The Bible, Homosexuality, and Christianity: Sodom, Gomorrah, and Leviticus

This is the third post in a series. I highly encourage that you read those previous posts before reading this one. The preface is here. The guidelines are here.

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)
Nakedness (18.6ff)
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.

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Optimistic Chad

Chad really really hopes things are going to turn out ok. He loves his wife - with the passion of 1000 exploding suns, and is a diligent, but surely mediocre father to his brilliant and subversive children. He likes Chinese food.

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23 thoughts on “The Bible, Homosexuality, and Christianity: Sodom, Gomorrah, and Leviticus

  1. Pingback: The Bible, Homosexuality, and Christianity: Sodom, Gomorrah, and … | Christian Dailys

  2. Rodney, thanks for bringing this up. In regards to Judges 19, the same logic applies from the study of Sodom and Gomorrah. What actually took place in Judges was the rape and brutalization of a young woman. The rape towards the Levite was the threat. I see absolutely zero cause to interpret homosexuality as the sin there, as heterosexual sex is obviously permitted in the scripture, and yet this ends up being a religio-social powderkeg, not because of the sexual orientation involved in the act, but because of the rape and brutality. “This wicked thing” is gang rape on a societal scale, not a 2013 idea of a monogamous, loving homosexal union.

      • Agreed, they cannot be completely separated, though. It is clear that the author of Judges is meaning to call the Sodom story into mind in their telling of the concubine’s story. But the purpose of the telling is much much different.

  3. And if we don’t assume that Judges 19 is simply a mimetic retelling of the Sodom and Gomorrah story, which I don’t, necessarily, then we can assume that they were familiar with that story and are acting as copycats, trying to copy Sodom’s actions. In which case, the critical discussion above applies exactly the same.

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  9. Blog comments often come across harsh, so take this with an intentional kindness — this treatment is really superficial. There is much more to both the biblical context (e.g., the prohibits in Leviticus presume a certain understanding of Genesis 1) and the larger cultural context going on.

    The best accessible treatment that I have read (and I’m aware of more than a few) is Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice. Gagnon’s website is here: http://www.robgagnon.net. Though he’s a NT scholar, his discussion of the Hebrew and ANE texts is well done.

  10. Robert, thank you for your kindness AND honesty. I am forced to agree with you. This treatment is superficial, as it was meant to be. There is plenty of vastly more well done scholarship in this area, both agreeing and disagreeing with the conclusions I am coming to. But this blog is not a venue for that sort of rigor. Its not that I myself don’t read, or on occasion do, that sort of work, it is just that it doesn’t make it here, because I am trying to be palatable to a wide audience, which likely don’t have the patience for Gagnon’s book. And I am familiar with Gagnon’s work, but I, among others, simply disagree with his conclusions, particularly on the malakos/arsenokoites discussion. But if there is something that you would like to discuss here, if you can make it as kind as your above reply, I would love to dialogue with you about it.

  11. I’m afraid I don’t have much to discuss in this venue. The issues are too complex and require a lot of humble, detailed work. And this is why I have issues with this kind of presentation — it’s presented as a clear study of the texts and that leads to clear conclusions (your caveats notwithstanding) and so will be read as such. I’ve taught for too long to reduce complications to inaccurate (and so probably misleading) simplifications. If a complex issue is worth studying, it should be discussed in all its complexity. If it can’t be studied properly, then it ought to be left for a different time or place.

    Gagnon’s discussion of malakos/arsenokoites has little if anything to do with his discussion of the Hebrew and ANE texts. For example, to call Genesis 19 about hospitality and thus irrelevant for the discussion of homosexual behavior is to under-read the text, since what makes the inhospitable treatment so shocking is the type of behavior suggested. In the larger context of Genesis 1 (the functional dualism by which the cosmos is ordered) and the likeliest interpretation of Genesis 9 (Ham’s transgression against his father, Noah), one is hard-pressed to dismiss the underlying negative view of homosexual behavior in Genesis 19 and still claim to read the text sensitively.

  12. Robert, I see what you are saying. Unfortunately, there are people who need access to discussions on this issue, and trying to tell them that they are out of luck unless they read an exhaustive tome is simply unacceptable to me. The same could be said about the scripture and the gospel in general, and yet I don’t believe you nor Gagnon would suggest that sermons should not be given due to the time constraint placed on them. It is simply a different venue, not a bad one.

    While I do read functionality into Gen 1, I don’t read dualism (at least not in the way I think you do). And I don’t see the text being much different in Gen 19 if it would have been Noah’s daughter “Hammina.” See Lot and his daughters. I simply don’t see (alleged) father-rape as the same thing as what we mean by homosexual in our context.

    Further, and I will try not to assume the same about you without knowing more, Gagnon is an acknowledged complimentarian. And as such, everything he reads and interprets in the scriptures is filtered through that lens. I am not, and thus I am biased, too. But I don’t find his arguments convincing, for that reason, as much as the texts that he doesn’t discuss in his books.

  13. And I will go ahead and concede that I am simply a pastor, and I don’t have nearly the full weight of knowledge that you can bring to these texts. But as Martin Luther said,it is “neither safe nor right to go against conscience,” and in these matters this is where my conscience is leading me at the moment.

  14. Studied a lot of Luther, even at the graduate level, since I grew up Lutheran and followed that theological path for many years. But, sadly, Luther was wrong in many ways (and way too stubborn and arrogant) and should have tried to find his way back to his Catholic home.

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  18. About Genesis 19, yes it was homosexual gang rape as far as anyone knew then. Did the crowd know the men were angels? Or did they see them as foreign males, like Lot saw? And where did you get that the town’s women might be there? It’s not on any translation I’ve seen.

    I do agree that the main sin was not homosexuality—homosexual gang rape is a shocking action that shows how blatantly far-off the Sodom people were. Hospitality was sacred there and then, it still is in that part of the world for the more traditional people. No hospitality, no respect for the foreigners (even distinguished-looking foreigners as these were), homosexual gang rape, whoa. Even preferring homosexual gang rape to heterosexual child gang rape (if Lot’s daughters were single, they were probably 14 or younger). Now, the Sodomites did not say “sorry, we don’t do women” but actually “who are you, a foreigner, to tell us what’s right or wrong?” so they might simply have been stubborn, regardless of whether they might find Lot’s daughters a good target or not.

    The wider context of Abraham vs. Lot, and their pickings of place to live on Gen 13: Lot pitched his tents among the cities on the plains, while Abraham pitched his tents among the oak trees, on a much less populated place. Lot mixed up with the Canaan population. I can’t say Lot had any idea of what would happen, he just picked the best spot for himself, and left his uncle with the less good land—he comes across to me as rude and greedy, where Abraham is trying to keep peace and pay the price for it. The biblical author tells us there’s trouble ahead for Lot, when he mentions the great sin of Sodom and Gomorrah (without indicating what that sin was).

    About Leviticus, can’t “a man lying down with another man as with a woman” mean lying down to have sex? As opposed to just sleeping on the same bed out of practicality (two guys, one bed, why should one lie bedless?). That would beg explaining why the following verse mentions sex with animals explicitly, where here the author would mention homosexual sex in a veiled way. Could it be that he was more put off by gay sex than animal sex, so much that he cannot bring himself to say it plainly? That would seem strange.

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