Thoughts on Homosexuality and Same-Sex Marriage by Rev. Alex Lang

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1 Thoughts on Homosexuality and Same-Sex Marriage by Rev. Alex Lang June 25, 2014 Dear Members of First Presbyterian Church, This document presents my biblical perspective on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Please understand that I did not come to my conclusions without a great deal of thought and care. The following pages reflect my present thoughts on these issues based on 15 years of intense study of the Bible, biblical history, and theology. I hope that you will find this information useful as you discern your own thoughts and opinions. First, it is important for you to understand that when I read the Bible, I am not a literalist. For example, I do not believe that God created the Earth in six days. I believe that the universe is billions of years old and that we, the human race, are the product of an evolutionary process. The Genesis story was written in a particular time and context to explain the beginnings of the Jewish people and the importance of their relationships with God and each other. Therefore, I feel that reading the Bible as a manual of exactly what God thinks about human beings is not the best way to approach the text. This is not to say I don t believe these stories have elements of truth in them. For instance, I do believe in the Adam and Eve story, insofar as Adam and Eve represent the first human beings to have consciousness of God. I also believe that the Adam and Eve story is paradigmatic of what we all experience in the transition from youth to adulthood. As each of us eats from the tree of knowledge of good and evil we come to find that the world around us is not the Eden we thought it to be. Once we ve realized this, like Adam and Eve, there is no turning back. Thus, when I read the Bible, I am looking for three things: the context in which the scripture is written; the core message of this scripture, given the context; and finally, how it fits with Jesus gospel in the New Testament, which I believe is the most official of all the teachings within the Bible. The fact that as a Christian I believe Jesus is actually God means that the words he speaks have far more legitimacy for me in terms of understanding how God expects us to live our lives. Therefore, in my opinion, the gospels are the books that convey the best representation of God s will for humanity. In terms of interpretation, this means Jesus words carry the most weight for me of anything in the Bible, and it is from this context that I judge all other scripture. For example, if there is a passage in the Old Testament that promotes violence against a certain people (Deut. 3:1-7), then I feel Jesus teachings of pacifism in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:38-48) overrule and trump those previous commandments. This brings us to the question at hand concerning homosexuality. Let s start by taking a look at the historical context. It is obvious that in Leviticus it clearly states: You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination (Lev. 18:22). So using my way of approaching this scripture, I need to understand the context. Following Solomon s reign, the people of Israel split into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Leviticus was written while the Kingdom of Judah was in exile shortly after 586 BC. Judah had lost the war with Babylon, and what remained of Judah s people had been shipped off to Babylon and enslaved. In an effort to preserve the history and culture of Israel, the priests of Judah began writing down the oral traditions and the historical events leading up to Babylonian exile. The goal of the priests in recording these stories was to provide the people of Judah with hope. The hope they wanted to convey was fairly simple: We ve been through this before, when we were slaves in Egypt, and God delivered us. Therefore, now that we are slaves in a foreign land, we only need to wait for God s deliverance. But the

2 priests also wanted to convey why they believed God would deliver Judah from slavery. They believed that if the people of Judah could remain ethnically pure and not intermarry with the people from the surrounding Babylonian culture, then God would be more likely to rescue them. This contrasts sharply with the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which had been overtaken by the Assyrians in 722 BC. When the Northern Kingdom was conquered by Assyria, its people integrated with the surrounding Assyrian culture and assumed many of this country s religious traditions. The priests wanted to ensure this would not happen to the people of Judah. Therefore, when you read the laws of the Old Testament, which were written by the priests of Judah, it is very easy to see that many of them were written in reference to the surrounding culture in an effort to prevent assimilation. One of the most daunting issues facing the Israelites in exile was that they were surrounded by the Babylonian religious rituals. These rituals often involved going to temples and having sexual intercourse with prostitutes, both male and female. The idea behind these rituals was that by having sex, the people would entice the gods to give them a fruitful harvest and to provide their people with prosperity. In order to prevent the Israelites from engaging in this type of religious activity, the priests wanted to make sure the people of Judah knew, in detail, what actions would make them clean or unclean. This is why the laws in Leviticus stress so highly what it means to be ritually pure. An example of this is in the verse preceding Leviticus 18:22. This scripture speaks of not sacrificing your children to Molech. Molech was a god of the Canaanites, and the ritual sacrifice required to appease Molech was the sacrifice of children. A common practice of the Canaanites, the Babylonians, and many other surrounding cultures was to sacrifice your children as an offering to a god. However, the Israelites stood apart from other cultures in this regard. This is why many scholars believe the story of Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac is so important. It is a prominent example of how God stops Abraham, the founder of the people of Israel, from sacrificing his child. Therefore, one way the Israelites differentiated themselves from other peoples was by never sacrificing their children. Thus, we can tell that the context of Leviticus 18:22 is definitely grounded in an effort to prevent assimilation with the surrounding culture. Not only was child sacrifice a major component of Babylonian religious rites, but so was the act of worshiping gods through having sex with temple prostitutes, which included men having sex with other men. Therefore, the Levitical laws reflect the point of view that if you engage in these sexual acts you become an outcast and ritually impure. If you want to understand how important ritual purity was to the people of Judah, read the book of Daniel. The first six chapters in the book of Daniel were written with the goal of providing an example of how the Israelites should act while in exile. The message was: We may be slaves, but under no circumstances should we bend to the will of our oppressors. When Judah was released from exile by King Cyrus II, this notion of ethnic purity remained very much a part of their culture. Stories in the New Testament, like the Good Samaritan, speak to the difference between Northern Israel and Judah. One of the reasons the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is such a shocking story is that Samaritans were part of Northern Israel and there was a stigma against them as being God-forsaken, inadequate half-breeds. The stigma ran so deep that the people of Judah felt that the Samaritans were quite incapable of living by God s law, which is a stereotype Jesus tries to overcome through his parable. Having established the context for this scripture passage, the next question is, what is the core message behind this text? I think most people read the core message of Leviticus 18:22 as differentiating what is sinful in God s eyes versus what is acceptable and holy. In other words, it is sinful for a man to sleep with another man.

3 However, if we go down this road, then we need to apply this interpretation to everything within the Jewish Law, and I don t think we want to do that. For instance, if we look at Exodus 21, we see that God is speaking concerning the laws about slavery. Slavery is a perfectly acceptable practice in the Bible, but I think any modern person would agree that slavery is sinful. The problem is, God doesn t define slavery as sinful in the scriptures. So if we are to say that a man sleeping with another man is sinful, we also need to say that slavery is not sinful, because we need to be consistent. However, knowing what I know about the context, I don t think the core message is sin versus non-sin. I believe the priests who were writing the Levitical code were particularly concerned with the promotion of a lifestyle that would sustain the Jewish people through their slavery. Furthermore, I do not assume these laws were given by God in the same way that I assume that Jesus words are reflective of God s will for humanity. Therefore, in my opinion, the core message of Leviticus 18:22 is an attempt to say: This is how we, the Israelite people, act, versus how they, the Babylonian people, act. If you wish to remain an Israelite, then this is what you need to do. Before I move to the final step in my process and look at Jesus teachings on this issue, I want to address the other major scripture passage that references homosexual behavior. This would be the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:1-11), which many people point to as the precursor to the Levitical law condemning homosexual behavior. As the story goes, the men of Sodom want to sodomize, or rape, two male foreigners who have walked into the city and are staying at Lot s house. Clearly this story has nothing to do with temple prostitution. However, I think that one can only understand this story by examining its retelling in Judges with the story of Gibeah (Jdg. 19:16-30). In both stories, the men originally want to rape a foreign male, and in both stories a female is offered as an alternative. In Gibeah, the men rape a female concubine in lieu of the man whom they had originally targeted. In Sodom, the men are offered Lot s daughters to rape instead of the male foreigners, but they are stopped from their actions when they are blinded by angels. In both instances, there is great outcry against the people who perform these acts. When dealing with Sodom and Gomorrah, God says, How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! (Gen. 18:20) In Gibeah, when the men had finished raping the concubine, the scripture says: When he had entered his house, he took a knife, and grasping his concubine he cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. Then he commanded the men whom he sent, saying, Thus shall you say to all the Israelites, Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day? Consider it, take counsel, and speak out. (Jdg. 19:29-30) If Sodom and Gomorrah were the only example of this kind of story, then I would have to agree that the Bible finds homosexual behavior to be sinful. I think many people come to this conclusion because they read Sodom and Gomorrah in isolation. However, what Gibeah teaches us is that what God finds so horrible is their unbridled sexual desire and desire for power over others, whether that desire is directed toward a man or a woman. I don t think the fact that these men wanted to sleep with another man is what is so sinful. Rather, their sin is sex as a means to violence and power. The Gibeah story shows us that these men just wanted to have sex to exercise their power over others, and it didn t matter with whom. It is the desire for sex in the absence of love that God considers sinful. This is what Jesus teaches in Matthew 5: Therefore, I would conclude these men were corrupt because their sexual objectification and desire for power had consumed their lives. This brings us to the final step in my process, which is to look at Jesus teachings on this issue. Obviously, Jesus never refers to the pagan practices of temple prostitution, like Paul does in Romans, i so Jesus never addresses the issue directly. Thus, we have to look to peripheral texts. As you probably know, Jesus talks about divorce in one of the gospels (Matt. 19:1-9) and in so doing, references marriage as being between a man and a woman. Based on

4 his description of marriage, some people have taken this as definitive proof that Jesus never would have approved of homosexuality. Yet, if we consider Jesus cultural context, I don t think he ever would have opined about marriage being possible between two men or two women. But what you notice is that, again, it is a matter of context. In the context of Jesus day and time, he would have never discussed a loving relationship between two humans of the same sex. The only references to homosexual behavior in his day and time were temple prostitutes (which he never discusses) and the biblical stories referencing the sexual objectification found at Sodom and Gomorrah and Gibeah (which he clarifies in Matthew 5:27-28). This leads us to pose a very important question: if Jesus were in our context, would he think differently? Personally, I find it hard to believe that a man who was so inclusive of the lost and the marginalized in society would not accept homosexuals into his fold. However, assuming this is true, it leads us to a much larger question: would Jesus tell them to change their way of life once they are in the fold? As with the woman who was caught in the act of adultery in John 8:2-11, Jesus says, Go your way, and from now on do not sin again. He forgives her and expects her to change her lifestyle. Hence, we come to the eternal and still unanswerable question: Is homosexuality a lifestyle decision or something genetic to which we are predisposed? Now we are clearly getting into the realm of speculation and personal opinion because the jury is still out on this one. The people I have known who are homosexual, who are many, all tell me they felt that way from a very young age. I have to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are telling me the truth. I know for myself, being heterosexual was not a choice. From a very young age, I was predisposed to be attracted to women. This is not to deny that our environment plays a role in our sexual preferences, but I believe the basic preference of heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual is determined by genetics. The particulars of that basic preference can then be shaped by our environment. Hence, I do not believe that the seemingly anti-homosexual stance in the Bible, which clearly refers to temple prostitution and sexual objectification, would apply to two people who love each other. Jesus seems to indicate that what makes for a solid relationship is one that is based in the love and trust that come from God (Matt. 19:4-6). The best example of how we are to love other people is found in how God loved us through Jesus. Therefore, if two people exhibit signs of love that come from God a love that lives in the most important commandments of loving God with all of our soul, heart, mind, and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves then their relationship is a positive, healthy, non-sinful relationship. In other words, it is the love two people exhibit that matters, whether those two people are of the same or opposite sex. Given this way of thinking, a heterosexual couple falls under the same scrutiny as a homosexual couple. If their relationship does not follow the example of God s love, then they would be considered to be engaged in a sinful relationship. This is why I have no problem with homosexuality or same-sex marriage. If the definition of marriage is about the type of love two people exhibit for one another rather than the gender of those two individuals, then I think it levels the playing field, which is what Jesus does, time and time again, in the gospels. I hope these arguments have helped you make sense of the issues, and if you need greater clarification, I would be more than happy to further explain my scriptural interpretations. I am looking forward to our conversation on Wednesday, July 30, at 7:00 pm in the Sanctuary. Child care (birth to age 12) will be available. The forum will conclude by 8:30 pm. Peace, Alex

5 i I am not going to deal with Paul s understanding of the homosexual act because it would be redundant. His reference point is very similar to that of the Old Testament priests. He writes to the church in Rome from Corinth where he is witnessing the temple prostitutes performing their duties. Many of his Gentile converts are used to worshiping god this way and he is trying to help them to understand that as a Christian, this is no longer acceptable.

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