Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Trajectory Argument for Gay Marriage

In many ways, I wish this whole debate about homosexuality would go away. In some ways, I wish I were wrong on it - it would make life so much easier if there were even a half-decent Biblical or theological argumet for the legitimacy of committed same-sex sexual relationships. But I've never seen one, and so my conscience is held captive by the Word of God.

One of the really poor excuses for an argument in favour of gay marriage is what is sometimes called the trajectory argument. Steve Chalke spends about half his time on it here. It goes roughly as follows:

There are several things in the New Testament which the NT writers seem fine with but because of our years of reflecting on the Bible and doing ministry in a changing culture we now realise are wrong - the obvious examples are slavery and banning women from teaching. The Church's attitude to homosexuality is another one of those.

The danger with this argument is that in this form you can apply it to just about anything where the Bible disagrees with contemporary culture - where it applies and where it doesn't becomes just a matter for individual conscience, and the Bible loses its prophetic power to challenge our ways of thinking when we are too deeply shaped by our culture. We need some kind of clear control to see when a development is legitimate and when it isn't.

The best such control is trajectory - when we compare the New Testament to the surrounding culture, and see which direction the Bible moves the culture in. We can see this argument can be valid by thinking about the Civil Rights movement in the US. They campaigned for small steps to be made in terms of desegregating schools - they didn't campaign for a black President immediately. And that's pretty much what the Bible does with slavery. In a society where masters had strong rights over slaves but slave revolts were brutally suppressed, the Bible condemned slave trading and masters beating their slaves, and called slaves and masters brothers. It is clearly heading towards the abolition of slavery, even thought that move would have been unacceptable in the Roman society of the day.

We could say the same about polygamy. Polygamy is never portrayed positively in the Bible, and in the NT, it is banned for church leaders. The trajectory is clearly towards monogamy.

But what about when we look at the trajectory for homosexuality? In the above link, Steve Chalke summarises the situation in the ancient world fairly well:

It is common knowledge that from the early Republican times of Ancient Rome it was considered natural and unremarkable for adult males to be sexually attracted to and to pursue teen-aged youths of both sexes. Pederasty (a homogenital relationship between a man and a pubescent boy outside his immediate family) was regarded as normal and condoned... Though same-sex relations between women are not as well documented, the Romans generally had far more flexible gender categories than our contemporary society.

If anything, Chalke underplays it. The Romans also allowed same-sex adult sexual encounters, as long as it was a high-status man initiating. But most of the New Testament was written in and to culturally Greek areas, which were even more permissive - see here for example. And into that society, the New Testament and the early church advocated that sex belongs inside heterosexual lifelong marriage, and not outside. There is no hint of other relationships being potentially equivalent to marriage. There is no question of homosexual relationships being equal to heterosexual marriage, even though that would have been more accepted in the society of the day than at any time since.

The huge problem with the trajectory argument for allowing same-sex marriage is that the trajectory is in exactly the wrong direction.

Steve Chalke and Homosexuality

It is being widely reported that Steve Chalke has "come out" in favour of gay marriage. Here's his paper on it, and here are some more resources on it. Peter Ould, whose thinking I generally find very helpful on issues around homosexuality has started a reply here, which show that Chalke's work on the Bible passages is somewhat lacking.

I agree that at times the church has been guilty of hatred of people who experience same-sex attraction, and that we need to repent of that. However, I don't think we should change the Biblical understanding of marriage in order to do that - that would seem to be something of an extreme over-reaction.

I'd want to add three more questions for Steve Chalke:

1. Why do you put people into boxes marked "homosexual" or "heterosexual"? Isn't that part of the problem?

2. Is there any evidence in the Bible either that sex outside marriage should be permitted or that marriage should not always be between a man and a woman?

3. Do unhappily single people have the gift of celibacy?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Unbelievable - the Slaughter of the Amalekites

As you may have noticed, I've been blogging quite a bit about the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15. That's because I've been doing a bit of work on them because I'm in a debate on the radio tomorrow - on Justin Brierley's show Unbelievable. It's at 2:30pm, on Premier Christian Radio.

For those who are interested in reading a bit more about the Amalekites and where I'm at with understanding them at the moment, I've created a dedicated page to pull together stuff I've written on the issue.

But Isn't God a God of Love?

Absolutely. John tells us that God is not just a God of love, but God is himself love. Twice in the New Testament it tells us that "God is love". That love is primarily seen in God's love within the Trinity. From all eternity, and into all eternity, the Father, Son and Spirit love each other with a perfect, all-consuming, all-embracing love. But that love also overflows to us. God loves us so much that he seeks to include us in his inter-Trinitarian love.

But love is not something fluffy. If necessary, love will fight to protect what it loves. In the same book it tells us that God is love, 1 John, it also tells us that "God is light, in him there is no darkness at all". God is love, and that love opposes the darkness that would seek to dethrone the Trinity, or seek to harm God's people.

Sometimes by the way that we reject God, by the way that we fight against him, we force him to oppose us. The Amalekites did that. And when God fights against someone because they fight against him, he does not like to do it. He does not rejoice in the death of sinners, but rather that they should turn from their wickedness and live. (Ezekiel 18:23) God's judgement is described in the Bible as his "strange work" and his "alien task" (Isaiah 28:21). It doesn't come naturally to him.

This tension reaches its climax on the cross. We see right through the Old Testament that in order for God to bless the world through his people, he must destroy those who oppose them. And in the cross he does both. The Second Person of the Trinity, God himself, becomes a man to be God's own people; to be the means of blessing to all the world, and also to become the man who must suffer and die. God bears his own punishment on sin so that we, the guilty ones, can be free.

Yes, God is a God of love. He is a God of love who loves so much that he defends what he loves, and when he loves his own enemies, he defends them by taking the punishment on himself. This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to bear our sin.

Amalekites - What About the Children?

We've already seen that there were lots of ways out for individual Amalekites who wanted to run away. We have seen that the primary intention of God's command in 1 Samuel 15:3 is to stop the Israelites profiting from the destruction of the Amalekites. But given that command what about children who remained? Would they have been killed?

Probably, yes. And that's hard to say.

But think about the situation. We've seen that the Israelite army was huge and slow-moving - that there was plenty of time for people to get away. Whose fault is it if children stay behind for a battle? Whose fault is it if a parent takes their children to war and the children get killed?

It's the parents' fault, isn't it? Let's take an example from WW2. Just before the D-Day invasion, the Allies parachuted troops into France to secure vital bridges and so on. The normal orders for such troops is to take no prisoners, just like for the Israelite army. Now suppose they are faced by a column of German infantry, and the column includes women and children, who are also fighting. Whose fault is it if those children die? Is it Churchill's, for ordering that the troops take no prisoners? Or is it their parents' for making them fight when they should be keeping them safe?

Same here.

Were the Amalekites wiped out?

If God's command to Saul in 1 Samuel 15 was exhaustive - if God was commanding a genocide, then we would expect the Amalekites to be wiped out. After all, Saul is only criticised for taking plunder, not for sparing them. He thinks he obeys Samuel's command (1 Sam 15:20).

But that's not what we see. In 1 Samuel 27:8, there are still Amalekites around for David to raid. In Esther, Haman seems to be descended from the kings of the Amalekites. They weren't wiped out, therefore God didn't command a genocide.

"But this generation of Amalekites weren't guilty!"

In 1 Samuel 15, God tells Saul to kill the Amalekites because of something their ancestors had done. Just after the Exodus (if I had to guess a date, I'd guess 1280BC, but it could be as early as 1450BC), the Amalekites attacked Israel in the desert. But in about 1040BC, God says they will be punished for it. How can that be fair?

In Ezekiel 18, God says that he doesn't punish anyone for their ancestors' sins - people are punished for their own sins. But even then, there's the assumption that people normally follow their parents. Most people do what they saw their parents do. So if the parents are alcoholic or abusive, the children are more likely to grow up to be alcoholic or abusive. The parents' behaviour helps to explain why the child is like that, but it doesn't excuse it. People are still responsible for their own actions, and they can be judged for their parents' sins only when they themselves continue to walk in the way their parents walked, when they make their parents' sin their own.

The Amalekites were like that with attacking God's people. They had kept on doing it generation after generation - at least 5 times in the 250-odd years between the Exodus and Saul. The Amalekites as a nation are being judged because they keep attacking God's people, but individual Amalekites are judged based on their own actions.

You see, individual Amalekites have the chance to distance themselves from their nation (see Is there a way out for the Amalekites?). If they stay and fight, it shows they agree with the way their nation has acted.

There is evidence in the passage as well that individuals are judged for their own sin rather than the sin of their ancestors. In v18 they are described as "wicked people", and in v33 Agag is killed because his sword has made women childless.

God calls time on the Amalekites as a nation because of the actions of their ancestors, which they have continued in. But inidivdual Amalekites are judged for their own actions. If they distance themselves from their nation, they are spared.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Amalekites - What did God actually command?

At first sight, God's command to Saul looks clear and unambiguous.

Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.
1 Samuel 15:3, NIV

But if we are going to understand it correctly, we need to see how Saul would have understood it. We can see a lot of that from reading the passage closely, and from reading other similar and related passages.

Saul wouldn't have understood the command exhaustively to mean that he must kill all the Amalekites. We see this from 1 Kings 11, for example.

Hadad was from the royal family of Edom, and here is how the LORD made him Solomon's enemy: Some time earlier, when David conquered the nation of Edom, Joab his army commander went there to bury those who had died in battle. Joab and his soldiers stayed in Edom six months, and during that time they killed every man and boy who lived there. Hadad was a boy at the time, but he escaped to Midian with some of his father's officials...
1 Kings 11:14-17, CEV

The writer doesn't see a problem with both saying that the soldiers killed everyone there, and also that there were some survivors who escaped. It doesn't mean "hunt down and exterminate the Amalekites"; it means "kill everyone who stays and fights".

I don't think Saul would have understood the command vindictively either, when we understand how war worked back then. The purpose of war was generally to take plunder - slaves, valuables or flocks. The rules governing war in Deuteronomy 20 specifically allowed Israelites to take plunder when fighting outside their own land. But here the Israelites are specifically forbidden from taking any plunder - whether cattle or livestock or wives or slaves. That's why children are included - it's not telling the Israelites to be especially vicious - it's telling them not to profit from the battle.

That also makes most sense of why Saul is condemned later in the passage. Saul allows the Amalekite king to live, and also allows his soldiers to take some plunder. And Samuel says:

Why did you not obey the Lord? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?
1 Samuel 15:19

Saul's sin in this passage is not showing mercy to the Amalekites; his sin is trying to profit from their destruction, because that is what God specifically forbids in v3.

I suppose a modern equivalent of v3 would be "Attack them. Take no prisoners. Take no plunder." That's what God commanded Saul to do to the Amalekites.

Was there a way out for the Amalekites?

So was there a way out for the Amalekites?

When the Israelites attacked them, the Amalekites had four options.

Option 1 - (Bravely) Run Away

The Israelite army didn't have cars or aeroplanes. They would have moved at the speed of the slowest unit, which was probably a heavy wagon with supplies. We're told the army consisted of 210,000 men. They were a huge army, and moved slowly. That means it was very easy to spot them coming, and very easy to run away. In the ancient world, the number of civilian casualties in war was tiny. This is mainly because it was very easy to run away. Only the people who stay to fight get killed.

Option 2 - Join the Kenites

The Kenites lived in the same area as the Amalekites, but they were friendly towards the Israelites. When Saul's army arrived at the Amalekite city, the first thing they do is send a message to the Kenites.

Then Saul said to the Kenites, "Go, depart; go down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them. For you showed kindness to all the people of Israel when they came up out of Egypt." So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites.
1 Samuel 15:6

Now, that makes it look very much as if the Kenites are mingling with the Amalekites fairly freely. Suppose an Amalekite decided that they didn't want to fight against Israel. There doesn't seem to have been anything stopping them from deciding to be a Kenite – dressing themselves up as a Kenite and just slipping off. The Amalekites had a way out, if only they were willing to deny their identity as Amalekites.

Option 3 - Surrender

There's a set of rules for how Israel was meant to conduct their wars outside their own borders. We don't know if Israel followed them or not on this occasion, but they should have done.

When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if it responds to you peaceably and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. And when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword...
Deuteronomy 20:10-13, ESV

God's specific command to Saul in 1 Samuel 15 overrides the rest of those orders (about prisoners and plunder), but not the first bit. Saul should have offered the Amalekites the chance to surrender and join in with the Israelites and God's plan to bless the world.

Option 4 - Stay and Fight

The fourth choice the Amalekites had was to hold onto their identity as the people who always fight the Israelites, and stay and fight. This option is the only one which leads to the Amalekites being killed.

1 Samuel 15 - What's the Big Picture?

When we are trying to understand a difficult passage like 1 Samuel 15, it is really important to get a good idea of where the passage fits into the big picture. And that's particularly true with this one. In particular, we need to understand why Israel was important.

At this point in the story, Israel are God's chosen people. But they weren't chosen so God could bless them and curse everyone else. They were chosen to be God's conduit of blessing to the whole world. As God's original promise to Abraham says:

all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
Genesis 12:3b, NIV

Israel was God's chosen conduit of blessing to the whole world. Amalek had actually had a chance to be there as well, being descended from Esau. But Esau had renounced his blessing, trading it in for a bowl of soup, and Amalek continued in that. They had decided that they would oppose the very means that God had chosen to bless them and every other nation, and by the time we reach 1 Samuel 15, they have been consistently opposing it for hundreds of years and show no sign of letting up.

In his book Violence, Hospitality and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition, theologian Hans Boersma points out that hospitality requires the potential for violence. Suppose that Britain welcomes a refugee from Burma. In Burma, they are being hunted by the authorities because of their statements about human rights violations, or something like that. If Britain really welcomes them, part of that is being willing to resist the Burmese government sending agents over here to kill them, and resisting in a violent way if necessary. Part of hospitality is willingness to protect the people you are being hospitable towards.

In the same way, God is determined to bless the world, and at the stage of 1 Samuel 15, the way he has decided to bless the world is through Israel shining as a light for him among the nations. As it turns out, they're rubbish at that, but that's a different story. Even so, we still get people like Ruth and like the Gibeonites coming in from outside Israel to experience some of God's blessing to the world through Israel. And so part of what it means for God to bless the world is for God to protect Israel, his pipeline for blessing to the world.

Who Were the Amalekites?

Who were the Amalekites? What made them so bad?

The Amalekites were the descendents and followers of Amalek, grandson of Esau (Genesis 36:12,16), brother of Jacob also known as Israel. As such, the Amalekites weren't total foreigners to God. Esau was the one who had sold his birthright and his part in God's promise. He had been part of God's covenant people, but he valued his own apetites more. So the Edomites (Esau's descendents, including the Amalekites) were people who had opted out en masse of the covenant which defined God's people.

They weren't Canaanites. Israel was not a threat to them; Israel was not going to take their land. Their relationship to the Amalekites was like their relationship to the other Edomites when they said "Please let us pass through your country. We will not go through any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the king's highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory." (Numbers 20:17)

But the Amalekites really really didn't like Israel. At the very birth of the nation of Israel, when they came out of Egypt and were at their most vulnerable, before they even got to Sinai and when they didn't even have any water, the Amalekites came and attacked them (Exodus 17:8). Israel were forced to fight their very first battle, fighting for their lives against the Amalekites, under the leadership of Moses. After God gave Moses an amazing victory, Exodus says this:

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven."

Moses built an altar and called it The LORD is my Banner. He said, "For hands were lifted up to the throne of the LORD. The LORD will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation."

Exodus 17:14-16, NIV

The Amalekites were the people who hated Israel, right from the start. And though Moses said that God would be at war it looks very much as if it's the Amalekites who are at war with him. Israel have a lot of wars between Moses and Saul, but they never once attack the Amalekites.

The Amalekites attack Israel though. In Numbers 14:45, they attack Israel again while they are still in the desert. In Judges 3:13 they join in with the Moabites in attacking Israel. In Judges 6:3, they invade Israel "whenever the Israelites planted their crops", and together with the Midianites "did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys." Later in Judges 6 and 7 they invade again and are fought off by Gideon. The Amalekites show that generation after generation, they are at war with Israel and with God. They had attacked Israel at least five times over a period of about 250 years.

Even long after Saul (and Saul's successor David) have fought against and mostly eradicated the Amalekites, we get one more Amalekite coming up. 600 years after them, the Persians are ruling the whole area, and a man called Haman, an Agagite gets a lot of power. "Agagite" probably means that he was descended from the Amalekite kings, known as Agag.

After these events, King Xerxes (of Persia) honored Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, elevating him and giving him a seat of honor higher than that of all the other nobles. All the royal officials at the king's gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.

Then the royal officials at the king's gate asked Mordecai, "Why do you disobey the king's command?" Day after day they spoke to him but he refused to comply. Therefore they told Haman about it to see whether Mordecai's behavior would be tolerated, for he had told them he was a Jew.

When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged. Yet having learned who Mordecai's people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai's people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.

Esther 3:1-6, NIV

The Amalekites weren't just any old people. They were the nation who more than any other tried to destroy Israel. They had been trying to eradicate and plunder Israel from the very birth of Israel, 200-400 years before the command in 1 Samuel 15, and they would continue for another 600 years.

The Amalekites were vicious as well, and were noted for killing children (1 Sam 15:33).

That explains some of the background to the conflict in 1 Samuel 15. It shows that what is being commanded is an act of war in a conflict which the Israelites didn't start, and which was never going to be resolved by negotiation.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Prayer Request

I know I don't usually post prayer requests on here, but tomorrow I'm due to be doing a radio debate with an atheist called Justin Schieber on the Amalekite Genocide of 1 Samuel 15. Please pray for me.

I'll post some more stuff for discussion up here over the next few days, and a link to the recording of the debate when it's available. For the meantime, here's a link to some of my past stuff on the Amalekites. I've moved on a bit since then though...

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Coping with Bible Disagreements

There are a few areas where the Bible doesn't seem to speak with a single voice on a topic. Examples are the nature of hell, remarriage after divorce and the order of events at the end of the world. It isn't so much that what the Bible says is unclear – but that it seems to clearly say different things in different places.

When that happens, we get to choose how we respond.

  • The non-Christian response is to say that the Bible just contradicts itself and ignore it. Some Christians try that response, but I don't think it's helpful or productive. Neither do I think Christians should try it, unless they've tried the other options and found them wanting.
  • The response of the busy Christian is to accept that there is probably an answer out there somewhere, but that it isn't particularly relevant to my life now, and so ignore it. That's what I did for many years on the question of the role of the Jews after the time of Jesus. It wasn't relevant to what I was doing, so I used what I knew and didn't worry too much about the rest.
  • The proof-texting response is to take one set of verses and passages, usually the ones closest to the view which we'd want to take anyway or which our group takes, and make them the basis for our view on the issue, then either ignore or re-interpret the verses which seem to put forward other views to explain why they are wrong. That's what tends to happen when the debate is split down party lines, as with the debate on the nature of hell.
  • My preferred response is to try to find an answer which fits all the passages which discuss the issue, and explains why they seem to say what they say. The ideal is that you find a point of view where all the passages that we have are legitimate ways of explaining it for the contexts that they are written to. Once you've done that, I think you've got good reason to think that you're probably right on one of those issues, but not otherwise.