Note this is Part 3 in a series which begins 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).
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!
(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.