Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton of Sydney’s The Great Synagogue provides an interesting and refreshing perspective on the current Israel Folau controversy here.
My title sounds a bit presumptuous: as if anyone needs to be told how to read the Bible! It’s really a kind of postscript to my previous posts about the possibility that David was a narcissist (yes, I know I said I was finished with that subject for now, but I thought this further note was important).
Some people react to the suggestion that David had a personality disorder by countering that he was “a man after God’s own heart” and he wrote so many beautiful psalms he must be a model of Godly behaviour. All I need to do really is to remind people that he was an adulterer and a murderer to set aside any notions that he was a paragon of virtue. But I should also restate something which I argued in earlier posts about the phrase “a man after God’s own heart”. For the full explanation you should read my posts here (and here and to a lesser extent here) but in a nutshell I explained that the Hebrew doesn’t necessarily read the same way as the English. The phrase “after [God’s] own heart” translates a single Hebrew word כִּלְבָבֹו. It literally means “according to his own heart” so the sentence then reads “the LORD has sought a man according to his own heart” (the prefix כ means as, or according to and a similar expression appears in 2 Samuel 7:21 where כְלִבְּךָ is translated into English as “according to your own heart”, the translators there correctly translating כ as “according to”.)  In other words, David is not being commended for being God-like, but rather the text reads as a simple statement that the choice of David as future king was God’s and God’s alone to make – God was following his heart in choosing David.
I could look at the David-psalms another time, but for now I want to comment on how we read the heroic stories about David in Samuel and Kings. It would be relatively easy to read these books as simple history: someone (or a group of people) was simply writing down the historical facts to record the history of Israel and Judah. But if it is simply history the writer has been very selective. A lot of important information has been left out and there is a serious imbalance in the amount of detail given about each king. If it was “simple history” we could expect, for example, that the most attention would be given to the longest reigning monarchs, yet some important long-reigning monarchs are glossed over. In any case, all history-writing has an agenda. A writer can never be totally dispassionate about the subject and will always portray his or her characters in a certain light, even when they are historical rather than fictional characters. So what could have been the possible agenda of the writer(s) of Samuel and Kings?
There are three main views about this:
- A large section of Samuel-Kings is sometimes called “the Succession Narrative” (also known as the Court Narrative, 2 Samuel 9 – 1 Kings 2) because it is argued that the writer is justifying the rightfulness of David’s claim to the throne, and the claims of his descendants to rule Judah at least, if not all Israel. In this reading Saul and his descendants (initially Jonathan and Ishbosheth) are portrayed as being weak, disobedient or otherwise unsuitable to rule Israel, while David is divinely-selected as God’s own choice. Of course, Samuel’s account of Saul’s anointing and enthronement reveal that he too was God’s choice. Reading Samuel-Kings as having an emphasis on God’s promise to David of a dynasty also ties in with messianic themes in the prophets, some psalms, and in the New Testament. These connections seem to emphasise the accuracy of reading Samuel-Kings as a kind of introduction and background to the Messianic Age. for There are several weaknesses with this view, and while some scholars still maintain it there tends to have been a shift away from it.
- There is another view that the writer(s) of Samuel-Kings was actually critical of monarchy in general and his goal was to demonstrate that none of the kings, from Saul, through David and Solomon, and down to the last of the kings before the exile, were any good. In his mind the institution of monarchy was flawed and even those with the best prospects of success (such as David) still failed miserably. This view argues that these histories were written during the exile (we can be certain of that because Kings ends with Jehoiachin going into exile in Babylon, so it couldn’t have been written earlier than that), while those in exile were discussing and planning their return from exile and what kind of government they would need. This writer argued against a return to monarchy because it was kings that got them into this mess in the first place! A good case can be made for the writer(s) to have been a priest or priests because when the exiles did return they abandoned any attempt to restore the monarchy and instead it was the priests who were most influential and powerful in rebuilding the nation.
- A third view combines these two options, although it in no way contradicts the second view. It argues that the material for Samuel and Kings was sourced from various earlier documents (official histories, stories, legends, etc) and put together over a period of time. At various stages through their history the work was updated to include the latest kings and events, and some of the earlier material may have been modified at the same time so that the story flowed smoothly. The final stage of editing would have been in the exile. This option explains why some of the material appears to be contradictory – as material was added which differed in some way from earlier material, little effort was made to ‘harmonise’ all the details. There is good evidence from elsewhere that ancient record-keepers didn’t have the same preoccupation with harmony and consistency that modern writers do, and they wouldn’t have had a problem with internal ‘inconsistencies’. This view makes good sense of conflicting data, and is consistent with what we might expect about ancient record-keeping and history-writing.
To me, the second and third options make a great deal of sense. David is portrayed as part of the problem: a deeply flawed person who established a dynasty which was never able to get it quite right, and which eventually led to Judah’s demise.
 The ‘virtually unanimous trend in recent scholarship … understands the phrase “after [Yhwh’s] own heart” in 1 Sam 13:14 as a statement about Yhwh’s choice rather than David’s character’. (Benjamin J. M. Johnson, “The Heart of Yhwh’s Chosen One in 1 Samuel” Journal of Biblical Literature Volume 131, Number 3, 2012). See also P. Kyle McCarter Jr, I Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes and Commentary(AB 8; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980), 229. Since McCarter very few scholars have followed the traditional interpretation.
This will probably be my final post, at least for now, in my series about David being a narcissist. I wanted to write something about what it’s like to be the friend of a narcissist, and in some ways I can relate to the biblical character Joab who seems to me to have been one of David’s best friends (if narcissists have “friends” in the same way most of us think of friendship).
Joab was David’s nephew – the son of his sister Zeruiah – the comander-in-chief of his army (1 Chronicles 11:4-6), and probably the commander of an elite group known as “the mighty men” (2 Samuel 10:7). He is credited with defeating several of David’s enemies and taking a number of cities (including Jebus, better known as Jerusalem, which became David’s capital [2 Chronicles 11:4-9]), and was the leading military figure throughout David’s reign. He is depicted as David’s staunchest supporter, and as the power behind the throne. At times he went against David’s express wishes – such as when he had David’s rebel son Absalom killed against David’s orders – but it seems when he did so it was always for David’s benefit. When Joab achieved victories for David, he gave David the credit even after David ceased to be actively involved in military campaigns (such as in the Ammonite and Syrian wars 2 Samuel 12:26-30; 21:15-17). Joab was the person responsible for putting down the rebellions of Absalom (2 Samuel 18:1-17) and Sheba (2 Samuel 20:1-22). In fact, Joab never lost a battle! To protect David, he also covered up David’s affair with Uriah’s wife. Unlike Abner, Saul’s commander-in-chief, Joab had no ambitions to occupy the throne himself. His only interest was to support David.
Yet David does not seem to show much gratitude to Joab for all he did for him. After Joab killed Abner (who switched his allegiance from Ishbosheth, Saul’s successor, to David) to avenge the murder of his brother at Abner’s hand – a move which benefitted David politically – David publicly humiliated him and made him walk in sackcloth at Abner’s funeral. Yet, all the time Joab continued to work to support and strengthen David’s hold on power. After the death of Amnon, David’s heir apparent, he engineered for Absalom to return to court because he knew David pined for him (2 Samuel 14:1). This was a politically savvy move, as it brought Absalom back to Jerusalem where his ambitions could be held in check, because Absalom’s popularity was increasing and David’s was waning. Soon after, when David was publicly humiliated by an irate citizen, David blamed Joab for his declining popularity! (2 Samuel 16:9-10). Despite this public betrayal Joab remained loyal and saved David’s throne during Absalom’s revolt. Again, instead of being grateful to Joab for putting down the rebellion and saving his life, David lamented Absalom’s death, sapping the morale of his loyal fighting men and earning the rebuke of Joab on their behalf (2 Samuel 19:5-6). Again and again David publicly humiliated Joab and blamed him for his miseries, yet Joab remained loyal and worked tirelessly to support him. David’s generosity to others never flowed to Joab. Eventually David replaced Joab with Absalom’s former general Amasa, even though he lacked the support of the military and was a less capable leader. When there was another attempted revolt against David, this time by Sheba, it was apparent that Amasa would not be capable of putting down the rebellion. Joab murdered him, regained control of the military, defeated Sheba and put down the revolt. When Joab returned to Jerusalem it becomes clear that he was acknowledged by David as commander-in-chief (2 Samuel 20:23), although we get no details. Again it seems that David is incapable of recognising loyalty or showing gratitude to his most devoted supporter.
On his deathbed David warned Solomon to watch out for Joab! Even though he benefitted politically from the deaths of both Abner and Amasa, he told Solomon their deaths (at the hand of Joab) should be avenged, so after David’s death Joab was murdered on the orders of Solomon while seeking sanctuary at the altar of the Tabernacle (1 Kings 2:30-31). Loyal to David to the end, Joab was struck down on the advice of his ungrateful and vindictive ‘friend’ who depended on him for his success but could not bring himself to show any gratitude. In death, David proved himself, in my opinion, to be a narcissist beyond doubt. Narcissists depend on loyal supporters; they have a way of attracting people who are loyal and resourceful, and who will be useful to them, but they never really make them their “friends”. For a narcissist it’s a one-way relationship: they expect the people who are closest to them to be loyal and devoted, but it is never reciprocated. They seem to be almost incapable of showing gratitude, of putting themselves out for someone else, or able to reward loyalty.
I sympathise with Joab. Loyal to the end, but murdered for it. He probably would have made a better king than David, although he had no personal ambitions to rule. It’s likely he even genuinely loved David and only wanted the best for him. Narcissists are likeable, even loveable, but are rarely capable of reciprocating that love and devotion. Unless you’ve been in a relationship with a narcissist, or been a friend to one, it may be difficult to understand why someone like Joab could be so loyal to someone who never rewarded his loyalty or showed any gratitude. But if you have had that misfortune then, like me, you may be able to identify with the real victim in this story, Joab: the loyal and devoted servant who was humiliated, shunned and punished for his devotion.
The third New Testament text which is often quoted as evidence that the Bible condemns homosexuality is Romans 1:26-27.
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
One of the striking things about this passage is that it not only appears to refer to female homosexuality – which would make it unique in Biblical literature and rare in ancient literature generally – but also that such a reference to female homosexuality doesn’t become evident until the reader gets to the next verse which appears to refer to male homosexuality. In other words, the reader is left wondering about the meaning of “women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural” until they get to “men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another,” concluding that it refers to male homosexuality, and then having to read back female homosexuality into the earlier words. If this is the writer’s intention then it is certainly an awkward way to go about it. It is also odd that he doesn’t say “women with women” in the same way as he says “men with men” leaving open the question of what he means by women exchanging “natural intercourse for unnatural.”
Putting aside the conclusion of several scholars that this section of Romans is a late addition and was not written by Paul, I want to look at it in the context of the overall structure of this section of the letter which begins in verse 18. We should note a certain structural repetitiveness in this section:
1. “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (v.23), so “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (v.24).
2. “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (v.25) so “God gave them up to degrading passions” (v.26).
3. “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men … committed shameless acts with men” (v.26-27) “and since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done” (v.28).
The tight structure and repetition of “exchanged” and “God them up” highlights the three attributes of God which come in between: God’s glory, truth and knowledge. In his commentary on Romans, Brendan Byrne  describes this series of repetitions as ‘waves.’ Each wave begins with an ‘exchange’ and crests with God’s ‘giving them up,’ building in intensity until the third wave ends with a crash. Once we recognise the repetition we can see that Paul is providing three examples of idolatry: making images, worshipping idols, and sexual debauchery as part of idol-worship. Each example concludes with God “giving up” the idolaters to certain consequences.
The association of sexual debauchery with idol-worship would have been familiar to an ancient audience, and certainly to one familiar with the Hebrew Bible. In earlier posts in this series, for example, I have referred to Biblical texts which mentioned both male and female temple prostitutes and why it was regarded as abhorent for Israel to worship God in this way. The similarities between Romans 1:18-32 and two other texts in particular are so striking it is almost certain that Paul must have been familiar with them, and may have been directly alluding to them. For example, Paul’s line that “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” seems to come almost directly from Psalm 106:
They made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. (Psalm 106:19-20)
The Psalm continues with a list of various ways the people of Israel provoked or angered God in their worship of foreign gods and images, and leads into a section dealing with sexual debauchery as part of that worship:
They mingled with the nations and learned to do as they did. They served their idols, which became a snare to them … they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; and the land was polluted with blood. Thus they became unclean by their acts, and prostituted themselves in their doings. (Vv. 35-39)
Paul seems to get his “exchanged the glory/truth/knowledge of God… so God gave them up” language from this Psalm which continues with “then the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people, and he abhorred his heritage; he gave them into the hand of the nations, so that those who hated them ruled over them” (Vv.40-41).
There is an even more striking similarity to a long section in Wisdom of Solomon, a book found in the Apocrypha and quoted or alluded to many times in early Christian writings (including some of the writings of Paul). Paul’s language in Romans 1 is so similar to Wisdom 13-14 – a lengthy section condemning the worship of idols – we can be almost certain that he was familiar with it. The section ends by detailing the depraved sexual practices associated with idol worship, and the consequences. Similar to Paul’s mention of exchanging the truth and knowledge of God for a lie, Wisdom says “it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God” (14:22) and goes on to list practices associated with their idol-worship:
For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs,they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery, and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, defiling of souls, sexual perversion, disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery. For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil (Wisdom 14:23-27).
Wisdom concludes with the judgment that “just penalties will overtake them” – those worshippers who trust in lifeless idols – because “the just penalty for those who sin always pursues the transgression of the unrighteous” (v. 29-31). This too is similar to Paul’s “so God gave them up …” and he follows a similar line in his argument. These verses in Romans 1 are not primarily about homosexuality, but about sexual depravity associated with idol-worship. This sexual behavior regularly involved both male and female temple prostitutes and included both homosexual and heterosexual activity. While Paul speaks of men committing “shameless acts with men” during this idol-worship, homosexuality per se is not the focus of his argument and it would be wrong to draw any conclusions from it about sexual activity within the confines of a loving relationship.
 Byrnes, Brendan, Romans, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996) p.64.
Having dealt with the principal texts in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) which have often been quoted as mentioning or implying homosexuality I now plan to look at the New Testament texts.
There are only two texts in the NT where the word “homosexual” is actually used in some translations, and there are one or two others where it may be implied. Before taking a close look at these verses and the Greek words that are sometimes translated as “homosexual” I should give some history about the English word. No English translation of the Bible used the word “homosexual” prior to 1946 when the Revised Standard Version (RSV) used it for the first time in two places. Prior to 1946 the Greek was translated in a variety of ways, and I will come back to this. In fact, the word “homosexual” didn’t enter the English language until the end of the nineteenth century so it wasn’t even available to be used by earlier translations. The first known appearance of the word was in German, in an 1869 pamphlet arguing against a Prussian anti-sodomy law. In 1886, the Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing used the terms homosexual and heterosexual in a book about sexuality, and from there they were adopted into the English language. I find it somewhat comical when I read posts on social media (in support of Israel Folau’s assertion that homosexuals will go to hell) saying that he is simply “quoting the King James Bible”. The KJV was written 250 years before the word homosexual even existed! People would do well to read the Bible before they pretend to quote it.
The two places where the word occurs in some (but not all) modern translations of the Bible are (in the English Standard Version – ESV):
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
1 Timothy 1:9-10 The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.
In 1 Timothy 1:10 the phrase translated here in the ESV as “men who practice homosexuality” translates a single Greek word (ἀρσενοκοίταις arsenokoitais, while in 1 Corinthians 1:10 it is a translation of two words (μαλακοὶ malakoi and ἀρσενοκοῖται arsenokoitai). I will first look at the word ἀρσενοκοίταις arsenokoitais which is common to both (in cognate forms). This is a difficult word to translate for one simple reason: apart from these two places in the NT it does not occur anywhere else in ancient Greek literature; no where else in the Bible, in either the NT or the Septuagint, and no where in classical Greek literature. The technical term for a word which occurs in only one place is hapax legomenon, and they are notorously difficult to translate for the simple reason that we have no other texts for comparison to help us understand the meaning. Let’s take an example from English. If you came across the word butterfly in a text and did not know what it meant you could look at other texts to determine its meaning. It would be useless to try to make sense of it by breaking it up into what might look like its component parts, butter and fly. To do so would simply make a nonsense of it. The word ἀρσενοκοίτης arsenokoitēs appears to be a combination of two Greek words arsēn a male and koitē a bed, and therefore by implication refers to men “going to bed” with men. But we can’t be sure, and we have no other texts which use the word to help us out. Just like the word butterfly has nothing to do with butter, we can’t be sure this Greek word has anything to do with men in bed. Translators have to guess at a meaning.
When Luther translated the Bible into German in 1534 he translated ἀρσενοκοίτης arsenokoitēs with the German word knabenschänder which literally means “boy molester.” His translation suggests he understood the term to mean some form of sexual abuse, but like all translators he was still guessing. If his translation is right then perhaps it should have been given more prominence during the scandals (and, in Australia, a Royal Commission) involving institutional abuse of children, and the high profile trial of a Cardinal convicted for sexually abusing choir boys. There is nothing in the context of these verses to suggest that the word has anything to do with a loving relationship between two men, while sexual abuse or violence would make better sense in a list of vices.
The other word which is associated with ἀρσενοκοίτης arsenokoitēs in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 is μαλακός malakos, which literally means “soft”. There is a great deal of diversity in the way the word is translated. For example, the King James Version (KJV) translates it as “effeminate” while the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates the term as “male prostitutes” which is actually quite strange. They are clearly guessing, although they may have been influenced by the use of a Hebrew word קָדֵשׁ qadesh which is sometimes translated as “male temple prostitutes.” I referred to this term in an earlier post where I argued that the problem does not seem to be one of men having sex with men, but doing so as part of the worship of God. How the NRSV translators took the leap from “soft” to “male prostitutes” is anyone’s guess, but probably has something to do with an assumption that the word μαλακός malakos refers to the “passive” [soft(?)] partner in homosexual sex (presumably the receptive partner in anal sex) , and a further assumption that this was the part played by a prostitute. There are quite a few assumptions built into such a conclusion! If Paul did indeed mean “male prostitutes” then it may have been sex-for-pay that was the problem in his mind, and not male-to-male sex per se.
However, there is nothing inherently sexual about this word, let alone homosexual. The only other time it is used in the NT is in the parallel texts of Matthew 11:8/Luke 7:25, where it appears twice as a substantive neuter plural, malaka (literally meaning “soft things”) which in the context denotes “soft clothing” and has no sexual connotation whatsoever. In that context the writer used the term with reference to rich people who wore “soft” clothing in much the same way as we might refer to the privileged elite as “softies” – out of touch with the down-to-earth general population. Paul may have been condemning the rich who lived luxuriously at the expense of others, and this would be consistent with other terms in his list, “thieves, greedy persons, robbers.” We can’t be sure what he meant and there seems to be an almost endless range of possibilities including being rich. In my opinion, homosexuality is the least likely of the possibilities and seems to have been influenced more by prevailing social or religious attitudes in 1946 than by good scholarship.
To be continued …