Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ask the Amateur Theologian!

"What's this?" you're wondering. Well, there was a question left on last week's post that is central enough to the whole MRTB, uh, mission that it seemed worth a post of its own. So, figuring that a change of format is a pretty risk-free move for a blog that only has two regular readers anyway, we're going to push tonight's reading back a few days and use the regular Sunday night space for the world debut episode of....

Ask the Amateur Theologian!

Is Homosexuality Bad?

ChuckDaddy2000, of Portland, Oregon, asks:

What do you recommend as a snappy comeback for someone who says homosexuality is wrong because it goes against the Bible? I've heard before, "Yeah, and the bible also says you shouldn't grow beards or eat oysters." First off, when did the bible say this (I remember something about shellfish, nothing about beards). And, do you have a better line? Your blog has helped me with some ideas, but I thought I should go to the source for the snappiest comeuppance.

Dear ChuckDaddy,

First of all, it is extremely important to remember that The Amateur Theologian has only read the first tenth or so of the Bible. For all we know, the book of Joshua begins with an injunction to disregard all that has gone before. For all we know, there are whole chapters of Matthew where Jesus says repeatedly that God hates gay people, and that they are going to hell, every one of them.

Having said that, let's take a look at what we've got so far:

The creation stories in Exodus certainly imply a natural order in which males and females are to be paired off. God's displeasure with the inhabitants of Sodom might imply a problem with homosexuality -- it's often cited as such -- but the evidence is really pretty thin there. Much more to the point is Leviticus 18, which includes male homosexual intercourse on a list of sexual taboos, and Leviticus 20, which assigns it the death penalty.

It is always fun to parse. What about a male homosexual relationship in which anal intercourse is avoided? What about lesbian relationships, of whatever sexual intensity? These questions are not addressed, which is to say that neither is forbidden, and this in a text which in other contexts goes into great detail as to exactly which behaviors are and are not acceptable. Still, I would have to say that the balance of evidence implies that the category of "other homosexual relationships" is not exactly encouraged by Old Testament law.

OK, that brings us to the question of whether Old Testament law really matters. The "beards and oysters" argument makes the proposition that, if there are specific laws in the Old Testament that the vast majority of people routinely flout, than picking other laws out for enforcement or moral judgement is invalid. Leviticus 19 prohibits cutting beards (and most haircuts), Leviticus 11 prohibits shellfish (and pork), and Leviticus 18 prohibits homosexual intercourse; if you fail to take either of the first two seriously, what grounds do you have to worry about the third? This is a powerful argument. Its only real weakness is that Leviticus 20 death penalty, which could be construed as elevating the homosexual taboo to a level of seriousness above the others.

However, as colorful as haircuts, pigs, and shellfish are as examples of routinely ignored Old Testament prohibitions (private land ownership would be another good one, by the way), they are really small potatoes. Easily the most important aspect of Old Testament law -- again, as far as I have read -- is the sacrifice system. Above all else, God wants you to understand what animals you need to surrender to the priests, and how, in order to keep yourself in a state of ritual cleanliness. Far more space and detail is lavished on this aspect of the Law than on anything else. So, The Amateur Theologian would have a hard time respecting the reasoning of someone who was citing God's instructions to Moses regarding homosexuality, unless that person was also rigorously keeping up with his or her sacrificial obligations.

This gets cloudy, however, since most Christians believe that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ took care of everyone's sacrificial obligations in perpetuity. So let's go down a notch, and look at the aspect of Old Testament law that gets the most attention, repetition, and clarification, after the sacrifice system. That would be the necessity of keeping the Sabbath, which even gets a mention in the traditional Ten Commandments. There is no ambiguity on this point; anyone who performs work on the Sabbath must die. You will recall the story from a few weeks back of a man caught gathering wood on the Sabbath, whom God condemned to an especially grizzly public execution.

So, ChuckDaddy2000, my response to your question, based on my reading so far, would be this -- Old Testament law does indeed condemn homosexuality. However, it also condemns breaking the Sabbath, and to a far greater extent. This suggests that we should comdemn homosexuals, at the very most, to the same extent that we condemn those who work on Sunday. Or who work around the house on Sunday. Or who make purchases on Sunday. For all of these things, the Bible says in no uncertain terms, the punishment is death.

If YOU have a question for the Amateur Theologian, knock yourself out! I'll do my best.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Numbers 18 - 20: Tough Times for Moses

Poor Moses. He never asked for this job, remember. He has led his people out of Egypt, shown them dozens of miracles over the course of the last two years, has introduced a legal code, a civil order, a religious praxis, and a system of justice, and supervised a military victory, and all they ever do is quack at him. And now, just about the time he might have looked forward to putting his feet on in the Promised Land, he's going to get three pieces of very bad news.

Numbers 18: Priests gotta eat, too

What was already pretty apparent earlier is made crystal clear here -- all of those many, many offerings of grain, oil, flour, and various varieties of meat are, in addition to being sacrifices to God, also food for the priests. As with all other elements of the sacrifice system, this is spelled out in great detail, but that's the essence. With a few exceptions, after the sacrifice, the sacred offering is food for the Levites.

Similarly, the tithe that is to be offered to God? Well, God kind of uses that to pay the Levites for their service. You, Joe Israelite, give it to God c/o the Levites, and then God gives it back to the Levites. Happens so fast you don't see a thing. Levites have to tithe too, and that goes directly to the high priests, Aaron and his sons. Via God, of course.

I'm being snotty, of course. It's easy to be snotty, since the sacrificial system in question has been out of practice for so long. Since the rituals carry no emotional weight, it is easy to see them as a way for an educated, powerful minority to skim the best grub and line its pockets in return for performing ritual tasks that were hard to learn but easy to master, and didn't involve much hard work. Oh, and don't approach our workplace, or ye shall surely die.
But it may just be that any religious system has this look from the outside. After all, most religious systems require a staff, and the staff's got to eat too. You could scold a society for letting its religious figures lead a lavish lifestyle, but then you could scold a society for forcing its religious figures to lead lives of poverty, too. It's easy to scold.

Numbers 19: You'll Feel Clean as a Whistle, After Bathing in Cow Soot

Remember the various laws of ritual cleanliness and uncleanliness? You don't? Well, it was a long time ago. You can study up here.

In Numbers 19, God adds a new stipulation. Actually, a new product: to become clean again after any uncleanliness related to contact with a dead person, you need to wash yourself with the "Water of Cleansing." It also needs to be sprinkled around a tent where someone has died.

Here's the recipe:

  • Slaughter one red cow in the presence of the high priest.

  • Have the high priest sprinkle cow blood seven times towards the Tabernacle, with his finger.

  • Burn whole cow to ashes. Add cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool while burning.

  • Take ashes from above, and cover bottom of a standard jar.

  • Add fresh water and shake or stir.
Caution: products sold under similar names at your local grociers may not use this recipe!

Numbers 20: The Three Bummers

Bummer #1

Moses' sister Miriam, who you might remember was turned white for complaining about Moses' wife a few months back, now dies. There Miriam died and was buried, reads the text. (1) We infer that Moses must have been saddened.

Bummer #2

He doesn't have much time to think about it before the next crisis, which is of course a new round of grumbling and complaining among the people. They are thirsty. The solution is going to be a repeat of Exodus 17, when Moses struck a rock and it produced water. But let's take a closer look, because there are some interesting consequences this time.

Here's what God tells Moses to do:

7 The LORD said to Moses, 8 "Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink."
And here's what Moses does:

9 So Moses took the staff from the LORD's presence, just as he commanded him. 10 He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, "Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?" 11 Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.
OK, stop.

Go back and compare the two again.

Does it seem like Moses did what God told him to?

What do you think?


Here's what happens next:

12 But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them."
Wow! Me, I didn't see that coming. And I'm still not sure I understand it. Maybe because Moses implies that he and Aaron are producing the water, rather than God? I dunno. Anybody see something I don't?

Least Conclusive Bible Story Ever

Moses sends a letter to the king of Edom. It tells of the troubles that the Israelites have suffered, makes clear their good intentions, and requests permission to cut across Edomite territory. Moses promises that they will stay out of the fields, and won't eat anything or even drink from the wells.

The king of Edom (perhaps wisely -- remember again that the Israelites are 2 million strong) says "no."

The Israelites send another letter that says something like "Oh, please! We'll stay on the main road, and we really won't drink your water!"

The king of Edom says "no."

So the Israelites have to go someplace else instead.

The Tomb of Aaron: a shrine said to rest on the gravesite of Aaron, on a mountain thought maybe to be Biblical Mt. Hor. Bummer #3

Aaron dies. His position and garments are transferred to his son Eleazar, and he goes up to the top of Mt. Hor, and dies.

So again, poor Moses. He has lost both of his siblings in a couple of days, and, in being banned from reaching the Promised Land, has learned that he'll never been able to retire. Losing the face-off with Edom probably hasn't made him feel like the most effective leader in the area, either. He has to be feeling kind of down.

Next Week: Who knows? It looks action-packed, and there's a bunch of names I've never heard of. Numbers is heatin' up!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Numbers 15 - 17: Back to Camp

Last week we saw a flurry of action as the Israelites arrived at the land promised to them by God, but then chickened out when they saw that the current occupants were well armed, well fortified, and, well, big. This lack of faith angered God, who decreed that they must therefore wander the desert for forty years before they could enter the promised land. With impeccable reasoning, the Israelites decided to attack without God's support the people they were too scared to attack with God's support the day before. Predictably, they were put to rout and fled back to Moses.

This week, it is more or less back to sitting around in the camp, as God clarifies some points of law and continues to help Moses with the various insurrections that pop up every five minutes or so.

Numbers 15

In Numbers 15, God adds a kind of supplementary surtax of grain, flour, and oil on animal offerings, and either clarifies or appends the sacrificial procedure if an individual or the community is to sin unintentionally. I will continue my policy of not going into the details of the sacrifice system, except to note again that it is elaborate, complicated, and not a little wonkish. Next time you find yourself thinking that legalistic language and thinking is an invention of our times, read -- well, read Dickens' Bleak House, then read these first books of the Old Testament, up to and including Numbers 15.

Late in the chapter, there is a little story of a man who is caught gathering wood on the Sabbath. He is brought to Moses, who asks God what to do with him. According to God's wishes, he is taken outside of the camp, and his friends and neighbors throw rocks at him until he dies an agonizing death of organ rupture and internal bleeding. The inviolability of the Sabbath is underscored yet again.

Following this, a new rule: The followers of God are to attach tassels to all of the corners of their garmets with blue cord, to remind them of God's commandments. This would seem to be one of the many commandments that are not widely followed today.

Numbers 16

A few of the tribal leaders, along with 250 elders, object to Moses and Aaron's rule of the community. "The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them," they say. Why should Moses get to boss everyone around?

Just as when, a few chapters ago, the Israelites lost faith and refused to enter the promised land, God determines he will snuff everybody but Moses and Aaron. And, as before, Moses talks him out of it, with the reasoning that it would be unfair to kill everybody for the sins of "one man" (or 250 men, really). He warns everybody to back away from the ringleaders, who are isolated standing with their wives, children and little ones at the entrances to their tents. The ground opens up under these families, and they fall screaming into these sudden pits and are buried alive. Fire descends from the sky and torches the other 250 advocates of democratizing the decision-making process.

The next day, people are angry about what has happened, and complain to Moses that he has killed the Lord's people. But as a crowd gathers, God manifests himself and again tells Moses and Aaron to get out of camp, because he is now well and truly pissed and is going to wipe everybody out. Moses instead sends Aaron to go among the people and make a sacrifice of atonement, which does the trick and stops the plague after only, um, 14,700 people have died.

Numbers 16 is a tough chapter to swallow for an American with any civic ideals whatsoever. It has a powerful message of, if you don't like the way your community is being led, shut up. If somebody else speaks up and is killed for it, hold your tongue, or you will be killed too. It's a poor fit with our theory of government.

Numbers 17

God approaches Moses with an unusual plan for resolving the constant rebellions that have been cropping up over the last year. A leader from each of the twelve tribes, including Aaron for the house of Levi, provides a staff with his name written on it. The twelve staves are placed overnight in the Tabernacle, with the understanding that God will choose a single leader for the Israelites, and that man's staff will sprout. When Moses go to the alter the next morning, it is Aaron's staff that has not only sprouted but... budded, blossomed, and produced almonds. (8)

The other eleven leaders get their staves back, but Aaron's staff is placed

in front of the Testimony, to be kept as a sign to the rebellious. This will put an end to their grumbling against me.... (10)

Does it work? Are the Israelites reassured, by this show of miracle, of the wisdom and sureity of God's design? Do they resolve to put their negativity behind them and support Aaron in all his decisions from here on out?

Probably not. Here's how the chapter ends:

12 The Israelites said to Moses, "We will die! We are lost, we are all lost! 13 Anyone who even comes near the tabernacle of the LORD will die. Are we all going to die?"
I'm probably reading too much into this, but it seems like a pretty poignant passage. These people have been blasted by war, plague, and all manner of supernatural destructive forces, and seem to be subject to divine vengeance if they so much as question a leader who is bent on wandering the desert for the next four decades. They are traumatized, and scared to death.

What might happen next to make the Israelites feel better about their lot?

Next Week: More laws about sacrifice and cleanliness! (Then, our story resumes.)

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Numbers 11 - 14: The Famous "Two Years in the Desert" Come to an End

We left off last week with the Israelites striking their camp at Mt. Sinai, where they have been holed up for two years while God provided Moses with a full complement of civil laws, religious rituals, and organizational principles. These are people who have been liberated from Egyptian slavery and been saved from starvation, competing tribes, and the perils of dehydration by divine intervention. They have lived with the physical embodiment of God in their midst for a couple of years, and now are being led by God himself to claim a highly desirable national territory he has promised them. Obviously, the mood is going to be reverent, upbeat, and positive, right?

Numbers 11: Grumble, Grumble, Grumble (reprise)

Wrong. Just as when they first left Egypt, the Israelites begin to complain. To be fair, they are crossing the Sinai on foot, and certainly without air conditioning, but still. The complaining begins in the first verse of Numbers 11, and God is not in the mood. He sends down fire on the outskirts of the camp; it is unclear whether there are any casualties (although The Brick Testament sure thinks there were), but there is certainly some property damage.

Well, you would think, that ought to shut them up. But no. The Israelites, not realizing that the very phrase "manna from heaven" will come to mean "something really great," start bitching about the manna. "If only we had meat to eat!" they gripe. "But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!" (5-6)

Neither God nor Moses has any patience for this. Moses complains to God in an exasperated speech (11 - 15)which can be read as quite sarcastic and funny: "Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms...?"

God responds in a way that many humans would. If the Israelites want meat that bad, he says, he'll give 'em meat all right. Lots of meat. He'll give 'em meat "for a whole month -- until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it -- because you have rejected the Lord...." (20) Moses, wondering if there is enough meat in all of the flocks and herds to pull off this trick, asks God if this isn't really impossible.

In response, an amazing thing happens. God answers with a sarcastic question: "Is the Lord's arm too short?" (23) The answer is clearly "no," as in "no, it's not impossible." But it is startling that God responds this way. He's usually presented as so dignified. (I imagine Moses saying "So then it's possible?" and God saying, "Hey, do bears shit in the woods?")

The next day, quail begin to fall all around the camp. They fall about a meter deep. There is plenty of quail to eat. Presumably, the desert landscape develops a peculiar odor after a few days. Also, while the Israelites are enjoying the third or fourth day of their big quail feast, God strikes them with a severe plague -- not the last thing you might expect when there are great heaps of rotting animals for as far as the eye can see. [As an aside -- it's hard to tell what is going to inspire an artist. I would think that the quail plague would be a GREAT subject for a painting, wouldn't you? But I can't find a thing.]

Numbers 12: Sibling Rivalry

Aaron, the high priest and Moses' brother, starts griping with their sister Miriam about Moses. There is some loose talk in camp about how Moses' relationship with God isn't all that; after all, God has spoken through the two of them, too. They are also peeved for some reason that Moses married a "Cushite," or African, woman.
God, Moses, Mariam, Aaron.
God isn't pleased. He calls them to task, and explains both exactly how this prophecy thing works, and how Moses is unique:

"When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams.
7 But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house.
8 With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD."
Then he gives Miriam a form of leprosy that turns her white as snow, which is kind of ironic considering she is in trouble for carping about Moses' wife, a black woman. Aaron has what is probably the good sense to appeal to God through Moses rather than directly, with the memorable line "Do not let her be like a stillborn infant coming from its mother's womb with its flesh half eaten away!" (12) Moses asks God to have mercy on her, and he relents; she can spend her seven days of uncleanliness outside the camp, and she'll be fine.

Numbers 13: You've Got to Know the Territory

Nicolas Poussin. Autumn. The Grapes from the Promised Land. 1660-1664. As the Israelites approach the promised land, they send out a scouting party to bring back some hard intel on the land and the people who are living there. The party is comprised of one young leader from each tribe, including a kid named Caleb. They go forth and do the Lewis and Clark thing, and return after forty days with botanical specimens and eyewitness accounts. The two-years-and-change of wandering in the desert is near its end!

But wait! Some gentle readers may be thinking "Hold on. Didn't they wander the desert for longer than that...?" And how right you are!

Here's what happens. The scouting party makes its report, to the effect that the promised land is really, really great, but the people who live there are many, strong, fortified, and really, really big. We seemed like grasshoppers next to them, they say. Caleb says "no problem, God is on our side, let's rumble." But everybody else in the scouting party says "forget it, it would be suicide to attack these people."

Numbers 14: Crisis and Resolution. And Crisis.

The Israelites lose their nerve, and -- as is their wont -- fall to complaining and cursing Moses for bringing them to this terrible pass. They start the process of choosing a leader who will lead them back into slavery in Egypt. Caleb and Joshua, Moses' assistant, try to talk to the people, but they are ignored, and an argument breaks out about whether to stone Moses, Aaron, Caleb, and Joshua to death.

At this point, God manifests in the Tabernacle, and he is not pleased. He asks Moses, rhetorically, "How long will [the Israelites] refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them?" Given that everything must surely still smell like rotting quail, it is a more than fair question. And God has had enough. He tells Moses that he is going to destroy the Israelites by plague, and start over with just Moses' family.

Once again, a very interesting conversation between Moses and God occurs. Moses argues with God. And it is not a humble prayer, either; in fact, Moses uses reason on God. "You can't do that," he argues (I'm paraphrasing). "You made a big show of power to the Egyptians when you brought these people out of slavery. Everybody in the greater Middle East knows that you have been physically present in their camp, what with the pillar of fire and all. If you give up on them now, everybody will say you failed. They'll think you couldn't pull off giving them the land you promised them, so you killed them instead."

Then, having told God that he hadn't really thought this through, Moses uses God's own words against him. Again, a paraphrase: "You always say you are slow to anger, and full of love and forgiveness. Right? Right?" Then, he cites a precedent: "You've been letting them off the hook ever since we left Egypt; shouldn't you let them off the hook this time too?"

I don't know if the Bible's intended message is that you and I should feel empowered to match words with God, but Moses not only gets away with it, he gets what he asks for. God spares the Israelites. Instead of mass extermination, their punishment is to be... wait for it... wait for it... that they have to wander the desert for 40 more years before they can go to the promised land! Oh, except for the members of the search party, the ones (other than Caleb and Joshua) who came back with such a negative report. They get killed by plague.

The Israelites, too chicken to invade the promised land when God told them to, react almost predictably when God tells them they won't be allowed to for another 40 years. They invade the promised land. Moses waits for them back at the Tabernacle, and after a brisk and solid spanking at the hands of the Amalekites and Canaanites, the survivors filter back into camp with their tails between their legs. No doubt after a lesson like that, they'll settle down and behave from here on out.

Next week: I have no idea. I'm now quite a bit further into the Bible than I've ever read before, and I can't tell what's coming next from the section headings. It's kind of exciting!