The Apocrypha in Lent – 15 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

15 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 23-26

Yesterday’s chapters focussed on the dangers of inappropriate speech, and the first part of chapter 23 continues that theme with warnings against swearing – both in the older sense of “taking God’s name in vain” and in the more contemporary sense of “foul language”.  The writer warns that “a man in the habit of using improper words will never break himself of it however long he lives”.  That reflects experience, it is indeed a hard habit to break.

However I beg to differ with the writer over verse 14: “Remember your father and mother when you are sitting among princes, in case you forget yourself in their presence and behave like a fool”. The implication is that our parents would have been shocked by hearing us use foul language.  But actually, experience suggests that the habit of swearing is usually learnt from parents, or from childhood friends.  For such people, ‘foul’ language is just ‘normal’ language.

The next section (chapters 24-26) is largely about sexual relationships and marriage.  The boundaries of what is acceptable do of course change across times and cultures, and much of what was considered sinful in Biblical times is usually not considered wrong in liberal 21st century Britain (such as loving same-sex relationships, or sex before marriage).  But on the other hand, we would now consider it wrong to marry off adolescent girls, as was normal in those days – not that that is specifically mentioned here, though there is a warning about the risk of “headstrong daughters” (girls who turn out to be promiscuous) in 26:10-12.

Some relationships, though, such as adulterous ones (23:22-27), are still considered immoral by most people, though not illegal, and incest (23:17) is both.  Let it never be said that the Bible is dull or out of touch with reality!

What modern readers will find most shocking about these chapters, though, is not the sexual references, but the attitude to women generally in chapters 25-26.    While it is true that there are unhappy marriages as a result of a wife’s jealousy or nagging (25:17-20) or alcoholism (26:8), the text is silent about the much more common problem (almost certainly prevalent then as now) of violent and controlling husbands.  In fact, these passages display a contempt for women that is quite alien to modern thought, although perhaps still seen in the Sharia law of traditional Muslim communities. They still consider it bad for a wife to support her husband (25:22), good for a woman to remain silent (26:14) and allow a man to divorce his wife because she will not obey him (25:26)

At the end of chapter 26 there is, at least, praise for a good wife – though even here, silence, modesty and chastity are the prized virtues, and “a beautiful face on a well-proportioned body [with] shapely legs on firm-set heels” being regarded as a virtue betrays a thoroughly male-dominated culture.

All  this “wisdom” about relationships between men and women is a reminder that cultural attitudes of 2200 years ago  are still alive and well among us.



The Bible in a Year – 7 April

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

7 April. 2 Samuel chapters 11-13

These chapters contain two incidents of sexual violence, each of which results in an arranged killing.  First, King David takes a neighbour’s wife and makes her pregnant, an act which h the prophet Nathan compares with seizing a poor man’s lamb, and then he arranges for her husband to be killed to prevent any revenge, with other soldiers being unnecessarily put in danger, what the media would now call ‘collateral damage’.  It is usually thought that Psalm 51, a song of heartfelt repentance (best known in Allegri’s setting ‘miserere’), is David’s act of contrition for his own sins, and he also fasts and prays for seven days in vain when his illegitimate son falls ill.  It seems that God did not want this boy taking his place as the king’s firstborn and therefore heir to the throne; instead God had plans for David and Bathsheba’s second child, Solomon, who would become a great king.


Uriah was the innocent party in all this – he did nothing wrong, indeed insisted on sleeping rough like his troops rather than in the comfort of his own city home, and willingly led his men into the heat of battle, dying without the knowledge that the king had already taken his wife.  But if all this had not happened, Solomon would not have been born.  We may not always know what good might come for others out of our own misfortunes in life.


Then (presumably many years later when his children are teenagers) within David’s own family one of his other sons rapes his sister and is later killed by his half-brother in revenge. Unlike David, he does not seem to repent of his sin.  This is an even darker episode in the royal history. Incest is still an unspoken taboo, a sin and crime in virtually all societies, though it undoubtedly occurs, and splits families apart if it becomes known.