I feel like one of those cartoon characters who has been hit on the head by an anvil falling from a great height, and ends up with stars orbiting a bump on the head the size of a test tube. I was hit by a work project that I figured would take a week and took six instead. I doubt you want to hear the details, but my routine has been pretty much (1) wake up, (2) go to computer, (3) feel exhaustion set in 18 hours later, and (4) go to sleep. There’s some food thrown in between (2) and (3), but otherwise this is pretty much life as I’ve known it. Yucch.
Factor in that my wife is scheduled for a teaching gig in China for two weeks, and we’re trying to learn enough Chinese to amuse our hosts and embarrass ourselves (mission accomplished!). Plus we’ve have a few other crises involving struggling not-for-profits, and a civil war that’s broken out in the neighborhood. Where does the time go?
For me, part of what makes interfaith dialogue interesting is seeing something familiar from a new perspective, and sharing a familiar perspective with someone new. I’ve been looking closely here at Genesis 2:24, a Bible verse that has been tossed around quite a bit in the recent arguments over LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage. As frequently translated, Genesis 2:24 reads as follows:
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.
I’ve already had occasion to consider the meaning of this verse. The verse seems like it should be paired with an earlier verse, where G-d declares that “It is not good that the man should be alone.” The verse begins with the Hebrew עַל־כֵּן֙, translated as “Therefore,” indicating that the verse is an “etiology,” a story that explains the reason or origin of something already in existence. I made the argument that an etiology is different from a law, or a command, or even a way we’re recommended to live. So, I would read Genesis 2:24 to say something like, “People hate to be alone; this is why we often see men leave home in pursuit of someone to cleave to.” In other words, the verse is not there to tell us to do something we might otherwise not do; it’s there to explain why people are already doing something—and this “something” may or may not be what the Bible tells us we should do!
I have written a series of posts here on Bible verses related to same-sex sex and marriage. In my last post, I shifted my focus to Genesis 2:24, a verse commonly described by traditionalists as G-d’s Marriage Law or G-d’s Design for Marriage, but which I think is a more general observation about how we don’t want to be alone. In that post, I introduced an idea I’ve been toying with, that there are certain Bible-reading techniques that fit well with interfaith dialogue. These are techniques that we can share in common, techniques where we don’t give preference to any particular tradition for reading the Bible. The fact that Jesus or Paul may have read an Old Testament text in a certain way cannot settle how Jews and Christians read this text together, any more than the reading of a Jewish sage like Rashi can settle this matter.
How should we deal with our divergent traditional readings of the Bible? Well … we can share them. That’s often the best we can do. Your Bible may read Isaiah 7:14 to have Isaiah predict that a “virgin” will give birth; my Bible may say that a “young woman” will give birth. Some Christians may agree that “young woman” is the right translation, but I don’t see what is gained by Jews and Christians arguing the point. Similarly, your church may teach that Isaiah 53 is a messianic prediction, or more specifically, a prediction that the Jewish Messiah must suffer and die. In contrast, my synagogue may teach that Isaiah 53 is prophecy concerning the entire Jewish people, that we will suffer persecution until the world comes to its senses and recognizes the G-d of the Bible. Jews and Christians have been batting this verse back and forth for 1,800 years, without any advance in Bible knowledge or mutual understanding.
The phrase that’s come to dominate the push for same-sex marriage is a welcome one. It’s “Love Wins.” It’s a good phrase, with roots in the Old Testament, and it’s a big part of how we hear Jesus and the Apostle Paul. It means that the central Bible commandments are love commandments. It means that two consenting adults who love each other should have the opportunity to marry.
Here’s another meme I’d like to see circulating. No one should have to be alone. OK, I admit, this doesn’t have the panache of “Love Wins,” but at least this answers a principle argument made by many opponents of same-sex marriage. This argument is that the Bible requires marriage to be between one man and one woman. In many cases, this argument is based on Genesis 2:24:
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
Genesis 2:24 is important to Jews because it’s in our Torah. The verse is important to Christians for this same reason, and also because Jesus repeats it:
I knew a man that I did not care for
And then one day this man gave me a call
We sat and talked about things on our mind
And now this man he is a friend of mine.
Friend and Lover, Reach Out of the Darkness
I have been laying low for the past week or so, watching the Sturm und Drang in the aftermath of the Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage in the United States. Oddly enough, it has me thinking of my 6th grade math textbook.
I think it was 6th grade. We were far enough into math so that the problems we had to solve required reasoning, and had to be performed in steps. Remember? “Two trains leave stations 450 miles apart and travel towards each other …” Lucky me! My teacher accidentally issued me a teacher’s copy of our math textbook, one with the answers in the back of the book. I guess I wasn’t particularly honest, because I held onto that book for a while, even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to have it. But I guess I wasn’t completely dishonest either, because for the first few weeks I didn’t copy my homework answers from the back of the book. Knowing the answers were there was enough for me. It gave me a certain confidence.
Law school is a seemingly endless slog through thousands of legal decisions. As a lawyer, you remember a few dozen decisions by name. Some decisions are so important, or so controversial, that they become part of common speech. In the U.S., many know that Brown v. Board desegregated the public schools, and that the police must inform persons arrested of their Miranda rights. And there’s Roe v. Wade, of course. 40 years later, we’re still arguing Roe v. Wade.
You can now add Obergefell v. Hodges to this short list of legal decisions. Obergefell is not a name that exactly rolls off the tongue! (Not that anyone named “Behrendt” has a right to complain.) But if you live in the United States, or are interested in what goes on here, you’ll be speaking this name often in the years to come. We might as well learn the name now. Four syllables. O-ber-ge-fell. (Hope I’m pronouncing it right.) I’m practicing saying it out loud, just as I’m practicing typing it on screen.
The Supreme Court just announced the Obergefell case this morning, but it’s highly unlikely you’re hearing about it here first. Obergefell is probably the most important civil rights case in my lifetime (I was born a year before Brown v. Board). In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in Obergefell that the U.S. Constitution requires all 50 States to license marriages between two people of the same sex.
My thoughts this week are with the victims of the mass murder at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In particular, I am struck by an editorial on this mass murder by Jon Stewart. If you have not seen this editorial, please watch:
Two phrases, cold but accurate, stick from the Stewart editorial. The first is, while this crime made headlines and has provoked endless discussion, “we still won’t do jack shit.” The second stresses the “disparity of response between when we think, ‘People that are foreign are going to kill us,’ and us killing ourselves.” Stewart is almost certainly right: we will do nothing about this. Oh, yes: we will try the confessed murderer, Dylann Roof, and if he is convicted, we will punish him to the maximum extent the law allows. Also, we will spill massive amounts of rhetorical ink in response to this massive spilling of real blood. But nothing of significance will change.
Let’s continue our close reading of the “clobber verse” Leviticus 20:13. The New Revised Standard Version translation of this text is as follows:
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.
The Hebrew text of the verse reads:
וְאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִשְׁכַּ֤ב אֶת־זָכָר֙ מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֔ה תּוֹעֵבָ֥ה עָשׂ֖וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֑ם מ֥וֹת יוּמָ֖תוּ דְּמֵיהֶ֥ם בָּֽם
Or, roughly transliterated:
Veh-eesh asher yeeshkav eṯ-zachar mishkevay eesha toe-ehva asu senayhem mote yumatu demayhem bam.
Last time we looked closely at the two Hebrew words mishkevay eesha, translated above as “as with a woman,” to discover that mishkevay means “beds” (sometimes as a place of sleep, sometimes as a place where one has sex, and sometimes as a reference to having sex) and eesha means “woman” or “wife.” The construct mishkevay eesha (“beds woman” or “making love wife”) makes no sense to us unless we read other words into the phrase (such as “having sex like a woman,” or just as logically, “having sex with a woman” or “beds of a wife”). A reader wrote me privately to point out that the traditional reading of Leviticus 20:13 requires us to read two phrases into the Hebrew that aren’t present there: this works something like “If a man lies with a male in the manner of having sex with a woman.” As I wrote last time, it is neither clear nor obvious that these are the right phrases to insert into the text. Personally, I prefer something like “if a man lies with a male in the bed of his wife.” But regardless, the two words mishkevay and eesha don’t literally translate into “as with a woman,” let alone “gay sex.” There is no “plain meaning” reference to same-sex sex in Leviticus 20:13.
A couple of months ago I attended a tutorial at the theological faculty. One of the professors was complaining about the state of historical Jesus research, pointing out that everyone seems to be saying the same thing: “Jesus was Jewish…but he didn’t follow the Jewish Law…he wasn’t really like other Jewish leaders during this time…he didn’t respect the Sabbath…and obviously he didn’t keep the purity Laws”. So in essence, everyone starts with a hypothesis and then unwittingly argues against it while they’re trying to argue for it. [I]s it really good research if everyone is simultaneously arguing for and against the same thing?
A second temple Jewish man who wanders around preaching about the coming of the Kingdom like a proper Old Testament prophet but who doesn’t follow the Jewish Law is an oxymoron.
Rebecca Runesson (The Angry Theologian)
In my last post, we began a look at the so-called “clobber verses,” the Bible passages commonly used to condemn gays, lesbians and other members of the LGBTQ community. I stated there what is my bottom line position, that the Bible should never be used to harm others. I reject any Bible meaning that is used as a pretext for discrimination or persecution.
But in the comment section, I got a gentle push-back from some of my readers who are interested in knowing more about the meaning and interpretation of these “clobber verses.” I agree: these texts need to be read carefully, seriously and with integrity. My sense is that we can perform such a reading, using some of the techniques we’ve discussed on this blog, and with due regard for the interfaith posture of our work here. So let’s give it a try.
But keep in mind, I’m not a Hebrew scholar, or even a Hebrew speaker. I consulted a religious Israeli Hebrew speaker for assistance in writing this post, but the foregoing analysis is based largely on online tools and analysis performed by others. Please, if you know more than I do, or see this matter in a different way, use the comments below and chime in. Please, consider this post as a way to get a conversation started, and not as the last word.
WARNING: this post is more complicated than usual. If you bog down, just skip to the end and read the last three paragraphs.
Let’s return to the “clobber text” that’s been our primary focus up until now, Leviticus 20:13.