Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The Bible and homosexuality

Some people prefer same-sex partners. There is no reason why this should upset anybody, but for centuries the Abrahamic religions have contributed to homophobia. Churches have banned gay people from attending and from getting married, and told them that their sexual preferences are offensive to the creator of the universe. In the United States in particular, opposition to gay marriage among the religious right has become an obsession.

Citing the Bible in support of homophobia isn’t as straightforward as fundamentalists think. It doesn’t mention lesbianism at all, and male homosexuality is mentioned only rarely. Jesus made no recorded statements on the subject. There are certain passages, sometimes referred to as ‘clobber passages’, that are read as clear statements against homosexuality by countless Christians around the world. Yet more progressive Christians question the intended meaning of these passages, and appeal instead to the spirit of tolerance in Jesus’s teachings. How can these opposed positions claim support from the same work of literature?

We should begin by pointing out that scripture is interested in same-sex sexual behaviour in males, not females. The religious authorities in the ancient world, as far as they even recognised lesbianism, probably saw no need to pass comment on it as women’s issues were taken less seriously. There is only one reference to female same-sex behaviour in the Bible, namely Romans 1:26 (which should probably be interpreted in the same way as Paul’s other comments, see below).

Religious arguments against homosexuality

Christians opposed to homosexuality rely on several arguments. Let’s look briefly at two of the main ones. The first is that our species reproduces through heterosexual sex, therefore any other form of sex is contrary to ‘God’s design’.[1] This is just an excuse for bigotry. If we did not allow anything that did not appear in nature, we wouldn’t have the internet, anti-biotics or artificial limbs, either. The existence of large numbers of gay people is actually strong evidence that homosexuality is part of God’s design, otherwise who created them all? Many of the animals God created also show ‘homosexual’ behaviour and presumably cannot be reprimanded for making unnatural moral choices.[2]

The second argument, popular within the Catholic Church, is based on the belief that sex should be for reproduction not pleasure. This rubbish, which has no Biblical support and derives from the Church fathers’ hostility towards sex, is applied inconsistently. There is no condemnation of infertile heterosexuals who continue to have sex purely for the fun of it. And who made sex pleasurable in the first place, if not God?

This article will concentrate upon a third argument: that sections of the Bible condemn homosexuality, above all the episode of Sodom and Gomorrah, Leviticus, and parts of the Pauline letters. We’ll look at those next.

Sodom and Gomorrah

The sites of Sodom and Gomorrah have yet to be identified by archaeologists. If they ever existed, the two towns lay on the plain of the Jordan river in Canaan. They have become powerful symbols of divine retribution against sin, above all the sin of homosexuality – from them the English language took the word ‘sodomise’, a modern term meaning oral or anal sex.

The events in Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned in a few places in the Hebrew Bible. When Abraham leaves Egypt, he moves north into Canaan and settles at Bethel. Lack of space compels Lot to move on into the Jordan Valley, and he settles near Sodom.

Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the LORD. [Genesis 13:13]

In chapter 18, God tells Abraham he plans to take action against the two wicked towns:

Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me.” [Genesis 18:20-21] [3]

The key passage comes in Genesis 1-29. Two angels go to Sodom and at the gate they meet Lot, who invites them to spend the night in his house.

But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house. And they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” Lot went out to the men at the entrance, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known any man. Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please. Only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” But they said, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came to sojourn, and he has become the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and drew near to break the door down.[4]

The two angels protect Lot by striking the Sodomites with blindness. Then they warn Lot to flee the town with his family before it is destroyed. The reckoning comes after sunrise:

The LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven. And he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. [Genesis 19:24-25]

Even the plant life is implicated in the cities’ sin. What are we to make of this strange, vivid story?

The Biblical term ‘know’ is a euphemism for sex, so scholars do not dispute that the men of Sodom arrive at Lot’s house in order to force gay rape upon his two guests. Some translations dispense with the euphemism: the New International Version for example says “so that we can have sex with them”.

The homophobic interpretation of the story is that the Sodomites are punished for being degenerate homosexuals. However the idea that they are destroyed expressly for practising sodomy – in this context, homosexuality – is never stated in the Hebrew Bible. According to Ezekiel 16:49 the guilt of the Sodomites was that they had ‘pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy’; their sexuality doesn’t merit a mention. Claims that the Sodomites were punished specifically for homosexuality appear only in later commentaries.

An equally valid reading of the story would be that yes, the men of Sodom’s behaviour is wicked, but it is wicked because they intend sexual assault, not because it is homosexual per se. Their crowning sin could just as well be violation of the law of hospitality towards strangers. Judges 19 tells of a similar incident in the town of Gibeah, where a Levite and his concubine are taken in by an old man, and again men of the town surround the house demanding to rape the visitor. We hesitate to believe that towns in ancient Israel were terrorised by gangs of gay rapists; and in the end the men are satisfied with the visitor’s concubine instead, so their homosexuality is hardly thorough-going. It is more likely that the Bible’s original readers would have understood this sexual violence as a threat wielded against unwelcome strangers – i.e. as extreme inhospitality or xenophobia. Someone participating in a ritualised sexual humiliation is not the same as them being gay as an intimate part of their personal identity. The episode at Lot’s house, therefore, was merely one instance of a pattern of brutality and sinfulness.

In short, the episode of Sodom and Gomorrah provides, at very best, only ambiguous support for the condemnation of homosexuality.

Leviticus

Even if we accept that the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative is not anti-gay, there are other passages in the Bible which seem much less ambiguous. Above all, there are two passages in Leviticus that are often quoted to justify homophobia:

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. [Leviticus 18:22]
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them. [Leviticus 20:13]

‘Case closed,’ you might think. In the homophobic reading, these statements – both spoken by God himself – are clear condemnations of homosexuality, even to the point of saying gays should be killed.

However here, too, there are alternative readings. One might be that these statements, like others in Leviticus and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, are cultural instructions for the ancient Israelites rather than eternal laws for all humankind. But the progressive side can make a much stronger case than that.

The story of the Hebrew Bible follows the Israelite people in their pursuit of the destiny granted them by God to invade, ethnically cleanse and populate the chosen land of Canaan at the expense of the indigenous, heathen peoples. (As we have discussed elsewhere, this is a myth: the historical Israelites were themselves indigenous to Canaan and originally practiced a similar polytheism.) The passages from Leviticus should be read in the context of the great lengths taken by the Hebrew Bible to differentiate the monotheistic Israelites from the Canaanites, who worshipped popular rival deities such as Baal.

The Hebrew Bible identifies homosexual activity with the Canaanite nations. The word translated as ‘abomination’ is the Hebrew tow’ ebah which implies something morally disgusting and strongly implies idolatry and ritual. Some pagan fertility rites included sex with both male and female sacred prostitutes, through which people could achieve intimacy with their gods. The verses may therefore be read as condemnations of behaviours associated with idolatry and paganism, rather than of homosexuality as such. In similar vein, crossdressing is forbidden (Deuteronomy 22:5) because of its role in certain pagan rituals, not as a comment on individual gender identity.

Again, ritualised same-sexual activity is different to homosexuality as we understand it today, as an intimate, personal aspect of identity.

Of course, Leviticus is notorious for anachronistic instructions which are ignored even by fundamentalist Christians. Other abominations besides ‘lying with a male as with a woman’ include eating shellfish (11:10), mixing fabrics in clothing (19:19), trimming your beard (19:27), and getting a tattoo (19:28), yet there are no outraged Christian campaigns against tattoo artists or polyester. There are very many other such verses that devalue women, discriminate against the disabled, demand that adulterers be executed, and so on – the same goes for Deuteronomy. The New Testament has some too. For example Corinthians 11:6 states that women must cover their heads to pray:

If a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head.

And in Matthew 19:9, Jesus says that someone who divorces and remarries commits adultery, a crime that breaks one of the ten commandments and in the Old Testament is punishable by death. Yes, a Christian who remarries (such as US talk-radio cretin Rush Limbaugh, who after four marriages is a serial offender) deserves to be executed.

Modern Christians accept that such verses may be ignored because they belong to a particular cultural context, but some apply a different standard of literalism to people they want to condemn. Every Christian selects which of God’s instructions they will respect, based upon culture, denomination and personal preference.

Many Christians would argue that Mosaic law was made obselete when Jesus made his new covenant with humanity, and this is why Christians do not have to eat kosher food, circumcise their sons, etc.[5] If so, were the Old Testament passages associated with homosexuality not made obselete too? At this point the homophobes’ arguments become byzantine. Their objection is that only some of the laws were superceded whereas disapproving of gays is eternal. This depends on dividing Mosaic law into categories and claiming that some laws are outdated (ceremonial, judicial/civil laws) and others aren’t (moral laws). The truth is, these categories are not defined in the Bible but have been inferred from the text by later commentators, and there is no consensus among Christians about whether they have any force.

Leviticus is an ancient book written for a specific group of people under conditions that ended long ago, and in the 21st century its strictures are outdated. Christians today don’t feel bound by obnoxious rules such as the forced marriage of women to their rapists, so even if the Leviticus passages were intended as condemnations of homosexuality per se, Christians can choose to simply reject them as no longer culturally relevant, as they do so many others.

Jesus and Paul

There are no recorded statements by Jesus about homosexuality, which suggests he didn’t think it was important. His one statement that has some relevance arises during a discussion of divorce:

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” [Matthew 19:4-6]

Though Jesus doesn’t mention gays, this sounds like an endorsement of heterosexual monogamy – until he goes on to answer his disciples’ query about whether husbands and wives should marry at all:

But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” [Matthew 19:11-12]

Here Jesus identifies eunuchs as people would not consider marrying women. In the context of ancient Israel and Rome, men termed ‘eunuchs’ had not necessarily been castrated; the term also included those who were effeminate and lacked a sexual interest in women. This is the closest Jesus comes to a possible reference to gay men, describing them as being made so ‘from birth’, and he accepts them into God’s scheme without condemnation, recognising there are minorities who will legitimately follow different paths. Even if you don’t accept that Jesus had gays in mind, it is surely in the spirit of his teachings to extend to them the same general message of acceptance. It is also Jesus who reportedly said:

You shall love your neighbour as yourself. [Matthew 22:39]

The real meat and drink of New Testament-authorised homophobia comes from Paul, who is less progressive than Jesus. The books in question are 1 Romans and 1 Corinthians. In the former, Paul discusses a group of people who ‘knew God’ but had become vain, foolish and idolatrous.

Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves. Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet. [1 Romans 1:24-27]

The homophobic reading, namely that people have rejected God and are committing sins including homosexuality, seems to have a strong case here. But again, the reference may be to the sex rites of pagan fertility cults – Roman ones in this case – rather than a condemnation of homosexuality per se. Paul’s self-appointed mission is to promote Christianity at the expense of traditional Roman and other pagan religions.

Our final passage comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. [1 Corinthians 6:9-0]

The problem centres on the term translated here by the ESV as ‘men who practice homosexuality’ – the Greek word is arsenokoitai, and precisely what Paul meant by it is endlessly debated. The two parts of the word mean male and bed, and the likelihood is that it does refer to men engaged in homosexual behaviour. But the nature of this behaviour is hard to pin down. It is probably not very obscure, given the basic nature of the other sins on the list, and the context is Greece, so Paul is probably referring to the well-known practice in ancient Greece of older men having relationships, both mentoring and sexual, with youths. Whether he meant to condemn homosexuality per se is impossible to tell, but the mentoring of youths by older men is long dead, so humane Christians may reasonably consider the reference anachronistic, and ignore it.

Even if we accept the most homophobic interpretations of the two passages above, must we then feel bound by every other contentious instruction? Such as this one:

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. [1 Timothy 2:9-15] [6]

And don’t get a Marxist started on Paul’s instruction in Romans 13:1, ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.’ If the homophobes insist on citing Paul, let them also demand that women be submissive and silent, or condemn Sophie Scholl for challenging the Nazis, and see how that is received. No decent person should feel obliged to respect such rubbish.

If we are to take Paul as an authority, what are the homophobes to make of this:

The commandments... are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. [Romans 13:8-10]

Paul argues in this passage that God’s commandments can be fulfilled simply by acting in a loving way (which surely implies, at the very least, tolerating rather than condemning homosexuals). Jesus in the Matthew verse cited above also ranked loving our neighbours as one of his two most important commandments, second only to loving God. If Christians want to cite Bible precedents when deciding how to behave, let them cite these.

Conclusion

There isn’t even a word for homosexuality in the Biblical languages of Hebrew, Aramaic and Koiné Greek: the ancient Israelites and early Christians did not have an adequate language for discussing the topic. This doesn’t mean ancient society was as universally backward as we might assume – in fact, the strong trend of homosexuality in Greece and to a lesser extent in Rome suggests that gay relationships were to some degree socially acceptable.

If you want the Bible to justify your vile homophobia, you can interpret selected passages to suit you. If you prefer your Bible homophobia-free, you can interpret them to suit that view, too. This underlines the foolishness of taking seriously an Iron Age anthology of superstitious texts, comfortable with slavery and the execution of people who work on Sundays, as a guide to how to live in the twenty-first century. Even if you do believe that the Bible condemns homosexuality, the text gives no reason why, except that Yahweh says so – which makes Yahweh look arbitrarily hateful.

The truth is that the Bible doesn’t have much to say about homosexuality. Where Bible verses do condemn homosexual behaviours, there is a strong case that they are condemning an aspect of idolatry and not homosexuality as such, i.e. as an intimate part of someone’s sexual identity. They no more apply to the LGBT people on a Pride march, say, than Jesus’ disparaging remarks about the corrupt tax collectors of ancient Judea tell us what to think about the British HMRC.

No gay man or woman has ever been struck down by a bolt of lightning for their sexuality: the hatred comes from human beings, living in a class society which identifies groups of people for discrimination as part of its power structure. Christians are not obliged by the Bible to be homophobic – if they insist on looking to an anachronistic book for guidance, they are perfectly entitled to choose generous, kind interpretations of it over hateful ones, and to commit themselves to the spirit of Jesus’s radical left-wing message: care for the sick, defence of the poor, charity, forgiveness, and loving our neighbours. Homosexuality itself is not a choice; but people can choose how they respond to it.




[1] Modern IVF methods complicate the argument, but we’ll put the issue aside.
[2] Animal same-sex behaviours are interesting, but
we shouldn’t take the parallel with human behaviour too far. Humans are uniquely self-aware and must be considered on their own terms.
[3] It
s unclear to me why God needs to ‘go down to see’ what the people of the cities have done when, being omnipotent, he ought to know automatically.
[4] To protect his guests, Lot suggests the Sodomites abuse his two virgin daughters instead: i.e. the duty of hospitality is more important than protecting his children. This is shocking, but to be fair, the Bible does not endorse Lot’s offer. He and his family are in general presented negatively: they ‘linger’ instead of getting out of town when told to; Lot’s wife looks back, though she was expressly told not to, and is turned into a pillar of salt; and the would-be rapists are put to the sword by the angels.
[5] Christians are explicitly excused in the New Testament from obeying sections of Mosaic law, such as circumcision and the dietary rules, which might have hindered the spread of Christianity into the Roman world.
[6] Despite its name, the book of 1 Timothy is usually ascribed to Paul, who is named as the author in the first verse. Most modern scholars don
t believe he actually wrote it.

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