God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

An Open Letter to CNN’s Piers Morgan

Again, slightly off topic, but I think important for those of us who take the Bible and these issues seriously:

Is homosexuality a sin?Dear Mr. Morgan:

I believe you have been promoting bigotry and helping to perpetrate a fraud.

During both of your interviews with Pastor Joel Osteen on your CNN broadcast, you let the religious leader tell your audience that Scripture calls homosexuality a sin. But you didn’t ask him where the Bible says that.

It’s both an important point and an easy one to settle. You could have asked Pastor Osteen for the chapter and verse that he thinks calls homosexuality a sin. What you would have found is that he couldn’t provide it, because Pastor Osteen was expressing his personal opinion, not quoting the Bible. The Bible doesn’t say that homosexuality is a sin.

Read the rest…

[Update: An expanded version of this letter, with additional information about how I read the Bible regarding homosexuality, is available on the Huffington Post. (June 5, 2012)]

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May 23, 2012 - Posted by | Off Topic | ,

9 Comments »

  1. Joel,

    How then are we to understand ‘sin’ if not as the result of the commission of acts in defiance of God’s instructions. In other words, how is the commission of an act that is unambiguously prohibited in the Bible not sinful? Indeed, a quick survey of the uses of sin (chattath and its various forms) suggest that it is a general term encompassing all sorts of violations of biblical prohibitions.

    More specifically, as regards the sexual prohibitions enumerated in Lev 18 and 20, they are not described as sinful (chattath). They are described as ‘toevah’ (variously translated as abominable, detestable, or loathsome). But they are manifestly and unambiguously prohibited!

    So, if I were Pr. Osteen, and Mr. Morgan asked me your question I would answer along the following lines:

    “Well Mr. Morgan, while male-male intercourse is not described as sinful, it is manifestly prohibited. Indeed, beastiality, incest, sex with children, adultery, and rape are not described as ‘sinful’ either. In fact, very few acts prohibited in the Bible are described as ‘sinful’, but they are manifestly prohibited? Sin, in the biblical sense, is the estrangement from God (or other people) that occurs when we violate biblical (or cultural) norms of behavior.

    So, yeah, male-male homosexual intercourse is manifestly prohibited and to commit such acts is sinful.”

    Blessings,

    Michael

    Comment by mtp1032 | May 23, 2012 | Reply

    • Michael,

      That’s certainly one reasonable way to look at things. (And we’ve been talking about “sin” and to’evah for some time in response to “Who Says Homosexuality is a sin?“)

      It seems to me that another reasonable way to look at things is to recognize that of the things that the Bible frowns upon, only some are called a “sin.” So I think it’s accurate to say that “the Bible calls lots of things a ‘sin,’ but not homosexuality.” Wouldn’t you agree?

      My more general point, though, is that it’s complicated. I believe that Pastor Osteen has a right to his interpretation, just as you and I do. I just think it’s dishonest to present that interpretation as fact. And I think that a simple question from Mr. Morgan could have brought out that complexity.

      Comment by Joel H. | May 23, 2012 | Reply

      • Thanks for the reply, Joel. This is a great topic because it really does speak to the heart of your blog — what the Bible actually says.

        First, just a quick clarification: As you probably recall, I am of the opinion that ‘homosexuality’ by which I mean homosexual practice is too broad a term. Since this is a translation forum, let me just restate my opinion that the only homosexual act that is explicitly to’evah is male-male intercourse (i.e., one of the males is penetrated). Other forms of same-sex erotic behavior seem not to be prohibited (in the Hebrew Bible, at any rate).

        Now, you ask whether I would agree that “the Bible calls a lot of things a ‘sin,’ but not homosexuality.” Actually, I wouldn’t agree because sin (chattath and its various forms) is as much a catch-all, general term as it is specific. For example, what are we to make of ‘chattath’ in Gen 4:7? What specific act does God refer to when He notes that ‘chattath’ is crouching at the door? In Genesis 18:20 God judges the people’s sin as exceedingly grave (khavdah me’od). What, if not acts against the will of God, could He be referring to? Many would argue that in this case, God is displeased with the inhospitality of the townsfolk? Is inhospitality a sin because such behavior violates God’s will or because the author used chattath as a synonym for inhospitality?

        At the end of the day I would argue that ‘sin’ is a general term meant to encompass a wide variety of behaviors, but at a minimum include all behaviors that violate a direct prohibition.

        Thoughts?

        Blessings,

        Michael

        Comment by mtp1032 | May 23, 2012

      • I think everyone agrees that the OT only addresses male homosexual sex, and that we don’t know for sure exactly what the relevant terms in the NT mean.

        If I understand correctly, your second point is that chatah and chata’at are broader than the English “sin,” while to’evah is (or may be?) one kind of sin. It’s an interesting suggestion.

        I think you’re probably right about the first part, but in a different sense than what you probably meant. I think that the Bible, certainly the OT, doesn’t even address our modern notion of “sin.” (A perfect place to start in this regard is Gary Anderson’s terrific book, Sin: A History, which I review here: “Review: Sin: A History“). I’ve been hoping to find time to look into these and related words properly, but even without a good, complete analysis, I think we can all agree that it’s complicated.

        To look at it another way, the Bible is clear when it says not to steal, not to judge others, to keep the Sabbath, and so forth. The Bible does not clearly say that homosexuality is a sin.

        This doesn’t mean that well-meaning, informed people can’t interpret it that way. (For example, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., with whom I disagree about almost everything, has a thoughtful piece on CNN’s Belief blog: “My Take: The Bible condemns a lot, but here’s why we focus on homosexuality.”) But I think it’s important to preserve the distinction between reading the Bible and interpreting it.

        Comment by Joel H. | May 24, 2012

  2. Just subscribing to comments…

    Comment by WoundedEgo | May 23, 2012 | Reply

  3. One thing that is consistently ignored by all, is that it is classified as a sexual ‘sin’ by christianity. According to their gospels, Jesus forgave sexual ‘sin’, when he forgave the woman who was going to be stoned. Both acts carried a death penalty.

    Comment by Herb | May 23, 2012 | Reply

  4. So then, Joel, what are we to do with Leviticus 5:17, which says “If a person sins (chatah) and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’s commands …”?

    I took an admittedly quick look at all the occurrences of chatah in the Torah and found that the vast majority of the its uses are descriptive, not prescriptive. Even when it is seems to be used in prescriptive way, its usage still more or less describes that a person has ‘sinned’ by doing certain things (eg. failure to witness [Lev. 5:1], deceit, robbery, oppression [Lev. 5:21]) or that what he has done has been a sin.

    Another question I have is one of context, not so much concerning the use of chatah in the Torah but rather concerning Osteen’s use of ‘sin.’ I understand that you (Joel) are a big proponent of always translating (and interpreting) a word based first and foremost on the context in which it is used. So then, in what context did Osteen use the word ‘sin’? Are we to presume that he intended his listeners to interpret his use of the word ‘sin’ as relating only to things in the Tanakh prescribed as chatah, or should we make at least some reasonable attempt to judge Osteen’s comments according to how the majority of Osteen’s listeners would have understood his use of ‘sin.’ The venerable wikipedia offers this definition of sin:
    “In religious contexts, a sin is an act that violates God’s will.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sin)
    Considering the extent to which information found online informs (and reveals) much about the way we think, would using this definition of ‘sin’ generate a scripturally accurate interpretation of Osteen’s comment that “homosexuality [at least the male-male homosexual act referred to in Lev. 20:13)] is a sin”?

    Comment by Steve Driediger | May 30, 2012 | Reply

    • I understand that you (Joel [Hoffman]) are a big proponent of always translating (and interpreting) a word based first and foremost on the context in which it is used. So then, in what context did Osteen use the word “sin”?

      It’s a perfectly reasonable question. You are right that I think that “sin” should be understood according to the context in which Pastor Osteen used it. (To consider an extreme example of why, a cake can be “sinfully delicious,” and we can all agree that the “sin” there has nothing to do with what we’re talking about here.)

      In this context I want to be clear. My point here is not whether homosexuality is a sin. I think that’s a religious question that only depends in part on what the Bible says, and I support the right of religious leaders to determine doctrine for their followers.

      I’m addressing whether homosexuality is called a sin in Scripture. Even leaving aside for the moment the (important) issue that “homosexuality” in its entirety isn’t even addressed in the Bible, and also assuming for the moment that a sin is anything that violates God’s will, the question becomes whether Scripture says that homosexuality violates God’s will. And I don’t think it does. I understand that it can certainly be interpreted that way — and I believe Pastor Osteen when he says that he chooses to interpret it that way — but there are other ways to interpret the text as well.

      One way to test my hypothesis here would be to ask Pastor Osteen if he thinks that Scripture says that eating shrimp is a sin. My guess is that he would say “no,” for the usual reasons, among them the fact that for him, as a Christian, the NT overrides the OT in this regard.

      Unfortunately, I can’t ask him, and I can’t ask Piers Morgan to ask him, because Mr. Morgan won’t respond to my open letter.

      Comment by Joel H. | June 3, 2012 | Reply

      • I wonder if anyone here would like to weigh in on whether or not the scriptures say that heterosexual relations, outside of “marriage” is “a sin”? I mean, the word PORNEIA really refers to harlotry (or paying for sexual favors), not to casual sex, yes?

        Comment by WoundedEgo | June 3, 2012


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