West Wing Hermeneutics

How would you rebut the e-mail and West Wing episode that makes fun of the Old Testament law?

The following is material about an episode of the TV series West Wing which defends homosexuality and attacks Christianity. How would you respond to their argument?

The West Wing episode entitled "The Midterms"
Written by: Aaron Sorkin

"A talk show host defends calling homosexuality an 'abomination' by saying
that is what the Bible says in Leviticus 18:22 (That verse, by the way, reads: 'You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; such thing is an abomination.') This annoys President Bartlet who proceeds to ask a few pointed questions about just what one should accept from the Bible."

"Refreshingly candid exec producer Aaron Sorkin admits he lifted the diatribe from a much forwarded anonymous email. . . . Sorkin, who hoped to give credit, says they 'cast a fairly wide net, but we didn't find the author'.''-

Dear Dr. Laura,
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's law. I have learned a great deal from you, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend homosexuality, for example, I will simply remind him or her that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.
I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the other laws in Leviticus and Exodus and how to best follow them.

When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Leviticus 1:9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. How should I deal with this?
I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as stated in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Leviticus 15:19-24). The problem is, how can I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
Leviticus 25:44 states that I may buy slaves from the nations that are around us. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify?
I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?
A friend of mine says that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Leviticus 10:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?
Leviticus 20:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?
I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's Word is eternal and unchanging


The West Wing script from The Midterms-

"There's an election day scene that amuses hugely even as it demonstrates Sorkin's fearless faculty for combining controversial ideas, dramatic situations and circular-saw-like wit. The scene, a real showstopper, finds the president stopping in on a White House gathering of radio talk personalities. As Bartlet struggles though a speech extolling the gabbers' contributions to the airwaves, Bartlet is distracted by the sight of a Dr. Laura-like radio psychologist seated nearby."

BARTLET: It's a good idea to be reminded of the awesome impact, the awesome impact. I'm sorry. You're Dr. Jenna Jacobs, right?

JACOBS (obviously pleased to be recognized): Yes, sir!

BARTLET: It's good to have you here.

JACOBS: Thank you!

BARTLET: . the awesome impact of the airwaves, and how that translates into the furthering of our national discussions, but obviously also how it can . how it can . Forgive me, Dr. Jacobs. Are you an M.D.?



JACOBS: Yes, sir.

BARTLET: In psychology?

JACOBS: No, sir.

BARTLET: Theology?


BARTLET: Social work?

JACOBS: I have a Ph.D. in English Literature.

BARTLET: I'm asking 'cause on your show people call in for advice - and you go by the name Dr. Jacobs on your show - and I didn't know if maybe your listeners were confused by that and assumed you had advanced training in psychology, theology or health care.

JACOBS: I don't believe they are confused, no, sir.

BARTLET: I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an "abomination!"

JACOBS: I don't say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President. The Bible does.

BARTLET: Yes it does. Leviticus!

JACOBS: 18:22.

BARTLET: Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I wanted to sell my youngest daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown Sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be?

(Bartlet only waits a second for a response, then plunges on.)

BARTLET: While thinking about that, can I ask another? My chief of staff, Leo McGary, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself? Or is it okay to call the police?

(Bartlet barely pauses to take a breath.)

BARTLET: Here's one that's really important, because we've got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you?

(The camera pushes in on the president.)

One last thing. While you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight-Ass Club, in this building when the president stands, nobody sits.

(Jacobs sees that, in fact, the president is standing and she is the only one in the room sitting. After a moment, she rises, holding her tiny plate of appetizers. After the president exits, Sam Seaborn sternly approaches a thoroughly belittled Jacobs.)

SAM: I'm just . going to take that crab puff.

(Sam snatches Dr. Jacob's crab puff, then hurries after the president.)

This e-mail that has been around for a couple of years at least is a clever and winsome attack on Dr. Laura, on Christianity, and on Judaism. It succeeds as an attack because it is very funny and incisive. The humor catches you off guard, and the idea that someone would do the things described in the letter is hilarious. However, I think the e-mail is also an unfair attack in that it equates those who believe that homosexuality is wrong on the basis of God's Law as simple-minded hypocrites who have failed to follow their own draconian and intolerant principles faithfully.

One part of the e-mail, and a part of the West Wing dramatization, focuses on the dietary laws of the Old Testament. The force of the attack seems to be to ask the question: Why should the prohibition on homosexuality be considered any different than the prohibition on eating shellfish? I don't know if it is true that Dr. Laura eats crab-puffs or fails to follow the other guidelines set by Mosaic law (including not touching pig-skin leather footballs). I suspect that, as a conservative Jew, she does not eat any non-kosher foods, and that she follows Jewish tradition closely. Thus, the attack here may not be warranted or valid. As Christians, we believe that the kosher dietary laws were abrogated by Christ in a vision to Peter in Acts 10 (recounted in Acts 11) during which God declared that he had purified the unclean and made it clean. Thus, for Christians this would mean that there is no longer any distinction between clean and unclean things, animals, or people. The nullification of that distinction also applies to the e-mail's references to women on their period and those with a defect in their sight, as well as "President Bartlett's" reference to football players. The answer is that just as God declared things unclean in the past, he has declared them clean today.

In reference to laws of human cleanliness and uncleanliness, it is important to note that men and women of all classes were treated equally in these laws. It is true that women had to separate themselves during their time of the month because of the spilling of blood, but if a man spilled any blood or fluids, he too was considered unclean. As for a defect in sight and other malformations being banned from the alter of God, I am not sure why this was the case, but it was probably intended, as the other laws of cleanliness were, to convey a sense that one must be perfect in order to come before God. When Christ came to earth and became the perfect sacrifice for us, these laws were annulled because now Christ's perfection has been applied to his people and they can no longer be unclean.

The reference to the burnt offering being an unpleasing odor to one's neighbors is funny. However, as a criticism it fails. First, on an ancillary note, according to the passage cited in the e-mail, the bull would be slaughtered before it was put on the altar, so it actually would smell good, like an open-pit barbeque, not bad, as the e-mail seems to imply. Second, the sacrificial system was abolished for Christians with the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ (1Cor. 5:7; Eph. 5:2; Heb. 9:26; 10:12; 1 John 2:1-2). For Jews who continued to sacrifice despite this abolition, the sacrifices ended with the destruction of the temple in AD 70. So the author of the letter to Dr. Laura, in addition to violating health and priestly codes, is also sacrificing the bull in the wrong place and during the wrong epoch :-). In all seriousness though, we must say that to the extent the charge of hypocrisy is being leveled in this regard it is being leveled falsely as continuing sacrifice is explicitly forbidden.

Returning to the e-mail and West Wing episode, the question is facetiously asked whether someone should die for working on the Sabbath. The verse cited for proving that this is a capital offense is Exodus 35:2 and it is a direct quote of Moses speaking to the assembled Israelites. In it is a Hebrew phrase that is translated "he must be put to death". This is a phrase that occurs again and again, and while the translation is adequate, it has been suggested that a better translation would be "he is liable up to death" meaning that it is a capital offense, but that the circumstances could mitigate the punishment somewhat. Thus the author of the e-mail is asking: Why was Sabbath breaking a capital offense in ancient Israel, and if God's word is unchanging, why is it not still a capital offense today? The answer to that question for Christians is very similar to the answer about sacrifices and cleanliness/uncleanliness issues. It is that according to the New Testament (Heb. 3-4, Col. 2) the Sabbath was meant to prefigure the rest that the people of God now have in Christ. Now that that which was prefigured has come, the laws of the Sabbath are followed differently. To the question of why Sabbath breaking was a capital offense in the first place, it is probably because it involved transgressing a holy worship ordinance among God's people.

The slavery issue is a difficult reality in the Old Testament for us to deal with. The e-mail and the West Wing dialogue seem to be asking the question: Assuming that God exists, why would something as harmless as homosexuality be outlawed by God when something as horrible as slavery was allowed? To answer this I would point out that as extensive as Old Testament law may seem to be, it is important to note that not every sin was outlawed. Slavery was a reality of fallen life that God chose not to outlaw, much like He chose not to outlaw divorce and prostitution. In addition, slavery is never explicitly based on class, race, or nationality. Also, most, if not all, of the laws regarding slavery were written to accord protection to slaves and/or to limit the practice of slavery. The writers of the West Wing may mock the Old Testament for tolerating slavery, but they probably use the labor of workers both from and in third-world countries who are afforded few of these protections themselves. Thus, they themselves tolerate a sophisticated form of slavery on the one hand, and despise God's law for tolerating a less sophisticated form of slavery on the other.

The first slavery verse cited in the joke, Exodus 21:7, comes from a passage in which a daughter is sold as a wife/slave. Basically the passage is written to protect the wife/slave and to give her certain rights. It is true that the transaction was not prohibited, but the wife/slave was not considered chattel either. In the ancient world, slavery was often a means by which people escaped poverty and destitution. A father may have sold his daughter into slavery out of pure malice, or, more likely, out of concern for her provision and livelihood. In this context, the passage in Exodus 21 prohibits a man from purchasing a wife, using her, and then getting rid of her either by reselling her or by "setting her free". Throughout Israel's law, a constant refrain is "You yourselves were once slaves, so treat your slaves well." Under Israel's law, the penalty for killing a slave was the same as for killing a nobleman. The second slavery verse cited (Leviticus 25:44) is a prohibition on buying fellow Israelites as slaves, and in that context it says, to paraphrase, "if you want to do that, you may do so from the surrounding countries". In fact, the whole chapter of Leviticus 25 is about the years of Sabbath and Jubilee, occurring every 7th and 49th years and during which years slaves went free. Now tell me, where in the ancient world can you find an example in law of all the slaves going free every 7 years, just because it was a Sabbath or Jubilee year? It is safe to say that this instance is both unique and unprecedented in world history, ancient or otherwise. Both the original author of the e-mail, and the "creative adaptors" of the joke to the West Wing dialogue, to their discredit, fail to emphasize the utterly humane nature of Leviticus 25.

Moving on, it is important to note that the prohibitions against homosexuality that we find in the Old Testament we also find reaffirmed in the New Testament. Homosexuality is still a detestable practice. The outline of the much maligned Leviticus 18 is as follows:

Verses 1-5 (The Lord said to Mosesàkeep my decrees and laws...)
Verses 6-18 (prohibition against sex with family and incest)
Verse 19 (prohibition against approaching a woman for sex during her period)
Verse 20 (prohibition against sex with neighbor's wife)
Verse 21 (prohibition against child sacrifice)
Verse 22 (prohibition against homosexual sex)
Verse 23 (prohibition against sex with animals)
Verses 24-30 (explanation about why these acts are prohibited)

Notice that most of these laws in this chapter are not attacked by the e-mail or by the West Wing dialogue, but in fact they can be undermined by the reasoning and in the same way that "President Bartlett" attacked the other acts. Are the Levitical codes prohibiting incest and bestiality (which serve as the basis for the prohibition of these acts in our modern law) equally as ignorant and backward as the writers of the West Wing think the prohibition of homosexuality is? Certainly the prohibition of adultery in verse 20 would be viewed as puritanical and inhibited, but what about the prohibition of child sacrifice in verse 21? No doubt child sacrifice would be bad if the baby was 1 or 2 months old, but what if he or she was pre-term? All of this seems so abitrary. Is there really any justification for universal morality apart from God?

The fact of the matter is that the only law in this chapter that the authors of these diatribes would reject is the prohibition of homosexuality. We must conclude however, that homosexuality belongs with the other prohibitions because, among other reasons, it was not fulfilled or annulled by the completed work of Christ and the prohibition is reiterated in the New Testament.

Hope that helps. Please take a look at this other Q&A regarding the applicability of OT law today.

(As a final note, Dr. Laura has a Ph.D in Physiology from Columbia University and was certified as a counselor by USC. I note this because it seems that any viewer of the West Wing might have been left with the impression that Dr. Laura was an expert only in English Literature and that she had deceived her audience.)

Answer by Matt Gross

Matthew Gross received his masters degree from Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, in 2004 and was the weekly editor of Reformed Perspectives Magazine.