Category Archives: Bible
This blog post is my review of the third chapter in Peter Enn’s brilliant book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending the Bible Has Made Us Unable to Read It. You can find the previous two under the Bible tag.
So far, I think this has been my favorite section of the book. After deconstructing what our expectations should be when we read scripture—especially the Old Testament—Peter Enns builds on these concepts and constructs something meaningful for us as readers. He peels back another layer of these ancient stories and reveals the depths of what the writers were trying to communicate when they penned some of the greatest stories in history.
Enns begins by really tackling the hard truth: there is no such thing as “straight” history! It doesn’t exist in the Bible, or anywhere else for that matter. Anyone who takes pen to paper and writes out an account of something that happened in the past, whether it was yesterday, or fifty years ago, or two thousand years ago, is going to write it from a particular angle. A different person might tell the exact same bit of history in a completely different way.
To illustrate this very important point, Enns explores the four Gospels and the choices each writer made when describing various key moments in Jesus’s life, such as his birth, the miracles he performs, his death, and his resurrection. Enns writes:
“Getting the past ‘right’ in a modern sense wasn’t high priority. All four Gospels are connected to history, but each also tells us a lot about how these writers saw Jesus, what they believed about him, what was important to them and their communities.”
He gives a few examples of how the three synoptic Gospels especially build off each other and tell the same miracle stories, but sometimes in different sequential order, or with different details that highlight a particular point that is in line with that particular Gospel’s overarching theme. Each writer shaped their telling of Jesus’s life in a way that was tailored to their own audience.
The implications of reading the Gospels in this manner are fascinating. For example, Luke’s Jesus is very kingly. The Magnificat, a song sung by Mary that is only present in Luke’s Gospel, immediately tells the audience that this baby is a descendant of David and Israel’s rightful king. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth reveals a different goal; he is echoing the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. God used a pillar of fire to guide the Israelites in the desert; God used a star to guide the Magi to the infant Jesus. The historicity of some of these details may be questionable, but their implications for the significance of Jesus’ birth certainly is not!
After providing several more of these examples, Enns shifts his attention from the Gospels to the Old Testament stories and evaluates them using the exact same framework. In the Old Testament, as well, we can see plentiful examples of how the writers shaped the events of history to reinforce a particular overarching agenda. He walks through the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, Chronicles, and Kings. Just as with Jesus in each of the Gospels, we see in these books that very different images of Solomon and David are presented. In the Chronicles, David is the charismatic, brave, bold king that Israel needed most at the time. The Chronicles’ David is a symbol for Israel’s future: promising and full of hope.
In the Kings and Samuel books, however, we see a more human David; he has an affair with Bathsheba and murders Uriah, and at the end of his life he disrupts the order of succession by naming his younger son Solomon as his heir (speaking of which, the theme of younger sons being favored over their older brothers is also peppered all throughout the Old Testament). He also begins the process of building the temple despite God’s clear command to the contrary. He is, in short, a very different person from the heroic figure in 1 and 2 Chronicles.
Enns rounds out the “God Likes Stories” chapter in an incredibly fascinating manner. As the final chapters of this section unfolded, I became amazed at the intricate way that so many of the Bible’s most iconic stories are interconnected. The same themes emerge again, and again, and again throughout these stories. Applying this lens of the “present shapes the past” helps to bring these themes to light.
Reading these stories in this way also helps us place them within a genre appropriate to their content. All of the connections and interplay between them point to the reality that each of these stories are myths. And before you start thinking that myths are just wild fairy tales spun out of thin air, just read Enns’ definition of a myth:
“Myths were stories that were part of ancient ways of describing ultimate reality, which is found not here and now but on a higher and more primal plane of existence, the behind-the-scenes actions of the gods in primordial time.”
The myth of creation in the first three chapters of Genesis is a perfect example of this. In this story, Adam symbolizes Israel; God creates him, makes him a promise, and fulfills that promise until Adam disobeys God, along with his wife Eve. The two are then exiled—cast out from the garden. If that doesn’t echo Israel’s own relationship with God I don’t know what does!
Likewise, in the Genesis story, there is an ancient Mesopotamian myth that the god Marduk violently murdered the goddess Tiamat, rent her body in half, and formed the waters above the firmament and below from her carcass. In Genesis, God performs the exact same creative act, except he does it by his own spoken Word; he is uncontested among gods.
Speaking of water imagery, the connection between the Genesis story, the Noah story, and the Exodus story are fascinating. By separating the waters, God is creating order out of chaos (the untamed sea was a symbol of chaos in the ancient world). And when God flooded the world in Noah’s story, he unleashed the waters to their chaotic fury, but created a vessel of safety for Noah and his family. Likewise, Moses is rescued as an infant when his mother forms a basket for him to navigate the waters of the Nile. And later, we once again see the imagery of God parting the waters when he rescues the fleeing Israelites from the Egyptians. The connections are endless!
Under the surface, each of these stories is declaring the sovereignty of God and his unrivaled power over the other gods of the day. The ten plagues, for example, are essentially a slap in the face to Egypt’s gods: they worshiped the Nile as a god of life; Yahweh turned its waters to blood, a symbol of death. The Egyptian goddess of fertility was depicted as a frog; Yahweh multiplied the frogs of the land himself. And on it goes.
If we value these texts for nothing more than what we believe they can tell us about Israel’s literal history, we are missing the forest for the trees. We are overlooking the broader, deeper things that were going on when these writers immortalized these stories in writing. Enns explains this with wonderful clarity:
“The Bible, then, is a grand story. It meets us and then invites us to follow and join a world outside of our own, and lets us see ourselves and God differently in the process. Maybe that’s really the bottom line. The biblical story meets us where we are to disarm us and change how we look at ourselves—and God.”
The writers were comfortable with changing, adding, erasing and exaggerating history to create meaning in their contemporary age, and the result is a Bible that doesn’t always behave how we expect it to, but is full of so much more dynamic retellings of God’s part in the history of Israel than we could imagine.
This will probably be the longest blog post I write in this series, because the issue of violence in the Old Testament carried out in the name of God has been one that has plagued me for years. It caused me to fear the Bible, to question the nature of God, and live in the apprehension of one, hard question that I couldn’t shake: What if I just can’t stomach a God like that?
Ever since I read these stories for the first time, it has boggled my mind that so many faithful readers of scripture stand by these stories and insist on believing that they reflect the God of the Christian faith. When I truly read these stories and let them rest in my heart, I found that I just couldn’t grasp them in the way I was taught to grasp them.
These stories felt barbaric and archaic to me, so far removed from the picture of God that we see in the New Testament person of Jesus Christ. And they are supposed to be one and the same, are they not?
Reading how Peter Enns tackles these troublesome verses in The Bible Tells Me So was such a comforting experience for me. Here was a reading that was genuine, and did not attempt to gloss over these violent texts with an explanation that justifies God’s choices. Here was a reading I could believe.
Enns uses the most famous example of genocide in the Bible—the genocide of the Canaanites by Joshua and the Israelites—as an example for how to read such stories. He outlines the views on Canaan depicted in the Bible, beginning with the curse of Canaan that occurs in Genesis 6, and continuing with example of how the Canaanites seemed to be doomed for destruction every time they are mentioned in Genesis.
The next section proceeds to summarize in detail the gory details of the destruction that Joshua and the Israelites inflict on the Canaanites, including conquering thirty-one towns, beheading kings without mercy, and slaughtering surrendered enemies. This is all trotted out as the methodical fulfillment of the convenant God made with Abraham. Enns writes:
“Bottom line, the extermination of the Canaanites is not an afterthought. According to the Bible, Israel’s God planned it from the days of Noah and the flood, and he carried out the plan with bracing determination and precision, patiently encouraging and even training the troops to get it done.” (p. 40)
After laying the groundwork facts, Enns then goes on to outline several different approaches for how we can fit this story into the larger narrative of the Bible, and a God who in later OT passages and often in the NT is a God of peace and mercy who charges his followers with turning the other cheek when met with violence.
One argument that Enns lays out claims that God has a “nice side”, and that the compassion of God is the overriding theme of scripture. The destruction of Canaan is just an exception to the rule. And yet if that is your perspective, does it really justify that one instance of violence? If a man is benevolent his entire life, and in a moment of passion commits a murder, is that murder any less egregious because of his blameless life up to that point?
The most common way that people justify this story and others like it is to point out that the Canaanites deserved retribution because they had been living irredeemably wicked lives. God had to make an example of them and purge them from the land he had promised to Israel as a way of maintaining the purity of his chosen people and as a lesson for us about the seriousness of rebellion against him.
Ultimately, though, this argument also breaks down when you study scripture carefully and within the context of everything Enns has laid out about God’s covenant thus far. He writes:
“They were contaminating the land that God set aside for the Israelites since the days of Abraham and so had to be exterminated. Take any other people group and put them in the land of Canaan, and they would be the ones tasting Israelite steel, and their immorality would be described as the worst ever. Take the Canaanites and put them somewhere else, and we’d never hear about them.” (p. 51)
There was nothing special about the Canaanites themselves, and everything special about the particular land they occupied. We would be reading of God’s wrath if any other people group had settled there, and that group would have likewise been transformed in a scapegoat to justify the manner in which God fulfilled his covenant to the Israelites.
There is more. In the Old Testament narrative of Joshua’s conquest, there are instances when the Israelite army encounters towns of non-Canaanites. There is no indication that these towns are subject to the judgment of God in a manner similar to the Canaanite. Yet under God’s command, these people are to become slaves of the Israelites if they surrender. To be internally consistent in a “Canaanites are wicked” approach, you must also contend that it is God’s divine judgment to divide up innocents as spoils of war (For an example of such an occurrence, see Deuteronomy 20:10-15).
If we read the exact same stories in the Koran or any other religious text, we would denounce that god as utterly reprehensible, or at the very least archaic and irrelevant. Likewise, we must contort the biblical texts in order to defend God’s genocidal commands in our scriptural canon.
After laying out all the wrong ways to approach Old Testament violence, Enns spends his final sections of this chapter describing how we can apply an informed, holistic reading of these texts that takes cultural limitations into account.
We cannot pull these texts out of their historical context and treat them differently, despite being part of the canon of scripture. Enns writes:
“So much of Israel’s culture looks very similar to what we see elsewhere in the ancient world. Israel’s system of laws, worship practices, notions of kingship, style of poetry, attitudes toward women and slaves, ideas about how the cosmos was created, and on and on, were unquestionably shaped by its time and place—which is to say, Israel’s culture developed the way every other culture in the history of humanity developed: as part of a larger cultural environment.” (p. 56)
This larger cultural environment that Enns refers to is one in which you must conquer or be conquered, kill or be killed. It was a violent world in which mass slaughter was rampant, and a victory in battle was often attributed to the power of the god the conquerors believed in. Read in this light, it makes perfect sense that the story of Israel and its conquest of Canaan unfolded the way that it did.
Essentially, the Israelites wrote their own version of history that glorified the God they served and created an identity for themselves: God’s chosen people, inheritors of a land where they could establish themselves as a nation with roots. In the pages of the Old Testament, we see a perspective of God that is limited by the perspective of His chosen people. God let his children tell their own story about Him in a language they could understand, a language heavily influenced by their own cultural understanding.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading this new book released by Peter Enns called The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending the Bible Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Let me just say up front that this book is fantastic. I’m enjoying it immensely: so much, in fact, that I’ve decided to do a chapter-by-chapter review of the entire thing. The perspective Enns brings to the table is such an important one, and I think that if we all read the Bible in this way we would find that we can read it with reverence and intellectual integrity without forcing it into a mold it was never meant to fill.
Right out of the gate, Enns makes it pretty clear that this is no typical perspective on how we as Bible-believing Christians ought to read the scriptures. He writes:
“In the Bible, we read of encounters with God by ancient peoples, in their times and places, asking their questions, and expressed in language and ideas familiar to them. Those encounters with God were, I believe, genuine, authentic, and real. But they were also ancient—and that explains why the Bible behaves the way it does.
This kind of Bible—the Bible we have—just doesn’t work well as a point-by-point exhaustive and timelessly binding list of instructions about God and the life of faith. But it does work as a model for our own spiritual journey. An inspired model, in fact.” (p. 23)
The basic purpose of the book’s introduction is to lay the groundwork for how Enns will be approaching the Bible throughout the book. He gives a basic overview of his life and how his views of scripture shifted radically shortly after he graduated from college. He was listening in on a theological conversation between an atheist friend and a Christian friend, and the reality that they had such knowledge and conviction about what they believed, and he felt ignorant by comparison.
This triggered a journey for him in which he studied the Bible, and then began reading all the books on theology, philosophy, church history, commentaries and more that he could get his hands on. He went to Harvard to pursue a doctorate in Old Testament Studies, where he encountered some of the bizarre ways in which the New Testament writers—especially Paul—interepreted the stories of the Old Testament. And he began to learn how comfortably those stories fit among their contemporary narratives.
“I feel I have been given permission to be honest with myself and with God about a Bible that behaves so unBible-like without being told God is deeply disappointed in me for doing so and might turn on me at any second.
I gained a Bible—and a God—I was free to converse with, complain to, talk back to, interrogate, and disagree with, not as an act of rebellion, but as an act of faith and trust, rather than needing to tiptoe around lest a grumpy God lash out with plague, famine, and sword if I get the Bible wrong—like an abusive, drunken father you don’t want to wake from his nap.
I was learning to trust God enough to know that, like family he will come through no matter what, that his love and commitment to me is deepr than how my brain happens to process information at any given moment, to trust that God will be with me, not despite my journey but precisely because I was trusting God enough to take it.” (p. 21)
As I read through Enn’s description of coming to terms with what the Bible truly is, and not what we force it to be, I was amazed at his ability to take the biblical texts at face value and yet remain respectful of its position as an inspired scripture that can teach us so many key things about God and ourselves. What this introduction showed me more than anything else is that you don’t have to bend the Bible to your will—or even to Church tradition—to let it transform you. You don’t need to have every passage hammered out into a malleable caricature of what is truly going on.
You can read the Bible exactly for what it is: ancient literature reflecting the ancient ideas of multiple men and women throughout history. They each colored history in their own ways for different purposes. And this doesn’t render it useless to us at all today; it just means we need to approach it with its context in mind, and read it in a way that is consistent with that context. Only then will the deeper meanings in scripture jump out that perhaps you had previous glossed over with an oversimplified or misinformed reading.
After driving this point home, Enns proceeds with introducing the first difficult topic he would be covering in the book: Old Testament violence. In my next installment of this series, I will provide an overview of Enn’s treatment of stories of God-ordained genocide in the Old Testament and why it is a poor reading of these texts to treat them as reflective of God’s nature or God’s judgment.
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” ~ Matthew 7:13-14
This little pair of verses is one of the most commonly quoted among Christians. It is almost a mantra, I have heard it so many times growing up: from the pulpit, from my dad, and perhaps most often, in my own head.
When I was taught this passage growing up, it was almost always about salvation. It split human beings into two groups: the big group of people who take the easy way in life, and the small group whose lives are flipping hard because they are living for Jesus.
As a Christian, I’ve undoubtedly had to consider that I belong to the smaller group. And based on the way I was taught this passage, I’ve always understood it to be based on belief. I choose the hard beliefs; I choose the beliefs that leave people thinking I’m a judgmental asshole sometimes. I choose the beliefs that result in being misunderstood, or naive. Because of course, if this Christian life is easy and without trials and difficulties, and if my beliefs aren’t challenged and opposed by the world around me, I must not be on the narrow path after all, right?
I wish that Jesus had offered more context when he spoke this saying. But there really isn’t any; it comes right in the middle of a bunch of other quick, brief teachings: don’t judge, don’t throw you pearls before swine (a weird passage if I ever heard one!), have confidence that God will give you what you ask for.
In light of that, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we can look at these verses with an entirely different lens than the salvation/damnation paradigm. A little while ago, I read Rob Bell’s wonderful little book Love Wins. He has this remarkable way of personalizing Jesus’ teachings in the book while staying faithful to their message. He talked about heaven and hell—i.e., the narrow way and the broad way—not in terms of two places that human beings are divided into based on God’s judgment, but rather states of being that we choose for ourselves in this life—in the here and now.
So if we choose bitterness over a past wrong, we’ve chosen hell. If we choose to go out of our way to show kindness to someone, we’ve chosen heaven.
I think that same idea can be applied to this saying about the narrow way and the broad way. I think it might tie in nicely with all the stuff Paul says (in Romans I think, but probably in other letters too) about the lure of our sinful spirits, and about how difficult it is to choose Jesus. And really, choosing Jesus and choosing life are the same thing at the end of the day, aren’t they?
Anyway, tying back to what I said earlier about choosing the hard beliefs, I think the narrow way, the way that leads to life, isn’t about an exclusive set of beliefs. Or at least it isn’t just about that. I think so much of it has to do with how I view people, how inclusive I am of those around me.
At the end of the day, that is so much harder than having beliefs that “the world” thinks are silly and archaic. I’ve done that my whole life—believe me, I’ve got that down pat, and it doesn’t really faze me anymore (probably because I have come to realize that a lot of my beliefs were silly and archaic!). What is so much harder is breaking down stereotypes, seeing the people around me for the beautiful souls that they are instead of judging them based on the myriad ways of judging that human beings have invented and then passed down to their children.
That is hard. That is a narrow path that few people ever find.
But maybe, at least when looking at it this way, recognizing the path you are on is the first step to retracing your steps and finding your way back to the narrow path that Jesus desires us to take. I don’t think choosing the broad path has to be the final word, for otherwise what is the purpose of grace?
It’s so incredible when you peel back the layers of scripture like this, and unfold the myriad meanings that you can draw even from little sayings like this. That is why I love the Gospels so much; each story, each saying, each teaching can be viewed from a dozen different dimensions, and can result in a dozen different meanings. It’s pretty incredible when you think about it.
So yeah, I think narrow path could represent choosing a set of beliefs that most of the people around you have rejected. It could also represent the kind of radical inclusion that Jesus displayed (a path that I think many Christians today are totally not on!). Or it could be about something else entirely. You could pick your demons, really, based on what you are struggling with or what areas of ignorance or blind spots you currently have in your life. That’s the beauty of stories; there’s more than one way to read them.
**Please be aware: this review contains significant spoilers for the film Noah**
Since its release, Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah has garnered extremely polarized responses. Some praised it as a masterpiece, and others deplored its alterations of the original story of Noah and the ark, which can be found in Genesis 6-9. I had been anticipating the film for some time, and my interest was piqued despite all the harsh Facebook statuses about how much it butchered God’s Word. Some of the more liberal blogs I follow were posting quite positive reviews, so I thought it was worth giving it a chance for myself.
I’m very glad that I did! I found so much to love about this movie, even if it did include a few plot lines that I felt were unnecessarily over-the-top. What I enjoyed most about Noah was how Aronofsky brought the characters to life and reminded us in very sobering fashion that the story of Noah is not happy one; it is a story about genocide.
I’ve read the Bible story many times throughout my life, but it wasn’t until I watched the film that it occurred to me how tragic it must have been for Noah and his family to live through the destruction of all human and animal life on earth except themselves and the animals on the ark. What a burden!
Aronofsky fleshes out every character in the film, infusing the story with humanity. Most especially, I found his treatment of the character Ham to be absolutely fascinating. Of all the characters in the film, it is with Ham that I sympathize most. He creates tension in the story because he is Noah’s foil; Noah seeks to preserve nature, but Ham has no qualms about uprooting flowers. Noah is merciless (or faithful, depending on what way you look at it) in his insistence that all humanity is condemned according to God’s will, but Ham has compassion for a girl and tries to take her on the ark as his wife. Noah advocates non-violence, and uses his weapons only to protect his family, but Ham is fascinated when the film’s antagonist, Tubal-Cain, offers him a battle-ax. Ham is a complicated character, clearly lured by the evil in his heart yet desperate to rescue the victims in his life at all costs—even the cost of his father’s life.
I also found the character of Noah to be compellingly faithful to the biblical account. His loyalty to God—whom he and others call the Creator—is unwavering. Though the viewer senses his anguish, he remains stubbornly obedient to God’s will. Throughout the film, Noah is faced with decisions in which his own moral conscience is pitted against what he believes is God’s divine will. His resolute determination to carry out that will, despite the pleadings of his wife and sons to the contrary, reveal a character consistent with the man described in the Bible.
Noah is committed to righteousness and obedience, and he is willing to follow God’s commands even when they border on the heinousness. In one of the most shocking scenes in the film, Ham attempts to rescue a girl from Tubal-Cain’s camp and bring her on the ark. As they are escaping, however, her foot gets caught in an animal trap, and when Noah arrives to fetch his son, he drags Ham away and leaves the girl to suffer a grisly death at the hands of an approaching mob of men. And later, aboard the ark, Noah is faced with an even more impossible choice in his commitment to carry out the task he believes God gave him.
There are, of course, several parts of the film that have caused contention among Christians. However, I had no qualms with the liberties Aronofsky took with the source material for two reasons. First, poetic license is inevitable. Not only is the biblical story of Noah quite brief, I found through reading various articles that no major detractions from the Bible story were spun purely out of the director’s imagination. Other, non-canonical ancient manuscripts such as the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilee were also used as source material for the film, and it is from these manuscripts that characters such as the fallen, rock-encrusted angels are derived. For an analysis of how these manuscripts were used in the film, check out this article.
Other viewers were accepting of the film’s deviation from the biblical account, but took issue with Noah because of the way God was depicted. Instead of a loving Father who is grieved at humanity’s wickedness and in close relationship with his servant Noah, God is depicted as cold and distant, relentless in his judgment of humanity.
I disagree with this analysis, and that is the second reason I found the film to be a fair and faithful representation of the biblical account and the nature of God. In the climax of the film, when Noah is faced with the most difficult decision of his life in which he must choose mercy or judgment, he chooses mercy, and listens to the compassion in his own heart rather than what he believes is the divine, wrathful edict of his Creator. And Ila, Shem’s wife and the recipient of this mercy, suggests that God chose to save Noah because he knew his heart, and he knew that in the end when faced with the choice between judgment and mercy, Noah would choose mercy; Noah would choose love.
In conclusion, I found the film to be a remarkably profound adaptation that explores the deepest questions offered by its source material: Is humanity worth saving? Is God’s character one of love or judgment? Are human beings inherently evil or good? At the end of the day, which characterization will win out? Noah asks all these questions and more in a manner that is bold yet tactful, urging the viewer to think beyond the basic frame of the story. And an adaptation that accomplishes that is, in my opinion, a faithful one.
The other day I was listening to another of Jonathan Martin’s fantastic sermon podcasts, and there is a small portion of what he shared that I feel will stay with me for a very long time. Pastor Jonathan was briefly discussing scripture, and how every word of it ought to point us back to Jesus. Then he started getting to how Jesus reads scripture throughout the four gospels, and what those readings say about Jesus and his authority as the Son of God. Luke 4:16-20 is the passage he zeroed in on, and in Luke he reads it like this:
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,”
Notice the comma at the end of the excerpt? In verse 20 it says Jesus finished his reading, promptly handed the scroll back to the scribe, and sat down. He finished his reading in the middle of a sentence! What is that all about? Well, when you go back to Isaiah 61 where this passage is originally found, the part of the sentence that Jesus leaves out reads: “and the day of vengeance of our God.” I find it beautiful and fascinating and redemptive that Jesus would intentionally leave that part out. Of course it doesn’t mean that God’s vengeance will not come, and that there won’t be a day when we are called to judgment for how we have lived our lives.
I’m completely speculating here, but I wonder if Jesus may have read the text that way to establish the redemptive purpose for which he came. Perhaps he wanted the people to know, “Hey, the Messiah’s here, the ‘year of the Lord’s favor’ has come upon you now after centuries of waiting.” I wonder if Jesus wanted to end with healing for hurting, freedom for those in bondage, redemption instead of wrath.
But like I said, that’s just speculation.
I’ve been meaning to write this series for a long time, and I am now very excited to finally write down all the thoughts that I have read about and mulled over for more than a year now.
This blog post is going to be written in a considerably more formal and long-winded tone than most of what I write here. The reason for this is that once I get into “English major” mode and set about exploring a thesis I’ve established, the formal writing style tends to flourish. That being said, I will be breaking up this topic into two separate blog posts. This post addresses the so-called “clobber passages”, the six passages in the Bible that Christians typically use to condemn homosexuality. In my next blog post, I will address the scriptural foundation for why I find it plausible to affirm gay relationships.
Before I officially begin my exploration of the “clobber” passages, however, I must offer the disclaimer that most of what I discuss below is a summarization of others’ research, all of which is cited at the end of this essay. I am not a Bible scholar, and indeed I have not even taken formal courses on biblical studies. But that does not mean I don’t have a brain and can’t uncover and examine biblical interpretations and assess their validity for myself. So my words below reflect the soundest, most persuasive arguments I have found which have informed my current understanding of scripture and homosexuality.
And so, without further ado, please enjoy part one of this series…
* * *
I believe the Bible is the holy, inspired Word of God. I also believe that covenant gay relationships are equal in all respect to straight ones. I know that most modern evangelicals would find those two statements to be entirely incompatible, but the research I have done over the last few years has led me to believe that this is not the case.
In this half of my discussion of homosexuality and the Bible, I will be discussing five of the six passages that Christians typically turn to in order to condemn gay relationships as sinful. Let me say before I begin, however, that I recognize that it is not enough to refute traditionalist arguments concerning the so-called “clobber passages”; I must also be able to provide a biblically cohesive reason for why I believe scripture supports gay relationships. This is what I will be addressing in the second half of my series.
The first reference to homosexual sex in the Bible is in Genesis 19. This passage narrates the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and God’s decision to destroy the cities because of its inhabitants’ many sins. Due to its irrelevance, I will not be incorporating this passage into my discussion of the traditionalist biblical proof texts on homosexuality. I believe that the context of this passage as well as cross-references in Jude and Ezekiel are clear enough that we can safely surmise that the homosexual acts described in it are domineering and lust-driven acts of rape that have no place in this discussion. I will leave it at that.
In Leviticus 18 and 20, we find two matching series of commandments regulating sexual practices among the early Israelites. Embedded in this list, we find a commandment forbidding same-sex erotic behavior (v. 18:23) and a subsequent decree of capital punishment for such behavior (v. 20:13.) There are several ways of understanding these verses. Some identify them as sexual purity codes established to distinguish the Israelites from the surrounding cultures of the time. They refer to the beginning verses of Leviticus 18 to support this claim.
While I believe this is a sound observation, I also think that there is more to these verses than that. Furthermore, to group Leviticus 18 and 20 under the category of moral law does not acknowledge the bizarre and erratic nature of the laws—for example, why do these verses forbid intercourse during a woman’s period (v. 19) and having sex with a woman and her daughter (v. 17), yet remain silent on more general sexual sins such as premarital sex and adultery? These laws are oddly specific.
Therefore the most sensible analysis that I have found for the purpose of these laws had nothing whatsoever to do with morality and everything to do with protecting the social hierarchy of ancient Israelite culture. These laws also served the purpose of protecting women and children, who were considered socially inferior in a patriarchal society. Preserving the patriarchal order of male headship was necessary for their safety and the general preservation of societal structure. Therefore, men having sex with men would have disrupted that order. These laws were not established for moral reasons but for social ones.
There are no further verses in the Old Testament that refer in any way to homosexuality, so we will now turn our attention to the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:9-11, Paul lists off a number of sins, traditionally called the vice lists. Homosexuality is included in both lists, and when most Christians read these verses it can seem plain as day that Paul is condemning same-sex behavior as universally and inherently sinful. However, a deeper look at the original wording of these verses suggests a great deal of ambiguity.
In the Greek, the word translated as “homosexuality” in both 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy is the word “arsenakoitai”, which is a compound word that combines the Greek words for “man” and “bed.” So it is very clear that “arsenakoitai” refers to some form of same-sex erotic behavior. However, it is difficult to get more specific than this, because “arsenakoitai” was used so rarely in writings contemporary with Paul’s letters. In fact it is so rare that some scholars even suggest that Paul created the word himself.
The 1 Timothy passage sheds some light on how we may be able to interpret “arsenakoitai” properly. The verses in the NKJV read:
“But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.”
It is very interesting to note that this vice list is broken down into closely connected pairings: “the lawless and insubordinate”, “the unholy and profane,” etc. In the grouping which includes homosexuality (here translated as sodomites, betraying again the ambiguity of the Greek word), we find that it is grouped with fornicators and kidnappers. Why would this word be grouped with seemingly unrelated sins, except because they are in some way connected?
I would offer the suggestion that “arsenakoitai” refers to Romans who indulged in pederasty. This would explain the word grouping. It is very likely that the Greek words for “fornicators” and “kidnappers” refer to male prostitutes and the slave traders responsible for selling them to the “arsenakoitai.” Therefore what Paul is condemning is not homosexuality as we understand it today, but rather exploitive sexual practices among first century Romans.
Again, though, the interpretation of the word is not conclusive. The view offered above, however, is the one that I have found to be most faithful to the context of scripture and the meaning of the original Greek words. Therefore to translate this word generically as “homosexuality” is an unfortunate travesty.
Because the same exact compound word appears in the 1 Corinthians passage, I will not address it further here but rather let this interpretation of 1 Timothy stand, since this passage offers a little more context than 1 Corinthians. It should be noted, however, that the vice lists in the two passages as well as the manner in which Paul expounds on these lists is remarkably similar. Suffice it to say, based on the wide variety of ways the original Greek is interpreted and translated, I believe it is completely implausible to rely exclusively on these two verses as a reliable way of deciding the sinfulness of homosexuality.
This leaves one last passage in the Bible which addresses homosexual sex: Romans 1:18-32. I believe this is the most compelling of all the “clobber” passages, and so I will be spending more time addressing it than I have the other verses.
In most of my studies, I have found that those who affirm gay relationships appeal to verses 22 and 23 to suggest that Paul is talking about Roman pagans who worshiped idols (specifically, the Roman goddess of fertility, Aphrodite) and engaged in unnatural sexual rites (both heterosexual and homosexual in nature) as part of their temple worship.
While I believe this interpretation has some degree of merit, I also do not believe it describes the entirety of what is going on in Romans 1. The inclusive language in verses 18-21 suggest that Paul is talking about a much larger group of people than just a few Roman pagans. Likewise, the extremely long list of sins in verses 28-32 seems to include the sorts of sins that all of humanity is guilty of, and not just a selective, small group known for its temple sexual practices.
In his review of Eugene Rogers’ book Sexuality and the Christian Body, Richard Beck suggests that the key to understanding Romans 1 lies in the general human understanding of race and gender. Throughout history, the “standard view” holds that women are morally inferior to men, and thus more prone to sexual deviance and promiscuity. Likewise, minority races have been considered the same way (e.g., in antebellum America, black men had a scandalous reputation for having an unnatural sexual appetite for white women). As Beck writes:
“In both cases we see how immorality generally, and sexual licentiousness in particular, get attributed to natural kinds (e.g., race, gender). In the Old and New Testaments this same reasoning was applied to the Gentiles. As a natural kind the Gentiles were considered to be naturally prone to immorality and sexual deviance. Paul gives us the standard Jewish view of the morality of Gentiles in Romans 1.”
So we see that this passage is about much more than Roman pagans or even modern-day gays and lesbians. Paul is describing Jewish sensibilities toward Gentiles, only to refute them two chapters later. In Romans 3:9 Paul essentially levels the playing field and reminds the Jews that there is no morally superior race, but all come to God equally, as sinners in need of redemption. The point, then, of Romans 1 was not to condemn homosexuality as we understand it today, but rather to outline Jewish understandings of moral inferiority—including sexual deviance—then turn the principle on its head.
In conclusion, it is important to remember that these arguments in and of themselves do not suggest support for the morality of gay relationships. Rather the purpose of writing this is understand how and why these passages describe specific homosexual acts as inherently immoral (as in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy), culturally binding purity laws regarding gay sex (Leviticus 18 and 20), and general statements about the sexual perversion of a class of people considered to be morally inferior (Romans 1).
While I believe the interpretation I have offered of passages is valid, I also recognize that it is not enough to refute the conservative approach to these verses; I must also be able to present why I believe scripture affirms and supports gay relationships. If scripture is to be our guide for morality and living a Christ-centered life, we must be able to draw from its pages a cohesive understanding of what it means to live such a life, in our romantic relationships as well as in every other part of our lives.
Part two of this series, which I am very excited to write, will address this. After all, writing about the “good news” is so much more of a blessing than exploring the problems with the “bad news.” I hope you enjoyed this, and look out for part two to be published within the next few days.
* * * *
Recently, I have had my great admiration for the popular author and blogger Rachel Held Evans deeply questioned. I was told that although she was an eloquent and beautiful writer, her ideas were incompatible with scripture and that I should be very careful about exposing myself to human thoughts that run contrary to God’s Word. It felt like a small taste of what Rachel must experience on a regular basis from other evangelicals, and it wasn’t an experience I enjoyed very much—although I must admit that the person I was speaking with inspired me to remember that God’s word always has the authority (as I noted in my previous blog post).
However, after watching Bill Nye and Ken Ham debate about creation vs. evolution last night, I feel the need to express why exactly I appreciate Rachel’s perspective so much. Just like I told the friend I had the aforementioned discussion with, I love Rachel’s writing because it is so inclusive. She offers room for disagreement and never claims that her word is the final word, or even worse that her word is God’s Word. She writes with a tremendous amount of humility, respect, and faithfulness both to scripture and to this modern world we live in. She helps me make sense of things that otherwise seem impossible to reconcile, and for that I am infinitely grateful.
All right. I’m done gushing now; let me get back to my purpose for writing this post. This morning I was perusing all the various reactions to the debate, and as often happens when I’m reading internet articles, I ended up following a rabbit trail to articles written a few years ago on the human origins debate and the Bible. In the articles I dug up, Rachel and Ken Ham were essentially responding to each other’s statements about the authority of the Bible and what it means for the historicity of the creation account.
On his website, Ken Ham posted this article, which I found to be infuriating. It was loaded with buzzwords and buzz phrases that really got under my skin and reveal the reality of Ham’s agenda. He describes evolution as the “indoctrination of our age”, essentially dismissing it as a religion and not a science that has no scientific plausibility and a plethora of harmful effects on my generation. Ham also laments that Rachel “has no doubt been led astray by compromising church leaders”, despite the fact that she is very clear in her book and on her blog that honest research into the science of evolution led to the position she has adopted, and that her change of mind had little to do with what liberal church leaders were teaching her.
Speaking of the word liberal, Ham also makes this harsh statement: “the BioLogos website indoctrinates people in rank liberalism”. BioLogos is an organization founded by the head of the human genome project, Francis Collins. The website offers an exploration of theistic evolution, and how we can understand that evolutionary science points to the immanent and awesome power of our God. The scientists at BioLogos simply hold that science and religion are completely capable of compatibility. There is nothing rank or liberal about it—Ken Ham is simply projecting negatively saturated political ideology onto a science organization.
What bothered me the most about Ham’s article was his avid devotion to fighting a culture war over this his beliefs. He concludes his article with this remarkably antagonistic statement: “Well, Rachel, I have news for you. Your generation is not ready to call a truce in this battle in the culture wars; in fact, we are finding more and more people are getting enthusiastically involved in fighting the culture war by standing uncompromisingly and unashamedly on God’s authoritative Word.” Whether you agree with Ham or not, I think it is quite safe to say that his words are divisive, one-sided, and completely committed to keeping battle lines intact.
And here I circle back to why I have so much more respect for Rachel Held Evans than I do for Ken Ham, even though it has been suggested to me that her ideas are not “firmly grounded in Scripture.” She answers Ken Ham’s accusations in this blog post, which she concludes with this wise statement:
“I am not asking Ken to change his interpretation of Genesis or even his devotion to it. If he believes it is the best interpretation, then he should continue to commit his outstanding energy, creativity, and resourcefulness to promoting it. I respect his conviction and I count him as a brother in Christ because, at the end of the day, Ken and I agree on what’s most important —that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.
All I am asking is that he honor this common bond and join me in making peace, in acknowledging that there is enough room in Christianity for both of us and that we can talk about this issue without our weapons drawn. We don’t need a Church in which everyone agrees on the age of the earth. We need a Church that is committed to the Apostle Paul’s instructions that “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18).””
This is a far cry from Ham’s devotion to a culture war, and serves to illustrate the fundamental difference in these two ideologies. Ham says the entire Christian faith depends on a literal interpretation of Genesis. Rachel says such things as differing ideas on biblical interpretation are peripheral to our commitment to unity as a body of Christ. There is room for a truce, room for conflicting ideas to put down their weapons and join each other in communion. Why is that so hard to accept?
After a fantastic and convicting conversation with the young adult group leader at my church, I’ve had a lot to mull over. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the Bible and its role in my life, and how I ought to approach it. Basically, I was told to be careful about the Christian blogs I read because they may offer ideas that are not based in scripture. I ought to be going to the Bible first when seeking to understand doctrine, then weighing the verses I read against what other Christians are saying before I embrace a particular doctrine.
That would be all well and good if scripture were always clear. But it’s literature, and so of course there are many layers and complexities and meanings to its holy words. And the blogs I read help me make sense of those words and offer a layer of human understanding that in some instances infuses these well-loved verses with a meaning and a perspective I could never have found on my own.
I have realized something, however. I have realized that I do rely on the blogs too much. In fact they are drowning out my own voice, and when I debate controversial topics with people, it isn’t my own ideas that I am expressing, but rather someone else’s. I think, perhaps, that I rely on the voices of others on the internet because I feel as though I can’t defend my ideas without them. Like I’m not smart enough or something like that, so I have to look up sound, compelling evidence that I am right.
And…I think there might be a thread of truth to the idea that I allow the blogs to color how I read scripture. I guess I’ve just come to realize that, at least when it comes to believing certain doctrines, sola scriptura isn’t enough. Listening to the ideas of my contemporaries—both on blogs and fellow believers at my church—is very important. And so is listening to church tradition, intellectually sound reasoning and the nudgings of my own heart. But reading scripture to figure out doctrine is also different from reading scripture with a spirit that is seeking to learn how to be more like Jesus.
So I’m going to try to focus on tempering my blog-reading time and spend more time in the Word with a teachable spirit that does not ignore the ideas I read on the web, but also does not elevate them to a position they shouldn’t hold either. Because, let’s face it—when it comes down to it, the Bible has a lot more to teach me than the blogs do.
Someone told me off today for reading blogs too much and not reading my Bible enough. “You ought to be reading your Bible one hour for every hour that you spend reading blogs,” she said. “The only way you’ll know to identify counterfeit messages on the web is if you study the real deal,” she said.
What she doesn’t know is that reading Scripture terrifies me. Back in August, I resolved to read through the entire Bible. I’d never done it before, and I thought it was about time I knew this religious text that is treasured so highly by my Christian tradition. So I started in Genesis, and started rolling through. No surprises in that book. I grew up in the church; I know all about Adam and Eve, Cain, the Tower of Babel, Noah and the ark, Abraham and his descendents down through Joseph.
I knew the beginning of Exodus pretty well too. I know about Moses, and the Ten Plagues, and the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. I know about the parting of the Red Sea, and Moses’ acquiring of the Ten Commandments in the midst of the Israelites’ rebellious worship of the golden calf.
After that, though, things started spiraling out of control. Much of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers are chock-full of stories and laws that are absolutely senseless. There are pages and pages—almost the entire book of Leviticus!—devoted to the specific requirements for how the tabernacle should be built. There are stories like this one, which I wrote about in a whirlwind of fury and betrayal. There are stories in which Israelites rebel, again and again, and God decimates them again and again. We see a petty, vengeful God in these early books of the Old Testament.
Reading those stories—reading about the rebellion of Korah, the mass murders at Sodom and Gomorrah, random lashings of violence in Numbers 11 as well as other bouts of plagues and even being bitten to death by fiery serpents (What?!?!! You say? Look it up – Numbers 21:6!) freaked me out so much. I don’t understand how people like the one I mentioned at the beginning of this post can read through the Bible cover-to-cover multiple times and not be absolutely terrified of the Old Testament God. I mean, I read it once, and that was all it took for me to fling my Bible away like it had scorched me and then dissolve into a puddle of tears!
So, that is that. That is why I just can’t read the Bible. Maybe that make me weak in spirit and unable to handle the truth of who God is, but I’d rather live in denial of the murderous, vengeful, sporadically violent God of the OT than embrace that God as one I am meant to worship and give my whole life to.
Here is another point I’d like to make that perhaps might be better reserved for a separate blog post, but I’m going to write it here anyway because it’s my blog and why not?
I think that even the staunchest fundamentalist cannot come to grips with the kind of god I described above. That is why, in the Answers in Genesis curriculum (and, I might add, every single Sunday school class I’ve ever been a part of), they skip from Moses to Joshua and ignore all the terrible stuff that goes on in between. And why is that? I think it’s because we human beings are created in the image of God, and our hearts reflect a dim, warped, but real expression of the nature of God. I think stories of God sending fiery serpents to bite Israelites to death makes us more uncomfortable that we’re willing to admit, and we don’t talk about verses like that because we intrinsically know that the violent God of the Old Testament is just irreconcilable with the merciful, violence-condemning Jesus that we see in the New Testament.
So yeah. I am done trying to jump through hoops and talking about how God is just, so He mass-murders sinners. I’m done talking about how Israelite rebellion deserves death, and I’m done talking about how the firstborn of Egypt are all just collateral damage in God’s divine plan to deliver the Israelites.
That God is not my God. And I’m not going to pretend He is, and neither should you.