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.
In my last post, I addressed my concern about Jesus being dragged into the debate concerning same-sex marriage, LGBTQ rights and so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts.” That was a difficult piece to write. This piece is more difficult still: here I’ll confront Biblical pronouncements concerning same-sex relations.
You can find roughly 20 Bible provisions cited here and there to condemn same-sex relations. Most discussion is focused on a handful of these provisions (sometimes four, sometimes six, sometimes eight). These provisions are divided about equally between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Some refer to these verses as the “clobber verses,” because they’ve been used by some to attack (“clobber”) people who belong to or defend the LGBTQ community.
This post is not intended to be the last word on this topic. Far from it. There’s been a great deal written on this subject, much of it very good (in my opinion). If you click the hyperlinks in this post, you’ll find some sites I like quite a bit. I’ll name three sites that have become personal favorites: Susan Cottrell’s FreedHearts blog, the resources available at the Gay Christian Network, and the site for the Jewish organization Keshet.
In this post, I’ll restrict my comments to a single clobber verse, Leviticus 20:13.
In my last post, I looked at Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which I described as hostile to same-sex marriage and the LGBTQ community. There have been significant developments in Indiana and elsewhere since I wrote that piece, but for the moment I’d like to focus on a terrific post on this subject by friend-of-this-blog Anthony Le Donne.
Anthony’s post is a mostly favorable response to an article on Salon.com written by Rutgers University Professor Brittney Cooper. Like me, Professor Cooper is really teed off about “religious freedom restoration” laws. She describes herself as a practicing Christian, and she is “incensed” that others are pushing for the adoption of discriminatory laws “in the name of religious freedom.” Amen to that!
I’ve never written about politics on this site before. I think the time has come. I’ve spent the evening reading Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This Act is absurd on so many levels, I wish I could just laugh it off. But I can’t. The Act seems designed to hurt people. More particularly: the Act seems designed to give religion the freedom to hurt people.
But before I climb on my soapbox, let’s try something constructive. Let’s read the Act together. Don’t groan! The Act is a simple piece of reading. It’s not even three pages long, and it has wide left and right margins. It’s barely a five minute read. Admittedly, to understand what the Act is saying will take us a little longer, but the Act itself is mind-numbingly simple. Nearly the entire substance of the Act is set forth in a paragraph, found in Section 6 of the Act:
A state action, or an action taken by an individual based on state action, may not substantially burden a person’s right to the exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a law or policy of general applicability, unless the state or political subdivision of the state demonstrates that applying the burden to the person’s exercise of religion is: (1) essential to further a compelling governmental interest; and (2) the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling governmental interest.
Whew! 2015 has not proved to be a banner year for this blog. Not with my being sidetracked by crunch-time work projects that were actually due in 2014.
There’s also my pursuit of a master’s degree in Jewish Studies, which had me in a classroom for 9 hours a day last week. Not to mention the 1000+ pages of reading assigned for these classes, none of which went easy for a guy like me who hasn’t been enrolled in an actual college classroom for more than 30 years. Not when the readings included gems from the likes of Michael Fishbane, who writes that the Hebrew Bible is based on a “myth of scriptural origin, [where] the divine Reality exteriorizes and condenses itself, at many removes from its animating soul-root, into a verbal text with several layers of meaning.” I get hopelessly stuck in this kind of language. How exactly does something “exteriorize itself”? Is this like being turned inside out?
Let’s see. Where was I, when I last blogged something? Oh, yes. I was talking about the possible discovery of a fragment of the Gospel of Mark that might date back to the late first century. I asked the question, why is an early dating of a book of Scripture so important to some people?
- P52, the John Rylands fragment,
I’m sorry for my absence from this blog! There’s just been too much to do so far this month/year: work, school, all my other writing, life in general …
Enough excuses. I want to write a series of posts this year on the Jewish side of the Bible, those books we call the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Bible, or the Tanakh … they’ve got lots of titles. I’d also like to conclude the series I started last year, on the roots of Christian anti-Judaism and what we can know about the trial and death of Jesus.
But as usual, I’m distracted. It turns out that archaeologists may have discovered the earliest known Gospel fragment, from the Gospel of Mark. We don’t know much about this find … not yet. But from the little information we have so far, it appears that the fragment has been dated to the 80s CE, which would make the fragment 40 to 50 years older than the previously accepted oldest Gospel fragment (the P52 fragment of the Gospel of John, commonly dated to around 130 CE–this is the fragment pictured above).