The Lens in our Reading Glasses


Last Sunday, some friends, who are on our reading journey, stopped me after worship to talk about some of the laws found in Deuteronomy. The one they mentioned seemed unreasonably harsh to them. This conversation (and the fact that we wrap up the Pentateuch this week) led me to think about the role cultural bias plays in our reading of ancient texts.



As an independent American living in the land of the free, I can often let my culture carry too strong an influence as I try to understand biblical stories. This seems especially true when I read from the Old Testament laws. If my only cultural experience has been my own—where the rights of the individual are more valued than the needs of the community—then God’s law may seem harsh and unbending. On the other hand, when I read these rules through the lens of their culture I suddenly begin to see how these laws are for their good, to protect and provide for their well-being.


Take laws regarding marriage and divorce as an example (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). We know that in Matthew 19:8 Jesus said that Moses allowed divorce “because your hearts were hard. But it was not that way from the beginning.” So, when I read Moses’ provision for divorce and how a man could write a certificate of divorce if his wife becomes “displeasing” to him, my cultural experience kicks into gear. I think of how divorce must have been rampant in that society. If our culture requires that we hire divorce lawyers and our divorce rate is around 50% and if their culture only required the husband or wife (Mark 10:10-12) to write a certificate of divorce, then their divorce rate was likely much higher than ours.


While that logic might play well in modern Peoria, it doesn’t fly in ancient Israel. The strength of the family unit was such that divorce was actually uncommon among the Hebrews. And even while not being able to bear children was one of the strongest reasons to declare divorce (which makes sense when we remember how important children were for carrying on the family line and caring for the parents in their later years), this type of tragedy did not necessitate it. We have already read about Abraham sticking with Sarah, and later we will read of Zechariah remaining with Elizabeth.


“Yeah, but Rob, you gotta admit that being able to divorce just because the wife “displeased” the husband seems a little frivolous.” Well, it might, if it were not connected to another notion. Just a few words later, we see how “displeased” is connected to finding something “indecent” in her. This indecency likely refers to a specific infraction less than adultery but still significant in its own right. When Deuteronomy was written, divorce was permitted but regulated and its basis was not allowed to be frivolous or trivial. Divorce is not good and God actually “hates” it (Malachi 2:16). The Hebrew people knew this and so took this step far more seriously and infrequently than we may realize.


In Deuteronomy 21:10-14, we run across another strange-feeling marriage law—the provisions for marrying a captive woman. Through our lens, this sounds more than a bit harsh! But again, if we climb back into that culture, we find this to be a gracious protection for a woman who has lost everything. In most other ancient-world standards, a woman captured in war became a slave-concubine of the soldier who found her. Not so with Israel.


Hebrew rules required her to shave her head, trim her nails and take a month to grieve her losses. During this time the conquering soldier provided for her but did not touch her. This protected her from rape, as it gave the soldier a 30 day cooling off period. After the 30 days, he could decide whether or not he would “cover her” with his name and protection. If he decided she was not for him, he would send her away as a free woman, not being allowed to enslave her or sell her as a slave since he had dishonored her by shaving her head and cutting her nails.


In order to speak to the people at that time, God aligned His biblical laws with the broader Near-Eastern cultural practices (that which the people already understood). He aligned them, but did not mirror them. In most cases, God’s laws (about slavery in particular) uniquely regulate the practice in order to promote a more humane treatment of those involved. This is especially the case for the weakest in society. Take a look at Deuteronomy 24:10-22 sometime and see how God’s laws were weighted to protect the poor, the needy, the alien and the widow. Some of God’s laws were very harsh (the classic example being the herem, the total destruction of their enemies, Deuteronomy 20:16-18) but even these had a purpose that fit into God’s design, which we will talk about next week.  


So, whenever you run across something that just makes your modern-day sensibilities cringe (and more are certainly on the way) take a moment and ask the Lord to help you understand. And if understanding does not come, set your sights on His goodness, mercy and love. Tell Him it does not make sense to you and let Him know that you choose to hold fast to the goodness of His character. This practice is something God’s people have done for thousands of years. For instance, Psalm 119 repeats the idea of clinging to God’s revealed character, even in the face of conflicting physical circumstances. We are not alone in our struggle.


Thanks for helping me be aware of the lenses in my glasses!


Rob Eyman