Ki Tetse – Making Sense of the “Texts of Terror”

September 15, 2016


If we are to be perfectly honest, much of the law codes reorganized and restated in the book of Devarim seem oddly archaic, highly impractical, and at times, even disturbingly unethical! This week’s parashah, Ki Teitse is chocked full of very specific ordinances and stipulations and therefore present many of these apparent difficulties.

The ethical value of scriptural narrative can often be difficult to apprehend. Explanations for God’s instruction surrounding the wars of Israel can often be as uncomfortable as the theodicies used to alleviate our discomfort with the omnipotent and omniscient sovereign’s apparent silence during the Holocaust. But none of the narratives are as tough a pill to swallow in contemporary society as those famously dubbed by feminist theologian Phyllis Trible as the “Texts of Terror.” These are the biblical narratives that describe the regular and dehumanizing rape, mutilation, and general bartering of women as commodities. Though polygamy is a common occurrence on the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures, women never possess more than one husband.  The woman in scripture is completely dependent upon a man for her sustenance and survival. Of course the biblical narrative is a product of its time and accurately portrays the events within their historical setting. What is striking, however, is the apparent silence of the text concerning any condemnation of these practices, especially the taking of “war brides” at the outset of this week’s readings.  In fact, the program of God seems to be advanced through these events and normative practices. If we were to derive any precepts concerning the treatment and role of women solely from the narrative and explicit prescriptions of the law books, they might be as follows.

  • A man can have multiple wives and concubines so long as he can support them adequately.
  • Actually if a man’s wife is unable to have children it is laudable or at least acceptable for him to sleep with her personal attendant.
  • Should a woman’s husband die, it is incumbent upon a righteous relative to take the poor woman in as his own wife.
  • It is better for a woman to enter into what we might deem an incestualize marriage rather than for her family inheritance to pass to another tribe.
  • If a man takes a woman as a spoil of war, he should give her a place in his harem rather than merely discarding her, in this way domesticating and systematizing war rape.

Of course, none of these practices would be deemed acceptable anywhere in the civilized western society, and though it may sound ludicrous on the surface, the biblical narrative and stipulations do describe a process of taming what is an already chaotic world. Torah describes the entrance of God’s cosmic ordering into the socio-moral plane in which we begin to encounter it. Israel acts as the conduit of God’s principles to a world filled with disharmony, violence and inequality. Israel and its law system are radical and transforming to the ancient world of the bible, but they do not immediately overturn the entire social order of the existing world system.  The men of Israel are told how to treat women captured in war.  She is to be given a full month to mourn her father and mother. While more generous a treatment than might be expected among other ancient cultures, it seems to be a very small gesture coming from those who just wiped out the woman’s entire family. They were also to make sure they “shave her head and allow her nails to grow” (Dev. 21:12). In other words she should “let herself go” to ensure that they really wanted to take her as a wife. Unfortunately they are never told to keep their hands off, instruction which, from our ethical vantage point, would be considerably more acceptable. But within a world system where women were considered weak and inferior, valued only for their physical appeal and procreative abilities, the laws of Israel provided much greater protection, and a possibility for future provision. To say ordinances did not go far enough might seem accurate from our perspective, but in the larger scheme the role and treatment of women in the laws of Torah and the principles revealed in the biblical narrative have evolved through the pages of scripture and into the progression of post biblical history to where we are today.

My main point here is that each of these laws and stories must be viewed through the lens of progressive revelation, revelation that continues to be advanced into this world through the body of faith. Narrow biblical stipulations should not be taken as the last and final word. They are part of the divine transformation of humanity and the full restoration of relational harmony that Peter describes as “the salvation that is ready to be revealed” (1 Peter 1:4). Therefore it is not productive to attempt to see most of these very specific laws, as unchanging, timeless, and universal proscriptions; rather they should be viewed as part of a trajectory in scripture leading toward a final goal, a restoration of harmony to all of creation.

Examining the origin of the human enterprise from a biblical perspective may be helpful since origins often portend destiny.  In Genesis 1:27 humankind is created male (zachar) and female (nekavah).  These are biological rather than sociological terms, and that the male and the female are distinguished by their sexuality, not by their social status. They are accorded a stated equality before God.  Both are created equal in the “image of God” and are included in the creational command to “be fruitful and multiply”.  But the human relationship is envisioned somewhat differently in Genesis 2. Here humankind is again created with internal distinction, but the differences are now more relational. This time the terms man (ish) and woman (ishah) are sociological rather than biological designations. The woman is taken from the side of man, and man is to leave his parents to be reunited with that which makes him whole. The biblical language is of course poetical, not empirical, but as in Genesis 1 it communicates a unique relationship whereby humanity is represented by a unity of opposites, differentiated but equal parts composing an ordered relational whole for the sake of creational blessing.

Almost from the outset of the biblical account, the delicate relationships between God and humanity as well as human relationships are subverted. Both male and female have violated the boundaries set forth by the Creator and, as a consequence, are estranged from God and, therefore, from the source of harmony between them. For the man (adam) this is manifest in his separation from the ground (ha’adamah) from which he was taken and upon which he relies for his livelihood (3:17-19).  The woman (ishah) is estranged from the man (ish) from whom she was created and upon whom she relies for her work of procreation (3:16). The relational equality is severed and the male is portended to rule over the female, an abolition of the distinctive equality intended in the created order.

In the simplest of terms, the dominance, which the male has over the female, is viewed in the creation narratives as a “curse”, not as part of the creational order. From the outset the priority of the male is viewed as ordinal rather than hierarchal in the creational order. Therefore we can conclude that the ideal for a restored humanity will be the removal of such a hierarchy from the human relational balance. The most forthright and positively eschatological statement of social ethics in the Brit Chadasha is Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Messiah Yeshua.”  Here Paul observes the internal evolution of revelation concerning the relationships between Israel and the nations, between men and women, and between the existing social-economic strata to derive ethical standards for contemporary social interaction. I do not believe that Rav Sha’ul is advocating for the complete eradication of distinction; rather he is pronouncing a greater reality whereby hierarchal ordering is dissolving.

Recently I have heard people using the term “complementarianism” in direct counter distinction to “egalitarianism”; but this strikes me as a false dichotomy.  It is only through the affirmation of distinction that true unity can exist, and it is only with the acknowledgement of equality that complementary relationship can be sustained.  Without both we cannot imagine the full creational restoration of blessing; rather we might remain stuck in the muck of the relational curse.  But we, the people of God, can do better. If we live in the light of the world that Hashem is restoring, then we can return to a truly complimentary model where both men and women live in relational harmony with God, the physical creation, each other. We have an opportunity live in a reality that is greater than our present reality; if we are willing to put the “texts of terror” in our rear view mirror and move down the path of restorational progress.

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