You’re the Ranger, not Ford Motor Company

Recently I quoted John 14:15 (If you love me, you will keep my commandments.) in an online forum and an atheist troll replied with Deuteronomy 25:11-12 (If two men, a man and his countryman, are struggling together, and the wife of one comes near to deliver her husband from the hand of the one who is striking him, and puts out her hand and seizes his genitals, then you shall cut off her hand; you shall not show pity.).

Now, unless I’m in the mood for a fight, I know better than to feed the trolls, so I didn’t respond to him. But even though I know he’s a troll, he has a good point.

As our Creator, God gets to decide what's best for us.God commands quite a few things in Torah that don’t set lightly with most Westerners today. If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them rescues her husband by striking or seizing the other man’s testicles, should we cut off her hand? If a man is caught with another man’s wife, should we drag them both out to the city gates and stone them to death? Should we execute rebellious teenagers?

It all seems a little harsh, doesn’t it? This is a very common and understandable reaction to God’s commands.

Before I say anything else, let me make this clear: God is the judge of right and wrong, not us. Since he created everything, he also gets to define everything, including love and hate. If God says this is love and that is hate, then that’s just the way it is. Get used to it.

Fortunately God isn’t arbitrary. He does everything in good order and with good reason, even though he doesn’t always tell us what his reasons are. If God says that stoning a rebellious son is the loving thing to do, then we can be sure he’s right and that we just don’t have enough information to judge.

Most people who reflexively raise these points as reasons not to obey God are missing one or more (usually many more) pieces of relevant data.

Take this sentence, for example, without punctuation and context.

Lets go eat grandma

You can’t tell from reading that sentence if someone is inviting grandma to eat lunch with them or inviting someone else to eat grandma for lunch. Translators encounter this kind of problem all the time. Hebrew can be especially difficult because the original biblical Hebrew doesn’t have punctuation or vowel markings, and we are separated from the original writers and audiences by thousands of years. Translators have to rely very heavily on contextual clues and traditional interpretations to understand what any given passage is actually saying.

One passage very commonly quoted as an example of Biblical unreasonableness is “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” etc., but how many quoters could actually tell you where it is written in Scripture? It’s actually in several places within the Torah, and the most common interpretation of all of them among both Jewish and Christian theologians throughout the ages is that the lex talionis (law of retaliation) was never meant to be applied literally. It describes a system of tallying monetary restitution, not physical retaliation.

Another common objection is to the stoning of the rebellious youth. This too, is usually cited by people who have probably never read the original passage, let alone attempted to understand it. If they had taken the time to examine the source, they would have discovered that the conditions demanded by Torah before a son could be executed for “rebellion” are quite stringent and that both parents must be agreed that the action is necessary. The requirements are so stringent, in fact, that this trial and punishment have probably never been carried out in all the history of ancient Israel. (See here for further discussion.)

“But what about slavery?” They will inevitably object. Yes, God’s Law allows for slavery, but it doesn’t encourage it and places some restrictions on it that make it a very different kind of institution than what existed in antebellum America and still exists in much of the non-Western world today. For example, Hebrew slaves must be released after 6 years ,and if a master broke so much as a single tooth of a slave, the slave must be set free.

I could address all of the rest of Torah’s presumed draconian requirements, but each and every one would prove to be of the same sort, misunderstandings caused by ignorance and hearsay.

In the end, God created us and knows what we need. If love consists of doing what is best for someone, who knows better what is best, the Creator or the created? If you’re not sure of the answer, then I suggest you ask your auto mechanic who knows best how to service a Ford Ranger, the Ford Motor Company or the Ranger.

Wise Choices Early in Life Make Happier, Stronger Families

A parallelism in Deuteronomy 20-21
A parallelism in Deuteronomy 20-21

The starts and stops of this parallelism mark it off pretty clearly, but some of the details might be difficult for some to see.

The second half (Deuteronomy 21:10-23) is a progression from what was probably a bad decision to its tragic consequences: A man captures a woman in a raid on a foreign city and decides to keep her. She’s not to keen on the idea and makes life unbearable for him. Their son learns from his mother and becomes a serious problem. At some point either the son has to be killed or he ends up killing someone else.

The first half (Deuteronomy 20:1-21:9) contains separate laws by itself, but the parallelism provides insight into what it’s like living in the crazy house with the captive war bride and her rebellious son. Besieging a foreign city (or being besieged by foreigners) probably isn’t very different from living with a woman you hate & who likely returns your antipathy. Besieging a city of idolaters within your own borders must be something like trying to correct a rebellious and stubborn son before finally giving him up as hopeless and deciding it/he must be excised like a cancer.

The really curious part to me is the reversal towards the end. Why does part one go from trees to an unsolved murder, while part two goes from a solved murder to trees? Perhaps because in the former case the subject acted wisely and preserved the fruit of the land (his children), while in the latter, through foolishness, he turned the rightful order of life on its head and converted his life-giving trees/sons into instruments of death.

The Cause & Stoning of a Rebel

The Making of a Rebellious SonDeuteronomy 21:10-23, like so many passages in the Torah, at first appears to be a random assemblage of rules. When you look closer, however, you might see a pattern emerge:

V10-14 – A man marries a beautiful woman who was captured in war.
V15 – The man now has two wives, one loved and one unloved.
V16-19 – The son of the unloved wife is also unloved.
V20-23 – The unloved son rebels against his father, turns to crime, and eventually becomes a murderer.

A man has gone out to war and returned home with an exceptionally beautiful woman whose entire family has been killed. She has every reason in the world to hate him, and the wife who was waiting for him at home during the campaign is not likely to be pleased either. The man doesn’t love his first wife or it’s very likely he wouldn’t have wanted the second one, certainly not under these circumstances. Competition, complication, and soon: domestic conflagration.

He follows this unwise decision by diminishing the inheritance of his first wife’s (or second, the text isn’t specific) innocent son who responds by rebelling against the rule of both his parents, eventually resorting to crime.

There are two pieces of evidence that point to the prodigal being very young.

First, the character of a grown man isn’t likely to be terribly effected by his father’s foolish decisions. The character of a child, however, can be scarred, strengthened, or warped beyond repair by experiences early in life.

Second, the Jewish sages say that the law concerning stoning a rebellious son was intended to take the boy out of the world before he does something, like murder, that would place his soul beyond all hope. Hence, it would only apply during a six-month twilight of adolescence between childhood, during which time he would not be held responsible for his criminal behavior, and adulthood, when he would be fully accountable for his own actions.*

I’m not convinced the sages were correct in their assessment of the law’s applicability, but I agree that the placement of that command towards the end of this domestic downward spiral indicates that the first domino was toppled by the boy’s father and not by the boy himself. This doesn’t excuse him. The murderer or adulterer or homosexual in verse 22 is still to be executed for his own crimes regardless of what his father did or didn’t do.

The thing I want you to take away from this, the most important thing that is not even written in the text, is that the consequences of your behavior as a man or woman even in the earliest stages of your marriage–indeed even before you marry at all–will ripple through generations of your descendants.

Be very careful in choosing a mate. “Listen to your heart” sounds honest and sweet, but it might be the most foolish advice anyone has ever given. (On the other hand, anyone who takes advice from pop singers probably deserves his fate.) Don’t marry the first girl who bats her eyelashes at you or the first boy who tells you he loves you. Don’t rely only on your own judgment, but seek out counsel from the elders of your community, from people with many more years of experience and wisdom. Your urges, your instincts, your “heart” is far more likely to lead you to destruction than to happiness.

Being in love is wonderful, but marrying someone just because you’re in love is stupid and selfish. The great secret that none of those pop stars will tell you is that you can choose to fall in love and you can choose to allow yourself to fall out of love again. Physical attraction is important, of course, and requires a certain amount of raw material to work with, but beyond the mere physical, it takes work to build a quality relationship and it takes even more to maintain it. If you aren’t willing to carry some heavy burdens, my advice to you is don’t even start down the road.

Don’t try to be ready for marriage and family before you start. You will never be ready for marriage or children or any other great thing in life until you are well into it, maybe not until it’s long over. Rather, get used to the idea that you won’t be strolling through flowery meadows ever after. There will be cliffs and rivers and mountains to cross. You’ll need determination, and more than anything, you’ll need a map and good directions.

Your stupid decisions today could be devastating for your children ten or thirty years from now. Keep your eyes and ears open, and walk prayerfully.

* Incidentally, the rabbis also say that there has never been an occassion to put this law to use.

The Heart of Every Enduring Civilization

If we value our nation, our civilization, we must protect the institutions that are common to all strong, enduring peoples, especially marriage.

No sane and knowledgeable person disputes the fact that the nuclear family is at the core of all civilized society. From Israel to China to Britain, every civilization that stood for more than mere decades codified the defense of marriage in their laws. When those civilizations reached their heights and began to suffer all the depredations of pride, they disregarded the sanctity of marriage. Temple prostitution, homosexuality, divorce… They each began to fall. You can’t chisel away the structural support of a building and expect the walls and roof to remain intact for long.

If we value our nation, our civilization, we must protect the institutions that are common to all strong, enduring peoples:

  • Rule of Law
  • Family and Community
  • Cohesive Religion
  • Marriage

Most importantly, marriage.

And I do not mean the equalitarian business partnership which that word seems to bring to mind for most modern Americans. I mean the only form of marriage that has proven itself throughout history as the nucleus of strong families, communities, and nations. The kind of marriage instituted by God, not by men, women, and lawyers.

God’s Law (the Torah, the first five books of the Bible) tells us how God intended marriage to be, and His intentions were not politically correct. Marriage in God’s plan is patriarchal, fertile, and strong. In today’s America marriage is equalitarian, barren, and frail, a very weak support indeed for such a large and diverse nation.

The requirements of God’s Law aren’t always easy. They aren’t always what we would want. But they are always right because God is always right. He knows you and every other person at a deeper level, more intimate and thorough than we or any therapist could ever hope to realize. If we are uncomfortable with God’s prescriptions for healthy relationships, perhaps the problem is not with the Doctor, but with the patient.

If we are to restore a robust and enduring America, then it’s far past time to put God’s plan for marriage ahead of our own. It’s time to get back to the basics and relearn what we once knew about relationships, about men and women and the very core of a strong nation.

I’ll Take That Texas

Texas Longhorn

I always enjoyed my visits to Texas because of how friendly everyone was. Everyone smiles, says hello, and is very polite.

Then I moved here, started a computer support business from nothing, and relearned that people everywhere can be rude, conniving, and generally unpleasant.

This morning on my way into town I noticed a stray cow–a big Texas longhorn–that was standing on the shoulder of the highway with cars passing by at 70 to 80 mph. Sensing disaster not too far in the future, I grabbed my phone to call the police. Before I could flip the phone open, I remembered Deuteronomy 22:1-4.

(1) You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep go astray and hide yourself from them. You shall surely bring them again to your brother. (2) And if your brother is not near you, or if you do not know him [i.e. do not know to whom the animal belongs], then you shall bring it into your own house, and it shall be with you until your brother seeks after it, and you shall give it back to him again. (3) In the same way you shall do with his ass. And so shall you do with his clothing. And with any lost thing of your brother’s, which he has lost and you have found, you shall do the same. You may not hide yourself. (4) You shall not see your brother’s ass or his ox fall down by the way, and hide yourself from them. You shall surely help him to lift it up again.

It’s not the police’s job to return lost animals. It’s mine.

I could see where the cow had broken through the fence, so I knew which ranch it was. I drove through the gate and kept driving until I found a house. The rancher, Dan, was awake, of course, but wasn’t exactly expecting company and spilled coffee all over the floor when I knocked. I told him about the cow and asked if he needed help. Dan accepted the offer, and we drove around to the highway in his truck.

When we arrived back at the break, a patrol car was there and officer Brad was attempting to keep ole Bessie away from the road. The three of us together successfully chased her back across the fence. (Have you ever seen a cow jump!?) After introductions and a suitable few minutes of small talk, the policeman left the scene of the crime, and the rancher asked me to stand there and make sure the cow didn’t jump the fence again while he retrieved the materials to repair that section.

Longhorns are big, sturdy animals, and although they might seem like the bison’s retarded cousin, this one was no stranger to scheming. She stood there for at least five minutes staring me down, inching closer to the fence, as if daring me to stop her. And really, if she decided to jump, what was I going to do? Those horns are sharp, and they’re attached to a whole lot of steak. The fence was weighed down with years worth of vine growth, and when I climbed on top of the pile and put my hands on my hips, she finally backed down and walked away.

Dan arrived a few minutes later with a fence panel and a roll of barbed wire, and we got to closing the gap. Just then a man named Scotty, driving a large, black F250, pulls over and asks if we need help. It turns out he’s a vice president at a local bank and knows who to call to get some workers. He said he could have someone there in thirty minutes, but Dan told him we’d have it done by then. (It actually took a little over an hour more to clear out the underbrush enough to get the new panel in, but who’s counting?) Then another car pulls over. An elderly woman wearing pink and carrying an umbrella asked Scotty if he was having car trouble. She started a bit when she spotted Dan and I over in the weeds. Seeing that everything was under control, she wished everyone a good day and both she and Scotty went about their respective businesses.

When everything was done, Dan’s arms were bleeding from a dozen small wounds caused by thorns and barbs, but he invited me to join him for lunch anyway. He introduced me to his dogs and herd of donkeys at the house, then he cleaned up before we went out for cheeseburgers. (He wanted steak, probably just as a gesture of goodwill toward Bessie the bullheaded cow, but his favorite steakhouse wasn’t open.) We chatted about the ranching and computer businesses over lunch, and Dan told me I should be sure to visit Scotty at his office. “He’s a good man to know around here.” He said the locals can be a very tight-knit community, and Scotty knows everybody. He also told me about how well they all look out for each other.

When I first decided to find that cow’s owner, I was a little irritated at the animal for disrupting my schedule, but I’m glad she did. It was a good morning, even if I did have to change my clothes and take another shower. Brad and Dan and Scotty and the unknown Good Samaritan lady restored my faith in Texas. There are two worlds here just like everywhere else. There’s the world of McDonalds and Walmart where people don’t know each other and don’t want to. Then there’s the world of communities and neighbors looking out for each other.

I’ll take that second Texas. China probably owns the other one anyway.