10.15.2012

A Few Good Men


Walk with me through something. In the early parts of Genesis (ch. 12ff), we see Abraham, promised a land, an inheritance, and descendants as many as the stars in the sky, but his wife is barren. Because of God's promise, they have a child when he is 100 years old, she 90. In the next generation, Isaac marries Rebekah when he is 40, and she has children when he is 60. She's barren for 20 years. In the next generation, Jacob marries Rachel, and Rachel doesn't have any children until after Leah, his other wife, has had four boys and one girl, after her maid Bilhah has had two children, and after Leah's maid Zilpah has had two children. Finally she has children--Joseph and Benjamin. We aren't told how many years she waited, but it had to have been quite a few. In Judges, Manoah's wife (Judges 13) is barren, again presumably for years, before she has Samson. Then, just before the time of the kings, Elkanah's wife Hannah is barren, while her rival wife has multiple children, before she has Samuel.

I just want to throw out an idea here. People frequently criticize the Bible for its treatment of women because of stories like Jephthah's daughter, David's wife Michal, David's daughter Tamar, and others. They claim it endorses polygamy, rape, kidnapping, and other horrors. That's just patently whacky. If the Bible were a bunch of fables written to teach a moral at the end, sure. It would all be a matter of interpretation, and people would be free to take all kinds of crazy examples from the text to justify whatever they wanted to do. If, however, the Bible is a record (in its historical sections) of what actually happened, there's no reason to assume it endorses everything it describes. Like all good history, it is descriptive, rather than prescriptive* (in fact, that's part of why I find the Bible so trustworthy--it is terribly honest about all the horrible things even its heroes did. And that is generally an indication of credibility).

Though many stories of injustice toward women appear in the Bible, something amazing happens in the lives of several of God's pivotal figures. All of the examples in the first paragraph had wives who were barren. Of those men, Abraham lived with Sarah's barrenness for who knows how many years before God's promise, and he didn't take a concubine until he was 86, when she prompted him to try to speed up God's plan. Isaac lived with Rebekah's barrenness for 20 years, praying for her to have a child, and he didn't take another wife--even when their marriage went really sour. Jacob, of course, messed everything up, but he didn't treat Rachel with scorn when she couldn't have children. Manoah stayed with his wife and didn't take a concubine, in spite of the chaos in the society around him. Elkanah married Peninnah as well as Hannah, but he honored Hannah despite her barrenness.

Why is this behavior remarkable? For most societies of the world, children are the future. They are insurance (they'll take care of you when you're sick and old), but they are also the future of your name and of your family. One of the most scathing remarks Bildad the Shuhite made toward Job was his declaration that, because of Job's sin, his roots had dried up and his branches had been cut off. His past was gone, and he had no future.  Where I grew up in Africa, if people got married, and the wife didn't produce children (but especially didn't produce sons), both sides of her family could begin to needle her and ask why she hadn't produced a son. Perhaps they would even send her to the witch doctor for some muti that would help her to conceive. When a woman like this finally had a son, she would often name him Thulani, "Be quiet, all of you!" Children are so important that men would take second wives to provide them with heirs. Today, many men in the Muslim world divorce their wives who cannot conceive, and their wives receive great shame. People assume they have done something wrong to become barren, that they have offended God greatly, so that He has withheld children.

When the men in the Bible stick with their wives and even refuse to take concubines, they are doing something radically countercultural--they are saying, "I'm staying with you, even though you cannot provide me with a future." How serious was Abraham about this? In Genesis 15, God comes to him and says, "I am your shield, your very great reward," and Abraham replies, "What will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed, one born in my house is my heir." He's probably more than 80 years old at this time, and he has already designated an heir who is not his son. He could have taken a concubine at any time. Though obviously people in his line (ahem, Jacob) took multiple wives, monogamy is the standard. And, as I stated before, Abraham is 86 years old before he takes Hagar. That's a lifetime of faithfulness, by any standard. And it's generational. His son Isaac is faithful to Rebekah for twenty years of barrenness. Manoah is faithful for who knows how long before his wife gives birth to Samson. There's a subtle but distinct difference in many of the men who follow God.

But then there's a problem. Skip 700 or so years. Malachi enters the scene. He writes:
"And this is the second thing you do: you cover the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping and crying; so He does not regard the offering anymore, nor receive it with goodwill from your hands. Yet you say, 'For what reason?' Because the LORD has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously; yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But did He not make them one, having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. For the LORD God of Israel hates divorce, for it covers one's garment with violence," says the LORD of Hosts. "Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously" (2:13-16).
God criticizes Israel for practicing divorce, for treating women as cheap and disposable. He declares several truths:
  • Marriage is by covenant
  • God makes married people one (see also Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:3-6)
  • God seeks godly offspring (image bearers)
  • Staying faithful in marriage involves taking heed to one's spirit
  • Divorce is treacherous toward a person's covenant spouse (and we can see this through all of the small treacheries that people perpetrate on each other that snowball until they cease being faithful altogether)
  • God hates divorce
  • Divorce is a violent thing
Men have become treacherous to their wives, apparently on a large scale, and God is not okay with it. In fact, He won't accept the men's offerings because of the way they treat their wives. That's pretty serious.

Why is this significant? Bounce forward 400 or so years. Herod is king over Judea. Temple worship is the heart of Israel. The priesthood remains established since the time of Ezra, and the division of Abijah is serving in the temple. Zacharias, of the line of Abijah, has the responsibility of ministering in front of the golden altar of incense, directly in front of the veil that separates the Holy place from the Holy of Holies, the physical symbol of God's presence. At the time of prayer, he offers the incense, which symbolizes prayer, and an angel meets him. "Do not be afraid, Zacharias," the angel says, "for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John."

But who are Zacharias and Elizabeth? Luke 1:5-6 lists their characteristics: Zacharias is a priest of the division of Abijah; Elizabeth is a daughter of Aaron. Both are righteous before God, both walk in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. These are some incredible people. How many people do you know who are this upright? They have a problem, though: "But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years" (1:7). Who does this sound like?

I'm tying this story together with Malachi 2 because I believe that God put this prophecy into Malachi's mouth 400 years earlier for just such a time as this, and because I believe that Zacharias was intimately familiar with Malachi. Imagine a nation living without the fear of the Lord, where men freely divorced their wives for any reason (see the discussion in Matthew 19:3ff), unchastised, treating women as vessels of convenience. Where would someone like Elizabeth have been if this trend had continued for the previous 400 years, unchecked? I believe Zacharias was a man of the Word and lived in the fear of God, staying with his wife though she guaranteed him no future, no priests to serve after him. In Luke 1:17, the angel tells Zacharias that his son to come will "also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, 'to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,' and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." He's quoting Malachi 4:5-6! Why Malachi? He could quote other prophecies about John's coming, like Isaiah 40:3. I believe Zacharias also echoes Malachi in Luke 1:78-79 when he declares ". . . the Dayspring from on high has visited us; to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." I believe he's talking about the "Sun of Righteousness [who] shall arise with healing in His wings" (Mal. 4:2).

God has always had one standard for His people--that they marry one another for life, regardless of hardship, inconvenience, or the future. Everywhere His people have deviated from this standard they have fallen. And God brings honor to people who honor His standard. In Zacharias and Elizabeth's story, they have John the Baptist, of whom Jesus says, "Assuredly, I say to You, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist" (Matthew 11:11a).  Elizabeth herself says, after a lifetime of doubt and shame, "Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among the people" (Lk. 1:25), and all of her neighbors and relatives realize that the Lord has shown her great mercy, so they rejoice with her (1:58).

There should be a subtle but distinct difference in godly men. Men of God should be marked by steadfast faithfulness to their wives, should stand out in the middle of a culture that emphasizes marriage but has no clue about true dedication within marriage. God has only one standard, and it doesn't include the treachery of divorce.

Praises

  • I have met several new people in the last three days on transit. I'm trying to be more open and willing to engage people, and I think God is honoring that with some positive conversations. Please pray for boldness to share Jesus with these people and that I would remember that I am not good enough to save them, that their openness is dependent on God's working in them.
  • I got to have two Thanksgiving dinners this last week, which was pretty rocking awesome.
  • I get to go to a Young Adults retreat this weekend, and I'm really stoked about it.

Prayer requests

  • I'm taking a media fast for a couple of weeks (though it may continue from that). I've realized how much time I waste mindlessly checking Facebook, blogs, and the news, how useless it is. Please pray for me to use this time wisely and effectively for the Kingdom.
  • Please pray for the Iranian center and for our church. Pray for growth on all levels.
  • Pray for our continued faithfulness and for that of cross-cultural workers across the world. Pray against discouragement and for a God's-eye-view of success and of the work.

Thank you for praying for me (and for sticking through this really long post)!
-Jennifer


*My worst encounter so far with prescriptive history came in Michael Axworthy's A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind (Basic Books, 2008), in which he derailed into a diatribe against Martin Luther and the Protestants during his discussion of the 16th century. Terrible historical writing; I could hardly hear him over that axe he was grinding.

2 comments:

pinkbriefcase said...

Two thanksgivings in one week? THAT IS AWESOME. Praying for you dear.

Jennifer said...

I know, Canada's pretty amazing that way. And when American Thanksgiving rolls around, I will have had THREE Thanksgivings. Pretty much the best. Thank you for praying for me! I so appreciate it!