Betrothal and the Problem of Tradition

Over on the Puritanboard, I recently had someone ask about a discussion he was having with a man who advocated betrothal. He told us that this guy said this position he advocated was “good scriptural reasoning.” He pointed us to this link. I only looked at the first three arguments: the argument from Rebekah and Isaac; the notion that this was meant to contrast with Jacob and Rachel; and the idea that Genesis 2 is antithetical to young people choosing their spouse. However, I thought it would be helpful to post my comments here, as it is helpful to see exactly how tradition can impact how you read the text of scripture:

Simply saying that you are using “good scriptural reasoning” does not mean that you are. Once you put forward and argument from scripture, the other person has the right to criticize the argument. It is only when the argument is shown to have exegetical sticking power that it can be accepted as “good scriptural reasoning.”

The problem with this person’s arguments is that they are looking for a pattern in scripture without understanding the context that the Bible itself gives for the passages he is quoting. For example, take the following statements:

1. We killed them.

2. They were black and blue and crying when we got done with them.

3. We crushed them.

Now, if such statements were taken just as they are here, one might think that the pattern is violence. However, what if #1 and #3 were found in the context of a Basketball tournament? What if, in addition to this, #2 was found in the context of the quotation of gangsters who had gotten caught be the police, and were sentenced to twenty years in prison? Sorta changes the pattern.

You can come up with any kind of pattern you want if you are willing to ignore the immediate context. A clear example of this is when he tries to compare Issac and Rebekah with Jacob and Rachel. Contextually, this is impossible. The story of Isaac and Rebekah relates to the promise of God, and Abraham getting along in years [24:1, 7]. Also, it is related to the fact that Abraham does not want his servant to take a wife from his son from the Canaanites [24:3]. Hence, the issue is patriarchal succession in the face of Abraham’s old age, and not any kind of pattern for how one must conduct relationships.

Also, to contrast that with Jacob and Rachel is, again, exegetically fallacious. There is the entire story of Jacob and Esau intervening. The point of the story of Jacob and Rachel is an irony between the cheating and sly ways of Jacob with Esau, and the cheating and lying ways of Laban with Jacob. The point is, Jacob sows lies and cheating, and Jacob reaps lies and cheating.

Also, it is entirely tenuous to argue that, since there is no wooing or pursuit in Genesis 2:18 that, somehow, those things are wrong. Again, context is the key. Eve was made especially for Adam long before the fall [Genesis 2:18]. Hence, the idea that he wouldn’t be interested in her or she wouldn’t be interested in him is preposterous.

I did not read the whole article; when you see mistakes like this made in only the first three scriptures addressed, it doesn’t give you confidence in the person’s exegetical abilities. However, the pattern for refuting him is the same; allow the scriptures themselves to tell you the message of the narrative by looking at how the narrative progresses from one story to the next. Allow *the text itself* to define what the message of the narrative is.

All this reminds me of Perchik from “The Fiddler on the Roof” who taught the children that story of Jacob and Laban meant that the Bible teaches us to never trust our employers. If you don’t allow the text itself to define what the message of the narrative is, you can make narratives mean almost anything you want them to mean.

As you can see, the interpretation of the narratives must be given by the text itself. When you place your traditions in the place of the text, and do not allow the text to interpret the narrative, you can make the text say almost anything you want it to say.

Now, you might be asking why I even bothered to post this. The fact that “someone on the internet is wrong” is quite obvious; there is a lot of really bad stuff out there. However, I was reading Karen Campbell’s blog the other day [a blog which I would highly recommend], and I ran into this post. There was a link to the Quivering Daughters blog and an article on betrothal, which stated that betrothal was something that was becoming popular in many of the Christian Patriarchy circles. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised; while I certainly don’t want to overgeneralize, as there may be people who are balanced within the Christian Patriarchy movement, most of what I have read has been very simplistic, and grossly reductionistic, just like the link I gave to the article on betrothal.

However, I started realizing, as I was reading the Quivering Daughters blog, that all of these ideas are based upon faulty premises. You see, here at Trinity, Old Testament majors cannot just study exegesis and Ancient Near Eastern Languages; we also are required to know about the history and culture of the Ancient Near East. Hence, I have been forced to study Near Eastern history and religion this year. It is hard. I have had some of the largest number of footnotes and Bibliography that I have ever had from any class in the papers that I have done for these classes.

One of the things that has been interesting is the study of the background of Near Eastern law. For those who deal in this area I would recommend the work of Christopher J.H. Wright. While I do not agree with him on everything, he has tons of information in his writings on Biblical law, as he did his doctoral dissertation on Biblical law and the Christian at Cambridge University.

One of the things that he points out in his book on Old Testament ethics is that the family structure was not the same back then as it is today. This is extremely important, not only in discussing modern betrothal, but also in discussing modern Patriarchy in general.

First, with regards to betrothal, the betrothal of the Biblical period is not the same as it is today. Back in Biblical times, for example, betrothal brought with it a bride price. The bride was literally sold to the groom for a certain sum of money. Also, betrothal was actually marriage. That is, if you got betrothed and wanted to break it off, it required legal action [i.e., divorce]. The two were officially considered “married” at betrothal. Hence, as can be readily seen, historically, betrothal in the Ancient Near East is quite different than what it is today. This is something that the Jewish Encyclopedia readily affirms:

The term “betrothal” in Jewish law must not be understood in its modern sense; that is, the agreement of a man and a woman to marry, by which the parties are not, however, definitely bound, but which may be broken or dissolved without formal divorce. Betrothal or engagement such as this is not known either to the Bible or to the Talmud, and only crept in among the medieval and modern Jews through the influence of the example of the Occidental nations among whom they dwelt, without securing a definite status in rabbinical law.

In other words, the only way that betrothal would be parallel today is if the man got paid a sum of money for the woman, and we considered betrothed people to be husband and wife. Once the law recognizes betrothed people as married, and demands a bride price, then we will be practicing betrothal in the way the people in the Bible did.

However, there are other historical problems that seem to be problems with Christian Patriarchy in general. For example, the whole of the Christian Patriarchy movement assumes that the family in the Ancient Near East consisted of a father, a mother, and their children. However, this is completely anachronistic.

First of all, the family would usually consist of up to three generations living together: the grandparents, the parents, and the children. The patriarch was *almost never* the father. It was either the grandfather or [if he was still alive] the great grandfather who would give the children away in marriage. This is also the case for passages such as Numbers 30. The Hebrew term for “father” actually has a wide semantic range, and can be used for the grandfather, great grandfather, or even for the the head of a household.

Next, there is the problem of the fact that the patriarch was not always biologically related. For example, slaves were considered part of the house of their *master* not their *biological father.* In other words, if you were a slave, the “father” who would give you away in marriage was your master.

But it is worse than this. Resident aliens were also considered part of the household. Hence, if a household from another country converts to Judaism, but doesn’t have enough money to pay for his own house, he can come under the care of another household, and he will legally be considered part of *that* household, and not a separate household of his own. Hence, if the resident aliens have a daughter, her patriarch is *not* her father, but the patriarch of the house under whose care they have come.

Also, there were several different sections to the family. What we have discussed above is only the “house of the father.” You also have the “clan” and the “tribe.” Hence, there were different levels even within the family structure. Therefore, to reduce the Near Eastern family down to “father,” “mother,” and “children,” with the biological father as the patriarch is *way* too reductionistic.

Now, I want to point out that all of this is assuming that we must practice betrothal and patriarchy the way it was practiced in the Hebrew Bible. However, if a person asserts that, not only will he have to deal with the background data just mentioned, but he will also have to prove *from the text* that the text is saying this is how getting from singleness to marriage *must be done.* That is absolutely impossible to prove exegetically.

Hence, the whole position is tenuous, and it is surprising that it is gaining traction. However, I think the bigger problem is, when you have an extra-biblical tradition that you then bring to the text, you are always going to have to reconstruct the history and message of the text based on that tradition. That is why the exegesis and history of the text must trump the history of how people have understood the text. If that doesn’t happen, you fall into similar traps to the ones we have seen in this post.


6 Responses to “Betrothal and the Problem of Tradition”

  1. Bruce Says:

    Really liked this post of yours. Lots of great insight. Thank you.

    Do you remember any of my sermons on the Life of Jacob, back at F-Ak-Oh, during my last year there? I’m in the middle of re-preaching them at my current call, so a lot of that subject is fresh in my mind. I want to get “further” into the story this time, get his whole life in, if possible.

    Jacob is so nearly my favorite OT person. His story teaches us tremendously about the covenant of grace. Last week was the vignette concerning Jacob’s children’s births (title: Life from the Dead). This morning was the last six-years of service, when the tables are turned (title: the Lord Provides).

    This you wrote: “The point is, Jacob sows lies and cheating, and Jacob reaps lies and cheating” is right on the money, in my judgment. Consider this subsidiary element: Jacob pretended to be his older bother, conspiring with his mother against his father; Leah pretended to be her younger sister, conspiring with her father against Jacob.

    So many actual textual gemstones there, why do people have to invent stuff? The problem is they aren’t trained, called, and ordained; and they probably couldn’t be, so they go off and set up their own “ministry,” and appeal to the flesh. In real church-work, Christ is the center. For the rest, its all about man, and Gnostic keys to revelatory wisdom, and wielding power over others.

    Someday, you’ve got to come up and see us. I’ll have to salute you and call you “Dr.” or something just as pretentious.

  2. otrmin Says:

    Hey Pastor Bruce!

    Someday, you’ve got to come up and see us. I’ll have to salute you and call you “Dr.” or something just as pretentious.

    Well, I certainly want to get a doctorate, but, to be honest, I am considering not telling anyone when I finally get it. I have learned that the letters Ph.d after your name does not guarantee the accuracy of what you say. There are so many people who follow all kinds of nutty theories just because someone with Ph.d after their name said it. I would also be very glad to come up and see you guys; I wanted to be there at the anniversary celebration, but the price of gas was outragous at the time, and being a poor college student gives you only enough money to live on, buy your books, and get back and forth to school.

    So many actual textual gemstones there, why do people have to invent stuff? The problem is they aren’t trained, called, and ordained; and they probably couldn’t be, so they go off and set up their own “ministry,” and appeal to the flesh. In real church-work, Christ is the center. For the rest, its all about man, and Gnostic keys to revelatory wisdom, and wielding power over others.

    I had a friend at Trinity who studied under Dr. D.A. Carson, and she told me a wonderful insight that Dr. Carson had that I believe explains the problem well. She told me that Dr. Carson said that people in evangelicalism confuse the idea that the Bible was written *for* us with the idea that the Bible was written *to* us. In other words, we in evangelicalism act as though the Bible says, “Dear Bruce,” rather than, “to the church at Corinth.” The man I am critiquing in this post believes that we must find a practice in the Bible, or we cannot do it. In other words, because you can’t find dating or courtship specifically mentioned in the Bible, it is wrong. The Biblical procedure is betrothal, since that is what is specifically mentioned in the Bible. Again, he assumes that the Bible is written *to* him, and thus, tells him the very procedure of how to get from singleness to marriage.

    The biggest problem I see today is that we really don’t teach people how to properly interpret and apply the Bible. That leads to all kinds of chaos when people start talking about “Biblical” dating, “Biblical” courtship, or “Biblical” anything. If you don’t know how to interpret and apply the Bible, using terms like “Biblical” become ambiguous at best, and manipulative at worst.

    God Bless,

  3. Mike Says:

    I like the post by Adam and also the comment in his reply “The biggest problem I see today is that we really don’t teach people how to properly interpret and apply the Bible. “. I would go further and say that an equally big problem is that many are taught how to interpret and apply the Bible, and they believe it is done properly, but others would take a different view. The conflict between “sound biblical” views leads to much confusion.

    However, I don’t like the comment from pastor Bruce ” why do people have to invent stuff? The problem is they aren’t trained, called, and ordained; ” which is clearly untrue, and is really a bit elitist with a touch of the fleshiness he refers to in others.

    It seems ironic to be praising Adam who points out that we are not teaching the Bible properly, and claim that the problem is connected with being called and ordained which is barely Biblical at all.

    There are many sound believers working hard and faithfully without any recognition or ordination. Historically, many who have been called heretics were really heros for the faith. No one needs to be called and ordained to share the truth of the gospel with his freinds, his family, her neigbours, their virtual contacts, those dying in the next bed, etc., but they certainly benefit from good Biblical teaching.

    I think pastor Bruce demonstrates the point made by Adam about bringing a tradition or some already held view and fitting his theology around it.

    Sorry to admit it, but I will have to ask myself how much I do the same thing.


  4. Bruce Says:

    This comment, “…which is clearly untrue, and is really a bit elitist with a touch of the fleshiness he refers to in others,” is just a bunch of accusatory assertions. In fact, don’t those words reveal a bit of smug populism, a sense of superiority masquerading as aw-shucks and down-home folk wisdom?
    Mike, my point was very simple: Error abounds because the first-century false-teachers (who were not of the Apostles’ school, nor approved by them) are still with us. Like the writer criticized, they are still “making it up” as they go, and have the appearance of godliness (2Tim.3:5-8), and set themselves up as “teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm,” 1Tim.1:7. These are self-commending people, 2Cor.10:18.
    No, an official church position isn’t an absolute requirement to teach. But Christians should value such, as establishing an elevated threshold of trust, provided qualified men are selected for the roles. And we ought to be able to hold all teachers to a standard of orthodoxy, so that we will confess here with one voice that same faith confessed in earlier generations, and which we will all confess together before the Throne in glory.
    The existence of an inherited Body of Theology is helpful for expressing the standard of that which the living saints agree (along with our fathers in the faith) the Bible teaches. All heretics quote Scripture–how do we answer them? Just pointing to a Bible and calling that “the faith once delivered to the saints,” and “the pattern of sound words,” won’t cut it. The contest concerns the meaning of those words; that is to say, the dispute is just over “the pattern.”
    Mike, I expect you accept all kinds of professional “elitism” every day without questioning its propriety. But, when it comes to the matters of greatest moment in all the world–eternal salvation–you aren’t shy of leveling those, who have passed rigorous tests for approval, to the common status of “opinionators.”
    There is plenty of biblical support for training, calling, and officially ordaining/approving/appointing teachers of the Scripture by and for the church. You haven’t a clue about what you criticize as “barely biblical.”
    But you are right about one thing, Mike. If you don’t even know what *form* of tradition you “already hold,” then you are at the mercy of whimsical-theology at every single point. Your cultural and social influences have already taken over, and there’s no telling what confirmation-bias you’ll fall for.

    • Mike Says:

      Hi Bruce, thanks for your response. I really did expect one because I know this issue touches the nerves. As you know none of the disciples (12) had any significant religious training before Jesus chose them, and Pauls training was not in Christianity. I am not aware of any schools for training Timothy, Barnabus, Silas, Apollos,etc. Saul was called by Christ himself on the road to Damascus and renamed Paul, and he constituted an apostle “out of time”. He was not ordained and was only given the right hand of fellowship several years later.

      An apostle is “one sent” so apart from the 12 who were sent by Christ, others apostles were sent by local congregations. These men were all chosen and sent which is not the same as being called and ordained.

      The world is plagued with ordained men, and now lots of ordained women too. Approved by some ecclesiatical denominational body who would wish to impose their theology on the laity and call everyone else misguided or heretical, except for the more recent ecumenism where all you have to agree on is unity.

      We can say that “all are called but few are chosen”, or those “called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:”

      The concept of calling such as exists, is not one of volunteering, studying and finding the approval of likeminded men (or women), but is of God. As such, it can be a calling to many things including totally uneducated martyrdom.

      Having said all this, I agree with most of what you wrote. Indeed, I would not bother to have commented on this blog if I thought you were anything other than true beleiver in Christ, in grace alone, by faith, and with a high view of the Bible. Nevertheless, as iron sharpens iron, a discussion between true believers in grace can be a good thing. My only point was that your comment about “The problem is they aren’t trained, called, and ordained” which is not true of any of the New Testament writers apart from their training in Judaism or medicine. The concept of ordination has more to do with the appearance of religious authority before men. The best authority is good biblical understanding (as Adam said) and a spirit filled humility before all men. The foot of the cross is the only place to minister from.

      • Bruce Says:

        Subjects like these touch nerves because they are directly connected to spiritual matters having maximum consequence. The world is plagued by “unordained” people posturing as spiritual leaders, and as much by “ordained” false teachers.

        So your solution is to abolish the function of the “laying on of hands,” 1Tim.4:14; Heb.6:2? Get rid of ordination, in other words? Ordination is a natural function Christ has left his church to fulfill. Perhaps you’d do better to promote its proper function, after you trouble yourself to study it.

        Yes, the disciples were simple fishermen BEFORE they were brought into service of Christ. King Jesus called them (Mt.4:21), trained them for three years (Lk.6:40), and ordained/commissioned them (Mt.28:18-30) as Apostles. He specially entrusted them with the responsibility of establishing his new worldwide administration. Equipping them any less would have been negligent!

        Paul also identified himself as one who was uniquely “called” and “set apart” for the same Apostolic service as the Twelve, see Rom.1:1, cf.1Cor.9:1 & 15:8; Act.2:43 & 2Cor.12:12; Gal.2:11. He distinguishes his appointment as “truly” or “genuinely” apostolic of Christ (as opposed to a lesser appointment, or false), versus those he derisively calls “super-apostles” in 2Cor.12:11. The proof of his ministry was in his power, 1Cor.4:19, and in its recognition by the other Apostles and the church under their leadership, Gal.2:9.

        Act.19:13-17 has a rather dramatic and embarrassing take on some who asserted their authority to speak in the name of Christ without his promise or permission.

        Scripture plainly teaches that, in an extraordinary act of condescension, not even CHRIST entered his office without an ordination: Heb.5:4-5, “And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.
        So even Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.'” If the Lord Jesus did not exempt himself from propriety, who dares dress himself up as an official of his, without fear and trembling?

        The Bible says that church leaders must NOT be novices, but must be apt to teach–and no one can teach what they do not know. If your complaint is with academic training as opposed to apprenticeship training, I think that’s a fruitless argument over methodology. The Bible contains examples of both sorts of education, without passing judgment. Besides, no one is here suggesting that obtaining a diploma is a “ticket” to ministry.

        I think you are dismissing, without sufficient evaluation, the seriousness with which others have studied the Scriptures, that they might receive the mind of God by his Spirit in these matters. You label such concerns as being exclusively the “appearance of religious authority before men,” when in fact the concern is (when properly ordered) first the arrangement of religious authority as dictated by Scripture, that men may afterward have confidence in the “appearance” of Christ’s rule over them, Heb.13:17.

        Mike, do your Berean duty, Act.17:11; and your Thessalonian duty, 1Ths.2:13.

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