When I was a young pastor I thought it would be fun to teach teenagers how to play poker… in the Sanctuary: an idea that didn’t fly so well with one of our older members. Whether I’ve learned anything over the past 30 years, however, is debatable. On one hand, I have moved my poker lessons from the Sanctuary to the Internet. On the other hand, this is the third article in which I’ve described reading and understanding the Bible in terms of poker, specifically Texas Hold’em. I’m not sure which is worse.
Though I’m certain you’ve played poker in your local Sanctuary—or your local casino (ahem)—on the off chance someone doesn’t know how to play, please allow me to explain.
- Each player tosses their ante to the middle of the table and receives two cards dealt face-down: their “pocket cards” that they alone may see. Players now place their initial bets. (Additional betting occurs after each of the following stages.)
- The dealer flops three “community cards” face-up in the middle of the table.
- The dealer plays a fourth community card face-up.
- The dealer places a fifth community card face-up.
Using any combination of community cards and their pocket cards, each player creates their best set or “hand” of five cards. For example, if I have two aces in my pocket cards and the community cards include two aces, I can create a strong hand of four aces.
Over the past few weeks, we have been examining and assessing possibilities within the community cards: the culture, historical background, and the text itself (among other data cards). In this assessment we’ve seen how Leviticus 18:22 may be read as a ban against the worship of other gods and how these same cards may also be read as a ban against any same-sex intimacy. There was a time in my life when I would have ended the game at this point. After all, we now have all the available evidence before us. And isn’t our task to assess this evidence and determine the correct interpretation of the text? Isn’t the game about unbiased objective truth?
Since I first taught teenagers to play poker, I’ve learned that reading is more than objectively assessing the cards lying face-up on the table—the cards that we can all see and discuss. To be sure, these cards exist and they guide our reading; but comprehension or understanding isn’t that simple. We all have two more cards in our pocket; cards that only we can see and know. Cards that affect how we read and understand our world.
A few examples may help. When I was teaching, I discovered that young women and young men often read Hannah’s and Bathsheba’s stories differently. For most men, Hannah’s husband is a model of love and compassion. After all, when she is inconsolable over her infertility doesn’t he say, “Aren’t I worth more to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam. 1:8)? For most women, however, Hannah’s husband just doesn’t get it—he doesn’t understand her grief or that he is not the solution to her problem. For most men, David commits adultery with Bathsheba. After all, she is married at the time of their“affair.” For many women, however, David rapes Bathsheba: she is an innocent victim to his power. He is the one who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. And Bathsheba has little choice when the king’s men come knocking on her door (see 2 Sam. 11). In the same way, Mark Allen Powell has spoken of his experiences teaching the story of the Prodigal Son and asking what caused the son’s poverty: he squandered his money (U.S. Americans), people didn’t help him (Ugandans), and there was a famine (St. Petersburg, Russia).
How can people read the same text and come to such different conclusions? It’s simple: every reader has two pocket cards. In other words, we are each dealt two unique cards that we alone see or know. Sometimes we may choose to show our cards to others, explaining how they influence our understanding of the text. At other times our pocket cards may be similar to those around us, leading us to read the text in similar ways and tempting us to disregard those who differ from us. Either way, our pocket cards are diverse and lead us all to see things differently. It’s simple and complex—such as the difference between Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, tree huggers and tree cutters. So only one simple question remains: what are our two pocket cards? What is it that uniquely influences us when we read texts like Leviticus 18:22?
Pocket Card #1: My identity (who am I?). When we read texts that speak about same-sex intimacy, my sexual identity comes into play. Am I male, female, intersex, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or sexually differentiated in another way? (By the way, I dislike these labels.) For many males it may be difficult to imagine not feeling male or not identifying with other males (so too for females). But if we listen carefully, we will hear people tell about these identities—their identities. And if we follow research in the sciences, we will discover what a medical doctor and church elder told me 20 years ago: research is demonstrating physiological differences in our brains that correspond to different sexual identities. Our identity is not a matter of choice or the way we have been nurtured; it’s part of our physiological identity—the way God made or created us (see Ps. 139:13-16). The difficult question is not whether we recognize this card (who am I?), but whether we can admit how this card affects our reading with enough humility to accept and respect how someone with a different identity reads the text.
Pocket Card #2: My experience (what has happened to me or to those I love?). When I did a college internship, one of my elders held the absolute belief that the only acceptable condition for a second marriage (after divorce) was when sexual infidelity caused the divorce. Then, and only then, may the innocent spouse remarry. Fifteen years later I returned to this church and discovered that this devoutly conservative elder had changed his mind. Why? I think it probably had something to do with his daughter marrying a man whose wife divorced him (and not because of her or his sexual infidelity).
Life teaches and changes us. Sometimes, men begin to think differently about the spiritual role of women in the church as they raise daughters. Often, parents of non-heterosexual children change their attitudes and convictions because of what they experience. In fact, I’d argue that if we see things exactly as we did 20 or even 10 years ago, we are simply not paying attention to what God is showing us. Spiritual wisdom, as we mentioned a few weeks back, is a matter of lifelong growth through careful observation of the world around us.
In the “game” of reading we all play with the same community cards: research and knowledge of the literary and cultural context surrounding the text. And we also play with two pocket cards: our identity and our experience. All of these cards shape our understanding of the text; they are the rules of the game. It’s no more possible for a zebra to discard its stripes than it is for me to set aside these cards when I read.
I fought this concept for a long time. You might say, “I fought the law and the law won.” I wanted to believe that the text alone controls (or should control) our understanding. And perhaps that would be true, if we were not humans with identities and experiences that shape us, inform how we see the world, and influence how we read texts. But we are humans, not gods above the fray. So I read Leviticus differently today than 30 years ago because I understand the literary and cultural contexts better and—like it or not, for better or worse, until death I do part—my pocket cards continue to change. I have a better understanding of my identity and a richer experience of God’s world. And because I am human, both of these cards influence me when I read Scripture. Somehow, I think God not only understands, but also expects and hopes for this to happen—to keep us humble and to help us see more than our own narrow perspective.
So, if you don’t mind me asking, “What are those two cards in your pocket today?”
*A Special Thanks to KH, SL, and CN for their help this week.
 I am told that Mark Allan Powell discovered these differences while teaching in these places.
 Intersex refers to persons born with both male and female genitalia.
Glenn Pemberton is a minister turned professor turned writer. After serving churches in Texas and Colorado, Glenn completed a Ph.D. (Old Testament). He then taught at Oklahoma Christian University before coming to Abilene Christian University in 2005, retiring as professor emeritus in 2017 due to a severe chronic pain. Glenn now spends his time writing for the church. Along with short essays he has published four books, including The God who Saves: An Introduction to the Message of the Old Testament (2015), and Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (2012). Glenn and his wife Dana continue to live in Abilene, Texas.