Religious Change and Disgusting Things
The Human Condition, Religion Series - Morality
Addressing change in a changing world
Copyright © 2003 Dorian Scott Cole
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To see word meanings or definitions, hold cursor over words in blue text . The primary reference used for word meanings is the WordNet lexical database, developed by the Cognitive Science Laboratory at Princeton University. WordNet 2.0 Copyright © 2003 by Princeton University. All rights reserved. Other definition sources are identified. Bracketed "" meanings are my own descriptions of word meanings.
When we write about people, we describe human beings and the human condition. How do we view people? Sexual
anomalies challenge the way we view people from
sterotypes, and ask if we should treat them any differently.
Future articles in this series will include several issues showing distinct patterns of change through the ages:
- Worship, priests, teachers, holy places, the Temple, sacrifices, sponser homes, Synagogues and Churches, theaters and various media, community, and true worship, teachers, priests, ministers
- The changing role of women through religious history
- Prophecy to cease? and The Day of the Lord
The idea of change doesn't mean that God
has somehow changed, or what God expects of us has changed. Human nature has always remained about the same. God expects us to love others. God has no needs. He doesn't need a temple or other house of worship, he doesn't need people to fast, or other forms of self-discipline. Man wasn't made for the
Sabbath - the Sabbath was made for man. (These previous statements are all taken from OT and NT Scripture. However, the needs and situations of people do change. The above listed articles will show how religion has changed as a response to people's needs, situations, and ability to understand, and not just in the
Judeo/Christian/Muslim world, but in other religions as well.
Moral controversy, divisions, and change
This series takes an in-depth look at change within religion, and
morality is one major concern of religion. Some moral issues are involved in controversies that are hotly debated today. The role of these articles is to provide an unbiased and informative middle ground, not to support one side or another, and not to decide what should be accepted moral practice. However I do have my biases on the approach to take to resolving complex issues like these. The main text that I am using as my companion and reference is The Origins of Christian Morality, by Wayne A. Meeks. This doesn't mean that the reference supports the views that I present here.
In reviewing these subjects, I will be relying on the word interpretations in the English text, and cite words from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek text when appropriate, but will not be translating and interpreting the original text. I am indebted to many informative articles on the Web and in print for general information, most of which won't be referenced since nothing specific is attributable.
Various Christian movements have been locked in internal dispute over accepting various
factions into the life and leadership of the Church - or even accepting them through the doors of the church. For example, women have traditionally been barred in some denominations from leadership roles such as priest and overseer functions. Other denominations readily accept women in such positions. Churches threaten to split over the issue, and do split. This is the subject of a future article.
Similarly, the role of
gays in the Church, and in leadership positions, the subject of this article, has also threatened to split churches. Most recently the Episcopalian House of Bishops (The Anglican Church in the United States) voted August 3, 2003 to confirm the Rev. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, making him the first openly gay bishop in the history of the Episcopal Church. Many Episcopalians were outraged. The Church of England was expected to withhold its blessing.
Congregations in Africa, where half of the world's Anglicans live, threatened to split from church
affiliation because they take a more rigid stand on these issues. Some US congregations plan to go with them. There is a significant difference of opinion over Biblical interpretation.
(Also see The Next Christianity by Philip Jenkins in The Atlantic online magazine.)
Many denominations have looked at the question of gays in the church, particularly in leadership positions in recent history. The United Methodist Church, in 2000, called
"incompatible with Christian teaching," and forbade
ordination of openly gay or
and prohibited same-sex union ceremonies.
One Methodist pastor spoke out, "We think the Holy Spirit has left the United Methodist Church as a denomination..." Was he talking about acceptance of gays? No, he continued,
"God is for justice, and when you exclude people from a congregation, God goes out the door with the outcasts."
There are very strong feelings on both sides of the issue. Southern Baptists, in light of recent events such as gay marriages, and the Supreme Court striking down sodomy laws, have decided to toughen their
stance and try to influence elections. As I continue to write, November 11, 2003, a Catholic committee is studying issuing a
declaration that homosexuality is still considered a
In Canada, and in some States, same sex couples can legally marry and are given the same rights as traditionally married people. As I write this day, November 18, 2003, the Supreme Court of the State of Massachusetts struck down Massachusetts State Law that forbad same sex marriage, saying there was no evidence for the law and the law deprived people of their legal rights. In some US States, gays are not even permitted the right to adopt children (Florida), even though research has shown that children in gay marriages are often better adjusted than children in opposite sex marriages, and their sexual identity is not influenced.
Non-governmental organizations have the legal right to exclude gays. The Boy Scouts of America won a decision in 2000, allowing them to exclude gays. Probably the fear of sexual predators engaging scouts in man/boy sexual relationships were the biggest fear driving the controversy that led to the Supreme Court. But that isn't a
predominant reflection of gay culture. The controversy still continues, with The Cradle of Liberty Council, representing 87,000 scouts in three major cities, voting to add "sexual orientation" to its nondiscrimination policy. The question is not whether organizations can legally do this, but whether it is appropriate.
The debate can go on forever over whether or not homosexuality has a
genetic link, and if it does, should the
tendency be resisted. Studies of identical twins (same DNA) consistently indicate that if one twin is gay, the identical sibling has a 30 - 38% chance of being gay.1 Twin studies have long indicated that many personality traits and tendencies are strongly influenced by genetics. The
heritability of any
behaviour is thought to be 50±20%. The rest of behavior is influenced by environment and individual choice. Notice that I said "influenced," not determined.
One possible outcome of all of this is that gays may separate into their own churches, and feel less accepted than others in society, which typically creates some kind of unwanted
backlash. On the other hand, this wouldn't be unlike black people having their own churches, or Hispanics, Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese, or any other ethnic group. Religions do tend to fall into communities of people of like cultural heritage, and the
church that is multicultural and pluralistic, while idealistic, is much less typical. However, splitting an entire
denomination over the issue is more alarming.
What should influence the
interpretation of Holy Scripture on any subject, including homosexuality? Things should always be examined in
context. Context includes, 1) the perspectives of prevalent cultures in the Middle East; 2) the framework that the idea fits into (in this case some portion of religious Law following some type of
3) the words themselves; 4) the other words used in the passage that create meaning; 5) actions used in the passage that create meaning; 6) the purpose of the words, following from the situation(s) being addressed; 7) the perspectives of the religious communities through history on this and other similar "offences;" 8) attitudes of the community toward its own beliefs and actions, and regarding the past; 9) the consistency of the Scriptures; 10) understanding the passage through the example given by Christ; 11) often deeper (and often more personal) meanings are seen in the text as people mature; and 12) the future direction that the religious community decides to take. These types of context are
delineated further in various places in this article.
How people view the interpretation of Scripture is one of the contexts that determines how things are interpreted. Views inherent in community and in views of the past are very important.
The context of morality
Morality isn't a word or category that is used in the Bible,
Old Testament (OT) or
New Testament (NT). Morality is a category that we impose on ideas in the
Bible, separating out certain ideas from others. The instructions to religious people given in the OT are simply known as laws, or the commands of God. There is not a clear line of distinction between the
classifications of laws. In the early OT, the law was the law, period. It is people who tend to classify laws and think in terms of degrees of offences and degrees of punishments.
Laws in the OT are concerned with four ideas. First is following the Almighty God, as opposed to other gods who at minimum fail to deliver and are totally
capricious and confusing, and at maximum require
human sacrifice. Second, OT laws are concerned with purity of religious
sanctification (being set apart), which reflects on the purity of God. Second rate is simply not acceptable - the Almighty God sets high standards. The people who were to be a great nation and an example to others could not expect God to be satisfied with halfhearted religiosity. An example is
keeping the Sabbath.
Third, the laws are concerned with how we treat each other. This represents the bulk of the laws. Instruction to people and judgment of people was concerned mostly with their treatment of others. This is what we call "morality." Fourth, the laws are concerned with priests and administration. These regard maintaining standards of purity, receiving sacrifices, distribution to the poor, duties regarding the sick, etc. Collectively these laws, which occur in the first five books of the Bible are known as "The Law." These five books, known as the
Pentateuch, are common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Muslim). The laws given are
comprehensive in the subjects covered. We commonly think of moral issues in relation to sexual behavior. But sexual behavior is a small part of morality.
1. The quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct.
2. A system of ideas of right and wrong conduct: religious morality; Christian morality.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation. All rights reserved.
The OT laws considered morality, cover such things as how we conduct business, marriage and divorce, sexual behavior, acts such as theft and lying, treatment of strangers, and treatment of the needy.
mitigated the interpretation and use of the laws by putting them in a different context. Jews generally see Christ as a prophet and respect his teachings. Muslims see him as a prophet and respect his teachings. Christ is a central figure to Christians, considered to be the physical manifestation of God in human form and character. Interpretation by any group depends on the emphasis placed on context and
As an example of OT morality law, if someone divorced his mate, and later decided to remarry her, the Law says that this is an abomination. If the original problem was so serious that only the ultimate remedy, divorce, would resolve the problem, then remarrying would be a slap in the face - obviously the problem was not so severe at all, and the person subjected the mate to
unwarranted misery. Divorce for a woman made her the object of ridicule and she was often unable to support herself by legal means, especially with the permanent emphasis on family. Divorce is bad enough, but remarriage - torture - is unthinkable. Someone who would do this kind of thing is the kind of person you would cut off from other people so he couldn't hurt anyone again. The punishment prescribed for this was to "be cut off from his people."
In the NT, Christ softened the approach some, asking people to be tolerant of others and rather than condemn and punish them, forgive them. However, divorce is the one issue on which he seemed to make the requirements even more
In the past, culture and childbearing forced women into dependent positions. Marriages were often arranged, women were supported by their husbands and didn't own property. A woman who was divorced was
stigmatized as having something seriously wrong with her, and she likely would not be able to support herself. It could be she would become a
bonded slave or a
prostitute to survive.
Today our view of divorce morality is different (for many). Marriage is a choice, not a forced arrangement. Sometimes people marry a mate who hurts people. We have better ways of dealing with these kinds of people than stoning them or driving them out. Sometimes people smother their original feelings for each other under an
insurmountable mountain of hard feelings, and an entire family is drowned and ruined by it - divorce is a
humane answer. A divorced woman is not stigmatized, but she doesn't have things as easy as a divorced man, and typically raises the kids on a lower income.
We know much more about human behavior. We have better ways of helping people avoid divorce, we see less impact from divorce, people learn from their mistakes and often do better in the next marriage, and sometimes even remarriage to the same mate can be a good thing. Today, 60% of kids will see their parents divorced by their late teens, and we speak in terms of "starter marriages." This is progress?
Divorce is an easy answer. I'm not an advocate of divorce as an answer at all. Marriage is not a small thing, and we need to hold it in high esteem -
revere it. Divorce should not be one of the solutions we offer ourselves. Statistics show that those who work through difficult problems, win excellent relationships. Divorce is an admission that either we would rather cause enormous harm than try harder any longer, or the situation is driving us out of control and there is no other solution.
The influence of community
Christians and other religious groups tend to organize into communities that reflect their culture and beliefs. In his book, The Origins of Christian Morality, Wayne Meeks creates a compelling study illustrating that community and socialization are key to our development and change of moral
I agree with Meeks, as I typically see things from a
social psychology perspective and believe that our surrounding culture supplies
constructs to which we look for
meaning. The difficulty that I see with community is that it tends to support the
When a belief is widely held and
permeates a culture, then it has a life of its own. For example, if a community believes in slavery, it organizes its religious beliefs to support the idea of slavery, and it is very resistant to change.
Many feel that modern Biblical interpretation no longer provides
evidence that homosexuality is a sin. Whether or not that is true, homosexuality is still a very powerful social issue that helps define religious communities, and may be strongly opposed because of conflict over issues such as "What defines a family?" and simply
homophobic responses, or fear of
man/boy relationships occurring. These same issues are currently very much in debate in the US in several states as well as regarding legislation being considered by the President and Congress.
It may be that regardless of how the Scriptures are interpreted, the result in any community may be to continue in the same pattern.
The context of religious culture
Abraham, while from the area of Ur, was a nomad. Nomads are people who don't stay on the same land, but wander to the grasslands to feed their livestock during the summer, and then retreat to more sheltered places during the winter - or some variation of that. They are very clannish people, in that their descendents tend to remain with the parents for generation after generation, even if the clan travels great distances. The family bond is incredibly strong.
When Abraham's descendents migrated from Egypt to Canaan, they had not been land owners. But they did have stories in their traditions of land ownership, and they had examples before them in both Egypt and Canaan. In Canaan (after Egypt), they ceased wandering and began to own the land. They developed inheritance rights that gave the land from father to son, following the custom of the land. These inheritance rights were no doubt strongly motivated by their clannish feelings about family.
In the OT, heritage is very carefully tracked as if it was vitally important. The clan which was the descendents of Abraham, became seven tribes, and within each tribe each person could track their heritage back to Abraham. Even in NT times, the writers were pointedly traced Christ back to King David. The great nation made of Abraham was a nation of a specific bloodline, and no outsiders could enter unless a woman married a descendent.
People could become Jews, but they could not become part of the family of Abraham. Note the continued strong family emphasis. Note also the emphasis from the beginning of the Bible on procreation: be fruitful and multiply - an emphasis that continues to this day. Even a woman who became a widow was to be taken into the deceased brother's household and given more children.
Who probably seemed most
repugnant to the Israelites was the person who could not procreate, could not continue the family, and did not want to sleep with women. This attitude is seen in Western culture as well.
The context and influence of the past
One potential error that I see in reductive reasoning, and the idea of
reconstruction, both of which I support), is that there is an
assumption that the ideas presented in the past were perfect.
Plato, as pointed out by Meeks, employed the technique of questioning people incessantly until they erupted into rational thought, and identified the essential pure category, stripping away all of the errors that had
accumulated over time. This line of thought is often applied to our US Constitution and legal system, as if what we have learned from experience since the Constitution was created, is of no significance and somehow fatally imperfect. Yet the opposite is actually true. Experience is the arena in which we prove or disprove what we believe, or refine it so we know better how to apply it.
Religious people make the same error. The reasoning goes, "God is perfect, therefore what God said to people in the past is the
epitome of perfection. The original Christians, being close in time to Christ and the Apostles, must have had the more perfect knowledge. So the best that we can ever do is to swear allegiance to the original words and emulate the original Christians in action."
This line of thinking leaves out something very important. While God doesn't change, and basic human nature doesn't change, some things do change. Civilization does change in its ability to be a
benchmark of moral behavior. Civilization changes in its ability to understand the ins and outs of moral behavior. Civilization changes in its needs, with government, education, and science minimizing needs.
For example, government minimizes the need for individuals to be personally involved in the welfare of others in some traditional areas since government (our unified effort) addresses many of these needs in an efficient way that also blocks abuse of others' kindness. Another example, education informs us of "why" various activities are harmful to ourselves or others, eliminating the need for endless rules, so that people can make appropriate decisions on their own. Another example, science and technology create
safeguards within society that minimize the effects of disease and pregnancy, casting some moral decisions in a new light, but often creating new moral dilemmas.
When we begin "playing god" in one area, we often create a new need to play god in another area. Medical science in the last 100 years has increased the average lifespan from 40+ years to 70+ years. We can play god and prolong life in the aged, diseased, and injured, but we are also faced with the decision of when to quit prolonging life and let people die whom we could potentially keep alive... but keep alive to what end? When does quantity of existence supersede capacity for life? We don't have an automatic set of instructions for these circumstances that we create, so we often remain indecisive.
Another example is population control. We are facing monumental population issues. One is epidemiology problems in which a disease could wipe out most of the population due to the rapid mutation of disease organisms; resistance to disease; and rapid spreading due to population density, transportation, and contact - things more localized in ancient times (I mean this as a significant possiblity, not as an alarmist). We are facing monumental problems with polution due to population increases, and are having to address issues like poison water and global warming - issues unheard of in ancient times. We are facing monumental starvation issues in lands where people are very poor and food is difficult to grow. We are facing monumental problems with peace, with terrorists having the technical ability to create mass destruction.
If the Church continues singing the same song, "be fruitful and multiply," with no responsible concern for population control, then we are on a collision course with reality. It is up to the Church to provide us with sound moral advice that works for today's world - or stand aside and become insignificant.
We face significant problems with the drug culture and drug economy. In Afghanistan, which is a large grower of poppy (for opium), the Taliban used opium production to finance itself, as well as support the terrorist group Al-Qaida. When the US took over, they destroyed as much of the 6 year supply of opium that they could find. Did poppy growth and opium export decline? No, last year it increased 8% despite a severe drought. Farmers can grow the poppy and in two months have enough money to feed their family. Growing food crops is much more uncertain.
The problem in Afghanistan is spilling over into other nations, with violent consequences. Much to its credit, Iran issued a religious fatwa against drugs, and in the last few years has lost 2800 of its elite guard in battles with drug trafficers who transport Afghanistan opium across Iran. (Note that various factions in Iran also support Al-Quaida. Article)
It is very difficult to get farmers to drop profitable cash crops which feed their families, to grow crops that yield much less money or food, and are more uncertain. This is a very complex problem in which the world's religions and governments, all can find effective roles in reducing the problem.
Understanding has to increase as the demands of complex decisions increase, or we will become hopelessly mired in unanswerable questions, make decisions irresponsibly, making us responsible for the results of capricious decisions and endless suffering. If one purpose of religion is to make us more responsible, then over-reliance on the past for answers is the opposite direction. But if the purpose of religion is to make us blindly dependent on God, then ignorance and helplessness is good, and we should all revert to at least the 17th. Century. Some of us should probably join Al-Quaida and purportedly work at bringing the world back to religious law... and barbarism and chaos.
The idea that we are tied permanently to past understandings and consequences is like tethering humanity to a sheepherder world mentality, and then changing the world environment to the jet age. This doesn't prepare humanity for living in the new environment and for the decisions it will have to make.
Are the Scriptures books of pat answers, or do they tell experiences that help us consider various responses to problems in a caring setting. The fact that we do change is illustrated in our looking back at things in the Bible and finding them immoral. Today such things as slavery, taking multiple wives, stoning to death misbehaving children and other minor offenders (prostitutes), and divorcing over failure to produce children, are recognized as harmful actions and are not tolerated or are banned. Society and people grow in understanding, and their needs change, but the past can't change, nor can the past get better informed or any smarter than it was.
My own context includes my own experience with gays, which began with difficulty, although in recent times I have had no difficulties with gays. In the Navy in the 1960s, when hitchhiking, it was common for me to get picked up by some gay man who wanted to make a pass (I also got picked up by women with eligible daughters, and other guys out for fun - everyone has their motives). In radio, I was surrounded by gays, but while friendly, they mostly left me alone in sexual matters and only one made advances. Three of the gays that I met later were persistent or insistent. I had no interest in them, and resisted them. Any man who wanted to do me a favor became suspect.
Today I still find it very difficult to see what people of the same sex see in each other, and candidly I find it difficult to observe their intimate encounters. But then I even find it difficult to observe men holding hands, which is common in various cultures. It isn't up to me to judge or make those determinations. In fact, the last thing that I want to know is someone's sexual preference, and I find it very inappropriate when it simply has to be told or made an issue. To me, sex is a private matter, not a public one. However, I do understand the need, in general, for homosexuality to be a publicly debated issue, and part of doing that is for individuals who are gay to make it public and raise it as an issue, and in today's critical climate, "coming out of the closet" can be a step in finding honesty and self acceptance.
Despite my personal reactions, I have never had much problem accepting people for who they are.
Context of the sexual mores and symbolism of Middle Eastern cultures, and developing an identity
Try saying that heading three times without garbling it.
From archaeological excavations of Middle-Eastern sites, we know something about attitudes about sex at the time of
Abraham. Both the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Sumer, on either side of Israel, predate Abraham by many centuries. I suspect that the people of
Canaan, in the land the Israelites were to inhabit, although they were not without a moral conscience, had similar behaviors, and when the Israelites entered the land, they were warned not to do as the Egyptians and Canaanites did. At that time, there were no warnings about Babylon - condemnation of Babylon came later following major changes in Babylon.
Historical information and timeline: Abraham came from the city of Ur, which was one of the cities in Ancient
Sumer. Sumer was a sophisticated civilization, and the oldest known civilization to record their deeds. They had a well-developed religious system. Ur and the other cities of Sumer were conquered by the Akkadians in 2334 BCE, merging the cultures and giving the Sumerians the Akkadian (Assyrian) language, from which came the Semitic languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic.
The original language of Sumer was written and spoken by certain priests until about the time of Christ, when all evidence of the Sumer civilization disappeared until the late 18th. Century, when it was rediscovered through archaeology. The concepts from Sumer, and those within the Akkadian language, and later Semitic languages, would have created the fundamental language meaning constructs of the Middle East. Abraham and his descendents apparently spoke Hebrew, and the Egyptians called his descendents Hebrews. The language that Christ spoke, 700 years later, was Aramaic.
The writings of Ancient Sumer indicate that sex was not considered a
base thing, but was associated with the spiritual and with the fertility cycles of the earth, including their ceremonial rites. There was a goddess of love and probably temple prostitutes. Sex was held in high spiritual esteem, although the rites may seem foreign and "sinful" to later cultures. The legal rights of women were also held in high esteem. Women apparently typically remained virgins until marriage, and marriage was considered sacred.
Sex was much more open in Sumer than in today's Western culture, although Western culture has become much more open and saturated with sex. There was prostitution. Cultural taboos regarding various sexual things didn't develop until later. Later in the Hammurabi Code in Babylonia (~1755 BCE), even a man kissing another married woman was grounds for severe punishment, and both partners involved in adultery were liable to be drowned. Women lost some rights along the way. Sodomy is not mentioned in the Hammurabi Code.
Historical information and timeline: Later, slightly before Abraham's time, the
complexion of Babylon and the surrounding area began to change when it fell to the Hittites (1595 BCE), who were known for cruelty, but who set up rule of Babylon by the Kassites, whose dynasty lasted for four centuries. Abraham (Abram) migrated to the land of Canaan around 1500 BCE, probably taking with him the ideas and concepts of the melting-pot culture of Ur. He then migrated to Egypt. By the time Abraham's people fled captivity in Egypt and headed for Canaan, circa 1250 BCE, the Hittites still maintained power in Lebanon and northern Syria. In 1225 BCE, the Assyrians captured Babylon. In the later days of Israel, the Prophets railed against Babylon.
In Ancient Egypt, sex was also very open. Literature and wall paintings speak of
masturbation. Even the gods had sex. Sex by both men and women before being in a committed relationship was apparently common. However once married, sex became exclusive to the married couple, and adultery could be punished by death. Anal intercourse with both sexes was practiced in both the civilizations of Sumer and Egypt, and apparently there were no taboos against it.
I think it is significant that no laws were given to Abraham or his immediate descendents. Abraham's choice of gods was an act of faith, and possibly culture, not moral instruction. It is likely that Abraham followed the moral code of the waning culture of Sumer and the Akkadian culture which had merged with it, which included the strict Hammurabi Code, and probably influenced even the leaders of Canaan, resulting in the Semitic cultural practices.
Abraham's test requiring him to offer his son as a sacrifice to Almighty God has overtones of the customs of the religious culture of Canaan. But unlike the Canaanite gods, the Almighty God refuses human sacrifice. Besides a curious test of faith, it is also a moral statement about the character of the Most High God.
Abraham migrated to Canaan, and then to Egypt during a famine, but returned, and later his descendents migrated to Egypt to escape another famine. The "Most High God" was worshipped in Sumer and in Canaan, as well as pantheons of gods. The Most High God was represented in the town of Salem (near, or at later, Jerusalem) in Canaan, by the Priest Melchizedek, the priest/king of Salem, to whom Abraham presented sacrifices. Some New Testament writers appear to be confused by this, especially since Canaan was a land known to worship other gods.
Abraham's belief in the Most High God would have met resistance in Egypt, whose gods were multiple, and even varied with the Kings. Both Canaan and Sumer had moral ideals that they followed, they just weren't as refined as the moral directives given later to the Israelites.
It was when Abraham's descendents over 200 years later, fled captivity in Egypt, led by
Moses, that they were given a moral code through Moses. In tone, the
Ten Commandments echo the tone of the earlier Hammurabi Code in what must have been the legal or imperial style of the time. Although some of the same issues are addressed in both codes, the details are somewhat different, reflecting the refined moral code that is uniquely Israelite.
While those cultures recognized that there was one almighty god, but worshipped a succession of other gods, the Israelites rejected worshipping the pantheon of gods and insisted that there was but one true God, the Most High God worshipped by Abraham. No doubt their stay in Egypt brought them constant conflict over the idea of who was the supreme god. The Canaanites offered their children in sacrifice to some gods, which would have been seen as an extreme horror to the Israelites. And the Israelites were "given" many more laws regarding sexuality and their treatment of others.
Note: the claim made by individuals in various religions that "their god" is the only true God, is clearly misleading, especially between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Oriental and Middle Eastern religions all recognized only one high God, although some also recognized pantheons of lesser gods. Hindus conceptualized God in a different way. We all recognize one high god, even if our language has different titles for God. Titles are not names, nor do they necessarily connote different gods. Exceptions are the Greek myths regarding Zeus, which may fall more into the category of fiction. The Romans made themselves gods. The Egyptians switched gods occasionally for political reasons.
The descendants of Abraham, led by Moses, entered the land of Canaan with a unique identity both culturally and, after their time in the wilderness, religiously. They were to stand among many nations as a moral paragon, being holy as God is holy. They were given additional laws that would make them stand out among others. First was the Ten Commandments given through Moses. And then there were more laws that included a physical purity that reflected a spiritual purity. These were the
abstain from "unclean" things, cleansing rituals, and ceremonial rites (for
sacrifices). Their higher moral stature was also reflected in how they were to treat others, such as in hospitality to strangers journeying and visiting in their land. They were to love strangers as themselves.
The religious rites were very specific about religious purity. Physical purity was a symbol of spiritual purity. People who were
"blemished" could not serve in religious rites, and offerings (animals for sacrifice, etc.) could not be given for sacrifice if they were blemished. "Unblemished" included sexual purity reflected in potency and wholeness. Men were banned for a full day from serving in religious rites after releasing semen, and banned permanently if the testicles had been crushed or the penis removed. This may have been in contrast to other cultures where eunuchs were often temple servants, often because having been orphaned as children they could depend on the temple to provide them with food and shelter if they would be eunuchs.
Note: Eunuchs in this sense in the ancient world may have meant a range of men who chose not to marry and not have sexual relations with women, or who had no desire for sexual relations with women, or who are born without testicles, or their testicles became injured or removed. These conditions were debated for their legal implications. We don't really know the full extent of this, but we do know that in Ancient Middle Eastern culture the man who is not able to procreate, for whatever reason, was not considered whole or perfect. Matrimony with children seems to have been the only respectable state.
Most of the laws regarding unclean things today seem without merit. Many of these are not followed by Jews of today, nor by Christians or Muslims. But the concept of clean and unclean remains within much of religious culture, and the idea of sanctification, that is, being set apart for God, remains in religious culture.
The idea of maintaining a high moral example, with strict demands of purity that symbolized sanctification (set apart), and worshipping the one true God, formed the religious identity of the Israelites. The Semitic culture, which they were intensely aware of during their days of captivity in Egypt, was another part of their identity, which held them together. So in cultural heritage, religious belief, and religious practice from ideas of purity, sexual morals, and morals regarding the treatment of others, and in their idea of purpose, the Israelites had a very strong and unique identity. This identity was symbolized by
circumcision. (Circumcision was a sign of the agreement that God made with Abraham to make his descendents into a great nation, but circumcision identified a group of people.)
The idea of worshipping the Most High God, and being a high moral example and a people (nation) with a unique identity, signified by circumcision and a code of purity, forms the context in which to understand the directives given to the Israelites.
Nations aren't defined by geographical boundaries, and nations of people don't require geographical borders - their nationality goes with them. Abraham migrated from Ur to Canaan, to Egypt, and then back to Canaan - we are reminded that he lived in a tent.
Christians and Muslims adopt these Israelite codes to the extent that they identify with them. Others, such as John the Baptist, belonged to a sect called the Nazarites, who took a "Nazarite vow" which required them to abstain from much that their peers allowed, similar to the Essene community.
The context of religious law
First a note about sources, related to context:
In the book of Leviticus, chapters 17 through 26 deal with unclean things. Chapter 18 deals with sexual morality. Chapter 19 deals with other moral issues, such as the treatment of neighbors, treatment of those journeying in the land, and witchcraft. (Witchcraft was also banned in the Hammurabi Code.) Various scholars and theologians try to give different weight to the importance of these things, giving lesser importance to cleanliness in religious rites, especially since animal sacrifice has ceased. So the focus in this article is largely on Chapters 18 and 19, the moral code regarding how we treat each other.
The book of Deuteronomy is thought to be a compendium of laws that was perhaps used to instruct the people, or as a tool for priests. It summarizes the laws in Leviticus, but instead of ascribing them as given by God to Moses, simply states that Moses said to the people... . Deuteronomy is described in later OT books as a book that was "found," and was used to try and turn around the people of Israel when they had drifted away from their moral teachings. The dating of the language does not indicate that it was contemporary with the other four initial books. The other four are thought to have been written shortly after the people entered Canaan.
I note that Deuteronomy lists more severe punishments for the same offences than the book of Leviticus. However it doesn't mention homosexuality. The closest it comes is a prohibition on cross-dressing, which may have been related to Canaanite religious practices, not the practice of homosexuality. So I will deal mostly with the more original source, Leviticus, especially since the book of Deuteronomy seems neither to add nor detract.
Aside: The separately maintained
Samarian Pentateuch, and Hebrew texts found in the
Dead Sea Scrolls, compare somewhat favorably with existing Jewish texts which are thought to have been destroyed by the Romans, along with the Jewish Temple ~70 CE. Translation of the Hebrew into Greek had been accomplished ~100 to 200 BCE. Either some Hebrew texts survived destruction (possibly hidden at Qumran), or the Greek translations provided an accurate reference, or the scribe Ezra was able to dictate the full Hebrew text to scribes from memory.
Consistency of the law, in context
To be considered
consistent, I would think that an offence that was considered
significant would be mentioned when other similar offences are mentioned, and that the punishment for the offence would remain consistent. The exception would be when there were significant reasons not to mention the offence, for example, if it had ceased to be a problem worth mentioning.
It is in the 18th. Chapter of Leviticus that homosexuality is prohibited, put in the context of other sexual offences such as having sex with relatives, and divorce and remarriage. These things were "abominations to God," and doing these kinds of things required the punishment of being "cut off from his people." However, homosexuality was not mentioned in a preceding list in Exodus 23, nor in a similar summary list presented in Deuteronomy 27: 11-26, nor was it mentioned in the Ten Commandments.
Another list of moral laws appears in the 19th. Chapter of Leviticus, but homosexuality and most other offences are not included. In Deuteronomy 22:5, cross-dressing is forbidden, possibly being associated with homosexuality, but more likely associated with Canaanite religious practice. And in the proliferation of things forbidden, temple prostitution, probably from mimicking other cultures, apparently was becoming a problem, and was banned. Adultery, on the other hand, is mention over 60 times in the Old and New Testament.
So regarding consistency of the law, full consistency in every passage is not expected, but some mention of them should occur. These laws were probably stated to the people as they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, as the need arose. However, homosexuality gets mentioned only in the verse in this chapter of Leviticus in the moral code given to Israel, considerably less coverage than other sexual laws which are frequently repeated.
The context of condemnation
This brings us to the context of what is an abomination, which is the context of the condemnation brought against homosexuality, and what is the punishment for abominations. According to the dictionary:
Abomination: abhorrence; disgust. That is, meaning disgusting, loathsome, or repellent.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation. All rights reserved.
You could say that an abomination is the sense of being assaulted and offended by something to the extent that you want to turn your eyes away from it, and cut it off from yourself. The punishment is typically identified as "cutting off from people." In Hebrew, the word often translated abomination is Tow`ebah, meaning a disgusting thing. We can get a sense of what is meant by examining the cultures and seeing how they used the word.
Ancient people had an interesting concept of what is so disgusting that it drives you away. The Egyptians wouldn't eat bread with the Hebrews, considering it an abomination. The Ancient Jews later held the same feelings, considering it an abomination to eat with foreigners. This is despite the fact that they were commanded to love strangers journeying in their country as themselves. The Egyptians, who raised cattle, also considered sheep to be disgusting. We can see a more recent parallel in this, closer to home. In the American Old West, ranchers and sheepherders had similar feelings since the sheep cropped the grass so short that the cattle couldn't eat. Sheep were not allowed to pass through cattle ranches. They weren't even welcome in the same region.
Some things that were considered so disgusting that they should be turned away from, probably had a root in real concerns. For example, it was customary to eat the meat of the peace offering that was sacrificed. However, in Leviticus it was forbidden to eat this meat on the third day. The Hebrew word for abomination used here, Pigguwl, meant "foul thing." This restriction probably had to do with how rapidly meat spoils in the open after three days, especially in hot climates. Even refrigerated meat today rarely lasts longer than three days. The penalty for this and other abominations (Sheqets: detestable thing or idol, an unclean thing), was, "...that soul shall be cut off from his people."
While we can kind of understand the preceding loathings, it is more difficult to understand and explain the restriction stating that any creatures in the rivers and seas that don't have scales and fins are to be considered abominable (Sheqets), and they weren't to eat them. Nor were eagles and osprays, and everything with wings and four feet, nor snakes and other things that creep on their bellies. Again, the punishment for eating these things was, to be "cut off from his people."
It is against this backdrop of disgusting things in Leviticus that we see the first pronouncements involving sexual morals, including the passage about homosexuality. In this same list of things that people shouldn't do comes the pronouncement that "You shall not lie with man, as with woman: it is abomination." The punishment for this disgusting abomination (Tow`ebah) was the same as for uncleanness and all of the other disgusting things, such as eating turtles, snakes, eagles, and old meat. If condemning terms and punishment are any indication, then homosexual acts are seen in the same way as eating turtles and snakes. Homosexuality was not one of the death offences despite the Apostle Paul's statement in the New Testament that it is deserving of death.
Perhaps most telling is that today, none of these prohibitions against "disgusting" things is given much regard. And society has changed in that most people don't consider it disgusting to eat with those who are different. The conceptual idea of "differences" being disgusting is not a welcome part of our lexicon and the symbolic representations in our thoughts that hark back to community standards. Unfortunately for some, the conceptual idea relating differences between people with the symbolic idea of disgust is still a major issue.
This idea of abomination was used later in the book of Deuteronomy to support the "One God," and to prohibit idols. The image of other gods was considered an abomination, so they were to consider other gods abominations (Tow`ebah) and "detest" them, and "abhor" them. The added words, "detest" and "abhor" apparently were used to make this idea very strong.
against the image of other gods may seem to be just a competitive strategy, it was for very strong reasons. The gods that the images represented demanded horrible things: "…even their sons and their daughters do they burn in the fire to their gods." The God of Israel was of a different character. A change in the ideas about God was required, which meant changing the strong symbols that represented God. Those images of gods, statues and statuettes, that were emotionally and experientially associated with burning their sons and daughters as sacrifices, were forbidden to them.
Serving other gods was an offence that would get you killed by stoning, even get your city destroyed. Even animal sacrifices (which were typically eaten for food) were closely regulated. They were to choose their best animals for sacrificing - an animal with a blemish would not do.
There were similar prohibitions against supernatural activities: "...makes his son or his daughter pass through fire, one that uses divination, one that practices augury, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a consulter with a familiar spirit, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to Jehovah: and because of these abominations Jehovah your God drives them out." The word used for abomination here is "Tow`ebah."
Other things that were prohibited as disgusting (abominable) were women wearing men's clothing, and men wearing women's clothing; hiring harlots (paying prostitutes); remarrying your wife after divorce. These things are "Tow`ebah."
These were the things that were cited through most of the Old Testament as abominable, until the Prophet Ezra. Ezra, like the writers of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, pointed to what the other nations were doing, and specifically cited sexual morality, "...now therefore give not your daughters unto their sons, neither take their daughters unto your sons, nor seek their peace or their prosperity for ever." These things are "Tow`ebah."
The concept of abomination began to come into focus and expand as people began to realize from Leviticus and the expanded descriptions in Deuteronomy that the mistreatment of others was a chief concern of religion. The man of violence is considered
perverse and "Tow`ebah," says a writer of Proverbs. He adds, "There are six things which Jehovah hates; Yea, seven which are an abomination to him: Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, And hands that shed innocent blood; A heart that devises wicked purposes, Feet that are swift in running to mischief, A false witness that utters lies, And he that sows
discord among brethren." He goes on to add false measures in business, lying, wicked people making sacrifices to God, pride, justifying wickedness and condemning good, and scoffing at the law.
Isaiah picks up this theme, speaking about those who bring God gifts and burn incense, yet the entire nation is a "... sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evil-doers, children that deal corruptly! they have forsaken Jehovah. Isaiah compared this state of affairs to Sodom and Gomorrah, which was even worse. They are disgusting ("Tow`ebah"), translated "abominable." The Prophet Jeremiah said the same things, using the same word, "...I have seen your abominations, your adulteries and neighings, your
lewd harlotries... ." And then Ezekiel brought the same words. Ezekiel said, "...So I went in and saw; and behold, every form of creeping things, and abominable beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel, portrayed upon the wall round about... Is it a light thing to the house of Judah that they commit the abominations which they commit here? for they have filled the land with violence, and have turned again to provoke me to anger..."
The focus of the writings changed, with less specific mention of sexual morality, and more emphasis on the morality of how people treat others. Nothing more is said about homosexuality in the Old Testament, after that first mention in Leviticus.
In the New Testament, what is called an abomination (Bdelugma), is always something seen as unclean, and defiling something religious, such as idols, or such as calling yourself good when you are actually bad.
In the New Testament, in 2 Peter 2:6-10 the evil quality of life in Sodom is mentioned, though no explicit reference to homosexual behavior is mentioned.
The Apostle Paul is the single firebrand in the NT regarding homosexuality. Typically Paul is a well balanced spokesman, finding his way through the morass of Jewish rules and the strongly divided landscape of opinion over sexuality and other moral issues in the early days of Christianity.
Sex, women, and effeminate men were held in low regard in some Christian traditions and in their culture, as illustrated in the writings attributed to the Apostle Thomas, as seen in the "Gospel" writings circulated among Syrian Christians in the 2nd. Century. (The Syrian Christian tradition, as well as the Greek Orthodox tradition, was separate from, but parallel to, what became the Roman Catholic tradition, and these sayings were attributed to Jesus.) Some of the Apostles felt that sex should be abandoned altogether, characterizing it in negative imagery such as binding one to physical lusts which prevent rationality. The body was considered something to be overcome. This is similar to Gnostic traditions.3
While the Apostle Paul
vacillated somewhat on sexual issues, at first seeming to follow the line of the other Apostles that one should forego marriage and sex and instead be devoted to Christ, later, in what seems to be a change of emphasis in reaction to the slowly dawning realization that Christ probably wasn't returning tomorrow, he proclaimed that husbands and wives owed their bodies to each other. In general, many schools of thought considered sexuality to preoccupy people with carnal (physical, lustful) thoughts, which would exclude them from religious things...
The cultural influences undoubtedly had some sway on the religious beliefs of Christians. Many Christians considered the body to be the opposite of spiritual ideals - the body and its desires were to be fought against. The dominant Semitic cultures in the Middle East had the very prominent fear of anything effeminate in men. Association with women was thought to make men weak, and having sex frequently was certainly association. Men were to avoid spending much time with women. Any sign of weakness seen in a man, was confronted by other men.4
The Egyptian and Greek cultures, in contrast, were saturated with sexual pleasure - the Jewish culture stood out like an
obelisk in their midst, reserving sex for marriage.
The Apostle Paul, a man of both Jewish and Roman heritage, lived and traveled primarily in the Jewish world in Israel, where homosexuality was less common, even though the land was populated with Romans, and Greek culture had been infused for centuries. Greko/Roman morality no doubt infuriated many Jews. When Paul began to travel to visit Christians and spread Christianity in the Greek world, the full onslaught of Roman morality no doubt assaulted Paul's senses like a rotten fish, including homosexuality.
The Ancient Greeks highly regarded the male body. This is reflected in their running races in the nude, the exercise gymnasiums and baths, and in the statues of nude males. They brought these ideas with them to Israel. Many Jews accepted these new ways, while others found them corrupting. As Paul travelled in the Roman world, he stood among them like a paragon of virtue, trying to draw new Christians away from innumerable sexual practices considered immoral, and repeatedly warned the Christian community in his writings.
On the issue of homosexuality, Paul seems to have gone overboard. His words in the book of Romans are, "...God gave them [homosexuals] up unto a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, hateful to God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, unmerciful: who, knowing the ordinance of God, that they that practice such things are "worthy of death" [not the prescribed punishment], not only do the same, but also consent with them that practice them." And then said in 1 Corinthians, of people who "will not inherit the kingdom of God." Among them are "male prostitutes" (malakoi) and "homosexual offenders" (arsenokoitai).
The character description that Paul attached to homosexuals, at least if applied to those of today, is simply untrue. Was this a human homophobic reaction? I think that Paul protests too much. Is there another message in Paul's words? Does Paul seem to say, "Look, I have characterized homosexuals as among those who are the worst of humanity - murderers - is this what you really think of them?" From the single mention of homosexuality in the OT, to the mention by Paul in the NT, there is little said about homosexuality, and Paul's words have not proved true by experience.
Condemnation in the context of other sexual anomalies
The presence of eunuchs, as already seen, are another sexual anomaly that the Ancient Middle Eastern world had difficulty coming to grips with. They weren't considered perfect or religiously pure, but even in that barbaric age, they couldn't just take them out and kill them. Typically the man had no choice in the matter - it was his state of being. But these men weren't always excluded.
Paul's view was a common view regarding those having sexual anomalies in the Middle Eastern and Greek worlds. For example, Adamantios felt that a person's character could be ascertained from stereotypical facial characteristics. He said of eunuchs, "The characteristics of natural eunuchs are worse than those of other men. So most of them are savage, deceitful evildoers, each one more so than the last. Of the cut eunuchs, though, some characteristics change over at the same time as the cut, but most of their congenital nature remains." 5
In the book of Deuteronomy, eunuchs were not permitted to even enter the congregation, but in a clear reversal Christ said in Matthew Chapter 19 that some had made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven. The verse stops short of encouraging this action, while today it would be discouraged. While Christ clearly in this verse meant the physical absence of testicles, the exact motives behind the action aren't clear. As mentioned later, the word "eunuch" may have covered a variety of conditions caused by a variety of motives or causes. We simply don't know. But the attitudes about male sexual potency are obvious, up until the time that Christ offered a somewhat different view.
In the area of Hebrew religious law, imperfection was a crime. The imperfect could not come close to God. Even though the person could not help the imperfection, whether born in that condition, or made that way by choice, or made that way forcefully by others, the sexually imperfect and impotent, or even less than virile male (having discharged semen) was not acceptable in religious service. The law permitted no exceptions and no mercy - there was no conceivable excuse.
The context of action
In the arena of action, the popular image is, the Genesis story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, from which we get the word, "sodomy," is the quintessential story of action against homosexuality. Or is it? Most of the
polemics against homosexuality cite the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis chapters 10-19. In the story, the people of Sodom were never accused of homosexual behavior. Sodom seems to have picked up a cultural stigma as representing homosexual behavior. The accusation at that time was that "...the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners before the Lord," and within the city were found no
"righteous" people, and they were thereafter referred to as the epitomy of the fullness of immoral behavior.
In the New Testament book of 2 Peter, Chapter 2, the evil quality of life in Sodom is described as "ungodly," but there is no explicit mention of homosexual behavior. Even the New Testament confirms that Sodom is a byword for ungodliness worthy of destruction, not homosexuality. What exactly were they up to? The answer is within the story itself.
The story of Sodom is from the book of Genesis, which means that it predates the nation of Israel, and is attributed to the early history of Abraham, and was likely a story from within the culture of Canaan.
In his first dealings with the King of Sodom, Abraham has rescued the people of Sodom from captivity (by way of rescuing his own kinsmen), and the King offered to Abraham that he take all of the recovered goods that the invaders had stolen.
Plunder was customary in the land. But Abraham was too godly a person to take their goods, even though he had risked many of his own people to rescue them. Abraham treated the King and people with respect.
Lord visited Abraham on his way to Sodom. There had been loud complaints against Sodom, accusing them of "grave" sins. The Lord would visit them, and would know if the accusations were untrue. Apparently their actions would give them away. Abraham pleaded with the Lord to not destroy them if he could find any righteous people.
So what actions did the Lord see? Rather than spend the night in the streets, as the
entourage had planned, they accepted Lot's hospitality and stayed the night with him. After they had eaten, all of the men in the village gathered at Lot's house and called out to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know them." The word "know" in this passage typically would mean to become acquainted with them, but it could also mean to have physical (sexual) relations with them. If the word was meant as a double entendre, then they had in mind partying with them for the purpose of choosing a sexual partner, or for gang rape. Well, like many things that people say in heated moments like these, the word was probably meant as a triple entendre.
Lot didn't open the door. He suspected that their intentions were wicked. He replied, "I beg you my brothers, do not act so wickedly." What their exact intentions were isn't described. In an astonishing statement, Lot goes on to say, "I have two daughters who have not known man [been with for sex]; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof." Lot's statement is incomprehensible to most of us. While hospitality and shelter are admirable virtues, Lot offered his daughters to the men of the town for individual or group sex.
This deserves further consideration of Lot's motives and meaning. Would he offer his own daughters, as suggested? Or was this just a device to mitigate the situation to momentarily get the men to reconsider the gravity of their actions? Would they think, "If their actions were of such magnitude that Lot would offer his own daughters, then they must consider that their actions were too wicked and they should reconsider?" Let's hope that Lot's offer wasn't worse than the intentions of the men of the town.
Perhaps Lot knew that the town suspected that the men had come to inspect and judge them, and this was a lynch mob that intended to beat and kill the men. Lot plainly stated his intention to protect them. Regardless of the interpretation of the word "know," this has to be considered.
My interpretation: The village had a reputation for all kinds of wickedness, both in their sexual immorality of all kinds, and in the way that they treated others. They weren't just immoral, deserving to be cut off from others, they were wicked in all ways and deserving of destruction. The village men, having heard rumors that some men had come to judge them, came to Lot's door, and yelled out, "Where are these men? We really want to get 'intimately' acquainted with them." Their request was a triple entendre, signifying that they had no intention of sexual relations or getting acquainted. They simply wanted to take these spies out and teach them a lesson.
Lot easily read the message that the men were there for other reasons, and neither getting acquainted nor having sex was their intention. Lot tried to diffuse the issue by deliberately
feigning to misunderstand, saying, "Oh, you want sex? OK, I have two virgin daughters that you can have." Lot knew that they would refuse, which they did.
This interpretation is confirmed as the story continues. "But they said, 'Stand back! [meaning they were going to get these men, violently if necessary]... This fellow came to visit, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them." The townsmen tried to break into Lot's house and take the men, but the two men intervened, striking them all blind. The next day, as Lot and his family fled, the village was destroyed by fire and brimstone - possibly with material from nearby bitumen pits, or an earthquake - recent archaeological excavation has revealed burning and a sudden ending in the ruins of the ancient village thought to be Sodom.
The context of the overall literature
A through study of the Bible indicates the use of Sodom and homosexuality in literature.
The story, and later references to Sodom, are never specific about Sodom's faults. We can see that homosexual activity was an overtone in the story, but more comprehensive
wickedness is the more likely problem.
Later OT references to Sodom use it as an example of being destroyed and
desolate, and refer to not turning from wickedness, and even flaunting wickedness. Ezekiel uses Sodom as a metaphor for the abomination of Israel's harlotry with other nations, and refers to Sodom's daughters whose wickedness he considers less than Israel's, who in their
prosperity did not aid the poor and needy, but instead were
haughty and did abominable things. God would restore Sodom (symbolically, not in actuality) to shame Israel as being the more evil of the two. Ezekiel calls Sodom their
"byword," meaning they use the word as a symbol for wickedness and its consequences, but now they are preoccupied with sex while forgetting their agreement with God and pursuing other nations.
Christ uses Sodom as an example of those who refuse God, of indifference to God, and as a comparison of the extensive effort by God to save people, and of extremes of punishment. They are an example to those who are ungodly.
As important as the first five books of the OT are considered to be to Israel, the remaining books take little notice of parts of them. For a sin considered by Paul to be deadly, it is interesting that it is mentioned so few times in the Bible. For example, the writer of Proverbs mentions seven things that God hates and that are an abomination to him (previously mentioned). Murder and false witness, from the Ten Commandments are listed, as well as other things. These are things that people do to others, to which the emphasis has shifted, and homosexuality and even other sexual
conspicuously missing here and any place else, while the writers don't hesitate to mention all of the things considered sinful throughout the Old and New Testaments.
Any kind of behavior that religious people thought was bad, they appropriately associated with the
vivid image of Sodom burning. It is like at the time of Christ and today when people associate bad behavior with burning hell, because of Christ using the images of the valley of the bones, and a lake of fire. Cultural ideals are no doubt mixed with religious ideals, but when the OT writers and Christ mentioned Sodom, it was for other reasons. Sodom is a strong example, in that God reaches out to people, but they thumb their nose at him, call their wickedness "good," and refuse to do good. They court destruction.
There are very few references to homosexual behavior in the Bible, those few being the mention in Leviticus, and the mention by Paul. The OT writers did not mention the subject again, although they mentioned deadly sins and didn't hesitate to mention any other sin, including sexual sins. No mention of homosexual behavior is mentioned again until the Apostle Paul, who uncharacteristically seemed to go off the deep end in describing what we know today is totally inaccurate. The Christian community of today has listed "The Seven Deadly Sins," and they are: Pride, Envy, Anger, Avarice, Sloth, Gluttony, and Lust. Lust means unrestrained sexual (or other) appetite that leads to excesses. Homosexuality is sometimes mentioned with reference to lust, sometimes not, however it doesn't really fit the concept of lust.
The context of the example of Christ
There are a couple of ways of applying the examples of Christ. One way is very literal. For example, in the incident in Matthew chapter 8, where people are about to stone a woman caught in adultery, Christ said to the men, "Let him who is without sin among you, be the first to throw a stone at her." They all left, and then he said to the woman, "...neither do I condemn you, go, and do not sin again."
A more literal application of this is simply to see people who are considered to be sinning, forego punishment, and tell them not to do it anymore.
There is much more to this passage. Christ didn't ask them, "Which of you doesn't have a certain type of sin?" He didn't ask if they observed ritual cleanliness issues. He didn't ask them if they had ever cheated with a prostitute or committed adultery. He didn't ask them if any of them had ever had a homosexual experience or ever taken drugs. He just said, one without sin.
Secondly, he didn't address the issue with the men of whether adultery was wrong or forgivable, or what the appropriate punishment should be. He just said, he didn't "condemn" her. Christ made the point clear that we should not judge others, repeatedly saying, don't judge, don't condemn, forgive, forgive forgive.
Thirdly, and not to nit-pick, but he didn't say go and don't commit adultery again. He just said, do not sin again. Tall order, and one that Christ probably knew that she would fail. It would seem that in Christ's view, similar to the OT view, one sin is like any other sin - it separates people from God and from each other, particularly the guilt and condemnation part. Forgiving guilt and not condemning is a better approach to behavior change and healing.
In real life, few people change their behavior so quickly. Adulterers often land in the same situation that prompted them to cheat, those being both marital failure and attraction to others. The prostitute (someone who gets paid for sex), finds that she isn't accepted by many people in the work-a-day world, she can't make a living, her pimp won't leave her alone or even traps her, and she feels she has to continue being a prostitute. Most have to work their way up out of the things that entrap them and hold them down. It really doesn't do much good to tell most people not to offend again.
Are we to condemn people for homosexual behavior? Moral behavior does not include just sexual issues - many other issues were given equal or greater weight. For example, adultery is mentioned over 60 times in the OT and NT; but homosexuality is not mentioned again by the prophets, Christ, or the apostles, except for Paul. So let the person who accepts or tolerates no other immoral behavior stand up and do the condemning. If Christianity is to reassert condemnation of homosexuality, here are some of the other things listed in Leviticus Chapters 17 - 21, 23 - 26, the moral codes, that we need to examine in our own lives.
- If you eat blood (blood still in the meat - life is "in the blood"), you shall be cut off from your people, for this abomination. Note that this is a moral issue, not a clean/unclean issue.
- If you have sex with your neighbor's wife, you are to be cut off from your people, for this abomination; or in Deuteronomy the offenders shall both be put to death.
- Don't harvest your field from border to border, or strip your vineyard - leave some for the poor.
- Don't steal.
- Don't lie to each other.
- Don't make the name of your God common by using it for a curse.
- Don't oppress your neighbor.
- Pay your hired people every day - don't keep their wages overnight.
- Don't be partial to the poor, or defer to the great - these are injustices.
- Don't bear a grudge against your neighbor's people - love your neighbor as yourself.
- If you have sex with your servant, make a guilt offering.
- You are not to round off the edges of the hair on your temples or beard.
- If a stranger travels and visits among you, you are to love him as yourself.
- In trade, you are to use honest and accurate measures.
- If you visit mediums and wizards, you are to be cut off from your people, and the mediums and wizards are to be stoned to death.
- The Sabbath (seventh day) is a solemn day of rest, and you are to do no work.
- You are not to remarry a wife that you have divorced, this is an abomination.
If we try to hold these laws in strict obedience, the arguments will never end, and will emphasize legalistic tidbits while overlooking the spirit of the law and the fact that the law is for man, not for God, leading to
gross injustice. For example, the priests of the Temple argued continuously over what constituted work on the Sabbath. One such contention circa 100 BCE was over whether you should rescue a drowning animal or a child on the Sabbath. 2
The answer arrived at by some was that you could not rescue the animal because that would entail work, which was unlawful on the Sabbath. However, you could rescue the child by offering your cloak for the child to grab. But, if the rescue required you to get another
implement, that would be work, which was unlawful, so you had to let the child drown. The emphasis on legalism simply leads to narrow perspectives, perversions of the law, and injustice.
Christ confronted this same argument in his time. His answer: the Sabbath is here to serve people; people are not here to serve the Sabbath. This was not an acceptable answer to many religious leaders at that time. The Law was considered above all. (Not to disparage these people - their centuries of experience (sin and
diaspora) and their prophets and religious teachers had hammered this point into them.)
Christ persisted, for example in Luke 12 (54-59), in trying to point people away from reliance on sources outside of themselves for distinguishing between what is right and wrong in their relations. Moral conduct can't be
codified into a book of rules for every situation. People have to think for themselves.
Christ pointed out in this same passage that times change. Following a passage about his coming, and about responsibility, he said, you interpret the signs of nature, "...but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?" And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?" Instead they would drag conflicts before a judge and end up in jail.
A strict interpretation of this passage is simply that people should see the signs that Christ is coming, and also that they should resolve their disputes out of court. But the more likely context is one of
discernment. That is, discernment of the times and discernment on judging moral issues for ourselves.
The spirit of the law, and making things work between people, is what is important.
The context of leadership
Various religious denominations cite Scriptural texts as
mandates against homosexuality. The evidence is weak. There is very little mention of homosexuality, especially compared to other moral issues. The hot debates distort the truth. The emphasis on homosexuality is inconsistent with how other moral values of similar origin are handled today. The punishment is also inconsistent with ideas of punishment today. Homosexuality is an issue that churches could find reason to go either way on.
If churches and people want homosexuality condemned as a carnal behavior that God condemns, then they have a continuously
burgeoning problem. There is some evidence for it, but if they push this type of issue, they are likely to be defending themselves against a number of other things that fit the same qualifications, such as divorce and remarriage, which can't be dismissed without a clear and consistent reason. This would open a
Pandora's box in which even things that were once considered "unclean" could
conceivably fly out of the box and demand attention. One path forward is to acknowledge changes in moral legalism "through Christ's teachings," and changes in understanding, conscience, and choice. Narrowing the focus to man/boy relationships might be more to the point and more effective. Another is to characterize homosexuality as a behavior that doesn't fit with their community standards and unblemished moral image of sex only within heterosexual marriage.
Religions are a moral
beacon. They hold up a high standard of moral behavior. Religious leaders are called to the highest standard - an unblemished image for others to follow. Yet we know that religious leaders are all human beings who fail just like everyone else. And society has changed the moral behaviors that we will tolerate. Will the debate over homosexuality stretch the fabric of moral example to the breaking point so that religions fracture and cease to present a credible and effective example of moral behavior?
Acceptance of rules is undermined when behavior is condemned without a
credible reason. An effective moral example withstands the test of justification. Otherwise the rule is ignored and the source is branded as suspect. If a behavior is bad, then the experience of historical example and today's science need to confirm that.
On the one hand, the Church would have much better credibility and influence if instead of issuing condemnations based on an isolated 3000 year old piece of Scripture, would instead say, "This is what we see..."
On the other hand, religion and leaders must provide moral leadership. It is very critical to the Church how it is viewed. If a behavior is clearly not permissible, then it is important to set a strict example in leaders. If a behavior is viewed favorably by the people, then a weak example strains the credibility of the Church. During times of
transition, it is important to make choices that provide a path through the changing times.
Transportation and communication have transformed our world into a
crucible of conflicting views. The Western world is far ahead of much of the rest of the world in moral change. The US, Orient, Middle East, Africa, and South America are teeming with people of a more fundamental
persuasion that does not accept moral change, right down to the wearing of beards. In many parts of the world, men must still wear beards. To parts of the Muslim world and to the Christian world in Africa, Western morality appears to be in rapid decline into sin. The current conflicts over things like homosexuality tear at the fabric of religious moral example in this context also. Some even see this as justification to attack the Western world. Western religious culture is strained to the breaking point at both ends - the anchor of the past and the strain of the potential future.
Homosexual behavior is just as much a phobic issue today as it likely was in all ages of ancient Israelite culture. Examining and understanding it, and looking at the harmful effects of man/boy relations compared to sexual preference simply could not be done in the past, but can today. Differences that don't seem natural were/are driven out, and even differences of sexually related imperfection were prohibited from religious rites. In Paul's day, sexual activity of any kind, even marriage, was viewed by some as something that would defile you, placing the emphasis on the flesh, and should be avoided and suppressed. The question has to be raised as to why homosexuality was listed at all in the OT. Was the insistent idea of sexual purity representing religious purity the driving force? Was any sexual act that didn't reflect marriage considered blemished? Were man/boy relationships (different from gay relationships)6 found to corrupt boys for life? For those who were moral examples to others, this seems like a natural explanation.
Two thousand years after Paul, we realize the need for marriage - human life continues. We recognize the health benefits of sex and relationships. We hold the family and relationships in high esteem. We also know the conflict presented to those who want to serve, of a demanding life in marriage. We understand that there are physical tendencies that people can live their life battling, or they can travel a road that minimizes less important obstacles. What would we put on people?
The Ancient Israelites presented a picture of purity and morality to the world, 3000 years ago. Part of the idea, in holding up a high standard, was that the impure and imperfect were unworthy of the Most High God. Within their Akkadian influenced culture were ideas of the spiritual worthiness of male potency and fertility, probably then encouraged by Greko/Roman ideals of the male form, with marriage being the only worthy status in Semitic culture. Correct or not, these ideas helped build the nation of Israel by providing a high moral example.
Christ entered the picture 2000 years ago and basically said that we are all worthy of God. To emphasize it, he spent time with the taboo and impure elements of his society, talking to women (which was forbidden - even today in some cultures) about the Good News, and to tax collectors (considered scum), the Roman soldiers (considered an insult to the Jews, and hated), beggars (looked down on), the Samaritans (considered unworthy outsiders and shunned), adulteresses (sinners then considered worthy of being stoned to death), and lepers (those having a dread disease and separated from others). He condemned none of them, including the thief who hung on the cross next to him.
The Apostles and disciples who followed Christ took a different look at sexuality, probably partly influenced by, or as reactions to, the surrounding cultures. Paul saw the signs of the times, and times had changed. They downplayed the role of sex, and encouraged people to abstain from the carnal pleasures, preferring them to remain unmarried, and devoted to God. (Thankfully not many people took up this banner or most of us would not be here, 2000 years later.)
Christ also asked if we could discern the signs of the times and discern for ourselves what are the right ways and wrong ways to treat each other (what we call morality). What are the times? Today, in the 18th. through 21st. Centuries, we have been given the keys to science and medicine for unlocking the secrets of life and ending early death and debilitating disease. Today we have been given the keys to revealing the past through anthropology and archaeology, for a more complete knowledge of history, culture, and religion. Today we have been given the keys to human understanding and behavior through sociology and psychology. Today we have been given keys to spirituality, and to religion, for a better understanding of our relationship with God and each other. Today we have been given the keys to knowledge. We have been given the keys to all of the earth and even to space. Do we see different times? Or shall we revert to the ideas of unworthiness and judgment of past times, going back to our rock piles and barbaric ideas of stoning anyone who is different... our kids?
What are the signs of the times? Today we have a divorce rate of 60% during the raising and support of a child. This is despite the fact that we have never had more religious and spiritual knowledge, never had more knowledge and experience with social behavior through psychology, sociology, and anthropology. We have an AIDS epidemic in some parts of Africa from promiscuous sex, with an infection rate at 39% of the population, spiraling out of control, killing off men and women and leaving behind so many children that they are called "a lost generation." In the US and other Western nations, we have the burden of AIDS, single parent childbirth with no responsible father in the picture.
Additionally, the writing on the wall is that homosexuals are going to win legal rights that at least will recognize homosexual unions and assure legal benefits and probably recognize family and childrearing status. There is wide acceptance today of the Judeo/Christian/Muslim faiths and other faiths, which presents the opportunity to offer an influential voice to address these problems in constructive ways. The world needs strong and credible voices.
In response, our society and the Church can spend its time trying to define and defend what a family is, and wrestling over issues like homosexuality, claiming that the fault is that our moral fabric is deteriorating, arguing among ourselves over divisive "doubtful disputes" and hurling condemnations that drive others away, while a world of people desperate for help goes down the toilet.
Religions can define themselves by the issues that they make high profile. For many years, Christianity's public voice says that what it is all about is "opposing homosexuality." What is at the core of Christianity? What is Christianity's ontology? What is Christianity all about? "Opposing homosexuality" is the loud voice that reaches the public. As long as the church continues arguing about this issue, it has neither the time nor the authoritative image to address the many other larger and worthy issues that badly need addressed.
There is a sense among many that the church has a duty to take a stand on issues. Stands are typically built on moral law. Moral law features high idealism, and permits no imperfection, even among those born the way they are. Law, as it was applied in OT times, defines the format of things, the letter of the law, such as the keeping of the Sabbath instead of rescuing a drowning child - rather than focusing on the moral sensibilities of how we treat and mistreat others. In the end, the law says that one way or another everyone who is not perfect is unworthy of God and is judged unacceptable to God - all offences are the same in that they separate us from each other and from God.
There is another approach. Recognize the signs of the times, and understand the greater ideals of morality given to us in cultural images (which are metaphors), and take a stand on this. From the OT, these images are the ideal of purity in our relationship with God and with each other, undefiled by halfhearted attempts to do things right. And especially hold high the ideal of treating each other well in all respects, in business, in marriage and family relationships, in sexual relationships, and in caring for the needy.
This takes the focus off of the changing types of relationships, of which there are many, and puts it on the consequences resulting from how we treat each other. No one can argue with that. This is the real heart and soul of Christianity. Specifically, our society and the Church can look for ways to improve the divorce rate, improve the condition of single parent families, improve the raising of children, be helpful within the lifestyles that people choose, and address complicated future problems. This includes:
- Maintaining and teaching a high moral standard regarding how we treat each other. This is the essence of what God expects in Scripture, summarized as loving your neighbor as yourself, and loving the stranger in your land.
- Helping people with choosing mates through programs like Engaged Encounter (many denominations offer this), and comparing role expectations so that people are less likely to marry those who aren't suited for them. This has proven effective.
- Teaching responsibility for childbirth and childrearing, including planning, prevention, and financial responsibity.
- Teaching responsibility for sex and disease.
- Providing outreach with these programs into the larger community.
- Supporting church recommendations with unbiased statistical research.
- Teaching methods of conflict resolution so that marriages, and other social conflicts, don't go into unreachable places.
- Helping people improve their married and family lives.
- Helping individuals with personal problems that overflow into their marriages and work lives.
Whether homosexuality is good or bad may never be resolved in some people's minds. The overriding concern is how we treat each other, and the approach we take to resolving or living with differences, and differences of opinion. What is decided regarding homosexuality will reflect on whom we are as a people for a substantial time to come, regarding such areas as accepting responsibility for decisions, tolerance, our acceptance of diversity, our ability to coexist with other religions, our ability to effectively reach out to others, and our ability to make peace with cultures who have divergent attitudes.
The Cradle of Liberty Council; Boy Scouts
The Role of Sex (human sexuality series on this, Visual Writer, Web site.)
- Wayne A. Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality. 1993.
- James VanderKam, The Meaning Of The Dead Sea Scrolls, A Dispute on the Sabbath, 340, 341. 2002.
- The Origins of Christian Morality, The Thomas Tradition by Wayne A. Meeks, 135f. 1993.
- The Origins of Christian Morality, The Thomas Tradition by Wayne A. Meeks, 138 - 145. 1993.
- The Ancient Roman and Talmudic Definition of Natural Eunuchs, "Born Eunuchs" Home Page and Library, by Faris Malik.
- Man/boy relationships in the article Part 2 - Exploring sexuality, Injurious Sex. in the Human Condition - Sexuality series on this, Visual Writer, Web site (Restricted access). a href="../HumanCond/Restricted/Part2-ExploringSexuality.htm
Other important References:
Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sumerians, Their History, Culture, And Character. 1963.
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