Sunday, June 26, 2011

In defence of traditional marriage

This week, I have been too busy to write further about the encounter between Jesus and the Samarian woman at the well (John 4:1-42), but the topic hasn't left me yet, and I hope to return next week.

One line of thought that I might consider further is how Jesus reacts to the woman, who appears to be in a highly undesirable domestic union; she has had five husbands and the man she was presently with was not her husband (John 4:18). Interestingly, Jesus knows all about her circumstances, but does not give her a lecture on morality. Does this tell us something about Jesus' views on marriage?

I have no doubt that Jesus (like his Jewish contemporaries) had what we would regard as a highly conservative view on marriage and sexual morality. So, why does he not rebuke the woman for her immorality? The answer, I believe, is that he is saying to the woman that her sins are not what define her, and neither do her "marriages". He offers her a fresh start, and I believe she takes it (I'll explain how and why in a subsequent post).

Does this weaken the argument to preserve the traditional view that marriage is an exclusive, intimate union between a man and woman? To put it bluntly, does Jesus even care about marriage? Yes, I believe he does, but he puts it where it belongs, in the created order, which would make little sense if it were to be divorced from its creator. Marriage is important, but like all creatures, it is only important and meaningful because of it's relationship with the creator (see Matt 6:33). That's why the focus in John 4:1-42 is not on marriage, but the relationship between the woman and Jesus.

Of course, it's impossible to address the subject of marriage without also addressing the current controversy on changing legal definitions of marriage to include same-sex partnerships. Despite the enthusiasm of the media (particularly British and Australian TV - I can't comment on American TV) in promoting same sex marriage, there are good reasons to defend the institution of marriage as an exclusive, intimate and publicly affirmed union between one man and one woman. I worry that those who wish to retain this traditional view may be increasingly marginalized and silenced by (unfounded) claims of bigotry and prejudice. I don't wish to argue the case here and now, but I do recommend a reasoned paper for those who might be interested further here,

Friday, June 17, 2011

John 4:1-42 Jesus and the Samaritan Woman Part 3

As in previous weeks (4th June and 11th June), I’m continuing in my preparations for preaching on John 4:1-42 in August by blogging my thoughts and finding what, if any, generate the most interest.

The issue that’s been on my mind this week is the apparent paradox of the unnamed Samaritan woman in the story. The paradox is this; she’s an outcast in her home town, but it’s her testimony that persuades her neighbors to faith in Christ, which can hardly be expected of someone with no credibility in her own community.

I believe that the paradox can be resolved by considering the situation from the perspective of the author (John). That might sound like a trite thing for me to say, but too often we rush into trying to understand scripture from our own perspective, rather than respecting the perspective of the people who first wrote it down.

An outcast in her home town

John’s Gospel is full of apparently incidental details, which support the veracity of his account. In verse 4:6, John notes that it was about noon that Jesus sat down at the well, at which time the Samaritan woman came to draw water (4:7).

It’s in the heat of the day, and Jesus is understandably tired and thirsty (4:6, John doesn’t present a super-human Jesus who is unconstrained by human needs and weaknesses). What is remarkable about this setting is that normally, the women would fill their jars first thing in the morning, when it was cooler and more convenient for the day’s chores, but this woman comes at noon. She probably does so because the other women of the town are absent, and she chooses to avoid them. The reasons for her elusiveness are probably linked to her scandalous domestic arrangements, which Jesus brings to light in verse 4:18; she has had five husbands and the man she was with was not her husband.

Husbands and men

Live-in relationships today are considered the norm (for all the wrong reasons, I believe), but in Jesus’ day they were regarded as shameful. We don’t know the reasons behind the Samaritan woman’s relationships but, as they say, it takes two to tango. Possibly, she flitted from man to man, always in search of a better deal (though the issue of dowries comes to the fore); possibly the fickle men she got entangled with abandoned her; possibly successive husbands died (though this would not have marked her to the same extent as voluntary divorces); possibly she was unable to conceive; probably it was a combination of all or some of the above.

John does not bring us to conclude whether she was a victim or a perpetrator, but from his perspective, such a question would have been immaterial. In my reading of the Bible, I see a continuum between personal and collective guilt, unlike today’s sense of justice, which is concerned with isolating personal culpability. In John’s eyes, then, the woman would have been guilty, but her guilt would have been a reflection of her community’s shortcomings. She might have descended into shameful circumstances, but where were the men in her community who should have protected her welfare and honor? Why did they allow this situation to arise? Why didn’t the men in her hometown act like the husbands that they should have been?

Switching allegiances

It’s this latter thought that came to my mind last week, when I found that the Samaritans had switched political allegiances in the centuries before the encounter at the well. The Wikipedia entry on the Samaritans is difficult to read, but it includes a fascinating passage on the Samaritans' response to the blasphemy of one of the Greek rulers, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The following is adopted from Wikipedia, with my inferences thrown in for good measure.

It is important to understand the rivalry between Samaritan and Jew. The Samaritans gave themselves the name Shamerim, שַמֶרִים, "Keepers [of the Law]", to identify themselves with the Law and God of Moses. The Jews preferred to call them Kuthim, כותים, which is a pejorative term related to the ancient, foreign city of Cuthah. So, both groups contested for the claim to be the “true” Israel, and both accused the other of apostasy and of supporting idolatrous Temples. Josephus reports numerous violent confrontations between Jews and Samaritans throughout the first half of the first century, which is precisely the time of the encounter at the well. Jesus met the woman at the height of hostilities.

Antiochus was one of the Seleucid Kings of Judah from 175 to 163 BC, in the period between the Old and New Testaments. According to 1 Maccabees 1:41-50 he proclaimed himself the incarnation of the Greek god Zeus and mandated death to anyone who refused to worship him. A major obstacle to his ambition was the fidelity of the Jews to their historic religion and their refusal to allow their homeland to be defiled. The universal peril led the Samaritans, eager for safety, to repudiate all connection and kinship with the Jews. The request was granted.

Not only did the Samaritans sever ties with their Jewish neighbors, but, allegedly, they also voluntarily profaned their Temple on Mount Gerizim, which had been erected in the name of YHWH of Israel. Josephus, a pro-Jewish historian, quotes the Samaritans' plea to Antiochus as follows;

We therefore beseech thee, our benefactor and saviour, to give order to Apolonius, the governor of this part of the country, and to Nicanor, the procurator of thy affairs, to give us no disturbances, nor to lay to our charge what the Jews are accused for, since we are aliens from their nation and from their customs, but let our temple which at present hath no name at all, be named the Temple of Jupiter Hellenius.

II Maccabees 6:1–2 reports an unwilling reconsecration of both Samaritan and Jewish Temples, as follows;

Shortly afterwards, the Greek king sent Gerontes the Athenian to force the Jews of Israel to violate their ancestral customs and live no longer by the laws of God; and to profane the Temple in Jerusalem and dedicate it to Olympian Zeus, and the one on Mount Gerizim to Zeus, Patron of Strangers, as the inhabitants of the latter place had requested.

This Samaritan Temple at Mount Gerizim was destroyed by the Jew, John Hyrcanus in about 128 BC, having existed about 200 years. Only a few stone remnants of it exist today.

So, it is clear that there was a great deal of mistrust between Samaritan and Jew. From the Jewish perspective, the Samaritan would have been regarded as fickle and untrustworthy; the ultimate shibboleth being the Samaritans’ ready rejection of their claims of fidelity to the God of Moses, as opposed to the proud, blood-stained history of the Jew’s dogged allegiance to YHWH. In the Biblical idiom, if Ezekiel 16 is a reliable guide, Samaria had behaved like a shameless woman in offering herself to a long procession of lovers. (Though, ironically, both sides had sinned gravely in this respect and neither had the right to cast the first stone, if John 8:2-11 reflects the pattern).

Faithfulness at a personal and national scale

Was it Samaria’s unfaithfulness that Jesus referred to when he brought the issue of the woman’s husbands to light, or was it the woman’s actual domestic circumstances?

This presents something of a problem in approaching the text, but it might not be an either/or proposition. John, I believe, sees heavenly significance in earthly things and, concomitantly, what we do on earth is reflected in the heavens. The woman’s adultery is both a symptom and a sustaining cause of the Samaritans’ heritage (technically, we might conceivably refer to it as the incarnation of the Samaritan Logos, after John 1:14, but I could be drawing a long bow here). Her relationship with her men is stereotypical of the Samaritan condition. Thus, Jesus’ observations speak to her at a personal level and through her to her neighbors at a corporate level. This, I think, is why her neighbors listen to her testimony, despite her status. They see a metaphor of themselves in her, and the situation to which their collective unfaithfulness had brought them. The woman’s statement in John 4:39 was a personal confession, and a collective one, by extension; and it was one that her neighbors acknowledged for themselves.

A fresh start

One impression I get from this story is that the Samaritan woman and her neighbors were sick of the status quo. The woman had been reduced to filling her jars at noon to avoid the talk of her neighbors, and they had suffered dreadfully under the hand of foreigner and Jew for the sake of religion and Temple.

Jesus, according to John, offers them a fresh start and they embrace his message of hope (John 4:39-42). To the woman he says, “I will be the husband you never had.” To her neighbors he says, “I am the True, Living Temple, and you won’t need to fight over me again.” These are not unrelated ideals, but two aspects of what it means to be reconciled to the God of Father Abraham in a new and living covenant.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

John 4:1-42 Jesus and the Samaritan Woman Part 2

I’m continuing in my preparations for preaching on John 4:1-42 in August. Last week I looked briefly at the authorship of John’s Gospel and its current popularity. This week I’ll look at the historical context in which the encounter between the Samaritan Woman and Jesus took place.

Who were the Samaritans?

Most people know about the Samaritans from the famous parable in Luke 10:25-37. This very example of the kindly stranger has inspired several movements to adopt the name (including Samaritan’s Purse, and a host of other organizations including suicide counselling, and welfare groups.

The origins of the Samaritans as a distinct ethnic group are murky, and subject to opposing claims from Jewish and Samaritan traditions. What is clear, however, is that the Jews and Samaritans regarded themselves as distinct races from the late 4th Century BC onwards. Their attitudes towards each other vacillated from tolerance to outright hostility. When it is believed that one’s membership of the Kingdom of God rests on one’s ancestry (contrary to the explicit message of the New Testament), the issue of breeding is paramount, so it is worth looking at these competing claims.

The Jewish perspective

From the Jewish perspective, the Samaritans were not considered as the rightful inheritors of the land. Effectively, the First Century Jews regarded them as illegal squatters. The Jews believed that when the Ten Tribes of the Northern Israelite Kingdom were exiled following the Assyrian conquest in 721BC, they were displaced by non-Israelite immigrants from Bablyon, Cutha, Avah, Emath and Sepharvaim. It was from these foreigners that the Samaritans were descended.

Thus, the Samaritans could not claim to be the Sons of Abraham by birth, which excluded them from the covenant that YHWH had wrought with the “true” Israel (see Genesis 12 and 15). The only way that the Samaritans could consider themselves to be a part of God’s Kingdom was to convert, which required regular attendance at the Temple in Jerusalem and all the rites of purification that went with it. This was unacceptable to the Samaritans, who had built their own Temple on Mount Gerizim, only for the Jews to destroy it under John Hyrcanus in 128BC.

It was an earlier historical event that cemented the divide between the Jews and the Samaritans. Around 175 to 163BC, Antiochus IV Epiphanes proclaimed himself to be the living incarnation of the Greek god Zeus and threatened death to anyone who would not worship him as such. The Jews remained obstinate, but the Samaritans, eager to secure their own safety, repudiated all connection and kinship with the Jews. Their request was granted. This, I believe, gave the Samaritans the reputation for switching allegiances when it suited them. It is is a characteristic that is possibly alluded to in Jesus’ observation about the Samaritan Woman’s several husbands.

The Samaritan perspective

The Samaritans, unsurprisingly, disputed the Jewish version of events. They claimed that they were properly descended from Abraham, that they were the faithful keepers of the Torah, and it was their Jewish neighbors who were apostate. According to the Samaritan tradition, they were direct descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh, and a remnant had survived the Assyrian conquest in situ (see 2 Chronicles 30:1-31:6 ). This claim to have been the faithful children of Abraham adds a certain pique to the Samaritan Woman’s reference to Jacob’s Well as “her” well in John 4:12.

The Jews, the Samaritans claimed, apostatized when Eli, the Priest (see 1 Chronicles 1:3 etc), left the Tabernacle on Mount Gerizim, to build a new Temple under his own rule at Shiloh. The Temple in Jerusalem, according to the Samaritans was an apostate temple, sustained by an illegitimate priesthood, and any attempt by the Jewish proselytizers to convert them to it was met with overt hostility.

Interestingly, the Samaritans had sustained their own patriarchal Priesthood until the 17th Century. In In 1624, the last Samaritan High Priest of the line of Eleazar son of Aaron died without issue, but descendants of Aaron's other son, Ithamar, remained and took over the office.

The Samaritan reaction to Jesus

I believe that it is likely that the Samaritans in general, and the Samaritan Woman in particular, would have initially regarded Jesus as one of the Jewish proselytizers, or at least a Jewish supporter (Jesus was recognizably Jewish, and a religious one at that). This would explain the hostile reception given to Jesus in Luke 9:51-53. It is only when the Samaritan Woman realizes that conversion to the Jerusalem Temple is not on Jesus’ agenda that her attitude towards him begins to soften.

Modern genetics

According to Wikipedia, the population of ethnic Samaritans had dwindled to 712 individuals in 2007, comprising just four families living on Mount Gerizim and in Tel Aviv. Genetic studies indicate that modern Samaritans share a common ancestry with modern Jews, and the study’s authors suggest that a subgroup of the Israelites remained in the Land of Israel that "married Assyrian and female exiles relocated from other conquered lands, which was a typical Assyrian policy to obliterate national identities”.

So, it appears to me that both the Samaritan and Jewish traditions can be justified, based on the historical and genetic evidence, though both draw irreconcilably opposing inferences from it. It all rests on what one considers to be a “true” Israelite, or what constitutes a “true” worshipper.

As we shall see, Jesus cuts right through these issues by changing the paradigm entirely.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

John 4:1-42 Jesus and the Samaritan Woman Part 1

Josh, our pastor is on leave in August, so some us “laymen” are filling in for the preaching. I am on the roster for the week of 14 August, with the topic of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4:1-42.

I’m going to cheat a little in my preparation by posting some of my thoughts here. I don’t intend to use all of them in my presentation, but if you would like to post a comment or query in advance, please feel free to do so – it will help me discern what might be important or interesting to my audience, rather than what is important or interesting to me.

The Writing of the Gospel

For a more detailed discussion, see the Introduction to John's Gospel in the New Bible Commentary (NBC), from which I gleaned most of the following.

Oral tradition attributes the authorship of John’s Gospel to the Apostle John; the one referred to as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” in John 21:7 etc. and I don’t see any compelling reason to contend it.

The author picks up the narrative of Jesus as he enters his public ministry in Galilee, and follows it to Jerusalem (John, like Mark, omits the nativity narrative). There are many intimate details in the accounts that imply the author as an eyewitness, such as the number of stone jars at the marriage in Cana (John 2:6), the name of the guard whom Jesus healed (Malchus, in John 18:10), and the machinations and courtyard layout of Jesus’ trial (John 18:15-18 etc.).

A couple of potential objections need to be noted; nowhere does John identify himself as the author (though this is the norm for Biblical literature), he appears to regard the Jews as a race apart, and his thinking was markedly Hellenistic. The Hellenistic tone of the Gospel of John is probably the strongest objection there is, but I can see an equally strong counter-argument in that the author could have contextualized his message by using the language and perspective of the leading Greek philosophers of the time (including Philo of Alexandria and the Hermetica). This contextualization would fit well with one of the Gospel’s major themes; that the Word had come into the world of all peoples, not just the world of the Jews (as we shall see with the Samaritan woman), and the author saw it as his mission to give the message a meaningful context in the Greek world.

The date for the writing of the Gospel is impossible to pinpoint. There is good ground for supposing that Justin (c AD150) knew and used the Gospel, and possibly that Ignatius (c AD115) also knew it (NBC). Two Second century manuscripts show the existence and circulation of the Gospel. Scholars generally believe that it post-dates the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), which puts the writing of John’s Gospel at around AD90.

In considering all this, it appears to me that a young John joined Jesus around AD30, followed him through his ministry, trial and execution, and was profoundly affected by the experience. He would have spoken his recollections through his middle life and wrote them down as he approached old age around AD90.

The current popularity of the Gospel of John

An ad-hoc survey on FaceBook recently posed the question about what part of the Bible people would keep if they were threatened with some kind of sanction for doing so. The Gospel of John was voted Number 1.

I don’t think the person who initiated the survey, nor the people who responded, had any intention of ranking the books of the Bible in order of importance, but I find the survey revealing in terms of the current attitude in the believing community on-line. A couple of decades ago, I think the same survey might have crowned Paul’s epistle to the Romans as Number 1, or perhaps Luke’s Gospel. Romans is strongly didactic (it tells us our status and what we should do about it in concrete terms) and Luke is reassuringly factual, both of which would have suited the Evangelical Church’s sense of self-confidence in the 70’s and 80’s.

By contrast, John speaks in picture-language and draws us into a world of divine mystery in which events and words have a heavenly significance that overshadows their immediate context. Instead of speaking about our situation and our behavior, like Romans, John presents us with the supreme model in the person and story of Jesus. Instead of explaining the unseen realm of God, John describes it and invites us to gaze deeply into it, like an icon. John does not present a mythical super-human Jesus, but grounds his vision of divinity very firmly in human flesh (we’ll see how dependent John’s Jesus is on other human beings in the story of the Samaritan woman).

Given that people who express themselves on FaceBook are more likely to be educated and literate (the minimum requirement is that you can read and write, and drive a computer), they are more likely to be attracted to the intellectual challenge of John’s other-worldy perspective on the world in which we live. Could it be that current Evangelicalism is more inclined to savor the mystery of the Gospel now than a couple of decades ago, when it was all about proclaiming a compelling proof? Perhaps, in future, another book in the Bible will rise in popularity to balance out today's starry-eyed mystics. If I was a gambling type, I might put an outside bet on Ruth.

Later on, I’ll get to the context of this encounter and it’s rather surprising outcomes, before exploring what this story means in our context.