Monday, 5 December 2022

Responding to President Bartlet

I want to reflect on some questions raised by President Josiah Bartlet in the TV drama The West Wing, Season Two, “The Midterms” (written by Aaron Sorkin).

The Jenna Jacobs character in the following exchange is apparently based on talk show host Laura Schlessinger. The Bartlet challenge is cribbed from an open letter written by Kent Ashcroft that circulated anonymously on the internet at the time.

Hyperlinks within the exchange point to my blog posts. The questions are obviously rhetorical. In addressing them I want to challenge the dismissive attitude towards the Old Testament they reveal.


I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination.

Dr. Jenna Jacobs:
I don’t say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President. The Bible does.

President Josiah Bartlet:
Yes it does. Leviticus. [*]

Dr. Jenna Jacobs:

President Josiah Bartlet:
Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I have you here. I’m interested in selling 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? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff Leo McGarry 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? 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 fromtwo different threads? Think about those questions, would you? 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.

[Dr. Jenna Jacobs stands]


[*] This rather depends on how one defines “homosexuality” and how one translates the relevant verse(s). Mark P. Stone recently published an overview of suggestions with regard to the latter in which he also observed that “while ‘homosexual acts’ are available for historical investigation in every human era, ‘homosexuality’ is not.” See ‘Don’t Do What to Whom? A Survey of Historical-Critical Scholarship on Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13,’ Currents in Biblical Research 20/3 (2022): 203-233. Casting his net wide and making every nuance count, Stone identifies twenty-one hypotheses on Lev 18:22 and 20:13.  He suggests that the sheer variety should lead one to hold any conclusions about the meaning of the text tentatively. Others may conclude that the variety demonstrates that the growing resistance to the most common reading (“you must not lie with a man as you would lie with a woman”) has not produced a plausible alternative and that the “traditional” understanding as a reference to male same-sex intercourse emerges the stronger for having been stress-tested in this way. But which way one leans here is, in a sense, irrelevant for contemporary questions in Christian ethics, if Biblical law is dismissed as irrelevant..

Here is Stone’s list:

  1. Same-Sex Eroticism (‘homosexuality’)
  2. Male Same-Sex Intercourse (both partners culpable)
  3. Sexual Intercourse between Israelite Males in The Promised Land
  4. Unrestrained Bisexuality
  5. Sexual Intercourse with Intersex Persons
  6. The Active/Insertive Partner in Male Anal Intercourse
  7. The Passive/Receptive Partner in Male Anal Intercourse
  8. Gender Confusion (male acting as female)
  9. Social Humiliation (male treated as female)
  10. Pederasty
  11. Male-Male Rape
  12. Idolatry
  13. Fear of Demons
  14. Male Cult Prostitution
  15. Improper Mixture of Defiling Substances (semen & excrement)
  16. Failure to Ensure Procreation (waste of semen)
  17. Improper Placement of Semen (i.e., not wastage)
  18. Redactional Layer Clarifying Implicit Acceptance in 18.7*, 14*
  19. Male Same-Sex Incest
  20. Ambiguous Paternity from Male-Male-Female Threesome
  21. Male Same-Sex Intercourse with an ‘Unavailable’ Man