Someone forwarded an email recently that made me think again about how we read the Bible. It began like this:
On her radio show, Dr. Laura Schlesinger (a popular conservative radio talk show host in the USA) said that homosexuality is an abomination according to the Bible (Leviticus 18:22), and cannot be condoned under any circumstance. The following response is an open letter to Dr. Laura, penned by James M. Kauffman, Ed.D.
Dear Dr. Laura:
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination… end of debate.
I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Laws and how to follow them.
1. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev. 11:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?
2. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?
3. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do youthink would be a fair price for her?
4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev. 1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?
There are more examples, but I think the writer has made his tongue-in-cheek point, which is that since many of the Old Testament laws no longer apply, it is ludicrous to insist that this one—concerning homosexuality—does. But here’s my point: I believe it is just as wrong to reject the parts of the Bible you don’t agree with as it is to quote only the few verses that agree with you, and there are people on each side of this argument who do both. I believe there is a better way, and that is to ask of every part of the Bible (even the difficult ones): “What is God trying to say to us through these words?”
With that in mind we might look at Leviticus 18:22 differently. Instead of saying, “That settles it: homosexuality is a sin,” or saying, “That just goes to show that the Bible is old-fashioned and outdated,” we might learn to ask, “What is God trying to say to us through a law like this? How do these words reveal themselves as God’s Word?”
That’s when the conversation gets interesting, or, more hopefully, that’s when it becomes a conversation instead of an argument. Instead of simply stating, “It is an abomination for a man to lie with a man as with a woman,” we begin to ask, “Why is it an abomination? What does God find abominable? Is it the act itself, or is it the idea that sex is meant for procreation and homosexual activity is not procreative? Was this sort of thing common in that time and place? Was it common in other cultures? Was God trying to create a culture that was different from the culture of Israel’s neighbors? Was that the point?”
Do you see what I mean? In asking such questions of Scripture we begin to take it seriously, we begin to listen carefully to what God was saying then and there (exegesis) and consider how it might apply here and now (hermeneutics).
When I led a Bible study on Old Testament Law for the young adults at my last church I asked them to think of it as “people-making literature,” and challenged them to imagine what kind of people would be made by following those laws. They were surprised to learn how many of the laws were about caring for neighbors, and strangers, and donkeys (yes, donkeys*), and began to see that following these laws could result in a nation of remarkably compassionate people. They wondered if that was what God meant when he said to Israel, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). They wondered if holiness was God’s word for compassion (as Jesus implies in Luke 6:36).
As you can see, we had some interesting conversations about Old Testament Law, far more interesting than standing on opposite sides of the room shouting at each other about homosexuality (although our study could have easily gone that way; there were people on both sides of that issue). Instead we tried to look for the underlying principles beneath the surface of all those laws. We tried to listen for God’s Word as it came to us through those words. Again and again we asked the question:
“What is God trying to say to us?”
*Exodus 23:5 is a good example: “When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.”