Monday, August 26, 2013


This week marks the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Civil Rights.  I recall hearing about it on the news in 1963 -- especially the fears that it could turn into one of the greatest race riots of all time.  It didn't.

I lived in the North in Michigan.  I had graduated from an integrated high school, where I had a few friendly acquaintances with black kids, but no really close relationships.  At the time I lived in an all white neighborhood and worked in an all-white engineering department of a very mildly integrated company.  And I attended an all-white church, that we considered a Bible-believing church.

The events that were occurring in the Deep South seemed as far away from me and my friends as the events occurring today in Syria and Egypt.  Yes, we recognized that injustice was being done, but none of us good Christian folks considered it to be anything worthy of our concern.  And certainly none of us saw the need for our getting involved in the black people's struggle for their rights.

Our churches were mostly silent about these matters.  While we were puzzled by the hatred shown by our white southern brethren, we did not feel that we had any business getting involved or even voicing our opinions.  We knew there were northern white people, even clergy who had gone south to lend their support to the black struggle, but we were assured that they were "modernists," "liberals," radical Catholic priests and Jews; some were undoubtedly communists or socialists.  And, of course, the black church leaders of the civil rights movement were at best "troublemakers" and at worst, communists.

Our experiences with and exposure to Jim Crow were limited.  It wasn't practiced in our home town so it didn't concern us.  Even my time spent in the south as a Marine Corps reservist didn't cause it to sink in.  We had black guys in our company and we got along.  I never wondered why they didn't want to go to town for a burger or a beer.

Why did we hear sermons against drinking, smoking and dancing, but never against racial hatred?  Why were we preached at to love one another, but never told that that love was to cross racial lines?  Why did we sing, "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight," when there were no children but white children in our church?  Why did we support sending missionaries to preach the gospel to the black people in far-off Africa, yet never see black people enter our church doors to hear the gospel?

It wasn't until I and my family moved south with a job change that I began to see the hypocrisy of our fundamentalist racism.  Houston was one of the few cities in the south that had quietly begun to change.  It was there that I first met Christians who were able to talk openly about race.  Some were old-time racists, but a few saw the necessity for change.

I suppose we can justly blame the white churches in the south for their support of racism and Jim Crow laws.  They undoubtedly deserved much of the blame.  Some still hold the same racist views their fathers did.  But much of the blame also lay with the write evangelical churches in the north, if for no other reason than our silence.

We failed to see the church as pictured by Paul, " ... where there is neither Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all" (Colossians 3:11).

Today we celebrate the achievements of the Civil Rights movement as though we had something to do with it.  I wonder, have we really repented of our unconcern and passive racism?

Thursday, August 15, 2013


When I published a post recently entitled WHAT DID SODOM DO?, questioning the traditional understanding that the city of Sodom was destroyed by God (Genesis 19) for homosexual behavior, I expected to receive comments, but I only received two, as follows:
  • Very thought provoking. My hesitation is that the early Jewish scholars seemed to think/feel that Sodom sin was Homosexuality. They were much closer to the culture and language than we will ever be; therefore I give their view considerable weight. As King Agrippa once said "Almost thou persuaded me."
  • How does one know what early Jewish scholars thought? Is the Bible a stand- alone document or are additional resources required?
After reading these two comments, I began to wonder, what is it that "the early Jewish scholars" knew that was not available to me?  While I recognize that my study was not exhaustive, I could find little in the biblical text that would lead me to agree with these "scholars."  Yes, of course, their knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, and other ancient tongues was undoubtedly much greater than my own, but there seemed to be no hidden meanings in the biblical text that could be discovered by linguistic expertise.

I suspected that I needed to do some studies of Hebrew words that might tie Sodom's destruction to homosexual behavior.  While I found there were certain words such as TO'EBA - "abomination" which were used to describe homosexual acts, the word was also used of all sorts of sexual, religious and ethical misbehavior and I found no direct connection to Sodom's sin and destruction.

I decided to examine some of the inter-testamental literature.  I consulted the Apocrypha -- those books which are found in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) but not in the Hebrew Bible.  I found but one reference, in The Wisdom of Sirach (ca .180 BC):  "He did not spare the people among whom Lot was living, whom he detested for their pride ..." (16:8, Goodspeed Translation).  Hmm, nothing there.

I went to the books known as the Pseudepigrapha -- those Jewish writings so named because they were apparently falsely attributed to biblical authors.  (All quotes are from J.H. Charlesworth's edition).  As with the biblical texts most are concerned primarily with the destruction of the city and not with the specific sin or sins that brought this on.

Well, I did find a few that could be construed as alluding to homosexual behavior.
·      The Testament of Naphtali (ca. 150 BC), "... so that you do not become like Sodom, which departed from the order of nature.  Likewise the Watchers (angels in Genesis 6, who cohabited with women) departed from nature's order" (3:4, 5).  This could very well be a passage the New Testament author Jude was thinking of in Jude 6, 7.  See also Paul's reference to homosexual behavior as "against nature" in Romans 1:26, 27.
·      The Testament of Benjamin (ca. 150 BC), speaks of the "promiscuity of the Sodomites" and "actions with loose women" (9:1).  This looks to me like heterosexual promiscuity.
·       The Testament of Levi (ca. 150 BC), speaks of greed, profanation of married women, "intercourse with whores and adulteresses" "... your sexual relations will become like Sodom and Gomorrah" (15:5, 6).
·       Jubilee (160-140 BC), speaks of "the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah ... " and that "they were polluting themselves and they were fornicating in their flesh ... "
·       2 Enoch (1st century AD), has a clear reference to pederasty:  "the sin which is against nature, which is child corruption in the anus after the manner of Sodom" (10:4).  However, this reference is found in only one late manuscript.

As can be seen, the later Jewish writings add little to the biblical material.  We must also consider that these writings were much later than the latest dated canonical books.  The last book of the Hebrew Old Testament (Malachi) is dated around 435 BC -- nearly 300 years before the texts mentioned above.  And the actual destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was somewhere around 1900 BC.  How much can we trust stories of events written that long after the actual events?  Where did the information come from?

If I may digress, I'd like to draw a parallel with our own day, with the thinking of "Christian scholars."

When I was in my early teens, I recall reading on the front page of my home town newspaper (11/1/1950) that the Pope (Pius XII) had just issued a bull declaring that Mary, the mother of Jesus had been taken bodily to heaven.  This doctrine was known as "the Assumption of Mary."  Of course, to a 13 year old the word "bull" grabbed my attention first; the next word that grabbed me was "assumption."  I questioned my mother, who was a Roman Catholic, as to how the pope could, after over 1900 years, make such a claim.  She very uncomfortably explained that this "truth" had always been known and he was only making it official.  I, by this time was beginning to become a bit skeptical concerning such traditions.

Another that I'll throw in here is the tradition that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.  She has been portrayed that way in many, many movies and not a few sermons.  Again, there is no basis in the Scripture for such a portrayal.

Traditions can, of course, be quite helpful in the study of Scripture.  To our understanding of the Gospels, for instance, a study of contemporary Jewish practices and traditions will shed much light.  But we should be very careful about reinterpretation based on myths and stories from a later era.

Most likely, Jesus was familiar with the Jewish tradition of his day that God had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sexual behavior.  Just imagine how shocked his hearers must have been when they heard him say to his disciples:  "Into whatever city you enter and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, 'Even the dust of your city that clings to our feet, we shake off at you.  Yet know this, that the Kingdom of God has come near.'  I'm telling you that it will be easier for Sodom in that day than for that city!"

Can't you just see the heads shaking and hear the tsk-tsks?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


It seems that today people of integrity are difficult if not impossible to find.  Whether we put our confidence in preachers, politicians, pundits, plutocrats or presidents, sooner or later we will be disappointed if not disillusioned.  However, I can't help but feel that this is not an especially modern phenomenon; instant coverage on the media simply assures that scandals cannot be covered for long as they may have been in the past.  So we're barraged almost daily with some new revelation(s) of sexual or financial misbehavior on the part of prominent persons.

Of course we recognize that we are all sinners and that sooner or later every human being will undoubtedly stumble.  Jesus was the only person who could say, "Which one of you convicts me of sin?"  (John 8:46)

But then there's this guy named Job.  Here's a guy that seems to have kept clean from scandal, even though his three "friends" did their best to prove him a sinner.

A brief summary of Job's story:  Job was a man described as "blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil" (Job 1:1).  Even the LORD Himself brags on him using these same words, preceding them with, "... there is no one like him on the earth ..." (1:8; 2:3).  Job was a man of great wealth, with a large loving family.  We might be tempted to perceive some sort of cause/effect relationship between his wealth and his integrity (or vice versa), yet when all this is taken away from him along with his health in a series of disasters, we read, " ... Job did not sin nor did he blame God"  (1:22); " ... Job did not sin with his lips" (2:10).  Job's three friends come to "comfort" him, but instead of comfort, we find a long rambling dialog that seems to get hotter and hotter as the friends with their simplistic theology accuse Job of every sin in the book in order to bring him to "repentance."

This summer I've been leading a Bible study on the Book of Job.  This past week we dealt with Job's final words of defense as recorded in chapter 31.  Even as we were discussing, I was struck with the depth of this passage and its relevance for the present time.

Job in this chapter gives a series of "if - then's" and calls down curses on himself if he is guilty of various sins.  It is not clear whether he is speaking to his friends any more or pleading directly with God.  The structure goes something like this:  "If I have done ______  let ______ happen to me."  It is not the curses that grabbed my attention, as much as the "if I's ...," which amount to denial of any wrongdoing.

He starts out his defense by denying that he has (to use the words of a former president) lusted in his heart:

"I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze upon a maiden?"  (31:1)

He returns again to lust, and the adultery that could follow:

"If my heart was enticed by a woman and I lurked at my neighbor's door ..." (31:9)

He denies dishonesty in business dealings:

"If I have walked in falsehood ..." (5)

"If my step has turned from the way ... and a stain stuck to my hands ..." (7)

He denies that he has been motivated by greed (remember he had been an extremely prosperous man):

"If I have put my confidence in gold, or regarded fine gold as my trust; if I gloated over my great wealth, and that my hand acquired much ... " (24, 25)

He denies that he has been guilty of secret idolatry:

"If I have looked at the sun in its shining or the moon in its course of splendor; if my heart secretly was enticed and my hand threw a kiss from my mouth ..." (26, 27)

He denies that he has ever acted in vindictiveness:

"If I have rejoiced at my enemy's misfortune or thrilled when evil befell him ... I never let my mouth sin by wishing his death in a curse." (29, 30)

He denies ever acting in hypocrisy:

"If I have hidden my transgressions like Adam, by burying my iniquity in my bosom ..." (33)

All of the above denials are impressive and apparently irrefutable by Job's friends.  He was certainly a man who "turned away from evil."  But it is Job's remarks about his treatment of those in need, those not materially blessed as he was, that grabbed my attention.  He expresses a view that we cannot easily find in the thinking of ancient humankind.  This view apparently affects his attitude toward not only those who were his servants, but to any or all whom he saw in need.

"If I have rejected the claim of my man servant or my maid servant when they had a complaint against me, what then could I do when God arises?  When He calls me to account what could I answer Him?" (13, 14)

"Did not He who made me in my mother's belly make him?  Did not the same One form us both in the womb?" (15)

Don't miss that last rhetorical question.  Job regards his servants -- who are actually in the culture of his day, his "property" -- as sharing a common humanity with him.  This is radical thinking in ancient culture, where "the other" was often regarded as something less than human; where the Hebrews considered non-Hebrews as "Goyim," the nations outside of God's covenant and as having less "rights" than they; where the Greeks considered non-Greeks as "barbarians," babblers, who spoke gibberish.  Where socio-economic status was considered a birthright.

And not only did Job consider his servants as fellow human beings, he recognized that they had rights at law -- apparently God-given rights equal to his own.  And his female servants shared equal rights with their male counterparts!  This was radical thinking in a patriarchal culture.  Job sees all human beings as in some sense equal!  This was 3,000 years before Thomas Jefferson, who still saw only white males as created equal.  As one commentator said of this passage, "Common humanity as God's creatures levels or rather elevates all." -- F. I. Anderson

It is this fundamental belief that I strongly suspect colors all his dealings with his fellow human beings -- the poor, the widow, the orphan.

"If I denied the poor their need or caused the eyes of the widow to fail, or ate my food alone and the fatherless has not eaten also.  For from my youth he grew up with me as a father, and from the womb I guided her" (16-18).

"If I ever saw someone perish without clothing, or the needy with no covering.  If his loins have not blessed me and he has not been warmed by the fleece of my sheep" (19, 20).

"If I have raised my hand against the fatherless because I had support at the gate (i.e., court) ... " (21).

And he regarded even strangers or aliens of equal value.  He shared what he had with all travelers.

"If the men of my tent have not said, 'Who cannot get filled with his meat?  The alien has not lodged outside.  I opened my doors to the road" (31, 32).

As we study the Book of Job, we often pass over this chapter as just one more chapter of his whining or griping against God and against his friends.  But this is Job's final plea.  He puts his signature on it and tells the Almighty to answer.  He insists that he has not been guilty of the sins listed.  The sins he denies are mostly not sins of commission, but what could be called "sins of omission."  He feels an obligation toward his fellow human beings, an obligation to share the good things that God has blessed him with.  If he has in any way failed in this obligation, he is willing to suffer the consequences.  (Of course he feels he hasn't failed and thus is suffering unjustly.)

It should be noticed too that Job is not bragging.  He is not presenting his behavior as something to publicly boast about.  It is not till the end of the lengthy dialog that he lets this all out.  And it is not to give a list of his virtues but to deny that he has failed to do what he seems to understand as his obligations to God and his fellow human beings.

I've never met or even heard of any other person who could make the claims that Job did.  And yet he appears to regard his behavior as nothing other than what would be expected of a man of his stature.

Job was not a follower of Jesus Christ.  He was apparently not an Israelite -- a member of God's covenant people.  He apparently had no Bible, no set of rules written by the hand of God; he had never read the Sermon on the Mount; and yet...

So where does this leave me?

Monday, August 5, 2013


In my posts:  LOVE IS AN ORIENTATION and LOVE IS AN ORIENTATION, 2, I reviewed Andrew Marin's book of the same name.  I mentioned that in his book Marin referred to five Scripture passages that are perceived as barriers between Bible believing Christians and the LGBT community.  I attempted in the second post to deal with these passages, but I hastened over one passage with the following words:

Genesis 19 -- the Sodom and Gomorrah story.  The traditional understanding -- both Christian and Jewish, is that Sodom's sin that warranted its destruction was homosexual behavior (the origin of our English word "sodomy").  I now recognize that there's much more to the story than that.  I will need to devote a whole post to this at a later time.

Well, this is the post.

As in the above mentioned post, I will not attempt to deal with Marin's confusing exegesis.  But I do find myself in agreement with his main thesis that homosexual behavior does not seem to be the reason for Sodom's destruction.

The story of Genesis 19, while relating the actual events of that destruction, is not the only place in the Bible where Sodom is mentioned.  The name Sodom is used 48 times in the Bible (39 in the Old Testament and 9 times in the New Testament).  Its sister city Gomorrah, which underwent the same fate, is mentioned 23 times (19 in the Old Testament and 4 in the New Testament) in many of the same passages.  Amazingly, at least to one who has long held the traditional view, while Sodom is held up in these passages as an example of evil and of God's judgment, homosexual behavior is not clearly mentioned as even one of the sins warranting that judgment.

While the story in Genesis 19 includes the description of an attempted homosexual gang rape of the two angelic messengers who appeared in human form, it should be noted that Lot, Abraham's brother offered his two virgin daughters to the attempted rapists (not exactly a moral alternative) in order to placate them.  In other words, these men were perceived as violent rapists and the gender of their victim(s) was irrelevant.  A similar incident is described in Judges 19, where the rapists are given their potential victim's female concubine.

But the particular incident in Genesis 19 was not that which brought down the Lord's wrath.  It wasn't even the final straw.  According to the previous chapter, Sodom and Gomorrah were already marked out for destruction.  The two angels who were the objects of the attempted rape were a sort of investigative committee, sent to ascertain whether there were even 10 righteous people in the city (Genesis 18:20-33).  There weren't!

In an earlier passage, Genesis 13:13, we read that "... the men of Sodom were evil and extremely wicked sinners against the LORD."  No particular sins are mentioned.

So what was Sodom's sin?  A search through the other passages sheds quite a bit of light, though most mentions of Sodom seem more concerned with the total destruction of the city itself than with the rationale for that destruction.  I'll attempt to deal with those passages that do get more specific.

Isaiah the prophet compares the nation of Judah of his day to Sodom in Isaiah 1:10ff.  The sins mentioned in this context, however, are not sexual sins of any sort.  As far as I can see there are four that could be listed:  false religion and hypocritical worship (verses 10-15); violence and murder (verses 15, 21); oppression of the poor and helpless (verses 17, 23); injustice and the taking of bribes (verse 23).  Even when he labels Jerusalem as a whore (verse 21), he is speaking of their religious unfaithfulness.  See also 3:8, 9.  It should be noted as well that redemption is still held out as a possibility (1:18, 19, 27).

Jeremiah, like Isaiah before him, compared his nation of Judah to Sodom.  In one passage he accuses his contemporaries, the prophets of Jerusalem of "the committing of adultery and walking in falsehood; they strengthen the hands of the wicked, so that no one turns away from his wickedness.  All of them have become to Me as Sodom and its inhabitants as Gomorrah" (Jeremiah 23:14).  Adultery often is used metaphorically of their unfaithfulness to the LORD.  But even if literal adultery is meant, this is the only sexual sin so far mentioned.

In Ezekiel's (x-rated?) picture of the sins of Jerusalem (chapter 46), we find her accused of all sorts of whoring around -- her "adulterous" behavior in forsaking the LORD and prostituting herself to the nations around her.  Jerusalem is compared with her "older sister Samaria," (which had already been destroyed) and with her "younger sister ... Sodom" (Ezekiel 16:46).  Jerusalem and its inhabitants are accused of worse behavior than either of her "sisters."  Ezekiel in this passage lists the sins of Sodom.

"Look -- this was the guilt of your sister Sodom:  she and her daughters were arrogant; they had plenty of bread and careless ease, yet she did not take the hand of the poor and needy.  And they were haughty and committed abominations before Me, so I removed them as you have seen" (Ezekiel 16:49, 50).  While we're not told specifically what those "abominations" were, there is not even a hint anywhere of homosexual behavior.

In the New Testament, the same pattern continues:  Sodom is help up by Jesus as an example of evil and of God's judgment, and is compared to the evils of His day.  Jesus even compares the cities of His day unfavorably to Sodom.  He says that if Sodom had seen what the cities of His day had seen, they would have repented and been spared (Matthew 10:15; 11:23, 24).  However, the sin here appears to be their rejection of Him.  This also seems to be the reason for the reference to Jerusalem in the last book in the New Testament as "... the great city which is called spiritually Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified" (Revelation 11:8).

The only specific reference in the New Testament clearly tying Sodom to sexual sin is Jude 7.  "... as Sodom and Gomorrah ... indulged in gross immorality (ekporneusasai) and went after strange flesh (sarkos heteras) ... " the going "after strange flesh" is believed by many to be homosexual behavior and very well may be.  It should be noticed, however, that Jude is comparing the sexual licentiousness of the false teachers of his day with Sodom (verse 4) and with the fallen angels (verse 6) apparently mentioned in Genesis 6:1-4, who cohabited with women.  So the whole passage appears to be a blanket condemnation of the illicit sexual behavior of those who professed to be Christian leaders.  Sound familiar?

It would seem to me that we of the evangelical community, especially those who are concerned about moral issues, need to get back to the teaching of the prophets and of Jesus.  We need to clean up our own acts first of all, to make sure that our relationship with our Lord is not "adulterous," but is one of complete faithfulness to Him.

And if we want to be concerned with the social evils around us, there are plenty to be concerned with -- injustice, the mistreatment of the poor -- those that brought down God's judgment on Sodom.  I don't believe we need to concentrate on the sexual behavior of one particular group.