beetles, shaved heads and "that time of the month": a look at biblical pragmatism

date header separator

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

beetles, shaved heads and "that time of the month": a look at biblical pragmatism

biblical pragmatism

let’s talk menstruation, shall we?

ok, so we can talk about more than that, but certainly, it does play a part. we’ll get to that later, though.

in the meantime, how about a little biblical interpretation to tide us over?

people often view the bible as some kind of transcendent record of endless grandiose, sacred moments. sure enough, the bible has plenty of that. still others view it as a collection of normative codes and rules for christian living. sure enough, the bible has plenty of that, also.

but one way that many people fail to see scripture—particularly the historical accounts of the old testament—is a collection of pragmatic instruction in a specific context. reading through the book of leviticus, for instance, can be a slog, to be honest. it’s hard not just to read through it, but even moreso to glean some sort of benefit or connection to the god described as love. quite frankly, reading through some of the passages of law in the hebrew scriptures makes you genuinely question why god would come up with such, at times, seemingly misogynistic and absurd instructions.

until you understand the context.

you see, god, among other things, is a pragmatic god. that isn’t to suggest that the levitical laws and much of the historical accounts throughout scripture don’t convey a certain theological gravitas, but it is to say that sometimes, god simply guided his people in practical, matter-of-fact ways. you have to remember that leviticus (to stick with that particular example) is a collection of laws to a very specific people in a very specific context. you have a group of israelites who were roaming in the wilderness with very primitive modes of cooking, cleaning and living. so many of the dietary laws, for example, were practical instructions to avoid disease and death and poor health.

a couple years ago, author a.j. jacobs released a best-selling book called the year of living biblically: one man’s humble quest to follow the bible as literally as possible. in essence, he set out to determine every single law that is laid forth in scripture and attempt to follow them as literally as possible over the course of the year. so, if he met an adulterer, he had to stone him (with small pebbles). he didn’t wear mixed fibers. he didn’t spill his, um, seed, in inappropriate ways. it was a fascinating look by an outsider (he was/is “culturally” jewish) at the spirit and nature of the bible.

the other day, i stumbled across a little piece he wrote while thinking about the issues of biblical pragmatism. his piece laid out 5 biblical rules that are head-scratchers for most people. he did a great job of articulating the laws and offering some explanations. most of all, he did a good, concise job of conveying the pragmatic (and loving, caring) nature of these laws. so, instead of laying it all out myself, i thought i would share his short piece here:

1. THE RULE: “…she shall put the rainment of her capitivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month; and after that thou shalt go in unto her and be her husband…” (from Deuteronomy 21:10-14)

THE TRANSLATION: If you capture a beautiful woman during war, and you want to marry her, you must first have her shave her head and trim her nails. Then you must live with her for a month without touching her. After that, she’s all yours.

POSSIBLE EXPLANATION: Think of it like gun control-it’s a mandatory waiting period. If you still want to marry a bald, short-nailed woman after a month of no sex, then maybe it truly is love.

2. THE RULE: “Even these of them ye may eat: the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind. / But all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination unto you.” (Leviticus 11:22-23)

THE TRANSLATION: You can’t eat bugs. Well, except for locusts, beetles, and grasshoppers-those you can eat all you want.

POSSIBLE EXPLANATION: A ban on eating bugs isn’t all that hard to argue with, but why the loophole for locusts et al.? It’s believed that this is actually an example of the Bible’s pragmatism. If locusts swarmed and devoured all the crops, the Israelites would have nothing left to eat-except the locusts themselves.

3. THE RULE: “…thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed; neither shall a garment of mingled linen and woolen come upon thee.” (Leviticus 19:19)

THE TRANSLATION: Don’t wear clothes made of mixed fibers. Wool-and-linen blends are particularly bad. Polycotton is probably OK.

POSSIBLE EXPLANATION: The Old Testament was obsessed with separating things. (Don’t wear mixed fibers; don’t mix milk and meat.) According to many biblical scholars, the idea was to drill the notion of separation into the ancient Israelite mind. This way, they would remain separate from the pagans and not intermarry-a sin even worse than mixing wool and linen.

4. THE RULE: “And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days; and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.” (Leviticus 15: 19)

THE TRANSLATION: Stay away from a woman if she’s menstruating. She’s impure, and if you touch her, you’ll become impure, too.

POSSIBLE EXPLANATION: While many people say this rule is misogynistic (kind of like the theological equivalent of cooties), some scholars and devout Jews defend the practice. They say it has to do with reverence for life. When a woman has her period, it’s like a small death. A potential life has vanished, and this is a way of paying your respects.

5. THE RULE: “A naughty person, a wicked man, walketh with a froward mouth. He winketh with his eyes…” (Proverbs 6: 12-13)

THE TRANSLATION: No winking. This is just one example, but the Bible contains no less than four anti-winking passages.

POSSIBLE EXPLANATION: Many believe that the Bible’s “wink” referred to a tacit approval of evil. As in “I saw what you did, but I won’t tell.” But let’s face it; the wink is a creepy gesture, no matter how you cut it.

god is a god of love and even in these seemingly absurd laws, we see that…if we understand the context. when we understand the pragmatic nature of much of scripture, it unlocks a whole new way in which we’re able to engage in the beautiful, pragmatic, transcendent story of god.