Don’t Do Polygamy – On the Polygamy of the Patriarchs and the Problems it Produces

When God set forth marriage as described in the Book of Genesis, there is poetically but clearly set forth a set form for marriage: one man for one woman in a stable, lasting, fruitful relationship of mutual support. For God said, It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable helpmate for him (Gen 2:18). Already we see that “helpmate” is singular, not plural. After teaching the man that the animals are not suitable, God puts Adam in a deep sleep and, from his rib, fashions Eve (cf Gen 2:21). Note again that in presenting a suitable helpmate for Adam God created Eve, not Steve. And so we see any notion of homosexual marriage excluded. But neither did God create Eve and Ellen and Sue and Jane and Mary. And here too, implicitly and poetically, but clearly, we see excluded the notion of polygamy.

God’s plan for marriage is one man and one woman. The scripture goes on to insist that marriage be a lasting union for it says that a man shall “cling” (Hebrew = דָּבַק  = dabaq) to his wife (singular, not wives), and the two, (not three, four, or more) of them shall become one flesh. (Gen 2:24). God went on to tell them to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28).

So far, clear enough: one man for one woman in a stable, fruitful relationship of mutual help and support.

But then, what to make of the polygamy (multiple wives) of the patriarchs such as Jacob, Moses, Gideon, David, Solomon, and many others? Does God approve of this? There is no evidence that he thunders from on high at their seemingly adulterous and clearly polygamous behavior. The fact that they have several wives goes un-rebuked, and is said, more in passing in the Scriptures, and narrated with little shock. For example, Nathan the Prophet has many things for which to rebuke David, but having multiple wives is not among them.

What of this polygamy?

We ought to begin by saying that the Scriptures teach in various ways. There is the methodology of straight rebuke, wherein sin is both denounced, and punished. But there is also a more subtle and inductive way that Scripture teaches, more through story, than prescription. And in this way, the Scriptures teach against polygamy. For, we learn by story and example, how polygamy causes nothing but trouble. In fact it leads to factions, jealously, envy and outright murder. The problem is less the wives, than the sons they have borne. As we shall see.

But,to be clear, polygamy was a common thing among the Old Testament Patriarchs. The list is not short:

  1. Lamech (a descendant of Cain) practiced polygamy (Genesis 4:19).
  2. Abraham had more than one wife (Genesis 16:3-4; 25:6, some called “concubines”).
  3. Nahor, who was Abraham’s brother, had both a wife and a concubine (Genesis 11:29; 22:20-24).
  4. Jacob was tricked into polygamy (Genesis 29:20-30), and  later he received two additional wives making a grand total of four wives (Genesis 30:4, 9).
  5. Esau took on a third wife to please his father Isaac (Genesis 28:6-9).
  6. Ashur had two wives (1 Chronicles 4:5).
  7. Obadiah, Joel, Ishiah, and those with them “had many wives” (1 Chronicles 7:3-4).
  8. Shaharaim had at least four wives, two of which he “sent away” (1 Chronicles 8:8-11).
  9. Caleb had two wives (1 Chronicles 2:18) and two concubines (1 Chronicles 2:46, 48).
  10. Gideon had many wives (Judges 8:30).
  11. Elkanah is recorded as having two wives, one of which was the godly woman Hannah (1 Samuel 1:1-2, 8-2:10).
  12. David, had at least 8 wives and 10 concubines (1 Chronicles 1:1-9; 2 Samuel 6:23; 20:3).
  13. Solomon, who breached both Deuteronomy 7:1-4 and 17:14-17, had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:1-6).
  14. Rehoboam had eighteen wives and sixty concubines (2 Chronicles 11:21), and sought many wives for his sons (1 Chronicles 11:23).
  15. Abijah had fourteen wives (2 Chronicles 13:21).
  16. Ahab had more than one wife (1 Kings 20:7).
  17. Jehoram had wives (2 Chronicles 21:17).
  18. Jehoiada the priest gave king Joash two wives (2 Chronicles 24:1-3),
  19. Jehoiachin had more than one wife (2 Kings 24:15).

Well, you get the point. So we have to be honest, polygamy, at least among wealthy and powerful men, was practiced and the practice of it brings little condemnation from God or his prophets.

But the silence of God does not connote approval, and not everything told in the Bible is told by way of approval. It would seem for example, that God permitted divorce because of the hard heart of the people (cf Matt 19:8). But to reluctantly permit, as God does, is not to command or to be pleased.

And, as we have noted, God teaches in more than one way in the Scriptures. For the fact is, polygamy, whenever prominently dealt with (i.e. mentioned more than merely in passing), always spells “trouble” with a capital “T”.

Consider some of the following internecine conflicts and tragedies.

1. Jacob had four wives whom he clearly loved unequally: Leah (who he felt stuck with and considered unattractive), Rachel (his first love), Bilnah (Rachel’s maid)  and Zilpah (Leah’s maid). Leah bore him 6 sons and a daughter : Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulan, and Dinah. Rachel, his first love, was stubbornly infertile, but finally bore him Joseph, and later, Benjamin. Bilnah bore him Naphtali and Dan, Zipah bore him Gad and Asher.

Now all these sons by different mothers created tension. But the greatest tension surrounded Joseph, who his brothers grew jealous of, and began to hate. His father, Jacob favored him, since he was Rachel’s son. This led to a plot to kill him, but due to profit, and Reuben’s intervention, he ended up being sold into slavery to the Ishmaelites. At the heart of this bitter conflict was a polygamous mess and the unspoken, but clear teaching, among others is, “Don’t do polygamy.”

2.  Gideon, as we have seen, had many wives (Jud 8:30) and by them many sons. Scripture shows forth a story of terrible violence and death that results from many sons, by different mothers all competing for kingship and heritage. Scripture tells the terrible story:

Now Gideon had seventy sons, his direct descendants, for he had many wives. His concubine who lived in Shechem also bore him a son, whom he named Abimelech. At a good old age Gideon, son of Joash, died and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash in Ophrah of the Abiezrites. Abimelech, son of Jerubbaal (i.e. Gideon), went to his mother’s kinsmen in Shechem, and said to them and to the whole clan to which his mother’s family belonged, “Put this question to all the citizens of Shechem: ‘Which is better for you: that seventy men, or all Jerubbaal’s sons, rule over you, or that one man rule over you?’ You must remember that I am your own flesh and bone.” When his mother’s kin repeated these words to them on his behalf, all the citizens of Shechem sympathized with Abimelech, thinking, “He is our kinsman.” They also gave him seventy silver shekels from the temple of Baal of Berith, with which Abimelech hired shiftless men and ruffians as his followers. He then went to his ancestral house in Ophrah, and slew his brothers, the seventy sons of Jerubbaal (Gideon), on one stone. Only the youngest son of Jerubbaal, Jotham, escaped, for he was hidden. (Judges 9:1-5).

At the heart of this murderous and internecine conflict was polygamy. Brothers who competed for kingship, power and inheritance, and brothers who lost little love on each other since they were by different mothers. Abimelech’s loyalty was not to his brothers, but to his mother, and her clan. Thus he slaughtered his brothers to win power.

Among other lessons in this terrible tale is the lesson of chaos and hatred caused by polygamy, as if to say, “Don’t do polygamy.”

3. King David had at least eight wives – Michal, Abigail, Ahinoam, Eglah, Maacah, Abital, Haggith, and Bathsheba, and “10 concubines.”  Trouble erupts in this “blended family” (to say the least), when Absalom (the third son of David), whose mother was Maacah sought to overcome the line of succession and gain it for himself. When his older brother Chileab died, only his half brother Amnon stood in the way. The tensions between these royal sons of different mothers grew very hostile. Amnon raped Absalom’s full sister Tamar, and Absalom later had Amnon murdered for it (cf 2 Sam 13).

Absalom fled and nourished hostility for his Father David, and eventually sought to overthrow his Father’s power by waging a rebellious war against him. He is eventually killed in the ensuing war, and David can barely forgive himself for his own role in the matter (2 Sam 18:33).

But the family intrigue isn’t over. Solomon would eventually become king, but only through the court intrigues of his mother, Bathsheba, David’s last wife. As David lay dying, his oldest son Adonijah, (Son of David’s wife Haggith) the expected heir (1 Kings 2:15), was acclaimed King in a formal ceremony. But Bathsheba conspired with Nathan the Prophet, and deceived David into thinking Adonijah was mounting a rebellion. She also reminded David of a secret promise he had once made her that Solomon, her son, would be king. David thus intervened and sent word that Solomon would be king. Adonijah fled, returning only after assurances of his safety by Solomon. Yet, still he was later killed by Solomon.

Here too, are the complications of a messed up family situation. Sons of different mothers hating each other, wives playing for favorite and securing secret promises, conspiring behind the scenes and so forth. At the heart of many of the problems was polygamy and once again the implicit teaching is, “Don’t do polygamy.”

4. Solomon, it is said, had 1000 wives (700 wives, 300 concubines). Again, nothing but trouble came from this. Scripture says,

King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women….He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord.… (1 Kings 11:1-6)

The tolerance of pagan religious practices encouraged by these wives, along with other policies led to great hostility and division in the Kingdom and led, after Solomon’s death, to the northern Kingdom of Israel seceding from Judah.  There was never a reunion and both kingdoms were eventually destroyed by surrounding nations.

Lurking in the mix of this mess is polygamy and the lesson, once again is “Don’t do polygamy.”

5. Abraham’s dalliance with his wife’s maid Hagar, while not strictly polygamy, more adultery really, also leads to serious trouble. For Hagar bore Ishmael, at the behest of Sarah. But, Sarah grew cold and jealous of Hagar and Hagar fled (Gen 16). She eventually returned and gave birth to Ishmael but later, when Sarah finally bore Isaac, Sarah concluded that Ishmael was a threat and had to go. She had Abraham drive her away (Gen 21).

Ishmael went on to become the Patriarch of what we largely call the Arab nations, Isaac’s line would be the Jewish people, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Polygamy, once again, lurking behind a whole host of problems. Don’t do polygamy.

So, the Bible does teach on polygamy and, through stories, teaches us of its problematic nature. We ought not be overly simplistic with these stories as if to say that polygamy was the only problem, or that these things never happen outside polygamous settings. But polygamy clearly plays a strong role in these terrible stories.

It would seem that God tolerates polygamy in the Old Testament, like divorce, but nowhere does He approve it.

In Matthew 19, Jesus signals a return to God’s original plan and hence excludes divorce. For he says, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, unless the marriage is unlawful, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matt 19:8-9) He also says, Have you not read, that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate (Matt 19:4-6).

Back to Plan A – So, what ever one may argue with regard to the Old Testament’s approach to marriage, Jesus makes it clear that we are going back to plan A: One man for one woman in a stable fruitful relationship of mutual support.

Pay attention though, polygamy is coming next. Already, in the wake of so called “Gay Marriage,” the polygamists are stepping up and insisting the Bible approves their way. Just Google “Polygamy” and you’ll see a lot of sites devoted to this thinking, and to the promotion of polygamy. It’s coming next, indeed, it is already here, in a big way on the Internet.

Photo Credit: Purpleslog via Creative Commons

Here’s a light-hearted description of Jacob’s polygamous family:

Here’s where things start go sour:

St Joseph: Model Husband and Father – A Reflection for the Feast of the Holy Family

I remember once being amused to hear that a certain Franciscan Theologian from the 19th Century (whose name I cannot remember) wrote a six volume “Life of St. Joseph.” Six volumes?! How could one possibly get enough material? We know so little of Joseph from the Scriptures. He seems to have been the strong, silent type. Not a word of his is recorded. But his actions have much to say, especially to to men. On this feast of the Holy Family we do well to ponder him as a model for manhood, for husbands and fathers.

1. A man who obeys God and clings to his wife – We saw last Sunday the Gospel  that Joseph was betrothed to Mary. This is more than being engaged. It means they were actually married. It was the practice at that time for a couple to marry rather young. Once betrothed they usually lived an additional year in their parents’ household as they became more acquainted and prepared for life together. Now at a certain point it was discovered that Mary was pregnant, though not by Joseph. Now the Law said that if a man discovered that a woman to whom he was betrothed was not a virgin, he should divorce her and not “sully” his home. Joseph as a follower of the Law, was prepared to follow its requirements. However, he did not wish to expose Mary to the full force of the law which permitted the stoning of such women. He would thus remained  quiet as to his reason for the divorce and Mary would escape possible stoning. To fail to divorce Mary would expose Joseph to cultural ramifications. Just men just didn’t marry women guilty of fornication or adultery. To ignore this might have harmed not only Joseph’s standing in the community but also that of his family of origin. But you know the rest of the story. Joseph is told in a dream not to fear and that Mary has committed no sin. Matthew records: When Joseph awoke, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. (Matt 1:24).

Now a man obeys God even if it not popular, even if he may suffer for it. Joseph is told to cling to his wife. He may suffer for it but he, as a man, “obeys God rather than men.” It takes a strong man to do this especially when we consider the culture in which Joseph lived, and in a small town, no less. Joseph models strong manhood and has something to say to the men of our day. In the current wedding vows a man agrees to cling to his wife, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or health. This is what a man is to do. Our culture often pressures men to bail out when there is trouble Joseph shows the way by obeying God over the pressures of prevailing culture, even if he will personally suffer for it.

2. A man whose vocation is more important than his career – In today’s Gospel set likely in Bethlehem Joseph is warned by an angel in a dream: Get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him (Matt 2:13). Joseph may well have had much to lose in this flight. Back in Nazareth (or perhaps Judea)  he had a business, a career if you will. He had business prospects, business partners and contacts. Fleeing to a distant land might mean others would take his business etc. But Joseph was a father and husband before he was a businessman. His child was threatened and his first obligation was to Jesus and Mary. His vocation outweighed his career. In a culture like ours where too many parents make their careers and livelihoods paramount and their children are too easily placed in day care Joseph displays a different priority.

It is true that many parents feel they have no choice but to work. But it is also true that many demand a lifestyle which requires a lot of extra income. Perhaps a smaller house, less amenities etc would permit a daycare free childhood for more of our children. Joseph points the way for parents: vocation has priority over career. For fathers especially Joseph shows that a man is a husband and father before he is a businessman.

3. A man who protects his family– And for men, Joseph also models a protective instinct that too many men lack today. Our children, like Jesus was, are exposed to many dangers. Our American scene does not feature a lot of physical dangers but moral dangers surely abound. Fathers, what are your children watching on TV? What are their Internet habits? Who are their friends? What do your children think about important moral issues? Are you preparing them to face the moral challenges and temptations of life? Are you teaching them the faith along with your wife? Or are you just a passive father, uninvolved in the raising of your children? A man protects his children from harm, physical, moral and spiritual. Joseph shows forth this aspect of manhood.

4. A man of work –The Scriptures (Matt 13:55) speak of Joseph as a “carpenter.” The Greek word however is τέκτονος (tekton, os) which can mean more than a worker in wood. It can also refer to a builder or any craftsman. It seems unlikely that Joseph and Jesus would have worked exclusively in wood since wood was more rare in the Holy Land and used more sparingly than in our culture. Stone was surely plentiful and so it may be that Joseph also worked with stone as well as wood in his work. It was and through his work Joseph supported his family. It is the call of a man to work diligently and to responsibly and reliably provide for his family. Joseph models this essential aspect of manhood. Paul felt it necessary to rebuke some of the men of his day for their idleness: In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teachingyou received from us….For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ that with quietness they earn the bread they eat. (2 Thess 310-12)

Joseph is a model for manhood. Nothing he ever said was recorded but his life speaks eloquently enough. He is referred to at the Guardian and Patron of the Universal Church. He has these titles for he was guardian, protector and patron(provider) of the Church in the earliest stage, when the “Church” was just Jesus, Mary and himself. But since the Church is the mystical Body of Christ, in protecting and providing for Jesus he was doing that for us for we are in Christ as members of his body. Men especially do well to imitate St. Joseph and invoke his patronage in all their endeavors as Husbands, Fathers and providers.

St. Joseph, pray for us. Holy Family Pray for us.

On a Strange and Horrible Biblical Story and the Bad Memory of God.

One of the most strange and horrifying stories of the Bible is the story of Jephthah  (Pronounced “Jeff-tha” and alternately spelled Jepthe) and his ritual murder of his daughter. It is a tale of faith and piety gone terribly wrong and a teaching of what happens when error and false religion are substituted for the true faith.  It is also a tale of how God can work even with the worst of us to accomplish his ends. Let’s look at this “fractured fable” of a story.

The story of Jephthah  is told in Judges 11. He is described as a mighty warrior and would one day be numbered among the Judges of Israel. As the chapter opens we are told:

Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute.  Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.” So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a group of adventurers gathered around him and followed him. (Jdg 11:1-3).

Jephthah the Ganger – Tob is a land to the extreme east of Jordan. Having been dispossessed of any personal resources Jephthah became ranked among the roving bands of dispossessed youth who had little to lose. While the text above says describes Jephthah as gathering “adventurers”  around him, many translators render the Hebrew as “worthless men” or “ruffians.” In effect Jephthah is a gang member, the head of a group of marauders who allied themselves with local inhabitants who felt over-taxed or had other grievances against local rulers. They sustained themselves by raiding caravans or towns and enemies of thier friends.

It is quite a remarkable thing that the likes of Jephthah would rise to Judge Israel for six years. Judges were those who, in the years prior to kingship in Israel, served as charismatic leaders. They usually rose to power in response to some crisis or need.

And, sure a enough, a crisis did arrive that would catapult Jephthah to power. The text says,

Some time later, when the Ammonites made war on Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob.  “Come,” they said, “be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.”  Jephthah said to them, “Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?”  The elders of Gilead said to him, “Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be our head over all who live in Gilead.” Jephthah answered, “Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the LORD gives them to me—will I really be your head?”  The elders of Gilead replied, “The LORD is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.” So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them (Jdg 11:4-10).

The Israelites needed a warrior and Jephthah had gained the reputation of being a skilled and fearsome warrior. He would be their man and he came to Judge (rule) over Israel. He first, as a formality,  sent messengers to negotiate a settlement with the Ammonites. In a lengthy message he sets forth both an  historical and theological basis for Israel’s claim on the Transjordan area to which the Ammonites were now laying claim. Among other things the Israelites had lived in the land over 300 years. But the Ammonites rejected all negotiations. So Jephthah prepared for war. (cf Jdg 11:12-28)

Here is where things get strange. Prior to going to war Jephthah vows a vow. It is an immoral vow, on the face of it. It is a vow that would require something wicked of him. The text says:

Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, Whosoever shall first come forth out of the doors of my house, and shall meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, the same will I offer a holocaust to the Lord. (Jdg 11:29-31)

This is a wicked vow. It is wrong to vow to kill some as a sacrifice to God. It is forbidden explicitly by to offer any human being in sacrifice to any god let alone Him: You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. (Deut 12:31; cf also Lev 18:21) It is murder that Jephthah vows. It is false religion that he embraces.

Some have tried to soften the vow by translating the vow as “whatever” comes out of the house, Jephthah would offer in sacrifice. Thus he could have meant an animal. But it is difficult for the Hebrew (צֵא  הַ) to support this notion. The gender of the word would have to be in the feminine form to support this theory. But the form is masculine which everywhere else means “whoever” and it is coupled with the verbs  “to come out” and “to meet.” It does not usually pertain to things and animals to do this. Hence, it seems the plain meaning of this text is that Jephthah vowed to kill the first human who came forth to meet him upon his return. One may suppose he figured that a slave or servant would be the first to greet him?

What makes the vow even more troubling is that it was generally presumed that one who was called to be a judge had an anointing from God. Verse 30 does speak of the Spirit of the Lord coming upon Jephthah How could one anointed by God be guilty of such a gross violation of God’s law.We can only recall  that God’s approval of one area in a person’s life is not an approval of every area of their life. Most of Israel’s greatest leaders had serious flaws: Moses and David had murdered, Jacob was a usurper, Abraham “pimped” his wife and so forth. God can write straight with crooked lines. St. Paul reminds us that we carry the great treasure of God within “earthen vessels.” An old gospel hymn says, “If you can use anything Lord, you can use me.” God does not call the perfect, that much is clear.

The story of Jepthe then has it’s horrible twist and dreadful end:

Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon. When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break.”  “My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”  “You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. From this comes the Israelite custom that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite (Jdg 11:33-40).

In the end, Jephthah is met by his only daughter and is “forced” to fulfill his vow to kill her as a sacrifice. But in fact he is not forced for no one is compelled to fulfill a wicked vow. Yet the plain meaning of the text indicates that did just that. There are attempts by some scholars to try and show that Jephthah really didn’t do it. But, their attempts are very contrived and, in the end, set aside the plain meaning of the text which quite clearly indicates Jephthah went through with his vow.

What happened to Jephthah? We can only speculate. But it would seem that he had come under the influence of the false religions of the pagans. In particular, he seems to have come under the influence of the Canaanite practices of human sacrifice. The Jewish people had often fallen prey to just such a syncretism. Their faith in the God of Israel was often selective and weak. Superstition often drew them to the Baals and other gods of the surrounding nations. Their straying often led them to great wickedness, sexual promiscuity, deviance and even human sacrifice. Jephthah seems to have been among their number. His rejection by his brothers in Israel and his wandering at the fringes of the land were surely factors in his religious confusion and the evil that flowed from it.

And what of us? We too do well to consider the rapid descent into evil of our culture as we have increasingly and collectively rejected the true faith. Things once thought shameful are now practiced proudly by many. Things once thought immodest are flaunted. A terrible toll of abortion also mounts as our children are sacrificed to the gods of promiscuity, contraception, illicit sexual union, career, and convenience. As God has been shown the door in our culture, and kicked to the curb, we have descended mightily in to confusion and corruption, to debauchery and decay. It begins with forsaking faith in the One, True God. This nation, though always pluralistic and non sectarian, did once have a clear place for God. Now He has been escorted to the margins. And we, like Jephthah, are increasingly able and willing to do the unthinkable.

On the Bad Memory of God – One final thought on the story of Jephthah. It occurs to me that God has a “bad memory.” I say this because God the Holy Spirit holds Jephthah up later in scripture for our admiration. It’s right there in Hebrews 11 where Jephthah is said to be among the cloud of witnesses:

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies….. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus (Heb 11:32-34; 12:1-2)

It is a remarkable thing to see Jephthah listed among the great Old Testament saints. Perhaps we can say that Jephthah repented? We can surely hope. But it is also possible to celebrate the “bad memory” of God. I hope you will understand, I mean no irreverence here. Scripture says, For I [the Lord] will forgive [my people] their wickedness and will remember their sins no more (Jer 31:34). And also, “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more,” says the Lord (Heb 10:17) I don’t know about you, but I am depending and the “poor memory” of God. I am hoping for a poor recollection on the part of God of certain incidents and passages in my life  🙂  And if Jephthah can make the cut, perhaps there’s hope for me too!

There have been a number of musical oratorios based on the Story of Jephthah. One of my favorites is “Jepthe” by Carissimi. In this first video I have assembled some images to the story and set it to a Chorus from Jepthe by Carissimi. The song is led by the daughter and is one of the happy moments in the Oratorio. The text says, Cantemus Omnes Domino! Laudemus belli principem, qui dedit nobis gloriam et Israel victoriam (Let us all sing to the Lord! Let us praise the prince of war, who gave glory to us and Israel Victory).

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The final chorus of Jepthe by Carissimi is a minor masterpiece and a deep lament for the only daugther of Jepthe. The text says: Plorate filii Israel, plorate omnes virgines, et filiam Jephte unigenitam in carmine doloris lamentamini (Weep O children of Israel, weep, all you virgins, and in sorrowful songs lament the only daughter of Jepthe). The final lamentamini repeats over and over as we are drawn into the deep sorrow of loss.

The Story of Abraham – Hope for the Rest of Us!

One of the beautiful things about the Bible is that it does not present our heroes as epic figures who never fell. Rather it presents us with real human beings who struggle and eventually “get there.” As an example, I was talking the other day with someone who remarked, “Too bad we can’t all be strong in faith like Abraham.” Ah Abraham, the paragon of faith! Well….eventually but Abraham had some very bad moments in his journey that we ought not to overlook. Surely he became strong in faith but only after some pretty bad falls along the way. Consider some of Abraham’s struggles.

  1. Abram (He was only called Abraham by God later), was told, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you (Gen 12:1) And he does. At one level this is remarkable since God gave him no road maps etc. He just said, “Set out”  and Abram did,  trusting God would direct him. But note a little detail that I would argue amounts to a lack of total obedience: So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him (Gen 12:4) Oops, where did his nephew Lot get included? Now some many argue that this is no big deal, but for the record God did not mention Lot in his instructions. And sure enough,  Lot’s presence will cause trouble later on. There is always trouble lurking when we do not wholeheartedly obey God.
  2. Abram gets to the Holy Land and God shows him its beauty.He reconnoiters the land and eventually pitches his tent near Bethel, a name which means house of God. So there he is right where he ought to be, in the House of God, on the Land God had shown him (cf Gen 12: 5-9)  Only one problem though, there is a famine in the land. Will Abram Trust God who has called him to this land? He will not! He goes off to Egypt (Gen 12:10), trusting Pharaoh to feed him but not God. God never said, “Go to Egypt.” It is dripping with irony that Abram leaves a place called “Bethel” (house of God) to go to the house of Pharaoh.
  3. In Egypt Abram does something awful. His wife Sarai (only called Sarah later in the narrative) is very beautiful and Abram is worried that men will want her and thus kill him so they can have her. So Abram tells a lie and has her lie too, asserting that she is his sister. (Gen 12:11-13) He even goes so far as to allow her to be placed in Pharaoh’s harem! (Gen 12:14-16) This is all to protect his own hide and gain influence. Lets just make it plain, he pimps out his own wife. Pharaoh eventually discovers the lie and, suffering its consequences, denounces Abram (Gen 12:17-19).  In effect Pharaoh fears God more that Abram. It takes Pharaoh to get Abram to go back to were he belongs. So Abram returns to the Holy Land, to Bethel, not because of his faith but because of Pharaoh’s threats (Gen 12:19-20).
  4. Ok, so at least he’s back where he needs to be, in Bethel, right? Well now the Lot mistake manifests itself. Abram and Lot actually did quite well in Egypt and return with flocks that are so large that the Land cannot sustain them both together (Gen 13:1-8). Now notice, the Holy Land could sustain Abram but not Abram and Lot together. This inability of the Land to sustain them both goes back to the original disobedience of Abram in bringing Lot in the first place. Lot and Abram agree to part company and Lot picks the choicest of the land, which at that time was where the dead sea is now (Gen 13:8-12) Ok, end of problem right? Not exactly.  The text says that Lot “pitched his tent toward Sodom.” (Gen 13:12). Now you know where all that is going to lead. In the end it will be another distraction for Abram who brought Lot along when he should not have. Lot has bad judgement and has no business associating with the wicked in Sodom and Gomorrah. All of this draws Lot into a big mess in which his family is corrupted. His Wife cannot turn her back on  Sodom and is killed, his daughters are also corrupted and later attempt incest with him (gen 19:30ff). All this is a distraction for Abram who should never have brought Lot in the first place.
  5. God promises Abram and Sarai many descendants. But both Abraham and Sarah falter in faith several times with regards this. Abraham’s first struggle comes when, after many years of promises from God, no child has yet been born. So, in effect he says to God, “Look, I know you got a little carried away by all this offspring talk  so I guess I’m going to have to settle on giving my inheritance to my steward, Eliezar.”  But God says, NO, not that one, but rather your own issue will be your heir. (Gen 15:1-4). Later, Sarah, also despairing that God can deliver  suggests adultery and that he sexually exploit Hagar her slave girl and have a child by her. And he does! (Gen 16:1-4) Ishamel is born and the ugliness begins between Hagar and Sarah (imagine that!) (Gen 16:4-6). God once again has to rebuke Abraham and remind Abram of his promises. Sarah, paranoid at Hagar’s newly exulted position as the mother of Abraham’s only Child not in jealous rage tells Abraham to commit an act of great injustice and to drive her into the desert with her child. He does! (Gen 18:23ff)
  6. God renews his promises to Abram and Sarai and changes their names by entering into a covenant with them (Gen 17:1-15). As God renews his promises for multiplied descendants Abraham falls to his faces and laughs (Gen 17:17). Later, Sarah laughs too (Gen 18:2). Finally Isaac is born (a name which means “He laughs”) which commemorates the struggle of Abraham ad Sarah to believe what God is telling them.

Do you see? Abraham’s journey was marred by some pretty ugly setbacks. But ultimately Abraham doescome to believe God and he receives the fruit of faith in His Son Isaac. God prepares one final test to strengthen Abraham’s faith (Gen 22). He tells him to offer his son in sacrifice. This time Abraham does not draw back. He sets out for Moriah to obey God. Isaac asks, “Where is the Lamb for sacrifice?” Abraham has finally made it to faith and he simply says to his son, “God will provide the Lamb.” (Gen 22:7-8). Abraham has arrived. He has come to trust God and knows that obeying God will not be without its reward. And God DID provide the lamb as you know.

But Abraham didn’t simply “have faith.” He had to get there by years of struggle, setbacks, and hard lessons. He had to learn that to obey God brings blessings. To disobey God spells trouble. He had to learn that God means exactly what he says and to trust him in all things. If Abraham, the great hero of faith had to go through all this to arrive at faith, maybe there is hope for you and me too. But we too are summoned to learn of faith and grow in it. We are called to obey more and more perfectly and to stop trying to improve on God’s plan. So the example of Abraham is not just a relief to those of us who struggle it is also a road map of what we must do. Faith has to grow and we have to let it.

Here’s an old gospel song that says, “A Saint is just a sinner who fell down and got up.” Maybe there is hope for us too, if we get back up.

Noah at 900 – A Humorous Aside

Every now and then a little humor does us some good. Over at Creative Minority Report is an intentionally silly post about the remarkable ages of the Patriarchs who lived before the great flood.  Adam, Noah, Enoch and others lived 800-900 years! How to understand these references?? Personally I think we need to take them at face value and just accept a mystery, that the ancient patriarchs lived a great number of years, far more than our modern experience. Attempts to render the 900 years as months or divide by 10 etc. yield absurd results such as the Patriarchs having children when they 2 years old etc. So just take it for what its worth, they lived a lot longer than we do and, as sin multiplied,  our years grew shorter. Moses and Joshua made it to 120 but by King David our years were 70, or 80 for those who were strong.

BUT, this is all so serious! Click on the link below to enjoy a humorous back and forth in the article, and especially in the comments: CREATIVE MINORITY REPORT – THE AGE OF THE PATRIARCHS

I entered my own comments explaining the Age of the Patriarchs. Here are my entries:  (Now don’t take this seriously folks, IT IS A JOKE!, in other words, I’M JUST KIDDING)

Explanation  1 The Bible clearly says we were visited by aliens who were also giants. This race of Giants is referenced in the book of Genesis. Now these giants had very large spaceships circling the planet. The combined gravometric effect of these giant spaceships actually slowed time down here on earth and thus we had 900 year life spans.

Explanation 2 – Another explanation is this: A guy goes to the dcotor and says, “Doc, I’ve gven up smoking, drinking, fattening foods and all sodium in my diet. Will I live longer?” And the Doctor says, “No, it will only seem that way.” Thus what he have in the Bible is the cummulative experience of a very long life, but it only seemed long to them because they did not have liquor, fattening foods, cigarettes, and high sodium diets. Hence the 900 year life span only seemed like 900 years, it was actually nine months.

🙂