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D'varim/Deuteronomy 21:15 If a man shall have two wives, the one being loved, the one being hated
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This conditional clause is the second of four that start the parasha Ki Tetze. "If you go out to war ..." (vv. 10-14), "If a man shall have two wives ..." (vv. 15-17), "If a man has a rebellious son ..." (vv. 18-21) and "If a man is sentenced to death ..." (vv. 22-23). Each one begins with the word , most often translated 'for' or 'that', less usually 'when' or 'because'. However, in the legal texts of the Torah, is frequently used to introduce a set of conditions making up a complex protasis1. In this particular instance, the condition has four components: the man has two wives, he loves one and hates the other, they both bear him sons, and the man's firstborn son is born to the hated wife. All of these conditions must be true for the apodosis2 to apply: he is not allowed to give the inheritance of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves rather than to the son of the hated wife. The two Qal passive participles - and , both feminine singular from the roots and , to love and hate - are here being used as rhetorical terms to exaggerate the contrast between "favourite" and "liked but not favourite" - in much the same way as Yeshua speaks about being a disciple: "If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple" (Luke 14:26, ESV).
The Torah is aware of the friction that can exist between two wives. Although the Torah permits a man to marry more than one wife, this is clearly seen by the vocabulary employed as problematic. The command, "Do not take your wife's sister as a rival wife and have sexual relations with her while your wife is living" (Vayikra 18:18, NIV), uses the Hebrew - to be a rival, adversary or enemy - where the English translation has "rival wife". The same root is used in the story of Hannah - the mother of Samuel - and her co-wife Penina: "Her rival taunted her and made her feel bad, because ADONAI had kept her from having children" (1 Samuel 1:6, CJB). Here, even the word 'wife' is missed out, showing that the relationship between them was very poor; Penina taunted and possibly bullied Hannah, making her life miserable. Although many rabbinic texts try to make the relationship between Leah and Rachel - the wives of Ya'akov - appear supportive and friendly in the main, it is clear from the account in B'resheet that even if taking the most positive readings, there were moments of sharp conflict and rivalry between the sisters, particularly in the area of children and conjugal rights with their husband.
TheBaal HaTurim quotes the words of Hillel, "The more wives, the more witchcraft" (m. Pirkei Avot 2:7) and comments, "This indicates to you that when a man has two wives, each one will use her witchcraft to cause her husband to despise the other." Another commentator to this passage3 even goes so far as to place the blame for the sin of witchcraft upon the head of the unfortunate husband. There is an assumption among the Sages that however much the husband tries to be even-handed, one wife will always be more favoured while the other is less favoured and that this will inevitably lead to competition and fighting between the rival wives. Rabbi Ishmael, a well-known second century sage, said that this text was a warning that if a man married two wives, he would wind up hating one of them (Sifrei, Midrash Haggadah).
Throughout Israel's history, G-d has fought something of a rearguard action to prevent Israel taking a second husband. The early narrative history in the books of Judges, Samuel and Kings shows that Israel, either as one people or (later) two kingdoms, was all too prone to adopting the religious habits of other nations or peoples. Even if cast in the most positive light of political expediency and existential necessity, Israel and Judah allowed idolatry and the worship of the gods of their political allies or overlords from the very top of the nation, from the king down. The prophets are full of declamations about the abominable practices that our people carried out at that time and the way that G-d called them to return to Him. Finally, the people are to be spat out of the Land and the kingdom of Judah is to die, "For thus says the L-RD: Your hurt is incurable, and your wound is grievous. There is none to uphold your cause, no medicine for your wound, no healing for you. All your lovers have forgotten you; they care nothing for you; for I have dealt you the blow of an enemy, the punishment of a merciless foe, because your guilt is great, because your sins are flagrant" (Jeremiah 30:12-14, ESV).
In parasha Shoftim we spoke about the need to exclude any signs or tokens of other gods in our worship, whether symbols, words or even ideas. It seems that this portion is taking the argument a stage further: the text confirms not only the practical but the core issues about having a rival in our relationship with and life before G-d. Rav Sha'ul is very clear that "Messiah loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish" (Ephesians 5:25-27, ESV). Yeshua will not tolerate any rivals in either the church as a whole or in the individuals that make it up: they are either for Him or against Him. The letter to the church in Laodicea made that plain: "I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth" (Revelation 3:15-16, ESV). If we are totally for Yeshua and committed to His lordship in our lives, then He has relationship with us and together we can go forward. If we reject Yeshua and are clear about that, then there is hope and room for change because we know where we are and there is no uncertainty about our position. But if we are holding in the middle, claiming or pretending to be both, then there is nothing that can be done because an appeal from either side is met with the same response that no change is necessary.
Just how radical does our discipleship have to be? How much do we have to give up in order to be a part of the kingdom of heaven? According to Yeshua, everything! "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field" (Matthew 13:44, ESV. Whilst the words "sells all that he has" definitely come in the context of "in his joy", so that it is plain that the surrender of everything else is a willing and enthusiastic exchange that the man feels is very much to his benefit, Yeshua's story makes it plain that nothing less than "everything" will secure the purchase of the treasure of the kingdom. Families, hobbies, habits - they are all included in the deal. Of course, G-d knows that we have relationships and responsibilities, which He Himself gave us and entrusted to our care; in most cases, we continue to occupy the position of steward, but the requirement for change of ownership - legal transfer of title, and the accompanying attitude adjustment - is just as absolute. Are you totally committed to serving G-d, in and with everything that you are and have in your life? Or have you ring-fenced part of your life and reserved that for yourself? If so, then G-d has a rival and that rival is you!
1 - The protasis is the conditional part of a conditional statement: if X then Y; in the world of literature or drama, it is the scene setting that takes place during the first part of a play or a book
2 - The apodosis is the consequential part of a condition statement: if X then Y; it is the actions that must be carried out or the restrictions that apply when the conditional expression evaluates true
3 - Yonah ben Abraham Gerondi (died 1263), also known as Rabbenu Yonah and Yonah of Gerona; a Catalan rabbi and moralist, cousin to Nachmanides
Further Study: Jeremiah 15:18-21; Philippians 3:7-11
Application: Are you clear in your mind where you stand, or is there a question or two lurking in the background? Today it is time to flush out the corners and make sure that you know exactly where everything is and whose it is, so that there is no room for ambiguity. Why not ask G-d to help you check the labels on some of those boxes at the back of the cupboard?
© Jonathan Allen, 2011
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