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Thought for the Day – Friday 7 May 2021 from Phil Gardner (All Hallows)Readings: Deuteronomy 21.22–22.8, 1 Peter 3.1–12When I first looked at today’s readings, I groaned inwardly. What had I done to be saddled with passages that appear to condemn cross-dressing and to enforce patriarchal, sexist attitudes – calling women “the weaker sex” (1 Peter 3:7), for example? My heart sank.It was tempting to focus solely on the nice bits, like “You shall not see your neighbour’s donkey or ox fallen on the road and ignore it; you shall help to lift it up”. But that would be too cosy. So I’m going to go through the Deuteronomy passage to find some themes that might be useful for us to think about.Today’s chunk of Deuteronomy is a rather odd mixture of practical regulations, moral instructions, and social norms. Only the first kind might be included in modern statute law: in 22:8 builders are sensibly required to erect a parapet around the (flat) roof of a new-build house to stop anyone falling off. But the principle is much wider than a specific health and safety issue – it’s part of one’s duty to care for others, and that in turn is part of the fundamental teaching to love your neighbour as yourself.In 22:1–4 there are specific examples of caring for others: you have to look after your neighbour’s lost property or animals in trouble – you can’t say “it’s none of my business” or pass by on the other side, because you’re part of the same community. And it’s not only people who must be cared for: in 22:6 it applies to animals too. If you gather the eggs from a nesting bird, you mustn’t take the mother as well – she has to be left free to lay more eggs later. If you kill the mother bird, why should you live a long life? The implication is that God’s people will flourish if they care for their neighbours, their animals and the whole of God’s creation. This is my main take-away from this reading.Verse 22:5 feels as if it’s been randomly inserted into the otherwise coherent section 22:1–6. Its claim that God finds cross-dressing disgusting is hard to get one’s head round. Like many Old Testament laws, it’s difficult to know the reason behind what seems to be an arbitrary restriction. Perhaps it is simply stating a social norm, attributing to God most people’s dislike of ‘deviant’ behaviour. Or perhaps cross-dressing was an aspect of idolatrous religious practices of the time.Of course, as St Paul repeatedly emphasizes, especially in Galatians, Christians are not subject to the Law of Moses: we don’t have to be circumcised, not do we have to keep all those regulations that belonged to a previous covenant. So, while we should appreciate the ethical principles that underlie many of the regulations, they are not our rule-book: we have to judge for ourselves which principles still remain useful for us.Trigger warning: some gruesome content follows.Back now to the regulation at the beginning of the Deuteronomy reading (21:22–23), the one about having to bury the body of an executed criminal before nightfall rather than leaving it hanging on a tree or pole, displayed as a warning to others. What’s the background here? This practice of displaying the dead body, often for a long time while it decayed, was reserved for the most serious capital crimes – rebellion, treason or murder. It was separate from the method of execution , which in ancient Israel was usually by stoning. Such displays, known as ‘gibbeting’ , survived into modern times: they were abolished in England in 1834, soon after the last two murderers had been gibbeted in 1832.This regulation in 21:22–23 didn’t abolish gibbeting altogether, but it reduced the time for which a body could be displayed from days or weeks to hours – until sunset on the day of execution. Moreover, the body had to be buried on the same day. This, of course, would have greatly reduced the deterrent effect, so I expect the law-and-order party in Israel wouldn’t have been too happy!So what was the reason for the regulation? It’s said to be that leaving the body of this cursed criminal unburied would defile the land that God is giving them – which is strange: you might think that burying the body would defile the land! My guess (and it is only a guess) is that even the worst criminals are still God’s people, made in God’s image, and so deserve to be treated with respect and dignity at their end.If that or something like it is right, the regulation has a similar principle to “an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” (Leviticus 24:19–20), which was intended to limit retribution and to let the punishment fit the crime – thus ending the cycle of ever-worsening vendettas.Is there a modern equivalent of hanging criminals on a pole for everyone to see? I suspect there is; I think our ‘pole’ or ‘tree’ may be the media, who are obsessed with the vilest criminals (Rose and Fred West, Jimmy Savile and so on) for years on end. And this is not even to deter others, it’s to boost profits by pandering to people’s fascination with cruelty and appalling evil – which defiles not the land but our society. After they’ve been condemned and punished, let’s ‘bury’ them quickly and leave them to the judgement and mercy of God. ... See MoreSee Less
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