by Al Maxey

Issue #106 ------- February 17, 2004
As unto the bow the cord is,
So unto the man is woman;
Though she bends him, she obeys him,
Though she draws him, yet she follows;
Useless each without the other!

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
The Song of Hiawatha

The Law of the Husband
Reflecting on Romans 7:1-6

William Blackstone (1723-1780), in his now famous, classic work: Commentaries on the Laws of England, observed, "By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during marriage, or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband .... But though our law in general considers man and wife as one person, yet there are some instances in which she is separately considered; as inferior to him, and acting by his compulsion." In our modern society this might be considered a rather archaic view of marriage; certainly one that would be found offensive to most women. Yet it does reflect the thinking of many in more distant times. It also reflects the general thinking of biblical times.

Although Christianity did much to elevate the estate of women in society, it did not come easily or quickly. For a woman to "step out of her place" was regarded by most men as unthinkable. The reaction of the noblemen to Queen Vashti's "rebellion" against the authority of King Ahasuerus, for example, was very typical of the times. They feared her boldness would "infect" their own wives, and the thought terrified them. "For the queen's conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands .... This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen's conduct will respond to all the king's nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord" (Esther 1:17-18). Any woman who dared to assert her "rights" had to be dealt with .... and Queen Vashti was indeed severely dealt with .... so that other women might learn to maintain their positions under their husbands! This was no small matter to these people. All of which reflects the thinking of the age, misguided though it was.

It is with this understanding in mind that we approach the study of a much abused and misunderstood passage of Scripture --- Romans 7:1-6. Many regard this as binding legislation with regard to divorce and remarriage issues, insisting this passage declares God will not truly ever recognize any divorce and that all remarriage simply constitutes adultery in His sight. This text, therefore, has become one of the "crown jewels" in the ultra-conservative treasury of teaching on marriage, divorce and remarriage. Are they correct, or have they woefully misunderstood and misapplied Paul's teaching here? I believe it is clearly the latter. Let's take a closer look at this passage and seek to determine the true authorial intent.

The Background

In the year 753 B.C. the city of Rome was founded. By the time of Paul's missionary journeys, and his preparation to travel to Rome, this city had become one of the most populated, prosperous and powerful in the world. Various estimates place the number of inhabitants anywhere between 1-4 million, many of whom were slaves. Rome was a melting pot of immigrants from numerous nations. As such, it also became a haven for a host of differing religious beliefs and practices. Paul had a strong desire to preach the gospel of grace to these people, and to encourage the saints already in residence there (Romans 1:13; 15:23).

In order to truly perceive the passage under consideration in this issue of Reflections, one must place it within its epistolary context. In the chapter preceding it, for example, Paul discussed at length the fact that Christians have been set free. In Christ Jesus, one is no longer enslaved under Law, but abides in grace; no longer is one dead in his sins, but is spiritually alive; no longer are we slaves of lawlessness, but now servants of righteousness; no longer under the curse of death, but heirs of life everlasting. Paul proclaims the good news of a changed relationship, with its attendant blessing -- freedom. He seeks to illustrate this marvelous message of grace in a variety of ways, but one of the more stunning and memorable is found in our text: Romans 7:1-6. I would urge the reader, at this point in the study, to pause and read this passage in as many different translations as you can. Take a moment to reflect carefully and prayerfully upon Paul's words. Let them sink in and speak to you.

Paul informs the saints in Rome, and, through the divine preservation of this text, us as well, that mankind had at one time been bound to the Old Law by covenant. This state of being he likens to a woman who is bound for life to her husband by virtue of a covenant of marriage with this man. Before this woman could "legally" join herself to another in a new covenant, the previous covenant must be terminated; the first union must be severed in some way. Under ancient law and custom, the woman was left with little legal recourse aside from the voluntary dismissal by the husband (where he would issue her a certificate of divorce) or his death. Either would sever the legal bond. In Paul's illustration, however, the former is not even considered. This is because GOD, in His covenant with mankind, had no intention of "backing out of" HIS commitment to the covenant. Thus, in the illustration of Romans 7:1-6, the option of the man putting away the woman is not even considered. This is a binding covenant upon the woman that ONLY DEATH will bring to an end. There is a point to this limitation, of course --- like Paul's illustration, mankind is only freed from his covenant under the Old Law, and made available for a New Covenant relationship, by a death!

By sharing in the death of Christ Jesus, we experience liberation not only from sin and its curse of death, but also liberation from enslavement to law; not just to the Old Law (the Mosaic Law), but to any system of law by which men seek justification and redemption. Our approach to God is not through the courts, so to speak, but through the cross. Those who, in evidence of their faith, are "baptized into His death" (Romans 6:3), are then raised to "walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4). It is through our new union with Christ Jesus, having shared in His death, that we enjoy this new covenant relationship. Our bondage is passed; freedom has come!

To illustrate this marvelous, foundational truth of the Christian faith, Paul refers to a point of law with which his readers (both Jew and non-Jew) would undoubtedly have been very familiar -- "For I am speaking to men who know the law" (Romans 7:1). It is important to note that this was not just a reference to Jewish law, but to law in general. Moses E. Lard commented: "In the expression, 'I speak to men knowing law,' I can not see an exclusive reference to the law of Moses. To restrict the expression thus, as some have done, is certainly arbitrary. The reference is to no particular law, but to law in general, Roman as well as Jewish. It is unnecessary to assume limitations" (Commentary on Paul's Letter to Romans, p. 220). R.C.H. Lenski similarly notes: "The proposition is entirely general and not in any way restricted to the Mosaic law. ... Paul intends to use an ordinary example taken from the general field of law, and the point of this example is one that everybody who knows anything at all about law understands, namely that all law and every law relinquishes its control at the time of death" (The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, p. 441-442).

The point of law that both Romans and Jews knew only too well was: When one spouse dies, the covenant of marriage is ended; one is then free to secure another covenant relationship. However, if one seeks to secure another covenant relationship while the original is still in force (one's spouse still being alive; the covenant not being legally terminated by either death or divorce), the one violating the existing covenant will be regarded as guilty of "adultery" -- breaking covenant. In any society with established law, this principle is easily perceived by the populace. It is for this reason Paul used it to illustrate a great spiritual principle involving changed covenants between man and God. It was one both Jew and Pagan could readily perceive.

Examining the Text

It should be additionally observed, in the context of these ancient societies, that the authority of the husband over the wife was perceived to be absolute in virtually all areas. Indeed, under the Law of Moses a husband even had the power to negate vows a wife had taken before God, if in his opinion they were inappropriate (Numbers 30:8). It hardly needs to be pointed out that in some cases this authority was greatly abused, with women suffering mistreatment and indignity as a result of brutish husbands. One of the many aspects of this "legal power" of the husband over the wife was his prerogative to bind her to the marriage contract, even against her will. Although the man had legal authority to terminate the marriage if he so desired (according to secular law), the woman had no such legal recourse. She was bound to the marriage covenant for as long as the man lived, or until he chose to release her. Although in later years some women began to go against such laws and customs (Salome, for example), it was done in defiance of the accepted norm of their society.

This then was the legal reality of which Paul spoke in the early verses of Romans 7. With the death of this husband, however, the wife was at that point "released from the law of marriage" (Romans 7:2, NIV). The NASB reads -- "...released from the law concerning the husband." More literally, the Greek text states -- "...from the law of the man/husband." Again, one detects the nature of the absolute authority and lordship the man was given over the woman by such laws and customs. It was law that, quite frankly, favored the man rather than the woman. Such were the inequities often evident in ancient, more primitive, cultures. This "law of the husband" thus allowed male dominance and "lordship" in almost all areas of the marital relationship.

It is important for us to understand Paul's point of emphasis in this passage. Paul is not "laying down law" with regard to marriage, divorce and remarriage; rather, he is pointing out, to people well aware of their own legal customs, that under the prevailing legal climate a man had a type of "legal lordship" over his wife. The woman was under the "law of the husband" ... she was bound to him, and could not of her own doing secure a legal or socially acceptable release. If her husband was unwilling to release her, then her only legal recourse was to await his death.

This is further illustrated by examining the word translated "married" in the first part of Romans 7:2 -- "For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living." It should be noted that this is not the common word denoting marriage. Rather, it is the Greek word hupandros, which means "under a man." This was legal terminology signifying one was under the authority, power and control of another. "By design, the status of the wife as subject to the husband is presented by the term hupandros, a rather rare word meaning literally 'under a husband.' This pictures more readily than 'married woman' what Paul is seeking to bring out. Particularly in Jewish life this was the actual legal status of the wife, for she could not divorce her husband; divorce was a privilege granted only to the man. If the husband died, she was then released from 'the law of the husband'" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 76). Paul's point, then, is that death ends legal obligation!

It should be stressed that Paul was not so much seeking to depict a normal, IDEAL marital relationship here, as he was stressing the concept of the "law of the man/husband," which was viewed at that time as the right of legal dominion of the man over the wife. It was the idea of lordship over and domination of another, and the complete lack of power of the party in subjection to extricate themselves from that binding control, that Paul spoke of in these early verses of Romans 7. Paul was simply using this well-known aspect of law (the "law of the husband") to make a spiritual application to our own release from law, through a death, so that we might be free to be joined to another in a new covenant relationship.

Contrary to the teaching of some, there is not the faintest hint of divorce in this entire passage. Thus, while the husband is still living, there is no "remarriage" in view. When the woman joins herself to another (verse 3), it is not in a marriage relationship (as some contend). The first marriage has NOT been dissolved, thus that covenant is still in force. Her union with another man, therefore, is NOT a remarriage, for the first marriage has not ended. Indeed, for a certificate of divorce to have been issued in his illustration would undermine and negate the entire application Paul sought to draw from this "law of the husband" and the "bondage" of the wife. For Paul's spiritual application to hold up, the woman must be viewed as still bound by covenant to her husband. She is thus not free to be bound to another in any kind of extra-marital relationship (sexual or otherwise). Paul's focus in this passage is on death as the agency of release which then opens the door for a new, and legitimate, union with another. Those who try to impose remarriage onto verse 3 (thus characterizing a remarriage as "adultery") destroy Paul's entire spiritual application!

The truth of the above is clearly seen in Paul's choice of words in verse 3. Let's look at that phrase a little more closely: "So then, if she MARRIES another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an ADULTERESS" (NIV). This certainly sounds like this relationship with the other person is a marriage, doesn't it? And this is what has confused some people, and caused them to teach a remarriage is in view here. However, although the NIV (and a few other translations) uses the word "marries" here, an entirely different word is used in the Greek text. Several translations picked up on this fact, as can be seen in the following:

  1. "So then if, while her husband is living, she is JOINED to another man, she shall be called an adulteress." --- New American Standard Bible.
  2. "Thus if, while her husband is alive, she should be ATTACHED to another man, she becomes an adulteress." --- George Lamsa's translation from the Aramaic of the Peshitta.
  3. "If she LIVES WITH another man while her husband is living, she's obviously an adulteress." --- The Message.
  4. "She will be called an adulteress if, while her husband is still alive, she GIVES HERSELF to another." --- New American Bible (St. Joseph edition).
  5. "If, therefore, in her husband's lifetime she CONSORTS WITH another man, she will incur the charge of adultery." --- New English Bible.
  6. "If she GOES OFF WITH another man while her husband is still alive, she is said to be unfaithful." --- Contemporary English Version.
  7. "She will be called an adulteress if she LIVES WITH another man while her husband is alive." --- Revised Standard Version.
  8. Moses E. Lard, in his well-known Commentary on Paul's Letter to Romans, wrote that this woman "can not, during his life-time, CONSORT WITH another man" (p. 221).

The apostle Paul was very familiar with the usual Greek word which conveyed the concept "to marry" --- gameo. Paul used that word repeatedly in his writings. In fact, 41% of the time this word appears in the NT writings, it is used by Paul. However, that is NOT the word used in Romans 7:3. Indeed, in the entire passage (Romans 7:1-6) Paul never utilizes the common words signifying a covenant of marriage. Even in verse 2, as already noted, Paul does not use the usual expression for "marriage," but speaks of the woman being "under a man" --- hupandros. The theological significance of this is that Paul is emphasizing the fact of a person being BOUND to something from which they are powerless to extricate themselves; and a later release which was secured by a death.

Back to verse 3 .... the word employed by Paul in the phrase under question is ginomai, which means "to become." It seems to convey, when used in connection with relationships, the idea of becoming attached to or being with someone in a close personal association. For a married woman to associate that closely, perhaps even intimately, with another man was considered extremely inappropriate behavior. This may seem somewhat "old-fashioned" in light of the proliferation of very close personal, professional and social associations between members of the opposite sex in today's more permissive societies, but it was a significant breach of the social norm of the ancient world. For a woman still bound by a covenant of marriage, for a woman "under a man," to transgress that norm would quickly cause her to be "called an adulteress," even though no sexual misbehavior may have taken place, and even though her intent may not have been to destroy the marriage.

The point Paul makes in this illustration is that the woman was party to a binding covenant, and thus must behave accordingly, not doing anything that might break that covenant. The formation of any kind of close association with another man, even though no sexual intimacies transpired between them, was viewed at that time as overstepping the parameters of one's covenant of marriage. Following the death of her husband, however, the woman was free to associate with whomever she desired, without incurring any subsequent stigmas or labels (such as "adulteress").

Paul does NOT have a second marriage (or remarriage) in view here. The woman in the illustration is still considered to be married to ("under the law of ... lordship of") her first husband. Divorce is not even discussed in the passage; it is not even hinted at. The woman, instead, is viewed as "associating with" or "consorting with" another man in some way while still bound to her husband. Such an action would constitute "adultery" (a visible, public breaking of that covenant) in the eyes of those who saw it, and would invite them to so label her. It should also be noted that there is nothing in this passage that demands this "association" be of a sexual nature. It certainly might be, but it could just as easily not be. There are many inappropriate associations that are non-sexual in nature, and which are just as damaging to a covenant of marriage.

Some people are so obsessed with the notion that remarriage = adultery, and so intent upon finding some "proof-text" for that dogma, that they are blinded to the fact that by forcing such a theology upon this passage they have destroyed the very spiritual application Paul sought to impress upon the Roman disciples! In their quest for "law" to justify their harsh theology regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage, they twist and pervert Romans 7:1-6 beyond recognition. In so doing, they lose sight of the gospel of grace Paul spent a lifetime preaching and teaching. R.C.H. Lenski vented his frustration against such legalists in his commentary --- "The pathological theology of those who confuse or confound law and gospel as do the legalists and the perfectionists is not strange and should not confuse or disturb us. We do not expect them to see this truth!" (An Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, p. 440). The reality for the Christian is: "by being under grace all remaining under law is ended" (ibid, p. 443). Nevertheless, in spite of Paul's convincing illustration in this chapter, Lenski laments that "legalism in some form or other still persists in the minds of Christians" (ibid).

Concluding Thoughts

Paul tells us that it is by a death that the previous covenant is rendered no longer binding upon us, and that we are now freed by that death to be joined to another. The lordship of LAW has been terminated; we are now under GRACE. We are free!! Don't misunderstand Paul in this passage, however, as some have done! He was not voicing his agreement with the prevalent Jewish and pagan concept of a husband having the legal right to lord it over his wife, nor was he condoning the many abuses which took place under this "law of the man/husband." Nor is Paul implying, as some have contended, that women are in some way inferior to men; a lesser part of God's creation. If anyone could ever be applauded for his advocacy of women's rights, it was the apostle Paul.

Paul was neither condemning nor condoning anything. He merely sought to use a well-known law, the particulars of which were common knowledge and widely accepted in both Jewish and Gentile societies, to illustrate a particular spiritual truth he hoped to impress upon their minds. In a similar way, Paul spoke of the practice of the baptism for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29), neither condemning nor condoning it. From his lack of discussion one certainly does not infer his approval of such a pagan doctrine; he merely alluded to a practice not unfamiliar to his readers to illustrate a much deeper spiritual truth. Isn't it rather strange, he asks the Corinthian brethren, for someone to practice baptism for the dead if they do not even believe in the resurrection?! If the latter was false, as some were claiming, then the former would seem to be a futile practice! In the Romans 7 passage Paul used the well-known "law of the husband" to illustrate a situation in life wherein one party is bound to another party with absolutely no hope of legal recourse for release, short of a death. From this illustration he would impress upon the minds of his readers, in a dramatic way, the reality of their release from law and subsequent freedom to enter into a new covenant.

As one carefully and prayerfully examines the teaching of Romans 7:1-6, it becomes increasingly evident that Paul is not discussing the issue of divorce and remarriage at all. Thus, to view this text as a doctrinal dissertation or decree binding upon the people of the New Covenant is to utterly fail to perceive the intent of his teaching in this passage. Those who insist that Paul's words here should be regarded as "church doctrine" with respect to MDR face a host of difficult hermeneutical problems. The "decree" is rather one-sided, first of all, since restrictions are placed only upon the woman and not upon the man. Further, does one really want to set a precedent of governing the disciples of Christ based upon Jewish/pagan customs, traditions and laws? For anyone to utilize such sources to formulate binding doctrines for those free in Christ paves the way for further such unwarranted intrusion and legalistic imposition. Too many read this passage and see only LAW, and in so doing fail to see GRACE. It is the latter Paul stresses as our reality in Christ.

Some have cited this passage as "proof positive" that once a covenant of marriage has been established it is absolutely impossible for that covenant ever to be dissolved except by the death of one of the covenantal parties. Thus, they contend, all marriages are for life, and no divorce will ever truly be condoned or approved by God. If one's spouse is still living, and he or she leaves to marry another, then that person is committing adultery. Period! One assumes far more than Scripture specifically declares, however, when they state dogmatically that death is the only means whereby a covenant of marriage may be acceptably terminated in the sight of both God and man. The Bible clearly teaches God permitted, though reluctantly, and fully recognized the dissolution of a marriage by means of divorce. There is no question that such breakdown of covenants fell far short of His IDEAL for marriage (one woman for one man for life), and God was certainly grieved by such failures to achieve the IDEAL, and those guilty of breaking covenant would be culpable in His sight and held accountable. BUT, the reality of such tragedies was acknowledged, and, when subsequent relationships were entered into, they were deemed by God to be nothing less than legitimate marriages. Paul even declares to the saints in Corinth that such remarriages are not sin (1 Corinthians 7:27-28). This would certainly be inconsistent with, and contradictory to, Romans 7 if indeed Paul was declaring death to be the only permitted cause for the ending of a covenant of marriage, and the only means whereby one was truly free to enter into a second union.

Paul, in this message to the saints in the city of Rome during the mid-first century, was not seeking to convey some legal aspect of the IDEAL with respect to the covenant of marriage, or some LAW regulating subsequent unions. Instead, he proclaimed one of the many harsh realities of Jewish and Gentile law and custom which served to control one segment of the populace (i.e., wives). This legal dominion and lordship was at times oppressive and cruel if the husband was not a godly man, and, from a legal point of view, the wife was powerless to effect her release and freedom. Barring a change of heart of the one who bound her, her only legal recourse was a death. Developing a detailed theology of divorce and remarriage, with attendant oppressive laws, which would be binding upon all members of the present dispensation of GRACE, was not even remotely the authorial intent of this passage. Neither should it be ours!

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Malaysia:

Dear Al, I have only recently got to know of your Reflections. I have read most of your RefIections and have been truly blessed and enlightened. Thank you. I am a Christian (Methodist tradition) residing in Malaysia. It was in chat-rooms that I met Church of Christers. I never knew of so much division, and so many issues causing all those divisions, until I got on the Internet. I am constantly amazed by patternistic theology! Perhaps God has been merciful to us in that Malaysia is a Muslim country, and we Christians needed the strength of unity in the Lord. God bless you, brother Al.

From a Reader in Canada:

Al, you are my mentor. I will go to my grave ever in debt for the gift of knowledge and teaching God has passed on to you. Most importantly: that you are passing on to us. You are just the exact opposite of a lawyer. His job is to take something simple and make it so complicated that no one can understand it. You take the complicated and make it so clear we can't do anything but understand it, and in the process our lives are deeply enriched. May our Father richly bless you and your family as a reward for the wonderful use you are making of His Holy Word.

From an Elder in Missouri:

I have read with interest your recent Reflections articles. I thought your one on The Collection was well written and to the point. I especially appreciated the one sent out tonight about Methodology. For years I have taught and preached about worship in a way that has often gotten me in hot water with some who are more traditional than I. What I have found is a large amount of liberty and freedom, with two major purposes: to edify the body and to glorify God. To take the cultural, societal, or methods of convenience from the time of the first century and make these binding on the universal church is without doubt contrary to the will of God. Jesus did not die to establish a Church of the First Century, but rather to build a church/body that would be applicable to all for all eternity. I strongly believe that few of us today would feel very comfortable if suddenly transported back in time to, say, the church at Corinth during the first century. Nor would they feel "right" if brought to our present time. Isn't it strange how folks realize that we can obey the Great Commission without limiting ourselves only to the methods available at that time (donkey, cart, sail boat, etc.), but then demand we be limited to their methods in other matters? May God continue to bless you and your efforts. I look forward to your next articles, and plan to order one of your CD's. Your Reflections are a good resource and a good challenge to my thinking.

From a Reader in California:

It has been my experience with those that "search the pattern" for ways to do things, that sooner or later they become of the mind that their searching has of necessity led to "ultimate truth," which eventually leads to ultimate legalism, which in turn leads to ultimate segregation. So sad! The moment law comes in, love goes out the window!

From a Reader in Texas:

I am a lay person who teaches a small adult Sunday School class in a suburb of Houston. Starting in January we began a series on the Life of Christ. I typically write my own lessons. I came across your Silent Centuries study by doing a Google search for Herod the Great to confirm a fact I had read in a commentary that he was the first non-Jewish king to take the throne of Judah. Wow! I'm really impressed with your study. At some point I was going to do a lesson on the intertestamental period, and what you have put together is almost exactly what I was hoping to present to my class. I would like your permission to reprint your study and hand it out to our group.

From J. D. Tant in Georgia:

I can see quite a difference in some kids holding a car wash or a bake sale in the parking lot of Wal-Mart in order to make money for their expenses on a mission trip, as opposed to a sign posted saying, "Help Podunk Church of Christ raise funds for a mission trip." When the Jerusalem saints sold their property and goods, did they do this in the name of the church? I doubt it. They sold their possessions in their own name, and then what they did with the proceeds was within their prerogative, as Peter told Ananias in Acts 5.

When we have the "Church of Christ" out on the streets with various fund-raising schemes, then we have reduced ourselves to the level of the Salvation Army, or a local Christian Church conducting a raffle (gambling) during a city sponsored Fair, or to the Seventh Day Adventists who have come to my door soliciting donations for their church, or the Jehovah's Witnesses trying to sell their books when they come to my door. I believe the Scriptures give us ample information as to how God wants His work financed. There is a saying: "God's plan will work, if we will work God's plan." Just my thoughts. P.S. -- I have no objections to your using my name.

From a Reader in (Unknown):

Brother Al, In the comments from readers for your last issue, the "Reader from Tennessee" caught my eye ... the one who wrote about unity in diversity in the NI brethren --- he wrote, "I have been in the Lord's church for over 60 years (among the non-institutionals several decades) and have never met a man or woman who did not practice 'unity in diversity.'" I would like to correspond with this reader. Could you please furnish him my e-mail address and ask him to contact me? Many thanks!

From a Doctor in Kentucky:

Al, Methodology Theology was great. The first article on the collection was also, as well as the last few Reflections. I got "marked" a year and a half ago for making just such statements as you have made about the collection. I have much to tell you about, but have had hardly any time to write. I anxiously read each Reflections article. Hopefully, I can sit down in the next few days and update you about things with us here in Kentucky, and I also anticipate buying some of those Reflections CD's. I will talk with you more on this later. Keep up the good work!

From a Reader in Alabama:

While reading A Woman Caught In Adultery (Issue #104), brother Al, I couldn't help but thinking, "been there, done that." As one who, a number of years ago, was too often self-righteous and judgmental I could certainly identify with your article. Fortunately, over time I was able to see that this is not God's way, it was sinful man's way. Being an "ambassador of grace and minister of reconciliation" is far superior to being one who condemns another for not believing the way I believe. Thanks for writing this particular Reflections, Al. I wish I could have read it 30 years ago!

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