Body, Spirit, and Soul

    The Bible is clear that there are three different ‘parts’ that somehow make up who we are as humans: the body, the spirit, and the soul (Gen. 2:7, 1 Thess. 5:23, Heb. 4:12). But most Christians are less clear on the issue of how these three parts relate to each other, and especially on the difference between the soul and the spirit. In this post, we’ll take a look at the body, spirit, and soul and examine the biblical definitions of each, as well as how they interact before and after death.

    The Body

The definition of a “body” should be fairly obvious: it is our physical, material structure which corporeally interacts with the world around us. However, the biblical definition is a bit more nuanced. Many Christians are wont to think of the body as a temporary vehicle in which our “immortal soul” lives for a brief period of time, before moving on to live eternally in either heaven or hell. One common quote (misattributed to C.S. Lewis) reflects the sentiment of most Christians well: “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

    Unfortunately, this belief is entirely unbiblical and goes directly against what scripture has to say about our bodies. One need look no further than Genesis 2 to discover that, yes, in fact, you are a body:

And Yahweh God formed the human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living soul. (Gen. 2:7)

According to this passage, God did not merely form the body of the human from the dust of the ground, but He actually created the human. The human (ha-adam) existed before he became a soul, even before he came to life. Adam, and by extension all humanity, is a body. This is confirmed in the very next chapter, when God declares to Adam,

“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken, for you are dust, and you shall return to dust.” (Gen. 3:19)

God does not say that Adam’s body was taken out of the ground, but that Adam himself was taken out of the ground and made from dust. Now we know, of course, that it was Adam’s body that was made from the dust of the ground, not his spirit (which was given from God) and not his soul (which was a composite of his body and spirit, according to Gen. 2:7). Thus, the fact that Adam himself was made from the dust of the ground allows us to make the equation “Adam = Adam’s body,” and by extension, all humans are our bodies.

    But if we are our bodies, a more pressing question is, what happens to us when our bodies die? After all, our bodies and spirits separate at death (Ecc. 12:7), and according to James (2:26), the body apart from the spirit is dead. Do we remain bodies at death, or do we become incorporeal “souls” in some spiritual realm, as most Christians believe? Unfortunately, the fact is that we remain bodies after death just as we are before death. If in life you are a living body, in death you are a corpse.

    This can be seen in the passage quoted above, Genesis 3:19, where Adam is told that he would one day return to the ground, not merely his body. Of course, it is the body which is made from the ground and returns to the ground in death, but because Adam - the human - is a body, it can also be said that he himself returns to the ground in death (cf. Job 10:9; Ps. 90:3). This is confirmed again and again throughout the Bible, as every time that a person’s body is buried, the person themself is said to have been buried; that is, the person’s remains are fully constituted by their body. Consider the following passages:

Then Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people [1]. And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, which is before Mamre, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, the field which Abraham purchased from the sons of Heth. There Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife. (Gen. 25:8-10)

Then he [Israel] charged them and said to them: “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite... There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife, there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and there I buried Leah.” (Gen. 49:29, 31)

So Moses the servant of Yahweh died there in the land of Moab, in accordance with the word of Yahweh. And he was buried in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows his burial place to this day. (Deut. 34:5-6)

So when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. (Jn. 11:17)

When they had carried out everything that was written concerning him [Jesus], they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. (Acts 13:29 cf. Matt. 12:40, 28:6, 1 Cor. 15:4)

I could continue with many more examples, like David and Solomon (1 Kings 2:10, 2 Chron. 9:31 cf. Acts 2:29) and many people who are said by Daniel (12:2) to “sleep in the dust of the earth.” Burial is said to be the way that “all the earth” goes at death (Josh. 23:14 cf. 24:29-30). Even when the soul and/or spirit are mentioned alongside the body, a person’s remains are said to be constituted by their body and not their soul or spirit:

And it came about, as her soul was departing (for she died), that she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath. (Gen. 35:18-19)

You hide Your face, they are troubled; You take away their spirit, they die, and to dust they return. You send forth Your spirit, they are created, and You renew the face of the earth. (Ps. 104:29-30)

Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help. His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish. (Ps. 146:3-4)

And [as] they had stoned Stephen, he was calling and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Now having fallen on [his] knees, he cried out in a great voice, “Lord, may you not place to them this sin.” And having said this, he fell asleep... Now devout men buried Stephen, and made great mourning over him. (Acts 7:59-60; 8:2)

So then, we can clearly see that after death, a person’s remains are fully constituted by their dead body, which returns to the dust of the earth, rather than an incorporeal “soul” or “spirit.” Even our Lord Jesus was considered to be equivalent to His corpse, buried in the heart of the earth, during the three days for which He was dead (Matt. 12:40; 28:6; Acts 13:29). Indeed, in order to be saved according to Paul’s gospel, one must believe that Jesus Himself both died and was buried (1 Cor. 15:3-4).

    Therefore, the biblical definition of the “body” is our physical, material structure which interacts with the world around us, and which constitutes our entire personhood both before and after death. Rather than being merely a transient structure which houses our “immortal soul,” our bodies are completely necessary for our existence, and when our bodies die apart from the spirit (Jas. 2:26), so do we. But if our entire personhood comprises our bodies, what are the spirit and soul? We now turn to the biblical definition of the spirit to determine exactly what this enigmatic entity is.

    The Spirit

The word “spirit” (ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek) literally means “wind” or “breath.” The spirit is the animating force which gives life to a body (Ps. 104:30; Ecc. 11:5; Lk. 8:55; Jas. 2:26), and which departs at death and returns to God (Job 34:14-15; Ps. 78:39; 104:29; 146:4; Ecc. 8:8; 12:7). The “spirit” or “spirit of life” is interchangeable with “breath” or “breath of life” (Gen. 6:17 cf. 7:22; Job 4:9; 32:8; 33:4; Isa. 42:5; 57:16). By extension, one’s spirit is actually considered to be the same as the breath within one’s nostrils (Gen. 2:7; 7:22; Job 27:3-4).

    Using this particular definition of “spirit,” the spirit is not in itself a living being, but (along with a body) is a necessary component of a conscious being. This animating force comes from God (Gen. 2:7, Ps. 104:29-30, Ecc. 12:7, Zech. 12:1) and is even called the “spirit of God” [2] (Job 27:4, 33:4, 34:14); every organism’s spirit, whether human or animal, is merely a small part of this single spirit (Ecc. 3:19-21 cf. Acts 17:25, 28). Thus, contrary to some Christians’ beliefs, it is not true that our spirit which returns to God is conscious in “heaven.”

    However, there is another biblical definition of “spirit” which is related to our consciousness. When scripture speaks of the “spirit” in this way, it is referring to one’s mental disposition. Here are a list of verses which use the word “spirit” (ruach or pneuma) in this way: Gen. 41:8; Ex. 28:3; 35:21; Num 5:14, 30; Deut. 2:30; 34:9; Josh. 2:11; 1 Sam 1:15; 1 Kings 21:5; Ezra 1:1, 5; Job 7:11; Psalm 51:17; Prov. 15:13; 16:2; 18-19; 29:11; Eccl. 7:8-9; Isa 11:2; 19:14; 26:9; 54:6; 57:15; 61:3; 66:2; Ezek. 11:19; 18:31; 36:26; Dan. 2:3; 7:15; Hos. 5:4; Hag. 1:14; Mal. 2:16; Matt. 5:3; 26:41; Mark 2:8; Luke 1:47; John 11:33; 13:21; Acts 17:16; Rom 11:8; 1 Cor. 4:21; 5:5; 2 Cor. 7:1; Gal. 6:1; Eph. 4:23; Phil. 1:27; 4:23; Col. 2:5; 2 Tim 1:7; 1 Pet 3:4. [3]

    Now that we have seen what the biblical definitions of “spirit” are - both the animating force common to all living beings which comes from God, and one’s mental disposition - let’s examine what the “soul” is according to the Bible.

    The Soul

The word “soul” (nephesh in Hebrew and ψυχη/psuche in Greek) has a wide and nuanced range of meaning in the Bible. I already dealt with the many different meanings of this word in another post, so I’ll reproduce much of what I wrote here. “Soul” can simply mean any living being, whether animal or human (Gen. 1:20-24; 46:26; Lev. 11:46; Josh. 10:37; 1 Kings 19:4; Prov. 12:40; Acts 2:41; Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 3:20; Rev. 8:9; 16:3; 18:13; etc.). It can mean someone’s life; for example, when someone is killed, it is often said that their soul has been taken (Gen. 19:20; Exod. 4:19; Deut. 19:21; Judg. 18:25; 2 Sam. 4:8; 1 Kings 19:10; Prov. 7:23; Matt. 2:20; 20:28; Mk. 10:45; Jn. 10:11; 15:13; Acts 15:26; Jas. 5:20; 1 Jn. 3:16; etc.) However, “life” is not the inherent meaning of either nephesh or psuche, otherwise the phrase nephesh chayyah would mean “a living life” (clearly redundant), and Job 10:1 would say “my life loathes my life” (another meaningless statement).

    Another clue to the true meaning of “soul” is the fact that it is often used to describe one’s desires and wishes. For example, Abraham says, “If it is your soul that I bury my dead from before me, hear me and meet for me with Ephron son of Zoar” (Gen. 23:8). Further examples of this meaning of “soul” as the seat of emotions and desires can be found in Exod. 15:9; 23:9; Lev. 26:16; Deut. 12:15; 20; Judg. 10:16; 1 Sam. 23:20; Job 23:13; Prov. 31:6; Lk. 2:35; Jn. 10:24; 12:24; Php. 1:27; Acts 15:24; 2 Pet. 2:8; etc.

    Finally, the last meaning of the word “soul” (and more rarely used, although it still appears throughout scripture) is referring to desirable or pleasurable experiences, for example, in Matt. 6:25 where “soul” is glossed by “what you may eat and what you may drink”. Further examples from the New Testament are Matt. 10:28 (where it is used to describe the blissful experience of the Messianic kingdom); 11:29; 16:25; Lk. 12:19; Acts 20:24; Php. 2:30; Heb. 12:3; 3 Jn. 2; and Rev. 12:11. Interestingly, the adjective form of “soul” in Greek (psuchikos) describes those who are swayed by physical sensation (Jas. 3:19; Jude 19).

    Although this list of definitions is hardly comprehensive (indeed, there are nearly a thousand instances of “soul” in the combined Old and New Testaments), these four definitions cover virtually every instance of nephesh or psuche in scripture. From these examples, it can be seen that the word “soul” (nephesh and psuche) is simply used in scripture as a figure of speech for the idea of “consciousness” (both sensation and sentience), especially when connected to life itself. In one sense, you are a body, but in another sense, you are a soul — everything that makes you you is contained in your consciousness, your “soul.”

    Your soul, or consciousness, is essentially an emergent property which results from the combination of a body and a spirit (Gen. 2:7). But this raises the important question, what happens to the soul when the body and spirit separate at death (Ecc. 12:7, Jas. 2:26)? We know that the soul somehow “departs” at death (Gen. 35:18), but does this entail one’s consciousness becoming disembodied and going to a spiritual realm of “heaven,” as most Christians believe?

    Unfortunately, the idea of an “immortal soul” is based in Platonic philosophy and cannot be found anywhere in the Bible. On the contrary, according to scripture, it is possible to kill one’s soul (Num. 31:19; 35:11, 15, 30; Josh. 20:3, 9; Matt. 10:28; Mk. 3:4), a soul can be dead (Lev. 21:11; Num. 6:6; 19:11, 13; Josh. 2:13; Jas. 5:20; Rev. 16:3), and “the soul that sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4, 20). The only one who is inherently immortal is God (1 Tim. 6:16), and immortality is only bestowed upon humans at the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:51-54; 2 Cor. 5:4). The fact is, at death, the soul simply ceases to exist, only to be restored at the resurrection when the animating force of the spirit is recombined with our newly immortal bodies (Ezek 37:8-10; Rom. 8:11).

    But if the soul, or consciousness, simply ceases to exist at death, how can it be said that our souls are said to exist in Sheol or Hades after we die (Ps. 16:10; 30:3; 49:15; 86:13; 88:3; 89:48; Prov. 23:14; Acts 2:27, 31)? As a matter of fact, the word sheol in Hebrew simply means “unseen” (derived from sha’al, “to ask”), as does the word hades in Greek. So when one’s soul ceases to exist at death, it becomes “unseen,” thus figuratively going to “the Unseen.” This can be seen most clearly in Psalm 9:17, where it is said that

The wicked will return [rashaim] to Sheol, all the nations that forget God.

Just as the body returns to the ground and the spirit returns to God at death (Ecc. 12:7), death is also a return for the soul. But the soul, unlike the body and spirit, did not come from anywhere; rather, it was created from the combination of the body and spirit (Gen. 2:7). So when the souls of the wicked (and the righteous as well; Ecc. 3:20) “return” to the Unseen, they are simply returning to the state of nonexistence from which they originally came.

    The fact that “going to the Unseen” is simply a figurative way of describing something that ceases to exist is confirmed by Matt. 11:21-23 and Lk. 10:13-15. Here, Jesus declares that the cities of Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida will be brought down to the Unseen because the people within did not believe the miracles that He had done. These cities did not descend to the underworld, whatever that would mean, but they were completely abandoned and largely ruined; that is, they ceased to exist as cities. Thus, the fact that souls are said to go down to the Unseen in the Old and New Testaments simply means that they cease to exist at death.

    Conclusion

In this post, we took a look at the biblical definitions of the body, the spirit, and the soul. According to scripture, the body is our physical, material structure, and our entire personhood is contained within our bodies both before and after death. The spirit is that which animates the body and gives it life, which is itself given by God and returns again to Him at death. The soul is an emergent property, consciousness, which appears when the body and spirit are combined, and ceases to exist at death.

    According to the Bible, death is a separation (of body and spirit) and a return, in which the body returns to the dust of the ground, the spirit returns to God who gave it, and the soul returns to nonexistence. This is extremely different from what most Christians believe, which is that death is merely a transition in which the “immortal soul” either goes to heaven or hell. The lie that death does not really exist has existed since the beginning, when the serpent told Eve, “you shall not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). But in reality, death is the greatest enemy (1 Cor. 15:26), not merely a transition to a better place. Fortunately, we have the hope of the resurrection, in which this mortal will finally be swallowed up in life and immortality! (1 Cor. 15:51-54; 2 Cor. 5:4)

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[1] To be “gathered to one’s people” or “go to one’s fathers” simply means to be buried with one’s ancestors (see Gen. 15:15 and 49:29).

[2] This animating spirit of God is to be distinguished from His holy spirit, which is the means by which He interacts with the world.

[3] This list of verses is from Aaron Welch’s article, “The spirit that returns to God.”

Genesis 2:24: A Model for Heteronormative Marriage?

     In the last few posts on this blog, we’ve been taking a look at the Bible passages that are commonly used to condemn homosexual relationships. All of the passages that we’ve examined so far fail to actually condemn such relationships, contra the mainstream Christian interpretations.

    For one, it’s ridiculous to claim that the Sodom narrative of Genesis 19 condemns male homosexuality as a whole; rather, it’s obviously a condemnation of rape, paralleled by Judges 19-20 which also condemns heterosexual rape. The Leviticus verses (18:22 and 20:13) and the Pauline vice lists (1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10), are actually ambiguous in their original languages and have been mistranslated to support homophobic views. One last passage, Romans 1:26-27, also has many alternate interpretations, each of which seem individually more likely than the traditional interpretation on textual and contextual grounds.

    However, there is one last passage to examine, which is perhaps the Bible verse most commonly used by Christian opponents of gay marriage. This is Genesis 2:24, which states, “Therefore a man forsakes his father and mother and clings to his woman, and they become one flesh.” Doesn’t Gen. 2:24 prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that only male-female marriages and relationships are approved by God? In this last post on homosexuality and the Bible, we’ll examine this claim by taking a look at Gen. 2:24 in its larger context.

    Prescriptive or descriptive?

The main question surrounding Genesis 2:24 is whether it is meant to be prescriptive or descriptive. If this verse is prescriptive, then it is saying that only men and women can marry, and that anything outside of this design goes against God’s precepts. But if it is descriptive, then it is simply saying “this is why men and women marry,” without passing judgment on any marriages that go outside of this ‘one man + one woman’ layout.

    In the immediate context of Genesis 2, the verse seems to be merely descriptive; that is, it is saying that loneliness is what causes men and women to come together and marry. See the following passage:

And Yahweh God said, “It is not good that the man is alone. I will make a corresponding companion [1] for him”... And Yahweh God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep, and he slept, and He took his side and closed up the flesh in its place. And Yahweh God formed the side which He had taken from the man into a woman, and He brought her to the man. And the man said, “This one is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one will be called ‘woman,’ for this one was taken out of ‘man.’” Therefore a man forsakes his father and mother and clings to his woman, and they become one flesh. (Gen. 2:18, 21-24)

This passage emphasizes romantic loneliness as a problem for humanity, and marriage as the solution. Verse 24, then, is simply stating that “this [loneliness] is why men and women marry,” without saying anything about marriages that don’t fall into this pattern. In fact, this would seem to support the idea of non-heterosexual marriage, since there are people for whom loneliness is not solved by heterosexual relationships, who are attracted to the same sex instead.

    However, the issue is somewhat more complex than this. This is because Gen. 2:24 is quoted in the New Testament by Jesus as a prescriptive text, condemning divorce.

And having come to him, the Pharisees were demanding of him if it is lawful for a husband to divorce a wife, testing him. And answering, he said to them, “What did Moses command you?”

And they said, “Moses permitted to write a scroll of divorce, and to send her away.”

Yet Jesus said to them, “He wrote you this commandment because of the hardness of your heart. Yet from the beginning of creation He ‘made them a male and a female.’ [Gen. 1:27] ‘Because of this, a man will forsake his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two will be for one flesh.’ [Gen. 2:24] Therefore they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has united, let no man separate.” (Mark 10:2-9)

Here, Jesus interprets Gen. 2:24 as both descriptive and prescriptive. Because this verse says that those who are married have become “one flesh,” Jesus concludes that divorce goes against the will of God. Although the context here is clearly divorce and not gay marriage, this does set a precedent for interpreting Gen. 2:24 as prescriptive, which lends more credence to the anti-gay-marriage interpretation of this verse.

    This seems conclusive in favor of the view that Gen. 2:24 is prescriptive, at least in addition to being descriptive. Nevertheless, it is also true that the authors of the New Testament often took liberties with the Old Testament texts, interpreting them in ways that don’t make sense within the original context. [2] For this reason, let’s take a deeper look at Genesis 2:24 in its context, to determine what the original author may have meant.

    A closer look at Gen. 2:24

At the beginning of this passage, Yahweh declares, “It is not good that ha-adam is alone. I will make a corresponding companion for him” (v. 18). God then creates the birds and land animals and brings each of them to Adam for him to determine whether they are suitable for him. Nevertheless, “for ha-adam no corresponding companion was found“ (vv. 19-20). Because of this, God created a companion (the woman) out of Adam himself (vv. 21-22). When the woman is brought to Adam, he joyfully cries, “This one at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (v. 23). “Therefore,” the author concludes, “a man forsakes his father and mother and clings to his woman, and they become one flesh.” To understand the author’s intent in writing this verse, we must take a look at the original Hebrew text of Gen. 2:24.

    First, what did the author mean when he said that a man “forsakes” (azab) his parents? Although azab is often translated here as simply “leave,” it typically conveys the more severe concept of complete abandonment. God often warns Israel not to “forsake” (azab) Him and follow other gods (e.g., Deut. 29:25; Josh. 24:20; Judg. 10:6). God also comforts Israel by saying that He will not “abandon” (azab) them despite their constant backsliding (Deut. 31:6; 1 Kgs. 6:13). In fact, in the KJV, azab is translated as “forsake” 129 times as opposed to simply “leave” only 72 times. [3] Genesis 2:24 is not merely conveying the straightforward idea of leaving one’s parents’ home, but is saying that this reason (loneliness) is why men abandon or forsake their parents to follow women.

    What did the author mean by saying that a man “clings to” (dabaq) a woman? Again, this isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. Dabaq has the meaning of “cling to” or “cleave to,” and like azab, it is often used in a religious context to refer to Israel’s clinging to Yahweh (Deut 4:4; 10:20; 11:22; 13:4; 30:20; Josh. 22:5; 23:8; 2 Kgs. 18:6; Jer. 13:11; Psa. 119:31). However, dabaq is only used to refer to marriage four other times in the Old Testament, and in each instance it describes intermarriage (marriage between Israelites and other groups) rather than simply marriage (Gen. 34:3; Josh. 23:12; 1 Kgs. 11:1-2; Dan. 2:43). [4] Thus, the author of Gen. 2:24 was alluding to intermarriage — not all types of marriage — when writing this passage.

    The historical context of this passage helps to explain why it alludes to intermarriage. Most scholars agree that the entire pericope of Genesis 1 through 11 was written during the Exilic or post-Exilic periods of Israelite history, due to dozens of anachronisms within these chapters. [5] Based on the other biblical books written during this period, [6] we know that intermarriage was a major issue during this period, with different authors taking various stances (Ruth 1; Ezra 9-10; Neh. 13; Mal. 2:10-12). Therefore, it is likely that the author of Gen. 2:24 was taking a stand in favor of intermarriage by tying it back to the very beginning of creation.

    Thus, in its original context, Genesis 2:24 was not creating a normative definition of marriage. On the contrary, the author seems to have been making the point that people can marry in spite of cultural norms — “forsaking their father and mother” and marrying the woman they love, even if that woman is not an Israelite. Although this certainly is no argument in favor of gay marriage (since gay marriage was not an issue at the time that Gen. 2:24 was written), neither does it support the case against gay marriage.

    Genesis and Ruth

Interestingly, the strongest parallel with Genesis 2:24 in the Old Testament is found in the book of Ruth, where it refers not to marriage between a man and a woman, but to the strong bond that was formed between the Moabite woman Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi.

Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters! Why would you go with me? Are there still sons in my womb that they may be your husbands?”... but Ruth clung to [dabaq] her... Boaz said to her, “It has been fully told to me, all that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband, and that you forsook [azab] your father and mother and your native land and have come to a people that you did not know before.” (Ruth 1:11, 14; 2:11)

The author of Ruth states that Ruth “forsook [her] father and mother,” and uses the verb daqab to describe Ruth’s relationship with her mother-in-law. The parallel with Genesis 2:24 is so strong that it seems that the author of Ruth must have been alluding to Gen. 2:24, or vice versa. However, this does not refer to a relationship between a man and a woman, but between two women.

    To be sure, Ruth and Naomi were not lesbian lovers. Both of them had been married to a husband previously (Ruth 1:2, 4), and the statement that Ruth “clung to” Naomi does not imply marriage, merely a strong bond between the two women. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Genesis 2:24 — which is used by many Christians to condemn same-sex relationships — finds its strongest parallel within the Hebrew Bible in a passage that describes a relationship between two women. Truly ironic.

    “Marriage” is “One Man + One Woman”?

In response to the legalization of gay marriage in the United States, many Christians have pushed back by claiming that the Bible defines marriage as “one man and one woman.” In support of this, they almost invariably quote Genesis 2:24, even though (as we saw above) this verse in its original context was addressing the issue of intermarriage, not gay marriage. However, is there anything else in the Bible to support a normative definition of marriage as “one man + one woman”?

    On the contrary, rather than supporting this view of marriage, the Bible repeatedly undermines it. Many of the heroes and patriarchs of the Old Testament had multiple wives, including Abraham (Gen. 16:3; 25:1), Jacob (Gen. 29:21-30:13), Esau (Gen. 26:34; 28:9), Elkanah (1 Sam. 1:1-2), and David (1 Sam. 25:42-44; 2 Sam. 3:2-5; 5:13). In none of these instances were the marriages condemned. Similarly, in the Mosaic Law, allowances are made for multiple wives, with regulations for how wives and heirs are to be treated in polygamous marriages (Exod. 21:10-11; Deut. 21:15-17). In fact, it was required for a man to marry his brother’s wife if his brother died (Deut. 25:5-10). Presumably, this would apply even if the brother was already married, in which case polygamy would not only be permitted but commanded.

    There are a few passages that are often considered to condemn polygamy, but these do not stand up under examination. First, Genesis 2:24 is often appealed to, as it states that “two” shall become “one flesh.” However, as we saw above, Gen. 2:24 was not originally written to provide a normative definition of marriage, but to refute those who condemned intermarriage. Furthermore, even if Gen. 2:24 were defining marriage, there is no indication that a man cannot become “one flesh” with multiple women.

    Another passage that is sometimes considered to condemn polygamy is 1 Kings 11:1-10, in which God punishes Solomon for his marriages with 1000 foreign women. However, the point of this passage is not to show that polygamy is wrong, as it was permitted in the case of Solomon’s father David. Rather, it is clear that “Yahweh was angry with Solomon because he shifted his allegiance away from Yahweh“ (1 Kgs. 11:9). By marrying hundreds of foreign women, Solomon had been drawn away to worship other gods above Yahweh. Therefore, this passage does not condemn polygamy, either.

    Finally, three passages from Paul’s letters are often appealed to, as these passages state that leaders in the church must be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6). However, these passages use an unusual Greek phrase (mias gunaikos andra) which could be translated either as “one wife man” (prohibiting polygyny) or “a wife man” (requiring that a leader be married). Even if it is correctly translated as “the husband of one wife,” this requirement is only made of leaders in the church, not of all people everywhere.

    Therefore, the concept of marriage being "one man + one woman" is certainly foreign to the Bible, as the Bible repeatedly condones polygamy, and possibly even commands it under special circumstances. I'm not suggesting that polygamy should be made legal, but this shows that there is no single normative definition of marriage throughout the Bible. As such, it's ridiculous to claim that "God's definition of marriage" precludes same-sex marriages.

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[1] The Hebrew word ‘ezer is often translated here as “helper” or “helpmeet.” However, this conveys the idea that the woman was originally created in a position of lower authority than the man, which is incorrect. ‘Ezer does not imply a position of lower authority, as God is often referred to as our “help” (‘ezer): see Exod. 18:4; Deut. 33:7; Psa. 33:20; 70:5; 115:9-11; Hos. 13:9. “Companion” better conveys the idea of what is meant by ‘ezer in this verse.

[2] One of the most well-known examples is the Immanu’el prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, which originally applied to a child that was born in the time of Isaiah (7:13-17), but was applied to Jesus by Matthew (1:23). There are many other examples as well, of which the following are only a sample: Matt. 4:14-16 cf. Isa. 8:1-10:19; Rom. 9:24-25 cf. Hos. 1:10-11; Rom. 9:26 cf. Hos. 2:21-23; 1 Cor. 9:9-10 cf. Deut. 25:4; 2 Cor. 6:2 cf. Isa. 49:8-18; Gal. 3:16 cf. Gen. 12:7; Gal. 4:22-31; Eph. 5:29-32 cf. Gen. 2:24.

[3] https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/h5800/kjv/wlc/0-1/

[4] Megan Warner, “‘Therefore a Man Leaves His Father and His Mother and Clings to His Wife’: Marriage and Intermarriage in Genesis 2:24,” Journal of Biblical Literature 136, no. 2 (2017), 277.

[5] https://discourse.biologos.org/t/have-you-ever-read-genesis-1-probably-not-have-you-ever-seen-this/36389

[6] There is a general consensus, based on multiple textual considerations, that the book of Ruth was written between the time of Josiah and Ezra-Nehemiah, although there is debate about when exactly. See https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/who-wrote-ruth

Leviticus and Paul on Homosexuality

    In these past few posts, we have been looking at some of the passages of Scripture which are thought to prove that homosexuality is sinful. First, we looked at Romans 1:26-27 and saw how there are possible alternate interpretations, which are more likely based on the context. Next, we looked at the Sodom narrative of Genesis 19 and saw how unbiblical, homophobic tradition has become entangled with the cultural perception of this story (the sin of Sodom was not homosexuality, but general inhospitality and a failure to care for the poor). In this article, we’ll take a look at four other texts: two from Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13) and two from Paul’s epistles (1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10).

    Leviticus 18 and 20

Before getting into the different interpretations of these two passages, let me begin with a disclaimer that regardless of what the correct interpretation is, the book of Leviticus (or any other part of the Mosaic Law) is not applicable to modern Gentiles in any way. Only the law of Christ, which is fulfilled in its entirety by the teaching “love your neighbor as yourself” (1 Cor. 9:21, Gal. 6:2 cf. Rom. 13:8-10, Gal. 5:14), is applicable to modern Gentiles. However, the specific passages from Leviticus discussed here may be applicable to Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10 (see below).

    The two passages from Leviticus which are thought to condemn homosexuality are Lev. 18:22 and 20:13, which are usually translated as follows:

You shall not sleep with a male as one sleeps with a female; it is an abomination. (Lev. 18:22 NASB)

If there is a man who sleeps with a male as those who sleep with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they must be put to death. They have brought their own deaths upon themselves. (Lev. 20:13 NASB)

When these verses are considered in isolation, it seems at first glance to be fairly obviously stating that male homosexuality is an abomination and deserving of death. However, some scholars have noted that, in context, these passages appear to be part of a larger discourse condemning the cultic activities of the pagan Canaanites, and therefore they may be condemning specifically male cult prostitution. This is clearest from the context of Lev. 18:22:

You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God; I am Yahweh. You shall not sleep with a male as one sleeps with a female; it is an abomination. Also you shall not have sexual intercourse with any animal to be defiled with it, nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it; it is a perversion. Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these things the nations which I am driving out from you have become defiled. (Lev. 18:21-24 NASB)

Thus, because these actions are explicitly connected to cultic activity, and Lev. 18:22 is encompassed by condemnations of other pagan atrocities like infant sacrifice and bestiality, some have argued that the sin being referred to in Lev. 18:22 is specifically male cult prostitution, and “as one sleeps with a female” refers to the act of female cult prostitution. The second passage is likewise encompassed by condemnation of cultic activities like the sacrifice of infants to Molech (Lev. 20:2-5), mediums and spiritualism (vv. 6-8), sex with both a woman and her mother (v. 14), and bestiality (vv. 15-16), all of which are said to be the practices of the pagan Canaanites (vv. 22-23). For this reason, it is entirely possible (even probable) that Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 are condemning male cult prostitution specifically, and not all homosexuality in general.

    However, there is another interpretation of these two passages which I, personally, find even more likely than the “male cult prostitution” interpretation. To understand this interpretation, we need to take a look at the original Hebrew of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Just for reference, here is the usual translation of these passages:

You shall not sleep with a male as one sleeps with a female; it is an abomination. (Lev. 18:22 NASB)

If there is a man who sleeps with a male as those who sleep with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they must be put to death. They have brought their own deaths upon themselves. (Lev. 20:13 NASB)

You may be surprised to learn this, but the parts of those two verses that I bolded are entirely an interpolation of the translator. The word “as” is not present in either the Hebrew or Greek (LXX) text at all. An entirely literal translation would, instead, look like this:

And you shall not lie with a male lyings of a female; it is an abomination. (Lev. 18:22)

The word which I translated “lyings of” above is mishkebe in the Hebrew, which is the masculine plural construct of the word shakab (meaning “to lie with”). The fact is, no one is entirely sure what this word actually means in this context. This specific form of the word is only found three places in the Old Testament; apart from Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, it is only found in Genesis 49:4. Here is that verse:

“Uncontrolled as the waters, you [Reuben] shall not excel, because you went up lyings of your father, then you defiled it. He went up to my bed.”

Here, Israel curses his firstborn son Reuben because he previously had sex with his father’s concubine Bilhah (see Gen. 35:22). In this context, “lyings of your father” refers to one who had lain with his father: Bilhah, his father’s concubine. Thus, the word mishkebe must mean “one who sleeps with”, not “as one sleeps with.” If this word were translated consistently “as one sleeps with”, as it is translated in Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 in most Bible versions, we would have to conclude that Reuben “went up as one sleeps with your father,” then “defiled it.” But this is clearly a meaningless and ridiculous translation.

    If we use Genesis 49:4 - the only other place where the word mishkebe is used - to translate Lev. 18:22 and 20:13, we would end up with the following translations:

And you shall not lie with a male, one who sleeps with a female; it is an abomination. (Lev. 18:22)

And if a man lies with a male, one who sleeps with a female, the two of them have committed an abomination. Surely they shall be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. (Lev. 20:13)

Thus, these verses are not condemning all male homosexuality indiscriminately. Rather, they are condemning the very specific action of a man having sex with another man who “sleeps with a female,” possibly referring to a heterosexual man having sex with another man, or else referring to adulterous homosexual sex [1]. This may have had some cultic significance at the time, explaining its inclusion in the condemnation of Canaanite paganism.

    Paul’s “Sin Lists” and Homosexuality

Two more passages which are often used to support the condemnation of homosexuality are from Paul’s epistles, in his “sin lists” from 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. Here are the passages in question:

Or do you not know that [the] unrighteous will not inherit [the] kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither male prostitutes, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor malakoi, nor arsenokoitai, nor theives, nor greedy, nor drunkards, nor abusers, nor swindlers will inherit [the] kingdom of God. (1 Cor. 6:9-10)

...knowing this, that [the] Law is not set forth for righteous, yet for lawless, and unruly, for impious and sinful, for father-killers and mother-killers, for murderers, for male prostitutes, arsenokoitais, for enslavers, for liars, for perjurers, and if anything else is opposed to sound teaching. (1 Tim. 1:9-10)

I purposely left two words untranslated in the above passages: malakoi (the plural of Greek malakos) and arsenokoitai (the plural of greek arsenokoites). The word malakos literally means “soft,” and was often used in the ancient world to describe those who were “weak/soft in morals” or even “womanly,” and sometimes referred to men who had too much sex with women (the ancient equivalent of the word “womanizer”). It was also sometimes used to describe young male prostitutes who participated in the practice of pederasty. Overall, this word had a wide semantic range and we cannot be entirely sure of what it meant to Paul [2].

    The second word, arsenokoites, is far rarer and most scholars believe that it was a neologism coined by Paul himself. This word literally means “male-bedder” and thus refers to some sort of sexual act which involves a male. One theory is that Paul coined this word from the Greek text of Leviticus 20:13 (LXX), which states “kai hos an koimethe meta arsenos koiten gynaikos.” If this is true, then Paul was probably condemning the same thing that the book of Leviticus condemns: lying with a man “who sleeps with a female” (whatever that may mean).

    However, in my opinion, the way that this word is used in post-Pauline literature does not support this idea. The two earliest occurrences of arsenokoites (apart from Paul’s epistles) can be found in the Sybilline Oracles and the Acts of John, both of which link arsenokoites to forms of economic exploitation:

Do not steal seeds. Whoever takes for himself is accursed (to generations of generations, to the scattering of life). Do not arsenokoiten, do not betray information, do not murder. Give one who has laboured his wage. Do not oppress a poor man. Take heed of your speech. Keep a secret matter in your heart. (Make provision for orphans and widows and those in need.) Do not be willing to act unjustly, and therefore do not give leave to one who is acting unjustly. (Sybilline Oracles 2.70-77)

So also the poisoner, sorcerer, robber, swindler, and arsenokoites, the thief and all of this band, guided by your deeds you shall come to unquenchable fire... (Acts of John 36)

If we take the context to govern the meaning in these passages, we would have to conclude that arsenokoites refers to some form of sexual exploitation for economic gain. Both of these texts also have lists of sexual sins (in Oracles 2.279-282 and Acts of John 35 respectively) and yet arsenokoites is conspicuously absent from those lists. Another example of arsenokoites as exploitation may be found in Theophilus’ To Autolycus (1.2, 1.14), where it is listed with a number of other forms of economic and violent exploitation.

    However, it would be incorrect to say that arsenokoites does not have a primarily sexual aspect. Polycarp, the first-century bishop of Smyrna, lists arsenokoites alongside other sexual sins like “male prostitutes” and “adulterers” in his epistle to the Philippians (5.3). Hippolytus describes a third-century heresy which claimed that the serpent of Eden, named Naas, seduced and raped Eve and Adam, “from whence has arisen adultery and arsenokoites“ (Refutation of All Heresies 5.21). Eusebius, the fourth-century church historian, seems to indirectly equate arsenokoites with having a male lover (Preparation for the Gospel 6.10.25).

    One of the more interesting uses of arsenokoites in ancient literature can be found in a sixth-century penitential attributed to John the Faster. This text describes arsenokoites as an action which can be performed regardless of gender (possibly anal sex), and is despised in all circumstances, though some more than others:

Likewise one must inquire about arsenokoitia of which there are three varieties. For it is one thing to get it from someone, which is the least serious; another to do it to someone else, which is more serious than having it done to you; another to do it to someone and have it done to you, which is more serious than either of the other two. For to be passive only, or active only, is not so grave as to be both... In fact, many men even commit the sin of arsenokoitia with their wives.

Here, arsenokoitai definitely cannot mean “homosexuality,” because it is something that can be done between a man and his wife. However, this text is probably too late to have any bearing on Paul’s meaning in his epistles.

    Finally, one last clue as to the possible meaning of arsenokoites is the fact that, whereas this word was often grouped with “male prostitutes” and “adulterers” in early Christian texts (e.g., Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians 5.3), other texts from the same time period group “male prostitutes” and “adulterers” with “pedophiles/pederasts” [3] (e.g., Epistle of Barnabas 19.4, Didache 2.2). This suggests that arsenokoites was considered to have a meaning similar to “pedophile” or “pederast” in the first century.

    So then, what is the meaning of arsenokoitai in 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10? I don’t think we can really know for sure. There is quite a lot of ambiguity due to the fact that this word was first coined by Paul, and only appears in a handful of texts after him. However, the few texts in which it does appear suggest that it was some form of sexual activity connected to economic exploitation, probably related to the ancient practice of pederasty. Perhaps this word was used to refer to those who sold young male prostitutes for economic gain.

    Unfortunately, modern translations do not acknowledge our uncertainty about the meaning of this word, and translate it simply as “homosexuals” [4] or, at best, “men who have sex with men,” without so much as a footnote informing the reader of the ambiguities of this word. This translation is entirely unwarranted — there are known Greek words which refer to male lovers (erastes and eromenos), so Paul would not have used entirely unrelated words like malakos and arsenokoites which have more nuanced meanings. However, ultimately, we simply don’t know exactly what Paul meant here, other than it was a sexual activity related to economic exploitation, and modern translations obfuscate this ambiguity when they translate it simply as “men who have sex with men.” Most modern readers of English translations have no idea of the nuances of this word.

    It is also worth noting that, if Paul were condemning all homosexuality in these verses, that would go against one of the central messages of his epistles, which is that we are free from the Mosaic Law and are instead under the law of Christ. Under the law of Christ, the only commandment is to love one another (Rom. 13:8-10, Gal. 5:14) and any other commandment is merely “the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion” (Col. 2:23). So arbitrarily condemning homosexuality, which does not go against the commandment to love one another, would be entirely contrary to Paul’s message elsewhere. Instead, arsenokoites must describe some form of exploitative sexual activity which is rightly condemned as unloving.

    Conclusion

With the Sodom narrative, we saw how modern readers often read their own prejudice against homosexuality into the text, even when there is no indication at all that homosexuality in general is being condemned. Likewise, in these four passages from Leviticus and Paul’s epistles, modern Bible versions translate the ambiguous words mishkebe and arsenokoitai in such a way as to make it appear that the Bible explicitly condemns homosexuality. However, the usage of these ambiguous words from elsewhere in the Bible and other ancient texts indicates that they did not refer to all male homosexuality in general, but instead to specific, exploitative forms of homosexuality (possibly pederasty). This is not at all comparable to consensual, loving homosexual relationships.

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[1] See this article for more support for this interpretation.

[2] For a more detailed discussion of the meaning of malakos, see here and here.

[3] Παιδοφθορησεις, lit. “child-corrupters”

[4] Translating this word as “homosexual” is certainly incorrect, even if it is taken to refer to homosexual men, since that implies that lesbians are being condemned alongside gay men. But lesbianism is not mentioned even once in the entire Bible.

Body, Spirit, and Soul

    The Bible is clear that there are three different ‘parts’ that somehow make up who we are as humans: the body, the spirit, and the soul ...