Tag Archives: Bible Study

Understanding those Hard Texts

I began this class at the request of several folk who said something like  – “I still feel beat up by those texts in the Bible that preachers have used to put down LGBT folk.”  I had not thought to offer this kind of class again – which is strange now that I think about it.  The first session – last Tuesday, Nov 18 – we had 30 or so people. A very rich conversation.

Let me share a bit about what I presented. First I asked why people had come – and what they were looking for. I was struck at the 2 main answers I heard. They are coming , you are coming, in part to heal deep woundedness, and in part to find a way to defend yourselves when others attack you using these texts.

Part of my goal in offering this class is not just to offer new ways of interpretation for these texts, but also to help us all increase our own sense of authority to not let others tell us that who we are is wrong and sinful and abomination. We must own our own life experiences. We must remember that all of us are made in the image of God – not just those who think they know best. I believe the church – and I am including my self in this – has been quiet and lacking courage for way too long.  So I urge each of us to find new courage and to find our own sense of authority to claim who we are as loving and good – and blessed by God.

We started with the very familiar story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. Instead of reading the text from the Bible, I opted to tell the story in a version I found in the book The Children are Free. It goes like this: “Abraham had a nephew named Lot who moved to Sodom. At the time, Sodom was considered a comfortable, modern, sophisticated city, and Lot thought it would be a better place to raise his family than out on the plains with Abraham, who was a nomad. Unfortunately, the city was also full of wickedness, and God told Abraham that it would soon be destroyed. Two angels were sent to assess the situation in Sodom, and when Lot saw them in the town square, he invited them to his house for dinner and lodging. He did not recognize that they were angels. He seems, however, to have felt a responsibility to be hospitable to strangers – perhaps because he remembered having been a stranger himself.

That night, when the city dwellers learned Lot – a recent stranger himself – had welcomed strangers into his house and into their city the people gathered at his door. They demanded that Lot deliver the two men to them so they might “know them.” (To know in biblical language often refers to having sexual intercourse.) Lot pleaded with his neighbors not to do such an evil thing. In a despicable act, he even offered them his virgin daughters instead, but the men persisted. Finally, the anels struck all those outside with blindness and warned Lot and his family they should leave the city because God would soon destroy it for its wickedness. The very next day, fire came down from heaven and destroyed the city and all its inhabitants.”

Since the Middle Ages, this text has been used to say that homosexuality is abomination detested by God. But what is the evidence? Are we saying that all the men of Sodom were gay? That seems very unlikely to me. The text did not say that certain men from Sodom wanted to have their way with these strangers, but that all of them did. What do we make of Lot offering his virgin daughters – besides the fact that this is so reprehensible that none of us want to even imagine it. But would he make such an offer if he thought all the men in the town were gay? That makes no sense at all. And who would know the people of Sodom better than Lot? Surely not the fundamentalist preachers of our day and time. And not even those of us more moderate to liberal who have held our tongue for way too long.

So what was the motivation of the men of Sodom? What comes to your mind? Might it have had nothing to do with sexual pleasure at all, but instead the use of sexual violence to degrade and humiliate another person? Rev. Jeff Miner and John Tyler Connoley, authors of The Children are Free, share another story to offer a more current day possibility.  In 1997, in New York City, two white police officers were strip-searching a Haitian immigrant – a black man. These officers grew angrier and angrier with this man – for reasons not given. So they dragged him to  a bathroom where one officer repeatedly rammed a broken broom up the man’s rectum. While doing this, both officers yelled things like “we’re going to teach you n****rs to respect police officers.

Now, what was the motivation of these two officers? Was it sexual lust? Was it that they both were gay and wanted to have their way with this Haitian man? Or was it something else? What do you think? What comes to mind? Might it have been hatred and fear?

Now there are many other questions and interpretative skills we can bring to thinking about this text, but it seems clear to me that we already have good  evidence that neither story is about homosexuality.

My assignment to the class this week is to go home, read the story over and over again, but without letting it continue to beat you up. Raise your voice to the story. Put down the hatred and fear that seems to overload the story, and refuse to let those old interpretations have any power over you at all. Instead, be imaginative, be creative in how you question the text. Bring your own life experiences to the story. Don’t let this story  – or any interpretation – demean your own authority of your own life. Be bold and brave. See if you can find another way to bring forth meaning from this old story. This is where we will begin next Tuesday. Trust who you are and what you know. Remember – you are born of God. Each and every one of us  – born of God. Just because someone who has credentials like a minister is given status in our society, don’t let their thoughts have more weight than your own experience. Trust what you know. You are not – and never have been – abomination in the eyes of God.

I ended the class with another story – an affirming story – from a book called The Book of Andrew. It is a book that I have come to really appreciate. The author has now died. But he wrote the book as a witness of a gay apostle. He wrote it as a past-life memoir. I would imagine that many of us might wonder about such a memoir – about someone saying, “I had a previous life.” But there are many people in the world who think like this. I recently met someone that I felt immediately very close to. But I had never met her before. She and I talked about it, and she said – I am sure we knew each other in a previous life. Well, I don’t know enough to say one way or another. What I did know was – this woman is so familiar to me, I must have met her sometime along the way. That is enough for me to read this book with an open mind – at least to learn a new telling of a gospel story that could be true – or could have a significant amount of truth in it. I know many people of faith who have been very open to such thinking.

I read this story – a very short excerpt from the book. Take a breath, listen with your heart. Be aware of how it feels to hear this gospel story: One day, when Jesus was alone, I (Andrew) went to see him. “I do not know how to say that which I would say, Rabbi.” Jesus smiled. “Then I shall say it for you, Andrew. You want to know whether you may tell Philip of your love for him.”

I nodded, feeling the blood rush to my face and ears.

“If you do,” Jesus said, “he will be very glad to hear it, for his own love for you is as strong. Long before  your eyes were opened to your love for him, Philip knew that he loved you.”

‘If that is true, Lord, why has he not spoken of it?”

“Being devout, would Philip disobey those teachings which he believes to be the word of God? Can you not understand hat he too suffers from the same doubts and fears that have so tormented you? A great battle rages within his bosom, yet he would rather have your friendship than risk your scorn. How can he know that you might not abandon him forever if he spoke of this?

“Though words of love for you have never passed his lips, surely you have read the message in his eyes. As he has followed your lead in all other things, so will he follow your lead in this.

“I tell you that your love for Philip and Philip’s love for you is holy so long as you love in God’s name.”

(The editor of this book will be speaking at First Congregational UCC in Asheville at 4pm Feb. 15.)

How does this image of Jesus seem to you? How does it feel to imagine Jesus blessing your love for another? Ponder that this week. Share your thoughts on this blog. I think there is a lot of power in this story. And remember, t here were a lot of gospels that were never included in the Bible. The Gospel of Thomas. The Gospel of Mary. Why not a gospel written by someone who was gay? It is at least worth our time to imagine, don’t you think?

I hope to hear from you – and to see you next Tuesday at 6pm, room 101.

Rev. Joe Hoffman, Senior Minister, First Congregational UCC, Asheville

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BIG Stories of Bible: Hagar and Sarah

Last night the Bible Study group explored the interweaving stories of Hagar and Sarah, which includes Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and God as well. The stories can be found in Genesis 16 and Genesis 21.

The story goes something like this. God has promised Abram that he will have a multitude of descendants. But Sarai remains barren years after the promise has been made. So Sarai decides to take matters into her own hands. She tells Abram to take her slave girl, Hagar, whom they got while they were in Egypt, and for him to have sex with her and produce a child. It was sometimes practiced this way in those days – where a surrogate mother would have a child for a woman who was barren. Interestingly, Sarai also gave Hagar to Abram as his wife – not just as a surrogate. Abram went along with the plan, and soon Hagar was pregnant. .

Hagar apparently got some attitude about herself when she became pregnant, and Sarai felt diminished and mocked. So Sarai complained to Abram – who now had power over Hagar – and Abram gave Sarai permission to do as she wished with Hagar. Sarai treated Hagar very harshly, to the point that Hagar ran away.

In the wilderness, God came to Hagar and asked where she was going. Hagar replied  that she was running from her harsh mistress. And then, stunningly, God told Hagar to return to Sarai. To submit once more to the suffering and anguish. This image of God is a troubling one. Why would God send anyone back into an oppressive or abusive situation. Phyllis Trible calls this a text of terror. It feels that way.

Some commentators suggest that God was aware that Hagar could not survive on her own in the wilderness. And if Hagar was away from Abram, then the son she was carrying would not have any connection to the gifts of Abram. So God had Hagar go back as a “suffering servant” figure to insure the safely of Ishmael. This is not a satisfactory reason for God to allow such suffering for most of us. How do you work this out in your mind:?

An interesting note – Hagar has a direct encounter with God and lives to talk about it. And she finds her voice and gives God a name – El roi – which means – the one who sees. She is the only person in the Bible who names God.

Chapter 16 ends with Hagar giving birth to Ishmael, the first son of Abram when he was 86.

Now we move 17 years into the future. Ishmael is growing into a man, but we have no idea who he is or what his relationships with Sarai and Abram are. Hagar disappears from the story for awhile. God comes to visit Abram and again says that Sarai will have a son. God does not speak to Sarai, until Sarai laughs at the idea of her having a child, and God rebukes her. But there is not annunciation story for Sarai. God also changes the names of Sarai and Abram to Sarah and Abraham.

Chapter 21 begins with the birth of Isaac. And along about verse 9, Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac. Some texts suggest he is mocking Isaac. Sarah is upset and tells Abraham to cast the “slave woman and her son” out. Note that Sarah does not call them by name. Abraham is not willing to do this, probably because he loves Ishmael his son. But God intervenes on behalf of Sarah, and tells Abraham to do as she tells him. God promises Abraham that he will be the father of many people through Isaac, and yet God will also form many nations under Ishmael. So Abraham agreed to cast the boy and his slave mother out. To say it another way, Abraham casts our his first born son Ishmael and his wife Hagar.

Abraham gives them bread and water – not nearly what is needed to survive the wilderness. Why is he so stingy? Why does God have to allow this casting out into homelessness and desolation? Why can’t there be another way? What do you think?

Hagar and Ishmael become famished as they run out of food and water. Hagar goes a distance from Ishmael so that she does not have to hear his cries and watch him die. But God hears his cries, and God comes to Hagar and shows her a well – the boy and the woman are refreshed. God says – I will make a great nation for Ishmael. Now the promise is not to Hagar but to Ishmael. Hagar is left out again.

There is too much to tell here. You need to read the story for yourself. But we have the story of two women who, instead of helping and supporting each other, compete with each other and both are hurt by that competition. We see a strong emphasis on patriarchy – from God and everyone in the story. We wonder at God’s support of the oppressors instead of bringing relief to the suffering. We see God going to the margins to reach out to Hagar, but then calling her back into abusive relationships. The story is complex and troubling.

Phyllis Trible offers this reflection on Hagar: “As a symbol of the oppressed, Hagar becomes many things to many people. Most especially, all sorts of rejected women find their stories in her. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surragate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mot her, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others.

What do you see happening in this story? What does the story have to say to us today?

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