Homosexuality and the Bible
What does the Bible really say about homosexuality? Among religious people who wish to take the Bible seriously there is no more vexed topic today than that of homosexuality. Theologians and biblical scholars have generated an enormous literature on the subject of the Bible and homosexuality, but the topic is so electric, and so much seems to be at stake, that few are willing to concede to the experts their personal convictions. Thus, perhaps more than any other social or theological issue of our day, this one engages us at our most fundamental level of existence and raises disturbing questions about our own sense of identity, of morality, and of the nature of settled truth.
Our subject, however, is not homosexuality in general, but homosexuality and the Bible and the religious basis for the prejudice against homosexuality so often expressed by people of religious conviction. Nearly every person who acknowledges an aversion to homosexuality does so on the basis of what he or she believes the Bible to say. The argument goes something like this: Homosexuality is an abomination, and the homosexual a sinner. Given the appeal to the Bible in the case against homosexuality, one would assume that the Bible has much to say on the subject. It has not. The subject of homosexuality is not mentioned in the Ten Commandments, nor in the Summary of the Law. No prophet discloses on the subject. Jesus himself makes no mention of it, and homosexuality does not appear to be of much concern to those early churches with which Saint Paul and his successors were involved. One has to look rather hard, and with a user-friendly concordance, to find any mention of homosexuality at all. This should come as no surprise, because the word “homosexuality” itself is an invention of the late nineteenth century and does not occur in any of the original manuscripts from which the English Bible is descended.
The traditional sets of text from the Old Testament and New Testament to which people appeal in seeking the Bible‘s teaching on homosexuality are these:
- Genesis 1-2: The Creation Story
- Genesis 19:1-9: Sodom and Gomorrah
- Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13: The Holiness Code
- Romans 1:26-27: Regarded as the most significant of Saint Paul’s views
- I Corinthians 6:9 & I Timothy 1-10: Pauline lists of vices
Let us address each of these 5 sets of text as were actually written in context in the Bible.
Genesis 1-2: The Creation Story
To argue that the Creation Story privileges a heterosexual view of the relations between humankind is to make one of the weakest arguments possible, the argument from silence. The Genesis story is indeed about Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, as the critics of homosexuality delight in admonishing. “Heterosexuality may be the dominant form of sexuality, but it does not follow that it is the only form of appropriate sexual relations.” What the story does do is reflect the world experience of those human beings who wrote it. Of course they would privilege the only way available to perpetuate the race, and they would do so with the aid of their own cultural lenses. Despite the effort of modern “creationists” to cast Genesis in the mold of nineteenth century science, the authors of Genesis were intent upon answering the question, “Where do we come from?” Then, as now, the only plausible answer is from the union of a man and a woman. The biological fact is attended by the cultural assumptions of the world in which the writers lived. Woman, for example, was subordinate to man.
The creation story in Genesis does not pretend to be a history of anthropology or of every social relationship. It does not mention friendship, for example, and yet we do not assume that friendship is condemned or abnormal. It does not mention the single state, and yet we know that singleness is not condemned, and that in certain religious circumstances it is held in very high esteem. The creation story is not, after all, a paradigm about marriage, but rather about the establishment of human society. The creation story is not the basis and not the end of human diversity, and thus to regard it as excluding everything it does not mention is to place a great burden on the text and the writers, and too little responsibility upon the intelligence of the readers, and on the varieties of human experience.
Sodom and Gomorrah
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:1-9 is perhaps the most famous instance in scripture where homosexuality is seen to be condemned, and from the name of the destroyed city of Sodom came the term sodomy. Actually, the Sodomites in this context are condemned not because they have sexual relations with other men, but because they serve alien gods of the Canaanite and Babylonian fertility cults.
We do not know what the grave wickedness of the city of Sodom was, but it was grave enough for God to send two angels to warn Abraham’s nephew, Lot, of impending doom. It was God’s intention to destroy the city before the arrival of the angels, and so the punishment that befell the city had to do with its previous and notorious state of wickedness and not with the menacing treatment accorded to the angels while they were partaking of Lot’s hospitality. It may well be that the men of Sodom knew that their fate was sealed when they saw the arrival of Lot’s guests, and perhaps it was for that reason that they wished to “know” of them, either carnally, as a further expression of wickedness, or perhaps, if merely socially, to reassure themselves that these were not the angels of doom.
The temptation here is to assume the use of “know” in this instance to be carnal knowledge, and that the wicked men of Sodom further justified their reputation for wickedness by attempting to violate the laws of hospitality with the rape of these strangers. Lot, of course, refused their demands, and in a perverse gesture of hospitality of his own, offered his daughters to the lusting mob. They wanted the strangers, not the daughters. The angels gave their protection to Lot’s household, and struck blind the Sodomites at the door. The next day Lot and his family, with the exception of his wife, who disobeyed and looked back at the city, were spared the destruction of fire and brimstone.
The conventional wisdom is that the city of Sodom was destroyed because its inhabitants practiced homosexuality. That was its great wickedness. Even if we credit the Hebrew word “know” in the demands of the Sodomites, however- “that we might know” the strangers- in a carnal sense, we should not neglect the fact that the fate of the city was determined well before the ugly incident at Lot’s door. It was in behalf of that errand doom, in fact, that the angels came at all. Sodom is referred to throughout the Old Testament as a place of wickedness and is synonymous with it, but nowhere does it state that homosexuality was the wickedness in question. Actually, in the New Testament, Jesus himself is under the impression that Sodom was destroyed because it was a place lacking hospitality, we find him saying as much in Matthew 10:14-15, and in Luke 10:10-12.
What is revealing about all this is that nowhere in the Old or New Testaments is the sin of Sodom, the cause of its sudden and terrible destruction, equated with homosexuals or with homosexuality. The attempted rape of the angels at Lot’s door, while vivid and distasteful, is hardly the subject of the story or the cause of the punishment, and no one in scripture suggests that it was. Homosexual rape is never to be condoned; it is indeed, like heterosexual rape, an abomination before God. This instance of attempted homosexual rape , however, does not invalidate all homosexuals or homosexuality activity.
The Laws of Leviticus
Leviticus 18:22 reads, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination,” and Leviticus 20:13 reads, “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.” The statements are clear, but the context and application are not. It is clear that this so-called Holiness Code is designed to provide a standard of moral behavior that will distinguish the Jews from the Canaanites, whose land they have been given by God. The price for the land, as it were, is a new standard of behavior. The Jews are not to worship the Canaanite god Moloch, nor to adopt any of the practices of the people who do. The sentence to be carried out when this Holiness Code is violated is death. Children who curse their parents are to be put to death. The sentence for adultery for both parties is death. The punishment for incest is death. The punishment for bestiality is death.
These rules are designed for a very particular purpose and in a very particular setting. Their purpose is nation building; their setting is the entry into a promised but very foreign land. These are fundamental laws for the formation of a frontier community. In addition to honoring one’s parents and keeping the Sabbath, showing appropriate hospitality and abstaining from idol worship, the people are forbidden to permit cattle inbreeding, or to sow fields with two kinds of seed, or to wear garments made of two different kinds of materials. Fruit trees may not be harvested until the fifth year, and the kosher laws must be kept. Round haircuts are forbidden, as are tattoos, and consultations with mediums and wizards. A man may not have sexual relations with his wife while she menstruates. These and many other actions are condemned because they defy purity and weaken the cultural identification of the children of Israel; and so great is the principle of ritual and ethnic purity that to violate is in most cases a warrant of the death sentence.
We can understand this context: cultural identity, protection, and procreation. In this context homosexuality conduct is a risk to all three of these necessary frontier ambitions. We have, however, long since ceased to live as God’s frontier folk in the promised land. Not only is the cultural context markedly different, but so for Christians is the theological context. Indeed, to what extend can Christians be said to be bound by these rules of the Holiness Code and even Saint Paul, himself a Jew and an heir of this very code, says that the Gentiles, that is, the non-Jewish Christians, have the gift of the Holy Spirit without the necessary Law of Israel?
For Jesus and Saint Paul, the ritual purity of which Leviticus speaks with such passionate detail is plainly irrelevant, they are both concerned with purity of heart. Homosexuality in Leviticus is what is condemned as ritually impure, the key to this conclusion being the fact that the word abomination does not usually describe something intrinsically evil, such as rape or theft, but something that is ritually impure, like eating pork or engaging in intercourse during menstruation. An abomination is by definition what the Gentiles do, but that in and of itself is not necessarily evil or a violation of the Commandments. Thus homosexuality is an abomination in Leviticus not because it is inherently evil but because the Gentiles do it, and it is therefore ritually impure.
When Christians ignore most of the Holiness Code and regard its precepts as irrelevant to the New Testament understanding of purity of heart, and yet cite the Leviticus’s prohibitions against homosexuality as the basis of their own moral position on the subject, one is led to wonder what is behind the adoption of this prohibition and the casting away of the others. Once again the “clear meaning” of scripture in the matter of homosexuality seems more expedient than compelling.
What Paul Says and Means
We now turn to the New Testament and the writings by and attributed to Paul, in Romans, I Corinthians and I Timothy. Paul’s most significant comment on what we call homosexuality occur in Romans 1:26-27. “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”
The first thing to remember here is that Paul is not writing about homosexuality in Romans–neither about homosexuality as he would have understood it nor about homosexuality as we now understand it. He is writing about the fallen nature of humankind. It is this fallen nature, this “corrupted will” to use a favorite phrase of Saint Augustine, that has caused both the Gentile and Jew to suppress the truth about their wickedness. They are able to know what is knowable about God: his invisible nature, his eternal power and deity. The creation itself bears witness to this. The nature, power, and goodness of God are not hidden. There is therefore no excuse for this ignorance of God. The people knew God but did not honor God. They were not grateful to God. They substituted their own minds and their own thinking in place of God. As Paul says in Romans 1:21, “They became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were clouded.” In other words, the creatures ignored the Creator, and they themselves became the objects of their own worship and veneration. They became worshippers of self, caught up in their own egos, and they gave to created things the glory and dignity that belong to the Creator. This is what he means when he says that the fallen state of total self-absorption and self-deception, human beings…became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal men or birds or animals or reptiles.
When modern readers scrutinize Romans 1:26, with its discussion of “dishonorable passions”, “unnatural relations”, and “shameless acts”, conditioned as we are by the characterization of homosexual behavior prevalent among us since the late nineteenth century, which in the current cultural debate is described loosely and pejoratively as the “gay lifestyle” and the “homosexual agenda”, we are tempted to give a content to those words and a profile, largely negative, to those behaviors, and are persuaded by our own infallible opinions that Saint Paul is “obviously” talking about the same thing as we are. The hard question we must persuade ourselves to ask is, is this so?
It is all well and good to discuss what the Bible says or doesn’t say about homosexuality. But when it comes down to cases, homosexuality is not about the Bible or texts. It is all about sex, and that is what tends to make it rather difficult to talk about in polite society, particularly the religiously saturated culture of the United States that is still squeamish about the subject of sex. This squeamishness doesn’t deny the hedonistic basis of our much popular culture; entertaining and advertising, perhaps our two chief “art forms”, are suffused with sex. Calvin Klein makes a sexual statement with every promotion of his underwear. The paradox of our culture is that while we are hardly averse to sex and its all too prominent place in our public consciousness, we are still awkward in talking about it.
© Excerpts taken from: The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart by Peter J. Gomes (Paperback – April 30, 2002)