Pastor's Blog

[We did not publish the audio of the sermon from August 24, 2014.  Instead I will present the essence of the sermon in two articles.]

 

One of the persistent criticisms of evangelical Christians is that we claim to “believe in the Bible” while at the same time refusing to follow all of the laws of the Old Testament – e.g. we do cut the hair on the sides of our heads and we do wear mixed fabrics, etc..  Critics call this “cherry-picking” and see it as a refusal to be inconsistent with our own beliefs.  The critics, however, are going after a straw man because they have misunderstood both Christianity and nature of the laws of Moses.

 

How did Jesus view the law of Moses?  An excellent test passage to answer that question is found in Matthew 19 where the Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful to divorce a wife for any cause (Matthew 19.3).  They wanted to debate the divorce regulations spelled out in Deuteronomy 24.1-4.  Jesus surprises them by pointing instead to the ideals of creation.

 

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female,

and said ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the

two shall become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has

joined together, let not man separate.”  (Matthew 19.4-6). 

 

God’s ideal was for a man and a woman to become one – and stay together for life.  That is the divine ideal.  (I would note in passing that Jesus teaches that Genesis teaches that marriage is heterosexual, and that is not Mosaic statute but the ideal of creation.)

 

If the divine ideal is that couples shouldn’t divorce, then what, the Pharisees ask, is the purpose of Deuteronomy 24 and its directions for divorce proceedings?  Jesus responds: 

 

“Because of the hardness of your heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.  And I say to you:  whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matthew 19.8-9).


God didn’t ordain divorce.  Sinful men departed from the divine ordeal and instituted divorce.  God allowed it – and regulated it to keep evil from being exceedingly evil and to move men toward better and more profitable and productive behavior.  And to accomplish that, Jesus says, the same divine law which forbids adultery (Deuteronomy 5.18) also permits a form of adultery (Deuteronomy 24). 

 

This is where the critics jump in.  You claim this is the perfect law of God;  so how can the perfect law of God allow such a ridiculous contradiction?  Isn’t the law of Moses the word of God?  And if it is the word of God, isn’t it the perfect ideal for all people everywhere at all times? 

The critic may argue;  evangelicals believe.  We accept what the Bible says and develop our understanding of things from it – not from some ideal that we make up in our own heads.  If we follow what Jesus says in Matthew 19, we will answer:  “Yes”, the law of Moses is clearly the word of God and “no”, the law of Moses is not the eternal or universal ideal. This is a surprise to many people (including some Christians) but Jesus’ prescription directs us to see the laws of Moses in this way.

 

Jesus makes it clear that Moses’ laws are NOT the ideal for which to strive, and were never intended to be so.  The divine ideal is found “in the beginning” – before the entrance of sin.  Sin complicates things, corrupts them, and makes them less than ideal.  The law of Moses doesn’t provide the ideal;  it gives some direction in managing life in the less-than-ideal world in which ancient Israel found itself.  Though the laws of Moses are less than ideal, they are still “good” (Romans 7.12) [modern people struggle with that notion – more on that in the second article]. 

 

God Himself is infinite and never changes, but people are finite – of limited understanding – and change with circumstances and newly acquired knowledge.  In communicating with mankind, God comes to us where we are.  He doesn’t communicate everything all at once and He doesn’t require the attainment of moral ideals in one monstrous step.  Instead God allows man to be fallen and regulates fallenness in such a way that people and cultures are moved in increments away from evil and towards the ideal.  Atheists and secularists may protest that God ought not work this way.  Their protests notwithstanding, it is what God has done.  And He is allowed to do as He wishes.  He is God and they are not.  Evangelicals simply accept this by faith and work from it.

Biblical statutes and law codes may have been written in stone, but clearly they weren’t “written in stone” in the sense of being unchangeable.  God adjusted the Mosaic law to changing circumstances.  The first law code was given in Exodus 20-23, but forty years later God gives a second law (Deuteronomy means “second [deutero] law [nomos]”) to the next generation, and though it is similar to the original law, it is not identical.  The spirit of the two may be the same, but the actual regulations are different.  The first law is given to nomadic wanderers for their circumstances;  the second law is given to people who are going to be living settled down in a homeland.  The law can be adjusted to circumstances;  it is not intended to be eternally rigid.  It is adaptable to new circumstances.

 

The Old Testament prophets predict an even more radical adjustment to the laws of Moses.  Jeremiah looks for the laws of Moses to be set aside eventually so that a completely different arrangement of the relationship between God and His people in a future day – a new covenant (Jeremiah 31.31-32) – can be established.  Christianity professes to be that new (and better) arrangement.  The writer of Hebrews argues that Christ is greater than Moses and that the new covenant of the Christians is better than the “old” covenant of the Israelites, which was clearly temporary and was made to become obsolete.

 

…If that first covenant [the laws of Moses] had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second [covenant]” (Hebrews 8.7)

 

“In speaking of a new covenant, [God] makes the first one obsolete…” (Hebrews 8.13). 

 

The law of Moses was never intended to be universal;  it was for the nation of Israel for a limited time – not for all men everywhere at all times.  Nor was the law of Moses intended to be eternal.  Moses and the prophets pointed forward to something better – the new covenant in Christ.  Once Christ arrived, Moses and his laws were fulfilled and abolished (Matthew 5.17-18, Ephesians 2.14-16, Colossians 2.17).  There is no more “old covenant” and Christians are not called upon to slavishly obey every detailed statute given by Moses. 

 

Atheistic and secularist critics who insist that evangelicals do so in order to be consistent have simply not understood the message of the Bible correctly.

Many who favor homosexuality and same-sex marriage point to David and Jonathan as the positive example of homosexual couple in the biblical material, primarily because of the final line in David’s lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan:

 

I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;

You have been very pleasant to me.

Your love to me was more wonderful than the love of women!  (2 Samuel 1.26, NASB)

 

The relationship between David and Jonathan, son of King Saul, begins after David returns from slaying Goliath.

 

1Now it came about when [David] had finished speaking to Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself.  2Saul took him that day and did not let him return to his father’s house.  3Then Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself.  4Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, with his armor, including his sword and his bow and his belt.  (1 Samuel 18.1-4, NASB)

 

The slaying of Goliath, the indestructible nemesis, brought immediate rejoicing to everyone in Israel.  Although Saul eventually becomes murderously jealous of David’s greatness, the monarch’s initial response was to take David into the royal household (18.2).  Jonathan and David become, not lovers, but brothers (“my brother Jonathan”, 2 Samuel 1.26).  Jonathan formalizes David’s entry into the royal house by making a covenant with David.  This is not a marriage, but an agreement to mutual obligations and privileges that are to be enjoyed by David as a part of the royal household.  Jonathan’s handing over his robe, armor, and weapons, appears to be a symbol of personal submission to David’s leadership and authority.  This political covenant is renewed and expanded later (1 Samuel 20.8-17).

 

Some feel that the “love” terminology used in reference to Jonathan and David indicates romantic or sexual love between them.  But “love” terminology was commonly used in political relationships.  One of the Assyrian covenants between King Ashurbanipal and his vassals instructs the inferiors to “love him as yourselves” (exactly what is said in 1 Samuel 18.3).  God, in a covenant context with Israel, often speaks of the nation loving Him (Exodus 20.6, Deuteronomy 5.10, 6.5, 7.9, et al).  1 Kings 5.1 literally says that Hiram of Tyre was a “lover of” David – but the translations correctly render the Hebrew word in a political sense – that they were friends or on friendly terms.  “Love” terminology is used when David and Jonathan renew and expand their covenant as political brothers (1 Samuel 20.17).  None of these usages have sexual connotations. 

The same is true of the language regarding souls being knit or bound together.  This terminology is used for Jacob’s love for his youngest son, Benjamin (Genesis 44.30-31).  The terminology has no sexual connotation whatsoever.

 

When the king discovers that his son, Jonathan, is in league with David, Saul insults Jonathan by calling him the son of an adulterous wife, i.e. a disinherited “bastard”, and reminds Jonathan that submission to David means that David (not Jonathan) will be the next on the throne (1 Samuel 20.30-31).  Saul is complaining about Jonathan’s political alignments – because that is what the Jonathan-David relationship is about – not some romantic or sexual connection between them.  Saul followed the insult up with an attempt to kill his own son with a spear!  Jonathan escaped and met David to convey Saul’s adverse reaction.

               41…David…fell on his face to the ground, and bowed three times.  And they kissed each otherand wept together, but David more.  42And Jonathan said to David, “Go in safety, inasmuch as we have sworn to each other in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘The Lord will be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants forever.’

 

This is not a temporary tearful goodbye between romantic lovers.  Saul’s hatred of David (and expressions of hatred toward his own son for aligning himself with David!) forces these two friends, brothers, comrades-in-arms who have covenanted together as allies to separate and oppose each other.  David’s bowing three times to Jonathan is a political gesture, acknowledging Jonathan as the heir of the house of Saul.  David refuses to try to take the throne away from Jonathan by force;  despite Jonathan’s acknowledgement of David’s greatness, David continues to honor Jonathan as the rightful heir of Saul’s throne. 

The kiss of farewell between David and Jonathan is hardly an act of homosexual romance.  To this day it is a common custom for men in the Near East, including heads of state, to kiss each other in greetings and farewells.

Despite their separation and despite the fact that the house of Saul persecuted David to the very end, David was faithful to his covenant with Jonathan to the very end.  He refused to kill Saul.  He mourned Saul and Jonathan’s deaths eloquently, and when David came to power, he did not kill the remaining heirs of the house of Saul – a common practice in the ancient Near East to remove any threats to the throne.  Instead he kept his word and saw to it that Jonathan’s crippled son, Mephibosheth, was cared for (2 Samuel 9).

Finally if there was a sexual component we would expect to find verbs indicating that they “laid together” or that they “knew one another”;  these are absent from discussions of the relationship between the two men.  Additionally, both men were married and had children.  David was not only married, but had concubines and numerous children.  The episode with Bathsheba indicates that he was aroused by the female form.  David’s heterosexuality is hardly in question. 

Robert Gagnon has written:  “Only in our own day, removed as we are from ancient Near Eastern conventions, are these kinds of specious connections made by people desperate to find the slightest shred of support for homosexual practice in the Bible” (Gagnon, “The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 154).  Anyone who has served in the armed forces can understand the camaraderie between David and Jonathan, brothers-in-arms, allies whose lives depend upon each other’s character, integrity, and loyalty – and that that type of relationship could easily be characterized as surpassing the love of women – without any sexual connotations being intended.

It is common nowadays to argue that the biblical prohibitions of homosexuality are prohibitions of the male cult prostitution of paganism, not about the homosexuality per se.  Three preceding articles argued that neither the contexts nor the terminology of the relevant passages indicate that that is the case.  The biblical prohibitions of both the Old and New Testaments are prohibitions of homosexual behavior qua homosexual behavior.

Some things outside of the biblical texts but within the historical context of the ancient Near East make it unlikely that cult prostitution is in view in Leviticus.  Assyria and Egypt were the great powers that controlled the region where the Israelites lived throughout most of their history.  In a collection of Assyrian laws penned around 1100 BC (the period of Judges) and which still seem to have been in effect around 600 BC (the fall of Judah to Babylon) we find these two laws:

Law A.19:  If a man furtively spreads rumors about his comrade, saying, ‘Everyone sodomizes him,’ or in a quarrel in public says to him, ‘Everyone sodomizes you,’ and further, ‘I can prove the charges against you,’ but is unable to prove the charges and does not prove the charges, they shall strike that man 50 blows with rods; he shall perform the king’s service for one full month; they shall cut off [his hair?]; he shall pay 3,600 shekels of lead.

Law A.20:  If a man sodomizes his comrade and they prove the charges against him and find him guilty, they shall sodomize him and turn him into a eunuch.

These were the laws of the neighbors and overlords of the Israelites and Judeans, and they reveal the attitude and practices of the Assyrians. These laws apply to “comrades” (men of equal social standing, presumably those of the upper class) and both laws present being homosexually penetrated as a matter of social disgrace.  Both laws assume that no self-respecting male citizen would desire to be penetrated and that a man who did desire it was amiss in a social sense.  Accusing someone of being a willing party to such penetration was a way to demean one’s neighbor in the public eye, and the penalty for homosexual rape was for the rapist to be homosexually penetrated by the men of the community. 

 

Oddly enough, those doing the “judicial penetrating” do not seem to be subject to any sort of shame whatsoever.  They are simply executing the law.  In every case the penetrator is acceptable, but the man willing to be penetrated is not.  What does this say about the Assyrian view of the matter?

 

Other texts from the ancient world may shed light on this unusual perspective and practice.  There is a text from Babylon (pre-7th century BC), Assyria’s southern neighbor, which says:  If a man copulates with his comrade from the rear, he becomes the leader among his peers and brothers.”  This is not a law but an “omen” text – similar to a proverb.  If there was homosexual behavior among equals, the one who did the mounting and penetrating was recognized to be the social superior.  The same thing seems to have been true in Egyptian culture.  For example, in one of the Egyptian myths the male god (Set or Seth) achieves supremacy over his male comrade (Horus) by mounting and penetrating him. 

 

This is far different from modern thinking on the subject, but the reasoning behind the social perception of the ancients isn’t difficult to understand in its context.  Males normally mounted and penetrated females and females had inferior social standing.  A man who desired to be mounted and penetrated by another man was willing to play the role of the woman and was willing to accept a lowered social standing.  There were no laws against this behavior, but if you agreed to be mounted and penetrated, you were acknowledging that you enjoyed having the other man as your lord and master.

There seems to have been an exception to this rule:  the male cult prostitute (who serviced male worshipers).  There is another text from pre-7th century Babylon which says:  “If a man copulates with a male cult prostitute, a hard destiny will leave him.”  If you wanted good luck in Babylon, a sexual encounter with a cult prostitute would bring it to you!  As noted in a previous article these male prostitutes were castrated men who were believed to be transformed by a goddess into magical androgynous “women-men” for divine service.  It was believed that this state of existence was forced upon them by the goddess, but she rewarded their humiliation by giving them magical powers with which to bless those who engaged sexually with them.

 

So in the world of Assyria and Babylon, Israel’s neighbors, a social stigma was attached to the man who enjoyed being mounted and penetrated – unless he was a cult prostitute.  Being a cult prostitute was more socially acceptable than being a willing homosexual partner. 


The argument of those in favor of homosexuality is that the biblical laws are not directed against homosexual behavior per se, but only against the institution of male cult prostitution.  But doesn’t it seem somewhat odd that the laws of Leviticus would rule out the homosexual behavior that the ancients considered the most socially acceptable and left intact the ones that the Gentiles saw as more socially degrading?

 
Secular scholars want to present ancient Israel as just another nation whose God and laws were like the gods and laws of the nations around them.  But the Israelite perspective is radical and goes far beyond anything known from anywhere else in the ancient world.  This is consistent with God’s express desire that the Israelites not practice the deeds of the Egyptians or the Canaanites (Leviticus 18.3), that they be holy as He is holy – different from the nations.  Though there are some similarities in the Israelite laws and the laws of the surrounding nations, there are alsonumerous differences between them and these ought not be ignored or overlooked. The Israelite laws forbidding homosexuality are a good example.

 

The surrounding nations accepted homosexual behavior under certain conditions;  the Israelite law completely outlawed any expression of homosexuality. 

The surrounding nations interpreted a man desiring homosexual penetration as a social status issue;  the Israelite law interpreted it as a perversion, not merely of social status, but of the divinely established order of gender and nature. 

Most homosexual behavior wasn’t judicially punished among the nations;  “penetrators” actually gained enhanced social standing and those penetrated were degraded to a lowered status but not judicially punished.  In the worst case scenario (homosexual rape) the perpetrator was castrated and raped himself;  in Israelite law the punishment for both partners in all homosexual behavior was the same:  death. 

The differences on this matter between Israel and the nations were radical.

 

If the United States finds homosexual behavior socially acceptable it is behaving just like the nations that surrounded Israel, and we ought not be surprised.  This is how “the nations” reason.  But God’s people are supposed to be identified by their agreement with God’s perspective where God speaks, and both the Old and the New Testaments explicitly characterize homosexual behavior as sin.  Those in the Christian community who find homosexuality pleasing and acceptable explain away the biblical prohibitions by recasting them as prohibitions of male cult prostitution only.  Such recasting is without foundation in the terminology, the text, and the historical context of the Bible.  Repeating the argument often does not change that fact.

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