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What does "mamzer" mean?

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"A [mamzer] shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the LORD"(Deut. 23:2).

"And a [mamzer] shall dwell in Ashdod, and I will cut off the pride of the Philistines"(Zechariah 9:6).

According to Deut. 23:2, a "mamzer" was prohibited from entering the assembly of the Lord. Kinists oftentimes argue that the word "mamzer" refers to the product of an interracial marriage and thereby argue that the Bible forbids race-mixing. This, however, flatly contradicts the understanding of the word for the vast majority of Church history's Bible commentators and translators.

While I do believe that it is possible that the Hebrew word "mamzer" refers to interracial offspring, I believe there is sufficient doubt concerning its meaning that we would do well not to base a doctrine off of it. Furthermore, even if it does mean this, I believe its significance is best understood as part of the emphasis on the carnal and external holiness typical of the Old Testament administration, rather than a universal mandate for all races. Let's look at how the word has been understood by various commentators and translators throughout history.

According to the Talmud, a "mamzer" is one who has been born of a forbidden relationship such as adultery or incest. So the Jewish Virtual Library:

"If she cannot contract a legally valid marriage to this man, but can contract a legally valid marriage to others, her offspring [from the former] is a mamzer. Such is the case when a man has sexual relations with any of the ervot ["forbidden"; see *Incest] in the Torah" (Kid. 3:12; cf. Yev. 4:13)" (So also: Yev. 45b; Maim., Yad, Issurei Bi'ah 15:1; Tur and Beit Yosef, EH 4; Sh. Ar., EH 4:13).

The Talmud even explicitly denies that race-mixing was an appropriate explanation of the word's meaning (Yev. 45b; Maim., Yad, Issurei Bi'ah 15:3; Tur, EH 4; Sh. Ar., EH 4:19). Two mamzerim can marry one another (Yev. 45b; Kid. 69a; 74a; Maim., Yad., Issurei Bi'ah 15:33; Sh. Ar., EH 4:24). It was also permissible for a mamzer and a proselyte to marry one another (Yev. 79b; Kid. 67a and Rashi thereto; 72b–73a; Maim., Yad, Issurei Bi'ah 15:7; Sh. Ar., EH 4:22).

The Jews did consider the races of one's parents as having religious significance, but there was a distinction between "Gentile" and "mamzer." The two were not equivalent. A child born of a mamzer and a Jew or Jewess was considered a mamzer (Yev. 8:3). However, a child whose mother is a Gentile and whose father is a mamzer is a Gentile and not a mamzer. The reason for this is that in Judaism, the child ordinarily takes the status of the mother and not the father. Should the child convert to Judaism, the status of his father in such a case becomes irrelevant (Kid. 67a, Rashi; Maim., Yad, Issurei Bi'ah 15:3; Tur and Beit Yosef, EH 4; Sh. Ar., EH 4:20). For the Jews, therefore, the concept of the mamzer was understood as having been intended as a safeguard against illicit sexual relationships, though it had no reference to race whatsoever (These Talmud citations were obtained from the Jewish virtual library).

As for historically important Christian commentators, Albert Barnes and Adam Clarke understand the meaning of the word as used in Deut. 23:2 as referring to the issue of incestuous or adulterous intercourse. John Gill understands it the same way. He notes that the Targum of Jonathan renders the text in such a way; "a child of adultery." The Aramaic translators therefore understood the text to refer to a child born of adultery, not one of mixed race. Rabbinical interpreters like Maimonides and Jarchi interpret it the same way. John Gill notes that the Jews in general interpreted it in such a manner (Targum Jon. in loc. Misn. Yebamot, c. 8. sect. 2, 4, 5, 6. Maimon. Moreh Nevochim, par. 3. c. 49. (i) Bartenora in Misn. Kiddushin, c. 3. sect. 12. (k) Misn. Kiddushin, c. 3. sect. 12. & Misn. Yebamot, c. 4. sect. 13. Jarchi & Aben Ezra in loc. (l) Misn. Kiddushin, c. 3. sect. 13). The Geneva Bible also interprets it in such a manner: "This was to cause them to live chastely, that their posterity might not be rejected." So also the Pulpit Commentary: " one born of a harlot; so the Hebrew word (מָמְזֶר), which occurs only here and in Zechariah 9:6, is said to mean; LXX., ἐκ πόρνης: Vulgate, de scorto natus; the Talmud and the rabbins represent the word as denoting one begotten in adultery or incest (Maimon., 'Issure Biah.,' c. 15. §§ 1, 2, 7, 9); so also the Syriac bar game, "son of adultery."" Calvin's comments are instructive:

"A bastard shall not enter. All agree that by the word mmzr, mamzer, a bastard is signified, who is born of an uncertain father; but they take it in different ways, For some extend it to all bastards who spring from fornication, whilst others imagine that it refers to those only whose origin is doubtful, and who are called vulgo geniti; viz, whose mothers, in their base and common prostitution of themselves, have brought it about by their gross licentiousness, that their children should be born from this monstrous medley, as it were. This second opinion I approve of most. But, by this symbol God would admonish the seed of Abraham how exalted was its dignity, as being separate from the polluted heathen. Meanwhile, He would not altogether exclude these unhappy persons from the hope of salvation, although, by no fault of their own, they were unable to give the name of their father; but He only humbled them by a temporal punishment, and desired that their example should be profitable to others."

The other instance of the word's usage in the OT is in Zechariah 9:6, quoted in the beginning of the article. The Pulpit commentary notes that the LXX translates the word in Deut. 23:2, in such a way that reflects that the text was understood as referring to the issue of intercourse with a harlot. They take it here, however, as referring to a "foreigner":

Verse 6. - A Bastard. The word (mamzer) occurs in Deuteronomy 23:2 (3, Hebrew), where it may possibly mean "a stranger." It is generally considered to signify one whose birth has a blemish in it - one born of incest or adultery. In Deuteronomy the LXX. renders, ἐκ πόρης, "one of harlot birth;" here, ἀλλογενής, "foreigner." The Vulgate has separator, which is explained as meaning either the Lord, who as Judge divides the just from the unjust, or the Conqueror, who divides the spoil and assigns to captives their fate. Here it doubtless signifies "a bastard race" (as the Revised Version margin translates); a rabble of aliens shall inhabit Ashdod, which shall lose its own native population. The Targum explains it differently, considering that by the expression is meant that Ashdod shall be inhabited by Israelites, who are deemed "strangers" by the Philistines. Ashdod (see note on Amos 1:8). The pride. All in which they prided themselves. This sums up the prophecy against the several Philistine cities. Their very nationality shall be lost.

As in all languages, but especially in Hebrew, a language with a very small vocabulary, each word can have multiple meanings depending on the context, and every single commentary and translation I have consulted thus far with respect to the prohibition on the "mamzer" in Deut. 23:2, understands the word as referring to the product of either incestuous or adulterous intercourse, and not someone who is merely of a mixed race. The variability of meaning, especially in Hebrew, is extremely important, because some commentators take the word in Zech. 9:6 to refer to a foreigner whereas these same commentators understand the word in Deut. 23:2 as referring to the product of adulterous offspring. Note that the commentators to which I am referring lived hundreds of years before the advent of political correctness, and so it is an inadequate explanation to attempt to argue that it is merely the result of revisionist exegesis with the aim of causing the Bible to conform to our presuppositions. For example, the Jewish commentators Jarchi and Kimchi, as well as translators of the Aramaic text of the Targum of Jonathan, understand the word to refer to foreigners in this passage, but to the product of adulterous or incestuous offspring in Deut. 23:2. The same discontinuity in rendering, we have seen, is true of the LXX and of Calvin as well. So the discrepancy in meaning is not due to revisionist interpretation, but to legitimate difference of context.

Just as the physical "mamzer" was excluded from the physical congregation of the Lord in Deut. 23:2, so also was the spiritual "nothos" excluded from the spiritual congregation:

"If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children [nothos] and not sons"(Heb. 12:8).

The Greek word "nothos" simply means to be of illegitimate parentage. It has no reference to race-mixing or mongrelism whatsoever. In this, so far as I can tell, all historically significant commentators are agreed:

"Since then not to be chastised is a mark of bastardy, we ought [not to refuse, but] rejoice in chastisement, as a mark of our genuine sonship"-Chrysostom

"They might think that they would not suffer if they were really God's sons; whereas the reverse is the case. If they did not suffer, they would not be God's sons"(Vincent's Word Studies). Vincent sees in the text an allusion to Wisdom 4:3 - "But the multiplying brood of the ungodly shall not thrive, nor take deep rooting from bastard slips, nor lay any fast foundation."

"It hence follows that the benefit of adoption is not valued by us as it ought to be, and that the grace of God is wholly rejected when we seek to withdraw ourselves from his scourges; and this is what all they do who bear not their afflictions with patience. But why does he call those who refuse correction bastards rather than aliens? Even because he was addressing those who were members of the Church, and were on this account the children of God. He therefore intimates that the profession of Christ would be false and deceitful if they withdrew themselves from the discipline of the Father, and that they would thus become bastards, and be no more children"(Calvin).

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