Friday, June 23

Covenental Reality

Here's the background for my previous post, which was a response to a friend of a friend who wrote an email about the Proverbs 31 woman. His contention was that the Old Testament promises are under a different covenant and therefore don't apply to us.

The Old Testament describes a series of covenants that God makes with his people--Noah, Abram, Moses, and David. In each he reveals more and more of his character and nature, and how he relates to people. The covenant with Noah clearly extends to all of us, as Noah's descendants. The covenant with Abraham is for the Jewish people, but explicitly states that all the nations will be blessed (or will bless themselves) by Israel.

The covenant with Moses is more specifically confined to the Jewish people, but it is fulfilled in Jesus. Thus the food laws, forbidding of intermarriage, and so on are abolished because the law had served its purpose once the Messiah came. Other parts of the law (sacrifices for sins, for example) are fulfilled once and for all for the whole world in Jesus Christ.

The covenant to David is to a specific family and tribe within Israel, but is a blessing to all of Israel. The Psalms and the prophets make clear that all the nations will stream to God's holy mountain, and that God's King will reign and bless all the peoples. Again, Jesus fulfills this covenant by becoming the King who sits on David's throne forever.

The surprise in the unfolding of God's will (according to Paul, Eph. 1-2) is that all peoples are united in Christ, that God's Kingdom is for everyone, not just those who become part of the Jewish nation. Paul's language is that the Gentiles are grafted into the olive tree (Romans 9-11)--we become a part of the Jewish nation in one sense, we are true children of Abraham, both uncircumcised and circumcised (Rom 4:11-12), and therefore his heirs.

So I believe most of the promises of the Old Testament are extended to those of us who are Gentiles, as we become descendants of Abraham by faith, as the law is fulfilled in us through Christ, and as we are the subjects of our King, the Son of David.

I think we can also see how easily those promises were misinterpreted by the Jewish people before Jesus came, who often thought that all the promises were here and now material blessings. Many of those promises were material but had a deeper meaning as well--an eternal, ultimate fulfillment. But in Christ the mysteries of God's will were revealed. The promises to inherit the land were not meant ultimately to be restricted to the Jewish nation possessing a small strip of land in the fertile crescent, but as Jesus put it, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." We will "recieve a hundred-fold now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, along with persecutions, and in the age to come, eternal life." God will create a new heaven and new earth, and we will reign and rule with Jesus Christ.

I have recently learned that there were a variety of kinds of covenants practiced in the ancient world among the Hittites and other people groups around Israel, and that these various covenants above (Noah, Abram, Moses, David) follow the patterns of different kinds of covenants. Some are treaty covenants with a sovereign king, which promise protection and require tribute to be paid. Others are between families or individuals. Some are permanently binding on either party even if the other reneges, while others are out of effect if either party breaks the vows.

I am deeply intrigued and want to look into this more. Somehow, God is so relational that one of God's fundamental forms of interacting with us, his creatures, is a relational one: covenants.

That Amazing Woman!

A friend of a friend wrote an email about the Proverbs 31 woman. His contention was that the Old Testament promises are under a different covenant and therefore don't apply to us. Here's my response, in two parts. First, I'll post my response specifically to Proverbs 31. Second, I'll post the background for that answer, my take on understanding the covenants of God.

As far as Proverbs 31, here is my response.

I completely agree that we need to take the cultural context and the time into account as we seek (1) to understand the text and (2) to apply it to our own situation.

Culturally at the time, my understanding is that the Jewish woman was honored in a way radically different from the surrounding cultures. The pagan worship of the surrounding nations focused on fertility rites and reduced women to the 3 roles of untouchable virgin, spiritual prostitute, or bearer of children. In other words she was reduced primarily to a sexual being and to a few functions--temple prostitute or propagator of the family.

Proverbs 31 praises very different virtues in a woman! Integrity, wisdom, vision, foresight, shrewd management both of people and finances are applauded and held up as a model to aspire to.

What a dramatic statement in that context! Jewish women were to be honored as grandmothers and mothers, and ultimately as created in God's image. Both Genesis 1 and 2 go out of their way to emphasize the sameness between male and female. Those texts don't erase the unique distinctions but highlight the similarities: in Genesis 1 both together reflect the image of God, and in Genesis 2 language of "bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh," the terms "woman" and "man" ("ishah" and "ish") and the contrast between the creation of the animals and the woman all highlight the connection and the equal standing. Genesis 3 continues this as God dialogues with both the woman and the man (he doesn't dialogue with the serpent) individually. Both are moral agents who God relates to directly, and who bear the consequences of their choices.

Proverbs 31 highlights what that looks like in a particular context. A woman is a worthy companion to a man, spiritually, intellectually, economically, and so on.

This is reflected in other ways in the Old Testament, as well. In the laws given to Israel and promoted by the prophets, God forbids goddess worship, female sexual images (Ashera statues) as well as male (Baal statues), and brings judgment upon Israel for placing those kinds of images in the Temple and creating other shrines to them. Male-female relationships are to be radically different among God's people.

Jesus, of course, continues that in the New Testament. He violates all kinds of cultural taboos within Jewish and Samaritan culture, in interacting with women as disciples (Mary & Martha, Joanna and Susanna, and so on) and revealing himself as the Messiah first of all to a woman, and a Samaritan at that. He clearly has an agenda with regard to smashing dividing walls of hostility along the lines of ethnicity and nationality as well as gender.

The contrast is even more striking in the pagan culture Paul interacts with. Here, women are not elevated as in the Jewish culture. So Paul taking Aquila and Priscilla as disciples, referring to Junia as an apostle and many other women as coworkers would stand out. Clearly he's at great pains to have Christian women avoid being seen in any way like women adherents of other religions (temple prostitutes, who would exercise spiritual/sexual power over men). So they should not braid their hair or dress in any way like a prostitute. Rather they are to marry and have children, and continue in faith (1 Timothy 2). Paul also to commands Timothy to let women learn in church and teach them how to do so, in stark contrast to the culture which saw women as unfit intellectually, where an educated woman was an anomaly. He allowed women to participate in worship services, both praying and prophesying alongside the men (1 Cor. 11), though not in ways which would be disruptive (1 Cor. 14).

To apply Proverbs 31 today, then, I would say we clearly must avoid reducing a woman to the roles of sexual object or child-bearing. As disciples of Jesus we have different standards of success and different goals than the culture around us. We need to honor women and hold up a model of womanhood which honors every dimension of being created in God's image--integrity, wisdom, vision, foresight, and shrewd management both of people and finances certainly fall into that category.

But how those are lived out and the fruits of those today will look quite different than in the Jewish culture. Then a woman's success largely reflected on her husband, and he was honored in the community. Nowadays that is much less the case. Today it is common and often acceptable for women to neglect their families for the sake of career, which has been common for men for at least the past century. Godly parents, in contrast, will not sacrifice children to the gods of the culture. In their culture, they literally sacrificed their children to Molech, by burning them to death. In our culture, the gods that we may sacrifice our children to include education, money, and status. I think the challenge in our culture is even stronger for men because men have been applauded for workaholism and neglecting everything for career, but women are more susceptible to this temptation today than ever before.

Today marriages are also sacrificed. Divorce is common, with money and work sometimes contributing seriously. Also, many wives and husbands live apart because of separate careers. I know there are some very complex situations some families face, and there aer no one-size-fits-all answers. But in general, I tend to think that, especially when children are involved, both men and women should work as hard as possible to keep the family together as in Proverbs 31.

As Christians we know we'll be hated by the world, yet we are to live honorably and give no one a reason to accuse us. So women as well as men need work hard with integrity and wisdom, working to bless others and live commendable lives.

Proverbs 31 certainly has many more applications, but those are few. I am eager to hear any thoughts you may have!