Category Archives: Old Testament

Entering the Kingdom of God

Loch Vale, Rocky Mountain National Park

Loch Vale, Rocky Mountain National Park

Hiking in the mountains is one of my favorite things to do. I love the fresh air, the great views, and the challenges of the hikes. I’m not enough of a thrill-seeker to want to hike Mount Everest though, and besides, I wouldn’t have the free time for it. When people hike to the top of very tall mountains, they can’t just show up one day and hike to the top the next. Their bodies need multiple weeks to adjust to the high altitude first. If they were dropped at the base camp and immediately started hiking, their bodies wouldn’t be able to cope and they would break down and put their lives at risk. A majestic mountain range is an amazing environment, but only for those who are prepared to enjoy it.

The kingdom of God is good news (gospel) for our world, but we shouldn’t assume that we can enjoy God’s kingdom in our default human condition. There was a religious teacher named Nicodemus who made that assumption, but Jesus quickly set him straight. In John 3:3-8, Jesus identifies what is necessary for entering the kingdom of God. And in John 3:14-17, Jesus promises that he himself would make it possible for Nicodemus and others to enter the kingdom of God.

The exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus picks up steam quickly. Not one for small talk, Jesus immediately challenges Nicodemus with truth about the kingdom of God. Jesus states that no one can see (verse 3) or enter (verse 5) the kingdom of God without being born again by God’s Spirit. Kings judge their enemies, and apart from a new birth Nicodemus was an enemy of God. All humans have sinned and rebelled against God and his kingly reign. Apart from a dramatic transformation, we would be judged by God as enemies of his kingdom. But we can enter God’s kingdom if we experience a new birth by God’s Spirit and receive forgiveness for our sins. The Holy Spirit, who is the giver of life throughout the Scriptures, creates this new birth and new life within us.

It is significant that Jesus chides Nicodemus for not understanding these truths (John 3:10). Jesus expected Nicodemus to know about the need for a spiritual rebirth already. Jesus was not claiming to be an innovator in this teaching. He probably had in mind the Old Testament passages that spoke about the need for circumcised hearts (Deuteronomy 30:6), hearts that were forgiven and genuinely responsive to God’s commands (Jeremiah 31:31-34), and hearts that were cleansed and enlivened by the Spirit (Ezekiel 36:24-28). Nicodemus and his contemporaries thought that they could enter God’s kingdom in their current condition, without any dramatic change of heart. But Jesus knew the evidence from the Old Testament that suggested otherwise.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that this new birth and forgiveness will be made possible by his sacrificial work on the cross. As usual, Jesus uses the royal designation “Son of Man” to refer to himself, in verse 14. But in a shocking statement, Jesus hints that this royal Son of Man will be lifted up (on a cross) as a sacrifice for the people of the world, all of whom are enemies of God’s kingdom. Through Jesus’ sacrifice, however, those who believe in him will not be judged as enemies but given eternal life in the kingdom of God.

Mountaineers cannot enjoy or even survive a climb to Everest unless their bodies are ready for the hike. People cannot enjoy or even survive the coming of God’s kingdom apart from the new birth we experience when we trust in the Son of Man and receive his sacrifice for our sins. When we read this passage we encounter the stunning reality that we can experience eternal life in the kingdom of God because the King has died for our sins.

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Integrating Faith and Learning, Truth and Life

Thinking rabbitStudying the Bible in an academic context provides a great opportunity to explore the broad relevance of a number of Biblical themes. What are some potential ways the Bible relates to other areas of learning or significant issues in our world?

The Trinity – worship, purpose, full relationships with God and others, how Christianity is distinct from other world religions.

Creation – the sciences, creation care, beauty/order/design in the world, stewardship of resources/gifts/life, fruitfulness, culture, creativity, sexuality/marriage/family, the wisdom of God.

Image of God – the value of human life, living as representatives of God, identity formation, vocation and calling.

Incarnation and physical resurrection – the value of the physical world and physical bodies, physical presence/touch and relationships, the “embodied” life and communication/social media, benefits and dangers of technology to human interaction and growth, medical ethics.

The kingdom of God – power structures and their relationship to God, justice/righteousness/shalom, what God’s reign looks like now and in the future in our world, kingdom ethics applied to various areas of life.

Christian virtues – cultural analysis, sexual morality, business ethics, hospitality, generosity to the needy, other humanitarian issues.

The cross/death of Jesus – “cruciform living” in an indulgent and selfish world, the depths of sin/evil/suffering and brokenness in a fallen world, the power of forgiveness – with God and others.

The church – how Christians are distinct from the world, how Christians should engage with the world, reconciliation and unity within the church, church planting and missions – contributions from various gifted people, ministries to the poor/needy/oppressed.

Justice and judgment – restorative and punitive justice, temporary and final judgment and their functions, divine and human justice, social justice in various arenas, reconciliation between political/social/tribal enemies, war and pacifism.

Biblical covenants – mission and purpose in light of the new covenant, middle east politics in light of the old and new covenants, church and state, living as strangers and exiles.

Union with Christ – identity formation, growth and maturity as disciples, sharing in Christ’s suffering, the persecuted.

New creation – worship and vocation, human flourishing, the value of the physical, beauty, creativity.

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Series Conclusion – the Bible and Same Gender Sexual Activity

sunset

Christian congregations (particularly in Europe and North America) exist within cultures that are rapidly changing in their moral norms. In the years and decades to come, Christians will need to combine a wise and compassionate pastoral approach with biblically informed doctrine when we encounter people inside and outside the church who experience same-sex attraction.

Thankfully, God has given sufficient revelation to guide us in our theological convictions. The topic of same-gender sexual activity is addressed indirectly and directly in Scripture, as we have seen in this blog series.

Very early in the biblical story, marriage is defined explicitly as being between a man and a woman. This definition is maintained (though not always practiced) throughout the rest of the Bible. Genesis 2 establishes God’s clear intention for marriage – between one man and one woman. Jesus affirms this definition in Matthew 19 and Mark 10. Paul reiterates this definition in Ephesians 5. Marriage between man and woman is invested with deeper meaning in these passages, as signposts to God’s eternal plans in creation and redemption.

Same-sex practices are portrayed in a negative light and/or spoken against in both the Old and New Testaments. Often, “righteous” and “unrighteous” behavior is divided clearly in these passages, with same-sex practices being listed under “unrighteous” behavior.

Same-sex practices surface in the “wicked” cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The Law God gave to Moses (the Law that reflected God’s holy character and specified how the Israelites were to be his holy people) prohibited same-sex practices, along with other sexual activity that fell outside the bounds of a faithful marriage between a man and woman. While the new covenant in Jesus nullifies ceremonial aspects of the Law as well as specific penalties, there is no indication that God’s demands for moral purity in heart and actions have been discarded.

Jesus did not speak specifically about same-sex practices (probably since his Jewish audience already rejected such behavior because of Leviticus 18 and 20), but he did affirm male-female marriage as God’s design (Matthew 19 and Mark 10). Jesus is also clear that immoral behavior (as opposed to customary rituals) makes a person truly defiled before God (Mark 7:14-18, Matthew 15).

Paul associates same-sex practices (between men and between women) with immorality that characterizes people groups that have denied the knowledge of God in Romans 1.

Paul insists that same-sex practices are among the behaviors that are incompatible with Christian belief and participation in the kingdom of God in 1 Corinthians 6, and he groups same-sex practice with other forms of lawless and ungodly behavior in 1 Timothy 1. But as is the case for all of us, these passages remind us that because of the good news of Jesus Christ sin need not have the final word in our lives. Jesus Christ came to save sinners and re-shape our lives into his image, by the Spirit.

Thus concludes this series. Here are the links to the rest of the posts in the series:

 

Section 1 – Overview

 

Section 2 – Marriage in Genesis, the Gospels, and Ephesians

 

Section 3 – Sodom and Gomorrah throughout the Bible

 

Section 4 – Leviticus 18 and 20

 

Section 5 – Romans 1:18-32

 

Section 6 – 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1

 

Section 7 – Matthew 7:15-20 – A Tree and its Fruit


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Trees and Fruit in Matthew 7:15-20

Fruitful tree

In this post (see intro to the series here) we take a step back to ask a broader question: what makes a teaching harmful or helpful for a Christian? If a teaching is determined to be biblically faithful, is that enough? Or does the legitimacy of a teaching come under suspicion when it creates hardship for those seeking to live according to it?

Matthew Vines uses Matthew 7:15-20 to suggest that any doctrine or teaching should be evaluated according to whether it harms or helps the person who tries to obey the doctrine. He claims that teachings that wound people by imposing relationally unhealthy restrictions on a person (and thus preventing human flourishing) are bad teachings, since they produce bad fruit. Apart from this being a very subjective measure for identifying truth (who defines “unhealthy” vs. “flourishing”?), it does not seem to do justice to the tree/fruit analogy in Matthew 7:15-20 either.

The context of the passage is the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). A parallel passage is found in Luke 6:43-44. Jesus is speaking to his disciples and the crowds (5:1; 7:28). The gist of the passage is that the people need to be on guard against false prophets, and there are ways of recognizing these false prophets.

 

Tree and fruit imagery

Jesus explains that disciples will recognize prophets by their fruits. The imagery of fruit is common throughout the Old and New Testaments. Most frequently good fruit describes good works, actions, and deeds that arise out of being faithful to God. Bad fruit is linked to disobedience and moral impurity.

In Matthew fruitfulness is “predominantly an ethical metaphor, based on the assumption that true loyalty to God will issue in appropriate behavior by his people” (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 291). Matthew 3:8 and its parallel in Luke 3:8-14 establish the basic meaning of “fruit,” from John the Baptist’s preaching: “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” In Luke 3 John the Baptist provides specific examples of what this looks like: being generous to the needy, not cheating others financially, and not abusing power. This shows that “fruits” are actions that are congruent with a repentant heart.

The passage that follows the tree and fruit teaching (Matthew 7:21-23) confirms the idea that people’s actions must match the will of the God they claim to serve. People who claimed the name of the Lord and did works in his name would be rejected by God as workers of “lawlessness.” Why? Because the kingdom of heaven belongs to “the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

In Matthew 7:15-20 Jesus says this of the false prophets: “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16, repeated in 7:20). Then, in three different ways in Matthew 7:16-18, Jesus explains that trees never produce fruit that is contrary to the tree that produces it. So, in the analogy of the tree and the fruit, what is the tree? The tree is not the teaching being taught by the prophet, but the true nature of the prophet.  Jesus is encouraging his hearers to discern the true nature of the prophet by examining the fruit the prophet produces.  What fruit does Jesus have in mind? Let’s take a look at how false prophets are described elsewhere.

 

False prophets

Matthew 7 uses the tree/fruit analogy as a test to measure the true nature of false prophets. What did Jesus mean to describe when he used the label “false prophet”?

In Matthew 12:33-35 the same tree/fruit imagery used against the Pharisees, who had just attributed the works of the Spirit (through Jesus) to Satan. In this case, the bad fruit consists of the words of the Pharisees (their resistance to Jesus and the Spirit’s work through him). They were condemned with warnings that such sin would not be forgiven. After the tree/fruit imagery, he again warns of judgment against arrogant words spoken against Christ and the Spirit. The key issue at this point in the Gospel is the rejection of Jesus by the Pharisees. The Pharisees, in spite of their apparent good fruit (in the people’s eyes and in their own eyes – Matt 23:3, 23:28), were bad trees because of their words against God’s work through Jesus, and Jesus was exposing them as such. They were wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Elsewhere in Matthew (24:11, 24) false prophets in the last days lead people astray and deceive others through false signs (by turning them away from Christ). See also Mark 13:22. The same picture emerges in 2 Peter 2:1 and 1 John 4:1.

Note that in all of these passages the false prophets are not simply teaching wrong philosophies or doctrines, but are giving false information about how God is at work (specifically about whether he is or is not at work through Jesus). These false prophets, whether they are Jesus’ contemporaries (Pharisees) or prophets in the last days, are those who reject Jesus as the Christ and lead others astray.

Likewise, false prophets in the Old Testament deceived people about how God was working in their midst. The false prophets would often prophesy positive things when God wanted to proclaim judgment instead:

  • Isaiah 30:9-10: “For these are rebellious people, deceitful children, children unwilling to listen to the LORD’s instruction. They say to the seers, ‘See no more visions!’ and to the prophets, ‘Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions. Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!’”
  • Lamentations 2:14: “The visions of your prophets were false and worthless; they did not expose your sin to ward off your captivity.”
  • Ezekiel 13:9-10: “My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations. . . . Because they lead my people astray, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace . . .”
  • Luke 6:26: “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”
  • See also 1 Kings 22:13, Jeremiah 14:13-15, Jeremiah 23:9-16, Ezekiel 22:28, and Micah 3:5-7.

These passages provide evidence that false prophets are guilty primarily of promoting a casual attitude towards obedience to God’s commands (in the Old Testament) or leading people away from Jesus as the Messiah (in the New Testament). They produce bad fruit by pointing people away from God’s perfect plans.

 

Ravenous wolves

In Matthew 7:15 the false prophets are said to be ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing. The metaphor describes the true nature of the false prophet, despite outward appearance. It also indicates the ill intent of the prophet and the harm he causes. Could this language envision the destructive teachings Vines describes?

Wolf imagery surfaces in a similar context in Acts 20:29-30, where Paul says “fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock, and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.”

What is clear in Acts 20 is implied in Matthew 7, in conjunction with the description of false prophets elsewhere in the Gospels: wolves are dangerous because they deceive people into following them instead of Christ. The wolves subvert the heart of faith – devotion to Jesus as the Christ. There is no indication of their being ravenous through imposing restrictions that are seen to prevent human flourishing in general.

 

Conclusions

Matthew 7:15-20 uses tree/fruit imagery to warn against false prophets and their agendas.

The logic of the passage is that the tree (the true character of a prophet) is revealed by the fruit (the actions and teachings of the prophet – either acknowledging the identity and works of Jesus or opposing him). The tree is not the teaching of the prophet, and the fruit is not the perceived effects of that teaching.

False prophets can be recognized when their disobedient actions and opposition to Jesus do not match what would be expected from a “good tree.” Good trees live in harmony with revealed character, will, and work of Father, Son, and Spirit.

Though the prophets are characterized as “ravenous wolves,” it is not because they are placing unreasonable restrictions on the people (such as denying them the option of finding fulfillment in a relationship) but because they are leading people away from Jesus, the Christ.

A careful look at this passage supports the fundamental idea that God’s wisdom determines the beauty and goodness of a teaching, whether it is a teaching that immediately blesses us or whether it is an extremely challenging teaching that requires our wholehearted trust to carry it out (such as the call for someone with same-sex desires to either pursue chastity or cultivate a sexual relationship within a marriage with an opposite-gender spouse). God’s revealed truth in the Bible is the only sure way forward for how to live our lives. True prophets instruct others in God’s character, his teachings, and his Son. False prophets diminish people’s confidence in God’s character, his teachings, and his Son.

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Leviticus 18 and 20

Mikveh - Ancient Jewish bath used for ritual cleansing

Mikveh – Ancient Jewish bath used for ritual cleansing

This post continues a series (first three posts are here, here, and here) on biblical teachings that shed light on God’s perspective on same-gender sexual activity. The purpose of the series is provide clarity on the meaning of words and passages that often surface in discussions about this issue. It is always worth remembering that the Bible addresses the issue of same-sex practice, and not the attractions that are experienced. All Christians find their identity in Christ and his gracious work and accept one another on that basis – “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7). As Christians, we all struggle with sin, and as the late Rich Mullins sung, “We are not as strong as we think we are.” Yet, we never want to become content with any sin, and we want to remind each other of God’s perfect wisdom for living, which is taught to us in the Bible and is for our good. Jesus proclaimed “blessed are the poor in spirit” (those who recognize their brokenness) alongside “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:3-10).

 

Overview of Leviticus 18-20

In Leviticus 19:2, the LORD tells Moses to tell the people of Israel, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (see also Leviticus 11:44-45; 20:26; 21:8). This helps frame the broader aim of the commands in the book of Leviticus: “Israelites are expected to mirror the divine likeness to the world; more specifically, to be holy as he is holy and so to function as priestly mediators of God” (Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible, 108-109). The laws against same-sex relations are provided in this context.

The specific injunctions against same-gender sexual activity are found in the following two verses:

Leviticus 18:22 – “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.”

Leviticus 20:13 – “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

 

Lexical information

Abomination (ESV)/ detestable (NIV) – toevah (LXX – βδἐλυγμα). HALOT, 1703 – toevah – “abomination, abhorrence.”

This word occurs throughout the Old Testament, but here is an examination of its use in legal contexts, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

It occurs six times in Leviticus:

  • 18:22 – same-sex relations among males
  • 18:26 – sexual practices of Canaanites (and Egyptians) in general
  • 18:27 – sexual practices of the Canaanites in general
  • 18:29 – sexual practices of the Canaanites in general
  • 18:30 – sexual practices of the Canaanites in general
  • 20:13 – same-sex relations among males

Note that contrary to what is suggested in Vines, 85, there is not a direct connection between “abomination” and sex with a menstruating woman (Lev 18:19). “Abomination” describes the practices in Leviticus 18 as a whole, and same-sex relations among males in particular, but not sex with a menstruating woman (that prohibition is simply stated, without a qualifying descriptor on the act itself).

In Deuteronomy:

  • 7:25, 26 (2x) – worship of other gods
  • 12:31 – worship of other gods, with child sacrifice
  • 13:14 – worship of other gods
  • 14:3 – unclean animals
  • 17:1 – flawed sacrifices
  • 17:4 – worship of other gods
  • 18:9, 12 (3x) – worship of other gods and practices related to that
  • 20:18 – worship of other gods
  • 22:5 – cross-dressing
  • 23:18 – using prostitute money for gift offerings
  • 24:4 – taking back a former wife who married someone else
  • 25:16 – dishonest business practices
  • 27:15 – idolatry
  • 32:16 – worship of other gods

Additional note: as seen in the previous post, Ezekiel 16:50 uses “abomination” to refer to the practices of Sodom.

Here are some parallel terms to toevah in Leviticus 18 and 20:

  • Perversion – tebel – (18:23, 20:12) – HALOT, 1683 – “confusion, disgracefulness.”
  • Wickedness (NIV)/depravity (ESV) – zimmah (18:17, 20:14) – HALOT, 272 – “infamy, shameful behavior.” ESV often translates it as “lewdness” elsewhere, and it is often paired with “abomination” (toevah) in Ezekiel.

The highly negative descriptors (toevah, tebel, zimmah) are tied to some condemned sexual practices in Leviticus 18 but not others, suggesting some gradation in the degree of severity. Though Leviticus 18:3 and 18:30 relates the practices to the activities of the godless Egyptians and Canaanites, this does not suggest that the practices are wrong simply because of idolatrous Canaanite associations. The descriptors (toevah, tebel, zimmah) are used directly with the actions themselves to portray the inherent incompatibility between the aberrant sexual practices and life as God’s people.

Similarly, God’s prohibitions against same-gender sexual activity cannot be written off as solely arising from cultural norms in ancient near eastern societies (as Vines seems to argue). According to Leviticus 18:1 and 20:1, the laws were revealed by God to Moses (“the LORD spoke to Moses, saying . . .”) and were part of his plan for them to “be holy as I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).

 

Death penalty for serious breaches of the Old Testament law:

Under the old covenant between God and the Israelites, the death penalty is prescribed for certain behaviors. Punishments such as the death penalty are not part of the new covenant in Christ (the new covenant people of God are not one centralized nation and thus do not enact civil penalties in the same way Israel was called to do so). Still, we know that the Mosaic Law reflected God’s holy character, so we can gain some insight from the laws that God put in place over the people of Israel.

Maintaining order within the community does not stand out as a primary reason for the death penalty, especially in Leviticus 20 (contra Vines, 86). In Leviticus 20:13, the reason for the death penalty is given: same-sex relations between males was an abomination (toevah) that brought blood-guilt on the offending parties (rather than something that was a breach of community order).

Elsewhere in Leviticus 20, God says he himself “sets his face against” those for whom the death penalty is prescribed (20:5, 6), and God connects offenses to the purity of his sanctuary and the holiness of his name (20:3). Elsewhere in the chapter there is mention of blood-guilt, perversion (tebel), and wickedness (zimmah) in connection with the reasons for the death penalty.

Not all sexual violations in Leviticus 20 bring the death penalty. Having sex with a menstruating woman and some varieties of incest carry lesser penalties. Once again, this may indicate that some sins were considered more serious than others within the context of God’s relationship with the Israelites.

  • Note: Vines is misleading when he says that “in Ezekiel 18:13, the death penalty was applied to anyone who charged interest on a loan” (86). Ezekiel 18:11-13 assigns a death penalty for a morally corrupt, idolatrous, and oppressive man, whose crimes include charging interest on a loan (punishment is not for this last vice, independent from the others).

 

Theological context – does the Old Testament Law still apply?

Some laws are clearly annulled in the New Testament (all foods became clean, Gentile converts do not have to be circumcised, and observance of special religious calendars is no longer required). Is it legitimate to differentiate between ceremonial laws, which were abolished, and moral laws, which are still binding? Even though the specific penalties for violating moral laws are no longer in force (church discipline, or the purposeful exclusion of unrepentant sinners from Christian fellowship, is the practice instead – see Matthew 18:15-18 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13), there is evidence that the moral standards from the Old Testament are still consistent with God’s moral will today, especially in sexual matters.

Jesus himself distinguishes between ceremonial uncleanness and moral impurity, releasing people from ceremonial requirements while still condemning moral impurity. Mark 7:14-23 (see also Matthew 15:1-20) differentiates between two types of behaviors:

Things going into a person Things coming out of a person
Things from outside a person Things from within, from the heart
Foods Moral vices
These do not defile a person before God These defile a person before God

 

Jesus lists the things that defile a person: “evil thoughts, sexual immorality (porneia), theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” The presence of these moral vices (both attitudes and behaviors) makes a person defiled before God.

  • To “defile” (κοινόω) means “to make common or impure, defile in the cultic sense” (BDAG, 552). Jesus is saying that true defilement (of the heart) is tied to immorality that touches the heart and is incompatible with being in God’s presence (see Revelation 21:27). Sin from the heart strikes against God’s holiness in ways that mere ritual non-observance does not. Jesus includes sexual departure from the norm (porneia) among the morally defiling practices and not among the ritually non-binding matters.

Note that at least two of these vices are related to sexual behavior (and “sensuality” likely has sexual connotations too):

  • “Sexual immorality” is from the Greek πορνεία, which is a general term describing all sorts of sexually immoral behavior. It includes any “unlawful sexual intercourse” (BDAG, 854). The term appears in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:32 – “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for porneia, makes her the victim of adultery . . .” and again in Matthew 19:9, where Jesus says likewise: “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for porneia, and marries another woman commits adultery” (see also Deuteronomy 24:1, which is referred to in Matthew 19:7). So porneia is used as a general term to describe sexual behavior that is “out of bounds” for someone already in a marriage. But notice the wider application of the term porneia to sexual sin before being married in 1 Corinthians 7:2. And in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 porneia is related to the general sexual practices of godless Gentiles. And adultery is a separate sin in Jesus’ list in this passage (Mark 7:22). Porneia functions as a handy catch-all term for sexual sin – any sexual activity outside of a marriage between a man and a woman (Jesus’ assumed standard according to Mark 10:5-12 and Matthew 19:4-9).
  • “Adultery” is from μοιχεία, which means having sex with someone who is not your spouse.

Jesus thus includes sexual behavior under the category of moral vice rather than ritual impurity. Jesus’ words imply that God’s moral will endures but that standards of ritual purity are no longer binding.

This also means that the Gentiles’ freedom from circumcision was a paradigm shift that cannot be extended to OT commands that are purely moral from God’s perspective. In Acts 15, the Spirit led the apostles to exempt Gentile believers in Christ from circumcision, but the apostles still required the Gentiles to abstain from sexual immorality.

There is broader evidence that New Testament authors still upheld a “third use of the Law” for Christians (the use of the Old Testament Law as an ongoing moral norm for Christian behavior). For instance, both Jesus and Paul uphold the abiding moral authority of the Old Testament law that children must obey their parents (Matthew 15:4-6; Ephesians 6:1-2).

 

Summary

In Leviticus 18 and 20 same -sex practices are treated as serious sins that God would not tolerate in his covenant relationship with Israel. Jesus upholds God’s moral standards (but not the penalties) governing sexual behavior by treating them as different from ritual observances. Jesus does not specify that homosexual sexual activity makes one defiled, but his general list of morally defiling behaviors reflect the moral laws given to the Israelites, which included restrictions against same-gender sexual behavior.

 

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Sodom and Gomorrah throughout the Bible

Fire

This post is part 3 of a series on biblical passages that are relevant for or commonly mentioned in discussions about same-sex practices. The overview to the series is found here, and the second post, which surveys the biblical definition of marriage, is found here. Our goals as Christians should be to better understand the truth communicated in these passages while at the same time to love the people around us with pure hearts. With humility we seek to treat one another with respect and understanding while looking out for each other’s best long-term interests.

This current post examines the original account of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18-19, as well as later passages that refer back to that event.

There is no single sin of Sodom and Gomorrah that is isolated from other sins in Genesis 18-19. The episode that led to God’s judgment upon the cities was only one indicator of a broader sin problem in those cities. The nature of the sins there is best described as comprehensive wickedness, which included arrogance, inhospitable behavior, sexual immorality, and violence.

The specific episode with Lot’s visitors that is recounted as final evidence of Sodom and Gomorrah’s wickedness was characterized by hostility to outsiders, lawlessness, attempted sexual violence against same-gender targets, and arrogance.

 

Genesis 18-19 in context

In Genesis 13:13 Lot and family move into the city of Sodom: “Now the people of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the LORD.” This verse points to the general wickedness of the city, without specifying the exact nature of the sins against the LORD.

In Genesis 18 the LORD appears to Abraham and arrives with two men that are later identified as angels, according to their title (malakhim in Genesis 19:1) and by their supernatural actions in Genesis 19 (blinding crowds of men and foretelling divine judgment on the city). The three men (they are identified as men in Genesis 18:2, describing how they looked to Abraham) stay with Abraham and Sarah. The LORD speaks and leads throughout the narrative (Genesis 18:1,10,17,20, etc.), and at one point the two angels depart for Sodom while the LORD stays with Abraham (Genesis 18:22). Abraham treats the LORD and the visiting men/angels with great hospitality.

  • Though the narrator identifies the visitors as the LORD and two angels, Abraham sees them as human men (the men of Sodom will likewise see the angels as men). Hebrews 13:2 probably refers to this event: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

Genesis 18:20-21: “Then the LORD said, ‘The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin is so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me.’” In the verses that follow, “righteous” and “wicked” are contrasted.

  • Righteous = tsadiq (dikaios in LXX) – “morally in the right, innocent” (HALOT, 1002). See Noah – Genesis 6:9 – “a righteous man.” God is often described as righteous.
  • Wicked = rasha (aseb­­ēs in the LXX) – “guilty in general, essentially before God, guilty, wicked person” (HALOT, 1295).
  • Outcry = z’aqah – “plaintive cry, cry for help” (HALOT, 277).
  • Grievous = khabed – “weighty” (HALOT, 456).

Genesis 19:4-5 – “Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom – both young and old – surrounded the house. They called out to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.’”

  • The two angels are identified as “men” by the men of Sodom, which suggests that they were seen primarily, if not exclusively, as ordinary human men by the residents of Sodom.
  • “Have sex with them” is from the Hebrew for “to know,” and it often carries a sexual connotation (which seems to be confirmed in this instance by the same use of “know” in Genesis 19:8). The desperate offering of Lot’s daughters (for sexual intercourse) shows the sexual nature of the request. The scene also has strong parallels to Judges 19:22-26, where men of Gibeah seek to “know” a visiting man in the city, and the man hosting the visitor offers his daughter instead, who is “abused”/raped throughout the night.

Genesis 19:7 – Lot: “Don’t do this wicked thing . . . (offers daughters) . . . But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”

  • A strong culture of hospitality undergirds the narrative (with Lot’s concern to protect his guests).
  • At the same time, the verses that follow depict a frenzied atmosphere that is likely fed by the need to satisfy sexual desires. In Genesis 19:9 the men say “Get out of our way . . . This fellow came here as a foreigner, and now he wants to play the judge.” They then proceed to “press hard” and “drew near to break the door down.”

Genesis 19:13 – In the midst of the terrible scene, the angels save the day (and Lot’s daughters!), and the need for divine judgment is confirmed. The angelic visitors say, “The outcry against its people is so great that he (the LORD) has sent us to destroy it.” In other words, the men’s actions were extreme and wicked enough to demonstrate that God’s judgment against the city was justified.

 

References to Sodom (and Gomorrah) in later OT passages:

Many later passages in the OT refer to Sodom and Gomorrah. A basic reason for this is because the cities were memorable for God’s swift judgment upon them. Note in the verses that follow that at times the threat of judgment is the basis of comparison (and not the nature of the sins themselves). In other words, the sins of those threatened by a judgment similar to Sodom and Gomorrah do not always correspond exactly to the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, unless the passage explicitly makes that link.

In Deuteronomy 29:23 threatened judgment of Israel is compared to judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah. A similar idea is found in Isaiah 13:19 (against Babylon), Jeremiah 49:18 (Edom), Jeremiah 50:40 (Babylon), Lamentations 4:6 (Jerusalem), Amos 4:11 (Israel), and Zephaniah (Moab and the Ammonites). Judgment in these cases is devastating and irreversible.

Isaiah 1:9-10 – the Israelites, in the wake of God’s judgment, felt that they were almost extinct as a people – almost as devastated as Sodom and Gomorrah. Israel has sinned (“rebellion” and “corruption” and “forsaking the LORD” and “spurning the Holy One of Israel”). There is an ironic turn from verse 9 to 10 – God says they actually are Sodom and Gomorrah (because of their wickedness) – their sacrifices and rituals are meaningless. They need to repent and do right and seek justice.

Isaiah 3:9 – Jerusalem, Judah are guilty because “they parade their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it.” Jerusalem is thus compared to Sodom because its sin is flagrant, being practiced without shame or repentance.

Jeremiah 23:14 – “And among the prophets of Jerusalem, I have seen something horrible: They commit adultery and live a lie. They strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that not one of them turns from their wickedness. They are all like Sodom to me; the people of Jerusalem are like Gomorrah.” The prophets are unfaithful to God and to their divine calling. Instead of confronting the people’s sins, they are condoning sin (promoting sin without shame or repentance).

  • To “commit adultery” (naaph) is used  throughout Jeremiah and the prophets to refer to idolatry and spiritual unfaithfulness to God and his covenant.

Ezekiel 16 – “Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations” (16:2). Jerusalem was the unfaithful wife to God’s covenantal love, through idolatry (16:17), (spiritual) prostitution, and lewdness (16:43 – “Have you not committed lewdness in addition to all your abominations?”).  They imitated practices of godless cultures and cities, including Sodom (16:47): “Not only did you walk in their ways and do according to their abominations; within a very little time you were more corrupt than they in all your ways.” Ezekiel 16:49-50: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.”

  • A variety of Sodom’s vices are linked to Sodom in 16:49-50, including arrogance, selfish indulgence, lack of mercy, and committing an abomination. The mention of arrogance and injustice match with the general description of the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 13, 18, and 19, and it may also recall the outcry of the righteous in Genesis 18:20-21 and 19:13 (see Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel 1-24, 509). But what about the language of abomination?
  • The appearance of “abomination” in 16:50 could summarize the sins listed prior to it, or it could add a different sin to the list. “Abomination(s)” (toevah) is mentioned multiple times in the passage to describe practices that are offensive to God (HALOT 1703 – toevah – “abomination, abhorrence”). “Abomination” is used more as a catch-all category for sin elsewhere in Ezekiel 16 (in the plural) but may indicate a more specific sin in 16:50 (in the singular – “committing an abomination”). This is plausible when seen in comparison to Ezekiel 18:10-13, which presents a list that includes “abomination” (singular) before summarizing all sins in the list as “abominations” (plural) – see Robert A. J. Gagnon, “The Old Testament and Homosexuality: A Critical Review of the Case Made by Phyllis Bird.”
  • Even more, “abomination” may describe sexual sin in Ezekiel 16:50. The word also appears in Leviticus 18 and 20 in the context of laws against sexual immorality, and it describes sexual sin in Ezekiel 22:11. More specifically, it may recount the sexually lawless behavior that led to judgment in Genesis 19. The end of Ezek 16:50 (“So I removed them, when I saw it”) may support the idea that “abomination” refers to that specific episode (the attempted male-on-male gang rape), because it suggests a correlation between seeing the behavior (through the eyes of the angelic messengers?) and delivering the judgment. The chaotic scene of sexual aggression was the final straw that confirmed the need for judgment against wicked cities.
  • Though Sodom’s non-sexual sins are highlighted here, there is some evidence that the passage has Sodom’s sexual sins in view as well.

 

References to Sodom (and Gomorrah) in NT passages:

Several New Testament passages highlight the connection between Sodom/Gomorrah and swift judgment. But 2 Peter 2:6 and Jude 7 delve more extensively into the original account from Genesis.

  • Matthew 11:23 – Sodom is used as an example of sin and future judgment (towns rejecting Jesus are in an even worse situation). See also Matthew 10:15/Luke 10:12.
  • Luke 17:28 – with the coming kingdom of God, judgment will come suddenly, amidst common daily events (as was the case with Sodom).
  • Romans 9:29 quotes Isaiah 1:9, drawing upon the finality of judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah.

2 Peter 2:6 – “if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard) – if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment.”

  • Ungodly = ἀσεβέω, ἀσεβής  = “to violate norms of a proper or professed relation to deity, act impiously,” and “pertaining to violating norms for a proper relation to deity, irreverent, impious, ungodly, BDAG, 141.
  • Depraved = ἀσέλγεια = “lack of self-constraint which involves one in conduct that violates all bounds of what is socially acceptable,” BDAG, 141. See also 2 Peter 2:2 and 2:18. ESV has “sensuality.” This vice (ἀσέλγεια) is also condemned by Jesus in Mark 7:22. It is often found in lists associated with sexual immorality (Rom 13:13, 2 Cor 12:21, Gal 5:19).
  • Lawless = ἄνομος = “pertaining to violating moral standards,” BDAG, 85. 1 Timothy 1:9 – the Mosaic Law was given for people who are “lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane.”
  • Elsewhere in 2 Peter 2 (2:2, 2:10, 2:13, 2:18, 2:20) words with connotations of sexual immorality appear as part of a broader condemnation against godlessness.
  • The specific description of Sodom and Gomorrah and the broader context in 2 Peter 2 has sexual deviancy as a strong focus.

Jude 7 – “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire. In the very same way, on the strength of their dreams these ungodly people pollute their own bodies, reject authority and heap abuse on celestial beings.”

  • Sexual immorality = ἐκπορνεὐω  = “indulge in illicit sexual relations/debauchery.’ Used only in Jude, but related to the common term πορνεία.
  • “Perversion” = ἕτερος σάρξ = “other flesh.” ESV – “unnatural desire.” HCSB – “perversions.” NASB – “strange flesh.” NET – “pursued unnatural desire in a way similar to these angels.” NRSV – “unnatural lust.” It is somewhat ambiguous here whether this refers to desire for same-sex activity or sex with angels, though the former is more likely in view of the fact that according to Genesis 19 the men of Sodom did not appear to realize that they were seeking sex with angels.
  • “Pollute” bodies = μιαίνω = “to cause the purity of something to be violated by immoral behavior; defile,” BDAG, 650.
  • Jude as a whole condemns “ungodly passions” (Jude 18), and “sensuality” (Jude 4 – ἀσέλγεια), so sexual immorality seems to be central to the problem he is addressing (along with general spiritual arrogance and irreverence). The judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah is enlisted as one example of judgment for sexual immorality, with perhaps a specific reference to same-sex sexual activity as well.

 

Conclusions

Both the passage itself and the later references to it show that Sodom and Gomorrah were wicked cities in a number of ways. A number of vices marked the cities. Readers should not target same-gender sexual relations as the solitary sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, though the fact that the men of the city demanded sex with other men is still a notable detail in the story. The narrative of Genesis 18-19 highlights this violent, inhospitable, sexually inflamed behavior as something shocking and out-of-bounds, and some later passages imply that the sexual practices of Sodom and Gomorrah contributed to their being judged by God.

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Marriage according to Genesis 1-2, Jesus, and Paul

Marriage - part of God's good creation

Marriage – part of God’s good creation

This is section 2 of a series on the Bible and same-gender sexual activity. Here is the series overview.

Genesis 1-2 recounts God’s creation of humans as male and female, along with the union of man and woman in marriage. Both Jesus and Paul see these chapters as foundational for God’s plan for marriage, and they view the marital union described there as a prototype for godly marriages.

Genesis 1-2 is the best place to start in our examination of the Bible’s teaching on same-gender sexual activity: “For the negative prohibitions of homosexual practices in Scripture make sense only in the light of its positive teaching in Genesis 1 and 2 about human sexuality and heterosexual marriage” (John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, 344).

Genesis 1 – God’s Ordered and Purposeful Creation

The whole creation account of Genesis 1:1-2:3 is organized around the “forming” and “filling” of the world, in opposition to the earth being “formless” and “empty” – Genesis 1:2 (see Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 185-186). The first three creation days portray God forming of the world, and the fourth, fifth, and sixth days consist of God filling the world. The creation account emphasizes several points:

  1. That God creates according to his plans. He speaks, and his intention is fulfilled.
  2. God’s creation is called “good” and “very good” throughout the account.
  3. God creates in an ordered way – separating light from darkness and waters from land, creating things “according to their own kinds,” arranging things in seasons and days and years, etc.

For the creation of man and woman, the progression in Genesis 1:26-28 is as follows:

  • Verse 26a – God creates man in his image and likeness.
  • Verse 26b – Humanity’s relationship to the rest of the created order.
  • Verse 27 – God creates man in his image when he creates male and female.
  • Verse 28a – The blessing of God – filling the earth through procreation.
  • Verse 28b – Humanity’s relationship to the rest of the created order.

Genesis 1:26a introduces the idea of humanity being created in the image of God, which will be explored further in the next section. Verses 26b and 28b are very similar in specifying that humans will govern the earth and its creatures (by ruling wisely on God’s behalf, and not for reckless gain).

The most pertinent sections for our purposes are found in verses 27-28a. Verse 27 states, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This verse establishes God’s plan for two distinct genders in creation. Man and woman are distinct from one another, but both are made in the image of God. Verse 28 connects this design with the blessing/mandate to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth (which matches the description of the sea creatures and birds of verse 22). There is a close association between gender duality and procreation in the passage (verses 27 and 28a).

Summary: According to Genesis 1:1-2:3, God created humanity as male and female, as part of a good and ordered creation that was meant to fill the earth over time.

A Closer Look at the Image of God in Humanity

Being made in the image of God has several overlapping nuances. It indicates the divinely ordained value of being human (see Gen 6:6; James 3:9), the function of governing the world on God’s behalf (Gen 1:26; Psalm 8), and perhaps the inherent relational nature of humans with God and with one another (if the relational plurality of humans is meant to reflect the relational plurality within the Trinity).

While God made humans in his image, humans also need to be restored to the image of God in Christ (Rom 8:29; Col 3:10), since Christ is the true image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4 and Colossians 1:15). This is made possible when believers become a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) and grow into this new creation reality by putting off the old self and putting on the new self, which is “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4: 21-24; Colossians 3:9-10).

The image of God reflects the perfection of what humans were called to be. According to the Bible, the standard for perfection is determined not by any innate desire or orientation humans experience, but by the revealed created order God designed before humanity’s fall into sin and by the perfect image and righteousness of Christ.

Genesis 2 – Male and Female Union in Marriage

The passage revisits the creation of the world from a different approach, focusing more on the creation of Adam and Eve. God creates man from the dust, breathes life into him, and puts the man in a garden in Eden. The man’s task is to work the garden and keep it (Genesis 2:15, in contrast to 2:5).

In contrast to the repeated affirmations of the goodness of creation in chapter 1, Genesis 2:18 says it is “not good” for the man to be alone. God decides to “make a helper fit/suitable for him.”

The word for “helper” (ezer) has the notion of “indispensable companion” (see NET Bible study notes).

The word that follows (kenegdo, from a combination of the prepositions ke and neged) is translated in various ways in modern translations:

CEB – “a helper that is perfect for him.”

ESV – “a helper fit for him.”

HCSB – “a helper as his complement.”

NASB, NIV – “a helper suitable for him.”

NET – “a companion . . . who corresponds to him.”

NKJV – “a helper comparable to him.”

NLT – “a helper who is just right for him.”

NRSV – “a helper as his partner.”

The animals are brought to the man for naming. This results in the man seeing his lack of a “helper fit for him.” God makes the woman from the man – “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” The woman comes from the man and thus is very similar to him, unlike the animals. But the woman is also different from the man – God did not simply create another man, but he created a woman, who represents a distinct category that is distinguished from “man” throughout the rest of the Bible.

The narrator then explains God’s intention for the partnership between man and woman: the man will 1) leave father and mother, 2) hold fast to his wife, and 3) the two will become one flesh. These are the stated purposes, not just for Adam and Eve, but for all marital unions (see Matt 19:5, Mark 10:7, Eph 5:31).

“Becoming one flesh” follows the man’s exclamation that the woman is “bone of my bone” and “flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23), which is consistent with the way that the woman was made from the man’s physical body in Genesis 2:22. “Becoming one flesh” involves being unified (as “a new family” – NET) and reflecting that union in sexual intimacy (see Paul’s enlistment of that meaning in 1 Corinthians 6:16).

Genesis 2 thus reveals God’s purposeful creation of a woman (and women) to exist alongside and be in relationship with a man (and men) in this world. A central feature of this existence and these relationships is the marital union between a man and a woman.

Genesis 1 and 2 in Jesus’ Teaching about Marriage

In Jesus’ appeal to this passage in Matthew 19:3-12 and Mark 10:2-12 notice that Jesus combines Genesis 1:27 (creation of male and female) with Genesis 2:24 (God’s design for marriage). This indicates that Jesus saw that these two passages belonged together to describe God’s purpose for marriage.

Genesis 1 highlights the creation of male and female – both in the image of God. Genesis 2 focuses on the relational union between male and female in God’s plans. As Gospels scholar R. T. France notes, “This combination results in a compelling sequence of thought: the God who first designed humanity in two sexes also laid it down that those two sexes should come together in an indissoluble union of ‘one flesh’” (France, The Gospel of Matthew, 717).

Jesus moves from creation of male and female to union of male and female in marriage and anchors this union in God’s design (“what therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”) There is also a repetition of “from the beginning” in Matthew 19:4 and 19:8. This shows Jesus’ conviction that any proper view of marriage should be founded upon what God revealed from the beginning, in Genesis 1 and 2.

Though Jesus quoted these passages to emphasize the permanence of marriage, his words also reveal his broader understanding of marriage – that God himself designed marriage to be a permanent union of a man and woman.

Ephesians 5:22-33 – Christian Marriage as a Symbol of Divine Truths

In Ephesians 5 the apostle Paul anchors his teaching on marriage in Genesis 2 when he quotes God’s original plan for marriage (Genesis 2:24). This passage also paints a beautiful picture of the correlation between marriage and Christ’s relationship with the church.

Ephesians 5:22-33 is a passage that follows upon the general command to be filled by the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), which manifests itself in a number of ways, including general practices of submitting to one another in our Christian relationships (Ephesians 5:21) and godly attitudes and actions in marriage (Ephesians 5:22-33).

Throughout the passage, the wife’s respect of and submission to her husband is said to correspond to the church’s submission to Christ, and the husband’s sacrificial love is said to mirror Christ’s love for the church. Ephesians 5:32 also directly ties the marriage relationship to Christ and the church: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (ESV).

Marriages are described as being between one man and woman in this passage. Though an emphasis on deep intimacy and others-centeredness characterizes the relationship between husbands and wives, the fact that these are relationships between one man and one woman is not incidental to the passage. Paul reaches all the way back to God’s creation of the world to support his ideas on marriage. In Ephesians 5:31, referring back to Genesis 2:24, a man leaves his father and mother to become joined to his wife, resulting in the two becoming “one flesh.” The original plan for marriage that Paul refers to was the uniting of one man and one woman in a permanent bond.

In this passage marriage is linked to both creation and redemption, two central doctrines of Christianity. The tie to creation is clear from the citation of Genesis 2:24. The connection to redemption is found in the marital love Jesus shows his church – “giving himself up” for the church, for her sanctification and cleansing in holiness. See also the same redemptive language in Ephesians 5:2, where Jesus “gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice for God.”

Like Jesus affirmed in Mark 10 and Matthew 19, Paul recognized that marriage was defined by God, according to his terms. In the definitions of Genesis 1-2, Matthew 19/Mark 10, and Ephesians 5 marriage is prescribed as being between a man and woman, who unite together as part of God’s basic order for the world (Genesis 1-2), and unite in Christ to point to Christ’s sacrificial work and the intimate union between Christ and his church.

A note on cultural backgrounds and biblical teachings

Ancient cultural perceptions of men, women, and same-sex practices, while informative when viewed in comparison to biblical teachings, are not directly relevant to the biblical view of same-sex sexual activity. The passages above present God’s intent for marriage apart from any cultural consideration and with universal relevance. The Bible begins with Genesis 1 and 2, which establishes a male-female marriage as the one authorized relationship for sexual union. This male-female union is affirmed in the rest of the Bible, and deviations from this norm are attributed to hard-heartedness (see Jesus’ explanation for the divorce instructions in the Mosaic Law – Matthew 19 and Mark 10), or shown to be harmful (in cases of polygamy) or are outright condemned (prostitution, adultery, same-sex sexual activity, incest). God reveals his plans for marriage clearly and consistently throughout the Scriptures.

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