Now that the “family values” wing in California has proposed a ballot initiative (Proposition Eight) for a constitutional amendment to prevent families consisting of gay couples, I thought this would be a good time to examine the alleged religious underpinnings of their anti-gay stance. What follows is an attempt to apply the tools of reason and modern biblical scholarship to the question of the Bible and homosexuality. I have no illusions that everyone who supports Prop. 8 will find this persuasive; one cannot be reasoned out of a position that one was not reasoned into in the first place. But some of the more thoughtful supporters might, I hope, reconsider after reading this.
If you are someone who has committed to live by Judeo-Christian holy writ, then it is mandatory that you know what the Bible says. More than that, you have the obligation to understand the historical and cultural context of what you read, lest you mistake the expediencies of an ancient time and place and state of mind for the transcendent values for which the Bible is justly renowned.
An objective reader will also understand that the scriptures do not speak with a consistent voice, nor do the component books always agree with each other or even within themselves. This is why a conscientious reader of scripture must strive to understand not only the words, but the larger thematic thrust of the scriptures. There are several implicit and explicit ethical and moral threads that wind their way through the text. Taken together, they constitute an imperative for justice and concord by which the believer regards the improvement of the human condition as an act of worship.
If you are not someone who lives their life by the Bible, then what follows will at best be an academic exercise. But I invite you to read what follows if only to get a glimpse into the legal mind of ancient Judaism.
Homosexuality in the Scriptures:
There is remarkably little said about this subject in the Bible. There are two verses in the Pauline epistles, and the Old Testament, upon which the New Testament passages rely.
The Old Testament and Leviticus 18
The first thing that should be mentioned is that homosexuality in toto is not prohibited in the Old Testament. Lesbianism is mentioned nowhere and is not specifically prohibited anywhere. If the people of the Old Testament were anything like people of every other time and place, lesbianism would have been practiced by some percentage of the women. But nowhere does the Old Testament say anything against it (or for it, for that matter).
The key section to unlocking the Old Testament’s attitude toward homosexuality is in Leviticus 18 (Leviticus 20 also repeats these items, but what applies to 18 is also true of 20 for purposes of this discussion).
Who is the audience for Leviticus 18? This chapter is part of a series of laws that were addressed specifically to those Israelites (verse 2, “Say to the people of Israel, I am the LORD your God.) living in their new promised land of Canaan, although verse 26 expands the scope of the chapter to cover all inhabitants of Canaan, Israelite and otherwise.
The reason for the commandments given in this chapter, are laid out in the closing verses (RSV):
24. “Do not defile yourselves by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am casting out before you defiled themselves;
25. and the land became defiled, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.
26. But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you
27. (for all of these abominations the men of the land did, who were before you, so that the land became defiled);
28. lest the land vomit you out, when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.
29. For whoever shall do any of these abominations, the persons that do them shall be cut off from among their people.
30. So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs which were practiced before you, and never to defile yourselves by them: I am the LORD your God.”
In other words, the land itself was holy and was susceptible to defilement. It responded to defilement by ejecting the inhabitants who defiled it. This is a very important point. The verses also specify that this was why the previous inhabitants had been removed as the Israelites arrived. The laws found in this chapter are intended to prevent desecrating this particular piece of ground, the land of Canaan.
Sex and the Mosaic Law
This main feature of this chapter is a long list of forbidden sexual or marital unions that Israelites may not engage in. This is because they are with close relatives or in-laws, with the exception of verse 20, which prohibits sexual relations with “your neighbor’s wife,” i.e., adultery. At the end of this long list comes another shorter set of prohibitions (vs. 21-23) against male homosexuality, sacrifice of children to Molech, and beastiality.
There are a few basic concerns that are consistently behind Old Testament attitudes regarding sex.
1. Procreation. In ancient times, with its high infant mortality rates and generally short lifespans the ability to grow your population was the ability to survive. Barrenness literally meant the end of your family. Children literally were the future.
2. Concord within the family unit. Since it was common for extended families to live in close proximity, sexual activity that crossed the internal boundaries could threaten that concord and rupture the clan. Many commentators on Leviticus 18 believe that this was one of the main motivations for the prohibitions in this chapter.
3. The loss of “seed”. The Mosaic law was unusual from a modern perspective because it included ritual purity laws designed to propagate certain beliefs among the people. One of the strongest was to enforce the symbolism of life triumphant over death or loss of “life force.” Any male who spilled “seed,” intentionally or not, became impure and had to ritually wash himself, as the loss of seed was seen as the loss of “life.” Likewise the menstrual blood of women was seen as a similar loss of life, which is why menstruating women were impure.
Bear in mind that “impurity” did not carry the same stigma as “sin.” Impurity was ritually removed, but sin, in addition to expiatory ritual, demanded repentance on the part of the sinner.
This explains the prohibition of sex between a man and a menstruating women. It would probably also have been applied to male homosexuality. The silence of the Old Testament on lesbianism now becomes clear; since there is no spilling of blood or semen, there is no reason to prohibit it.
However, it is not enough to just stop at this point. We need to remember the context in which these prohibitions are given. A closer examination of the prohibition against male homosexuality reveals other aspects that call into question the prevailing interpretation of this verse. Context is everything.
First, remember that these rules were for people living in Canaan to prevent them from offending the holiness of the land. So unless you were/are a homosexual male living in Palestine, this verse very specifically does not apply to you.
But let’s take a closer look at 22 verse itself:
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
If you consult the original Hebrew text (both Lev. 18 and 20), the phrase used for “lying as with a woman” is a specific idiom: mishkeve ‘ishah, which only refers to illicit heterosexual relations. This is an important item. If male homosexuality is intrinsically forbidden, why compare it to illicit heterosexual unions? What kinds of forbidden heterosexual unions might the text be using to qualify male homosexual union?
The context of this verse is a long list of forbidden heterosexual (except for verse 22) unions that have one thing in common; except for the injunction against adultery, they are between close relatives. So, father may not have sex with a daughter or granddaughter, nor an aunt with a nephew. Clearly this verse is intended to supplement the rest of that list, and thus proscribes male homosexual acts between close relatives. So let us review. The Old Testament only prohibits homosexual acts if the following are true:
- The partners are male
- The act is taking place within the borders of the land of Canaan
- The partners are sufficiently consanguineous as to fall within the list of prohibited relations specified in Leviticus 18.
That excludes virtually all of the world’s homosexuals, and certainly all of the homosexuals in California.
What is an “Abomination”?
There still remains the meaning of the last clause of verse 22: “it is an abomination.” What is an “abomination”? Most readers of the English translations skip past this word, but they don’t realize that in the Hebrew text this word (to’evah) has a very specific and technical meaning in Leviticus. It is used to denote acts that are found in the practices and rituals of foreign religious cults, particularly those of the Canaanites of biblical times, which were forbidden by Israelite religion. That being the case, in today’s world, the circumstances that marked male homosexuality as to’evah no longer exist and therefore do not apply.
Two Other Reasons to Prohibit Homosexuality
Some interpreters of the Bible claim that homosexuality cannot be permitted because it runs contrary to the commandment to “Be fruitful and multiply”. The problem with this argument is that “be fruitful and multiply” is not, and never has been a commandment. The text is very clear that “God blessed them and said…” and thus the injunction is a blessing, not a commandment. This usage appears consistently in every occurrence of the phrase “be fruitful and multiply” found in Genesis (See 1:22,28; 8:17; 9:1,7; 35:9,11).
This is only fair, upon reflection. If “being fruitful” was a commandment, one must explain the prayers of Sarah, Rachel, and other barren women in the Old Testament asking God to let them get pregnant? Why would God command fruitfulness when conception and pregnancy are clearly his prerogative?
The second reason for prohibiting homosexuality is its alleged role in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This also stems from a misconception, namely that the sin of Sodom was homosexuality (hence “sodomy”). But the Bible itself in Ezekiel 16:49 clearly states that the sin of Sodom was to neglect the poor and the needy. Nothing in that verse or those adjoining it can be construed to mean that Sodom was destroyed because of homosexuality.
One must read the story of the destruction of Sodom in parallel with the story of the Levite’s Concubine in Judges 19 ff. In this brutal tale a Levite and his concubine were offered hospitality and lodging in the Benjaminite town of Gibeah, and, as at Sodom, the men of the city gathered round and attempted to intimidate the host offering shelter to the travelers by threatening homosexual rape of the guest. However, in this case the Levite sent out his concubine to satiate the mob, who then raped her through the night until she died.
In both cases the men of both cities not only violated the institutions of hospitality that were considered inviolate throughout the Mediterranean basin, they used the threat of homosexual gang rape as an instrument of intimidation and violence. In both cases, the perpetrators were deemed worthy of extermination and, in the case of the tribe of Benjamin, this was partially accomplished. The violation of the canons of hospitality was often considered cause for divine retribution and even extermination, and there are numerous examples from across the Near Eastern and Classical worlds.
A proper explanation of this phenomenon is beyond the scope of this treatment, but most modern scholars agree that the destruction of Sodom was believed to have been due to their violation of the institutions of hospitality rather than for homosexual behavior.
Homosexuality and the New Testament
The only verses that mention homosexuality in the New Testament are in the Epistular literature: 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Romans 1:26-27. Jesus makes no mention of it. Paul mentions it in the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, which, incidentally, also includes the only reference to lesbianism in the entire scriptural corpus.
But there are reasons why we must not automatically accept Paul’s statement as a blanket prohibition of homosexuality. It is generally acknowledged that in these verses Paul is reliant on Mosaic law and, as we have seen, Mosaic law does not prohibit all homosexuality except under the narrow constraints specified. It should be noted here that Paul is not a reliable interpreter of Old Testament law. Many studies have been written about how even his representation of “accepted” Jewish interpretations of Mosaic Law are often flawed, and therefore one must use Paul with caution in this context. The fact that he isolates himself by proscribing lesbianism when both the Old Testament and the words of Jesus are completely silent on the issue is a strong indication that he is injecting his own feelings into the matter or drawing upon extra-biblical tradition.
The Old Testament does not prohibit homosexuality except between closely-related males living in the land of Canaan, and because of its presence in the rituals of rival Canaanite religious cults. Lesbianism is not mentioned and therefore cannot be considered proscribed by the Old Testament. The New Testament denounced homosexuality, but only in two of the Epistles of Paul in which he is mistakenly applying Jewish law. The Gospels and all the other canonical Christian books are silent on the matter.
A Note on Sources:
The scriptures cited here were either my own translation from the Hebrew or the Revised Standard Version (RSV).
This excursus draws heavily on the Anchor Bible commentary on Leviticus written by one of my professors of Biblical Hebrew at UC Berkeley, Rabbi Jacob Milgrom. See Leviticus 17-22 A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Vol. 3A, Doubleday, 2000.
I want to acknowledge my gratitude to Prof. Milgrom for the privilege of reading Leviticus with him in his Advanced Biblical Hebrew Seminar at Berkeley, and for the invaluable training I received from him. Any errors herein are strictly my own.