There’s much in the Bible that can confound or offend non-believers and believers alike. And with the rise of the so-called New Atheism, as well as movements seeking to normalize what the Bible condemns, more and more attention is being paid to what professional skeptic Richard Dawkins calls the “nasty bits” in the Scriptures.
The imagery, focus on and ritual use of blood─something inexorably linked to Calvary’s cross─is among the most common points of contention.
This series will focus on one aspect of this “bloodiness” that is rarely discussed or even thought about by most Christians: that is blood’s connection to sex. And in doing so I will address the proverbial “elephant in the room.” When Christians rightly invoke Leviticus 18 (among several other verses) to challenge the loosening of sexual mores─specifically homosexual behavior (vs. 22), critics love to point out that the same chapter similarly condemns sexual intercourse between a husband and wife while she is menstruating (vs. 19), something that many (most?) Christian couples have experienced inadvertently or even intentionally.
Are these Christians guilty of cherry-picking the Bible─of selective application and gross hypocrisy?
To “rightly divide” (2 Tim. 2:15), to properly get our minds around these admittedly difficult passages, it is vital we first acknowledge where the true difficulty lies in regard to them. It is not so much with the Bible as it is with us.
First, there is our pride, our innate tendency to not trust in the Lord with all our heart but rather “lean to our own understanding.” (Pro. 3:15). At its worst, this “birth defect” (Psa. 51:5; Jer. 17:9; Eph. 2:1&3) will drive us to sit in judgment of God and the Bible, to search the Scriptures to find fodder for our rebellion rather than for illumination. This is precisely Dawkin’s and every other skeptic’s primary approach.
It’s no wonder the Bible seems foolish to them.
Second is our laziness and intellectual indifference and/or our ignorance. We don’t do the “heavy lifting” necessary to knock, seek and have the doors of our understanding opened. Three key aspects of this (there are others):
- Truly believing that all of Scripture is God-breathed and is profitable for teaching, correction and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). All scripture doesn’t just mean each of the sixty-six books individually (seventy-three if one is a Roman Catholic; seventy-six (or so) for the Greek and Eastern Orthodox) but also all of the books corporately. (Matt. 4:4; note every) To truly, ultimately understand any passage—particularly the surprising, difficult and shocking ones—we have to process them within the context and light of the entire Canon; to let the Bible interpret the Bible.
- We need to understand the language of the Bible. By language I don’t necessarily mean the original ones the Bible was recorded in: biblical Hebrew, Aramaic and Koine Greek—though no doubt that can help. More importantly, we need to set aside our modern (or post-modern), Western, so-called “enlightenment” presuppositions and strive to enter the world of the inspired human authors: to let the Bible and its worldview interpret a passage instead of imposing our personal interpretive lens on it. This involves picking up on the figures of speech (similes, metaphors, metonymies) and idioms of the time and culture. To differentiate between the different styles of writing: historical narrative, poetry, apocalyptic, law/statutory, parable, epistle, genealogical, prophecy, proverbial and hyperbolic. And, of course, it also means depending on the true Author of the content and language: God the Spirit.
- Vitally connected with #’s 1 and 2: we need to also read the Bible against the backdrop of the big picture—in the context of God’s redemptive purposes and their arc in history. Some of the more salient features of this relative to the task at hand:
- God created a “very good” world with man set in as His vice-regent, His high priest operating from within the temple/control center of Eden’s garden. He was called to cultivate and keep it, eventually exporting its divine beauty and order throughout the rest of Eden and then the outlying world. (Gen. 1:31; 28; 2:15; Num. 3:7-8; 8:25-26; 18:5-6; 1 Chron. 23:32; Ezek. 44:14. For more on this go here.)
- Man fell (Gen. 3) and the chaotic, dark void (Gen. 1:2) that had been divinely transformed in six successive stages returned with a vengeance. Now only through toil and pain can the chaos and darkness be defeated and the work of “heavenizing” (cultivating, keeping, filling and ruling) the earth be accomplished. (Gen. 3:16-20) The ultimate expression of this pain and toil became quintessentially incarnate in Christ, reaching a horrifying crescendo on the cross.
- God then sets about fixing and re-launching the original project, specifically by redeeming a segment of mankind and introducing into the world a “new” or “second” Adam, both the Person and His descendants. (1 Cor. 15:45; Rom. 5:12-21; John 20:22 (compare to Gen. 2:7); Matt. 18:28, Rom.8:19)
- A vital, early stage in this project involved drawing out from the morass of fallen humanity a people─one that God set His Name upon and then proceeded to both teach and reveal to the world His ways. Eventually, and with signs and wonders following, YHWH gathered Israel to the navel of the earth. He put them on the world-stage stage to act out the covenant relationship He had established with Israel…and in doing so to potentially redeem the world.
- Israel spectacularly failed at this—of course, something that did not take LORD by surprise. But they did do a good job—in most cases inadvertently—of serving as object lessons for those upon whom the promise/fulfillment of the ages would later come. (1 Cor. 10:11)
- From the Jews would eventually come the true Israel, the One who in fact would redeem the world and inaugurate with His own body the New Creation that God from the beginning sought to bring to the world. (Col. 1:15-23)
- A vital corollary to these last three points are the laws, rules and ritual acts YHWH gave Israel to obey and model as a key aspect of His covenant with them. Some were based on eternal moral absolutes, rooted in God’s own nature. The Ten Commandments are the most obvious examples of this. But many were temporal and deeply, powerfully symbolic—typological and recursive actions that called to, invoked and provided insight into the mysteries of God’s plan of redemption. Perhaps the best example of this was the elaborate system of ritual sacrifice—most of it involving blood—that pointed to and then passed away when the true Sacrifice was taken to Calvary’s altar. (John 1:29; Heb. 10:1-8; Rev. 5)
In this sense, the people of Israel were like actors on Shakespeare’s world stage, unknowing participants in a kind of cosmic, ritual folk dance that overflowed with symbolic and pedagogical meaning. (There likely were times when the more spiritually attuned of them were aware of the symbolic/prophetic nature of their particular steps in the dance, particularly when those steps became very, very odd. (see Isa. 20:2; Jer. 13:1-7; Eze. 4; Hos. 1; among others)
It is against this backdrop—and particularly in the light of the point just made—that we turn our attention to the “blood and sex” passages in the Old Testament. (Stay tuned for Part Two)