University Congregational Church
June 30, 2013
“Dirt, Greed & Sex”
Lev. 11-18 excerpts
With the overturn of DOMA by the Supreme Court this week, and the struggles in California about Proposition 8, I thought we might want to debunk the Levitical laws on purity, property, and sexuality today.
First, I want to say that today’s social issue is a bit sensitive. The issue is all the Biblical laws concerning morals and ethics, and some of them are explicit sexually. I realize this is a worship service, and one of my goals is to maintain some decorum. But, these are real issues in our lives, and they have been for thousands of years. However, the topic may not be appropriate for young children. Feel free to take your children downstairs if you feel uncomfortable.
A little while back, I received a letter from another church. I want to share with you some excerpts:
“The Board of Elders of (our) Church, have been studying and reviewing the document SEXUAL MORALITY, JUSTICE, AND HEALING. Our discussions have brought out some deep concerns.
1 . Counseling will rid individuals of the shameful disease of sexual perversion called homosexuality. Christian caring, love and concern will help sexual pervertors to be healed.
2. Any denomination or church that does not preach and teach these ageless concepts must be suspect at best of being a CHRISTIAN denomination.” (end of quote)
This week, the topic is “dirt, greed and sex”! That’s an exciting way to talk about all those scriptures about ethical issues. By dirt, I’m referring to the purity laws. By greed, I’m speaking of the property laws. And by sex, I’m talking about well, sex.
The Bible has a lot to say about dirt, greed and sex. More than you ever wanted to know, probably. Let’s take a look at the book of Leviticus – a book of laws. Read excerpts from Lev. 11-18.
Did you know all that stuff was in the Bible? It makes great bedtime reading. And I left out some of the most interesting parts!
I wanted to read excerpts of these chapters for you so that you could see that one dominant theme in the treatment of morality in the Bible is purity. Purity in this case means the avoidance of dirt, literally and figuratively. Basically, the laws of the Old Testament are about two things: purity and property.
Let’s get down and dirty now! Basically, the Hebrew people had an intense concern with purity. I have only touched on the highlights of Hebrew purity laws in the texts read today. The Hebrews considered themselves completely separate from other nations. To eat food prepared by someone of another culture made a Hebrew person unclean. To marry a person of another nation was absolutely forbidden. It did happen, but it wasn’t acceptable. There are countless Biblical references to an absolute separation between Israel and all that was unclean and to allow uncleanliness to infiltrate them resulted in the entire nation being polluted.
God’s holiness, to the Israelites, meant wholeness and completeness. A priest, for example, even though duly entitled to the priesthood by descent, could not officiate as a priest if he suffered from any “blemish” and that was specifically defined – blindness or lameness, a mutilated face or a limb too long, or an injured foot or injured hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scabs. The Israelite attention to “wholeness” demanded two things: that every individual should be a complete and self-contained specimen of its kind thus shaving of beards, cutting of hair or vision problems, and second, that there should be no mixing of kinds.
For example, human beings could not mate with animals, but the reason was because they are different kinds. But animals themselves were not to mix with other kinds of animals – so mules were out. Furthermore, farmers could not plant two different kinds of seed in one field and fabric could not be woven with fabric of a different kind.
Furthermore, no one person could seek to combine mutually exclusive roles. This is the reason for the condemnation of homosexual acts. The male who fulfilled the “female” role was a combination of kinds and therefore, was unclean, like cloth composed of both linen and wool. And any kind of mixing was an “abomination” to the Lord. Did you notice all the things in our scripture reading that were named abominations? Unclean foods, sacrifice of an unclean animal, re-marriage to a wife you’ve already been married to… all these are “abominations”. The actual translation of the word “abomination” is better understood by the phrase “disgusting things”.
If you apply the words “disgusting things”, you find that these rules make more sense. I agree that snakes are disgusting. In Leviticus, grasshoppers are named as “clean”, but I would add grasshoppers to the disgusting list too. What would you name as disgusting if you were writing laws?
And so, whenever I hear some Christian quoting scripture to prove that homosexuality is an “abomination”, I ask them to look at the label on their clothes. If it is a fabric blend, say cotton and polyester, I ask them if they are aware that they, too, are an abomination.
The second issue in these Levitical laws was greed. The principle applied was if it wasn’t your property, you couldn’t do it, use it, or have it. Look at the rules about incest, adultery, and prostitution. Whereas we define incest as intercourse between two persons too closely related in terms of their shared genetic composition, ancient Israel defined it in terms of the social obligations owed by someone to his/her immediate relatives. A son must not act disrespectfully toward male kinfolk. This respect demanded that he not approach their wives sexually, for the man’s wife was an aspect of him. Lev. 18:8 reads “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness”. It was actually the man’s father he violated in incest, even though the physical act took place with his wife. It was a rule about property. The same was true of adultery. It wasn’t that the act itself was wrong; it was that a person was taking something that didn’t belong to him.
An interesting note: Israel did not regard its purity system as a universal law, applicable to all of humanity; it was a gift to Israel specifically affirming its separation from other nations and its unique relationship to God.
Having said that let me immediately offer a caution. We might be tempted to conclude that the ethics in the Old Testament are now irrelevant or that only New Testament ethics are Christian. I believe that conclusion would be mistaken. Somewhere around the Scholastic period in history, we got the notion that the scripture is a system of ideas that can be fully comprehended by any person of adequate intelligence apart from any personal transformation. Nothing could be further from the teachings of Jesus.
And speaking of, let’s talk about Jesus. When Hebrew law was held up as a standard to Jesus, he always turned the table around. What was most important to Jesus was that a person be transformed personally rather than follow the letter of the law. The laws were good, he confirmed, but they were not enough. To really know God, Jesus contended, one must be changed inside.
Read Luke 6: 35-38a says:
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.”
It seems to me that when Jesus spoke about what it meant to be a person of God, he was less concerned about the rules and regulations and more concerned with whether or not that person incorporated love, hope, kindness, forgiveness, and generosity into his/her life.
So what do we do about our society’s dirt, greed and sex? Do we just have an open mind about everything… as long as it’s done with love? After all, there are some people who love to do disgusting things!
Author William Countryman suggests some ethics for today based on his extensive Biblical study. Those ethics are delineated in your bulletin insert. I would suggest that you take it with you and discuss it with others in your family or close circle. What are your boundaries? What rules should be made concerning purity, property and sex?
As for the church, it seems to me that Jesus has given us an outline. We are to find those in our society who are outcast, shunned, unthankful, and even evil… and we are to forgive them without judgment. Furthermore, we’re to offer to them the mercy we hope to receive in our own lives.
And as for that Christian Church that sent me a letter… well, I had to respond. And this, in part, is what I wrote:
“Since Jesus befriended and even ate with people like tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and outcasts of all kinds, I think I am called to do no less. Please send to our church any of the sinners you feel unable to accept and worship with. We promise to welcome them, worship with them, befriend them, and share stories of Jesus’ unconditional love with them.”
Let it be so. Amen.
Countryman, William. “Dirt, Greed & Sex; Sexual Ethics in the Old Testament and Their Implications for Today”.
- Leviticus 11 - 17
- Luke 6:35 - 38