Tag Archives: Israel

The Bible, Homosexuality, and Christianity: Sodom, Gomorrah, and Leviticus

This is the third post in a series. I highly encourage that you read those previous posts before reading this one. The preface is here. The guidelines are here.

There are six scriptures on which most discussions about homosexuality and the Bible hinge. They are as follows: Genesis 19:1-26 (Sodom and Gomorrah), Leviticus 18.22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. There are other avenues of discussion beyond simply looking at the verses in question, and after the scriptural discussion, we will turn to those. First though, it is wrongheaded to go into a discussion of these verses do decide what each says about homosexuality. That is a cardinal sin in Biblical interpretation. One should never approach a text to find out what the text says about X. One must let the text speak out of its own language and context, and, once we allow it do so do, we can see clearly whether or not it even addresses X. With that in mind, we’ll discuss Sodom & Gomorrah and the Leviticus passages.

Sodom and Gomorrah

In Genesis 19, we find that messengers from God have come to the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to gain firsthand witness of just how bad the place was (as the people in the surrounding areas had been crying out to God about how bad they were). Lot meets them and insists that they come spend the night at his house, showing proper hospitality, but one also gets the impression that there is an urgency in Lot’s voice that raises suspicion.  We soon find out why. After arriving at Lot’s home, we are told by scripture that the citizens of the city, “both young and old, all the people to the last man” had gathered all around the house. They then yelled for Lot to send out his guests so they could force sex on them. We know how the story ends. Lot and his family escape (minus his wife) and Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed.

Even from that straightforward story, it is not clear that the scripture condemns homosexuality. In fact, this story does not seem to be about homosexuality at all, but rather, rape, and the kind of society that would not only allow this even to take place, but to promote it, down to the last person in the city. And even if the Bible made it clear that this was clearly homosexuality in play (which it doesn’t, as these “men” were angels, and the whole town, not just the men were outside), it would be homosexual rape. Which, even the most liberal of homosexual people I know would vehemently stand opposed to.

To further illustrate how the Bible views Sodom, Gomorrah, and the lessons that should be learned from this event, we need look no further than the Bible itself, which in the book of the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 16:49-50, says this, “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.” Their sin was not that Sodom and Gomorrah were gay, but that they looked too much like modern America! In fact, ancient Rabbinical interpretation of the “sin of Sodom” was “inhospitality and arrogant pride.”

So, far from Sodom and Gomorrah being a proof-text against homosexuality, it simply proves that when people different than you come into your midst, you had better treat them well, because God takes hospitality very seriously.

 

Leviticus 18 & 20

Leviticus is broken up into various sections which deal with various ways that the Levites (the priestly caste) are supposed to operate in regards to organizing the worship of God, and also how they are to teach others to serve God correctly. The various sections deal with sacrifices, moral obligations, and sexual behaviors, among many other things. The commands which are relevant to our discussion today come not from the sections regarding universal morality, but rather from the sections regarding how to properly conduct one’s self as a proper Jew, at the time when the law was given, which was when the Jewish people were more or less scattered and wandering.

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are essentially repetitive  not two different statutes, but a redundancy of one single statute, as with many other laws in Leviticus. The reasons for this are not important for our discussion. Suffice to say that the laws essentially say the same thing and thus need only one section of discussion.

The texts are as follows: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” and “”If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

While this might seem straightforward, it might not be so clear as one might think. First, why would the scripture say ” you shall not lie with a male as with a woman” as opposed to simply “you shall not lie with a male?” Would that make a difference? As it turns out, yes. The significance of sex and marriage in the ancient world were actually much different than the significance we ascribe them today. In terms of sex, the act consisted of a dominant partner and a submissive partner. When a man and a woman have sex, the male is the dominant (active) one, and the female, the submissive (receiving) one. In male to male intercourse, the roles are not so clear. In fact, in many cultures surrounding Israel, it was legitimate for a man to be the dominant (active) partner, no matter if the submissive partner was a male, female, or child. However, it was considered shameful for a male to be the submissive partner, no matter who the dominant partner was. This is because the submissive partner was considered “less than” the dominant partner. Females were always the submissive partner, and thus afforded a lesser status among people, and likely as a result, their sexual conduct is never mentioned in relationship to other women  in the scripture. But for a Jew, a man (made in the image of God) taking the form of a submissive woman, or to cause another man (made in the image of God) by dominating him sexually, would be considered a slight to the God who rescued them from domination. It is the cultural symbolism of the act, not the act itself that seems to be in view here. Nevertheless, the act is called an abomination.

The word abomination is the Hebrew word “toevah.” While translated abomination, this is a very misleading translation, but has been culturally ingrained in many of us because of how often it is used to describe this passage in our national religious discussion. However, “toevah” does not mean abomination. In fact, it carries with it the idea that what is being discussed is taboo. For example, why would the Bible call God’s people toevah in Genesis 43? Because eating with Israelites was toevah to Egyptians. Also, Egyptians considered shepherds (of which the Israelites were) to be toevah. The Israelites were not abominations to the Egyptians, they simply were taboo. Again, in Ezekiel 8, we read about four toevvot (plural toevah), all of which have to do with idolotry, not abominations, but surely would be taboo for Israel. And in almost every other single appearance of toevah (and there are more than 100 in the Hebrew Bible), the word refers, not to abomination, but to something that foreign nations do, but which Israel is not to do.

Still, some might want to say that God’s word still forbids it. That is true, it might. But let’s be frank. There are a few other things that the Bible, in Leviticus, equally condemns (either by calling it taboo (toevah) or by saying it is punishable by death), but that we very easily dismiss as culturally bound to the original context and not to ours. For example:

Acts condemned by Leviticus in the same way as Homosexual acts (and Leviticus reference)

Sex with your wife during her menstrual period (18.19)
Nakedness (18.6ff)
Touching an menstruating woman (15.19-24)
Sowing field with two different kinds of seeds (19.19)
Eating shellfish (11.10)
Cutting the hair on your temples (19.27)
Tattoos or piercing (19.28)
Clothes with mixed materials (19.19)
Cursing parents (20.9)
Eating BBQ pork or even touching a dead pig (11.6-8)

It should also be said that much of the reasons that many of these things are condemned was precisely because the surrounding cultures did them, and often did them for cultic reasons. It is unlikely, given the language for tattoos, for example, that the Bible would have even bothered to discuss them if the nations around Israel had not tattooed their bodies on behalf of foreign gods. It is also the case that the surrounding nations often worshiped their gods through homosexual acts in temple orgies.

To conclude, after reviewing the data, and noting my tattoo, I am hard pressed to use the Leviticus scriptures as a condemnation of homosexuality in 2013, given that “idol-fueled adulterous homosexual acts which brought shame onto a man for acting submissive”  is really a far cry from “married egalitarian loving same sex couples.”

This is not the only thing to be said about this, however. There is a reason that no Christian community that I know of in the history of Christianity, has ever tried to claim that the whole of the Levitical law should apply to Christians today. And after we discuss the New Testament passages next time, we will talk a bit about why that is and what it might mean for our discussion. Till then, I am not convinced, either by the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, nor by the Levitical law (which lumps shellfish and clothes made from two materials into the same category) that homosexuality is flatly condemned for those of us in 2013 and beyond. This is not my final conclusion, just that I don’t believe these scriptures are relevant to the discussion.

Till next time…

 

Jump to part 4, A study of Romans 1:26-27, here.

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Blogging Leviticus: Chapter 2

Continuing a series.

Chapter 2:

1 When anyone presents a grain offering to the LORD, the offering shall be of choice flour; the worshiper shall pour oil on it, and put frankincense on it, 2 and bring it to Aaron’s sons the priests. After taking from it a handful of the choice flour and oil, with all its frankincense, the priest shall turn this token portion into smoke on the altar, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD.

 

The Grain offering, like the previous, is a free-will offering. There is a different sort of underlying reason one might make a grain offering, however. First, these offerings were far more accessible than the animal offerings of the previous chapter, and as such, were far more common. Almost anyone could get together some small amount of the ingredients that were required. All that was needed was effort. The flour needed to be “choice” flour. In other words, not coarse, but fine, and of a pure quality. This mirrors the “unblemished” nature of the animal offerings in chapter 1. There was also oil, which was highly symbolic, of God’s spirit and anointing. The frankincense, which I recently learned only gives a pleasing aroma when broken, bruised, or crushed, was to be burned completely and the smell acts as a “memorial.” Unfortunately, the NRSV translates “azkaratah” as “turning into smoke.” While I understand this, as that is the way the offerings were actually carried out, there is a deeply important reading that is left out when translated this way. Another translation of “azkaratah” is “memorial.” I prefer this because it testifies to the ways that the grain offering is used in the scriptures. To help the people of God remember their covenant with God… AND to help get God to remember us as well. In this first section, these are the rules for an uncooked offering.

3 And what is left of the grain offering shall be for Aaron and his sons, a most holy part of the offerings by fire to the LORD.

Interesting that in receiving the offerings meant to bring people closer to God, the “most holy part” isn’t the small part given to God, but the part which is used to feed others. Aaron and his sons spent their lives in service, and thus had no means of feeding themselves. The owned no land and no animals. At the mercy of the kindness and godliness of others. This is what God considers the most holy part of the offering. Almost like Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said love God and love others… they’re like the same thing…

 

4 When you present a grain offering baked in the oven, it shall be of choice flour: unleavened cakes mixed with oil, or unleavened wafers spread with oil. 5 If your offering is grain prepared on a griddle, it shall be of choice flour mixed with oil, unleavened; 6 break it in pieces, and pour oil on it; it is a grain offering. 7 If your offering is grain prepared in a pan, it shall be made of choice flour in oil. 8 You shall bring to the LORD the grain offering that is prepared in any of these ways; and when it is presented to the priest, he shall take it to the altar.9 The priest shall remove from the grain offering its token portion and turn this into smoke on the altar, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD. 10 And what is left of the grain offering shall be for Aaron and his sons; it is a most holy part of the offerings by fire to the LORD.

The second type of grain offering is a cooked offering. Whether in oven, griddle, or pan, the bread offering contains the same properties. Perhaps because the priests needed variety in their diet, perhaps to allow creativity in presentation, perhaps because various people had access to various utensils. Either way, the repetitiveness, I have read, allowed these verses to be be easier memorized by those serving the tent/temple.

11 No grain offering that you bring to the LORD shall be made with leaven, for you must not turn any leaven or honey into smoke as an offering by fire to the LORD. 12 You may bring them to the LORD as an offering of choice products, but they shall not be offered on the altar for a pleasing odor.

Leaven of course, becomes symbolic of decay/change/corruption/sin in the scriptures. Not always, as even below, there are times when those things are appropriate. But for this offering, no leaven or honey. Like leaven and honey, sin and corruption, once added into a system, will continue to corrupt it, long after the originators have gone. Our relationship with God must be that of vigilance, lest we find even our attempts at Godliness to be so tainted with ugliness, fear, anger, and hate, that we no longer recognize ourselves. One need look no further than the state of Western religio-politics to see that this has happened much too often.

 

13 You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.

 

In those times, the making of a covenant was often concluded by a meal in which both parties would partake in salt, concluding the pact. This is on display in Numbers 18:19 as well.

“All the holy offerings that the Israelites present to the Lord I have given to you, together with your sons and daughters, as a perpetual due; it is a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and your descendants as well.”

The idea is that with all offerings, the added salt is to bring to mind the covenant within which this offering is being made. It reminded the people of God that not only were they drawing near to God, but they are doing so within a particular relationship and agreement.

14 If you bring a grain offering of first fruits to the LORD, you shall bring as the grain offering of your first fruits coarse new grain from fresh ears, parched with fire. 15 You shall add oil to it and lay frankincense on it; it is a grain offering. 16 And the priest shall turn a token portion of it into smoke–some of the coarse grain and oil with all its frankincense; it is an offering by fire to the LORD.

The third type of offering (beyond the uncooked and the cooked) was the firstfruits. This held the idea of giving a landowner what was his due. God has given the land to you, so give God the first parts of the harvest. Of course, the practical reason, was again, to feed the priestly families, not just a hollow ritual. Still, the offering if firstfruits becomes very important in later Christological discussions…

Biblioblogging Leviticus: Chapter 1

I am a pastor. Although, I am a Christian first, a family man second, and a pastor third. I consider myself more of a pastor than a preacher or a scholar or a theologian, but they all come with the territory. Thankfully, I have a place here at Political Jesus, so I can dabble in being a blogger as well. But I often don’t blog as much as I would like. Because I am a pastor. Yet, here is where my pastoral duties, my new year’s resolution, and my biblioblogging come together. I am going to preach through Leviticus starting Jan. 6 and I will be biblioblogging my thoughts as I go. Hop in and discuss. It will be fun.

Leviticus 1:

“1 The LORD summoned Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying: 

Interesting that, now that the tent of meeting is complete, God no longer speaks from the mountain, but the tent. A direct continuation of where Exodus left off.

2 Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When any of you bring an offering of livestock to the LORD, you shall bring your offering from the herd or from the flock.

I don’t see a command here to bring an offering. I see a guideline for when someone wants to bring an offering.

3 If the offering is a burnt offering from the herd, you shall offer a male without blemish; you shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before the LORD. 

In this case, the offering (Heb. Corban) is a whole burnt offering, where none of the meat is kept for eating. The entire animal would be consumed, apparently to come nearer to God. Since it seems more a command than a guideline, it appears that this is a voluntary giving up of one’s resources in order to orient one’s self to God. Sort of like giving up meat or chocolate for lent. And since meat was very rare to be eaten in those days, this sort of voluntary giving up of one’s property for no return in investment would likely have been very meaningful for the offer-er. The maleness of the offering makes me wonder, were males more or less valuable in those times? I wonder what difference it would have made to the average offer-er if the sacrifices were females instead. And without defect – it seems that there might have been a desire to feel good about giving such a large gift, but it not really costing anything since that animal would not be used for anything anyway. A win-win for the offer-er, but disingenuous as a means to show devotion.

4 You shall lay your hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be acceptable in your behalf as atonement for you.

Laying on of hands is the Hebrew “semikhah,” which is a conferring of some spiritual aspect by laying on of hands. Literally, leaning into or leaning on. Later, it will be appropriated for a transferring of spiritual authority, but here, the priest is to lean on the sacrifice, symbolically transferring burdens? guilt? sins? distance? onto the animal. The burnt offering has a root of having to do with evil, but is often used in the Hebrew Bible for a number of sacrifices, many not having anything to do with guilt or sin, but rather with drawing near to god. Atonement here, “kapar,” meaning to cover, but also to appease, be merciful, or reconcile.

5 The bull shall be slaughtered before the LORD; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 6 The burnt offering shall be flayed and cut up into its parts. 7 The sons of the priest Aaron shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. 8 Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the parts, with the head and the suet, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar; 9 but its entrails and its legs shall be washed with water. Then the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD. 10 If your gift for a burnt offering is from the flock, from the sheep or goats, your offering shall be a male without blemish. 11 It shall be slaughtered on the north side of the altar before the LORD, and Aaron’s sons the priests shall dash its blood against all sides of the altar. 12 It shall be cut up into its parts, with its head and its suet, and the priest shall arrange them on the wood that is on the fire on the altar; 13 but the entrails and the legs shall be washed with water. Then the priest shall offer the whole and turn it into smoke on the altar; it is a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD. 14 If your offering to the LORD is a burnt offering of birds, you shall choose your offering from turtledoves or pigeons. 15 The priest shall bring it to the altar and wring off its head, and turn it into smoke on the altar; and its blood shall be drained out against the side of the altar. 16 He shall remove its crop with its contents and throw it at the east side of the altar, in the place for ashes. 17 He shall tear it open by its wings without severing it. Then the priest shall turn it into smoke on the altar, on the wood that is on the fire; it is a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD.”

Interesting to see how there is a contrast between the messiness of splattering blood everywhere and the command that the animals and all of their parts be clean before the priests did it. There is also the interest in being so precise, and then, finally burning the whole offering into smoke, going up to God, as it were. This pleasing odor… a personification of God, making God have a nose? or a hint that God is pleased when we make an effort to draw near to God? I would guess figurative language, accommodation language to help the Hebrew then to wrap their minds around why this might help draw them near to God.

A good question for all of us, and yet, anyone who has ever given up a costly gift or offering to anything or anyone can testify to the power of such an offering. Giving to the needy, at cost to one’s self is a powerful force. Even giving up practices or desires or material possessions to focus on something good or better is its own reward. We shouldn’t marvel at those back then who were offering the only valuable items they had to prove their devotion. And God, while not commanding the offerings, accepts them as a parent accepts the gifts of a child, no matter how feeble, because of the heart behind them.

I marvel instead at the priest who was splattering blood from how many animals a day? How many people drawing near to God? Cutting and splattering all day long. How often did he rest? Where? There were no chairs in the courtyard of the temple or the tent. Exhausting, bloody mess he was at the end of the day.

Perhaps this is why Jesus, after having made the sacrifice once and for all, SAT DOWN at the right hand of God…