Manfred Brock and Dr. William Hertzog, II
at the American Baptist Assembly in Greenlake, Wisconsin
Part One - William Herzog
Something Old; Something New
Leviticus 18:22; 20:13 [Deut 23:17-18]
Jesus, Paul and Torah: something old, something new.
Leviticus 18:22 forbids homosexual acts between males. With a male you shall not lie shakoff the lyings of a woman. It is abomination. The penalty for this abomination, toavah, is given in 20:13: If a man lies with a man, the lyings of a woman both of them have committed and abomination. They shall be put to death. Their blood is upon them. Now we know what the Bible says in Leviticus. But as my Old Testament of blessed memory, Bob Loren, used to say, it is one thing to know what the Bible says, and quite another thing to know what the Bible means. Indeed, one of the greatest barriers to understanding what the Bible means can be knowing what the Bible says.
These two injunctions are found in the holiness code in Leviticus, a treasure trove of many admonitions, most of which we ignore. In this same code we are forbidden to wear garments made of two kinds of cloth, to bread hybrid animals, to sew seed with two kinds of seed (19:19) , to sleep in the same bed with a menstruating woman, to eat pork or meat with blood in it (19:26) and it should have condemned the meat we've been served here at Greenlake, but that's another story. We also find admonitions against beastiality (18:23) , adultery and incest (18:1-23), all positions with which we'd readily agree. In other words, we appropriate Leviticus selectively. This situation poses three pertinent questions about our Biblical interpretation:
(1) Why does the holiness code say the things it does, or, what is the purpose and logic of a purity system? (2) How do Jesus and Paul, who claim central importance for our interpretation of stricture, handle the holiness code? (3) Do they provide any clues for how we might handle the same text today. Let's address each question in turn.
(1) Why does the holiness code say the things it does? Because it expresses the purity ideology of the priestly class that formulated it. A cultic class interested in preserving its power and interest during the exilic and post exilic period of Israel's history. But just what is a purity ideology? Purity ideology begins with a theological conviction. You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy (Lev. 19:2). With an ethical exhortation, "You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt" (18:3),and with a theology of creation. To the framers of the purity code, morality is purity and immorality is impurity. They cannot be separated.
Two fundamental convictions shape a purity reading of creation. First, God's holiness means that God created everything to be whole and complete in and of itself. Each created thing was to be unblemished and complete. All blemishes were therefore considered aberrant. So even if one were born into a priestly family, one could not function as a priest if one had any blemish or physical defect. No animal could be sacrificed if it were blemished in any way. To be clean, holy and pure was to be wholly unblemished, untouched by contagion or unpolluted in any way.
The second conviction, closely related to the first, was that there should be no mixing of kinds. This conviction leads to boundary drawing that covers all aspects of life. It separated Judeans and gentiles as incompatible pairs never to be mixed; men and beasts, clean and unclean, Sabbath and weekday, life and death and so forth. Purity means that there is "a place for everything and everything must be kept in its place." Any mixing or crossing of boundaries was considered dangerous because it exposed the holy to the contagion of pollution.
Behind the purity codes is a conception of Israel as a pure state. As Belo (1981,41) puts it "at issue then, is the purity of the inhabited faith from which everything impure must be cut off and cast forth." It's purity is the contrast with the defiling practices of the nations surrounding it. The purpose of the Torah and the oral Torah alike was to draw the line separating pure from impure so that everyone's orientation could be secure.
In this context forbidden boundary crossing is called toevah, abomination because it creates confusion of kinds and pollutes the wholeness of each created kind. As Countryman puts it, "it is equally polluting if things which do not belong together are mixed with each other ... because it is 'confusion,' (not 'perversion' as the RSV translates it). This is the reason for the condemnation of homosexual acts. The male who fulfills a female role is a combination of kinds and therefore unclean like cloth composed of both linen and wool.
Jesus ministered in a world dominated by the purity codes of the Torah as they were interpreted by the oral Torah, perpetuated by the pharisees in support of the temple hierarchy in Jerusalem. In Jesus' time the purity codes were used to draw lines of exclusion less toll collectors, prostitutes and sinners, the harlots, the dirt of the land, be confused with the members of the congregation of Israel. And the priestly class, supported by their pharisaic Biblical interpreters, disfellowshipped any who failed to meet their purity criteria. To be labels unclean was to be banished from the worship of God through temple and Torah. The purity codes also served as a convenient way to dispose of the victims of systemic oppression. By identifying them as the cause of Judea's problems. They were poor, marginalized and degraded because they were unclean. If they could just pull themselves up by their purity straps.
Jesus broke down the dividing walls of hostility, declaring the search for food on the Sabbath clean and thereby abolishing the purity boundary between Sabbath and weekday. (Mark 2:23-28) He sat at table with toll collectors and sinners, refusing to cleanse himself after contact with them (Mark 2: 15-17), even though by eating with them he contracted their uncleanness. But Jesus recognized no such uncleanness and he rejected the power of the temple and the pharisees to control life by proscribing and prescribing behavior. Jesus himself, because of him opposition to the codes was banished, driven, disfellowshipped from many synagogues because he dared to cross the forbidden boundaries without cleansing himself and subjecting himself to the temple rituals of recleansing.
Jesus said that he came to fulfill the law but by fulfilling it he didn't mean leaving it as it was. No sooner had he said this than he said "you have heard it said but I say unto you." He argued the oral Torah with the scribal pharisees in Mark 7, exactly on the issue of cleanness and purity but Jesus argued that the heart was the source of contagion, not contact with external pollution. Jesus knew that the equation of morality with purity lead to disaster so he changed the paradigm for morality altogether by separating morality from purity as defined by pharisaic scribe and temple priest. Morality was a matter of debt and the heart. (See Belo, 1981) And that's why we pray forgive us our debt, our debts as we forgive our debtors, not forgive us our impurities. The threat Jesus said was from within, not without.
Jesus reached out to touch, embrace and include the outcast and despised, the blind, lame and maimed. Those who had been disfellowshipped by the purists of their day, those who wrapped themselves in the mantle of scripture, the Torah and declared their reading of it unchallengeable and accurate. When Jesus disagreed over the interpretation of Torah, he was accused of undermining the authority of scripture, the authority of Torah. "Why don't your disciples keep the tradition of the elders, read the true interpretation of the Bible." But Jesus never gave ground on the basic question. He knew the difference between debating the interpretation of the Bible and undermining its authority. So should we.
Paul was no less bold where the Torah was concerned. In fact, he was even more drastic. In Galatians 3:23 5, he argues that the Torah is kaput, done and finished. "Now, before faith came we were imprisoned and guarded under the Torah until faith would be revealed. Therefore, the Torah was our disciplinarian (paidogogos) until Christ came so that we might be justified by faith." (Gal 3:23-25) To those gentiles who wanted to return to circumcision and Torah obedience, Paul replied, "for freedom, Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again therefore to the yolk of slavery. (5:1)
Why was Paul so ready to ditch the Torah, including the holiness code as a guide for gentiles? Because he believed that Christ had broken down the boundaries between Judean and gentile, slave and free, male and female. As long as Torah stood as a way of salvation, Judean and gentile could not share their common inheritance as heirs of the righteousness of God, revealed apart from the Torah. For that matter, they couldn't even sit down at table and eat together in common koinonia.
So in light of the ministries of Jesus and Paul, I don't find any appeal to Leviticus either compelling or binding. It is a return to a new form of slavery - slavery to purity codes, or more accurately, the dangerous illusion of purity that leads us to discredit, dismiss, dehumanize, and disfellowship others who fail to fit our definitions of purity and therefore threaten the contagion of pollution. These views eliminate from the body of Christ the very people Jesus and Paul labored to include and embrace.
The truth is that the people of God - us - like the Israel of Jesus' day are a much more mixed bag than that. We need to recognize our own sinfulness rather than projecting our fears onto scapegoats and driving them from the land.
What am I saying, that ethics don't matter? Of course not. The lifestyle of the people of God, what we are to embrace and what we are to avoid, is spelled out very nicely in Galatians 5:16 to 21, the list of the works of the flesh and the fruit of the spirit. In terms of sexual ethics we are urged to shun "fornication, impurity and licentiousness." And to embody love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
I think we should ask whether sexual relationships measure up to the touchstones provided here. If any couple, heterosexual or homosexual, embodied these virtues and values, I would honor their commitment and celebrate their bodying forth in their mutual love, the way of Christ in intimate human relationships.
I would also apply these touchstones to the disrupters in our midst, the zealots for the purity codes (and here I am not referring to Manfred and his kind), who abandon love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity and goodness, to foment enmity, strife, anger, quarrels, dissentions and factions. I would argue they are doing what is unnatural, not caring couples of whatever configuration.
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