Friday, June 22, 2007

And if a man shall lie with... (Exod. 22:19 et al, sexual immorality)

I thought I had covered beastiality in my post on animal rights. I guess not. It's hard to keep track of what I was intending to do sometimes, I guess, but I'll assume I was leaving it for this post, where I will try to go over the broad topic of sexual sins in the Mosaic Law. For those wanting to keep track, I'm going to assume that the SAB has covered the topic properly and draw from its notes, which implies the subjects I'll be covering here will be from Leviticus 18, Leviticus 20, Deuteronomy 22 and Deuteronomy 27, although a brief mention is made here in Exodus 22 of one of many issues. I'm aware that those are not the only passages in the Law that relate to things of a sexual nature, but tangential things like menstruation and whatnot I will leave for another time. (I give an open invitation to keep me honest on this matter, it will actually be helpful for me because sometimes I miss a topic and don't realize it.)

Sexual sin is a difficult topic to address, because for most people, it's much more of a matter of opinion than things like murder or stealing. I'm pretty sure that everyone has an imaginary line they've drawn in their head that they feel to cross that line would be doing wrong. Some people think masturbation is a sin (although the Bible addresses the matter only indirectly) while others do not. Some people think homosexuality is a sin (which the Bible does address, although not in great depth) while others do not. Most people think sexual relations with someone below a certain age is wrong, although most people differ on what age that is, and it may be flexible in their minds depending on the age and gender of the older partner (for instance, a lot of people see a big difference between a 50-year-old man having sex with a 17-year-old girl and an 18-year old woman having sex with a 17-year-old boy, although both may have the same technical legal status). I don't know that I can do much better than to simply give the facts as listed in the Bible and address the surrounding issues as best I can.

So, who should a man not have sex with? (I've always noticed that there is a possible issue with sexism in that God gives all of these rules to men, but it's quite likely He means them for both genders, simply not addressing the converse.) Leviticus 18 gives a bit of list of people whose "nakedness...shalt thou not uncover" (a euphemism), starting with "any that is near of kin". This is a bit vague, perhaps, but the chapter continues and gives specifics. Your father or mother (v. 7), your stepmother (v. 8), your sister even if she's only a half-sister (v. 9), your granddaughter (v. 10-11), your aunt or uncle (v. 12-14), your daughter-in-law (v. 15), your sister-in-law (v. 16), or any of the above relations in regard to your wife (v. 17-18). In addition to relatives, men are warned not to have sex with a menstruating woman (v. 19), another man's wife, (v. 20) another man (v. 22) or an animal (v. 23).

Now, in response to these issues, the SAB says a few specific things. I don't see that it says that it outright disagrees with these, but neither is it in full accord, of course. In the matter of incest, I'm going to assume that the SAB is in agreement, generally. While in some places it is not considered wrong to marry one's cousin (and it's also legal in many places, including here in California) I think most people would agree that the relations listed above are just a bit too close to be comfortable, not for genetic reasons, but emotional ones. The SAB does think that this list has an element of absurdity to it. While it doesn't make it perfectly clear what is absurd about the list, the note next to the first group may be intended to be a clarifier. Perhaps it's funny to talk of "uncovering the nakedness" of someone. First of all, as I said and I think is easy to pick up from larger context, this is probably a sexual euphemism. However, if it's not a sexual euphemism, I'm not sure what's absurd about it. Should you go around tearing the clothes off of your relatives? Of course not! Perhaps the ridiculousness was the thought it had to be said at all? Also, the SAB repeatedly labels this passage with the "Language" icon, which as I said elsewhere, I don't really understand. I'm not seeing foul language in this passage myself, just frank discussion of the issue at hand.

The SAB also points to the issue of incest and apparent contradictions on the matter. I have addressed this before, but I think it's useful to address it again here. When God handed down the Law to the Israelites, it was the first time He said anything about incest. The fact that incest had occurred previous to this point doesn't make it right or wrong, it just happened. Both Abraham and Jacob had marriage relationships that would have been forbidden under this Law, but they weren't under this law, so at least they were not violating a command from God. I may be wrong, but I believe Moses' parents were the last incestuous couple mentioned in the Bible that were not punished for their relationship.

Well, one of the real issues when it comes to sexual sin in the Bible is that we later find out that these are capital crimes. Well, most of them are; the punishment varies. Some involve being stoned to death, some burning, a few involve being cast out of society, and a couple seem to invoke supernatural curses of childlessness. Why kill people for doing these things? Well, I did touch on the topic of capital punishment earlier, but I probably should address these sexual sins in specific. As I said in that post, there is an issue of the nature of an ancient society with no effective centralized government or infrastructure; it's hard to punish crimes with anything much between light monetary fines and execution. Israel had no prisons, especially in their days of wandering in the desert. My post on witches talked a fair bit about why people were killed for religious transgressions, and while it was not satisfying to many skeptics I'm sure, I'm satisfied with what I wrote there. Can I address this the same?

Oddly enough, religious and sexual transgressions seem to be the two main categories of reasons for execution. God thinks highly of our intimacy with Him and with each other. The fact is, there is actually a certain amount of overlap, too. In Leviticus 20, There is some talk about the pagan god Molech. There was a practice in those days among pagans of a particular stripe to have illicit sexual encounters at a festival for Asherah. If they happened to get pregnant during this festival, the baby that was born would be given to the god Molech. Molech's idols were, if I remember this correctly, made of metal, and had outstretched arms. A fire would be set under Molech until he glowed with the heat, and then the live babies would be put into his arms to be burned. Thus it was a pagan practice of the time that involved sexual sin, idolatry, and murder, essentially the three things that would result in capital punishment in Israel. This is considered by many to be both a symbolic and literal example of what said in James 2:10: "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." If you were participate in an Asherah festival, there's a good chance you're going to end up paying tribute to Molech as well. In sexual sin, you sin against yourself, against your partner, against God and in many cases against an as-yet unborn child who, though innocent, may have to suffer for your mistake. Sexual sin is indeed very serious, but sex kept within the confines of marriage is not only something that pleases God, but is something that cuts down one's chances of contracting STDs and creating unwanted pregnancies. While some scoff at the idea of "sexual sin", thinking it only a religious issue, the truth is that the way in which we express ourselves sexually has not just spiritual implications, but moral, physical and legal implications as well.

One last thing should be noted about this matter in stark contrast to many of the other aspects of the Mosaic Law. It's a common tactic among critics of Christianity these days to say, "Oh, you think X is wrong because the Bible says so? Well, why don't you (insert some oddity from the Mosaic Law like how one should supposedly kill one's neighbor for wearing mixed fabrics)?" It's true that the Law is full of items that sound strange to the ears of people living in a modern westernized world, but as I have said in numerous recent posts, the Mosaic Law applies only to Jews, and in some cases, only to Jews living in Israel. So why do Christians point to passages in the Law that denounce sexual immorality? Well, they're not wrong to do so, but don't worry critics, there's still an element or two of hypocrisy I think you can legitimately rail against.

In Acts 15, there's a story of the early Church fathers, and how they debated whether or not the Law applied to a gentile who became a Christian. If you become a Christian, must you therefore also be Jewish? They debated and finally came up with a decision. The essence is in Acts 15:29:
"That ye [non-Jewish Christians] abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well."
Thus, other than the Ten Commandments, the only thing that God expects from non-Jews is that they stay sexually pure and don't eat meat that has been (1) part of a pagan ritual, (2) killed cruelly or (3) not drained of blood. So next time a Christian tries to argue that the Bible condemns certain sexual practice, don't bring up the fact that his shirt is a poly-cotton blend (which in the end really is a non-sequitur), instead ask him if he likes to eat gravy, which is usually made from cooked fat and blood. I'll admit it: I'm guilty.

A nice bloody steak anyone?

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