Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The sins of Sodom

I'm stealing this from a Facebook friend, who pointed out how appropriate the present daily Mass readings are in light of the NY decision.

From Monday's reading:
Then the LORD said:
“The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great,
and their sin so grave,
that I must go down and see whether or not their actions
fully correspond to the cry against them that comes to me.
I mean to find out.”
From today's (Tuesday's) reading:

The sun was just rising over the earth as Lot arrived in Zoar;
at the same time the LORD rained down sulphurous fire
upon Sodom and Gomorrah
from the LORD out of heaven.
He overthrew those cities and the whole Plain,
together with the inhabitants of the cities
and the produce of the soil.
But Lot’s wife looked back, and she was turned into a pillar of salt.

Early the next morning Abraham went to the place
where he had stood in the LORD’s presence.
As he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah
and the whole region of the Plain,
he saw dense smoke over the land rising like fumes from a furnace.

Thus it came to pass: when God destroyed the Cities of the Plain,
he was mindful of Abraham by sending Lot away from the upheaval
by which God overthrew the cities where Lot had been living.

God is always in charge of every situation. It is fashionable to pretend that this is not true; or that God is some sort of abstract, changeable construct existing only in the minds of men or else some tame spiritual pet; or that the real sin of Sodom was that when the men of the town showed up at Lot's house intending to rape the male strangers whom Lot was sheltering (not knowing they were angels of the Lord in disguise), they were so inhospitable that they forgot to bring a casserole/hot dish and a side gelatin salad to pass around.

We play such games at our peril--even if our own sins do not as yet rise to the level of the sins of Sodom. None of us deserves to escape misery and suffering, myself least of all. Confronting that reality, many of us cry out with the Apostles, "Who, then, can be saved?" And we hear, again, the mystery: that what is impossible for us is possible for God; in that is our hope.


Siarlys Jenkins said...

While I am quite certain that there is a God who made all that is, seen and unseen, and I have a clear sense that but for grace my life could be a lot worse than it is (just thinking what random chance in an indifferent universe would have brought me), I am a little curious about an omniscient God who has to go down and investigate, in order to know the truth of the cries reaching his ears.

It suggests that the authors of such verses had an incomplete understanding of the God they worshipped, as, I think, do we all.

Certainly rape is very different from consensual love. While there is some basis to suggest that a gay couple does not reunite the image of God,


and to call homosexual acts, in an objective biological sense, unnatural, I'm not at all certain that God is going to blame harshly the individuals who are, for reasons often beyond their control, statistical outliers from the human norm.

Turmarion said...

I've just about burned out on this topic, but I think a response here is appropriate. Unfortunately it's going to have to be in two parts, because of length.

It's good to remember first of all that Abraham tried to talk God out of destroying the cities. He bargained the Almighty down to sparing the cities if ten just people could be found. Apparently they couldn't. Reading this now, though, I thought, for the first time, what about the children? Genesis consistently says "the men of Sodom"; but in many ancient narratives, the women and children, and sometimes elderly men, aren't counted (e.g. Numbers 1:45-46). Surely there were children in two prominent and fair-sized cities such as Sodom and Gomorrah? Surely many of them were below the age of reason, hence innocent? And God killed them along with the rest if we take this narrative at face value, right? So there may have been fewer than 10 just adults, but what about kids?

I'd point out that the Old Testament also portrays God as ordering the destruction of entire Canaanite cities, men, women, and children (e.g. Joshua 8:24-26); ordering the complete extermination of the Amelekites (1 Samuel 15:3); as punishing Saul for sparing the cattle, since killing all the Amelekite men, women, and children wasn't good enough (1Samuel 8:14-23); as starting a plague that killed seventy thousand Israelites, not because of anything they did, but because David took a census that God commanded him to take in the first place (2 Sameul 24); as sending bears to maul over forty children because they made fun of Elisha for being bald (2 Kings 2:23-24); and of killing David's innocent infant son to punish him for his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12). These are just a few references that could be cited. If we take such portrayals of God seriously, He seems to be prepared to kill innocent people in droves along with the guilty to punish those who disobey him--even if those slaughtered had nothing to do with the sin in the first place.

I'd also point out contemporary examples of this thinking. Several years back, David Klinghoffer (himself an Orthodox Jew) published a controversial article (in First Things, I think) in which he suggested that the Holocaust was God's punishment on the Jews for falling away from their faith in the century or so preceding the war. Jerry Falwall publicly stated that 9/11 was a punishment from God for America's many sins, among which he listed homosexuality. Pat Roberts suggested that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment on America for abortion, while Michael Marcavage suggested it was punishment on a city that "opened its doors to sin".

Turmarion said...

OK, part 2.

All I can say, Red, is that you're sounding a lot like this yourself, lately, and it really disturbs me. Is this how you see God?

I'll be upfront: I think the Bible is God's Word; but that doesn't mean that I take everything at face value. As Catholics, we know it's more complicated than that. I'm inclined to think that, like most peoples of the time, the ancient Israelites were a vicious, barbaric, bloodthirsty, warlike people who tended to think of their God as the same. God put up with this, and the resulting bad PR in order to gradually lead them away from their more primitive and violent ways towards the sublime vision in the prophetic books of a God of all nations under whom they will "beat their swords into plowshares", and culminating in the New Testament God who sends His Son into the world "not to condemn the world but that through him the world might be saved." (John 3:17) (yes, I know the next verse says that whoever doesn't believe is already condemned, but that's for another day) Many of the Fathers had similar takes on the Old Testament--that the Israelites were misunderstanding God in thinking of a perfect temporal order whereas God was pointing to something beyond that. Unfortunately the same Fathers tended to express such notions in anti-Semitic terms; but I think the basic concept can be valid and expressed in non-anti-Semitic ways. Even the Talmud tended to reinterpret such violent behavior in light of later teachings.

Now it's true that all too often the fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth are on edge (Ezekiel 18:12). Alcholic or abusive parents, through their sins, bring suffering upon their innocent children. Monstrous societal evils such as Nazism and Stalinism brought untold suffering and death to millions of innocents. Actions have consequences. However, it's not like God says, "Because of the perfidy of the fill-in-the-blank I shall smite them and slay them"; it's because we live in a world in which things work a certain way, and certain results (often unpleasant) follow from certain actions.

Actually, if we were having a cool, leisurely conversation over tea, you might agree in framing it that way. However, reading this post, I can't help but get an image of an enraged God just itching to smite our country with terrible things that will affect good and bad, guilty and innocent, because of the perfidy of the wicked Sodomites within our bosom--probably starting with New York. Do you see how awful this sounds? Do you see what a picture of God it paints? Is this how you see God?

To your credit, you say, "None of us deserves to escape misery and suffering...." That is perhaps harshly stated, but true--and I think there have been and are far worse things happening in the world than the recent vote in New York. You also mitigate things a bit in your last sentence--indeed, who can be saved?--and for God, all things are possible. I suppose you'd say that there's no point in sugar-coating things in a time of culture wars; but it seems to me this type of rhetoric won't wind hearts or minds; and I think it is perilously close to an image of God that I think is damaging and just plain wrong.

Anyway, I'm going to leave it at that. Everything will play out as it plays out in God's good time, and we'll see if we are on the brink of societal apocalypse and Divine retribution or not. Certainly we can all agree to pray for mercy for us all.

John E. said...


If you are going to ask 'what about the kids', you might as well look at the first born of Egypt. Jehovah killed them all to terrorize the Egyptians while at the same time hardening the Pharaoh's heart against the Israelites.

But for the bigger question, is anyone else willing to say:

1. It is just a story and there is no evidence it really happened


2. Gang rape is not the same thing as a committed relationship?

Anonymous said...

Red, you once told me my posts were "irenic." Goodness knows that's not always true. But it has encouraged me to try to be that way in my better moments.

I'm concerned about you. You're reading like you've gone off the deep end. This isn't about defending traditional marriage anymore, it's really turned into something sinister. You've been acting in haste, sworn an oath without (I suspect) thinking it through.

It's times like these where we often do and say things we regret.

Please, for your own sake and for the sake of your faith, take some time, pray, reflect, consult your priest, enjoy your family. I'm becoming worried about you.

Anonymous said...

Although I personally tend to be more optimistic about America than Red, I do want to defend her right to speak out strongly against what she sees as the rapid? Decline of any kind of objective moral standards.. The definition of marriage is bothersome because it truly undermines objective standardization. If that's a word. What can we found anything on anymore if we can change arbitrarily the very definition of words we use as standards? This is a reasonable fear and argument. I want to believe Siarlys's views that the Bill of Rights will protect thus country from this country from completely falling apart. But, what if we redefine rights? Speech? Freedom? Worship? State? I mean it's a slippery slope of the worst kind because it completely undermines objectivity.


Turmarion said...

John, almost everything in the Old Testament before the time of King David is either altogether mythical (in the non-pejorative sense of that word) or a historical nucleus with a greater or lesser admixture of myth. Certainly nearly all of Genesis ought to be read not as history but as the mythology of the Jewish people.

That said, if one accepts the Bible as Holy Writ, one still has to do something with these stories. I'm reading the Republic, and Plato would say that such stories are disrespectful lies about God and the poets who wrote them ought to be tossed out on their ears! I wouldn't say that; but the fact remains that even if we take the Sodom and Gomorrah story as a myth--which I do--believers are still responsible for it.

In short, even if it's speaking in mythical language, it seems to be using myth to portray an angry, vengeful God who is fine with eliminating the innocent along with the guilty for the least slight against His dignity. Sadly, there are lots of Christians out there who have no trouble worshiping such a god. I feel pity for them and fear for what they might do. For those of us who don't believe in a God like that, we must either follow Plato and jettison the stuff altogether, or find some other way of dealing with it. The Gnostics, beginning with Marcion, in fact did take option number one, tossing the entire Old Testament. I'm more sympathetic to them the older I get, but that's still not a course I'd take.

What I was doing was trying to sketch a Christian approach to dealing with such nasty stories in a way congruent with our belief in a God of love and belief that the Bible is truly inspired. God deals with a barbaric people who in the correct belief that they are God's special people who are called to a higher standard, tell stories in which they demonstrate this by liquidating peoples that aren't so favored and who are (in their perception) following a lower standard. It's like a kid who is rightly proud of being a "good boy/girl" but then goes around as a tattletale because he/she is better than all those bad kids.

Eventually, the Israelites got over it and came to the beautiful vision of the Prophets. Thus, we can view the earlier stuff as exemplary of what God is calling us away from. As C. S. Lews said in discussing the violent imagery in the Psalms, it shows the seriousness of the spiritual life without any implication that we should take it literally. A lot more could be said, and I haven't even got it all thought out, but that's a tentative indication of what I was going for.

Of course, rape is not the same as a consensual relationship; but I was going for the bigger game of taking such stuff as descriptive of God's behavior, rather than the (relatively) smaller issue of the sex involved. On the latter issue, I didn't expect a sympathetic hearing, anyway.

Anonymous 1, I'm hearing the exact same thing you are. I don't know Red personally, though we've interacted here and on Rod's blog, but I am a bit concerned about the (certainly non-irenic) tone here.

One more thing I keep forgetting--still having good breakfasts, John? ;)

Red Cardigan said...

It's funny, to me, to see how each person sees these particular Scripture passages through the lens of his or her own understanding of God, myself included.

To me, they are a warning. None of us is *owed* salvation. None of us is free from sin. None of us deserves anything other than death and destruction, even the destruction that rained down on Sodom.

But Christ came to tell us that Divine Mercy exists, that we may not deserve to be saved but that He offers us salvation anyway, through the merits of the Cross. We are able to hope--yet we ought not, indeed must not, presume. But, as Benedict XVI reminded us recently, God is Love--and divine love is even more unfathomable and mysterious than divine wrath.

Others read the passages differently. Siarlys sees God condemning rape, but not necessarily all homosexual sex. Turmarion seems to think I'm hoping God will press the "smite" button (to refer to a famous Gary Larson cartoon). John E. thinks Sodom a myth and agrees with Siarlys about the rape bit (notwithstanding the numerous condemnations of homosexual sex, and plenty of heterosexual perversions, in both the Old and New Testaments). The Anonymous at 5:26 seems to think that my quoting Scripture illustrates that I've gone off the deep end.

I haven't. But I find it amazing that merely quoting Scripture could cause such divided opinions.

Turmarion said...

Both read the Bible day and night,/
But thou read'st black where I read white.
--William Blake

None of us is *owed* salvation.

Right--that'd be Pelagianism.

None of us is free from sin.

Certainly agreed.

None of us deserves anything other than death and destruction, even the destruction that rained down on Sodom.

Buzzz! Disagree!

Certainly "none of us" doesn't include children, unless you're going to go with Augustine in one of his worst moments and condemn unbaptized infants to Hell, because it's just too bad, but God doesn't make exceptions to his "no salvation without being baptized" rule. And while no one "deserves" salvation in the sense of somehow "earning" it or having a claim on God as one would on a human debtor, I think it's way over the top to say that we all deserve a horrible death and destruction, fire and brimstone from the sky. Really!

Turmarion seems to think I'm hoping God will press the "smite" button....

Well, that's sure how it sounded from this post and parts of previous ones; but if you say otherwise, I take you word for it. It certainly isn't irenic, though.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I rather admire Pelagius. He didn't say we are OWED salvation. He said that whether we try to live righteously makes a difference. It was in the spirit of Paul's "Shall we win that grace may abound?" Like certain brands of American Protestants today, Pelagius observed rampant licentiousness on the part of people who said "I don't have to try, I am saved by grace."

Red Cardigan said...

Turmarion: how do you understand the doctrine of original sin? I understand it this way: none of us is really innocent. God, in His great mercy, chooses to rescue us. But we don't deserve it, and, in fact, deserve death, thanks to our first parents.

Turmarion said...

Gee, Red, such a simple theological concept would never eat up huge amounts of space and time if treated fully! ;)

More seriously: have a look here (Dr. Dragani used to do Q&A for EWTN), over here, and for a mind-numbingly detailed discussion, here.

Two good quotes, from the first and second linked sites, respectively, emphasis added:

"In the East: The primary consequence of Original Sin is death. The reality of death causes people to desire that which can distract them from the reality of their impending death. Hence, people turn to sex, money, and power as a way to forget about death. In this way, death leads to sin."

"The Orthodox Church does not teach that all are born deserving to go to hell, and Protestant doctrines such as Predeterminism that derive from the Augustinian understanding of original sin are not a part of Orthodox belief."

Orthodoxy doesn't minimize human sinfulness, and understands we're all flawed, but it in no way looks at us all as death-deserving hellfodder mercifully rescued by God. God's mercy expressed through Christ is necessary, but the East was never too concerned in worrying about how it functions or in how it might work outside the visible Church, or in looking at the human race as totally depraved wretches deserving nothing but death and damnation from God.

You might note in Dr. Dragani's piece how he points out that the Western view of original sin is slowly being brought more in line with that of the East in recent documents. I honestly think that on a whole lot of theological issues the Eastern Church got it much better than the Western Church did, and the older I get and the more I study, the more I gravitate to the Eastern theological mode.

Anonymous said...

Red, you are handling a lot of nonsense with more patience than I could muster. Props.

Turmarion said...

Beastly, if you're implying that it's nonsense to suggest that just maybe God is not actually the--ahem-- irascible way He's portrayed in the given citations, or that some things reported in the Bible might not have happened quite the way reported, or might (gasp!) be mythical, or that maybe gay marriage, whatever one thinks about it, won't bring Western Civilization down in ruins and cause Christians to be banished to the catacombs, or that perhaps the tone here is just a bit over-the-top; if you're implying all that, then I am proud to be spouting nonsense.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Turmarion, I'm mostly not talking about you.

Although, for what it's worth, I think it's a mistake to downplay either God's mercy or his wrath. He can be unbelievably brutal and gentle, often at the same time.

Anonymous said...

If recent natural disasters are "punishments" for the sins of abortion and homosexuality, then how come I have yet to hear of any abortion clinics being blown away by F-5 tornadoes, or Planned Parenthood facilities being washed away in record floods, or gay bars being consumed by wildfires? If God is so upset about what's going on in New York and California, how come "red" states like Alabama, Missouri, North Dakota, Arizona, etc. are getting whacked?

I guess Christ Himself answered that question in Luke 13 when he said, regarding two recent disasters of His time (a massacre carried out by Pontius Pilate and the collapse of a tower in Siloam), "Do you think these (victims) were greater sinners than anyone else in Galilee? No! But I tell you, unless you repent you will all likewise perish."

In other words, as Red says, "none of us deserves to escape misery and suffering." It goes with the territory and we have to be prepared for it wherever we are.


John E. said...


(notwithstanding the numerous condemnations of homosexual sex, and plenty of heterosexual perversions, in both the Old and New Testaments)

And what is that to me that I should take notice of it?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

There is no reason John must take notice, but I'll offer a reply as someone who believes that the Sefer Tanach and the Gospels and Epistles are matters of some cosmic significance.

The Wittenburg Door, probably the world's only religious humor magazine, ran a parody about a devil named Weasletooth propagating the delusion that Katrina had something to do with punishing sin. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to have been added to the web site. It emphasized "New Orleans has in face been no more or less useful to Our Father Below than any other city in the North American sector." It was of course a take-off on C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters.

To understand what Christians patronizingly call "The Old Testament" it is necessary to consult someone who understands the original Hebrew in its original cultural context, namely, a very learned Orthodox Jewish scholar.

We are not "born in sin" but are born structurally unsound, by the very nature of the material from which biological life was made. Indeed we could not be saved without divine intent and grace, because we are not on that plane at all. Yes, we share that in common, but it is not "our fault." What we each do with our own lives IS our responsibility, and yes, as Paul wrote "all fall short of the glory of God."

Biological life dies. That is its nature. Only the spiritual component (assuming we have one) might survive. I suspect John E. and his dear wife April will be saved, if only because God has a sense of humor and wouldn't want to miss out on spending eternity with them.

John E. said...

Aw, shucks, Siarlys. That's a kind thought.

Patrick said...

@ Tumarion and S. Jenkins (1st comment):

Jesus speaks directly about Sodom in Luke 17: 28-30. To say "people back then had a different understanding of God" or "I'm skeptical that God went down to investigate" or something is troublesome when *Jesus* says, "but on the day when Lot went our from Sodom fire and brimstone rained from heaven and destroyed them all-" (Luke 17:29).

Unless there's an explanation of why *Jesus* refers to this particular event *as if it happened the way it was written*, then you'd be in the awkward position of calling Jesus a liar.

I don't know what the Sodom thing means - I really don't, especially in light of God's mercy on sinners: Red's right - we all *merit* Hell and Jesus offers us forgiveness in this age and eternal life in the age to come - praise be. Nevertheless, because *Jesus* refers to this particular event, and He is God, then there is a problem with just "writing it off" as oh-how-could-a-loving-God-have-actually-smote-a-city-from-the-Earth or something like that.

Turmarion said...

Patrick: Unless there's an explanation of why *Jesus* refers to this particular event *as if it happened the way it was written*, then you'd be in the awkward position of calling Jesus a liar.

If we assume that the Bible is God's word, then it is a book which, if taken at face value, indicates that God created the world in six twenty-four hour days, and that said world is about six thousand years old. Now God also gave us intelligence, and when we use it, we discover things about the universe (e.g. radioactive decay, the movement of galaxies, etc.) that indicate the cosmos to be at least eleven billion years old, and to have come into being in a manner much different from the account in Genesis. Therefore, God either lied in the Bible; or is deceiving us with the physical evidence. In either case, God is a liar.

As philosopher Edward Feser points out here, there are certainly places where Jesus seems to be extremely indirect or making statements that seem not to be the direct truth (Matthew 13: 10-13, Matthew 9:24, and John 7:8). Note especially the last in which he says he's not going to the festival, and then proceeds, two verses later, to go!

The obvious response is that at times metaphorical or figurative speech is being used; in the John 7:8 case, Jesus may have later changed his mind, or as Feser puts it, had "broad mental reservations"; or that the message is being suited to the understanding and capacity of the people being addressed. Certainly in the case of Genesis, a metaphorical reading is required (since the bulk of evidence is such as to make literal, young-Earth creationism impossible), to say nothing of the other cases here presented, and others that could be put forth.

Given all this, I don't think that the fact that Jesus speaks of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as if it were a historical event, or of Noah as if he and the (certainly physically impossible) Flood were historical (Matthew 24:38) says anything about their historicity. That wasn't his point; and the use of metaphor or the mythology of the Jewish people as useful pedagogical tools does not imply that he lied.

Thus, while neither God nor Jesus lies (on which count I agree with you), this does not imply that when speaking to humans in human terms in various modes of communication, that they intended every utterance to be understood as literal and historical, either.

As to "writing off" the Sodom story, I was not doing so, and as I said, whether or not it's literally true, it still must be dealt with. Beyond that, if you're comfortable with all the nasty behavior attributed to God which I documented above, and think that's dandy and we just have to accept it because the "Bible tells us so", well, that's your prerogative. Certainly greater and nobler souls than I have been troubled by such passages, though; and that's not the way I think of the God I worship.

Patrick said...

"Beyond that, if you're comfortable with all the nasty behavior attributed to God which I documented above, and think that's dandy and we just have to accept it because the 'Bible tells us so', well, that's your prerogative."

I wouldn't say I am a Biblical literalist: but the burden is on the people who want to *explain the literal meaning away*. Beneath your citations, all you've really got is "I don't *think* God would do something like that", which is a pretty uncompelling argument*. If I were to say, "I doubt God would throw someone into Gehenna" (Mt. 5:30), and yet here God is talking about *exactly that*, I'd have a pretty heavy burden in explaining why I think God- yes, the God of Pure Love - *wouldn't* throw someone into Gehenna. The burden would be considerably more than "Oh, I doubt the God of pure Love would do *that*", especially because I don't understand *pure Love* (and neither does any other mortal, except Our Blessed Mother.)

As to God's actions being what looks to us like "nasty"; what difference does it make in light of eternal life? Let's say God *actually* destroyed every first born child of the Egyptians - and then assumed them all into Heaven, or at least allowed them in after Christ preached to the dead. That's only *nasty* if you don't consider eternal paradise as much better than the current age. Whose to say what God did with those souls? If he uses these events to show the Jews that He's the One True God, but assumes all of his creatures into the bosom of Abraham and then into Heaven, they can't really be called qualitatively "nasty", even in our limited understanding of it.

So I'm not a literalist or fundamentalist; but I do take the literal meaning in *first* order. Without that, how could you take "Blessed be the merciful, (etc.)" (Mt. 5:7) as literally true? Without that ordering system, you'd be projecting your image of God onto God.

Your last thoughts?

* By the way: what Bible describes the days as 24-hr periods?

Patrick said...

Actually, Tumarion:

I should say that I think the story of Sodom stands for *many* true propositions that aren't mutually exclusive (it could refer to stages a *personal faith journey*, for instance.) And so I'm not saying the literal meaning is the *only* true one, I'm just saying I don't see why the literal meaning is being written off besides the fact that the people writing it off aren't comfortable with God smiting a city.

Ok; you've got the last word.

Turmarion said...

All the same, it will be as well if Jones does not worship the sun and the moon. If he does, there is a tendency for him to imitate them; to say, that because the sun burns insects alive, he may burn insects alive. He thinks that because the sun gives people sun-stroke, he may give his neighbor measles. He thinks that because the moon is said to drive men mad, he may drive his wife mad.--G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

I submit that one who believes that God slaughters or commands the slaughter of all the inhabitants of a city, including innocent children, will tend to think that he may do so as well (see my post above on the Albigensian Crusade). There are people even now who think that this would be an appropriate way to pursue the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya--kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out.

The paradox (to be Chestertonian again) of Christianity is that it looks to eternal paradise as being much greater and more important than this life, and yet, far from denigrating this life, Christianity has been thus motivated to assign even greater importance to it. Remember, most hospitals, schools, charitable organizations, etc. in the West were originally founded by the Church or churches; and today the Church fights against abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty. Thus, to say that killing innocents was somehow OK if they went to Heaven as a result because Heaven's so much better seems to fly in the face of actual Christian practice.

I understand that I can't understand God; but one must be very cautious in making arguments of the sort that He is so far beyond us that we are not to judge, since His understanding and His ethics are far above our petty minds. Traditionally, Thomism posits that we can speak only analogically of God. To say even that God "exists" is an analogy, since He is not one thing among many that "exists". He's on a different level.

However, analogy implies some commonality, otherwise it's meaningless. Obviously God does exist, even if not the way we do. Likewise, God's "love" may be unlike ours, comprehensible only by analogy; but if there's not some commonality, it's meaningless. It would be ridiculous, for example, to assume that God shows His love for us by inflicting torture and pain on us, since you're straining the definition of what "love" even means.

Thus, I read the Bible holistically, with the person of Christ as the norm. He says that God so loved the world that He gave His only son; and that God is love. Thus, I use that as a control in what I take literally or not. If Jesus says, "Blessed are the merciful," that fits, so I take it literally. If I read that God in the Old Testament says, "Kill everyone that pisseth against the wall," that does not seem congruent with the loving God proclaimed by Christ, so I would not take it literally. See?

Finally, we know from historical, linguistic, and archaeological data that many parts of the Old Testament (e.g. Esther, Daniel, Job, and for Catholics Tobit and Judith) are certainly historical fiction written to make an edifying point. Most of the stories before about the time of the monarchy are either obvious myth (such as the Flood or the Tower of Babel) or not able to be proved or disproved. My tendency is to view most of the Old Testament earlier than the time of David as mythological or semi-mythological, given various textual and historical issues way too complex to go into here.

Thus, it may be that the Sodom and Gomorrah story actually happened as stated; or it may be an embellishment of some underlying event; or it may be complete myth. I would say that it's unimportant which is the case--the lesson to be drawn from it is the issue. Anyway, the historicity of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is the only non-negotiable in my view. The rest is icing on the cake.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Why Patrick, when did I say that nothing significant happened at Sodom? I could argue that Jesus, being wholly human, accepted whatever beliefs were handed down, whether or not he knew as God that they were true or false. But I won't bother. I may have questioned whether indulging in sexual acts between individuals of the same sex was, per se, the primary thing that angered God about Sodom.

Hector said...

Re: It would be ridiculous, for example, to assume that God shows His love for us by inflicting torture and pain on us, since you're straining the definition of what "love" even means.

Well, I wouldn't deny that God sometimes inflicts _deserved_ pain on us, as a means of correction, but as you point out, the children of Sodom weren't guilty of anything at all. In general, I'm not a believer that God punishes whole cities or nations, though I do think that moral corruption of one form or another can make a city or nation more liable to be defeated by its enemies.

Re: Thus, I read the Bible holistically, with the person of Christ as the norm.

Yup, that's the way I read it too. I confess that like you say, I've always had some sympathy for Marcion and the Gnostics in that regard, but ultimately I wouldn't follow them all the way. I think we would do well to remember that the Old Testament was included in the canon for two reasons: because Jesus quoted from it and because it prophecied Christ. Therefore, I think it makes a lot of sense to read it with Christ as the norm and the ideal, and to use his life as the standard by which we judge what to take literally and/or seriously, or not.

Re: Finally, we know from historical, linguistic, and archaeological data that many parts of the Old Testament (e.g. Esther, Daniel, Job, and for Catholics Tobit and Judith) are certainly historical fiction written to make an edifying point.

Job is certainly fiction, but I'm not sure I would say that Daniel is necessarily, verifiably fiction (it might at least have a historical core, and let's be honest, the arguments of liberal biblical critics notwithstanding, no one really knows when Daniel was written, and there are arguments both ways). I'd agree that Genesis is almost entirely myth as well, but that's because there is scientific evidence, about evolution and so forth, that disproves it. In general, I'm more in agreement with scientific arguments against the literal truth of Genesis, than with historical arguments against the literal truth of Daniel: because to put it simply, history isn't a science, and doesn't have the same standard of provability that the natural sciences do.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

The Sefer Tanach, aka the "Old Testament" is holy scripture, whether "included in the canon" by this or that batch of humans constituting themselves as a church council, because

a) The Torah is, or at least contains, direct word from God,

b) The Nevi'im (prophets) related, as best they could, unutterable revelations from the same God,

c) the Writings contain a record of God's work with a specific population as a guide toward who and what God is.

All that is true, whether or not it prophesies Christ. Jesus said he came to fulfill the law, not to repeal it.

I believe Job is fiction, a story told with a moral purpose, although I have heard a rabbi assert that Job lived in Egypt and told his story to Moses. I wouldn't assume that Esther or Daniel are fiction. Archaeologists get a lot wrong, like inferring that Ramesses II was the Pharaoh of Exodus, when Ramesses had armies all over the land of Israel. The only period of Egyptian history that fits the events of Exodus is the end of the Middle Kingdom.

Likewise, there are reasonable explanations for the treatment of the Amelekites and Canaanites: these were peculiarly evil cultures, which had to be extirpated in a manner not generally applicable to everyday humdrum human conflict and evil. We can see that, once freed of Nazism and humbled by military defeat, the German people were able to move off in a whole different direction. Apparently it was not so with the Amalekites, reviled alike by the children of Jacob, by the Arabs even before Islam, by the Egyptians...

Turmarion said...

Likewise, there are reasonable explanations for the treatment of the Amelekites and Canaanites: these were peculiarly evil cultures, which had to be extirpated in a manner not generally applicable to everyday humdrum human conflict and evil.

I'd have to vehemently disagree with this. We have no third-party accounts, to my knowledge, of the Amalakites, and from the Biblical accounts, they don't seem any worse than any of the other warlike peoples of the era. Even if one wants to argue that they were somehow uniquely evil, that still doesn't justify slaughter of innocent children, and even of livestock (see 1 Samuel 15).

Also, note here how some modern groups, including Palestinians, have been linked to or considered as Amalekites by some. Any attempts to excuse such genocidal episodes in the Old Testament (or any other Scripture) inevitably results in people like this who are enthusiastically ready to use such passages to justify their murderous agendas.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

The Palestinians, rather foolishly, claimed to be descended fro the Canaanites, in an attempt to make a pre-emptive claim to the land in dispute. There are NO descendants of either the Canaanites or the Amalekites alive today.

I'm not an expert in Talmudic studies, or related Arabic work, but there are Arab sources that refer to a particularly brutal, despised, despotic people who left the Arabian peninsula (to everyone's great relief), and conquered Egypt. The eventual rise of the Egyptian New Kingdom, was in response to the Israelites having made some headway against the Amalekite rulers, who found their opportunity when the Egyptian state was left prostrate after the Exodus. One of the clues is reference to David getting information from an Amalekite's Egyptian slave.

Turmarion said...

There are NO descendants of either the Canaanites or the Amalekites alive today.

Well, that's debatable. As even the Old Testament admits in places, the Canaanites were never totally exterminated (e.g. Joshua 9). Linguistically, the Jews, Canaanites, Phonecians, Moabites, Edomites, and others were West Semitic peoples whose languages were essentially dialects of the same tongue. The Amalekites were probably West Semites, too, but this is less certain. The best evidence is that over time the Canaanites and Amalekites were absorbed into the surrounding peoples and that therefore their descendants would be peoples now referred to as Jews, Arabs, Egyptians, etc.

In any case, from a genetic standpoint, Israelis, Arabs, and other Middle Eastern people are nearly indistinguishable. Ironic, but appropriate--after all, the worst disagreements are within families.

The historical accuracy of the Talmud (especially given that, regarding the Amalekites, it would be dealing with events that happened at least 1200 years before it was written) is debated; and I'm not familiar with the Arabic sources. Still, I stand by my earlier posts--genocide is never justified, and the God I worship does not mandate it.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

The Amalekites were totally wiped out between the efforts of the New Kingdom Egyptians and the united kingdom of Judah and Israel, under Saul and David. Obliterated.

Any Canaanites left around may have descendants, but those descendants would be as impossible to find as the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. This is because the Assyrians had a very consistent policy of moving around everyone in their empire, from the land where they were conquered, to wherever they might prove useful, jumbled together with all the others. It was genocide without actually killing all the individuals.

If you look in Chronicles, the Assyrian king moved people from some other part of his empire into Israel. They eventually asked for a priest to be sent back to "teach them the manner of the God of the land" because they thought they were displeasing this god and losing too many people killed by lions. But the Canaanites, as such, are gone.

I'll agree that genocide is never justified. What I hear from people who ARE Talmudic scholars is that we should be very, very cautious about facilely taking an event from the Tanach and trying to repeat it on our own judgement today. E.g., while the text prescribes death as the penalty for many things, including disobedience by children, a death penalty had to be imposed by the Sanhedrin, and if any Sanhedrin actually approved two executions in a year, it was known as "a Sanhedrin of blood,' so rare was such an eventuality.

Druma said...

A simple calculus to consider.

The number of verses in the Bible about homosexuality: about 6, 3 OT and 3 NT.

The number of verses in the Bible regarding kindness: thousands.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Considering Erin's complete disillusionment with the Republican Party, I wonder if anyone noticed that one of the NO votes in the NY legislature was a Democrat from the Bronx. I doubt it will do him any harm with his inner-city constituency. Nor, I suspect, will his party punish him for it.

Like most single issues, this one cuts across the population in somewhat different contours than any other specific issue. Log cabin Republicans tend to be pro-business, anti-labor. Inner-city Democrats know their voters want a robust minimum wage law, strong support for social programs, and are in large part opposed to any public recognition of homoexuality. There are, of course, many other combinations of pro and con in other individuals and demographics.