Sinai interpretation goes in two directions: holiness and justice.
The prophetic books:
Later in his survey of the Old Testament, Brueggemann points out that this dual emphasis carries over into the prophetic books. For example, Isaiah elevates justice above piety:
"What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?"The social justice orientation of the prophets is familiar to us. But Brueggemann points out that the prophet Ezekiel fits into the other category: he is a "holiness guy".
says the Lord;
"I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats. …
Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them. …
Your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow's cause." (Isaiah 1:11-171)
Ezekiel 8 describes various abominations by which the Temple is desecrated. In reaction, the LORD's glory leaves the temple by stages:
Successive steps are marked in His departure; so slowly and reluctantly does the merciful God leave His house. First He leaves the sanctuary (Ezekiel 9:3); He elevates His throne above the threshold of the house (Ezekiel 10:1); leaving the cherubim He sits on the throne (Ezekiel 10:4); He and the cherubim, after standing for a time at the door of the east gate (where was the exit to the lower court of the people), leave the house altogether (Ezekiel 10:18,19), not to return till Ezekiel 43:2.Brueggemann comments,
(Jamieson Fausset Brown commentary)
In Ezekiel, it's not Israel that goes into exile, it's God, because God can't stay there.— i.e., in a polluted Temple.
Thus, on the one hand, there is Isaiah's emphasis on social justice; while on the other hand, there is Ezekiel's emphasis on holiness. This is the same duality Brueggemann pointed out in the previous post, with reference to Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
The same duality then carries over into the New Testament texts: in particular, the Gospels. Jesus was primarily concerned about justice whereas the Pharisees were primarily concerned about holiness:
And as [Jesus] reclined at table in [Levi's] house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?" And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." (Mark 2:15-17)Here we see that Jesus was inclusive (tax collectors and sinners were welcome to join his community) whereas the Pharisees were exclusive: they maintained a strict separation from tax collectors and sinners in order to avoid contracting uncleanness.
I maintain that the Pharisees are portrayed in a very unsympathetic light in the Gospels. Christians should not assume that we are given a full, unbiased picture; rather, we are shown the worst side of Pharisaic religion.2
Consider this: the Pharisees' emphasis on separation and purity has a rich pedigree in the Old Testament and the intertestamental texts. For example:
But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king's food, or with the wine that he drank. …There are a series of texts like this one in the Old Testament and the intertestamental literature: i.e., texts in which people of faith refuse to eat certain foods, or otherwise distinguish themselves from the surrounding pagan community.
[Daniel said to the steward] "Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king's food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see." So he listened to them in this matter, and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king's food. So the steward took away their food and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables. (Daniel 1:8-16)
Thus the Pharisees were not the "bad guys" they are often characterized as from Christian pulpits. They were trying to be faithful to Israel's holiness tradition, as Orthodox Jews are to this day.
Indeed, the Pharisees tried to uphold priestly standards of purity in their everyday lives per Exodus 19:6, "You shall be to me a kingdom of priests."
Jesus took the other path: the path of justice and inclusiveness. He reached out not only to tax collectors and sinners but to lepers, the demon-possessed, Gentiles, Samaritans, women, and (not least!) the poor.
All such individuals were spurned by the Pharisees. For example, women were assumed to be in a state of continual menstrual impurity. Thus Mark 5:25-34 and Luke 7:36-50 are remarkable texts. On both occasions, Jesus allowed a woman to touch him; in Mark 5, it is explicitly a woman with a flow of blood.
Divorce and homosexuality:
Some "liberal" Christians support homosexual rights on the basis of this social justice tradition in the Gospels. This is an issue that cannot finally be resolved, in my opinion. (Though I personally support same sex marriage and other rights for gays and lesbians.)
On the one hand, we have explicit statements condemning homosexual acts — not from Jesus, but from Paul. Thus it is surely a biblical position to argue, from a holiness standpoint, that homosexual acts are not an acceptable practice.
On the other hand, there is Jesus' radical commitment to social justice and inclusiveness. But let's take a step back, to consider the subject of sexual purity more broadly.
Jesus was at his most conservative on the subject of divorce. Scholars believe that Mark 10 preserves the original form of Jesus' saying on divorce. That is, Jesus did not make any exceptions: divorce was not permitted even in cases of adultery (contra Matthew's version of the same saying).
Arguably, however, Jesus was not concerned about sexual purity per se. When he prohibited divorce, he may have been responding to the vulnerability of women in that society: women were economically dependent on their husbands. Thus easy access to divorce ("Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" — Mt. 19:3) was terribly harmful to the interests of women.
Jesus never addressed the subject of homosexuality. The subject presumably wasn't being debated among Jews in that era.
But what would Jesus say if he was facing this issue in contemporary society? One cannot assume that Jesus would have sided with the "holiness" impulse instead of supporting justice, mercy, and inclusiveness. That, in effect, is the stand taken by "liberal" Christians like me, who support rights for homosexuals.
We might summarize the data like this:
|Holiness, separation||Justice, inclusiveness|
|some Pauline texts||other Pauline texts|
As you can see, Paul is the wild card here. But I won't attempt to analyze the Pauline texts in this post.
Yes, the table represents a simplification of the data. As I indicated in the previous post, Deuteronomy shows some interest in holiness and Leviticus shows some interest in justice. But in terms of emphasis, the table is accurate.
I know evangelical readers insist that there is no necessary conflict between the holiness and justice traditions. But the split between Judaism and Christianity illustrates the powerful centrifugal forces at work here; so does the more recent divide between evangelical Christianity and "liberal" Christianity.
In the previous post, I maintained that the Church must learn to live with this inescapable tension instead of trying to enforce uniformity. Jamie responded:
How, then, would you propose we deal with the issue of homosexual marriage? Surely you can’t support (respect, tolerate) those who oppose these marriages; that would go against your view that such people are propagating an injustice. …Jamie is right when she asserts that same sex marriage is either right or wrong — it can't be both. However, she is wrong to assume that I cannot respect and tolerate the position of Christians like her, who disagree with my conclusions on the issue.
With gay marriage, there can only be one "right" way. It cannot simultaneously, in the same circumstances, be right both to forbid gay marriage and to embrace it. Nor could God simultaneously both approve of and forbid the practice.
In my view, we cannot finally be certain of the right answer to many of the vexed questions that roil the Church. To quote Brueggemann once again:
[The Bible] invites us to do an interpretation for now, knowing that we’re going to have to go back to Sinai and do it over again and again and again.Sometimes we think a certain issue is settled; but then someone goes back to the scriptures and mounts an argument that we hadn't considered before.
Indeed, I think that figuring out obedience is like having a teenager in the house. Having a teenager means, nothing stays settled. You’ve got to do it all over again.
Similarly, a change of social context forces us to reconsider issues that we thought were settled. The exile forced Israel to reconceptualize its theology. Likewise, modernity forces the Church to revisit first principles with a fresh perspective.
Every conclusion we reach is provisional. We must therefore respect and tolerate the convictions of those who think differently than us.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
2After the death of Jesus, the Pharisees became the primary opponents of Christianity. Some of the conflicts of a later era appear to have been inserted into the Gospels anachronistically. For example, John 9:22 — "the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue." Scholars insist that excommunication from the synagogues was not introduced until several decades after the death of Jesus. The point is, these later conflicts colour the presentation of the Pharisees in the Gospels.