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 . . .


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.



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?


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.


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.

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.

“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.

“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 10

For nine posts I’ve hammered home that God’s plan from the beginning was mostly concerned with how societies are arranged. No doubt, the arrangement of society involves the actions of individuals. And no doubt, the proper actions of individuals arise out of the proper formation of individuals. This is religion, and this is our religion. Last post’s topic, Jubilee, was about a massive transfer of wealth from society’s winners to its losers (or, you could say, from its job creators to those who “should have just gotten a job”). Jubilee is radical, and it is a matter of faith.

But other parts of the Torah also demanded that society take from its winners and give to its losers.

Those other parts are readily identifiable, and I could just list them here and be done with it so we could move to Part 11. That would be an easy way to simplify my work, but in this post I would rather you walk Torah. I would rather take your imagination to where Torah really does its work. Sometimes Torah is best taught from a vantage point way up in the sky, but today we will see it operate at the ground level.

Today I’m going to tell you a love story.

This story is already in the Bible, but it’s almost always told poorly, and I think it deserves retelling. The story is complex, edgy, absolutely scandalous, rebellious, controversial, political, rule breaking, and unmistakably Jesus. Tragically though, the way the story virtually always gets taught saps out all of this.

Of course, I’m talking about the Old Testament book of Ruth. If you’ve been taught the story of Ruth and didn’t come away with what I just described, you need to go back to whoever told it to you and demand your money back. 

I used to think Ruth was boring—kind of a vanilla story about two friends.

Today, I can’t believe they ever allowed that book in the Bible.

Before we get to the story, I want to make a few general observations about it. First, in order to appreciate the story, you need to accept the fact that the Old Testament does not speak with a single voice. I’ve written about this plenty, but its worth saying again: the Old Testament is constantly arguing with itself. This is not a flaw but an essential feature of the whole project. When you read the Old Testament, you are reading on-going debates about a variety of issues, and both sides are usually presented without censorship. Ruth is part of that tradition. It was written as part of a big dispute. When you get to the life of Rabbi Jesus in the New Testament, the subtext of much of his teaching is him actually picking sides in on-going debates. What I’ve just said is an essential part of reading the New Testament well. Ruth is important for the Christian not simply because it is in the Bible, but because Jesus emphatically sides with the arguments its author makes throughout the story.

Ruth is also important because of its unique perspective. The first seven books of the Bible—Genesis through Judges—are dominated by larger-than-life characters and stories: Noah and the Ark; Abraham, the “father of all nations”; Jacob, the father of the tribes of Israel; Joseph, the prime minister of Egypt; Moses, the giver of the Torah; Joshua; Sampson; Gideon; etc. Their stories are epochal, supernatural, and fantastical. But the story of Ruth is none of that; Ruth is an ordinary person. Her story involves no conquests, no parting seas, no battles, no angels or spirits, and no miracles. Also, Ruth is the only book of the Bible in which women do more of the talking than men (interesting then that Jesus would adopt so much of this book). For these reasons, Ruth provides perspectives that the rest of the Bible sometimes misses.

Lastly, as Old Testament stories go, Ruth is probably one of the more recently written stories. As I said earlier, Ruth wasn’t written to tell you “what happened”. It’s not just some history. It’s not just a nice thing that involved a woman named Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi.

Ruth is a polemic.

It is an argument.

It may not be a “true story”, but yet it is a completely true story.

Sickness, Death, and Bitterness

The story of Ruth begins not with Ruth, but with Naomi. She has a husband and two sons, Mahlon and Khilion. They live a spartan but content life in Bethlehem. Beit-lekhem is famous today, but it carried zero notoriety in this time (as when Jesus was born in one its many caves that are used as barns). Few people lived there, and what few people did live there were unmistakably poor.

So to begin the story of Ruth, the author tells us that the conditions of this poor village were made all the worse by a regional famine (read this as “economic crisis”). Economic crises, of course, hit hardest the most poor, and so it did with Naomi’s family. And the problems piled on. After months of the stress that comes from living in any famine, the economic crisis hit Naomi’s family especially hard. They couldn’t pay their debts, the bank foreclosed, and they lost their home. By the way, all of this takes place before the very first sentence of the story is completed. It’s as if whoever was first listening to this story was already well acquainted with these kinds of life events.

Ruth doesn’t finish the first verse, and the story is already ground level stuff.

Having lost all they owned and all hope of survival in Bethlehem, the family moved across the Jordan River to the nation of Moab, hoping to find work there. Naomi’s sons married two Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth, but the drought continued.

(Yes, this is the Orpah after whom the leading 2020 presidential candidate is named).

But, as Naomi had known so often, good times were always followed by tragedy. First, Naomi’s husband died.

And then her two sons died.

(BTW, her sons’ names, “Mahlon” and “Khilion”, are Hebrew words that mean “sickness” and “death.” Unless you’re inclined to believe that a real mother had real children and actually named them Sickness and Death, you should be clued in by now to Ruth’s literary genre)

In this time when people—let alone women—had few means by which to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, Naomi and her daughter-in-law suddenly found themselves all alone and vulnerable in Moab. Naomi was too old to work for herself, and now she had no one to support her. Of course, she had no economic prospects back in Judah either, but at least she had some friends and some family there. And one day, after hearing that Judah was beginning to recover from its economic crisis, she decided it would be better to trek back to the village of Bethlehem than die as a childless widow in Moab where there was no social safety net. She left for Judah when Orpah and Ruth began the trek along behind her.

But, in one of the more tender scenes of the Bible, Naomi turned around to face her daughters-in-law. “Go back to the land of your family. May the LORD grant you kindness as you have shown me kindness. Why would you come with me? Even if there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight then gave birth to sons—would you wait until they grew up?” Naomi could muster the strength to utter those words, but could hold it in no longer. The women wept together on the road, and Orpah agreed to go back home.

Ruth, however, was insistent, and the words she spoke have resonated for thousands of years: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.”

No doubt, those words are a beautiful statement of devotion and friendship. They stand on their own as an exemplar of loving faithfulness, but where modern-day Christians make an important mistake is assuming that this was the point of the story. That this is what made Ruth important. Judaism’s guiding ethical principal is and has long been khesed, or faithful devotion, but this was true long before the book of Ruth was penned down.

Yet, in recording these words of the story—which has found its way into untold women’s devotional books and Bible studies and sisterhoods and traveling pants—the author could not have been more controversial if he or she had tried. I’ll explain shortly.

Naomi and Ruth entered the village of Bethlehem, and, even through the new wrinkles on Naomi’s face, people soon recognized her. However, in one of the sadder moments of the Bible, Naomi protested that no one in the village call her Naomi (which means, “pleasant”). “Call me Mara,” which means “Bitter”, “for I’ve had a hard life. I went away full, but have come back empty.” Naomi had always had a hard life, but the previous ten years had given her the face of one who had known little more than hunger, worry, exhaustion, and thirst.

Naomi and Ruth entered Bethlehem homeless. As such, they were tired, hungry, and afraid.

Edges, Wings, and Blankets

Before we advance further, I have to teach you some Torah and some Hebrew. As I said earlier, the story of Ruth was part of a Torah dispute, and the author uses different parts of the law as well as some Hebrew wordplay to connect different parts of the story and, thus, to shape the questions you should be asking about it.

The Torah instructs those who own land not to harvest the edges of their fields; the edges of the fields are for the poor of the community to come in and “glean” whatever had grown there.

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus c19

Not only did the edges of the field have to remain unharvested, but if you were harvesting the middle of your field and a sheave of grain were to fall off of your cart or wagon, the Torah said that you could not pick it up. Those sheaves were for the poor.

This law of gleaning sets in motion what happens when Ruth and Naomi enter Bethlehem.

Now some Hebrew: The Hebrew word for “edge” is the word kanaf. It also means “wings” and it also means “blanket.” As you’re about to see, the author of this story gets a lot of mileage out of this word. These different uses of the word are meant to make you link different parts of the story.

And now back to the story.

When Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem, the author tells us about a relative on Naomi’s late husband’s side named Boaz, one of “standing” who owned several barley fields. Naomi—who before would have been too ashamed to enter the life of a dependent welfare recipient—now instructed her daughter-in-law to go glean in the field of her relative, Boaz.

Gleaning was frustrating, humiliating, and even dangerous work. First of all, landowners knew well the commercial parts of the Torah and were careful to leave just as little unharvested grain as permissible under the law. Gleaners were maligned and frequently were attacked.

(Had Fox News been around in this time in Judah, Tucker Carlson would have run nightly reports on “those lazy, immoral, and ungodly gleaners.”)

Nobody wanted their field to be known as the place for gleaners to feel too comfortable. This was especially true when the gleaners were women, even more so when the female gleaners were foreigners.

Further, Ruth is shy, she’s a foreigner, she’s in a new land, and she’s about to embark in a lifestyle that was subject to harassment. The author of Ruth assumes you know that it is only out of profound desperation that anyone would take on this sort of life.

And that gets us to Boaz.

When all the nervous gleaners arrived on this particular morning at the start of the harvest, Boaz didn’t try to run them off. He didn’t call the police. He greeted them. At some point in the day, Boaz noticed Ruth, for she was a gleaner he hadn’t seen in years past. When Boaz asked one of his workers who she was, the man responded, “She is the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi.”

And that gets me to a second point about the Torah. There’s something I haven’t told you this whole time, this time about one of the Torah’s darker corners. The Israelites and the Moabites were bitter enemies, and, by the time of this story, had been for a long time. Most of Israel’s national stories go out of their way to paint the Moabites in a bad light. There’s a story behind that, but what you need to know is that the Torah is absolutely 100% clear that Moabites may not have any participation in Israelite society.

No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation.

Deuteronomy c23

Just pause and think about what this story is doing.

Not only is Ruth poor.

Not only is Ruth a welfare recipient.

Not only is Ruth a foreigner.

Ruth is an illegal immigrant.

And one from a place the Israelites would have considered a shithole country.

Ruth should not be as virtuous as she is. She should be rotten to the core. She should be selfish and greedy and violent and foaming at the mouth—she’s a Moabite. She’s illegal. If this Moabite wants to glean in our fields—the fields we worked hard on—she should go back to Moab.

But that’s not how the author the story describes her. Ruth is a Moabite who has the best qualities to which Israelites would aspire. Imagine a modern Israeli story about a Palestinian with these qualities, and you will begin to understand the scandal. The words that we read earlier, “I will go where you go; your people will be my people; your God will be my God,” would suddenly jump off the page.

Can you believe what Ruth said??? would have been a common response.

So Ruth, a woman of noble character, finds herself on this morning at the field of Boaz as the prime target for savage mistreatment. And that’s when Boaz activated some pre-Jesus Jesus, “My daughter, you are welcome to glean in this field. Just follow along after the harvesters. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.”

If at this point you need a moment to let out a good cry, I assure you this post will wait on you.

Of course, Ruth too was in shock over his kindness. She’d never encountered in Moab such a generous national system like this one for taking care of poor foreigners like her. It was dog-eat-dog in Moab. But Boaz was not even done! While Ruth was pondering it all, Boaz quietly went over to his field hands and instructed them to make sure that plenty of grain sheaves would accidentally fall out of the wagon. “You’re going to do your worst work today”, he said. Finally, he goes back to Ruth and tells her this:

“I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”

That word, “wings” is that word kanaf again. It’s the place where the poor and foreigners and refugees could come and glean in the fields. This is what God has in mind for societies of means. The gods of Moab didn’t take in refugees and let them glean in fields, but the God of Israel was insistent on it.

And then, just to make sure she felt 100% welcome there, he offers her to take some bread and dip it with him in some wine.

(Are the blinkers on your Christian dashboard going off yet? Are you seeing the literary tradition from which centuries later Jesus would borrow?)

It’s okay to cry again.

I want to repeat what I said earlier: this story is scandalous, and it’s only just getting started. Sure, the Torah required that foreigners be able to glean in fields. But Ruth is a Moabite! She is in violation of the Torah. Boaz should have called ICE and had her deported. At the very least, Boaz should not have been kind to her.

Because the law!

Over some period of time, Ruth continued to glean in Boaz’s barley fields and brought home each day more than she and Naomi even needed, yet Boaz continually insisted that she bring home even more, just in case her mother-in-law might need more. Out of Boaz’s illegal generosity it appears that over time, Ruth was able to use some of the surplus to make a living and buy some clothes.

And that gets me to Naomi’s plan.

One day Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi said to her, “My daughter, I must find a home for you, where you will be well provided for. Tonight Boaz will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor in his barn. Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes. Then go down to the barn, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, go and uncover his feet and lie down with him. You will know what to do.”

Ruth agreed to the plan. She put on some of her new clothes and put on perfume. Then that night she went out to the barn and hid behind some sheaves of barley. Boaz worked that night threshing barley, finished for the night, ate and drank, and fell asleep in the barn. Once the commotion of threshing and carousing had ceased, Ruth came out of her hiding place and laid next to Boaz.

Now, your Bible says that she “uncovered his feet.” Before we go further, you need to understand is your Bible uses a whole range of euphemisms for the main male organ and for sex in general. So, I don’t care what you think you’re reading in the third chapter of Ruth, she was not uncovering his feet, nor laying at his feet. I’ll let you use your imagination to figure out what she really did.

Regardless, when Ruth did what she did, it caused Boaz to wake up. Before I can explain what happened next, I have one more bit of Torah to teach you: the law of guardian redeemers. Under the Torah, if a creditor were to foreclose on a property, a relative of the property owner had the right to pay the creditor to redeem the property. This was true even if the creditor had already taken the property.

If one of your fellow Israelites becomes poor and loses some of their property, their nearest relative is to come and redeem what they have lost. If, however, there is no one to redeem it for them but later on they prosper and acquire sufficient means to redeem it themselves, they are to determine the value for the years since they sold it and refund the balance to the one to whom they sold it; they can then go back to their own property. But if they do not acquire the means to repay, what was sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and they can then go back to their property.

Leviticus c25

So when Boaz asked the woman who she was, she replied: “I am your servant Ruth. Spread your blanket over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.”

(yes this is sexual, yes the author is connecting it to the story’s other uses of the word kanaf, yes she is using sex to get out of her poverty, yes this is in the Bible—are you starting to see what this story would have caused outrage?)

So, after a night of passion under the blanket in the threshing barn, Boaz the next day went out to find the man who ten years before had foreclosed on Naomi’s home. But it turned out Boaz could not redeem the property because there was another man who was more closely related to Naomi. Under the law, this man had the first right of refusal.

Boaz found the man and let him know that he wanted to buy the property and add it to his estate, but that he had the right of first refusal. The man at first indicated that he was interested in exercising his right of redemption, but in a final literary exclamation point, the author tells us that the man changed his mind when he found out that redeeming the property would mean under the law that he would have to marry the Moabite woman. Because of course.

In the end, Boaz redeemed the property, married the illegal Moabite, and gave the property back to Naomi.

I’m not impressed with people who say that we want our country to be generous, but these people are illegal so we can’t. Our nation doesn’t get to avoid being a place under whose wings foreigners come to take refuge by hiding behind its laws. The story of Ruth is the story of a man who avoids the law by finding an incredibly questionable loophole. Further, and more importantly, if our laws are the thing that stands between what we have today and justice rushing like a river, what we need to do is change our laws.

I’m also not impressed with those who say that relaxing our laws will lead to lawlessness.  The book of Ruth did not lead to an outbreak of crime and anarchy. It did develop the Israelites in their vocation to shine justice on the rest of the word. And just as the redeemer of Ruth woke up in a barn in Bethlehem, the redeemer of the world also woke up in a barn in Bethlehem. Later, he would offer all people a see at the table to take some bread and dip it in wine.

Or maybe I could sum up this long post by saying it this way: I cannot imagine God blessing a country that complains about how many of its immigrants come from shithole countries. Today, America is in the position of Boaz. We have the means. We don’t have to find loopholes in our laws; we can simply change them. And, like Ruth, people are exposing themselves to great risk and humiliating themselves in numerous ways to come here and try to feed their families.

So here is the question: Do we want to be like Israel or do we want to be like Moab?

“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 9

If you’ve kept up so far, I doubt you’ve struggled to pick up on my goals for this series. I want you to see God’s deep concern for the earth, the life that lives on it, and the ways in which societies arrange themselves (which is a less offensive-sounding way of saying “politics”). I want you forever rid of the modern private-salvation-in-the-afterlife Christianity that saturates most churches these days and instead become immersed in a theology of here and now. To work on that, we’ve raced in a dizzying route from one part of the Bible to the next: Rome’s war with Israel, Messiahs, Caesars, the Gospel of Mark, pigs, Herod, Isaiah (lots of Isaiah), Armageddon, stonings, Daniel, genealogies, and Jesus’s baptism. When you go deep into these topics, you start to see patterns that repeat and feel weight that supports these themes I’ve talked about. Because these themes show up virtually everywhere in the Bible, I’ve written this series—unlike the last series—with almost no plan. I’ve not needed one!

So of course today is all about the Jewish calendar.

The sacred calendar—like the rest of the Torah—was designed to form the Hebrews into a weird sort of people. By that I mean, a small people uniquely equipped to prophetically critique the practices of their big, destructive neighbors—while enduring the punishment that would accompany that vocation and conducting their nation with integrity to their own words. And, yes, to do that well, you have to be sort of weird. You can’t fall into the standard patterns of normal. You have to be formed in ways that are a bit out of this world. I use the word “weird.” The Bible uses the word “holy.” And that gets me to the calendar.

Shabbat intensely reminds the Jews that humans—all humans—are made in the image of God.

Seder reminds them of the inhumanity of humans owning other humans. Jews for centuries have been on the side of learning this the hard way.

Sukkot reminds them of vulnerability. God’s heart is mostly with the vulnerable.

Shavuot reminds them of justice. Justice is most uniquely and powerfully articulated among the vulnerable.

Yom Kippur reminds them of grace and mercy. The world will never heal while arrange ourselves according to who we understand are most deserving.

But the calendar events aren’t ends in of themselves—they are going somewhere. If most of the calendar is about preparation and formation, one part of the calendar answers the question, “for what?”

This is Yubal, the Year of Jubilee.

Jubilee happened every 50th year of the Jewish calendar, but before I say anything further, notice that this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. If you didn’t know anything else about Jubilee, that one observation should at least hint that the human was the principal aim of it. And if Jubilee is the destination of the entire Jewish calendar, that should hint that the actual lives of humans are what this whole religion is about. And if that’s what you’re thinking, you would be right.

Jubilee is what God wants for the world. It’s how he wants it to work. Three things happen during Jubilee. As I explain it, resist the temptation to spiritualize it. Make it earthy. Make it political, economic, radical, and scary as hell.

  • All debts: cancelled.
  • Everyone who sold themselves into slavery to pay debts: freed.
  • All land that was lost from failure to pay debts: returned.

Just think about that. Debts are cancelled, debt collection practices are ceased, and people are returned to their foreclosed homes. You may not be able to imagine that actually happening, but the Hebrew prophets did.

I can already hear the ancient Hebrews grumbling how debt is an essential part of a free market economy and the government can’t pick winners and losers and if we release people of debt we’ll create economic moral hazard and they shouldn’t have borrowed so much money and Israel is becoming nothing more than a socialist nanny state and Yahweh is punishing the job creators and the Torah is just a bunch of job-killing regulations!

Can you hear it? I can because I live in America. Not only can I hear it, but I can show you graphs and charts and formulas that support each of these contentions. These are the arguments, both before and after studying economics in college, that I too would make. But God doesn’t call us to economic models. He calls each of us to faith. He calls our nation to faith. Real faith. Not what we write on our currency kind of faith, but what our nation spends its currency on kind of faith.

And God’s heart is for those who fall into the poorest rungs of society—even when we believe they get there only by making poor choices (because everyone makes poor choices, but some pay more than others). Even when it requires a society to make decisions that the economists at the Heritage Foundation say will reduce growth and destroy our economy.

But let’s dig deeper.

I want you to notice something else about this.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Jubilee is that almost no one in Israel had to follow it. Virtually no one had money to loan or land to foreclose. Almost everyone was too poor. Basically nobody had any means of disobeying this command even if they wanted to. Think about what I’m saying. The year of Jubilee applied to just a handful of wealthy families and businesses.

(Yahweh wants to take your land and give it to a bunch of people who will just waste it. What we need is to cut regulations like the Torah and create jobs.)

And yet, this calendar event—this command that applied to almost no one—was the fulfillment of all the contemplation in the other Jewish holidays. It is the fulfillment of Sabbath, when Jews think about the divine in all humans. It is the fulfillment of Passover, when the Jews think about the ways in which humans can own other humans. It is the fulfillment of the Festival of Tabernacles, when the Jews think about the plight of the most vulnerable. It is the fulfillment of Pentecost, when the Jews think about restorative justice (the principal kind of justice in the Hebrew mind). And it is the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement, when grace and mercy are extended regardless of merit.

And that brings me to Jesus—the man who gives me the only reason I as a Christian have any business ever being in the Torah. In the same way that Jubilee is the fulfillment of the Jewish calendar, Jesus is the fulfillment of Jubilee:

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke c4

When Jesus over and over calls himself the fulfillment of the Isaiahs and the Jeremiahs and Ezekiels, he is talking about the world he is creating. If you confess Jesus is Lord, that categorically means your vision is of a world in which those who fall into the slavery of financial ruin are given Jubilee. A society with no permanent elite and no permanent underclass. So, of course, modern American Christians do what we always do: we spiritualize it all.

The only time you will hear Christians use the word Jubilee is when we talk about forgiveness of sins so we don’t burn in fire after we die. “We are all slaves to sin and Jesus is the Jubilee” is a common American sermon. But the Jews weren’t waiting on a Messiah who would forgive their sins; they already had Yom Kippur.

What Jews were actually waiting on (and what you actually find in the prophet descriptions of the Messiah) was one who would fulfill their vocation: to take what the Jews already had and share with everyone else.

I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

Isaiah c49

If the whole point of centuries of the Torah was simply—as is way too often said in churches—to prepare God’s people to believe (1) that sin leads to eternity in fire and (2) you need God’s son to avoid the wrath of Jesus’s angry dad, you just have to understand what a big “haha, just kidding” move that would have been. The whole Old Testament would be like a big “psyche!” A sick kind of joke to be honest.

When Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount tells the Jewish crowd “you are the light of the world”, he isn’t saying, “you are in charge of telling everyone how an angry God is appeased by killing his son.” He is reminding his listeners of their purpose. He is reminding them that they are weird. And he is bringing to completion what made them weird.

He is bringing Jubilee to the world.

(this world)