God Hits the “Smite” Button
A Heretic’s Guide to the Bible Bonus
Readings from Beyond the Lectionary by David Ackerman for Proper 6: June 16, 2013
Bible Cliff’s Notes
Matthew 12:43-45: This is a strange statement by Jesus in which he talks about how an unclean spirit wanders through deserts after leaving a person and returns to the house from where it came. It brings along seven spirits more evil than itself so that things are worse for the person than they were. “So it will be also with this wicked generation,” Jesus says.
Genesis 38:1-26 – After regaling us with the lively tale of how God strikes Onan dead when he spills his semen on the ground, the author of Genesis relates how a widow named Tamar dresses up like a prostitute in order to seduce her father-in-law, Judah. She succeeds and is found to be pregnant. When he tries to have her burned to death, she produces some of his personal belongings, reminding him that he’s the one who put her in that position. So he backs off the whole fire thing, and pouts about not giving her as a wife to his other son.
Psalm 35:19-25 – The psalmist offers a prayer here for vindication from enemies.
Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira agree to lie to the disciples and keep for themselves some of the money from land that they sold. Peter confronts Ananias, who drops over dead. A few hours later Sapphira comes in and when Peter confronts her, she dies, too.
WTF: Where’s the Faith? Scripture in Plain Language
The Unclean Spirit: This is a good example of how different the ancient Near Eastern world was so incredibly different from our 21st century Western culture. In the time of the writing of Matthew’s gospel, when something bad happened, somebody had to be blamed. Unexplainable events were relegated to the “spirit” world, so if bad things happened to people, evil spirits were seen to be at fault. Throughout Matthew 12, Jesus uses popular understandings of his day to explain how people will suffer for not being aware of his coming (see v 45).
Onan: The story of Onan in the book of Genesis has often been used as a prohibition against masturbation. In the words of Biblical scholar (and self-proclaimed “God-Nerd”) Christian Piatt, “the bit about Onan is the enduring tale that keeps teenagers quaking between the sheets (Banned Questions about the Bible, Chalice, 2011). Really, though, the issue at hand (pun intended) is not masturbation but something else entirely (see Navel-Gazing: First Thoughts).
Judah and Tamar: Tamar was married to Judah’s son, Er. In that time, it was customary that if a married man died, it was his brother’s duty to marry his widow, have intercourse with her, and raise up children for him. So Judah told Onan to do his brotherly duty with Tamar, but he when he was ready to ejaculate, he spilled his semen on the ground, and God struck him dead. Judah refused to marry her to his other son, Shelah, so Tamar took matters into her own hands (see Bible Cliff’s Notes).
Ananias and Sapphira: The text implies that this husband and wife were supposed to give everything to the disciples, and when they conspire to keep some back for themselves, Peter confronts them both and they die. This passage causes some to question both the justice and mercy of God and makes them wonder, “If I lie, will God kill me, too?”
Navel-gazing: First Thoughts
- Rabbi Edwin Friedman once wrote, “When things start going really well, watch out” (Friedman’s Fables Discussion Questions, Guilford, 1990). While the story of the wandering unclean spirit in Matthew 12 may seem really strange to us, it describes the reality that often, when things are going well for us, we get sabotaged. The sixty thousand dollar question here is: to what degree we are helpless victims of sabotage and to what degree we are responsible for it?
- The story about Onan in Genesis 38 isn’t about masturbation. God was angry with Onan because of his refusal to do his familial duty….