Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, by Richard Davidson (LentBooks 2012 #11)

Flame of Yahweh is the most serious scholarly book of theology I’ve read in a few years (as opposed to books like the N.T. Wright or Peter Enns book I just reviewed, which are written by serious theologians but with a well-informed general reader like myself in mind, so that the references and footnotes are kept to a minimum). This was slow going, with the kind of pages where there might be ten lines of actual text at the top and the whole rest of the page is detailed footnotes cross-referencing the work of other scholars. But it was a very interesting read once I settled in to it. I actually started it well before Lent but one of my disciplines for this season was to stay focussed on actually finishing it, which I did.

The book was loaned to me by someone with whom I had been discussing the church’s position on gay marriage, and my position which is, admittedly, a bit different from that of my church. Richard Davidson is a very learned and very orthodox Seventh-day Adventist scholar who tackles the Bible’s statements about homosexuality, along with literally every other thing the Old Testament says about sexuality in any form at all, in this exhaustive and very thick book. While Davidson didn’t convince me to change my heretical views, I did appreciate seeing those texts carefully and thoughtfully examined in their historical context.

Some readers, coming to this book, will find it jarring that Davidson is difficult to fit into standard liberal/conservative Christian molds. He argues strenuously that the Bible views all homosexual sex as always sinful, and argues just as strenuously (despite scanty Biblical evidence) that life begins at conception and that abortion is therefore always a sin. These are standard conservative positions, but he is even more determined and passionate in arguing for an egalitarian view of the relationship between men and women. He argues that Adam and Eve are shown as equal at creation, that male headship in marriage is a post-fall concession rather than a creation ordinance and that the goal should always be to return to true equality, and that in any case, male headship, where it applies, applies only as servant-leadership in marriage, not outside the marriage relationship — thus, that women are equally suited to leadership in society and in the church as men are. He also argues (not always convincingly, in my view) that many passages in the Old Testament which modern feminists view as horrifically sexist are actually, in the context of Ancient Near East culture, far more generous to women than the law codes of similar cultures.

Like a good scholar, Davidson gives a thorough overview of all the possible points of view on any text, including those he disagrees with. This is thorough and responsible, but it also goes a long way to point out how many different possible interpretations there are of a given text, and how, no matter how thorough his research and how good his arguments, his is not the only possible reading. It’s impossible to banish our own presuppositions and prejudices from any reading of Scripture, and just as impossible to banish them when we read the work of scholars and theologians. I can follow Davidson’s logic readily when he’s “proving” that God always intended women to be equal to men, because I agree with him there. I can easily spot errors in his argument (there’s at least one glaring one) when he argues that the Bible unequivocally condemns all homosexual acts, because I disagree with him there. I also think he hasn’t explored deeply enough why he ends virtually every chapter with references to God’s grace working through human failings, and is willing to extend grace to adulterers and divorcees even when they continue in relationships that violated their original marriage covenant, but is willing to talk about God’s grace to homosexuals only if they do their best to resist homosexual lust and remain celibate. Here, I think Davidson has really not examined his own preconceptions enough, and is positing a transparent relationship to the text which no scholar can really have.

Even with this shortcomings and my basic disagreement with him on some issues, I found this a very worthwhile read. It’s always valuable to discuss controversial issues — and what’s more controversial than sex? — on the grounds of serious engagement with the text and with historical research, rather than on the basis of knee-jerk prejudice. But it’s helpful, also, to recognize the extent to which our own knee-jerk prejudices (mine as much as Davidson’s!) colour our reading of the text.

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1 Comment

Filed under LentBooks, Nonfiction -- general

One response to “Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, by Richard Davidson (LentBooks 2012 #11)

  1. I’m pro-choice and pro-life.I detest the notion that any government can tell a woman what to do with her own body.On the other hand I also know that when an abortion is done,it is not a desk or a rock or a tree that ends.It is a human.Thank Buddha I have never had to make that decision myself!

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