There are six scriptures on which most discussions about homosexuality and the Bible hinge. They are as follows: Genesis 19:1-26 (Sodom and Gomorrah), Leviticus 18.22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. There are other avenues of discussion beyond simply looking at the verses in question, and after the scriptural discussion, we will turn to those. First though, it is wrongheaded to go into a discussion of these verses do decide what each says about homosexuality. That is a cardinal sin in Biblical interpretation. One should never approach a text to find out what the text says about X. One must let the text speak out of its own language and context, and, once we allow it do so do, we can see clearly whether or not it even addresses X. With that in mind, we’ll discuss Sodom & Gomorrah and the Leviticus passages.
Sodom and Gomorrah
In Genesis 19, we find that messengers from God have come to the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to gain firsthand witness of just how bad the place was (as the people in the surrounding areas had been crying out to God about how bad they were). Lot meets them and insists that they come spend the night at his house, showing proper hospitality, but one also gets the impression that there is an urgency in Lot’s voice that raises suspicion. We soon find out why. After arriving at Lot’s home, we are told by scripture that the citizens of the city, “both young and old, all the people to the last man” had gathered all around the house. They then yelled for Lot to send out his guests so they could force sex on them. We know how the story ends. Lot and his family escape (minus his wife) and Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed.
Even from that straightforward story, it is not clear that the scripture condemns homosexuality. In fact, this story does not seem to be about homosexuality at all, but rather, rape, and the kind of society that would not only allow this even to take place, but to promote it, down to the last person in the city. And even if the Bible made it clear that this was clearly homosexuality in play (which it doesn’t, as these “men” were angels, and the whole town, not just the men were outside), it would be homosexual rape. Which, even the most liberal of homosexual people I know would vehemently stand opposed to.
To further illustrate how the Bible views Sodom, Gomorrah, and the lessons that should be learned from this event, we need look no further than the Bible itself, which in the book of the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 16:49-50, says this, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” Their sin was not that Sodom and Gomorrah were gay, but that they looked too much like modern America! In fact, ancient Rabbinical interpretation of the “sin of Sodom” was “inhospitality and arrogant pride.”
So, far from Sodom and Gomorrah being a proof-text against homosexuality, it simply proves that when people different than you come into your midst, you had better treat them well, because God takes hospitality very seriously.
Leviticus 18 & 20
Leviticus is broken up into various sections which deal with various ways that the Levites (the priestly caste) are supposed to operate in regards to organizing the worship of God, and also how they are to teach others to serve God correctly. The various sections deal with sacrifices, moral obligations, and sexual behaviors, among many other things. The commands which are relevant to our discussion today come not from the sections regarding universal morality, but rather from the sections regarding how to properly conduct one’s self as a proper Jew, at the time when the law was given, which was when the Jewish people were more or less scattered and wandering.
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are essentially repetitive not two different statutes, but a redundancy of one single statute, as with many other laws in Leviticus. The reasons for this are not important for our discussion. Suffice to say that the laws essentially say the same thing and thus need only one section of discussion.
The texts are as follows: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” and “”If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”
While this might seem straightforward, it might not be so clear as one might think. First, why would the scripture say ” you shall not lie with a male as with a woman” as opposed to simply “you shall not lie with a male?” Would that make a difference? As it turns out, yes. The significance of sex and marriage in the ancient world were actually much different than the significance we ascribe them today. In terms of sex, the act consisted of a dominant partner and a submissive partner. When a man and a woman have sex, the male is the dominant (active) one, and the female, the submissive (receiving) one. In male to male intercourse, the roles are not so clear. In fact, in many cultures surrounding Israel, it was legitimate for a man to be the dominant (active) partner, no matter if the submissive partner was a male, female, or child. However, it was considered shameful for a male to be the submissive partner, no matter who the dominant partner was. This is because the submissive partner was considered “less than” the dominant partner. Females were always the submissive partner, and thus afforded a lesser status among people, and likely as a result, their sexual conduct is never mentioned in relationship to other women in the scripture. But for a Jew, a man (made in the image of God) taking the form of a submissive woman, or to cause another man (made in the image of God) by dominating him sexually, would be considered a slight to the God who rescued them from domination. It is the cultural symbolism of the act, not the act itself that seems to be in view here. Nevertheless, the act is called an abomination.
The word abomination is the Hebrew word “toevah.” While translated abomination, this is a very misleading translation, but has been culturally ingrained in many of us because of how often it is used to describe this passage in our national religious discussion. However, “toevah” does not mean abomination. In fact, it carries with it the idea that what is being discussed is taboo. For example, why would the Bible call God’s people toevah in Genesis 43? Because eating with Israelites was toevah to Egyptians. Also, Egyptians considered shepherds (of which the Israelites were) to be toevah. The Israelites were not abominations to the Egyptians, they simply were taboo. Again, in Ezekiel 8, we read about four toevvot (plural toevah), all of which have to do with idolotry, not abominations, but surely would be taboo for Israel. And in almost every other single appearance of toevah (and there are more than 100 in the Hebrew Bible), the word refers, not to abomination, but to something that foreign nations do, but which Israel is not to do.
Still, some might want to say that God’s word still forbids it. That is true, it might. But let’s be frank. There are a few other things that the Bible, in Leviticus, equally condemns (either by calling it taboo (toevah) or by saying it is punishable by death), but that we very easily dismiss as culturally bound to the original context and not to ours. For example:
Acts condemned by Leviticus in the same way as Homosexual acts (and Leviticus reference)
Sex with your wife during her menstrual period (18.19)
Touching an menstruating woman (15.19-24)
Sowing field with two different kinds of seeds (19.19)
Eating shellfish (11.10)
Cutting the hair on your temples (19.27)
Tattoos or piercing (19.28)
Clothes with mixed materials (19.19)
Cursing parents (20.9)
Eating BBQ pork or even touching a dead pig (11.6-8)
It should also be said that much of the reasons that many of these things are condemned was precisely because the surrounding cultures did them, and often did them for cultic reasons. It is unlikely, given the language for tattoos, for example, that the Bible would have even bothered to discuss them if the nations around Israel had not tattooed their bodies on behalf of foreign gods. It is also the case that the surrounding nations often worshiped their gods through homosexual acts in temple orgies.
To conclude, after reviewing the data, and noting my tattoo, I am hard pressed to use the Leviticus scriptures as a condemnation of homosexuality in 2013, given that “idol-fueled adulterous homosexual acts which brought shame onto a man for acting submissive” is really a far cry from “married egalitarian loving same sex couples.”
This is not the only thing to be said about this, however. There is a reason that no Christian community that I know of in the history of Christianity, has ever tried to claim that the whole of the Levitical law should apply to Christians today. And after we discuss the New Testament passages next time, we will talk a bit about why that is and what it might mean for our discussion. Till then, I am not convinced, either by the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, nor by the Levitical law (which lumps shellfish and clothes made from two materials into the same category) that homosexuality is flatly condemned for those of us in 2013 and beyond. This is not my final conclusion, just that I don’t believe these scriptures are relevant to the discussion.
Till next time…
Jump to part 4, A study of Romans 1:26-27, here.