David Schuster of MSNBC made a number of tweets today (if you don’t know what that is, go here) decrying Miss California’s stance on gay marriage. In essence, he cited several verses from Leviticus in an attempt to demonstrate that Christians are guilty of cherry picking Biblical prohibitions in order to justify their “bigotry” vis-à-vis homosexuality. The argument goes like this: Christians are happy to ignore all sorts of strange and arcane prohibitions in Leviticus, but they capriciously fixate on the prohibition against homosexuality in Lev. 18:22; if the other prohibitions can be licitly ignored with advantage, there’s no good reason to regard Lev. 18:22 as binding either.
This is actually a common argument, and on its face it has the appearance of merit. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take into account the various categories of law contained in the Mosaic books. Some directly enumerate universal principles that transcend culture (e.g., the Decalogue in Exodus 20). Others apply these universal principles to Israel’s cultural setting; as such, the application cited in the Law is necessarily occasional. In other words, even though the transcendent principle behind certain cultural prohibitions is itself inviolate, we wouldn’t expect it to be applied the exact same way in every cultural context. The task for the modern biblical interpreter is to do the legwork necessary to tell the difference and live accordingly.
For example, Schuster cites Lev. 19:27, which “expressly forbids men from getting their hair trimmed.” In our culture, this seems patently absurd. Most men shave daily before they go to work as a simple matter of personal hygiene and professionalism; to suggest that we are offending God by doing so smacks of lunacy. But the men of the cultures surrounding Israel commonly shaved their hair and beards for occultic purposes (this could be inferred from the context, especially given vv. 26 and 28). Thus, Lev. 19:27 isn’t an arbitrary and silly prohibition; it is, rather, a culturally-attuned application of the universal, Decalogic proscriptions against idolatry and worshiping other gods.
A couple more statements by Schuster, intermingled with my comments:
- If a narrow read of the bible is the last word on “marriage,” what about bible based condemnations of cosmetic surgery?
It’s certainly valid to consider whether or not cosmetic surgery is biblically sanctioned, but does he really mean to suggest that breast implants and homosexuality are morally equivalent? I hope not…
- Lev. 19:19 forbids planting two different crops in the same field or wearing two different kinds of thread Penalty? Lev. 24:10-16 death.
Here, Schuster makes a common error by reading these verses sheerly through the lens of modern experience and sensibilities. In order to make sense of the Bible—particularly the OT—we have to make an effort to understand the milieu of the ancient Near East (ANE). In a nutshell, Israel was an agrarian culture utterly dependent on a good harvest for its very survival. If Schuster’s going to invoke modernity with respect to Lev 19:19, he might do well to observe that modern farmers judiciously avoid planting corn, wheat, and soybeans together in the same field. Perhaps science and experience have taught us that mingling crops ruins both harvest and subsequent generations of seed. If so, God’s prohibition takes into account the fact that such activity in ancient Israel would not only threaten livelihood, but life itself. I don’t know about you, but I can understand why a God who cares for His people would tell them in no uncertain terms, “Do NOT do this.”
Schuster had more to say, which I will address in another post (it’s getting late). But the overarching point here is that the cherry picking Schuster is declaiming against actually isn’t cherry picking at all. It’s a very reasonable bow to the difference between 21st century America and ancient Israel. Even so, a little detective work reveals that these prohibitions Schuster et al find so silly and superfluous actually have both warrant and wisdom behind them. In any case, the occasional nature of these Levitical proscriptions does not give us license to dismiss or ignore the God-given, trans-cultural absolutes they depend on.
I daresay, Mr. Schuster, that Lev. 18:22 is no exception.
aka The MonT-SteR