About Leviticus 18…

Leviticus may be foreign territory for most Christians, but we’ve all heard Leviticus 18:22 (and its sister passage, Leviticus 20:13). This is one of a handful of “clobber texts” used to argue that homosexuality is unacceptable.

For many, Leviticus 18:22 is one of the most straightforward condemnations of homosexual activity in the Bible. But hang on a minute. Leviticus 18:22 doesn’t just sit there by itself. It has a context that shapes its meaning, as I was reminded while reading the whole book recently.

Many of us have assumed there’s only one way to interpret this text. But what if we’re wrong?

I can think of three options for interpreting/applying Leviticus 18:22 today.

Option #1: The conduct described in Leviticus 18 is universally prohibited because it violates the “natural order” of things.

On the surface, this view has a lot going for it. It’s the traditional view. It’s how most Christians through time have understood Leviticus 18. (It’s also how I read this text for most of my life.)

We can all agree (I hope) that at least most of the behaviors described in Leviticus 18 are unhealthy. There are 17 “do not’s” in this chapter, including the one about a man sleeping with another man. Twelve of the 17 “do not’s” deal with incest. One involves sex with animals (18:23).

But Leviticus 18 isn’t always clear-cut. What, for example, do you do with the command about “sexual relations during [a woman’s] monthly period” (18:19)? Leviticus forbids that too. Most Christians I know don’t think we’re obligated to keep this law today. And it certainly isn’t something we’d put in the same category as, say, an old man molesting his grandchild (18:10).

Mark Driscoll’s Real Marriage provides a good example of the typical evangelical approach to passages like Leviticus 18:19. Driscoll argues there’s a difference between Leviticus’ ceremonial laws (which deal with “the priesthood, sacrifices, temple, cleanness, and so forth”) and its moral laws. The latter are repeated in the New Testament and are still binding; the former applied only to Israel and are no longer in force. Driscoll puts the prohibition against sleeping with a menstruating woman into the “ceremonial law” category and says it’s “no longer binding on us.” But he considers everything else in Leviticus 18, including the prohibition against a man sleeping with another man, as moral (and therefore binding) law.

And that’s the problem with Driscoll’s approach. He makes a special exception for one verse in Leviticus 18 (the one most likely to affect him, conveniently enough) while insisting the others still apply. He acts as if Leviticus needs our help sorting its laws into meaningful categories. He and most evangelicals treat Leviticus as if it were a random assortment of laws, given without rhyme or reason — a jumble of ceremonial, civil, and moral laws listed in no particular order.

This approach ignores the inherent literary structure of Leviticus and imposes artificial categories on its content. So we miss what should be painfully obvious: Leviticus 18 is a single unit of content. Its beginning and end are clearly indicated. The laws here are grouped together for a reason. (More on that later.) In other words, Leviticus makes no distinction between sex during a woman’s period and the other activities prohibited in chapter 18.

All of them are described as “detestable practices” or abominations (Hebrew, toh-ey-vah), which Israel is to avoid at all costs. Leviticus 20 goes even further, calling for any man who sleeps with his wife during her monthly period to be “cut off from their people.” (The term translated “cut off” can also mean annihilate, kill, or amputate. In other words, more than just a slap on the wrist.)

But this is where Leviticus gets confusing (even more so than usual). Because just a few chapters earlier, sex during a woman’s period is characterized as a minor infraction, resulting in a man being ritually unclean for a week.

So which is it? Cut off from the community entirely? Or briefly excluded from ceremonial worship? Make up your mind, Leviticus!

The point is, almost all of us are selective about which regulations in Leviticus 18 we view as universally binding. Unfortunately, the categories we use to distinguish between “binding” and “non-binding” don’t take into consideration the content and structure of the book itself.

For the sake of consistency (if nothing else), we should either accept all the prohibitions in this chapter or concede that option #1 isn’t as persuasive as it first seemed.

Option #2: Leviticus 18 is addressing the issue of sexual conduct within the context of worship.

To start, let’s look at the larger, surrounding, and immediate contexts of Leviticus 18.

First, the larger context. Leviticus 18 is part of a book whose name means “pertaining to the Levites,” i.e. the Israelite priestly clan. Leviticus was Israel’s liturgical playbook. It dealt primarily with matters pertaining to worship: sacrifices, ritual cleanness, holiness, and the practice of redeeming property. Its chief purpose was to help Israel distinguish between what was holy and what was common as it related to worship, so they could avoid “defiling [God’s] dwelling place.”

Now zoom in a little closer. Leviticus 18 is surrounded by prohibitions concerning idolatry. Chapter 17 includes laws against sacrificing animals outside the tabernacle and against eating blood — both of which were pagan practices. Chapter 19 also addresses a number of pagan practices, including making idols, divination, and ritual self-mutilation.

So the larger context of Leviticus 18 suggests it has something to do with worship. The surrounding context narrows the focus to idolatry. Both are indications that Leviticus 18 might not be making a broad statement about human sexuality.

Now look at the immediate context. Notice how chapter 18 begins:

The LORD said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: “I am the LORD your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the LORD.” ’

Next, notice how Leviticus 18 ends:

‘ “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.” ’

The prohibitions in Leviticus 18 are introduced with a warning for Israel not to imitate its former neighbors (the Egyptians) or its new ones (the Canaanites). The behaviors listed here are called toh-ey-vah in Hebrew (“detestable things” or “abominations”), a term used to describe that which is prohibited in worship. To do as Egypt and Canaan did was to become taw-may — that is, “defiled” or “ritually unclean.” In other words, unfit for worship. 

The larger, surrounding, and immediate contexts all indicate that Leviticus 18 is addressing matters of worship. In other words, the prohibitions are dealing with various forms of ritual sex.

Ritual sex was common among many ancient religious traditions. Temples across the ancient Near East employed (or enslaved) both male and female prostitutes (which explains why Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar was able to pass herself off as a “shrine prostitute” in Genesis).

If there’s any doubt Leviticus 18 is addressing religious practice, notice how it brings up another form of idolatry, child sacrifice, smack in the middle of all these sexual prohibitions:

Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek [a Canaanite deity], for you must not profane the name of your God.

The message of Leviticus 18 is that pagan practices like ritual sex and child sacrifice have no place in Israelite worship. The Egyptians and Canaanites may have done these things when they worshipped their gods, but this was not how Yahweh was to be worshiped.

Option #3: Leviticus 18 is dealing with predatory sexual behavior.

Another view (not incompatible with option #2) is that Leviticus 18 forbids predatory sexual activity.

Like most of Leviticus, the sexual prohibitions in this chapter are addressed to adult males. And for good reason. In the ancient Near Eastern family hierarchy, adult males always outranked females. Women were inferior, second-class. They were property. Even in the Old Testament law, women were valued less than their male counterparts, literally. For the purpose of making a sacred vow, for example, Leviticus set the value of men and women as follows:

  • Men (20-60 years old): 50 shekels of silver
  • Women (20-60 years old): 30 shekels of silver

(Remember what I wrote about Leviticus not being an easy book to like?)

Most of the prohibited sexual relationships in Leviticus 18 are incestuous in nature. But there’s another common thread connecting them all: each prohibited act involves an imbalance of power.

Sex in the ancient Near East was often a way of asserting dominance over someone else. That’s what was going on in the story of Sodom. That’s what was going on when Reuben slept with his father’s concubine; he was presumptuously asserting his power over the rest of the family as the firstborn son.

Predatory behavior is also in view in Leviticus’ prohibition against male homosexual activity (female homosexual activity is never mentioned in the Old Testament):

Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.

The phrase “as one does with a woman” is key. It emphasizes the passive, weaker role played by one of the two men. Which is exactly what you’d have if, as suggested by option #2, Leviticus 18:22 is describing an act of ritual sex in which one of the two members is a temple prostitute (and most likely a slave). In this case, the act becomes very predatory indeed. It was about one man brutally asserting his dominance over another, reducing him to the much lower status (in that culture) of a woman.

Every single act prohibited in Leviticus 18, whatever else it may be, can be understood as predatory — one person wrongly asserting their dominance over another.

One advantage of this view is that it helps explain Leviticus 18 in light of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” found in the very next chapter. Jesus, like many Jews of his day, insisted that this was one of the two greatest commands in all of Scripture (the other being “love the Lord your God”).

Every other command — all 611 of them — had to be interpreted in light of these two. Everything else was subordinate to “love God” and “love your neighbor.”

When understood as prohibitions against predatory sexual behavior, the commands in Leviticus 18 make perfect sense as an application of “love your neighbor.” In other words, do not prey on the vulnerable or the weak. Do not take advantage of your neighbor, sexually or otherwise.

These are the three ways I can think of to interpret Leviticus 18. What options do you see for understanding this text?

If Leviticus 18 is a prohibition against ritual, predatory sex, then what it doesn’t address is a committed, equal relationship between two males or two females. It seems that Leviticus 18:22 can only be used as arsenal in the debate over homosexuality when it’s pulled out of its cultural, literary, and religious context.

Of course, much is made of the fact that Leviticus calls a man “lying with another man” a “defiling” and “detestable” act. But take note of what else was considered “defiling,” “detestable,” or the antithesis of “holy,” according to Leviticus:

  • Eating “unclean” animals, including pork, rabbit, and shellfish
  • Eating raw or rare meat
  • Cross-breeding animals
  • Wearing mixed fabrics
  • Cutting the hair at the sides of your head
  • Clipping the edges off your beard
  • Anyone with a skin disease
  • Anyone who was disfigured in any way — the blind, hunchbacks, dwarfs, eunuchs, etc. — and thus prohibited from serving God

Today, we don’t exclude people with physical impairments from serving in the church. We don’t call someone “unholy” for trimming their sideburns. Most of us don’t see anything defiling or detestable about eating pork or ordering our steak medium rare. We wouldn’t ostracize someone with eczema or write them off as “defiled.”

What if our reading of Leviticus is too selective? What if Leviticus has nothing to offer when it comes to the contemporary debate over sexual identity?

Leviticus: handle with care

For Lent, my wife and I are reading our way through the first several books of the Old Testament, sometimes known as the “historical books.” Today’s installment covers that gem of Bible weirdness known as Leviticus.


Most Christians act as if Leviticus isn’t in their Bibles. To the extent that we read Scripture at all, we tend to avoid this strange little book like the plague.

After reading Leviticus this week, I can understand why.

I’ll be honest: I didn’t like it very much.

Leviticus is a glaring reminder that the Bible is a foreign book, that it didn’t fall from the sky yesterday.

Some have called the Bible God’s “love letter” to us. Well, try saying that after reading Leviticus cover to cover. (Put it this way: I wouldn’t advise turning here for source material the next time you write a love letter to your sweetheart.)

Animal blood, mildew, bodily fluids… there’s plenty of all to be found in Leviticus.

Most Christians accept that at least some of the Levitical commands no longer apply. But which ones? How do we decide?

For example, most of us have no problem wearing mixed fabrics, despite Leviticus labeling such fashion an affront to God’s holiness. But other commands are assumed to be normative today, like prohibitions against certain sexual behaviors.

So how do we decide which parts to follow and which to ignore?

Since we no longer worship in a temple or sacrifice animals, do we skip over laws pertaining to Israelite worship and stick to the rest? Because if so, where do we draw the line? You could argue the whole book of Leviticus (or the vast majority of it, anyway) is a liturgical playbook. After all, the name Leviticus means “pertaining to the Levites,” a.k.a. the Israelite priestly clan.

Or we do only follow laws which are specifically reaffirmed in the New Testament? If so, then we’re ruling out the rest based on an argument from silence. Is that really the best way to go?

Clearly, the earliest Christians did not feel bound to observe Levitical dietary laws. The book of Acts records a supernatural vision in which God invites the Apostle Peter to feast on all manner of forbidden animals. When Peter objects, God says, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

But God’s not really making point about food so much as one about people. God uses the vision in Acts to prepare Peter for a mission which he otherwise might have refused on the grounds of maintaining ritual purity. Peter was to enter a Gentile’s house (the house of a Roman occupier, no less) and extend the hand of fellowship to those he’d been taught to view as “unclean.”

The whole point of Leviticus was to help the Israelites distinguish between clean and unclean, holy and common. They were told to avoid the unclean and the common so they could worship God in purity and holiness. It was a protective measure designed to insulate the Israelites (and their forms of worship) from outside influence. Specifically, from Gentile influence.

So what happens when God declares Gentiles “clean”?

People like Peter, a Torah-observing Israelite, come to realize “that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” Levitical rules about cleanness and holiness give way to a greater purpose: to make all things clean and holy.

Consider how Jesus responds when his disciples are accused of violating the Sabbath. No only does he not deny the Pharisees’ accusation; he calls into question yet another Levitical command. He reminds the Pharisees how David and his warriors once ate consecrated bread that belonged to the priests. They did so in clear violation of the Levitical law concerning such holy bread.

Jesus sides with David, saying:

I tell you that something greater than the temple [with all its regulations] is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.

Elsewhere, Jesus insists that he came to fulfill rather than abolish the law. But here, we see that Jesus fulfills the law by superseding it. He radically reinterprets Leviticus in light of a greater purpose. Mercy is more important than sacrifice. He could just as easily have said love is more important than ritual purity.

During his lifetime, Jesus never stopped going to temple. He never stop keeping kosher. He wore phylacteries. But none of these things were the source of his power. That, he argued, came from someone who was greater than any law.

Leviticus — messy, confusing, and sometimes disturbing as it may be — has to be read through the lens of Jesus. And that changes everything.

Next up, some of the most controversial commands in Leviticus…

Creation 2.0, interior decorating, and the genocide that (maybe) wasn’t: the resolution of Exodus

For Lent, my wife and I are reading (and I’m blogging my way through) the first several books of the Old Testament, sometimes known as the “historical books” or the Covenant History. Today’s installment is the last from Exodus.


The second half of Exodus features (among other things) some very specific interior decorating tips, a troubling story involving a golden calf and 3,000 slaughtered Israelites, and a renewal of the covenant between God and his people.

Oh yeah… and the Ten Commandments. But why go for the obvious?

Tabernacle: creation 2.0

According to Exodus, the Israelites are commanded to build a tabernacle, basically a great big tent for worship.

Exodus describes the tabernacle design in great detail.

Mind-numbingly great detail.

There’s a whole section of Exodus that’s full of riveting stuff like this:

The tent curtains will be a cubit longer on both sides; what is left will hang over the sides of the tabernacle so as to cover it.

But there’s something we shouldn’t miss in all the mundane details of what kind of yarn to use for which curtains and the like. The tabernacle is meant to be God’s dwelling place. He is coming to live among his people.

For Christians, the tabernacle is a preview of coming attractions — of a time when God will dwell among his people again, this time in the tent of a human body. As John wrote in the prologue to his gospel: “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.”

Jesus, in effect, becomes our tabernacle.

But the Exodus tabernacle also looks back to the original creation. According to Wheaton professor John Walton, Genesis describes the making of a cosmic tabernacle. Creation itself is God temple, as indicated by the final act of the creation story: God rests. As Walton writes in The Lost World of Genesis One:

Deity rest in a temple, and only in a temple. This is what temples were built for. We might even say that this is what a temple is — a place for divine rest.

The tabernacle echoes creation itself. It’s a reminder that God is in our midst. The tabernacle is, in effect, creation 2.0 — except in this case, God’s people are invited to participate in the act of creation. Human beings are God’s co-creators, his junior partners.

The Canaanites: driven out or wiped out?

Easily the most vexing problem in the Bible is the Canaanite genocide, supposedly commanded by God and carried out by Israel.

All manner of rationalizations have been offered, many of which come down to arguing that the Canaanites were really, really bad and basically had it coming.

Maybe they were as bad as they’re sometimes made out to be. Maybe they really did sacrifice their children to Molech. But it seems strange to argue, as some have, that God punished the Canaanites for slaughtering some of their children… by slaughtering the rest of their children.

Others appeal to the inscrutability of God’s justice. But if divine justice is anything, it had better be scrutable. Otherwise, God is no different from the many other capricious, temperamental deities of the ancient Near East.

What struck me when reading Exodus was how surprisingly vague it is about the anticipated conquest of Canaanite territory. Exodus mentions the conquest several times. But it never uses the language of annihilation.

It’s strongly implied that Israel will have a passive role in clearing the land. God will do the heavy lifting, thank you very much:

I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites out of your way.

But there’s more. Exodus directly contradicts the idea of a decisive conflict in which the Canaanites are wiped from history. Exodus predicts a far more gradual (and far less apocalyptic) process:

But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.

Time and again, Exodus uses the phrase drive out to describe what will happen to the Canaanites. The same phrase (Hebrew, garash) is used four times in the first part of Exodus to describe what happened to the Israelites in Egypt. This is the language of upheaval and displacement — but not extermination.

Other passages elsewhere in Scripture will give the Canaanite conquest a genocidal tinge. But Exodus, which is first to mention the conquest in detail, strikes a milder tone.

Covenant renewal

The last half of Exodus features an alarming story in which Israel worships a golden calf (after deciding that Moses and his God have been away for too long). In retaliation, those loyal to Moses kill 3,000 of their own people, and God threatens to wipe out the rest and start over with just Moses.

The story is troubling on many levels. How could the Israelites turn from God so easily? How could Moses order the seemingly random slaughter of his own people? How could God even think about destroying his people on the way to Canaan?

Whatever we make of this story, it highlights the seriousness of the covenant between God and his people. A covenant was a binding treaty with obligations for both parties. It was serious enough business that God had once said to Abraham, in effect, “May I be dismembered like a bunch of dead animals if I don’t keep my covenant with you.”

When Israel made the golden calf, they violated at least two of the Ten Commandments. They nullified the covenant. God had no further obligations to them.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that God reinstates the covenant after it has been obliterated. God reiterates the covenant law and gives Moses a new set of stone tablets. The people get busy building the tabernacle and, amazingly, God fills the finished structure with his presence. The “creation 2.0” project is very much still on.

People say the Old Testament is a book of law, and the New Testament is a book of grace. But you can’t get much more “grace” than the last half of Exodus.

Breaking the cycle: the resolution of Joseph’s story

I’m blogging my way through the first several books of the Old Testament, sometimes known as the “historical books” or the Covenant History. Today’s installment is the last from the book of Genesis.


The account of Jacob’s family continues as the entire land is besieged by famine, just as Joseph predicted. The only place with any food left is Egypt — and that is credited to Joseph’s diligence.

Back in Canaan, Jacob says to his 10 oldest sons, in effect, “What are you all standing around for? Get your butts down to Egypt and get some food before we all starve.”

It’s not surprising that residents of Canaan would turn to Egypt for help. Archaeological evidence suggests that Canaan was an Egyptian colony of sorts during the second millennium BC — right up to the point when a tiny nation called Israel came onto the scene. In other words, Israel emerged “out of Egypt” in more ways than one.

The tale of Joseph and his brothers is a darn good read. It’s biblical storytelling at its best. Sometimes, characters in the Bible can come across a bit, well, two-dimensional — perhaps because the Bible isn’t just telling stories for the sake of telling stories.

But not in this case. You can almost feel the brothers’ panic when they discover the silver in their bags, planted by the Egyptians before making their way home. Jacob’s despair at the prospect of losing his youngest son, Benjamin, reverberates off the page.

What goes around (doesn’t always come around)

There’s a beautiful sense of irony to this story, too. Not only because Joseph’s brothers end up bowing down to him, just as he dreamed they would. The story has come full circle. Near the beginning, Joseph came to his brothers, sent by their father. But his brothers did not welcome him. (Unless being thrown into a pit and sold into slavery is your idea of rolling out the welcome mat.) Now, many years later, Joseph’s brothers come to him, sent by their father.

Near the beginning, Joseph’s brothers ate and drank while Joseph languished in the pit. Now his brothers have nothing to eat or drink; they are the ones languishing. This could be the perfect opportunity for Joseph to get a bit of his own back. But in the end, Joseph breaks the cycle of hostility. Abraham’s family — the family of promise — is in danger of fracturing into oblivion. Joseph’s choice to reconcile instead of avenge keeps the family — and the promise — alive.

It’s not all sunshine and roses, though

But there’s also a portent of darker days ahead. As the famine wears on, we learn that Joseph has inherited his father’s scheming ways. When the people of Egypt run out of money to buy food (the food Joseph had stockpiled for the Egyptian government, that is), he takes their livestock in exchange for more food. When that food runs out, he takes their land as well.

Which makes me wonder: why don’t conservatives despise Joseph? He’s the biblical poster boy for big government. While everyone else panics, he takes advantage of a crisis to seize everyone’s land and enlarge the government of a tyrant.

In fact, the text itself sounds a note of disapproval, saying, “Joseph reduced the people to servitude.” Which could also be translated, “Joseph enslaved the entire population.”

Everyone, that is, except the pagan priests.

The implication would not have been lost on the original readers. Just as Jacob’s son enslaved the Egyptians, so Egypt would enslave the sons of Jacob.

So with Joseph’s brothers, we see how the cycle of oppression and retaliation can be disrupted. But otherwise, the cycle continues unabated. Joseph’s enslavement of the Egyptians will have repercussions. Just as his too-close-for-comfort affiliation with Egyptian gods will have lasting consequences for his descendants. (Three times Genesis tells us that Joseph married the daughter of an Egyptian priest. It keeps coming up, as if to say, “See? This’ll come back to bite you.”)

The ransom of Benjamin (and the ransom of us all)

One more thing worth noting about this story is the ascendancy of Judah. Earlier, Judah was introduced as the fourth son of Jacob. But Judah’s namesake will emerge as chief among the tribes of Israel. The line of David, Israel’s greatest king, traces its roots back to Judah.

The elevation of younger children over their older siblings is a recurring theme in Genesis. Abel, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, etc. From our vantage point, the choice often seems arbitrary. Jacob’s dominance over his brother Esau, for example, is foretold before they are even born.

Judah, on the other hand, rises to the occasion. Joseph orders his 10 brothers to bring Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, to him. Jacob is afraid of losing Benjamin the same way he lost Joseph. (Both were special to him because they were the only sons of his favorite wife, Rachel.) So Judah promises to take personal responsibility for Benjamin’s safety.

Down in Egypt, Joseph plants his silver cup on Benjamin, then accuses him of stealing it. When Joseph threatens to make Benjamin his slave, Judah intervenes. (Notice the irony. No one intervened when Joseph was carried into slavery; now the brothers get a second chance.)

Judah offers himself in Benjamin’s place. If he can’t bring Benjamin back to his father, better to not go back at all. Judah, in effect, lays his own life down as a ransom for Benjamin’s.

Centuries later, a descendant of Judah will come, claiming to do the same — but this time, for the whole of Israel and for humanity itself. The story of Jesus is a fulfillment — that is, the full expression or completion of — Judah’s story. It is through and through a story of deliverance from slavery and exile. And it is our story, too.

Chickified dudes, mandrakes, and underdogs: Jacob’s story

[This year, my wife and I are reading the Covenant History books of the Old Testament during Lent. We started a bit early because, well, they’re really long.]

After Abraham dies, Genesis breezes through the account of Ishmael, pausing just long enough to mention his male offspring. Funnily enough, both of Abraham’s sons are said to father twelve “tribes.”

Then we get the account of Isaac. Though, poor Isaac — he’s only a bit player in his own story. His biggest speaking role comes when he’s duped by his youngest son into giving him the family blessing that belonged to the firstborn.

By all accounts, Jacob is the real star of the show. Which, if you think about it, is a blow for Mark Driscoll’s idolization of rough-and-tumble masculinity. Jacob is a mama’s boy. He isn’t rugged or hairy like his big brother Esau. He prefers to stay at home and cook, rather than go out and hunt. He’s what Driscoll would call a  “chickified dude.”

Jacob’s also an inveterate schemer, but neither his effeminate tendencies nor his knack for deception are much of an issue for God. Lesson of the day: if God can make room for those who don’t live up to society’s narrow definition of masculinity — or who have some other “defect,” perceived or real — then maybe we should too. Just a thought.

In any case, Jacob may be a mama’s boy, but he’s got some serious chutzpah (or “choot-spa,” as Michelle Bachmann might say).

After fleeing from Esau, who’s grown tired of his little brother’s antics, Jacob gets his first encounter with Yahweh. God offers Jacob the same deal he made with Abraham and Isaac. But this time, there are no strings attached. This time, Jacob’s the one making demands. After his divine encounter, he says:

If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God.

Seriously? God shows up and basically offers you the world, and THAT’S how you respond?

Jacob’s not an easy guy to like.

But he gets a taste of his own medicine when he goes to live with his uncle Laban. Jacob takes an interest in Laban’s youngest daughter. (Again, on behalf of us all: eww.) Jacob agrees to work for Laban seven years in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Laban tricks Jacob by giving him his older and less attractive daughter Leah instead. Jacob doesn’t realize the switch has been made until the morning after. (That must’ve been some wedding party.)

Eventually, Jacob ends up with both of Laban’s daughters. In return, Laban gets about 20 years of cheap labor from Jacob.

In what has to be the saddest part of the story, Leah and Rachel compete to see who can bear Jacob the most children. According to the text, God sees that Leah is unloved, so he opens her womb. Women in the ancient Near East were basically their husbands’ property, their value measured by their ability to make babies. Specifically, male babies.

God doesn’t go so far as to dismantle the oppressive, patriarchal system that made Leah someone else’s property — not here, at least. Instead, he takes humanity as he finds it, working within a broken system to bring Leah some relief.

Leah gives birth to four children. At first, she tells herself this will win her Jacob’s love at last. Sadly, it doesn’t. But as a consolation prize, she manages to annoy her younger sister, who hasn’t borne any children yet. Next, both wives take turns giving Jacob their servants to bear him yet more children. (This is one messed up sibling rivalry.)

Then one day, one of Leah’s sons brings her some mandrakes, which Rachel insists Leah share with her. So they make a deal: Leah gets a turn in Jacob’s bed, and Rachel gets some of her mandrakes. This leads to the weirdest line in the whole Bible, as Rachel tells Jacob: “You must sleep with me. I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.”

Mandrakes were thought to enhance fertility, which explains why Rachel (still childless) was desperate to get her hands on some. But in an ironic twist, it’s Leah who bears Jacob two more children. Only after this does God finally “remember” Rachel and give her a son.

This sad, sometimes ridiculous tale is yet another illustration of God favoring the underdog. No wonder the people of Israel were drawn to this story, warts and all. They were a perpetual underdog themselves. They often lived as strangers in someone else’s land. They briefly managed to carve out a home for themselves, aided by a regional power vacuum sometime during the second millennium BC — only to be carted off to exile by the ascendant Babylonians.

Other gods of the day cozied up to the strong and mighty, preferring the macho and the domineering. Not Israel’s God. He is the God of the underdog. He is the God of the weak and effeminate. He is the God of the unloved woman trapped in a man’s world. He’s the God of every kid who’s been picked last for kickball (which was very good news for my fifth-grade self).

Israel’s God works through misfits, rejects, castoffs… even the occasional mama’s boy. So when someone like Mark Driscoll says the problem with the church today is that there aren’t enough tough and powerful manly-men, we might want to take another look at who God routinely associates with in the Bible.

Heavenly napalm, geriatric parenting, and human sacrifice: Abraham’s story

[This year, my wife and I are reading the Covenant History books of the Old Testament during Lent. We started a bit early because, well, they’re really long.]

What struck me about Abraham (the subject of our second day of reading) is how different his story is from those that precede it. The first five “accounts” in Genesis follow each other in rapid succession.

Starting with Abraham, the focus narrows. The pace slows. The first few pages of Genesis breeze through primordial humanity, while the next several pages focus on just one man.

Up to this point, things haven’t gone well for the human race. With a remarkable lack of fanfare, God launches a new project that will hinge on one family. It’s a pretty bold move, since at the time, this family is in danger of extinction. (Abraham and his wife are childless.)

The account of Abraham starts by connecting him to primordial humanity. He’s introduced as a descendent of Noah’s son Shem. Like his predecessors, Abraham is a restless wanderer. It was Abraham’s father Terah who first set out for Canaan, with family in tow. Then Terah died, leaving them stranded.

From Cain to Babel, Genesis depicts the human race as scattered. Wandering. Lost. This is how God finds Abraham. But God starts something altogether new with him.

More previews of coming attractions

As with Adam and Eve, the writers/editors of Genesis connect Abraham’s story to Israel. For example, after arriving in Canaan, a famine sends Abraham & co. packing for Egypt. Which is exactly how Abraham’s descendants will end up in Egypt a few generations later.

While there, Abraham’s wife catches Pharaoh’s eye. To save his own skin, Abraham passes her off as his sister. As a result, Abraham gets the royal treatment — and grows rich off Pharaoh (until Pharaoh realizes he’s been had). Thus Abraham plunders the Egyptians, so to speak, before being driven out — much like his descendants 400 years later.

Or how about when Lot and his mysterious guests sit down to a meal of bread made without yeast before making a hurried escape from Sodom? Can you say “Passover”?

[Side note: As long as we’re talking about Sodom, let’s clarify something. This story has nothing to do with being gay. The men of Sodom didn’t pound on Lot’s door because they had the hots for other men. Their desire to rape Lot’s guests wasn’t motivated by sexual orientation. This was about humiliating a couple of outsiders. It was a way of asserting their dominance. That’s what got Sodom fried to a crisp, not having a suspiciously keen sense of fashion. If you want a “biblical” lesson on sexuality, you’ll have to look for one elsewhere.]

Covenant dance

What makes Abraham stand out is the covenant God establishes with him. Sometimes it’s been characterized as an “unconditional covenant.” But this doesn’t do justice to the whole story, which at times feels a bit like a faltering dance between two partners still trying to make out one another’s character.

The covenant figures into the story at least five times:

  • The first comes near the beginning. God tells Abraham to “go… to the land I will show you.” In return, God promises to make Abraham into a great nation and to bless the whole world through him. There’s nothing unconditional about this covenant. For it to go into effect, Abraham must “go.”
  • God reiterates his covenant after Abraham and Lot part ways in Canaan, with Lot taking the best land for himself. God, in effect, nullifies Lot’s choice, promising to give Abraham everything he can see. God says this land will belong to Abraham’s offspring “forever.” Some Christians make this the basis of a particular political posture vis-à-vis the modern nation of Israel. (Which is to miss how the New Testament radically redefines what it means to be “Abraham’s offspring.” But that’s for another post. And yes, I just wrote “vis-à-vis.”)
  • Later, Abraham reminds God of the not-so-trivial fact that he still doesn’t have an heir. In response, God restates his promises to Abraham, at which point Abraham “believed the Lord, and [God] credited it to him as righteousness.” (Paul makes much of this when arguing for justification by faith.) What’s interesting is how in the next breath, Abraham asks God for proof that he’ll keep his promise. At which point, God walks through a gauntlet of animal carcasses, which many believe was his way of saying, “May what happened to these animals happen to me if I don’t keep my promises to you.” God also promises that Abraham’s inheritance will stretch to the Euphrates. (The boundaries of the land promised to Abraham are somewhat fluid in the text, but Israel’s actual territory never extended as far as this.)
  • When Abraham is 99 years old (and still without an heir), God reiterates the covenant once more. Here again, there’s nothing “unconditional” about it. God uses a classic “if-then” formula: “[If you] walk before me faithfully… then I will make my covenant between me and you.” As a sign of adherence to the covenant, Abraham and the male members of his household are circumcised.

On the one hand, Genesis depicts God breaking into history. He is not some distant deity; he’s actively engaged in human affairs. On the other hand, Abraham is no chess piece. He has a meaningful part to play in the unfolding drama.

God’s covenant is still an act of grace; he didn’t have to do anything for Abraham. But the covenant only goes into effect because Abraham responds. “All nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.

About that test…

One last thing to cap off an already long post. Abraham’s story contains one of the most troubling scenes in the whole Bible. After finally coming through on the promise of an heir, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son.

The Sacrifice of Isaac (Caravaggio)

Years later, the writer of Hebrews argued that Abraham obeyed because he “reasoned that God could even raise the dead.” While the text in Genesis doesn’t explicitly say this, Abraham does act as if he thinks Isaac will be coming back down the mountain with him. He tells his servants, “We will worship and then we will come back to you.” When Isaac inquires about the absence of a lamb, Abraham says, “God himself will provide the lamb.”

Somehow I don’t think Abraham was lying to his servants or his son. I think Abraham genuinely believed God was going to come through with something. After all, this was the same God who had said, in effect, “May it be to me as these slaughtered animals if I don’t keep my promise to you.”

In the end, the test reveals as much about God’s character as it does Abraham’s. Plenty of ancient cultures practiced ritual human sacrifice. A divine demand for human blood wouldn’t come as a surprise to an ancient Near Easterner like Abraham. What was unusual was Abraham’s apparent belief that his God wouldn’t really do something like this — a belief that was ultimately vindicated. Even more remarkable was the fact that human sacrifice would be banned from Israelite worship altogether.

This God was not like other gods. I think that’s what Abraham’s test reveals, disturbing as it may be.

This is a God who brings life instead of chaos and death. Centuries later, Jesus showed him to be a God who would rather sacrifice himself than see any of his people die.

Covenant History: a Lenten journey

Last year for Lent, my wife and I read the New Testament. This year, we decided to kick it old school, reading what are sometimes called the historical books of the Old Testament — or simply the “Covenant History” (Genesis – Kings).

Lent doesn’t start till next week, but seeing as this section runs about 25% longer than the New Testament, we decided to give ourselves a head start. So we started reading last night.

Side note: we’re reading from a Bible without chapter or verse numbers, so you won’t find any in these posts, either. Try reading this way sometime. Trust me, it’s way better than reading the Bible as a reference book.

Of course, not having any chapter or verse numbers makes it tricky to describe what we’ve read each day. Their absence forces you to look for other reference points to orientate yourself. It turns out each book has its own natural markers to guide the way.

For example, Genesis consists of a prologue, followed by 11 “accounts.” Each begins with the same phrase: “This is the account of so-and-so.” For day 1, we read the prologue and the first five accounts. (Some are shorter than others.) See? Who needs chapter numbers?

True story, myth, or all of the above?

Having just read The Evolution of Adam, the question at the front of my brain is: what kind of story is Genesis? Is it literal history? Or something else?

There are a number of things about Genesis that should alert us to the perils of reading it as a scientific, literal description of how it all began. For example, when describing day 2 of creation, the prologue to Genesis depicts a world that looks something like this:

In other words, very consistent with ancient Near Eastern cosmology. But not so compatible with a literal, scientific understanding of reality.

Or the fact that we get light and darkness on day 1, three days before God creates the “greater light” (sun) and the “lesser light” (moon). To say nothing of the fact that, strictly speaking, the moon isn’t a light; it reflects light from the sun.

But it’s not just modern science that should cause us to rethink how we read Genesis. There are clues in the text itself that the writers/editors weren’t interested in giving us an exact, literal account.

For example, how is it that when God sends Cain away for murdering his brother, there’s already a large enough human population to make Cain fear for his life? If you follow a strict, literal reading, Cain is only the third person in existence. Young-earth creationists say these other people are Cain’s younger brothers and sisters — which means, among other things, he must’ve married his own sister. (On behalf of us all: eww.)

But if that’s what the writer meant for us to think, he would’ve had Cain say, “My brothers will kill me,” not, “Anyone who finds me will kill me.” What Cain fears is being sent into the unknown — being forced to wander among strange people in a strange land. His response (much less God’s punishment) makes no sense if Cain is being sent away from his family to wander… among his family?

No, what the writers/editors of Genesis are doing is crafting a story to make sense of the human condition — and in particular, Israel’s condition. Genesis declares that the God of Israel is the one who brought everything into existence; creation is not the accidental by-product of a cosmic smackdown among warring deities (as suggested by other ancient creation stories).

The Genesis narratives also paint a compelling portrait of humanity’s increasingly desperate state. Cut off from our source of life, creation fragments. Humanity descends into an ever-worsening spiral of violence, injustice, and oppression.

Finally, the narratives foreshadow everything that follows in the Covenant History. Adam’s story is Israel’s story. Adam is specially chosen by God. He’s given a land to tend; he’s given a law to tether him to his creator. He fails to keep that law, so he’s sent into exile. But he’s not just exiled anywhere. He and his descendants are sent away to the east.

This is Israel’s story. Israel was specially chosen by God. They were given a land to tend, and given a law to tether them to their creator. They failed to keep that law, so God sent them into exile. They weren’t just exiled anywhere, either. They were carried off to the east — to Babylon.

In the Bible, Israel’s condition and the larger human condition are one and the same. Which means that Israel’s hope is the hope of the world. Israel’s long-anticipated deliverer, hinted at in the creation account, is the deliverer of us all.

Reversing the curse: connecting Jesus to Genesis

The gospels connect Jesus to the Genesis story, sometimes in surprising ways. For example, Matthew describes a scene where one of Jesus’ disciples asks how many times he has to forgive someone who sins against him. “Up to seven times?” the disciple asks.

Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

This story is often presented as a simple lesson in the importance of forgiving others. On one level, that’s not a bad way to read it.

But there’s more to it than this. Jesus is reaching all the way back to the creation account in Genesis. There, a man named Lamech (said to be one of Cain’s descendants) kills a man, then brags about it to his wives:

Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words.

I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me.

If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.

God had promised Cain that if anyone killed him, they would suffer vengeance “seven times over.” Then Lamech engages in a dangerous game of one-upmanship — a sad illustration of how in a broken world like ours, retaliatory violence escalates at an alarming rate. Lamech’s boast is actually a curse.

To be a follower of Jesus, then, is to reverse the curse of Lamech. Where the children of Lamech seek vengeance 77 times over; the children of God forgive 77 times over. To become a subject of Jesus’ kingdom is to reject the kingdom of Lamech.

Jesus’ story is a response to Israel’s story. It’s a response to the story in Genesis. Whether or not Lamech was an actual historical figure (much less Adam), he serves as a monument to the universal human condition — a condition Jesus came to reverse.

That’s why if you want to understand Jesus, Genesis is a good place to start.

Election in the Old Testament, part 3

In the Old Testament, God kicked off his redemptive plan by forming a covenant nation called Israel. The nation as a whole was a chosen instrument, predestined by God.

But each person had a choice to make. If you were born into the covenant, there were dozens of ways you could opt out — that is, be “cut off.” If you were born outside the chosen nation, there was nothing but your own pride to keep you from joining it.

Which leads to another important point about predestination in the Old Testament: it’s always for the benefit of others — i.e. the not-predestined. This idea is woven into the very first promise God made to Abraham:

I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Notice the promised blessing is unlimited in scope. Anyone who blesses God’s people (and by extension, God himself) will be blessed by God in return. And notice that God’s action comes in response to human action.

Yes, God is orchestrating redemptive history. Yes, he alone initiates salvation. But he does so in a way that leaves room for us to play a meaningful part.

The promise ends with “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” This is the whole reason for God’s covenant with Abraham. God is not raising up a chosen nation for its own sake, as if to carve out a tiny portion of the human race for himself. He intends to use this nation as a vehicle to bring salvation to the entire world.

After the exodus, God established his covenant with the whole nation at Mount Sinai, calling them a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19). A priest is a human conduit for grace. Someone who not only points the way to God, but helps others walk the path.

In other words, the Israelites were not predestined to be “saved” for their own sake. They were predestined to be priests. They were predestined to draw others to God — or as Isaiah puts it, to be a “light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42, 49).

In the New Testament, we see the same connection between predestination and priestly proclamation. Paul refers at one point to his “priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God” (Romans 15). Elsewhere, Peter writes to the church:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession [all of which is predestination language], that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Predestination is never an end unto itself. We are not predestined to be members of a club, we are predestined to be ambassadors and priests, proclaiming the good news to others so they in turn can be predestined to do the same.

Calvinism views predestination as a means by which God narrows the scope of his redemptive agenda, applying its benefits to a select few. But in the Old Testament, predestination works in reverse, gradually expanding the circle to include more and more people — with the end goal of blessing “all peoples on earth.”

Election in the Old Testament, part 2

The predestination debate often gravitates toward the same handful of New Testament texts. The problem, to quote Paul Eddy, is, “There’s an entire 39 books before the New Testament that use the same kind of [predestination] language.”

In other words, if you want to understand what the Bible says about election, don’t skip the Old Testament. (To be fair, many Calvinists don’t. They just read it differently.)

Jesus and Paul were steeped in the Hebrew scriptures. One was a rabbi, the other a Pharisee. The New Testament quotes the Old at least 300 times and alludes to it as many as 4,000 times, according to the late Roger Nicole. In other words, it’s important.

When you read the Old Testament, you’ll find that God called or “predestined” a number of individuals: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, David, Jeremiah, etc. But each was chosen to play a specific role in God’s redemptive plan. Their stories do nothing to bolster the Calvinist view that God predestines every individual to salvation or damnation.

If you want to argue that, there should be some evidence for it in the Old Testament.

And there isn’t.

Again, quoting Bethel University theologian Paul Eddy:

If you ask, ‘Who’s chosen in the Old Testament?’ it’s Israel. It’s not particular individual Israelites. It’s the nation of Israel. It’s a corporate category.

God ordained there would be a group called Israel (Genesis 12). He predestined this group to be his “chosen people,” a covenant nation. But there is nothing to indicate that he determined the individual composition of that group. From the beginning, God intended for everyone in that nation to benefit, even though clearly not everyone did. Notice Moses’ parting words to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 29:

All of you are standing today in the presence of the LORD your God — your leaders and chief men, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, together with your children and your wives, and the foreigners living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water. You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with the LORD your God . . .

The fact that there would be a covenant nation was fixed, determined, foreordained. The individual composition of that nation was not. Anyone could opt in; anyone could opt out.

If you were an Israelite, there were several ways you could opt out. For example:

But anyone could opt in, too — even if they weren’t an Israelite. Foreigners were invited to celebrate the Passover, the Jewish precursor to the Eucharist (Exodus 12). They were welcome to make offerings to God (Numbers 15). Any foreigner who chose to live among the Israelites was presumed to be part of the covenant and to be treated accordingly (Numbers 9).

What’s more, God didn’t just give people a choice; he gave them the ability to make that choice (Deuteronomy 30):

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach . . . I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

Calvinism says that individual election is necessary because humans, in their depravity, are utterly incapable of choosing God. Specifically, John Calvin wrote that we are deprived of “soundness of will,” i.e. the ability to choose what is acceptable to God.

But God appears to think otherwise.

In the Old Testament, God initiated redemption, no question. But there was a still choice to be made. And God gave people the ability to make it, even after the fall.

It’s not because people are so awesome. Not because we deserve it. But because that’s the kind of God he is.

I believe that a God who gives us freedom even though he doesn’t have to is greater than a God who predetermines every tiny detail of the universe.

The best thing I read this week

Rachel Held Evans has a great post about the real story of Esther and Vashti. Some commentators have held up Esther as a model for what a good, “submissive” wife is supposed to look like — which is a bit like saying that Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Israelites teaches us good management practices. Rachel writes:

I never learned in Sunday School that Esther, whose Jewish name was Hadassah, was forced, along with perhaps thousands of virgin girls from Susa, into King Xerxes harem. Or that the king had banished his first wife, Queen Vashti, for refusing to publicly flaunt her body before his drunken friends. Or that, in response, he had issued a ridiculous kingdom-wide decree that “all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest” and that “every man should be ruler over his own household.”  Or that under the care of the royal Eunuchs, Esther and the women of the king’s harem each took a turn in the king’s bed to see who would please him best. Or that the women received just one night with the king, after which they were transferred to the eunuchs in charge of the concubines, with the instruction not to return to the king’s chamber unless summoned by name, under the penalty of death.

You can read more here.