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.

 

 

 

Jan
2014

What the Bible Says About Homosexuality: Part One

In America and around the world, attitudes regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, trangendered, and questioning (LGBTQ) persons continue to be in flux.  On the one hand, a July 2013 Gallup poll indicates that for the first time a majority of Americans, 52%, favor the legalization of same-sex marriage.  On the other hand, laws passed in Russia criminalize “gay propaganda,” Uganda‘s parliament passed a bill condemning those convicted for homosexual practice to life in prison, and in Iran, homosexual activity is punishable by death.  Jonathan Cahn, a Messianic Jew and rabbi, is the author of Harbinger, a book which applies prophecies concerning Israel to the United States.  He has claimed that both the 9/11 attacks and the 2008 economic recession were warnings from God for America to repent, specifically, of tolerance toward homosexual behavior. This past month saw a tremendous flurry of media attention to LGBTQ issues.  In an interview with GQ, Mr. Phil Robertson, patriarch of the millionaire family of duck call manufacturers featured in the popular reality series “Duck Dynasty,” voiced his views on homosexuality in graphic terms (I apologize for reproducing these words, but believe it important that what Mr. Robertson actually said is before us):

It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.

In the article, Mr. Robertson goes on to relate homosexuality to bestiality (sex with animals) and adultery:

Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. . . Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.

A&E, the network on which “Duck Dynasty” airs, initially responded by announcing that Mr. Robertson would be suspended from the show, then reversed their position in reaction to angry protests from the show’s  fans.  More remarkable, though, were the responses of many Conservative politicians and some Christian leaders supporting Mr. Robertson’s position. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote:

So the controversy over Duck Dynasty sends a clear signal to anyone who has anything to risk in public life: Say nothing about the sinfulness of homosexual acts or risk sure and certain destruction by the revolutionaries of the new morality. You have been warned.

Similarly, Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said in an interview on CNN, “Suggesting that people who hold to what every branch of the Christian faith has held to for 2,000 years is somehow bigoted or hateful is not productive for speech.”

Far less attention was paid to some other egregious remarks made in that same interview, on the topic of the civil rights of African Americans:

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.

This week, we celebrate the life of Franklin McCain, who died at the age of 72.  Mr. McCain was one of the “Greensboro Four” who in 1960 sat, day after day, at the whites-only lunch counter of a Greensboro, NC Woolworth’s, inviting ridicule, persecution, and arrest.  Their act of protest gave rise to sit-ins across the South, and helped overturn the discriminatory Jim Crow laws that Mr. Robertson somehow does not recall.

Still, placing his ignorant comments on race to one side, we must ask: is it the case that the position on homosexuality Mr. Robertson voiced is the position of those upholding biblical Christianity?  Many would argue that it is.  Mr. Robertson, who is undeniably a person of deep personal faith, both alluded to and paraphrased Scripture in his remarks.  Male homosexuality is condemned, along with incest, child sacrifice, and bestiality, in Leviticus 18, as a “detestable practice” (Hebrew to’ebah; see also the parallel to this passage in Lev 20).  Mr. Robertson paraphrases the older (1984) NIV translation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which read:

Do you not know that the wicked [the 2011 NIV has “wrongdoers”] will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders [the 2011 NIV reads, “men who have sex with men”] nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

The United Methodist Church states in its Social Principles:

Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage. . . . The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching (The 2012 Book of Disciplinep. 109). 

I am a committed, practicing Christian, an ordained minister of the Gospel, and a life-long Methodist.  I love the Lord, and I love the Bible–in fact, studying the Bible is my life’s work.  Yet I do not agree with my church’s official position, and I am not alone: many committed Christians and students of Scripture disagree with this teaching.

In 2007, Rev. Frank Schaeffer made the decision to officiate at the wedding between his son Tim and Tim’s partner.   Long-simmering complaints against Rev. Schaeffer resulted in a church trial late last year in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the UMC.  Rev. Schaeffer was suspended and told to recant his position; in this last month, when he refused to do so, his ordination was rescinded (although, as the link above makes clear, this matter is far from over). Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert was invited this past year to officiate at the wedding of two men in Center Point, Alabama.  Though asked not to do so by Alabama’s bishop, he decided to perform the ceremony: “I promised to do the right thing no matter what.”  In response, the UMC Council of Bishops has called for Bishop Talbert to be tried, though the conference where he now resides has refused to do so.

Not long ago, I was pleased to get an email from Chris Palmer, a fine young man I got to know through the Summer Youth Institute at PTS. Chris wrote:

The Hebrew Scriptures were always something that I struggled with, but you seemed to unravel their difficulties in a way that was meaningful, and helped me to grow spiritually. However, I have come across another area that has become a hindrance for me in my spiritual development.  . . .  I recently noticed that you were speaking at a conference supporting the LGBTQ community. This is where what hinders me takes root. I am a person who fully supports these communities, and, to me, the claims of scripture that denounce those who are apart of the LGBTQ community seems very contrary to the central claims of the Gospel. However, in my journey to be a faithful person, I hope to remain as obedient as I can to the claims of the scripture which presents this good news.  . . . This tear between my intuition, the scriptures I read, and the church climate that I am a part of (one that has not been so supportive of these communities) has come to weigh heavily on my faith development. . . . I was wondering where you take your stance on these issues.

I have heard many times from sincere people of faith concerns about what Chris eloquently terms “This tear between my intuition, the scriptures I read, and the church climate that I am a part of”–specifically on LGBTQ matters.  So, over the next few weeks, I will address this issue as honestly as I can.  Since I am a Bible guy, rather than a geneticist or psychologist or historian, I will do so through the lens of Bible study. We will consider the biblical texts often thought to pertain to this issue, including those mentioned above.  I will try to show that, in my view, the Bible does not compel us to condemn same-sex relations as sinful.  We will begin, next week, with Sodom.  

Dec
2013

A Child He Was

The Bible Guy wishes to all and sundry a very Merry Christmas and a joyous New Year!  My favorite poem for this glorious season is “A Child He Was,” by Giles Fletcher (1588-1623).  I have never found any other expression that so fully captures the wonder, awe, terror and glory of the incarnation of our Lord.   I present it here as a Christmas greeting to all of you who read this blog, and who by your comments, written and spoken, have helped to shape its content.  May God richly bless you all.

Who can forget – never to be forgot –

         The time, that all the world in slumber lies,

When like the stars the singing angels shot

         To earth, and heaven awaked all his eyes,

To see another sun at midnight rise

         On earth? Was ever sight of pareil fame

         For God before, man like Himself did frame,

But God Himself now like a mortal was become.

A Child He was, and had not learnt to speak,

         That with His word the world before did make.

His mother’s arms Him bore, He was so weak,

         That with one hand the vaults of heaven could shake.

See how small room my infant Lord doth take

         Whom all the world is not enough to hold,

         Who of His years, as of His age hath told?

Never such age so young, never a child so old.

And yet but newly He was infanted,

         And yet already He was sought to die;

Yet scarcely born, already banishëd.

         Not able yet to go, and forced to fly:

But scarcely fled away, when by and by,

         The tyran’s sword with blood is all defiled,

         And Rachel, her sons, with fury wild,

Cries, “O thou cruel king!”, and “O my sweetest child!”

Egypt His nurse became, where Nilus springs,

         Who, straight to entertain the rising sun,

The hasty harvest in his bosom brings;

         But now for drought the fields were all undone,

And now with waters all is overrun:

         So fast the Cynthian mountains poured their snow,

         When once they felt the sun so near them flow,

That Nilus Egypt lost, and to sea did grow.

The angels carolled loud their song of peace;

         The cursed oracles were strucken dumb;

To see their Shepherd the poor shepherds press;

         To see their king the kingly sophies come;

And them to guide unto his Master’s home,

         A star comes dancing up the Orient,

         That springs for joy over the strawy tent,

Where gold to make their prince a crown, they all present.

Source: Edith Rickert, Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400-1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914), pp. 273-4.

 

 

Dec
2013

Going Up, or Coming Down?

It happens to me once or twice a month in Long Hall, at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary where I teach.  I am running for the elevator (usually, this happens when I am running late for a class or a meeting).  I jump in, the doors open, I jump out , expecting to find myself on the third floor, where the classrooms are–and I am in the basement, where the mailboxes live.  Or, I am on my way to get my mail.  I step confidently into the elevator; the doors open, I step out, expecting to find myself at the mailroom–and I am on the third floor.

I don’t know why this happens.  I am inclined to chalk it up to the innate perversity of inanimate objects.  But I am willing to acknowledge the possibility that, at least a couple of times a month, I don’t know whether I’m going up or coming down.

So, what does this have to do with this season of Advent, when we remember Jesus’ coming long ago in Bethlehem, and anticipate his coming again (the Latin advenire means, “come to;” adventus means “arrival”)?  Many regard Christianity as a means of escape from the world.  Indeed, for those who sought to join the Methodist societies, John Wesley had “only one condition previously required . . . a desire to flee the wrath to come” (John Wesley, ed. Albert C. Outler; Library of Protestant Thought [New York: Oxford University, 1964], 178).  Many who understand salvation in these terms hope that they will soon be taken out of this world, together with other true believers, in the Rapture, and go up into heaven to live with God.  Salvation is about our “going up.”

A whole Christian industry has grown up around this idea, manifest most visibly in Timothy LeHaye’s Left Behind series of books, graphic novels, movies, television shows, and video games.  The idea of an imminent Rapture has been extremely influential.  According to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center, 41% of Americans surveyed expect Christ to return before 2050; among white Evangelicals, this number rises to 58%.

One Gospel text frequently cited to support the idea of the Rapture is Matt 24:40-41: “At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left.”  By this reading, the one “taken” is Raptured, taken up to glory; the one left is, as Timothy LaHaye’s series title has it, “Left Behind,” to suffer the torments and tortures of Tribulation. 

But I am not persuaded that this is the best reading of that verse.  The bulk of Matthew 24 offers warnings of persecution and trial, not instruction on how to escape them.  Jesus tells his followers, “They will arrest you, abuse you, and they will kill you. All nations will hate you on account of my name” (Matt 24:9).

Jesus compares those days to “the time of Noah,” when devastation came suddenly upon a people unprepared:

In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away (Matt 24:37-39).

By this reading, the “one taken” is not saved, but lost: to death, to destruction—or perhaps quite literally taken by the authorities, arrested and hauled away in chains.

This chapter is not about our “going up.”  It is rather about Jesus “coming down”!  The coming of Jesus, the Human One (literally “Son of Man”), will also be unexpected, and unpredictable:  “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows” (Matt 24:36).  Unlike 41% of the American population, Jesus does not know when this will be!  He compares himself to a thief:

But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house.  Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know (Matt 24:43-44).

The point, then, is to be ready–whenever his coming might be.

Isaiah 2:1-5 also speaks of God’s future–the world to come.  This famous Bible passage was the inspiration for the monument outside the UN building.

Then they will beat their swords into iron plows
    and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation;
    they will no longer learn how to make war  (Isa 2:4).

This vision of peace is realized in a transformed world, in which Zion, the hill on which Jerusalem was built, and atop which the Temple had stood, has become “the highest of the mountains” (Isa 2:2)!  Still, the future world of which Isaiah dreams remains our world: it includes not only Israel, but the foreign nations. Far from being “left behind,” the nations are drawn to Zion by God’s truth, justice, and peace established there.  As Zion is “lifted above the hills,”

peoples will stream to it.
Many nations will go and say,
“Come, let’s go up to the LORD’s mountain,
    to the house of Jacob’s God
        so that he may teach us his ways
        and we may walk in God’s paths.”
Instruction will come from Zion;
    the LORD’s word from Jerusalem.
God will judge between the nations,
    and settle disputes of mighty nations (Isa 2:2-4).

To be sure, this is the LORD’s doing—but God does it, not in some other world, but in this world!  Like Matthew 24, this vision is not about our “going up,” but about the LORD coming down.

What difference does this make?  If we believe that we are “going up,” out of this world, we will be far more concerned with being certain that our ticket is punched, and that we don’t miss our flight, than we will be with trying to solve this world’s problems.  After all, if this world is doomed anyway, why should we care?  What motivation do we have to care for the world, or for its people?

But what if salvation is not about escape from this world, but about God’s transformation of this world?  Then, we will seek to be a part of what God is doing, here and now, to bring in God’s kingdom.  We will want to be found at our Lord’s coming doing those things that Jesus did among us: feeding people, healing people, freeing people, proclaiming the good news of God’s salvation.  The task before us is immense, the problems seemingly unsolvable.

But as we celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela, and the collapse of apartheit in South Africa, we are reminded that sometimes, as we set forth in God’s work, we discover to our astonishment that some intractable problems turn out to have solutions after all!   Yet whether we are successful or not, we will not despair, because we know that, in the end, the kingdom remains God’s, and that God will bring it into fruition in God’s time, when our Lord Jesus “comes down” in glory.

Maranatha!  Come, Lord Jesus!

 

 

 

Dec
2013

On Being Earthlings, Part Five

In Genesis 3, the first earthlings Adam (whose name reveals his connection to adamah, the earth) and Eve (Hebrew Khawah, which the text relates to khayah, “life,” as she is mother to all living) violate God’s command by eating fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The LORD had told them,

Eat your fill from all of the garden’s trees; but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die! (Gen 2:16-17).

The snake told them that this was not so:  “You won’t die! God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4-5).  Sure enough, when they eat the fruit, they do not die–at least, not right away.  But as a consequence of eating this fruit, they are exiled from the Garden: they lose their access to the other special tree of Eden, the Tree of Life, and so become mortal.

The meaning and significance of the Tree of Life is fairly obvious.  But what about the tree of knowledge?  What could it represent?

One approach holds that the name of the tree is irrelevant.  The point is that the fruit of this particular tree is prohibited by God.  In his novel Perelandra, C. S. Lewis reimagined this story as unfolding on a watery world in which most vegetation and animal life lived on floating islands.  Here, living on the “fixed land” was the one thing forbidden by God.  There was no reason given for this prohibition–the issue was simply obedience, or disobedience, to God’s word. By this reading of the Genesis account, the choice Adam and Eve made to violate God’s command is the sole point of the story.

Certainly, the humans do disobey, and their action has consequences.  But it is difficult to imagine that no meaning or purpose is invested in the tree being given such an intriguing name.

Some have proposed that eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil means learning the difference between good and evil, and so gaining freedom of choice.  Before, the humans could only do what God wanted them to do.  Now, having eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, they have the capacity to make their own choices, which inevitably leads to their making wrong ones.

In the story as it unfolds in Genesis, however, there is no inkling that God has deprived God’s creations of freedom.  The woman’s choice to eat the fruit, as Phyllis Trible observes, demonstrates careful reflection and independent thought:

She contemplates the tree, taking into account all the possibilities.   The tree is good for food; it satisfies the physical drives.  It pleases the eyes; it is esthetically and emotionally desirable.  Above all, it is coveted as the source of wisdom. . . Thus the woman is fully aware when she acts, her vision encompassing the gamut of life (from “Eve and Adam: Genesis 2–3 Reread”).

In short, eating from the tree does not covey these discriminating capacities: the woman clearly has them already.

Perhaps the best way to understand the expression “the Knowledge of Good and Evil” is as a merism, like “young and old” or “length and breadth,” referring not just to the two opposite terms mentioned, but to the entire range between them.  This would mean that eating the fruit conveyed Godlike knowledge of everything, from good to evil.  That is in fact what the snake promises: “God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5).  Indeed, after the man and woman have eaten the fruit, the LORD says to the heavenly council:

 “The human being has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”  Now, so he doesn’t stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat and live forever, the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to farm the fertile land from which he was taken (Gen 3:22-23).

Reading canonically, these references to the humans becoming “like God” are bound to recall to our minds the statement in the first creation account that the woman and man are created in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27)–an idea not expressed in this second account.  But for the reader encountering these texts in their context in Genesis, the connection  produces a magnificent irony, not apparent when reading the passages separately.

Wizard-of-Oz-0011

In L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, all the characters seek from the Wizard qualities that we know, from the story, they already possess: the “brainless” Scarecrow does all the planning; the “cowardly” Lion courageously defends Dorothy and his friends from their enemies, and no one could possibly be more tender-hearted than the “heartless” Tin Woodsman!  Just so, in the final form of the Genesis narrative,  the woman and the man want what they already have: to be like God.  But they do not realize this, and so lose the Garden, and all that it represents.

So what does the Garden represent?  At the end of Genesis 2, we are told, almost in passing, “The two of them were naked, the man and his wife, but they weren’t embarrassed” (Gen 2:25).  Of course, when they eat the fruit, that changes: “Then they both saw clearly and knew that they were naked” (Gen 3:7).  The time in our lives when we are naked and not embarrassed, when we really do not care about wearing clothes at all, is in early childhood.  With puberty, however, comes a painful awareness of bodies–our own, and others!  Could it be that Eden represents a childish innocence, and that eating the fruit represents personal and sexual awakening and maturity?  If so, then this is not a story about a “fall” at all. It is a story about growing up, making choices, taking responsibility, and living with the consequences of our decisions, for good or ill.

Theologian Paul Tillich proposed that the story of the fall represented “the fall from essence into existence” (Systematic Theology, Vol 2 [Chicago: University of Chicago, 1957], 29-44).  The ideal represented by the Garden is lost to us, not because of a single event in prehistory, but because in actual existence, such ideals are unattainable.  In the story, as the earthlings leave the garden, they enter history: our world of painful choices, of estrangement from one another and from God, and of course, of growth, aging, decline, and death.  That is the way it is for real people, in the real world.

Sometimes, Christians speak of Jesus’ coming as though it were a patch, or a fix: God’s way of addressing the sin problem.  But as systematic theologian Edwin Christiaan van Driel persuasively reminds us, there has long been another strain of Christian thought (sometimes called supralapsarianism), which regards the Incarnation as too big an idea for this single application.  God knew from before creation that calling into being something that was not God, an authentically autonomous creation, meant that that creation would inevitably, in time, act in ways contrary to God’s will.  Indeed, God’s act of creation presupposed that God would consequently enter time and space as a creature, in order to enter fully into relationship with us.  Knowing this, and foreknowing all that it would cost, God created the world anyway.

By this reading, the story of Genesis 3 prefigures the drama of redemption and reconciliation, and so is cause not only for sadness at innocence lost, but praise for God’s determination not to abandon us.   A medieval Christmas carol expresses this idea beautifully:

Adam lay ybounden,

    Bounden in a bond;

Four thousand winter

    Thought he not too long.

And all was for an apple,

    An apple that he took,

As clerkës finden written

    In their book.

Nor had one apple taken been,

    The apple taken been,

Then had never Our Lady

    A-been heaven’s queen.

Blessed be the time

    That apple taken was.

Therefore we may singen

     Deo gratias!

 

Nov
2013

On Being Earthlings, Part 4

Tuesday, November 19th was the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, perhaps the most important speech in American history.

Lincoln delivered his address as part of a ceremony to dedicate the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania as a national cemetery, although as he famously said,

in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

Those men, from the north and from the south, who fought and died at Gettysburg did not do so as part of anyone’s grand strategic design.  No one had intended to fight a battle at Gettysburg.  The armies of George Meade and Robert E. Lee chanced to meet there, however, on July 1, 1863, and so the battle was joined.

After two days of bitter fighting, the Federal troops were in control of the high ground.  Lee sent George Pickett, with some 15,000 men, in a desperate charge against Winfield Scott Hancock’s troops, entrenched on Cemetery Ridge–though James Longstreet and others on his staff warned that the charge could not succeed.

As Lee had been warned that it would, the attack failed utterly: Pickett’s charge was repulsed, with terrible casualties–two-thirds of his division were killed.

When Lee ordered Pickett to rally his division as a rear guard against the Union troops “should they follow up their advantage,”  Pickett tearfully responded, “General Lee, I have no division now”  (Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol 2, Fredricksburg to Meridian [New York: Random House, 1986], 568).  The battle was over, the Union had gained a much-needed victory, and though the war would drag on for another two years, the Confederate cause was lost.

So, what does any of this have to do with Genesis 3?  The connection lies in General Robert E. Lee’s response to this catastrophe.

Lee said immediately to Pickett, “This has been my fight, and upon my shoulders rests the blame. . . . Your men have done all that men can do.  The fault is entirely my own.”  As Lee rode about the battlefield, ordering his troops for retreat, he said it again and again: “It’s all my fault.”  “The blame is mine.”  “All this has been my fault.  It is I who have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it the best way you can.” (Foote, Civil War 2, 568)

Lee’s words are so striking precisely because they are so rare.  Sadly, we are far more accustomed to hearing folk refuse to shoulder blame or to take responsibility for their actions, whether on the national news, in our communities, or in our own homes.

The second Genesis creation story, as we have seen, is an etiological narrative, aiming to explain the world we see around us by reference to its beginnings.  So it is little wonder that in Genesis 3:12-13, when God asks if the woman and the man have eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge, instead of owning up to the fact, they try to pass the blame one to someone else.

The man declares, “The woman you gave me, she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate” (Gen 3:12).  So, he not only blames Eve, but God, who had brought her to him!  Some later traditions accept this argument, and place the blame for sin–the human condition of estrangement from God, the world, and one another–upon the woman.

The woman in turn blames the snake: “The snake tricked me, and I ate” (Gen 3:13).

God, however, buys none of this.  No one in this story succeeds in passing the buck!  As the narrative unfolds in Genesis 3:14-19God holds each character accountable, and each character suffers the consequences of choices made.  

First come the consequences for the snake. Described when we first encounter it as “the most intelligent of all the wild animals that the LORD God had made” (Gen 3:1), the snake is now

cursed
        out of all the farm animals,
        out of all the wild animals  (Gen 3:14)

The curse on the snake comes in two parts.  First, it loses its limbs, and its ability to speak:

On your belly you will crawl,
        and dust you will eat
        every day of your life (Gen 3:14).

Once again, etiological features of this story come to the fore.  Why don’t snakes have legs?  Why do they crawl on their bellies?  Why do they keep sticking out their tongues and licking the ground? The short answer, in this ancient story, is that snakes are cursed.  Because of their involvement in humanity’s disobedience, they must crawl on the ground and continually lick the dust–which is also why snakes no longer talk.

The second aspect of the curse turns to another etiological feature: why do snakes bite?  Why are they poisonous? Why do we hate and fear them? The LORD God declares,

I will put contempt

    between you and the woman,
    between your offspring and hers.
They will strike your head,
        but you will strike at their heels (Gen 3:15).

In Genesis 3, notice, the snake is just a snake.  True, it doesn’t start out like the snakes that we know, but the narrative explains how that change happened.  From the first, the snake is introduced as one of the animals God has made–the most clever among them, yes, but still an animal.  The curse reiterates this: among all the animals that the LORD has made, both wild and domestic, the snake is now the lowest–the most cursed.

Later tradition identifies the snake in the garden with Satan.  But the text itself explicitly does not do that.  Further, some Christian interpretations regard Genesis 3:15 as a prediction of the coming of Christ: the Devil will strike at his heel, wounding him on the cross, but Christ with his resurrection and at his return will crush the enemy’s head.  But this too is nowhere in the text before us.  As Reformer John Calvin observed in his commentary on this passage,

other interpreters take the seed for Christ, without controversy; as if it were said, that some one would arise from the seed of the woman who should wound the serpent’s head. Gladly would I give my suffrage in support of their opinion, but that I regard the word seed as too violently distorted by them; for who will concede that a collective noun is to be understood of one man only? Further, as the perpetuity of the contest is noted, so victory is promised to the human race through a continual succession of ages. I explain, therefore, the seed to mean the posterity of the woman generally. 

Genesis 3 is not science.  Herpetologists are happy to explain to us that snakes sense the presence of prey or enemies in large part by “tasting” the air and the ground–that is why they stick out their tongues.  They will also assure us of the importance of snakes as predators in the ecosystem, and tell us that while we should be respectful of any wild animal, most snakes are neither venomous nor aggressive.

Genesis 3 isn’t history, either.  This is not the account of how sin entered the world, to be passed down ever since through the human bloodline like blue eyes or a predisposition to schizophrenia.  This is a narrative describing what human beings are like, and setting forth the consequences of our choices for ourselves and for our world.  In the story world of Genesis, the woman and the man alike attempt to pass the buck, refusing to accept blame or responsibility.  But the buck proves to be unpassable!  God holds every character in the narrative accountable.

For the woman, the consequence of her accountability is suffering:

I will make your pregnancy very painful;
            in pain you will bear children.
You will desire your husband,
        but he will rule over you (Gen 3:16).

This is the first mention anywhere in these creation accounts of the subordination of women to men.  Notice, though, that it is presented not  as God’s intention, but as a consequence of human rebellion.

Just as the woman suffers in bringing forth life from her womb, so in this story the man suffers in wresting life out of the ground:

cursed is the fertile land because of you;
        in pain you will eat from it
        every day of your life.
Weeds and thistles will grow for you,
        even as you eat the field’s plants;
    by the sweat of your face you will eat bread—
        until you return to the fertile land,
            since from it you were taken;
            you are soil,
                to the soil you will return (Gen 3:17-19).

Again, these are etiological features of the story: why is childbirth so difficult and dangerous?  Why are there thorns and thistles and weeds?  Why is life so hard?

But finally, the biggest question is also the hardest one: why do we die?  As we saw last week, in the garden the woman and man have access to the Tree of Life: they need never die.  But now,

the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to farm the fertile land from which he was taken.  He drove out the human. To the east of the garden of Eden, he stationed winged creatures wielding flaming swords to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen 3:23).

Without access to the life-giving fruit of the tree, women and men will now die–just as God had said they would, should they eat from the forbidden tree of knowledge.  Next time, we will think about what the significance of that action might be.  But for now, we will focus on the consequences of this act.

Leaving the garden of Eden behind, the woman and the man now enter a world like the world that we know, where life can be brutal and hard, where pain and suffering are sad realities, and where all of us must, sooner or later, die.

But unlike the snake, the woman and the man are not cursed!  The ground is cursed, but they are not.  Indeed, God cares for them, covering their nakedness with garments God makes from the skins of animals (Gen 3:21).  In the end, this story is about God’s desire to be in relationship with us even when we spurn that relationship. We are not cursed, spurned, or rejected by God, even though the consequences of our actions wound our world and one another.

The season of Advent is nearly upon us, when we celebrate the promise of Christ’s coming.  In Jesus, God takes on our very being, and offers us God’s own; in Christ, we share in the Divine life!

No less than Adam, or Eve, or even the snake, we must take responsibility for our own actions: the buck stops here.  But Jesus has come to take that burden, and to give us a new heart, a new life: indeed, to take us into a new creation, in which all things are become new (2 Cor 5:17).

 

AFTERWORD

The Bible Guy wishes all and sundry a very Happy Thanksgiving!  I am off to the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and then to spend the holiday with family; this blog will resume in December.

 

Nov
2013

On Being Earthlings, Part 3

 

When the LORD planted a garden for the earthling Adam to inhabit and enjoy, it was filled with every kind of fruit tree known.  But two special trees were also planted there, whose like we have never seen.

One was called the Tree of Life.  The idea of a tree whose fruit gives life is very old, and widespread.

The Greek gods fed on ambrosia, the food of the gods that gave them immortality.

Among the Norse gods, the goddess Idun tended the tree whose fruit gave them immortality.

In what is arguably the oldest story in the world, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero’s quest for eternal life leads him to dive to the bottom of the underworld ocean and pluck a plant that grows there, called Oldster Becomes A Young Man.  But before he can eat it, the plant is snatched by a snake, which then sheds its skin and crawls away, renewed!  Just so, as long as Eve and Adam live in Eden, they have access to the fruit of the tree of life–meaning that they will never die.

But there is also another tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  It, too, is placed in the middle of the garden of Eden.  Concerning this tree, God says:

Eat your fill from all of the garden’s trees; but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die! (Gen 2:16-17).

This command foreshadows the next major movement in this ancient story of beginnings, sometimes called the story of the fall.  This week and next, we will reflect on this ancient story.

When my son Sean was only three, I once found him crouched on the floor, giggling, his hands covering his face.  Foolish parent that I was, I asked him, “What are you doing, Sean?”  Patiently, he explained to me, “I am hiding, Daddy.  I am hiding inside my eyes!”

So he was–and so, indeed, are we all.  In fact, this may sum up the human condition more succinctly than any other statement I have ever read.  We are, all of us, hiding inside our eyes.  I cannot really know what you are thinking or feeling, nor do you have any way of knowing, exactly, what is happening in my mind.  I have no access behind your eyes, save what you give me, and you have no access behind mine, save what I allow.  All of us, to some extent, are hiding behind our eyes.

Genesis 3:1-10 reminds us that we have been hiding for a long time.  The man and the woman were made to stroll at their ease through the garden, walking beside the Lord in the cool of the day.  Yet, they wind up hiding in the thickets, afraid of God and of one another. Though made to live before God in harmony with the earth and with each other, they crouch in the thickets, clasping the leaves and branches around themselves in a vain attempt to cover their nakedness.  What happened to us?  How did God’s good creation come to such a pass?

The text tells us that, just as a snake foiled Gilgamesh in his quest for immortality,  it was a snake who first suggested to the first couple that the garden was anything less than paradise.  “Did God really say,” it asks, “that you shouldn’t eat from any tree in the garden?” (Gen 3:1).  The woman answers,

We may eat the fruit of the garden’s trees but not the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. God said, ‘Don’t eat from it, and don’t touch it, or you will die’ (Gen 3:2-3).

This, of course, is not literally what God said. The woman applies God’s words in a way that insures obedience to them: if we do not even touch the tree, then we certainly won’t eat from it!  This way of interpreting and applying God’s commands is a typical feature of rabbinic teaching: the rabbis call it “building a hedge around the Torah.”  In this story, the woman acts as the first rabbi–or, for Protestant readers, the first preacher–in history!

The serpent’s scorn at Eve’s pious response  is palpable: “You won’t die! God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4-5).  

The woman sees the forbidden tree now in a different light: “The woman saw that the tree was beautiful with delicious food and that the tree would provide wisdom” (Gen 3:6).  So the woman and the man both eat, and at that moment they know that they are naked.  Overcome with shame and horror, they run away and hide–as we have been hiding ever since.

A pun in the Hebrew makes a striking parallel between the serpent’s craftiness (expressed by ‘arum) and Adam and Eve’s nakedness (Hebrew ‘arom).   The CEB reads, “The snake was the most intelligent [my emphasis: Hebrew ‘arum] of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made” (Gen 3:1).  The NRSV has “crafty,”  while the old King James Version reads “subtil.”  Sly and sophisticated, the snake knows secrets the man and woman do not know–or at least, so he claims!  Adam and Eve are seduced by this proffered knowledge, enticed by the snaky self-confidence of the serpent.  They eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge.  But, rather than being filled with godlike wisdom and self-possession, rather than becoming crafty (‘arum) like the serpent, they become shamefully aware of their nakedness (‘arom).

The serpent’s promise still entices us.  We long for that crafty sophistication, that appearance of  knowledge!  But grasping for that prize, we are confronted with our own shallowness and emptiness.  Seeking superiority, we instead find ourselves exposed, vulnerable, naked.  No wonder we run away, to hide in the dark places of our mind, behind our eyes.

Some of us are better at hiding than others.  Like Richard Cory in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem (the basis of the song “Richard Cory” by Simon and Garfunkel), we may be able to conceal from everyone else the fear, the inadequacy, the emptiness we feel.  We may even be able to communicate such snaky sophistication that others will think of us, as the crowd did of Cory:

In fine, we thought that he was everything,

         To make us wish that we were in his place.

Yet Richard Cory could not escape his own self-loathing, and “one calm summer night,/ Went home, and put a bullet through his head.”  Some of us are better at hiding than others.  But we cannot hide from ourselves–and we cannot hide from God.

Surely, it is no mere chance that the first question asked of humanity by Deity is, “Where are you?”  God comes looking for us, in the briars and brambles of the garden’s thickets, not to drag our shame into the open, not to expose our nakedness and vulnerability, but to restore us.

When he was a small boy, my son Sean was not good at hiding.  When we played hide and seek, as soon as I would begin to look for him, calling “Where’s Sean? Where’s Sean?”, he would cry out, “Here I am, Daddy!  I am hiding behind the couch!”, or “I am hiding under this blanket!”  Then again, perhaps Sean knew that the point of hide and seek is being found: not remaining, cold and alone, in our hiding places. 

Brothers and sisters, God is looking for us.  That is why God comes to us in Jesus, as one of us, living a life and dying a death like ours.  In Jesus God comes right into the thickets and brambles of our despair, right into the darkness behind our eyes, calling as in Eden, calling still, “Where are you?” God grant us the wisdom of children, and the courage to stand where we are, casting off our pretense of sophisticated self-sufficiency, and to cry out, “Here I am!”  God is looking for you.  Get found!

AFTERWORD

In the wake of the unprecedented devastation wrought in the Philippines by Super Typhoon (a storm so vast it needed a different designation!) Haiyan, UMCOR is already at work, bringing food, medical help, and aid in rebuilding.  Watch this video, and send your contributions to UMCOR here.  Every cent you contribute goes directly to aid.