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Relevant Verses: Nehemiah 13

Leading question: Are some decisions so bad, that the way out requires the suspension of grace?

The formal study guide has chosen to dedicate this whole lesson to the fifth problem which Nehemiah discovered when returning to Jerusalem after a 12 year absence, namely, the call to end all mixed marriages. A crucial question looms over this issue: Is the way of Jesus’ “better” than that presented in the OT? While Jesus himself never killed anyone, never even struck anyone – when he cleansed the temple he attacked the furniture not the people – he does tell stories in which violent punishments play a key role.

The story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) comes like a cold shower after one has absorbed the teachings of Jesus. And 1 Corinthians 5 presents a “violent” side of the Apostle Paul – “Drive out the wicked person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:13), a striking contrast with 1 Corinthians 13, a beautiful passage found in the same book.

The last verse in chapter 4 of 1 Corinthians may point us to a kind of middle ground, namely, the occasional but necessary use of the heavy hand: “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love, in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:21). Still, the actions of Nehemiah in addressing the question of the mixed marriages contrast sharply with the methods of Jesus.

The author of this study guide (Alden Thompson) approaches this issue with a heavy “accommodationist” emphasis, which sees Jesus as the clearest revelation of God, with all other “revelations” being “accommodations” to sinful human circumstances. Two chapters in his book, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? show how he develops and applies this approach: chapter 2, “Behold it was very good, and then it all turned sour,” and chapter 6, “The worst story in the Old Testament.”

In only one instance does Ellen White address and illustrate this position. In Patriarchs and Prophets (p. 515) she seeks to explain the custom lying behind the establishment of the cities of refuge in ancient Israel (see Numbers 35), blood vengeance. This excerpt from a paper presented to European Adventists addresses her “developing” understanding of the cities of refuge as an “accommodation” to sinful conditions.

Divine accommodation. In my own approach to Scripture, the idea of “radical divine accommodation” in response to the needs of a humanity steeped in violence, provides a framework within which the God who revealed himself most fully through the non-violent Jesus, can be seen to be consistent with the violent God of the Old Testament. The biblical foundation for such an approach is laid out in my book, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?, especially in chapter 2, “Behold it was very good, then it all turned sour.”

The idea that God accommodates or condescends to work within tragic and violent human situations has a long but fragile history within Christianity. It is not universally acclaimed in evangelical circles. Indeed, it is often emphatically rejected. The late David Wright, the left-of-center evangelical church historian at the University of Edinburgh who was instrumental in getting the first edition of Who’s Afraid? published by Paternoster Press in Britain, told me that InterVarsity Press UK would never touch the book because the emphasis on accommodation in it was far too strong.

I have kept my eye open for traces of an accommodationist approach in Ellen White’s writings, especially in connection with violent passages. She says nothing about the worst ones: bloodguilt for Saul in 2 Samuel 21, the dismembered concubine in Judges 19-21. But she does tackle the custom of blood vengeance that lies behind the appointment of the cities of refuge, described most fully in Numbers 35. To my knowledge, however, this is the only narrative where Ellen White explicitly adopts an accommodationist interpretation. Here we see it in two steps: first in an 1881 periodical article and then in 1890 in Patriarchs and Prophets.

A comparison of the two passages reveals her struggles with the story. Her concern that murder be punished, prominent in 1881, disappears in 1890. The importance of protecting the innocent is affirmed in both.

In 1890 she focuses exclusively on safety for the accused and refers to the appointment of these cities as a “merciful provision” that was “rendered necessary by the ancient custom of private vengeance.” Her conclusion: “The Lord did not see fit to abolish this custom at that time.”

But neither account is a clean accommodation. In 1881 the avenger may act “in extreme cases”; in 1890, “where guilt was clearly evident.” But Scripture offers no such qualifications. If the accused could not outrun his pursuer, the avenger was free to kill him without penalty.

The crucial point: Ellen White has adopted the position that God was not directly responsible for the ancient custom, but chose to work within the framework of what was considered to be just at that time.

From: Alden Thompson, “Ellen White: A Gentle Corrective for Adventist Fundamentalism?” Presented at Ellen White Symposium, Villa Aurora, Florence, Italy, November 2, 2011: “The European Seventh-day Adventist Church in the XXI Century: The Relevance and Meaning of the Writings of Ellen White”

Obversations about the contrast between Nehemiah 13 and the NT:

1. No choice offered to the foreign wives. The text of Scripture itself records no offer of “conversion” to the foreign wives. They are summarily dismissed.

2. Beating and cursing. The text of Nehemiah offers no gentle alternatives, only the heavy hand of Nehemiah: “And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves” (Neh. 13.25, NRSV).

3. Jesus’ attitude toward foreigners. While we have no record in the Gospels of how Jesus dealt with the issue of mixed marriages, we do have his response to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4) and the Canaanite woman of Tyre and Sidon (Matthew 15).

4. Jesus’ attitude toward the use of force. In Matthew’s version of the account (Matt. 21:12-17), when Jesus cleansed the temple, the evil people fled, but the children came to him. The text of Scripture does not suggest that the children would come running to Nehemiah. In short, when Jesus cleansed the temple, he attacked the furniture not the people, and the children played happily in his presence.

5. Paul’s attitude toward an unbelieving spouse. The following passage from 1 Corinthians 7 suggests that a conversation between Nehemiah and Paul might not be harmonious:

10 To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.

12 To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you. 16 Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife. (NRSV)

Question: If Nehemiah is speaking of maintaining the purity of the faith (and he is), what do his words tell us about marriage in our day?

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