Is the Bible B.S.?
Dan Savage's talk at the National High School Journalism Conference went viral over the past couple of days and was also featured on main news sites such as CNN. In his address he states,
We can learn to ignore the bullshit about gay people in the Bible the same way we have learned to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation. We ignore bullshit in the Bible about all sorts of things. The Bible is a radically pro-slavery document. Slave owners waived Bibles over their heads during the civil war and justified it.
If the Bible got the easiest moral question that humanity has ever faced wrong, slavery, what are the odds that the Bible got something as complicated as human sexuality wrong? 100 percent.
I watched the video and was proud of the numerous students that protested his content by walking out of the room. This was my first introduction to Savage and was taken back by his language, animosity, and hatred. He justifies his actions based upon the Christian response to homosexuality. I wish that some of them would have stayed and been equipped to respond to him. But it was nice to seem them take a stand.
In an era of concern over school bullying, he certainly did nothing to temper the culture of hate. He really said nothing new--in fact I was surprised that he was using a second-hand, tired, piece of rhetoric that highlights apparent inconsistencies between the Bible's laws and Christian practice.
We've addressed this topic in our book, Restoration: Returning the Torah of God to the Disciples of Jesus, by my colleague D.T. Lancaster. Restoration takes Savage's objections and addresses them in a manner that makes the Bible work. This is a good example of how a Messianic Jewish interpretation strengthens the Bible. Without it, in many cases, Savage would be correct in highlighting the archaic and apparently obsolete nature of the laws of the Bible when they are applies to today's culture and context.
To address Savage and others who share those objections to the authority of the Bible, here is Chapter 12 of Restoration: Returning the Torah of God to the Disciples of Jesus.
Restoration: Returning the Torah of God to the Disciples of Jesus
"The Difficult Laws of Torah"
"Are you suggesting we go back to making animal sacrifices?" you may ask. "What about the laws of clean and unclean, and stoning adulterers and Sabbath-breakers? Surely you aren't suggesting that, as a part of this restoration, believers should return to these antiquated, harsh and ritualistic laws, are you?
To answer that question, I would like to tell you about Dr. Laura and the Torah.
Dear Abby Meets Elijah
A decade or so ago, a voice arose within the American popular culture defending traditional Torah values and norms. At that time, I was working apartment maintenance and often listened to the radio while painting apartments and snaking out sewers. That's when I started listening to Dr. Laura Schlessinger on the radio.
Like the voice of the prophets of old, radio talk-show host Dr. Laura preached a message of repentance across the airwaves. A cross between Dear Abby and Elijah the Prophet, she made a living out of dispensing advice from a conservative Torah perspective. Her candor and remorseless rebukes made her undeniably entertaining, but what was really unusual was her championing of biblical, ethical values and norms in modern culture. She was anything but diplomatic. Her political incorrectness was so shocking and appalling that whenever Dr. Laura attempted to capture a television audience, protests erupted all over the country. The liberal world accused her of being bigoted and homophobic.
Smear campaigns were launched and the protests availed. Advertisers began to pull their sponsorship from the stations carrying her television show. The outcry against Dr. Laura was so great, and her words about morality and decency so insulting that the television networks quickly removed the show or assigned it to an early morning time slot.
Pushing the Hot Button
Was Dr. Laura really a bigot and a homophobe? Probably not. Like many conservative Christians and observant Jews, she simply took a hard stand on morality. She was not willing to accept the popular notion of moral ambiguity. She regarded God's Law as the arbiter of truth, and that entailed a belief in moral absolutes.
But it was not Dr. Laura's defiance of liberal feminism, nor her opposition of day-care parenting, nor her strong pro-life posture that won her the 'most hated conservative' status in American culture. The issue that sank Dr. Laura's ship was her refusal to accept homosexuality as a normal and healthy lifestyle. Standing on the basis of Torah, Dr. Laura declared homosexual behavior to be abnormal.
Her refusal to acquiesce on this issue cost her credibility in the mainstream media, but it won her the love and affection of conservative Christians around the world. The condemnation of the homosexual lifestyle is an issue near and dear to the hearts of conservative Christians everywhere. There are few moral issues that can incite as much passionate vehemence in believers as the gay issue does.
Homosexuality has been a 'hot button' in the church for the past two or three decades. Yet despite our rancorous rhetoric against it, the gay agenda has advanced unabated--even within the seminaries of the church itself. Some denominations now officially sanction homosexuality as a viable lifestyle and even perform gay marriages and ordain openly homosexual clergy. The relentless advance of the gay agenda has created such an atmosphere of panic and homophobia in the church that Christians were quick to embrace Dr. Laura as one of our own...even if she was Jewish.
In response to the homosexual movement, conservative Christians are quick to point to specific Torah passages like Leviticus 18:22 in order to justify the hard moral line they are drawing. But according to our own traditional Christian theology, this methodology is flawed.
An Anonymous Letter
When the Dr. Laura controversy was at its height, I received the following widely circulated email. It was sent to me by a Jewish believer. He had received it from another believer who was urging him to abandon Torah observance. It continues to circulate on the Internet in different forms. In recent years, it showed up addressed to President George W. Bush. The original version that I received reads as follows:
Dear Dr. Laura,
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to best follow them.
When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Lev. 1:9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. How should I deal with this?
I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as it suggests in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her? I also know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev. 15:19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
Now I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself? Then, Lev. 25:44 states that I may buy slaves from the nations that are around us. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans but not Canadians. Can you clarify?
A friend of mine also feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev. 10:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this? And Lev. 20:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?
I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's Word is eternal and unchanging.
Despite his misapplications and his tendency to violate context, the author of the email to Dr. Laura does make a good case. How can we derive unchanging ethical and moral absolutes from a document we routinely disregard and declare irrelevant to life in the modern world? How can we claim that God's Word is eternal and unchanging while at the same time teach that it has changed?
In what is certainly his strongest argument, the author of the email compares eating shellfish to homosexuality. Both are described by Torah as abominable to God. The Hebrew word used in both instances is to'evah. It is a word used to describe an object that elicits a reaction of disgust and distaste. This word is rarely used in the first four books of Torah, but finds several applications in Deuteronomy. The book of Deuteronomy tells us that God is disgusted by idolatry, child sacrifice, divination, sorcery, witchcraft, spell casting, channeling spirits and consulting the dead. In addition, the Torah says that God is disgusted by the employment of prostitution in worship, gender cross-dressing, remarriage to a previous spouse who has remarried and inaccurate weights and measures used to defraud. In other words, God is disgusted by sin. Whether those particular sins disgust Him more than others is not certain. It should be enough of a deterrent to know that those things disgust the Lord.
In the church I grew up in, all of the above abominations would have received a resounding "Amen!" In fact, we would have been quick to add Leviticus 18:22 to the list. Therein God describes homosexuality as an abomination to the Lord. But our "amen" would have gotten stuck in our throats if we were told that eating unclean animals is also an abomination to the Lord. How do we reconcile condemning homosexuality while going out for the Red Lobster's 'all-the-shrimp-you-can-eat special' on Friday night?
Three Torahs or One?
Typically the reconciliation is accomplished by dividing the Torah into three domains of legislation. The Torah seems to contain laws pertaining to morality, laws pertaining to civil government and laws pertaining to ceremony. Based upon these three domains of application, our theologians dice the Torah into moral law, civil law and ceremonial law. We are then able to proceed by saying that the Gospels made the ceremonial laws and civil laws obsolete. Only the moral code remains valid through the new dispensation of grace.
This explanation seems to satisfy the objections of the disillusioned radio listener. His questions regarding the shellfish, Sabbath, sacrifices, priesthood and purity laws can all be dismissed as ceremonial laws long ago shed by the faith. His questions regarding slavery can be dismissed as civil laws, invalidated by the Gospel. Only the moral code remains in force today, which happily includes the prohibition of homosexuality.
The three-fold explanation is, however, flawed at its core and does not withstand modest scrutiny. There are not three Torahs. "There is to be one law [Torah] and one ordinance for you and for the alien who sojourns with you" (Numbers 15:16).
Several years ago, I was invited to teach about Torah at a local Christian Bible school. During the question-and-answer time, one of the students asked, "How can we know if a particular law is moral, civil or ceremonial? The Bible doesn't seem to make any distinction." It is an accurate observation. The distinction between moral, civil and ceremonial laws is artificial and arbitrary. It is a contrivance created for the convenience of popular theology.
At no point does Torah give any indication of a separation between moral and ceremonial law. The ceremonial laws of the prohibition of idolatry and the law of the Sabbath are listed along with the moral statutes regarding murder and theft. The Torah defines eating unclean animals equally abominable as cross-dressing and necromancy. God has not distinguished between ritual laws and ethical laws, but we have.
And because we have, it is possible for some theologians and seminarians to condone homosexuality even in the clergy of the church. Any scriptures condemning such behavior can be readily dismissed as antiquated ceremonial laws, not part of the essential morality of the Bible. Following this line of reasoning, nothing can be said to be absolutely wrong or right. Rather, everything is subject to possible reinterpretation and dismissal as part of the obsolete body of ceremonial legislation.
By dividing the word of God into arbitrary categories, some of which we have declared no longer valid, we have dug our own theological grave and handed the shovel to the opponents of the Gospel. Now we can only shout in protest as they scoop the dirt in on us. The Dr. Laura email is a big scoop of dirt for which conservative Christianity has little answer.
Eternal and Unchanging?
The email is a delightfully amusing parody of our misguided handling of Scripture. The anonymous writer astutely observes that we have a double standard when applying Scripture. We only use those passages of Torah that support our moral predispositions. We regard passages that buttress our predispositions as eternal and unchanging. Commandments within Torah that do not support our ethical and religious contrivances, however, are disregarded as obsolete.
To be fair, the writer takes some liberties with the Torah. Most of his points are made from misapplication of specific commandments. He achieves the ridiculous by taking a commandment out of its context and placing it in a different context.
How we choose to respond to his arguments will either make or break our case against homosexuality and every other moral absolute we hope to derive from Scripture. If we allow him to embarrass us into explaining, "Well, those things are ceremonial and cultural things that have been done away with," he will say, "The prohibition against homosexuality is also a ceremonial and cultural issue." We may try to bring in passages from the Pauline scriptures to counter his argument, but these are ultimately futile because Paul derives the authority of his arguments from Torah. If the Torah foundation is malleable, so are the arguments based upon it.
If, however, we maintain that the Torah is unchanging and immutable, as our Master did, we find ourselves on firmer ground. Let's step in for Dr. Laura, President Bush and my Jewish friend by answering the questions.
The emailer points out his neighbor's objections to the burnt offering in the backyard. I can empathize with his neighbor. The sacrifices described in Leviticus are only permitted within the Temple and must be facilitated by a Levitically pure priesthood. In the absence of an existing Temple, the rites of sacrifice cannot be practiced. That is not the same as saying that those laws are obsolete or done away with. Yeshua's sacrifice fulfilled the symbolic components of the sacrificial system. But fulfilling and obsolescing are two different things. The book of Acts shows us that the believers remained engaged in the Jerusalem Temple system long after the death and resurrection of the Master. Obviously they did not regard the Temple worship as obsolete.
Ever since the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the sacrifices detailed in the Torah have not been possible (and will not be possible) unless (or, better yet, until) God's Temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt. The email author's transference of those laws from their Temple context to the suburban American backyard raises some humorous possibilities, but it is an irrelevant argument.
The email author speculates about contact with ritual impurity; namely women in menstruation. Like the laws of sacrifice, the purity laws have a relevant context only when there is a functional Temple. The purity laws of clean and unclean are designed to protect the sanctity of the Temple precinct and priesthood. In the absence of the Temple, the purity laws are only vestiges of a different world. That does not mean the purity laws are obsolete or done away with. If the Temple were rebuilt in Jerusalem tomorrow, every worshipper going to that Temple would be bound by the laws of clean and unclean.
Women in menstruation are only one source of ritual impurity. He selects that particular one because it will incite the strongest reaction. By transferring those laws from their Temple context to Western, postmodern culture, the author of the email again paints a comical scenario, but one that has no real bearing on the Torah's relevance.
The reference to the defect in eyesight is actually from Leviticus 21:18, not 20:20, but our comedian has overtaxed himself with the reference to 20/20 eyesight and mistaken it for a verse and chapter reference. (Subsequent versions and generations of the email have been corrected.) Regardless of the error, the eyesight law only relates to the priesthood of Israel, and it is a reference to blindness, not astigmatism. It is part of a list of prohibitions that forbid a maimed or disabled priest from facilitating the sacrificial service of the Temple.
Our modern sensitivities and equal-opportunity dogmas are offended by a passage like Leviticus 21:18. Like the sacrifices themselves, the priests handling them needed to be without defect. A priest with a disqualifying defect was still fully employed within the priesthood and had the rights to all venues of the priesthood except the sacred service of the altar.
Still, even if the author of the email had perfect vision and was without any form of physical defect, he would be forbidden to approach the altar unless he is a direct and certifiable descendent of Aaron. There is no wiggle room here. But again, those laws are relevant only when there is a Temple or an altar to approach in the first place.
The author of the email plays on emotions evoked by our historical memory of American slavery. He claims that Exodus 21:7 suggests a man sell his daughter as a slave. Actually, the passage in question does not suggest this. Rather, it addresses one of the unpleasant possibilities of life in the ancient Near East where a debtor might find himself or family members being taken into slavery in lieu of unpaid debt. The Torah seeks to protect a woman who might be caught in that barbarous system of economics by ensuring her right of redemption and forbidding her resale to another. Thus she cannot be used as a sexual slave, passed from owner to owner. She must be treated with dignity and accorded her rights.
The Torah law he criticizes is actually meant to defend the cause of the slave and the rights of women. Far from being obsolete, it is from Torah laws like this one that the world has learned to treat women with respect and dignity.
He cites Leviticus 25:44 as granting him permission to buy slaves from Mexico or Canada. This time he is correct. The passage he is citing is part of a prohibition on buying Israelites as permanent slaves. The Torah allows fellow Israelites to be purchased only on a temporary basis, and then only as a type of 'hired hand.' After seven years, or at the year of Jubilee, the Israelite slave is released and must be paid for his labor. The same passage does, however, allow for the purchase of heathens as lifelong slaves. Of course, slavery is illegal in Canada, the United States and Mexico, so even if he were to find some heathens for sale in either Canada or Mexico, he would have other legal issues to deal with. He again makes a satirical point by transferring the world of the ancient Near East into Western society. But pointing out that the Torah legislates against permanently subjugating God's people as slaves is not the same as proving that Torah is no longer relevant.
The email author accuses his neighbor of Sabbath violations and wonders about the death penalty associated with the sin. The death penalty assigned to Sabbath-breakers and to other grievous sins of Torah was not a vigilante-style execution as our anonymous author imagines. Those sentences were determined through a court of law employing the adversarial system of justice. If such a court (namely, the Sanhedrin) existed today and had civil jurisdiction in Israel or in the United States, and if the accused Sabbath-breaker was not a Gentile, but was demonstrably obligated by Torah to keep the Sabbath, then he would be well advised to get a good lawyer. The anonymous author of our email could stand as a witness for the prosecution in the trial, but a guilty verdict would not be achievable without an additional witness. Also, intention to belligerently break the Sabbath would have to be proven. If all of those criteria were met, then an execution under the auspices of the court would commence.
It strikes us as barbaric and antiquated to imagine someone being stoned to death for breaking the Sabbath. But our self-righteous indignation is the result of our holding the Sabbath in much lower esteem than God does. We have considerably less trouble imagining a court of law putting a murderer to death because that is a reality still present in our cultural milieu. The Sabbath is the most often-repeated positive commandment in the Scripture. It may not seem like a big deal to us, but apparently it is to God.
The email author derives his finest point from the eating of unclean animals. Deuteronomy describes it as an abomination to God, just like homosexuality. Yet even the most right-wing conservative Christians enjoy a little lobster tail once in a while. So how can they condemn homosexuality?
We must either acquiesce to the notion that parts of the Torah have been abolished or that we have been wrong about the shellfish and the rest of the biblical dietary laws.
Certainly we could point to several New Testament passages that Christianity has traditionally interpreted as abrogations of the dietary laws, but that would only prove his point about the eternal, unchanging quality of God's Word. If what was called an abomination in one case is now called breakfast, why shouldn't an abomination in another case now be called healthy human sexuality? Food for thought. Or perhaps it's time for a few thoughts about food.
The Difficult Laws of Torah
The Torah contains a plethora of laws that are foreign to us. The laws of the Temple, the sacrificial system and the purity codes are all outside our world of experience. They are only relevant to worshippers entering the Temple in Jerusalem. The laws of punishments and court-imposed sentences seem, at times, unduly harsh because we have grown accustomed to milder systems of jurisprudence. Unfortunately, the criminals in society have as well. But it is important that we do not make arbitrary distinctions, slicing and dicing God's Word in order to make it fit our world view.
We don't make sacrifices today, but only because the Torah forbids us from doing so. Without a Temple and priesthood, sacrificing is a sin. We don't stone Sabbath-breakers today. To do so without proving in a Torah court of law (the Sanhedrin) intentional, flagrant and deliberate violation of a known prohibition (which would be virtually impossible in today's world where the Sabbath is no longer understood or practiced) would be a violation of Torah.
When we encounter difficult laws in the Torah, rather than toss them out, we should take the time to study them. That might require some homework on our part. There is only one Torah and every commandment of Torah is a matter of morality, but not ever commandment applies in every circumstance or is incumbent upon every individual. Some commandments apply only in the land of Israel; some apply only in the Temple or when there is a Temple and priesthood. Some laws apply only to priests. Some apply only to men. Some apply only to women. Some apply only to officers of a Torah court of law. Certain laws are not incumbent upon Gentiles in the same manner that they are upon Jewish people. (For example, see Exodus 12:48 or Leviticus 23:42.) When studying the Torah, it is crucial to examine the context and application of the commandments.
In addition, it is helpful to look at Jewish tradition around a commandment. The Jewish community has more than 3,000 years of experience in handling the Torah and applying its laws. Oftentimes the rabbis see far deeper into the text than our cursory readings allow. They bring a wealth of oral tradition and family history to help clarify difficult passages. Before we go any further, we should take some time out from this discussion to consider the role of Jewish tradition in understanding Torah.
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