God's Great, Inclusive, All-Encompassing Love
Isaiah is definitely a favorite book of reference for the New Testament figures, including Jesus. Christ famously overturned the tables in the temple area in righteous anger and declared, "It is written...'My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it a 'den of robbers'" (Matthew 21:13). He is referencing Isaiah 56:7:
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.
Who is the "their"? The preceding verses explain the answer very clearly and in detail: "eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant" and "foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him" (v. 4 & 6).
Hmmmm...Interesting. The majority of Isaiah 56 is devoted to describing in detail God's love for these two categories of people. And it concludes with a blistering indictment of the leaders of God's people who have failed to act like Him. So, a perfect chapter for considering modern applications. Let's dive in!
First off, Jesus overturning the tables at the temple is often highlighted as an example of righteous anger. Otherwise, how can we explain Jesus' seemingly out-of-nowhere fury? While we may puzzle over the exact source of his anger, commentaries and Biblical scholarship have long pointed out that it's really no mystery.
For example, Barnes says, "They made the temple a place of gain..."
And Gill points out that 1st century Israel forgot that the temple was to be "for all people."
These two features, put together, show clearly why Jesus quotes Isaiah 56 as he overturns the tables. He's angry that Israel's religious leaders have transformed the temple into a place of economic extortion and excluded those of other races from being able to fully worship the Lord. The NIV text note on Matthew 6:12 notes that the buying and selling is taking place in the outer court of the Gentiles, the temple area designated for foreigners. So not only is the temple business likely extorting foreigners who have come from a long way to worship and must therefore buy their sacrificial animal on site (Biblical scholars surmise that the prices are raised, the merchandise is sub-par, and all manner of unfair business and economic practices are occurring), but this chaos is occurring in the very area designated for their worship of the Lord. They may not be of the nation of Judah, but they have nonetheless come to worship Yahweh, and these are the circumstances in which they find themselves attempting to worship and serve the Lord. Definitely not a haven and "house of prayer" for them.
I've been fascinated to read Biblical historians like Paul Copan and others who explain the progression from the Old Testament Biblical narratives through the major and minor prophets and on through the New Testament. God does not change from the Old to New Testament. However, as Isaiah 43 said, sometimes God does a new thing, and that new thing is a fresh interpretation of a teaching. He's a masterful teacher and implements the very practices that I learned in my doctoral program in psychology in education. That is, you teach appropriately to the capacity of your student(s) and gradually move them onward and upward over time so that they can achieve what you (and eventually they) know is possible for them. My eleven-year-old who is interested in engineering isn't ready yet to build a bridge, but his middle school math classes are the essential building classes to get him started.
So, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, where Mosaic law is set up so that there is a court of Gentiles that keeps Jewish and non-Jewish people distinct in worship and also excludes men who have experienced genetic mutilation (more on that later)--some of these rules are not necessarily meant to stand forever but to be instructive for that period of time. Just as modern scholars have mused over whether Kosher laws protected the Jewish people from the very-real dangers of undercooked pork (truly lethal in the ancient world...I'll probably never recover from co-teaching a Biopsychology class with a biologist teaching on the dangers of prions in pork! Yuck and yikes!!), we can speculate over similar protections that these rules may have provided at that time.
First off, the racial separation. Israel was constantly being tempted by the nations around them into idolatry. The temple courts offered a separation that perhaps kept neophyte worshipers who come from a pagan background from unduly influencing the epicenter of Jewish worship. However, the intent was always to allow people from all nations to worship. That devolved a wee bit in 1st century Israel. A site describing the ancient inscriptions found in Israel and Palestine (https://library.brown.edu/iip/stories/temple_warning/) explains that multiple "Keep Out" signs were posted along the wall of Herod's temple warning non-Jews to stay away from temple space under threat of death. Um.....not exactly in the spirit of Deuteronomy, which has these powerful verses in chapter 10:
He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (verses 18-19).
It's amazing how the religious leaders of that time could read one passage in Deuteronomy and blow it up to, "Yep, exclude everyone who isn't like us because we need to be super careful to be super righteous," and yet blatantly ignore what is a smack-you-on-the-face obvious command of the Lord, with a clear rationale for it to boot. I wonder whether this is happening today...hmmmm...
Then, the genetic mutilation. This is not the most lovely fodder for a blog, but it's essential to understanding Isaiah 56. While it's true that Deuteronomy 23:1 and Leviticus 21:17-23 describe how those with genetic mutilation are to be banned from the temple, the instructions by themselves need to be interpreted in light of the rest of Scripture. God Himself clarifies and updates the instructions. This site (http://theologyattheedge.co.uk/tears-in-god-s-wineskin/31-tigw-part-2-eunuchs-eunuchs-in-the-old-testament) gives a good summary of Biblical scholarship on this issue, indicating that many scholars surmise that this rule in the Mosaic code was to prohibit fertility cult priests from being part of Jewish temple worship. Israel unfortunately copied pretty much everything else from the surrounding kingdoms, so it's astounding that they didn't copy this very common practice of castrating a young male and forcing him into temple prostitution for pagan worship ceremonies. It's only the strength of this Mosaic rule, the breaking of which would bring about such complete social exclusion that the Jewish people steadfastly avoided creating a situation where a male in their community would experience this level of ostracism.
But then we have Isaiah 56, which clarifies and updates God's intent. God is the masterful teacher, and it's time to elevate the lesson. As noted in the article above, Isaiah 56 effectively ends the temple ban on eunuchs. This teaching was always there (the bans in Deuteronomy coexist with God's invitations for all to worship at the temple), but greater explanation was needed. New time, new problems. Indeed, scholars note that key Old Testament figures during the Babylonian exile were likely eunuchs themselves, given Babylon's tendency toward castration for males serving in the types of auxiliary roles these men served in. Israel may have actually heeded the instructions to not castrate, but Babylon was certain not under the Mosaic code. Some speculate that men like Daniel, Nehemiah, and Mordecai who were serving in Babylon may have been eunuchs. An overly simplistic and harsh reading of the Mosaic code would easily lend one to feeling ostracized and unloved by God if this was one's lot in life, through no fault of one's own. And yet, we see God's own tender words to these men in Isaiah 56:
Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, 'The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.' And let not any eunuch complain, 'I am only a dry tree.'" (v. 3)
The heavenly curtain parts aside and we see the true heart of the Lord here. Where in our society today do people feel excluded and ostracized and get the impression that they are "only a dry tree" among the body of believers? Don't we hear this regularly from those who are single and feel like they don't belong in a faith that emphasizes marriage as the highest good, as well as those who have been sexually abused and feel ashamed to share this with others? Don't we hear from African-American Christians leaving multi-ethnic churches this year and last year, that their suffering is being ignored? And, then there is the whole debacle over sexual identities. Before anyone gets in a tizzy over this one, let me be clear that my point has to do with who is welcomed and invited in to know the Lord and worship. God models a thoughtful response in Isaiah 56, and we also see Christ's in Matthew 19:12:
For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.
I've always found this to be a fascinating passage, and there is much to unpack (not to mention that this passage is in a section that has been weaponized in modern times but with this particular conclusion left off!), but my main takeaway here is the illustration of someone feeling excluded from the body of believers for reasons due to one's sexual state regardless of the reason for that particular state. Christ is not talking just about celibacy here--there is another word he could have chosen for that, and one isn't exactly born into celibacy. It's difficult to draw a lot of conclusions from this passage (which concludes Jesus' points regarding creating men and women and outlawing divorce), but that doesn't mean we dismiss them. Taken with Isaiah 56, we see God concerned about the downtrodden, and eunuchs feeling that they may be "only a dry tree." How heart-rending! How incredible that while Israel's leaders are, according to God, "blind," and "lack knowledge," (Isaiah 56:10-11), God sees and understands the plight of the eunuch.
His promise to eunuchs who follow Him is as follows:
I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off (v. 5).
And the promise for the foreigners?
These I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations
Some will demur and say, "Well, this is for eunuchs and foreigners who correctly obey God's law and change their behavior to be consistent with the right worship of the Lord." True, but the instructions for them in this passage centers on a full-fledged commitment to "choose what pleases" the Lord and to "hold fast to" God's covenant. What God calls foreigners and eunuchs to is the same thing that he calls white-married-conservative-heterosexual Protestants to. It is so much more than just choosing a right behavior at a given point in their lives. It is a complete commitment to Him. It is so much bigger than aligning and identifying with the "right" sorts of religious people and doing behaviors consistent with that group. The alignment with God's covenant requires that we give all--far, far more than just mere sexuality. We would also do well to learn from the Master Teacher in both the Old and New Testaments regarding the attitude one is to take when discussing these things. When we fail to be angry at the things that He is angry about but become nearly apoplectic about the things that He is very thoughtful about, what does this say about us?
So, where do we see God becoming the most angry? In Matthew 21, Jesus is angry at the powers-that-be who run the temple, and God is furious at "Israel's watchmen" in Isaiah 56. In Isaiah, this anger explodes immediately after God lovingly declares His love and future plan for foreigners and eunuchs:
The Sovereign Lord declares--he who gathers the exiles of Israel: 'I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.' " (verse 8).
What immediately follows:
Come, all you beasts of the field, come and devour, all you beasts of the forest! Israel's watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge, they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep. (vv 9-10).
Wowza! Um, we modern Christians often try to extrapolate a lot of meaning from more obscure passages with unusual Greek terms that don't have a lot of usage outside of Paul's writings. And yet, we miss the blatantly obvious such as this, because it is directed toward religious leaders and God's people (more on this in upcoming blog posts--because God's diatribe takes up the next few chapters as well!!). It hits too close to home. It makes us uncomfortable, and the Old Testament is kind of a mystery anyway, isn't it? We like the Suffering Servant passages--they're clearly about Jesus. So, no problem there. But these ones...they can't possibly be applicable to us today, right?
Where are we using religion as a weapon, to exclude people from the kingdom of God? Even if our scriptural interpretations are spot-on right, why do we choose methods of outreach that start with condemnation and never get to a loving invite? And why are we so comfortable condemning sins of people who do not profess belief but ignore sins within the church? I Corinthians 5:12-13 says,
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”
I know people who are serving in ministry and are trying to faithfully apply this passage. For example, it's not easy to adjudicate in situations where the church may want to hide accusations of abuse under a rug, especially if the accusation is against a religious leader. This is not just a "Catholic problem." It is a problem within the church at large that can no longer be ignored. During multiple decades where Christians have loudly condemned homosexual behavior, they have allowed sexual heterosexual aggression to occur within the church, from leaders toward parishioners and also ignored problematic behaviors within their congregation. We get things backwards--we have extremely high tolerance for un-Christian behaviors within the church and extremely low tolerance for behaviors of those who are going about their lives and aren't claiming to be Christians.
I'm not a clinical psychologist nor am I qualified to do a mass-analysis on the emotional reasons of why this may be the case. But, it surely cannot be just based on a righteous endeavor to teach people right living, going off of the sin lists in which sexual behavior is listed. Otherwise, we'd have an even-handed approach regarding everything that appears on those lists! So....why don't we? What possibly could be driving our faddish throw-down cultural warfare that we are engaging in, if it's not Scripture itself?
So, no mass analysis, but I can deliver a historical one, based on the scholarship of others. More on that in upcoming blog posts!