Sunday, March 15, 2009

Like Waterboarding for Chocolate

Many more of you may have read (or watched the film version of) Laura Esquivel's novel Como agua para chocolate than have read the chapter of the bible I'm going to blog on a bit. Likewise, many more of you evangelical Christians (of the "complementarian" camp) have camped out in Ephesians 5 than have even considered the bible chapter we'll discuss here. It's Numbers 5. (Or a segment of the fourth book [ בַּמִּדְבָּר, Bamidbar] of the Torah.)

At the end of this post, I'll tell you what got me looking at it again. But there's a more important reason why we all might want to look at this old canonized text:
It suggests that a husband, who suspects the chocolate his wife is eating might have come from another man, may send his allegedly disrespecting wife off to the priest for waterboarding.
Okay, that's a stretch. We don't know if the Jews still had any chocolate left in the desert after breaking free from the Egyptians. And the kind of torture jealous husbands sent their wives off to in the wild-er-ness wasn't exactly waterboarding (if it did involve water and torture). What isn't a stretch is that this is the bible, the word of God giving the words of God to men about what to do with their women who terrorized them and their camp with their dalliances. Writers of the new covenant (or the New Testament) write similar things; and religious bible-believing people like Emerson Eggerichs write books today to get at how married men even today need and deserve and by implication should expect respect from their wives. (Suzanne McCarthy is blogging an entire series on that "love and respect" interpretation after John Hobbins mentioned Eggerichs a couple of times).

So, I invite you to go back to read Numbers 5, or to read it for the first time. I'm drawn back into it because of the Jews' own Greek translation of the text when back in Egypt. The Hebrew language of the masoret text already has enough wordplay, but the Greek of the Septuagint text has even more rhetoric. Look, see for yourself. You tell me whether "male and fe-male" are created equal in Numbers 5, whether in Hebrew or in Hellene. And next post, I'll look at some of the wild liberal translator choices such as the words παρεμβολῆς (par-em-bolEs) and ἐμβαλεῖ (em-balei), like a deadly priest-imposed amniotic fluid embolism for a disrepecting wife, like water torture for a suspicious box of chocolates.


John Hobbins said...

Hi Kurk,

I see you have gone public with your blog again. Welcome back.

Suspicion of adultery. The water ordeal. The late lamented Tikvah Frymer-Kensky wrote about these things with considerable insight. There are many anthropological and ethnographic resources available today for understanding rituals of this kind, prevalent not only in the Ancient Near East, but to this day among the Ashanti in Africa and other tribes.

If you were an anthropologist in Africa working with one of these tribes, how would you handle it? Would you be willing to understand the ritual for their point of view, both male and female? How is the ritual understood by those who undergo it, as a form of torture, as a means of boomeranging the accusation back on the head of the one who made it, both, or something else again?

In the end, perhaps all that matters is how a highly educated, highly acculturated Western white middle class male like yourself understands the ritual.

On the other hand, if Numbers 5 is more than a pretext for you, if you mean to allow to become a text that challenges you rather than the other way around, good points of departure are:

J. Licht, A Commentary on Numbers I-IX (Hebrew: Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1985) 166-169.

Karel van der Toorn's article, "Ordeal, in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (bibliography!); Baruch Levine's Anchor Bible commentary on Numbers (bibliography!); Jacob Milgrom's JPS Torah Commentary on Numbers, Excursuses 8-10 (bibliography!).

A discussion of recent works by Emerson Eggerichs and Gary Thomas was initiated on complegalitarian by Marilyn Johnson and myself months ago. Comment threads thereto ran into the hundreds. Marilyn and I may take up the conversation again at some future date (she is a comp; I am an egal), but not on complegal, for reasons I've made clear on my blog.

J. K. Gayle said...

Wow John. You certainly pack a punch or two in your "welcome back" comment. I'll definitely look at Frymer-Kensky, Licht, and van der Toorn on Numbers 5. Proof text for a highly educated, highly acculturated Western white middle class male like me, huh? Now those are some smart convenient boxes, aren't they? If you follow this series I'm getting into, we may see together that translation of the Jews by the Jews for the Jews so long ago and far away deconstructs ideals of cultural and linguistic relativisms. It's the construct of the male-dominant god, in the dock, their own trial. (And you know I find your dogmatism pretty odd, your calls for dialogue that feel and sound to some of us more like silencing. It's like C.S. Lewis says of the authors of The Green Book: they "castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.")

John Hobbins said...

Hi Kurk,

That's right, and I don't plan to cut you any special slack either.
I can pretend, out of a false sense of charity, that I agree with everything you say. But I'm betting you prefer that I state my disagreements openly.

I look forward to further observations on your part on Numbers 5. How credible will your comments be from an anthropological point of view? Will you take the time to read widely enough in ethnography to understand how ordeals of this kind were and are understood by women and men among the Ashanti and elsewhere? (Affine ordeals are pretty common in witchcraft also; see Tvi Abusch's research; in a number of cultures, it is precisely women who administer the ordeals).

Will you make the effort to see a ritual like this emically, rather than etically (thank you, Kenneth Pike, for an essential distinction)?

Or will you, instead, allow the etic point of view of modern Western feminist and womanist authors to silence and demean all voices and all points of view contrary to their own?

I'm happy to listen to anyone's point of view, but when that point of view takes the form of relentless negativity, the opposite of Paul's "hope all things, believe all things, endure all things," at some point it's no longer appropriate to give such negativity "equal time."

A feminist friend of mine from high school taught me a lesson I've never forgotten. Here we were, chatting amiably in Madison WI, one of the most liberal places in the world. I was about to go off for a summer in Syria, and I told my friend I expected to see a lot of oppression of women, or something to that effect. In the Syrian countryside, the culture remains pretty traditional.

She gave me a withering look. Oppression, she said, exists in all cultures. It just takes different forms.

I was crushed. But my friend Franci, a lovely feminist Unitarian, daughter of a refugee from Nazi Germany, was right. I found it out for myself during my time in Syria (and lived to blog about it).

For the rest, your comments so far are too cryptic for me to ascertain their drift with confidence. It sounds as if you wish to say that the God of traditional Jews and traditional Judaism is "their own trial."

If so, I cannot begin to tell you how deeply I disagree with you.

Jay Seidler said...

Somebody had this great idea about progressive revelation in the Bible, then it stopped suddenly. The perceived revelation of Numbers 5 arose in that time and culture, but does that mean we cannot grasp onto a more progressive revelation of equality, even one beyond the New Testament. Is the western woman less oppressed? By any indicator I can find, the answer is yes. If you survey the women of the more oppressed societies of the world (yes, I am willing to make that judgment call to say more oppressed) don't be surprised if you find out that most of them don't feel oppressed, because the level of their oppression is so complete that they cannot yet fathom equality that would bring them freedom.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

In the end, perhaps all that matters is how a highly educated, highly acculturated Western white middle class male like yourself understands the ritual.

And this would be one reason for my reading of Orhan Pamuk. Because he is not one of those. He writes,

"But to respect the human rights of minorities, and to respect their humanity, is not to suggest that we should accommodate all manner of belief or tolerate those who attack or seek to limit freedom of thought in deference to the moral codes of those minorities. Some of us have a better understanding of the West, some of us have more affection for those who live in the East, and some, like me, try to do the two things at the same time, but these attachments, this desire to understand, should never get in the way of our respect for human rights." page 181

It is one thing to silence women and another to hush those who wish treat women in this manner.

J. K. Gayle said...

>John, It'd be very sad if you felt silenced here. And I sense that Numbers 5 is a bit of a hot button for you (I had no idea, really). You seem to come to this text, insisting on my coming to it with the same eventually emic understanding that you think you possess. (I am working on Tvi Abusch). But Pike was smart enough in his latter days to ask whether linguistic and anthropological etics was a kind of emics. (This was after the famous disagreement - in public debate - he had with anthropologist Marvin Harris).

Scholars such as Jacqueline Jones Royster (must) acknowledge themselves as "Traces of a Stream," and those like Ruth Bahar (have to) insist on "anthropology that breaks your heart" and those such as Alice Walker (a mother with a daughter struggling to find her own way) can't help but go "in search of her mothers' gardens". They (like the later late Ken Pike) see unnecessary (even male domineering) distinctions between the convenient split into "emic" and "etic."

"Man cannot speak for her," wrote Elizabeth Cady Stanton of us men here in America who would pretend to. I find I have to listen. Cady Stanton, who listened long without much of a voice, also read the same bible. In her own commentary on Numbers 5, she has to complain that one man she may trust only gives "a minute description" to the problem of the text. (He's suggesting that Moses, and his God, are building a "sanatorium" or a prototypical "hospital" before getting into the "trial by ordeal" necessary for allegedly unfaithful wives.) Cady Stanton adds,

"As men make and execute the laws, prescribe and administer the punishment, 'trials by a jury or ordeal' for women though seemingly fair, are never based on principles of equity. The one remarkable fact in all these social transgressions in the early periods as well as in our modern civilization is that the penalties whether moral or material all fall on woman. Verily the darkest page in human history is the slavery of women!"

That's some "relentless negativity" - which has helped, I think, overturn race-based slavery (bible-based slavery) and (bible-based) gender-based inequalities. This is deep stuff in humans. After Paul writes his "hope all things, believe all things, endure all things," he goes on to give women silence in the church (in Corinth, Greece where Aristotle silenced women earlier) and hope to learn, if they would just ask, their husbands, at home, later.

>Jay, Thank you for writing so insightfully from Phuket. Yes, this stuff is deep in humans. We tend not to know how oppressed or how oppressive we are.

>Suzanne, How helpful to hear Orhan Pamuk! "some, like me, try to do the two things at the same time, but these attachments, this desire to understand [moral codes of / on minorities in both the West and the East], should never get in the way of our respect for human rights." Yes yes yes yes yes yes . . . we have to be highly suspicious of those who would silence women and of those who would hush the support of "support complementarity [between women and men] without hierarchy... without rulership and subjugation."

John Radcliffe said...

Hi JK, good to have you back.

Personally, I find Jesus' words in Matthew 19:8 appropriate:

"Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning." (TNIV)

I understand his second comment to mean, in effect, that it wasn't the way God wanted things to be among us humans (and especially not among those humans who claim to be "his people"), but that God deals in real-world practicalities: better a divorced wife than a murdered or abused one; better have a wife to go through the ceremony in Numbers 5 (and hopefully have the suspicion and jealousy stop there) than any of the above.

Of course that's just the reading of a white, middle-aged, unmarried, idealist man. So perhaps that's just how I would like to understand it. (I even have an idealist, egalitarian reading of Ephesians 5, although I'm still working on one for 1 Tim 2 & 3)

J. K. Gayle said...

John Radcliffe,
I love your intertextual readings (parsing Matthew's Jesus' statement against Jehovah's Moses' statements). And thanks for being willing to confess (as if "just" minimizing) your own subjectivities here (as you work through Paul's letters to Greek reading Jewish Christians in Ephesus, Greece and to the half-Greek, half-Jew Timo-theus on behalf of other assemblies elsewhere). I'm looking forward to continued conversations with you!