Dr. Manfred Brock and Dr. William Hertzog, II
at the American Baptist Assembly in Greenlake, Wisconsin

Part Three - William Herzog
What's in a word?
I Corinthians 6:9; I Timothy 1:10

In part, it is astounding to me, we have spent this morning dealing with what's - minute portions of scripture, and have an issue that stands before us that is so out of proportion to the way it's dealt with in scripture. But it's here so here we go.

Each of the three Bible studies has raised a larger interpretive question: the study of Leviticus raised the questions of status of Torah and the Old Testament generally, in relationship to the New Testament, Jesus and Paul, a canonical question. The second raised the question of context within which Biblical texts were composed. Specifically, what did Paul have in mind when he condemned same gender sexual acts. Now the issue is the value and limit of word studies.

Perhaps the interpretive exercise many of us were assigned in learning Greek and Hebrew, was a word study. But of what value of a word study when one may not know the meaning of the word or the larger semantic feels and symbolic cultural worlds of which it is a part and which give it meaning? This is especially crucial since the word is not the basic unit of meaning in any language, something like the sentence or the paragraph carries that weight.

And even sentences and paragraphs are spoken or written in a social and symbolic world that gives them meaning. If we fail to pay attention to the world in which the Bible was written, we will simply read Biblical texts, infuse them with meaning from our social and symbolic world and conclude that the Bible speaks directly to use. It's a neat trick. But it does so only if we silence the voice of scripture and pull a ventriloquists act with it. The Bible speaks with its words but our meaning. When we do this, we have failed to accord scripture the most basic respect, listening to hear its word to us, especially when we don't want to hear what it has to say.

Both First Corinthians 6:9, 10 and First Timothy, 1:9, 10 uses vices, a common course of moral discourse in the ancient world. The list may be traditional, and used in a general way to condemn. Or it may be tailored in a general way to condemn or it may be tailored to the situation in which they are used. Interpreters will vary in their estimate of which end of the spectrum the list fits in each instance.

The list in First Corinthians 6:9 is the third of three lists and you have that handout and it will accompany the tape.

I Cor 5:10 - immoral, greedy, robbers, idolators

I Cor 5:11 - immoral, greedy, idolators, revilers, drunkards, robbers

I Cor 6:19 - immoral, idolators, adulterers, malokoi, arsenokoitai, thieves, greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers

Used in close proximity to each other, each list is longer than it's predecessor and I have noted in bold type the new vices that appear in each list. The increasing length of the list builds toward a rhetorical climax. Sin is more pervasive and assumes more forms than one may have guessed. But a pattern is hard to discern.

The list in First Timothy is more susceptible to being organized. Scrog\gs thinks the vices cluster into five groups and you have them before you.

Our attention will be focused on the fourth group. Pornoi refers to male prostitutes, usually slaves forced into sexual servitude. Arsenekoitai to the client who uses and abuses the male prostitute and andrapodistai to the slave dealer who procures the slaves who are forced into degrading forms of prostitution. In other words, the three words look like three words strung together, three beats in a string to us, but they define a social subsystem in the ancient world.

Unfortunately, the one word the two lists share in common, arsenokoitai is also the most obscure. It cannot be found in use prior to Paul which leads some to believe that he coined the phrase. Scroggs and many others believe that Paul created the compound out of the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint of Leviticus 18:22 with a male (arsen) you shall not lie the intercourse, (koite, lit. bed) of a woman and the same in Leviticus 20:13.

In First Corinthians 6:9 aresenokoitai is paired with malakoi, a word that literally means soft but was used widely, though not exclusively of the passive partner in pederastic sexual acts. The difference between pornos and malakos is that the latter need not have been prostitutes, but could refer to prepubescent boys who submitted to sexual intercourse with an adult male tutor.

Once again, the context in which same gender sexual acts is discussed is the context of sexual abuse. The exploitation of boys by men and the even more severe abuse as slaves as sexual objects of lust. At Tiede (Word & World X.2:147-155. Spring 1990) notes, "the whole list is speaking of abusive acts and perverted relationships. Paul was not condemning all same-sex intimacy alike. His attack is directed at adulterous and perverse practices, sins against the righteousness of God which enslaves their victims."

In this list, we have the distinct (that is the First Corinthians list) we have the distinct impression that Paul is speaking about individuals in the house church at Corinth because upon completing his final list he adds emphatically, and "this is what some of you used to be." He is writing to former prostitutes and fornicators, abusers and abused and he wants them to repent of their past life and place it in the light of the reign of God and the lordship of Christ. But the sin is the abuse of sexuality. Heterosexuality, fornicating, or screwing around, and adultery, and homosexuality, pederasty, exploitation of boys and abuse of slaves.

It is interesting to note that when Philo of Alexandria an older contemporary of Paul, discusses Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, he focuses his entire discussion on the practice of pederasty, (Special Laws III:37.) It is self-evident to Philo that this is what Moses was condemning. This instance could be duplicated - replicated - for Greek, Roman, Rabbinic and Hellenistic Jewish authors. All of this is to say that what Paul is most likely condemning in the vice list in First Corinthians 6:9 is an abusive form of same gender sexuality. But that cannot be taken as a warrant for condemning all same-gender sexuality any more than the condemnation of greed can be taken to invalidate all of capitalism, although it may well. Or the condemnation of drunkenness can be taken to eliminate all uses of wine, sacramental and social. Or anymore than fornication invalidates loving and caring heterosexual couples and their relationships.

Now, what does all of this mean? It is clear to me and I hope to others, that none of the texts commonly used to condemn gay and lesbian people can responsibly be used for that purpose. The kind of sexual relations they have in view are promiscuous, exploitive, impermanent and abusive. They lack the mutuality and intimacy that is the hallmark of true sexual love. Paul clearly views monogamous marriage as the appropriate and proper context for human sexual intimacy. He saw that possibility lived out by heterosexual couples but he never saw that reality lived out by couples of the same gender. So he spoke what his experience, his reading of scripture and knowledge of Christ has shown him to be true.

We are now in a different situation. Thanks to gay and lesbian Christian brothers and sisters we now know of same gender couples who wish to live together in the same relationship of mutuality, intimacy, caring and respect that marks heterosexual love at its best. It is here that we need to learn from the wisdom literature of the Bible. For the wisdom writers knew that the story of creation was not fully told in the creation stories in Genesis 1 to 3. As Choon-Leong Seow puts it, there are many truths about creation that people may discern through observation of life and the world. Here in the wisdom tradition and the Bible as scriptural authority for human beings to make ethical decisions by paying attention to science and human experiences. (Seow, 1996, 17-34)

And the meaning of canon is measuring rod. And what good is a canon if it's only measuring itself? It needs to measure things external to it. There is another scriptural warrant for letting our experience change our reading of scripture, even contradict what we have held to be true.

It comes from Isaiah 56:1-8. Gaiser (Word & World. XIV. 3:280-293) has noted that Isaiah 56:4 through 5 speaks a very unusual word: For thus says the lord to the eunuches who keep my Sabbath and who keep my covenant. I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. This word runs directly counter to the Torah which excludes all who have crushed or damaged testicles and eunuches from the house of the Lord - purity codes again.

Why did God so act? When the royal house of Israel was taken into captivity, the King of Babylon castrated all male members of the royal family in an attempt to destroy Israel's future. When the people did return, the question was raised anew: Didn't Babylon succeed after all? If the royal line is cut off and barren, how can there be a future? Gaiser notes the situation drips with irony. God, through God's law, becomes the barrier to God's deliverance in the promise. Such a dilemma calls for a drastic solution and Yahweh offers it by overturning Yahweh's own law in order to keep Yahweh's promise.

But there's another example of this very approach to scripture, closer to hand in the Apostle Paul himself. Jesus spoke forcefully against divorce in Mark 10 and Luke 16:18. It was congruent with his concern for the vulnerable, in this case women and children in a patriarchal society where dead beat dads could divorce at will. But when Paul comes to give advice to the married in the church at Corinth, he advocates acceptance of divorce if an unbelieving partner seeks to dissolve the bond of marriage, First Corinthians 7/15. Although his preference is for marriage to continue, Paul modifies his inherited tradition - no, he contradicts it in order to accommodate his experience, thus living out the wisdom tradition and the ongoing revealing of Christ's will in our lives.

This is what we are called to do today. In relationship both to the Old and the New Testament texts that have been put to such mean use. When we condemn loving, intimate, mutual relationships, we are condemning what is natural, not what is unnatural. The time has come to turn our attention to the true forms of unnatural sex in our society. The kind that issue forth in domestic abuse, violence and exploitation - that's unnatural.

Then we need to welcome and affirm any couples that are seeking to live responsibly and respectfully in long term monogamous relationships. If we do we will be closer to fulfilling the meaning of the scriptures we have wrestled with so much today.

If this seems to threaten our theology, I would offer the words of another esteemed mentor of blessed memory, Dr. Bernard Ramm, who loved to say to his theology classes, when we stand before the mercy seat, God will need to forgive our theologies as well as our sins, to which I would add, God will need to forgive our Biblical interpretations as well as our sins.

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