MDR in the Mission of God 3 – Life in the Ancient Near East
Our world is broken. Maybe you’ve noticed. Evil is not a philosophical category that only holds sway in chats at Starbucks or conversations in universities. When a 3-month old baby shows up at an ER with bruises all over his body — that is evil. When someone trades in the spouse of their youth for an “upgrade”, a newer or richer model — that is evil. When a person is told that God will forgive the winner of a race to the courthouse and punish the loser untl the day they die — that is evil.
Child abuse is evil.
Adultery is evil.
Blasphemy is evil.
We’re talking about marriage, divorce, and remarriage — trying to hear how God’s mission to redeem His creation infiltrates the nooks and crannies of our broken relationships. We learn of God’s mission from His Word — but to understand His Word, we need to understand the context in which it is revealed. The Bible was not lowered down from Heaven — 66 books gift-wrapped lovingly in calfskin with the words of God in red letters. Nor was there a reporter sitting by God taking notes, which were then published as the first few chapters of Torah.
Think about all the things that happened before Moses wrote down the first word of Genesis (thanks, JA, for pointing this out). Cain had already slain Abel. Noah had already built an ark, planted a vineyard, and gotten drunk (after spending that long in a big pen with all that livestock, how surprised are we really?). Noah’s grandchildren had already gotten together to make a name for themselves, instead of seeking, honoring, and reflecting the name of the LORD. Abram had become Abraham, Joseph had become the chief of staff for the most powerful ruler on Earth, and a bloody-handed fugitive shepherd had stood up to that ruler’s descendant and led a helplessly oppressed people to freedom and hope. Those same people threw an orgy, partying around a statue that wasn’t their God — but seemed better than that cloud and fire on the mountain. All these things, and still Genesis had not been written yet.
Scripture did not create the brokenness around us. And Scripture does not stand apart from that brokenness. Scripture, a holy burning Word from Almighty God, is spoken into that brokenness, pointing the way to Life and inviting you and I to travel the Jesus Road.
So when we look at the Bible’s teaching on marriage and divorce and remarriage, we have no hope of understanding God’s will unless we hear his word in the way He shared it — as an offer of hope and protection and a summons for his people to be a city set on a hill, salt and light for their world. What was going on in the world around them that inspired God to reveal His heart this way? Before we explore Scripture, I want to show you an example of a woman’s life outside of Israel, away from the protection of the God who cares for slaves and orphans and the helpless.
In Hittite law, a woman could divorce her husband, but would lose the children.
Under the Code of Hammurabi, a woman could divorce her husband if he was adulterous and she was morally upright. However, both her complaint and her own life would be investigated. If she did not meet the standards for purity, she would be executed. Not exactly an environment where one will be likely to press for one’s rights.
Hammurabi’s law also allows a woman to divorce and remarry if her husband abandons her, but if he returns, she must leave her new husband and return to the first. Under Assyrian law, an abandoned woman must wait five years, supporting herself as best she can, before remarrying. Other ancient law codes do not even provide this opportunity.
Laws on rape are even less supportive. Generally, the rapist would be executed, but no provision is made for the publicly defiled woman. In Middle Assyria, the rapist would be required to pay the full bride-price for the woman, and to marry her if her father wished. This is a very uncommon situation, though. Throughout most of the ancient Near East, a woman’s life after rape is hopeless. Besides the Torah, no other ancient code yet discovered protects her rights. Torah, by way of contrast, says that the rapist must marry his victim, he may never divorce her, and he must fulfill all the financial and procreational responsibilities of a husband (Deut 22:28-29; cf. Exod 21:10-11).
In ancient Near Eastern society, if a husband could convince the the city officials that the virgin he thought he married did not come to the marriage bed pure, she could be cast out or even executed. In Torah, this is also true (although she could not be executed), but with a strong protection for the woman — if the husband publicly accused his new wife in such a fashion and was found to be lying, he could never divorce her (just like above). No such protection exists anywhere else in the Ancient Near East.
Finally, listen to this quote from , and imagine how incredibly unstable and frightful life would be for a woman trapped in such circumstances:
“If her husband has gone off to the fields …if she has gone to live with a(nother) husband before the five years and has also born children, her husband upon coming back shall get her back and her children as well because she did not respect the marriage contract but got married.” (Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, 30)
A woman’s husband leaves her. They have no children, and he blames her and doesn’t want to take care of her anymore. Her family cannot afford to take her back. She has two options — remarriage or prostitution. This is not 2008, where a woman can find work or go to school or start a small business of her own. Those are her only options.
So she remarries and starts trying to establish a new life. Her new husband gives her a home, and children, and stability. Then, husband #1 hears news of her new-found happiness, and comes back. Guess what? She must go back. Her life belongs to him. Her children belong to him. What kind of hell might this be for a woman?
Understand this: the Bible did not create divorce. We will talk next time about God’s ideal, as well as several other biblical statements about divorce and remarriage. The Bible did not create divorce, but it clearly recognizes where there are times and places that divorce is the lesser evil.
Understand this as well: the Bible is not like the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or the Kentucky Revised Statutes, or the IRS Tax Code, annotated. IF you read it as such a document, you will paint yourself into a dangerous corner of contradictions (compare Deut 24:1-4 with Hosea 1-3), a place where you might even call YHWH God Himself a law-breaker (compare Deut 24:1-4 with God’s forgiveness of Israel). Clearly, this cannot be the true way of reading God’s Word.
But if you read Holy Scripture as a controlling narrative, pointing your life toward Jesus Christ and the eternal life he offers, the cosmic rescue operation His Father has launched, you will see love and grace and hope for life bursting forth all over the Old Testament and New Testament scriptures that refer to MDR.
in HIS love,