Homosexuality and the Bible Part Two
Now let's look at those unusual passages in the Bible, remembering that they reflect the sensibilities of post-exilic conservative Jews who are attempting to re-assert some older traditions in the reconstitution of the nation.
Examples of Old Testament Bible verses that have been distorted and misused
Genesis 2:22-24 Marriage and Divorce (and Celibacy?)
This text is placed in the mouth of Jesus by the author of Matthew as a retort to a cadre of Pharisees that challenge him on the legality of divorce. Some cite this passage as an absolute boundary around proper sexual behavior, and since it doesn't mention marriage to a same-sex partner, it must therefore be anathema.
"Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said,
'This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman, for she was taken out of man.'
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh."
The distortion arises around the intent of the passage: is it descriptive or prescriptive? Used prescriptively, should it then apply to all men, all women, and all families? What about priests and other willing celibates? And if the verses are a mandate, why wasn't Jesus married? What about Paul's preference for staying unmarried in light of the approaching apocalypse? Neither Adam nor Eve had families to leave- no parents, per se. This fact alone should give pause to those for whom it appears to be a prescriptive decree.
Like many other stories in Genesis, this one serves an etiological purpose, explaining why new families form around sons and daughters leaving one's parents. Since women derive from men, it's natural for a heterogeneous pair to form a new kinship unit. The phrase "this is why..." Is a giveaway that the passage is descriptive of the origins of a particular social norm present in the composer's present culture.
Additionally, "biblical" marriage norms often embrace polygamy. For centuries, men with enough resources supported multiple wives who bore high numbers of children, and this practice is recorded without comment in the Bible. Jacob's story features plural marriage without any mention of wrongdoing or violating God's standards. David is given Saul's wives by God himself (2 Sam. 12:7-8). And Solomon? He wasn't chastised for accumulating wives, but for idolatry linked to political marriage-treaties with surrounding nations. Even Deuteronomy contains a legal ruling about handling an estate for a man who had two wives; and there's no hint of any prohibition of polygamy.
Ultimately, this etiology is used by Matthew's author as a way of showing how brilliantly Jesus defends his honor and social standing against a challenge. The topic of divorce is merely a way for Jesus' opponents to trap him with a known ambiguity in the Law. When asked if divorce for any cause is legal, he answers in the negative, and attributes the exception found in "Moses" to their hardness of heart. Jesus then pushes against the notion that a wife is essentially the husband's property that he can do with whatever he wishes. He tightens up the Law's requirements to a degree that his disciples complain that it's better not to marry at all.
In the next passage, verses 10 through 12, Jesus hints at an ideal possibly held by the Jewish Christian community that produced Matthew, that celibacy is a noble pursuit.
Rather than artificially reading homosexual behavior into Genesis and Matthew, why not emphasize the teaching that celibacy is commended for believers, as Jesus stated plainly as in the text of Matthew 19?
Genesis 19 – Sodom and Gomorrah's destruction
Did God destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because the citizens of the cities possessed homosexual tendencies and demanded to have their way with some visiting angels? Were they so debauched that God had no choice but wipe them out, and by application, we must do the same?
If not, then what was the nature of their offense?
Remember that the driving social issue here is domination and humiliation of outsiders. The men of Sodom and Gomorrah wanted to shame and humiliate visiting men (actually angels) of a higher status, bringing them into a submissive role. Can humans even do that to angels? The fact that they tried indicates their attitude toward the natural hierarchical order.
What if the angels presented as women? The unfortunate answer is that there would have been no need for any repercussions on the cities as women were lower on the status ladder- in the Bible, Women are Non Playing Characters at best. No natural order violated, no harm done.
But emasculating or feminizing men was a different situation altogether. The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah had little or nothing to do with homosexuality, and everything to do with an eagerness to force men of a higher status into a shameful lower status role. It was about rejecting a higher authority.
It's shocking to modern readers that Lot was willing to push his daughters outside, but the text itself attributes no ill will toward Lot in that regard. Lot was simply trying to apply the rules of hospitality as best he could!
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13
“Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable."
“If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads."
Some interpreters have proposed that the topic in view in these verses refers to male prostitution as part of the worship of a deity. This is not well supported by scholarship. The word used for "Man" (zakar) here overwhelmingly designates "a male." It simply means an adult male citizen of Israel, in this case, two males who are equal in status. What this would indicate to an ancient listener is that it's not OK to make a man who is your equal take on the role of a woman. Remember, the concept of mutual agreement was not current in that time and place. Victimization and taking on the dominant active role of penetrator toward a socially equal male is what's prohibited, not homosexual activity in general.
William Stacy Johnson in his book A Time to Embrace makes these points to consider when reading Leviticus:
One reason for the rule in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 is that the act in question was of the kind that a socially superior man usually imposed on a social inferior. In ancient society such acts were sometimes performed on a slave or other subordinate person merely as a form of sexual gratification. That is, the perpetrator of the act did not have what we think of today as an exclusively same-gender sexual orientation; instead, he was merely looking for a way to release sexual tension.
But there were sometimes even more ominous reasons for such acts; they were commonly performed on people, especially prisoners of war, as a form of sexual humiliation. Not only had the enemy been conquered, but the victors wanted to further defeat their captives through sexual abuse. In the ancient culture in which Leviticus arose, it was an indignity to a man’s masculinity to be sexually penetrated by another man. By its very nature, then, we are speaking of a one-sided, asymmetrical act, one that had the effect in the eyes of ancient culture of symbolically turning the man who was penetrated and had thus become sexually subservient into a woman.
It is in this context of dominance, exploitation, and humiliation that these two Leviticus texts need to be read. This interpretation is further bolstered when we note what is not explicitly prohibited here: there is nothing here that explicitly prohibits forms of sexual expression such as mutual touching, holding hands, kissing, or even oral sex.
Johnson, William Stacy. A Time to Embrace: Same-Sex Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics, 2nd edition. Eerdmans.
Notice that there's no parallel prohibition of lesbianism here. The next no-no in Leviticus 18 moves down the social ladder to women and animals who occupy the lowest regions of status in the ancient world. Johnson states: "This silence about what we call lesbianism is telling: it underscores the fact that the concern is with protecting male dignity and not protecting women or any particular marital ideal."
Chapter 20 expands the command to include both the dominator and the dominated- both are under a death penalty for defiling the community. Both chapters are parallel and it's likely that chapter 20 is a double of chapter 18, with some minor editing. In both, social purity is in view the ultimate penalty for which is that the "...that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out." Somehow the land itself suffers from this metaphysical impurity; this is the reason why it was said of the Canaanites "Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants."
Keeping things in their correct place is a prominent theme in the legal language of Leviticus. Fabrics, foods, utensils and even bodily fluids, for example, are used as domains for boundary making, and the consequences for violation are severe because impurity can infect the very ground they walk on. The same applies to status- the lower must not mix with the higher, and the higher must not oppress the lower.
The Levitical material we have in our Bibles is presented as something like our modern case law. Ancient cultures commonly had a body of laws that included an exhaustive corpus of examples of how these laws should be applied in various situations.
Genesis 46 provides an example of a social boundary that provided cover for Joseph's family to settle in Egypt. Since associating with shepherds was abhorrent (an abomination) to the Egyptians, they were allowed to make their homes in the Nile delta region. At one point in our history, in one particular place, those who worked with sheep and goats were an abomination to certain people. One culture's abomination is another's livelihood.
This leads to another important consideration. For the advocate of a plain, literal reading of Leviticus for the purpose of enacting the similar moral boundaries in the modern day, why pick and choose? Are we to order our society around the minutia prohibiting the mixing of two fabrics in our clothing? Why aren't we eating grasshoppers and locusts?
Perhaps its best to try to understand the foundational principles that lie behind the detailed laws in Leviticus and other texts of the Bible. Why these laws and not other ones? The intent of Leviticus 18 and 20 is similar to other laws that make sure the powerless are cared for: in order to preserve what it meant to be a man in ancient Israel, one neither takes sexual advantage of another man nor allows himself to be taken advantage of. These are power dynamics, not sexual orientations.
Leviticus attempts to illustrate for ancient Israel what it meant to live as God's holy people. It proclaims that sex is good within its proper boundaries, but it doesn't exactly specify those boundaries. Leviticus 18 addresses the men of Israel and gives a list of taboos that in spite of its details leaves out a lot of possible eventualities. All the prohibitions deal with an off-limits female partner which exposes an underlying bias that our culture has rejected. Women had far less agency than men, who had both agency and the proclivity to violate the boundaries. A woman always belonged to a man, be it her father, brother or other male family member until marriage, at which point she became the property of her husband.
So what does Leviticus have to say to us? One possible message to extract is that sex is something to be careful with, and that it reflects something transcendent, like a context of covenant. In contrast to sex with no boundaries, a covenant between two parties provides a better place for it to flourish in our species with its complicated social structures.
An ancient culture would say that unbounded sexual activity violates the natural social order, creates needless conflict, and displeases our God or gods. We might see it differently: The healthiest context for ongoing intimacy is in safe relationships of mutual respect, in a covenant we call "marriage." If that's the case, does it follow that we should deny that reality to a significant percentage of our human population? Johnson again:
"Especially if we conclude that the prohibitions in Leviticus were aimed at a specific cultural context, then withholding consecration from exclusively committed gay and lesbian couples in our new and different context becomes less and less defensible."
In part three we'll have a look at the usual New Testament passages that have been used to exclude and marginalize people
Questions for You
Do you think sexuality is less binary than we thought? Why or why not? What are the findings of recent medical and scientific studies?
Why do you think a heterosexual majority might find homosexuality offensive?
How have our attitudes about divorce and the roles of women changed in the past few decades?