Thursday, February 2, 2012

Boaz’s Shoe Deal (Ruth 4:8)

To seal a contract, a man took off something and gave it to the other person. What was this? His shoe [sandal] (Ruth 4:8)

According to the custom of the day, before Boaz could legally marry Ruth he needed to get a release from a nearer related kinsman, known as a “guardian-redeemer”or “kinsman-redeemer” (Ruth 3:12-13). Even after this unnamed man decided that it was not financially viable for him to redeem Ruth (Ruth 4:1-6), to make the process legal, Boaz needed to seal the deal with a strange ritual. In a tradition that is perhaps comparable to the modern spit handshake or pinky swear, a shoe was removed and exchanged to ratify the agreement (Ruth 4:7-8).

Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning the redemption and the exchange of land to confirm any matter: a man removed his sandal and gave it to another; and this was the manner of attestation in Israel. (Ruth 4:7 NASB)
After this procedure was followed (Ruth 4:8), every bond was broken between the kinsman redeemer and Ruth and consequently Boaz was legally free to marry her (Ruth 4:9-10).

The fact that the author described the custom in an aside to the reader indicates that this means of authentication was as foreign to the original readers as it is to its contemporary counterparts.

Kirsten Nielsen (b. 1943) explains:

In order to follow the course of events the reader must be told that there was a particular custom linked to the closing of an agreement in ancient Israel. The clearly no longer in use, but the audience is to understand that at the time it was legally binding. (Nielsen, Ruth: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 82).
The text is ambiguous regarding exactly which party removed their na`al, which is translated both generically as “shoe” (ASV, KJV, MSG) and specifically as “sandal” CEV, ESV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV).

André Lacocque (b. 1927) describes:

The question here derives from the Hebrew root...which means “locked” (closed with a strap), as in Song of Solomon 4:12. Here, and there, one can see an erotic allusion, which is also not absent from Deuteronomy 25:5-10...“The shoe is namely a symbol of the law, of judicial process. Already in ancient Egypt, the sandal was the symbol of power, authority.” (Lacocque, Ruth: A Continental Commentary, 133)
Many have read this exchange through the lens of levirate marriage, a mandate by which a brother of a deceased man was obligated to marry his brother’s widow in hopes of continuing the dead brother’s line (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). Tod Linafelt (b. 1965) writes that “one cannot overlook the resonance of this sandal ceremony with the strikingly similar ceremony in the context of levirate marriage (Linafelt and Beal, Ruth and Esther (Berit Olam: Studies In Hebrew Narrative And Poetry), 71).”

If a man refused a levirate marriage, the woman was to pull the sandal off of his foot and spit in his face (Deuteronomy 25:9)! As such, some have seen the kinsman-redeemer as disgracing Ruth.

Victor H. Matthews (b. 1950) counters:

There is no sense in this passage that the next of kin is humiliated by this exchange. Having been presented with the economic factors involved in redeeming the field and acquiring the responsibility for Ruth, he makes a business decision not to accept this responsibility. Although this is a public declaration, it does not appear to damage his social standing. It merely gives Boaz the legal right to step in as redeemer. (Matthews, Judges and Ruth (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 240)
For the kinsman-redeemer, the business of marriage was all business. Perhaps this is why Boaz went to great lengths to ensure that his union with Ruth was legitimate and properly documented (Ruth 4:1-12).

How do we seal contracts today? What unique customs do Americans follow that might seem strange to outsiders? How are modern marriage contracts ratified? Have you ever questioned these practices (e.g. the marriage license, wedding ceremony, etc.)? Why did the terms of this contract “have to be the shoes”?

In her book Jews and Shoes, Edna Nahshon writes

the ceremonial nature of the transaction makes it clear that the shoe was not used as a barter in a quid pro quo exchange but in a legal/symbolic capacity. Some the shoe scene with an Arab form of divorce in which the male removes his shoe and declares “She [the wife] was my slipper; I have cast her off,” and to the Arabic use of na’l (shoe) in the sense of “wife of the husband”...Jacob Nacht [1873-1959], writing in 1915, cites a shoe ceremony practiced among some of the Jews then living in Palestine where it was customary for the bridegroom to send a shoemaker to the bride’s house to prepare shoes for the bride and female family members, this indicating that a date for the wedding had been set. (Nahshon, Jews and Shoes, 4-5)
Robert L. Hubbard Jr. (b. 1943) adds:
In the Old Testament “feet” and “shoes” symbolized power, possession, and domination (Joshua 10:24, Psalm 8:6, 60:8, 108:9). When Moses removed his shoes (Exodus 3:5; cf. Joshua 5:15), he acknowledged Yahweh’s lordship; when David walked barefoot, he showed his powerlessness and humiliation (II Samuel 15:30; cf. Isaiah 20:2-4; Ezekiel 24:17, 23). Feet and shoes also played symbolic roles in ancient property transactions. According to the Nuzi texts, for example, to validate a transfer of real estate the old owner would lift up his foot from the property and place the new owner’s foot on it. In the Old Testament, to “set foot” on the land was associated with ownership of it (Deuteronomy 1:36, 11:24; Joshua 1:3, 14:9). Therefore, the sandal transfer in Ruth 4:7 may be a symbolic offspring of such ancient customs. If so, the practice had come a long way: originally associated with transfers of land ownership, in Israel the custom had become a symbol for other transactions as well. (Hubbard, The Book of Ruth (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 251)

Though the practice seems strange, the theoretical framework is not entirely different from modern contracts. In his legal textbook, The Idea of Private Law, Ernest J. Weinrib (b. 1943) writes, “The external nature of action implies a world of shared social order to appropriate a person will perform the act that signifies appropriation in that person’s society: in one society the act may be the shoe’s stepping, in another the hand’s seizure or the laying on of a spear (Weinrib, The Idea of Private Law, 104).”

The process worked and Ruth and Boaz became a happy legally married couple (Ruth 4:13) because all of the parties involved agreed to the terms of the shoe deal. It was not the shoes, it was the shared social meaning.

If you had to seal a contract by the exchange of one common item, what would it be? How important is it to you that you are or will be legally married? Is the marriage contract a public or private issue?

“Love is a feeling, marriage is a contract, and relationships are work.” - Lori Heyman Gordon (b. 1929), marriage and family therapist

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Scandalous Message (I Corinthians 1:23)

Complete: “We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews _________________.” A stumbling block (I Corinthians 1:23)

In writing to a divided Corinthian church (I Corinthians 1:10-17), Paul reminded the congregation of its bedrock - what, how, and why he preached (I Corinthians 1:18-31). At the center of this self-contained unit, the apostle uses the collective “we” in discussing preaching to remind the Corinthians that they should be unified behind a central message, devoting their time to external rather than internal battles (I Corinthians 1:23). In doing so, Paul also recalls the obstacle they should be tackling when he laments,

but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, (I Corinthians 1:23 NASB)
Speaking of this passage, Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) concludes, “The purpose of the letter is summed up in one verse [I Corinthians 1:23] (Fitzmyer, First Corinthians (The Anchor Yale Bible), 53).”

The cross is central not only to I Corinthians but to Christianity as a whole. Richard B. Hays (b. 1948) comments:

The cross is the key to understanding reality in God’s new eschatological age. Consequently, to enter the symbolic world of the gospel is to undergo a conversion of the imagination, to see all values transformed by the foolish and weak death of Jesus on the cross. (Hays, First Corinthians (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 31)
This paradigm shift proved difficult for many of the beloved Jewish members of Paul’s audience. Even so, the apostle refused to water down his message despite the fact that its central theme proved to be a “stumbling block”, skandalon. It is from this Greek word that English derives the word “scandal”. Though most translations retain “stumbling block” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV), the term has garnered much consideration.

Anthony C. Thiselton (b. 1937) relays:

The word...has been variously rendered as scandal (C.K. Barrett [1917-2011], Gordon D. Fee [b. 1934]), stumbling block (AV/KJV, NRSV, NIV, Raymond F. Collins [b. 1935], James Moffatt [1870-1944]), or an obstacle they cannot get over (NJB). All of these can be defended. The Greek word occurs only rarely outside of the Septuagint and New Testament, but occurs six times in Matthew and Luke, six times in the Pauline epistles (once each in I Peter, I John and Revelation), i.e. 15 times in the New Testament. Edwin Hatch [1835-1899]-Henry A. Redpath [1848-1908] list 21 occurrences in the Septuagint, where it translates four Hebrew words... (Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 171)
Roy E. Ciampa (b. 1958) and Brian S. Rosner (b. 1959) interpret:
Although the word appears only here in I Corinthians, Paul uses it in a similar context in Romans 9:33 and Romans 11:11-12. In both cases an Old Testament citation identifies Christ as a stumbling block for Israel (Isaiah 8:14 and Psalm 69:23-24 respectively). Isaiah 8:14 in particular gives the flavor of the term with various synonyms: “He will become a stone of offense and a stumbling block to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” Together these texts suggest that a stumbling block is more serious than simply an insulting affront; it also leads to disastrous consequences. (Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 100)
Paul uses a very strong word to describe how offended many Jews were to his message.

How central is the cross to the Christian message? What aspect of the gospel is most troubling to you? What tenet of Christianity do you feel is most bothersome to non-Christians? Why was the message of the cross met with such turpitude?

The scandal of the cross has been largely lost due to familiarity. Marion L. Soards (b. 1952) reminds that modern readers “have seen the cross so often as a religious symbol that we forget the brutal reality of this practice and often fail to comprehend how scandalous was the early Christian message of God’s saving humanity through the crucifixion of Jesus (Soards, 1 Corinthians (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series)).”

To some, the apostles must have appeared to be abusing the Scriptures. Bart D. Ehrman (b. 1955) claims emphatically:

the idea that Jesus was the suffering Messiah was an invention of the early Christians. It is no wonder that the apostle Paul, writing decades after Christians had come up with this idea, indicates that it is the greatest “stumbling block” for Jews (I Corinthians 1:23). Even though this is the very foundation for all Christian belief, to many Jews it was a ridiculous claim. (Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), 236)
For the first century Jew, a crucified messiah was an oxymoron. The concept was utter nonsense. Gordon D. Fee (b. 1934) explains, “One may have a Messiah, or one may have a crucifixion; but one may not have both—at least not from the perspective of merely human understanding. Messiah meant power, splendor, triumph; crucifixion meant weakness, humiliation, defeat (Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 75).”

A crucified person was by definition a condemned individual found guilty of a crime so heinous as to merit the death penalty. For some, crucifixion corresponded to a passage from the Law which states “he who is hanged is accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23 NASB). As such, some viewed the cross as the ultimate validation that Jesus was not from God but rather cursed by God. There simply was no room in their theology for a crucified messiah.

Paul understood this sentiment as he himself had stumbled over the same block (Galatians 1:13-14, 3:13)

Do we miss part of the Christian message if we fail to see the scandal of the cross? What preconceived notions do you hold about God? What could someone tell you about God that you would immediately reject on principal?

“It is the eye of ignorance that assigns a fixed and unchangeable color to every object; beware of this stumbling block.” - Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

Monday, January 30, 2012

Ezekiel: Lying Down on the Job (Ezekiel 4:4)

Who was said to lie on his left side for 390 days? Ezekiel

Ezekiel lived during a dark period in Israel’s history. In the course of his career, the Babylonian invasion escalated from an imminent danger to a present reality. As such, the prophet was the bearer of bad news. After receiving his calling (Ezekiel 2:1-8), Ezekiel repeatedly predicted the destruction of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 4:1-7:27).

Ezekiel’s first prophetic statements were not made with words. His first public act was just that, an act. The prophet inscribed a brick with the name “Jerusalem” and simulated divine rejection and the pending siege (Ezekiel 4:1-3). Then, seemingly out of nowhere, God asked Ezekiel to lay on his side for 390 days (Ezekiel 4:4)!

“As for you, lie down on your left side and lay the iniquity of the house of Israel on it; you shall bear their iniquity for the number of days that you lie on it. For I have assigned you a number of days corresponding to the years of their iniquity, three hundred and ninety days; thus you shall bear the iniquity of the house of Israel.” (Ezekiel 4:4-5 NASB)
Ezekiel sprawled on his left side for over a year. The prophet’s next assignment (naturally) was to do the same on his right side...but for only forty days (Ezekiel 4:6). (His tan must have been terribly uneven...)

Out of context, this behavior appears psychotic and as is typical of the book, Ezekiel’s initial reaction is not described. In his psychological study of the prophet, David J. Halperin (b. 1947) writes, “When, without any obvious compulsion, a man is reported to have lain on his left side for 390 days...and on his right side for 40, it is hardly farfetched to suppose that psychic disturbance may have been involved (Halperin, Seeking Ezekiel: Text and Psychology, 12).”

In context, there is a method to the madness. Ezekiel is creating a visual representation of Israel’s plight that accentuates the burden of bearing God’s weight. Joseph Blenkinsopp (b. 1927) explains, “The lying bound on the side is a proleptic enactment of captivity and exile. By performing this act, Ezekiel both prefigures the punishment which is the result of Judah’s infidelity and, at the same time, identifies himself with the suffering of his people brought on by sin (Blenkinsopp, Ezekiel (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 35).”

Bruce Vawter (1921-1986) and Leslie J. Hoppe (b. 1944) relay another common explanation:

This episode represents Ezekiel as playing in part the role of the scapegoat of Leviticus 16:21-22. Symbolically God lays the guilt...of Israel...upon Ezekiel while he rests on his left side for 390 days. After that (or concurrently with that?) he bears the guilt of the house of Judah while lying on his right side for 40 days. (Vawter and Hoppe, Ezekiel: A New Heart (International Theological Commentary), 42)
The ratio is clear, the number of days correlates to the years of national sin. It is like cheerleaders enacting their team’s points by performing the same amount of pushups as their team has scored points, only with an incredibly negative twist. Three hundred ninety corresponded to the years that Israel had sinned against God and the ensuing 40 symbolized the years of iniquity of their sister, Judah (Ezekiel 4:4-8).

While the ratio of days lying to years sinning is clearly stated, interpreters have not conclusively determined which years are being represented. There does not appear to be a dramatic event that occurred 390 years before Ezekiel’s career. It has been proposed that 390 is some sort of rounded number that correlates to the time between the building of the first temple and Jerusalem’s destruction in 586 BCE. (If Ezekiel were picking a round number, why not select 400?)

This hardly represents the only theory. Paul M. Joyce (b. 1954) expounds on the “problematic question”:

What could be meant by the punishment of Israel for as long as 390 years. (If the northern exile of 721 were the starting point, taking 390 off 721 gives 331 B.C.E., prompting the intriguing if implausible thought of an allusion to the conquests of Alexander as in some sense signalling the end of the punishment of Israel!) The Greek text offers a rationalization, involving changing 390 to 190, a number that accommodates an interpretation of the punishment of the northern kingdom in the period between the Assyrian conquest and Ezekiel’s day...The number 390 is best understood to refer to the period of national sin from the united monarchy down to Ezekiel’s time (not covering, it must be conceded, Israel’s sin in Egypt, reported in Ezekiel 20:8). The number “forty” refers to the current punishment of the nation, that is, the Babylonian exile. (Joyce, Ezekiel: A Commentary (Library Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies) , 85-86)
Others have found significance in the number itself. Adrianus van den Born (1904-1978) noted that the numeric value (via gematria) of the Hebrew for “days of siege” (Ezekiel 4:8) yields 390 (van den Born, Ezechiël). Others have proposed that the sum of the two tasks is significance (390+40=430) as it corresponds to the length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt (Exodus 12:40).

Regardless of what years are being referenced, the prostrate prophet served as a constant reminder that Jerusalem was falling and that the people had only themselves to blame. Their sins had caught up with them.

Have you ever felt God calling you to do something that without God’s involvement would be deemed psychotic? What is the craziest thing you have felt God leading you to do? Who tended to Ezekiel while he laid upon his side? Why would God make this action Ezekiel’s first prophetic task? What is gained by choosing this method of communication over speaking?

Ezekiel’s extended lying is a quintessential “sign-act” or symbolic act. Sign-acts are a prophet’s embodiment and dramatization of a given message. Ezekiel was hardly the first prophet to perform sign-acts (Isaiah 8:18, 20:3; Jeremiah 13:1-11, 16:1-9, 19:1-13, 27-28, 35:1-19) but he did use them prodigiously (Ezekiel 4:1-3, 4-8, 9-15, 5:1-4, 12:1-7, 24:15-27).

Sign-acts might equate to modern street theater. Like producing a mimed parable, the prophet speaks without words. When David Blaine (b. 1973) incased himself in a block of ice in Times Square on November 27, 2000, it was not about a feat of endurance as much as a platform for marketing his brand. While sign-acts have similar benefits they are more than mere publicity stunts as the prophet acts at the request of God.

Walter Eichrodt (1890-1978) philosophizes:

We are inclined to regard actions as mere ornaments to a prophetic discourse, which do no more than illustrate and drive home its meaning. So we feel some surprise to see Ezekiel begin his work with them. But in actual fact a symbolic action on the part of a prophet is more than a mere accompaniment to his discourse. It is an independent means of preaching, which can on occasion take the place of the word, and its presence first makes possible the effective delivery of the message...The basis for that consists in the close connection between word and action in Hebrew thought. The word dābār means not only ‘word’ but also ‘deed’...Seeing that word and deed form a unity, a prophetic action is not just an appendage, but a powerful means of proclamation of God’s will. (Eichrodt, Ezekiel: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 81)
What is the closest modern equivalent to the sign-act? What would you think if your pastor did something like Ezekiel? Is there a place for this behavior in modern Christianity?

“Action is eloquence.” - William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Coriolanus (Act 3, Scene II)