Friday, 15 November 2013

The Top Ten Worst Bible Readings To Have At A Wedding - Part IV

Welcome back, Inappropriate Bible Readings / 80s Wedding fans.

For anyone new on the scene, we've been limping our way unevenly through an eclectic mix of the Bible readings that, by my reckoning, would make for the most uncomfortable moments in a wedding service. We've had awkward brother-in-law moments (getting smited for seed spillage), awkward father-in-law moments (getting burned to death for marrying his daughter to a long-haired trouble-maker), awkward sister-of-the-bride moments (unfavourable comments on the roundness, or otherwise, of her d├ęcolletage), awkward bride moments (bride likened to a prostitute - and bride literally being a prostitute), and stinging rebukes about clanging cymbals. Oh, and burning foxes. Never forget the burning foxes.

Well, now it's time for something a little less comfortable.

Like this, for instance.

Weddings can be tricky. Ours wasn't, praise God, but we've all seen the soaps. (Actually, I haven't, praise God, but I've heard about them.) There's a lot of stuff that can go wrong. Most of it is very expensive stuff, or very important stuff, or both. Lives hang in the balance. Bank balances hang in the balance. There's a whole lot of balancing going on, especially if the bride has decided to put all her bridesmaids in six inch heels. (My bride didn't, praise God.)

Anyway, assuming the happy couple successfully navigate the emotional, psychological and physical assault course of the wedding day itself and manage to retire, giggling, to the marital chamber, there remains just one, final, all-important question:

What's the likelihood of the nice old vicar who married them bursting in and stabbing them to death just as they are making things official?

Read on.

8) The classic stabbed-in-the-act passage

Meet Zimri and Kozbi, an Israelite leader and a Midianite Princess:

Then an Israelite man brought into the camp a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the tent of meeting. When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear into both of them, right through the Israelite man and into the woman’s stomach. (Numbers 25:6-8)

Or, as the Wycliffe Bible charmingly puts it:
And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, had seen this unshamefast doing, he rose up from the midst of the multitude; and when he had taken a sword, he entered after the man of Israel into the whorehouse, and sticked through both together, that is, the man and the woman, in the places of engendering.
Now I'm no Hebrew scholar, but I suspect your place of engendering is really not somewhere you want to get sticked through. Did I call this "the classic stabbed-in-the-act passage?" I could equally have written "the classic stabbed-in-the-passage act."

"Let's just ignore the photographer while I attempt to cut off the circulation in your leg with this ornate rubber band."

Incidentally, if you are now worried that gentle old Reverend Albert might be stashing a scimitar somewhere in the vestry, relax. Carving up copulating couples is not routine for priests, even in the Old Testament. Zimri and Kozbi received this rather pointed treatment for good reason. A little context: the nation of Israel is out wandering in the wilderness, heading for the promised land, but surrounded on all sides by hostile nations.

Now pay attention, because this is bound to come up in a pub quiz one day: Meet the Moabites and Midianites, two nations who were terrified of Israel's vast numbers, so joined forces and hired a guy called Balaam to curse Israel for them. Yes, that's Balaam of talking donkey fame. Yes, his donkey talks. Only a bit though. Anyway, Balaam gave it his best shot, but somehow ended up blessing them, rather than cursing them (he should have delegated to his donkey). Nevertheless, he comes up with the perfect Plan B: sex*. As the saying goes, if you can't beat 'em, curse 'em, and if you can't curse 'em, sleep with 'em. Works every time.

So the Moabite women bat their Moabite eyelashes at the Israelite men, and things progress as you would expect. Engendering places engendering all over the place.

I've got loads of these pictures. (Pictures of kneeling men in rust coloured suits, that is.)

Well, pretty soon it's all getting a little freaky. There's no such thing as a no-strings dalliance, and before you can recite the ten commandments those mesmerising Moabite maidens have managed to embroil Israel up to their talking asses in Baal worship. Baal - specifically Baal of Peor - was the local Moabite fertility deity, and it seems that Baal worship was a fairly hands-on, clothes-off type of affair. I guess a religion that encourages rampant engendering is never going to be a particular hard sell.**

But, as you may remember from items three and four on this torpidly unfolding list, God feels very strongly about his people leaving him for other gods. In the geopolitical theocracy of Israel***, it was a crime punishable by death. Sounds harsh, but factor in the following:

God vs Baal of Peor

Created the world and everything in it.
Created the nation of Israel.
Rescued them from slavery.
Sustained them in the wilderness.
Gave them laws which promoted a well ordered society, looking after the vulnerable and ensuring justice.
Is bringing them into the promised land.
Is protecting them from their enemies.
Is the source of all life, without whom nothing can live.

Baal of Peor:
Was created by the Midianites, or the Moabites, or someone somewhere.
Didn't create anything anywhere, on account of being made up.
Didn't rescue anyone from anything.
Has no power to sustain anything.
Is the centrepiece of a made-up religion which promotes anarchy, sexual chaos****, and, if I'm reading my Bible right, child sacrifice.
Is enslaving Israel as they get caught up in all the mess.
Is the God of their enemies.
Is the source of death (at least, if it actually existed, it would presumably be on the side of the people who are trying to destroy Israel.)

Add all that up, and I hope you can see why the decision to leave God for Baal is effectively a decision to leave life for death. Tantamount to suicide, if you like. The death penalty just makes it official - a tiny bit like a divorce settlement: the split has already happened; the divorce certificate just confirms it.

"Gosh, it looks almost real! Look kids!"

Anyway, God passes his death sentence against the guilty, and a whole lot of people die. And our man Zimri clearly didn't get the memo, because it's at this very moment, as Moses and a penitent Israel are weeping over this terrible episode, that he rocks up with his new Midianite wench in tow, and, in a spectacular moment of oblivious single-mindedness, trips gaily past the swinging corpses and wailing mourners into his boudoir, sticks on his favourite Barry White LP, and arranges a field trip to the Place Of Engendering with her.

As social faux pas go, it's pretty high on the list. A curt claymore to the curlies suddenly seems like a pretty reasonable response.

All seven types of bridesmaid in one amazing picture. Sultry bridesmaid? Check. Confused bridesmaid? Check. Leg-molesting bridesmaid? Check. Tongue-in-cheek bridesmaid? Check. Tongue-out-of-cheek bridesmaid? Check. etc.

So, rest assured, unless you say something very awkward in your Groom's speech, you are unlikely to merit the full Jesuit's Javelin in the Jewels job. The coitus mortemus interruptus***** is unlikely to strike. "Protection" can continue to mean latex, rather than kevlar.

Though there is a concerning corollary to our cautionary account of this concupiscent calamity.
There is a portent for the prudent in this prurient parable.
A decision lurks in our disquisition of this disquieting quietus.

Which I will get to as soon as I've finished reading this thesaurus.

Why do people do this? And why do I have these pictures?

Okay, done. Finished. Sated. Satiated. Satisfied.

Here's what the issue isn't:
Most of us are very unlikely to find ourselves in the position of Zimri or Kozbi. Publicly sleeping with our sworn enemy in the middle of a scene of intense national mourning would be a difficult trick to pull off these days. Publicly sleeping with our sworn enemy in the middle of a scene of intense national mourning when the mourning was caused by the very thing we are now doing would require an even more contrived set of circumstances. The closest thing I can imagine, for those of you old enough to remember August 1997, would be for someone to round up the paparazzi who were chasing Princess Di's car, and get intimate with them on top of Elton John's piano during her funeral. Horrible.

If this was a cautionary tale designed to put the fear of God into anyone who might, even now, be contemplating building a time machine, hopping back fifteen years and augmenting "Candle in the wind" with a tasteless tabloid tableau, I think we'd have to question the priorities of the Bible writers.

That's what the issue isn't.

But if this is a cautionary tale designed to put the fear of God into anyone who might be contemplating turning from their creator, sustainer, protector, and source of life, in favour of something - anything - else, then it packs a bit more punch.

Because it's not that Israel were sleeping around. It's not that Zimri possessed the social acuity of a dalek. It's not that God is a racist or a prude or a megalomaniac. It's that God hates it when the people he gave life to decide to ditch him in favour of something that promises death.

And that, dear reader, is still true. And if that's the crime, then we are all Zimris. We might not get a bayonet through the backside for it these days, but if we remain stubbornly separated from God, then, sooner or later... the divorce papers will come through.

Something to read:

* Sex is not always the perfect plan B, note. It won't necessarily help if the Central Line is down, for instance, or if you've forgotten to bring the music to a church weekend away.
** That's the Church of England's next strategy all lined up.
*** I heard this phrase in a lecture once. I think it's a fancy way of saying "It doesn't apply to us now."
**** Oh, all fun and laughter at first, but sooner or later someone loses an eye.
***** My Latin is worse than my Greek.

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