Thursday, February 9, 2012

Commandment #6: Thou Shalt Not...?

What is the sixth commandment? Thou shalt not kill [Thou shalt not do murder] (Exodus 20:13)

Written in a distinctive terse style, the Ten Commandments are set apart as foundational, given by no less an authority than the very hand of God (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:4-21). The commandments can be divided into sets of five with the second group addressing life in community (Exodus 20:13-17; Deuteronomy 5:17-21). The shift occurs with the sixth commandment.
You shall not murder. (Exodus 20:13 NASB; cf. Deuteronomy 5:17).
This commandment is the first to address a relationship among equals and affirms that the protection of human life is the starting point of living in community.

One could hardly derive a more natural, universal law as the taking of life has been objectionable throughout the annals of history. The clarity of the sixth commandment is seen in the fact that (unlike many of its counterparts) the prohibition contains no explanation or threat of consequences. Its merits are self evident.

Yet not all killings are viewed the same. For instance, murder is a singular sin. W.H. Auden (1907-1973) writes, “Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand atonement or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest (Auden, “The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the Detective Story by an Addict”, Harper’s Magazine, 1948, 406).”

The sixth commandment has been cited in arguments regarding abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, self-defense, suicide, war, etc. The forbidden action (ratsach) is typically translated as either “murder” (CEV, ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV) or “kill” (ASV, KJV, RSV). Though not an uncommon term, this is the first time word is used in the Bible.

The scope of the term is not rigidly bounded. If anything, the Hebrew muddies the waters further. Patrick D. Miller (b. 1935) expounds:
The simplicity of the commandment fades quickly as soon as one tries to translate it. Matters become more complex when one tries to relate the prohibition to actual acts of taking life...The commandment consists of a negative particle, “do not,” and the second-person imperfect of the verb rāṣaḥ. The precise meaning of this verb, however, is where the complexities arise. The divided voice of the NRSV translation committee, which split down the middle on the matter, is indicative of the issue and its complexity. Usually the commandment is translated either “You shall not kill”...or “You shall not murder”...More recent translations have tended toward the latter interpretation, recognizing that the verb of the commandment is a more particular and specialized verb, a more technical term in a sense, than others commonly translated in English as “kill”...or “put to death”...The problem, however, is that the verb does not have a single narrow meaning or usage “to murder.” The matter is more complicated, and the force of the verb as it is examined on its trajectory of meaning and usage in the Scriptures broadens toward a wider understanding from the very beginning. Thus the tension between a narrower and a wider interpretation of the verb is an inevitable and the locus of the community’s effort to comprehend and obey the commandment (Miller, The Ten Commandments (Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church), 221-223)
Peter Enns (b. 1961) adds:
The Hebrew word translated “murder” a common one in the Old Testament. It is a restricted term, generally referring to the killing of someone who is not an “enemy” of the people. In other words, it is not used in contexts of war or just punishment for a crime. It can, however, refer to unintentional killing (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:41-43), a circumstance in which “murder” is not an appropriate the very least we can state that this commandment refers to any type of killing that God disallows. Just what that means is, again, a matter of wise reflection on the part of Israelite leaders. (Enns, Exodus (The NIV Application Commentary), 422)
Though the Hebrew verb is different (harag, not ratsach), it is said that there is a “a time to kill” (Ecclesiastes 3:3). When is taking life acceptable? Why? What makes this Biblical commandment any different from the countless other mandates against killing in virtually every society in human history?

While the biblical rule reads the same as those in other cultures, the rationale is different. Terence E. Fretheim (b. 1936) explains, “The basis of the command is that all life belongs to God (Leviticus 17:11; Genesis 9:6). The divine intention in creation is that no life be taken. Life is thus not for human beings to do with as they will; they are not God. It is to God to determine what shall be done with life (Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 233).”

After researching countless comparable laws in parallel cultures, Mark F. Rooker (b. 1951) concludes:
Differences between ancient Near Eastern and biblical views of murder are ultimately connected to their contrastive views of the nature of God and man. Although the literature of Mesopotamia considered murder to be a severe iniquity, which aroused the anger of the gods, man was considered as part of the creation and nothing more than an economic value. He was created to be a servant of the gods. Another contrast has to do with payment of a fine as punishment for a convicted murderer. In most of ancient Near Eastern law, the acceptance of a ransom or a fine was dependent completely on the will of the relatives of the murder victim. Biblical law prohibited acceptance of a ransom or fine for a murder that happened with malice or by accident (Numbers 35:31; Deuteronomy 19:12). This distinction shows that the Bible places a high premium on the life of man because man was created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). (Rooker, The Ten Commandments: Ethics for the Twenty-First Century, 123)
The sixth commandment’s underlying belief is that life comes from God and as such is precious. David Hazony (b. 1969) wonders:
From violence in our streets to terror in our skies, from honor killings to organized crime to wartime atrocities to domestic violence, we tolerate murder to a breathtaking degree. Not so long ago, the most enlightened nation in Europe embarked on the most far-reaching plan of genocide in human history, exterminating its innocents by the millions as the world stood by. Today, similar wickedness is repeated elsewhere in the world, in places like Sudan and Rwanda, places where if we really cared we would stop the killing. Our collective Western pride blinds us to our collective failure to stop the worst crimes. Do we really care about life as much as we think? (Hazony, The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, 145)
Do you truly value life as much as you should?

“How strange it is that murder has the sanction of law in one and only one of the human relationships, and that is the most important of all, that of nation to nation.”
Paul Harris (1868-1947), lawyer who founded the Rotary Club in 1905

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Cost of Alabaster (Matthew 26:7)

What kind of box (or jar) held the ointment which the woman poured on Jesus’ head? Alabaster (Matthew 26:7)

In Matthew’s gospel, the first event of Passion week occurs when a woman anoints Jesus’ head with expensive perfume while he dines in Bethany (Matthew 26:6-13). Similar incidents occur in all four gospels (Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:1-9, Luke 7:36-50; John 12:1-8) but there are enough discrepancies between the accounts that scholars debate exactly how many times Jesus was actually anointed.

In the Synoptic gospels, the perfume is extracted from an alabastron (Matthew 26:7; Mark 14:3; Luke 7:37).

a woman came to Him with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume, and she poured it on His head as He reclined at the table. (Matthew 26:7 NASB)
The word alabastron is used in the New Testament only in connection with Jesus’ anointing. The term encompasses both the type of material as well as the form of the container. Hence the word is rendered variously “alabaster jar” (HCSB, NIV, NLT, NRSV), “alabaster flask” (ESV, NKJV, RSV), “alabaster box” (KJV), “alabaster cruse” (ASV), “alabaster vial” (NASB) and more simply “bottle” (CEV, MSG).

Martha Jean Mugg Bailey (b. 1957) appraises that alabaster is “a firm, very fine-grained, variety of gypsum, used for statuary and as indoor decorative stone, especially for carved ornamental vases and figurines...The biblical terms translated alabaster...may also refer to marble, although alabaster probably entered Israel from Egypt much earlier than marble was imported from the Greek world (David Noel Freedman [1922-2008], Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 39).”

Alabaster containers were ideal receptacles for perfume. W.D. Davies (1911-2001) and Dale C. Allison, Jr. (b. 1950) inform:

According to Pliny [23-79], Nautral History 13.3, ‘perfumes are best kept in alabaster vases’, and archaeology confirms that the stone, often imported from Egypt was frequently made into handleless perfume flasks. The necks were typically long and thin. (Davies and Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew (International Critical Commentary) Volume III: XIX-XVIII, 444)
Though in modern English, “alabaster” is most commonly used in reference to skin as a synonym for pale, not all alabaster was white. John A. Broadus (1827-1895) chronicles:
Some kinds of alabaster are of delicate and richly varied hues, and are extremely beautiful and costly. The Jews, like all the other civilized ancient peoples, made much use of fragrant ointment, often rare and of great price; and the flasks which contained it were of great variety as to material and shape...It was, with its contents, a tasteful and costly object, such as a woman would delight in possessing (Broadus, Commentary on Matthew, 519)
While the container was consequential, its imported contents were equally prized. Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) notes that though anointing a dinner guest was not uncommon, the woman’s extravagance was.
Hosts of banquets customarily provided oil to anoint the heads of guests of notable social status ...but the outpouring of love here is more costly than the mere use of oil in customary acts of hospitality...They would seal the ointment to prevent evaporation, requiring the long neck of the jar to be broken and the ointment to be expended at once...Archaeologists have uncovered such long-necked flasks in first-century tombs near Jerusalem, suggesting the frequent once-for-all expenditure of this expensive perfume at the death of loved ones ...Nard was a costly ointment imported from India...or elsewhere in the east...and its expense might suggest an heirloom passed from one generation to the next. (Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 618)
Because of its monetary value, in three of the gospels, the woman faces criticism for the way she chose to allocate her resources (Matthew 26:8-9; Mark 14:4-5; John 12:4). It is posed that the perfume could have been better used by liquidating her liquid asset and dispersing the funds. In each account the woman’s action is personally affirmed by Jesus himself (Matthew 26:10-13; Mark 14:6-9; John 12:7-8). In Matthew and Mark, as many verses are devoted to Jesus’ praise of the woman as are spent on describing the action itself.

Why was anointing Jesus a better choice than taking the cash value of the alabaster jar and dispersing it amongst the poor? Why does the woman do as she does?

For the woman, the alabaster jar was likely a treasured possession and possibly an heirloom. Many have speculated that the woman was saving it for a very special occasion.

Jackie Kendall (b.1950) conjectures:

In the days of Jesus, when a young woman reached the age of availability for marriage, her family would purchase an alabaster box for her and fill it with precious ointment. The size of the box and the value of the ointment would parallel her family’s wealth. This alabaster box would be part of her dowry. When the young man came to ask for her in marriage, she would respond by taking the alabaster box and breaking it at his feet. The gesture of anointing his feet showed him honor. (Kendall, Say Goodbye to Shame: And 77 Other Stories of Hope and Encouragement, 156)
While Kendall’s writing is speculative, what is not supposition is the woman’s sacrifice. In Mark’s version of the anointing, the woman needed to shatter the jar like a piggy bank to use its contents (Mark 14:3). When the moment was over, she had nothing left of her treasure. The high cost of the woman’s sacrifice is set in stark contrast to the relatively cheap payment Jesus’ betrayer received for his complicity in the gospel’s next story (Matthew 26:15, 27:3, 9).

Does it matter how the woman acquired the perfume? What are you saving for just the proper occasion? What is the greatest sacrifice you have made for anyone? For God?

“You can sacrifice and not love. But you cannot love and not sacrifice.” - Kris Vallotton (b. 1955)

Monday, February 6, 2012

Orpah: Should I Stay or Should I Go? (Ruth 1)

Who was Ruth’s sister-in-law who stayed behind in Moab? Orpah (Ruth 1:4)

While living in Moab due to a famine in Judah (Ruth 1:1-2), Naomi’s two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, marry Moabite women (Ruth 1:3) named Orpah and Ruth (Ruth 1:4, 14). The two women are contrasted from the time they enter the text until Orpah’s departure (Ruth 1:14).

They took for themselves Moabite women as wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. And they lived there about ten years. (Ruth 1:4 NASB)
Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. (b. 1943) notes:
These names occur nowhere else in the Old Testament; indeed, it is uncertain whether they are Moabite or Hebrew. Although the names’ genuineness need not be doubted, the meaning of Orpah remains an unsolved mystery. (Hubbard, The Book of Ruth (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 94)
Though the name’s meaning is unknown and it is uncommon, Orpah is actually the name that appears on Oprah Winfrey (b. 1954)’s birth certificate as her aunt Ida plucked it from the pages of the Bible.

When Naomi and her daughters-in-law lose their husbands (Ruth 1:3, 5), the trio is faced with another crisis - how to proceed. The sense is that after ten years together (Ruth 1:4), they have grown close and do not wish to leave each other’s company (Ruth 1:9, 14).

Inexplicably, Naomi waits until they are already en route to Judah to advise her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab (Ruth 1:6-7). Twice, the mother-in-law appeals to Orpah and Ruth to return home (Ruth 1:8-9, 11-13). From Naomi’s perspective, she has nothing to offer her loved ones as a woman’s security and value came from a husband or sons and she was out of both. While her only option is to return to her homeland, Judah, Naomi realizes that her daughters-in-laws’ prospects are bleak there.

Carol Ann Newsom (b. 1950) and Sharon H. Ringe (b. 1946) explain:

Not only are Orpah and Ruth Moabites and so members of an already stigmatized nation, their marriages are childless when the sons die ten years later. Supposedly a land of plenty, Moab proves to be sterility and death. (Newsom and Ringe, The Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition,85)

On the surface, for Orpah and Ruth, all signs lead to Moab. Returning home represents the only sensible course of action as Moab held the probability of a normal life while the prospects of remaining with Naomi are replete with uncertainty. Knowing as much, Naomi advises her charges to return to Moab (Ruth 1:8, 12). Because of this advice, some have questioned Naomi’s faith in Yahweh and God’s ability to redeem her family.

Naomi’s second appeal is evidently convincing as her words strike a chord with Orpah. Orpah’s rationale mirrors The Clash’s catchy 1982 single:

Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
After weighing her options, Orpah literally kisses Naomi goodbye (Ruth 1:14).
And they lifted up their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. (Ruth 1:14 NASB)
While Orpah leaves, Ruth cleaves. Ostensibly, Ruth is reckless while Orpah plays it safe and opts for the more sensible choice.

Naomi’s disappointment is palpable. She goes from calling Orpah “my daughter” (Ruth 1:12) to “your-sister-in law” (Ruth 1:15) and it is telling that it is Orpah who kisses Naomi and not vice versa (Ruth 1:14).

Traditionally, Ruth is lauded while Orpah is maligned. Orpah returns to her people and more importantly reverts to her gods (Ruth 1:15) while Ruth makes an act of faith towards Israel’s God (Ruth 1:16-17). With this choice, Orpah is written out of the biblical text never to be referenced again while Ruth will become the great grandmother of king David (Ruth 4:17) and will ultimately have a biblical book named after her.

André Lacocque (b. 1927) relays this traditional view, writng:

The literal obedience of Orpah to Naomi’s orders has incalculable consequences of future deprivation for Chilion’s family line. Because Orpah has missed the turning point of history in chapter 1 of the narrative, Chilion’s death is a double death. (Lacocque, Ruth: A Continental Commentary, 35)

Had Orpah stayed with the group, how would the story have played out? Would Ruth have “clung” to Naomi if Orpah had not just left? Given the same options, how would you have chosen? Is there a place for playing it safe in the life of faith? Just because Ruth chose well, does it mean that Orpah chose poorly? For Ruth to be right does Orpah need be wrong?

The text itself neither criticizes nor congratulates Orpah and technically speaking, it is she, not Ruth, who obeys her mother-in-law. Kirsten Nielsen (b. 1943) informs:

It is characteristic that the author passes no judgment on Orpah, leaving this to the reader. Sooner or later a reader is bound to react negatively. Thus in the Midrash Ruth Rabbah we find the brutal account of Orpah on her return journey being raped by a hundred men and a dog. Here we are left in no doubt as to what to think of Orpah, though according to the narrator of Ruth she does only what her mother-in-law insists on. (Nielsen, Ruth: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 48)
Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. (b. 1943 reminds that the reader is not privy to the rest of Orpah’s story. He counters:
May one fault Orpah for unforgivable disloyalty to Naomi? On the contrary, the narrator avoids criticizing her. In fact, her departure merits some praise as an obedient daughter who properly accepted Naomi’s wise counsel. Were the story to follow her future, it might report Yahweh’s fulfillment of Naomi’s good wishes (Ruth 1:8-9). Her choice only highlights how extraordinary was Ruth’s conduct. That is the narrator’s point: Orpah did the sensible, expected thing, Ruth the extraordinary and unexpected (Hubbard , The Book of Ruth (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 115-16).
K. Lawson Younger, Jr. (b. 1953) notes that from a literary perspective, Orpah is in the same spot in the first chapter as the kinsman-redeemer finds himself in the book’s final chapter:
While Orpah serves as a foil to Ruth in the story heightening the contrast, the narrator does not criticize Orpah’s decision. She is not portrayed negatively; the reader is given good reason for her decision and little other information. It is not that Ruth is right and Orpah is wrong per se. Rather, the actions of Orpah make Ruth appear that much more positive (the unnamed nearer kinsman-redeemer will serve the same function in relation to Boaz in Ruth 4). (Younger Judges, Ruth (The NIV Application Commentary) , 423)
Adele Berlin (b. 1943) concurs:
In the case of Orpah, both she and Ruth initially react the same way, expressing reluctance to leave Naomi. Only after prolonged convincing does Orpah take her leave, and, of course, Ruth’s determination to remain with Naomi becomes, in the eyes of the reader, all the more heroic. The two were first made to appear similar—they were both Moabite wives of brothers, both childless widows, both loyal to their mother-in-law. Only gradually is the difference between them developed, and when it is, the effect is dramatic and moving. (Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative, 85)
Ruth’s decision is exceptional and Orpah serves a reminder that not everyone would have acted as she did.

Have you ever been compared with another to make one of you appear more impressive? Why does Ruth make the decision that she does? When have you taken the road less traveled?

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
-Robert Frost (1874–1963), “The Road Not Taken” Mountain Interval 1916.