Is it really seven to one?

hermeneutics_BannerYou know, I had decided to sit my somewhere and think about myself (that’s “Ghanaianese”for minding one’s business) over the recent brouhaha generated by Duncan Williams’ preaching on marriage and women until I read someone justifying his use of Isaiah 4 in his preaching. Then I lost my cool, realizing how Ghanaian Christian leaders need to pay better attention to equipping the saints with the right tools of discernment when it comes to the use of the bible so we don’t waste our energy fighting straw men but focus on Jesus and his kingdom.

Bible Interpretation Methods

Contrary to what most Christians think, especially those of the Protestant lineage, that only 2 things are essential to our understanding of the bible 1) an the ability to read it in plain English and 2) the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Bible is a document that can yield multiple interpretations even with these tools in hand because we all come to it with our own filters, intentional or acquired. It is important then for us to realize that one’s interpretative methods colour how one receives and interprets scripture, and the situation above is a clear case of an acquired interpretive problem of “symbolizing” real historical events in the Old Testament so they can be applied at will elsewhere.

Howard Snyder, Professor of History and Theology of Missions, in his book “Salvation Means Creation Healed”, paints the picture of how Bible study in the Middle Ages adopted an attitude towards the Old Testament that has stuck with popular Christianity till date, despite modern scholarship seriously debunking this attitude. It was basically the tendency to read the Old Testament as symbols and mysteries of a “spiritual” reality. Hear him:

“The fundamental mistake here was to see the Old testament as allegory rather than real salvation history – an error still found in popular Christianity today. The Hebrew Scriptures became the mystical typological background of the gospel, not the necessary historical context within which the gospel can  only properly be understood. Allegorizing the Bible is, above all, a way to get around the embarrassing materiality, physicality, passions, and historicity of the Old Testament… The earthiness of the Old Testament is an embarassment to Neo-Platonic thought”. (Howard Snyder, Salvation Means Creation Healed, pp 22)

It is this approach to the text which allows a picture painted of events that were about to happen (and did happen) in the immediate history of the prophet Isaiah to be taken as “symbol” of how the “end times” in which we supposedly are today would be, even though all the historical evidence points to its fulfillment thousands of years ago. So let’s look at the original passage from which the seven to 1 ratio may have come from, namely Isaiah 4.

Isaiah 4

Verse 1 reads as follows

“In that day seven women will take hold of one man and say, “We will eat our own food and provide our own clothes; only let us be called by your name. Take away our disgrace!” (Is 4:1 NIV)

It is this passage that is used by Duncan Williams to say that “It’s a privilege in the time we live in when it’s seven [women] to one man”. Let us find out both biblically and logically if we are indeed in such times.

Better Attention To The Text

One of the important principles of bible study is not to read one verse alone as a means of making an argument. Second is to realize that the verse and chapter divisions in the bible are artificial and not inspired by God. With those 2 caveats in mind, it is very easy to step back into chapter 3 and realize what Isaiah had been talking about all along – that Jerusalem will be destroyed for its disobedience to Yahweh.

“See now, the Lord, the Lord Almighty, is about to take from Jerusalem and Judah both supply and support: all supplies of food and all supplies of water,” (Is 3:1 NIV).

The direness of the situation will be such that a person who can afford a cloak is considered better off than others and therefore worthy of taking up leadership.

“A man will seize one of his brothers in his father’s house, and say, ‘You have a cloak, you be our leader; take charge of this heap of ruins!’”(Is 3:6 NIV)

Now the real key to all this is situated here

“Your men will fall by the sword, your warriors in battle” (Is 3:25 NIV)

Isaiah chapter 3 and 4 clearly describe the effects that war creates in any environment, and is exactly what happened during the days of Isaiah. Previously the northern kingdom of Israel had been besieged and exiled by the Assyrian army, now the southern kingdom of Judah was going to face (and did face) being besieged by the Babylonian army in both 598 BC and final destruction in 588 BC. The same things happened again after Jesus predicted the Jewish wars of AD 67-70, leading to the last and final destruction of the Jerusalem temple to date.

Consequences of War

Because in most ancient societies, only men went to war, the logical consequence is that the number of men will be reduced as compared to the number of women. The longer the war, the worse this effect is. And in ancient societies where women’s rights were restricted and in which women could only function properly by being under the “name” of a man (either their father or their husband), it was only logical that one man may take on oversight responsibility for more than one woman by marrying them. This is actually one of the main reasons why polygamy was not spoken against but rather regulated by the Torah (and is neither explicitly condemned by the New Testament).

So when Isaiah says that “In that day seven women will take hold of one man …” he isn’t saying anything that takes rocket science to figure out. He’s simply stating what always happens in war and is about to happen to Judah for it’s unfaithfulness to Yahweh.

This state of shortage of men after war is not new in history, but is a recorded observation even in modern history. Following World War II German women’s attitudes towards sex changed due to the shortage of “marriagable”men. Having lost their husbands and other eligible men to war and finding themselves unable to find suitable long term partners, it is reported that they resorted to having sex outside of wedlock in order to be able to also enjoy sexual satisfaction even if they were not married. In the state of Bavaria alone (whose capital is Munich, Adolf Hitler’s former “headquarters”), the ratio fell to 6 men to 10 women, causing a change from 10% of children born out of wedlock to 22% at the end of the war.

The Interpretive Mistake

The interpretive mistake by Duncan Williams however is to read Isaiah as if he had nothing to say to his immediate culture and therefore everything he said needed to be “spiritualized”to meet the concerns of people who will come 3000 years after him. This is typically achieved by reading everything “Israel” and “Jerusalem” and “Judah” to mean the modern church, and “end times”, “last days” etc in typically a pre-tribulational rapture framework.

Unfortunately for this interpretive method, scholarship and study of both Old and New Testament history shows that biblical prophecy was largely meant to be a commentary on what Yahweh thinks of the state of faithfulness of his people in the time it was delivered, and to summon them back to faithfulness if they have departed from it, or receive Yahweh’s wrath. It may contain some elements that will be fulfilled in the future beyond the prophet’s generation or two, but no right thinking Jew would call Isaiah a prophet and preserve his words for us today if he had nothing to say to his immediate generations. Modern Christians must realize therefore that allegorizing without first historicizing is simply a recipe for error and this Medieval era interpretive tradition needs to be used with a pinch of salt.

In a sermon that I listened to a few days ago, Bruxy Cavey teaching pastor of an Anabaptist church (TheMeetingHouse) quoted another person (whose name has disappeared in my foggy brain somewhere) as follows.

“There are 2 kinds of Christians. NOT those who are influenced by tradition and those who are not, BUT those who are aware of this influence and those who are not”.

This interpretative tradition of reading the Old Testament in only symbolic terms is so 10th century, so let’s move on already.

Rest assured that in the time we live in, there really ISN’T any such ratio of seven women to one man, so let’s have a more constructive discussion about marriage, gender and so on without resorting to these means.

3 Responses to “Is it really seven to one?”
  1. God bless you for explaining Isaiah 4 to us in a clear fashion.

  2. GHottor says:

    God Bless you.

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  1. […] were able to use the tool of allegory, a specific example of which I wrote about a few weeks ago here, to make the Bible support everything that these Reformers at the time wanted to find biblical […]

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