Most Christians in the United States have heard of so-called “honor killings” in the muslim world. If you haven’t, let me give you the basic idea. A young unmarried woman either has sex with a man or is raped by a man. In either case she is considered immoral and socially damaged. The stigma is also cast onto her family. Her father (or possibly a brother) decides to restore the family honor by killing the young woman. This death penalty can be carried out in many ways. The most likely method is strangulation. The community then offers praise to God and her family for taking the shame away.
I wish I could say that such actions are limited to one culture or religion only. However, India has seen its share of honor killings when a woman marries or has sexual intercourse (or is suspected of having done so) or is raped by an outcaste person. This sense of shame and uncleanliness on a family seems to transcend religion and affect both Hindu and Christian communities. No wonder there has been such an outcry over the rape/murder of a young college student in India.
Those of us who view the world through Western eyes cannot see the justice involved in such death penalties. We might argue the perpetrators should be killed. But, why the women involved? It is because in most cultures on earth female sexuality is seen to be something that is to be controlled. Failure to control “our women and their bodies” is understood by the cultures involved to be a failure of masculinity (fathers and brothers are in charge). Remember that Anglo-Saxon culture calls a man whose wife is known to have sexual intercourse with someone else a “cuckold” and “laden down with horns.” Whereas a wife who husband is a public adulterer is called…a wife.
Ancient Israel and Judah both had a sense of this practice of “honor killing.” The Law of Moses records an incident in Numbers 25:1-18 where Israelite males and Moabite females are getting together for family relationships and even communal intermixing with the worship of Baal of Peor. Aaron the High Priest’s son Phinehas summarily executes an Israelite man of the tribe of Simeon who marries a Midianite wife. Since Moses himself married a Midianite woman (Exodus 2), we should assume then involvement with the other religion is the reason the murder takes place. Yet, the text of Numbers quotes the God of Israel thusly, “I hereby grant him my covenant of peace…” (NRSV).
What are we western Christians to make of this text?
Here is one option. We can ignore it. We can say it belongs to another time, place, and people. But, that raises the objection, why then believe any of the text? I know we often take what we like from the scripture and tradition. For us it does not invalidate these teachings from the past. It puts them into a context we can safely ignore. Yet, it is lacking in intellectual and moral rigor.
A second option would be to say no to the text. We can nullify the law and the teaching. Christians do this often by pointing to ideals demonstrated in scripture and tradition rather than actual words at any given point. This approach is similar to what John Wesley considered “the whole tenor of scripture.” When scripture appears to advocate or directly teach something that is morally repugnant we seek something higher and nobler in our approach to the text. For instance, in the West arguments for slavery were taken from texts in the Bible that regulated slavery. Yet, they did not advocate or teach it unless the alternative was murder. So we then nullify the teaching by not practicing slavery at all.
A third option considers the context of the text and the context (if any) of who is reading the text. I take this approach to this kind of religiously and culturally motivated violent teaching in the Bible. The presence of other Peoples and their cultic practices were always problematic for the people of Judah and Israel. The Bible gives us the one major time in the history of the returned people from Babylonian captivity that intermarriage was a problem. It is dealt with in the text(s) of Ezra-Nehemiah. In chapter 8 of Nehemiah, the people are summoned to gather around Ezra the priest and scribe to hear the words of the Law of Moses. The people then re-covenant to obey the whole of the Law. When Nehemiah as governor must deal with the mixed marriages of his people especially the priests no killing in involved (Nehemiah 13:23-30). Shame and exile are options if the men do not wish to leave their wives. But no one believes the example of Phinehas from the Law itself is to be applied. Why?
There are other people writing at this time whose works make into sacred text who argue against the priest and the governor. Malachi, the prophet, talks about the idea that Judah profanes the sanctuary by marrying the “daughter of a foreign god.” The prophet believes that those who do this should be cut off from the sanctuary. But, he continues in chapter 2:10-16 of his book that divorcing these wives is not the answer. God has made the women of the foreign gods just as he made the men of Judah. And therefore, the offspring of these marriages can be godly. Another writer from the same period tells the story of a woman of Moab named Ruth who lived in the time of the judges and became a daughter of Israel and an ancestress of King David.
What then should we do with this story of Phinehas? We should consider that there is more to how we use scripture and tradition than simple obedience because scripture itself demonstrates a discussion about what God wants us to do and become. Ezra, Nehemiah, Ruth, and Malachi do not even offer the solution of violence and “honor killing” to deal with shame. They instead offer an argument for returning to a path of godliness and argue with each other what that path should look like.
Honor killing, war, slavery, and destruction are all in the Bible. The Bible also unabashedly opposes these things even if it takes us awhile to get to those condemnations. We Western Christians should be learning this lesson most of all. We believe in a God who is active and working in this world to bring it into a time being we often call the Kingdom of God. With the examples we have already seen let us contemplate what that means as we read the unfolding of the divine work in the scriptures.