Friday, June 10, 2011

Strange Flesh

And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day. In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. (Jude 1.6-7)

Cameo Roles

My partner Walt was reared as a Jehovah’s Witness, which is sort of like being a Fundamentalist with a twist. Without exception every practicing Witness I’ve ever met is a model of devotion. Yet, after 20 years with Walt and many visits with his extended family, I’m still not sure what they believe. In the early days of our union, we compared a lot of faith notes and usually ended with one of us saying, “That’s weird, because we didn’t interpret it the same way,” or, “We never talked about that.” One evening, for no particular reason, Walt asked, “So what did they teach you about Nephilim?” I sighed, because Nephilim—who pop up in three verses of Scripture (Genesis 6.4, Numbers 13.33, Jude 1.6)—are one of those conundrums that just can’t be solved. Akin to fantastic creatures in Daniel’s prophecy and The Revelation (a Witness favorite), the Nephilim’s cameo roles in our saga signal apocalyptic wrath (Genesis) and epic confrontation with superhuman forces (Numbers). But their real story is anybody’s guess.

In Genesis 6.4, we learn Nephilim are the offspring of unholy unions, “when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans.” Judaic tradition equates “sons of God” with angels—in this case, fallen ones who take up residence on Earth after they’re ousted from Heaven. Although this inter-being congress infuriates God, Nephilim are spared the stigma of their shameful origins. “They were the heroes of old, men of renown,” Genesis tells us. Humanity catches the brunt of God’s anger. Seeing “how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth” (v5), God declares, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” (v7) Enter Noah and the ark.

The Sin at Hand

Evidently the Nephilim manage to survive the Flood. Numbers 13 reports they’re alive and well and living in Canaan, the land God promises to Israel. Before taking possession of it, Moses dispatches 12 spies to gauge what they’re up against. They return with unhappy news: “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there of great size. We saw the Nephilim there… We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (v32-33) After parting the Jordan for Israel to cross over and destroying Jericho’s walls, routing the Nephilim is the cherry on the miraculous-seizure-of-Canaan sundae. It’s not every day a road-weary, untrained army defeats a nation of angelically spawned giants! Yet a quizzical side of the story gets glossed over. Canaan is a pagan stronghold given to gross perversions that don’t square with Genesis’s “heroes of old, men of renown,” indicating a big part of their story goes missing.

I don’t recall Walt’s explanation of how Nephilim figure into Jehovah Witnesses’ end-time theology. But I can safely say the only times our preachers mentioned them was when they dragged out Jude 1.7: “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” The discussion brooked no curiosity in children of celestials gone wrong. The Nephilim got wrung into the rush to assert homosexuals will burn in Hell. And I know I sound like a broken record. But if we just read the text, intelligently hearing what Jude says, we can’t possibly miss his point. Like 1 Timothy, Jude warns readers not to be seduced by false doctrine. The sin at hand is unbelief. No more than surface knowledge of the Nephilim and Sodom is required to spot the connection. Jude defames heretics by talking about the trouble with angels, not same-sex orientation.

Ignoring Instructions

Of all the mangled clobber texts, the alleged condemnation of LGBT people in Jude is by far the most absurd, because the writer tells us how to read the text. Prefacing the Sodom and Gomorrah example with “in a similar way,” Jude insists we link verses 7 and 6: “And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the Great Day.” What do the Nephilim’s angelic ancestors have in common with Sodom? Obviously, they all paid awful penalties for their perversion. Yet the exact nature of their sin doesn’t become clear until we note the “and” that starts verse 6, directing us to verse 5: “Though you already know all this, I want to remind you that the Lord at one time delivered his people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe.” Those destroyed for unbelief are Egyptians who drown in the Red Sea. And why don’t they believe, despite God’s ferocious display of power in the ten plagues precipitating the Hebrews’ liberation? Egyptian fealty to Pharaoh springs from belief their monarch is the son of Ra (“pha-ra-oh”), i.e., another product of celestial and human intercourse.

When following Jude’s direction for reading the text—top to bottom or bottom to top—there’s no disputing how he defines “Sodom’s sin.” The men of Sodom invite God’s wrath by attempting to rape angels. Going light on the original text analysis (for which you’re no doubt grateful), the Greek translated as “sexual immorality” is “indulging in fornication,” in other words, “taking improper liberties.” Meanwhile, “perversion” condenses a phrase that means “going after strange flesh.” (I can’t pass the chance to point out Jude’s word for “strange” derives from the root heteros, “of a different kind,” or that the phrase infers Sodom’s compulsion is highly addictive.) Whether or not Sodom’s men knew their intended victims were angels is open to debate. The Genesis account suggests not. Jude seems convinced they did know and didn’t care, refusing to believe God’s fury at their perversion—going after strange flesh—would trigger a wrathful deluge like the Flood that destroyed mortals who slept with angels or the Red Sea that swept over Pharaoh and his men. But it did.

Only by ignoring instructions that Jude provides for reading his letter can anyone possibly misconstrue verse 7 to mean human sexuality of any kind. And, just in case the common thread eludes us, Jude comes right out and explains it in verse 8: “In the very same way”—one more connect-the-dots directive—“on the strength of their dreams these ungodly people pollute their own bodies, reject authority and heap abuse on celestial beings.” Beyond making it clear he cites Egypt, the fallen angels, and Sodom as instances of perverse celestial-mortal couplings, Jude also clarifies “these ungodly people” constitute his real focus. We discover who they are by returning to the top of the letter.

Going After Strangeness

Jude begins by saying he “felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.” (v3-4) Jude urges us to contend for the faith, to believe God’s Word and its promise of grace for all who believe through faith in Christ. Unbelief like that exhibited by the Egyptians, humans who consorted with fallen angels, and Sodom’s citizenry results in going after strangeness, i.e., overstepping mortal bounds to imagine ourselves on par with heavenly beings. The message is actually simple: stay with what you know and don’t meddle in God’s business.

The comparison of false teachers to Old Testament figures who couple with gods or angels sounds silly to modern ears. Yet legends of human-celestial intercourse were a dime-a-dozen in Jude’s day. What throws us off now was abundantly plain to his original readers. These examples drive home the grave error of those who contort the promise of redemption “once for all” into threats against anyone who doesn’t comply to their beliefs—which Jude says is really unbelief that brings wrath. People who corrupt the gospel of grace and deny Christ’s lordship presume to live above the realm of grace and Christ’s authority. It’s a dangerous place to pitch one’s tent.

Where Grace Abides

The trouble with angels is they’re not us and we’re not them. As humans, we’re totally dependent on God’s grace, which we receive by faith in Jesus’s surrogate sacrifice for all people for all time. Jude’s know-your-place-in-the-divine-scheme message is evident in the New Testament’s constant reminders Jesus took our place. Philippians 2.7-8 states Jesus “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” Regarding angels, Hebrews 2.8-9 says, “God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (Emphasis added.) If Jesus found it necessary to become lower than the angels, so must we. And because He humbled Himself to our level, where we are is where grace abides—not with the angels, not in Heaven, but here with us.

“These people are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage,” verse 16 says. Baseless condemnation and exclusion exalt those who practice them. It’s a twisted compulsion that no true believer should embrace or excuse. No wonder Jude compares false teachers to humans habitually “going after strange flesh”. Going after strangeness—placing oneself above grace by insisting others are beneath it—overreaches and falls short. It’s a self-defeating route people pursue “on the strength of their dreams,” never realizing they’re on the road to ruin. (In essence, they’re “chasing the high.”) That some dismember and abuse Scripture to deny God’s grace to all, especially a text warning them not do it, is so strange it defies reason. But reason’s absence is faith’s opening. So while they persist in their addictive ways, we follow Christ’s way, meeting their condemnation with compassion and prayers.

Jude’s letter targets those who pervert the gospel of grace for all as an immoral means to boast and condemn. He compares them to people who go after strange flesh—an addiction loaded with extremely dangerous repercussions.

Postscript: Jude’s Doxology

Undoubtedly, Jude is one of the New Testament’s more vitriolic epistles—as well as one of the more impenetrable ones, with no less than eight arcane Old Testament allusions tucked in its 25 verses. Yet few epistles equal the ravishing beauty of its closing doxology, which doubles a benediction and praise:

To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (v24-25)



Sherry Peyton said...

Tim, I knew from reading your book that you were so talented, but gosh, you are doing this so amazingly wonderfully, that I don't know what to day. Your explanation on Sodom is truly one of the best I have read. Between computer problems and being sick with a cold, I've missed a couple, but hope to go back and read the ones I missed.

Thanks for so exegetical a treatment here. It's very very informative.

Blessings, Sherry

Tim said...

Sherry, so sorry to hear about the computer problems and cold--one by itself is miserable, both must be maddening!

This has been quite a journey and I've not been as consistently effective in dissecting the texts as I hoped. But I pray that the key messages haven't got lost in the clutter.

The abiding problem with the clobber texts is that virtually every one of them addresses topics that have no close reflection in modern thought: Jude's use of celestial-mortal intercourse to defame heretics, 1 Timothy's use of sex crimes to malign the Gnostics, 1 Corinthians' repugnance at same-sex temple rites because they feminize the participants, and the Levitical prohibition as a public health measure. None of these meanings is overt without doing the research; and then trying to explain the history and linguistic nuances becomes a real challenge.

Yet it's ludicrous not dig through this stuff, as what we take them to mean at face value can't possibly be what the original writers and readers understood, simply because post-Victorian/Freudian understanding of sex is so radically different than the ancient mindset. While working on these posts, I've often wondered what the ancients would make of our "straight," "gay," etc., classifications, as their sexual ethos was so tightly intertwined with class, status, and religion--and not nearly as concerned about gender as we are. I can hear the Corinthians ask, "So it doesn't matter who you sleep with as long as it's the 'right' gender?"

Of course, those who clobber LGBT people aren't interested in these distinctions. Nobody likes to have their favorite weapons yanked from their hands. Despite my uneven work here, I pray that all readers--regardless of personal orientation--will come away understanding there's a lot more to these texts than meets the eye. And those who wield them by sight have no legitimate grounds for using them in that manner. If the series gets us even one step closer to that realization, I'll be grateful.

Sherry, thanks for your kind support and encouragement. They lift my spirits and give me the added strength I need to wrap this up!

Take care of yourself, now!