Church Write-Up: Mary Escaping Stoning?; the Postponed Magnificat?; Hope in What Exactly?

For church last Sunday, I went to an evangelical church that I last visited over a year ago.  Then, I went to what I call the “Word of Faith” church.

Here are some items.  I will be linking to past blog posts and discussions for the first two items.

A.  At the “Word of Faith” church, the pastor’s daughter (who is an associate pastor) was preaching about the story of Mary in Luke 1:26-38 and the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55.

In Luke 1:26-38, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to Jesus, the Davidic king and the Son of God, even though she is a virgin.  Mary replied: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (KJV).

The pastor’s daughter was saying that Mary was actually signing up for suffering when she agreed to this, as glorious as it was that she would give birth to the Son of God.  Mary was betrothed to Joseph (Matthew 1:18).  In those days, betrothal was considered the same as being married.  By being pregnant before she had sexual relations with Joseph, she appeared to others to be an adulteress, even though she was not.  Not only was this placing her own life at risk, since the penalty for adultery was death by stoning (Deuteronomy 22:23-24), but Jesus would also receive the stigma of being one who was considered a child through adultery.  (My note: Bruce Chilton in his book Rabbi Jesus speculates that Jesus was considered a mamzer under the law in Deuteronomy 23:2, and thus lacked full citizenship rights as a Jew.)  The pastor’s daughter said that suspected adulteresses were tried by the priest, and they were given bitter water to drink.  The water would cause them to suffer and to lose the ability to have children if they were guilty (Numbers 5:11-21).

The pastor’s daughter said that she knows Christians who are shocked when they experience disappointment and misfortune in life, especially after they have been faithful to God.  She said that there is no promise that Christians will be exempt from suffering.  What they can do, though, is confidently stare down their enemies and say, “Be it unto me according to thy word.”  I think she was comparing the sufferings of Mary with the sufferings that Christians experience.

I will leave that point as it is, without comment or critique, except to say that this morning’s service was not exactly prosperity-Gospelish.  (As I have said before, it is not always accurate for me to call that church the “Word of Faith” church.)  What went through my mind was a question that I have had before.  Joseph, when he learned that Mary was pregnant, decided to put her away privately, without fanfare (Matthew 1:19).  I have wondered, though, how that would have helped Mary to avoid execution.  Would not people have still seen her pregnancy and concluded that she was pregnant as a result of adultery?

I have also wondered how some of the laws about adultery in the Torah fit together.  Of course, Deuteronomy 22:13-24 prescribes stoning as the penalty for adultery.  Numbers 5:11-21, as far as I can see, says nothing about the adulteress being executed through stoning.  Then there is Deuteronomy 24, which states that a man can put away a woman if she is unclean in his eyes, and one interpretation is that the uncleanness is the wife’s infidelity.  But why would divorce be necessary in that case, if the wife would be stoned for adultery?

I wrestled with some of these questions here.  See also the comments under the post.  I am not entirely sure how all of the laws about adultery in the Torah fit together.  That may be a topic to research.  I had an idea, though, about how Mary could have avoided stoning, had Joseph gone through with his plan to divorce her: Joseph would put Mary away so that she would no longer be married to him, and she was early enough along in her pregnancy that people might think that she became pregnant after she was divorced.  Becoming pregnant when single is not a capital offense (Deuteronomy 22:28-30).  The rumors would still fly around that she was an adulteress and that Jesus was conceived illegitimately, but there would be no solid proof of that.  Of course, Mary stayed married to Joseph.  The rumors still flew around that she had committed adultery (according, perhaps, to John 8:41), but there was no proof: people could not prove that Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father.

There is also the question of when the Jewish authorities had the authority to execute people.  It varied during the lifetime of Jesus.  See my post here.

B.  In the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Mary celebrates that God has elevated the lowly while debasing the rich and the proud, and that God has been merciful and has remembered God’s promises towards God’s people Israel.

Did Mary expect her son to do soon the things that many Jews believed the Messiah would accomplish: defeat Israel’s enemies, inaugurate justice, etc.?  Why else would she be excited?  Many scholars have compared the Magnificat to Hannah’s song of praise in I Samuel 1:1-10.  The thing is, the coming social upheaval that Hannah celebrated actually came to pass when Samuel was alive, as Samuel was instrumental in defeating Israel’s oppressors, the Philistines (i.e., I Samuel 7).  Would Mary get excited about something that would take place two thousand years after her lifetime, and not even then?

I have wrestled with that, and similar questions, on this blog before:

Here, I talk about how Luke, in contrast with Mark, seems to believe that Jesus will restore Israel in the far off future; W.D. Davies thinks that Luke 1-2 is not Lukan but is from an earlier source, one that presumably expected Jesus to restore Israel soon.

Here and here, I ask if perhaps the concern of the early church for the poor was a fulfillment of the Magnificat.

Here is a post from a couple years ago.  I wonder if the the Magnificat and Zechariah’s prophecies in Luke 1 could have been conditional on Israel’s repentance, according to Luke-Acts.  See the comments under the post, and also Steve Hays’ post on Triablogue.

C.  A theme in both services that I attended was having hope.  Both preachers had valuable insights on that.  The preacher at the first service said that we need to reaffirm continually our hope in God, for we are leaky faucets.  The pastor’s daughter talked about how her parents have praised God for years, even when they have experienced trials, being stabbed in the back, and friends forsaking them.  What was a little unclear to me was what the preachers believed that Christians should hope for.  Do they hope that God will make things right in this life?  That God will make things right in the afterlife?  Both?

I’ll leave the comments on in case someone wants to offer insights on these topics.  Please don’t leave embarrassing comments saying that Mary was an adulteress, though.  I won’t publish those comments.  Also, it will take me a while to publish comments: I will get to them in the evening, Pacific Time.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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