the divine council of God

divine council
The divine council is the Jewish theological idea that Yahweh holds court in heaven and consults other divine beings (best understood as spirits and angels). In several Biblical descriptions is the setting of a royal court. God has a throne room and His subjects approach Him. Sometimes these divine beings report their activities to God, sometimes God consults these beings, and sometimes God reprimands these beings. From this setting God rules the heavens and the Earth.

Job

The earliest clear reference to this divine council is in the book of Job. In the book of Job, angels report to God:

Job 1:6 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them.

The sons of God (a term often used for angels) report to Yahweh. They circle around God, and from the conversation that ensues, it is likely that the angels are in turn reporting their activities to God. An angel labeled “a satan” (probably not to be misunderstood as the traditional character of Satan) explains to God where and what he was doing. God and satan quickly enter into a frank discussion about human motivations. Together they agree on a test for a righteous man.

This scene repeats itself in the very next chapter with satan answering the exact same questions about his whereabouts. The test is discussed again and the terms are reevaluated. In this account, God is seen conversing with other divine agents. God is shown as entertaining the ideas of these agents. And God is shown exercising kingly sovereignty (both in granting allowance of the test and establishing the limits of the test).

1 Kings 22

In 1 Kings 22, the prophet Micaiah describes a heavenly scene that he has witnessed. In this scene, God is again in this divine courtroom. God sits on a throne surrounded by angels. God queries the angels for ideas. God is intent that King Ahab goes to battle and is slain in the process. God either does not know the best way to accomplish this or is not resolved on a solution. God queries the angels for ideas.

The text describes various angels offering their own ideas (ideas which the text censors as not important). Finally, one angel offers the idea to deceive King Ahab through the use of false prophecy. The angel offers up himself as being a deceiving voice to all the false prophets to tell King Ahab that he will succeed in battle. God endorses this idea and tells the angel to accomplish it.

In this account, there is Kingly imagery of a throne and of a host of subordinate beings. God, exercising sovereignty, solicits ideas and selects the most advantageous idea. Unspoken is the idea that God alone has decided to kill King Ahab, although God’s advisors assist in the method. No beings can or will oppose God in either His decision to kill King Ahab or God’s decision of the method to kill King Ahab.

Psalms 82

In Psalms 82, again there is a scene in which the angels approach God. God is again surrounded by divine beings. God is portrayed as the ultimate authority. God judges among the “gods”:

Psa 82:1 A Psalm of Asaph. God stands in the congregation of the mighty; He judges among the gods.

The word el-o-heem is used for “gods”, a term often used of Yahweh. Sometimes this term is used of spirits (1Sa 28:13) and sometimes it is used for angels (Psa 8:5). It seems to hold connotation with the divine realm.

In this psalm, God is judging among the lesser gods. These angels have been delegated authority by Yahweh to rule the pagan nations and they have failed miserably. As such, God revokes their immortality. God disposes them all of rule and assumes rule of the entire Earth for Himself.

Similar ideas to this lesser tier of divine rulers are found throughout the Bible:

Exo 12:12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD.

Deu 32:8 When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. [ESV uses the Dead Sea Scrolls for this wording.]

1Co 10:20 Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons.

Isaiah 6

In Isaiah 6, Isaiah sees God sitting upon His throne in heaven. God is surrounded by seraphim, singing God’s praises. Isaiah worries because he is seeing the God of Israel and there might be deadly ramifications. A seraphim absolves Isaiah of his sins such that Isaiah does not have to worry.

God then queries the angels, much like 1 Kings 22:

Isa 6:8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”

Isaiah instantly responds. Isaiah is operating as part of the divine council and is answering God’s query. God accepts Isaiah’s offer and informs Isaiah to preach until the people are sick of hearing him. The text offers a small exchange between the two in which Isaiah is allowed to ask questions about his task.

In much the same way as 1 Kings 22, God is commissioning a divine agent. God is willing to accept input and consider options. God is not shy to clarify what He means, even if that means condescending to the questions of mere mortals. In all of this, God is the one deciding on the plan. God is exercising His Kingly duty and exerting His authority. But that does not mean God does not accept input.

Ezekiel 10

In Ezekiel 10, Ezekiel is allowed to glance into the heavenly court. God sits on His throne and is surrounded by cherubim. The scene is very similar to the one described in Isaiah 6. In the text, God acts unilaterally. God commands a man to take burning coals and scatter them over a city. God then positions Himself over the cherubim. The scene is one in which God is view directing normal heavenly operations.

Zechariah 3

In Zerchariah, the prophet is shown a scene in heaven in which Joshua (the high priest of that day) stands before Yahweh in the heavenly courtroom. Satan, the accuser, stands on the left of God. Satan appears to have engaged in a bet, not unlike the bet in Job, concerning the fate of Israel. God proclaims that Joshua is part of the remnant that passed the test. In this scene, God issues a unilateral decree dressing Joshua in clean robes and then promising to bless Joshua if Joshua continues to follow God. This is a sovereign act of Kingship.

This scene could be meant as metaphorical by the author as there are humans entering the divine realm and the context is another possibly metaphorical vision of an angel measuring Jerusalem with a measuring line (Zec 2:1). But even in this case, the author is most likely drawing upon common notions of the normal operations of the divine council.

Daniel 7

In Daniel 7, Daniel has a vision (a dream) of heaven. God is in heaven and is surrounded by the angels. The text numbers the angels:

Dan 7:10 A stream of fire issued and came out from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.

A legal proceeding occurs. Some books are consulted (possible historical records) and judgment is passed on a beast (metaphorically representing a pagan king). The beast is killed and several other beasts are deposed of their kingdoms. These kingships are passed to “the Son of man”. In this vision, God gives Israel an eternal kingdom through this shadowy figure.

This scene, very explicitly metaphorical, shows God executing sovereign judgment in heaven. God is unopposed. God judges based on evidence. God engages in formal legal action.

Revelation 4

In Revelation 4, God is sitting on His throne in the midst of heaven:

Rev 4:2 Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne.

In this case, 24 other thrones sit around God’s throne. God has given position and authority to 24 other individuals. Like Ezekiel, Daniel, and Isaiah, God is surrounded by interesting divine creatures. All the individuals along with the creatures are seen worship God. In chapter 5 the number is placed at “ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands”. This is the same number as mentioned in Daniel 7.

The next chapter details some events in this courtroom. Scrolls are opened and the Earth is judged. This again is echoing the events in Daniel. Throughout the book of Revelation, the Earth is judged until finally there is a scene in which heaven and Earth merge:

Rev 21:2 Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
Rev 21:3 And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.

In this new city on Earth, God will move His divine council:

Rev 22:3 And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him.

The conclusion of Revelation predicts that God will have abolished the heaven/earth divide and will entertain His divine court from Jerusalem. Human beings will be invited to join, but none which are evil or defiled.

The Genesis accounts

In the very first chapter of Genesis, there is some interesting dynamics within the wording of the text:

Gen 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
Gen 1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

El-o-heem is the creative power throughout Genesis 1, but finally in verse 26 El-o-heem consults some sort of audience on the value of creating man in a collective image. In verse 27, El-o-heem creates man in His own image. What is likely happening here is that God is consulting the divine council for advice or objections to creating man. When none exist, God presses forward and creates man.

In Genesis 18, God invites a human being into the divine council. This man is Abraham:

Gen 18:17 The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do,
Gen 18:18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?
Gen 18:19 For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”

In this passage, Abraham is not transported to the divine realm. Instead, God consults Abraham on Earth as if Abraham was in the throne room. Abraham is told about God’s plans and God accepts Abraham’s feedback. In this case, Abraham is personally worried that his nephew will be killed by God and argues that it will be unjust to kill the righteous with the wicked. God concedes this point after a brief conversation on acceptable collateral damage in a national judgment.

In both these Genesis account, God remains sovereign. God makes the decisions. God is the creative or destructive power. But God solicits and accepts advice from others.

Other references

Deu 26:15 Look down from Your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the land which You have given us, just as You swore to our fathers, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” ‘

Psa 80:14 Return, we beseech You, O God of hosts; Look down from heaven and see, And visit this vine

2Ch 20:6 and said: “O LORD God of our fathers, are You not God in heaven, and do You not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations, and in Your hand is there not power and might, so that no one is able to withstand You?

Psa 11:4 The LORD is in His holy temple, The LORD’s throne is in heaven; His eyes behold, His eyelids test the sons of men.

Psa 103:19 The LORD has established His throne in heaven, And His kingdom rules over all.

Psa 115:3 But our God is in heaven; He does whatever He pleases.

Psa 119:89 Forever, O LORD, Your word is settled in heaven.

Every time the Bible references God looking down from heaven and judging, this is a reference to the divine courtroom. God sits in heaven, consulting angels and tasking His agents with missions. God looks down on Earth and passes decrees. This idea is so thoroughly believed throughout the Biblical authors that it could be a book unto itself, all the subtle references.

Even Jesus mentions several places that God is in heaven. Jesus’ prayer is that God’s will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. The idea is that God should more fully judge the Earth to the same extent that heaven is judged. This could very well be in line with the merging of heaven and Earth described in Revelation 22. In fact, Jesus says “Your kingdom come”. Jesus was praying for God’s divine council to be brought to Earth.

Conclusion

The divine council is very well attested Jewish theology. God established a court in heaven. In this court, God entertained angels, passed judgment, issued decrees, and engaged in all types of Kingly functions. God is shown with absolute power, but often entertains the ideas of His subjects. Subjects are allowed, at times, frank conversations with God. God hears them out and answers them. In all of this, God is portrayed as obliging yet sovereign.

Posted in Bible, God, Omnipotence, Omniscience, Theology | 1 Comment

Jesus was not a pacifist

Jesus Whip

Whenever the teachings of Jesus are examined it is important not to divorce Jesus from his historical setting. As Bart Ehrman points out in his lectures, Jesus does not spend much time teaching monotheism. Jesus is preaching to a Jewish audience. As such, Jesus does not have to lecture them about monotheism. Everyone already was under the assumption of monotheism.

Likewise, Jesus does not talk much about circumcision or temple sacrifice. Jesus did not disagree with his audience and had no reason to address those issues. Instead, Jesus’ ministry is best seen as apocalyptic in nature. Jesus did not teach morality (he did not teach people the nuances of morality). Instead Jesus sought to prepare his audience (Israel) for the coming Kingdom of God. The message was clear: repent of your sins and be saved. Along with this message, Jesus taught his audience how to prepare for this coming Kingdom: Abandon your family. Abandon your wealth. Abandon your regard for your own life. The expectation of his audience would be that they would be rewarded 100 times what they gave up.

Within the apocalyptic context, it was clear that Jesus’ hearers needed to take drastic action to advert the imminent wrath of God. As Jesus said: “It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.”

God was to be both judge and savior to Israel. To Jesus, God was soon returning and God’s angels would round up the wicked of the earth, slaughtering them all:

Mat 13:38 The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one,
Mat 13:39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.
Mat 13:40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.
Mat 13:41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers,
Mat 13:42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Mat 13:43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

This ultra-violent message resonates with standard Jewish eschatology.

Isa 13:9 Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it.

Jer 46:10 That day is the day of the Lord GOD of hosts, a day of vengeance, to avenge himself on his foes. The sword shall devour and be sated and drink its fill of their blood. For the Lord GOD of hosts holds a sacrifice in the north country by the river Euphrates.

Eze 30:3 For the day is near, the day of the LORD is near; it will be a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations.

Eze 30:7 And they shall be desolated in the midst of desolated countries, and their cities shall be in the midst of cities that are laid waste.

Amo 5:16 Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of hosts, the Lord: “In all the squares there shall be wailing, and in all the streets they shall say, ‘Alas! Alas!’ They shall call the farmers to mourning and to wailing those who are skilled in lamentation,
Amo 5:17 and in all vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through your midst,” says the LORD.
Amo 5:18 Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light,

In Jewish eschatology, God was to return to Earth, kill the wicked, and establish Israel as the primary rulers of the Earth. God would rule from Jerusalem and the pagan nations who remained would bring tribute. This is not a nice and peaceful image. The image is of impending doom for the wicked. Jesus taught this message wherever he went:

Mar 1:14 Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God,
Mar 1:15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

God’s kingdom was at hand. This was Jesus’ primary message. This is not one of peace and non-violence. Jesus’ mindset was apocalyptic. To Jesus, his audience was to repent of their sins or die a violent death:

Mat 25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory.
Mat 25:32 All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats.
Mat 25:33 And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.
Mat 25:34 Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

Mat 25:41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

We see this concept in many of Jesus’ parables. In the parable of the wedding guests, the King kills those who defy him. The King also imprisons any who fail to live up to his standards. In the parable of the talents, the nobleman gathers together his enemies and kills them. In the parable of the husbandmen, the vineyard owner kills the evil servants. In the parable of the weeds, the weeds are tossed into the fire. In the parable of the barren fig tree, the tree is chopped down. Jesus taught explicit Old Testament eschatology, and this was his primary message.

If Jesus was a primarily moral teacher (as commonly claimed), it would be odd that his message was limited to Israel. If Jesus overturned concepts concerning the law it would be odd that he enjoyed any semblance of popularity (did Jesus’ critics even claim that Jesus overturned the law?). The teachings of Jesus, then, have to be first and foremost understood as Jewish in nature. If there is a way that Jesus’ teachings can be viewed as aligning with Old Testament theology, that should be the default position: Jesus taught Jewish theology. His teaching did not overturn Jewish law, but expanded upon it.

The starting stance for understanding Jesus’ position on pacifism is understanding the Old Testament’s position on violence. As one would expect from a warrior race who engaged in wars of conquest, the Old Testament condones violence. One of the first governmental acts of Israel is to stone to death someone working on the Sabbath:

Num 15:32 Now while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day.

Num 15:35 Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.”
Num 15:36 So, as the LORD commanded Moses, all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones, and he died.

Jesus should not be expected to repudiate this act, or the vigilantism that the Old Testament established in absence of the human monarchy. Death was a common penalty for violating God’s laws. And Jesus claims time and time again to uphold the law.

Some of Jesus’ statements have been misconstrued as pacifism. Such statements need to be understood in the context of Jesus’ apocalyptic ministry. Reza Alsan writes in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth:

In any case, neither the commandment to love one’s enemies nor the plea to turn the other cheek is equivalent to a call for nonviolence or nonresistance . Jesus was not a fool. He understood what every other claimant to the mantle of the messiah understood: God’s sovereignty could not be established except through force. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the Kingdom of God has been coming violently, and the violent ones try to snatch it away” (Matthew 11: 12 | Luke 16: 16).

That is not to say that Jesus thought his rag-tag band of disciples was going to defeat Rome. On the contrary, he assumed God would do it for them. That is, after all , what God had always done for the Jews. It was God who drowned Pharaoh’s army, not the Israelites (Exodus 14). It was God who brought down the walls of Jericho, not Joshua’s trumpet (Joshua 6). God destroyed the Amalekites and the Jebusites. He hurled stones from heaven upon the Amorites, killing every last one of them (Joshua 10). He exterminated the Canaanites so the Jews could have this land in the first place. God had defeated Israel’s enemies in the past and he would do so again, but only if his followers remained faithful and zealous for the Lord.

Aslan is correct. Jesus was not looking for a general Jewish insurrection (although he may not have opposed a successful one). Instead, Jesus was looking for God to do the heavy lifting. Assumedly, once the army of angels began their slaughter of the wicked, believers could join their ranks. Until that time, Jesus’ hearers were to wait and pray to hasten the Day of the Lord (2Pe 3:12).

In short, Jesus’ message was primarily violence. To Jesus, the right and proper destination of the wicked was a painful and swift death. It was not inclusive pacifism (Jesus did not “tolerate” sin), not of the brand that is popular in modern America. Jesus’ calls “not to resist oppressors” was definitely not being advocated as a timeless value to apply to all places and times. It generally is not applicable to the American ideal. For that, the Old Testament should be sought as the guide for rightly and wrongly distributed justice.

Posted in Bible, Jesus, Kingdom Theology, Morality, Theology | Leave a comment

popehat discusses how power corrupts judges

In reference to the recent story where a judge kidnapped children for refusing to have a meaningful relationship with their father:

Judge Lisa Gorcyca has power because she’s a judge. She’s infuriated that her power is, for the moment, insufficient to make children do what she wants. She’s not angry in the abstract because kids ought to have good relationships with their dads. She’s apoplectic that children are disrespecting her power by not bending to her will. She’s been elevated beyond her ability and character: given power, and lacking the maturity or intellect to wield it justly, reduced to snarling at nine-year-olds in excruciating family circumstances when (depending on whom you believe) they don’t either suck up to an abuser or successfully resist an abuser’s overwhelming influence.

On rants by judges:

This is obscure and mysterious to people who aren’t litigators, and obvious and familiar to people who are. Many — perhaps even most — judges are decorous and professional, at least on their good days, and don’t indulge themselves in rants. But there are plenty of judges (including good judges having bad days) who use the bench as a bully pulpit. They are Ayn Rand, and the attorneys and parties are the readers subjected to 50-page monologues. They are the hideous bore at the cocktail party, only with the power to jail you for contempt if you try to find a polite excuse to escape to the kitchen or the bathroom. They have the power to indulge themselves, and so they do. They mistake power — symbolized by their robes and gavel and high seat — for being right, for being apt, for having actual insight.

On a judge attempting to jail people for private conversations about him:

Judge Grendell is engaged in a grotesque abuse of his judicial power — the very worst sort of black robe fever — to vent his childish pique. This sort of thing happens more often than you might think. It’s not unique to judges. It’s the way too many humans act when given power. Judges are only unique in the extent of their privileges and their tendency to evade consequences for bad behavior.

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what book was discovered during the temple repairs

In 2 Kings 22, King Josiah discovers the “Book of the Law” while repairing the temple:

2Ki 22:8 And Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the LORD.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it.
2Ki 22:9 And Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, “Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house and have delivered it into the hand of the workmen who have the oversight of the house of the LORD.”
2Ki 22:10 Then Shaphan the secretary told the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read it before the king.
2Ki 22:11 When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes.
2Ki 22:12 And the king commanded Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam the son of Shaphan, and Achbor the son of Micaiah, and Shaphan the secretary, and Asaiah the king’s servant, saying,
2Ki 22:13 “Go, inquire of the LORD for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found. For great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.”

The question must be asked: what book did he discover? Christine Hayes answers in her Introduction to the Bible:

What was this scroll of the Torah that was “discovered” during Temple repairs. The scholarly consensus is that the scroll described in 2 Kgs 22 was Deuteronomy, or at least its legal core. First, the phrase “scroll of the Torah” appears once in the book of Deuteronomy but does not appear in Genesis through Numbers. Second, rural shrines and pillars in the worship of Yahweh are deemed to be legitimate in J and E; it is only Deuteronomy that contains instructions to destroy worship at local altars. Moreover, the story in 2 Kgs 22 describes the celebration of the Passover after the reforms are instituted. The celebration is not a family observance as depicted in older biblical sources, but a national pilgrimage festival celebrated by all the nation in Jerusalem, precisely as it is described in Deuteronomy. In short, there are several reasons to suppose that the scroll discovered by King Josiah corresponded in many ways to the oldest core of Deuteronomy.

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what was the sin of sodom

be that guyDisclaimer: This is not an article defending or condemning homosexuality or an article defending Sodom as an historical event. Instead, this is a scholarly attempt to understand what the author of Genesis 17-18 believed were the major categories of sin causing the destruction of Sodom. This article also explores the early Jewish and Christian mentality towards homosexuality. It is important not to let modern biases influence a recreation of early Judaeo-Christian theology.

There are claims which have to be taken seriously that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were not punished for being homosexual. An alternative understanding is that the cities used rape as a way to keep out foreigners. There is evidence for this in later Jewish sources as well as possible evidence in the original text. But this evidence is not compelling in light of the source material.

This claim (which diverts the attention of the reader to xenophobia rather than homosexuality, which seems to be the political goal of modern critics) is not warranted by the text and masks the fact that homosexuality was probably still a major cause of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the eyes of the writer. The primary account of this event is found in Genesis 19. We have to assume all later accounts are predicated on this particular retelling, and thus their understandings of the text are as valid as a modern reader’s. Yale professor Christine Hayes writes about Sodom:

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah has often been cited as a condemnation of homosexuality, the assumption being that the Sodomites were destroyed for homosexual intercourse with the divine visitors. The very terms sodomy and sodomize represent such an interpretation. But the idea that the fundamental sin of Sodom was its homosexual nature is not at all clear in the Hebrew Bible (it is suggested in later interpretations found in the Christian New Testament such as [Jude] 7 and 2 Peter 2: 6– 10 and subsequent texts). The Sodomites are guilty of gang rape, and the gender of the victims is hardly relevant. The Sodomites, like the generation of the flood, stand condemned by the “outcry” against them, a Hebrew term generally associated with the appeal of victims of violence, bloodshed, and oppressive injustice (Sarna, Genesis, 144– 146). The Sodomites’ violation of the unwritten desert law of hospitality to strangers, their violent desire to abuse the strangers they should have been sheltering, is evidently merely one instance of their violent brutality.

As Hayes points out: the text is unspecific about the primary outcry against Sodom. It could be violence, or rape, or general injustice. Hayes also points out that by the time of 1st century Judiasm that there is definite evidence that the popular understanding of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah revolved around punishment for homosexuality:

Jud 1:7 just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

2Pe 2:6 if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;
2Pe 2:7 and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked

The phrase “unnatural desire” might be the clearest wording indicating punishment for homosexuality. The idea is a sexual compulsion. Paul uses this wording to describe homosexuality:

Rom 1:26 For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature.
Rom 1:27 Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.

But within the source text, again, the specific charges are not listed. There is a general outcry. In Genesis 18, the story begins with God hearing an outcry from/about Sodom and Gomorrah.

Gen 18:20 Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave,
Gen 18:21 I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”

This is the reason that God is going to Sodom and Gomorrah. This is the reason God is planning to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. God has heard a litany of accusations against the city. The reader is to understand that the city is just entrenched in sin. There is not going to be “one category of sin” for which God will destroy the cities.

God sends delegates to see if the reports are true. They are tasked with surveying the city and verifying the rumors. It is interesting to note that the angels don’t ever seem to accomplish their survey. In the narrative of Genesis 19, they are quickly accosted once they enter the city and are violently extracted. We do not know if any or all of the rumors were verified. We also do not know if the violent confrontation served as general verification of unrelated rumors. In short, both Genesis 18 and 19 give the reader no solid “sins” for which Sodom and Gomorrah are being destroyed.

Back in Genesis 18, Abraham convinces God to spare the cities if even 10 righteous people can be found. God agrees and sends His messengers to survey the city. The angels enter Sodom:

Gen 19:1 Now the two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and he bowed himself with his face toward the ground.
Gen 19:2 And he said, “Here now, my lords, please turn in to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you may rise early and go on your way.” And they said, “No, but we will spend the night in the open square.”
Gen 19:3 But he insisted strongly; so they turned in to him and entered his house. Then he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.

The first thing that happens is that the angels meet Lot. Lot is a righteous man and will eventually be spared by God. This is probably who Abraham was trying to save in his negotiations with God (Lot was Abraham’s nephew). Lot senses danger for the angels, who Lot considers as foreigners. In Lot’s estimations, it would be dangerous for two men to spend the night in the town square. Lot invites them to his house to protect them:

Gen 19:4 Now before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both old and young, all the people from every quarter, surrounded the house.
Gen 19:5 And they called to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know them carnally.”

Word spreads that Lot has these strangers, and “both old and young” men surround the house demanding to rape the guests. The idea is that the entire town is complicit. They all want their turn with the strangers. Could this be because of xenophobia or because they all want fresh bodies to feed their sexual appetite?

Gen 19:6 So Lot went out to them through the doorway, shut the door behind him,
Gen 19:7 and said, “Please, my brethren, do not do so wickedly!
Gen 19:8 See now, I have two daughters who have not known a man; please, let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you wish; only do nothing to these men, since this is the reason they have come under the shadow of my roof.”

Lot confronts the mob. He offers them a substitute: his own daughters. Apparently Lot was under the impression that the mob wanted to satisfy their sexual appetites. Lot does not seem to be under the impression this is some sort of xenophobic action. His solution is to appease the mob with a diversion. But the mob is not satisfied. They become enraged at Lot because Lot continually judges them. They say that they will rape Lot as well (further adding evidence that their sexual desires were the major motivation for the confrontation) and then attempt to break through his door:

Gen 19:9 And they said, “Stand back!” Then they said, “This one came in to stay here, and he keeps acting as a judge; now we will deal worse with you than with them.” So they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near to break down the door.

The angels flashbang the mob:

Gen 19:11 And they struck the men who were at the doorway of the house with blindness, both small and great, so that they became weary trying to find the door.

Again, there is a sense that this event encouraged the entire city to show up. Both small and great are blinded. The mob is dazed and confused.

After this, the angels take Lot’s family to safety as the city is promptly destroyed:

Gen 19:24 Then the LORD rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the LORD out of the heavens.

So, the xenophobia account of this event does not seem to hold water. The only hint of xenophobia is the implicit understanding the angels were strangers. Lot does not argue in a fashion that counters xenophobia, but counters sexual proclivities. God seems to destroy Sodom after viewing this event and this event alone. In all probability, God ultimately destroys Sodom for the sin of militant homosexuality (perhaps if the crowd backed down or accepted Lot’s offer then the angels would have stayed to investigate the city longer). This sin proves the other host of complaints against Sodom.

Elsewhere, the Bible comments on Sodom’s sins:

Eze 16:49 Look, this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughter had pride, fullness of food, and abundance of idleness; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.
Eze 16:50 And they were haughty and committed abomination before Me; therefore I took them away as I saw fit.

This passage has also been used to claim that Sodom was not destroyed for homosexuality. A couple notes about this passage in Ezekiel. First, Ezekiel is speaking to Israel. Ezekiel is insulting Israel by comparing Israel to Sodom. So even if Sodom was primarily destroyed for homosexuality, it would not behoove Ezekiel to make this point. Ezekiel wants to draw points of similarity between Israel and Sodom. Homosexuality would not be conducive to this comparison.

Ezekiel seems to leave an “out”. If anyone claims homosexuality was the primary reason for Sodom’s destruction, Ezekiel could claim it was part of his broad category of “abominations”. Homosexuality is called an abomination elsewhere in the Bible:

Lev 20:13 If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.

Unlike laws against mixed fabrics (Deu 22:11, Lev 19:19), the law against homosexuality actually held a criminal penalty (death). Interestingly enough, death was the punishment given to those in Sodom. Every other sin listed by Ezekiel (pride, gluttony, sloth, neglect of the poor) all do not accompany any penalties, only a general condemnation. Ezekiel claims Israel is worse than Sodom, which can be easily explained by Israel’s sacrificing their own children to false gods (Eze 16:36). Child sacrifice could easily outweigh homosexual acts in the mind of Ezekiel.

Second, the writers of the Bible often take care to use euphemisms when dealing with vulgar topics. Even within the Genesis 19 narrative, the people want to “know” the strangers. This is not a meet and greet, but a rape. Adam “knows” his wife and they conceive a child. In Leviticus 18, having sexual relations with someone is “uncovering” their nakedness and the nakedness of their spouse. Sleep is often used instead of death. The Bible is keen on euphemisms when talking about vulgar topics. There is no reason to think that “abomination” is not a stand-in for homosexual behavior or other sexual acts.

On a side note: It would be interesting if Sodom was both rich and lazy while harboring hatred of foreigners. Trade is the key to wealth. Societies that do not trade or who erect barriers to trade often stagnate and fail. If Sodom is rich, it maintains foreign relations.

There are some interpretations of the Genesis 19 which focus on the attempted rape. Rape also was a crime worthy of death (Deu 22:25), but it is a mistake to think that if the rape was not present then the city would have survived. Homosexuality, whenever it is addressed in the Bible, is condemned. In the New Testament, Paul writes a very clear description of homosexuality:

Rom 1:26 For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature.
Rom 1:27 Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.

And Paul caps this with a claim that these individuals are all worthy of death:

Rom 1:32 who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.

This idea is carried forward into the apocryphal book, the Apocalypse of Peter:

31. And other men and women were being hurled down from a great cliff and reached the bottom, and again were driven by those who were set over them to climb up upon the cliff, and thence were hurled down again, and had no rest from this punishment: and these were they who defiled their bodies acting as women; and the women who were with them were those who lay with one another as a man with a woman.

Homosexuality was universally condemned in Judaism at the time of Jesus and before. This is apparent in many of the church fathers. Every time the subject is broached, it is condemned in the sharpest of terms.

Athenagoras writes:

For those who have set up a market for fornication and established infamous resorts for the young for every kind of vile pleasure,–who do not abstain even from males, males with males committing shocking abominations, outraging all the noblest and comeliest bodies in all sorts of ways, so dishonouring the fair workmanship of God (for beauty on earth is not self-made, but sent hither by the hand and will of God),–these men, I say, revile us for the very things which they are conscious of themselves, and ascribe to their own gods, boasting of them as noble deeds, and worthy of the gods.

Tertullian writes:

I should suppose the coupling of two males to be a very shameful thing, or else the one must be a female, and so the male is discredited by the female.

Embedded in a long rant against homosexuality (which cannot be misinterpreted by apologists), Clement of Alexandria writes:

Such was predicted of old, and the result is notorious: the whole earth has now become full of fornication and wickedness. I admire the ancient legislators of the Romans: these detested effeminacy of conduct; and the giving of the body to feminine purposes, contrary to the law of nature, they judged worthy of the extremest penalty, according to the righteousness of the law.

With a long history of anti-homosexual positions taken throughout Judaism and ancient Christianity, one would be hard pressed to make a claim that the Bible supports homosexuality, embraces it, and that homosexuality was not a major factor in the destruction of Sodom. The mass of evidence flows counter to this.

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hebrew versus greek thought

Hebrew theology started with the premise that Yahweh is God. Yahweh’s characteristics are determined through the examination of Yahweh’s thoughts and deeds. Only after a wide array of Yahweh’s thoughts and actions are examined does Hebrew thought assign predicates to God. God is not powerful “because He is God” but because Yahweh created the universe, freed Israel from Egypt, parted the Red Sea, and many more power acts it is that Yahweh is powerful. The power acts are surveyed and a general attribute is established. Any general label applied to God, found in the Bible, is the result of mapping out general trends and characteristics.

Greek theology differs from Hebrew theology in that it starts with the premise that god is defined by a series of attributes. These attributes are deduced through logical proofs (the validity of which is debatable). The attributes are usually based on quantifying god. How much power does god have: “all power”. Where is god: “nowhere” or “everywhere”. God is described through Negative Attributes (attributes that distance from creation) rather than qualifying attributes (attributes in common with creation).

In Greek theology, any action or act by god is then filtered through these attributes. If omnipotence declares that god can do anything, then all acts are interpreted in this light. If God frees Israel from Egypt, that is because god can do anything. If immutability declares that god does not change, then any event that appears like a change must be reinterpreted. In Genesis 6, God does not repent of His own actions of making man, but is instead said to grieve over an event He already knew would happen.

Colin E. Gunton speaks the differences between Greek and Hebrew thought in his Act and Being:

Greeks appear to stress a theology of divine being, Hebrews of divine action… there is a tendency [for theologians] to identify the divine attributes by a list of ‘omni’s’ and negatives – omnipotent, omniscience, omnipresent, infinite, eternal, and the rest – and then paste on to them conceptions of divine actions

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann speaks on this in Theology of the Old Testament:

Israel’s characteristic adjectival vocabulary about Yahweh is completely lacking in terms that have dominated classical theology, such as omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. This sharp contrast suggested that classical theology, insofar as it is dominated by such interpretive categories and such concerns, is engaged in issues that are not crucial for Israel’s testimony about Yahweh and are in fact quite remote from Israel’s primary utterance…

The Old Testament, in its discernment of Yahweh, is relentlessly committed to the recognition that all of reality, including the reality of Yahweh, is relational, relative to the life and destiny of Israel. And the God of Israel has no propensity to be otherwise than related to Israel.

The primary problem with the Greek mode of thought is that all the statements become highly subjective. Christians are merely assuming attributes that make God the God-being. These attributes, as shown from the diversity of religions in the world, are highly speculative and arbitrary. This mode of thought also functions as a rejection of the Bible, which is a highly Jewish document bred in Jewish theological thought.

The Bible does not attempt to reinterpret the text in light of overriding attributes. Thus, while God is described as being longsuffering and having infinite mercy (1Ch 16:34; Psa 106:1, 107:1, 118:1, 136:1), the text allows God to show a lack of mercy to King Saul (whose repentance was rejected by God), Pharaoh (who was singled out for destruction), and Ananias/Sapphira (who committed an infraction and was not given a chance to repent), to name a few.

This is an important point to make. A reader cannot just copy and paste various phrases about God that are found throughout the Bible and then form a Systematic Theology from those phrases. Those phrases, in themselves, are usually generalities formed with counter-examples in plain view. To make those phrases absolute and then deny the counter-examples would be proverbially “putting the cart before the horse”.

It is a great mistake to engage in Greek theology when the Jewish theological tradition stands in stark contrast. The Bible tells people God’s character through God’s acts and thoughts. The Bible does not allow overriding principles of what God “should be” to override the narrative or testimony about God. Any argument premised in the fashion that “God would cease to be God, if true” should be rejected as pagan and un-Biblical.

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Jesus did not overturn the law

Law-ScrollIt is widely believed that Jesus overturned aspects of the Law. In Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lists a series of antitheses. These are statements that follow a particular formula: “You have heard it said… but I say to you”. In English, the word “but” usually detonates some sort of reversal. Dr. James F. McGrath (Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis) states that perhaps a better translation would be “and”. The formula should be “You have heard it said… and I say to you”. Jesus is not overturning the law, but expounding and expanding upon the law. Jesus makes this very clear in his introduction to the antitheses:

Mat 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
Mat 5:18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
Mat 5:19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Mat 5:20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

A few things of note: Jesus states that he has not come to abolish the Law (the exact opposite of what people claim of the antitheses in the very next verses). Jesus states that heaven and earth will pass away before the law is changed. This seems clearly idiomatic to mean the laws will never pass away. Jesus blesses those who teach the law and curses those who lessen the laws. It would be unfathomable that Jesus then preaches to lessen the law in the very next verses. Jesus then gives what is probably the theme of the antithesis: people must exceed the righteousness of the law to enter the kingdom of heaven (v20).

Jesus, quite simply, was telling people how to be more righteous than the law prescribes. This is by Jesus’ own interpretation of his words. Bart Ehrman writes:

An “antithesis” is a contrary statement. In the six antitheses recorded in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus states a Jewish law, and then sets his interpretation of that law over against it. I should emphasize that Matthew does not portray Jesus as contradicting the law: for example, he does not say “You have heard it said, `You shall not commit murder,’ but I say to you that you should.” Instead, even here in the antitheses, Jesus urges his followers to adhere to the law, indeed, to do so even more rigorously than the religious leaders of Israel. The contrasts of the antitheses, then, are between the way the law is commonly interpreted and the way Jesus interprets it. In all of these antitheses he goes to the heart of the law in question, to its root intention as it were, and insists that his followers adhere to *that*, rather than to the letter of the law as strictly interpreted.

The Antitheses

Mat 5:21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’
Mat 5:22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

Do only do not murder, but do not even harbor ill feelings towards someone.

Mat 5:27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’
Mat 5:28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Not only do not have an affair, but don’t even think about doing so.

Mat 5:31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’
Mat 5:32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

While you are permitted to divorce your wife, learn to forgive and forbear her faults.

Mat 5:33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’
Mat 5:34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,
Mat 5:35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
Mat 5:36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
Mat 5:37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No'; anything more than this comes from evil.

While you are permitted to swear on God’s name, make it unnecessary by just doing what you say you are going to do.

Mat 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
Mat 5:39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

This antithesis has caused particular trouble with modern audiences due to the “harsh” reading of the original command. But the original command was tempering retribution. Ehrman writes:

A final example: the law says to take an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (5:38). This law serves to guarantee justice in the community, so that if a neighbor knocks out your tooth, you cannot lop off his head in exchange. That is to say, contrary to the way in which this law is commonly understood today, it was not originally meant to be vindictive, but merciful: the penalty should fit and not exceed the crime. Since, however, the root of this law is a principal of mercy, Jesus draws the radical conclusion: instead of inflicting a penalty on another, his followers should prefer to suffer wrong. Therefore, someone who is struck on one cheek should turn the other to be struck as well. As can be seen from these examples, far from absolving his followers of the responsibility to keep the law, Matthew’s Jesus intensifies the law, requiring his followers to keep not just its letter, but its very spirit. This intensification of the law, however, raises a number of questions…

While you can avenge up to parity, you should forgive and learn to live in peace.

Mat 5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
Mat 5:44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

While you are permitted to hate your enemies, you should learn to love and care for them.

Jesus ends the antitheses with another summary of his sermon:

Mat 5:48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

So what is Jesus doing here? Is he prescribing impossible standards which no one can ever meet to prove some sort of point about grace? Unlikely, there is nothing in the context to suggest this is the case. Is Jesus serious? All humans should hope the standards are a little more lax then the face value reading. Is Jesus speaking hyperbolically? This could be the case and would fit a lot of how Jesus communicated to his listeners.

Ehrman possibly has the best understanding of the purpose of the antitheses. They were meant to highlight the underlying basis of the law and to avoid legalistic following of the law. Ehrman concludes:

At the same time, Matthew does not simply describe a detailed list of what Jesus’ followers must do and not do in order to enter into the Kingdom. On the contrary, his point seems to be that an overly scrupulous attention to the details of the law is not what really matters to God. Even scribes and Pharisees can adhere to laws once they are narrowly enough prescribed, for example, by not murdering and not committing and not eating forbidden foods. God wants more than this kind of strict obedience to the letter of the law.

To Jesus, the purpose of the law could be summed up by loving God and loving your neighbor. As Jesus states explicitly:

Mat 22:36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”
Mat 22:37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
Mat 22:38 This is the great and first commandment.
Mat 22:39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Mat 22:40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Jesus’ purpose was never to overturn the law. Jesus required strict adherence to not only the law but a stricter standard than the law prescribed. Those who sought to lessen the penalty or force of the law were rejected by Jesus. Jesus wanted all people to be perfect as God is in heaven.

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