From the mailbag: Was God ‘ok’ with polygamy in levirate marriage?

What follows is a slightly edited exchange that sprang from a church member’s personal Bible reading. Always encouraging to know others are reading and thinking.

I have a question regarding levirate marriage in Deuteronomy 25. My ESV study Bible says that in the case that the brother-in-law (the “kinsman redeemer” ?) already had a wife, polygamy would be permissible. The commentary we have doesn’t exactly address polygamy here, and I haven’t been able to find another resource to comment on it (polygamy) for clarity. I understand that the purpose of levirate marriage is to preserve the line, etc., but I (admittedly) am a little bit unsettled by my study Bible’s comment that polygamy is “ok” here. I also know this was written to a different audience at a different time for a specific purpose…But my question is: in this case, is God’s Law approving polygamy? Any pointers on where/how to better understand this? Thanks in advance!

Deuteronomy_WrightIf you’re interested in a good commentary on Deuteronomy, I’d recommend this one by Christopher Wright. It’s concise, easy to follow, and sheds light on the intent behind Israel’s laws.

Here’s what I would say concerning the possibility that a levirate marriage would lead to bigamy. This isn’t everything that could be said but I think it’s a good start.

First, the Law needs to be read in it’s historical & social context as you recognize. It wasn’t delivered in a historical vacuum and in certain respects the Law deals with Israel as she is rather than as she ought to be.

Second, much of the Law would re-ordered Israel’s life toward the divine ideal, but some commands were concessions to circumstances that were less than ideal. In other words, the law was a less-than-perfect way to constrain sin and its effects. This is precisely the point that Jesus makes when he was questioned about the Law’s provision for divorce:

Mark 10:2-9  Some Pharisees came up to Jesus, testing Him, and began to question Him whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife.  3 And He answered and said to them, “What did Moses command you?”  4 They said, “Moses permitted a man TO WRITE A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND her AWAY.”  5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment6But from the beginning of creation, God MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE.  7 “FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER,  8 AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH; so they are no longer two, but one flesh.  9What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”

God created marriage to be a permanent union and He hates divorce (Mal 2:16). Nevertheless, divorce was permitted under certain circumstances in order to prevent a bad situation from getting worse. Were it not for hard hearts, no such concession would have been necessary.

Similarly, levirate marriage was provided to prevent a bad situation from getting worse. The perpetuation of the family line & a permanent share in the land were two of the biggest material blessings that God gave to His people. Beyond the material experience was a profound message: that God would create & preserve a people who would enjoy his enduring promises. But a man who died with no children lost his place among the nation since his name would die out and his share of the promise (land) would go to someone else. Levirate marriage, then, guaranteed that a bad situation (i.e. losing a man) didn’t lead to worse harm (i.e. losing a family line). Were it not for death, a levirate law would never be necessary.

Third, levirate marriage was very different from typical bigamy/polygamy in its intent. In polygamy, a man sought to acquire wives for his own benefit. In levirate marriage, a man was ‘assigned’ his brother’s widow for the sake of the deceased. Levirate marriage was apparently a less than desirable scenario in many cases since the Law attaches a shameful stigma to the man who would refuse his legal obligation (Deut 25:7-10).

Finally, I’ve come to learn is that it’s ok for us to be uncomfortable with some of the things we read in the OT Law. Since God gave the Law to lead us to Christ & a better covenant, it’s good for me to be dissatisfied with an imperfect solution to the mess created by sin & death. My heart and mind should say “Is this the best that we have? Isn’t there a better way?” And that draws me back to the promised perfection that we find in Christ. In Christ, we never have to worry about our names being erased or our inheritance being lost. Nothing that has been given or promised to us depends on what we can create or sustain. Better mediator. Better promises. Better covenant.

Hope this is helpful.

The virtue of silence

paper quote bubbleThe Five Day Bible Reading plan has me in Proverbs for a couple weeks and I’m always struck by just how much God’s instruction in this book goes against my nature and popular opinion. These days especially I’m convicted by how quiet, slow, and deliberate the path of wisdom is in contrast to our noisy, hurried, and reactionary age. The contrast is especially stark when it comes to habits of speech.

Americans value free speech and rightly so. We have laws protecting and a history defending all kinds of speech whether by word, art, demonstration, or money. Some modes of speech have a longer history than others, but the Information Age has introduced a dizzying array of platforms for our speech: TV, radio, podcasts, blogs, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, et al. 

Talking has never been easier and thanks to 24-hour news cycles and the internet we never lack things to talk about. COVID19, lockdowns, Presidential politics, social justice, nationwide protests, and Supreme Court rulings—all of these matters beg for comments and will be discussed ad nauseam.

So what should Christians say about these things? Maybe less than we think:

When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable; But he who restrains his lips is wise. Prov 10:19

A fool does not delight in understanding, But only in revealing his own mind. Prov 18:2

The first to plead his case seems right, Until another comes and examines him. Prov 18:17

Today we have the means, motive, and opportunity to speak our minds every day and, thanks to technology, we don’t even need to leave the house to find an audience. But is it wise to talk as much as we do? If given a minute of Spirit-driven reflection, how much of what we say, share, and type is motivated by pride and anger?

Maybe Christ will be seen more clearly through those who speak less and, even then, reluctantly. Remember, it’s the peacemakers, not the opinion makers, who show themselves to be wise sons of God (Mat 5:9; James 3:13-18).  

Dear Sir: That’s not what the verse means

Dear Sir,

I’m not a reguar listener to your radio program, but I drop in from time to time just out of curiosity. Today I heard you quote Prove 29:18a as a way to explain the trouble we’re having in America:

Where there is no vision, the people perish {Prov 29:18, KJV}

Your point was that our country is in trouble because our leaders have no vision for the future and/or have abandoned the vision laid down in the Declaration of Independence. Politics aside, you have misinterpreted and misapplied this verse. Allow me to elaborate.

First, the OT meaning of vision means something completely different from what we modern Westerners mean when we talk about vision. We speak of vision as a product of creativity or imagination, especially as it expresses our goals and aspirations (e.g. CEO’s vision for where he wants to take the company; my vision for the future). The OT speaks of vision as divine revelation. In the case of Prov 29:18, the OT sense of the word is readily apparent when we read the entire proverb and find that vision is used in parallel with the law:

Where there is no vision, the people perish;
but he that keepeth the law, happy is he
.

Second, you quoted the KJV version which is arguably the pithier translation but also the poorer in this instance. Due to the surprising popularity of the KJV rendering, most people don’t even know that all of the other major English versions (i.e. ESV, NAS, NIV, NKJ, RSV) translate the line differently:

Where there is no vision, the people perish (KJV)
Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained (NAS)

We can be more sympathetic with this misunderstanding due to an unfortunate translation, but a correction is still in order. You seem to take the proverb to mean something like “without a vision, the people will not prosper/thrive” when the author means something like “without divine revelation, the people have no inhibitions.”

In short, the proverb isn’t warning us about the dangers of doing business without a five-year plan; it’s telling us that blessing is found when we live in light of God’s revealed will.

I trust I haven’t come across as overly critical. Your misappropriation of the verse is far less irritating than when the error is made by someone who should know better—say, a Christian author or pastor. In fact, you’re probably just passing on what you heard from one of us in the first place. I suspect that if we handled our Scriptures more carefully, we both could’ve been saved the trouble of this letter.

Sincerely,

JM

What did Paul mean (and what do we infer)?

“In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” {Acts 14:16-17, NAS}

(1) Prior to Christ, God allowed nations to go their own way. What does that mean?

(2) [Implication] After Christ, God does not allow nations to go their own way. What does that mean?

(3)  Is God more righteous in #1 or #2? Is God more loving in #1 or #2?

Discuss amongst yourselves.

God’s compassion for Lot

Today’s Bible reading had me in Genesis 19. Two quick reflections concerning Lot’s salvation:

(1) “Lot hesitated” in the face of certain destruction but was saved (in spite of himself) because “the compassion of the Lord was on him” (Gen 19:16). I can identify with Lot more than I would ever want to admit. Shamefully reluctant to abandon the domain of sin while God compassionately compels me to find joy in another place.

(2) God’s compassion for Lot is a result of Abraham interceding on his behalf (Gen 16:19 cf. 18:22ff). How much of God’s compassion toward me is due to the faithful prayers of my parents (& grandparents)? I want to pray for my kids like they prayed for me.

Observing 1Sam 7 — What sorrow is this?

Israel was being Israel. It’s doubtful that there was ever a time when she was whole-heartedly devoted to the Lord.

1 Samuel 7:2-4 From the day that the ark remained at Kiriath-jearim, the time was long, for it was twenty years; and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD. Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying, “If you return to the LORD with all your heart, remove the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your hearts to the LORD and serve Him alone; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.” So the sons of Israel removed the Baals and the Ashtaroth and served the LORD alone.

The Philistine domination of Israel (chpts 4-6) coupled with the Lord’s judgment on the people of Beth-shemesh (6:19-21) scarred the national psyche. As a result, Israel is said to have “lamented after the Lord” for twenty years (7:2). Since this Hebrew verb (and corrsponding noun) is used to signify the kind of mourning that accompanies a tragic loss (see Jer 9:17-19; Ezek 32:18; Micah 2:4), it seems safe to say that Israel was convinced that she had lost the Lord. Even though the ark’s return to Israel signified the Lord’s return to the land (see 6:20), the people still labored under a sense of divine opprobrium.

Twenty years is a suprisingly long time to lament after the Lord without any kind of response unless you take into account the people’s continued dalliance with their idols. In that case, what’s surprising is that the people needed a prophet to state the obvious: remove the idols, return to the Lord, and all will be made right.

It’s tempting, and not entirely unreasonable, to interpret Israel’s duplicity as an OT example of what Paul calls worldly sorrow (2Cor 7:10). That is, Israel was more concerned with what she had lost—possessions, security, status—than who she had lost. While there might be something to this line of thinking, it’s hard to square with the text’s assertion that the people lamented after the Lord.

Another approach would be to read 1Samuel 7 in light of Ezekiel 20:

“I said to them, ‘Cast away, each of you, the detestable things of his eyes, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.’ 8 “But they rebelled against Me and were not willing to listen to Me; they did not cast away the detestable things of their eyes, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt. (20:7-8)

“Also I swore to them in the wilderness that I would not bring them into the land which I had given them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands, 16 because they rejected My ordinances, and as for My statutes, they did not walk in them; they even profaned My sabbaths, for their heart continually went after their idols. (20:15-16)

“When I had brought them into the land which I swore to give to them, then they saw every high hill and every leafy tree, and they offered there their sacrifices and there they presented the provocation of their offering. There also they made their soothing aroma and there they poured out their drink offerings. (20:28)

Reading 1Samuel in isolation, we feel as if we’re coming across a unique instance of spiritual dimwittedness; but Ezekiel indicates that this supposed anomaly was, in fact, the norm for a nation with divided loyalties. Israel was being Israel. It’s doubtful that there was ever a time when she was whole-heartedly devoted to the Lord.

With the added light from Ezekiel 20, I take away three reminders from 1Samuel 7.

First, God is (unfathomably) “slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6). So much so that “if we are faithless he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2Tim 2:13). My apathetic and guilt-ridden heart needs to hear and believe these truths.

Second, God’s promise of forgiveness isn’t conditioned on perfect penitence. If his forgiveness depends on the quality of my repentance, there is no forgiveness to be had. God help me, I need to repent of my repentance!

Third, in God’s economy one day of repentance is more than sufficient for twenty years of habitual sin because one sacrifice was sufficient for all sin (Rom 3:21-25).

Observing 1Sam 4–6—YHWH in exile

1 Samuel 4:10-11 So the Philistines fought and Israel was defeated, and every man fled to his tent; and the slaughter was very great, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. And the ark of God was taken . . .

In his commentary on 1-2 Samuel, Peter Leithart makes an interesting observation concerning the capture of the ark and its transport to Philistine country:

According to Deuteronomy 28:64ff, the climactic curse of the covenant was the curse of exile. If Israel persisted in idolatry and sin after the Lord brought all the other curses upon her, He would eventually cast her from the land. This was the curse looming in the background in the days of Eli, but this is not what happened. Instead of Israel going into exile, the ark did. Yahweh went into exile, taking on the curse of the covenant for His people and while in exile He fought for them and defeated the gods of Philistia. Israel suffered humiliating defeat at [the] hands of Philistines, but Yahweh shared in their humiliation, and by taking the most intense weight of that humiliation upon Himself, triumphed over the principalities and powers and rulers of the age. [A Son to Me, 56]

Leithart, of course, would have us recognize that this demonstration of solidarity and substitution in the time of Samuel was a foreshadowing the greater triumph that would come when God, this time in the form of a man, was once again handed over to the enemy.

Luke 18:32 For He will be handed over to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon

Acts 2:23 this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.

Galatians 3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us– for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE ”

Colossians 2:13-15
When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.

Hebrews 2:14-15
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.

But the glory of the victory stands against the bleak backdrop of God’s people who bear a discomforting resemblance to the Philistines. Both the Philistines and the Israelites are said to be “struck” down by the Lord when the ark comes to town (5:6, 9, 12 cf 6:19), and both groups remove God from their midst rather than repent before Him. Credit the Israelites for having the sophistication to dress their response in the religious lingo of the day, but ultimately there isn’t much difference between God’s people and their pagan neighbors. Some days it seems that not much has changed.

 

Observing 1Sam 3—Seeing with the ears

1 Samuel 3:1, 21 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD before Eli. And word from the LORD was rare in those days, visions were infrequent. . . . And the LORD appeared again at Shiloh, because the LORD revealed Himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD.

The word of the Lord forms an inclusio for 1Samuel 3, providing us with a framework in which to read the account of Samuel’s call. The story is replete with the kind of vocabulary we would expect in a passage given to the word of the Lord: calling, speaking, listening, tingling ears, etc.

But there are three instances where terms associated with sight appear:

“And word from the Lord was rare in those days, visions [Heb, chazon] were infrequent.” (3:1)

“But Samuel was afraid to tell the vision [Heb, marah] to Eli.” (3:15)

“And the Lord appeared [Heb, raah] again at Shiloh because the Lord revealed Himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.” (3:21)

This strikes me as curious since the text never says that Samuel “saw the Lord” nor does it provide a description of a vision as we might expect. It’s entirely possible that Samuel did, in fact, see something that night but the framing statements (vv 1, 21) seem to point in a different direction.

The last sentence in 3:1, has an almost poetic quality to it that borders on synonymous parallelism:

word of the Lord was rare
visions were infrequent

In fact, the Hebrew chazon (vision) is frequently used to signify a revelation without any indication of something seen, particularly in prophetic contexts (see Isa 1:1; Obadiah 1:1; Nahum 1:1; Hab 2:2-3). After surveying the background and use of the chazon root, the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament concludes:

Its primary meaning is a form of revelation . . . consisting in nocturnal perception of a divine voice during a deep sleep. . . . The verb was also used in the sense of perceiving God and his works, undoubtedly from the realization that in the prophetic experience the word refers to a kind of perception, i.e., hearing God. . . . Only rarely is seeing with the eyes meant. [TDOT 4:290]

So if we have good reason to understand vision along the lines of perception rather than literal sight, what are we to make of 3:21 which states that “the Lord appeared again at Shiloh?” The answer here is a little more obvious on closer reading. The Lord is said to have appeared because he revealed himself by the word of the Lord. God is where his word is.

None of this is to deny the biblical accounts of dreams and visions, but it’s a great reminder that the word of the Lord is no mere consolation prize and that anyone who would see the Lord must see him through his Word. And if God is to be seen by his word, what visions must now be available to us (Psa 119:18; Jn 1:14, 18; 2Cor 4:6; 2Pet 1:19)?

 

 

Observing 1 Sam 2:12-36—Worthless sons

1 Samuel 2:25 But [Hophni and Phineas] would not listen to the voice of their father [Eli], for the LORD desired to put them to death.

The warning falls on deaf ears because the Lord intended to judge the offenders. A good reminder that rejection isn’t always a sign of a defective message and/or messenger (Jn 12:37-40; 2Cor 4:3-4).

1 Samuel 2:29-30 ‘Why do you kick at My sacrifice and at My offering which I have commanded in My dwelling, and honor your sons above Me, by making yourselves fat with the choicest of every offering of My people Israel?’ “Therefore the LORD God of Israel declares, ‘I did indeed say that your house and the house of your father should walk before Me forever’; but now the LORD declares, ‘Far be it from Me– for those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me will be lightly esteemed.

The interaction between Eli and his sons is hard to assess: (i) did Eli only rebuke his sons for their sexual immorality (1Sam 2:22-25) but ignore their abuse of the sacrifices (1Sam 2:12-17)? (ii) Was the apparent rebuke in 2:23-25 not an actual rebuke (3:13)? Eli doesn’t condone his sons behavior but he’s held responsible for it. I take it that Eli’s guilt was due to his unwillingness to take action against his sons. I wonder how much of our “speaking against” sin will be judged meaningless because we fail to follow through with action or, conversely, how much of our love and acceptance will turn out to be a cover for despising the Lord. On this point I’m only thinking of how the church disciplines its own (1Cor 5:12-13).

1 Samuel 2:35 ‘But I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest who will do according to what is in My heart and in My soul; and I will build him an enduring house, and he will walk before My anointed always.

The language about the Lord building an enduring house for his priest is mirrored in 2 Samuel when the Lord says he will build an enduring house for his king (see 2Sam 7:16, 26-27). Negatively, Eli’s house finds a counterpart in Saul’s house as both men see their respective offices taken from them and their descendants. But where sin abounds grace abounds all the more. God will not purge the priesthood and the throne only to leave it vacant. God’s people need more than just a good priest and king; they need those righteous office holders to be permanent and enduring. But where an endless succession of priests and kings exists, God’s people can have no garauntee of unending righteousness. This realization is one of the reasons we can confidently say that all of God’s good promises become better promises when the fulfillment is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. The Son has been appointed to the office of priest and king and becomes the righteous minister and ruler they need. More than that, because he cannot die, this new Priest-King needs no successor so that God’s people no longer fear the loss of what they now enjoy (see Psa 110 and Heb 5:5-6).

Observing 1Sam 2:1-10 — Hannah’s song

When poetry is embedded in narrative literature we ought to consider two things: (1) what the poem means on its own terms in conjunction with the present setting of the story (2) what, if any, significance the poem carries for the broader storyline.

First, Hannah’s song signifies her turn from sorrow to joy as barrenness gives way to birth. More than that, it ties theology to life as we consider how the outcome of Hannah’s circumstances reveal God’s work and his ways.

The Lord makes poor and rich / He brings low, He also exalts. (2:7)

The song’s theme is God’s reversing of human fortune. Weak are made strong, hungry are fed, and the godly are preserved while the wicked are shattered, the full beg for bread, and the mighty are rendered impotent.  In fact, this sovereign upending of the “natural” order is an outworking of God’s holiness (i.e. no one is like Him in this respect; 2:2). Hannah has come to see firsthand that the Lord favors His godly ones who are characteristically despised by the world (1:6-7). And as the Lord will later say through Isaiah, “I act and who can reverse it?”

My horn is exalted in the Lord (2:1) . . . [He] will exalt the horn of His anointed (2:10)

The poem is framed by the repetition of the Lord exalting a *horn (a structural feature known as an inclusio). The movement within this framework starts with a specific act (vv1-3) to a generalizing pattern (vv4-7) back to a specific act (vv8-10). It’s as if Hannah is saying:

{Specific} “Look at what the Lord has done for me.
{General} But isn’t this just like the Lord? He’s always doing this kind of work.
{Specific}And I trust that he’ll do this for His king, too.”

Similar examples of this pattern can be found in other poetic passages (see Psa 34) and it’s worth considering how these examples might shape the content of our worship, particularly in prayer.

Second, Hannah’s song encompasses more than the first two chapters as it establishes a recurring theme/pattern in 1Samuel. With an increasing degree of drama, we move from one rivalry to another: Peninah–Hannah / Eli & Sons–Samuel / Saul–David. In each case, the “established” character is supplanted by a character of lesser status by a sovereign work of the Lord. Even the great king, David himself, is a virtual nobody until the Lord raises him up to sit on the throne.

 


*The literal image of the horn is of an animal horn. Generally speaking, an animal’s horn signified its strength and so became a metaphor for power or status in a social context. (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, 400)