Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Bible and Homosexuality

Well, here we are in late 2012 and the Revelation of the Magi continues to sell well! Thanks to everyone who bought it or gave it to people as a Christmas present. I'm truly touched by the response to the book.

This post has nothing to do with the Revelation of the Magi, but instead concerns a lecture I gave at OU today entitled "What the Bible Says (and Doesn't Say) About Homosexuality." A few Facebook friends wanted to know what I said, but Facebook seems to have done away with their note feature. So, for those of you who are interested, the full text of my presentation follows after the jump.


I’m pleased to have the opportunity to speak with you today on the topic of what the Bible says, and doesn’t say, about homosexuality. Most of my presentation is going to focus on the four or five passages in the Bible that seem to address same-sex sexual intercourse. But before we get into these passages, I’d like to make a few preliminary remarks.
First, notice that I said that there are only about five or so passages in the entire Bible that discuss homosexuality…five! So, the emphasis that we see by many conservative Christian leaders and politicians on the sinfulness of homosexuality and gay marriage doesn’t really match up with the amount of time that the Bible actually spends on this issue. If we go by the number of times something is mentioned in the Bible, then the most significant moral or social issue by far is poverty. The progressive Christian activist Jim Wallis has made the point that if you went through the Bible with a pair of scissors and cut out everything that had to do with poverty, then your Bible would end up being very visibly damaged. In contrast, if you cut out only the passages having to do with homosexuality, somebody would have to look quite closely at your Bible to realize that anything was missing.
So that’s the first point. The second point is that, although I’m going to be focusing in this talk on what the Bible says about homosexuality, we shouldn’t treat this issue in isolation from what the Bible says more generally on issues of sexuality, gender, and the family. And to characterize the Bible as being supportive of “traditional family values” is very misleading. In the Christian scriptures of the New Testament, for example, it seems quite clear that both Jesus himself and the Apostle Paul believe that the ideal state for human beings is celibacy: no marriage, no kids. This is because they believed that the world was going to end in their lifetime. The logic was, if the Apocalypse is right around the corner, then why would you keep living your life as if things weren’t going to change dramatically? Furthermore, when we look at discussions of marriage in the Hebrew Bible, that is, the Christian Old Testament, we find some quite shocking ideas, as this very helpful chart indicates. For example, we have the directive that if a man rapes an unmarried woman, then as punishment for this offense, he is obligated to…marry her. Or take the idea of levirate marriage, where if woman’s husband dies and they haven’t had any male children, then she must marry his brother. And these cases don’t even address the very basic understanding of marriage as an exchange of property—namely, the woman—from one family to another. As you can see, many of these sentiments about marriage are totally foreign to the way marriage is understood in Western culture today.
The third and final preliminary point I want to make is this. It is impossible to follow the entire Bible consistently and literally in the 21st century. Anyone who claims to use the Bible as their instruction book for life must, at one point or another, engage in the process of interpretation. This may involve allegorizing some piece of instruction that seems incredibly harsh, such as Jesus saying to cut off your hand if it causes you to sin. Or it may involve saying that certain commandments are now no longer in effect since the coming of Christ—such as the prohibitions on eating shrimp or pork. The ultimate reason why the Bible is impossible to follow in its entirety is that there may have been as many as 80 different writers who contributed to the books that we now know as the Bible. Moreover, these books were over the span of 1500 years or so, and they are the products of cultures and worldviews that are drastically different from our own. So when I discuss these passages from the Bible about homosexuality, I am not going to be able to say that the Bible doesn’t have anything negative to say about same-sex relationships…it does have some very negative and hurtful things to say about them. But, the things that it says were written by authors who understood the world very differently than how we do today. This will be especially clear when we get to a fascinating passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, where Paul says that, yes, same-sex intercourse is very bad, but he bases his position on a whole host of assumptions about human beings, God, and the world that nobody today—not even the most conservative Christians—would accept as legitimate.
So without further ado, let’s move on to the passages in the Bible where homosexuality is discussed.
The first two passages are from Leviticus, the third book of the Hebrew Bible. The first one is Leviticus chapter 18, verse 22, which reads “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” The second passage, closely related to the first, but certainly more punitive is Leviticus chapter 20, verse 13: “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.”
Here are a few of the observations that professional biblical scholars have made about these passages. First, both passages are embedded in larger discussions in Leviticus about sexual activities that either result in illicit offspring—such as incest—or in this case, lack of offspring. Second, these prohibitions seem to be concerned with maintaining a high birth rate, which would make sense in a new nation such as Israel. This also explains why male homosexual practice is condemned, but nothing is said about same-sex relations between women. In fact, it’s important to recognize that there are no passages in the Bible that explicitly address same-sex relationships between women, although Romans 1 could be read that way. Third, the Hebrew word that is used to evaluate male-on-male sexual intercourse is translated as “abomination,” and in other translations as “detestable” or “loathsome.” But this word is also used to describe other things that most people today would not consider to be so reprehensible, such as the eating of shellfish or the practice of lending money and charging interest on it. Fourth and finally, notice what the ultimate outcome of male-male sexual intercourse is: both of them will be put to death. This is an example of what I mean by the fact that certain extremely harsh directives get explained away by people who claim to follow the Bible as their instruction book for life. Most opponents of gay rights or marriage equality do not, to my knowledge, go so far as to say that homosexuality should be punishable by death. So one might ask, if anti-gay activists believe that Leviticus says homosexuality is a sin, then why do they not take the next logical step according to the passage and insist that homosexuality be considered a capital crime? In some ways, this is analogous to the way that Christian communities that prohibit women’s ordination appeal to Paul’s letters for this position, such as this passage from 1 Cor 14 where it says, “As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” But this passage is not simply saying that a woman can’t preach a sermon…it’s saying that she can’t talk in church at all. So if one wishes to appeal to the Bible to prohibit the ordination of women, why stop there when the biblical text actually goes farther?
So that’s what Leviticus has to say. It certainly is very negative about homosexual relations, but it is also embedded in a larger set of concerns about procreation and the identity formation of the newly liberated Israelites. And, it goes farther in its directive about what the penalty for homosexuality should be than most conservative politicians or Christian leaders would be comfortable.
The next passage is the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, narrated in Genesis 18-19. Since it’s a very long story, I’ve only put up the passage that has most frequently been cited in attempts to link the wickedness of Sodom with homosexuality. To give you some context, God has sent two angels to the city of Sodom to determine how wicked its people are, because he plans to destroy it. “The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. He said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the square.” But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. 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, so that we may know them.” Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a 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.”
There are several important things to notice in this passage. First, as many of you are aware, the verb “to know” is a very common biblical idiom for having sexual intercourse. So, when the men of Sodom ask Lot to send the angels outside so that they may know them, it doesn’t mean that they want to have a conversation with them. They want to have sex with them, or, more specifically, they want to rape them. Why do they want to do this? Is the entire male population of Sodom homosexual in their sexual orientation, and so lustful that they just will do anything to have these men? No, I really don’t think this is what’s going on. This is because there wasn’t a clearly defined conception of “sexual orientation” in the ancient world as the same way that we have it today. Sex had two primary uses in the ancient world. One was pro-creation, in the case of heterosexual sex. But both heterosexual and homosexual sex also had another primary purpose, and that was to demonstrate the dominance and superiority of the one who is penetrating over the one who is being penetrated. This demonstration of dominance would be expressed, for example, every time a husband had sex with his wife. But another way that dominance could be expressed by same-sex rape, as an act of violence against another man or group of men who were considered inferior or were defeated militarily in battle. Indeed, even in today’s society, where we do have a clear concept of “sexual orientation,” male-on-male rape is still used in wars and other conflicts as a means of thoroughly humiliating the defeated. Indeed, many soldiers who have raped their enemies would still regard themselves as heterosexual in orientation. So, the Sodom and Gomorrah story says nothing about loving, equal relationships between same-sex partners. Instead, we’re talking here about anal rape being used as a weapon against those who are perceived as inferiors. Two last points about Sodom and Gomorrah. When the story of Sodom is discussed later in the Bible, it is not said that the sin of Sodom was homosexuality. Rather, Sodom’s sin was the utter failure of its inhabitants to be hospitable to foreigners, namely, to these angels. The final point to make is that, while we have been focusing on what the men of Sodom wanted with these angels, we should not overlook what Lot’s counter-proposal to the men is. Here, have my virgin daughters, and do anything with them that you wish! So even though Lot is considered one of the few righteous people that will escape the destruction of Sodom, his actions here are quite despicable by modern standards. And it’s quite likely that this willingness to give up his own daughters in defense of his guests is considered a good thing by the author of this story. Again, a good reminder of how far removed the values of the biblical world are from our own.
So, these are the passages from the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament, that address homosexuality directly: two from Leviticus, and one from Genesis. Both of these passages were probably written somewhere between 1200 BC and 800 BC. Now, we’ll switch over to the Christian New Testament; nearly all of its writings were written in the first century of the common era, at the height of the Roman Empire’s dominance. The two passages from the New Testament that specifically address homosexuality come from the letters of the Apostle Paul, one of the most important missionaries and thinkers from the first several generations of Christians. But before we take a look at what Paul says about homosexuality, consider this. If these are the only NT passages that talk about this issue, then that means that Jesus himself does not ever talk about it…or at least the four gospels never record him saying anything about it. But, I would caution that, as a biblical scholar, I don’t think this means that Jesus himself was pro-gay. If I had to guess, I would assume that Jesus’ attitude toward homosexuality was probably in line with most Jews, in that they considered it to be something that mainly non-Jews like the Greeks and Romans did, and considered it to be evidence of their moral depravity. I don’t think he would have been in favor of stoning them to death, however, since he opposed the attempt of self-righteous people to stone a woman caught in adultery. But the fact that Jesus is not recorded as saying anything about homosexuality, positive or negative, suggests that it was not an issue that he was very concerned about.
The first passage from Paul’s letters is 1 Corinthians chapter 6, verses 9 thru 11. “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”
First, some context. Paul here is not talking to a Jewish audience, but rather to a Gentile or non-Jewish audience. These were, in fact, the main group of people that Paul did his missionary work among, and so he played an enormous role in transforming Christian from a sect within Judaism to, in effect, a new religion that eventually became totally Gentile and non-Jewish. And, it is important to point out that Greek and Roman society was much more accepting of homosexuality than was Jewish society, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Paul discussed it at some point in his letters. And, in fact, he does discuss it in Romans 1, as we’ll see in a little bit…but as for 1 Corinthians 6:9, there are some very good reasons to question whether Paul is actually referring to homosexuality here.
The two words in question are the ones that are translated “male prostitutes” and “sodomites.” The Greek words that underlie the English translation are arsenokoites and malakos. The problem is that the first of these words occurs so rarely in Greek that we can’t be completely sure what it means, and the second word occurs quite a bit more, but doesn’t refer specifically to homosexuals.
Let’s look at the first one, arsenokoites, translated as “male prostitutes.” It’s a very uncommon word, but seems to be a compound word made up of the words “man” and “sleeps with.” But deciding what a word means on the basis of the smaller words it’s made up of can be quite misleading. For example, if you understand something, does that mean you’re standing under it? So the better way of figuring out what an uncommon word like arsenokoites means is to read texts where it’s used and try to guess at its meaning based on the context. And, when we do this, we find that it often occurs in discussions of economic victimization. Our best guess is that it meant someone who used money to coerce someone sexually. But this could mean lots of things: it could be a pimp, it could be a john, someone who visits prostitutes, it could be the prostitute herself or himself. But that’s about all we know, so using this as a condemnation of homosexuality is very unwise.
The other word, malakos, we do know quite a bit about. Its root meaning seems to be “effeminate.” Men who were malakos wore perfume and makeup and lots of jewelry, but this is a case of where our culture is very different from the Bible’s culture, since a man who behaved like this was, more often then not, looking to have sex with women. So a malakos was considered a man with too many feminine qualities—enjoying fine food, shaving, singing or dancing, laughing too much. In the sexual realm, it could mean a man who didn’t mind being penetrated, either by another man or by a woman. It could also mean someone who masturbated, or someone who really liked having sex with women. In Greek and Roman culture where upper class men had both male and female sexual partners, the woman was really just for procreation, where the other man was for having fun and feeling truly sexually fulfilled. People tended to look a little suspiciously at those men who really liked having sex with women.
So, summing up this passage, we don’t know what arsenokoites meant, except that it had something to do with exploiting someone sexually. And we do know what malakos meant. While it certainly had sexual dimensions, its root meaning is best understood as “effeminate.” It was a way of denigrating men, often heterosexual men, by saying that they behaved like woman. And of course, it shows us just how inferior women were in comparison to men in antiquity.
The final passage I want to mention is from the New Testament, from the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 1, verses 18-27. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”
This is an extraordinarily rich passage, and I’ve only quoted part of it. Biblical scholars would say, first of all, that Paul’s basic argument in this passage is that same-sex attraction is one of the ways, but not the only way, that God has punished human beings who have engaged in idolatry rather than in the worship of the true God. Notice the implication of that: for Paul, homosexuality is a punishment that has been sent by God. Conservative Christians and politicians virtually never talk about homosexuality as a punishment sent from God, but rather as humans rebelling against God’s design for sexuality. Second, however, most scholars recognize that this scenario that Paul is describing is not the Fall of Humanity in the Garden of Eden that is narrated in Genesis 3. Here, Paul is instead talking only about non-Jews, since they’re the ones who worship idols. Third, why is it important that Paul is only talking about Gentiles here? If Paul is saying that homosexuality is a curse from God for engaging in idolatry, then he is also saying that most Jews and Christians by definition can’t be homosexuals because they don’t worship idols. Fourth, we have to realize that if the crime is idolatry, then the punishment has to fit the crime. If idolatry is worshiping something that’s lower then you—like an animal—rather than something that’s higher than you—namely, God—then the punishment God inflicts upon those who commit idolatry is to make them desire things that are unnatural, that aren’t in keeping with the natural order of things. This could be same-sex desire, but it could also be, when Paul talks about women having unnatural intercourse, it may be something as simple as having sex on top. In the Greco-Roman world, a woman in a dominant sexual position would certainly have been considered out of line with the way sex was supposed to be performed.
So, to sum up this passage from Romans 1, Paul does say that same-sex attraction is sinful. But if we were just to leave the matter there, we would be grossly oversimplifying what he’s saying. His assumptions about where homosexuality comes from, who can be a homosexual, and what is considered natural and unnatural in sexual relations are vastly different from modern understandings of homosexuality, including the understandings of anti-gay Christians. Unlike anti-gay Christians, Paul thinks that homosexuality comes from God, that it’s not something that a person chooses to do. He also thinks that Jews and Christians by definition can’t be homosexual because they don’t commit idolatry. And when Paul says idolatry, he doesn’t mean a kind of general attitude of putting other things, like sex, money, or power ahead of God. He literally means bowing down to a statue of Zeus or the Roman Emperor or even a lizard. He can’t conceive of homosexuality existing in any other way. Finally, unlike anti-gay Christians, he understands “unnatural passions” in a much broader sense than just homosexuality. If a man has sex with his wife every night, as some Christian pastors say they do, that would be considered unnatural by Paul. And that doesn’t even take into account what sexual positions they’re using!
In concluding this discussion of Romans 1 and my entire presentation, I would say this. It is beyond a doubt that the Bible considers homosexuality to be sinful. But, I would very quickly add that it does this on the basis of assumptions about the way the world is that no anti-gay Christian today would agree to. So, if someone were to say that homosexuality is bad because Paul says it is, but he or she fails to mention the very specific—and very different—cultural assumptions that Paul bases this judgment on, how legitimate of a reading is this? Has this person just taken out of the biblical text what he or she wants to find there, and ignored all the foundational presuppositions of the biblical author because they complicate the situation? Is it intellectually honest or morally commendable to read a two-thousand year old writer like Paul, to say nothing of the three-thousand year old writer of Leviticus, in such a cheerfully oblivious fashion? Thank you.

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