Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Why does Leviticus Seem to Contradict Itself?

Literary Form

One of the most helpful tools for understanding scripture is knowing that ancient cultures included a phenomenal amount of information about the meaning of the things they said or wrote in the forms which they used in speaking or writing them and learning as much about those forms as possible. It is as important as knowing the implications of tone of voice, body language, or facial expression for determining what is sarcastic in modern speech.


Most people think (wrongly) that the the entire stretch of Leviticus 19-20 is one unit defined by a type of literary bookend called "inclusio."

Ancient authors, expecting their primary audience to hear rather than to read the words, used easily understood literary devices to clue every one into what was going on in the literary work. Inclusio is the inclusion on a similar beginning and ending to a section so that hearers would know that that section was about the bookends. Additionally, material at the center of the structure often illuminates the purpose of the section. 

A Wrong Turn

In this case, the section opens with 18:1-5,  you might think that it closes with 20:22-26 or 27, but you would be wrong. The confusion lies in the structure of the book: either Leviticus was written in a stacked or descending ring structure with a clasp between the first and last chapter of the book and the opposite side of the ring in chapter 19, indicating that it should be read again and again, or it is a set of sets with the introversion in chapter 19 (cf. Milgrom). In either case, chapter 19 is not related to either 18 or 20.

A Match

So then, the inclusio for chapter 18 matches  24-30 That matches the opening to Leviticus 20:1-9 with 20:2-27.

Since we look between the passages of the inclusio to clarify the meaning of the section, if we miss the fact that 19 is unrelated, then we group the laws in chapter 19 with 18 and 20 and we end up thinking that these are just random laws and either have no thematic cohesion or we apply some theme that does not fit.

Interpreting the Hard Stuff by Understanding the Easy Stuff

Now, let's examine the content of chapters 18 and 20 to clarify the meaning or reasons for the laws:

The "Easy Stuff" 

Chapter 18 continues after the introduction by speaking of specific Egyptian actions with which God takes issue: incestuous relationships (I am going with Milgrom's interpretation of "uncover the nakedness" as a euphemism for sexual contact of any kind). If you know Egyptian history, you know that incest was the natural theological result of having a divine kingship. Because the false god of Egypt (Pharaoh) was considered divine, his family was also considered divine, and to preserve the divine bloodline this family had severe limitations on potential mates, to the point that the daughters of pharaoh were given no choice of mate but to their fathers of brothers. This section further outlaws taking the wives of close relatives while their husbands still live, which is the same as usurping the place of that relative in the hierarchy of Egyptian religion (and had similar connotations for Canaanites).

Chapter 20 begins by talking about Molech and then moves on to the practices of pagan magic. It then proceeds to mirror the section primarily on Egyptian religious sexuality with a section that more closely resembles the sympathetic magic through sexual activity in which the Canaanite tribes (and other surrounding peoples) engaged. We don't have a complete record of these practices, but we know that sex using representatives of the deities was part of the outline (cf.

The Hard Stuff

Now on to the sections in question: Leviticus 18:19-23 and the parallel passage in 20:10-16.

Here we run into less well known territory. Why is Molech (the idol who demands the lives of children) related to menstrual intercourse? How is that related to bestiality? What do those things have to do with mediums or necromancers? I think the best clue lies in a place where two texts seem to conflict. In this case Leviticus 15:19-24 says:

19 “When a woman has a discharge, and the discharge in her body is blood, she shall be in her menstrual impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. 20 And everything on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean. Everything also on which she sits shall be unclean. 21 And whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. 22 And whoever touches anything on which she sits shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. 23 Whether it is the bed or anything on which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening. 24 And if any man lies with her and her menstrual impurity comes upon him, he shall be unclean seven days, and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean.

Why would the death penalty apply in one instance and not the other? The answer, I think lies in sympathetic magic. In sympathetic magic, one enacts representative actions on Earth to request divine actions by analogy, so a male and female have intercourse in the names of deities representing the fertility of the earth to beg for a good harvest or animal fertility, or one dresses enemies up like women to take away their maleness on a metaphysical level. In this case a practice I have not yet found in the literature, a man having sex with a menstruating women (a logical outgrowth of magical thinking because blood represents life and sex represents fecundity) is condemned, while private sex simply causes uncleanness because blood causes uncleanness. 

What Does it Mean?

Considering all of that (and more that I thought redundant), I think it is reasonable to conclude that chapters 18 and 20 of Leviticus are not about general sexual behavior, but about avoiding the religious superstitions of the Egyptians and the magical thinking of the peoples of Canaan. Though that does not say that any of these types of actions is right, if I am right about the meaning of the prohibition, it does mean that this passage should not be used as a reason to condemn them either.

An Easy Way Out?

Now I want to ask, "What if we do come to the end of our study of the passages that people relate to homosexuality and we find nothing that specifically condemns monogamous homosexuality? Does that mean that we have to accept that it is right? Does an absence of evidence mean that we must affirm the practice?"

Yes, Yes, and No

The answer depends on whether we find evidence that leads us to believe that such relationships would be allowed under biblical principles. If the evidence is simply negative, then the practice is at the discretion of the church leadership, and for my Christian tradition, at the discretion of the elders. If we can find evidence of principles that would tend to support monogamous homosexuality, then it becomes even trickier and church leaders may be leading others astray by binding on Earth was Heaven has not bound. What I am trying to say is that there may be no way church leaders can "play it safe" on this subject. If they find strong evidence that God opposes these relationships, they to must reject them, if they find evidence of principles that tend toward acceptance, they must accept them. Only in a case where the leaders find an absence of direct condemnation and fail to find principles that tend toward affirmation or condemnation may they take comfort in the knowledge that they are free to decide.

A Parallel Problem

This becomes all the more important when we note that this situation is parallel to the inclusion of gentiles in the church: the common understanding was that they were rejected (because of impurity), it was only through a radical re-framing of scripture through the lens of Jesus, and the conclusions reached in the tumult that ensued, that salvation was able to reach those to whom we now believe God always intended to include.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Why We Struggle Even When God Speaks Clearly

God chose to reveal himself in various ways. Sometimes God chooses a historian like Luke to do Spirit-Guided research, sometimes he chooses poets to speak to Him so that we can listen in, and sometimes God seems to speak directly to a prophet who then speaks words that have been written down for our benefit, and there are other ways that we can either see in scripture or that we might guess at from what we know.

For the moment, I want to set aside God's less direct communication and talk about the most direct form it takes in the Bible: words reportedly delivered from God directly to a person like Moses. The following is something I've been working on that some people might find helpful.

The Word of God as Infinite and Eternal 

I would like to use examples from everyday life to make it easy to understand the complications involved in understanding God’s word as eternal and absolute rather than temporary or relative without distorting the evidence we have, but I have been unable to do so. It is too important to choose something that really describes it for a poor example to suffice, and the reality of God’s direct interaction in history is too far removed from daily life, as I know it, for me to find a fitting parallel. So I must make the best of the situation and explain something that is not fully comprehensible to the human mind using a subject very few people understand well as a starting point. So, I am going to try to explain God’s interaction with man in the framework of Geometry; fortunately, this explanation requires very little in the way of technical expertise and depends more heavily on visual and imaginative abilities.
Figure 1.1: The tangent plane of a sphere

Let’s assume that God is more complex than our universe, I think most people will agree with this assumption. Now, in order to talk about something more complex than one’s own universe, one must picture it as something closer to one’s own situation and imagine one’s own universe in terms that are less complex. The observable parts of our universe are three dimensional, so let’s imagine our universe as two dimensional, a plane, in geometric terms. A plane is like an smooth surface that stretches on forever but has absolutely no thickness. Now let us imagine God as a three dimensional object: a sphere. So, imagine a ball full of everything that is God and imagine a shadow on a piece of paper that is full of everything that makes up our universe.

If the ball wished to communicate in terms shadow people could understand, it would have to interact on the terms of the universe of the shadow people. Shadow people are made to see in every direction on two axes, so they might be able to see (the outside of) anything in the shadow, but asking them to look “up” and consider the sphere as it exists in its entirety is beyond the realm of the possible: they would have to be "ball" people to see the ball as it is.

The ball cannot be reduced to shadowness, a ball of clay or steel or glass or gold could never be squashed to the thickness of a shadow. If the ball shaved off the smallest piece of itself and squashed it down to a thickness of a single molecule, a single atom, it would not fit in shadow world, and if it were possible to crush it further and further until it approached the thickness of the shadow, it would take up the entire area of the shadow and crush the shadow people from existence and still overflow the dimensions of the shadow universe.

If God were to shove the tiniest bit of his being and timelessness, as it is in its fullness, into our universe it would have room for nothing else. I can hear you objecting that he did just that in the person of Jesus. Let me clarify, I contend that Jesus was a point of contact between God and our universe rather than an insertion.

In other words, if the ball wished to make contact with the shadow, it must be content to make a point of contact, a place where it touches the shadow and affects the shadow without trying to insert it’s substance fully into the shadow. In the case of Jesus, the point at which God contacted the universe is a baby, who grows into a man and is, in all dimensions of our universe, human. The belief in the divinity of Jesus is at heart an assertion that if it was possible to observe the dimensions above our own, we would see that point (Jesus) which appeared to fit in our shadow land is part of a being who is eternal and possesses greater “dimensionality,” greater being than we shadow people can comprehend.

Now we have established that God must interact with us in our own terms, which are incapable of fully comprehending or representing his eternal being and fullness. Because God’s timelessness cannot fit within our universe, at the point of contact between God and our universe, God must act within the framework and laws of time to allow the universe to continue to exist (which is not to say he cannot bend the rules, but that is beyond the scope of this discussion).

Let’s imagine that it is a little bit like an astronaut looking at the surface of the Earth (only God can see the whole thing, not just half a sphere). The astronaut falls in his craft toward a specific point on the earth and lands there. At the point where contact is made the astronaut can no longer see the edges of the Earth, for contact keeps him from keeping his poin of view, binding him to the laws of the shadow universe while not diminishing his eternal nature but, in the case of God, he does not become disconnected from his being in eternity just because one point touches our universe and plays by its rules.

In fact, at the point where God touches our universe, the “now” of his intervention, the future loses its fixed aspect for him and could be construed as “in motion” as a result of his actions because his actions change the future. So, what is prophecy? It is not God looking at a fixed future, though it may contain elements of prediction since God is obviously more capable of predicting the future based on the present than we. No, prophetic revelation represents a promise on the part of God to follow through on certain actions and is often contingent on the response of the hearer (see the story of Jonah).

This complicated situation leads to some interesting interactions between God and man. God meets with Moses and has determined to destroy the Children of Israel and raise Moses up to take their place, but Moses appeals to him and God changes his mind. If his timelessness were in effect, he could not do this because the future would already have been complete in his view and any such decision would be merely a pantomime, mimicking a change of mind to conform to the future he observes, but his timelessness is necessarily limited by his very act of making contact and allows us to understand his change of heart as an honest representation of God.

In the life of Jesus we have another interesting event: Jesus is God, yet he can grow “in knowledge and stature and favor with God and People.” If he had full access to the greater aspects of his divinity, he could not grow in knowledge for he would already have access to all knowledge.

Now, let us imagine that the Law of God is eternal, a part of the very being of God. God’s law in this fullness is beyond full expression which our shadow universe allows. As it comes into contact with the time-bound moment where God and Humanity meet, it must necessarily be expressed in time-bound forms. Therefore, at each moment during which God’s Law is revealed, it is truly the eternal law of God, but it is expressed in the moment of divine contact without being truly disconnected from its fullness.

So then, if one were to compare these moments of revelation with a naive eye, one might conclude that God’s Law is changeable or inconsistent and neither divine nor eternal at all. On the other hand, if one recognizes that the Law as we see it in the moment is a gateway into the Law as it exists in the heart of God in all his eternal fullness, one might hope to gather the clues that would would allow one to trace the shape of God’s eternal law as it exists in the given moment.

What is it we are looking for in the law of God as revealed in the past which might tell us about his law in the now of the present moment? In common terms we would call this a search for the principle, that is the “why” or “spirit” behind the law. We trace the way in which the historical law impacted its time to try to determine the reason why it took the form it did so that we can hope to live according to the spirit of the law in our present situation.

That process depends on two rather imperfect processes: discovering why the law was delivered as it was in past revelation and determining how that principle can be lived out now. We call the results of these processes interpretation. The lack of perfection involved in the constituent parts of the process make the interpretation an imperfect science and various legitimate interpretations may result from the same data. This is not to say that all interpretations are legitimate, that the law itself is relative, or that there are no situations in which a single interpretation overshadows all others in apparent validity. On the other hand, if we are experiencing conflict over our interpretations, the chances are that the positions taken by the different believers represent honest attempts to understand and interpret God’s law.