Jan
2016

The Sun of Righteousness

 For millions of Western Christians, this Wednesday, January 6, will be the Feast of the Epiphany–a day associated particularly with the light of the star that guided the Magi to the Christ Child (see Matthew 2:1-12).  More broadly, however, Epiphany celebrates the light of God shining into the world with the birth of Christ, and indeed, the light of God’s revelation shining into our lives yesterday, today–and one day, forever!

In Malachi 4:1-3 (3:19-21 in the Hebrew), that coming day of the LORD is described, as is typical in the Book of the Twelve (for example, see Zech 10:3-6; 12:1-9), as a day of fiery judgment upon the wicked oppressors of God’s people:

Look, the day is coming,
        burning like an oven.
All the arrogant ones and all those doing evil will become straw.
    The coming day will burn them,
says the LORD of heavenly forces,
        leaving them neither root nor branch. . . .
You will crush the wicked;
        they will be like dust beneath the soles of your feet
       on the day that I am preparing, says the LORD of heavenly forces.

 

But Malachi also declares that that day will be a time of renewal and blessing for God’s faithful, who are rejuvenated and filled with exuberant joy:

But the sun of righteousness will rise on those revering my name;
        healing will be in its wings
            so that you will go forth and jump about like calves in the stall (Mal 4:2).

Christian readers of this blog will likely be reminded of Charles Wesley’s use of this passage in his 1739 Christmas carolHark! the Herald Angels Sing.”  Charles Wesley’s third stanza is:

Hail the Heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and Life to All he brings,
Ris’n with Healing in his Wings.

Mild he lays his Glory by,
Born—that Man no more may die,
Born—to raise the Sons of Earth,
Born—to give them Second Birth.

In Wesley’s mind, clearly, the “Sun of Righteousness” is Jesus!

For Malachi, it is the LORD who is “the sun of righteousness,” rising with “healing. . . in its wings.” The Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint, as well as the Latin Vulgate, have “his wings” (see the KJV, and the words of Wesley’s carol), but the Hebrew text and the Targum (the Aramaic version of this text used in early synagogues) have “her wings”–probably with reference to “righteousness,” which is a feminine noun in Hebrew.

For good (for example, Ps 84:11) or for ill (see Ezek 8:16), images of the LORD as the sun, and associations of the sunrise with God’s presence in the Jerusalem temple (which faced east) are fairly common in Scripture.  As a part of the worship reforms put in place by King Josiah, the horses and chariots of the sun were removed from the temple (2 Kgs 23:11).  Indeed, mosaics of the solar chariot (associated in Greco-Roman religion with Apollo or with Sol Invictus) appear in early synagogues at Beth Alpha (shown above), Naaran, Hamath Tiberius, Yafa, and Isfiya.

 

The Egyptian sun disc, often combined with a winged scarab, was a widespread symbol in the ancient Middle East, even incorporated into the royal seals of Judean kings such as Hezekiah.

Malachi, writing in the Persian Period, was likely familiar with a modification of the winged solar disc from Persian art.  This symbol appears with Persian king Darius’ monumental inscription at Behistun, at his palace at Persepolis, and above the door of his tomb (depicted above); likely, it is meant to represent the Persian creator god Ahuramazda.  But for the prophet Malachi, of course, the sun of righteousness with healing in his wings can only be the LORD!  Depicting God’s coming as the sunrise represents a positive counter to the destructive image of the day of the LORD “burning like an oven” (4:1): the coming of the LORD may burn, but it also heals.

May this new year be for us all a time of healing and renewal.  May the Sun of Righteousness rise today, in our hearts, our homes, our country, and our world, burning away the chaff and dross of the past, and empowering us to live anew!

 

 

Dec
2015

Cosmic Christmas

Friend and fellow United Methodist minister Rob Hernan posted on Facebook, “Today in church I called Bethlehem a ‘timey’ village. Thanks, Doctor Who!”

Fellow Whovians will recognize the reference to a scene from this British science fiction series (from the episode, “Blink,” written by Steven Moffat, starring David Tennant), in which the Doctor, an alien time traveler, says,

People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective point of view it is more like a big ball of wibbley-wobbley, timey-wimey. . . stuff.

Actually, I think that Rob’s slip of the tongue is rather brilliant.  Christians have always confessed that Christ’s coming has altered the whole shape of reality.  There is definitely something “wibbley-wobbley, timey-wimey” about the effect of Christ’s incarnation on the whole of space-time, backwards as well as forwards in time!

That is the reason that most Christians recite the phrase “He descended into hell” as part of the Apostle’s Creed–a confession incorporated into the Creed by around the eighth century, drawing perhaps on 1 Peter 3:19, which says that after his death, Jesus “went to preach to the spirits in prison.”  This confession, and the linked tradition of the harrowing of Hell, recognizes that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection bring salvation, not only to those of us who live on this side of Easter, but to all the generations who lived before.

This Sunday, as we sang “Once in Royal David’s City,” I heard for the first time that confession in Cecil Frances Alexander‘s old carol, of the cosmic significance of Christmas, for our time and for all times.  I share that carol with all of you, as we celebrate Christ’s coming, and look for his coming again.

Once in royal David’s city,
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby,
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ, her little Child.

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall:
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.

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For He is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us, He grew;
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles, like us He knew;
And He cares when we are sad,
And he shares when we are glad.

And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle,
Is our Lord in heaven above:
And He leads His children on,
To the place where He is gone.

God bless us, every one–and have a very Merry, timey-wimey, Christmas!

Dec
2015

No

I had decided that I would not address Mr. Donald Trump’s bombast at all–that I would ignore him until he went away.  But then, this week, he gave a speech to which I must respond–to which, I believe, all committed people of faith must respond.  Mr. Trump is “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

Called on this xenophobic rant by voices from all over the political spectrum, Mr. Trump reiterated his stance, justifying it by appeal to the disastrous policies regarding people of German, Italian, and Japanese descent in WWII, policies which led to the infamous Japanese internment camps.

To this message of hatred, and to its messenger, people of faith must say, “No.”  This cannot be permitted to stand as just another political position among others.  This is not about Republican or Democrat, right or left, conservative or liberal.  Mr. Trump’s words are a denial of our fundamental identity as Americans, and of fundamental morality, and must be repudiated by all of us.

As a Christian and a Bible Guy, I find peddling hatred and fear of outsiders totally at odds with this season, and with the texts we read and remember as Christmas draws near.  Consider Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, a young family compelled by violent and hate-filled rulers (first mad Herod, then his vicious son Archelaus) to run for their lives, becoming refugees first in Egypt, and ultimately in Nazareth (see Matt 2:13-23; compare Luke 2:1-7, which says that Joseph and Mary were originally from Nazareth).

Consider, too, those wise men.  Tradition says that there were three, that they were kings from three continents and three races, that they were named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.  None of this is in Matthew’s simple account:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him” (Matt 2:1-2).

The Magi were a clan of priests and astrologers from Persia–our words “magic” and “magician” derive from “magi.”  Matthew does not tell us how many Magi came–the traditional number three comes from their three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt 2:11-12). The idea that they were kings from distant lands and races comes from Isaiah 60:1-6, traditionally read as fulfilled in the visit of the Magi:

Nations will come to your light
    and kings to your dawning radiance.

. . . the nations’ wealth will come to you.
 Countless camels will cover your land,
    young camels from Midian and Ephah.
They will all come from Sheba,
    carrying gold and incense,
    proclaiming the Lord’s praises.

Still, there is an appropriateness to the tradition’s reading of the Magi as representing the whole outside world.  After all, they come to the manger as the ultimate outsiders.  They come not only from outside of Judea, but from outside the Roman empire itself–from the land of the feared Parthians, an armed and unstable threat on the empire’s eastern frontier. They are not Jews, either ethnically or religiously; while nothing is said of their religious heritage by Matthew, they would have been Zoroastrians.  Remarkably, it is Matthew who tells their story: Matthew, the most Jewish of the gospel writers, is the one who records a visit to the Christ child from foreigners and unbelievers!  Yet in this gospel these foreigners come, not as enemies to threaten the Child, but as pilgrims to honor him.

Herod’s religious experts also see the Magi’s star, and rightly interpret the Scriptures that witness to the coming king:

As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces,
        one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.
    His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.
 Therefore, he will give them up
        until the time when she who is in labor gives birth.
        The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel.
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
        in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
        They will dwell secure,
        because he will surely become great throughout the earth;
        he will become one of peace (Micah 5:2-5; see Matt 2:4-6)

But these faithful, patriotic citizens stay in the false security of Herod’s walled palace, and never see the miracle.  Instead, it is the foreign, Gentile Magi who become the first, faithful witnesses to the new thing God is doing–breaking into our world as one us there in Bethlehem.

May we learn from the wise men to be “wise guys” ourselves: to be ready to receive God’s blessing from the hands, and to hear God’s word in the voice, of a stranger.  May we say to all hatred, racism, and fearmongering a firm and unequivocal “No.”

 

Nov
2015

Whose Land?

FOREWORD:

I have just come back to work after convalescing from a fall.  I am thankful for all the prayers lifted up on my behalf, and am pleased to report that I am feeling great–though I regret my lengthy hiatus from my work, including this blog.  Rather than delaying these posts any further, and in sorrowful recognition of recent conflicts in Israel and in the West Bank, I am reposting my blog from April 14, 2013, entitled “Whose Land?,”  with prayers for the peace of Jerusalem, and justice for all of God’s people.

The Bible is always in the background of discussions about the land in Palestine.  Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and the American churches and synagogues that support them, sometimes insist that Jews can settle wherever they like, because the land is theirs: promised to them by God.  Just as Abraham and Joshua were told to walk through the land and so claim and possess it (Genesis 13:17; Joshua 1:3; 24:3; compare Ezekiel 36:8-12, where this is applied to those returning from exile in Babylon), so building more and more settlements in the West Bank is for some a way of laying claim to God’s promise. 

So, what is God’s promise?   In Genesis 12:1-3, God says to Abraham, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of earth will be blessed because of you” (Common English Bible).  This promise, repeated in different forms in Genesis 17:7-8 and Exodus 3:16-17, seems fairly explicit.  The land of Canaan—modern-day Palestine—is promised to Abraham and to his descendants.

But to whom is the promise given? Deuteronomy 26:1-11 directs that, when presenting the offering of the first fruits gathered in the harvest, the worshipper is to recall the history of God’s kindness to the ancestors, beginning with Abraham: “My father was a starving Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5).  In Exodus 3:16-17, God promises the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, “I’ve been paying close attention to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. I’ve decided to take you away from the harassment in Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land full of milk and honey.”  As we discussed in an earlier blog (see “The Bible and ‘The Bible’”, March 13, 2013), Israel is described in Joshua and Judges as a landless and friendless people, to whom the land comes as a gift.  In the Bible, the promise of land is not given to a people securely settled and established: it is an offer of hope to homeless, landless people, without power or property.

Further, while God says, “I will give you and your descendants the land in which you are immigrants, the whole land of Canaan, as an enduring possession” (Genesis 17:8), the promise of possession never involves ownership.  The people of Israel are given the right to live on the land, to farm it and to graze their flocks upon it, but the land itself does not belong to Israel.  This important distinction is emphasized in the laws concerning sabbatical years and jubilees in Leviticus 25 (from a part of the book of Leviticus called the Holiness Code).  According to these laws, every seventh year (the sabbatical year), the land is to be left fallow: the fields are not to be plowed, and no new crops are to be sown.  Then, every 49th year (the seventh seventh year) is to be followed by another fallow year, called the jubilee.  In the year of jubilee, all debts are forgiven, and any land claims revert to the family among Israel’s tribes and clans to whom that particular piece of real estate was originally entrusted, according to Joshua 14:1—19:51.

What this means, in short, is that the land itself could not be bought or sold—not permanently.  All that one could do is rent a property for the number of harvests remaining until the jubilee, when it would return to its properly assigned clan.  Leviticus 25:23 makes this principle explicit: “The land must not be permanently sold because the land is mine. You are just immigrants and foreign guests of mine.”  We do not know if the priestly ideal of the jubilee was ever historically realized.  But the principle it expresses, that the land belongs to the Lord, is consistently upheld in Scripture.

Since the land is and remains God’s, the prophets make it very clear that God’s permission for Israel to live in the land was not absolute.  In Jeremiah 7:3, in response to Jerusalem’s false worship, violence, and injustice, the Lord says, “Improve your conduct and your actions, and I will dwell with you in this place.”  In fact, the Hebrew of this verse could be translated as a plea, expressing God’s longing and love for Israel: “Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place” (New Revised Standard Version).  God will be in Israel’s midst in the land, and Israel will enjoy the benefits that presence brings, only if Israel worships God rightly, and acts justly.  Similarly, the prophet Ezekiel rejects the claims of violent people who rely on the sword that they shall possess the land (Ezekiel 33:26).  The land is God’s, and its inhabitants will be those whom God permits.

In Isaiah 61:1-2, the promise of jubilee becomes God’s promise of justice to all the oppressed:

The Lord God’s spirit is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me
    to bring good news to the poor,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim release for captives,
        and liberation for prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
        and a day of vindication for our God,
    to comfort all who mourn. . .

For this prophet, “the year of the LORD’s favor” must also be “a day of vindication for our God.”  Sometimes oppressors must be overthrown before real peace can be found; peace without justice is no peace at all.

But when Jesus read from this passage in the Nazareth synagogue, he pointedly dropped that line (Luke 4:18-19) – not because he sided with the oppressors (Romans, in first century Palestine), but because he had come to bring new life to everyone: Jew and Gentile, oppressed and oppressor, alike (Luke 4:25-27; see also Isaiah 66:18-23; Jonah 3–4).

There are, have always been, and will always be hotly contested claims to the land of Palestine.  The modern state of Israel, first established in 1948 in the wake of World War II as a homeland for the dispossessed Jews devastated by Hitler’s holocaust, has a right to exist and thrive.  But the Palestinian Arabs also have a right to live and thrive, in a state of their own (such a state, in fact, was stipulated by the same UN resolution that established the modern state of Israel).  But that discussion is a matter for another day.  For today, my purpose has been simply to address the claim advanced, particularly by American Christians, that the land belongs to the Jews because God gave it to them, while Arabs (Christians and Muslims alike) have no right to the land.  That claim, I would suggest, is not valid.  According to Scripture, the land doesn’t belong to Israel: it never did.  The land is God’s.

Oct
2015

How to Read the Bible, Part Five: “God-Breathed”?

The threefold battle cry of the Protestant Reformation was Sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura: “Grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone.”  Against the claims of medieval Catholicism– that salvation came through the traditions of the Church, with its saints and sacraments and papal indulgences–Reformers such as Martin Luther asserted that we are saved by God’s grace alone, received through faith alone, and that all that is necessary for salvation is revealed through Scripture alone.

This emphasis on the primacy of Scripture rather than tradition has remained perhaps the central tenet of Protestantism.  Yet curiously, adherence to “Scripture alone” has not unified the church.  Rather, Protestant churches have continued to fission and fracture into a multitude of Christian expressions down to the present day, when nearly 40% of Protestant Christians worldwide identify as “independent, nondenominational or part of a denominational family that is very small or otherwise difficult to classify.”

The reason for this diversity, of course, is that the “one book” (or more accurately, the many books) of Scripture is interpreted in many different ways, by different Christians in their myriad contexts.

For example: John Wesley, leader of the Wesleyan revivals in eighteenth century England, famously referred to himself as homo unius libri, “a man of one book.”

I want to know one thing,—the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri.

Yet, in the preface to his Sermons (where he identifies himself as homo unius libri), Wesley acknowledges that the meaning of Scripture is not always simple and straightforward:

Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights:—“Lord, is it not Thy word, ‘if any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God?’ Thou givest liberally, and upbraidest not. Thou hast said, ‘if any be willing to do Thy will, he shall know.’ I am willing to do, let me know Thy will.” I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God: and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.

The interpretation of Scripture requires prayerful reflection and spiritual discernment–that is, a personal experience of devotion to God through Christ and of yieldedness to the Holy Spirit. Understanding the Bible requires study–that is, the exercise of reason!–and so the careful consultation of other books.  Faithful interpretation of Scripture calls us to enter into conversation with other believers past and present: in short, with the tradition.  All claims to the contrary, then, sola Scriptura strictly understood is an unobtainable–indeed, an undesirable–goal.

Often, Christians who insist upon the Bible’s absolute and infallible authority refer to 2 Timothy 3:16-17.  In the CEB, this passage reads:

Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good (compare KJV and NRSV of these verses).

The highlighted phrase is a single word in Greek: theopneustos.  The NIV famously renders this as “All Scripture is God-breathed“–which is, literally, what theopneustos (combining the Greek words for “God” and “breath”) would seem to mean. Surely, if the Bible is God-breathed, it must be as perfect and infallible as God is, carrying God’s own authority.

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This is the position of Josh McDowell, whose recent book called God-Breathed sets out “to present a compelling case that God’s Word can be trusted to be undeniably reliable.”  As McDowell states,

Each book, each page and each paragraph of Scripture was written through the lens of its human spokesmen, yet it still communicates the exact message God wants us to receive.       . . . His words were supernaturally guided through his selected human instruments so that his truth would be vivid and relevant to our lives. With God as the author and men as the writers, the sixty-six books of the Bible can rightly be called the Word of God.

But the derivation of a word is not necessarily a reliable guide to its meaning.  Consider that the “literal” meaning of the word “sarcophagus” is “flesh-eater”!  A surer guide to what theopneustos means would be how the word is actually used elsewhere.  Unfortunately, this word is uncommon: it appears nowhere else in the New Testament; nor is it used in the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint.

Outside of the Bible, the term is no less obscure. In the Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, a first-century Jewish philosopher, theopneustos is used to distinguish wisdom from God from human wisdom (Sentences 129); note, though, as P. W. van der Horst observes, “This line, in clumsy [Greek], is probably inauthentic.  It is lacking in some important textual witnesses” (The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 2, ed. James H. Charlesworth [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985], 579).  In a compendium of the teachings of the philosophers ascribed to the first-century historian Plutarch, but likely written much later than his time, theopneustos is used to distinguish “dreams which are caused by divine instinct” from “dreams which have their origin . . . from the soul’s forming within itself the images of those things which are convenient for it” (Placita Philosophorum 5. 2. 3).  Perhaps characterizing the Bible as theopneustos sets it apart as sacred writing, different from other, ordinary books.

Another way into this question is to ask what we usually mean when we speak of inspiration (a word which is also related to breath).  Methodist theologian William Abraham considers what it means when we say that a teacher is inspiring, or that a teacher’s students have been inspired:

. . . there is no question of students being passive while they are being inspired.  On the contrary: their natural abilities will be used to the full extent, and as a result they will show great differences in style, content and vocabulary.  Their native intelligence and talent will be greatly enhanced and enriched but in no way obliterated or passed over. . . . there need be no surprise if, from the point of view of the teacher, they make mistakes (William J. Abraham, The Divine Inspiration of Holy Scripture [Oxford: Oxford University, 1981], 63-64).

As a Bible teacher, this illustration resonates strongly with me.  I do indeed hope that I inspire my students.  But by that, I certainly do not mean that I expect them to repeat my own words by rote, or even that I expect them to think just as I do.  I do hope that they will love the Bible as I do, and that through their study they will be led into a deeper and deeper relationship with the God of Scripture.

Applying this analogy of classroom inspiration to Scripture, Abraham writes:

We must allow a genuine freedom to God as he inspires his chosen witnesses, knowing that what he does will be adequate for his saving and sanctifying purposes for our lives.  In so doing we escape the tension and artificiality of those theories that have staked everything on the perfectionist and utopian hopes that stem from a theology of Scripture that substitutes divine speaking [i.e., “the Bible is the literal word of God”] for divine inspiration without biblical or rational warrant (Abraham, Inspiration, 69-70).

While Abraham’s statement that the Bible is “adequate” to God’s saving purposes may seem to us far too weak, it is not much different than the claim that the writer of 2 Timothy makes.  Scripture is “useful”–not infallible, not inerrant, not even authoritative, but “useful”:

for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good 

As Daniel Migliore observes, “Scripture is indispensable in bringing us into a new relationship with the living God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  However, “Christians do not believe in the Bible; they believe in the living God attested by the Bible” (Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Second Edition [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], 50).

The Bible is not an end–it is a means to an end. These ancient words express the faith of women and men who were enlivened and transformed by God’s presence; hearing their words, we are brought into an encounter with the same God, and equipped for service in God’s world.

 

 

Sep
2015

How to Read the Bible Part Four: Lost in Translation

Sundown Sunday, September 13 marked the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I have always resonated with beginning the year in the fall–since for most of my life, as a student and as a teacher, I have been involved with education, September rather than January has always been my time of new beginnings!  As I write this, we are toward the middle of the ten Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  As my colleague Edwin van Driel and I are team-teaching a course at PTS this term on models of the atonement in Christian theology, that solemn day too is much in my mind.

In Judaism, Yom Kippur is a fast day, on which one reflects upon the sins of the past year, repents before God, and resolves to live differently in the year to come.  In Scripture, both the rite for Yom Kippur and its significance are quite different from the day as it developed in Jewish life and practice.  But those ancient rites, and what they might mean for how we think about God, have a great deal to teach us about the ways that we read, and sometimes misread, Scripture.

First, take that word “atonement.”  Look it up in any dictionary, and the first definition you will find will be something like, “reparation for a wrong or injury.”  Growing up as a young Christian, that was certainly the way that I saw Christ’s atoning death on Calvary: as Jesus making reparation to God for my wrong.  The only way of understanding the cross I knew was that Jesus had taken on himself God’s wrath, and the deserved punishment for my sin, so that I could be forgiven–an understanding of the atonement called “penal substitution.”  I grew up singing “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood” and “Jesus Paid It All.” However, like many believers, I have come to be concerned about what this language says about God.  Do I really believe that God’s wrath can only be assuaged by blood, even the blood of his innocent Son?   Further, if it is solely the death of Jesus that atones for our sins, doesn’t that make his life and teaching irrelevant?

The history of the word “atonement” suggests a different original meaning for this term, which may broaden our understanding of God, Christ, and the cross–as well as our reading of Yom Kippur.  The Oxford Dictionary dates “atonement” to the early 16th century, when it was coined out of  the phrase “at one”–influenced by the Latin adunamentum (“unity”), and an older word, “onement” (from an obsolete verb form, “to one,” meaning “to unite”).  The word was used, particularly in Christian circles, to talk about the reconcilition of God and humanity accomplished by Christ.

When the King James Version of the Bible was translated in 1611, the relatively new expression “make atonement” was used for the Hebrew verb kipper, particularly in connection with Yom Kippur (see Leviticus 16).  This word apparently had the original meaning “cover.”  However, kipper came to be used specifically for rites of cleansing and purification.

In ancient Israel, Yom Kippur was the day when all lingering defilement from the previous year, either accidental or deliberate, was expunged, making full access to and communion with God possible in the new year.  The Common English Bible, which translates Yom Kippur as “Day of Reconciliation,” captures both the meaning of this ancient rite and the older meaning of the word “atonement” as dealing, not with reparation or punishment, but with communion restored.

The centerpiece of the ancient ritual for this day involved two goats.  One was selected by lot as the goat to be offered as the sin offering (the most familiar translation of the Hebrew khattat; the CEB reads “purification offering,” which better catches the significance of this sacrifice in ancient Israel).  The second goat was given to Azazel.  We have no idea what this means; perhaps Azazel was a monster or demon believed to live in waste places, or perhaps Azazel is an old word for “wilderness.”  The KJV read “scapegoat,” which has entered our language as a person or group blamed for wrongs done by others.

In Leviticus, the goat for Azazel is not a sacrifice, nor is it killed.  It is driven out into the wilderness, symbolically carrying away the defilement of the people.  The other goat, selected by lot as belonging to the LORD, is sacrificed.  Its blood is taken by the high priest into the inner room of the shrine, called the Most Holy Place, where God was believed to be specially present.  This inner chamber held a golden box, called the Ark (the Hebrew word for the Ark, ‘aron, simply means “box,” or “chest”).  The lid of the Ark was a slab of gold, molded in the image of two cherubim: terrible semi-divine heavenly beings like winged sphinxes.

The cherubim‘s inner wings overlapped to form a throne: the divine title “the LORD, who is enthroned on the cherubim” (for example, 1 Sam 4:4; Ps 80:1) recalls this connection.  The Ark itself served as the LORD’s footstool, making this golden box the intersection of divine and human worlds.  In the days of Israel’s wilderness wandering, Moses and Aaron encountered the LORD at the Ark (for example, Exod 25:22).

On Yom Kippur, the blood from the people’s purification offerings was applied to the lid of the Ark (kapporet in Hebrew; translated as “mercy seat” in the KJV and the NRSV, but best rendered, as the CEB has it, simply as “cover” or “lid”).  This meant that, once a year, the blood of the purification offering was brought to the very feet of God.

In Romans 3:23-25 (NRSV), Paul seems to use the rite of Yom Kippur as a way to understand the work of Christ on the cross:

since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

The Greek word translated “sacrifice of atonement” in the NRSV (the KJV has “propitiation”) is hilasterion.  But this Greek word is used in the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint, not for either the sin offering or the scapegoat but for the lid of the Ark: the kapporet.  The CEB translation “place of sacrifice” is a little better, though still misleading.  Paul’s point appears to be that the cross where Jesus’ blood was spilled has become the kapporet: the point where divine and human worlds intersect, and so the place where reconciliation–atonement–happens.

Reading the Bible in English, we are likely to miss all of this.  We may assume that, in Leviticus, Yom Kippur is the day of atonement in our sense: referring to a reparation for sins, made in blood to an angry, judging God.  We may assume that the death of Jesus too must be read it this same way: as Jesus taking the punishment, or paying the price, for our guilt.  The meaning of the Hebrew words  kipper and kapporet, the Greek hilasterion, and even the history of the rather new English word “atonement,” may well pass us by.

This is, of course, an argument for learning the biblical languages, so that subtleties and nuances often lost in translation can be recognized.  Even for those of us without access to the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts of Scripture, it means learning to read the Bible carefully and prayerfully, making use of commentaries , study Bibles, and other resources that will “complexify” our plain reading of the text.  For all of us, it means remembering that the Bible was not written in English.  We need always to be aware of the bones beneath the flesh of the translation, and to resist the temptation to see our own surface reading as what the Bible “plainly” says.

AFTERWORD:

As the new academic year begins at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, welcome to all new students, staff, and faculty–and welcome back to the old-timers!  Praying for all of us, for God’s blessings on this new year of possibility.

Aug
2015

Preaching from the Left-Hand Side of the Bible

I love the scene in the first “Ghostbusters” movie where the team warns the mayor of New York of a coming “disaster of biblical proportions”:

Dr Ray Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath of God type stuff.

Dr. Peter Venkman: Exactly.

Dr Ray Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!

Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…

Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!

Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

Actually, except for the “dogs and cats” part, this is a pretty fair summary of the impression many people, even life-long believers, have of the Old Testament.  No wonder we are reluctant to read and study, let alone preach from, the first two-thirds of Christian Scripture!

I am going to list the top three reasons I have heard for not preaching from the left-hand side of the Bible.  I am then going to argue that each one is actually a reason that we need to preach these texts.

 

1) The Old Testament God is wrathful and violent.

Certainly, there is bloodshed aplenty in the texts south of Matthew (for example, see the account of Nineveh’s fall in Nahum 2–3). But the New Testament certainly is not lacking in texts witnessing to this theme (for example, Revelation 16:1-20Matthew 10:34; or Luke 22:35-37).  Avoiding the Old Testament doesn’t solve the problem.  However, addressing these texts carefully in context reveals a God who cares passionately about justice, and who sides with the oppressed against the oppressor–themes we must address from our pulpits.  For example: the horrific texts in Nahum are introduced in the final form of that book by a psalm (Nah 1:2-11) affirming that the LORD is a God of justice who punishes the wicked and the oppressor:

The Lord is slow to anger but great in power,
    and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty (Nah 1:3 NRSV).

Nineveh’s destruction, then, is presented as a measured act of just punishment, not the capricious act of a violent deity.  Indeed Habakkuk, the book that follows Nahum, wrestles with the problem of divine justice in the face of violence and suffering:

Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
        you are unable to look at disaster.
Why would you look at the treacherous
        or keep silent when the wicked swallows one who is more righteous? (Hab 1:12-13).

Rather than providing simple, condescending answers to our questions, the Old Testament invites us to join in the age-old struggle for meaning, and so to find ourselves in conversation with the Divine.

2) The Old Testament is law, the New Testament is grace.

This misunderstanding of the Bible derives from a misreading, not only of the Old Testament, but also of the New–particularly, the letters of Paul, who sometimes opposes legalism to faith (for example, in Romans 4:13-16).  Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is the idea expressed that, by proper observance of the law, one earns God’s favor.  Rather, always and everywhere, obedience is a faithful response to the love and grace that God has shown.  Micah expresses this very aptly:

With what should I approach the Lord
        and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
        with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
        with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
        the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the Lord requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:6-8).

Grace is the beating heart of the whole of Scripture.  Indeed, hearing that grace expressed in the pithy, earthy language of the Old Testament, rather than the often otherworldly language of the New, may make its message all the more potent.  This leads to the third objection:

3) The Old Testament is odd.

Guilty as charged!  The Old Testament is, after all, old: it reflects the worldview of ancient cultures, far removed from us in time and space.  The oddity of texts such as Ezekiel’s vision of the LORD’s glory (Ezek 1; depicted effectively in the woodcut above) should not, indeed cannot, be denied or explained away.  However, precisely because they are strange, these passages may be able to help us hear anew a message that more familiar texts no longer effectively convey.  The message of God’s caring, and God’s determination to come to us where we are, may no longer sound so strongly in passages we have heard over and over again (such as John 3:16).  But the wheels beneath the divine throne in Ezekiel’s vision reveal that God is enthroned in a chariot, enabling God to be present in God’s full glory wherever God wishes–a striking image that, in its very strangeness and unfamiliarity, may break through to us as it did for African slaves discovering the Bible and its faith.

Preaching the Old Testament is not optional: if we believe that the Bible is indeed word of God for the people of God, then we need to preach Scripture in its fullness.  When we do so, we will experience the power of God’s word and God’s presence anew.

AFTERWORD: Wendy and I are just back from a glorious vacation in New England and Atlantic Canada.  The Bible Guy series on how to read the Bible will resume next time.  This week’s blog responds to a request from Melissa Logan, Director of Communications at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, for ideas on preaching from the Old Testament.  Hope you find it useful.

 

Jul
2015

How to Read the Bible, Part 3: The Bible Isn’t Flat

In our ordinary, day-to-day reading, we realize that different texts must be read in different ways.  It would never occur to us to read the phone book the way that we would read a novel (“Hmmm–lots of characters, but no plot. . .”).  Similarly, we are (at least, generally) aware that while novels sometimes may contain facts, they are not factual: neither Sherlock Holmes nor Atticus Finch is a real person.

But when we turn to the books of the Bible, we sometimes forget this common-sense principle, and insist that each passage of Scripture must be read in the same way as every other passage, “flattening” the Bible as though it were all of a piece.  Slogans such as “God said it. I believe it. That settles it” not only treat the Bible as if it were flat, but also insist that this is the only faithful way to read the Bible. If the Bible is God’s word, after all, then it must be true, and if the Bible is true, then that must mean that every word of it is true in the same way: factual, accurate, applicable, and authoritative.

We will talk about biblical authority next time.  But for now, this flattening approach ignores a fundamental feature of the Bible, evident to the most casual reader: the Bible is not book, but a library of books, written in different times, places, and languages.  The Hebrew Bible contains a good deal of poetry: indeed, the books of Psalms and the Song of Songs (sometimes called the Song of Solomon) are entirely poetic.  The Greek New Testament is dominated by letters, such as Romans or 1 Thessalonians.  Some books are narratives, with characters and dialogue and plot–such as Ruth or Jonah on the left-hand side of the Bible, or Acts on the right.  Most Old Testament prophetic books, such as Amos or Jeremiah, are collections of speeches; similarly, in the New Testament, Hebrews is a sermon.  The first five books of the Bible are commonly called “law,” although only Leviticus and Deuteronomy consist mostly of laws; Genesis is entirely narrative, and Exodus is mostly so.  The first four books of uniquely Christian Scripture are all called “gospels,” from the Old English godspel, or “good news”–although only Mark explicitly bears that title (Mark 1:1).  No wonder we call this book “the Bible,” a word which comes from the Greek ta biblia, meaning “the books!”

Not only do different books call for different readings, but within each biblical book, we find a variety of styles and techniques, calling for different approaches.  For example, Jesus was a master storyteller.  In the New Testament, the word “parable” (Greek parabole) occurs fifty times, all but twice (Heb 9:9; 11:19) in the first three books: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Indeed, Mark and Matthew go so far as to say that Jesus never taught without a parable (Mark 4:34; Matt 13:34).  The Septuagint (the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture) uses parabole for the Hebrew word mashal.  In the Hebrew Bible, a mashal is a saying requiring interpretation: generally speaking, a riddle,  a proverb (the Hebrew name for the book of Proverbs is Meshalim), or a metaphor.

Put simply, parables are meant to be read not literally, but figuratively (as the two uses of parabole in the book of Hebrews indicate).  For example, Jesus’ parable of the weeds growing among the wheat (Matt 13:24-30) doesn’t describe good farming practices–although when I was growing up, I tried persuading my Dad that weeding our garden wasn’t biblical!  Instead, it is a story about the kingdom of God.

Usually, we understand this distinction without difficulty.  When Jesus says, “How often I wanted to gather your people together, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that” (Matt 23:27), no one thinks that Jesus has wings, or that the inhabitants of Jerusalem were chickens!  We know how figurative language works.

 Yet Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-30) is sometimes read, not as a story told to illustrate a point about wealth and responsibility, but as a proof of the existence of hell–indeed, as a detailed geography of the afterlife, detailing where “the bosom of Abraham” and hell are located relative to one another, with a “great gulf” between them, across which people in hell can see into heaven, and vice versa.   That Jesus says nothing about that topic either before or after this story in Luke should remind us that this is after all a parable, not a cosmic travelogue.

Reading the Bible rightly, then, requires us to ask of any passage, where does this come from?  What sort of text is this?  What standards of interpretation do I need to apply if I am to understand its message?

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are often cited by Christians opposed to same-sex marriage.  In the CEB, the first passage reads, “You must not have sexual intercourse with a man as you would with a woman; it is a detestable practice (Hebrew to’ebah).”  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 (Hebrew to’ebah). They must be executed; their blood is on their own heads.”  How ought these passages be read and applied?

I have written about these verses in greater detail  before.  Put briefly, they come from a section of Leviticus called the Holiness Code (Lev 17—26), which “democratizes” the idea of holiness: not only are the priests and the sacred objects pertaining to worship set apart as belonging to God, but all of Israel is God’s, and so is called to a higher standard of commitment, service, and ritual purity: “You must be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2).

In these chapters, more stringent standards of ritual purity are upheld than is the case elsewhere, even within the book of Leviticus!  For example, Leviticus 15:24 states that a man who has sex with a woman during her menstrual period (during which she is ritually unclean: see Lev 15:19–23) 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 (Lev 18:29; 20:18).

Ritual purity and impurity–the “clean” and the “unclean”–are strange concepts to many of us.  Put simply, these rules have to do with customs that you follow in order to be a fully integrated member of your tribe: the food that you eat, the clothes that you wear, the way that you plant your crops. Violating these customs alienates you from your tribe: but even more, in ancient Israel, such violations were regarded as pollutions that stained not only the offender, but anyone else who came into contact with him or her.  In fact, the Holiness Code declares that the land itself was defiled by such actions, and so would repel their perpetrators:

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).

Some such customs deal with actions any culture would condemn, such as as incest (18:6-18), child sacrifice (18:21), and bestiality (18:23).  But ritual purity doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with morality.

Horses, for example, were ritually unclean: since, unlike cows, sheep, and goats, they have solid rather than divided hooves and do not chew the cud (see Lev 11:3), they couldn’t be eaten or offered as sacrifices.  But this doesn’t mean that ancient Israelites thought that horses were evil:  in fact they were important, particularly for the military, and praised for their strength and beauty (see Job 39:19-25).

The point is that, if indeed Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 have to do with ritual purity (as their context suggests; see Lev 18:26-28), then we should not read them as though they were moral proscriptions.  Concerning ritual purity, Jesus taught: “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).  When pressed for an explanation, he said:

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).

Christians need not read every verse of Leviticus as a commandment–nor indeed do we.  Few if any Christian readers regard sex with a menstruating woman as a sin.  Further, even among those who would insist upon applying Lev 18:22 directly to our contemporary context, few would call for the death penalty for gay men (Lev 20:13), let alone for children who curse their parents (Lev 20:9) or for mediums and diviners (Lev 20:27).  In short, despite protests to the contrary, none of us really apply the same standard of authority or interpretation to every passage of Scripture.  All of us realize that the Bible is not flat–and an honest reading of Scripture must begin with that acknowledgement.

Because the Bible is not flat, reading Scripture responsibly and honestly requires taking the Bible seriously–not literally.  The Bible requires committed, prayerful reflection and careful study.  This is particularly the case for those books, like Leviticus, that presume a worldview and way of life very different from ours.

But this certainly doesn’t mean that Christians should avoid those harder books!  Leviticus, including the Holiness Code, is Scripture–word of God for people of God.  We need to hear, and heed, its summons to lives of personal holiness.

Holiness, after all, means more than ritual purity. The Holiness Code also states, “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” (Lev 19:18).  Jesus called this passage one of the two commandments on which “[a]ll the Law and the Prophets depend” (see Matt 22:34-40).  For John Wesley, holiness, or Christian perfection, meant

. . . loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.  This implies, that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words, and actions, are governed by pure love (John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection [Orlando: Relevant Media, 2006; orig. 1777]; p. 49).

May our reading of the Bible lead us into lives of love, following the God who comes to meet us in these pages.

AFTERWORD:

Several of you reported problems with the subscription link on this page.  Our seminary’s intrepid webmaster David Keys wrote, “To make this a more generic feed to read, I converted the link to a feedburner link. This is a Google service which should make subscribing more universally easy to everyone.

. . . The users that are using the original rss feed http://steventuell.net/?feed=rss2 will continue to do so. It is still active.”

Let me know how this works!

 

Jul
2015

How to Read the Bible, Part Two: Look Again!

 

On Sunday, it will be my honor to participate in the memorial service for Dr. Loretto R. Auvil, mother of my old and dear friend Walt, and a leading citizen and philanthropist in Parkersburg, WV where I was raised–may light perpetual shine upon her.  As is traditional in services of death and resurrection, we will share together the ancient, powerful, comforting words of the Twenty-Third Psalm.

One reason we find this passage so comforting is that it is so familiar.  Typically, I find that as soon as I start this Psalm, others join in–many people, even folk who have long been estranged from the church, have this psalm by heart.  Like John 3:16 or 1 Corinthians 13, Psalm 23 has become woven into our culture.  Surely, such a familiar passage must be throughly understood–how could it possibly hold any surprises?

My Hebrew class was reading Psalm 23, identifying words and parsing verbs as we went, when we came upon weshabti in the middle of verse 6.  My students were puzzled by this word–and to my astonishment and chagrin, so was I!  I had always read right over it, but when I looked again at the verse, and at this word, I found that it did not say what I had always assumed that it said.  Usually, weshabti is read as though it were a form of yashab (“dwell”)–so, “I shall dwell.”  That is what the Aramaic  Targum of this psalm has, what the Greek translators of the Septuagint assumed (for more on these ancient versions of Scripture, see my blog “Which Bible?”), and the way that pretty much every English translation of the psalm of which I am aware reads.

But, if weshabti comes from yashab, it is a very irregular form of that verb!  What it actually looks like is a form of the verb shub (“return”), in which case the verse should read, “I will return to the LORD’s house”–as the footnotes on this verse in the English Standard Version and the Common English Bible alike observe.  The point of the verse would then be the psalmist’s promise to keep coming back to God’s temple as long as he lives–to return on pilgrimage, as often as possible.  Psalm 23:6 may not be so much about rest at life’s end as it is about a lifelong commitment to worship the LORD.

The Bible does this to me all the time.  Again and again, a “familiar” text that I had thought that I had pegged will suddenly leap off the page, grab me by the collar, and show me something I have never see before.  The writer of Hebrews puts it very well:

God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions (Heb 4:12).

 

One of my favorite sayings comes from nineteenth- century American humorist Josh Billings (the stage name of Henry Wheeler Shaw): “It ain’t ignorance causes so much trouble; it’s folks knowing so much that ain’t so.”  This is especially true of Scripture.  Because the Bible is so familiar, so deeply ingrained in Western culture, and so often cited as an authority, we sometimes assume that we know what it says, when in fact we may not.

For example, in a 2001 study by the Barna Group, 75% of Americans surveyed agreed with the statement, “The Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves.”  Of course, that chestnut is not found in the Bible at all. The saying “God helps those who help themselves” comes from seventeenth-century English political theorist Algernon Sydney (Discourses Concerning Government, Chapter 2, section 23), though it was popularized by Benjamin Franklin (Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1736). I sneaked that one into the Bible content exam at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary once, and while I am pleased (and relieved!) to report that most of our students knew that “God helps those who help themselves” was not in the Bible, a disturbing minority was certain that it was in there somewhere, perhaps in James or Proverbs!

Even those of us who have long loved and studied Scripture continually find that the Spirit has something new to show us.  The first step in reading the Bible, then, is actually to read the Bible, in big chunks–not assuming that we already know what it says, but to look again, humbly seeking to discern Scripture’s intent.

One thing we may think that we know about the Bible is that the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:1-28 proves God’s anger over the sin of homosexuality.  This may seem obvious:  after all, the men of the city crowd around Lot’s house, demanding “Where are the men who arrived tonight? Bring them out to us so that we may have sex with them” (Gen 19:5).  Indeed, this is where the word “sodomy” comes from.

But, look again.  The Bible itself does not refer to Sodom in this way.   When “Sodom” is mentioned in the Bible (in Old and New Testaments combined, in 48 verses), it is often used metaphorically, as an example of total destruction brought by divine wrath (for example, Deut 29:23Matt 11:24//Lk 10:12), with nothing said about the reason for Sodom’s destruction.  Even in the account of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction in Genesis 18:16–19:28, the reason given for the LORD’s judgment on the cities is not sexual sin:

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” in the CEB is za’aqah (sometimes spelled tsa’aqah)– typically used for the cry of the oppressed for help (for example, Exod 22:21-24). Indeed, the gang rape attempted by the men of Sodom does not represent anyone’s idea of consensual intimacy!   This passage is about power and control through rape: the sexual humiliation of the stranger.

So too, in Ezekiel 16:49-50, we read:

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 (for more on those passages, see my earlier blog; we will discuss these verses and others next time), some have proposed that that is its meaning in Ezek 16:50 as well.  However, in Ezekiel, where the term to’ebah appears 43 times, it nearly always refers to idolatry (for example, Ezek 6:9; for the concern for idolatry in Ezek 16, see 16:16-21).  For Ezekiel, injustice to the poor and false worship together led to Sodom’s destruction.

The exception that proves the rule–the only passage in Scripture that relates the sin of Sodom to a sexual act–is Jude 6-7:

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.

Jude’s reference to “the angels who didn’t keep their position of authority but deserted their own home,” imprisoned “in eternal chains in the underworld,” alludes to a third-century BC Jewish apocalypse, “The Book of the Watchers,” preserved in 1 Enoch.  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).

Jude says that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for acting “in the same way” as those angels–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 (for Jude’s concern about showing spiritual beings proper respect, see Jude 8-10).

I invite you to chase these passages yourself, and do your own study of them.  But I honestly see no relevance of the Sodom texts to our contemporary conversation about LGBTQ women and men.

Distinguished Hebrew Bible scholar and preacher Ellen F. Davis writes,

I suppose every one of us would like to be an astonishing preacher–unlikely though that seems on a week-to-week basis.  But the plain fact is that no preacher can ever be astonishing (in a positive sense!) unless she has first been astonished.  And the only regular and fully reliable source of astonishment for the Christian preacher is the Scripture itself (Wondrous Depth: Preaching the Old Testament [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005], 2).

This is true, sisters and brothers, not just for preachers, but for all of us! God give us open ears, open hearts, and wide open eyes, so that we will not settle for what we already “know” that the Bible says, but will be willing, always, to look again–and to wait, confidently and eagerly, for God’s living Word to astonish us!