October 31, 2005

More on that idea

Picking up on a comment I made in the discussion on slavery with Todd Granger:
Obviously the parable of the origin of human sexuality (as the Jewish culture understood it) had greater impact on the course of the Jewish experience than did the story of Noah and his sons in terms of Canaanite slaver — at least for Jews. As you noted, this myth became a driving force for American slaveholders and racists.
I by no means speak as an expert on this subject, but my impression is that a greater “mandate” is attached to the commandment, “Be fruitful and multiply” from Genesis 1, than to the more plainly etiological story in Genesis 2. The commandment from the first chapter is regarded as “the first commandment” and is one of the reasons that celibacy is generally deprecated in the Rabbinic tradition. It is also one of the reasons advanced by the Rabbis for mandating the divorce of a sterile wife. (Mishnah Yebamoth 6.6) Neither of these teachings would find support in the Christian tradition, and represent a significant departure on Jesus’ part. In his teaching against divorce, Jesus appears to favor the importance of the permanence of the unitive function of the interpersonal relationship (Genesis 2) over the procreative function and law of Genesis 1.
Moreover, one of the striking features of the Genesis 2 story is that for the most part in the Jewish tradition, men did not in fact leave their parents’ household and join themselves to their new wife, but rather brought the wife into their household. (The operative Hebrew word for marriage, as still present in our marriage ceremony, is “lacach” = “take”). Some have suggested, given the overall apparent archaicism of the Genesis 2 narrative, that this represents a relic of an earlier age in which matrilocal marriage was the rule. In any case, I am not aware that this passage, unlike the earlier one, gave rise to much Rabbinic discussion. While Genesis 1 comes up a number of times in the Mishnah, Genesis 2-3 are passed over. This may reflect the fact that the passage in Genesis 1 is seen as a commandment, while the passage in Genesis 2 is seen as descriptive.
I suppose at the end I am forced to conclude that the material in Genesis 1-4 does not represent, as is commonly suggested, a strict mandate for “God’s plan for human sexuality” but rather an etiological reflection by a particular community upon its social origins and customs, assembled from various sources by various hands, not without certain tensions and contradictions, and more importantly, interpretations (some of them also at odds with one another) down through the ages.
If I can also take the opportunity to highlight another problem text, Romans 1: it is vitally important that this chapter of Paul’s letter be read in the context of Wisdom of Solomon 12-16, a Hellenistic Jewish reflection on the evils of idolatry and its consequences. One of the consequences of the Jewish linkage of male homosexuality with idolatry was a tendency for the Jewish community to blind itself to the presence of same-sex affection within its own community. As the Talmud says, “Israel is not suspected [of this kind of behavior]” while Gentiles universally are. This sort of cultural blindness is a well-known phenomenon even to this day; certain communities vociferously deny the existence of same-sex relationships within their population, and either render them invisible by calling them something else, or insisting, when they do become evident, that they are foreign intrusions, or an aspect of an “alien culture.” My point here is that Saint Paul carried this cultural bias as much as any of his fellow Jews; he no doubt saw any same-sex sexuality as a sign of corruption and degradation attendant upon an abandonment of God: because that was the only place he saw it.
—Tobias S Haller BSG


The Anglican Scotist said...

Are we taking leave of source criticism here? A cogent case can be made for relgating the first creation account to P authorship, in the exilic or post-exilic period. "Be fruitful and multiply" is first in a very special, non-chronological sense, to be specified...someday. A sense that might--who knows?--be discerned by looking into the P-writers' historical situation (needing to re-populate a ravaged land); taken normatively, Gen 1 yields at best a hypothetical imperative:

Whenever in situations of type X, the obligation to do Y [reproduce] holds.

Or one could see the P-writer as operating with an inchoate divine command theory: God says, do Y; therefore we must do Y.

Can we, in any principled way, discern which kind of imperative was meant? Or whether any imperative was meant? And there is much more that can be said about the difficulty of reading the passage for moral doctrine.

The Anglican Scotist said...

Ergo, it might be best not to read Scripture as a mine for moral doctrine at all; settlement in such practice reveals only something about the practitioners.

Rather, it might be better to bring out into the open the tacit, extra-Scriptural, theoretical apparatus that informs the reading: Divine command? Deontology? Virtue ethics? Platonism?

At least (1)arguing about the theory might get us somewhere, and (2)would clarify the costs of reading Scriptre for moral doctrine.

Tobias said...

Thank you, Anglican Scotist, for the, as usual, perceptive comments. Let me respond very briefly.

First, the context of this post was the question of placing the Genesis passages within the context of the Jewish tradition of which Jesus was a part. So source criticism was not on the table for the moment. However, even given the absence of this later critical technique, I think I am raising questions about the moral locus of these texts in relation to the teaching of Jesus in tension with his own tradition: he clearly rejects the procreative imperative that Rabbinic Judaism attributed to Genesis 1, and rather focuses upon the unitive function of sexuality as understood from Genesis 2. This, I think, effectively undercuts much of the "traditional" teaching that the primary purpose of marriage is procreation -- a position already undercut in the tradition itslef by the allowance of marriage to infertile couples.

So I would argue that even from within the tradition, the Rabbinic in tension with the emerging Jesus tradition, it is possible to begin to discern a path for the approbation of faithful same-sex relationships on the basis that the unitive function may be (in some already permitted cases) the only function of which a given relationship is capable. When coupled with the Orthodox teaching that sex (or "gender") is not an ontological but an accidental aspect of the human person, the "traditional" opposition to same-sex relationships of any kind whatever finds itself in a less defensible position.

Second, I have reflected in other places on the importance of the two sources. In particular, the P account appears to be to some extent a parabolic analogue to a Mesopotamian temple: the order of creation is reflected in the architecture, including the "image of [the] God" in the most holy place. The sense that this is influenced by a post-Captivity milieu fits in well with the need to increase the population of the re-acquired territory. "Be fruitful and multiply and fill and have rule over the earth" -- which in Hebrew is also the word for the land, i.e., Israel: this text would easily be heard and read as a mandate to the reclamation and rule of the holy land after the Captivity.

Genesis 2 seems to be a much more archaic creation myth, not also without its Mesopotamian features, but less geared towards the holy land as such.

Finally, clearly, an appeal to extra-biblical ethical principles is also an important part of our discussion. However, my aim has generally been to attempt to address the concerns and arguments of the "reasserters" within their own cognitive universe, as it were. I may not be successful in this, but I think the effort worth making.

As for other ethical systems, I find therein very little support for a prohibition of faithful, monogamous same-sex relationships that doesn't fall prey to assumption of conclusions as premises.

Thanks again for your comments, as always.

Tobias said...

An additional note:
I neglected to note the obvious -- a major portion of the "P" agenda in the reclamation of the holy land was the rebuilding of the Temple; which is, in part, why the creation account in Genesis 1 mirrors the construction and decoration of a typical Middle Eastern temple.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Dear Tobias S Haller,

I'm not able to find your e-mail, but have a few suggestions regarding the interpretations arsenokoîtai:


*Christopher said...

Brilliant, simply brilliant--I think though the biggest problem of our time is assuming that sex or gender is ontological rather than accidental or as I preferred to argue (and perhaps not successfully, hypostatic versus essential a la John Damascene).

Br. Haller, if you have time, please check out the latest at J-Tron's the propoganda box. We're arguing about gender essentialism with regard to priesthood, Christ, etc. I offered some thoughts, but this is really not my forte, and I may have in fact slipped into heresy.