Law and gospel are, in a generic sense, aspects of everyone's life. The story of a Syrian teenager that unfolded while excavating at Tell Qarqur may illustrate. This is the last of four posts in a series. For the others, go here, here, and here.
People react to the set of expectations ambient culture imposes on them in contrasting ways. Many embrace the expectations ambient culture imposes. Culture is received as a form of common grace. But it's complicated. The environment often contains cultures in conflict. A global culture may be at odds with the mores of a subculture. In a society with a plural number of cultures superordinated and subordinated to one another in complex ways, members of the culture are subject to rival cultural claims on their lives.
A common term in the Hebrew Bible for cultural expectations is torah ‘instruction, teaching,’ as in the torah of God or the torah of one’s mother (Prov 1:8). The same word is used for the demands or law of God and the demands or law of a mother. But you wouldn't know it, because torah appears as ‘law’ in many translations if the torah is God’s, and as ‘instruction’ or ‘teaching’ if the torah is that of a parent.
The non-concordant translation tradition obscures the meaning. The torah of God and the torah of one’s parents are, semantically speaking, members of a single class. They are sets of expectations which complement one another:
תּוֹרַת יהוה תְּמִימָה מְשִׁיבַת נָפֶשׁ
עֵדוּת יהוה נֶאֱמָנָה מַחְכִּימַת פֶּתִי
The torah of the Lord is perfect, renewing life.
The decrees of the Lord are enduring, making the simple wise. (Ps 19:8)
שְׁמַע בְּנִי מוּסַר אָבִיךָ וְאַל־תִּטֹּשׁ תּוֹרַת אִמֶּךָ
Attend, my son, to your father’s warnings, do not reject your mother’s torah. (Prov 1:8)
The torah of God and the torah of one’s parents are both, in biblical terms, means of salvation. In many ways, Greek nomos ‘convention, custom’ captures the sense of torah better than English ‘law’ or ‘teaching.’
None the less, conventions are at times a vehicle of oppression. The expectations a culture imposes on its members in the name of God or in the name of family sometimes threaten the lives of the ones who are supposed to benefit from the conventions.
This relates to an antithesis developed with insight and unilateralism by Paul and Luther. The terms of the antithesis: Law and Gospel. In this polarity, a set of expectations, referred to as Law, has become a cause of oppression. Release from the consequences of not living up to the Law becomes imperative. The gift of release is referred to as "good news," or Gospel.
Law and Gospel define each other. Without one, the other is impossible.
Now for the story.
The director of the Syrian Department of Antiquities who oversaw the excavations at Tell Qarqur arranged to have members of a family from his home village do the cooking for the archaeological équipe. The cooking crew consisted of a mother of 16 children who brought along a daughter aged 13 and an infant whose care she supervised but delegated to her 13 year old daughter, and a brother, unmarried, who was, I think, a homosexual. In Syrian society, there are not many options available to a homosexual. As far as I noticed, homosexuality is looked upon with pity more than disdain.
Most of my colleagues in the équipe were students from Brigham Young University. Mormons one and all, some of the women befriended the 13 year old with the graciousness women of all cultures show each other if given the chance. This, too, is an aspect of gender construction.
A crisis ensued.
Years before, the 13 year old had been promised to a much older man, a trader in camels with other wives to his name. He prepaid for the privilege. For a large family, the importance of the transaction from an economic standpoint is difficult to overestimate.
The 13 year old’s future husband got wind that she was cooking for a bunch of Americans. The man’s knowledge of American culture was limited to what he had seen in bootleg Dean Martin movie cassettes. He was incensed at the turn of events. He made his way to the village where we were ensconsed, stomped into camp headquarters, pistol drawn, and demanded the 13 year old at gunpoint.
The 13 year old caught sight of the mangy 40 year old demanding her, and saw, in the reflection of the man’s fury, the end of life as she knew it. She held her ground. She refused to go. The law put the man in his rights. Was there another law by which that law might be set aside? The situation was not easy to resolve.
We Americans of course sided with the defiant 13 year old. But we were also on edge. The director of antiquities was called in. The girl’s father was brought down from the village. The father met with his daughter one-on-one.
What do you think happened next?
He beat her black and blue. But she stood her ground.
Arrangements were made, with the équipe’s help, such that the bride-price was returned to her erstwhile rightful husband. I cannot forget the tearful joy of the defiant 13 year old.
Law and gospel. The former, sometimes, needs the latter.
Gender construction is a phrase that refers to the way in which something we call culture/religion channels biology and hormones, sets up boundaries, and shapes expectations. But gender construction is also the result of defiant personal choices that challenge the expectations of others as the need arises.
Tel Qarqur series:
 Compare Prov 3:1; 4:2; 6:20, 23; 7:2; 31:26. ‘Son’ and not ‘child’ (NRSV) is the more precise translation. The conventions of the ancient genre of instruction followed in Prov 1:8-19 required that the speaker bear the persona of ‘father’ and the addressee the persona of ‘son.’ The contents of the passage are aimed at a teenager in danger of joining a violent gang. To be sure, 1:8 from the start would have been received by a larger set of potential addressees as if addressed to them. Daughters would have received Proverbs 1:8 as applicable to themselves, and adjusted the rest of the passage to their own situation. The translation of ‘son’ by ‘child’ in NRSV is a concession to the felt need for inclusive language in the faith and practice of the member denominations of the organization which commissioned the translation, the National Council of Churches USA.