Serious Christians know there are some troubling passages in our Bible. Some of the righteous commit terrible evils. Almost everyone knows about the David, Bathsheba, and Uriah the Hittite triangle. A few people will be uncomfortable doing so, but will say something about the offering of Isaac. And there are others examples that involve the sins of individuals. But what about situations that are of particular interest to Progressive Christians? What about structural evil?
The First Egyptian Slavery
We are familiar with the story of the Passover and Exodus. The Israelites are finally free from bondage in Egyptian slavery. But that is the second Egyptian slavery mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. The first was developed by God’s dreamer Joseph. Joseph himself was a slave. This fact makes the story even more remarkable. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. His brothers sold him into slavery because his dreams implied he would rule over them all. Most of us heard the story told how Joseph gained position in Egypt “second only to Pharaoh.” As a ruler in Egypt he saved his brothers and their families.
It is a wonderful story about sibling rivalry and family dynamics. But there is a troubling passage, Genesis 47:13-26. The Patriarchs, as we know, went to Egypt to buy food because of famine. What did the people of Egypt do during this time? It turns out they were buying food from the storehouses of Pharaoh too. Joseph sells the people grain until the money gives out. The next year the people sell their livestock. The next time they sell their land. The final time they sell themselves to have food. What happened? The reader could have assumed the grain was stored for seven years so that there would be food for the people. The grain was stored and then sold to the people until the people sold themselves. This is a great structural evil developed by a righteous man. would Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Amos have said about this action?
God’s righteous dreamer makes the evil that eventually afflicts the people he saved. Why did he do these things? Joseph had to preserve the structure that ruled Egypt and from which he benefited. Joseph likely purchased the grain with tax money. He then stored it in silos built by Pharaoh. The grain belonged to Pharaoh and was sold eventually with Pharaoh taking the animals and the land the people used to sustain themselves and produce wealth. There is no avoidance of this moral problem that was created by a good person upholding an essentially unjust social structure. The only possible good to come from it is to admit it is what it is.
Is there a different structure available? The Jerusalem Church freely redistributed goods to fulfill one another’s needs. (Acts 4:32-35) The Apostles did not develop this alternative structure within the larger social system. It had been done by the Essenes and the Qumran Community using as there model the prophetic communities described in the books of Samuel and Kings. These communities like later monastic ones were alternatives within a greater structure that produced the stuff that was shared. But this pattern could have been followed by Joseph to make provision for Pharaoh’s people. The only reason he didn’t was the preservation of the institutions that ruled.
The Supremacy of The Righteous Seed
The next structural evil on my list is committed by Ezra and Nehemiah. The action taken was so apparently unjust that another Biblical book was written in response to it. I am talking about the dissolution of mixed marriages.
Cyrus the Persian King allowed captive peoples to return to their homelands. The exiles and their children from Israel and Judah returned to Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. The settled under the direction of Zerubbabel to rebuild the Temple and restore Hebrew identity. There was one problem with their plan. Other people had been exiled to this land. And there is more. Some of the people living in the land were Israelites that never left. They had a different perspective on Hebrew identity.
Ezra is a priest described as “a scholar of the text of the Lord and his statutes for Israel.” He becomes the pattern for the religious leadership during the Second Temple period. The Priesthood was careful about categories. Clean, unclean, and holy defined their world. And they defined their identities. The books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah come from this time and the mindset. Unfortunately, the concept of holy gets confused with superiority. The idea of a Holy seed was, if you will, planted and took root very quickly. The people of the land were not as holy or separated from others as the former exiles. Intermarriage was a problem for their holy identity.
The returned exiles are not welcomed as new neighbors. The people of the land built lives where they lived. They were not willing to have “outsiders’ upset what they established. It is what happens when populations move. It is a condition of human communities. History is full of examples of this biblical story. The leaders of the communities decide what the responses will be. Both sides in this story see the other as a threat.
Ezra and Nehemiah force the issue by dissolving “mixed” marriages. Israelites are to only marry Israelites. If they marry someone else their children are unclean. But what then happens to the children? They are “unclean” and not part of the holy people. What happens is morally repugnant.
The good news in this story is that not everyone agrees to it. Someone wrote an alternate narrative to counter the solution of dissolution. The story told is Ruth. She is a Moabite woman who stays by her widowed mother-in-law Naomi. The two women move to the holy land where Ruth supports Naomi by gleaning the fields. She marries Boaz a kinsman of Naomi’s by whom she bears a son named Obed. He later had a son named Jesse who had a son named King David. The King was an ancestor to Zerubbabel who brought the first wave of returned exiles. But it does not end there. Tradition held that Boaz was the son of Rahab the Harlot who sheltered the Israelite spies in Jericho. She was a Canaanite.
The “righteous seed” does come from foreign women, Ruth says. The story does not end the issue. It walks it back some. Malachi argues that Ezra’s tear-filled prayer does not make what they did right. “Because the Lord was a witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and wife by covenant. Did not one God make her? Both flesh and spirit are his. And what does the one God desire? Godly offspring. So look to yourselves, and do not let anyone be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts.” (2:14b-16)
Christians often fail in calling structural evils into account. We fail cause we have material wealth and personal identities invested in them. The sin of the world is illustrated in these examples. Josephus claims the Samaritans and the mutual hatred described in the gospels resulted from the policy of Ezra and Nehemiah. Knowing this, we should recognize how important it is for the church to look closely at the structures of our world and the attitudes that mutually support each other.