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October 30, 2014 · 21:40

The Problem of Homophobia in Leviticus, and How Genesis Solves It

Rabbi Michael Rothbaum

Rabbi/educator, Beth Chaim Congregation, Danville, Calif.

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes state-sanctioned same-sex marriages, the remaining voices opposing marriage equality — or at least the loudest ones — are primarily religious.

Conservatives insist on “biblical marriage.” Progressives, for their part, smugly reject the authority of “ancient texts.” Sides are chosen. Battle lines are drawn. Less listening. More shouting.

But what if both sides were wrong? What if the supposed biblical prohibition of gay sex were in reality an affirmation of honest and loving sexual relationships?

No Extra Words

The text most often quoted by in defense of biblical homophobia is Leviticus 18:22. In Hebrew, it reads, “V’et-zachar lo tishkav mish’k’vei ishah.” It is usually translated as, “Do not lie with a male as you would lie with women,” an apparent universal condemnation of sex between men.

The words “et-zachar lo tishkav” clearly mean “don’t lie with a male” or “don’t bed a male.” In a chapter that’s seemingly addressed to men, that directive would make perfect sense all by itself. But Jewish tradition, best expressed by Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva, teaches that there are no superfluous words in Torah. Why, then, would the Torah add the peculiar phrase “mish’k’vei ishah“?

That “mish’k’vei ishah” means “as you would lie with women” is far from obvious. The word “mish’k’vei” itself appears only three times in all of scripture: in the two supposed prohibitions of gay sex in Leviticus, and at the end of the book of Genesis

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Whose Bed Is Whose?

The scene is Jacob’s deathbed. As the patriarch prepares to die, Jacob gathers his sons around him to tell them what will happen in the days after his death. First-born son Reuben, perhaps expecting a blessing from his father, is nevertheless condemned by Jacob with the charge of “instability.” And then Jacob directly scolds his son, “Alita mish’k’vei avicha!” reads Genesis 49:4. “You ascended your father’s beds!”

What’s all this about beds? It seems that back in Genesis 35, “Reuben went and lay with Bilchah, his father’s concubine.” In addition to being wed to sisters Leah and Rachel, Jacob has sexual access to two concubines: Bilchah and Zilpah.

In context, then, Jacob’s condemnation is not literal. Jacob is not angry that Reuben was physically in his bed; he is angry about the sexual relationship that Reuben had there. Bilchah, as Jacob’s concubine, is permitted to be with Jacob. Reuben violated that boundary. Read this way, the term “mish’k’vei avicha” — the “beds of your father” — is a metaphor for Jacob’s sexual domain. Reuben is in trouble because he violated his father’s sexual space.

How Genesis Solves Leviticus

Jewish tradition teaches that when Torah uses a similar phrase in two places, there’s a connection, such that information about one case may be applied to the other. It’s called a “gezera shava.” Taking the meaning from Genesis and applying it to Leviticus 18:22, the result is this translation: “Don’t bed a male in the bed of a woman,” or perhaps, “Don’t bed a male in the sexual domain of a woman.”

This is not a text prohibiting homosexuality. It is a text about respecting our relationships.

Recall the earlier incident in Genesis. Jacob has just lost his Rachel, his beloved. Torah tells us that Jacob, having just set the monument upon her grave, immediately hears the mortifying news that Reuben has slept with his concubine.

How do we begin to understand Reuben’s behavior? Perhaps Reuben feels his own pain and humiliation. It has been suggested that Jacob, following the death of favored wife Rachel, established his primary sleeping space with Bilchah, rather than with Reuben’s mother Leah. Reuben’s father chooses not Leah but a concubine. Given such a scenario, it’s not hard to imagine Reuben “acting out.”

What, then, was the sex act about? Who was it about? Probably not Bilchah, who is object, not subject, in this text. Was it Reuben’s intention to “despoil” Bilchah so that Jacob could no longer have relations with her and would have to sleep with Leah? Was it to exact revenge against his father? Control? Dominance? To cast guilt, doubt, shame over all the sexual relations of his father? Over all the “mish’k’vei avicha,” “the beds of his father”?

This sex act, then, was not a loving act. It was an act of anger and vengeance. These are both possible reasons to have sex. And they’re both the wrong reasons to have sex.

Seen in this light, the condemnation we read in Leviticus seems to shift.

V’et-zachar lo tishkav mish’k’vei ishah.” “Don’t bed a male in the sexual space of a woman.” Who is this woman? A wife of one of the men involved? A woman who expects integrity and honesty in her marriage but is betrayed? And who are the men? Men who long for a full relationship with each other but are denied such by society and must resort to deceit, tortured by guilt and self-loathing? Men who have sex with women not as an act of love but as a grueling burden? Men who bring that torment upon all the “mish’k’vei ishah,” “the beds of women”?

It is an abomination to bring this shame and guilt upon a marital bed. And, all the more so, it is an abomination for any state to demand us to do so.

What Leviticus Is Trying to Teach Us

The Bible is a wild, sprawling document, but to me it has one unifying theme: There’s a Power hidden in all that happens in the world, and that Power is concerned with holiness and justice. Readers from Moses to Martin have found a text that demands an accounting on behalf of the immigrant, the worker, the widow — a revolutionary worldview that our present moment demands perhaps more than ever..

Just as the Bible demands that we being justice to our marketplaces and workspaces, chapter 18 of Leviticus asks us to take the revolutionary step of seeing our bed-space as holy space — to see sex not as merely a mechanical, procreative act but as a conduit to the Divine.

Ultimately, Leviticus invites us to be open and honest with ourselves and our partners, to reject deception, to come out of hiding, and to create relationships that are loving, honest, and sacred.

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July 20, 2013 · 10:00

Wrestling Jacob 2 – Maddy Prior

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July 11, 2013 · 16:08

Wrestling Jacob

Wrestling Jacob

Charles Wesley

Come, O thou Traveller unknown, Whom still I hold, but cannot see!

My company before is gone, And I am left alone with Thee;
With Thee all night I mean to stay, And wrestle till the break of day.

I need not tell Thee who I am, My misery and sin declare;
Thyself hast called me by my name, Look on Thy hands, and read it there;
But who, I ask Thee, who art Thou? Tell me Thy name, and tell me now.

In vain Thou strugglest to get free, I never will unloose my hold!
Art Thou the Man that died for me? The secret of Thy love unfold;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go, Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

Wilt Thou not yet to me reveal Thy new, unutterable Name?
Tell me, I still beseech Thee, tell; To know it now resolved I am;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go, Till I Thy Name, Thy nature know.

’Tis all in vain to hold Thy tongue Or touch the hollow of my thigh;
Though every sinew be unstrung, Out of my arms Thou shalt not fly;
Wrestling I will not let Thee go Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

What though my shrinking flesh complain, And murmur to contend so long?
I rise superior to my pain, When I am weak, then I am strong
And when my all of strength shall fail, I shall with the God-man prevail.

Contented now upon my thigh I halt, till life’s short journey end;
All helplessness, all weakness I On Thee alone for strength depend;
Nor have I power from Thee to move: Thy nature, and Thy name is Love.

My strength is gone, my nature dies, I sink beneath Thy weighty hand,
Faint to revive, and fall to rise; I fall, and yet by faith I stand;
I stand and will not let Thee go Till I Thy Name, Thy nature know.

Yield to me now, for I am weak, But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak, Be conquered by my instant prayer;
Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move, And tell me if Thy Name is Love.

’Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me! I hear Thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee, Pure, universal love Thou art;
To me, to all, Thy bowels move; Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

My prayer hath power with God; the grace Unspeakable I now receive;
Through faith I see Thee face to face, I see Thee face to face, and live!
In vain I have not wept and strove; Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

I know Thee, Saviour, who Thou art. Jesus, the feeble sinner’s friend;
Nor wilt Thou with the night depart. But stay and love me to the end,
Thy mercies never shall remove; Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

The Sun of righteousness on me Hath rose with healing in His wings,
Withered my nature’s strength; from Thee My soul its life and succour brings;
My help is all laid up above; Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

Lame as I am, I take the prey, Hell, earth, and sin, with ease o’ercome;
I leap for joy, pursue my way, And as a bounding hart fly home,
Through all eternity to prove Thy nature and Thy Name is Love

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July 11, 2013 · 15:32

Goodbyes – some thoughts for Ascension Day

It’s often very difficult to say ‘goodbye’ – especially if it’s a member of the family or a close friend who is going away for a while.  Railway stations, airports, bus stations and ferry terminals can be pretty awful places at times.

There are many ‘goodbyes’ in the Bible…..

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  • We’re going to start with that grand old man Moses who led the children of Israel out of captivity in Egypt through the wilderness toward the promised land.

Moses at the end of so many years of service to Israel, is not allowed by God to enter the promised land.  He looks back at what they have done together, then he looks forward, and bids them farewell.

He says goodbye to his people – ‘Happy art thou, O Israel’ he cries, ‘A people saved by the Lord.’

He knows that God has protected them in the past, and has no fears for their future – for he knows they are in God’s safe keeping.

  • Then there is Jacob, a very elderly man.  What a long and exciting life he has led; what a man he has been.

Then had come the loss of his son Joseph, whom he had believed had been killed.  But years later, Joseph, now a great man in Egypt, was reunited with his family.

In his old age, Jacob moved with his entire household down to that strange land to settle there.  He lived in Egypt, but his heart was still in his homeland of Palestine.

Even as he lay dying and said his goodbyes, he begged that his body should be taken back and buried in the land he loved..

  • Then there is the parting between Jonathan and David. 

Jonathan was a prince, the son of King Saul, and David was a shepherd boy, and they became very close friends.  But David was perceived as being a rival to Saul, so the King forced them apart.  They met secretly to say goodbye, embraced and wept.

 

Then Jonathan said these last beautiful words:

    ‘Go in peace…the Lord shall be between thee and me…forever’

They had to part, but in their love of God, they would always be one.

  • There is the parting between St Paul and the elders of Ephesus 

The old Apostle, having done his work in these parts, is on the way back to Jerusalem.

He knows that he is running into danger, and, therefore, says goodbye to his friends.  Even grown men at such times can break down in tears, so Paul asks them to stop as they are making things harder for him.

How these Christians really did care for one another.

  • And lastly we come to the story of Christ saying goodbye to his friends at the time of his Ascension

It should have been a terrible occasion.  Here was Jesus whom his disciples had known so wonderfully, and who had changed their lives forever, now going away from them.

Here was the one who had brought God into their lives in a real and living way, now saying his goodbyes.  What a blow that should have been.

But when they parted, the disciples went back to Jerusalem, ‘filled with great joy’ as we heard.  ‘Filled with great joy’ Why?  Because they had his promise that although it was goodbye and an end of meeting together in the old way with him before their eyes, it was the beginning of his being with them in a new way.

He would be with them, in spirit, always.  And not just with them, but with us too.

  • In our lifetime, there are many goodbyes and some of them can be hard, even painful.

Imprinted in my mind most vividly is my beloved wife asleep on her death-bed – just a matter of hours before she died.  I bent over her, kissed her on her forehead and said “Thank you; I’ll see you again soon enough somewhere, some time. You’ll be safe”

We never have to say goodbye to Jesus, he is with us forever.

Remember what he said ‘ I am with you always, even to the close of the age’ And he is, as king of kings & lord of lords – and in that we can all rejoice.

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