Clobbering back with the Clobber texts:
Taking the Bible Seriously - Are There Clobber Texts in the Bible?
Rev. Dr. Thomas Hanks
From Sodom the place (Genesis 19), to Sodomy the sin (1000 A.D.)
Bibliography - Hermeneutics (Interpretation of the Bible)
for ALL who are oppressed; Yahweh's characteristic ways of acting in human history were
clearly and decisively revealed to Moses and the Israelite slaves in Egypt" (Psalm 103:6-7).
poor; he has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,
to liberate the oppressed, to announce the Jubilee Year" (Luke 4:18-19).
portray God as at work in human history to free the oppressed (Hanks 1982/83; 1992). In
Luke 4:18-19 Jesus explicitly makes the liberation of the oppressed central to his mission and
"clobber texts"---verses wrenched from their context (often mistranslated)--which are used to
bludgeon minorities and weaker groups into submission. Repeatedly in human history certain
texts have been seized like a club to foment fear, hatred, bigotry and violence against Jews,
enslaved racial minorities, foreign immigrants--as well as discrimination against women and
left-handed persons. Recent studies on violence (Comstock 1991; Herek and Berrill 1992)
indicate that gay men are today the minority most commonly attacked (gay bashing).
attacks on the human dignity of homosexual persons. If such claims be true, Karl Marx's
charge that religion is an "opiate" would seem to be an understatement--"lethal poison" would
be a more accurate description! Does the Bible in fact contain the lethal poison of "clobber
texts" as certain preachers claim?
A. GUIDELINES FOR BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION IN SEXUAL QUESTIONS
interpretation of ancient literature like the Bible in matters we call "sexual" is much
more complex than we might imagine--especially when we rely on translations and
paraphrases that seek to simplify matters for impatient modern readers. Not only is
"homosexuality" a modern (19th century) concept and word that never occurs in the Bible's
original languages. Even "sexuality" is an 18th century concept: the original Hebrew and
Greek have no word for "sex/sexuality" (as may be quickly confirmed by noting that the King
James and other older and more literal translations have not a single reference to "sex" or
"sexuality"). Scientists still are not sure what causes "heterosexuality," but we know that both
heterosexuality and bisexuality are 20th century concepts and terms. So strictly speaking, the
Bible is totally silent about "homosexuality"--it doesn't even have a word to say about "sex"!
(David M. Halperin and others, Before Sexuality. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990;
cf. Brooten 1996).
are self-deluded: "ethics" and "morals" are ancient Greek philosophical categories and terms
that never occur in the Bible (despite their ubiquitous presence in Christian writing, both
scholarly and popular). Even the Ten "Commandments" (literally "words") are never described
or presented in the Bible as "ethical absolutes"--despite common claims from academics who
should know better.
language of the Bible (like most literature, both ancient and modern), tends to be
highly "euphemistic"--referring to sexual matters in ambiguous and veiled expressions.
Genesis (4:1) tells us that Adam "knew" Eve, and she brought forth a child. The men of
Sodom sought to "know" the two angel visitors (Genesis 19:5). The Hebrew word here ("know",
yada`) occurs 943 times in the Bible, but only ten times as a euphemistic reference to what we
would call "sex." Romans (13:13) and Hebrews (13:4) speak of "bed(s)" to describe what we
would call "sex." However, when Jesus speaks of two men together in a "bed" (Luke 17:34),
many prefer not to see any sexual connotation. One modern version (NIV) even obscures the
clear Greek reference to two men in bed together, while maintaining the reference to two
"women" grinding grain (Luke 17:35)!
"phenomenological"--describing things "as they appear" to the observer and in popular
language, not with modern scientific precision and technical terminology. For centuries
Christian scholars have been discovering and recognizing that this is true in other areas:
astronomy, geography, biology and medicine. Despite the proof-texting of 16th century
theologians, since Galileo we have known that the earth is not flat and heaven is not a metal
dome (Genesis 1:6-8); nor did the Apostle Paul ever preach his Gospel to Native Americans
or the Chinese, despite Colossians 1:23; scientists with microscopes can now see many seeds
smaller than the mustard seed of Jesus' parable (Mark 4:31). As scientific studies in medicine
and psychology developed in the 19th century, soon everyone had to recognize that we
believe with the brain and not the "heart", despite Romans 10:9-10, and that our capacity for
compassion is not actually located in our bowels or kidneys, despite texts like Philemon
7,12,20. (See such articles as "Cosmogony and Cosmology" and "Geography and the Bible"
in The Anchor Bible Dictionary).
language by providing scientifically informed modern equivalents. Thus the NIV has Jesus
rebuke his disciples for having a "closed mind" (bigotry!) instead of the "hardness of heart"
referred to in the original Greek (Mark 6:52). If obscurantists really took the Bible literally in all
scientific areas, they would have open heart surgery performed on them to cure their closed-
minded bigotry! The necessity of prescientific, phenomenological language is commonly
illustrated from the story of Joshua's "long day" (Joshua 10:12-13). Had Joshua really
commanded that the earth stand still instead of the sun, no one would have had the slightest
idea what he was talking about until the time of Galileo. (See also the sky as a solid dome in
Paul H. Seely, "The Firmament and the Water Above," Westminster Theological Journal 1991:
227-240; Douglas A. Knight, "Ancient Israelite Cosmology," The Church and Contemporary
Cosmology, James B. Miller & Kenneth E. McCall, eds., Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University
complicated by the fact that the original Hebrew and Greek languages employed are
euphemistic, prescientific and phenomenological in describing what we would call "sexual".
Had the Apostle Paul actually written in the first century that no "homosexual" would ever
inherit the kingdom of God, no one would have had any idea what he meant until the late 19th
century--when the new word was coined to express the modern scientific perceptions about
sexual orientation (which even many traditionalists now seem to accept, and then suppose
that Biblical writers knew all about it too).
literature in which the language occurs. Thus, when Jesus referred to the mustard seed
as the "smallest seed", he was not giving a modern scientific lecture on the sizes of seeds--it
was a kind of sermon illustration, a "parable" to make clear what God's kingdom is like. The
vast majority of Biblical references to what we would call "sexual" matters actually occur in love
poetry (Song of Songs) or in letters (1 Corinthians 5-7), and letters include rhetorical elements
such as "vice lists" and illustrations that are not even commands or laws, much less "ethical
absolutes." The significance of literary genre for the use of the Bible in sexual questions is
evident from the fact that the most cited "clobber text" occurs in a letter (Romans), as a kind of
sermon illustration in a lengthy theological argument and missionary appeal. The precise point
of the illustration, how the illustration relates to the broader context and where the relevant
context ends remain points of major dispute.
deal of diversity of Biblical perspectives--even in the areas we would call "sexual."
For instance, we find quite diverse Biblical teaching on eunuchs, polygamy, virginity, widows,
and divorce--and the so-called levirate "marriage" commanded in Deuteronomy 25:5-10
(though always practiced by one denomination in Africa), would produce an enormous scandal
if obeyed literally in churches in Europe and the Americas. The Biblical canon includes
literature reflecting an enormous span of historical, geographical and cultural contexts
(Hebrews 1:1). Recognition of the rich diversity in Biblical texts speaking of matters we would
call "sexual" in no wise diminishes their value or reduces their teaching to some foggy, ill-
defined relativism. Rather (as in the economic sphere) diversity may be understood as
contributing to a growing "theological pie"--containing a wealth of insights for addressing the
complexity and variety of modern life contexts.
unworthy books. Could it not rather be to include so much diversity that we are liberated from
narrow legalistic ideologies, forced to rely on the Holy Spirit and taught to think things through
afresh for our own context? The Apostle Paul (a missionary with multicultural background and
vast cross-cultural experience), emphasized that genuine submission to God's will results in a
renewing of our minds--not closing them (Romans 12:1-2)! Certainly that should be the result
of any serious effort to listen carefully and interpret for the modern world all that the Bible has
to say about those areas and questions we would call "sexual."
BIBLIOGRAPHY - Taking the Bible Seriously, Part One Hermeneutics (Interpretation of the
Theological Society 38/4 (Dec:581-593).
Croatto, Severino (1987/89). Hermenéutica bíblica: Para una teoría de la lectura como
producción de sentido. Buenos Aires: Aurora. (In English, New York: Maryknoll, 1987.)
Countryman, L. William (1988). Dirt, Greed and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and
their Implications for Today. Philadelphia: Fortress.
Felder, Cain Hope, Ed. (1991). Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical
Interpretation. Minneapolis: Fortress.
Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schussler (1983). In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological
Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York: Crossroad.
Osborne, Grant R. (1991). The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical
Interpretation. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity.
Thiselton, Anthony C. (1980). The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and
Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer, and
Wittgenstein. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
---------- (1992). New Horizons in Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
---------- (1995). Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
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