Civil Liberties

The People in Nod

God the Father meets Professor Irwin Corey


Our sermon for today will take as its text the Congressional Record, chapter 2-24-04, verse H596:

It came to pass that in those days all branches of government were under the guidance of a single party whose name was Republican. The leader of that party was a prayerful man who had, by his own testament, been sent on a mission by God to spread the gospel of the GOP to all lands. Yet even as he sought to bring the revealed message of the Almighty to foreign infidels, a challenge to those sacred truths arose within his native country from the judiciaries of Massachusetts, California and other regions.

And so it happened that a congressman from the state of Washington, not himself a member of the chosen party but in the spirit of comity that ever guides our legislators, arose and spake thus:

Mr. McDERMOTT. Mr. Speaker, the President's presidential prayer team is urging us to "pray for the President as he seeks wisdom on how to legally codify the definition of marriage. Pray that it will be according to Biblical principles."

With that in mind, I thought I would remind the body of the biblical principles they are talking about.

Marriage shall consist of a union between one man and one or more women. That is from Genesis 29:17-28.

Secondly, marriage shall not impede a man's right to take concubines in addition to his wife or wives. That is II Samuel 5:13 and II Chronicles 11:21.

A marriage shall be considered valid only if the wife is a virgin. If the wife is not a virgin, she shall be executed. That is Deuteronomy 22:13.

Marriage of a believer and a nonbeliever shall be forbidden. That is Genesis 24:3.

Finally, it says that since there is no law that can change things, divorce is not possible, and finally, if a married man dies, his brother has to marry his sister-in-law.

Now some may question the practicality of the biblical injunctions of which Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) reminds us. True, the escort industry will welcome the long-denied legitimacy—not to mention the potential for job growth—provided by Samuel and Chronicles. And while feminists will complain about the implications of a codification of Genesis, Jack Mormons may find vindication in its sanction of male polygamy. Still, even the well-oiled execution chambers of the president's native state might find it difficult to implement the requirements of Deuteronomy 22:13.

McDermott fails to identify the source of his last listed requirement but it comes, of course, from the much-misinterpreted story of Onan (Genesis 38). As we know, Onan (like the author Dorothy Parker's canary, who was named in his honor), "spilled his seed upon the ground." Whereupon God off'd him. Opponents of contraception have cited these verses as an indication of Divine aversion to unfruitful coitus. Yet let us consult the actual verses:

38:7 And Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him.
38:8 And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.
38:9 And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.
38:10 And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.

Could it be any plainer that what got the Almighty's Irish up was not Onan's wasted semen, but his refusal to marry and impregnate his late brother's wife as required by the Mosaic law? Surely the president—who has, after all, only one set of twins to his credit— will want to clear that up in drafting his amendment. And since he is the eldest son of the family he won't have to worry about being pushed into any unwanted nuptials by the death of a brother.

Perhaps it's not surprising, however, that the Catholic Church, the most powerful pusher of the anti-contraception doctrine for the last century or so, should have misinterpreted the Onan message. In my experience through 12 years of Catholic girls' school, few if any Catholics actually read the bible itself, except for those generally anodyne New Testament passages chosen for the Sunday Mass "gospel." Instead we read appropriately bowdlerized "Bible stories," that told us about how Joshua tumbled the walls of Jericho and Moses parted the Red Sea and so on.

The wisdom of this was brought home to me many years later. Rearing a child of our own, my husband and I decided that, the bible being so important a part of our heritage, it would be a good idea if the three of us read it together from start to finish. We were barely into Genesis when the difficulty of presenting this narrative to a literal-minded seven-year-old became apparent. The first thing that drew his attention was that God, having created the fish and fowl on the fifth day and the beasts of the earth and other living creatures at the start of the sixth, only then "male and female created…them." (Gen.1:20-27).

Okay, but how come, asked my son, only a few verses later, having taken a seventh-day break, God comes back and gins up Adam again. And then, apparently retracing his steps still farther back, "out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam…" Finally, as an afterthought, he carves the fateful Eve from Adam's rib. (Gen. 2:7-22)

Look, I explained, time probably wasn't like it is now, and if we get hung up on every little nitpick we'll never get through this. So on we plowed through the birth of Cain and Abel, the murder of the latter by the former, the curse that God lays upon Cain, and Cain's successful plea that God should place a protective—yes protective—mark upon him "lest any finding him should kill him." (Gen. 4:15) "Any who?" asked my son. "I thought that Adam and Eve were the first people and Cain and Abel were their kids."

Well, maybe Cain was looking forward to when his parents would have other kids and they'd have kids, and maybe they wouldn't know that Cain was their uncle or whatever. Okay? Except that right in the very next verse (Gen. 4:16-17) didn't it go and tell us that "Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden." And right off the bat he finds a wife and founds a city that he names after his first born son. "Wait a minute, Mom, where did all those people in Nod come from?"

Still on we slogged through floods and begots and Babel, trying not to dwell upon the seemingly dubious morality of Abraham's handing off Sarah to the Pharoah as his sister in order to save his own skin (Gen.12:10-20). But when we encountered the smooth-skinned Jacob swindling the hairy Esau out of his birthright with Heaven's apparent approval, we decided that for relevant moral guidance, never mind clarity and consistency, other sources might be more fruitful.

Perhaps there is a lesson here for the president.