Those the Law Excludes, God Includes
Isaiah 56:1-8, Mark 11:15-18, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, July 15, 2018
Isaiah starts out with words that are predictable, boring, even: “Thus says Yahweh: Maintain justice, and do what is right.” Well, duh. What do you expect God to say—maintain injustice and do evil? Do the Right Thing is the title of a Spike Lee movie, not profound theology. As a slogan, it’s about as profound as “Be Best.” Most scholars think that Isaiah 56 is the beginning of a new book often called Third Isaiah, written just after the people in exile in Babylon had come back to Jerusalem. For a guy launching a new chapter of the Isaiah school of thought, he starts very tamely.
But the second half of that first verse suggests that the prophet has his eye on the future: “For soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance will be revealed.” We have to be faithful to God because something big is about to happen. God is going beyond getting the Persians to end the internment policy of the Babylonians; God is going to reveal the full salvation—the healing and restoration—of Israel. Still, that is a theme we have heard in the section of the book we call Second Isaiah. Nothing really new.
But then the prophet turns to a shocking subject: the inclusion of Gentiles and eunuchs in the Temple and the worshipping community. This was against the law. This is the prophet saying that what God said in an earlier time no longer applies. If you live and die by the Torah, as later rabbis certainly did, you will say that foreigners are allowed to live and work in Israel, but they are not part of God’s people. They are not allowed in the holy part of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The original Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. The second Temple was built by Herod in the years before Jesus’ ministry, and it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. What we call the Wailing Wall is part of its foundation, a retaining wall to hold up the Temple Mount. The only piece of Herod’s Temple we have left is what they call the Temple Warning Stone. The outer part of the Temple was a courtyard where Gentiles were allowed. The Warning Stone—actually a stone sign—stood at the entrance to the Jews-only part of the Temple. The first one was discovered in 1871, and we have two copies now. The stone is engraved with large Greek letters in all caps. It says, “No foreigner may enter within the balustrade around the sanctuary and the enclosure. Whoever is caught, he has only himself to blame for the death which will ensue.”
They were serious about this. And yet Isaiah says, “Do not let the foreigner who follows Yahweh say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people.” Because, Isaiah says, God is not going to separate them but include them. In verse 8, the Lord says, “I have been gathering the outcasts of Israel—you Jews who were cast out and living in a foreign country yourselves—but now I am going to gather other people besides those whom I’ve already gathered.” I’m going to gather people from other nations, opening up my covenant to those who have no hereditary claims, those with no genetic ties to Abraham. Why would God do this? Because God loves all people.
This proclamation is undermining the Israel First theology that so many have believed in. It is claiming that the Jewish laws saying that Gentiles can’t have access to the Temple are being overturned—something like Jesus saying, “You have heard it said in the Hebrew Scriptures X, but I say to you Y.” For some people—fundamentalists of all faiths—such a move is impossible. Some would argue that God cannot change the rules, or change his position, or give new rules for a new historical situation. The very rabbis who argued for a strict constructionist reading of Moses had to change their minds after 70 AD and the destruction of the Temple, because none of the laws requiring worship and sacrifice in the Temple made any sense any more. They had to listen for a new word from God and substituted the synagogue and the scriptures for the Temple as the locus of God’s presence. They had to figure out how God forgives when there can be no more sacrifices. We take these things for granted, but there was a period in history in which Jewish scholars had to reevaluate everything they had been teaching, and merely saying that the Torah was inspired by God did not solve their problem in the least. They still had to make a terrific jump from legalism to something else—or at least to change which laws you still have to obey as written.
We in America sometimes act as if Modernists and Liberals were the first people to ever grapple with what to do when the Old Testament law no longer seems to apply in a changing world. But that has always been a struggle. In fact, I’d say that Deuteronomy was a reconsideration of the laws in Exodus and Leviticus, emphasizing different things at a later period in history. And the prophets in various ways pulled out certain things in the Torah as central and set other things aside. But here in Isaiah 56 we have the remarkable notion that we thought we had lines drawn by God as to who is in and who is out, but God is now telling us that he has drawn a circle to draw them in.
Yahweh does not say that all foreigners or all eunuchs are in. He is specific: the ones who keep the sabbath, which is emblematic of those who keep covenant with Yahweh in general; those who intentionally choose to do the things that please me—those are the ones I welcome in my house, no matter their nationality and no matter their gender identity or nonconformity. The Lord is going to bring Gentiles from many nations to his holy mountain—the Temple Mount—and he will make those foreigners rejoice inside his house of prayer, from which they have been excluded for centuries. Their offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable to God, just like those of Jews. Then there is the final “moral of the story” in verse 7 which must sound familiar to you: “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
Now who else said those words? This is a test of short-term memory. In our New Testament reading, Jesus said those very words right after he got through overturning tables of people doing business in the Temple. Usually we emphasize that Jesus wanted his Father’s house, as he called it, to be a house of prayer rather than a place for buying and selling and trying to make money. I’m not sure how Matthew and Luke lost the last few words of Mark’s record of Jesus’ angry statement (and Mark was the first gospel written), but in Mark’s account Jesus says, quoting Isaiah 56, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” (or for all peoples, Greek ethnoi).
Do you remember where the Gentiles had to stay when they came to the Temple? In the outer courtyard. They couldn’t go past that warning sign or they might be killed. But for the convenience of insiders, the administration had decided to use that outer courtyard as the place where you could change your money into shekels and where you could buy doves and lambs for animal sacrifices. This was a kind of religious Jim Crow. It was analogous to telling black people they can only sit in the balcony at church—which of course was common in this country in white churches—and then deciding to put a snack bar with a popcorn machine in the balcony. That outer courtyard was the only place that foreigners could worship, but with their Israel First attitude the insiders really didn’t care if foreigners’ worship was made impossible. What did God care about their prayers anyway?
That is what got Jesus so riled up that he flipped the tables and pulled out a whip. How dare you put your convenience ahead of the spiritual lives of those God is drawing to himself from other countries? The reason you dare to do that, of course, is money. This place is a den of thieves. This place is a swamp, full of creatures looking out for themselves. And anytime the church puts the convenience of insiders ahead of a welcoming response to outsiders, Jesus is going to get—well, angry. Jesus is going to flip our tables if he thinks we are running the church for the sake of the members rather than those who need to come to know God.
But what about the eunuchs Isaiah talks about? In the lectionary committee’s selection from Isaiah 56, they left out all the verses about eunuchs! Outrageous. I can see them sitting around a committee table: “If we read those verses in worship some child is going to ask his parent what a eunuch is, and we can’t have that!” A eunuch is of course a man who has been castrated, his testicles removed—not only so that he can’t take part in making babies, but so that he doesn’t have the hormones that make him feel and act like a man. Sometimes this was done to a man when he was very young, which has the most profound effect on development, and sometimes it was done to a man who was an adult prisoner.
There is a long history of eunuchs being involved in the courts of Egypt and Assyria and Persia. These are the people you want protecting the queen, and managing the king’s harem, and in many cases these eunuchs became the most trusted advisors. In China, the first imperial eunuch we read about was in 1100 BC and the last eunuch who served the last emperor only died in 1996. The Byzantine Empire, which was Christian, had eunuchs in their service, and this continued long after the Muslims took over, into the Ottoman Empire in the 20th century.
But in Israel, these men were considered damaged goods. They were not allowed to be members of the community, and the Jewish law specified that they were not allowed to enter the Temple. And yet here is the prophet Isaiah speaking of the eunuch with sympathy: “Do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ And the Lord declares in his own words, “I will give the eunuchs a monument and a name that will not be forgotten. Their name will not be cut off” (an ironic pun). But the most striking thing to me is that Yahweh says that he will do this “in my house and within my walls.” These who have been systematically excluded from the Temple will now be included, and their names will be better remembered than those who had sons and daughters.
We are not that likely to encounter eunuchs these days, but we are likely to meet people we currently call “gender nonconforming” or “nonbinary.” As far back as the second century, the collection called The Augustan History described eunuchs as “a third human gender” or “a third race” (tertium genus hominum. In the ancient Near East and in China the eunuchs were the first examples of people identified as nonbinary—neither male nor female but living in the liminal space between those two poles. This subject has only come into popular American consciousness in the past couple of years, but it’s been dealt with in many cultures for millennia. Many cultures in the so-called “primitive” world have terms for those who are neither male nor female. You might know the modern Native American term, “Two Spirit People.” There are people with this role in the culture of India as well. And a lot of times they are considered special and gifted rather than deformed or criminal.
In 2004, one study was done of US persons who thought of themselves as “third gender.” Typically, they had started feeling that way at age 5. Nearly half the sample said they were healers or in a medical profession. More than half said they were artistic enough to make a living from their creations. And 93% of those third gender persons appeared to have some type of paranormal abilities. Those characteristics strikingly matched those of Native Two Spirit People and other nonbinary persons in non-Western cultures.
Like most of you, I’m at the front end of trying to know what to make of all this, and what to say to an adolescent who identifies as nonbinary or trans or intersex or genderqueer. This much I do know from my own experience: sexuality and gender identity are both more fluid than we were led to believe. And there is nothing particularly Christian about insisting that “No, everything is hard and fast, everyone is all-man or all-woman”—when the evidence right in front of your eyes tells you that’s not true.
When we look at Isaiah 56—probably not something most Christians have done—it is striking that although the culture of Israel said that men had to be “all man” or they were excluded, although the scripture itself said that they were not to be allowed to come into worship, even though they were Jewish, God himself speaks to say that he will include them in his house. Where the law excluded someone—and I mean the law attributed to God himself—now God takes the initiative to bring that person into his house. At the very least, Isaiah gives us something to think about both in terms of the relationship of God’s grace to God’s ancient laws, and in terms of the way we treat people in our own community who do not fit our categories of male and female. We don’t need to have that argument today, but let’s think about it.