Homosexuality and the Bible (Part 4 of 4)

Some months ago, I had the opportunity to be present at a radio interview concerning a Christian group known for its anti-homosexuality stance and a Christian who fights for issues of social justice and against homophobia. The anti-homosexuality group has placed their position together in an article titled, ‘The Abomination of Homosexual Theology.’ The article, written by Stephen Green, can be found here: http://www.christianvoice.org.uk/?page_id=893

This post, the fourth and final of the series, takes up the question of how Christians are to interpret the book of Leviticus, and what the role of Christianity in the public sphere can and should be.


Homosexuality and the Bible 4/4: What do Christians do?

When it comes to how Christians are to make use of Leviticus several questions can be posed at the outset. These questions are not made in vain, but are asked in order fully to think through the commandments and the assumptions we are making in advocating for one position or another, particularly in a context in which Christians clearly do not follow kosher dietary laws (to say nothing of kosher slaughtering of animals), nor prohibitions on mixed fibres, nor today even the laws of niddah.

First, why do we follow these rules? Do we follow these rules because God told us to follow them? Why? Why did God ask us to follow them — after all, some laws have suprarational bases, and defy logic, but nevertheless, the question ‘why’ must be asked if we are to enter more deeply into this revelation from God we call scripture. For Christianity, why follow the laws in Leviticus and elsewhere in the Torah? After all, Paul positions Christianity as a religion of the Spirit, not Torah. What are the assumptions we are making?

If the response to the initial question about why we follow these rules is ‘to please God’ — a somewhat Counter-reformation Catholic answer — then we have the assumption that God can be pleased. Howso? That is, what is the manner of God’s pleasure? Is it akin to our own? Again, I am not asking these questions vain, but to think through the commandments fully, take them seriously, and come to a knowledge of God (‘to know, love, and serve the Lord your God in this life, and be happy with God in the next,’ as the catechism once proclaimed). Or is God’s pleasure metaphorical language, and if metaphorical, what light does the metaphor of God’s pleasure shed on the laws at hand, both positive — ‘do this’ — and negative ‘thou shalt not’.

If we say that God revealed the law to us, we are making two assumptions: 1) God and 2) Revelation. What or who is God? What is a God of self-disclosure, and what is a God whose manner of self-disclosure is garbed in words of law and ceremony? Why choose that manner of self-disclosure? A Christian believer, of course, must also take into consideration the revelation imparted by God-incarnate, by Jesus himself. Jesus, of course, argued with the teachers of Torah-law, and came into conflict with the Temple establishment of priests and Sadducees. In the canonical Gospel accounts, Jesus’ teaching tends to focus by and large on the lack of follow-through when it comes to the positive commandments, rather than on ensuring that people who trip up in not avoiding the negative commandments be excised from the community. Jesus’ harshest words are for those who do not feed the poor or clothe the naked, who do not care for their sick or visit the imprisoned.

Given Jesus’ focus on the positive commandments, how are we to prioritise the various statutes? This question was raised by Green towards the end of his article. It seems that people have various means of assessing the question of priority, and the conflict of priority between different groups gives rise to accusations of hypocrisy by those turned off or turned away by organised religion. How do we assess priority? By the number of times a particular law is mentioned? By the degree of revulsion breaking a negative commandment or the pleasure of doing a positive commandment would evoke within us, individually or collectively? By the admonitions of the prophets, who continually called the community back to the basics of taking care of the oppressed and avoiding using one’s authority to damage the lives of other human beings? If we cannot assess priority in our personal lives, how can we assess priority for civic life, when the matters do not concern a loss of life or the alienation of property?

If the admonitions of prophets is to be granted authority in prioritising the statutes, then I can cite three prophets whose words should be taken into account when it comes to the verses in Leviticus. First, Ezekiel mysteriously leaves out Lv 18.22 from his reconfiguration of the Holiness Code, as I mentioned in part two of this post. Second, Micah proclaims: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly (or discreetly) with your God.” (If one wonders what may have come before the ‘and’ in that verse and is concealed from us, I would suggest the word ‘how’.) Being Christians, one could choose Moses as the third prophet, referenced by Jesus when asked what was the greatest commandment, as presented in the Gospel of Mark: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your power.” This commandment is called the ‘Shema’ in Hebrew, after the initial word of the verse. The commandment goes on to state: ‘Teach these words diligently to your children, to speak of them when you sit in your homes, when you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise; bind them as a sign upon your arm and let them be a sign between your eyes, and write them on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.’ It may be that Jesus considered the rest to be separate commandments, or it may be that at the time all that sufficed for a reminder to those who questioned him were the initial words. I could ask why this is not given priority (how many Christians recite the Shema evening and morning, before driving, how many place mezzuzot on their doorposts?), except the point I am trying to make is that measure by which Christians should prioritise their legal battles for a socially just world.

Finally, we come to the actual analysis of the text. To do a proper textual analysis, the context of textual interpretation should be clearly set out, and I identify five contexts which can be brought to bear on Torah interpretation by Christians, in roughly chronological order of evidence:

1. Jewish tradition states that at Sinai the Oral and Written Torah was given to Moses. The written Torah is what is written on the scrolls: the consonants of the text. This is what is translated and used by Christians. The Oral Torah, in addition to certain vocalisations of the text (i.e. putting in the vowel points), tells us to what extent a particular law applies, when it applies, how it is to be performed, or where. Thus, ‘bind these words upon your arm/ hand and let them be a sign between your eyes’ is elaborated in the Oral Torah, so that teffilin are placed on the upper portion of the arm, on the biceps, rather than say, near the wrist or the outside of the arm. Likewise with the commandment ‘You shall do no work on the Sabbath’: While Christians today seem confused about what day is the Sabbath (it is the day when Jesus rested in the tomb, as the hymns for Holy Saturday proclaim in the Orthodox church; the day he rose is the eighth day, a day of renewal and the first of the week), the Oral Torah describes what counts as work. The Rabbis listed 39 categories of labour forbidden during the Sabbath, all of which point back not only to the construction of the Temple, but also the construction of the cosmos.

Because both an Oral and Written Torah were given and needed interpretation before Jesus’ time, it stands to reason that Rabbinical modes of interpretation should be taken into account. I have already referred to Rabbi Yishmael’s 13 rules for elucidating the Torah, in which similar words used in different contexts are meant to clarify one another. Another of the 13 rules states that a matter’s meaning is derived from the context surrounding the verse. In the case of Lev 18, one suggested context is sexual violence, or what looks violent (e.g. sex with a menstruating woman could let to the appearance of blood on the man, looking like he did something violent to the woman). I personally find the use of context for Lev 18.22 to be a somewhat weak argument, given how informed contemporary interpretations are about by anthropological theories of kinship relations, although mishkeveh-ishah (in Genesis) and mishkev-zakhar (in Judges and Ps 41 or 42) both refer to kinship. Besides, the general category of the verse — beginning with v6, ending with v23 frames kinship in the context of the land, specifically in defiling land; it contrasts the kinship structures of Egypt, Canaan, and Israel. How will Israel claim kinship to its surrounding neighbours? Therefore one could look at the verse in Gen 3 about cleaving to wife and becoming one flesh, although exposing the nakedness of kin does not necessarily equal the becoming of one flesh with them; the point of Leviticus 18 seems to be that these are the people with whom a man already is one flesh. In other words, do not become one flesh with those with whom one is already one flesh. Whether all Israelite men are already one flesh with one another through Jacob is an interesting argument to make, and raises the question of why commandments directed towards women are almost entirely ignored in the chapter, save for the ‘improper mixing’ of human with animal — a term clearly aimed at preventing an argument that because animals are not human, they cannot already by one flesh with humans, and are therefore permissible. Lastly, I also alluded to Eliezer ben Yose Galili’s homiletic interpretations of ‘et’ and ‘gam’ as concealing some further insight which can be gained once humans societally have progressed towards increased social justice.

2. The Rabbinic period began before and extended after Jesus’ time; Jesus came along in the midst of these discussions and emphasised that the laws are not to be used as a club against people. He made this point forcefully with regard to the woman caught in adultery, but he also made his point when his disciples were criticised for harvesting grain on the Sabbath (harvesting is not permitted on the Sabbath, one of 39 categories of labour prohibited.)  What did Jesus say?  ‘The Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath.’  This principle answers the very first question I set out:  why do we follow these rules?  Why were they given?  The answer Jesus gives, as recorded in the canonical Gospels, is that they were made for the benefit of humans, not our harm; and therefore the commandments must serve either refraining from harming others (e.g. ‘you shall not murder’) or to increase our peace (‘observe the Sabbath’). The Torah is tree of life when grasped by the observant; it is a tree of death to the wielder and the oppressed when it is used to club people into observance. Thus, the argument about merely quoting the Bible as an exercise in free speech fails: The problem is not quoting scripture. The real issue is how scripture is used socially, and when quoted as a response to a social issue, the Bible is being used socially. It is never ‘mere quotation’. When Torah is used to club people, scripture is being mis-used. It is not loving mercy, certainly, and today it is clearly seen by others in a pluralistic society to be socially unjust. For some within Christianity, it is a betrayal of the prophets. Finally, when Jesus speaks of sexuality, apart from the woman caught in adultery, he points to an eschatological future ideal, in which humans neither give nor are given in marriage (but live as the angels do, in mystic communion with the divine life). The early Christians certainly took that eschatological ideal seriously, and sought to implement it on earth: thus the monastics live like angels, celibate, poor, and focused on prayer, often prayer through work.

3. Building on Jesus’ teachings as presented in John’s Gospel, Paul (who as a rabbi seems to have allied himself with the House of Shammai, but after his conversion rejected that approach) teaches that Christians are to look at the spirit of the Torah.  What is the point of the law? Green did this in his article, when he said the point of various laws is to teach one thing or another; however, his approach seemed quite piecemeal, and I would frame the interpretation of all the laws in terms of social justice, taking seriously the idea that the Torah was given to benefit human society. The question of ‘what is the point’ when seen through a socially moral-justice lens is where the idea that the law in Leviticus 18 is meant to extend to all sex acts which demean or humiliate becomes important for Christians. Essentially, once we take Paul’s admonition to embrace the freedom of the Spirit or grace in the Torah, the reasoning process begins to dovetail with rabbinic interpretation, though the Rabbis still advocate for observing the law in its details, but with understanding of the law’s place and purpose; Paul advocates for just taking the spirit of the law as is.

Paul was a missionary. He wanted to draw people to the Gospel message. Paul wrote that he made himself all things to all men, but is weak with those who are weak. In this context ‘weak’ meant those scrupulous to observe Rabbinic law, specifically the stricter interpretations of the laws of kashrut (kosher dietary and slaughter laws). Yet Paul advises the mature Christian to judge for oneself what is right and what is wrong — but that the measure by which we judge is the measure by which we ourselves will be judged by God.

4. Subsequent to Paul’s time, Late Antique/ Patristic era Christianity developed four ways of reading scripture — literally, allegorically, anagogically, and morally (as in ‘the moral of the story is…’). This mode of interpretation held sway at least until the High Middle Ages, at which point it coexisted with theological philosophy, more commonly known as scholastic theology. The benefit of those four modes of reading scripture is that the legalism is taken out of the picture. Although legalism remained in canon law, monastic rules, and handbooks of penance, the interpretation of scripture according to these four modes sought out the applicable or inner meanings of the text for people who were not bound by the literal observance of the laws. Thus, early Church fathers for symbols behind non-kosher animals like pigs and raptors, and decried rapacity and gluttony in humans as the inner meaning towards which these verses pointed. Regarding Lev 18, the focus was more on permissible and impermissible degrees of marriage — and of course, by the sixteenth century, it was precisely over that issue that the established church in England asserted its autonomy from Rome.

Since I’m discussing legalisms, as I mentioned in part three, Christian and Muslim ideas on the topic of male-male sexual interaction took different trajectories. Christians relied on Greek translations of the Hebrew text, and they tended to adopt Roman law to the verse — and the weight of offence was often heavier on the penetrated than the penetrator. In the books of penance which survive from the early middle ages, the act of anal sex was seen more as a mockery of heterosexual intercourse, was punishable as mockery. In this regard, Green’s opposing homosexual behaviour and God’s institution of marriage is in a similar vein of argumentation, though not quite so historically informed. (I will leave aside the fact that marriage was not defined as a sacrament until the twelfth century, and I will take up in a later post how we are to understand the phenomena of typological antecedents in Scripture, such as Adam and Eve, as genealogies for present day theological positions, and the limits of pressing those types as a justification for an ‘it can only be this way’ position). Other sexual activities were treated with great leniency (as far as medieval penances go).

(For an extended commentary on the four senses of scripture, I would refer the reader to the following blog:

http://brotherandre.stblogs.com/2007/12/11/the-four-senses-of-scripture/#_ftn3 )

5. In the high middle ages, however, another mode of moral theorising developed, one which took its inspiration from scripture, but which directed scripture to philosophically informed ends. At this point, moral theology really began to take on an Aristotelian cast, whereas prior to scholastic theology, some Patristic era writers like Augustine took up Stoic and Neoplatonic moral philosophy to inform their positions. Philosophic means of interpreting scripture though, are not necessarily relevant or considered authentic or authoritative for Evangelicals and the non-Conformist churches.

It is from scholastic theology that the moral scene was set with regard to using the terms ‘natural’ versus ‘unnatural’ to refer to homosexual activity, masturbation, and (artificial) contraception. Some of this thinking enters with a moral theologian named Ulpian, but it is really when Ulpian’s thought in the area of sexual relations gets taken up by Thomas Aquinas, almost without change, that allows this discourse of natural and unnatural. (In other areas of moral reasoning, Aquinas tends to be much more ‘liberal’ or pastoral in his approach.) ‘Natural’ in this moral theological context means ‘the end towards which something tends’ — thus, seen from a very restricted light, the end towards which sexual activity tends is the reproduction of the species. Any circumvention of that could be argued to be ‘unnatural’. As a result, if the Catholic church today were to lift the ban on artificial contraception, the ban on homosexual activity would also be lifted, because for the past 800 years, the moral logic underlying both has been the same. On the other hand, progress in understanding how many ends sexual activity serves has led the Catholic church to begin re-examining its claims. Among those additional ends are the strengthening of the marital bond, a function which remains present even in infertile couples. Just as infertile couples are morally permitted to have sex since ‘if they could have children, they would be open to them’, one could argue that same-sex couples be given the same economia, the same dispensation. Such at least, is one part of the current Latin theological approach to the topic.

Taking the above summary as a whole, the context in which the laws of Torah were clarified has shifted over the centuries. Both R. Yishmael and Paul used a mostly halakhic, or legal approach (specifically of the school of Shammai, if Paul was a student of Gamliel). Jesus engaged in halakhic and midrashic (homiletical) interpretation to point others towards an eschatological end. For us today, reclaiming those approaches as the axiomatic starting point for legal interpretations of scripture would be beneficial, if only for the breadth of vision such an approach can offer. The focus of interpretation, though, should take into account how working out methods of scriptural interpretation reflect contemporary needs, and ask when and how such methods are applicable in the public arena today.

Coda: A response to comments made on-air, 2012-02-25

I began this series of posts by discussing its inception in a radio interview at BBC Oxford in February 2012. Two parts of the post took up the issues raised in an article written beforehand by one of the interviewees. Here, I wish to turn my attention to some of the discussion points raised during the show itself. Although present, I was not one of those interviewed; had the discussion veered towards specifically theological topics, I would have been brought on, as my own background includes a Masters in theology, focusing on Jewish and Christian texts from the second Temple period through the end of the Late Antique Era. At the time of the interview, I was an M.Phil candidate in Medical Anthropology at Oxford University, and a queer college-mate of Molly, one of the two students interviewed on the show.

The common ground among all the participants, acknowledged at the end of the interview, including having the right to free speech to come onto the show, that all people are looking for affirmation and love, and Jesus forgives, and is a bridge to the oppressed. (Catherine of Siena discusses offers the metaphor of Jesus as a bridge in her Dialogues, and this is an image which deserves follow up in the context of debates surrounding same-sex marriage; perhaps in a future post.)

I am grouping the arguments presented during the radio interview around three main topics. First is the issue of an OU college hosting a conference which potentially included a homophobic platform. That issue took up the broader question of free speech. Finally, the civic debate on gay marriage (or gay weddings) and the rationales for moralising homosexuality in Christian and public discourse were also broached.

The aim of the organisation hosted at Exeter college is to train young Christians in the public arena. Whether the issue of homosexuality would be incidental to the conference or not was not clarified at the time of the show, nor was it clear whether the Wilbur Force Academy would allow gay people to speak. The aim of training people for the public arena raises the question of the role civic society, and individual Christians within that society, play in shaping national laws. The right to a particular platform was couched in terms of the right to practice free speech. The opposing argument claimed the limit of free speech was reached when it became hate speech. The implication is that hate speech fosters violence against members of a society, and thus destabilises civic peace.

Steven Green seemed disdainful of the political correct argument against free speech, stating that it constrained both freedom of speech and freedom of association. Another interlocutor said she was ‘astounded’. Christian concern, she said, was Bible based, and uses the Bible as a source of authority. There is no homophobia in quoting the Bible, she asserted. A reference was made associating freedom of speech tactic and wearing the Jewish Magen David (Star of David); the history of the Magen David as a Jewish symbol used by Nazis, like the prominent gay symbol of the pink triangle, seems to have been glossed over, and the point that a symbol can be used in socially harmful, as well as self-affirming ways, was lost. Likewise, the issue that quoting Bible differs from the social uses to which those quotations are put was also glossed over. It is the social use or impact of the exegesis (explanation) of the quotations — because all quotes are in both a textual and a social context — that is the real issue which needs to be discussed.

The other interlocutor saw LGBT concerns as attack on Christian faith and expressiveness in a public arena, and clearly felt hostility coming from the two LGBTQs she knew about in the interview. Unexamined was the cause of that hostility, and as such, whether it was justified or not. Because she covered up the cause as a reaction to a history of persecution at the hands of people who used scripture to justify torture and killing as commensurate with the crime of mutual consenting, but non-harmful activities, she made it appear as if she had been wronged. Little did she appreciate that she is part of the group which once held the authority to persecute; her outcry may as well be heard as that of one who has lost power and pines for it again.

Above, I wrote that the Torah is tree of life when clung to or grasped by observance, but is a tree of death to both those who wield it against the oppressed and those who are at the mercy of those who wield it. When Torah is used to club people, scripture is being mis-used. It is not loving mercy, certainly, and today it is clearly seen by others in a pluralistic society to be socially unjust. Some participants felt that Christians were being hated, and asked why. I would suggest that it is the slippage between how Christians portray Jesus and Christianity as a religion of love and the actual, often perceived as hateful and oppressive, social use to which the Christians put selected scriptural quotes. Contemporary society recognises that homosexuals have been a group which has suffered persecution, and is vulnerable to continued persecution, for simply being who they are, despite the fact that as a group defined by sexual object choice (consenting adults of the same physical sex) does not cause bodily or property harm to others in society.

Social recognition of discrimination and persecution is demonstrated through the enactment of anti-discrimination laws and the demographic identification and construction of minority groups. Whether a freely chosen philosophical ideology, such as certain Christian minorities in the contemporary UK, or by visible and unnecessarily changeable (if not unchangeable) social facts, such as race, is part of a larger question for the social sciences. For now, it is enough to recognise that ‘freedom of religion’ was meant to ensure that ‘heretical’ Christian minorities, that is, those which had disassociated themselves from the established church (whether Church of England, Lutheran or Catholic denominations varies by country), were not subject to active persecution. It was because of that type of persecution that the US colonies of Massachusetts (Puritans), Rhode Island (Puritan dissenters), Pennsylvania (Quakers, now famous for its Amish/ Mennonites), and Maryland (Roman Catholics) were founded by British migrants. Thus, the legal protections against physical persecution have been in place already for Christian minorities for at least two centuries in North America; I cannot comment on Britain (although Catholics apparently still cannot become Prime Ministers).

The construction of homosexuality as an inborn characteristic, and thus not amenable to change is a point of debate for the side opposed to LGBT civic rights. The principle argument raised against that construction is that homosexuality is treatable. The idea that homosexuality is treatable has been the subject of at least one court case with the Christian Institute or with Christian Concern; that a court case could be brought indicates the social conception that such treatment is unnecessary in today’s civil society. My argument is exactly that of the wider civil society: such treatment is unnecessary; homosexuality is perfectly normalisable. The problem for the opposing side, of course, is that so long as the verses in Leviticus are read as homosexuality-as-sin, homosexuality cannot be normalised, just as sin cannot be normalised. For heterosexuals, that normalisation comes through the medium of contractual civil marriage, as Paul recommended (‘if you burn, then marry, though it is better to be single’), a constraint on untrammelled heterosexual promiscuity they wish to deny same-sex couples.

One of the ‘anti-gay’ participants tried to make the argument that promiscuity was an inherent part of homosexuality. I would challenge that assertion in two ways, first by asking how socially mediated such promiscuity is, and second by asking why heterosexual promiscuity is ignored. My own experience in clinical settings draws a sharp contrast between San Francisco (where gay marriage is not allowed) and Massachusetts (where gay marriage is allowed) when it comes to looking at epidemiological risk factors in gay men. In San Francisco, promiscuity is assumed, whether the gay man is partnered or not; in Boston, monogamy is assumed if the person is coupled. This difference would appear to be a carry-over effect of allowing gay marriage. Marriage as a social fact, a socially recognised contract between two people, is flexible enough to encompass heterosexual and homosexual unions, and the obligations assumed by one are attributed and assumed for the other.

My college-mate Molly drew the distinction between love and lust regardless of the gendered nature of sexual object choice. While the hallmarks of love were left undefined, promiscuity was associated with lust. Like an evil which lessens the integrity of a person or community, promiscuity results not just from an internal dynamic, but an internal dynamic which responds to social conditions. Those social conditions are shaped in part by hate-speech, by lack of recognition (and its corollary lack of perceived possibility) of stable partnerships, by marginalisation, and by medicalisation. If a person is perceived as being able to live a normal life by his family or community, it will be difficult to live a normal life until he or she leaves that family or community. This is the aspect that the LGBT participants are seeking to highlight and change: a community has the ability to torment its members and play on their desire to maintain membership in that community.

No one ever seemed to acknowledge bisexuality or the possible fluid nature of sexuality, perhaps since clearly, such people should, if not would, ultimately choose the heterosexual lifestyle, namely a lifestyle predicated on a nuclear family of parents and non-adult children and marriage. One of the anti-gay group started to draw a distinction between marriage and civil partnerships and rights, but this distinction did not seem to carry through the rest of the discussion. In the US, one might say, quoting the result of Brown v Board of Education which ended segregation in schools on the basis of race, ‘separate but equal is not equal’.

A rather interesting point was raised when one interlocutor took up the question of homosexuality as a lifestyle or a birthright, or as she phrased it, the difference is between a call (e.g. lifestyle) versus nature (e.g. genetic). She argued that sexuality is part of life, and therefore not a calling. However, from a Catholic perspective at least, that which is part of life is a calling. Men and women can be called to the married life, to the priesthood, to the single life, to the monastic life. Catholics regularly talk about vocations to the married life or to the celibate priesthood (though Eastern-rite Catholic priests are allowed to be married). It is a philosophical question whether a person’s vocation is present from birth, or is shaped by experience. If a vocation is the role a person has in interacting with a community, a calling to serve the community in a particular capacity, then so long as homosexuality is not integrated into the community as a non-role in the way that other sexualities (married, celibate, etc) are, it has the potential to be the vocation a person can assume — not unlike the stereotyped roles sitcom characters have: ‘the popular girl’, ‘the jock’, ‘the gay guy’, ‘the geek’. The question of vocation, of course, is much more nuanced than this, and human life much more complex. Ultimately, I would suggest that a vocation models a person’s approach to the divine; as such, how the person approaches love and sexuality in general is going to impact that human-divine communion.

In a previous post, I quoted Frymer-Kensky as saying that God, as portrayed in the Hebrew scriptures, cannot model sex. Neither can a man portrayed as celibate, as Jesus is portrayed in the canonical gospels. It may be this need to have a divine modelling of sex that explains some of the recent explosion of theories about Jesus and the Magdalene. (Late Antique and Medieval representations associated the Magdalen with John the apostle, or sometimes in a more eschatological and evangelical context, with John the Baptist: both the Baptist and the Magdalene are responsible for proclaiming Jesus as a Messiah, the Baptist in the role of a prophet, the Magdalene as the first of those who were sent, that is, as an apostle.) However, the Christian tradition has taken such modelling and incorporated it into human life in various guises. For the monastics of Syria, in particular, the non-sexuality of God and Jesus led to an ideal of celibacy, but not a celibacy of repression. For these Syriac-speaking Christians, the goal was to achieve a bodily stillness which mirrored the stillness and silence in which the Word was begotten, in which the Trinity subsists. For Byzantine and Latin Christians of the middle ages, eros became a topic of philosophical speculation, as the motive force which draws men and women to God. Such speculation can be read in Symeon the New Theologian’s Ethical Discourses, and in Bernard of Clairvaux’s work On Love. Much has also been written about medieval devotions among women in the Latin and German west; St Dimitrii of Rostov in the Ukraine’s poetry has also been the subject of analysis (Bednarsky 1996) for what today are perceived as homoerotic overtones. Sexuality, because it permeates life, informs both vocation and spirituality — even to the extent that it can be the sole reason for a person to be excised from a community. It need not be that way, if sexuality is but one part of life, and a part of life which need not be seen as a calling within a community. People, after all, are multi-faceted, and the emphasis of the Christian life is supposed to be dual, focused on service to those oppressed by power and on approaching communion with the divine life.

So how then does marriage play into this scenario, if the model presented by God is one of stillness? The image of Adam and Eve for Christians, particularly those like Augustine, is a past ideal. The future ideal is transformative: to live like angels, and neither give nor be given in marriage. What Adam and Eve teach is typological, for as the first Adam was given to the first Eve and became one flesh with her, so the second Adam, Christ, is one flesh with the second Eve, the Church, formed from the blood (Eucharist) and water (Baptism) which flowed from his side in the Crucifixion. That is the model which Adam and Eve portrayed for the theologian Gregory of Elvira in fourth century Spain, and which was also discussed by Symeon the New Theologian in the discourses mentioned above. It is true that later in Latin (i.e. Roman Catholic) theology Mary the Virgin Mother is portrayed as the second Eve; but such theological reasoning has tended to be in the context of interpreting the verse on how the woman would crush the head of Satan. (In some early modern images of Mary, a snake can be seen between or under her feet for just this reason.)

The idea of two people coming together because of emotional complementarity, which is what Green proposes was modeled by Adam and Eve, need not be taken up in detail here. The idea that men and women are naturally emotionally complementary is naïve and ignores the range of masculinities and femininities available in any given society. Emotional complementary is socially determined, and any heterosexual with any sense knows that before marrying someone of the opposite sex who is neither emotionally compatible nor complementary.

The other theological question treated in the story of Adam and Eve is the existence of death. It is taught by Symeon the New Theologian and by Ephrem the Syrian that Adam and Eve were created in an indeterminate state, neither mortal nor immortal. Eating the fruit of the tree of life, once ripe, would make the couple immortal. When they sinned, evil inhered in their bodies, and came into the world. As such, for Adam and Eve to become immortal in such as state would have caused evil to also become immortal, a continual lessening of humanity. Thus, death, a most unnatural thing and not at all in the original plan for humanity, was introduced as a mercy, to stop the propagation of evil. (It is interesting that what is considered by some to be most evil are those things which cause death: war, pestilence, murder.) For the Byzantines and at least one writer of the Latin West (either Potamius of Lisbon or Pacian of Barcelona), ‘original sin’ is called ‘ancestral sin’, and is the penalty of death conveyed to all humans born of Eve. It is this penalty of death which was reversed by the resurrection of Jesus, Life itself having entered the realm of death and turned it upside down, as the Easter hymns of the Byzantine church proclaim. While this question warrants a longer post, because it was brought up during the radio interview, that short explanation here is justified, though I do not feel it is satisfactory.

Finally, what is the mandate given to Christians by its founders to participate in a legal process predicated on a philosophy which imputes rights to individuals and groups? Philosophically, the freedom of practice of religion in a secular society is the freedom to contravene laws which oppress groups to the point of death, it is to allow prisoners to be fed, to give illegal immigrants shelter and medical care, to provide benefits to those whom the government overlooks. The call of Christians is to be a leaven in society, to work in small areas to raise up the persecuted, help them stand on their own two feet again, supported by others. It is not to seek power, nor is it to seek to impose by force the ideas and ideals of the Gospel by force of law. However, neither is it to forget the power each person has individually and collectively to improve the living conditions of those around them. The prudent neither harm others nor let themselves be harmed. To be a leaven in society follows the tradition presented in the Torah of God giving humans responsibility for social justice, a responsibility which each individual must take upon him or herself and live out in his or her life.


Homosexuality and the Bible (Part 3 of 4)

Some months ago, I had the opportunity to be present at a radio interview concerning a Christian group known for its anti-homosexuality stance and a Christian who fights for issues of social justice and against homophobia. The anti-homosexuality group has placed their position together in an article titled, ‘The Abomination of Homosexual Theology.’ The article, written by Stephen Green, can be found here: http://www.christianvoice.org.uk/?page_id=893

These are the sorts of debates and pamphleteering I don’t usually want to respond to in detail, as I feel they can be short-sighted. I am answering this one in part to illustrate a key frustration which prompted me to begin writing these blogs: a lack of follow-through in much thinking when it comes to religious positions and civil — social and political — life. This post is intended to examine the interpretation of the Hebrew verses in Leviticus using a rabbinic hermeneutic.


Homosexuality and the Bible 3/4: Looking at the Hebrew Words

with an eye to Rabbinic methods for elucidating Torah

According to mystical tradition, Torah — the five books of Moses — is black fire written on white fire, the ‘blueprint’ by which the world was made, the ineffable name of God, which points beyond itself into a time before creation and to an inner world access to which is achieved by passing through the character and life of a person, to ultimately probe and transcend one’s uniqueness. Thus, the place of Torah’s statutes and precepts is to lead us through inner worlds to arrive at an increasingly refined comprehension of the divine life and the principles or inner essences from which the world around us grows. A midrash alludes to the Torah having been wrestled from the angels by Moses, while another records that the Torah is now on earth, and must be argued over by humans. One aspect of that arguing is the supplying of vowel points to the text, Hebrew being a language which can be written without vowels. Yet the vocalisations chosen for the text can shift the meaning one way or another, and thus the Torah is to be read and translated anew by every generation. No single reading is ‘the’ reading, and a myriad possibilities can be held in the mind and attitude of those who revere the Torah as a revelation. Overt time, certain methods have been articulated to keep the interpretation from becoming grossly misdirected. Among those methods are Rabbi Ishmael’s thirteen principles for elucidating the Torah. Torah itself means ‘law’, though it does not mean ‘law’ in the sense of say, canon law; it is more a sense of law like the laws of physics: something to be discovered, to be investigated, to be pondered over in light of new discoveries and possible contradictions.

The thirteen principles of Rabbi Ishmael are in a sense a type of legal theory, designed to question the text in order to clarify its application, or the extent to which it is applicable. For example, the proper way to slaughter a wild animal includes that its blood be covered — with dirt. From this case, we see that one method of elaborating the text is to move from a general to a specific in order to clarify its meaning. One can also move from a general to a specific case if the text said something like ‘bring sacrifices from the domesticated animals, from cattle, sheep, and goats’. Here, the law would not permit the bringing of other domestic beasts, but only of cattle, sheep, and goats. These examples are drawn from the immediate text of the law itself. Another principle is that similar words used in different places are meant to clarify one another. Technically, this applies to such cases as betrothal and divorce, these two having at one point been mentioned in the same verse, implying that similar procedures underlie them both. Thus, if only the technicalities of divorce are then discussed in the text, the implication is that such processes will also apply to divorce. Functionally, however, a midrash — a homiletic gloss on the text — may take the use of a word (really a set of consonants vocalised a particular way) from one part of the text and say that the words should be vocalised that way in another section, leading to a new reading of the passage at hand. In that way, material for contemplation of God’s law is continually renewed. The final principle occurs in the case of two verses contradicting one another, at which point a third is brought in to reconcile them.

In addition to those principles, another set of techniques were received from the tradition of Rabbi Eliezar, the son of Rabbi Yose the Galilean. These techniques were used to elaborate upon a text homileticaly, rather than strictly legally, but the two work analogously. The methods revolve around certain grammatical peculiarities of the Hebrew language. For example, no sentence in Hebrew, or at least no verb, traditionally began with the conjunction ‘and’ (a single Hebrew letter ‘vav’). If a verse thus began with a vav, Rabbi Eliezar’s school said that all we received in the text was the latter half of the verse — the previous half has been concealed from us, and its possibilities should be discussed. The assumption is that what has been concealed relates to the verse at hand; what we read in the text is not considered to be a random non-sequitur. Another example is the particle ‘et’ (or ‘eth’), which indicates the word following it is the direct object of the verb. The word itself has no translation or independent meaning, and it is not necessary to use it with every verb which takes a direct object. Not all verbs take an ‘et’ particle, nor do all direct objects; in fact, when people learn Hebrew, they often overuse it at first. This seeming randomness was given meaning by the Rabbis, who declared that the ‘et’ indicates ‘something additional’. Thus in the commandment to ‘Honour et your father and et your mother’, we could translate the ‘et’ as ‘not just’ or ‘not only’: ‘Honour not only your father and not only your mother’. The legal implication then is that one is to honour all those who stand in the place of one’s father and mother: teachers, government officials, judges, and so on. In other words, what that something additional is, will be revealed as the students of the text come to greater understanding, or when the people as a whole have advanced in their understanding of morality and holiness through practice. Other particles which amplify the verse are ‘af’ and ‘gam’; while ‘min’ and ‘akh’ limit it.

For a good summary of these methods, I would refer interested readers to:


I want to note that what follows are not Talmudic arguments regarding the verses of Leviticus concerned with male-male sex. Much of the argument here is derived from Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s Wrestling with God and Men; I am summarising that analysis and noting which of the above principles are being used.

Here’s the Hebrew text of Leviticus 18.22, in Latin transliteration:

v’ et zachor

lo tishkav,

mishk’vey ishah

to’evah hi.

Interestingly, the text begins with ‘vav’, meaning ‘and’. As noted above, verses which begin with the conjunction ‘vav’ indicate that the previous half of the verse was concealed. In other words, here we have a law which is known only in part, and should therefore be investigated for more than just a plain meaning.

The next word, ‘et’ or ‘eth’ is more important for our purposes. As already discussed, the word ‘et’ signifies something additional. Grammatically, it indicates that the word following it, in this case ‘zachor’ (‘male’), is the direct object of the verb ’tishkav’ (‘you lie down’ or ‘you bed’). Zachor means ‘man’ — as in someone with a penis, as opposed to humanity in general. ‘Lo’ means ‘not’ and negates the verb which follows. ‘Tishkav’ indicates laying down with, and if referring to sexual activity, is a reference to active penetration; it is active voice. (Thus, in contrast to Roman law, Hebrew law does not see the bottom or penetrated man as the one violating a taboo; it is the active partner who is the one being discussed here.) So taking the above mode of exegesis into account, we can say the verse thus says: “…and not only a man you shall not bed” or “…and not just with a man you shall not lie”.

That translation raises a problem: to what extent? Thus, at this point in the verse the generality becomes limited by a specification. However, the specification is also the word that causes problems for translators: ‘mishkeveh’. Only one other place in the Torah seems to use this word (it does occur later in the Tanakh); it shares the same three letter root with the previous word, tishkav. (Semitic words typically form off three-letter word roots; in this case the three letters are sh(in), k(af), b(et).) ‘Mishkeveh’ is a noun form of the verb, with a ‘heh’ added at the end, which as a possessive means ‘her’. To draw a parallel from Arabic, kitab means ‘book’ (likewise in hebrew) kataba means ‘he read’ ‘maktub’ can mean ‘it is written’ and maktib means library. Mishkeve would be the noun form of ‘to lie down’ thus, ‘lyings’ or ‘couch/ bed’. ‘Mishkeveh’ is followed by the noun ‘ishah’, which means ‘woman’. The pair reads, ‘mishkeveh ishah’ — ‘the lyings of a woman’ or ‘a woman’s bed’ in the sense of a place where lying down — sexually — takes place. Yet this isn’t the usual way of talking about sex in the Bible; usually someone ‘knows’ someone else. Thus, at this point not only is a specification needed for the law, but here is where words in other contexts are looked at to clarify the meaning of verse.

As mentioned, only one other place in the Torah uses this word. The verse where it appears is in Genesis chapter 49. verses 1 – 29, when Jacob is blessing his children before his death. Verses 3 – 4, in English reads: ‘Reuben, you are my first-born, my might and the first-fruits of my strength; the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power. Unstable as water, you have not the excellency, because you went up to your father’s bed and then defiled it — he went up to my couch.” The Hebrew text reads ‘ki aleyta mishkeveh avikha’ ‘as/ for you went up (onto the) mishkeveh of your father’ Mishkeveh in this context is translated as ‘bed’.

The switch from second person to third person, from “you went up” to “he went up to my couch” narrates a scene in which Jacob here turns to his other sons, after saying the first born will not have the inheritance usually given to the first born, and is reflecting on the disappointment of something long past, still stunned at the action of someone in his own family. What Jacob refers to was recorded earlier in Genesis. After Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, died, Jacob did not move his residence to the tent of his first wife, Leah, as would have been proper. Instead, Jacob resided with Bilhah, Rachel’s maid, one of Jacob’s two concubines. This act incensed Reuben, for it shamed his mother Leah. So Reuben decided to take revenge and ‘teach Bilhah a lesson’ as it were. (Thus Reuben lost his birthright as first-born son, and Jacob gave it to Judah who went to rescue Joseph; therefore the kings of Israel, with one exception, stem from the tribe of Judah, although the first king was from the tribe of Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, and only remaining child of Rachel after Joseph was presumed dead by Jacob.)

If, then, we are to take the meaning of ‘misheveh ishah’ in a sexual sense, which the overall context of Lev 18 would require, ‘mishkeveh’ would seem to mean the act of using sex as a way of humiliating or defiling or taking revenge on someone. If this be the sort of activity to which ‘mishkeve’ refers, then the verse thus far reads: ‘…and not just with a man you shall not penetrate in a way meant to exert power and violence, as over women.’

The final close of the verse is ‘toevah hi’, it is ‘obscene’, ‘taboo’, ‘forbidden’ — all are words used to translate ‘toevah’ ‘horror’ and ‘abomination’ are two other words often used. The Midrash to Leviticus relates that Bar Kappara interpreted ‘toevah’ for Rabbi to mean ‘toeh-attah-bah’, ‘you wander by (or in) this’. Other words, like ‘tevel’ are also explained (‘tevel’ is ‘tavlin yesh ba’, ‘is it really that spicy?’; ‘zimmah’ is ‘zu ma hi?’, ‘Which one is this?’).

Christian writers tend to focus on the meaning of ‘toevah’. Rabbinically, this is a touch misguided, since the subject is what needs clarification, not the predicate (i.e. what, exactly, is forbidden?). In particular, the vav and et are more important and intriguing in this verse, since they take the student deeper into the text. So, having looked at the verse according to its specification and in the manner a similar word was used earlier in the Torah, to what other(s) could the initial ‘et’ be referring? ‘and not only men, you shall not rape…’? The moral logic of the early twenty-first century would say: not only men, but also women.

Of course, at the time when the Torah was written down, a command not to rape women wouldn’t have been understood by practically any culture of the time. Thus, one could reason with the Rabbis that that portion was ‘concealed’ behind the ‘et’ until people grew up and realised women should not be maltreated, either, particularly in war. (Oddly, the verse doesn’t really appear among laws dealing with war, but even today male rape is used as a weapon during wartime. For more on this see Michael Scarce’s Male on Male Rape: The Hidden Toll of Stigma and Shame. Several cases deal with the case of otherwise heterosexual men raping men during wartime.) Genesis 35.22 is the verse regarding Reuben and Bilhah. Intriguingly, that verse also has an ‘et’ in it, right before Bilhah’s name. Was Reuben perhaps a ‘repeat offender’? Was it only when Reuben dared to go up to Bilhah that Jacob was told about all these activities? or was that when Jacob took notice (in part because Bilhah became forbidden to Jacob subsequently)?! cf Sifri Naso 5.3.

Finally, if we look at punishments for breaking various laws of the Torah, we can use the principle of eludcidating a matter from the general context of passage/ parsha, in the case of Lev 18, the general context is incest. (Technically, only the first half of the chapter is concerned with incest, the second with sexual relations with un-related persons.) The rabbinically ordained punishments for incest can be down-regulated from burning to excision, but adultery is punished by stoning, without any downgrading of punishment. Thus, if the entire passage of Lev 18 is speaking of incestual-type relationships, and homosexual relations are categorised with them, capital punishment could be waived, and heterosexual adultery stands as a more serious offence than homosexual activity. 

What the initial vav may conceal is something I’d be interested in pondering, but have no suggestions for now.

So, that’s the exposition of the text, the basic argument of which I learned from Rabbi Greenberg. Christian and Muslim ideas on the topic took different trajectories. Muslims, of course, have a different text from which to draw out their legal customs; the Christians of Europe and Egypt tended to rely on Greek translations of the Hebrew text (which technically does read more like ‘and with a man you shall not lie on a woman’s couch’). However, those Christians tended to read the verse with eyes accustomed to Roman law — and the weight of offence was thereby made heavier on the penetrated than the penetrator in male-male anal intercourse.


Homosexuality and the Bible (Part 2 of 4)

Some months ago, I had the opportunity to be present at a radio interview concerning a Christian group known for its anti-homosexuality stance and a Christian who fights for issues of social justice and against homophobia. The anti-homosexuality group has placed their position together in an article titled, ‘The Abomination of Homosexual Theology.’ The article, written by Stephen Green, can be found here: http://www.christianvoice.org.uk/?page_id=893

What follows is my second of four posts in response to that article.

Detailed Analysis of Problems under the Thirteen Subheadings used to elucidate Lev 18.22 and Lev 20.13

(Part 2/4)

Having set out some broader objections to Green’s article, we can now enter into the details of what is problematic in each of the thirteen sections into which Green divides his piece. The overall arrangement of Green’s subheadings seems to fall into the following format (slightly different from my earlier division):

I. Sections 1 – 5 (Purpose of Leviticus);

II. Sections 6 – 10 (Pittenger and Arthur’s arguments are introduced in section 6; attempted rebuttal of Arthur in 7 – 8; Pittenger in 9 – 10);

III. Section 11 (to’evah);

IV. Sections 12 – 13 (to whom does the section apply).

After a brief introduction consisting principally of links to LV 18 – 20 (KJV), especially Lv 18.22 and Lv 20.13, and a link to words translated by KJV as ‘abomination’, the author clarifies that the assumptions of his argument rest on opposing ‘homosexual behaviour’ (which he equates with the behaviour of Biblical Sodom) to ‘God’s institution of heterosexual love and marriage’ in Mk 10 and Mt 19. However, Green does not give a warrant for using the said opposition between heterosexual ‘love and marriage’ and ‘homosexual behaviour’ as his method of interpreting the scriptural verses. If he did give such a warrant, he would still need to justify why he is not comparing homosexual behaviour to heterosexual behaviour, homosexual love to heterosexual love, and same-sex unions to heterosexual unions.

Because his post is not on the sacramental nature of the institution of marriage, I will not enter upon medieval debates regarding its inclusion among the sacraments only in the 12th century CE, nor will I say anything of the complications raised by the practice of polygamy in Biblical accounts of the Patriarchs Abraham and Jacob for Green’s ideas about heterosexual love, marriage, and (presumably as well) heterosexual sex.

The article then develops under thirteen subheadings, the chief points and problems of each I set out below.

1. Purpose of the Book of Leviticus. Green states that the book is chiefly concerned with the duties of Levites, ‘the tribe which came from Moses’, and ceremonial observances of the Israelites; ‘we have what we should today consider as elaborate regulations for the conduct of sacrifices… private and public health, the Sabbath,… etc’.

First, Levites are descended from Jacob’s tenth son Levi (counting backwards from Benjamin). The Levites were ‘tithed’ by Jacob to the service of the God of his fathers Isaac and Abraham. Moses, his brother Aaron, and their sister Miriam were members of the tribe of Levi. Levi was not the tribe which came from Moses, but the other way around. Aaron, however, was the ancestor of the Kohenim, the priestly caste within the tribe of Levi are his descendants.

Second, Green is relying on an anthropological argument to set out his case by referring to practices geared towards public and private health. The anthropological origins of his views are not clearly traced out by Green, nor does he extend an anthropological analysis to the verses in question. In this, Green may only be setting up a straw man to knock down: his real argument is that the prescriptions are not elaborate regulations for ritual worship, but precepts for everyday observance. Aside from the latent supercessionism (the idea that Christianity has replaced Judaism, its Temple worship, and its system of precepts) in his wording, Green seems apparently ignorant of how much of these Levitical laws are still observed by Orthodox Jews today, both those descended from Levi and those not descended from Levi (‘Beni Yisrael’ — historically traceable to Judah and Benjamin, though some Jews from India and Ethiopia claim descent from other tribes, notably Dan). In other words, observant Jews recognise the wider applicability of these laws to regulate their lives.

2. Purpose of the ‘Moral Chapters’. The principle content of this section consists of quotes from Leviticus framing the holiness code as an injunction not to do what was done in Egypt, and not to do what is done in Canaan. While the author simply quotes verses separated widely from one another without drawing attention to their distance within the text proper, the chapters within the book of Leviticus are indeed framed this way. As Green sums up, ‘Around this framework, the Lord provides a table of affinity to rule against incest, prohibits bestiality, sodomy, adultery and child sacrifice and in chapter 19 moves into more general laws governing society in other areas.’

In Biblical form and source criticism, these chapters are generally referred to as the ‘Holiness Code’. Green rejects this label, apparently because of its association with ‘the homosexual set at Cambridge’ in the 1930s. The author is thus setting himself up against established academic study of the scriptures, while attempting to present his own position as academic. Interestingly, in these chapters forbidding sexual acts, rape is not mentioned as such. A curious omission.

3. Rituals of Worship, not Personal Behaviour? This two paragraph section first sets out a quote from a ‘pro-gay minister’, in which the minister claims chapters 18 and 20 are about worship, not personal behaviour. The second paragraph then makes an ad hominem attack about how ‘apologists for sodomy rarely quote actual scripture’ and declares that the pro-gay minister ‘sets himself up over scripture by pronouncing that the conduct forbidden in the two chapters “seems” morally wrong.’ Green thus appears to contradict his initial position describing the book of Leviticus as primarily concerned with how sacrifices are conducted, but does not yet clearly develop how a book which is geared towards the Levitical priesthood becomes the norm for all Israelites.

The chief content of the second paragraph of this section, however, is a brief foray into the Hebrew terms translated as ‘customs’ and ‘manners’. Aside from some problematical translations in this section (e.g. the plural of ‘commands’ is listed by the author as ‘mitsvah’, rather than ‘mitzvot’ and likewise with ‘statutes’; while the singular noun ‘torah’ is mistranslated into a plural ‘laws’), the author’s main point seems to be that translating ‘chuqqah/ chuqqot’ as ‘customs’ or ‘manners’ does not capture the nuance of the Hebrew. In this, I agree with the author, and oppose the minister. The word in question is derived from a root meaning ‘to carve’ (and in other contexts, ‘to strengthen’), and thus ‘statutes’ is the preferred translation. The argument for not translating chuqqah as ‘customs’ is sustainable.

Green cites the example of Jer 31.35-36 for an alternate translation of the word ‘chuqqah’ as the poetic ‘course of the stars’, although a more proper translation is the ‘rule (or ordinance) of the stars’. (I and the author number the verses differently by one verse; my scriptural sources number the verses in question as Jer 31.34-35.)

4. Laws and Morality Derive from Religion. From this section onward several major problems with the author’s interpretations begin to reveal themselves.

‘A nation’s religious observance forms part of its religious world-view, and determines its morality and from that its law-code.’ D’accord, but Torah is revealed. First, Torah is revealed, and so the order of logic must be: law shapes world-view and religious observance, not the other way around. (And this may well be the fear of conservatives who oppose the extension of marriage to monogamous same-sex couples: the legalisation of such unions will shape people’s attitudes towards homosexuals and homosexuality in general. Yet the evidence seems to be the opposite, particularly in the recent US election in which three States voted to extend marriage rights on the basis of public attitudes to the question.)

Green then mentions temple prostitution, and follows this with a quotation from Deuteronomy forbidding a father from allowing his daughter to become a prostitute. The existence of temple prostitution is historically questionable, and will be dealt with in more detail in section 7. For here, I will bolster Green’s argument and say that so long as we don’t know what the sexual ecology of Canaan was like, we cannot tell how the sexuality or sexual relationships of religious functionaries was vis-a-vis non-religious occupations of the time. In plain language, if we are accustomed to our monks being celibate, we may find the fact that Zen monks could marry scandalous; but until we understand the sexual ecologies of Japan and Western Europe, we cannot say that Zen monks are monastic rent-boys. This bolsters Green’s argument because he makes the case that ‘whoredom’ spreads throughout society, and I am situating sexuality in an ecology or fuller context of a society’s behaviours.

Green goes on to write, ‘It is the same [i.e. evil spreads] with respect for human life. A nation practising human sacrifice hardly views innocent human life with respect or sees each person as made in the image of God. In paganism, human life becomes expendable and sex becomes promiscuous, which is why such societies have been short lived from the moment they embarked on such a course.’ Green then Ezekiel for support of the position that once respect for monotheism is lost, so too is respect for life and decency; and the rhetorical question is posed about whether western society today is in such a position — a rhetorical question used to make the authors assertion seem more plausible; but assertions don’t make arguments. Before moving on, I would note that the late Pope Joh Paul II’s linking of respect for life with sexual morality follows a different rationale; Green seems to have taken superficial readings of the Pope’s position as they percolated into wider social or Protestant discourse without seeing the underlying links to consumerism and the objectification of the human person attending to consumerist culture, a feature the Polish Pope was very concerned to address in his philosophical dialectic, seeking to steer a middle path between large-scale communism and corporate capitalism during the late Cold War, pre-911 period.

The problems with that statement include a generalisation about societies which practice human sacrifice; an assumption about the relation of humanity and the divine image; and a sweeping homogenisation about paganism and its approach to human life and sexuality.

The claim that human sacrifice is incompatible with viewing ‘innocent’ human life with respect is anthropologically and historically indefensible. (What constitutes innocent vs guilty human life is left undefined, and one wonders whether Green thinks guilty human life should be respected or not.) While I cannot point to Ugaritic texts from Canaan and Phoenicia to demonstrate my position, anthropological evidence drawn from other cultures should be a permissible approach, given that I am attacking Green’s similarly generalist claims; my hope is to nuance Green’s tack into a less-genocidal assertion. Graham’s 1965 account of human sacrifice in Benin indicates that the victims were generally criminals, and thus the human sacrifice was a form of expiation for crimes committed against the people. Green seems to ignore the potential parallel that capital punishment according to the laws of Torah would follow a similar rationale in anthropological interpretation (Graham 1965:330 ).

Green ignores human sacrifice in Israelite history, whether the narrative of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac and the story of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11. This omission is unsurprising, as Green seems to have ignored the story in Judges 19 – 21 which parallels the account of Sodom. Likewise, lay Christian (mis-)understandings of a Father-God who demands the sacrifice of his Son on the Cross can also be made to fit an idea that the rigours of religious justice require human sacrifice. In other words, Green opens himself up in a very dangerous way to accusations of blindness where his own faith is concerned, and inconsistency of approach.

(For those curious about how the Aztecs received the story of Abraham and Isaac, I would refer to Robert Potter’s “Abraham and Human Sacrifice: the Exfoliation of Medieval Drama in Aztec Mexico” in New Theatre Quarterly vol 2, Issue 8, November 1986:306-312.)

On the other hand, some cultures believed only willing and innocent victims were appropriate messengers to the gods. Euripides’ Iphegenia is willing; Soyinka (in a more modern Nigerian setting) portrays willing human sacrifice in ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’. For further reference, I would suggest Bremmer (2004). The Strange World of Human Sacrifice, which examines accounts of human sacrifice from various ancient Mediterranean cultures, including Israel, Greece, and Egypt. For those interesting in more daring exploits during the empire, Obeyeskere makes some interesting observations in his book Cannibal talk: The man-eating myth and human sacrifice in the South Seas.

Of course, the rhetoric of innocent human life and human child-sacrifice is presented because it easily aligns with the forms of justification taken on other politically hot-button positions such as abortion. (If abortion can be made to equal child sacrifice and if sacrifice to Molokh entailed child sacrifice and was forbidden, then abortion also should be forbidden.) I feel that such a line of argumentation, while interesting in its own right, fails to be persuasive outside a community which has previously accepted certain assumptions of faith; regardless, this is not the place to detail what may be more or less persuasive when it comes to the legal question of medically induced abortion. (For one re-examination of the Molek cult, see Brian Schmidt (2002). “Canaanite Magic vs Israelite Religion: Deuteronomy 18 an the Taxonomy of Taboo” in Mirecki and Meyer. Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World.)

Green’s argument that nations practising human sacrifice do not see humans as made in the image of God needs some explaining. Quite apart from assuming a nation has an image of God — and images of God as such are forbidden to Israel — Green’s argument is also historically indefensible. At least three nations which practised human sacrifice, the Celts, Aztecs, and Greeks drew parallels between their conceptions of human and divine images.

Green’s homogenisation of all non-Israelite religion under the moniker ‘paganism’ is too sweeping a generalisation. It may be rhetorically effective, if one wants simplicity, perhaps, but it covers variation within monotheism itself and within history. Not all pagan religions are polytheistic; neo-Platonism being a case in point; nor are all pagan religions ‘dead’, Hinduism and Yoruba religion being some of the most vibrant today. Given the economic rise of India, Green propounds an interesting explanatory framework for the decline of civilisation, though not its constant regeneration outside Christendom and the Dar ul-Islam. I would generously think his explanatory framework owes something to Augustine’s City of God, but perhaps it is not so rooted in the Christian tradition. Certainly, several pagan religions in India, the Jains in particular, might have something to say about Green’s assumptions regarding paganism, population growth, and respecting life. (In this context it is ironic to note that Catholic Italy has the smallest growth rate in Europe, while Hindu India’s population growth is well known.)

Green’s use of the quotation from Ezekiel is interesting given the relationship between the book of Ezekiel and the holiness code. (Lyons 2009. From Law to Prophecy is an interesting study on just this relationship.) It is odd, however, since Ezekiel’s reworking of the text of the holiness code omits Lv 18.22, and 20.23, the verses Green is concerned to uphold. Why does Ezekiel omit them?

The greater problem raised by Green’s approach in this section, however, is the conflict raised by using historical sources to elucidate what is considered a timeless revelation: Reliance on scholarship of historical Canaanite religion can sometimes entail an acknowledgement of other theories, such as the emergence of Israelite religion from a Canaanite milieu, or the separate writing and integration of texts which are ultimately edited together to form the Pentateuch (e.g. the identification of Deuteronomist, Priestly, etc sources in the Torah).

Historical scholarship aside, does a position in favour of revelation need historical contexts to bolster its claims? Or is perhaps Green, like Pittenger, also a proponent of process theology, which believes God’s own self changes through engagement with time? If that is the case, then Green and I are approaching scripture from fundamentally different starting points, and the question of what common ground we may share in theological language is raised; the answer to that question, however, cannot be ascertained on the basis of Green’s article itself.

5. Israel Respected Human Life and Marriage.

Green makes an interested move by linking to two ideas together, perhaps trying to build on his attempted assertion that the collapse of one follows the other in Canaanite decadence. In this section, Green attempts to assert that Israel was God’s model nation and therefore Israel respected innocent human life and ‘the bond of marriage’ in both religious life and daily life.

Aside from confusing the Beni Yisrael (the tribe or children of Israel) in the desert, the period of Judges, and the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the attendant result of Green collapsing 1000 years of history, it does not follow that Israel always was a model — as Ezekiel points out in the verse the author quoted above (written at the start of the Babylonian exile), and as the 16 or more prophets contained in Jewish and Christian scripture repeatedly bear testimony. Green also makes a curious separation between religious and daily life, a curious post-16th century concept pioneered in England, but not necessarily clearly present in many societies throughout the world, including Christendom, before then; perhaps Green is simply reacting to the assertion that Leviticus is merely a code for ritual? In that case, I can support him, though I would question how the two — religious life and daily life — can be separated, and what constitutes each as a separate sphere. Does the author mean to equate for ‘religious life’ ‘in the liturgical calendar of yearly festivals’?

A more salient critique is the essentialised nature of the bond of marriage Green seems to posit between Israel and Euro-American today. The bond of marriage which Israel (though notably not King David) respected in the Torah is arguably not the bond of marriage as conceived today. Rather, the bond of marriage conceived in the Torah appears to be a legal bond of property, lineage, and perhaps virginity (in the case of the High Priest) or the paternally controlled sexuality of daughters. In that case, the search for legal recognition on the part of same-sex couples in an effort to ensure assured transfer of property and paternity rights to their children seems quite in keeping with the scriptural view of the point of the societal bond marriage creates.

The section continues with a quote from Dt 4.6ff, which ends with the question, ‘What nation is there so great that has statutes and judgements so righteous as all this law, which I set before you today.’ Unfortunately for the form of Green’s argument, the statement appears quite valid for comparison with the Canaanite foil to Israel’s morality; however, as a historically situated statement (‘which I set before you today’), it is limited in comparison, and it is possible that other legal codes become more socially just in comparison to the Torah as understood at the time of Moses’ death. That may sound like blasphemy; but it is simply drawing Green’s method of scriptural elucidation to its logical end points. I don’t think he realised that possibility when he began using a historical method of arguing his point.

Green salvages his historically-constrained position somewhat by proposing through a citation in Isaiah that the laws of Torah are universally applicable to nations other than Israel. ‘When thy [Israel’s] judgements are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.’ This verse is open to various understandings. Does it mean when Israel’s actually begins to follow its own laws, then the nations will learn righteousness? More to the point: how will the nations learn that righteousness? By observing how these laws are understood and applied in Judaism? Or by adopting them in bits and pieces and applying them haphazardly? Does Green posit a supercessionist understanding of Israel and The Nations in which Judaism’s understanding(s) of the Torah today is irrelevant? Or does Green recognise that just as Judaism has deepened its understanding of the Torah through historical experience, so too is that sect of Judaism which has become Christianity also deepening its experience of the body of scriptures it has inherited — but with the additional burden of a law of grace, not letters? If so, Green fails to also understand the concrete means by which the nations would learn righteousness through the Christian message, as set out in Jesus’ sermons: Christians are to be the salt of earth, they are to be a little leaven, and they are not to be a lord-tyrant or benefactor who imposes laws and judgements upon the people. The goal is to teach by example. History, of course, has intervened in Jesus’ vision for his disciples and their disciples, and the ensuing centuries have witnessed negotiation after negotiation between Roman, Germanic, and Slavic laws and those contained in the Torah. Is it any wonder the Rabbis limited to the responsibility of non-Jewish nations to the Noahide laws, while only Jews need observe the Mosaic Torah? My argument is that Jewish understandings of the statutes at hand are important to consider, especially if the position taken is that Christians study the Law is to grasp its spirit rather than its literal application (complete with capital punishments).

The author goes on to say that ‘this [Isaiah’s and Deuteronomy’s verses referred to above] is the context in which we read the two verses which refer to homosexual acts. Twenty-three and a half out of twenty-seven chapters of Leviticus deal with ceremonial observance.’ I find it supremely interesting that the two verses treating male-male anal sex are not read in context of other laws within the chapters of Leviticus itself, regardless of whether ’23 1/2 deal with ceremonial observance’. This is not Talmud Torah — it is not the study of how a law is understood through interpretation of the laws surrounding it; nor is it even 19th century exegesis, which would take scripture apart to look at those portions thought to be written in the same period by the same set of writers.

Green then states that the key element of these ceremonial chapters points forward to the Precious blood/ blood of the new covenant. Despite the clear and theologically wonderful typological interpretation Green just advanced, it seems to be a throwaway statement, and he does not make clear how it supports his argument about universal application. After all, he just averred that one of the four medieval methods of scriptural interpretation was valid — but fails to draw out what that would mean typologically for the verses within the Holiness Code. I will not make the supercessionist argument regarding his movement, with reference to blood of new covenant, towards application of Leviticus within Christianity, as I believe I have already pointed out when supercessionism complicates the understanding of a verse, and here typology is a method which must rely on Christian symbols only. While it may not be sufficient in and of itself to fully explicate a verse, it can be applied consistently across whole sections of scripture — although Green does not demonstrate how that is to be done here.

With the opening of the next section we move out of Green’s introduction to the book of Leviticus and his somewhat haphazard justification for its place in civil life today and into his more direct rebuttal of other authors.

6. Timeless General Morality.

Green now proceeds to the heart of his argument, namely that the holiness code focuses ‘almost exclusively on timeless matters of general morality’, and he mentions incest, niddah (sex with a woman from the first day of her period until seven clean days after), adultery, child sacrifice, male homosexuality, bestiality. (Note Green does not specify ‘male homosexuality’, merely ‘homosexuality’, as if the two are entirely identical, or even worse, as if male homosexuality and male homosexual behaviour(s) are identical. Such vagueness does not have a place in a commentary designed to clarify matters.) ‘The remainder of the chapter, 24 – 30 exhorts the Israelites not to “follow any of the abominable customs” (chuqqah to’evah) [of Canaan and Egypt] and not to “defile yourselves with them”.’ Why Green switches to translating ‘chuqqah’ as ‘customs’ after making such a deal of it earlier in the text is not explained; perhaps he is not referencing the Hebrew.

Green then introduces and critiques the credibility of Rev Dr Norman Pittenger by labelling him as part of the ‘homosexual set at Cambridge University in the 1930s’. For further reference, which Green does not provide, Pittenger’s academic work highlighted the contextualisation of homosexuality in the holiness code. (To no good effect, as Green himself is doing the same thing.) Green then jumps to Rev Robert Arthur who takes a similar approach to Pittenger and argues the holiness code prohibits those acts — incest, niddah, adultery, cutting the pe’ah (the curly locks of hair that some Hasidic Jews still wear), tattoos — which were involved in the worship of Molech. Arthur’s (and in part, Green’s) argument may not be entirely sustainable, as the existence of Molech as a Canaanite deity has been questioned in scholarship by Smelik (1995). (“Moloch, Molekh, or molk-sacrifice? A reassessment of the evidence concerning the Hebrew term Molekh.” Scandanavian Journal of the Old Testament: An International journal of Nordic Theology, vol 9, Issue 1.)

In combination with Green’s statement ‘if the forbidden practices were also involved in pagan worship rituals, that seems merely to have provided a good reason to raise them’ at the start of this section, the weight of evidence implies Green believes homosexual activity today would equal idol worship. In section nine, Green will clarify this is not the point he is making. Nonetheless, due to the rhetorical impact of such a strategy, I would argue that if we knew that heterosexual intercourse was used in the worship of pagan gods (and the Victorians seem to have believed it was), presenting the argument that heterosexual intercourse today or in any community outside Israel is therefore idol worship cannot be sustained, and indeed would be absurd. Such absurdity is particularly apparent to those who subscribe to a worldview which prioritises intention in worship over generic external visible acts. If anything, the evidence would merely demonstrate that sexual activity, like any human activity, can be imbued with whatever particular meaning the society in which the individuals engaging in that activity wish it to have. Lived context is critical in assessing meaning.

An interesting case in point concerns how blithely Green skips over the issue of niddah. Avoiding intercourse during a woman’s menstruation was not skipped over for much of Christian history, and can be found in the writings of Nicodemos the Hagiorite in the Ottoman period. The Levitical rules on niddah even impacted regulations concerning when women were able to receive the Eucharist, much as regulations concerning nocturnal emissions forbade men from Eucharistic reception. More important, it is a statute still tacitly observed in Orthodox Judaism. One could make the argument that whether two men engage in anal intercourse (as this seems to be the specific sexual act with which Green is concerned) is of as much relevance as whether a man and woman engage in vaginal sex during the woman’s period.

The most salient problem with this section, however, is Green’s belief in a timeless, unchanging morality which leaves no room for greater insight into social justice, no possibility for the prophetic idea in which peace and justice will kiss. Green’s approach contradicts both Christian and Rabbinic ideas that God wants humanity to continually progress in moral philosophy. It is essentialising, not revolutionising, and does not allow the faithful to be taken deeper into the text, the text in which a person might live. For the Rabbi’s progress in the text was ensured by God ‘hiding’ certain ideas within the text in the grammatical particle ‘et’ and ‘gam’; the possibilities of further meaning could be brought forth by interpretation when the people had reached a certain level of social justice and perspective. Green’s ideas, however, would seem to allow no evolution of halakha, and evince no awareness of the exegetical possibilities of ‘et’ or ‘gam’.

7. Depravity of the Canaanite Culture.

After having introduced both Pittenger and Arthur, Green first seeks to rebut Rev Arthur’s arguments; Green attempts to rebut Pittenger’s arguments in the section Green calls ‘Logic Suspended’. Seeking an authority to bolster his claims, Green cites a certain Timothy Wilkinson without introduction. It is assumed that the audience will know who this Wilkinson is, and what his publications may be. Green cites Wilkinson primarily to introduce the categories of kurgaru, assinu, naditu, sinnishat zikrum, and qadishtu temple functionaries. According to Green and Wilkinson, what all these functionaries have in common is some sort of departure from a dichotomous gender categorisation: castrati, homosexual men, ‘ritually neutered priestesses’ (this is left unexplained by Green; does it refer to female circumcision?), ‘lesbian transvestites’, and ‘female temple prostitutes.’ Green also references copulation with cows and infant sacrifice during liturgies devoted to Ba’al, and quotes the assertion that ‘marriages and families were shattered by [the Canaanite priests’] practices, and unwanted children of these unions were often slaughtered on altars to Baal or Dagon.’ (Curiously, Molech seems absent from this picture.)

Absent from this section is the evidence for an appeal to dead relatives to overcome Mot through incest; likewise evidence is lacking in the paragraph about huge sexual orgies. The idea of sexual orgies permeating the ancient world seems to have been a peculiarly Victorian obsession, and the scholarship of the past twenty years, when sexuality has come under academic scrutiny, is questioning those obsessions. Green makes a vague reference to the likelihood of sexually transmitted infections, though the rationale for this reference is unstated. (Ecologically, STIs which lead to infertility place constraints on population size; however, Green likely comes from a context in which sickness is considered God’s punishment, and STI’s are excerpted from an overall ecology and medicalised as such a sickness.) I would note that despite all the injunctions against ‘passing through fire’ (interpreted by Green as child sacrifice, though it could be a simple as literally passing a child above flames to ‘baptise’ it) and various forms of sexual license, rape not explicitly forbidden in the holiness code.

The dated nature of Green’s sources becomes obvious when he does quote his sources. For example, Green brings in Unger, 1964 as an authority. Why is Green using publications from the 1960’s, instead of more examining more recent archaeological discoveries and scholarship? Halley’s Bible Handbook, the source of a genocidal argument I point out below, is also from 1964. The insupportable nature of such partisan writing of the mid-twentieth century and earlier is clearly demonstrated in Hillers (1985), who gives an excellent critique of how writers in the past have used Canaan as a foil for exalting Israelite religion (and as a consequence, its present-day derivatives in Northwest European Christianities). Green himself will use sources who do exactly that, particularly in section 8.

Among the most frequently discussed problems in Canaanite and Biblical studies is the social meaning and translation of the term ‘Qadishtu’. The word shares the same root consonants as the word for ‘holy’ in Hebrew (q-d-sh), and for that reason some early translators thought persons bearing the title must be consecrated in some manner, or be associated with temple worship. However, the root meaning of qadosh, holy, is to be set apart. Some might say ‘set apart for a special use’, but one could just as easily say ‘set apart from the community’; because the implications of the setting apart vary by materiality and time period, a simple translation as ‘set apart’ is preferable.

No person is to be set apart from a family in Israel (with the implication of being ‘cut off’ from the children of Israel), which would be the case if someone were a ‘qadishtu’ or ‘qadisha’. Particularly salient in this regard is that the priests of Israel were and are still today based on family lineage; only they and the Levites served in the temple. (Samuel the prophet was a Levite from the territory of Ephraim, so being dedicated to the temple from childhood did not interfere with this kinship structure, as the Levites belong to the Temple by virtue of their birth.) The possible exception to this general rule of not separating out a person for special religious service may be the case of the Nazirite, and the Nazirite vow. The role of the nazir and the manner of becoming one was strictly set forth in scripture and could be annulled by family members who have authority of the person making the vow. Additionally, the nazirite had to bring a sin offering at the close of his or her vow, indicating some sort of social anomaly had occurred. Sampson, who was a Nazirite from birth, was born to parents who had been living as Nazirites when he was conceived, so again, he ‘inherited’ their functionary status, and should not be considered set apart in the way that a qadishtu would have been. (Note that ‘n-z-r’ also has the connotation of being set apart, and differs slightly from the ‘q-d-sh’ sense of set apart.)

So how did the idea of temple prostitution come to be associated with this word? The source lies in a passage in Genesis 38. There, Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah (ancestor of king David) seeks to fulfil the commandment of Levirate marriage by bearing a child in Judah’s line. She therefore veils herself and meets Judah on the road, and Judah, thinking she is a prostitute (‘zonah‘ in Hebrew), sleeps with her. He left a security deposit behind, with the promise of a goat as payment, but when his servant went to deliver the goat, the locals of the area did not know of any ‘qadisha‘ nearby. Because Tamar is referred to as a ‘qadisha‘ by Judah’s servant, when Tamar had obviously presented herself earlier to Judah as a prostitute, the idea that a qadishtu or qadisha was therefore a prostitute associated with temples grew. Such a view seemed to be further supported by an observation in Herodotus about a custom he had heard practised in Babylon. Yet Babylon is not Canaan, and we have no evidence to support the claim that the two cultures were identical in either religious or cultural practises.

For further scholarship on this issue, I would refer the reader to Friedman’s Commentary on Torah; Tikva’s ‘In the Wake of the Goddesses’; Bodin, Stephanie Lynn (2008). The myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity. CUP; Assante, Julia (2003). “From whores to Hierodules: The historiographic invention…”; and Day, John (2004). “Does the OT refer to Sacred Prostitution?” in McCarthy and Healey. Biblical and Near Eastern Essays.

After naming the various temple functionaries, Green, under the guise of civic consciousness, then advances a very dangerous argument for genocide and pre-emptive interference through an extended quote from Halley: ‘Did a civilization of such abominable filth and brutality have any right longer to exist?’ In certain contexts, of course, the implication might be that Euro-American civilisation is descending into such filth, and thus should no longer exist; an internal revolt is called for. Happily, Green simply continues to quote from Halley, and writes, ‘Archaeologists who dig in the ruins of Canaanite cities wonder that God did not destroy them sooner than he did.’ This is a rather curious statement: who are these archaeologists? Are they all scientists? believers? both (as I admit being a believer and being a scientist are not necessarily antithetical)? What is the source of Halley’s assertion? Crucially, Green seems to ignore the civic implications of quoting a call for the destruction of a society.

At this point, Green seems to be speaking with a double tongue: His argument is either saying HaShem tells not to do what Canaanites do because this is simply God’s revelation speaking; -or- we take an anthropological argument and say these Israel must not do these things because they are identity markers for Canaan.

In fact, if an anthropological examination is what Green wants, the passage at hand can be read as a primer on kinship identity markers for the children of Israel/ Jacob. Chapter 18 tends to frame nearly all its rationales for forbidding certain sexual relations in terms of kin and lineage relations of some sort. This passage in Leviticus answers the basic human questions of who and what is ‘other’, and who is similar to me (‘family’)?). It also illustrates a more post-modern question, namely, what are the boundaries of my own body? It is noteworthy that ‘nakedness’ tends to be predicated only of women, or of men only through (their) women. The actual implications of ‘nakedness’ as shame or strength, property or self-possession (boundedness) is not explicated in the text. (As a side note, Ezekiel repeats most of these verses, but does not include verse 22 — against male-male sexual relations in that repetition.)

A look at the extended passage, Lv 18:6 – 27, consistently demonstrates this role that the scripture plays:

Verse 6 specifies its concern with ‘near of kin’: ish ish al kol sher b’sharo, (lo tiqervo l’galot ‘arveh.)

Verse 7 goes on to address the boundaries of the parents’ bodies: The nakedness of your father, and the nakedness of your mother, you shall not uncover: she is your mother; you shall not uncover her nakedness.

Verse 8 admits the possibility of second marriages (either polygamous or sequential): The nakedness of your father’s wife you shall not uncover: it is your father’s nakedness.

Verse 10. The nakedness of your son’s daughter, or of your daughter’s daughter, even their nakedness you shall not uncover; for theirs is your own nakedness.

Verses 12 and 13 are similar: You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s/ mother’s sister: she is your father’s/ mother’s near kinswoman.

Verse 14 has homosexual implications, which seem always glossed over, as the nakedness here is approached through a woman — though that need to always be the case: You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother, you shall not approach to his wife: she is your aunt.

Verse 17 now switches to outside immediate kin relations, although it relates how women are kin to one another: You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter; you shall not take her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter [i.e. a woman and her grand-daughter], to uncover her nakedness: they are near kinswomen [to one another]; it is lewdness.

Finally, verse 19 again relates women and nakedness: And you shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness, as long as she is impure by her uncleanness.

When we come to verses 20 – 21, the emphasis shifts; they are not concerned with nakedness. This may indicate a new section, or a shift in perspective. Verse 20, like verse 18, is concerned with social ties outside kinship, but it suggests neighbours are like kin. The verse states that sleeping with neighbour’s wife defiles oneself (but not necessarily the neighbour’s wife): lo titen sh’khavtekha l’zar’a: l’tamah-boh. Note the difference in phrasing in verse 21: v’lo tetalel et shem elohekha — neither shall you profane the name of your God. One could easily draw a comparison with prophets who suggest idolatry is ‘sleeping with a neighbour’s god’, except that in verse 20, one defiles oneself by sleeping with a neighbour’s wife, whereas idolatry defiles the name of the God of Israel, the implication being that each man of Israel carries or embodies that name.

Verses 22 and 23 are also salient for the difference in phrasing between them, and similarity between 23 and 20: Verses 23 and 20 both state: lo titen shekhavtekha (roughly ‘do not allow bedding her’) while in 22 the phrasing is markedly different: tishkhav, mishkhaveh ishah (you shall not lie, a woman’s couch), suggesting that verse 22 has a different social result; it is not defiling, though it is forbidden.

A simple reading of verse 22 is: ‘Two men shall not lie together on a woman’s bed.’ Such an act, if both parties have a seminal emission, confuses paternity should the woman who sleeps there become pregnant. (This is in part because of the role the bed on which someone is conceived plays in the larger notions of a child’s ‘destiny’, quite apart from any notions of the viability of seed to impregnate women for days after its emission.) This interpretation fits in with the rest of verses about unclear lineages which result from incest. (Therefore, this approach implies the Holiness Code is also a lineage code).

Verse 23 invokes bestiality, reverting to its defiling nature: And you shall not lie with any beast to defile yourself therewith… Note this commandment also explicitly applies to women, whereas the others did not: neither shall any woman stand before a beast, to lie down thereto; it is perversion. Thus verse 23 creates another similarity to v20: male initiated bestiality is l’tamah; it comes from the letters Tet-M-A, the same root used in ‘b-niddat tumatah’ a woman in her uncleanness; thus one can argue Scripture associates sleeping with a woman during her menstrual period with bestiality; it does not make that association in verse 22, the verse usually singled out as being against male-male homosexual relations. (Female initiated bestiality is tevel, perversion, a completely different root.

Verses 24 and 25 mention defiling again: ‘Do not defile you yourselves in any of these things; for in all these the nations are defiled, which I cast out from before you. And the land was defiled. Something ignored in polemic today (outside the country of Israel) is the concept of defiling the land; the land of Israel is specifically that which is promised to Abraham and his descendants. The implication is that that land specifically must be made different; whether such difference is to be extended to other ecosystems and borders is not mentioned.

Verse 26 glosses all the above as ‘these abominations’ (mikhol ha-to’evot ha-eleh), although each act was given a specific nuance, and differentiated. Verse 27, ki eth-khol-ha-toevot ha-el, substantially similar to verse 26 seems also to refer to all the preceding. Abominations, ‘toevah’, tend to be actions done; in contrast, profanation and defilement are received or reflexive, at least as indicated by the verb forms used. This difference implies that verse 22 therefore forbids an active role, not passive role in male-male sexual relations. Why that should be will be the topic of the third post in this series.

8. Marked Contrast to the High Ethical Ideals of Israel.

Julian Spriggs is quoted to support the view of the notoriety of Canaanite religious practises. ‘The religion was a crude and debased form of ritual polytheism, the sensuous fertility cult, involving worship of a particularly lewd and orgiastic kind.’ Later, Spriggs is quoted as if her value-laced terminology is aptly suited for the academic evidence Green seeks: ‘The sordid and debased nature of Canaanite religion stood in marked contrast to the high ethical ideals of Israel. The absolute lack of moral character in the Canaanite deities made such corrupt practices as ritual prostitution… the normal expressions of religious devotion and fervour.’

Green does not introduce the reader to Julian Spriggs, and thus we have no way to assess the validity of her statements, except by noting their own oversights. For example, Canaanite religious practice is or was notorious among whom? Twentieth century people? On the basis of what evidence is Spriggs making these claims? Do we have evidence from Canaan itself of the use of sacrifices to appease the gods’ wrath or bless the worshippers (‘particularly when first-born male children were sacrificed’)? We have evidence from North Africa that human sacrifice to Phoenecian-named deities was practised; but not from Phoenecia itself, and besides, Phoenecia is not Canaan. As for making a comparison between the sordid nature of Canaanite religion versus high ethical ideals of Israel, why are the doings of Israel and Judah’s royal houses as recorded in Scripture itself overlooked? Who exactly are we comparing, and on what terms? Clearly, a certain logic has already been suspended. I have already referenced Hillers (1985) above, whose article demonstrates the unscholarly nature of comparisons between Israel and Canaan which merely use Canaan as a foil, and which draw on texts from Babylon and North Africa as if they were adequate sources to inform us about what was happening in Palestine or Phoenecia to the north.

9. Logic Suspended.

Green indicates that the point of section is to rebut Pittenger, but this isn’t done directly; instead we discover the source of the author’s opposition to Pittenger: ‘Pittenger’s “Holiness Code” idea is picked up by Dr Mel White, co-founder of a pro-gay group called “SoulForce”, in his pamphlet, “What the bible says — and doesn’t say — about homosexuality.” Again, Green does not seem to realise that biblical scholarship’s ‘Holiness Code’ is the same as Green’s ‘moral chapters’; neither does he seem to make his case that changing the name of the same section would of necessity entail a change in how the section is interpreted and taken up socially.

Before moving on to Mel White, however, Green sums up his preceding argument that archaeology provides evidence that what Lev 18 forbids were the practises of the Canaanite priesthood. Unfortunately for his argument, that archaeological evidence was not demonstrated; neither did he demonstrate that what sources he did quote were not back-reading biblical texts onto a Victorian era imagination.

At least in this section Green DOES admit that homosexuality today is NOT idol worship: ‘But to say these things were only wicked because or when they were committed in the cause of Canaanite religion neither necessarily nor logically follows’ (although that has been the train of his argument thus far). Green takes up this new argument by elaborating that it doesn’t matter if we do these things in the name of ‘wicca, or liberal humanism, or middle-class tolerance, out of lust or because we really think we cannot help ourselves.’ What is interesting in the rhetoric Green uses with ‘it doesn’t matter in whose name we do these things’ is that Green makes no mention of social justice as a rationale for the code. What if we do something in the name of social justice? Does it matter then?

Only after Green’s clarifications does he take up the argument against Pittenger, or, more accurately, White. In White’s pamphlet, we are told, White advances the argument that a holiness code is merely what “people of faith find offensive in a certain place and time.” The implication is that Pittenger as the source of White’s argument or as a fellow homosexual, would agree, though I’m hardly convinced that is the case. Green critiques White for listing some elements of the Holiness Code and omitting others; yet this is a straw man, unless Green really does not realise the purpose of a pamphlet is to summarise. After all, Green himself does as much when he writes about reading with a reverent eye — although from Green’s reading, nothing unites all the laws collected in the ‘Moral Chapters’ or ‘Holiness Code’. Green does not take up the issues of niddah (as mentioned above), kashrut (i.e. kosher and non-kosher food), haircuts, sha’atnetz (forbidden mixture of plant- and animal-derived fibres), or observance of Shabbat. Why not?

Green says the Holiness Code should be read, ‘with a reverent rather than a mocking spirit, trying to see the righteousness of God in his laws’ – yet seems to grow rather naïve in his examples, and does not seem quite to make the leap in seeing where God’s righteousness could fit into Lv 18.22. Green thus argues that because fortune telling is from occult (meaning what?) it is forbidden (though this is a circular argument inasmuch as ‘the occult’ is defined as what is forbidden), tattoos dishonour the body (though I would argue that this is because the scarification of circumcision is the way the community of Israel marks its flesh), intercourse during menstruation is dirty (though how this is a religious virtue is not explained), Sunday work (not Saturday, the actual Sabbath day as evinced even in the Spanish and Greek languages today) dishonours God’s first ever statute and (in an interesting Marxist twist) oppresses the workers . When Green mentions wool and linen, and specifies that as the only mixture of fibres to be forbideen, though the Rabbinic Sages extended it to all mixing of animal and vegetable fibre, Green’s system of rationalisation fails him. The rationale for sha’atnetz is easy to give, for anyone who actually reads scripture in full: the high priest wears such a mixture, and on Yom Kippur; therefore, these things have a holiness not to be discussed. Not surprisingly, one can find in mystical literature that even incest is spoken of as too holy for this world, and thus forbidden. Likewise the prohibition against consuming pork and shellfish is not explicated, although an easy reference to Peter’s vision in Acts would have sufficed to support Green’s argument regarding why the laws of kashrut are exempt for Christians.

10. Embarrassing Omissions

Green continues to argue against Mel White, not Pittenger, in this section by noting what White omits in his pamphlet: child sacrifice, adultery, incest, bestiality. Green takes White to task even further, writing, ‘Nor does he [White] mention the social laws of Lv 19 upon which much of our law is based: They include being respectful to parents and the elderly, having care for the poor and the stranger, keeping food fresh, paying workers on time, loving your brother enough to warn him of his sin, keeping Sabbath rest’ etc. Because White omits a mention of the commandment to love one’s neighbour (Lev 19:18b), Green uses this to make an ad hominem attack on White, quoted without explanation or examination, except perhaps in an effort to demonstrate that the laws of Leviticus are not out of date. Green writes, ‘… the laws mandating some practices and prohibiting others just seem sensible and timeless to anyone with an open mind,’ despite the fact that Green cannot make sense of sha’atnetz or kosher dietary laws.

I assume the laws to which Green refers are the laws of the United Kingdom; certainly, the US legal code does not generally legislate when a couple can have sexual relations, what food can be eaten (although the FDA does regulate the preparation of food for sale), and it certainly has scant regard for economic class, as the most recent US presidential election highlighted. Therefore either these laws to which Green refers post-date 1776, or the US ignored them despite its reception of British customary law.

Intriguingly, Green dispenses with the anthropological warrant when he speaks of laws simply being ‘sensible… to anyone with an open mind.’ This dispensation is unsurprising, since an anthropological approach could easily counter his assertion by stating that aside from the historically indefensible essentialised implications of being ‘timeless’, perceptions of ‘sensibility’ are socially formed and constructed, and a principal mechanism by which Green’s sensibilities have been formed is the way Scripture has been taught to him. In other words, the laws make sense to Green because he is bound up in the culture which produced the laws; he takes it passively and is caught in a self-generating feedback loop.

Green does indicate the warrant for his organisation’s stand towards homosexuality: loving your brother enough to warn him of sin. Given their equation of violation of Torah law with sin (an equation not entirely held up in the Gospels), Green is merely acting according to his conscience, though a conscience not trained to seeking social justice. Interestingly, the injunction to warn one’s broth of his sin is an apostolic counsel, not a Gospel illustration of love.

The section closes with the statement, ‘It is obviously ridiculous, given both the content and the context to claim that such a law-book is a mere ‘a ritual for Israel’s priests’ [sic], as the Lesbian and gay Christian Movement (L&GCM) attempt to do in their pamphlet…’ This may very well be true; however, I am arguing against Green. Some LGBT-initiated arguments are indeed theologically flawed, but in their defence, those arguments are geared not , and not to utilising a theological apparatus critically, but rather to addressing the social misuse of texts in order to rehabilitate socially wounded people. Their arguments thus fall on the side of Tamar.

11. The Words in Hebrew

Green’s argument against the pamphlet goes on to discuss the word ‘to’evah‘. Here Green betrays why he keeps edging around associating idolatry and homosexuality: the pamphlet suggests that ‘toevah‘ is a word usually associated with idolatry; the author comments ‘this is standard “gay Christian” fare which we have already seen Alexander, Pittenger, Arthur and White wheeling out’. Green then moves on to another look at the Hebrew — but it appears he does not look up English translations from Hebrew for the word ‘toevah‘ using a Hebrew-English concordance (Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary no 8441). Instead, it appears he looks up how the English words ‘abomination’, ‘abominations’, and ‘abominable’ are translated into Hebrew. This is backwards scholarship. Scriptural exegesis does not rely on, and is certainly not furthered by, trying to translate English concepts into Biblical Hebrew; real scholarship, and that includes faith-based enquiry, seeks to grasp the meaning of Biblical Hebrew words in contemporary English (for speakers of contemporary English), in order to enter more deeply into the text, or for faith-based enquiry, embody more justly the fullness of the revelation of divine life imparted by Scripture.

The suspicion that Green is translating from English to Hebrew rather than the reverse is further supported when he writes, ‘the runner-up as a word translated “abomination” is shiqquts,’ while non-kosher foods are called ‘sheqets‘, ‘a completely different word’. In making that statement Green does not evince the most basic understanding of Hebrew or Semitic language roots: namely, that they derive primarily from three consonant clusters which share certain overtones of meaning. Shiqquts and sheqets share the same root (‘sh-q-ts’). To these roots are added other consonants and vowel points to cause the word to be a substantive, a participle, a particular tense, and so forth. A lack of basic Hebrew is again demonstrated by his transliteration of shakab rather than shakav (as in ‘mishkeveh-ishah’), a very poor transliteration of begadkepat letters, whose consonantal value depends on their position in a word and the presence or absence of a daghesh (dot in the centre of the letter).

Green writes that ‘sodomy is referred to as to’evah in Lev 18.22 and 20.13,’ before saying it sometimes has religious connotations and sometimes does not. It is somewhat unfortunate that Green does not define ‘sodomy’, and leaves the specifics to be assumed by his audience, a clear example of the sort of equivocation used by people in power to gain popularity without commitment to clarity. A lack of definition of this term caused all ‘sodomy’ laws to be struck down in US courts. Regardless, because to’evah sometimes has religious overtimes and sometimes not, the claim it has idolatrous connotations cannot be sustained. I concur with that critique. I would also add that the distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘not religious’ today is perhaps more clear than it was as recent as 1000 years ago, to say nothing of 25 or more centuries ago, but that blurs the terms of the argument unnecessarily.

At one point Green declares homosexual behaviour to be futile, but he does not state by what standards such a judgement can be passed. If it is futile because it does not beget children, well, much of heterosexual behaviour is also then futile. Gay men are not the only ones who engage in fellatio, nor are lesbians the only couples who have non-penetrative sexual activity.

Another ‘naive’ idea but one which should perhaps be examined, is the one-flesh union of heterosexual sex thesis. Green does not elaborate on his thesis, does not offer any exegesis of the verse from Genesis that a man shall cleave to his woman and they be one flesh. An anthropological argument would be that they become one flesh through the mutual production of children — but only in the modern understanding of mutually supplied genetic components making up the flesh of a child; such an argument cannot stand according to many ancient notions of conception and gestation. Theologically, one might say the verse was placed in Genesis to point towards the future reality of Christ’s union with his bride the Church, through which the Church becomes Christ’s body, one flesh with Christ, and thus allows the baptised Christian as a member of that body to enter into the divine life in a manner consonant with the Incarnation, permitting the human person to be divinised through the flow of grace from the transcendent Logos-made-flesh in the enhypostasised material existence of the united believer — at least according to writings found in Athanasios of Alexandria, Gregory of Elvira, and Maximos the Confessor.

My main problem with this section is that Green does not really state what the point of the verses is, merely repeats them. He does not enter the text, neither according to a rabbinic argument (e.g. What does it mean to not having sex with men the way they would with women?) nor according to 1500 year old Christian exegetical techniques (e.g. the typological analysis I provided above, from Athanasios and others). More important, however, why is the meaning of ‘to’evah’ argued about, when the first part of the verse, the most important for guiding human behaviour, left unclear? It seems like Green placed the cart before the horse — what is forbidden or taboo or abominable needs to be defined first, and then we can squabble about what ‘taboo’ actually means.

12. Do We Really Need the Law Restated?

Green next takes up the argument that because the sodomy laws are not repeated in Exodus or Deuteronomy, they thus do not apply to all the people. Green argues against this position by saying that only in Leviticus is the detail present (although as noted at the end of section eleven, Green does not actually spell out the detail); Green implies that the other sections, those in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, point back to Leviticus for the details. Finally, Green uses Dt 27.26, ‘Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of the law to do them,’ to include ‘sodomy’.

It is true that the verses against what Green calls ‘sodomy’ are not repeated; but the author fails to consider repetition as an indicator of priorities. Rabbinically, the verse in Deuteronomy is an injunction to perform, if not also to prioritise, the positive commandments (viz. ‘you shall do…’), rather than to refrain from the negative ones (viz. ‘you shall not do’). It may be that Green takes up a peculiarly Pauline tack, derived from the harsher school of Shammai: namely, that breaking one aspect of the law means the whole law was broken. This logic makes more sense in the Greek, where ‘nomos’ (law) is the translation for ‘Torah’: because the Torah is one and undivided revelation, breaking one law contained therein entails the breaking of the entire whole. (For reference, Hillel and Shammai were a pair of rabbis just before the lifetime of Jesus. They were the leaders of two rival schools of scriptural-legal interpretation. Rabbinic Judaism today by and large follows the rulings of the house of Hillel, although it is acknowledged that ‘there is holiness on both sides’ of the argument. During the lifetime of Paul, the stricter house of Shammai provided the leaders of the Torah academies, and although the consensus to follow Hillel’s rulings was mostly set, the manner of applying those rulings could still vary between partisans of Shammai and those of Hillel.)

The most problematic part of this section from a scholarly point of view, however, is the interpretation to which Green subjects Dt 23.17 (in the Hebrew, this should be Dt 23.18): There shall be no whore (qdsh) of the daughters of Israel nor a sodomite (qds) of the sons of Israel. I have already alluded to the problems this word has caused in section 8. Here, I wish to go into some detail with arguments drawn from Tikva Frymor-Kensky’s 1992 book, In the Wake of the Goddesses. The relevant section begins on page 201, but afterwards I will present background information on the ‘sexual ecology’ envisioned in the Tanakh (the Old Testament) drawn from Chapter 17.

At the outset of chapter 18, Frymor-Kensky sets the schoalr stage of the early 1990s: ‘Recently, certain fundamental questions have begun to be asked: Did Canaan have any religio-sexual rites? Is there any evidence for sexual activity such as cultic prostitution? Is there evidence for any type of sexual service? When these questions are asked, it becomes clear that the whole idea of a sex cult — in Israel or Canaan — is a chimera, the product of ancient and modern sexual fantasies. (Frymor-Kensky 1992:199)’ Most assertions of such a cult entail a set of self-referenced footnotes in William Albright, Gerhard v. Rad, and Hans Walter Wolff. A single section of Herodotus referencing cultic deflowering (not prostitution) in Babylon, not Syria, Phoenecia, or Israel, is constantly quoted. Simply translated, a ‘qdsh’ is a ‘tabooed woman’ (Frymor-Kensky 1992:200). The status is clearly prohibited in rabbinic tradition, perhaps because such a class could become competitors with the Levites. They are mentioned in association with shrines and pillars and altars, and thus pose a threat to the centrality of the temple in Jerusalem. Ugaritic texts indicate that the qdsh should be married, and in status ranks after Kohanim (priests). Finally, Frymor-Kensky notes that the ‘earliest translations of the Bible do not understand the term to mean a male prostitute.’ (Frymor-Kensky 1992:200n20: Vul Dt 23:8f; BT Sanhedrin 55b.)

Earlier, in chapter 17, Frymor-Kensky looks at the general topic of sex in the Bible. She states her position that no sexual dimension of divine experience is presented in the Bible. The visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel of God relate no (human) image from the waist down. A single, transcendent God cannot model sex for humans. (In the mystical literature which develops after the prophetic period, this lack is addressed somewhat, according to Wolfson’s Through a Speculum that Shines). In the more human realm, the place of sexuality as a human phenomenon which has no place in divine experience is indicated by how the people prepared themselves for the revelation on Sinai, and again when David and his soldiers ate the sanctuary bread: David assured the priests that they had abstained for three days from sexual relations, and thus it could be permitted to them.

Part and parcel of the human dimension of life, particularly in ancient Israel is the family unit; indeed, it is the family unit which is glossed as the rationale for Adam and Eve’s pairing (‘thus a man leaves his family to cleave to his woman’). ‘Ostensibly, the Bible considers human sexual behaviour to be part of human society rather than the natural God-created order. These laws channel this behaviour into its proper family structure, providing the proper outlet for the force of sexual attraction… [but] it could blur the lines of family and rip families apart;’ it could lead to assimilation with the nations. (1992:197). Sex defines family unit, and incest laws ‘define and clarify family lines. The marital bond creates a family even though there are no blood ties…’ (Frymor-Kensky 1992:190-191). When it comes to sexual relations with a neighbour’s unmarried daughter or married wife, Frymor-Kensky notes, ‘For a man to sleep with a woman who belonged to some other household threatened the very definition of “household” and “family”; for a married man to sleep with an unattached woman is not mentioned as an item of concern.’ Similarly, girls under their father’s authority are part of another household; if seduced, the man must marry her. (Ex 22:15-16; Dt 22:20ff) Frymor-Kensky then goes on to examine the issue of Jacob’s daughter Dinah. Her brothers assert she was treated by Shechem as a whore, that is, as ‘a woman whose own consent is sufficient because her sexuality is not part of a family structure.’ However, Dinah’s consent alone was insufficient: Shechem ought to have spoken to Jacob beforehand and this lack ‘constituted a threat to the integrity of Dinah’s family.’ (1992:193)

Thus, when the question of Tamar as a qdsh is broached, Frymor-Kensky explains that both the zonah and qdshah are ‘women outside the family structure, with no male to protect them (1992:200).’ As such, ‘the qedeshah was vulnerable to sexual approach, and for all we know may have been permitted sexual freedom, as was the harlot (1992:201).’ However, for all we know, the qdsha could have been vestal virgins weaving garments for Asherah. (For Frymor-Kensky’s bibliographic references, see: Phyillis Bird. ‘The Qedeshah in ancient Israel.’ Wasternholz (1989) ‘Tamar, qedasa, qadishtu, and Sacred Prostitution in Mesopotamia.’ Harvard Theological Review 82:3:245 – 266. Mayer Gruber (1983). The Qades in the Book of Kings and in other sources.’ Tarbiz 52/ 2:167 – 176.)

Homosexuality in ancient world, however, ‘exist[ed] outside the pair-bond structure, which is the social locus of permissible sexuality’. It thus blurs the male-female distinction. Frymor-Kensky does not elaborate on how this distinction is blurred. In an essay in Goldberg’s Reclaiming Sodom, a collection of essays from the early days of the academic field of queer studies, one proposed suggestion was the blurring relates to sexual penetration; yet is this the only way the male-female distinction is blurred? What if two men wished to form a pair bond — what then becomes of bride price, how is heritability, not just of property but of house and lineage determined? A larger question which arises is to what extent was a man’s sexuality under his own consent.

When looking at the two types of sexual activity which do not occur exclusively between humans, that is divine (or angelic) and animal meetings, the Torah proclaims bestiality to be tevel (improper mixing) not to’evah. No animal could kill a human without forfeiting its life — by stoning. Regarding the penalties for breaking various laws, Frymor-Kensky highlights that ‘stoning is a very special penalty, reserved for those offences which completely upset the hierarchical arrangements of the cosmos. (1992:192)’

Discussing the verses in Deuteronomy quoted earlier about the qdsh, Green writes, ‘Ritual temple prostitution may be in mind here, but any form of prostitution was against the law of God in Israel , so it is perfectly valid for such a general prohibition to be extended to the male variety.   The next verse says the wages of a whore or a dog (slang for a sodomite) are not to be brought into the temple.  If the word ‘sodomite’ only means a male prostitute, someone might argue, ‘well, that doesn’t apply to loving homosexual relationships’. ‘ While Green claims any form of prostitution was ‘against the law of God in Israel’, the Torah does contain laws which regulate men and prostitutes; for example, father and son are forbidden to visit the same prostitute. The inference that a prohibition can be extended from women to men is in keeping with the Talmudic rule that one can interpret the law by moving from the specific to general (i.e. in this case from female to male prostitution); however, if we are looking at the law, using zonah as slang for a sodomite makes no sense; in fact, zonah usually means ‘prostitute’ — and is a feminine noun. I have already quoted enough about the place of zonah outside the family unit, and will not repeat it here. Instead, I will move on to the most socially problematic part of this section, if not the entire article.

The most socially problematic section, because of how the rhetoric influences and shapes the treatment of other members of our civic society, immediately follows the author’s quotation of prostitution’s wages: ‘The position taken in Christian Voice is that all homosexual relationships are disordered and that the act of sodomy is an act of violence and abuse.  But the fact is, prostitution is an integral part of homosexuality and we never find apologists for sodomy condemning it in the form of the rent-boy culture and the description of casual contacts as ‘trade’ which are indispensable to the ‘gay scene’.’

The problems with those two sentences are manifold. First, the statement that all homosexual relationships are ‘disordered’ is left without an explicated meaning. Green seeems to parrot language used by the Vatican but without the scholastic background to support a technical philosophical language.

Second, Green says that the act of sodomy is an act of violence and abuse. Green neither acknowledges the existence of heterosexual sodomy, nor does he define it; nor does he explain in what way it is violent. Asking how something is an act of violence or abuse is intended to force a clarification of terms so that all parties know what is being discussed; it is not meant to evade any questions. After all, plenty of adolescent boys may want to be fellated by their girlfriends, and fellatio counts as sodomy by some definitions; does this mean that adolescent boys want to be immersed in violence and abuse? Hardly; I would call for the author to re-examine his statements so that greater clarification of the meaning and social implications of his statements on the lives of individual persons be taken into account.

Third, that prostitution is an integral part of homosexuality is news to me. I find the language curious, to be honest, as ‘homosexuality’ usually indicates to me the object of sexual attraction. As such, I fail to be convinced that prostitution is an integral part of sexual attraction. On the other hand, I have been to many places and countries in which prostitution is an integral part of how heterosexual men are introduced to the world of sexual relations. Finally, the notion that rent-boy culture and the slang word ‘trade’ (which I don’t think I’ve ever heard used in spoken English, whether American or British, even by gay male friends in their 60s; I’ve only read about the term) ‘are indispensable to the ‘gay scene” hardly seems tenable. In a culture where finding an actual relationship is forbidden, or in which homosexual activity is constrained to only sexual release with no other social meanings attached to it, perhaps so. However, present day Britain, Europe, and America have a different set of social meanings invoked by the term and culture associated with homosexuality. One might as well argue that being a fashionista and a woman’s gay best friend are indispensable to the gay scene. Such images would be far more easy to draw from popular culture than that of a ‘rent boy’ — unless one is immersing oneself in the immediate post-war Tom of Finland material, longing for lost possibilities in a different era.

Green closes the section by rhetorically asking, ‘Should we really require every law of God to be restated? How many times does the bible tell us not to… [insert several examples].’ Green does not follow up on the implications of his question. What does it mean for a verse to be stated only once? What about the laws stated several times? Is this is a question of priority, what laws we most need to remember and strive after? If the verse he quoted from Deuteronomy is any indication, it seems more important to make certain we do the good, rather than refrain from the evil. Ultimately, this may be a question to be answered by the Prophets of Israel, who continued to point to social justice as the keystone of Torah observance on the part of the kings and administrators of Israel and Judah.

Green seems to mistake restating the law with clarifying the law. Clarification is always needed: it is how people are taught, and more important, taught how to think through the principles of the law. Clarification of the law is how an orientation to social justice is formed among the group, and it keeps the law from being misconstrued and injustice perpetrated.

13. We Cannot Single Out the Verses against Sodomy

The final section of Green’s article presents an Inverse of the ‘only once is sufficient’ argument above: ‘So,’Green writes, ‘it seems, to quote the late Norman Pittenger himself, “preposterous to single out one set of texts, dealing with sexual contacts between males” and to say that these are the only verses in these chapters dealing with morality that god did NOT really mean to be taken literally and for all time by all people.’ In keeping with his earlier dubious scholarship, Green does not cite where in Pittenger he got the quote (p83?).

More to the point, the question of laws ‘for all time, by all people’ is blatantly contradicted both in the Rabbinic tradition of the so-called Noahide laws given to all non-Jewish nations after the flood, and by the application of that same set of laws by Paul and the ‘Council of Jerusalem’ when refering to the minimum/ maximum Torah observance required of converts to the incipient Christian sect of Judaism of the time. Even within Judaism, some laws are time-oriented, as for example, the laws of mamzerut in Judaism today (although when it comes to intermarriage between Samaritans, Karaites, and Rabbinic Jews in the nation of Israel, the question of mamzerut does come up as part of the larger question of confessional boundaries). Such an approach also denies the possibility of moral progress, and asserts that the maximum and fullness of moral glory is contained in a small and translated part of the Torah. I take the approach that the application of these laws is a minimum, that the Torah contains much more than its face value, and that as one grows in the spiritual life, one moves ‘from glory to glory’ — the justice of an omniscient and transcendent God can hardly be limited to human notions of the same. The point of a revelation such as the Torah is to draw the human person into deeper communion with the divine life, not to put drastic limits on the possibilities of such communion.

For example, when it comes to exterminating the people of Canaan, the ‘genocide laws’, one could interpret them to mean the Israelites were to kill the inhabitants (‘put them to the sword’); but a creative and more morally nuanced approach might also see in the verse the possibility of converting them, and exterminating them by integration and assimilation. (For historical reference, the Herodian dynasty came from Iudemea, ‘Edom’; they were forcibly converted by the Hashmoneans to Judaism, centuries after the Hebrews first crossed the Jordan into the Land.) The larger point I am trying to make is to raise the question of who does the reading and immediate interpreting through hearing what is read. The reading is always conditioned by a historical lenses (i.e. the only way is the way it has been done: exterminate the Philistines), but whether it allows for a prophetic-imaginative one is the problem I see in Green’s approach. Some of the biggest moral failures are failures of creativity when a course of action must be decided.

Finally, Green takes a moment of self-disclosure to indicate his personal integrity in his approach to scripture. It is an interesting position and deserves repetition here: ‘If I don’t take every word as inspired and infallible, I set myself up to decide what is and is not true in the bible, and I become my own god. It is just not tenable for a Christian to do that, so I shall believe the whole bible, literally.’ This is a question which has been debated for centuries, not just between Catholics and Protestants, but also between Rabbinic and Karaite Jews. For now, though, I would like to examine the consequence of the logical components in his argument being in the unfortuante form of half-syllogisms. Broken down, these components are as follows:

A.1. if i don’t take every word as a) inspired and b) infallible

A.2. then i set myself up to decide what is or is not true in the bible

(This can be seen as a mere definition or consequence rather than a conclusion; however, the rhetorical use to which it is put in Green’s statement indicates it is being treated as a conclusion.)

B.1. if i set myself up to decide what is or is not true in the bible

B.2. then i become my own god

C.1. if i become my own god

C.2. then being a Christian is not tenable

Tracing the genealogy of Green’s final conclusion then, we have:

D.1. It is not tenable for a Christian to become his or her own god (C.1,2)

D.2. One becomes his or her own god by deciding what is true or not true in the Bible (B.2)

D.3. This happens if (or because) he or she does not take every word as a) inspired and b) infallible (A.2)

Such circular logic is clearly irrefutable, but I shall try, by taking each syllogistic pair in turn and questioning the terms used in each.

A. Does it follow of necessity that if one does not take every word in the translation of a particular text as both inspired and infallible, then one decides what is true or not true in the bible? What does this mean? What are the limits of ‘infallibility’ with regard to what specific notions of ‘truth’? To what ‘truth’ or ‘truths’ does ‘inspiration’ point? What does truth have to do with applicability, which is the question under discussion in the civic forum when it comes to civil legislation regarding the treatment of people who acknowledge same-sex attraction?

B. Does it follow that one becomes a god (not by grace or by nature but rather with the implication of being an idolator) by deciding what is true or not in scripture? After all, Paul says, ‘Test everything, retain what is good’ and ‘Judge for yourselves what is right and what is wrong’; ‘All scripture is there for teaching’ — true; but how it is applied must still be tried and tested against Paul’s encomium on love. Does it not therefore follow that one is growing and taking responsibility for moral action by testing even scripture for what is most conducive in the present moment for alleviating the suffering of the widow and orphan, or for enacting a society which takes seriously the beatitudes of Jesus’ sermon on the mount and his vision of national social justice in Matthew 25?

C. Becoming one’s own god is incompatible with being a Christian. To take Green’s clear non-conformist church background and place it in terms more commonly used among the Greek and Russian Orthodox, I will restate this as ‘egoism is incompatible with deification.’ Fair enough. Yet deification (‘theosis’ in Greek), becoming like God, is the goal of the Christian life, as the doctrine of the Incarnation proclaimed, according to Athanasios of Alexandria: ‘God became human that the human might become God.’ Clearly, from a wider Christian perspective, something is amiss in Green’s language, if not also his logic, not especially for the limitations of his understanding of what the potential is for the Christian life.

The notion that a text is inspired means that the words of that text must be probed, if we are to take seriously the axiom that God’s thoughts are above our own. A God whose thoughts are above our own is going to be able to pack much more meaning into a word, a verse, a narrative, than any simple literal reading can unpack. Does this mean the literal is without value? Certainly not: the Antiochan ‘school’ of Christianity certainly took the literal practice of Scripture as the starting point for a mystical ascent into the Divine life, and gave us many luminaries of the spiritual life. Among them are the afore-mentioned Ephrem the Syrian; but also the Book of Steps, the influential Isaac of Nineveh, the poet and mystic Jacob of Serug, and the authors Theophylact and Theodore of Mopsuestia, and possibly the mystic whose name has come down to us as Macarius the Great.

What concerns me pastoraly then, is if Green does not question the meaning of the verses, how does he grow in the divine life? How does this self-limitation square with the tradition received from Gregory of Nyssa (who says we are to move from glory to glory in the divine life), an Ephrem (whose hymns, particularly those on Paradise, draw typological parallels to point to deeper mysteries in life, with the aim to cultivate a wonder and open heart in the believer as an antidote to coldness, hardness, and despotism), or an Augustine (whose Confessions are predicated on the whole notion of growing in divine life)?

An overall assessment of the article and its principle arguments demonstrates that Green draws on an unanalysed collection of interpretive devices which ultimately take differing views of how the Torah came about. The result is a somewhat confused line of argumentation which alternately views the Torah as God’s law and alternately as the product of a human society. Such a mixed approach can be sustained under certain circumstances, but the author isn’t attempting to clarify how the belief in Torah as God’s revelation and the Torah as product of a human society can be reconciled to life today, and so his analysis falls short of what it could be. Ultimately, it also falls to situate the position of the Torah within Christian (either non-conformist or established Church) life; and it does not address the role of a Christian appropriation of such a position when it comes to influencing the political process of a civil society; nor does Green seem aware of how such political processes impact the experiences (and possibilities and dreams) of individuals within a pluralistic and multi-religious society. The result is that Green’s approach is clearly not understood by (US-UK) society today, but comes across as oppressive, un-nuanced, and naïve to the members of that wider society.

Homosexuality and the Bible (Part 1 of 4)

Some months ago, I had the opportunity to be present at a radio interview concerning a Christian group known for its anti-homosexuality stance and a Christian who fights for issues of social justice and against homophobia. The anti-homosexuality group has placed their position together in an article titled, ‘The Abomination of Homosexual Theology.’ The article, written by Stephen Green, can be found here: http://www.christianvoice.org.uk/?page_id=893

These are the sorts of debates and pamphleteering I don’t usually want to respond to in detail, as I feel they can be short-sighted. I am answering this one in part to illustrate a key frustration which prompted me to begin writing these blogs: a lack of follow-through in much thinking when it comes to religious positions and civil — social and political — life. This post is intended to interrogate the way several scriptural quotations were used by the former group in order to move the debate to a different ground. Because of the social issues — such as same-sex love, bodily union, and the institution of marriage — touched on in discussions of homosexuality, I hope to follow up this post with others treating topics of marriage, sex, eros, asceticism, and mysticism.

The Stephen Green article linked to above is the basis from which developed the principle homophobic positions during the radio interview. Therefore, an extended examination of its content is warranted here. After looking at the initial article and the arguments presented during the radio interview in February in parts one and two, the third post in this four-part series will take a linguistic analysis, using of Rabbinic principles for interpreting scripture, of the key text in Leviticus 18.22. I should note that typically in Judaism, arguing over how scripture should be interpreted and how its principles be applied to daily life is part and parcel of taking scripture seriously — as is the ability to recognise myriad interpretations and vet them for their wisdom. I therefore present only one of many possible interpretations, and my intent is to highlight the basic principles developed by Rabbi Ishmael and others at the close of the Second Temple period (first century CE) for elucidating the laws contained in the Torah. (‘Torah’ is usually translated as ‘nomos’ in Greek, and thus shows up in the New Testament writings under the English term ‘law’.) Following an examination of Jewish scripture from one Jewish and linguistic perspective, the fourth section will examine how Christians might approach interpreting the Hebrew scriptures, basing myself on principles elucidated in the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul, on the one hand, and taking up the arguments about political life developed in the 1940s by Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

I. ‘The Abomination of Homosexuality’ Article.

Although the author, Stephen Green, divides the article into thirteen subheadings, the arrangement follows a much broader scheme. After positioning ‘The Abomination of Homosexuality’ article as a follow up to his July 2010 piece which treated the destruction of Sodom as recorded in the book of Genesis, Green takes up the next book of the Bible to treat (male) homosexual behaviour, the book of Leviticus. (In the July 2010 article, Green apparently equated the behaviour of the Sodomites with an essentialised view of homosexual behaviour in general, the better to contrast it with an equally essentialised view of ‘heterosexual love and marriage’ as upheld by Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew (ch. 19) and Mark (ch. 10). Curiously, the destruction of Gomorrah seems to have been ignored.) The current article then falls neatly into three parts: the purpose of the book of Leviticus and in particular those chapters which form what are called in academic Scriptural Studies the ‘holiness code’ (Green seems unaware of the general acceptance of this academic term, and prefers the descriptor ‘Moral Chapters’); a section on Canaanite religion, drawn from outdated and poorly referenced sources, designed to set up arguments for the third part, which responds to a pamphlet by Dr Mel White, founder of a ‘pro-gay group’ on what the Bible says and does not say about homosexuality. The piece ends with a brief peroration in which Green attempts to bolster his case through a ‘once stated is stated enough’ rationale. At the end of the piece, Green also presents the logic which underpins his method of Biblical interpretation: “If I don’t take every word as inspired and infallible, I set myself up to decide what is and is not true in the Bible, and I become by own god. It is just not tenable for a Christian to do that, so I shall believe the whole Bible, literally.”

Green’s argument is somewhat difficult to summarise, in part because he seems to be arguing against several different schools of thought. (It is a rhetorical, not an academic piece, after all.) Likewise, the article would seem to be a commentary or interpretation of the verses in Leviticus, and yet the author’s method of interpretation, which I would note is, despite his late protestation, not literal, draws on several unrelated and somewhat incompatible-when-applied-to-daily-life methodologies. Because of this incoherence, I will treat each of the thirteen subsections in some detail; here however, I want to discuss the faults present even in the broadest division of Green’s article.

If I were to attempt a summary of Green’s principle argument, it would be that the laws of Leviticus are meant for all people, regardless of nation, and that to do otherwise makes a civilisation the moral equivalent of ancient Canaan. I believe his subsidiary point is that these laws are predicated on an a respect for life, and heterosexual marriage (as defined in post-16th century Western Europe), but he fails to make the latter of these two points explicit through presentation of evidence. He does present evidence for respect of life, however much based on dubious scholarship regarding a timeless and generalised Canaanite religion and society as contrasted with the specifics of the Holiness Code in Leviticus (and not with the whole gamut of Israelite history, an unfortunately lopsided comparison).

Left out of Green’s argument is the follow-through: Aside from neglecting to address the punishments laid out for transgression each law in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, if these laws are meant for all people, to govern personal behaviour, and these laws are without the need to be interpreted, 1) why do they continue to be debated; and 2) how then are they to be enforced and applied? If the laws of Leviticus govern personal behaviour, what need is there for authority figures to legislate for or against an action in civil law, if conscientious individuals are educated to take responsibility for their own behaviour? If the laws are clear, why were guidelines for the elucidation of scripture developed by rabbis two thousand years ago? Why did Jesus and Paul talk about searching out the ‘spirit’ of the law? Why was it recorded that Peter, James, and John, debated with Paul over what laws Gentile converts should follow (recorded in Acts of the Apostles, and referenced in one of Paul’s letters (Galatians))?

This lack of historical perspective, on the one hand, and lack of follow-through on the other, is what makes the political debates around same-sex unions so acrimonious. A larger debate seems to go unaddressed: what is the place of faith in legislative life? This is a different question from the more common ‘What is the place of faith in political and civil life?’ Of course, the question can be inverted as well, more pointedly, to ask, ‘What is the place of civil legislation (particularly regarding sexuality) in religious life?’

Regardless of the larger context of these debates, Green only asserts, but does not make a case, that the laws of Israel are meant for other peoples. Indeed, Green doesn’t even seem to be aware that Orthodox Jews continue to observe the commandments laid out in Leviticus (including prohibitions against ‘weird haircuts’ and ‘mixed fibres’), but both Rabbinic and Karaite Jews acknowledge that some phrases and laws in the Torah need to be interpreted. While this is not the place to re-examine seventh century CE debates within Judaism, the third post of this series will revisit the first and second century CE debates within Judaism and the emerging sect of Gentile Christianity. The early Christian debates underscore the issues of how Jewish law is to be applied to converts from other nations, and to what extent Jewish law (i.e. Torah) should be taken literally in lieu of interpretation to uncover the ‘spirit’ behind the law (Torah). Those debates can then be placed together with the Hashmonean revolt in the second century BCE and the legalisation of Christianity in 313 CE, to illustrate the issues raised in how ethno-religious law relates to a wider multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.

Without going into detail, several more faults can be seen in the broad division of Green’s article. I will take these objections in order, before moving on to the thirteen subheadings. First, no terms are defined. What is meant by ‘heterosexual love’, ‘[heterosexual] marriage’, or even ‘sodomy’, is left undefined. Not defining what is meant by heterosexual love and heterosexual marriage seems to be a rather shocking oversight in the exposition of a text in which polygamy is accepted and acceptable, to an audience for whom monogamy is the current norm of heterosexual marriage. Likewise, the notion of ‘sodomy’ as having one unequivocal meaning cannot be sustained — as the US Supreme Court determined in 2003. Finally, male and female homosexual activity is not distinguished, although the verses Green discusses explicitly relate to men; their application to women can only be inferred.

Second, Green’s own assumptions are left unexamined. This comes through especially in the diverse sources he used to interpret — or rationalise — scripture. Green relies on four chief sources to support his position (Unger 1964, Halley 1964, Spriggs, Wilkinson), only two of which are cited in full enough form that their authority to speak to the issues can be assumed, though unlike the four authors against whom Green writes (Pittenger 1969, Arthur 1982, Alexander 1993, White 2003), the background of these sources is not introduced. Noteworthy is the fact that these sources are used primary to illustrate the depravity of Canaanite culture, a digression apparently undertaken by Green in an effort to rouse shock in the reader and convince the reader that if homosexuality was part of such a depraved culture, surely depravity must be part of a culture which permits homosexuality. To anyone unfamiliar with the scholarly literature surrounding the cultures of ancient Canaan and Israel, such illustrations would seem to be convincing. To anyone familiar with the current literature, they are anything but.

(For those who are interested, a Google search using the terms ‘Timothy Wilkinson Canaan’ revealed two likely sources: tswilkinson.blogspot.com/2011/02/gezer-calendar.html and
eternalthronechronicles.wordpress.com/category/canaanite/ A similar search for Julian Spriggs revealed a faculty member by that name at King’s Evangelical Divinity School http://www.kingsdivinity.org/about/faculty-julian-spriggs and returned the likely source http://www.julianspriggs.com/ )

The four authors against whom Green writes are all associated with a ‘pro-gay’ stance, and their works are referenced at the end of Green’s article, so do not bear repeating here. I would highlight that Green appears to take the position that any hint of a pro-gay stance compromises the theological integrity of whatever academic works were published in association with these men. Thus, because Pittenger uses the academic term ‘Holiness Code’ to refer to the central chapters of Leviticus, and because Pittenger was pro-gay, the term ‘Holiness Code’ is now suspect and should be replaced. (If I personally were to critique Pittinger, it would be on the basis of his stance regarding process theology, but that is another matter.)

Another more important unexamined assumption is his method of elucidating scripture. I choose the term ‘elucidating’ to respect Green’s position that he does not interpret scripture, and I will leave the debates in literary criticism and anthropology about what constitutes ‘interpretation’ aside for the moment. What sources does Green seem to permit as valid for elucidating, that is, shedding light on scripture?

1. Historical-Archaeological: Green attempts to use evidence from the archaeological record to demonstrate that Israelite culture was moral and Canaanite culture immoral. Granted, Hebrew scripture, with its narrative focus on the people of Israel, does not give much of an insider’s view of Canaanite culture. Thus brining in archaeological evidence to fill out the Biblical account through cross-cultural referencing seems warranted. However, both ‘Canaanite culture’ and the date of the books of the Bible are left in a timeless vacuum by Green, undercutting this approach. Additionally, given that the standards set out in Hebrew scripture are the basis by which Christians, and to an extent secular Westerners, tend to make moral judgements, this seems a disingenuous demonstration.

2. Anthropological: Green does not explicitly refer to any anthropologists, but taken as a whole, his presentation of Leviticus in its cultural context owes much to Mary Douglas’ work, Purity and Danger. Anthropology and Comparative Religion, of course, share much the same genealogy, and both attempted in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth centuries, to find an Ursprung des religion, a proto-religion which preserved the authenticity of humanity’s primal contact with the divine. Failing that, the study of cultures which still invoked notions of clean and unclean, taboo and permitted, could help shed light on what ancient Israelites might have understood by these terms; Rabbinic understandings, whether textual or contemporary, were ignored. The social use of anthropological findings when applied to the religious arena have thus tended to serve a Pauline and supercessionist approach to scripture, in which the ‘spirit’ of the law is sought, at the expense of examining how various communities who actually hand-copy the said scriptural passages have interpreted, developed, and applied those laws throughout their history. The anthropological approach is tentatively compatible with the notion of revealed scripture; it harmonises more easily with a secular view of scripture as the product of living communities in historical context, a very human, and thus very temporally-circumscribed product. It is therefore a theoretical tool, and not usually amenable to clear application in religious life today.

3. Evangelical (Pauline). As mentioned, a Pauline approach seeks the ‘spirit’ of the law, following Paul’s theology of ‘grace’ as opposed to ‘law’ as set forth particularly in his letters to the Romans and the Galatians. This approach is consonant with the idea that Scripture is God’s revelation, and that at the time of Jesus, at least, its literal application had been misunderstood (e.g. ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’; ‘He who is without sin let him cast the first stone [to enact the Torah’s punishment for adultery]’). As a result, the point or premise of the law is to be sought — which necessitates some degree of interpretation. Green subscribes to this view when he states the point of several laws, e.g. ‘having sex with menstruating women is dirty.’ When this is the base approach, it harmonises nicely with anthropological and archaeological contextual cues, because those cues shed light on how a law functions, how it can be corrupted in practice, and how ‘it might have been’ understood ‘originally’. It has an intent to apply the lessons learned through this approach to contemporary situations.

4. Linguistic. This approach asks, ‘what do the words mean?’ It often utilises a comparison of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek terms used in the various editions of Scripture. (When the New Testament is being discussed, other languages which attest to early textual variants are also used: Latin, Coptic, Armenian, Ge’ez, Syriac.) When a term is looked at strictly within a Hebrew context, the three-letter roots of the word, alternate vocalisations (vowels are not written into the text of the Torah; we supply the vowels when we read the text), and contexts in which a phrase is used are all taken into account. For those working with translations, the point of linguistic analysis is to further clarify the meaning of the text-in-translation; the English is not the literal scripture, but a derivative interpretation which at best approximates what God meant (if we are working with the ‘Scripture is revealed’ position), or an author intended (if we are working with a literary theory ‘authorial intent’ position). Unfortunately, Green proceeds in backwards fashion, and looks up how English words are translated into Hebrew to make his case, rather than seek out the range of meanings a particular word has.

5. Scriptural. This approach harmonises with both secular and religious views of scripture, in that it draws together several verses to shed light on one another. However, in a religious context, Scripture is taken as a whole, with any part of the Scriptures (including the Oral Torah in Judaism) acting as a valid counterpoint. In a secular methodology, only those elements from the same chronological (and sometimes geographical) frame are allowed; other uses can demonstrate how the meaning of a term has changed. A limited religious approach takes only other portions of the Torah itself — the first five books of the Bible — as eligible for this cross-positioning of ideas; other scripture (Prophets, Writings) is of lesser utility.

6. Logical-legal. This approach adds to the verses at hand through making inferences, either moving from specifics to generalities, or generalities to specifics. It is used to include lesbians in the verses which are understood to forbid men from engaging in same-sex activity. It is a method of interpretation. It is even mentioned by Rabbi Ishmael in his thirteen principles for elucidating the Torah. The approach typically implies the individual takes the text as revelation given to humans to understand and enact according to (collective?) judgement.

7. Tradition. This is what I am calling the unquestioning literalist vein of interpretation. It is not ‘tradition’ in the sense of Catholic or Byzantine Orthodox ‘traditio’, which would be understood by both those confessions to be part and parcel of the Scriptural method of interpretation — a Christian variant of the Rabbinic ‘Written and Oral Torah’. Rather, by ‘tradition’ I mean the interpretation of a verse according to the moral norms of the reader’s own time, with little input from recent historical changes (to say nothing of longer centuries old changes in interpretation, translation, and application). In its extreme form, this is the sort of method which states the King James Version is the be all and end all of Scriptural texts. In more attenuated forms, it approaches a verse only with the most narrow value-contexts of a particular community, and limits debate and alternative understandings as questioning the foundation of that community. (This is different from allowing extended debate over various interpretations and rejecting some as either insufficiently thought through, or as not being consonant with the historical and international understandings of a community’s tradition. I would argue the debates surrounding creating the canon of scripture in the New Testament, and the process of writing the Nicene Creed at the ecumenical councils, are examples of this latter sort of debate.) It is strictly application-oriented, and tends to eschew the theoretical as dangerous to the purity of Scriptural intent.

When each of these approaches should be taken, or how the insights gained from each approach are to be integrated with one another, is not addressed. As a result, Green’s overall scheme proceeds in piecemeal fashion and never comes across as one strongly reasoned, coherent argument. The above approaches can be difficult to reconcile, mainly in terms of their logical starting and end points — taking Scripture as revelation implies a certain use for it that taking scripture as a human and historical product does not; likewise, applying a revelation to daily life is different from applying existential or experiential historical situated-ness together with its rationales as it was then, to life today. This discrepancy is something Green does not seem to recognise in his article.

Of course, why, if scripture is so plain and literal, it needs elucidation, is not explained when at the end of the article Green states his position on scripture as inspired and infallible. Historically, of course, scripture was interpreted in both Christianity and medieval Judaism according to four modes: Historico-literal, allegorical, tropological or moral, and anagogical. The historical teaches what happened literally, but allegory teaches what you should believe, the moral what you should do, and the anagogical what is in store. (Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 118). In Judaism, the four senses are plain, rational, homiletic, and mystical.

The third and most important objection, from an academic standpoint, is twofold: the curious method of back-translating the English term ‘abomination’ into Hebrew to demonstrate what the Hebrew term ‘to’evah’ means, despite not having examined the more complex linguistic issues present in the first half of the verse (see section 11), and a reliance on interpretations of Canaanite religion which do not stand up to current scholarship (see sections 7 and 12, below).

Finally, I have already noted that Green’s article is presented more for rhetorical effect than academic or critical analysis of the verses at hand. As such, I should make allowances for the many value positions with which he asserts his argument. After all, if his entire goal is to present rationale based on emotional appeal, rather than scholarship or pastoral care, in an effort to fill out the position of Christian Voice that…’all homosexual relationships are disordered and that the act of sodomy is an act of violence and abuse’, he’s managed to do that.

New blog – Schola Moralis

I have started a new blog exclusively to treat theological topics as they relate to morality and public life.  That blog can be found at scholamoralis.wordpress.com

I will continue to use this blog as a ‘test run’ for various topics, including Chinese Medicine, Buffy, theology, and medical anthropology.  Cross-posting may therefore occur.

The Short Answer: On Why People Don’t Go to Church Anymore

Here is my concise perspective on the question about declining church attendance among the organised churches (Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism), which I composed nearly a year ago but never posted:

The Church is holding back her spiritual treasures and not making them available to the people, at least not through the pulpit.

I am not willing to go to church to be pontificated at about political issues or cultural values, especially when I may not share them and certainly cannot engage with what is said by debating it with the speaker. I can get all that just by turning on the TV: no true conversation, no real connexion.

If you want a real conversation about these topics with your congregation, hold a forum after services and debate them over lunch, or at least post them to a common website and email a conversation back and forth. Even a blog allowing for comments would be better — but make sure you engage with the other authors, the people who make comments.  Sermons used to be full day affairs, demanding of both speaker and vocal audience.

If homilies actually contained something of spiritual depth, in the manner of spiritual and monastic authors; if they actually demonstrated how to interpret scripture along the four methods; if they left polemic of all sorts — religious or political — aside; if they encouraged anything other than engagement with the current news topic of the day, I would be more prone to see going to church as a fruitful endeavour. Make use of scripture for the sake of revelation about God’s inner life, for the sake of God. That would be novel and nourish my and others’ search for how to deepen a connexion with the divine life.

By all means, inculcate a spiritual maturity which allows people to grow in other communities besides your own; society is much too mobile to be confident the children or young adults in your community will always be there. Talk about standards by which judgement can be made on one’s own, give us principles by which we can make decisions if we change geographic locations — to say nothing of places in life due to age or occupation– but don’t simplify things for us. Let us act in integrity and trust that this is the work you were called to do.  The Holy Spirit will inspire your congregation, just as the Holy Spirit inspires and guides you, if you let it wander where it will.


Moral Emphasis and the Christian Life

After watching the film Brideshead Revisited and reading comments on Cardinal O’Malley’s blog regarding the withdrawal from parochial school of a student who is being raised by two women, I was prompted to reflect on the unbalanced emphasis morality — or rather, certain aspects of morality — plays in forming the perception of what Catholicism is today, particularly in its public role.  This isn’t a reflection on the decision to disenroll the student; that decision may well have been made with an eye to questions the student might raise at a later date.   I suppose another post examining the asking of difficult questions should be added, but for now, I am more concerned with the reduction of Christianity to hollow moral forms, and the continued emphasis, since the Counter Reformation at least, of certain authority figures (including not simply clergy, but parents as well) to forcing individuals into narrowly and shallowly understood, compulsory morality.

Christianity, however, is more than morality.  Catholicism is more than a simple moral code held together by liturgical rubrics.  Indeed, morality may be the least part of it — and this, I believe, may be what sets my views so far apart from my more vocal contemporaries in the world of religion and public life.

Although to be sure, “spirituality” — that popular and resultingly anomalous term — is in some regards religion and religious experience apart form its derivative (some may say its sustaining) morality, I am not proposing that we focus on the “spirituality” of Christianity at the expense of moral theology per se.    From the point of view of “spirituals”, morality is seen as external, imposed from without in order to compel and control individuals under the authority of others:  compel those who are thirsty for divine experience within the context of their religions, control those who are not.

This idea is not without its merits, and the evidence must certainly be acknowledged by those within the Church (which means parents and teachers, and not necessarily clergy).  However, the idea that morality can be internally derivative of religious or spiritual experience is rarely broached, and is perhaps one of the more profound oversights of both this position or philosophical lifestyle (that is, of the “I’m spiritual, but not religious” outlook), and the more conventional “outer forms only” order.

What for me is essential or central in Christianity — that ancient and medieval Mediterranean Christianity, both western and eastern, in which I am steeped, concerns revelation: the (mystical) contemplation of dogma, if you will, the experience of contemplation and prayer, the inculcation of an interior life, more than any morality derived from the decontextualised rabbinic debates in which Jesus participated or the literal and selective application of Pauline (itself part of Rabbinic debate) or Petrine argumentation and instruction.  It is, in a word, morality derived from internal experience.  The inculcation and internalisation of morality need not go hand in hand with externally imposed forms, with hawkish oversight, well meaning but guilt-inducing instruction and reflection (which, in reality, often results more in confusion-inducing alienation).  Such actions betray trust, no matter whether they preserve respect or outward, public conformity.  And without trust, where is faith?  Without trust, what love can be borne?  And without love, and without faith, how can one dare be called or assume the name of Christian?

Yet perhaps I now fall into the same trap — speaking of love while condemning zeal?  I cannot condemn the zealous.  What I can do, however, is frankly declare it to be misplaced, misoriginated, uncentred.  Zeal must spring from the interior life and must express itself in personal reflection, silent or spoken, as one is called — but not so subjectively one fails to realise the unique lives others experience within divinity.  This sort of zeal asks others what they perceive — or don’t perceive — what they choose to do — or not — in order to cultivate a subjective, uniquely personal life.  It seeks nothing from the other person and in not seeking perhaps raises them to a wisdom borne of presence when present, and reflection when reflective — a state formerly called self-recollection.   In short, it allows others to take the chance of making difficult moral choices and living interiorly with the consequences.

This state of recollection transcends any existentialist dichotomy postulated between engagement in lived experience and melancholy introspection, for it moves fluidly, with an integrity rooted in confidence and developed (or even attenuated) by refined perception.  It is a palpable and moving silence, a speech imbued with power because it seeks to control none; the body is not made a prison for divine life.

Of course, if one sees Christianity as salvation form sin — which I do not — this moral emphasis makes the utmost sense.  What do I see Christianity as promising?  What is the life question is answers?  If Christianity isn’t about salvation from sin, what does Christianity save us from?

Theologically, I think one can make the case that Christianity’s appeal in the ancient world was that it promised salvation from death.  This is why the Resurrection is such an important even in the life of Christianity.  “By death you trampled on death and bestowed life to those in the tombs” runs the Paschal anthem.  Without death, Adam, humanity, is returned to its primordial state, and provides a path to silence and stillness, to wonder and peace.  Without fear of death, union with the divine life, integrity, firmness, and action result.  And action characterises the works of mercy which, incidentally, are posited as the social criteria by which nations — not individuals in themselves — will be judged.

But action also entails risk.  If you believe that risk to be the possibility of making a moral mistake and running afoul of a hard and severe taskmaster, you have become the third servant who was ultimately thrown out of the master’s house, the money with which he was entrusted distributed to those servants who, in silent union with and wonder at their master, risked the money they had been given, because they knew their master had entrusted them with such gifts for just that purpose.  The parable about talents is a parable about how one sees God, just as much as it is about how one takes up the challenge of making difficult choices.

This isn’t to deny the importance of morality, nor to disparage the practice of those precepts contained in the Scriptures.  Divine experience can certainly come from the study of God’s law.  But that experience of the divine is derived exactly from immersing oneself in the study of Torah, derived from asking the difficult questions about how a law is to be prescribed, what is its extent, what are the mysteries enfolded within its grammatical particles.  Such study seeks to discover what is unsaid but contained within the verse.  Through this probing of the hidden depths of God’s ineffable name, this sort of study, we enter into the Divine life.

True, we live the moral insights which come from this reflection, and through the practice of that life we arrive at yet new depths of communion from our lived experience of moral precepts.  But this is not morality for morality’s sake.  It is morality for the sake of ongoing communion with Divinity — which is a religious experience born form the interior life, not a hollow compulsion potentially, and ultimately, filled with bitterness and regret.

What’s Wrong with the World and the Root of Evil

“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world,”  said a doctor who has devoted himself to serving the poor and prisoners in the Caribbean, South America, Siberia, and Boston.  How are we to reconcile this with the statement that “love of money is the root of all evil”?

Granted that the latter statement is considered infallible, canonised as sacred writ and hallowed by the use of many nationalities and philosophers for millenia; while the other is an equally infallible statement of a personal observation, but limited in scope by one man’s experience in a certain period of time?

If the two are to be reconciled, I would offer it in this manner:  the belief that some lives matter less — or more — is a belief in the value of an individual life.  If a value can be assigned to something, monetary worth can be assigned it.  A human life ceases to be an entire world, and instead becomes a commodity, a consumer or an object to be consumed, an abstract number to be acquired or expunged from the record.  It isn’t a change which occurs in the absence of viewing humans in numerical terms.  David was chastised for taking a census.  For numbering people.   Numbering people, that is, so that the cost effectiveness of war could be measured.

So people become representations of money.  “Dollars with legs” as American tourists are sometimes thought of in some countries.  And the love of money?  How is this the root of evil?

Because one who loves money sees human beings as the means to money, at best — or the hindrance to acquisition of money, which seems more common.  Deny that human access to life, and you will have removed the hindrance to your goals.  Treat that human in terms relating to money, view that human in terms of net worth and calculate your interactions with him or her in such terms — which is only natural if the bottom line is purely financial — and you have embraced the idea that yes, indeed, some lives are worth more than others.

This argument could even be sustained when placed in the context of the first century Roman and Persian empires, two empires very well connected to the exploitation of human lives in the service of increasing wealth for the already wealthy.  Two societies known for their stratification of social classes.  Perhaps not as stratified as India came to be, and exceptions did occur, particularly if one was able to join the army or get a good education in rhetoric.  But still — a society which viewed human lives as expendable.  Which viewed human lives as having varying worth.  Strike a slave and pay a penalty less than if you struck a free citizen, and much less than if you struck someone “of worth” — someone “of valor”.

Love of money entails love of humans who are “worth more.”  It of necessity views human life as unequally distributed.  Such a view feeds upon itself and ensures that its particular perspective on humanity, its view that persons are indeed of differing worth — and not simply that some activities (activities as opposed to humans) are more or less useful to sustaining society or a family, and that activites can be separated from the humans who engage in them — is justified.  It is not justified.  Every time a human dies, an entire world dies with that life.  A world cannot be priced.  Every individual human life is priceless.