Are Souls Gendered?

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27

At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Matthew 22:30

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

The BBC television series “Doctor Who” recently created controversy by announcing that the role of the Thirteenth Doctor would be played by a woman. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, the Doctor is an alien from a planet called Gallifrey whose species have not only the ability to travel in time, but also are able to “regenerate” into a new body instead of dying. The ability to regenerate was originally invented by the writers in order to keep the show going when the actor portraying the original doctor became too ill to continue working. (This literary tactic reminds me a bit of the “invention” of the transporter in Star Trek, which happened because it was less expensive than filming a spacecraft landing on different planets.) “Doctor Who” has been around since 1963, changing actors in the role every few years, and until now, the Doctor’s character has always been male. And some people object very strongly to that kind of gender fluidity, even in a fictional alien from a fictional planet. I have one Facebook friend, a fan of the show from the beginning, who says she will never watch it again.

One of the reasons I enjoy fantasy and science fiction is that it invites speculation about the nature of ultimate reality. What makes us human, and what is the essence of our individuality? “Star Trek”, which began its run about the same time as “Doctor Who” often dealt with these questions. In “The Wrath of Khan”, Kirk eulogizes the alien character Spock, “Of all the souls I have known, he was the most human.”  Several episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” dealt with this question in the character of Data.  In The Measure of a Man”, Data’s personhood is put on trial. Is he a person or a thing? This question is revisited in “The Offspring”, where Data creates another android, Lal. He considers Lal to be his daughter after allowing her to choose her own gender and species. “Star Trek: Voyager” pushes the question a bit further in the ongoing character of the holographic Doctor. Do aliens have souls? Do androids? Holograms?  I suppose it depends on your definition of “soul”, but if you understand “soul” to mean the essence of a person, what makes “you” you, a unique individual, the answer  in all three cases is “yes”.

Fictional characters aside, what is the soul, and is gender an intrinsic part of it? The first creation story in Genesis says that humanity (Hebrew adam) was created in the image of God in both male and female variations. If God created both sexes in his own image, then either God is both male and female, or gender is irrelevant to personhood. I’m inclined to the latter interpretation as I do not understand God to be some kind of anthropomorphized hermaphrodite. “God is Spirit”, Jesus taught,  “and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth”. 

Matthew relates a story in which some of Jesus’s theological opponents try to entrap him by setting up a hypothetical scenario in which a woman marries seven brothers in succession in accordance with the Mosaic commands for levirate marriage. If there is life after death as Jesus claims, then whose property will the woman be? Jesus responds by saying that at the resurrection, marriage will no longer exist because people will be “like the angels in heaven” The woman won’t be anyone’s property because gender roles are apparently irrelevant in life after death.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul states that one’s relationship to Christ is not dependent on ethnic origin, gender, or social status. Faith (not intellectual belief, but trust in and loyalty to) is what is essential to that relationship. There are no second-class citizens of the kingdom of God. The kinds of things we like to use to categorize people into neat binary boxes are irrelevant.

Are souls gendered? I think not, and I’m looking forward to meeting the Thirteenth Doctor.

 

Sanctity of Life

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

The sixth (or seventh, if you’re Catholic) of the Ten Commandments in its familiar KJV rendering commands”Thou shalt not kill”, but is probably better translated “you shall not murder”. The Pentateuch expounds on this commandment quite a few times, distinguishing between accidental and deliberate deaths, with different punishments for each. Premeditated murder carries the death penalty on the testimony of two or three witnesses, with false witnesses subject to the same penalty. Where death occurs as a result of non-premeditated or accidental actions, the punishment may be fines or exile to sanctuary cities. Rather than elaborate on crime and punishment, Jesus focused on the principle behind the commandment. I understand this principle to be the sanctity of life.

“Sanctity of life” has come to be used as a synonym for “anti-abortion”, but I agree with Joan Chittester, who is quoted as saying  “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.” I think Jesus was trying to have a “much broader conversation” with his followers by going beyond the letter of the law and exposing its heart.

The path to the dark side begins with anger, Jesus says. But even more dangerous than anger is disdainful judgement and name-calling. “Raca” is a derogatory term derived from the root word “to spit”. When the Jewish people of Jesus’ day used that word, they were judging the recipient as worthless and good-for-nothing. We don’t use that word today, but we have plenty of substitutes that mean the same thing:”moochers” “welfare queens” “takers”. Calling other people fools has never gone out of vogue, although there quite a few creative variations on that theme, and Jesus seems to rank that one as the most dangerous of all.

Jesus goes on to say that you cannot connect to God if you are not connected with your fellow human beings. You can’t connect to God when you are consumed by anger. You can’t connect to God when you judge other human beings as worthless, stupid, or evil. God isn’t interested in your pious words and behaviors, but in how you think of other people, what you say about them, and how you treat them.  “I hate, I despise your religious feasts”, thunders Amos. “Rend your hearts and not your garments“, implores Joel. “The entire law is fulfilled in the single decree, Love your neighbor as yourself“, writes Paul. Furthermore, it is not just your spiritual life that will be negatively impacted when you persist in unloving thoughts, words, and behaviors. Many other unpleasant and undesirable consequences are likely to ensue.

If we believe life is sacred- special and precious- why don’t we consistently and holistically act like it?

Galatians: Freedom in Christ

 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Galatian church seemed to have fallen off the narrow road of discipleship in the opposite direction from the Corinthians. While the Corinthians erred in the direction of antinomianism, the Galatians tended toward legalism. Paul doesn’t waste time getting to the meat of the matter: after a few verses of polite greeting, he declares that  “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.”  The major sticking point for the Galatians seems to have been the need to become Jewish in order to become Christian, including circumcision as an outward demonstration of of that identification.. In frustration, Paul exclaims, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you!” and later suggests that those who think circumcision is required go even further and castrate themselves!

What does Paul mean when he refers to ” the gospel of Christ”? Paul makes the rather bold claim  “that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin;  for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” I think Paul is pretty consistent in saying, both in his letters and in his recorded interactions in Acts, that “a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”  The gospel, or good news, is that we don’t have to do follow certain rules or do certain things in order to be loved and accepted by God. God already loves us, and Jesus is the proof of that. Through his life and teachings we learn what God is like, and how God wants us to live. Through his death and resurrection we learn that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God. Through the power of his spirit,  his followers will increasingly find their lives marked by  “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”. It is those who can accept this truth who are really and truly free: the only law God is concerned about us following is the law of love.

And that’s good news to me!

Obadiah: What Goes Around…

“The day of the Lord is near
for all nations.
As you have done, it will be done to you;
your deeds will return upon your own head.”

At only 21 verses, Obadiah is the shortest book in the  Hebrew Bible. It concerns the Edomites, who were distant cousins of the Israelites. Both nations claimed Abraham and Isaac as ancestors, but the Edomite line came through Esau and the Israelite line through Jacob.

Although distant cousins, the Edomites and the Israelites did not get along much better than their ancestors Esau and Jacob. Edom was usually treated as a kind of vassal state by Israel, and a case could be made that Israel took advantage of Edom in much the same way as Jacob took advantage of Esau. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC, the tables were turned, and Edomites joined in the looting of the captured city. Obadiah condemns Edom for taking advantage of Israel’s situation instead of helping them, and predicts their destruction as a consequence. Unlike Israel, Edom is beyond redemption. God will eventually restore Israel, but Edom’s destruction will be complete and permanent.

Many commentators see Edom as an archetype of any nation or people opposed to God. Later Jewish theologians identified Rome with Edom, and interestingly/sadly enough, also with Christendom. Most Christian theologians agree with their Jewish brethren than Edom should be seen as a symbol for those “powers and principalities” that are against God and his people.

Obadiah is a sobering reminder that “what goes around comes around”. Actions have consequences which can be permanent and serious. That’s the bad news. For the good news, one has to read between the lines of this short book and imagine the converse of the karmic storm Edom faced. If Edom had not gloated over Jerusalem’s destruction, but instead had helped its refugees, how might their story have been different? Would they have been included in the restored kingdom Obadiah envisioned? Centuries later, Paul writes to the Galatians: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

God has built justice into the moral fabric of the universe, and I think that’s good news. It is morally wrong to take advantage of someone else’s misfortune to enrich oneself. It is morally right to help others whenever we can in whatever ways we can. “What goes around comes around” can be bad news or good news, depending on the choices we make. Choose wisely.

Ezra/Nehemiah: Does God Want Us to Build Walls or Bridges?

 

When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the Lord, the God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.” But Zerubbabel, Joshua and the rest of the heads of the families of Israel answered, “You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us.” Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia. (from Ezra 4)

Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah.  I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: “You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves. Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?”One of the sons of Joiada son of Eliashib the high priest was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite. And I drove him away from me. Remember them, my God, because they defiled the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood and of the Levites.So I purified the priests and the Levites of everything foreign, and assigned them duties, each to his own task.  I also made provision for contributions of wood at designated times, and for the firstfruits. Remember me with favor, my God.  (from Nehemiah 13)

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are set in the immediate postexilic period. As I mentioned in my post on Chronicles, the exile was really quite significant in the development of ethical monotheism. There was one God and he expected his people not only to believe, but to behave in certain ways. The people had been unfaithful in both belief and practice, and therefore God allowed the destruction of Jerusalem, its temple, and the forced removal of its people to Babylon. I imagine that they had a fair amount of time think during this divine time-out, to ponder on what they might have done wrong and what they ought to do differently if given the chance.

Now, with the fall of Babylon to the Persians and the edict of Cyrus in 538 BC, those who wanted to do so were allowed to return to their ancestral homelands. In large part through the leadership of Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the layman, they worked to rebuild the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. The rebuilding projects did not go smoothly, partly because of lack of money, but also because of opposition from the people who were already living there.  Personally, I think the exclusionary demands of Ezra, Nehemiah, Jerubbabel, and other leaders served to exacerbate that opposition.

The people Ezra calls “enemies of Judah and Benjamin” were apparently Assyrians who had moved in at the time the Israelites were evicted, and were converts to Yahweh-worship. (This is where the Samaritans of Jesus’s time originated.) They weren’t Baal-worshiping pagans; they sincerely sought to worship the God of Israel, but for all intents and purposes, weren’t allowed to do so because they lacked the proper bloodlines. Israelite men who had married non-Israelite women were also required to send their wives and children away. Ezra and Nehemiah believed such harsh measures were needed in order to ensure that there would be no temptation to worship other gods.

I can understand where they were coming from; I really can. They didn’t want the people to fall under judgement for idolatry again. Their motives were right, but I think their methods were wrong. They thought the way to please God was to separate themselves from the rest of the world and thereby avoid contamination by it. I think  God prefers it when the people of God engage with the world in order to transform it. What would have happened, I wonder, if the God-fearing Assyrians who offered to help build the temple been allowed to do so, and the Hebrews used that as a teaching opportunity? What might have happened if the Hebrew men had remained with their families, and followed the Mosaic admonition that  “these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.”

I like to think of the Bible as a great choir or orchestra composed of many voices, and we choose the voices to which we listen. Ezra and Nehemiah are two of those voices, but the melody is Jesus.  I cannot look at the life and teachings of Jesus and think that God wants us to build walls of separation between ourselves and those who are different from us. Jesus was the supreme bridge-builder in bridging the gap between God and humankind, but he also broke down  barriers separating people groups, and the early church seems to have taken that thought to heart. Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

If the Bible were a Harry Potter novel, Ezra and Nehemiah would want to exclude all the “mudbloods” from participation in the kingdom of God. God, however, is more Hufflepuff than Slytherin. He wants to include everybody. And that’s good news.