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Psalm 17 and the Idolatry of Family - Issue #66

Near the heart of Karl Barth’s doctrine of marriage lies his argument that the witness of Christ in t
The Path Before Us
Psalm 17 and the Idolatry of Family - Issue #66
By Matthew Lee Anderson • Issue #66 • View online
Near the heart of Karl Barth’s doctrine of marriage lies his argument that the witness of Christ in the New Testament on marriage and family signals a sharp rupture with the Old Testament’s nearly monomaniacal concern with progeny and procreation. On his reading, the Jews almost totally subordinated their understanding of marriage to their need to perpetuate their lineage so that the Messiah might someday be born. In the Song of Solomon and Genesis 2’s silence about procreation, the Old Testament looks beyond itself, toward the fulfillment of the covenant—a fulfillment that is indicated by a consummation of male and female in a marriage. Barth’s account of the significance of Judaism for Christian theology is massively complicated. But nowhere in his thought is the distinction between the two covenants as sharp as it is on marriage and family. 
Such a reading has much to commend it, of course. Jesus’ rhetoric about the family in Matthew and Mark are not so much a polemic against natural and biological bonds as an emphatic affirmation of the primary salience of the non-natural ties of discipleship within the Kingdom. “Who are my mother and my brother?” It is hard to see where within the Old Testament such a sentiment might find its roots, with its emphatic interest in preserving genealogical purity and in its unambiguous focus on parents and children. Jesus really does seem to say something new in relativizing familial bonds for the sake of the kingdom. 
If this is right, then it would mean that Jesus makes three simultaneous moves in his rabbinical reinterpretation of the Old Testament’s account of marriage and family. First, he reaches behind Moses and grounds it within the doctrine of creation. Where Moses was a compromiser, Christ is not. Note that he takes here what was permitted and seems to call it into question: he founds a prohibition on divorce within the grammar of creation. Second, he expands prohibitions on adultery to include mental states and intentions. We might speak of the ‘spiritualization’ of the prohibition. This also introduces a new rigorism into theological ethics, demanding a self-awareness that may not have been required otherwise. And third, he destabilizes family bonds. The first two seem to clearly have roots within the Old Testament, while the last seems to indicate a rupture. 
Or does it? Consider as but one scant piece of evidence on the side of continuity even in this score the closing of Psalm 17. 

Arise, O Lord! Confront him, subdue him!
  Deliver my soul from the wicked by your sword,
from men by your hand, O Lord,
  from men of the world whose portion is in this life.
You fill their womb with treasure;
  they are satisfied with children,
  and they leave their abundance to their infants.

As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
  when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.

I had never noticed quite how shocking these verses are until the Psalm came up in rotation earlier this week. The Psalmist prays to be delivered from the wicked—and includes those whose “portion is in this life.” The conflation is surprising, considering that everything the Psalmist attributes to the wicked here seems manifestly worthwhile. What’s wrong, after all, with children? You can almost hear today’s critics of those who use ‘idolatry’ language for families rising up to challenge the Psalmist for their capitulation to certain anti-Christian forces. (Bless you, dear reader, if you have no idea what I’m talking about.) 
But the Psalmist sets his own position against those who are satisfied with children: he is only satisfied with God’s likeness. The contrast highlights the solitary nature of the Psalmist’s cry: he uses “I” three times in there, emphasizing his own isolation even before God. The Old Testament does not know much of celibacy, but here we have the faintest of outlines of how such an idea might arise. It is easy to see how Christ might have developed the satisfaction with God’s likeness by way of the contrast with a family even further, and uttered his controversial judgments against families. Again, it is clearly not a repudiation of children as such. But it is a hint, a glimpse, of the kind of destabilization of procreative bonds that Jesus develops in Mark and Matthew. 

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“Christian love for the neighbour and brother differs, of course, from that which it declares in the fact that it can be only a self-giving which pledges and guarantees. A man cannot be to another more than a witness even in the life of the people of God—a fact which is realised among this people, so that there no attempts are made to violate this frontier. Even Christian love for the neighbour and brother is a ministry of witness. What is to be attested in this self-giving which guarantees is itself more than witness or a pledge. It is the self-giving of God to man, and the event of man’s liberation to give himself to God.” – Karl Barth
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