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Monday, October 31, 2016

Homosexuality in the Old Testament: My Defense of LGB Relationships Part 3

Note this is Part 3 in a series which begins HERE

For my series in defense of the identities of transgender folk click HERE

I think most evangelical Christians, regardless of their personal beliefs regarding LGB folk, see the Old Testament as something of a slam dunk for the more traditional position (1). The Sodom story and the term sodomite which we get from it, loom large in our minds. Leviticus 18:19-23  is as least as clear as Romans 1 in its prohibition of men having sex with men, and Leviticus 20:13 requires the death penalty for men who “lie with a man as one lies with a woman”, though for some reason, we don’t pay much attention to the horrific account of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19.
And as with Romans 1 in the last post, I think that it is problematic to claim that any of these passages, much less all of them when taken together, are referring to any and all instances of gay sex. In the case of the Leviticus passages (which like the Romans 1 passage is descriptive), we need to ask, what is being talked about when the act is described. In the cases of Sodom and the Levite’s concubine, the question becomes “what, precisely, is the passage condemning?”
I should note at this point that in order to keep the length of this post under control, I will be addressing Genesis and the creation narrative in my next post when I take a look at natural law theory and the oblique references.
Let me begin with the Sodom story. There is a tradition that the “sin of Sodom”, which apparently grieved God so much that He destroyed the city with fire from heaven, was the practice of gay sex, and this has been used as evidence that God really doesn’t like it when people have gay sex. But there are some serious problems with this position. First is that Ezekiel 16:44-52 identified the sin of Sodom as arrogance, greed, and extreme inhospitality. We don’t actually get a reference to homosexuality in Ezekiel’s account of Sodom and while the passage is full of generally sexual imagery, it is actually fairly difficult to construct any of it as homosexual.
Furthermore, the men of Sodom’s desire to rape foreigners does fit with the concept of extreme inhospitality which Ezekiel calls out (and which Jesus seems to be referring to in Matthew 10:15). Attempts to focus on the homosexual aspect of Sodom’s sin (that it was men (2) that they wanted to rape) are particularly problematic in that they minimize the horror of sexual violence and tend to gloss over Lot’s incredibly upsetting solution to the problem - offering his daughters in place of the angels (3). I am not going to argue (particularly in light of Jude 1:7 (4) ) that sexual sin had nothing to do with the sin of Sodom, however I see no reason to conclude that the sin in question was gay sex when it is clear that an overwhelming rape culture was so pervasive in the city. If God condemned the city for cultivating a culture of raping foreigners, it seems far more likely that He was condemning the rape than the homosexuality.
The story of the Levite’s concubine in Judges can be subject to the same analysis (5).
Which leaves us with Leviticus. And again I want to begin by looking at the cultural context for discussions of homosexuality, this time in the ancient near-east. In other words, what would have been in the minds of the original author and readership of Leviticus concerning “men who lie with men as one lies with a woman?”
As with the Hellenistic culture of Romans 1, whatever was being described, it seems fairly safe to say that monogamous, covenant relationships would not have been within their overall concept of the practice. Certainly there is less information available about the practice of gay sex in ancient Mesopotamia and the near east than there is for classical Greece and Rome. However, so far as I have been able to discover, the predominant cultural expressions of gay sex involved temple and cult prostitution, auto-emasculation, and ritual domination. And so once more, what are currently translated as straightforward descriptive denunciations of gay sex turn out to have involved connotations of idolatry and abuse.
With this observation, certain things begin to stand out in careful exegesis of the passages: Notably, the Leviticus passages both restrict themselves to proscriptions of male-male sex. This is striking (even in a fairly andro-centric context) because in the Leviticus 18 account, the next prohibition (bestiality) does include prohibitions for both men and women while the surrounding sexual prohibitions (being heterosexual in nature) also include women (6). I would suggest that if Leviticus is condemning this sex merely because it is homosexual then it ought to be followed by a parallel proscription of lesbian sex. If, on the other hand, “lying with a man as one lies with a woman” is being forbidden because it is bound up in cult prostitution and idolatry, there would be no reason to include a parallel condemnation of lesbian sex which (so far as we know) was not an integral part of any contemporary cult practice. In short, the absence of lesbian sex in Leviticus 18 only makes sense if the prohibition is of cult prostitution and not of homosexual sex per se.
Ultimately, the contemporary, dominant, expressions of gay sex were bound up in practices (temple prostitution, idol worship, auto-emasculation, ritual domination-rape) which nearly all Christians today can agree are incredibly sinful and/or damaging. I believe that it was these “practices of the nations” which God was warning people away from, not the monogamous, covenant relationships LGB Christians are asking the Church to recognize today. And this is the model for homosexuality which seems to have existed in the Hebrew worldview which, together with the contemporary hellenistic/Roman model would have been what Paul had in mind when he wrote the letter to the Romans (7).
In Summary:

Although both the Old Testament and the New Testament have only negative things to say about gay sex when they discuss it, the gay sex being discussed is always entwined with uncontroversially negative and damaging practices (rape, cult prostitution, pederasty, and auto-emasculation). The Bible would be (and in many places is) just as condemning of heterosexual sex when it is practiced in equivalent ways. It is therefore not warranted to conclude that God condemns gay sex when it is practiced in the monogamous, covenant context of marriage. At least not on the basis of careful exegesis of the “direct references” in Scripture. In the next post I hope to address Genesis, natural law, and porneia … oh my!

PART 4: The Indirect Texts HERE

(1) The most common response I have seen from the LGB affirming crew is to point out that very few Christians take the OT law as particularly binding or are able to enunciate a hermeneutic which justifies a selective application of Leviticus. This is probably true but it doesn’t actually prove the case one way or the other.
(2) Male angels? This brings up some interesting questions pertaining to the gendered-ness of spiritual beings, for more on that, check out my series on a Christian Defense of the Identities of Transgender Persons.
(3) The generally acknowledged "magisterial" work on the subject of sexuality in the Old Testament is Flame of Yahweh by Richard M. Davidson. I am not a fan, and Davidson particularly loses me on this point where he argues that the men of Sodom were not in fact attempting to rape but only to have consensual sex with the angels and defends his position by pointing out that Lot offers his daughters to the crowd in lieu of the angels. Davidson seems to believe that if a father offers his daughters to an angry crowd in order to satisfy their sexual demands, the crowd’s subsequent treatment of those women would not qualify as rape.
(4) It is worth pointing out the the ESV’s translation of “sarkos heteras” as “unnatural desire” constitutes some unwarranted commentary-in-translation, and that the more literal “other flesh” would have been a better fit as it would have reflected the Matthew and Ezekiel interpretations by allowing for the concept of extreme (sexual) inhospitality to foreigners.
(5) Although at least in this one Davidson is willing to admit that there was rape going on - despite the fact that it uses the same words as the Sodom account.
(6) This is also true of the Leviticus 20 passage, though the order is different.
(7) I should probably mention here that Philo of Alexandria (a Jewish Theologian/Philosopher contemporary of Paul) universally associates gay sex with paganism, cult prostitution, extreme hedonism, auto-emasculation, and/or paederasty. He also sees it as “contrary to nature” because it is non-procreative, which I will discuss at length in the next post.

Romans 1: My Christian Defense of LGB Relationships Part 2

Note that this is Part 2 in a series which begins HERE

For my series in defense of the identities of transgender folk click HERE

Of all the biblical passages cited as proscriptions of gay sex, Romans 1 is probably the favorite and I think understandably so. As I have already mentioned, there are legitimate scholarly debates over the translation of the only other direct mentions of homosexuality in the NT but Romans 1:26-27 seems far less ambiguous since, rather than using a particular term, it describes what it is condemning. Certainly in my own development on this topic, there was a time where everything seemed to hang on Romans 1.

So let me dive in. First, I think the basic assertion I just made is actually fairly problematic. It might be convenient if a basic description of an act could be taken to represent all possible variations of that act but that just isn’t how language and communication work. I think it is fairly certain that Paul is describing gay sex in Romans 1:26-27, but I do not think it is at all obvious that the Romans 1 description should be taken as representing all possible instances of gay sex. What needs to be asked is: “What was Paul talking about when he describes gay sex in Romans 1?” And in order to answer that question we will have to look into connotations of gay sex in the 1st century Hebrew and Roman worlds.

Let me be clear, I am claiming that while Paul may have been aware of something roughly analogous to our contemporary understanding of homosexuality, (though even the classical Greek approach doesn’t map perfectly on to our current model)  it is an extreme stretch to claim that our contemporary understanding is what he would have been talking about in Romans 1. If that seems far fetched, let me illustrate with an example of how we use language:
If I were to say that I support the right of parents to have their child circumcised it would seem to be a fairly straightforward statement, and for most practical purposes it is. However, it is possible that some future scholar, studying my life and writings, could legitimately demonstrate that I am aware of the practice of female circumcision and thereby argue that I support the right of parents to have their daughter circumcised. The thing is, our future scholar would be dead wrong. I am entirely opposed to female circumcision. And yet the original statement “I support the right of parents to have their child circumcised” is still a true statement because in our cultural context, female circumcision is not a live option. Female circumcision (excision) is a thing I am aware of and is legitimately within the lexical domain of “circumcision” but it is not what I am talking about when I talk about circumcision in my American context (1).
Thus to assume that Paul’s description in Romans 1 automatically includes what we might refer to as a monogamous, covenant, gay marriage commits the same linguistic fallacy involved in assuming that I support excision. In order to determine what Paul was talking about, we have to look at the dominant cultural connotations of gay sex.
Contemporary scholarship suggests that there were three cultural understandings of gay sex which would have been available to Paul: The Hebrew, the classical Greek, and the Roman. Of these, I would argue that the Greek, while more nuanced and philosophical than the other two, is essentially irrelevant to Paul who was writing as a Jew to a mixed Jewish/Roman audience in a Latin context (2). A great deal of ink has been spilled speculating as to whether or not Paul would have been aware of the Greek theories on the subject but at the end of the day, even if he was, his knowledge does not warrant the claim that he was talking about them when he talked about gay sex in Romans 1.
So then what would Paul have been talking about? While scholars can get into all sorts of debate over exceptional, potentially loving, non-abusive instances of gay sex in the 1st century Roman world, they pretty much agree that the overwhelming majority fall under the categories of slave rape, pederastic dominance and abuse, temple prostitution, and adultery. As far as the Roman cultural connotations for gay sex are concerned it is safe to say that monogamous, covenant relationships were not what Romans meant when they talked about homosexuality, they were not a live option in that context (3).
But Paul was educated in a Hellenized Jewish context as was a portion of his audience in Romans so that context is relevant as well. I will get more into this in the next post but for now I will maintain that the dominant Hebrew cultural connotation for gay sex included temple prostitution, gentile licentiousness, and adultery, and seems to have mistakenly seen them as inseparable from any form of gay sex. As with the Romans, I maintain that monogamous, covenant relationships simply were not what 1st century Hebrews were talking about when they discussed homosexuality.
Furthermore, the immediate context of Roman 1 supports the claim that monogamous, covenant relationships are outside the scope of Paul’s discussion. Verses 26-27 are given as a social implication for refusing to worship God and are followed (4) by a list of other practices which arise as a result of that refusal. The full list is uniformly ugly, other-damaging and blasphemous. The dominant Roman (and Hebrew) expressions of gay sex fit well on the list, but monogamous, covenant, same-sex relationships do not. To claim that 26-27 must include all instances of gay sex one would have to claim that verse 30 must include all instances of a child disobeying their parent. But we recognize that Paul is not condemning the refusal of Christian converts to obey a parent’s order to participate in idolatry or another religion. We see that as a fairly obvious exception, one might even say “when the fruit of disobedience draws someone closer to God, we may safely conclude that we are dealing with a form of disobedience Paul was not talking about in Romans 1:30”. That same statement can be made in reference to Romans 1:26-27: “when the fruit of gay sex draws someone closer to God, we may safely conclude that we are dealing with a form of gay sex Paul was not talking about in Romans 1:30”

In summary:

  1. The cultural associations that Paul’s audience would have had with gay sex would not have included monogamous, covenant relationships. Therefore Paul should not be assumed to be talking about monogamous, covenant relationships.
  2. Exegetically there is space in Romans 1 to claim that Paul was not referring to every possible instance of an activity in his list of consequences for rejecting God. Therefore it is exegetically reasonable to claim that Paul’s description of gay sex does not necessarily include every possible instance of gay sex.

Click HERE For Part 3 in this Series: The Old Testament


(1) This analogy still holds if I substitute the term “circumcision” with the phrase “surgical removal of genital tissue” so the fact that Romans 1 is descriptive does not substantively change the argument here.
(2) At a time when classical Greek thinking was 300-500 years old and about as relevant to the common person as enlightenment thinking is to my high school students: formative but not conscious and certainly not something they will cite in day to day life.
(3) Sarah Ruden and Louis Crompton are particularly useful sources here, though it is well documented elsewhere.
(4) Romans 1:28-32

A Couple of Odd Words: My Christian Defense of LGB Relationships Part 1

I am publishing this series here at Heaven and Earth Questions for two reasons. First out of practical convenience: I am so frequently asked to give an account of my interpretation of the Bible on the topic of homosexuality that I realized it would be really useful to have my basic exegetical approach laid out in one place. Most of this series is adapted with only minor updates and alteration from a blog-debate I began several years ago with Luke Geraty over at Think Theology. Because that conversation never concluded, my second reason for publishing here is simply to finish my argument in a place where those who are interested can find the whole thing. 

For my series in defense of the identities of transgender folk click HERE


I would like to start with a few caveats. First, I am neither a Biblical scholar, nor a theologian. I do not have any formal education in the fields of human sexuality or psychology either. I hold an undergraduate degree in Bible together with one in the humanities and a masters in the liberal arts; I am not trying to establish an underdog status; rather I want to be clear that while I have just enough Biblical training to endanger myself, I come at these issues as a generalist and not as a specialist in any one of the many fields which bear on this issue. My approach is certain to have its weaknesses as well as its strengths, but I am happy with it. Second I will be restricting myself to commentary on gay sex per se. I will attempt throughout to be both purposeful and accurate with my terminology using "LGBTQ+" or "the Queer community" when speaking broadly and of cultural groupings, "LGB" when discussing matters relating directly to gay sex (1), and "lesbian" and/or "gay" as appropriate when speaking specifically. I have separately published my understanding of what the Bible does and doesn't have to say about Transgender folks as Transgender in a series which begins HERE and so will generally not be discussing issues of gender identity in this series as I am convinced that the two subjects are largely discreet.

Next, I want to lay out what I see as the shifting burden of proof in this "conversation." I accept it at the outset. Certainly the burden of proof lies with the party challenging the historical and traditional view in any situation, not the least here where the Church has operated for at least 2000 years on the (mostly unexamined) assumption that the Bible proscribes any and all gay sex. But I will only accept the burden to a point. That point, I want to suggest, is reasonable doubt as to the best interpretation of scripture in regards to gay sex. I will attempt to show that it is entirely reasonable to doubt that the Bible conclusively and unambiguously condemns all expressions of lesbian and gay sexuality. If I succeed in establishing that doubt, then I suggest that Jesus’ “Love your neighbor” principle, together with the tragic history of Christian persecution of LGBTQ+ people, not to mention their contemporary frequent mistreatment at the hands of the church and Western culture, shifts the burden of proof to those who believe that a Christian can justify withholding support from the Queer community.

I hope that none reading this are unfamiliar with Jesus statement that “all the law and the prophets” - by which I take Him to mean “the fundamental point of God’s moral and religious commands” - are summed up in the command to love [agape] the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love [agape] our neighbor. I believe most Christians would agree with me in saying that each LGBTQ+ person we meet is our neighbor, and doubly so in light of the Church’s frankly shameful history of persecution, flogging, mutilation, and execution of LGBTQ+ individuals (2). I am not saying that this history should cause us to ignore truth; and I want to believe that it is possible to be a good, Christ-like neighbor to LBGTQ+ people while simultaneously believing with integrity that the Bible proscribes gay sex (3); but we would do well to keep our history in mind as the LGBT community certainly hasn’t forgotten, and Uganda looms large in their collective imagination (4).

Two Tricky Words

There are basically two passages in the NT where, depending on your English translation, the word “homosexual” will actually show up: 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10 (5). In these passages, the term is a translation of the Greek words asenekoitai and malakoi. While malakoi is a fairly common word in classical Greece, its application to a group of people in a potentially sexual context is extremely uncommon, while arsenekoitai is thought by some of the most traditional scholars to have been coined by Paul himself (6). Most of the N.T. scholarship with which I am familiar equates these terms somewhat more specifically to “active partner in gay sex” and “passive partner in gay sex” or to “homosexual man” and “effeminate” respectively. I believe that there are three distinct problems with the way these two terms have been translated and are used.

The first problem is the infrequency of these terms’ usage. It strikes me that if we are going to restrict the full church participation of a person on the basis of our interpretation of key vocabulary, that vocabulary ought to be thoroughly vetted in terms of its meaning. In the case of arsenekoitai we are looking at a term which Paul seems to have coined (7) while malakoi is used in an almost unique way - it is generally translated as “soft”, “delicate”, or sometimes “morally pliable” in most other literature (8).

The second problem with these terms is the basic fact that Paul bothered to coin them. We generally only coin terms when there are no existing words available to express an idea. This is problematic for the traditional interpretation of arsenekoitai and malakoi because Greek already had words which were commonly used to refer to the active and passive partners in a gay relationship. In classical Greek, the words Erastes and Eromenos were used to refer to the active and passive male partners respectively. We can only speculate as to why Paul would have chosen to coin and appropriate new words when he already had terms available but it is clear that he must have been rejecting the existing words for some reason and I think it is fair to conclude that Paul wanted to avoid something intrinsic to either the connotation or denotation of the existing words. After all, a well educated writer does not make up entirely new terminology when there are existing words which carry the necessary meaning, he only does so when there are no exitisting words which properly express his idea. This leads me to believe that Paul had a specific reason to reject Erastes and Eromenos as bad expressions of the sort of people he was describing in 1Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1.

I will suggest that he may have chosen to do so because Erastes and Eromenos may have included the possibility of a loving, mutually beneficial relationship (9). In contrast to the language and culture of classical Greece, the culture of Rome and classical Latin (in which Paul was operating) did not have terms or concepts which readily admitted of loving-mutually encouraging relationships, at least partly because, by the 1st century AD, the social standard for homosexual relationship had become far less egalitarian. Instead, the relevant Latin terms (and parallel concepts) connoted either a self-serving seducer and conqueror intent on using his partner for pleasure(10) or a sexually ambitious submissive willing to demean himself by exchanging sex for influence and opportunity - alternately, the reference could be to rape of male slaves.

I think it likely that Paul chose to coin and appropriate new terms specifically in order to make reference to the Latin/Roman form of the relationship rather than the Greek form. If this is the case, then Paul’s word choice would mean that he is specifically not referring to loving, mutually supportive relationships but to selfish, mutually degrading ones (11).

Finally, there is the cognitive dissonance which the traditional interpretation of these terms ought to create between the contextual implications of the terms and our lived experience of LGB persons. In 1 Corinthians 6:8-10, arsenekoitai and malakoi appear on a list of people who are not going to inherit the kingdom of God; in 1 Timothy 1:6-10, arsenekoitai appear on a list of the unrighteous who have something to learn from the law. But I, at least, know LGB Christians who are actively inheriting the kingdom of God. If I do not want to conclude the Bible is wrong about them, the most obvious alternative would be that it is not referring to them in these lists but to the perverse relationships of the classical Roman world.
So my argument here boils down to the following three points:
  1. Arsenekoitai and malakoi are too rarely used to base a practice of exclusion on them.
  2. Because they were specifically coined and appropriated (respectively), arsenekoitai and malakoi are likely to indicate something other than the loving, mutually supportive relationships which could have been indicated if Paul had used the common terms.
  3. The traditional interpretation of arsenekoitai and malakoi  is problematic because it would force us to conclude that LGB people who claim Jesus as their savior will not inherit the kingdom of God so long as they continue to identify and act as LGB persons and that contradicts our lived experience of LGB Christians.

My next post will finish up the direct N.T. passages with a look at Romans 1 and a further investigation into the culture of the Roman world in relation to homosexuality. I realize this has been a bit brief (after all there are whole books on these subjects) and I am hoping we can work through the nuances and background in comments.

Click HERE For Part 2 in this Series: Romans 1

(1) I do not mean to be either crude or flippant in my use of this phrase. It simply seems clearer than “homosexual activity”, which strikes me as vague (when a gay man buys a shirt he is acting as a homosexual individual but few Christians would have any problem with it),  while “same-sex sex” just sounds odd.
(2) See Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization for an enlightening if troubling history.
(3) I still want to believe that this is true, but my experience of the US Church over the last several years has made it increasingly difficult. The World Vision fiasco, Julie Rodgers account of her experience with Wheaton College, and the recent revelations about InterVarsity Christian Fellowship seem to argue against the tenability of a really loving yet not fully inclusive Christian community.
(4) As I understand it, I would only be eligible for 7 years in a Ugandan prison for my support of the queer community while my LGB friends would be sentenced for life if “caught in the act”.
(5) Malakoi only shows up in the 1 Corinthians passage.
(6) You can find a good rundown on uses of the word HERE but if you are skeptical feel free to check other sources.
(7) Paul may have coined arsenekoitai based on a translation of Leviticus 18:19-23 and 20:13 in the Septuagint and I propose to address that point when I deal with OT texts.
(8) This is the usage by Homer, Herodotus, Plato, and Artistotle; also the dominant way it is used in the Bible - Matthew 11:8 and Luke 7:25
(9) While these terms could refer to the two parties in a pederastic relationship, they were also used to describe more egalitarian gay relationships. For instance, these terms are used in Plato’s Symposium in reference to the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles wherein Achilles represents the Eromenon.
(10) All of the relevant terms, both Greek and Latin, are male specific. Both cultures were aware of lesbianism but the terms and cultural associations were wildly different because, well….the patriarchy.
(11) Notice that the terms appear on a lists of types of people acting in a specifically unloving way: thieves, murderers, parricides and matricides, greedy, and adulterers. If arsenekoitai and malakoi are used as Greek translations of the Latin concepts over and against the native Greek concepts, they become a far better thematic fit in the context of the relevant passages.