As I recently read Richard Foltz's Spirituality in the Land of the Noble: How Iran Shaped the World's Religions
I came upon a paragraph that gave me pause. It was a short paragraph in the introductory section on the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) influence on the ancient Near-East, but it connected me to themes I have wrestled with for some time now. The paragraphs reads -
One type of pact performed by the PIEs was the mithra, a covenant between two parties, the other being a varuna or individual oath... In keeping with their belief about the supernatural inhering in abstract notions as well as in material things, Indo-Iranians personified the spiritual qualities (mainyus) of these verbal pacts as powerful and important dieties. The veracity of one's oral proclamations could be put to the test, through fire ordeal in the case of mithras ans water in the case of varunas, which may explain why Mithra and Varuna, who were responsible for sparing the truthful and punishing the unworthy, became such important gods.
Now I was familiar with Mithra - he only became a major deity in a number of the cultures influenced by the Indo-Europeans as they spread across the ancient Near-East. You know stuff like being subsumed into Zoroastrianism as the savior figure who was born of a virgin on December 25 in a cave witnessed by shepherds. But this was the first I had ever read of the ancient concepts of oath taking that evolved into personified deities. I was especially intrigued by the water ordeal to test the veracity of a personal oath. Apparently this ordeal involved either immersing a person underwater (if they survived they were innocent) or forcing a person to drink the "golden oath water" which brings out the truth by causing jaundice. An ancient practice common in the cultures that settled the ancient near-East, predating Zoroaster, Moses, and possibly Abraham.
Why did this brief paragraph give me pause? Because it addressed the cultural underpinnings of a Biblical practice that I have struggled to understand. When I first encountered the description of "the test for an unfaithful wife" as described in Numbers 5:11-31
I was appalled. Here is a ceremony that reeked more of magic than faith and seemed to be extremely arbitrary and unfair to the woman. I just could not understand how this was a God given law. To have a woman whose husband was jealous drink a strange mixture and if she was guilty she would waste away and if she was innocent she could have children didn't fit even within the Old Testament worldview I knew. I recall being involved in numerous discussions about this particular passage a few years ago. Many people took the - "it's in the Bible so God must have put it there so I can't question (or be bothered by) it" route. Others tried to reinterpret it as being a completely meaningless ritual that could never work and would therefore always prove the women innocent. God obviously couldn't change the culture and stop making men be jealous and possessive of women, or improve conditions for women who are thrown out or stoned for adultery (or suspicion thereof), so he gave the Jews this pointless test to protect women - just another way that God is actually pro-woman. But it still didn't make sense.
So I find it helpful to see that this practice has its roots not in some God given new mandate, but in the common cultural rituals of the lands the Jews inhabited. Of course it seems magical and pagan because that is what it is. That leaves the issue for those who do think the Bible is inspired to understand why God would want his people using a ritual that derived from animistic deities. But even still, I find the ideas of this being a "redeemed" practice less disturbing than the assumption that this is a God given practice. But maybe that's just me coming to terms with letting go of my evangelical conceptions regarding scripture.
Labels: Bible, Gender Issues, History, Theology