treated) and let her live. While it may not be much of a plus, the fact is that stoning an adulterous woman to death was not quite required so much as an option.

In matters of both seduction and rape of a virgin, the offending man was required to face consequences of his actions. While a married or betrothed virgin would be considered to be off-limits, and therefore the man would be subject to the death penalty, in either case, a woman who was not married or betrothed would have to be married to the man she had slept with. (Interestingly, as noted in the Deuteronomy passage, he would not have the right to divorce her. It seems to me that this may be a hint as to the nature of divorce as described by Jesus much later. Divorce was intended to be a way to get out of a marriage with a person who had been sexually unfaithful to you. You can hardly complain about your wife being sexually impure if you were the one who originally made her that way anyway.) Some people tend to think of it as cruel that a woman would have to marry her rapist, and while I am strongly inclined to agree, I also understand the societal impetus behind it. Since women were largely dependent on the men around them in that culture--once again, either their fathers or husbands--then since a woman who was no longer a virgin would have a hard time getting married, it made some sense that the man who had "ruined" her would be required to provide for her the rest of her life. It's for her protection and his punishment; after all, a rapist is obviously not looking for a long-term relationship, is he?

Okay, I think one more thing can finish this out, and the plethora of other women's issues can wait for another post. The distinction made between a virgin raped in the city and in the country is an interesting one, but I think it is somewhat misinterpreted here. (I'm guessing.) I think most people assume that this distinction is unfair, and that there is an assumption that a woman who was raped within the walls of a city must have been a willing participant, "because she cried not". I don't think that this is the intent of the verse. The idea is not that there is an automatic presumption of guilt, but that if a woman is raped, she ought to do what she can to protect herself, which obviously includes calling for help if she is able. My guess would be that the purpose of this rule is so that a woman caught in the act of adultery can't claim rape as a defense.

Women's rights in general, along with moral laws about sexuality are definitely a controversial subject in the Bible, and are quite different from modern mores, I won't deny that. I'd definitely welcome a lot of discussion on this topic, but I don't come close to knowing all the answers.