I am listening to the audio book of Robert Alters award winning translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Alter is an American Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature and published the full work with commentary in 2018. It seeks to render as much as possible the often poetic and lyrical nature of the text that has been left out of modern translations of the Bible. It is immensely enjoyable and has an excellent Commentary. At the moment I am in Deuteronomy and I thought I would share some of the verses I have been hearing.
1) You shall not plough with an ox and a donkey yoked together. Deut 22:10
2) You shall not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together. Deut 22:11
3) No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Deut 23:1
I can tell you, lyrical or not, listening to a verse on a crushed testicle was just painful! But why does God talk about which animals should be yoked? Is this supposed to be an Almanac? Why is He bothered about which material of garment the Israelites wore; and why, why did He feel the need to even mention what is in 23:1??
To us, many aspects of the Bible is difficult to understand, especially the laws found in Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Numbers. It is from these books we quite often get quoted rather difficult passages about how God wanted the Israelites to deal with the inhabitants of Canaan and of course the treatment of sins like Adultery or the use of Slavery.
It is therefore useful to take a breathe and repeat this mantra: A Text without a Context is a Pretext. Context is everything. To the Hebrew hearing this Law, most of it, I am sure will have made the upmost sense. Some of it will have been common across the Near East but many other aspects have a particular focus on what God was doing when He chose the Hebrews as His people. What would have been unknown in that region at that time was the idea of One God. Monotheism is the great gift the Jewish nation has bestowed upon our world. It is therefore important to realise what we see recorded in the Scriptures is God forming a nation to follow Him and ultimately be a testimony to the World, providing the Messiah to save us all. The Bible, every word, is inspired by God, so every word has something spiritually profitable for us to gain.
So to demonstrate let us first look at the verses in chapter 22.
In very broad terms this is a prohibition against mixing. One of the mega themes of the bible as a whole and in Church teaching is consecration or being set apart from the world. God when He chose the Hebrews was setting them apart from the rest of the nations to bless them; then when the time was right, He came to redeem all peoples through Christ our Lord who was the ‘root of Jesse’. In 1 Peter 2 we learn that we are ‘chosen’ and a ‘holy people’. We follow Jesus’ words and know that we might be in the world but we are not of the world. We are not to follow the idols of our culture but worship only God. By ‘mixing’ we are effectively following the world in terms of how we should think, act toward others and even feel about God Himself. One cannot love money and God. We cannot have faith without works. How can we love God with all our heart and all our soul if we mix it up with love of the world?
How about the crushed Testicles and the cut off… (I can’t even type that, I am wincing)? Firstly, there is a prohibition here relating to marriage. Coming into the assembly means marrying a Jewish woman. Procreation is another great theme in the Bible and one we all know as Catholics is misunderstood by wider society today. God made Sex as a self-giving act between a man and a woman and for it to be fruitful in myriad ways but very much so in terms of children. In the Near East at this time, for a woman to have children brought great security and was a sign of blessing on her from God. Look at Hannah or Sarah or even Lots daughters - this was serious business.
It also was to discourage a practise of castrating oneself for spiritual promotion in the Temple and even went as far as banning castrated animals for Sacrifice. Recent Rabbinic discussion does provide a caveat for those who have suffered illness and injury and also makes provision for those who married with everything attached only to loose it later in the above manner. What is our takeaway here – these verses feed into our theology of the body in regards contraception and getting the snip! Amongst other implications!
I will not pretend to you I am some bible scholar, there is a lot more in all of this, but I just wanted to demonstrate that the reading of the Bible and indeed many Church documents requires a careful and prayerful approach alongside the interpretations of the Church through its magisterium. By proceeding through them in love and care we can gain great insight for our walk with God.
The Coracle has highlighted many great websites and people who can help us in our journey of understanding. They are just a click (not a snip) away.