Tag Archives: Israelites

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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Letter to a Confused Young Christian

OR WOW, I AM GETTING OLD!
The following is an e-mail forwarded by my brother Ryan to me late last night; he was unable to answer it because he is on a church retreat right now, so I decided to take the time to answer this morning.

The email:

Subject: European History and Faith

Hey Ryan,
I know you’re busy on a retreat so if I don’t get a response soon I’m not too worried. In European History we learned that the plagues happened over the course of a century or two, also, the Israelites had political control in Egypt thereby making Exodus a lie. Also, Pope Benedict 17th made concessions to evolution and the Big Bang thereby making Genesis a lie. There has also been no documentation of King David whatsoever and that would make the guidelines for Jesus Christ (and thereby his messiah-ness) false. As you can imagine this shakes my ENTIRE Christian foundation. With the Pope making concessions which would falsify Genesis and the archaelogical and historical evidence making Exodus and King David false. Just wondering if you learned anything in your theological studies at TCU that would help restore this because I’m just shook up right now over this.
Thank you,
Confused Young Christian
My re:
Greetings Confused Young Christian,
This is Ryan’s brother, Rodney. We both had similar education experiences but since he is on retreat right now, and since I had a course on the Exodus story, I think it would be appropriate for me to respond.

1. First,  I would like to address the book of Genesis. Genesis, chapters 1-11 are not histories of how the world was created. I repeat: they are NOT histories. In fact, Job is the oldest book in the Bible, and even in Job, funny thing is, God asks Job at one point, were you there when the earth was created? Of course, the answer is no. So, Genesis is a story, more likely an allegory, much like other creation stories which existed with the peoples surrounding the Israelites. Genesis 1-11 cannot be proven or disproven to be “true” to the modern scientific mind. Genesis 1-11 is about THEOLOGY and not historical events. It is to tell us what our purpose is, why God created us, not how. Creation is a mystery, and if we want to know creation the way God wants us to, then we must first love the One true God. That is what separates Genesis from other creation stories in every other religion. It is not about what humanity discovers or what is revealed to them but who God reveals God to be.  Now,  while evolution can be reconciled with the Bible’s story and not contradict it, evolutionary scientists are unable to tell all of God’s story.  Evolution can only go so far to tell nature and humanity, but it cannot tell the whole story and nor can it complete the story: only Jesus can. For the record, I lean on the side of affirming Adam and Eve as historical persons, but at the same time, I believe that other people were on earth (but not the garden) with them. Its complicated, but you know how the priests work in the sanctuary of the temple in the Old Testament? Well, that is how Genesis 1-3 works. There are people outside the Garden (the temple) and then there are 2 priests, Adam and Eve who work for God, and once the two priests fall, well, all of the rest of humanity falls with them. From my readings, the language of Genesis 1-3 and texts about priests point in this direction. Again, Genesis is about theology, not history (well not in the way we understand history). I think this is the importance of why ALL Christians should learn the original languages of the bible, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Also,Christian leaders should take the time to teach laypersons important elements of Ancient Near Eastern history. The ANE is the context that the Hebrew Bible refers to, and without it, one cannot begin to comprehend the Jewish Scriptures.

2. Second, Let me address the book of Exodus question. I do not know what it is meant by “political control of Egypt” but that assumption or idea I have never come across. Maybe they had political agency in some form or another, but archaeological evidence does point toward an Israelite flight from Egypt.  There are written accounts from the reign of Ramses II, and also, like a few other stories in the ANE context, like King Sargon of Akkad, (2300 BC), there are elements that the ancient Near Eastern mind would know better than the 21st century Western on.  I would hesitate to say that the Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites was the same as the white enslavement of African Americans.  I believe that the Israelites were oppressed by the Egyptians, but perhaps on a smaller scale. But like Genesis, Exodus is much more about theology than history (history, the way we see it, that is).  It is an interpretation of the central event in the Israelites’ history and how God intervened. Some people say it was written and recorded by Moses, others do not, but the authorship is NOT important. The important thing is the message: God saved God’s people from Egypt, and God’s people should always remember that, and when God’s people forget that fact, they will pay a price. It’s a theme throughout the writings of the Prophets, especially Jeremiah.

3. Thirdly, on the king David issue, first let me say, it is a mistake to say that Jesus’s messianship is grounded in his relationship to the Israelite monarchy. With a close reading of Judges and 1st Samuel, one realizes that the monarchy was NOT God’s perfect will. YHWH God alone desired to be Israel’s king. To make the Israelite monarchy the foundation of Christ Jesus as Messiah I think is erroneous. Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah because God chose him (Christ means annointed one in Greek). Historical evidence does not disprove the existence of King David. What scholarship says is that the Israelite kingdom was not as powerful as Christians imagine it to be.  That, much like the Exodus, it was happened on a much smaller scale.  The Dead Sea scrolls have the first 2 books of Samuel but other than that, there is not enough suffice archaeology to deny David’s reign. In the Christian imagination, we like to think of the time of the Israelite kings as this big great classic empire, and when text and the facts tell us differently, we may have trouble with that.  As believers, I think we should be relieved that Israel was NOT like Babylon or Egypt or Rome or Greece.

Thank you for your questions. I know that there are many other young Christians such as yourself that go through similar situations and do not know if they should ask these questions, but it is okay to ask.  I hope this helps.

Truth and Peace,

Rodney A. Thomas Jr.

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The Parable-Driven Life: The Parable(s) of the Fig Tree(s) Judges 9:10-11 & Luke 13:1-9

JUDGING THE HEBREW BIBLE INTO THE NEW TESTAMENT

Judges 9:1-15: The Reign Forest

A young general, (whose name meant my father is monarch), who was son of a man nicknamed ‘Byelobog Will Defend Himself’, stood before the political elites of a farm town in Eastern Europe and asked, “Is it not better to have one military dictator over you rather than all seventy of my half-brothers? Let us covenant together since we are from the same village.”  The townspeople received word about what was the general wanted to happen from their town leaders.  Seventy Euros were taken out of the village’s large famous cathedral in order to hire hitmen to got with the general to take out the seventy.  The seventy brothers were gathered together, taken into a dark forest, where subsequently, each were shot in the back of the head twice and buried in a very old ditch.  Fortunately, the youngest son, whose name means “May God Complete,” was able to escape, and like his father before him, mastered the art of hiding.

The general became leader of the military junta over the entire nation.  When the lone survivor, Joe was his name, heard this, he climbed a mountain and confronted the dictator with a parable:

“There was a group of trees who had determined for themselves that they wanted a king.  The olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine; all three refused for they did not want to rule over any other tree, but to produce fruit to honor and please both the gods and the humans alike.  The trees’ offer was accepted by a black berrybush, whose wood is only good for burning in fires. The trees anointed the bramble; yet, after three years, the entire forest was burned down.”

[three years later, God apparently stirs up the people of the village revolt against the tyrant]

Luke 13:1-9: Jesus Warns that everyone, High and Low, Must Repent!

The cruel Italian mobster Pilate had a reputation for despising local religious traditions, and he struck fear into the Irish population. There were a few in the crowd with Jesus, a fellow Mick. He had heard that Pilate had executed some Irishmen and women in cold blood as they were praying. Jesus asked them, “Were these Irish people any worse of sinners than all other Irish?  Did they deserve this treatment?  No, I tell you, but unless all of you repent, you will perish as they did. Or those who we killed with the World Trade Center fell—do you think they were worse offenders than anyone living in any other part of New York?” No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will surely suffer as they did.”  Then, Jesus told them this parable:

“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and when it came time, he tried to find fruit, but could not. So, he said to the gardener, “Look here!  For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree and it has yielded none.  Cut it down!  But the gardener answered softly, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it; if it bears fruit, it was worth the wait. If not, I will destroy it as you asked.  The owner of the vineyard agreed.”

Excursus

 

The traditional Christian understanding of Luke 13:1-9 would have us believe that Jesus is using the parable as a polemic against the nation of Israel.

It suggests, that because Israel, in a scant few instances, is referred to as a plant, abacadraba, Jesus preaching repentance (although the call is futile since Christianity ends up superseding Judaism) to only the people of Judah and Israel.  However, the understanding of the imagery of fig trees in the Hebrew Bible (and Septuagint for that matter) do not really point to Israel as a nation, but rather could be associated with the righteousness/wretchedness of the ruling classes in Israel.  For example, in Zechariah LXX 3:9-10 as I have argued here, as well as Micah 4:1-5 (as Walter Brueggeman argues) there is an implicit critique of the false prosperity during the reign of the monarchs (which happens at the expense of the oppressed).  Eschatologically speaking, the notion that everyone will have her/his own vine and fig tree is a dream of universal shalom; in terms of Christology, Christ fulfills the visions of the prophets in passages such as John 1:48 (Jesus talking and summoning others underneath a fig tree).

Given the fact that figs/fig trees have far more instance of prominence when Scripture discusses the royal lines, I must reject the traditional interpretation of this parable.  In addition to leaning towards anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, normal readings of this passage also let someone off the hook for his actions: Pilate.  Verse 1 clearly says that Pilate murders worships while they are giving devotion to God.  Do not the Ten Commandments matter in our reading of the New Testament?

I argue, given a reading of Judges (along with the rest of the First Testament) into the New Testament, that Jesus is more of a Gideon/Jotham-like figure.  Christ Jesus’ prophetic call to repentance is part of his office as Judge (normally not talked about in churches).  Both stories have tyrannical political leaders over-stepping their God-given authority.  They are repressive, and unrepentant, as well as useless as unfruitful trees.  The language in the Judges 9 passage suggests that Abimelech is not exerting royal power, but military power.  He rules by coercion over others, much like Pilate as he exacts arbitrary terror over his subjects.  Jesus, in his subversive use of parabolic language, is suggesting that Pilate as well as his subjects are in need of repentance, or they shall all be chopped down.  Jesus, as usual, has precedent in the Hebrew Bible, just as it was YHWH’s desire for Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar to turn away from idolatry and injustice, so too did the Triune God want Caesar and the Roman Empire to change their wicked ways.  As for the identity of the gardener, who is usually ignored in the parable, my thoughts are it is the Church, standing in the tradition of intercessors such as Moses whose relationship with God is so strong that he can influence God to have mercy on a nation.

To see similar account of figs and fig trees, see Walter Brueggeman’s A Social Reading of the Old Testament.

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