Given over

As many have observed, Paul alludes to Psalm 106 in his condemnation of the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men in Romans 1. Paul writes that human beings “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and of four-footed animals and crawling creatures” (Romans 1:23), thereby exchanging the truth for a lie and worshiping “the creature rather than the Creator” (v. 25). Psalm 106 says that at Horeb Israel “exchanged their glory for the image of an ox that eats grass” (v. 20). Paul’s polemic isn’t just against Gentiles; it’s against Israel.

What’s not so often noted is that the rest of Paul’s argument also depends on the Psalm. Paul describes a series of “deliverances”: God hands idolaters over to sexual sins, sexual deviants to all forms of license. The Psalm too speaks of a “handing over”: Because of Israel’s persistent idolatry, Yahweh “gave them into the hand of the nations and those who hated them ruled over them” (Psalm 106:41). The Psalm is referring to the recurrent pattern of Judges, during which idolatry leads to subjection to a Gentile power.

Paul, perhaps, is glossing the same history, but deepening it. He describes something more than a political subjection to Gentiles. He describes a tyranny over the soul and mind. It’s one thing to be subjected to Midianites; it’s another thing to adopt Midianite ways. It’s one thing to be conquered by Alexander; it’s cultural accommodation of another order to adopt the custom of Greek pederasty.

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