God Loves and Accepts the LGBT: Part 5

You’re a foreigner to the Bible.

Too often people go to the Bible unaware that time, distance, and culture—much more so than language—are the primary translational barriers between themselves and its writers.  They are the scrambling force between those in the white suburbs of America and those ancient middle easterners whose livelihoods were lost in the Babylonian exile or under Roman occupation. Certainly Jesus’s gospel is powerful enough to enter into any culture, but applying the gospel in new cultures requires the hard work of understanding how it affected its original one. Because we usually do this work poorly, or skip it altogether, we assume things the Bible does not assume and fly past assumptions the Bible so completely took for granted that it hardly felt the need to express. These foundational mistakes set us up to apply the Bible with all our might to concerns that its own writers never found concerning and to give authority to writers beyond what they would have even claimed themselves.

This is what we do with Paul.

If you’ve been in churches for any length of time, you’ve met this man. Few sermons quote Jesus without quoting Paul at least ten more times. Paul, after all, tells us how we can get our sins forgiven so we don’t burn in fire for eternity . . . right?

Yet despite the fact that his few words on the ethics of homosexuality represent the entirety of that which is found in the New Testament, I’ve hardly quoted him at all so far. I’m not avoiding Paul. He has actually been with us this entire time. However, before I could focus your attention on his specific words, I’ve had to take you to hear Paul in a more biblical place—a place where Paul’s words carry the weight of his actual background. Otherwise, we take our cue from Victor Frankenstein and bring to life a theology that is a reactive monster.

As I hope to show you, reading and hearing the real Paul requires disciplined work on two fronts:

  • The actual problems Paul sought to solve
  • The methods he used to solve them

I’ve spent the better part of four long installments to give you tools for that work. For our purposes, we will finish that work today.

So let’s begin with the Old Testament prophet, Nahum.

(Note: When someone writes “let’s begin with Nahum,” that’s how you know they’ve given up all hope of becoming famous).

The Bible began when the 8th century Assyrian King, Tiglath Pilaser, created the world’s first professional army. Again, when you to pair this fact to every other great start the Bible got under the suffering of the world’s great killing machines, you can’t miss a powerful pattern. In 740 BC, Tiglath Pilaser marched that professional army from his capital in Nineveh, around the Sea of Galilee, and south into the Northern Kingdom of Israel, where it laid siege to its capital, Samaria. The immense and prolonged suffering of those caught in the middle of it all set off a fire in the heart of one of the earliest writers of the Old Testament. Down deep in those wretched circumstances, Nahum could not help but hear a God who would destroy his enemies:

The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.
The Lord takes vengeance on his foes
and vents his wrath against his enemies.
The Lord is slow to anger but great in power;
the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished.

The Lord is good,
a refuge in times of trouble.
He cares for those who trust in him,
but with an overwhelming flood
he will make an end of Nineveh;
he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness.

The Lord will restore the splendor of Jacob
like the splendor of Israel,
though destroyers have laid them waste
and have ruined their vines.

King of Assyria, your shepherds slumber;
your nobles lie down to rest.
Your people are scattered on the mountains
with no one to gather them.
Nothing can heal you;
your wound is fatal.
All who hear the news about you
clap their hands at your fall,
for who has not felt
your endless cruelty?

In Part 2, I explained the problem of empire and how it was central to the Jewish vocation to restore the world in the image of God. In Part 3, I explained how the book of Deuteronomy was the Hebrew people’s earliest, though not singular, answer to that problem. In Deuteronomy, which was written strikingly in the same form as the treaties by which Assyrian Kings governed conquered subjects, God rewarded good and severely punished evil.

And lest you might wonder whether Deuteronomy’s Assyrian form was an accident, Nahum left little doubt. Nahum made clear that Deuteronomy was at least partially engineered as kind of weapon against Assyria. Literally the entire book was about how God would take vengeance on them. Regardless of what God may have been saying, Deuteronomy was all they could hear. They heard that God would pay back the people who had inflicted so much misery on them. They heard that the same God who was slow to anger nevertheless could reach an irrevocable point when he would release a terrifying blast of sizzling agony.

“Nothing can heal you,” emphasized the broken and bitter man, and his people said “amen.”

Joppa: Part 1

And this sentiment had staying power.

When Babylon in the 6th century BC sought to rule the world, it too performed the march around the Sea of Galilee, march south, siege maneuver, and forcing into exile and slavery of the Jewish people. And those caught in the middle of it went back to the wrathful imagination of Nahum.

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm c137

Psalm 137 was an amen to Nahum.

But a new thing happened too. The passage of time caused other people in the Babylonian captivity to see problems with Nahum. You can see in the text I quoted earlier Nahum’s promise that God would restore the northern kingdom: “The Lord will restore the splendor of Jacob like the splendor of Israel.” The problem was it never happened. In fact, it still hasn’t happened.

And this made Judah fertile for new ideas about God.

About who God is.

What God is like.

What God is up to.

And out of Judah came to life a new idea.

A new idea that found expression in my favorite book of the Bible, a book I must have read hundreds of times.

Jonah is a short book, but it is one of the ancient world’s great displays of literary brilliance. It’s progressive, it’s hilarious, and it’s bold. Whoever wrote Jonah had an agenda. From start to finish, Jonah comedically and satirically personified the wrathful ideas in Nahum. Also, he was a complete diva.

Those who first heard the story of Jonah were experiencing the human degradation of the Babylonian captivity, but the story took place during the previous captivity under Assyria. The story began quickly. God told Jonah to go preach to the people of Nineveh so that they would repent of their violence, but Jonah fled from the Lord.

Jonah didn’t flee because he was afraid of Nineveh.

He fled because he was angry at Nineveh.

And he had a plan.

Jonah had read Deuteronomy and Nahum. He had been obedient to Torah all his life. But he didn’t do these things because he had developed a tender heart. He did this because his pleasure centers were fixated on God’s white-hot wrath being poured out on his enemies. Again, for Jonah Deuteronomy was a weapon. It was an instrument of wrath prepared for those whose lives were happy and prosperous at the bitter and painful expense of him and his people. Jonah could not conceive of a future world made in the image of God that included gentiles—especially those like the violent Assyrians. His religious categories included one happy slot for Jews and one retributive slot for all others.

And so when it appeared that God might want to save those people after all, every warning blinker on his Nahum dashboard went off. What God called him to do was unconscionable. It could not happen. And so he reasoned that if, instead of going to Nineveh he just went somewhere else, the Assyrians would have no chance of repenting and God would then be forced to inflict the wrath that he had slobbered for all his life. So Jonah went to the coastal city of Joppa and boarded a ship for Tarshish. Tarshish was literally the farthest city in the known world from Nineveh. The author’s choice of Tarshish not only solidified Jonah’s status as a diva, but also set up a sharp argument.

If God’s heart was for the people (and animals) of Nineveh, Nahum was far from God.

Because no matter how hard Jonah tried to force God to activate Nahum, God just wouldn’t let it happen. That’s the great scandal of the story. Instead of God preparing wrath, God prepared a great fish. You know the story. Jonah was swallowed, vomited back to the shore, and forced to grudgingly go to Nineveh.

Even when he got there, Jonah was still working to try and prevent them from escaping the wrath of Deuteronomy. So instead of preaching a passionate sermon calculated to win their hearts and minds, he preached easily the worst sermon in the entire Bible.

“Forty days and Nineveh will be otherthrown,” was the whole thing.

Yet the English reader usually misses and important word in the Hebrew. Jonah accidentally unleashed a pun on himself. In Hebrew the word for “will be overthrown” is the same word for “will repent.” And that’s what happened.

To Jonah’s horror, right there in front of him the most powerful city in the known world—all the way from its king to literally its cows—instantly and without hesitation cried out to the Lord, declared a fast, and fell prostrate in sackcloth and ashes. Jonah preached the worst sermon in the entire Bible and it produced the most successful display of repentance in the entire Bible. No prophet in all of history was more successful than the man portrayed in this Jewish comedy.

And he came furious.

After Jonah saw the whole city of Nineveh instantly repudiate its violence, and thus would be spared the fire of Heaven’s hottest furnace, the rest of the story shows Jonah having a meltdown on a hill outside the city.

Jonah was a comedy, but it introduced a serious and sophisticated argument about the Jewish vocation: Even the worst gentiles in the empire could change and enter the kingdom of God—even the Assyrians, and by extension the Babylonians.

It’s an idea I’m fond of, considering I’m a rather wealthy resident of Nineveh.

Joppa: Part 2

This is the rich literary tradition behind what happened next. We’re getting warm.

Hundreds of years later, Joppa was again the scene of a Jewish move. It had been a decade since Jesus had died when the apostle Peter, one of his twelve disciples, was in meditation on a rooftop in Joppa. Before we go on, the fact that Peter’s actual name was Simon bar Jonah should focus your mind on this move. In other words, Simon bar Jonah was in the same coastal city where Jonah had fled from the Lord because he could not imagine that gentiles, let alone those of the empire, could ever enter the awaited kingdom of God. Any first-century Jewish hearing this story would be alerted that another big move was about to happen.

And on that rooftop, God told Peter to do something that Peter could not imagine possible.

God told Simon bar Jonah to eat food that the Bible instructed Jews not to eat.

And then God told him to enter the household of a leader of the empire that had crushed his nation.

And God told him to preach to him so that he would be saved from his empire and instead join the kingdom of God.

And just like Jonah, Simon bar Jonah said “no.”

Actually twice.

Peter heard the word of the Lord, but just like Jonah, he couldn’t follow that word because of the Bible.

Please tell me you’re seeing the connections.

If there is a trajectory to the Bible, it is that more categories of people will be in the kingdom than previously thought, even when those categorical exclusions find their support in the Bible. Every time God’s people resist new categories of people entering the kingdom, God prepares a great fish. Or a storm. Or a plant. Or a scorching wind. Or a worm.

For Peter, God prepared a sheet full of unkosher animals.

Peter had grown up with Jonah. His Judaism was more advanced than Nahum. He understood from his scriptures and from his years as a disciple of Yeshua that gentiles would enter God’s kingdom of peace. He knew each of these things even before Jesus called him to be his disciple. All of this was clearly in his Bible.

He says, “You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me.
I will make you a light to the Gentiles,
and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

Isaiah c49

But while Peter knew that we gentiles would enter the kingdom, in a thousand years he would not have imagined that people would enter the kingdom as gentiles. Like Jonah, God’s command set off all his warning blinkers.

However, unlike Jonah, Peter never boarded a ship and head for Spain. He didn’t jump into the ocean to die. He didn’t call out to God to let him die in a scorching wind. Peter was a contemplative. On that day a brand new space opened up in his brain. For the first time in his life, he figured out that people who did not follow Jewish law could be properly formed to reject empire and accept the kingdom of God. So he went to the house of a commander in the military of his oppressor and taught him the “gospel of peace,” a different gospel than Pax Romana.

And for preaching against Pax Romana, Rome would eventually crucify him.

Peter was passionate, but he wasn’t a theologian, let alone very literate. Peter was a fisherman, a laborer. When he was called to explain his actions, he didn’t have much to offer other than I saw this sheet of animals and God told me to eat it. That would be enough for some, but if you’ve been in the church long enough you know that some people are theological doubting Thomases. No matter how much beauty can be found in an idea, they won’t believe it unless you can show them where it says that in the Bible.

To speak to those people, God chose a man on his way to Damascus.

Saul of Tarsus

The Bible’s word for spirit, wind, and breath are the same word.

When the reader is introduced to Saul of Tarsus, he and the Jewish Sanhedrin are in a dispute with a man named Stephen over the importance to the kingdom of the Temple in Jerusalem. Don’t be a modern reader and minimize the stakes here.

The Jews lived under the occupation of Rome. They lived under Syrian occupation before Roman occupation. They lived under Greek occupation before Syrian occupation. They lived under Persian occupation before Greek occupation. They lived as slaves in Babylon before the Persian occupation. They lived as slaves in Assyria before they lived as slaves in Babylonian. They tasted their history in the bitter herbs they ate every year during Passover.

But located in Jerusalem was their hope of overcoming it all. In Jerusalem was their temple. The home of Yahweh. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God who created all the heavens and the earth. Who rescued the Israelites from Egypt. Who promised Abram that he would be made into a great nation and that every nation on earth would be blessed through his nation. This was what their sacred scriptures told them.

Let your heart be softened to the desperation in the hearts of those who threw their stones at Stephen and the other disciples of that rabbi named Yeshua. To downplay the temple order was to threaten to leave the Jews in a permanent state of bitter misery. Today we have exchanged the Jews’s faith in their temple for our faith in fleets of bombers. And we throw stones at those who call them into question.

But an important contrast happened in the story. When the Sanhedrin killed Stephen by stoning, we are told that he was filled with the Holy Spirit and shouted, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” These were beautiful words in their own right, but they also literarily strategic. Because immediately after Stephen died, the author tells us that Saul was breathing out “murderous threats” against those like Stephen.

Remember: spirit, wind, breath—same thing.

In Paul was the spirit of accusation (literally in Hebrew, the spirit of “the Satan”). On the other hand, in Stephen was the spirit of advocacy (the Holy Spirit). Stephen and Saul are the Bible’s clearest expressions of the work of Satan and the work of the Spirit. The spirit of the Satan is in the one who accuses. The spirit of God is in the one who advocates, even for those who first harmed them.

Yet it is singularly because of Saul of Tarsus and his message—specifically that our faith that Jesus conquered the Roman cross without fighting is sufficient to usher in and inherit the kingdom age—that those of us in the party of Stephen owe our welcome in the kingdom of God.

Paul’s letters are complicated. When you read them, don’t lose sight of the thesis at the heart of his whole project. Paul’s heart and soul were dedicated to showing from the Bible how it was always God’s plan that non-Jews as non-Jews would enter God’s non violent kingdom.

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Ephesians c2

In support of that overarching thesis, Paul’s letters essential made three arguments: (1) the law and the prophets were all along about Jesus,

Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

Romans c10

(2) God through Jesus forgave the sins of everyone and not just Jews,

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Romans c3

and (3) non-Jews could enter the kingdom as non-Jews.

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Understand, then, that all those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Galatians c3

But the Bible is sometimes less than cooperative with this idea that gentiles would not have to follow Torah.

For example, long before Jesus came the Torah already had a mechanism for the forgiveness of sins. This was the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Paul’s Jewish detractors rightly countered that if the gentiles wanted their sins forgiven, they could just become Jews and follow Torah. This was effectively Peter’s position before his vision in Joppa.

Understand that, contrary to what most modern Christians understand, the Jews were not waiting on God to send his messiah so that their sins could be forgiven.

In fact, when Paul was on his way to Damascus with arrest warrants, it was also because of the Bible. The Law of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy had long since instructed the Jews that “cursed is everyone who is hanged upon a tree.” Yet Stephen and his cohorts were exchanging the glory of the temple for some rabbi whose death came by being hung on a tree. Do you see the scandal?

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Corinthians c1

That’s the power of what happened when Ananias called Paul a brother. The scales from Paul’s eyes fell and he began to see the complete story that God was trying to tell Nahum and the writers of the Torah. Paul was no longer saw Deuteronomy through the spirit of accusation, but the spirit of advocacy. Yes, cursed is everyone who hangs upon a tree, but God was not out to hang sinners on trees. He was out to save sinners by himself hanging upon a tree. Jesus took that curse, the sins of the violent world of empire and accusation, and conquered them in his resurrection.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

Galatians c3

This, then, fed into Paul’s argument that the prophets and the Torah were and always had been a forerunner for Jesus. Understood this way, Torah, if perfectly followed, was one way to be properly formed to enter the kingdom to which Isaiah had called the people, but a person’s faith in the counterintuitive work of Jesus was also sufficient. And more beautiful.

Today, we usually talk about faith versus works in the context of where will we spend eternity when we die? It completely misses Paul, who was proclaiming a new way to a world without war.

That was the direction of Paul’s work.

But to really understand the mind of Paul, we have to understand his method. If you recall from Part 4, the Pharisees were breathtakingly creative with the text of the Bible. They had little qualms with straying at times from its original intent.

Hillel was the most important Pharisee in the history of Judaism. He was notably more liberal than his adversary, Shammai. Hillel’s grandson, Gamaliel, was the president of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Saul of Tarsus was a disciple of Gamaliel. This was Paul’s upbringing. Not only could he perfectly recite the Torah and the Prophets, but he knew how to stretch their ideas beyond what you and I would ever feel comfortable. Certainly beyond what you and I would think biblical.

This post is already getting long, so I’ll provide just a few examples among many.

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote “our ancestors all drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ.” By now you should recognize the gist of message. It’s what he frequently argued, that Jesus was with the Israelites long before there was a Torah. But to understand the significance of arguing his point that way, I need to make a modern analogy.

If you were to ask the typical Christian how many magi came to present gifts to baby Jesus, you would almost uniformly get the answer three. The text doesn’t say that, but we’ve adopted that assumption because of the number of gifts was three. We adopt all kinds of assumptions about the Bible’s stories that both aren’t in the text and are probably questionable. In a similar way, the Jews had developed a similar extra-biblical assumption about the story of Moses in the Sinai wilderness. There’s no water in the Sinai desert, so when story says that the Israelites came to a place called Rephedim, they complained that they had no water in the desert, and Moses miraculously got water from a rock. In another book, the wondering in the Sinai desert had progressed by forty years. At this point, the Israelites came to a place called Kadesh, they complained that they had no water, and, again, Moses got water from a rock.

The Pharisees, however, who were familiar with the barrenness of the Sinai desert, caught on to a logistical problem in the story. Forty years had elapsed between the giving of water in Rephedim and the giving of water in Kadesh, but the text never explained where the Israelites got water the rest of the time. So when they debated the question, the conclusion they reached was that the rock in Rephedim and the rock in Kadesh were the same rock.

And that the rock had followed them the whole time (hahahaha).

So the well, which was with Israel in the wilderness, was a rock of the size of a large vessel, and was oozing out and rising as from the mouth of this flask, traveling with them up the mountains and down to the valleys. Wherever Israel encamped, it encamped opposite them before the door of the Tabernacle.

Tosephta Sukkah

I hardly needs to be said that the traveling rock is not in the Bible.

And for good reason. It makes no sense. Why would the Israelites panic in Kadesh about getting water if for forty years a watering rock had been following them the whole time? Right? You see the problem?

But for Paul, everything in the Bible was now about Jesus. Even things that he assumed were in the Bible’s stories, but actually weren’t. To Paul, this watering, traveling rock was Jesus and because it was Jesus, that was just more evidence that God’s plan from the beginning was for the gentiles to enter the kingdom. See it?

(If you don’t, well, haha neither do I).

It would be like supporting the doctrine of the trinity by saying that there were three magi and therefore the Bible has a preference for patterns of three.

This is what I mean when I say that Paul was “creative.”

If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.

II Corinthians c5

Why, thank you, Paul.

And there’s pleeeeeeeenty more. The book of Romans is Paul’s greatest theological discourse on the admission of gentiles into the kingdom. In chapter 9, Paul quoted from Hosea to continue the same argument.

What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? As he says in Hosea:

“I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people;
and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,” and,

“In the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘children of the living God.’”

Romans c9

Sounds good, right?

Well, I’ve read Hosea.

And, haha, Hosea was not saying what Paul is saying. Hosea was writing about God rescuing disobedient Jews. I know this not because I’ve been given special powers, but because Hosea plainly said so.

Yet I will show love to Judah; and I will save them—not by bow, sword or battle, or by horses and horsemen, but I, the Lord their God, will save them.

The Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” they will be called “children of the living God.”

Hosea c1

This is a great example of the lengths to which Paul was willing to stretch the meaning of a text in order to get more people into the kingdom.

The story of Saul of Tarsus is the story of a man who learned not to let the Bible get in the way humankind’s evolving understanding of God. He was a Pharisee, and he argued like one. As long as he could see the beauty in an idea, he would not let the the original intent of a text to become an obstacle to that beauty. And the idea of all people being welcome to the table of the Lord is a beautiful idea. It’s no longer a controversial idea.

Saul of Tarsus was an ancient man who used controversial means to argue points that are no longer controversial.

Keys

The point is that Jesus gave his disciples the keys to the kingdom (see Part 4). He gave them the authority to bind and loose, authority that had previously been the exclusive domain of the rabbis. He gave them the authority to interpret how to live out his teachings and thus decide who would be in the kingdom. Where any two people gather in Jesus’s name, such as the council in Jerusalem in Acts c15, Jesus declared that this exercise of authority would be recognized in Heaven. This is stated multiple times.

The Apostle Paul was one of the first to interpret what it meant to live in the kingdom that Jesus had described. In allowing gentiles to enter the kingdom without adopting Jewish customs, Paul was one of the first to exercise the keys to kingdom.

As I hope you have seen, Paul did a lot of loosing. He certainly did much more loosing than binding. He went “out of his mind” to allow non kosher gentiles into the world that was being renewed into the image of God. The epistles of Paul are the difference in literally more than 99% of the world’s population having a seat at the Lord’s table. They are the only reason I have any part of the kingdom project to make the world of Isaiah c2. That’s some mighty loosing!

But as much as Paul’s upbringing gave him the tools to creatively push boundaries, Paul’s upbringing caused him to bind some things too.

Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

I Corinthians c6

While Paul’s imagination of who would be in the kingdom of God would be broader than his contemporaries, we should not be surprised at its limitations.

First of all, understand Paul’s Jewish upbringing. Paul would have memorized Leviticus before he reached puberty. And Leviticus prohibited a man from having “sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman,” calling it an “abomination.”

(btw the same chapter of Leviticus said the same thing about men having sex with their wife while she was on her period).

Second, understand Paul’s upbringing in the Mediterranean city of Tarsus. Tarsus was a thoroughly Greco-Roman city, and the brutal realities of that world probably influenced him even more than his Judaism. Among the prostitutes on the streets by whom young Saul would have passed each day on the way to synagogue would also have been young slave boys who were used by their masters for anal sex.

A common misconception of the ancient Greco-Roman world is that it was full of and open to homoeroticism. This misconception comes mostly from a few lines from Plato, who was gay. And just as Greece was nowhere near as democratic as most imagine, it was nowhere near the affirming place that most modern people imagine. What was common was slaveowners sexually abusing their young slaves. The Greek literature we have on this subject consists almost entirely of exercises of power and domination, not respect, consent, and openness. One would lose all social standing by having “passive” gay sex (that is, being on the receiving end).

The ancient literature is full of derogatory names and insults for such people. No such derogatory words existed, however, for the man on top. Penetration in the ancient world signaled virtue. In fact, we get our word virtue from the Latin word virtus, which literally means “manliness.” Sexual brutality was not only common, but expected. Even flaunted.

I hope this helps you understand why it was only natural and even compassionate for Paul to outright declare that this kind of thing would not be in the kingdom. On the specific point of penetration being used to dominate people, I wholeheartedly agree.

This was the lens through which Paul thought about homosexuality. His experience with the dehumanizing aspects of men penetrating other men was front and center in his limited understanding of the kingdom. While we shouldn’t blame him, we need to be careful as we decide how to apply his knowledge to the twenty-first century. Paul’s intentions were noble, but modern-day homosexual relationships don’t look like the cruel power displays that Paul witnessed in Tarsus. Today’s gay teenagers aren’t out to exercise male dominion. They want companionship.

If Paul were to sit down today, I have not doubt he would steadfastly maintain complete opposition to homosexual relationships. I’ll concede that point. But you are finally ready for what I have to argue about that. For all the many words I have written, this is where I’m going with them:

When Jesus gave his disciples the keys to the kingdom, he gave his church the authority to disagree with Paul.

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God Loves and Accepts the LGBT: Part 4

“The School of Shammai binds, but the school of Hillel looses.” That this quote could mean so much to the early disciple of Jesus but nothing to the modern churchgoer is symptomatic of a massive problem.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the Jewish vocation—its driving motivation that found voice in, of all places, slavery in Babylon. I started there because if your assumptions about Judaism are wrong, your ideas of what Jesus fulfilled when he established his kingdom by dying on a Roman cross will correspondingly have little in common with the ideas of the Jews who wrote the New Testament.

And this is not a hypothetical problem.

The Bible to modern churchgoers is the “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” God created a moral code. Life in Eden depended on keeping it perfectly, but failure lead to death. The humans’ failure to keep the moral code in the garden was repeated under the more sophisticated moral code of the Torah. The failure in either case resulted in humans being destined for Hell rather than Heaven. Finally, however, Jesus obeyed God’s moral law perfectly and in his death paid the penalty for the rest of humanity. In the end, those who believe in Jesus go to Heaven and not Hell. Those going to Heaven are collectively “the church,” or its synonym, “the kingdom.”

This articulation of the Bible is both common and unbiblical—frankly, a travesty.

The Apostle Paul wrote that “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.” But the thing from which modern churchgoers argue that Jesus saved us is a problem that no writer of Paul’s scriptures ever had in mind. To the contrary, Paul’s scriptures from start to finish articulated the need to be saved from the injustice wrought by violent and greedy military superpowers. And when you read the Gospels from the perspective of those whose scriptures were born of slavery in Babylon, you start to see the real saving work of Jesus Christ.

From the very first lines of the Gospel of Mark, which was written right after Rome destroyed Jerusalem—under virtually the exact circumstances as Babylon had done six centuries earlier—you see the New Testament continue on the trajectory that began in the first lines of Genesis:

The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

This short passage is dynamite.

First, the Roman Empire announced Gospels (literally “Gospels”) as propaganda devices throughout the empire after they conquered a new territory or put down a rebellion somewhere. Gospels were intended to stir the patriotic passions of those who worshipped the Caesars and instill fear in those who didn’t. So, when the ragtag followers of Rabbi Yeshua stole that word from the empire, they demonstrated the same kind of rebelliousness that the writer of the creation poem in Genesis displayed when he or she stole the creation poem from the Babylonian empire.

In other words, the very first sentence of the very first written Gospel is an act of rebellion.

And there’s more. The sentence also works to identify Yeshua as the Messiah. I’ll get to that word in detail shortly, but, before I do, notice how the writer connects the purpose of the Messiah to the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah. The passage that Mark quoted is a rejoicing of the Israelites’ journey back to Israel after their slavery in Babylon. The long journey from Babylon back to Israel would ordinarily take a circular route around the Arabian desert, but the writer’s poetic excitement to get back to Israel imagined a straight highway back to the promised land. Mark repurposed that language to speak to his first readers—a people who, like the first readers of Isaiah, had just witnessed the great empire of its day destroy their whole city.

Mark’s Gospel was intended to connect the problems his readers were enduring to the same problems endured by the people who first heard Isaiah’s hopeful message.

While the Bible is the journey of the Jewish people as they struggled with how to overcome the problem of empire, I confess that Jesus was the crazy and scandalous solution to that problem. Jesus, you could say, was the end of that journey.

We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

I Corinthians c1 v23

Because it turns out that the thing Jesus did to fulfill the Jewish vocation—in other words, what Jesus did to solve the problem of empire—was to willingly endure the full brunt of its most cruel instrument of fear, torture, and intimidation—the Roman cross. Jesus, without fighting back, took on the full power of the Roman Empire . . . and on the third day won.

How did Jesus disarm the superpower? How did he solve the Jewish problem? How did he fulfill the law and prophets?

Only in the most counterintuitive way possible.

By not fighting back.

By forgiving the sins of both the empire and the rebels.

By dying the death of a criminal.

By ending the cycle and recycled cycle of vengeance.

By exposing the whole system for the lie that it was.

Paul wrote this explicitly.

“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

Colossians c2 v15

I don’t care who you are or what your religious background is, this is good stuff. This is the stuff that attracted the masses to Jesus.

And I would continue writing on this subject—and you’ll have to forgive me for skimping on it—but we have so much more to cover.

(Also, I wrote this twelve-part series (!) on it already).

The Kingdom

All said, we now can talk about “the Kingdom” and “the Messiah” in a way that is at least mildly relevant to the Bible.

Modern churchgoers talk about the Kingdom all the time. Working for the Kingdom. Building the Kingdom. Growing the kingdom. Being Kingdom people. Of course, every time we talk about the Kingdom, we mostly mean something like “the people who won’t be going to Hell when they die.”

Like everything else I talk about, the things the New Testament writers wrote when they wrote about the Kingdom cannot be divorced from what the Old Testament writers wrote when they also did. The idea started in the Old Testament, but really took off in the centuries between the testaments. So too did the idea of the Messiah, which is really the corresponding part of the same idea.

The Hebrew word, Meshiahk, literally means “anointed one,” which translates fine linguistically but not culturally. This is because the word is associated with the Israelite’s unique coronation ceremony. The Israelites didn’t coronate their kings with crowns, but instead anointed them in oil. Thus, the description and picture of the “Messianic Age” in some scriptures and the descriptions and pictures of the kingdom in others are not separate ideas, but one incredibly simple and incredibly complicated idea.

And here’s what it is.

I’ve been talking about the Jewish religion and its vocation now for a long time. The Kingdom, then, was simply the world in which the problems that the Jewish religion took on were actually solved. It was the world in which the Jewish vocation had reached its fulfillment. It was salvation. Of course, various writers employed all kinds of rich and complex literary work to describe it. But that was it. It was the world that had been fully formed in the image of God.

That Jesus solved the problem at the heart of the Jewish vocation is reflected all throughout the New Testament.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

Matthew c5 v17

“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

Colossians c1 v19-20

This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Matthew c6 v9-10

The book you are reading that we call the Bible is the story that begins with the problem of greedy and violent empire, continues with the Jewish vocation to make a new world free from that and its evolving understanding of how to get to that world, and finishes with Jesus who fulfilled the Jewish vocation and gave us the Kingdom.

Again, the Kingdom and the fulfillment of the Jewish vocation is the world in which people rule the world in the image of God rather than being ruled by the things of the world.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Thus says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Isaiah c49

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Isaiah c60

When the Bible speaks about his people being ruled by the things of the world, rather than ruling it in his image, the word it uses is “idolatry.” Perhaps then, a better way of thinking about Jesus’s death on the cross was Jesus’s refusal to fight the empire with the weapons of the empire—and so be ruled by them.

On the cross, what we see is the complete revelation of Jesus giving back to Caesar that which was Caesar’s.

Modern Moves

Just because we confess that Jesus answered the vexing question at the heart of the Jewish vocation and brought about the kingdom age does not mean that the work that began with the Jews is all done. Recall how describing the Kingdom well required us to go back deep into the Jewish religion. Similarly, the way Jesus described what his disciples do in the Kingdom also requires us to go back to Judaism—specifically rabbinic Judaism. Last week’s installment showed some of the Bible’s shifting and moving ideas of how to bring about the Jewish dream of the Kingdom.

As you’ll soon observe, when we talk about modern-day Kingdom work, even as articulated in the New Testament, those Old Testament moves become intensely relevant.

In the period between the testaments, another global empire came to dominate Israel, Greece. In that time was formed the Pharisee and Sadducee parties. Both parties hated foreign domination, but, again, they were split over various issues about the Jewish vocation and the Kingdom. The Sadducees believed that bringing about the Kingdom simply required priestly adherence to the temple regulations found in Leviticus (and the fact that the temple was destroyed in 70 AD is why there aren’t still Sadducees). It was an idea rooted in part in an admirable humility that humans depend on God to fight their battles, but also in a primitive belief that the God of the cosmos was moved to favor when valuable things were killed on altars. The Sadducees read the Bible conservatively and interpreted the law strictly. The Pharisees, on the other hand, interpreted the law much more loosely. Also, despite the their belief that they hated the Greeks and their pagan ideas, they nevertheless adopted many of the most enduring ideas. They borrowed from Plato the ideas of eternal life and resurrection. They described God in terms familiar to anyone who had read Plato’s allegory of the cave. And, in the same way that Greek philosophers made disciples and questioned them through the socratic method, the Pharisees believed that the broader Israelite population needed to be so discipled in order to understand and properly follow the Hebrew Bible. This they believed was what was needed to bring about as they called it: “the Age to Come.”

The Pharisees’ democratic approach to Judaism distinguished them from the Sadducees, who believed that if the priests in the temple correctly did their work, all would be fine. Consequently, the Sadducees did not have rabbis. When the New Testament refers to the “chief priests” and “teachers of the law,” the chief priests are the Sadducees and the teachers of the law are the Pharisees.

The broad diversity of thought within rabbinic (Pharisaic) Judaism is directly relevant to the modern work of the Kingdom and, to put it crudely, what is right and wrong. While the rabbis were all working towards the kingdom, they too were constantly arguing about how to interpret the law that determined what conduct was acceptable in the kingdom. We know this because we have their debates.

When rabbis taught about how they interpreted the Torah, they often spoke in terms of what was permitted and what was not permitted. When something was not permitted, the rabbis said it was “bound,” but if something was permitted, they called it “loosed.” When the long list of a rabbi’s bound things and loosed things was compiled, that list was called that rabbi’s “yoke.” When people spoke about different schools of Jewish thought among the rabbis, the vocabulary they used was yokes.

This gets me to Hillel and Shammai.

In Jesus’s day, Hillel and Shammai were the leaders of the two most well-known schools of Jewish thought. Shammai generally interpreted the Torah conservatively, and Hillel generally interpreted the Torah liberally. In fact, the common saying about their differences was “The school of Shammai binds, but the school of Hillel loosens.” To the confoundment of most modern Christians, history records the positions of Hillel as having consistently won out over Shammai. Also interestingly, Jesus weighed in numerous times on specific issues of Jewish law that Hillel and Shammai debated. When he did, he usually either sided with Hillel’s positions or took them in even more liberal directions.

Think about that. The fact that the Pharisees were less conservative than the Sadducees, the fact that Hillel was less conservative of the schools of the Pharisees, and the fact that Jesus was less conservative than Hillel—all of this was the subtext behind Jesus’s words when he told his disciples: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Yes, it was.

But here’s where I’m going with it all. The discussion of the morality of LGBT relationships is really the discussion of rabbinic authority. If you understand rabbinic authority, the specific issue really kind of quiets down.

Ordinarily, when a disciple trained under a rabbi, the purpose was to master that rabbi’s yoke so they could become a rabbi themselves and make new disciples under that yoke. However, every once in a while, a rabbi would reach such intellectual stature and such a command of the text, that they would be given authority (the Hebrew word for authority is “shmekhah“) to make new interpretations of how to follow the commands of the Torah. This is what Hillel and Shammai exercised.

Not only did Rabbinic authority extend to interpreting the Torah in fresh ways, but the Rabbis even exercised a divine right to suspend parts of the Torah. For example, when a child acted rebelliously against their parents, the Torah commanded that the parents stone the offending child. This command is grotesque, and the rabbis apparently agreed. Because in all seriousness, they concluded that the reason God put that command in the Torah was so that his people would have to figure out how to interpret it in a way that prevented it from ever being applied.

Haha, yes, those primitive “legalistic Pharisees” said that.

This gets me back to Rabbi Yeshua.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

“Rabbi, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. The law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” . . . . “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with shmekha!”

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had shmekha [like Hillel and Shammai], and not as their teachers of the law.

Of course, new understandings of how to be faithful to the commands of God implicated all kinds of big considerations. Not least of them was who would be in the “Kingdom of God.” Remember, that was what this was all about. To decide what kind of conduct was acceptable in the kingdom was not substantively different than to decide who would be in the kingdom. Rabbis with schmekhah were said then to be given the “keys to the kingdom.”

Most of you probably have little problem with Jesus exercising rabbinic authority. After all, if Jesus is Lord, then Jesus is Lord over the law. “No prob,” you say.

But I tell you all of this—and this is the most important point of this whole series—because Jesus gave his disciples rabbinic authority:

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Matthew c16

(And if you don’t want to just take my word for it, you can read what the Jews themselves say right here).

Lest the point might be missed, Jesus even doubled down.

In Matthew c18, he gave his disciples a well-known command. When someone sins, first go to that person privately and talk about it. If they continue their wrongdoing, Jesus said to bring a witness and have the conversation privately a second time. Only if they continue their wrongdoing then are they to be removed from the fellowship. You know this teaching if you’ve been in the church for any length of time. But what Jesus said immediately next is usually skipped over.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.

In other words, the task in the Kingdom Age of defining sin according to Jesus’s is not God’s, but ours. Jesus gave his disciples the authority to interpret his teaching. Jesus gave his disciples the authority to disagree about how to interpret his teaching. Jesus gave his disciples the authority to decide who would be in the kingdom. Jesus gave his disciples the authority to engage in moves.

It’s almost as if Jesus answered the long mystery of who would be in the Kingdom with a kind of wink. As if to say, “Whoever you allow in the kingdom, that’s who will be in it!

Jesus taught and demonstrated how to bring about the kingdom that fulfilled the Jewish vocation, but the task of deciding how to obey Jesus’s commands requires a lot of interpretive work. You don’t get to make these judgments flippantly. Really, as you can see in the text above, these judgments should be made in community. And that gets us, finally, to the Apostle Paul.

Paul was one of the first interpreters of how to obey Jesus’s commands in the Kingdom.

Part 5

God Loves and Accepts the LGBT: Part 3

Regular people don’t spend their time thinking about Manasseh, but I’ve been thinking about him for years.

Manasseh was an Old Testament king of Judah and one of the Bible’s most perplexing characters. I guarantee you every observant Jew in Jesus’s time thought about him a lot, and there exists no universe in which Jesus and his disciples didn’t know his story verbatim. If today was the first time you’ve ever heard this name, you might pause before deciding you have nothing to learn on the topic of this series.

In part 1, I talked at length about school buses. I made no argument other than this matters to many people, and you should read part 2. I’m pleased at the feedback I received from that. In part 2, I looked deep into the opening poem of the Bible and explained the driving motivations of its writer. To the extent that you frame your questions about LGBT relationships within the lens of what is “biblical,” you need to orient the questions you bring to the Bible around the questions that its own writers brought when they wrote it.

This part 3 is about Judaism and its moves.

So, who Is Manasseh?

The Old Testament book II Kings is well known for its repetitive and, frankly, tedious recounting of Israel’s and Judah’s history—one bad king at a time. However, it informs the reader that of all the kings who “did evil in the eyes of the LORD,” a certain Manasseh was the single worst and most evil. In fact, according to the writer, his wickedness made God so angry that he caused Babylon to destroy Judah. Even five decades after his death and even though his grandson, Josiah, reversed what he had done during his lifetime.

Manasseh offered children as sacrifices to various gods and was a murderous tyrant king. No one disputes that his deeds were horrible. But what to make of a God who reacts to Manasseh’s evil by fifty years later destroying a whole nation?

In part 2, I wrote that the Jewish religion has long been devoted to the question of how to survive in a world in which big kingdoms used their resources to dominate small kingdoms. Manasseh’s story is important because it reflects an early and primitive answer to that question. As I’ll show you, it is one interpretation of Israel’s history of desolation. Under this interpretation, God and his Torah are fundamentally and irreversibly retributive: they provide safety and prosperity for those who do good, but total disaster for those who do bad. Telling Israel’s story this way, then, kind of got God off the hook. Israel wasn’t destroyed because God lacked the power to save it; it was destroyed because God must punish evil.

And a whole chunk of the Old Testament arises out of this understanding of God. The book of Deuteronomy starts out by imagining a time many centuries prior to its writing. In this time, the writer explains that God gave his law to a man named Moses, and then the writer provides that law (which, not coincidentally, closely resembles the form of treaties that the kings of Assyria would impose on people they conquered in war, and Israel was one of those nations who lost to Assyria in war). Not surprisingly then, the “Law of Moses” is finely tuned to argue why God caused Babylon to destroy Israel.

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God:

You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.

You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.
The Lord will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you from one direction but flee from you in seven.

The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in obedience to him. Then all the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they will fear you.

….

However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you:

You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country.

You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out.

The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You will come at them from one direction but flee from them in seven, and you will become a thing of horror to all the kingdoms on earth. Your carcasses will be food for all the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away.

Deuteronomy c28

This contractual relationship to God, as you can see, is described philosophically from the beginning to the end of the book of Proverbs.

Good people obtain favor from the Lord,
but he condemns those who devise wicked schemes.

The wicked are overthrown and are no more,
but the house of the righteous stands firm.

No harm overtakes the righteous,
but the wicked have their fill of trouble.

Proverbs c12

Again, this is the philosophy that God sends good things to good people and bad things to bad people. And an interpretation of Israel’s and Judah’s history that is rooted in the law of Deuteronomy and the wisdom of Proverbs is painstakingly recorded in the books of Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, and I and II Kings. The descriptions of God in those books are so consistently harmonious with the Deuteronomist perspective that scholars explicitly call them the “Deuteronomist” voice.

I bring this up and speak about it this way because the Deuteronomist voice is not the only voice in the Bible. This is important. Not only are there multiple voices in the Bible, but they are usually at odds with each other.

Which brings me back to Manasseh.

I and II Chronicles have probably been read in the last century by a grand total of five real human people (I kid, but seriously). It’s an achievement by itself to get all the way through the books of Kings (unless reading that Jehoahaz, Jehoakim, and Johoachin did “evil in the eyes of the LORD” is fun to you), but when most people then get to Chronicles, they see the torture they just endured in the books of Kings as just starting over. Not to mention that Chronicles begins with nine brutal chapters of nothing but genealogy.

But those who do stick it out eventually reach the story of Manasseh again, and something interesting happens in this second telling. Specifically, the second account of Manasseh tells us that he was actually not the reason Babylon destroyed everything after all.

I know I’ve gone several paragraphs through wonky Bible stuff, and perhaps you missed that. Let me repeat. The story of Manasseh is found in two books of the Bible. In one book, Manasseh was the sole reason that Babylon destroyed Judah. In the other book, he wasn’t. And you don’t have to be an Oxford scholar of Biblical languages to appreciate that those differences aren’t small.

And it gets even more interesting. Details are added to the story, and they take it in a bizarre new direction. In the old account, Manasseh was evil from start to finish, and his story was not complicated. He engaged in child sacrifice, he was murderous, he engaged in the worship of other gods, and he died. But the retold story informs the reader that Manasseh went through a wild  set of events that led to him actually changing every wrong thing about him. The story goes that the Assyrian army invaded Judah, captured Manasseh (and, strangely, only Manasseh), brought him to Babylon to become a slave (which makes absolutely no sense historically), Manasseh humbled himself while in slavery there, came back to Judah, and repented of his sins. Because . . .

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

These additions are remarkable for multiple reasons. First, the story by itself is wild. Second, there is no way any of it really happened historically. The Assyrian army never successfully invaded Jerusalem, never captured Manasseh, and never would have given him over to their bitter arch rival, Babylon, even if it did. These things just didn’t happen. I don’t know how else to say this to you.

But most shocking than this . . . unexpected . . . addition in the new story is that it changed one of the most important conclusions of II Kings. It changed the whole explanation for the war.

In other words . . .

The Bible argues with the Bible.

And it does this a lot.

And it’s awesome.

More Moves

Let’s go back to Proverbs. Remember how certain its writer was that the righteous prosper and the wicked are destroyed? Well, the best way to understand the writer of Ecclesiastes is to say that he thinks the writer of Proverbs was a complete moron. Here’s a sampling from both. You be the judge.

Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold.

She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.

Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace.

She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed.

By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew.

Proverbs

…………….

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.

What advantage have the wise over fools? What do the poor gain by knowing how to conduct themselves before others?

Now there lived in a city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man.

Do not be too righteous, neither be too wise—why destroy yourself?

Ecclesiastes

If you read the first set of quotes, you will notice that it is nothing like the second set of quotes.

As I said earlier, the Deuteronomist voice, which was elaborated on in Proverbs, arose out of the need to get God off the hook for what must have felt like a failure on his part to protect his people from Babylon. It lead to a whole philosophy in which good is surely rewarded and evil is surely punished. It provided a clear argument for what Israel needed to do to be safe. And the first writers of Israel’s history wrote its story with this assumption.

The problem with this worldview is it’s a bad worldview.

Life doesn’t work that way, and they soon figured it out (by “soon,” I mean after several centuries). As generations of ruthless, unmerciful, immoral people continued to do well at the expense of everyone else, the words of Proverbs became reduced to a shrill sound. The teachers of Judaism could no longer defend its absolute assurances.

So Judaism moved.

A new history of Israel and Judah were written, and the new and sometimes wild details in the new account were crazy but also ingenious. This is what and II Chronicles are. Whoever wrote and II Chronicles had the original stories in front of him (or her), but the writer had better ideas than the ideas of the old stories and so the writer made new versions of those stories to reflect those better ideas.

Like when the old story of Israel’s history says that God caused King David to conduct a particular census that ended in disaster, but the new story says that Satan caused King David to conduct it.

(Haha, please don’t try to harmonize those two accounts).

And other new and clever stories were imagined and written—stories that moved the religion forward. One such story involved an ancient man named Job, who had lost his family, his health, and his fortune. The story informs the reader early on that Job was a righteous and just man, but for more than thirty chapters Job’s friends thoroughly apply the philosophy of Proverbs in an effort to convince Job that he was suffering because he had done something evil. Job’s friends are exhausting, and you cannot read Job without hating them. It’s not humanly possible. And that’s because the writer was an expert in the Deuteronomist philosophy and effectively used Job’s friends as a vehicle to personify the flaws of that philosophy. The book isn’t just a story with a moral at the end. It’s part of the Bible that argues against a different part of the Bible.

And the Bible showcases without censorship plenty more of these Jewish moves.

Imagine the discomfort when the prophet Hosea announced on behalf of God, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Or when the Psalmist declared: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire . . . burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.” I’ve read the Old Testament book of Leviticus several hundred times, and nowhere does it make optional its commands to offer burnt offering and sacrifices. I can hear some ancient Israelites hearing the Psalmist and saying, “Oh, yes, they are required. I’ll show you where it says so in the Bible!”

Or imagine the discomfort when the story of Ruth finished with King David being the grandson of a Moabite, considering that Deuteronomy prohibited any Moabite or descendant of a Moabite from entering Israelite society. I can hear their protests: David can’t be a Moabite. The same God who appointed David to be our king also forbade any Moabite from living in Israel. It’s in the Bible!

Or imagine the discomfort when the story of Jonah described as good all the people in the city that had just gone to war with Israel—and described as bad the only Israelite in the whole story. Anyone who had read the story of Nahum knew that everyone there was irredeemably evil and that God would destroy them.

Or when Psalm c89 cleverly, but in no uncertain terms, accused God of breaking the promise found in the books of the Dueteronomist voice that King David and his line would always be on the throne in Israel.

The Moves of Judaism

Modern-day Christians are prone to reduce Judaism to being stuck in legalism and tradition, but I hope to change your mind. The reality is different. Judaism’s vocation, as I discussed in part 2, was to usher in a just world in which the weakest and lowest are not laid to waste by the world’s powerful empires. In pursuit of that vocation, it is and always has been a religion on the move.

The Hebrew Bible is more or less unified in pursuit of the world in which swords are made into plowshares.

In which the wolf will live with the lamb.

And the infant will play near the cobra’s den.

This is the world born of the imagination of the prophet Isaiah.

Where the Hebrew Bible is not unified is its ideas on how to get to that world. To me, one of the most inexhaustibly fascinating qualities of the Old Testament is how openly it presents conflicting ideas that the most brilliant thinkers of its religion offered at different times in its history.

Which means that when you open your Bible, the thing you are reading is not a small target. It’s not a thing to aim at and better hope you don’t miss, lest you burn in the outer darkness for eternity. It’s not a how-to guide to get to Heaven when you die. The Bible is a trajectory. It’s the journey of history’s great suffering people as they lived Hell and had to courage to imagine and insist on something better.

Coming Next

It’s possible that you have in mind that my strategy in all of this is to take the Bible and weaken it. That’s wrong. I want to strengthen the Bible.

But if you want to take the Bible in all its power, you need more than a deep knowledge of its verses and stories. What you really need is a deep knowledge of its moves. This requires first identifying its competing voices and then learning to place them in their historical context to understand their motivations. Over time, Judaism increasingly developed from primitive rituals that were practiced in the countryside to highly formalized rituals practiced in a powerful and authoritarian temple order. Along the way, and oftentimes in tension with the other movements, came movements that introduced increasingly progressive social arrangements that were committed to the wellbeing of its most vulnerable members. The interplay of these movements become clear when you learn to enter into and sit for a time in each of the different voices that the Bible presents.

Once you understand (1) the Jewish vocation, (2) the movements of Judaism, and (3) the rabbinical system that arose between the testaments—which we will talk about in part 4—you will be in a great place to understand Paul and how he relates to the whole Jewish project that Jesus fulfilled.

And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the heart of the matter.

Part 4

God Loves and Accepts the LGBT: Part 2

In the beginning, Marduk created the heavens and the earth.

There were many gods, and the cosmos were chaotic, wild, and unformed. Abzu, the god of fresh river water, and his wife, Tiamat, the goddess of the salt waters of the deep, ruled over all the gods. But the other gods created so much noise (literally “babel”), that Abzu could never rest, and he plotted to kill them all. However, when Enki and Mummu, the gods of knowledge, found out about Abzu’s plot, they killed him. Then came a great battle between Marduk and Tiamat. It went like this:

  • Marduk killed each of the serpents that Tiamat had created to defend herself,
  • Marduk killed Tiamat,
  • Marduk used a great wind to split half of Tiamat into two,
  • The first half of Tiamat became the ocean,
  • Her other half became a dome of water above the earth,
  • The remainder of her corpse created the heavens and the earth, and
  • Her blood created humankind, who would become Marduk’s slaves and fight to defeat the world’s barbarian people—literally those who created too much “babel.”

This was the creation story of the Babylonian Empire, the military superpower of the 6th century BC. Their creation story was well-engineered to shape and reinforce a mindset among the masses that was favorable to the ruthlessness and cruelty of their empire—a war machine that marched through and conquered the entire Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. Because the empire was in the service of Marduk, and everyone who got in its way was just babel, nothing that supported the empire could be understood as too cruel. The gods said so in their creation story.

And that gets me to a slave class who lived in the shadows of the empire and its war machine.

Israel is a narrow land bridge between the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian desert, which historically had the misfortune of connecting Africa, Europe, and Asia. I say “misfortune” because any ancient king with half a brain knew that conquering the world required controlling this land bridge.

So in 589 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar was armed with a military and a creation story, and he took his turn.

When King Zedekiah of Judah (the southern kingdom of Israel) refused to pay the imperial tribute to Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar dispatched his army in numbers that shocked the people of Judah. His infantry marched around the Sea of Galilee and then due south where it surrounded and laid siege to Jerusalem for eighteen of the most miserable months humanity has passed down in the historical record. With Jerusalem unable to import food or any other resources, it descended into disease, starvation, terror, and even civil war. When the Babylonian army finally commenced attack and broke through Jerusalem’s walls, it was hardly a fight. The terrified population was quickly put in chains by the tens of thousands.

And the cruelty had only just begun. When Zedekiah and his family were captured, Zedekiah was made to watch Babylonian soldiers execute each member of his family, one by one. Then, having watched that event in all its agony it was Zedekiah’s turn, but he wasn’t punished by execution. Instead, the soldiers told him that his punishment would be for the last thing he would ever see to be the execution of his family.

And then they stabbed his eyes.

The prisoners began the agonizing and exhausting march to Babylon—a one thousand-mile overland journey in shackles through desert to a life of slavery. Many of them didn’t survive the journey. For the next half century, the Israelites were a spat-upon underclass—mere babel upon which to be trampled. The cruelty of the Babylonians and the breaking of the Israelites’s spirit are simultaneously captured in Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

So, when I say that the Babylonian creation story was an essential driving force of its empire and world view, I hope this helps you see that. Its ubiquitous presence served to reinforce the limits of the people’s imagination. The empire was all there was because its gods said so. This was just how the world worked.

Yet, out of this slave people—who for the rest of their lives would suffer the post-traumatic stress disorder that comes from surviving war—nevertheless was born the courage to imagine a different sort of world than the one given to them by Marduk. History’s oppressed people have long given the world many of its most enduring artistic creations. What this slave people did was compose a new creation story—a subversive story that took all the elements of Marduk’s pro-empire, anti-humanity creation story and repurposed them into a pro-humanity, anti-empire creation story.

This is what you are reading when you open your Bible and in front of you is the Genesis story: an artistic act of rebellion. 

In the new creation story, the God they called Elohim was not at war with the forces of nature, and humans weren’t created to be slaves to the power structure. Instead, humans were created in the very image of Elohim, and the earth was given to them and their inherent creativity to make it flourish. In this story, the first occupation of humans was not that of warriors to keep “barbarian” civilizations from being too “noisy.” The first humans were gardeners. And when humans were made, Elohim saw them and remarked that they were tov me’od (“very good”). And not only were they very good but the noise of their existence did not cause Elohim to lose rest. Actually, in the new story, rest was exactly what Elohim did when he finished creating humanity. And with a final artistic flourish from the old story, the new story explained that humankind lost its way to war and violence and death only when it embraced the various other analogues to the Babylonian story—the serpent and the gods of knowledge. As a modern reader, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil must be understood in the context of the gods of knowledge in the Babylonian story, who were simultaneously gods of violence and war.

All this artistic ingenuity and otherworldly imagination from a slave class. The Genesis story is sophisticated, poetic, and elegant, but you need to understand that it is not the scientific and journalistic story of the beginning of the world.

It was a middle finger to the creation story of their Babylonian slave masters.

(Before I go on, I wrote at length here why we’re pretty sure the creation story was written at this time and for this reason. Cliffs Notes version: (1) The Genesis story, as you can see, borrows so specifically and so often from the Babylonian story, (2) the geographic and anthropologic identifiers in Genesis reflect the world as it existed during Babylon’s time and not in the time when the stories were set, and (3) Genesis was written using the Babylonian alphabet).

And what about that pejorative slave-class label, babel? They wrote a story that worked on that too. Their story began that God created the first man (the “adam”) out of the earth (the “adamah”), which in Hebrew reads that God “created the adam out of the adamah” and then God named the first man, “Adam”—a pun that connects the goodness of humans with the beauty of the earth and the wellbeing of humans with the wellbeing of all creation. In the story that the slaves told, Adam had two sons, Cain and Abel. When Cain killed Abel, Cain moved east of Eden and built the first city. The first hearers of the story would recognize this city to represent Babylon, which too was located in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley and, from their perspective, was built on murder. Once the city in this story was fully constituted and powerful, it set its sights on ruling the world. To do so, it built a massive tower—a potent image to the slave class of Babylon’s war machine. As the story progresses, the reader is made aware that this was not how God wanted his world to be run, so God separated the people away from Babylon’s one-size-fits-all war machine and into flourishing and diverse nations. In other words, when the tower subsequently was named the Tower of Babel, this had the effect of turning the war machine merely into a monument to God’s love for the babel of the world.

Remember this story as you read the poem of Isaiah c2, the most quoted Old Testament passage of the Christian church in its first four centuries (before Christianity went to bed with the Roman Empire). In the prophetic imagination of Isaiah, instead of all the world’s people being concentrated at a tower to be ruled by the empire and its limited imagination, everyone will concentrate to a place where they will be ruled by peace.

This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:

In the last days

the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.

Eventually another global empire deposed Babylon, and it was when the slave babel in Babylon eventually returned to their homeland that their religion began to formalize and mature into more of the form you recognize today.

This religion was devoted fundamentally to the question of how to not be destroyed by big empires.

It was devoted to the question of what a just society looks like.

It was a religion that understood itself to be a global underdog and was devoted to all peoples seeing its essential dignity.

This religion is Judaism, and this was its vocation.

Remember this when you open your Bible and read about Judaism’s heavy stress against worshipping other gods. To modern readers, it’s easy to reduce the issue to simply should we worship Ralph or Bob or Elohim? That misses most of the point. The real issue is rooted in the reality, as you have just seen, that societies choose their power structures and then choose their gods. When you as a modern person grapple with what Judaism stands for, begin with the power structures it so imaginatively and ingeniously worked against—in particular, those of Babylonian society and its anti-human empire.

To be clear, this religion had nothing to do with how to not burn in fire for eternity when you die, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

———–

If you’ve made it this far, it’s possible you feel confused. No doubt you inferred the purpose of this series from the title, God Loves and Accepts the LGBT, and you’re wondering when I’ll get around to that.

Actually, I’m already well on my way.

Because when we talk about the writings of the Apostle Paul—who is the only New Testament writer to weigh in on the morality of homosexuality—we need a more sophisticated understanding of the trajectory of the Jewish vocation than is common among 21st century Christian churches. More broadly, if you want to understand Rabbi Yeshua’s teachings on what he called “the Kingdom,” as well as the meaning of his death on the Roman Empire’s device of intimidation, you need to start with the ancient religion of the slave class in Babylon that Jesus claimed he fulfilled. In other words, if we’re going to talk with any seriousness about the writings of Paul—that disciple of Gamaliel, who was the chief of the Jewish Sanhedrin and grandson of Hillel the Elder, the most important Pharisee in Jewish history—I need to make you more Jewish.

And I’m not done with that. In parts 3 and 4, I’ll build on this discussion and use it to show how the Jews’ understanding of how to fulfill their vocation evolved during the centuries that led to Rabbi Jesus.

————-

Part 3

God Loves and Accepts the LGBT: Part 1

My story begins in 7th grade.

But let me be clear. I don’t simply mean that a story I happen to be about to tell began in 7th grade. I mean my story. I mean the story that is me. I mean, take away this story, and you would no longer recognize me.

I grew up healthy and happy. I was outside a lot—running, climbing trees, throwing footballs, being a kid. I did well in school. I was active, secure, confident, and had a good number of friends. I felt basically free to be and to do whatever I set my mind to. But in 7th grade, I moved to a new state and that’s when the bullying began.

The first years of my life were cloaked in the protection of youth and innocence and—most importantly—familiarity. The friends I had at the end of 6th grade were basically the same friends I had made when I was in 2nd grade—when kids were just a bit more kind. And this was important considering my disadvantages. I was small, dorky, sheltered, dressed terribly, was entering this new district with no friends, and had a bit of a speech problem.

Today, I could anticipate how that combination might be problematic for a boy entering a new school district at that age. If I had known then what I know now, I could have masked much of it and gotten by. But remember I’m 12 at the start of this story, and I didn’t yet know what cruelty waited out there. No idea did I have what an obvious target I would be, not to mention the deep psychological need for many of these children to exploit obvious targets.

Really, there are several cruel parts of this story, but the whole thing might have been avoided were it not for this next one. I took the bus to school each morning, and my bus stop was the second to last one on the route. This meant that each morning by the time the bus got to my stop, I had to find someone who would share their seat. However, like I said, I was a confident child and found it more exciting than worrisome. I had no doubt that someone would not only let me sit by them, but probably become my friend once they got to know me—until this morning.

“Don’t sit by me, faggot,” the first kid said.

Those words surprised me, but didn’t cause me to lose my composure. I probably wanted to avoid sitting by that kid anyway, so I moved on to the next seat. And that’s when, for the first time in my life, I experienced what I’m going to call and elaborate on in this essay as “the wave.”

“Yeah, don’t sit by me, faggot,” said the next kid, who had heard that from the kid ahead of him and decided it was in his best interest to just keep it going. A small tremor in my insides began to develop, but I still kept my composure and just moved on.

“Don’t sit by me, faggot,” said the next kid.

And this kept happening.

“Don’t sit by me, faggot.”

It happened again.

And again.

And again.

Until finally I reached the end of the bus, and literally every person had channeled this momentum of energy that was set in motion at the front. I reached the end of seats and was the only child still looking for one. This was bad enough, when the bus driver inadvertently turned the dial up yet further. She hollered back at me to take a seat, which only had the effect of drawing more attention to what a defenseless soul I was. “No one will let me sit next to them,” I had to loudly announce to her and me and every boy and girl in between. And this too was bad enough, when the bus driver finally dialed it to the 10 when she forced one of the kids to let me sit by them. It’s one thing to know you are helpless and pathetic. Her “rescue” made it known to everyone else.

Everybody goes through challenging social situations and rejections. I’m not unique in this way. What you need to understand though is this was basically my every day for several years. I really mean that. The only question was which boy or girl would have the misfortune of having to sit by the gross gay kid.

And word that I was gay reached only the entire school, meaning the harassment followed me even when I got off the bus. Boys felt free to push me around, which honestly was the easy part. It got harder with words. I would walk by a group of boys when one of them would start laughing, cover their crotch area, and say, “Don’t you come over here so you can look at my dick.” Then they would slowly uncover that area and continue with, “I know that’s what you want!” It was hilarious to everyone but me, and the routine would make it to the next group. It became a thing. It became the thing to do when that gross kid named Chris came around. Like the bus thing, this became a thing. Not to mention all the other things that became things.

This is the wave.

Recall that I was a confident and happy child. Before that critical day on the bus, I was as confident and happy and carefree as any parent could hope for, and I continued that way for a while. But I lost all of it not long after. You can handle only so much piled on collective adversity. You can handle only so much dedicated opposition. Like what happened on the bus, ridicule moved in waves. And no amount of cleverness can stop a thing like that. I lost my ability—and, perhaps more importantly, confidence—to defend myself. Every time I was around anybody, especially other kids my age, I became overwhelmed with an anxiety I’d not yet known. Every morning before school I felt like my stomach and esophagus had collapsed in. When I could hear the bus coming around the corner, I would notice my heart rate accelerate until it arrived when my hands were visibly shaking.

But there’s a part to this story I haven’t told you. If you didn’t know me already, it’s possible that you might assume I’m gay. Why else would the whole school make fun of me for being gay if I wasn’t? Here’s the thing:

I’m not gay;

Nor was I gay then;

Nor have I ever been gay;

I’ve never wondered if I was gay;

I couldn’t make myself gay if I tried.

And this brings me to my first point.

Today, if someone wanted to insult me, and the word they chose was “gay,” my first concern would be their warped thinking that led to using that word as an insult. I might be inclined to respond with something like “and so what if I was?” I wish that was my reaction then, and I’m starting my series this way because it’s important that we talk about why it wasn’t. My concern was not about the darkness within them and their families or the wave that beats up against the LGBT community every day.

My real concern was that people might think I was gay.

Because, as different as I was from my bullies, we shared one assumption: Nothing in the world could be worse than to be gay. Nothing could be worthy of more shame. That word was a toxic weapon, and we both understood it. My first point is that it’s worth asking where that comes from. As more of my friends have braved the world and come out as LGBT, I’ve put a lot of thought into that question. I think you should too.

And this gets to my second point. As much as I desired for everyone to know that I wasn’t gay, this was the power of fighting against a wave—I could not do it. You get beaten down enough times by standing at the receiving end of the wave, and soon enough you will lose all power to stand up for yourself. This was my experience.

LGBT youth have been found to be about four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers. They suffer much higher rates of depression. They descend into drug abuse at a much higher rate. You the reader need to let this affect you.

As I tell you my story, I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to grow up as one of these remarkable children. There are countless things that actual LGBT youth experience that I’ve never had to. I never had to worry about coming out to my family, coming out to my church, or coming out to anyone. I’ve never had to worry about what coming out would mean for me when I applied for my first job. I’ve never had to worry whether teachers might assign lower grades. I never had to worry about whether my desires reflected something wrong with me. I’ve never had to worry about whether my attractions were dirty. I’ve never had to wonder if I was an abomination to God. Not to mention whether the desires I had always known would lead me to burn in fire for eternity.

That’s a lot for a kid to worry about, and I didn’t experience any of it. Yet, the small amount I did experience was enough to appreciate the parts I didn’t experience. And to cultivate over years a healthy dose of constructive anger.

This gets me to my third point. We have to deal with what various writers of the Bible—in particular, Paul—say about gays. In this series, I will deconstruct much of how you understand your Bible. It will take a lot of time and a lot of words. But if I’m going to ask you to take that time and risk, first I need you to see what’s at stake here. I need you to care about changing your mind. I need part of you to want to. That’s why I tell my humiliating story.

I wish mine was the story of how one day I got a taste of what gay teenagers go through and next thing you know it I was a champion for LGBT equality.

Actually for almost twenty years I continued to believe that anyone who practiced homosexuality was living in sin. I thought I was being faithful by affirming horrifying things like God loves gay people, but cannot accept those who practice homosexuality until they repent of their sin. After all, I had a Bible, and the adults in my life could point me to what Paul said. To Leviticus. To the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. I never liked that practicing gays and lesbians had no chance to “be saved,” but I always took pride in how the logical part of me overcame the emotional part of me.

(Fundamentalist Christians are trained from an early age to take pride that when the world opposes you, it’s because you are the logical one and they are simply emotional).

But, while my opinion on what God thinks about his LGBT children took a long time to change, what grew quickly was my understanding of the wave. Waves become a real source of energy and power. They take on their own spirit and become a kind of life form. Where you see systematic injustice, you are seeing a bigger version of what I saw on the school bus.

But it’s hard to see the waves that you yourself ride. In fact, I ride the great big wave of white male privilege. I can identify it because I’ve been the one being beaten by a different wave. But most white males (and I am an extremely white male) assume that their lives are the baseline by which to compare the life chances of all other people.

We also greatly fear getting off of our wave. This is to lose all power. It is painful. It is totally vulnerable. It is terrifying deep in your bones. It is debilitating. It is paralyzing. Every single child on that bus who chose to join the school bus wave subconsciously understood this. They saw the benefit and solidarity of joining the wave, so they did from front to back.

So when, much later in life, I left my early bubble and befriended gays and lesbians, there had formed a pocket in my brain that had become receptive to the phenomenon of waves—how they form, those who ride them, and those who are hit by them. And when the good people I came to know didn’t match the out-of-control caricatures I’d been saturated with in churches, I began to see them as everything I hope to be: compassionate, funny, interesting, driven, intelligent, imperfect like everyone, but good. Not that it matters, but most of time I didn’t know that a person was gay until much later. Once I began to couple my friendships with knowledge of their difficult circumstances, I began to see a wave I could not ignore.

There came a point when I could no longer deny that the Bible—or at least how we read the Bible—was essential to the waves that crash against the LGBT community in the 21st century. After years of searching, I became convinced that what many understand is a high view of the Bible actually is the thing that robs it of most of it power. Most churches think that affirming “hard truths” about the LGBT community is faithfulness to the “clear authority” of scripture. It’s not.

That gets me to my final point.

Suppose I’m wrong. Maybe God cannot accept a man who enters into a committed relationship with another man. Maybe it’s fire and brimstone for eternity for two women who devote their all to one another. Maybe I’m just a soft liberal who reads into the Bible only what’s easy and convenient and politically correct. Maybe Jesus’s words, “peace be still,” can calm the waves of the Sea of Galilee but not the waves experienced daily by LGBT teenagers. Maybe, after all, that’s what the Bible is teaching. If that’s what you want to argue, I can show you how to open up your Bible and do it.

But if you’re wrong, you’re just part of a wave.

—————

Part 2

“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 12

The Jews are a uniquely trampled-upon people.

They are history’s sufferers-in-chief. As one global empire after another sought to control the land of Judea—the strategic land bridge between Africa, Europe, and Asia—it was the Jewish people who suffered most. Owing to their position as the world’s perpetual underdog, the Jews became champions of social justice and consummate visionaries of a world beyond the imaginary capacity of what the Apostle Paul called the “principalities and powers.”

If you got nothing else from this series, I hope you see that the project of that rabbinic Jew from Galilee we know as Jesus was not to position us for where we go when we die, but to fulfill the Jewish dream of how good societies are arranged while we live. The gospel is about broad human flourishing, and it cannot be explained divorced from the global empires that subjugated the people who wrote the Bible.

To make my case, I’ve taken you all over the Bible and stressed the earthy significance of recurring literary signifiers like “gospel,” “kingdom,” “Jesus is Lord,” “Messiah,” “Son of Man,” “King of the Jews,” and even “Armageddon.” I’ve tried to articulate the great power in the more humble, ordinary, and even boring parts of the Bible (think Ruth). And I’ve tried to give necessary context to understand parts of the Bible that might be lost on readers who aren’t ancient middle eastern Hebrew slaves.

 

Critical to the motivations of those who wrote the Jewish Bible is the question: what do we need to do so that we quit being destroyed and conquered and losing everything we have to the self-centered ambitions of these global empires?

Over many centuries, various movements and developments within Judaism answered that question differently. These responses often found their inspiration in the literary and cultural achievements of their neighbors and, in particular, the various empires who subjugated them. You see this within the Old Testament: The writer of Deuteronomy had different ideas on this question than the writer of Ruth; the writer of Nahum had different ideas on this question than the writer of Jonah; the writer of Leviticus had different ideas on this question than the writer of Psalm c40 v6. Some streams of thought emphasized that Yahweh would come to the defense of the Jews only if they maintained fidelity to the temple regulations and sacrifices. Others emphasized social justice and explicitly downplayed the importance of the temple. Others sought to exclude foreigners from the assembly, while others welcomed foreigners. Some thought that the Jews would have to take up the sword in a final apocalyptic battle.

And these different lines of Jewish thought continued to develop and evolve between the Old and New Testament.

Which gets me back to the Jewish-Roman War that started this obnoxiously long series of essays—the war that was principally responsible for the fact that we have the written story of Jesus. This was a tax revolt. It was humiliating enough that the Romans had conquered and subjugated Israel; it was unbearable that they forced the Jews to pay the imperial tax that supported the very military that kept them subjugated. It was taxation without representation, so they did what Americans celebrate every July.

They revolted.

Mark tells the story of some Pharisees and Herodians who wanted to trap Jesus. If they could have caught him instructing his disciples not to pay the imperial tax, they could have haled him before Pilate and had him executed. So, they asked him,

“Rabbi, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

I have no doubt that, before you read this series, you knew Jesus’s clever response. It was indeed clever.

“Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

And they were amazed at him.

If you grew up as I did, you probably understand Jesus’s words as a neat way of saying something that in substance is not super remarkable: Pay your taxes and follow laws. I agree that Christianity is not a religion of lawlessness, but if that is the bare amount you got from this story, you really missed its subtle enduring power. Jesus was too good at what he did to ever say something so one dimensional as “follow laws.”

It turns out, Jesus took this question about taxes and laid out one of the essential tenets of his whole ministry: Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s. This sentence is Jesus’s answer to the whole Jewish project of how to the defeat the empire. It is where the whole Bible had been heading since it began in Eden. And this powerful, yet brilliantly sneaky quote is made all the more interesting by the fact that Mark places it within a dispute about taxes—the very thing that led to the war that led to the devastation that led to the Gospel of Mark in the first place. When the story was read aloud for the first time after the war, I promise you they got it. It’s a simple line. It’s a clever line. But it is a heavy line, and I love it.

Because when you start to think about what belongs to Caesar, all you have to do is start looking around.

In Part 11, I wrote about the Iron Triangle of Herod, Pilate, and Caiaphas. I wrote about the mutually beneficial relationship of the concentrated economic powers, war powers, and religious powers. If you read Jesus’s command for all it’s worth, at the heart of the Jesus movement is his followers giving that system away. Rabbi Jesus tells us to give back our systems that advance a small few at the expense of many. He tells us to give back to Caesar our desire to inflict violence back on those who harm us. His teaching reflects what should be too obvious by now: that the world isn’t made peaceful by blowing up bad people. He tells us to give back our religious systems that merely reinforce Caesar’s triangle. Those things aren’t God’s. They are Caesar’s.

Imagine surviving a war and hearing that for the first time.

Like EVERYTHING in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s response to the question is a prophetic critique of both sides of the war. On the one hand, Mark clearly portrayed Jesus as condemning the Jew’s violent tax revolt. That message would not have been missed. But on the other hand, if you place the story within the stories of the people who survived the war, Jesus’s response to the Pharisees was a message of hope: If you will give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, you will finally be rid of CaesarYou will be rid of the thing for which you started and lost in war.

Have I ever told you that the Bible is sharp?

And it speaks loudly to those who today might consider themselves part of the “Resistance.” It speaks loudly to those who see a world gone wrong and dream about a world made right. Imagine if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that African Americans take to the streets with clubs. Imagine if when Nelson Mandela in 1990 left Victor Verster Prison, he declared to the large crowd that black Africans must arm themselves with machetes and fight back against apartheid?

That would have been the pursuit of justice by the very reviled system already mastered by the powerful. It wouldn’t have gotten rid of the ways of Caesar, but only perpetuated them. In perhaps more tangible terms, it would have been a human disaster. It would have been the story of suffering I told you in Part 1.

But, instead, Rev. Dr. King Jr. and Mandela’s deputy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, knew their Hebrew prophets and knew the prophetic tradition out of which came Jesus the Messiah. The struggle for civil rights remains unfinished, but millions of people today are far better off because these leaders were brave enough to give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

Every movement that is courageous enough to see beyond the present power structure must also be brave enough to see beyond the present means of obtaining power. Those movements that embrace violence in its various forms always end poorly. You could say, “those movements that live by the sword die by the sword.” When you open your Bible and read somewhere that Jesus forgave people of their sins, the big story was not that they would be pure enough on some future judgment day so they could hang out in the clouds with his dad. The big story is that Jesus had broken down the thing that separated people.

You are reading about the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Jesus’s first words of the new world of his resurrection were “Peace be with you.”

The followers of Christ are to be a peaceable people. In the second century, it was their peaceable nature that made the Jesus Movement explode with new followers. Giving back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and instead being a peacemaker is how we tangibly realize the imaginative literary painting at the end of Revelation when Heaven comes down to Earth. It is how we win.

Blessed, then, are the peacemakers.

….

When I started this project, I expected about six parts. This being part twelve, I hope this wasn’t terrible. Nevertheless, I’m ready to call it and move on to the next thing.

“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 11

Jesus grew up a rural peasant, but on Good Friday found himself before Governor Pontious Pilate in his Praetorium. The chamber was lined in marble. Above Pilate’s seat was the imperial seal. Stately attire, statues, art, torches, guards, and spears. Everything in the scene conveyed the full might and grandeur of the known world, and here came a Galilean who was born among the cattle.

Pilate had little patience to hear a Jewish dispute against a rabbi from Nazareth, so he moved to the heart of the matter as it concerned him. “Are you a king?” he asked. Remember from earlier that this was a loaded question: Only Rome had the power to make kings, and decades before had made Herod “King of the Jews.”

“It is as you say,” Jesus responded.

This trial was actually one of three short trials Jesus endured on this day—first before Caiaphas, then Herod, and then Pilate. The literary work here is important. Don’t miss it.

  • Rome appointed Joseph Caiaphas to be the high priest.
  • Herod was one of the wealthiest individuals in the world at that time, owing to Rome installing his father as “King of the Jews.” The family continued to dominate the economic landscape well into Jesus’s lifetime.
  • And Rome appointed Pontious Pilate governor of Judea. His task was to route out and quash any rebellions that might form in what was an oft-troubled region of Judea.

The three individuals who tried Jesus each exercised a different kind of power, but each received their power from Rome. The gospel writers really, really, really want you to make this connection. In fact, this connection is the very thing at issue at the start of Jesus’s ministry. This is Jesus’s forty days of fasting and temptation in the desert, the beginning of the story:

  • Satan first tempted Jesus with the idea of turning stones into bread. Don’t read that simply as Jesus being tempted to eat. I’m sure that was part of it, but the real temptation was about economic power, a monopoly over the world’s grain supply. The power to turn stones in bread would have made Jesus, not Herod, the most wealthy man in the world.
  • Then, he tempted Jesus with the idea of jumping off of the temple and commanding angels to catch him. Anyone performing this stunt would instantly be recognized as possessing the authority of the temple institution. This would have made Jesus, not Caiaphas, the holder of the religious power in the triangle.
  • Finally, he tempted Jesus with all the kingdoms of the world. This is war power, which Rome had given to Pilate.

The gospel writers were thoughtful literary artists, and they want you to notice how what happened at the very beginning of the story connects with what happened at the very end. They want you to see that Jesus’s three trials on Good Friday were the same three trials he had faced in the wilderness.

So, getting back to the trial, Jesus had just affirmed that he considered himself a king, and then it was Jesus’s turn to get to the heart of the matter as it concerned him: “For this purpose I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who listens to the truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” responded Pilate, who we are to believe has suddenly become a philosopher. Kidding aside, do not skip over this question; it is crucial in the narrative. As you’ll soon observe, Pilate unknowingly answered his own question and, thus, tied together the whole narrative of Jesus’s ministry. Jesus’s declaration and Pilate’s response show off yet more literary flourish and are critical to the arc of the narrative. You will see this shortly.

Pilate sent Jesus to the barracks, which, to the absolute hatred of the Jewish people in Israel, he had set up directly adjacent to the Temple. After the soldiers flogged him there, they decided to have fun with him. They’d heard that this homeless rabbi claimed to be a king, so they placed a purple imperial robe on him, put a reed in his hand to resemble a staff, and then lodged thorns into his skull to resemble a crown. Having decorated their beaten-up prisoner to look like a Roman client king, they chanted “Hail King of the Jews!” and bowed down to him.

Of course, they meant it as a joke, but this was the precise moment Jesus had spoken of a week earlier.

During his march to Jerusalem, Jesus explicitly told his disciples that he was going there, in his words, to become king. (Except, in a way that would confound the Caesars for centuries.) Instead of entering Jerusalem on a war horse, he entered on a colt donkey. Then, for a week, he prophesied against each three interconnected powers of Rome—over and over emphasizing that his kingdom would be a difficult place for the powerful to enter.

And finally—garbed in purple robe, back bloody from being whipped, thorns lodged in his head, and mocked by the Roman soldiers—Jesus was now what he claimed he had come to Jerusalem to become. This beaten up peasant from Galilee was king of the world.

And having been corronated king in this once-in-history fashion, Jesus was brought back to the Praetorium to face down Pilate again.

“Where are you from?” Pilate asked. But, Jesus was king now, and he no longer answered to Pilate. Pilate had no power to interrogate him.

So he remained silent.

Don’t you realize I have the power to release you or to crucify you??!!” shot the incensed Pilate.

And there it was. This is what the gospel writers are wanting you to see. This is statement that completed the arc of narrative. In Pilate’s words, he had answered his own question from earlier.

What is truth?

I’ll tell you what truth is. Truth is power. The only truth is I have power over you. I can let you go, or I can release you because the world is run by men of power.

Economic power.

Religious power.

War power.

Armies, economies, and temples. These three make up an iron triangle: always in tension, and yet mutually reinforcing. According to Pilate, the triangle is the thing that rules the world. But Pilate didn’t know that Jesus had outlasted the triangle three years before. Jesus could have chosen to be a billionaire. Satan offered this to him. Jesus could have commanded the authority of the temple. Satan offered this to him. Jesus could have become the next world conqueror, the successor to Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar. Satan offered this to him. But Jesus declined the whole system. In his forty days of fasting and temptation in the desert, Jesus had overcome the iron triangle. And he did it again on Good Friday.

“For this purpose I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who listens to the truth listens to me.” Do you feel the weight of those words now? What Jesus did on Good Friday was expose the triangle for the lie that it is. If your imagination has no space for a world that is not ruled by the iron triangle, you have not been properly formed as a follower of Yeshua. And that gets me to this sad tweet from the president of the largest Christian college in the United States:

The kingdom that Jesus described is a direct threat to the triangle (the Caesars understood this well), and yet the church as I’ve seen it in my life has mostly operated in a way that effectively defends it. While the war powers and the economic powers openly work towards their patently greedy ends, my observation of the church has mostly been to either (1) team up directly with the other parts of the triangle (“we have no king but Caesar”, “what is truth?”), or (2) to draw our attention away from the abuses of the triangle (“this world is not my home”) and effectively render Jesus subservient to the triangle. In this understanding, Christ is king the decisions we make as private individuals but not king over anything else. Christ has nothing to say to whoever occupies the White House (excepting, of course, when it involves abortion—a topic found zero times in the Bible).

But in a world in which Jesus is not king over Caesar, Jesus would find himself back in the Praetorium still under the authority of Pilate’s questioning. Pilate would still be interrogating Jesus, and Jesus would still be compelled to answer. This is not the story that the Gospels tell.

We are eleven posts in and have finally reached the point of the title I chose for this series.

While the kingdom of Jesus described and performed is one in which the triangle bows down to him, the modern church mostly works in the service of having us bow down to the triangle. When the war powers and the economic powers work to crush the life chances of the world’s most vulnerable, our church leaders tell us that the spiritual thing to do is to just focus on going to Heaven—in effect releasing the triangle from the authority of Jesus. Focusing on earthly things like systemic poverty and justice and peace, we are told, is below us. The triangle spends incredible sums of money propagating these ideas in the churches and books and films and speaking engagements of prominent religious leaders who defend the triangle.

Many church leaders and church congregants are innocently caught up in this system and are simply blind to it. These are the ones to whom I hope my writing reaches.

But still many church leaders are outright in the business of securing White House invitations.

This is Caiaphas.

When Pilate brought Jesus out to Caiaphas, whom Pilate hated, he mocked him with, “behold, your king.” Of course, Caiaphas wanted no more to do with this outsider to the power triangle than did Pilate, but his response reflects more and more the direction I see churches trending today.

“We have no king but Caesar.”

Joseph Caiaphas is Israel’s teacher. He should know better, and, for this reason, among Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas, Caiaphas was the worst of all.

Caiaphas got Pilate’s “truth.” In this rare moment of candor, Caiaphas took off his mask and revealed that he was playing the same game that Pilate was playing. His words were the same as Pilate’s in the Praetorium: The world is run by men of power.

Again, some people are stuck in the Christianity of Jesus as savior of the afterlife. It’s wrong, but it’s an honest mistake.

Mr. Falwell on the other hand, is mostly an echo of Caiaphas. He is America’s teacher, and yet so obviously, life for him consists of proximity to power. He is the defender of the triangle and his position in the triangle. Caesar does not bow to Jesus. Pilate does not bow to Jesus. Herod does not bow to Jesus. Caiaphas does not bow to Jesus.

This speaks loudly today. This is why the church has lost its prophetic voice—what Walter Bruggeman calls its “voice from elsewhere.” We aren’t a voice in the wilderness preparing for the kingdom of the world; we are rightly recognized as merely the third leg of a power triangle. So obvious is this to most people that they want nothing to do with the church.

Frankly, I’m happy about this. I’m happy that young people are dropping out of churches as they are currently constituted. I don’t sit around worrying about losing numbers. I hope it only happens faster. Why? Because when Jesus said, “everyone who listens to truth listens to me”, that means that when people are leaving the triangle that Jesus condemned in the wilderness and on Good Friday, they correctly recognize it for the falseness that it is. As we see church numbers decline, I’m reminded that the world isn’t full of cynical people like Pilate and Caiaphas and Herod, but the large crowds of ordinary people who received news of the kingdom with rejoicing.

Religious leaders play their game in the White House, get the blessing of the powers, and then bless whatever power gives them power. They bless our devastating wars. They bless our massive concentrations of wealth.

You know you’ve seen this. You know that the economic powers and the war powers enjoy in America freedom that they do not enjoy in less religious countries. You know that the wellbeing of people who live in the most religious parts of the America is worse than the wellbeing of those who live in its least religious parts. Where there is broad human flourishing in the world, the war powers and the economic powers don’t have the religious powers in their service to deflect attention.

 

Part 12