Friday, June 22, 2007

Yea, I throughly washed away thy blood from thee (Lev. 15:24 & 20:18)

Well, I was going to let it sit until a future date, but then, in writing the last post, something came up that truly troubled me, and I decided to jump ahead to an issue that I originally meant to leave for much later: sex with a menstruating woman.

Those who have had dealings with me before elsewhere, and perhaps a few times in this blog, will know that I sometimes will say something like "Well, that's a contradiction, but not an important one." You know, like one verse says 700 horses, and another says 7,000? That doesn't bother me, and I know there are problems like that in the Bible in quite a few places. Well, in wrapping up the last post, I came accross a problem that I could not simply shrug off. It's found here.

Seriously, there's a big difference between "unclean seven days" and "cut off from among their people." While the latter phrase is perhaps a bit vague, it's clearly something harsh; probably a person who is "cut off" is exiled from Israel. This isn't like other sins where it says nothing about punishment in one place, and in another lists a big one; those cases are just a matter of omission in the former verse. Saying one punishment here and a different punishment there, where both punishments are very different? That would be a serious problem, and I have to admit, I was stumped and ready to admit defeat on this point.

I wasn't going to gloss it over. At first, I thought I'd admit that it disturbed me and open it up to suggestions from readers. I figured I'd toss in a lame half-hearted attempt at partial reconciliation that didn't even really convince myself. Perhaps both punishments were to be performed? You know, "Leave town...and don't touch anything on your way out!" It doesn't make much sense, though.

Then something occurred to me that doesn't answer the issue, but I still think is thought-provoking: If a man broke this commandment, how would anyone know? Seriously. "Morning, Abiathar, how's things with you?" "Not so good, last night I had sex with my wife while she was menstruating. That's not a problem is it?" Well, it's not likely that you'd tell anyone, and if you didn't tell, who would ask? Still, there must be a purpose for this law anyway, and as such, there needs to be a reconciliation between these verses.

So as I prepared to gather my thoughts and post an admission of defeat, I read the verses again. And it hit me: read carefully "...lie with her at all..." vs. "lie with a woman having her sickness, and shall uncover her nakedness..."? The second verse uses two phrases that are both euphemisms for sex; why does a sentence need two euphemisms for the same thing?

I realized in this case, it is not the same thing. This is key. The little phrase "at all" is making it clear that we are not talking about a euphemism here. This is a case of a guy literally lying with his wife, and some of her menstrual blood happens to get on him in his sleep! No sex is involved, but he is still unclean. The latter case is a man who intentionally gets menstrual blood on him in an act of sex. It's that intentionality that makes the difference; being unclean and being sinful are not the same thing. In the end, there is no contradiction, only confusion brought about by unfortunate use of euphemisms. I wonder if it's clearer in the Hebrew? I'll have to check next chance I get.

So, the remaining issue (no pun intended)? Why is menstrual blood unclean? I don't know. There's no particular reason I can think of. Perhaps it's just another Mosaic Law oddity?

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?

Friday, June 08, 2007

They laughed us to scorn (external links)

Once again, here is a post about other people's blogs, and the links that love them. I don't recall whether I ever pointed out that I added a link to Steve Wells' blog, Dwindling In Unbelief. It's pretty good; mostly more of the same stuff he puts on the SAB, but in a looser form. In the comments of his blog, I came across a couple of other blogs that I thought a person who liked my blog might also like. Or you might not, but I liked them.

Actually, the first one that caught my eye was By The Book Comics. Being a person whose two main passions are comic strips and theology, I find that even though you'll guess that I don't share DocMike's views on theology, I immensely enjoyed his format and humor. Sometimes the best way to get a point across to people is to make it funny, and so despite the fact that he doesn't go to the depth of discussing the issues that Wells does...a picture says a thousand words, as they say. Consider each strip a 3,000 word essay on "What Bugged Me About The Bible This Summer". A funny one at that, although not for the easily offended, surely.

The other blog I came across was one called simply Bible Discussions. It's written by a Jason, who identifies hiself as a "Christadelphian". Oddly enough, I've never heard of this denomination before this week, or maybe not so odd, as Wikipedia claims that there are about 50,000 of them worldwide. As a Christadelphian, Jason has some very different ideas as to the nature of some deeper theological issues. However, in reading his comments and a few posts on his blog, I'm struck by similarities in his writing style to mine. It's interesting to see that a person coming from a different point-of-view concerning the Bible could hold some beliefs and views so similar to my own. Anyway, I thought his blog was good, and I for one intend to read it more.

Well, with the addition of these links on my sidebar, I think I am going to take a few others down. Many of the links I have so far are to blogs of a theological nature, but I'm thinking I'd like to link specifically to blogs about the Bible. Those other links will be moved to my other blog. If you know of any other blogs on the Bible that you think are very good, let me know, and I may want to add them.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee

I figure I have about four posts to go to get through the end of Exodus 22, and I really hope to finish them before the month is out. My output has slowed down greatly as of late for various reasons, some of which are beyond my control. However, I wanted to take a break to talk once again about my aims for this blog, mostly for my own benefit. (Partially that's because I don't think most readers will care much about this, and partially it's because the greatest portion of my readers come through here from links on the SAB which will probably have no reason to link to this post. Then again, maybe I'll link this in the discussion forum in hopes of feedback; we'll see.)

What I wanted to muse upon is the nature of the categories of notes in the SAB, and the different ways that I feel a need to respond to them in turn. As I touched on in an earlier post, there are some categories like the "Sex" category regarding which there may be differences of opinion that need some meta-discussion. As both Steve Wells and I agree, sex per se is not a bad thing, but it's a charged issue, and the way people approach on both a personal and societal issue are important. I want to address some of the ways that I feel Steve Wells and I may differ on many of these issues.

Anyway, the categories of notes listed for the SAB are: Injustice, Absurdity, Cruelty and Violence, Contradictions, Intolerance, Women, Family Values, Prophecy, Science and History, Sex, Language, Homosexuality, Interpretation, and Good Stuff. Wells feels that these are all important categories, and I agree for the most part. However, I may have a vastly different understanding of the way to approach these issues as a Christian, and I think it's important to articulate this difference.

In starting the blog, my main intent was to offer reflection on the matters of Contradictions, Prophecy and Interpretation. I feel most of the time that those are the most important categories from a logical point of view. If the Bible can be found to be clearly wrong in any area, it would be found in one of these, and logic is the basis for understanding what may or may not be a problem with these categories. Science and History is a close relative, but as I have said time and again, I'm not really an expert in either area, so I may not be able to address many of those particular issues.

The problems I have in trying to deal with the SAB is often in the other categories. The trouble is, all of these things are very subjective to your own world-view. "Injustice?" What makes something just or unjust? "Cruelty and Violence?" What is a clear criterion for something being "cruel"? While violence is generally well-defined, there are many specific cases where people don't see eye to eye, such as the case of capital punishment. Some people think capital punishment of any sort is cruel and violent, while others feel that there is a big difference between, say, a firing squad and lethal injection. And of course capital punishment is a big place where people split sharply on the matter of "injustice", some people feeling that to not have capital punishment would truly be injustice. While I will respond to items marked as "Injustice" or "Cruelty", it's really me pitting my opinion against Wells', and the reader will probably accept whomever has the opinion that fits their own. On the flipside of that, the same goes for "Good Stuff".

"Absurdity" is definitely something in the eye of the beholder. One of the things that I've run across several times in the SAB is the claim that a certain verse is absurd, usually with no explanation. On the one hand, it makes me ask what the point of the label is, but on the other hand, I realize that by nature one usually cannot explain absurdity: either something is absurd to you or not. What can you say?

"Family Values" and "Women" are two categories that seem to me to be titled in a sarcastic manner. Note that "Honour thy father and thy mother..." is not marked with either of these icons, although this is clearly a matter of family values, and is notable in that the mother is specifically mentioned, I think. (The Bible certainly can be sexist at times, and it would not have surprised me if this verse simply had said "father".) The point of these categories is to point out matters pertaining to these two issues where Wells feels the Bible is coming up short. Sometimes I may agree; more often I will disagree, although in such cases, it may simply be a matter of personal opinion once again.

Likewise, "Homosexuality" is an issue that I suspect is mainly used to bring up instances of supposed homophobia in the Bible, although there are certainly more than a few verses quoted that are pertaining to supposed homosexual interaction between characters in the Bible, such as King David and his friend Jonathan, whose relationship many have hypothesized about. In such cases, though, once again little commentary is given, although perhaps it is not so necessary, and only serves to be food for thought? The trouble with dealing with the issue of homosexuality is that there are varying societal norms when you compare ancient Israel, first-century Greco-Roman culture and modern times. A Christian is likely to assume that throughout all times and places, God's standard for sexual morality does not change. Of course, that doesn't mean that even every Christian understands it the same way.

But closely related to the issue of homophobia in our society, (maybe less or at least differently so in Hebrew society) is the issue of "Intolerance", which is a more difficult but vital issue to address. The thing is that yes, the Bible is intolerant. I won't try to argue against that (at least in general), but I will argue that there is a reason for it, and it can be seen to some extent to be a logical approach to building a new monotheistic religion.

In the Old Testament, there is a certain amount of intolerance in the form of God instituting punishments, even up to death, for false worship. While the New Testament is not so bold in that manner, there are frequent reminders that the only way to enter into God's salvation is through Christ. In both cases, the context is that God is trying to create a new understanding among His people of His nature and will. Why does God want pagans cast out of society or put to death in ancient Israel? Because He does not want His people to be led astray into false worship. As it happened, we'll see that even with these safeguards put in place, they often were led astray nonetheless.

God wants people to do the right thing, and as He knows ultimately what is that right thing, He has no need nor desire to do things halfway with the Israelites. The Bible is not about political correctness or tolerance of relative points of view; it's about God. When it comes to God and our dealings with Him, in a spiritual sense there is no room for tolerance, only room for being right.