Balak: The Good, The Bad, and The Gay

In some years, Parshas Balak is read together with Parshas Chukas. For it is the selfless commitment implied by the name Chukas which makes possible the transformation of evil into good. When a person fans the spark of G-dliness in his soul and expresses it through unbounded devotion to the Torah, he influences his environment, negating undesirable influences and transforming them into good.

And as this pattern spreads throughout the world, we draw closer to the fulfillment of the prophecies mentioned in this week’s Torah reading: (Numbers 24:17, cited by Rashi, Rambam, and others as a reference to Mashiach.) “A star shall emerge from Yaakov, and a staff shall arise in Israel, crushing all of Moab’s princes, and dominating all of Seth’s descendants.”

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“Remembering What Should Be Forgotten”
In the Garden of the Torah series
Commentary on Torah Portion Balak

Just to let you know, I’m probably going to break every rule that was ever made about writing a commentary on a Torah Portion. In fact, it will probably seem like I’m stretching credibility beyond all reasonable limits. So if you want to take exception for the content of today’s “morning meditation,” you’ll have to look elsewhere. Oh, and today’s “meditation” is really long. Sorry. Just worked out like that. Remember, you have been warned.

In reading Rabbi Touger’s statements which I quoted above, I was captured by phrase, “negating undesirable influences and transforming them into good.” On the surface, they sound a lot like something many Christians would be familiar with.

What Satan intended for evil, God intended for good.

This isn’t in the Bible exactly, and it’s actually adapted from something Joseph said to his brothers (the ones who tried to kill him) after Joseph revealed his true identity to them (along with the fact that he was still alive).

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. –Genesis 50:20 (ESV)

You can probably point to events in your life when something happened that looked like it was going to be trouble or something actually caused trouble, but it eventually worked out to be some sort of advantage or had a good outcome.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. I just wanted to get that particularly viewpoint out of the way.

The evil “wizard” Balaam was hired by Balak, a King, to use his abilities to curse the Children of Israel. If you have even a tenuous familiarity with this week’s Torah Portion, you know about this. You should also know that God told Balaam that he was forbidden to perform the curses and, as it turns out, every time Balaam tried to curse the Israelites at Balak’s behest, he uttered blessings instead.

What was intended to be evil actually turned out to be a good thing.

However, we could spin this idea in another direction. We could say that something that was once considered evil (or undesirable, or unacceptable, or intolerable) has turned out to be good.

Such as being gay and even gay sex.

I separate the two because being gay isn’t really an issue in the Bible since God doesn’t forbid a person from being attracted to the same-sex. He simply forbids the Israelite men from having sex with other men.

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. –Leviticus 18:22 (ESV)

In virtually the same breath, God also forbids an Israelite man from having sex with a woman during her menstrual period, having sex with his neighbor’s wife, and having sex with an animal. Most of these “thou shalt nots” make sense to Christians and they are all part of the list of unlawful sexual relations we find in Leviticus 18 (which a friend of mine calls, “the icky chapter” of Leviticus).

Progressive liberal thought has, for decades, supported the right of people to behave freely in accordance with their sexual orientation, be that straight, gay, bi, or transsexual, but in recent months, it’s almost become “popular” to be gay or to be straight and to support gay causes. We see this in everything from President Obama’s public statements supporting gay marriage to how gay relationships are being depicted in comic books.

Politics and children’s entertainment make strange bedfellows.

But it brings up the question that if mainstream politics, entertainment, social discourse, and even comic books are progressing beyond mere tolerance of the LGBT community into active support and promotion of what is being called “marriage equality,” then what impact will this have on the world of religion?

Greenberg-weddingAfter all, atheists and progressives have traditionally portrayed religious people in general and Christians in particular as being backward, superstitious, intolerant, and even bigoted. With the continued dynamic shift in attitudes toward supporting LGBT in the larger culture, what increased social pressure will be applied to people of faith who have long been considered (and in most cases, rightly so) anti-gay? Has acceptance or rejection of LGBT and specifically marriage equality become the litmus test of the progressive left as applied to religion?

It would seem so. But contrary to how Christianity has been painted with the same, broad brush by the media, how the church (I use that term in the most generic sense) responds to homosexuality including homosexual acts, is split along political lines (and Jesus is once again being dragged into the political arena, whether he wants to be or not).

It’s in these contentious times that I do what culturally-concerned Christians should do — turn to Will Ferrell for insight. And insight he brings us…

Yes, it’s the legendary “dear Lord Baby Jesus” scene (from the 2006 film Talladega Nights), where Ricky Bobby prays to the Jesus he likes best, which of course triggers an intensely thought-provoking discussion:

Kyle Naughton, Jr: “I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt because it says, like, I wanna be formal, but I’m here to party too. I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party.”

Walker (or is it Texas Ranger?): “I like to picture Jesus as a ninja, fighting off evil samurai.”

The whole scene is basically a three minute summary of much of what passes for contemporary Christian theology. We invent the Jesus we like best, name that version the God we serve (or partner with), and then find the church (or friend group) that aligns with our vision and — voila! — we’ve got our faith. To be clear, our version of Jesus typically corresponds with some of his attributes, but the picture is always so woefully incomplete.

Gay Rights Jesus is about sex, love, acceptance, and — above all — no judgment (except of course, you can judge someone else’s alleged intolerance). Gay Rights Jesus isn’t bound by your antiquated notions of sexual morality anymore than he’s bound by antiquated dietary rules that maybe involve shellfish . . . or something.

-from “Homosexuality, Morality, and Talladega Nights Theology”

Irreverent though the quote may be, it tells a certain amount of truth about how we treat religion, adapting it (and Jesus) to fit the moral, ethical, and popular agendas of our society and ourselves.

But it prompts the nasty question of whether or not “commandments” can be adapted, or were intended to be adapted based on the needs of each generation? A blatant example from Judaism are things like cars and microwave ovens that didn’t exist when the Torah was given at Sinai, and they still didn’t exist during the time of Jesus or the later Talmudic period. Once they were invented, someone asked a Rabbi if they could be used on Shabbat, and Rabbinic authority had to consider the Torah and the relevant halakah and render a decision. The commandments regarding Shabbat had to be adapted to fit the needs of the current generation.

But homosexuality wasn’t “invented” recently since the Bible records the prohibition of an Israelite man having sex with another man back in the Torah.

If I were to stop with Judaism, I suppose I could say that the prohibition should remain intact unless some significant evidence is brought forth stating that the Leviticus 18 portion of the Torah was only intended for the ancient Israelites but not modern generations of Jews (but then you have to start asking questions about all of the other forbidden sexual relationships listed in Leviticus 18).

But how many of the Torah prohibitions regarding sex trickle down to Christianity?

In response, it is not enough to point out that Jesus never said anything explicitly about homosexuality or homosexuals. Since he was Jewish, silence cannot easily be filled with a viewpoint that was not common in Judaism in the first century – however much one might go on to insist that Jesus’ views did not always mirror what most people thought.

Jesus taught us to allow love for neighbor and concern for human beings to trump other concerns – even if it leads to healing on the Sabbath or eating sacred bread. Even if it means to breaking other laws, laws which according to the Bible were laid down by God himself.

Dr. James F. McGrath, June 29, 2012
“The Well-Thought-Out Christian Rationale Behind Christian Acceptance of Gays and Lesbians”

ShabbatDr. McGrath makes the classic Christian assumption that Jesus broke (and therefore invalidated) the commandments regarding the Sabbath (which is highly debatable) and thus, Jesus could have and probably did break other commandments in Judaism including, in this case, those prohibiting homosexual behavior among the Jews.

If we follow Dr. McGrath’s line of thinking and assume it is all correct (and since he’s the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis, he’s got a lot of “cred” behind him), then we might make a “quick and dirty” conclusion that Jesus not only didn’t have a thing against homosexual behavior among the Jews (and by extension, the later Christians), but he was all for it (Keep in mind that Rabbi David Hartman says, “The Sabbath, therefore, does not force us to choose between a theocentric focus on the world and the dignity and significance of human existence,” so healing on the Shabbat does not particularly constitute breaking the Shabbat).

Actually, I’m not sure I can take Dr. McGrath’s commentary that far (since he doesn’t), but he does say this:

Ancient Israel’s marriage laws reflected those of the time, and the workings of the marriage institution as an element of patriarchal society allowing men to treat women as property so as to ensure that their other property passed to their legitimate heirs. Times have changed, marriage has changed, and none of the conservative Christians I know who are married are involved in anything that mirrors “Biblical marriage” in all its features.

And so of course our thinking about marriage reflects the wider perspective of our time and place. Thinking about marriage among the people of God always has. And as with so many issues, such as women’s equality and slavery, we sometimes advocating the setting aside of practices that can be justified by careful exegesis of certain Biblical passages, on the basis of more fundamental Biblical principles. We pick and choose from both the Bible and our culture based on overarching principles and convictions about the centrality of love, the importance of justice, concern for the poor, and so on.

I’m fully willing to admit that there are a lot of things in Paul’s letters that I can accept as situational and that were intended to apply only to the specific group Paul was addressing in a certain place at a certain time. But how far can we “relativize” the Bible and the teachings of Jesus before we become guilty of the following?

Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
and shrewd in their own sight! –Isaiah 5:20-21 (ESV)

How about this one?

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. –2 Timothy 4:3-4 (ESV)

Even if I were to take a conservative Christian approach regarding homosexuality and homosexual acts, I’d have to admit that the commandments can only apply to religious Jews and to Christians. You have to be a member of the covenant before you come under the commandments (OK, Christians believe in a final judgment of all humanity by God, but that’s up to Him, not us). A conservative Christian is able to apply the Bible commandment prohibiting homosexual acts to someone performing such acts as a practicing Christian. However, he couldn’t do so regarding two men who are atheists, gay, and having sex anymore than he could against a man and woman who are atheists, living together as an unmarried couple and having sex (you don’t see a lot of Christian groups protesting against the latter these days).

As far as I can tell, the church has every right to police itself (and given the abuses in the church that occasionally come to light in the public media, perhaps they should) but they cannot apply their (our) own commandments and prohibitions onto the larger culture and attempt (and this is an extreme example) to legislate the Bible into local, state, or national law (even though significant portions of our laws are based on the Bible).

I know that’s what some Christians don’t want to hear.

Getting back to earlier portions of this blog post, are liberal Christians guilty of choosing “baby Jesus” or “Ninja Jesus” or “Gay Rights Jesus” over the closest approximation of “real Jesus” we can gather from the actual New Testament texts to satisfy modern cultural imperatives, or are, as Dr. McGrath suggests, we allowed to adapt the teachings of Jesus to be more appropriate with the needs of the current generations and even to override certain commandments for the sake of loving our neighbor unconditionally and without reservation under all circumstances, no matter what?

There’s no denying that there is an enormously complex set of variables in operation here. For many Christians, just policing their own backyard relative to homosexuality isn’t enough and they want to make the larger culture more “comfortable” for them/us. However, for the past 2,000 years, Jews have constantly lived as a subset of a larger culture that absolutely wasn’t comfortable to them and that existed in complete opposition to all of the commandments held more dear in religious Judaism.

And they managed to get by.

Why does Christianity expect anything different to happen to them?

Last November, I blogged on similar issues in a missive called At the Intersection of Intolerance and Humanity. I don’t believe that the church as the right to commit wholesale condemnation of all LGBT people everywhere as people because of the moral and religious commitments we’ve made as Christians. Perhaps we have the right to do so in our own churches, but this becomes problematic if your church accepts heterosexual couples living together as “OK” but not gay couples living together.

Whether you approve or disapprove of homosexual behavior based on your personal feelings and/or your understanding of the Bible doesn’t mean you have the right to disregard someone as a human being. Jesus expected us to, among other things, visit people in prison, meaning he wanted us to extend compassion to people who are convicted of crimes (and probably guilty of sins) and to treat them with respect. Why is being gay so much worse than being a bank robber, or someone who beat his wife, or even a murderer?

I’m not a big fan of having the larger, popular culture shove their values and ideals down my throat just because there are more of them than there are of me and they have the support of MSNBC and CNN. On the other hand, they do force the body of faith to confront moral issues that we’d just as soon avoid or even condemn, without actually examining what the Bible seems to be telling us, and especially without examining our own thoughts and feelings.

In this week’s Torah portion, Balak offered Balaam a small fortune if Balaam would consent to curse the Children of Israel, and given the fact that the evil Balaam could even speak with God, we have every reason to believe such a curse would have worked to the detriment of the Israelites. But what Balak intended for evil, God chose to make good. Are we to go so far as to say that what God considered evil in Leviticus, He chose to make good in the 21st century?

I don’t know if I can go that far. The popular media outlets are choosing to depict the LGBT community as “especially good” these days. We believers aren’t supposed to decide which people we love and which we hate. (Matthew 5:46). Although we are held to a higher moral standard (atheists and progressives would debate this) than the world around us, that isn’t a mandate to circle our wagons and to restrict love only to our own groups. If God so loved the world, the entire world, and everyone in it (John 3:16) while we were all still enemies of Christ (Romans 5:10), who are we to do any less?

Don’t turn good into evil and evil into good, but do good in order to overcome evil (Romans 12:21). I think rewriting the Bible to fit a modern moral agenda is going too far. But instead of overcoming what we believe is evil by force, we can do what Paul suggested in Romans 12:20 whilst quoting Proverbs 25:21-22

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Doing good doesn’t mean surrendering to evil. It means surrendering to God.

Good Shabbos.

Addendum: For more on loving your enemies, you might want to consider New Testament Scholar Larry Hurtado’s recent (and short) essay, Hermeneutics of ‘Agape’. Also, Dr. Stuart Dauermann presents a somewhat related blog post (not incredibly related but when you read it, you’ll see why I’m including it here) called Re-masculinizing the Church and Synagogue – Toward Addressing the Problem. Food for thought.


5 thoughts on “Balak: The Good, The Bad, and The Gay”

  1. Throughout the ages, up to and including current times, people have interpreted the bible to suit their needs and beliefs, rather than modeling their beliefs and actions after the bible. I’m not sure why they should stop short when it comes to gay rights. If we brought things back in line with what the bible says, there are a lot of offensive and unacceptable practices that would again be practiced, no? Slavery, child abuse, rape, incest, polygamy, etc. Not to mention the fact that all Christians should be poor and without any material extras, should give to the poor, should pay taxes, should share all they have, should help their enemies, should turn the other cheek, should respect the Sabbath, etc etc etc.

    Being opposed to gay rights is a personal bias. Using the bible as a defense makes no sense to me when I see that everything else in the bible can be discarded because it is inconvenient or unpopular. If someone doesn’t think LGBTQ should have the same rights and privileges as everyone else, I think they should just say so and not hide behind a book that has historically been used as a moral cafeteria plan and unevenly applied method of behavior control.

  2. Hi Teresa. Thanks for coming by and commenting (it would have been too difficult to try to have this conversation on twitter).

    First of all, I agree that the Bible, as a document, has been subject to abuses across the ages. I don’t really think it’s the Bible’s fault as much as it is the fault of human nature. People and governments that have gained authority with the Bible at its base have interpreted it to keep themselves in power, to subjugate other groups, and to support their own agendas. For instance, certain passages in the Bible were used to support slavery in America by slave owners in centuries gone by. Now those passages are interpreted differently (though to be fair, an objective reading of the Old Testament scriptures on the institution of “slavery” in ancient Israel are grossly misunderstood by almost everyone).

    Before we get into a “beat up the Bible-fest,” I think it’s important to point out that people have a tendency to abuse and re-interpret just about anything that gives them an advantage over someone else, so it’s not the Bible or Christianity per se that’s the problem. We don’t hear a lot about it in the popular news media, but the Koran also contains text that is interpreted by Islam as anti-women and anti-gay. We may not experience the consequences of those interpretations in the west, but if you lived in a Muslim country, you’d be keenly aware of them.

    As far as using the Bible as an unerring and objective guide to living. That’s more difficult that it seems. Jewish and Christian (and other) scholars have been studying the Bible for hundreds and even thousands of years and still can’t agree on a single, unifying, objective interpretation (and of course, Jewish scholars are not going to consider the books of the New Testament as part of their Bible). If you use the Protestant Christian Bible as an example, you have 66 books written across several thousands of years in different languages and their dialects, by a wide variety of different authors who all had different backgrounds, addressing different audiences with different needs and priorities. It’s small wonder that in the 21st century, we are looking for every clue and hint to tell us how best to translate the oldest existing texts (which of course, aren’t the originals) so that we can understand them (which is one of the reasons why the Dead Sea Scrolls are such a rip-roaring big deal).

    Jews and Christians for the most part, are convinced that the Old Testament commandments were to apply to Jews and not to the later Christians and most Christians believe that those Old Testament commandments shouldn’t even apply to the Jews anymore (the Jews disagree). Jewish understanding of the Bible is often contained in the Talmud which embodies commentary on the original laws, discussions of those laws by the later Rabbinic authorities, and the various rulings, some of which only apply to certain populations of Jews Ashkenazi vs Sephardic, for instance).

    Some laws are indeed thought to be adaptive over time, such as the aforementioned slavery laws. Back in ancient times, an Israelite who was impoverished could sell himself into indentured servatude (not slavery the way you normally think about it) for a maximum period of seven years. After that time, the “slave” could choose to go free and his “master” would have to give him funds to set up an independent income, or he could choose to remain in servatude if he wanted to. Economics have changed over time, and that sort of system is no longer required so those laws no longer are applied.

    If you jump into the New Testament “commandments” and take them at face value, it’s easy to say that all Christians everywhere should live in poverty and give everything away or share it with the larger Christian community. However, some or even most of the New Testament writings can be interpreted as relative to their own contexts, such that they worked only within a particular place and time and weren’t meant to be applied as “eternal commandments”. Hence, you don’t *have* to live exactly like some of the churches we see in Acts or the letters of Paul.

    There’s actually a very lively conversation going on in various religious circles as to what writings in the NT are considered binding today in the church and which ones aren’t. It’s not clear cut, even among New Testament scholars, and so the debate continues, different denominations of Christianity apply the Bible in different ways, resulting in different theologies, doctrine, dogma, and so forth.

    While certain things have to be absolute if you consider yourself a Christian (God exists, Jesus died for your sins, and so forth), I look at my faith as an exploration into discovery, and not a set of undying and concrete “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” carved in steel. In fact, if you look at today’s “meditation,” you’ll see that it tends to “see-saw” back and forth across the issue of “gay rights” as I attempt to apply my meager understanding of the Bible to the demands of modernity.

    At the core of the current issue, I believe (and I say this above) that you can only apply covenant requirements on covenant members, so expecting the larger culture to adhere to Christian covenant imperatives is unrealistic and unsustainable. On the other hand, within the community of faith, anyone who is a member should be subject to the community’s standards as based on that community’s interpretation of the Bible. If they can’t do that, they should leave. In the United States, we have rule of law which basically means that the law of the land (nation) applies to everyone. If we’re a citizen (and often when we’re not) we are expected to obey the law, even those laws with which we disagree.

    I can understand atheists, agnostics, and people of other religious/spiritual traditions not wanting Christianity to attempt to apply their moral standards to the larger body of national laws. Christianity is no longer the driving force in the U.S. (in my opinion). Rather, the progressive and humanistic philosophy we often see promoted in the popular news media and entertainment industry appears to be our national and cultural “conscience.” If that’s the basis for law in the U.S., then Christianity should be prepared to consider itself a minority philosophy within the American culture, just as religious Jews have always been the minority in every nation where they have lived in the past 2,000 years or so.

    Teresa, if you read my blog on a more or less regular basis (and I can understand why you don’t considering that it is religious in content), you would see that more often than not, I’m critical of the church rather than of society. I also tend to promote a return to the core values of Christianity which require that we love others, even if we don’t agree with them. If we were to visit the sick and the prisoner, feed the hungry, comfort the grieving as an expression of how we love God, then I suspect not only would the world be a little bit better place to live, but maybe agnostics, atheists, and progressives would have less hostility toward Christians.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with your last paragraph. And I agree with the rest as well. However, as a former Christian and someone who now is an agnostic atheist (I don’t know for sure, but I don’t believe in gods), the struggle to interpret the bible specifics seems futile. As you say, some things are absolutes (believe in God, believe that Jesus died for your sins, etc), but most everything else is up for grabs. If more Christians would say, “Ok, I’m not sure about every detail, but the driving force of our lives and expression of faith should be love, charity, and kindness,” then there indeed would be less hostility. Being judged by people who can’t even keep their own beliefs straight is irritating, especially when you can see it is motivated by intolerance and hate rather than true morality.

  4. If more Christians would say, “Ok, I’m not sure about every detail, but the driving force of our lives and expression of faith should be love, charity, and kindness,” then there indeed would be less hostility. Being judged by people who can’t even keep their own beliefs straight is irritating, especially when you can see it is motivated by intolerance and hate rather than true morality.

    I don’t think the average person sitting in a church pew (whoever that is) is taught to question their faith or anything about. Even questioning relatively minor details (whatever they are) in a person’s faith probably feels to them as if you’re questioning their salvation. A lot of people, not just religious people, are looking for some sort of stability and security in their world. Religious people find that in the tenets of their faith and it’s something that they can hang onto in a world that seems to be spinning out of control (economy, jobs, civil rights, immigration, you name it).

    As a religious person who is constantly questioning my faith and just about every aspect of it, I can tell you the dissonance is just awful. And yet, from my point of view, you aren’t really exploring your faith unless you’re a little bit uncomfortable and edgy all of the time.

    I’m not sure what “does it” for atheists/agnostics, although I’m pretty sure they need security and stability in their environments, too. I’m trying to remember back before I was a religious person so I can figure out what provided that stability and sense of being on “the right path,” for lack of a better term. I think we all hang onto some sort of moral/ethical structure, at least if we consider ourselves good people who want to make the world a better place.

    That said, it’s not just religious people who tend to define themselves based on what they oppose. For example, ever since the announcement about the Higgs Boson particle, science-oriented atheists are doing their level best to say it disproves God (not sure how that works since, if you don’t believe in something, how do you disprove it…like disproving the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy). It’s one thing for atheists/agnostics to now share my viewpoint and disagree with me, but it’s another thing to attack me, not for anything I’ve said or done, but for what I believe.

    The last place we have any sort of privacy and control in our lives are inside our own thoughts and feelings. I know that religious people have been accused of wanting to control the thoughts/feelings of others, but the door swings both ways. If an atheist/agnostic disagrees with my religion, do they have to try to control what I believe by continually attacking my faith?

    I’m not attacking theirs. At best, I’m just trying to understand it as I am exploring my own.

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