Leviticus, earthquakes and Brian Tamaki’s lust for punishment

Always looking for a helpful angle to keep you interested in a story, the New Zealand Herald decided that mere suffering and pain wouldn’t suffice to keep you interested in the Kaikōura earthquake, so decided a dose of outrage was needed and decided to report on the strange, strange world of Bishop Brian Tamaki and Destiny Church.

They reported that Brian claimed “Leviticus says that the earth convulses under the weight of certain human sin.” The “certain human sin” included, of course, homosexuality, and convulsions were natural disasters, going so far as to suggest “no other sin in the whole of the bible has any connection to earthquakes, floods and volcanic eruptions, but sexual perversions alone.” It is worth noting that this sermon, however objectionable, was given prior to the Kaikōura earthquake so was not Brian’s response to that specific disaster. However, being the media hound that he is, he has seen an opportunity to stir the controversy and keep Destiny in the headlines since the Herald noticed his little sermon.

Reverend Helen Jacobi, probably on the fly, was given a chance to respond and stated that his reasoning was illogical. I’m sure she would have preferred a longer time to consider the question, nevertheless, I’m not sure that logic has anything to do with why Brian is wrong.

The passage he based his sermon off was Leviticus 18.22, 24-28:

22You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. 23You shall not have sexual relations with any animal and defile yourself with it, nor shall any woman give herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it: it is perversion.

24 Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves. 25Thus the land became defiled; and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. 26But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and commit none of these abominations, either the citizen or the alien who resides among you 27(for the inhabitants of the land, who were before you, committed all of these abominations, and the land became defiled); 28otherwise the land will vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.

Brian has cherry picked a little here (do you see what I did there!), as the whole chapter, which is about purity in sexual relations also includes instructions to not lie with your relatives in a lot of detail, to not lie with a woman during menstruation. and to not sacrifice your children. I still think the latter has relevance today. So it is not a chapter about homosexuality. Indeed, it is worth noting that the same sex relationships envisaged in the sixth century BCE does not bear a whole lot of resemblance to what the LGBTQI communities have fought for in the last 70 years.

Nevertheless, these passages are part of the wider Holiness Code, which is chapters 17-26 of Leviticus. These are all a practical code, so replete with straightforward dos and do nots, with the odd warning, like that above, for not following the rules. It is probably worth mentioning that the Holiness Code does not expend a lot of time on sexuality, just this chapter. The rest is about other spiritualities, proper sacrifice practice, food rules, parental obedience, selecting and protecting priests, blasphemy, the calendar, Sabbath and Jubilee, looking after the sanctuary and the ever popular proper maintenance of your slave.

The book of Leviticus is traditionally said to have been written by Moses himself at the foot of Mt Sinai in the 16th century BCE, but current academic evidence and opinion suggests it was written in the exilic period, potentially the sixth century BCE, based on very old source material. A lot of the Pentateuch was pulled together around this time because the Jewish people were living as indentured labour in another land, beholden by an imperial system that required of them the worship and acknowledgement of foreign gods in every part of their lives. The Pentateuch is like an Anarchists Cookbook: how to resist in the face of overwhelming power. The Holiness Code was a way of being separate, skirting the edges of what was acceptable to the foreign empire. The Jewish communities have been remarkable for this, maintaining an identity whilst away from land and place.

Of course, Brian says this is all still relevant to us today: Leviticus’ Holiness Code applies today in the same way it did 2,500 years ago. Well, bollocks to that. First and foremost, he is at odds with Catholic and Protestant church tradition and theological thought over the past 2,000 years, which has affirmed that the New Testament in Christian thought supersedes Mosaic law. If it did not, there would be no church except for those who joined the Jewish faith (I’d be fascinated if circumcision is required in Destiny). The central argument at the first church council in Jerusalem was whether Christ’s revelation was an exclusively Jewish revelation or a revelation for the whole of humanity. The church went with the latter, and unless Brian is going against Paul and Peter, that must be Destiny’s theological foundation too.

Christ is the completion of Mosaic Law. Mosaic Law, like the Holiness Code, is regarded by Christ, and then written about by Paul, as death because humanity could never live up to it. Christ resolved that by offering himself as fully human and fully God to bear our collective sin, the cosmic scapegoat. That act means that we live on the other side of the Mosaic Law, in freedom from death and sin. So Brian’s contention that Leviticus, that the Mosaic Law is still operative in the church and in our society is in effect a rejection of the crucifixion and resurrection.

Brian and Destiny’s bloodlust for punishment of those they fear and refuse to understand in this instance is just flawed. It is a long walk from what it means to follow Christ, that is hope, love and grace. Leviticus is a fascinating text as part of the Pentateuch, central to our Old Testament and completed by the revelation of the New Testament. Where preachers, where bishops pick passages to frighten people, they muddy the waters of the salvation granted by faith in Christ.

So let me be clear: the cycle of sin, sacrifice, forgiveness, sin, sacrifice, forgiveness is at an end. It ended on the cross about 1,984 years ago, when a man, the son of God, who was without sin, chose death out of love for us all. Bishop Brian Tamaki negates the work of the very God he proclaims when he returns us to a system based on fear and punishment.

Our Father causes no earthquakes as a punishment. He suffers with us. He weeps alongside those people who died in Kaikōura and their whānau. He is heartbroken at the fear that is keeping children awake tonight. He is full of pride for the people of the marae who are feeding hundreds, and the lonely men and women walking beaches returning paua to the sea.  He has hope for a response from our community of charity, love and strength. He is a suffering God, alongside us, not directing or pushing us. And He is trying to speak to Bishop Brian Tamaki about love and forgiveness, if only he would open his heart to those he fears.

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4 thoughts on “Leviticus, earthquakes and Brian Tamaki’s lust for punishment

  1. Graham, I really appreciate these thoughts. It has helped to shape my own thinking in response to this as the public discontent towards Tamaki’s comments has grown.

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