Apr
2014

You Keep Using That Word…

In “Princess Bride,” one of my favorite films, a continuing shtick involves Wallace Shawn’s character, Vazzini, who uses the word  “Inconceivable!” over and over again.  Eventually, this prompts Vazzini’s henchman, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), to say, “You keep using that word.  I do not think that it means what you think it means.”

Sometimes, we use words without thinking what they mean, just because they seem to fit a context: think of how astonished we are when we say, “How are you?,” and someone actually starts to tell us!  We didn’t mean, really, “Tell me how you are.”  All we meant was, “I see you there, I recognize and acknowledge you, and now I am off to do something  else.”

Or consider the word “Hosanna.”   Hosanna is a church word, like “amen” and “Alleluia”—in fact, I would bet that you have never used or heard that word outside of a church.  Hosanna pops up in hymns, particularly the Palm Sunday standards, and in prayers–particularly in the Great Thanksgiving, every time we celebrate communion.

In the gospel lesson for Palm Sunday this year, the shout seems to be taken up spontaneously by the crowd as a parade takes shape, and word spreads that the one on the donkey is David’s descendant, who has come to Jerusalem to claim a throne. They use Hosanna as a festival shout–the way we might cheer at a ball game:

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matt 21:9).

But unlike “Yahoo!” or “Hurray!” in English, “Hosanna” is a real word in Hebrew.  It comes from Psalm 118—part of the Hallel (Pss 113—118). These psalms are sung in Jewish festivals, particularly at Pesach, or Passover: the feast that brought these crowds on pilgrimage from across the Roman world to Jerusalem.  The first two psalms in the Hallel are sung before the Passover meal, and the last four are sung after.

Just as around Christmastime, “Jingle Bells” is everywhere–in our ears and in the air!–the Hallel would have been in the air, for any Jewish community, surrounding Pesach.  Little wonder the words of the Hallel come so readily to the lips of the crowd.

To be more specific, “Hosanna” comes from Psalm 118:25, which in Hebrew reads

‘ana’ YHWH hoshi’ah na’

‘ana’ YHWH hatslikhah na’.  

Though the Hallel would have been learned, and sung, in Hebrew, most ordinary Judeans didn’t actually speak Hebrew: in Jesus’ day, the everyday language of Palestinian Jews would have been Aramaic.  So, while the crowds know the words to the song, they don’t necessarily know what they mean. So, while they shout “Hosannah!” as though it meant “Hurray!,” what it really means is “Save us, please!”  The CEB translates this verse,

Lord, please save us!
    Lord, please let us succeed!

Whether the crowd knows it or not, then, they are calling to Jesus for help.  

Do they need help? Indeed, they do!  In Jesus’ time, Judea was under the heel of Roman military occupation.  Taxes were high, prices were high, and popular unrest was high—which is probably why the crowds were spoiling for a fight, just waiting for someone to lead them.  This ferment would explode into disastrous revolts against Rome that will result, first, in the destruction of the temple, and then, in the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem itself for generations.

But that is not why Jesus has come to Jerusalem.  We know the story that unfolds in this next week very well.  Jesus has come, not to claim a throne, but to take a stand against the religious and political establishments that will result in his execution.  He has come to suffer, and to die.

From the first, Christians have confessed that somehow, all of our suffering and death is caught up in Jesus’ suffering and death.  Jesus will die for us—communicating at once the depth of human sin and depravity, and the extent of God’s love for us.

In Matthew’s gospel in particular, Jesus’ death is connected to our sinfulness: our rebellion against God.   At Jesus’ birth, the angel had said, “you will call him Jesus [that is, Yeshua, or "Savior"], because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).  

As we will remember this Thursday, Jesus shared the Passover meal in Jerusalem with his followers.  Then, Jesus took a loaf, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “Take and eat. This is my body.” Then, pouring out the wine, he shared the cup, saying “Drink from this, all of you.  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven” (Matt 26:27-28).  

Somehow, it is in his death that Jesus becomes “Jesus”–Yeshua, Savior.  Somehow, he takes upon himself the ugliness and horror of human life, human evil, human sin–and takes it away.

It is well, then, that we should shout “Hosanna,” brothers and sisters–”Save us, please!”  For Jesus has come to save, not just those ignorant crowds at the gate, who were crying for help but didn’t know it, but you, and me, and all of us, for all of time.  

Friend, whatever your need is this day, in this Holy Week, whatever your sorrow, whatever your pain, you are not alone!  Christ has come to be with you right where you are, in the center of your darkness– to bring you home.  We can join the Palm Sunday crowds, and call, not in ignorance but in earnest, “Hosanna”–“Save  us, Lord!”—knowing that Christ will answer.

AFTERWORD:

Have a blessed Holy Week, and a joyfilled, triumphant Easter!

Apr
2014

Where Is God?

In the first chapter of Exodus, God is not mentioned at all until the seventeenth verse–nearly the end of the chapter.   Through the account of Israel’s explosive growth in Egypt, God does not appear.

Through the changing of power in Egypt, as a new Pharaoh comes to the throne “who didn’t know Joseph” (1:8), God is apparently absent.

Even as this new Pharaoh, in hatred and fear, subjects Israel to unjust enslavement, even as the escalating scale of abuse leads to the first stage of genocide, God does not appear.

To carry out Pharaoh’s racist campaign, born of hatred and fear, to eliminate Israel, he enlists the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, as his agents:

When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live (Exod 1:16).

 

But the midwives disobey, and in their disobedience, we encounter God for the first time in this book.  This first mention of God is indirect: God is experienced through the faith of the midwives, who would not do as Pharaoh commanded because they “respected [the Hebrew might be better translated "feared"] God” (Exod 1:17).  Given God’s absence in the narrative to this point, we might think that they should better fear Pharaoh–but no!  Shiphrah and Puah revere God, despite God’s apparent absence.

Of course, even as dim a bulb as Pharaoh appears to be in this story is bound to notice that more and more Hebrew boys keep turning up!  He summons the midwives to explain themselves:

The two midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them” (Exod 1:19).

Cleverly playing off of Pharaoh’s prejudices, Shiphrah and Puah tell him a lie they know he will be likely to accept: those Hebrews breed like animals; their brutish women don’t even need midwives.  Foolish Pharaoh believes them, and Israel’s baby boys are saved.

Now, for the first time in Exodus, God is said to do something!  God performs a double act of blessing.  First, this initial attempt of Pharaoh to eliminate Israel is not only routed, but reversed: “So God treated the midwives well, and the people kept on multiplying and became very strong” (Exod 1:20). Pharaoh will find another solution, and God will provide a more lasting counter–one that liberates his people completely from Egyptian oppression. But for now, because of the midwives’ courage and cleverness, people Israel continue to flourish.

Second, as for Shiphrah and Puah, “because the midwives respected God, God gave them households of their own” (Exod 1:21).  The Hebrew is waya’as lahem batim: literally, “he made for them houses.”  The implication is not simply that, as the NRSV reads, God “gave them families.” Rather, God has made these two Hebrew women the heads of clans!  There were families in Israel, this story claims, who traced themselves back, not to a man, but to a woman: to Shiphrah, and to Puah.

Why retell this ancient story today?  In part, because today marks the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, a day of savagery that left 800,000 people slaughtered–many hacked to death with machetes.  Today, Rwandans gathered to remember, to mourn, and to declare that the world must never let this happen again.

Events like the slaughter in Rwanda, like the ongoing slaughter today in Syria, force any believer in a loving God to ask where God is to be found in such horrors.  Yet the first chapter of Exodus reveals that this is not by any means a new question.  Surely it is no accident that, through the story of the beginning of Israel’s oppression, enslavement, and attempted genocide at Pharaoh’s hand, God is nowhere to be found.  Nowhere, that is, except in the faith of the midwives, who choose to live as though God, not Pharaoh, is in command.  Somehow, for Shiphrah and Puah, God’s presence is experienced precisely at the point of God’s absence.

Another reason to tell this story today is that we are approaching the end of Lent, and the beginning of Holy Week–the remembrance of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, suffering and death that culminates, for believers, in the celebration of Christ’s victory over death on Easter morning.  In the oldest of the gospels, the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ identity is acclaimed in the very first verse: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son”  But the reader waits in vain for someone within the story to catch on, and echo this confession.

Even when Peter confesses, at Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29), the following verses make plain how little he understands his own confession:

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.”  He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him.  Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts” (Mark 8:31-33).

Only at the end of Mark, when Jesus is hanging dead from the cross, does anyone at last understand who he is: “When the centurion [the Roman officer who oversaw Jesus' execution], who stood facing Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘This man was certainly God’s Son’” (Mark 15:39).  In Mark, the seal of God’s presence in Christ is not Jesus’ miracles, or his authoritative teaching, but his cross–where God seems most absent, where the dying Jesus himself cries, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” (Mark 15:34).

In his haunting memoir Night, Elie Wiesel, remembers his youth in the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, where his mother, father and sister died.  Wiesel tells of the execution of a young boy, beloved by everyone in the camp.  The boy was hanged, and as he struggled and died the inmates were forced to file by and watch.  Behind him, Wiesel heard a man ask again and again, “Where is God now?”  Wiesel writes, “And I heard a voice within me answer him:   ‘Where is He?  Here he is—He is hanging here on this gallows’” (Night [Avon, 1960], p. 76).

Christian writer François Mauriac writes, in his forward to this memoir, of meeting Wiesel:

 And I, who believe that God is love, what answer could I give my young questioner, whose dark eyes still held the reflection of that angelic sadness which had appeared one day on the face of the hanged child?  What did I say to him?  Did I speak of that other Israeli, his brother, who may have resembled him—the  Crucified, whose Cross has conquered the world?  Did I affirm that the stumbling block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine, and that the conformity between the Cross and the suffering of men was in my eyes the key to that impenetrable mystery whereon the faith of his childhood had perished? . . . All is grace.  If the Eternal is the Eternal, the last word for each one of us belongs to him.  This is what I should have told this Jewish child.  But I could only embrace him, weeping (Night, pp. 10-11).

In his anguish, Wiesel was more right than he knew.  God was there, on the gallows.  The good news of Scripture is that God is most present where God seems most absent: in the slave pens of Egypt, on the gallows at Auschwitz, in the killing fields of Rwanda—or on the cross of Calvary.

 

 

 

Mar
2014

What the Bible Says About Homosexuality: Not the Right Question

It occurs to me now, at the end of this series, that the title I have given to these blogs is probably misleading.  After all, if the question was, simply, “What does the Bible say about homosexuality,” this would have been a very short conversation:  “Are there passages in the Bible that condemn homosexuality?”  “Yes, there are.”

But what the Bible says and what those passages mean for our life of faith are two different questions.  “Because the Bible says so” has never been enough–not for any of us.  All of us, without exception, are selective in our application of Scripture.  If we worship on Sunday and do yard work on Saturday, we violate Sabbath law.  If we enjoy ham and crab cakes, we violate dietary law.  If we accept or charge interest, we violate the economic principles of the Scriptures.  Should we Christians say that that is all Old Testament stuff, and that we live by the New Testament, we are even more caught in a bind!  The Gospels advocate a lifestyle of radical renunciation of the world–how many of us are prepared to “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor” (Matt 19:21)?  Jesus explicitly condemns divorce and re-marriage. But how many of us truly believe that all divorced and remarried people are living in sin?

United Methodist preacher and author Adam Hamilton advocates a “three buckets” approach to reading Scripture:

  1. Scriptures that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings.
  2. Scriptures that expressed God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding.
  3. Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.

Into the first bucket go “passages like the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor. . . passages that call us to ‘do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God,’ and to ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”  Hamilton is persuaded that  “Most of the Bible fits into this category.”

Into the second bucket go, for example, the ritual laws of ancient Israel: “the command that males be circumcised, commands regarding animal sacrifices, clean and unclean foods, and hundreds of other passages in the Law.”

The very idea of a third bucket, Hamilton recognizes, may be threatening.  However, he writes,

Here are a few examples of scripture I don’t believe ever accurately captured God’s heart, character, or will:  Leviticus 21:9 requires that if the daughter of a priest becomes a prostitute she must be burned to death.  In Exodus 21:20-21, God permits slave-owners to beat their slaves with rods provided they don’t die within the first 48 hours after the beating “for the slave is his property.”  God commands the destruction of every man, woman, and child in 31 Canaanite cities and later kills 70,000 Israelites in punishment for David taking a census. These passages seem to me to be completely inconsistent with the God revealed in Jesus Christ who cared for prostitutes, commanded that we love our enemies, and gave his life to save sinners.

The problem with Adam Hamilton’s “three buckets” approach is, how are we to know what goes into which bucket?  Further, we might wonder why a God of wisdom and love would even reveal the material in buckets two and three.

Perhaps a better approach is to ask a very fundamental question: what is the Bible?  We may answer, “The Bible is the word of God.”  But what does that confession mean?  Do we mean that God WROTE the Bible?  But then, shouldn’t the Bible be unified, in language, style and theme–in the way that, say, Charles Dickens always sounds like Dickens, or John Steinbeck always sounds like Steinbeck? The Bible, however, does not present itself in a unified style, characteristic vocabulary, or even a common language. Deuteronomy does not sound like Leviticus; Amos does not sound like Isaiah; Matthew does not sound like John; Paul does not sound like James.  Plainly, the various authors of Scripture are not taking dictation from the one Author.  Nor are the individual identities of these persons overwhelmed by the inspiring Spirit–the distinctive personalities of the apostles and prophets still shine through!

If we try to make Scripture into an argument, or a series of logical propositions, then the Bible becomes a book about God rather than an invitation to relationship with God.  Faith becomes, not an orientation of the entire self to God (see Galatians 2:20), but belief: holding the right ideas and opinions about God.  This approach is fraught with problems, however, because the Bible is not uniform or univocal–that is, it does not speak with one voice.  Inevitably, by this reading, we adopt (whether we acknowledge it or not), Adam Hamilton’s “bucket” approach–also sometimes called a “canon within the canon”–prompting us to impose on Scripture the uniformity that it lacks by emphasizing some texts, and de-emphasizing others.

Perhaps the best way to approach the Bible as Scripture is to acknowledge that it is at one and the same time human, historically conditioned word and the Word of God–in the same way that Christians confess Jesus as both fully human and fully Divine. Every word of Scripture is human word, expressing the encounters of women and men with God, in a bewildering variety of circumstances and over an immensely long period of time.  Therefore, every word of Scripture bears the hallmark, and carries the limitations, of its particular context in time and space. However, as every word of Scripture speaks out of an encounter with God, every word also has the potential to become again transparent to God’s presence.  To put this another way, God meets us in the Bible.

Bono, lead singer for U2 and an unapologetic witness for Christ, speaks powerfully on God’s love and grace: 

It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the Universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people. . .Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.

I propose that the Bible is a love letter from God–an invitation to relationship calling for our commitment, not a list of propositions requiring our assent.  This reading of Scripture has its problems, too–in particular, one might argue that if the Bible is not a rule book, then we have no basis for any rules: the only alternative is an “anything-goes” morality.  I do not accept that conclusion.  As we come into relationship with the God revealed in Scripture, we grow into God’s love, and desire more and more to live in accordance with that love: that is, to love what God loves, and as God loves.  This, as we have seen, is a golden thread woven through the many threads in Scripture, upheld by the Torah, by Jesus, and by Paul.

What would an ethic of love look like?  Poet, theologian, and agrarian reformer Wendell Berry wades boldly into the cultural divide between “liberals” and “conservatives” on the issue of homosexual marriage, with little patience for either “side”:

The Christian or social conservatives who wish for government protection of their version of family values have been seduced by the conservatives of corporate finance who wish for government protection of their religion of personal wealth earned in contempt for families. The liberals, calling for some restraints upon incorporated wealth, wish for government enlargement of their semireligion of personal rights and liberties. One side espouses family values pertaining to homes that are empty all day every day. The other promotes liberation that vouchsafes little actual freedom and no particular responsibility. And so we are talking about a populace in which nearly everybody is needy, greedy, envious, angry and alone. We are talking therefore about a politics of mutual estrangement, in which the two sides go at each other with the fervor of extreme righteousness in defense of rickety absolutes that cannot be compromised.

Berry proposes that we need to take people more seriously than faceless absolutes.

Oversimplified moral certainties—always requiring hostility, always potentially violent—isolate us from mercy, pity, peace and love and leave us lonely and dangerous in our misery. The only perfect laws are absolute, but perfect laws are only approximately fitted to imperfect humans. That is why we have needed to think of mercy, and of the spirit, as opposed to the letter, of the law. 

The challenge is for us to relate to one another, not as categories (white/black, liberal/conservative, male/female, homosexual/heterosexual), but as people:

Condemnation by category is the lowest form of hatred, for it is cold-hearted and abstract, lacking the heat and even the courage of a personal hatred. Categorical condemnation is the hatred of the mob, which makes cowards brave. And there is nothing more fearful than a religious mob overflowing with righteousness, as there was at the crucifixion and has been before and since. This mob violence can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal of kindness to heretics, foreigners, enemies, or any other group different from ourselves.

Finally, Berry observes, no marriage is “made” by church or state; rather, any real marriage is forged by the commitment of a couple, each to the other.  The freedom to take and make personal vows of commitment and faithfulness cannot be either enforced or restricted:

No church can make a homosexual marriage, because it cannot make any marriage, nor can it withhold any degree of blessedness or sanctity from any pledged couple striving day by day to be at one. If I were one of a homosexual couple, the same as I am one of a heterosexual couple, I would place my faith and hope in the mercy of Christ, not in the judgment of Christians.

The commitment to an ethic of love does not mean that “anything goes.”  Indeed, to affirm same-sex marriage is to affirm the virtues of commitment or fidelity at the heart of any marriage.

I hope that these posts have made clear why I, a Bible-believing Christian, urge my church to fully include LGBTQ people.  I have not always thought in this way: I wince and cringe as I replay in my memory jokes I told in college and in seminary–not knowing that some of my dear Christian friends were LGBTQ. My mind was changed by many things, but first and foremost, it was changed by Bible study.  

Early in my ministry, I was approached by an Evangelical Christian brother struggling with same-sex attraction, who asked me what the Bible said on this issue.  I set out to discover what I could learn. I still have those notes–they cover some of the same ground we have covered in these last few weeks.  My study led me to realize that the biblical case against homosexuality was not strong–certainly, not so strong as I had thought that it was.  Still the argument from creation seemed to me sufficiently strong that the most I could then say (reading from those old hand-written notes) was, “Homosexuality not an evil, but not a good.  God has a better plan.”  Later, as I came to know more and more gay and lesbian students and colleagues, some in long term, committed relationships, I realized that I could no longer, on biblical grounds, regard their relationships as intrinsically immoral–any more than heterosexual relationships are intrinsically moral.  My mind had been changed.

To all who have come with me on this pilgrimage: thank you.  Perhaps you have found validation here for your own beliefs; or perhaps your mind has been changed through this study, as mine was.  Then again, perhaps this study leaves you committed to the traditional view of marriage and sexuality.  If so, I ask you to remember that we who think differently on this issue may do so, not despite the Bible, but because of the Bible.

In his sermon “Catholic Spirit,” John Wesley unpacks 2 Kings 10:15: “And when [Jehu] was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him: and he saluted him, and said to him, Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? And Jehonadab answered, It is. If it be, give me thine hand. And he gave him his hand; and he took him up to him into the chariot.”  Wesley declared this as his own view with regard to sisters and brothers from other church bodies: 

“If it be, give me thy hand.” I do not mean, “Be of my opinion.” You need not: I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, “I will be of your opinion.” I cannot, it does not depend on my choice: I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will. Keep you your opinion; I mine; and that as steadily as ever. You need not even endeavour to come over to me, or bring me over to you. I do not desire you to dispute those points, or to hear or speak one word concerning them. Let all opinions alone on one side and the other: only “give me thine hand.”

May I extend that same invitation, brothers and sisters?  Can we affirm our fellowship in Christ despite our differences?  “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? . . . If it be, give me thine hand.”

 

 

Mar
2014

What the Bible Says About Homosexuality: Genesis and Natural Law

Both of the Genesis creation accounts refer not simply to God’s generic creation of humanity, but specifically to the creation of women and men. Genesis 1:27 says,

God created humanity in God’s own image,
        in the divine image God created them,
            male and female God created them.

Genesis 2 describes the special creation of the woman from the very stuff of the man.  In its climax, this account of creation declares,

This is the reason that a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife, and they become one flesh (Gen 2:24).

As we have seen, Jesus’ affirmation of marriage quotes both of these passages, grounding God’s intention for marriage in creation itself. Similarly, in his statement of opposition to same-sex relations in Romans 1, Paul makes reference to God’s will manifest in creation, although he does not quote from Genesis in this context.  He does cite Gen 2:24 in reference to sexual immorality, however: “Don’t you know that anyone who is joined to someone who is sleeping around is one body with that person? The scripture says, The two will become one flesh“ (1 Cor 6:16; compare Ephesians 5:31-32, which reads this passage as a metaphor for the unity of Christ and the church).

Many interpreters have concluded that Genesis presents the union of male and female as God’s intention for humanity, and indeed for all the natural world.  By this reading, same-sex intercourse, since it does not involve a union of differences, violates God’s will.  New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, who is inclined toward this view, proposes that human sexuality needs to be viewed as a part of “God’s differentiated creation, which nevertheless is designed to work together.”

The official stances of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches on marriage and sexuality further derive from Genesis the foundations of a natural law regarding human sexuality.  Since, as the early Christian theologian and scholar St. Jerome (340-420) observed, “God’s first command” is, “‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth’” (Against Jovinianus, 1.3; see Gen 1:28), this approach holds the purpose of sexual intercourse to be procreation.  Since same-sex intercourse cannot result in children, then, it violates this natural law.

United Methodist pastor and scholar Maxie Dunham has spoken in support of the United Methodist Church’s position rejecting homosexuality, as stated in  The 2012 Book of Discipline (p. 109), on the ground of harmony with this teaching of the whole church. He writes:

This is the corporate, and continuing witness of the Church. We need to keep in mind that how we think must not be restricted to random feelings and even individual interpretation of Scripture; We need to be in harmony with the whole Body of Christ and all the saints now and forever.

The natural law argument, in various forms, is very old.  The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20 BC-50 A.D.) objected to the Greco-Roman custom of pederasty in part on this basis:

. . . the man who is devoted to the love of boys [Greek paiderastes] . . . pursues that pleasure which is contrary to nature, and since, as far as depends upon him, he would make the cities desolate, and void, and empty of all inhabitants, wasting his power of propagating his species (Special Laws 3.7.39).

So too the Wisdom of Solomon, a first-century B.C. book of Jewish wisdom, not only attributes the sexual immorality of the Gentile world to idolatry (compare Wisd 14:22-26 to Rom 1:18-32), but also defines one aspect of that immorality (see Wisd 14:26) as geneseos enallage, literally “the alteration of generation”–that is, engaging in sexual acts that cannot result in offspring.

Christian ideas of natural law, especially relating to sex and procreation, derive particularly from the work of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-371). Augustine’s Pelagian adversaries, who rejected the doctrine of original sin (the teaching that humans are by nature sinners), argued that accepting the notion of original sin would require one to condemn marriage itself, since sexual intercourse must therefore be held as inherently sinful. Indeed, even Jerome taught,

. . . while we honour marriage we prefer virginity which is the offspring of marriage. Will silver cease to be silver, if gold is more precious than silver? Or is despite done to tree and corn, if we prefer the fruit to root and foliage, or the grain to stalk and ear? Virginity is to marriage what fruit is to the tree, or grain to the straw  (Against Jovinianus, 1.3).

To the implication that the Christian seeking to avoid sin should remain celibate, Augustine replied,

the marriage of believers converts to the use of righteousness that carnal concupiscence by which “the flesh lusteth against the Spirit.” For they entertain the firm purpose of generating offspring to be regenerated—that the children who are born of them as “children of the world” may be born again and become “sons of God” (On Marriage and Concupiscence, 1.5.iv.)

Still, according to Augustine, producing little Christians is all that sex is good for: “The union, then, of male and female for the purpose of procreation is the natural good of marriage. But he makes a bad use of this good who uses it bestially, so that his intention is on the gratification of lust, instead of the desire of offspring” (On Marriage and Concupiscence, 1.5.iv.).  This, of course, means that same-sex relations must be condemned–but that is not all that it means.  By this logic,  heterosexual intercourse simply for pleasure, even with one’s spouse, is also sinful.  Although this sin may be only venial (that is, a sin that damages, but does not break, one’s communion with God), it may become mortal sin:

It is, however, one thing for married persons to have intercourse only for the wish to beget children, which is not sinful: it is another thing for them to desire carnal pleasure in cohabitation, but with the spouse only, which involves venial sin. For although propagation of offspring is not the motive of the intercourse, there is still no attempt to prevent such propagation, either by wrong desire or evil appliance. They who resort to these, although called by the name of spouses, are really not such; they retain no vestige of true matrimony, but pretend the honourable designation as a cloak for criminal conduct (On Marriage and Concupiscence, 1.17.xv.)

Contraception (“evil appliance”), non-genital intercourse, and any other “wrong desire”–that is, any sex that cannot potentially produce a child–is a mortal sin, leading to damnation.

The natural law argument reached its most developed, closely reasoned form in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274), particularly his massive Summa Theologica.  There, for example, Aquinas reasons that, even if there had been no fall, there would still have been generation by means of sexual intercourse, as “what is natural to man was neither acquired nor forfeited by sin”: therefore sex is not, in itself, sinful (Summa Theologica Part 1, Question 98, “Of the Preservation of the Species,” Article 2).  In the Supplement to Part 3 of the Summa (Question 49, “Of the Marriage Goods,” Article 6) Aquinas poses Augustine’s question, “Whether it is a mortal sin for a man to have knowledge of his wife, with the intention not of a marriage good [according to Augustine, these goods are "offspring, fidelity, the sacramental bond" (On Marriage and Concupiscence1.19.xvii.)] but merely of pleasure?”

Aquinas reaches a somewhat different conclusion than Augustine had, in no small measure because he views pleasure differently.  To understand pleasure, he turns for guidance to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics 10:3-4, where the philosopher concludes:

One might think that all men desire pleasure because they all aim at life; life is an activity, and each man is active about those things and with those faculties that he loves most. . . now pleasure completes the activities, and therefore life, which they desire. It is with good reason, then, that they aim at pleasure too, since for every one it completes life, which is desirable. But whether we choose life for the sake of pleasure or pleasure for the sake of life is a question we may dismiss for the present. For they seem to be bound up together and not to admit of separation, since without activity pleasure does not arise, and every activity is completed by the attendant pleasure. 

Since, Aquinas observes, “the same judgment applies to pleasure as to action, because pleasure in a good action is good, and in an evil action, evil; wherefore, as the marriage act is not evil in itself, neither will it be always a mortal sin to seek pleasure therein.”  Still, like Augustine, Aquinas argues that “if pleasure be sought in such a way as to exclude the honesty of marriage, so that, to wit, it is not as a wife but as a woman that a man treats his wife, and that he is ready to use her in the same way if she were not his wife, it is a mortal sin; wherefore such a man is said to be too ardent a lover of his wife, because his ardor carries him away from the goods of marriage.”  Once more, sexual activity is held to be mortally sinful if divorced from its purpose, namely procreation.

The positions of Augustine and Aquinas on human sexuality are still, in large measure, the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, reaffirmed by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Casti Connubii (“On Chaste Marriage,” 1930), by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life,” 1968), and by Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life,” 1995).  But the effectiveness of the Church in persuading its followers to embrace and live by this teaching is another matter.  A recent poll of Roman Catholics worldwide, conducted by the American Spanish-speaking television network Univision, found that 78% of respondents support the use of contraceptives–ranging from 91% in Latin America to 31% in the Philippines.  So too, a majority  (58%) disagreed with the statement, “An individual who has divorced and remarried outside of the Catholic Church, is living in sin which prevents them from receiving Communion.”

The natural law argument, followed consistently, takes us to places most of us would rather not go. But given our proclivity for self-deception and sin, that need not mean that the argument is invalid.  The notion that sexual pleasure for its own sake is inherently sinful is, however, scarcely compatible with the goodness of the physical world and of embodied existence emphasized throughout the Hebrew Bible.

Repeatedly, the first creation account (Gen 1:1–2:4a), tells us what God thinks of the world God is calling into being: “God saw how good it was” (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 25)!  Then, after the work is done and before God’s sabbath rest, the text declares, “God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good” (1:31).  In Proverbs 8:30-31, God’s Wisdom declares her delight in God’s creation, and particularly, in humanity:

I was beside [God] as a master of crafts.
    I was having fun,
    smiling before him all the time,
     frolicking with his inhabited earth
    and delighting in the human race.

In the Song of Songs, there is a frank recognition and celebration of human sexual passion that is certainly about more than child-bearing!

Set me as a seal over your heart,
        as a seal upon your arm,
for love is as strong as death,
        passionate love unrelenting as the grave.
Its darts are darts of fire—
        divine flame!
Rushing waters can’t quench love;
        rivers can’t wash it away.
If someone gave
        all his estate in exchange for love,
        he would be laughed to utter shame (Song 8:6-7)

The apostle Paul too affirms the inherent goodness of sexual intimacy in marriage:

The husband should meet his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should do the same for her husband.  The wife doesn’t have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise, the husband doesn’t have authority over his own body, but the wife does.  Don’t refuse to meet each other’s needs unless you both agree for a short period of time to devote yourselves to prayer. Then come back together again so that Satan might not tempt you because of your lack of self-control (1 Cor 7:3-5).

When we read the opening chapters of Genesis, it is important for us to remember that they are neither history, nor science, nor law.  They are confessions, made by communities of faith–grounded not only in universal, timeless ideas but also in the particular circumstances of their authors.  The affirmation in Gen 1:27 that maleness and femaleness alike reflect the image of God hits like a thunderbolt: it can scarcely be ascribed to the typical attitudes of its patriarchal culture!  This extraordinary valuation of the feminine need not be read, however, as restricting God’s intention for humanity to the union of male and female.  Certainly Jerome, with his eloquent defense of celibacy, did not regard singleness as condemned by this passage!

On the other hand, the call to “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it” (Gen 1:28) is no surprise: it fits neatly into the flow of the narrative from Genesis through Joshua.

As God’s people endure threat after threat, seeming always on the edge of extinction, the imperative to be fertile is essential for their survival.  In particular, Gen 1:28 prefigures the growth of the people into a great nation, despite Egyptian persecution (see Exod 1:6-7, 20) and despite the faithlessness of the wilderness generation (see Num 22:3-4),  in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (see Gen 15:5-6).  We may question, then, whether this “first commandment” is intended as a universal imperative.

Similarly, as an etiological narrative, Genesis 2 seeks to make sense of the world that Israel inhabited.  Specifically, this account of man and woman as parts of an original whole is an attempt to come to terms with both the generative and the potentially disruptive power of sexual attraction in Israel’s clan-based culture: “This is the reason that a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24).

This verse, then, is an explanation, not a commandment; it is descriptive, not prescriptive–just as Jesus’ quotation of this passage is an affirmation, not a prohibition.  That Genesis 2 deals with the dominant (and, in its Israelite context, the only officially sanctioned) mode of sexuality in human culture  is scarcely surprising: after all, the survival of the culture through the birth of children, as well as the threat posed to the culture by a force stronger than loyalty to one’s clan, are alike in the background of this passage. But again, Genesis 2 is a narrative, not a law code.

While we must of course recognize and honor the power of tradition to give shape to our experience of God and the world, it is God, not tradition, that we worship.  Dr. Dunham does not acknowledge that many faith communions have indeed already departed from traditional views of marriage and sexuality.  The United Methodist Church, for example, permits remarriage after divorce, offers no objection to contraception, and practices the ordination of women.  Churches with which we are in full communion, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, ordain LGBTQ persons.

A final word must be spoken.   While sexual intimacy is an important part of any healthy marriage, it is far from the only part.  LGBTQ people seeking marriage do not do so simply out of sexual desire, any more than heterosexual couples do.  They want to proclaim their love for one another before God and before their sisters and brothers in faith–embracing, in Augustine’s terms, the “marriage good” of fidelity.  What is more, LGBTQ couples seeking marriage long to declare their covenantal commitment to one another: in the ancient words of the liturgy, to pledge to one another their faith–embracing the “marriage good” of lifelong commitment, if not, in Catholic terms, “the sacramental bond.”  I see no barrier to that commitment in the Genesis accounts of creation.

 

AFTERWORD

Wendy, her brother Mark, and all our family thank all of you for your thoughts, prayers, calls, emails, cards, and gifts.  Your support has meant the world to us: we have felt loved, lifted up in our sorrow by the body of Christ.  We thank God for Mom, and give thanks for her life that in Christ will never end.  May light perpetual shine upon you, Gerry!
Feb
2014

Lux Perpetua

My mother-in-law Gerry Rodan died Thursday. Wendy and our son Mark were with her at the end; she passed quietly and peacefully, surrounded by people who love her.  This week’s post is in memory of her.

This passage from Wisdom 3:1-9 keeps coming back to me:

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be an affliction,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of men they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,
because God tested them and found them worthy of himself;
like gold in the furnace he tried them,
and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them.
In the time of their visitation they will shine forth,
and will run like sparks through the stubble.
They will govern nations and rule over peoples,
and the Lord will reign over them for ever.
Those who trust in him will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with him in love,
because grace and mercy are upon his elect,
and he watches over his holy ones.

Here is Mom’s obituary (also here, with a link for remembrances) from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Geraldine (Gerry) Baer Rodan

April 26, 1925-February 13, 2014

Teacher, home economist, and mother Geraldine (Gerry) Rodan of McCandless died peacefully in her apartment Thursday afternoon, with her family by her side. A woman of firm faith, Gerry had made clear to her family that she was ready to go and be with her Lord.

A celebration of her life will be held in April at her church, St. Paul’s United Methodist, 1965 Ferguson Road, Allison Park, PA.  Her cremated remains will be interred with her husband of forty-nine years, WWII veteran John (Jack) Gifford Rodan, in Monroe, Michigan.

Born in Hummelstown, PA on April 26, 1925 to Irwin and Maude Baer, Gerry had two younger brothers who survive her, Richard (Dick) Baer of Middletown, PA and John (Jack) Baer of Los Altos, CA.  She married Jack Rodan on May 13, 1950 in a hometown ceremony.

Prior to her marriage, she attended Juniata College and put a degree in Home Economics to good work in that field for both Westinghouse and Public Service of New Jersey.  Later in life, she pursued a master’s degree in education at Glassboro State College and taught Language Arts to sixth and seventh graders for more than 20 years in Haddonfield, NJ.  Gerry volunteered with Haddon Fortnightly and Girl Scouts in Haddonfield, at Mercy Memorial Hospital in Monroe, MI, and was an active church member throughout her life.

She is survived by her daughter and son-in-law, Wendy and Steve Tuell of McCandless, PA; her son and daughter-in-law, Mark and Lois Rodan of Ypsilanti, MI; three grandsons, Sean, Anthony, and Mark Tuell; and great-grandchildren Samantha and Katlin Dillon.

Gerry’s family expresses their deep appreciation to the caring staff of Sunrise of McCandless, and to AseraCare Hospice for making Gerry’s final days more fulfilling and comfortable. Memorials may be made to St. Paul’s United Methodist Church or to Juniata College.

 

I have sung many settings of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, and have always loved the lines (Faure’s setting is here), Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine, cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine; et lux perpetua luceat eis: “May everlasting light shine upon them, O Lord, with thy saints in eternity, for thou art merciful. Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and may everlasting light shine upon them.”  This week that is my prayer for Gerry: May light perpetual shine on you, Mom, as you enter into the glory of our Lord!

AFTERWORD:

Our thanks to the many who have sent messages of love and support.  This blog will resume next week.

 

 

Feb
2014

What the Bible Says About Homosexuality: Jesus in the Gospels

Jesus, it is often claimed, said nothing about homosexuality.  This is true so far as it goes. However, Jesus does say very important things about human sexuality, and particularly about marriage:

Haven’t you read that at the beginning the creator made them male and female[see Gen 1:27]  And God said, ‘Because of this a man should leave his father and mother and be joined together with his wife, and the two will be one flesh.’ [see Gen 2:24]   So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, humans must not pull apart what God has put together (Matt 19:4-6).

Sometimes, this passage is understood as a rejection of LGBTQ attraction, and certainly of homosexual marriage.  Doesn’t Jesus explicitly say here that marriage is between a man and a woman?

Jesus’ words in context, however, are not restrictive and prohibitive (only this), but permissive and affirmative (yes to this).  In Matthew 19, the Pharisees want to talk in negative terms, about divorce and the circumstances in which divorce is allowed. But Jesus wants to talk positively, about mutual commitment and marriage!  He vigorously affirms the goodness of marriage between women and men.  But that affirmation does not imply a prohibition: it is Jesus’ stated intent here to bolster marriage, not to define it by restriction to “one man and one woman.”  After all, Jesus does not make this statement in response to a question about homosexuality, or polygamy, or sexual practice generally, but specifically in response to a question about divorce.

Next week, we will consider whether, as some have argued, Jesus’ reference to the creation accounts in Genesis 12 may imply an argument against homosexuality based upon the proper order of creation.  But this week, we will consider the way that the debate concerning divorce unfolded in Scripture and in Jewish tradition, and what Jesus’ response to this debate tells us about Jesus’ approach to Scripture and tradition.

In the Hebrew Bible, divorce is accepted, with no shame implied to the woman who is divorced (in that patriarchal culture, nothing is ever said of wives divorcing their husbands).  The divorced daughter of a priest can return to her father’s house and eat from the offerings restricted to the priests and their families (Lev 22:13), and oaths sworn by divorced women have legal standing (Num 30:9). True, according to Leviticus 21:7, 13-14, no priest may marry a divorced woman. But this restriction on priestly marriages clearly implies that other Israelite men could marry divorced women.  The law concerning divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) assumes this, though it places a restriction on remarriage:

Let’s say a man marries a woman, but she isn’t pleasing to him because he’s discovered something inappropriate about her. So he writes up divorce papers, hands them to her, and sends her out of his house.  She leaves his house and ends up marrying someone else.  But this new husband also dislikes her, writes up divorce papers, hands them to her, and sends her out of his house (or suppose the second husband dies).  In this case, the first husband who originally divorced this woman is not allowed to take her back and marry her again after she has been polluted in this way because the LORD detests that. Don’t pollute the land the LORD your God is giving to you as an inheritance.

The prophets use this law metaphorically to condemn Israel for worshipping other gods, then thinking that they can return to the LORD as though nothing had happened (see Isa 50:1; Jer 3:1, 8).

 

The Old Testament takes marriage very seriously: after all, according to Gen 2:24, man and woman were created for one another, and are drawn to become “one flesh.”  Malachi 2:15-16 reads:

Don’t cheat on the wife of your youth
because he hates divorce,
says the Lord God of Israel

From the context, this may be meant symbolically, as a rejection of idol worship (like Isa 50:1 and Jer 3:1, 8).  But this passage is often understood as urging faithfulness in actual marriages.

We can imagine that divorce was intended to be rare.  But no statement of the acceptable grounds for divorce is ever given in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 24:1 only says that a man can divorce his wife (again, no provision is made for a woman divorcing her husband!) if he finds “something inappropriate about her.”  The Hebrew word translated “something inappropriate” is ‘erwah: literally “nakedness;” or “something shameful.”  But what does that mean?  Since the Hebrew Bible doesn’t clearly specify the conditions under which divorce is permissible, the rabbis debated the issue intensely.

The Jewish sage Ben Sirach taught,

Do you have a wife who is a soul mate?
    Don’t divorce her,
    and don’t trust yourself to a woman
    whom you hate (Sir 7:26).

Ben Sirach believed that a good marriage was cause for celebration and lifelong commitment. But he infers that divorce could be pursued for incompatibility.

Two Jewish teachers who lived roughly at the time as Jesus, Hillel and Shammai, were famous for their disputations.  Rabbi Shammai held that divorce could be permitted only in cases of adultery—where the commitment had already been broken by unfaithfulness.  But Rabbi Hillel taught, “If she burns the meat in the pan, you may divorce her”! Presumably, as a human contract, marriage could be dissolved for any reason, not just in cases of unfaithfulness.

In contrast to these views, Jesus’ teaching rejects divorce and remarriage altogether: “Any man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and a man who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18; compare Matt 5:31-32).  As we saw above, in Mark 10:1-12//Matthew 19:3-9, this teaching is placed in a context: Jesus is approached by the Pharisees, and asked to weigh in on the ongoing rabbinic debate concerning divorce. But as we have seen, Jesus doesn’t want to talk about divorce—he wants to talk about marriage!

To understand Jesus’ teaching, we should note that in Palestine in Jesus’ day, women could not independently own property.  Divorce meant that the woman would be dependent upon her family or community to support her, and could therefore be made homeless and destitute by her husband’s rejection.

The Law regarding divorce, in Jesus’ view, reflects not God’s good will, but rather a concession to human failing.  “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives,” Jesus says, “because your hearts are unyielding. But it wasn’t that way from the beginning” (Matt 19:8).  Jesus sets the Law aside and rejects divorce in order to protect women from being set aside at their husbands’ whims.  He bases this action on Gen 2:24—God’s original intention for women and men expressed in Genesis is a higher principle than Deuteronomy’s permission for men and women to separate.  In fact, Jesus’ opposition to remarriage suggests that he understood marriage to be permanent.

Notice, though, that already within the New Testament, this teaching was being rethought.  In Matthew (19:9 and 5:31-32), divorce is permitted in cases of adultery, just as Shammai had argued– though remarriage is rejected.   In the gospel of Mark, which may have been written in Rome, the saying reads, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;   and if a wife divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12). This differs from the Old Testament and traditional Jewish position, and places Jesus’ teaching in the context of Roman law, which permitted a woman to initiate a divorce. Likewise Paul (see 1 Cor 7:10-16), who cites Jesus’ teaching on divorce (one of the few places where the words of Jesus are cited in Paul’s letters), recognizes that in the Roman world a wife could divorce her husband.

Paul forbade divorce because he was convinced that the world would end soon, making any attempt to change one’s present status a waste of time:

This is what I’m saying, brothers and sisters: The time has drawn short. From now on, those who have wives should be like people who don’t have them.  Those who are sad should be like people who aren’t crying. Those who are happy should be like people who aren’t happy. Those who buy something should be like people who don’t have possessions. Those who use the world should be like people who aren’t preoccupied with it, because this world in its present form is passing away (1 Cor 7:29-31).

Clearly Paul was wrong: the world did not end in the first century.  Can we, then, take Paul’s teaching on divorce and remarriage out of that context, and treat it as directly applicable to our time and situation?  I do not believe that we can, or should, do so.

The varying forms and contexts in which Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage is found across the New Testament indicate that the debate about how to apply that teaching continued in the earliest church. Indeed, Matthew 19:10-12 implies that the high standard Jesus sets for marriage is meant as an ideal, not as a law: “Not everybody can accept this teaching, but only those who have received the ability to accept it. . . . Those who can accept it should accept it.” 

For Jesus, marriage deserves our highest respect and regard.  Is that affirmation of marriage a condemnation of same-sex relationships?  I see no reason to think so.  Jesus’ point is a call for the partners in marriage to be radically committed to one another, which may prove a model for same-sex marriages as well as for heterosexual marriages.

Jesus opposed divorce, likely because he did not want women to be abused by easy divorces that left them, in his day, facing poverty and starvation.  Is it then the case that all divorced and remarried people today are living in sin?  Few of us would want to say this.  Nor, I would argue, should we. Despite the Law (Deut 24:1), as we have seen, Jesus stands up for women in his day by condemning divorce and re-marriage.  Clearly Jesus did not read his own traditions, even the Torah, uncritically and legalistically.  Why, then, should we think that Jesus would expect us to read Scripture in a way that he did not?

Given the radical commitment to one another that Christian marriage involves, neither marriage nor divorce should ever be casual decisions! But perhaps in our day, respect for the rights and happiness of all people requires a different approach to marriage, remarriage, and divorce, faithful to the living spirit rather than the rigid letter of Jesus’ words.

 

 

 

Feb
2014

What the Bible Says About Homosexuality: Romans and Idolatry

In Romans 1:23-27, Paul writes:

They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images that look like mortal humans: birds, animals, and reptiles.  So God abandoned them to their hearts’ desires, which led to the moral corruption of degrading their own bodies with each other.  They traded God’s truth for a lie, and they worshipped and served the creation instead of the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

That’s why God abandoned them to degrading lust. Their females traded natural sexual relations for unnatural sexual relations.  Also, in the same way, the males traded natural sexual relations with females, and burned with lust for each other. Males performed shameful actions with males, and they were paid back with the penalty they deserved for their mistake in their own bodies.

Same-sex relations, the Apostle argues, are a consequence of idolatry: because the gentile world worshipped idols, “God abandoned them to their hearts’ desires, which led to the moral corruption of degrading their own bodies with each other” (Rom 1:24).  Although homosexuality is for Paul the symptom of that deeper disorder, he unequivocally opposes all same-sex relations–not only male homosexuals (compare Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13), but lesbians too are condemned (this is, by the way, the only mention of lesbians in the Bible). There is no way around Paul’s clear condemnation of homosexuality.  If we want to take the Bible seriously, we must deal seriously with his perspective.

What brings Paul to this conclusion?  To understand his point, we need to understand the line of argument Paul pursues in Romans.  Usually, Paul wrote to churches he had established himself or had already visited, responding directly to the circumstances and concerns of each particular community.  But at the time he wrote to the Romans, Paul had never been to Rome (see Rom 1:8-15). Why then did he write this letter?

Robert Jewett proposes that Paul wrote Romans as an ambassador for Christ, seeking to reconcile the estranged gentile (non-Jewish) and Jewish Christian communities in Rome (see Robert Jewett, “Romans as an Ambassadorial Letter, Interpretation 36 [1982]: 13).  Jewett is persuaded that we too must hear this message of reconciliation:  “The Pauline hope of unification of all peoples through the gospel of transforming love that produces respect between groups as diverse as the Jews and Gentiles urgently needs to be placed on our agenda” (Robert Jewett, “The Law and the Coexistence of Jews and Gentiles in Romans,” Interpretation 39 [1985]: 341).

The gospel Paul proclaims is not for either Jews or gentiles alone, but for all who have faith in Christ:

I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek [that is, the gentile].  God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith, as it is written, The righteous person will live by faith [alluding to Hab 2:4] (Rom 1:16-17).

Therefore, Paul writes,

There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.  But there will be glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does what is good, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. God does not have favorites (Rom 2:9-11).

 

The commonality of all humanity before God–first regarding our sinfulness, then regarding our salvation–is the major theme in Romans.  Paul famously asserts the need of all people for God’s deliverance through Christ:

But now God’s righteousness has been revealed apart from the Law [that is, to the gentiles], which is confirmed by the Law and the Prophets [that is, the Jewish Scriptures]. God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him. There’s no distinction. All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus (Rom 3:21-24).

Of course, it makes sense for Paul to say that he and his fellow Jews have sinned and are in need of God’s grace–God had given them the Law, but they had not followed it.  But the gentiles could well ask, “How can we be blamed for failing to follow a Law that was never revealed to us?”

 

Paul’s answer is an appeal to creation.

This is because what is known about God should be plain to them because God made it plain to them.  Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—God’s eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through the things God has made. So humans are without excuse  (Rom 1:19-20).

Because nature itself serves to reveal God to all humanity, Paul can even argue for an innate sense of morality in human beings, serving as “the proof of the Law written in their hearts” (see Rom 2:12-16).  Idolatry, then, is not an error born out of human ignorance.  It is a deliberate and perverse betrayal of what we ourselves know to be true!

The consequence of this betrayal, for Paul, is that the gentiles have not only lost sight of who God is, they have forgotten who they are.  As we are made in God’s image, our humanity is compromised and distorted when we fail to recognize God (see Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics [Nashville: Abingdon, 2001], 229-303).  Same-sex attraction and relations are the result of that distortion.

In his commentary on Romans, N.T. Wright argues, “We cannot isolate these verses from Paul’s larger argument, both in this paragraph and in Romans as a whole” (N. T. Wright, “Romans,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 10, ed. Leander Keck [Nashville: Abingdon, 2002], 435). He also, however, makes an intriguing observation:

It is quite logical to say that we disagree with Paul or that in light of our greater knowledge of human psychology we need to reassess the matter.  That can be argued either way (Wright, “Romans,” 435).

Can we really disagree with Paul?  I suggest that we can.  One of Paul’s deepest insights into the relationship between God and humanity is his realization that we cannot earn God’s favor by following rules.  Why, then, should we think that we must turn Paul into a rule-maker, and follow his teachings legalistically?  In Romans 4:13-16, Paul reflects on Abraham, the ancestor of the Jewish people who, through his faithful example, is also the “ancestor” of gentiles who have faith:

The promise to Abraham and to his descendants, that he would inherit the world, didn’t come through the Law [since the Law was revealed to Moses, and Abraham was Moses' ancestor] but through the righteousness that comes from faith.  If they inherit because of the Law, then faith has no effect and the promise has been canceled.  The Law brings about wrath. But when there isn’t any law, there isn’t any violation of the law.  That’s why the inheritance comes through faith, so that it will be on the basis of God’s grace. In that way, the promise is secure for all of Abraham’s descendants, not just for those who are related by Law but also for those who are related by the faith of Abraham, who is the father of all of us.  

This does not, of course, mean that it doesn’t matter how we live our lives.  In Romans 13:8-10 Paul, like Jesus and the Holiness Code in Leviticus, presents love for the other as the primary ethical principle:

Don’t be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. The commandments, Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t desire what others have [the Ten Commandments: see Exod 20:1-17 and Deut 5:6-21], and any other commandments, are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself [Lev 19:18].  Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.

Elsewhere (see Gal 5:16-25), Paul affirms that this very lifestyle of love is itself a gift of God’s grace–the fruit of God’s Spirit.  We are not saved by right doctrine–even Paul’s own doctrine!–but by God’s grace, and called to live lives of love guided by God’s Spirit.

Not only can we disagree with Paul, it is clear that we do–indeed, sometimes that we must–disagree.  For example, in 1 Cor 15, Paul sets forth his passionate confession of the resurrection of Jesus, and the promise that through faith in Christ we share in that resurrection life.  But bodily resurrection is such a strange notion: after all, we know that dead bodies decay and dissolve. How then can they be raised?  Paul answers with an analogy from the natural world:

All flesh isn’t alike. Humans have one kind of flesh, animals have another kind of flesh, birds have another kind of flesh, and fish have another kind.  There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies. The heavenly bodies have one kind of glory, and the earthly bodies have another kind of glory.  The sun has one kind of glory, the moon has another kind of glory, and the stars have another kind of glory (but one star is different from another star in its glory).

Just so, Paul says our “resurrection body” will be a different sort of body–a  spiritual body:

It’s the same with the resurrection of the dead: a rotting body is put into the ground, but what is raised won’t ever decay.  It’s degraded when it’s put into the ground, but it’s raised in glory. It’s weak when it’s put into the ground, but it’s raised in power.  It’s a physical body when it’s put into the ground, but it’s raised as a spiritual body (1 Cor 15:39-44).

Paul’s illustration is based on the best natural philosophy of his day.   We know, however, that our human bodies are not fundamentally different from the bodies of animals, birds, and fish (for this division of living things, see Gen 1:20-25) .  All life on earth today is related: derived fundamentally from the same biochemical root, the DNA molecule.

 

This, by the way, is a biblical as well as a biological insight.  Genesis 2 affirms that humans and animals are made of the same stuff, and fundamentally linked.

So too, we know that the atoms that make up our terrestrial bodies are no different than the atoms found in the heavenly bodies: the sun, the moon, and the stars.

The elements of our universe are forged in those stars, and scattered through the cosmos when they explode in supernovae (like the massive stellar explosion that created the Crab Nebula, pictured above).  Carl Sagan said it very well:

None of this means, of course, that there is no resurrection of the dead!  We do not need to accept Paul’s physics or biology to follow his illustration, and understand his point: resurrection is not resuscitation or reanimation, but a miracle of re-creation.  Similarly, I would argue, we can follow Paul’s logic, and understand his statement of the human condition–”All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (Rom 3:23)–without accepting his views on human sexuality.

As Wright concludes in his commentary:

It is, of course, important to remind ourselves that Romans 1 is followed at once by Romans 2, with its emphatic warning against a moral superiority complex.  As the argument goes on its way, Paul’s most damning condemnation is reserved, not for those who engage in what he sees as dehumanizing practices, but for those who adopt a posture of innate moral virtue while themselves failing in their most basic vocation, to be the light of the world (Wright, “Romans.” 435).

The condemnation of homosexuality is not, after all, Paul’s major point.  It is a stage on the way: a demonstration of the (to his mind) inherently perverse and sinful gentile world which, like the rebellious and faithless Jewish world, Jesus Christ had come to save.  We do not need to accept his views on human sexuality to affirm, with Paul, that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace, who through Christ may now be reconciled to God: “all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24).

 

 

Jan
2014

What the Bible Says About Homosexuality: Clearing the Brush

In an earlier blog, I argued that the Sodom story condemns cruel and callous inhospitality to strangers, not same-sex relations. Many other passages often cited as condemnations of homosexuality are also, I would argue, not relevant to our contemporary conversation about LGBTQ matters.  This week, I will explain why I do not believe that these passages should figure in our discussion. Much like the story of Sodom’s destruction in Genesis 19:1-28, the story of the Levite’s concubine (the CEB reads “secondary wife”) in Judges 19 concerns a mob of men threatening to rape a male stranger.  If anything, the horrific violence of the Judges story far eclipses the Genesis account.  Still, it is even clearer in Judges 19 than in Genesis 19 that the issue is the rape and humiliation of the stranger, and not same-sex relations.  While in Gen 19:7-8, Lot offers his own daughters to sate the vicious lust of the mob, in Judges the threatened Levite callously yields up his own concubine to be raped to death (Jdg 19:25-28).  The broader context in Judges shows the purpose of this narrative.  Judges 20 describes a bloody war between an alliance of northern tribes and clans and the tribe of Benjamin, triggered by Benjamin’s violent inhospitality toward the Levite.  Judges 21 explains that Benjamin survived, despite being ostracized by the other tribes, by raiding its neighbors and kidnapping their women.  The entire sordid episode becomes an illustration of the lawless violence of the days before kingship: “In those days there was no king in Israel; each person did what they thought to be right” (Jdg 21:25).  Like the Sodom story, this episode has nothing to do with anyone’s idea of consensual sexual intimacy.

A variety of Old Testament texts concern individuals who seem to have engaged in sex acts as part of worship.  Some ancient people believed that sex had sacral significance, prompting the fertility of the earth (the clay figure above is an image of the Canaanite fertility goddess Asherah).   The term used for a man engaged in this practice is, curiously, qadesh: that is, “holy one” (see Deut 23:17-18[18-19 in the Hebrew text]).  The CEB refers to these persons as “consecrated workers,” though a footnote indicates that this term is traditionally rendered “cultic prostitute” (see the NRSV).  The contempt in which such persons were held in Israel may be indicated by the term used in Deuteronomy 23:18 (23:19 in the Hebrew) for male temple prostitutes: Hebrew keleb, or “dog.”  

Talmud (b. Sanhedrin 54b), the authoritative Jewish collection of Rabbinic tradition, interprets qadesh here with reference to Lev 20:13, as referring to male homosexuality (see the KJV, which renders qadesh as “sodomite”).  Still, the sexual acts in which these temple prostitutes were engaged do not necessarily involve male homosexuality.  There were female temple prostitutes as well (Hebrew qadeshah; see Gen 38:21; Hos 4:14; Deut 23:17[18]).  Amos 2:7-8 links social injustice and false worship in a potent image involving heterosexual contact with a temple prostitute:

    They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
        and push the afflicted out of the way.
    Father and son have intercourse with the same young woman,
        degrading my holy name.
    They stretch out beside every altar
        on garments taken in loan;
    in the house of their god they drink
        wine bought with fines they imposed.

The Bible condemns the qadesh/qadeshah, not for their involvement in same-sex relations, but for their place in idolatrous worship.  Remember that in Deuteronomy and in 1 and 2 Kings,  “abomination” (Hebrew to’ebah) typically refers to idolatry.  Reforming kings who do away with idol worship are also praised for doing away with temple prostitution (see 1 Kgs 15:12, on King Asa’s reforms, 22:46, on Jehoshaphat’s; and 2 Kgs 23:7, on Josiah’s).  Despite the traditional rendering reflected in the KJV, we have no reason to think that these texts condemning idolatrous worship practice have anything to do with our contemporary conversation about homosexuality.

In the New Testament, two passages often cited in connection with homosexuality are 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10.  Both passages are “vice lists:” stereotyped lists of offenses used by moral teachers in the Greco-Roman world.  These lists are common in Pauline literature (that is, the New Testament letters associated with the Apostle Paul), and their contents vary (for example, see Rom 1: 29-31; 2 Cor 12:20; Gal 5:19-21).  They are never unpacked in context: that is, the individual elements in the list are not discussed in any detail, and no case is made for naming any part of the list as a vice.  The entire list is thrown out as a block, to establish a consensus the teacher can then build upon: these are actions that Paul assumes the entire community will regard as unacceptable.

1 Corinthians 6:9 uses the term malakoi, literally, “soft ones” (see Matt 11:8//Lk 7:25, where the word malakos describes the “soft robes” [CEB has "refined clothes"] worn by the rich).  Both 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10 use the unusual word arsenokoitai (“lie with a man”?). The NRSV and the 1984 NIV alike render malakoi as “male prostitutes,” while the KJV has “effeminate.”  For the term arsenokoitaiNRSV has “sodomites” in both places; the 1984 NIV has “homosexual offenders” in 1 Corinthians and “perverts” in 1 Timothy.  The KJV reads “abusers of themselves with mankind” in 1 Corinthians, and “them that defile themselves with mankind” in 1 Timothy.

The CEB has “both participants in same-sex intercourse” in 1 Corinthians 6:9; a footnote explains that this refers to “submissive [that is, malakoiand dominant [that is, arsenokoitaimale sexual partners.”  Similarly, the new NIV reads “men who have sex with men;” the translators’ footnote says that these words “translate two Greek words that refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts.”  In 1 Timothy 1:10, the CEB renders arsenokoitais as “people who have intercourse with the same sex,” while the NIV has “those practicing homosexuality”–translations difficult to understand since, as we will see below, the word plainly refers to something that men (Greek arsenos) do, and not to same-sex relations generally (as, recall, was also the case in Lev 18:22 and 20:13).

All of these translations, both old and new, pretend to a confidence in the meaning of malakoi and arsenokoitai that we in actuality do not, and cannot, have. Both words are rather rare.  The Greek word malakos (“soft”) occurs only twice in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture (see Prov 25:15, where the CEB has “tender,” the meaning of the Hebrew rakah; and Prov 26:2, where the CEB has “choice snacks” for the Hebrew mithlakhamim, “delicacies”).  Apart from 1 Corinthians 6:9,  malakos appears only two other times in the New Testament–as we saw above, in Matt 11:8//Lk 7:25.  None of this helps us understand what Paul intends in 1 Cor 6:9.

Turning to Greek literature roughly contemporary with our New Testament, we find the term malakos in a history of the Roman Empire by Dionysus of Halicarnasus (ca. 60-7 B.C.):

The tyrant of Cumae at that time was Aristodemus, the son of Aristocrates, a man of no obscure birth, who was called by the citizens Malacus or “Effeminate” — a nickname which in time came to be better known than his own name — either because when a boy he was effeminate and allowed himself to be treated as a woman, as some relate, or because he was of a mild nature and slow to anger, as others state (Roman Antiquities 7.2.4).

Since Dionysus admits that he is not sure why Aristodemus was nicknamed “Malacus” (“Softie”), this reference is not decisive–though the rumor that Malacus was “treated as a woman” when he was a boy suggests another way to understand this term.

In his discussion of Lev 18 (see Special Laws 3.5–8), the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.-50 C.E.) uses the term malakia (clearly related to malakos) with reference to pederasty–sex with boys:

And let the man who is devoted to the love of boys [Greek paiderastessubmit to the same punishment, since he pursues that pleasure which is contrary to nature, and since, as far as depends upon him, he would make the cities desolate, and void, and empty of all inhabitants, wasting his power of propagating his species, and moreover, being a guide and teacher of those greatest of all evils, unmanliness and effeminate lust [Greek malakias], stripping young men of the flower of their beauty, and wasting their prime of life in effeminacy (Special Laws 3.7.39).

Perhaps, then, the term malakos has to do with the sexual abuse of boys.

Unlike malakos, the word arsenokoitai does not appear anywhere before its use by Paul in the New Testament.  Robert Gagnon suggests that Paul himself may have coined the word, with reference to Lev 18:22 in the Septuagint–where the Greek words arsenos (“male”) and koite (“bed,” specifically “marriage bed,” hence our word “coitus”) both appear (Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics [Nashville: Abingdon, 2001], 312).  If this is so, then Paul may be creating a term here to use for male homosexuality.

In Talmud, however, as in Philo, the Lev 18 and 20 passages are read specifically with reference to pederasty (see b. Sanhedrin 54a-55a).  In Greco-Roman society, it was not at all uncommon for an upper-class man to take a boy as his ward, teaching him, enculturating him, introducing him into society–and using him sexually.  The myth of Jupiter and Ganymede, depicted in the plaque above, gave religious sanction to these relationships.  Still, as J. Paul Sampley observes, Roman moral philosophers such as Seneca, Plutarch, and Dio Chrysostom objected to the sexual exploitation of boys (and sometimes girls) enslaved in households for same-sex relations (J. Paul Sampley, “1 Corinthians,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 10, ed. Leander Keck [Nashville: Abingdon, 2002], 859).  Perhaps this is what Paul too has in mind in 1 Cor 6:9 when he places malakoi and arsenokoitai in his vice list.

This does not mean that either Paul or his Jewish contemporaries approved of homosexual behavior; certainly they did not (as Philo’s argument above demonstrates, and as we will see next week when we consider Romans 1:24-27).

But it does mean that the New Testament vice lists, often used to condemn all same-sex relationships as immoral, are at best ambiguous: we do not know for certain what malakoi  and arsenokoitai mean.  But if  1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 do in fact condemn child abuse, then these vice lists have nothing to say about committed, loving relationships between consenting LGBTQ adults.  Like the story of the Levite’s concubine or the Old Testament temple prostitution texts, they are not relevant to our contemporary conversation.

 

Jan
2014

What the Bible Says About Homosexuality: Abomination

 

After the Sodom story, the most cited passages in our current conversation concerning same-sex relations are Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.  The first reads, “You must not have sexual intercourse with a man as you would with a woman; it is a detestable practice.”  The second goes further: “If a man has sexual intercourse with a man as he would with a woman, the two of them have done something detestable. They must be executed; their blood is on their own heads.”

The word rendered “detestable” in the CEB (see also the NIV) was translated in the KJV as “abomination” (see also NRSV).  Male homosexuality (note that nothing is said about women engaging in same-sex relations) is grouped here with other abominations–actions anyone would regard as unacceptable, such as incest (18:6-18), child sacrifice (18:21), and bestiality (18:23).   In his GQ interview, Phil Robertson alluded to this passage, and indeed, many would say that we need go no further.  The Bible says that homosexuality is an abomination, so how can we even think about tolerating such behavior?

The problem is that words–even very strong words such as “abomination”–only have meaning in context.  We know this.  If I say, “I’d kill for a cup of coffee right now!,” chances are no one will call the police.  They know that all I mean is that I want coffee very, very badly–not that I will actually commit violence to get it.

In his delightful book Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll includes abundant wordplay, based on the slippery meanings of words.  A famous exchange between Alice and Humpty-Dumpty illustrates this:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

We need not agree with Humpty-Dumpty to recognize that the same word can have different meanings in different contexts.  The word rendered “abomination” in the Leviticus passages is to’ebah in Hebrew.   Its basic sense is something disgusting. So, in Genesis and Exodus, the term describes the Egyptian attitude toward the Israelites, whose language (Gen 43:32), customs (Gen 46:34) and religion (Exod 8:26) the Egyptians find repulsive.

In Proverbs, where to’ebah appears 22 times, God finds the ways of the wicked and proud detestable.  For example,  Prov 6:16–19 says,

There are six things that the LORD hates,
    seven things detestable to him:
     snobbish eyes,
    a lying tongue,
    hands that spill innocent blood,
     a heart set on wicked plans,
    feet that run quickly to evil,
     a false witness who breathes lies,
    and one who causes conflicts among relatives.

The term appears most often in Ezekiel (43 times), where as we saw last week, it is nearly always used for the worship of idols.  Similarly, in Deuteronomy (where to’ebah appears 17 times) and in 1 and 2 Kings (1 Kgs 14:23-24; 2 Kgs 16:3; 21:2, 11; 23:13), the term nearly always refers to idolatry.  For example, Deuteronomy 7:25-26 commands,

Burn the images of their gods. Don’t desire the silver or the gold that is on them and take it for yourself, or you will be trapped by it. That is detestable to the LORD your God. Don’t bring any detestable thing into your house, or you will be placed under the ban too, just like it is! You must utterly detest these kinds of things, despising them completely, because they are under the ban.

 

Deuteronomy 22:5 is intriguing, however:

Women must not wear men’s clothes, and men must not wear women’s clothes. Everyone who does such things is detestable to the LORD your God.

 

We will have more to say about this usage of to’ebah shortly.  But first, let’s get back to the two passages with which we began.

In the book of Leviticus, to’ebah appears only 6 times, in only two chapters: Lev 18:22, 26-27, 29-30 and 20:13.  In each context, to’ebah is used together with other words, rendered wickedness (zimah) or perversion (tebel).

These two chapters come from a portion of Leviticus called the Holiness Code (Lev 17—26). Jewish scholar Israel Knohl neatly summarizes the distinctive message of these chapters: “the holiness of God is emphasized, and this is taken to imply a call to holiness addressed to the Israelites in general” (Israel Knohl, Sanctuary of Silence: The Priestly Torah and the Holiness School [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995], 2).  So Leviticus 19:2 states, “You must be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy.”

Within the Holiness Code, Lev 18 and 20 are clearly related: essentially the same offenses, described in much the same language, are listed in each chapter.  But there are also many differences.  In Lev 18, second person commands (in form like the Ten Commandments) are used, while in Lev 20, the laws are set forth in third-person statements, addressing the community (much like the case laws found in the old Covenant Code; Exod 20:22–23:33).  There are also some differences in content: Lev 20 adds laws against the cult of the dead (20:6) and dishonoring parents (20:9) not found in Lev 18.

Most striking are the differences in penalties imposed for violating these commands.  In Lev 18, the penalty is exile (18:24-30): violators are to be cut off (Hebrew karat) from the community; indeed, this passage declares,

You must not do any of these detestable things, neither citizen nor immigrant who lives with you (because the people who had the land before you did all of these detestable things and the land became unclean), so that the land does not vomit you out because you have made it unclean, just as it vomited out the nations that were before you (Lev 18:26-28).

 

In Lev 20, however, some offenses, including same-sex relations, incur the death penalty.

The nature of the relationship between these two chapters is unclear : perhaps one of these two chapters is based on the other, or perhaps these are alternate forms of the same tradition. In the text before us, however, these parallel passages stand like brackets around Leviticus 19, a chapter that stands at the center of the Torah. It is here, as we have seen, that the theme of the Holiness Code is stated: the holy LORD calls forth a holy people (19:2).   It is also here that we find what Jesus called the second of the two Greatest Commandments: “You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD” (19:18).  We could say that, functionally, the purpose of Lev 18 and 20 is to point the reader to Lev 19!

How is to’ebah used in Leviticus 18 and 20?  Our two chapters, as we have already seen, group male homosexuality together with other actions condemned by all human cultures, that no society would regard as acceptable, such as incest, child sacrifice, and bestiality.  Yet right among these abominations, and in no way distinguished from the others,  is this command: “You must not approach a woman for sexual contact during her menstrual uncleanness” (Lev 18:19).  As with the commandment against male homosexuality, Lev 20 specifies the penalty:

If a man sleeps with a woman during her menstrual period and has sexual contact with her, he has exposed the source of her blood flow and she has uncovered the same. Both of them will be cut off from their people (Lev 20:18).

This command is so odd from our modern perspective that an explanation is needed. Israel’s priests regarded blood as highly precious: “A creature’s life is in the blood. I have provided you the blood to make reconciliation for your lives on the altar, because the blood reconciles by means of the life” (Lev 17:11).  For this reason, Israelites are not to consume blood, or come into contact with blood (see Gen 9:4-6; Lev 17:10-14; but for a less restrictive ruling on blood, see Deut 12:15-16).  By extension, this means that a woman is ritually unclean following the very bloody process of childbirth (Lev 12:1-8) and during her menstrual period (Lev 15:19–23). During her period, neither the woman herself nor anything she lies or sits upon are to be touched, because she is ritually unclean.

Obviously, in this priestly worldview, men should avoid sexual relations with menstruating women. But Leviticus 15:24 only states that the man who has sex with a woman during her period shares in her impurity—like her, “he will be unclean for seven days.”  Lev 18:19 and 20:18 go far beyond this, however.  In the radical view of ritual purity the Holiness Code upholds, sexual contact with a menstruating woman is to’ebah: an abomination to be punished by exile from the community (compare Ezek 18:6; and 22:11, where to’ebah may refer to Lev 18:19 and 20:18).

This command makes the meaning of to’ebah in these two chapters plain.  In Leviticus, to’ebah is not about ethics or morality, but about ritual impurity and defilement.  Lev 18 and 20 are purity legislation. This is, in fact, what Lev 18:26-28 explicitly states: these are acts which defile the land, making it unclean.  Likely, this is the idea back of Deut 22:5 as well: this same chapter goes on to condemn planting a vineyard with two different kinds of seed, plowing a field with two different types of animal, and making a garment with two types of thread, and also requires fringes at the corners of every garment.  Clearly these are not moral judgments; they are purity regulations. Like not eating pork (Lev 11:2-8) or shellfish (Lev 11:9-12), these are lifestyle choices that make Israel culturally distinctive.

Likewise, the term “abomination” applied to male homosexual relations in Lev 18 and 2o belongs to a system of ritual purity that Christians do not, and need not, follow.  Indeed, even in Judaism, these biblical regulations are not literally applied, but have been refined and revised through generations of interpretation and reinterpretation by the rabbis.
In Matthew 15:10-20, Jesus presents his teaching on laws regarding ritual purity: “Listen and understand. It’s not what goes into the mouth that contaminates a person in God’s sight. It’s what comes out of the mouth that contaminates the person” (Matt 15:10-11).  Peter quite rightly observes that this rejection of Jewish kosher law is offensive, particularly to the Pharisees, and presses Jesus for an explanation.  Jesus says:
Don’t you understand yet?  Don’t you know that everything that goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer?  But what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight. Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults.  These contaminate a person in God’s sight. But eating without washing hands doesn’t contaminate in God’s sight (Matt 15:16-20).
In our tug of war over the Bible, Christians are all too ready to ignore Scripture that does not support their point of view.   Selectively applying the ritual purity regulations regarding male homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, while ignoring other regulations in that same context, is not “taking the Bible seriously.” It is rather using the Bible selectively, to support conclusions that we have already reached.
Neither, however, can we ignore Leviticus, as though it were not Scripture.  The call in the Holiness Code to revere God, to pursue lives of personal holiness, and to love our neighbors as ourselves must be heeded. Still, an honest reading of Leviticus reveals that its codes of ritual purity do not, and ought not, reflect the way that Christians think about God, or our relationship with God.

 

Jan
2014

What the Bible Says About Homosexuality: Sodom

The story of the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:1-28 is often cited as proof of God’s anger against homosexuals.  This interpretation may seem obvious:  after all, the men of the city crowd around Lot’s house, demanding the men who are his guests (actually angels): “Where are the men who arrived tonight? Bring them out to us so that we may have sex with them” (Gen 19:5).  Certainly this story came to be understood as God’s condemnation of certain sexual acts: after all, this is where the word “sodomy” comes from.

In the Bible, however, Sodom does not appear to be understood in this way.  “Sodom” is mentioned in the Bible, Old and New Testaments combined, in 47 verses (see the Afterword below for a complete list).  Most commonly (in 21 verses) it is used metaphorically, as an example of total destruction brought by divine wrath (for example, Deut 29:23; Matt 11:24//Lk 10:12), with nothing specifically said about the reason for Sodom’s destruction.  Only one fairly obscure New Testament text explicitly relates Sodom’s destruction to sexual sin:

I remind you too of the angels who didn’t keep their position of authority but deserted their own home. The Lord has kept them in eternal chains in the underworld until the judgment of the great day.  In the same way, Sodom and Gomorrah and neighboring towns practiced immoral sexual relations and pursued other sexual urges. By undergoing the punishment of eternal fire, they serve as a warning

Chances are you are unfamiliar with a story about rebellious angels kept “in chains in the underworld” (the NRSV renders the Greek more literally, as “eternal chains in deepest darkness”). That is because (unless you are Ethiopian or Eritrean Orthodox), this story is not in your Bible.  It comes from the Book of the Watchers, a third-century B.C. Jewish apocalypse contained in a collection of works associated with the primordial patriarch Enoch (see Gen 5:18-24), commonly called 1 Enoch (note that Jude 14-15 quotes from 1 Enoch 1:9).  Genesis 5:23 says, “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him”–presumably into heaven. The various works collected in 1 Enoch claim to describe what Enoch saw when he was taken up by God.

The Watchers were angels, charged with caring for humanity, who instead gave humans forbidden knowledge, and had sex with human women.  Out of these unions the Nephilim (Hebrew for “fallen ones”) were born: giants, monsters, and heroes of ancient times (see Gen 6:1-4).  For their crimes, the Watchers were imprisoned until the final judgment (1 Enoch 10:4-14).

It is important for us to know this story, because Jude tells us that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for acting “in the same way”–that is, for doing what the Watchers did.  The CEB translates the Greek opiso sarkos heteras as “other sexual urges” (the NIV has “perversion”), but a more literal rendering would be “going after other [or "strange"] flesh” (see the KJV). The explicit comparison with the story of the Watchers makes plain what is meant by this odd expression.  The men of Sodom lusted after angels, just as the angelic Watchers lusted after human women.  So the passage in Jude doesn’t condemn the men of Sodom for same-sex relations, but for desiring sexual relations with angels (for Jude’s concern about showing angelic beings proper respect, see Jude 8-10).

Apart from Jude, the destruction of Sodom is broadly understood as a penalty for wickedness. Ezekiel 16:49-50, however, is more specific:

This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy.  They became haughty and did detestable things in front of me, and I turned away from them as soon as I saw it.

 Since the word rendered “detestable thing” here (Hebrew to’ebah) in used in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13  for male homosexuality, some have proposed that that is the meaning in Ezek 16:50 as well.  However, to’ebah, which refers broadly to something disgusting, is used differently in different contexts (we will discuss this in more depth when we turn to the Leviticus passages). In Ezekiel, where the term appears 43 times, it refers fairly consistently to idolatry (for example, Ezek 6:9; for the concern for idolatry in Ezek 16, see 16:16-21).  Throughout the prophets, right living and right worship are treated as inseparable.  So too for Ezekiel, injustice to the poor and false worship together led to Sodom’s destruction.

Ezekiel’s charge is implied in the LORD’s word to Abraham concerning Sodom:

Then the Lord said, “The cries of injustice from Sodom and Gomorrah are countless, and their sin is very serious!  I will go down now to examine the cries of injustice that have reached me. Have they really done all this? If not, I want to know.”(Gen 18:20-21).

The Hebrew word rendered “cries of injustice” is za’aqah (sometimes spelled tsa’aqah), typically used for the cry of the oppressed for help.  For example, Exod 22:21-24  says,

 

Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt.  Don’t treat any widow or orphan badly.  If you do treat them badly and they cry out to me, you can be sure that I’ll hear their cry.  I’ll be furious, and I’ll kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows, and your children will be orphans.

 

The widow and the orphan of course we recognize: we can understand how they could fall through the cracks of the clan-based economy of ancient Israel, requiring a special command to ensure their just treatment.  However, we are probably less familiar with the term ger (translated “immigrant” in the CEB, but commonly rendered “sojourner”).

As the CEB recognizes, the Hebrew word ger is generally used in the Old Testament for what we today might call refugees, or perhaps immigrants: people of foreign birth, living within the borders of Israel but without land or legal status. Generosity to the ger is a consistent biblical principle (for example, Lev 19:33-34; Deut 10:18-19)–likely because, like the widows and the orphans, the gerim have no one to look out for their rights.

In Genesis 19, the messengers from God come to Sodom as outsiders, strangers–as gerim.  Sodom, however, is not kind to strangers.  When the messengers tell Lot that they intend to sleep in the town square, he is horrified–he begs them not to do so, but to come into his house, and under his protection, instead (Gen 19:2-3).  Lot knows too well what happens to strangers found in Sodom after dark.

Of course, the strangers are discovered anyway, and a mob assembles outside of Lot’s home, demanding that they come out.  What the mob wants to do to the strangers has nothing to do with anyone’s idea of  consensual, sexual intimacy.  This is about violence: rape and humiliation.  That homosexuality is not the issue is made clear by Lot’s horrific attempted bargain: to save the lives of his guests, he offers to send out his daughters (Gen 19:7-8)!  But Lot’s defense of the strangers only serves to remind the mob that, though he has lived in Sodom for some time, Lot is a foreigner himself: “Does this immigrant want to judge us? Now we will hurt you more than we will hurt them” (Gen 19:9).

Again and again, from ancient times down to the present day, one side in a conflict has used rape to brutalize and humiliate the other.  Daniel Smith-Christopher calls this the “engendering” of warfare, with the “masculine” conquerors triumphant over a humiliated, “feminized” enemy (Daniel Smith-Christopher, “Ezekiel in Abu Ghraib: Rereading Ezekiel 16:37-39 in the Context of Imperial Conquest,”  in Ezekiel’s Hierarchical World: Wrestling with a Tiered Reality, eds Stephen L. Cook and Corrine L. Patton; SBL Symposium Series 20 [Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005], 152–53).

Numerous ancient Near Eastern inscriptions and reliefs depict male prisoners of war marching into captivity, stripped naked and bound so that they cannot cover themselves. Isaiah 20:4 describes how the Assyrians humiliated Egyptian and Ethiopian prisoners of war, marching them into captivity naked from the waist down.  Isaiah 7:20 describes another aspect of this humiliation.  The beards and pubic hair of the prisoners would be shaved off (see 2 Sam 10:1-4Ezek 5:1-17), symbolically emasculating them.

If we are tempted to think that we are morally superior to these ancient civilizations, this shameful photograph of Iraqi P.O.W.s stripped naked and forced into humiliating poses–only one of many from the American prison at  Abu Ghraib–tragically demonstrates that these attitudes are with us still.  The Sodom story is not about consensual, sexual intimacy of any sort.  Like Abu Ghraib, it is about the humiliation and dehumanization of the other through sexual abuse.

In Genesis 18–19, Sodom’s sinful, abusive violence toward the stranger is set in contrast to Abraham’s, and Lot’s, hospitality toward the stranger.  There is no specific word in biblical Hebrew for hospitality.  But in Greek, the word is philoxenia–that is, love for the stranger!  This word appears twice in the New Testament. In Romans 12:13, Paul commands his Christian readers, “Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home.” Hebrews 13:2 deliberately alludes to the story in Genesis 18–19: “Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it.”

In his sermon on Romans 12:13, the great early Christian preacher St. John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.) praised Abraham and Lot as examples of radical hospitality: 

Thus did Lot, thus Abraham. For he spent the whole day upon it, waiting for this goodly prey, and when he saw it, leaped upon it, and ran to meet them, and worshipped upon the ground, and said, “My Lord, if now I have found favor in Thy sight, pass not away from Thy servant.” [Gen 18:3] Not as we do, if we happen to see a stranger or a poor man, knitting our brows, and not deigning even to speak to them. And if after thousands of entreaties we are softened, and bid the servant give them a trifle, we think we have quite done our duty. But he did not so, but assumed the fashion of a suppliant and a servant, though he did not know who he was going to take under his roof. . . . as did Abraham also, whom beside his largeness and ready mind it is just especially to admire, on this ground, that when he had no knowledge who they were that had come, yet he so acted. Do not thou then be curious either: since for Christ thou dost receive him. And if thou art always so scrupulous, many a time wilt thou pass by a man of esteem, and lose thy reward from him. . . . Do not then busy thyself with men’s lives and doings. For this is the very extreme of niggardliness, for one loaf to be exact about a man’s entire life. For if this person be a murderer, if a robber, or what not, does he therefore seem to thee not to deserve a loaf and a few pence? And yet thy Master causeth even the sun to rise upon him! And dost thou judge him unworthy of food even for a day? (Homilies on Romans 21).

The lesson of the Sodom story is not that God is moved to uncontrollable anger at the thought of men having sex with other men.  God’s anger is poured out on the inhospitable: on those who respond to the stranger and the needy, not with compassion, but with contempt–even violence and abuse.  That is why Sodom was destroyed, in this ancient story.  God give us ears to hear, and hearts to repent of our own inhospitable acts.

AFTERWORD

Here are all the passages in the Bible that refer to Sodom (quoted from the NRSV), both those cited in the blog above and those that are not.  I have grouped them by the type of reference, but feel free to ignore my grouping, and to look these passages up in context yourself, in your own Bible or online at Bible Gateway.

SODOM IN THE BIBLE

Neutral

 Gen. 10:19   And the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon, in the direction of Gerar, as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha.

Gen. 13:12   Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the Plain and moved his tent as far as Sodom.

Ezek. 16:46   Your elder sister is Samaria, who lived with her daughters to the north of you; and your younger sister, who lived to the south of you, is Sodom with her daughters.

Neutral/Positive

Gen. 14:2   these kings made war with King Bera of Sodom, King Birsha of Gomorrah, King Shinab of Admah, King Shemeber of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar).

Gen. 14:8   Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) went out, and they joined battle in the Valley of Siddim

Gen. 14:10   Now the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits; and as the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some fell into them, and the rest fled to the hill country.

Gen. 14:11   So the enemy took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way;

Gen. 14:12   they also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who lived in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.

Gen. 14:17   After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).

Gen. 14:21   Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself.”

Gen. 14:22   But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have sworn to the LORD, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth,

Gen. 18:26   And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”

Ezek. 16:53   I will restore their fortunes, the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters and the fortunes of Samaria and her daughters, and I will restore your own fortunes along with theirs,

Ezek. 16:55   As for your sisters, Sodom and her daughters shall return to their former state, Samaria and her daughters shall return to their former state, and you and your daughters shall return to your former state.

Story of destruction

Gen. 18:16   Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way.

Gen. 18:22   So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD.

Gen. 19:1   The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground.

Gen. 19:4   But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house;

Gen. 19:24   Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven;

Gen. 19:28   and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the Plain and saw the smoke of the land going up like the smoke of a furnace.

Metaphor for destruction

Deut. 29:23   all its soil burned out by sulfur and salt, nothing planted, nothing sprouting, unable to support any vegetation, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the LORD destroyed in his fierce anger —

Deut. 32:32   Their vine comes from the vinestock of Sodom, from the vineyards of Gomorrah; their grapes are grapes of poison, their clusters are bitter;

Isa. 1:9   If the LORD of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we would have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah.

Isa. 1:10   Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!

Isa. 3:9   The look on their faces bears witness against them; they proclaim their sin like Sodom, they do not hide it. Woe to them! For they have brought evil on themselves.

Isa. 13:19   And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the splendor and pride of the Chaldeans, will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them.

Jer. 23:14   But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a more shocking thing: they commit adultery and walk in lies; they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from wickedness; all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah.

Jer. 49:18   As when Sodom and Gomorrah and their neighbors were overthrown, says the LORD, no one shall live there, nor shall anyone settle in it.

Jer. 50:40   As when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah and their neighbors, says the LORD, so no one shall live there, nor shall anyone settle in her.

Lam. 4:6   For the chastisement of my people has been greater than the punishment of Sodom, which was overthrown in a moment, though no hand was laid on it.

Ezek. 16:56   Was not your sister Sodom a byword in your mouth in the day of your pride,

Amos 4:11   I overthrew some of you, as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were like a brand snatched from the fire; yet you did not return to me, says the LORD.

Zeph. 2:9   Therefore, as I live, says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, Moab shall become like Sodom and the Ammonites like Gomorrah, a land possessed by nettles and salt pits, and a waste forever. The remnant of my people shall plunder them, and the survivors of my nation shall possess them.

Matt. 10:15   Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

Matt. 11:23   And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.

Matt. 11:24   But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.”

Luke 10:12   I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.

Luke 17:29   but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed all of them

Rom. 9:29   And as Isaiah predicted, If the Lord of hosts had not left survivors to us, we would have fared like Sodom and been made like Gomorrah.”

2Pet. 2:6   and if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example of what is coming to the ungodly;

Rev. 11:8   and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that is prophetically called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.

Destroyed—no reason given

Gen. 13:10   Lot looked about him, and saw that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar; this was before the LORD had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.

Destroyed for wickedness (implicit or explicit)

Gen. 13:13   Now the people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the LORD.

Gen. 18:20   Then the LORD said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin!

Ezek. 16:48   As I live, says the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done.

Ezek. 16:49   This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.

Jude 7   Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.