A Profane Stench in Holy Nostrils

A few thoughts on abominations in Scripture and selective appeals to them.

The word “abomination” (Hebrew: tōēvah) refers to a stench in the nostrils or the cause of the gag reflex. This is the so-called Yuck Factor in modern culture. And thus the biblical references to the land “vomiting out” its inhabitants. An abomination to God is a generic or common object or practice that evokes moral disgust. A related idea is a “detestable thing” (Hebrew: sheqetz). It refers to a consecrated object or space that becomes defiled and evokes moral disgust. (Unfortunately, the words tōēvah and sheqetz are not translated consistently in English Bibles.)

The Yuck Factor is analogous to the stench in God’s nostrils. But sin has marred our humanity. So, for us, the Yuck Factor is often a matter of our prejudicial fears more than actual convictions. This is why the Yuck Factor is losing its cogency in arguments about sexual ethics. Insofar as the Yuck Factor is an expression of personal prejudice, good riddance. Its dwindling traction in public moral debate is a beneficial and welcome loss.

Traditional Christians regard deviant sexual acts as abominations. This has merit in Scripture. Focusing on sexual tōēvah, there are some acts called abominations to Yahweh in Leviticus 18. The infamous one is sexual relations between two men (18:22 cf. 20:13). In a similar manner, sexual relations between humans and animals are “confusion” or “perversion”. But the bookend of this section (18:24-30) reveals all listed sexual sins to be abominations. So, sexual tōēvah includes:

  • incestuous sexual relations
  • sexual relations during a women’s menstruation
  • adulterous sexual relations
  • dedication or sacrifice of offspring to false gods
  • same-sex sexual relations
  • bestial sexual relations

The common logic to these sins is their status as violations of the created order and the mandate in Genesis 1-2.

Abomination in Levitical Scripture is complex. It includes things Christians do not regard as abominations under the New Covenant. For instance, it is a Levitical abomination to eat unclean animals (Deut. 14:3-21). There are pedagogical reasons for this in the logic of the ceremonial holiness code. It will not suffice to wave a dismissive hand and say, “Since shellfish is fair game, sexual sin must be on the menu as well.” This theological revisionist tactic doesn’t respect the integrity of Scripture.

It’s not in my intended scope to sort out the ceremonial and ethical threads in the warp and woof of the Old Covenant. But regulations about sexual immorality carry over into the life of the church (Acts 15:28-29). And specific behaviors such as adulterous and homosexual acts are named. This is ample justification to understand Levitical sexual ethics as relevant and binding.

Professing Christians in recent generations have been partial in their condemnations. While generally giving adultery a pass, we have fixated on homosexuality. And more so, we have shifted from condemning the act to condemning the person as an abomination. And many Christians have become lackadaisical about the meaning of marriage and sexuality. Along with the culture, many Christians lack an understanding of natural (creationistic) marriage.

Many Christians have an exaggerated sensitivity to homosexuality. And it’s shaped and nurtured by the underlying thought-forms of the surrounding culture. The result is Christians taking a position at the opposite pole on a misguided axis of thought. This misguided thinking is post-Freudian psychology about sexuality. It defines various humans as species according to sexual desire with pleasure as its end. Heterosexuality and homosexuality are Freudian ideas, not biblical ones. Christians have adopted a baptized version of fulfilling heterosexuality within revisionist marriage.

The church must recover her understanding of the institution of natural marriage. She must recover her understanding of male and female. She must be a shrewd and tempered prophetic voice in defense of these things. Marriage is not a casual, private, and sterile-by-default arrangement for emotional fulfillment. Male and female are procreative teleological descriptions and liturgical functions with everyday consequences.

But enough about the distorting hypersexualization of the church in our post-Freudian culture. Suffice it to say that many Christians have a distorted fixation on the sinfulness of gay people. And those who will deploy the Yuck Factor will also frequently overlook other abominations worthy of contempt. Christians need to show more evenhandedness and clarity in our prophetic ministry. We need to be sound students of Scripture and labor to correct our distortions.

For starters, here’s a list of abominations worthy of consideration:

  • Civic apostasy (Deut. 13:12-18), i.e. public worship of false gods, as well as individual apostasy (Deut. 17:2-5)
  • Occult practices (Deut. 18:9-12), i.e. forbidden means of discerning the will of God
  • Sex-role confusion (Deut. 22:5), e.g. women in combat are a violation of taking up a man’s ‘military gear’
  • Dishonest weights and measures, i.e. currency and commodity units (Deut. 25:13-16; Prov. 11:1; 20:10; 20:23)
  • Idols (Deut. 27:15; 32:16; etc.)
  • Devious people (Prov. 3:32)
  • “There are six things Yahweh despises; more so, seven that are an abomination to him: arrogant eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.” (Prov. 6:16-19)
  • Sacrifices performed by unrighteous people (Prov. 15:8; 21:27), as well as their ways (Prov. 15:9) and their thoughts (Prov. 15:26)
  • One who justifies the wicked and condemns the righteous (Prov. 17:15)
  • Prayers of one who turns his ear away from the law of God (Prov. 28:9)

Most of the abominations on this list are everyday occurrences in our culture. Many have been institutionalized. All are immoral in Scripture from beginning to end. To be fair, faithful Christians still speak out against many of these abominations. But these don’t get the special attention that selective sexual abominations do.

Consider dishonest weights and measures. How often are these used in daily commerce? Are entire monetary systems built on them? Does anyone apart from staunch libertarians advocating for the gold standard even care to ask?

If not literal weights and measures, how about figurative ones? Double-standards in our judgments are likewise dishonest. As far as double-standards, there’s a lot of grumbling about them from all sides. This is a widespread abomination.

Are there any false gods getting public service?

Has anyone been stirring up strife between brothers?

Do we care about this stuff as much as who is sleeping with whom?

We should.

One could response by arguing:

  1. Not all sins are equal in their ramifications.
  2. Sexual sins are of a sort that is far more grievous than those offered in the preceding list of abominations.

On the first point about variability in the resulting repercussions, I agree. Paul writes,

Flee from sexual immorality; every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins toward his own body.

– 1 Corinthians 6:18

Note the italicized correction of the otherwise common rendering “against” in this passage. The text could be evidence of the unique heightened ethical severity of sexual immorality. But, it indicates the heightened consequential severity of sexual immorality. Sexual sins misuse the body, the dwelling place of our personal presence and of the Holy Spirit. It’s the form of sin which strikes closest to home in our bodies; it causes the most severe disturbance. And that deserves special pastoral consideration.

But on the second point, is there a categorical special ethical severity to sexual sins? Are they unique hyper-abominations? No, that’s not the case.

By using ‘abomination’, Scripture already indicates they are worse than other sins. There’s nothing in Scripture to elevate sexual abominations into a special ethical status. It would be healthier to see the other abominations as equally repugnant in the eyes of the Lord our God. Or at least as far more repugnant and alarming than we regard them. And that the church has neglected to acknowledge them as such. Our Freudian hypersexualization has trained us to read the Scriptures with this hypersensitivity. We need retraining (re-formation) according to the word of God.

An aging generation of reactionary and insecure Christian fundamentalists needs to stop it. We need to stop being selectively fixated and disgusted by gay people. To stop thinking of gay persons as abominations while not compromising our sexual ethics. And we need to stop pretending the Yuck Factor is an ethical conviction we’ve been upholding. And we need to start being serious about a variety of overlooked abominations. Abominations which fill the land with violence and offend God Almighty.

And a younger generation of skittish and burnt Christians with no Yuck Factor need to learn. We need to learn to understand human sexuality and ethics from Scripture and not give up on them. And we need to renounce the unnatural forms of marriage and sexuality offered in our culture.

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