Light from the Sidra

Ki Tetze ('When you go...')

Torah: Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19. Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10

Marriage lines

My, oh my, how times change! Who could have imagined, even five years ago, that the institution of marriage would become as meaningless as it apparently is today. In the week before the debates on same sex marriage that great old defender of morality, the BBC, dedicated an entire edition of its Radio 4 arts programme Front Row to an interview with Elton John, ostensibly about his music but in actual fact about his ‘marriage.’ In the same week the castaway on Desert Island Discs was crime writer Val MacDermid who told us all about life with her ‘wife’. It also turns out that in postmodern marriages either partner can be the husband or the wife but the icing on the wedding cake, so to speak, came when Baroness Stowell, who speaks for the Conservatives in the Lords on equalities issues, informed her fellow peers and peeresses that it was ‘open to each couple’ to decide whether or not it was necessary to be faithful to each other.

Even those who want retain traditional marriage find themselves a back foot because many of them see marriage as a venerable human institution that should be retained. And there’s the rub. If marriage is a purely human institution, there should be no reason for getting hot under the collar when it is seen to have served its purpose. The only basis for making objective statements about the institution of wedlock is if it is a divine institution and even some religious people balk at basing their arguments on that concept, no doubt out of fear of being held up to ridicule.

Our leaders are proving themselves to be knaves and fools. Marriage is a divine institution, and there are divine principles that govern the institution, which is why God gives authoritative instructions about marriage in today’s Parasha. When politicians of any party begin to tamper with a divinely established ordinance, it is bound to end in tears.

The Parasha establishes rules about marriage and how wives are to be treated while the Haftarah addresses Israel in exile and pictures her as a barren, forsaken wife. Israel had gone into exile for her sins but Yahweh was going to redeem her. He was going to make her fruitful once again. What God did for Israel when she was in Egypt, he will do for her when she is in Babylon.

The Exodus from Egypt is the fundamental biblical pattern of redemption in the Tanakh and what Christians call the new Testament. The prophets of Israel, particularly Isaiah, foresaw a redemption that would follow the pattern established at the Exodus from Egypt but which would exceed the first redemption in both power and scale.

In Is 54:8, God assures Israel that he is her ‘Redeemer’. The title ‘Redeemer’ occurs some eighteen times in our English translations of the Bible, thirteen of those occurrences being in the last twenty-seven chapters of the book of Isaiah, where YHWH declares he is ‘the Redeemer of Israel’. In ancient Israelite society ‘the redeemer’ was the firstborn of the family and had three basic, God-appointed responsibilities. His first duty was to avenge the blood of murdered family members; secondly, it was his responsibility to buy back family property that had been lost through poverty; thirdly, he had to act as husband to the widow of a relative who had died childless.

Yahweh redeemed Israel from Egypt according to this pattern. First, he avenged the blood of his ‘firstborn’ Israel by smiting the firstborn of Egypt and substituting a lamb for the firstborn of Israel; secondly, he took Israel to be his bride; thirdly, he brought Israel into the inheritance that was theirs by virtue of his covenant with Abraham.

YHWH would exile his disobedient people to Babylon but he was, nevertheless, their Redeemer and would therefore avenge them:

‘I will contend with him who contends with you, and I will save your children. I will feed those who oppress you with their own flesh, and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with sweet wine. All flesh shall know that I, the LORD, am your Saviour, and your Redeemer’ (Isaiah 49:25,26).

He would restore them to their lost inheritance:

‘The redeemed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing, with everlasting joy on their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness; sorrow and sighing shall flee away.’ (51:9-11)

He would protect them in their widowhood and raise up children for them:

‘“Sing, O barren, you who have not borne! Break forth into singing, and cry aloud, you who have not laboured with child! For more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married woman,” says the LORD…. “For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is His name; and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel”’ (54:1-8).

But beyond even the redemption from Babylonian exile, even greater Redemption was to come. The Jewish writers of the New Testament cherished the hope of the Redemption promised through the ancient Hebrew prophets. In the first chapter of the Gospel According to Luke, the father of John the Baptist praises God that he has come to redeem his people from their enemies but looks beyond the Roman occupation of the Promised Land to the prospect of God’s people serving him without fear in righteousness and holiness.

The Redemption motif of Isaiah and the prophets enables us to make sense of the enigmatic title given to Messiah in Colossians 1:13-15: ‘He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of his love, in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.’

This is Exodus language. God redeemed Israel from Egypt by slaying the firstborn of Egypt and spared the firstborn of Israel. In the New Testament, Messiah, God’s ‘Firstborn,’ redeems his people through his own death. He avenges his people by destroying their great enemy ‘the Satan’; he takes them for his bride and raises up children for them; and he recovers the kingdom of heaven, the heavenly Zion, for them.

It is a great tragedy that although observant Jews long for the ‘Era of Redemption,’ they don’t understand what form that redemption will take. And so long as they don’t know what the longed-for ‘Redemption’ looks like they won’t be able to see that it has happened already.

Israel remains the faithless bride of YHWH but she is still separated from her faithful husband who continues to love her in spite of her sins. It’s a good thing that God’s view of marriage is infinitely superior to that of our elected politicians. Our politicians might see faithfulness in marriage to be optional; God does not. If he did there would be no future for the Jewish people or for the world!

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