September 11, 2007

Deuteronomy 24-27: Israel - The Progressive Ancient Society

Today's reading is Deuteronomy 24-27 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers various laws, including those about divorce, marriage, borrowing, the poor, and justice; the commandment to offer first fruits and tithes in the new land; and the curses that should be offered in the new land.

Though we have spoken before about the Israelites' tendency towards progressive laws and social justice, today's readings offer some concrete examples of laws that seem progressive even today. Deut. 24-25 discuss these laws, and they fall into two general categories: one deals with married couples, and one deals with the poor and downtrodden in society. We shall cover each in turn.

For an ancient society, the Hebrews dealt extremely fairly with the rights of women. True, they are not at today's level of complete equality, but they offer a woman far more rights than many societies, even those hundreds or thousands of years later. For example, Deut. 24:1-4 notes that a man can divorce his wife. Once divorced, the woman is allowed to remarry anyone she pleases, with the exception of her ex-husband. While there are many complaints today about the inequality of this law, because the husband may divorce his wife, but not vice-versa, the idea of divorce at all is a relatively progressive one. One of the reasons for the Protestant Reformation in England was because the Catholic church would not recognize any divorce, even where both parties were willing.

Another benefit to wives is that a newly married husband could not be sent off to war or be given other duties that would take him away from home. (Deut. 24:5) In fact, the text specifically states that he should be free for a full year to "cheer up his wife" (KJV; "bring happiness to his wife," NIV) It was like a full-year honeymoon.

The text also pays attention to a wife's need for her children to inherit. If she should marry a man who lives with his brother, and her husband dies without fathering any children, his brother must then marry her. The first-born child from that union will inherit in the name of her first husband, who is dead, so that his line continues. (Deut. 25:5-6) Now, many of us modern readers might consider this practice barbaric: marry your dead brother's wife? Preposterous! But the law had a purpose: without it, the dead man's line ends with him. This was a way of safeguarding your family name for future generations. And, while we have alternate ways of doing this today, for the time it may have been a backup for men going off to war.

Of course, some ancients may have felt exactly the way we do, that the whole business is somehow wrong. In this case, the wife was supposed to go to the elders, who would speak with her late husband's brother. If he still refused to marry her, she was to take off one of his sandals and spit in his face. From that day forth, his family would be known as "The Family of the Unsandaled." (Deut. 7-9, NIV) I'm sure it sounds more impressive in the original Hebrew. In other words, if the man refuses to continue his brother's line, he would be shunned by the rest of the Israelites.

Moving from wives to other, often-maligned members of society, the law has a number of safeguards for the poor. For one, a man is not allowed to take a pledge (today we would say "collateral") of a millstone, because it is the miller's livelihood. (Deut. 24:6) Though the text does not expand on this point, it seems likely that this would expand to other trades. For example, you would not be able to take the blacksmith's forge, the fisher's nets, or the weaver's loom as collateral, because that is the way they make their living.

Also on the subject of pledges or collateral, there are a few more requirements. First, you are not allowed to enter someone's home to get his collateral. (Deut. 24:10-11) Presumably, this is to prevent you from becoming jealous of his other possessions. Also, if the man is poor, you must return the collateral by evening. The text refers specifically to a cloak: if a poor man does not have his cloak in the evening, he will freeze. (Deut. 24:12-13)

Further on the subject of giving things back by evenings, you must give wages to any hired servants by evening. (Deut. 24:14-15) The text notes that these hired servants are poor and counting on their wages. We could draw a parallel to today: in fact, even today it is illegal to withhold wages from any employee.

Finally, one of my favourite laws in Deuteronomy: if you are cutting your harvest from the field, taking olives from the tree, or grapes from the vine, you are not allowed to pass through it twice. Whatever is left over after the first passing is for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. (Deut. 24:19-22) This does several things at once: first, it allowed the poor to have some food when they might otherwise go hungry. Next, it is one of the more pious forms of charity according to Judaism, since the giver does not know the receiver. (In Judaism, the more anonymous the donation, the more holy it is considered.) Finally, it is not a free handout: the poor person has to work to get the food to which he is entitled. Personally, I like the idea of leaving food for the poor without being patronizing about it: whatever is left in the field after the harvest is for them, no extra effort on my part.

All these laws were advanced for their era. Indeed, many later societies backslid away from the ideas of helping wives or the poor. And it's an interesting thought experiment to wonder whether, if Henry VIII had been Jewish, the Protestants would never have existed.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

If Henry VIII had been Jewish the reformation probably still would have happened. As to if the Anglican and Episcopalian denominations would exist? Probably not.