Targum :: Romans 1.16-32 (take two)

by Brian Walsh

Some months ago I posted a targum on Romans 1.1-25 that received a fair bit of attention. That piece was also criticized at another site because I somehow didn’t have the “courage” to continue my expansion on Romans 1 beyond verse 25 and deal with the thorny verses supposedly about homosexuality. This morning I expanded that earlier targum, only picking it up at verse 16 and then running with it until the end of the chapter. I didn’t expand this targum to reply to a critic but to minister to the Wine Before Breakfast community at the University of Toronto.

I post it here for broader reflection and response.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

7 Responses to “Targum :: Romans 1.16-32 (take two)”

  1. Randy Gabrielse

    Now I know why Kings killed the prophets!

    This is hard gospel truth that will take hard Christian work of repentance and being born again to digest and process. At one level this is an example of “It does not always feel good to be told you were right.” At another though, it goes far beyond where I have come in my efforts at faithfulness. It does lead me to rejoice though, that my wife and I now live in a home with no mortgage and no outstanding debts. We have little income, but rejoice in the relative freedom we have to rely on God for all that we have — We are only beginning to be comfortable with that, and are not by any means there yet.

    Randy Gabrielse

  2. Armen

    Thanks for posting this Brian. I’m curious why you say those verses are “supposedly” about homosexuality. Seems Paul meant just that, no?


  3. Brian Walsh

    Well, Armen, the targum takes a different approach. You will see that I want to a) place the sexual sins of this chapter in the context of idolatry, b) that I focus on unrestrained sexual passion outside of covenantal commitment and c) I’m concerned with the sexual exploitation of children.

    But what about homosexuality, you ask? I’m not sure that I want to launch into a full discussion of my views on homosexuality in this text at this time, but I will say at least the following:

    1. In other contexts it is pretty clear that Paul is addressing questions of pedastry in the Roman empire. In Romans he is talking about sexual activity between males. The Greek word in question is just that – males. Not the word that would be used to denote adult males, or men.

    2. We know that exploiting boys, especially slave boys, was a common practice amongst the elite of the empire at this time. Indeed, there are humorists who write stories about missed opportunities with cute little slave boys. And once these boys reach sexual maturity, they are no longer of interest. So this isn’t a homosexual act, this is an act of heterosexual exploitation, often perpetrated by men who are married. Actually, some of the humorists play on the jealousy that a wife has for the current slave sex toy of her husband.

    3. The reference to women in the text does not say that these are women having sex with women, only that they have exchanged natural intercourse for what is unnatural. We have assumed, and it has been argued that the context demands, that this is a lesbian act that the apostle is condemning. But why didn’t he say so? And what does he mean by “natural”? Apart from the fact that he makes the same argument for women having long hair in 1 Cor. 11.15, yet very few Christians would take that as a normative directive for women’s hairstyles in the 21st century (my Amish friends being a notable exception), it still begs the question as to what exactly these unnatural acts were? It might be oral sex. It might be the woman on top in a dominant position. We just don’t know.

    I am not claiming to have figured out Romans 1.26-27 in this targum. Nor have I drawn a final conclusion about this text and homosexuality. I do insist, however, that those who employ this text for gay bashing tragically miss the point of 2.1. Whatever Paul is saying here, it is a set up. He is setting up his hearers, and 2000 years later his readers, into a sense of self-righteousness (surely “we” don’t commit these sins!) only to pull the rug out from under us at the beginning of the next chapter. That is why the targum ends the way it does. Whatever these sins are, and “whose” ever they are, Paul insists, they are our sins.

    Hope this helps.


  4. Randy Gabrielse

    Yes. They are our sins. Yes, Paul sets up the reader to feel self-righteous. That is the way I have read the text for most of the past 15 years. Brian simply opens up the fact that far too many American Christians –myself included– thought we could get away with living normal lives while speaking out against some people for the worst sins. We lived in “willful ignorance” and are quite justifiably facing judgment for it.

  5. Armen

    Brian, thanks for your thoughtful and prompt reply and forgive my lateness on this. Scripture should never be put in service of “homophobic gay bashing”, no two ways about it. Only I worry that this sort of language, while faithful to Paul’s genius move of pulling the rug out from under us, may intimidate people and shut down badly needed conversation. I think you’d agree not everyone who believes Scripture speaks clearly on homosexuality is a homophobe. Tom Wright is up front on his views but I doubt he’s a gay basher (though no doubt some non-Christians mistake him for one). It may come down to method – Wright obviously uses a more sophisticated hermeneutic to arrive at the same conclusion as many fundamentalists – although Paul’s appeal here to Genesis 1 may complicate charges of simple prooftexting. For what it’s worth, my own understanding is in line with Hays, Wright, Gagnon, the historical church as well as the many gay and lesbian scholars who believe Paul’s beef is with homoerotic activity in general. To restate what millions have already said: it’s sad that views on abortion and homosexuality have attained “litmus test” status among evangelicals – just as it’s embarrassing to hear Christians say they “don’t care about abortion”. Gay bashing by Christians is a tragic fact that’s got to be faced and stamped out, but here in Toronto I don’t see much evidence of it (you may feel differently depending on how you define gay bashing). Instead, I see a great deal of agnosticism and confusion that the church really ought to address.

    A church faithful to what Paul has in mind here would (I believe) neither affirm a gay lifestyle nor make a pet sin of it; would acknowledge that we’re indeed all in this together as we stand condemned before a holy God who’s deigned to extend us His forgiveness and fellowship; and would be spilling over with forgiveness and mercy while realizing that being God’s chosen people means taking seriously His call to holiness. That should leave us no room for self-righteousness, but the sad truth is that we’re all guilty here, whether we pride ourselves on having supposedly less dodgy sex drives than “those people” or being less bigoted than our friends and family (I’ve been guilty of both). Which is why we cry out for forgiveness and celebrate communion and put the cross at the centre of our worship, preaching and lives: some things we can’t be reminded of enough.

    I couldn’t find the Boar’s Head post that prompted your last targum though scraps of it were in the trackback section. Seems the author was put off by your readiness to stick it to the empire while avoiding the sexy verses. It’s understandable you’d choose to emphasize certain things to the exclusion of others given the occasion for the first targum and the fact that there are way more important things to talk about than the gay thing. There’s nothing radical in preaching about homosexuality at a strongly conservative church, just as for much of the WBB community hearing a targum critical of the empire will not be especially unsettling. The function of preaching is not always to unsettle, and not all unsettling preaching honours God. But Paul in most of his letters is addressing problems specific to those churches, catching this or that blind spot, settling quarrels, all in order to uphold the sufficiency of Christ. I have no idea if you lacked the “courage” to speak on the thorny verses in Romans; motives are rarely so straightforward and like you said neither are these verses. But it’s certainly possible to make an idol of community or tolerance or Christian ideology. I think it’s fair to say outrage at child exploitation, free markets, and infidelity goes down easier than an abortion rant (abortion is an empire issue if ever there was one), which may hit closer to home and actually offend some people. These are also social sins, and while Romans 5 makes clear how Adam’s sin was imputed to us all, there’s a sense in which we’re more removed from these things: collective evil has to be reckoned with, and repentance always begins with the church, but putting things at the doorstep of empire doesn’t convict me of my own ugliness in the same way as Paul’s litany of sins at the end of chapter 1. I don’t think (and you will disagree with me here) empire is Paul’s main concern, but of course the targum is not a simple rehash, and yours is certainly in the spirit of Revelation.

    Last thing (promise!): Paul sees God’s wrath at work here not in the consequences of idolatry but in idolatry itself: to live a life that does not reflect the image of God is its own punishment, whether or not we have the proper sense of shame to recognize it as such. In other words, a distorted economy or sexual life is evidence of God’s wrath of abandonment, a taste of Hell really, only the real thing is free of illusion whereas it’s still possible to believe our idolatry is not deadly: distorted economies and sex lives will ultimately have their cover blown, but communities that practice infidelity may for the time being thrive just as economies of injustice will prosper. An economic crisis may be an act of gracious mercy, which by revealing how “the whole house of cards is based on lies and deception” can bring more people to repentance and to the worship of the Triune God.

    This would be good place to stop. A happy thanksgiving to you & yours Brian.

    God blesses!


  6. Albert Gedraitis

    Brian and interlocutors — Thank you for this Targum, responses, answers, etc. I didn’t get upt+t thru-out. Thank the Lord for small miracles, as is said. Thank you Brian for targumenating so wisely. — Albert aka Owlbird


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