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.