July 6, 2005

God’s Shellfish Argument

A number of reasserters have critiqued those who point out inconsistencies in the church’s application of the laws in Leviticus with what Kendall Harmon has dubbed “The Shellfish Argument.” He summarized this argument as, “You have noted that Leviticus is against same sex practice, but Leviticus says we should not eat shellfish. So how could we possibly listen to Leviticus?”

Now, of course, no one I know of is suggesting we throw out all of Leviticus, or very much more of it than has already been thrown out (which goes well beyond the dietary regulations). After all, as Kendall rightly notes, Leviticus contains the last half of the Summary of the Law. No, as far as I can see, the matter comes down to two troublesome verses addressing certain male homosexual acts.

The “shellfish argument” came to mind this week as the Daily Office lectionary rolled around to Acts 10. It is an instructive story, and should give one pause before dismissing the “shellfish” argument entirely; since it appears that this is precisely the argument with which God confronted Peter, when he showed him all the unclean animals and told him to eat. Peter rightly understood that this wasn’t really about food, but about people, and how one ought to treat them: not as unlcean, but as loved by God — and thereby opened the way of salvation for all of us Gentiles!

So it isn’t about shellfish, dear friends; it isn’t about food and drink; it is about respecting the dignity of every human being as much as God does, and considering the possibility — as difficult as that may be — that the church has had it wrong for all these years, and missed the point God made, and Peter understood.


Anonymous said...

*nods* Agree completely.

It's just like Adam says here:

Unknown said...

As to "opening the way of salvation to Gentiles," I wasn't aware that the Church had ever closed the way of salvation to anyone -- not to those who are inclined to alcoholism, or those inclined to greed, or those inclined to promiscuity, or those inclined to sloth, or those inclined to homosexual acts.

The "way of salvation" involves fighting all of those inclinations (and many others), with the grace of God, and repentance. It is only closed off to themselves by those unwilling to follow it.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

The idea that one can find the way to salvation by resisting certain inclincations has a venerable history in the various religions of the world. Jesus appears to have intended himself as the substitute for this "way" of salvation. It is in him and by him that we are saved, not by patting ourselves on the back for having avoided certain behaviors. Jesus addressed the danger of this approach in that it tends to lead to self-satisfaction and the critique of others, primarily in identifying behaviors one has either not been tempted to or which one has overcome, as a way of separating oneself from those who have "failed" in this respect.

Neil said...

The shellfish argument is full of holes but is appealing to many because so few bother to read the passages in context. I encourage you to read flaws of the shellfish argument.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for pointing me to that counter-argument. It is itself full of holes, not the least of which is its failure to seriously take under consideration God's rationale (as expressly stated in the text) that the offenses of the Canaanites were offenses against the land -- that is, these things are not to be done by anyone, including Israelites, in the Holy Land. The laws against same-sexuality, from a Jewisn perspective, do not apply to Gentiles except those who happen to live in the Holy Land, and the range of prohibitions is limited to one particular act. See Jacob Milgrom's scholarly response on this question in his massive volume (s)in the Anchor Bible Series. The relevant portion is in Volume 2.

Neil said...

Hi Tobias,

That is creative, but it is not what Lev. 18 says.

Your argument also implies that God wouldn't prohibit Gentiles from having sex with animals, etc. as the rest of Lev. 18 notes.

Also, that would ignore Romans 1, among other things.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Actually, Neil, that is exactly what Leviticus says. You have fallen prey to the tendency so common among fundamentalists of claiming to take the Scripture literally but not actually paying attention to what it says.

Anonymous said...

Well, gee, since you called me a fundamentalist I guess that dismisses anything I say about the Bible.

Of course, that critique came from a liberal theologian, and you know they always twist the Bible to support their perversions (hey, it's fun and easy to win arguments that way, isn't it?)

Seriously, any unbiased folks can just consider the text themselves. I read things in context, not in a literal way.

Egypt is also mentioned. I don't think it is considered to be the Holy Land.

"You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices."

"Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled"

The nations became defiled because of what they did, not where they did it.

"But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the aliens living among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled."

The land became defiled because of what they did, as opposed to them being defiled because they did it in this land.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...


How strange to pick up a conversation from several years ago!

But picking up where we left off, you are still missing several points, although I think you are correct on a few others. Clearly the Levitical Code is negative towards male same-sexuality, as well as any number of other things. No one is denying that. The question is the force of the Law as given, and I think you are too much discounting the importance of the references to the Land and the Law itself. Note these things:

The commandment is given only to the Jewish people (and resident alien), presented in contrast to them following "the statutes of [Egypt and Canaan]" (Lev 18:2) So there is a distinction here between two law codes (or three), a legal distinction: Egyptian laws, Canaanite laws, and this new Jewish law.

The antecedent problem is that the Law of the Canaanites was wrong for the Land in which they live -- thus the land expeled them. (Lev 18:25.) This land has been destined by God for the Jewish people, who will have their own law for that land. Notice that God punishes "the land" itself, as well as the people.

Note also that although the people of Egypt also had statutes along these lines (incest was a well established feature of the pharaonic monarchy, for example) they were not similarly "vomited" out of their land --- there is a tacit recognition that the Law of Egypt was suitable to the Land of Egypt -- Egypt was not "defiled" by these things, only Canaan -- it is not a matter of intrinsic "wrongness" but of wrongness in relation to the land.

The Jewish People are given a Jewish Law for a Jewish Land -- and they are to keep it, so that the land will not repulse them. So important is the concept of the Law of the Land that even the resident alien is required to keep the law. (Lev 18:26f) But there is no suggestion that this law applies to anyone other than these two groups. It is not presented as a universal law, but as the Law of the Land.

Now, this does, as you point out, raise questions concerning Leviticus. Are we to toss all of it out as inapplicable to all people, simply because it is not presented as a universal law, or because we do ignore large sections of it already, either on the basis of direct overturn by Jesus (the dietary regulations of Lev 11), the decisions of the Jerusalem Council (circumcision, Lev 12), or the passage of time and the reality of history (no one, Jew or Gentile, can avail him or herself of the Levitical priesthood to examine medical conditions as required by Lev 13).

At the same time, no one is questioning the permanence of laws against robbery or fraud (Lev 6) or the matters addressed in the Decalogue (resummarized in Lev 19) -- even while we disregard the commandment on blood (Lev 19:26, which was not set aside by the Jerusalem Council.)

The point is, the church has well cherry-picked Leviticus, and we do not follow "all of this law and commandments" -- the question is, what is the basis for deciding which laws are still binding.

Well, we have an answer in Jesus: who did actually quote one of the Laws in Leviticus (19:18) -- 'you shall love your neighbor as yourself.' This, for the Christian, is the test of which laws we keep.

So, although you have picked up some of the "context" you have misread it. It is, I suppose, easy for you to dismiss the work of the most significant scholar on the subject of Levitcus (Rabbi Milgrom) because he is "a liberal... twist[ing] the Bible to support their perversions]. But a little humility would not be out of place, in seeing your own reading of Leviticus, ignoring the full context, reveals more about your own twisting of the Scripture to feed your need for judgment.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Neil of 4Simpsons at wordpress stopped back a a few comments, which I've taken the unusual step of not posting, as they add nothing to the conversation. He recommends people read the whole chapter of Leviticus -- I would recommend people read the whole book. He simply refuses to accept my analysis on the importance of the Land -- in spite of the fact that this is the basic understanding of the law in Judaism -- as exhaustively articulated by Rabbi Jacob Milgrom's three-volume analysis in the Anchor Bible Series, as well as other conservative and orthodox sources.

Neil accuses me of gymnastics but offers no real response beyond bringing up the case of (possible) incest in 1 Cor 5 -- an instance more easily explained (as I have done elsewhere) as a man and his son resorting to the same prostitute, hence clearly porneia. And he says I'm being passive-agressive for suggesting he should approach the subject with greater humility. Well, he is the one who is going toe-to-toe with the leading scholar (and Rabbi) on Leviticus, not me, so I would suggest some humility is in order.

Finally, he accuses me of "bringing in Egypt" when I did so only to respond to his erroneous point concerning it. He fails utterly to deal with the difference between Egypt and Canaan, in relation to the land, and continues to insist that the laws of Leviticus 18 are permanently binding on all people in all times and places. I have said why I think he is mistaken, and he has offered no response other than reassertion and contradition -- and so, in keeping with my requests concerning comments, I have taken the rare step of not posting his words here. Those interested in reading what he has to say can visit him at Wordpress.

Anonymous said...

Your disingenuousness is showing through. If my comments didn't add value, why not show them and prove yourself right? I try to take people like you seriously but you are making it virtually impossible.

Anonymous said...

Yes of course, "it is about respecting the dignity of every human"! Oh, except for consenting adults who choose to do this one harmless thing--we'll somehow continue to disrespect their dignity.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

You know what you said, Neil. And I think I summarized what you said accurately. If you disagree, you are, of course, free, to post away at your own blog to your heart's content. But as I say in my guidelines, if comments consist of mere contradiction or reassertion, I feel no need to publish them. I am interested in serious discussion of this issue, but I did not consider your last comment to be serious.

Anonymous said...

Wow - what an informative discussion! I just wanted to say thank you to Tobias and to 4simpsons for the edification. I never knew to research this, but your debate inspired me and I now feel much more able to participate in discussions about the "legality" of homosexuality in regards to the Bible. Thank you!