Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Fate Worse than Death?

Jephthah's unfortunate
My journey through the Bible, which, I’ll admit, sometimes feels like a slog, uncovers some pretty crazy things. Right now I’m in Judges, and I’d hazard a guess that as craziness goes, this book has a high percentage. The other day I read Judges 11, which includes this ever-perplexing tale of woe:
Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”
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 timbrels! 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 no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. 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.”
I have read this before, and have always had this question: “Who did he THINK was going to come out the door?” The only acceptable answer to this in my mind would be that maybe he expected a chicken or a goat to meander out. Anything else would just be wrong, a family member being the most painfully wrong, obviously. I mean, human sacrifices are just not a thing God’s people were supposed to do.

My point is, and I’m pretty sure you’ll agree, that Jephthah’s vow was the vow of a… well, choose any of the words my husband uses to describe bad, frustrating drivers: “moron,” “idiot,” “dumbass,” “stupid jerk”… you get the idea.

My second question is this: “Why didn’t he just figure out that God probably wouldn’t appreciate a human sacrifice, vow or no vow?” Well, I’m guessing the answer to this is that back in those days, people took vows super seriously. These days, we’re much more fast and loose with the truth and our promises. I try hard to be honest and keep my promises, but it’s something I have to commit to daily.

During the time of the Judges, the Israelites were struggling to gain control of this land that was full of other people who worshipped all kinds of things, in all kinds of ways. It is possible, I guess, that surrounded by all these Molech-worshipping child sacrificers, Jephthah decided that vow breaking was worse than human sacrificing.

My sweet grandmother,
bless her heart, was all
about us getting married.
I don’t know. I know that some Bible interpreters think he didn’t actually kill her, but condemned her to a life of virginity, because she said this: “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”

That’s not my interpretation. I think she just thought that never getting married was a fate worse than death… which, if I understand correctly, was the way people thought in those days. After all, if you were a young gal in that society and didn’t get married, who was going to take care of you? In my observation, this has been a popular mindframe up to … well, pretty recently. For all I know, some people still think this way!

As a matter of fact, my grandmother, who, in her defense, was born in 1897, was pretty damn worried about me and my older sister, who continued to remain single despite her best efforts to coach us on the finer points of man-catching. (“Always wear pink or red – you will draw men like moth to a flame.”) When the first Gulf War rolled around, she actually suggested that we enlist so that we could meet eligible men! I know it seems like it, but I am not making that up.

You don't have to be old to think this way, either. I had a friend in college who was (is) BRILLIANT – extremely capable, academically. But her main objective was to meet the man who would be her husband. She would study in the Health Sciences library to place herself in the environs of potential mates – who also just happened to be future MDs.

According to my "list" my husband would be
an Evangelical Christian who looked like
one of the Horrors. Do you think that guy exists?
As a matter of fact, though I consider myself a modern woman, it took ME a while to enjoy being single and embrace the deliciousness of the freedom of it. But I did. I loved being able to go and do what I pleased. I had time for travel, classes, long workouts, intense Bible study… the ease of not having to share psychic space with another… And, honestly, now that I’m on this side of marriage, I miss those things sometimes. Because, it turns out, singleness is NOT a fate worse than death.

I once heard a pastor say that people should only get married if they can’t NOT get married. I took this to heart, and while some of my continuing singleness was due to just not being that attractive or interesting to guys, it was also my choice.

And when I finally did get married, it was because I couldn’t NOT.  And it has gone in a way that I completely could not have predicted. I fell in love with an old friend who did not meet some of the criteria on my imaginary checklist – he was not a pale, bone-thin, rock-and-roll looking guy who played guitar, and most of all, he was not an Evangelical Christian. This was my main requirement. But despite my “list” – some of which was silly, some of which was not, I came to that strange place our pastor spoke of – the place where I couldn’t NOT get married.

And this man I couldn’t NOT marry actually IS a Christian — we just express our faith in different ways. It was something I had to wrestle with, really. In fact I experienced quite a tragic case of bursitis in my hip during that time, and imagined it was from all my wrestling, like Jacob! In the end, I knew that not fitting into a certain Christian category does not negate one’s Christianity. And I was in love. Again, I just couldn’t NOT marry him. This pithy saying by Paul absolutely applied in my situation: "But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion." (1 Corinthians 7:9)

Being married is sweet...
And marriage is pretty sweet. It has been a huge challenge in many ways – we were both older when we merged households, so learning to share physical and psychic space has been a stretch! But I have loved it. I love my husband, the companionship, the shared interests and experiences, the conversation, the laughter, the sex, the baby we made… so many things!

HOWEVER, while there is much about marriage to recommend it, not being married is hardly a fate worse than death. In fact, in I Corinthians 7:28, Paul says, “Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.” Maybe Paul would have appreciated this song.

So… in Jephthah’s day, not being married = fate worse than death. In Paul’s teachings, not being married = preferable. Maybe it’s yet another way the gospel turned the world upside down…? “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This is lovely and unprecedented in that day, to afford equal worth to all categories of Jesus lovers. 

Practically speaking, then, how were single women to take care of themselves? Were these single women supposed to suddenly start earning their own keep? Or was this the task of the new faith assembly called the church? I know they had common property and ate together, so maybe this was how it worked. 

... and look at this baby we made!
As usual, I really don’t know where I’m going with this… I do remember once, in my early twenties when I struggled with the desire to get married along with the absence of interested parties, I thought, “Maybe the only reason I want to get married is to prove that someone wants me.” Which is just silly. And I knew it… but a girl can’t really help how she feels.

What I did after this insight was to follow this directive from Matthew 6:33: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” I didn’t consciously do it, but that’s what I spent my time doing in the years that followed. Of course I sought a lot of other things – like a living wage, health, sanity, entertainment and comfort… But also the Kingdom. Him. I tried to live in this verse: “For your Maker is your husband—the LORD Almighty is his name…” (Isaiah 54:5) 

You know the story about Martha and Mary in Luke 10 where Martha is busy in the kitchen but Mary is sitting at Jesus's feet? 
Can a gal be Martha and
Mary at the same time?
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Well, I look at my single days now as a nice long squat, learning at the feet of Jesus. And now that I am married and have to be in the kitchen sometimes, I try to keep it simple so that I still have time to spend with Him.

I'm not saying that my single years were not a lonely time, but they were also a rich and rewarding time. Because not being married … well, it’s totally not a fate worse than death.

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