Homosexuality & the Bible
Homosexuality and the Bible:
The Practice of Safe Texts
by Rev. Dr. Robert E. Goss
The Jewish and Christian scriptures say nothing whatsoever about homosexuality. Homosexuality and heterosexuality are modern concepts coined in German psychiatric practice in 1870. The 1909 Merriam-Webster's New International Dictionary defined homosexuality as a medical term, "morbid sexual passion for one of the same sex" while the 1923 edition defined heterosexuality as the "morbid passion for one of the opposite sex." (Katz:93) It was only in the 1934 Webster's dictionary that heterosexuality was changed to mean "manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex."(Katz:93)
Despite claims by religious extremists, there are no biblical words that can be translated by homosexual because the concept of sexual orientation is totally absent in the ancient Mediterranean world. The Bible neither speaks about sexual orientation nor about sexual identity. It neither speaks about the modern subjectivities of heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, and Tran sexuality. These identities are absent from the biblical worldview. Neither did the apostle Peter think of himself as heterosexual, nor did Paul view himself as homosexual because such concepts were alien to their thinking.
Fundamentalist and literalist Christians claim to take the Bible as the literal word of God. This position is illogical. The original books of the Bible were primarily written in Hebrew and Greek, and the Bible was subsequently translated into many languages. Anyone studying foreign or ancient languages knows that translation is already an interpretation. Fundamentalists claim that the King James Version of the Bible is the literal word of God. This amounts to saying that an English interpretation of the original biblical texts written in Hebrew, some Aramaic, and Greek is the literal word of God. There is an inherent contradiction in such a statement because it elevates the English interpretation of the original text to the literal word of God. This is not to say that a person cannot encounter the word of God in the Bible, for the Word is larger than the words within the scriptures.
There are seven texts used or rather misused as texts of terror, as weapons against translesbigay people: Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Genesis 19 and Judges 19, 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, and Romans 1. The Bible has been used as a weapon to justify slavery, gender oppression, anti-Semitism, colonial domination of developing nations, environmental exploitation, and sexual orientation oppression. The Bible was not produced for violence but to be a word of grace; this should be obvious but is seldom practiced by those filled with homohatred. The issue behind the biblical texts traditionally applied to homosexuality does not concern same-sex behaviors but deal with violence and gender transgression.
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13
Many religiously conservative Jews and Christians take the verses in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 as a blanket condemnation of all homosexual practices. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 speak of a man who "lies the lying down of a woman." What do these verses really prohibit? Lying down is a euphemism for a sexual act, and the meaning of "the lying down of a woman" (miskab issah) is not obvious to a modern reader. In our own culture, we speak of going to bed with someone, but our phrase is ambiguous. It tells us nothing of what happened in bed. Does it denote oral, vaginal, or anal sex? It can include all of the above or none of the above. The most persuasive arguments is that it refers to male-to-male anal intercourse.
Saul Olyan, a biblical scholar at Brown University, deciphers the meaning of "the lying down of a woman" in parallel uses of the idiom "the lying down of a male " (miskab zakar) within the Hebrew Bible. He concludes that the phrase "the lying down of a male" must mean male vaginal penetration. Olyan speculates that "the lying down of a woman" means "something like the act or condition of a woman's being penetrated, or more simply, vaginal receptivity, the opposite of vaginal penetration."(Olyan:1994:185) In sexual intercourse, a woman experiences male penetration and offers her male partner vaginal receptivity. Olyan concludes," the male-male sex laws of the Holiness Source appear to be circumscribed in their meaning; they seem to refer specifically to intercourse and suggest that anal penetration was seen as analogous to vaginal penetration on some level, since the "lying down of a woman" seems to mean vaginal receptivity."(Olyan:1994:185-6) Other interpreters such as Thomas Thurston and Daniel Boyarin also concur that the issue is anal intercourse.(Thurston:1990 & Boyarin:1995) The verses in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 do not prohibit male oral sex, masturbation, or intercrural sex (intercourse in which a male's genitals rubs between the thighs of his partner). They are totally silent about the range of female- to-female sexuality. Nor do they prohibit a bisexual male engaging in group sex as long as he does not penetrate another man or be penetrated by another. Here the Leviticus text objects to a male who becomes a substitute for a female. It calls a man functioning as a woman an abomination (to'eba), what Saul Olyan has rendered as "the violation of a socially constructed boundary" or perhaps a taboo. Abomination occurs six times in chapters 18 and 20 of the Holiness Code, and nowhere else in Leviticus. Abomination refers to ritual impurity. Therefore, not all male-to-male sexual acts are proscribed by 18:22, only anal intercourse is condemned. For Olyan, the misuse of male semen, not the act of anal intercourse, generates the ban in Leviticus.
If the holiness code is so bound to the holy land of Israel, then the foremost scholar on Leviticus Rabbi Jacob Milgrom advances the notion that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are not applicable to female homoeroticism nor to gentile homoeroticism. It applies only to Jewish homoeroticism within the land of Israel. Jacob Milgrom concludes, "The ban on homosexuality is limited to male Jews and inhabitants of the holy land. The basis for the ban...is the need for procreation which opposes, in biblical times, the wasting of seed." (Milgrom:1993:48)
Sodom and Gomorrah
and Judges 19: Male Rape
Genesis 19 shares a history of narrative development with its parallel story in Judges 19. However, there is no clear scholarly consensus on the dependence of one story on another or a core narrative tradition that branches into narrative traditions. Gender codes of honor and shame, sexual property are equally operative in both stories.
The centuries-long Christian tradition that relates this text to same-sex practices has given us the term "sodomy," coined in medieval Christianity. (Jordan:1996) It is the story most frequently cited by homophobic Christians for their hatred of gays/lesbians. Sodom has become the image of human depravity and moral decay, but the story in Genesis 19 has nothing to do with same-sex sexuality but male rape.
The story of the destruction of Sodom-Gomorrah has been incorporated into the Abraham saga. Chapters 18-19 form a literary unit that many fundamentalist and evangelical interpreters fail to analyze as a whole. When chapter 19 is read with chapter 18, the inhospitality of Sodom is contrasted with the rural social code of hospitality. Hospitality is part of the cultural code and editor's theological motif operative in Genesis 18-19. It is introduced in chapter 18 when Abraham welcomes and entertains the messengers from God. In a similar fashion, Lot welcomes the messengers in Sodom. The editor contrasts the rural, pastoral welcoming of strangers with the urban hostility to them. The messengers are foreigners within the city, and the men of Sodom surround the house and insist that "we might know them (yadha)." The Hebrew word to "know" (yadha) is occasionally used as a euphemism for sexual intercourse, and here in this chapter and Judges 19, yadha needs to be translated and contextualized in the sexual codes of the penetrator and the penetrated in ancient world. A more apt colloquial translation would be to "womanize, make into a woman." It has the context to "penetrate a male like a woman" or anal intercourse. Ancient near eastern societies subjected their conquered, enemies, strangers, and trespassers to phallic anal penetration to indicate their subordinate status.
Lot's offer of his daughters to the mob is shocking to readers. He owns his daughters; they are his sexual property for his disposition. He was willing to let his daughters suffer gang rape than to allow the messengers to suffer such collective violence, gender denigration, and humiliation. Few homophobic interpreters ever raise an outcry at the nonconsensual offer of Lot's daughters to the mob but focus their attention on the rejection of the daughters to indicate that homosexuality is the center of the incident. The mob has rejected women for the male messengers as gay men have rejected heterosexuality for other men. Yet Lot's offer dispels any identification with what modern society designates as homosexuality. The crowd is out to inflict the collective violence of rape and thus remove the threat of the strangers. The crowd is no more representative of homosexuality than a local urban street gang who attacks and rapes a stranger coming into their territory.
But hospitality interpreters such John Boswell (1980) and John McNeill (1993) bracket out some vital interpretative elements: phallic violence, patriarchal gender codes of domination/subordination and honor/shame. Their hospitality analysis suffers from a similar lack of gender analysis as heterosexist interpreters.
Recent exegesis of this text has helped some churches to acknowledge that Genesis 19's primary concern is not about homoerotic relations but violent sexual abuse of outsiders. But heterosexist interpreters focus not on the threat to the daughters but foreground the attempted male-to-male rape. Many churches contextualize the sin of Sodom as rampant homosexuality. If they address issues of phallic violence and hospitality, they would localize the sin as homosexual rape and the vilest act of inhospitality. Heterosexist interpreters neglect the violence to women, and this fact slides into the background of their church documents and policies against homosexuality. They are unable to comprehend the connections between misogyny and homophobia.
Biblical scholar George Edwards supplements the hospitality interpretation by underscoring the phallic violence and the prophetic cry for justice. The "outcry" (zecaqa) against Sodom in Genesis 18:21, 19:3) is a technical word for oppression and injustice, not sexual sin.(Edwards:1984:42-46) In his commentary on Genesis, the German biblical scholar Gerhard Von Rad describes it as signifying "the cry for help which one who suffers great injustice screams." (Von Rad:1972:211) Gary Comstock reads the story as patriarchal propaganda, the "latest macho, sexist, rape-and-pillage, straight-from-hell video rental."(Comstock,1993:41-42) He compares the patriarchal violence of the story to the attitudes of gay-bashers. These readings rightly shift reader attention from the violation of hospitality to patriarchal violence to male strangers and to the daughters, "the other" inscribed within the biblical text.
Leland White and several other scholars expand the interpretative framework to weave the themes of hospitality and sexual violence within the Hebrew cultural script of honor/shame.(White:1995, Stone:1995) The honor-oriented cultures of the ancient Near East comprehend hospitality not within an individualist, modern perspective but within a collective perspective of families, clans, villages, cities, and people. Hospitality is enjoined by many ancient codes where such a virtue often entails a life and death situation. When the messengers enter into Sodom as strangers, they have no legal status. The men of Sodom assess the threat and decide to make them symbolically women and thus physically submissive. They intend to violate their bodily integrity to remind them that their status is comparable to women. Lot as a patron extends hospitality to the strangers, and their acceptance of his hospitality indicates their subordination to him. The Sodomites' assault is an affront on Lot's honor because they threaten his control over his home by sexually raping them. By standing in the doorway and intervening, Lot symbolically asserts his right over his household and his right to offer hospitality to the messengers in Sodom.
The laws of hospitality are fused with the patriarchal gender code that privileges males over females. These require that Lot protect male honor over female honor. In other words, it is better to shame a woman than a man. So Lot offers the sexual capital of his household, his virgin daughters, in exchange for preserving the honor of the strangers. The mob rape would not only dishonor the messengers but also Lot, his household, all his clan or all those people associated with him.
The text of Genesis 19 can be read as a male contest of honor between Lot and the men of Sodom, and the resolution of the honor contest occurs in the blinding of the Sodomites. The editor of Genesis uses this story to enhance Israelite honor in the confrontation with non-Israelite city life. The Sodomites are engaging social violence and oppression in their attempt at male rape, and Sodom became a symbol of injustice and oppression within the Hebrew scriptural tradition. In numerous biblical texts, there are no indications of the sin of Sodom as same-sex behaviors. In Isaiah 1, injustice, insincere sacrifice, and oppression are the sins of Sodom. Ezekiel comprehends the sin of Sodom as a sin on injustice; he writes, "This was the sin of your sister Sodom: she did not support the poor and the needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me." (Ezekiel 16:49-50) God's judgment is involved in the social processes of oppression. Jeremiah 23 notes adultery and hypocrisy while Wisdom 19:13-14 and Ecclesiaticus 16:8 assert the sin of Sodom as pride.
Judges 19 brings into sharper relief than Genesis 19 the relationship of the gender codes and male violence. The Levite's wife asserts her independence and returns to her father's household. In ancient Hebrew patriarchy, women are sexual property, belonging to their fathers, brothers, and husbands. By leaving her husband, the woman threatens the gender code. The Levite follows her to his father-in-law's household reclaim his property. father-in-law, however, tries persuade the Levite remain in his household by wining and dining him for days. He stays in his father-in-law's household, remaining subordinate to another male's protection and to give up his autonomy like a woman.
On the return trip, the Levite and the woman find shelter in an old man's house in Gibeah. A mob of men surrounds the house, demanding, "Bring out the man who came into your house that we may have intercourse with him."(Judges 19:22) The old man offers the mob his virgin daughter and the Levite's woman for ravishing. The mob declines the offer, and the Levite seizes his woman and pushes her out the door for their violent pleasure. The mob brutally rapes the woman, torturing her through the night and leaving her for dead in the morning. The escalating violence, however, does not end there. The Levite discovers the woman on the doorstep and tells her "get up" so that they continue their journey. The text records her silence, implying her death. The Levite proceeds to dismember her body into twelve parts, burying her in the territories of the twelve tribes. This leads to tribal revenge and war against the men of Gibeah.
The men of Gibeah want the Levite, but they get a woman. The two impulses seem narratively to be at odds. The host promotes an androcentric ideology of deflecting the violence from the male guest: "Do it to the women, not the male." The men of Gibeah want to humiliate the Levite in the most degrading way by womanizing or penetrating him through anal intercourse.
But when we now read the story, we need to unmask how the honor/shame code surrounding hospitality of strangers is closely wedded to patriarchal ideology of gender and sexuality. Male penetrative sexuality is used as a social expression of subordinate status of women and shamed men. Women are seen as sexual property. We need to reveal the patriarchal codes of violence inscribed within the text.
Conclusions from the Hebrew Scriptures
When we examine the Hebrew scriptures, we find no identifiable notions of homosexual orientation. We do find several particular forms of same-sex representations of rape and gender code violations. We do not call heterosexual rape sexual expression; neither can we designate homosexual rape in Genesis 19 as homosexual sex. In Jesus ACTED UP, I concluded , "The generalized application of the rapists of the Genesis 19 story modern gay/lesbian sexual practices is inappropriate reconstruction; there is a fallacy equating rape with consensual same-sex practices in Christian fundamentalist reading of the text."(Goss: 1993:92) No sensible heterosexual person would characterize rape as sexuality; it is violence, not sex. This is applicable to the common story in Genesis 19 and Judges 19, for the real act of sodomy is the particular application of the story to gays and lesbians. It translates textual violence into social violence.
The Christian Scriptures
There are no sayings of Jesus against same-sex relationships. Jesus' inclusively accepted people; he had little to say about sexuality except for those few occasions where he condemned exploitation or double standards. If the churches spent as much time as Jesus did on sexuality, they would be a lot healthier congregations welcoming and not excluding folks based on sexual orientation. Jesus' focus in his ministry was on justice, love, and inclusion. He saw hypocrisy and injustice as far greater threats to the realm of God.
Paul, however, continues to present a problem for many lavender people. Some mainline churches and the religious right have used Paul to justify: 1) exclusion from churches and denial of ordination of "practicing homosexuals," 2) reparative therapies that attempt change sexual orientation, 3) legal discrimination in housing, employment, and the right marry. We need to investigate words in 1 Corinthians 6:9, wrongly translated for homosexual, sodomite, pervert, or some abusive derivative and what the issue is Romans 1:26-27.
1 Corinthians 6:9
John Boswell was one of the first scholars to point out the multiple mistranslations of two words applied homosexuality: malakos and arsenokoites. (Boswell:1980:338) Malakos literally means "soft." Biblical scholar Robin Scroggs links the term malakos an "effeminate call boy," to the one who is penetrated in anal intercourse. Dale Martin has provided the most conclusive evidence in arguing that it referred the entire complex of femininity and that effeminacy had no relation to male-to-male sexuality in the Greco-Roman world. He cites Pseudo-Aristotelian's Physiognomy which describes the malakos as "delicate-looking, pale-complexioned and bright-eyed: their nostrils are wrinkled and they are prone to tears. These characters are fond of women and inclined to have female children."(Martin:1995a:33) Martin concludes, "In fact, malakos more often referred to men who prettied themselves up further heterosexual exploits." (Martin:1996:126) It was often used as an epithet of insult for men who loved women too much and were sex addicts. The second term arsenokoites is a compound noun, composed of arseno, literally "man," and koites meaning "sleeping." One of my colleagues literally translates it as "couch potato." The problem with this term is that it is used only twice in the Christian scriptures (1 Cor. 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10). There is outside use of the word that indicates some possible meaning of the word. In the Sibylline Oracle 2, "Do not steal seeds...Do not arsenkoitein, do not betray, do not murder." The term occurs in what Martin calls "economic sins, action related to economic injustice or exploitation."(Martin:1996:120) Dale Martin observes that arsenokoitein does not appear elsewhere in the text except where sexual sins are denounced. He finds a similar usage of arsenokoites in the Acts of John where it is listed among sins related to economic and injustice. In his Refutation of All Heresies, Hippolytus narrates how the evil angel Nass commits adultery with Eve and took Adam as his slave boy. Hippolytus uses the word arsenokoitia to denote Nass' relationship with Adam, implying that this is coercive and unjust use of another person sexually. Martin concludes from his survey of Greco-Roman and early Christian literature that arsenkoites refers "a particular role of exploiting others by means of sex, perhaps but not necessarily by homosexual sex." (Martin:1996:123)
Christians have committed violence to people attracted to the same-sex and still brutalized them over the mistranslation of these words.
In Romans 1:26-27, Paul speaks about the exchange of the unruly exchange of natural for unnatural female and male homoerotic relationships. These verses form part of Paul's larger argument of Roman idolatry and functions as a prelude for arguing against judgmental Jewish critics. Paul uses the examples of the exchange of natural relations for his argument of idolatry.
Bernardette Brooten has convincingly argued that the issue of female homoeroticism is connected with Paul's perspective on gender codes. (Brooten:1996) I would extend Brooten's argument to include male homoeroticism as well. What Paul means by "exchanged natural relations for unnatural relations'' means that "women exchanged the passive, subordinate sexual role for active autonomous role." (Brooten:1986:63) For men, such an exchange constitutes that men take a passive, subordinate sexual role like women for the normal, dominant role of the male penetrator. Brooten comprehends the violations of female and male homoeroticism in light of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Paul describes a natural hierarchy: God, Christ, man, woman. He requires strict gender differentiation with hair style and head dress. Women are not to cut their hair like men short while men are not to wear their hair long like women. Women's long hair is insufficient for marking gender difference. Paul requires the veiling of women's heads as well.
Finally, the issue at the heart of Romans 1 is the rigid gender codes Paul grew up with as a Pharisaic Jew and perhaps his own fears about his sexual drives. Paul is anxious of men with long hair and women with short hair because it confuses his rigid understanding of maleness and femaleness. Paul fears a man who will be penetrated like a woman by another man. That man has betrayed his male status and privilege. For women who have usurped the male position as penetrator or as top, their transgression has do with their attempts to be like males to be penetrators of women. They have usurped a male social role. These confuse the created gender codes of male as active, penetrators and women as passive, receptors. These are Paul's personal opinions woven into his pastoral letter to the Romans. Many Christians no longer condone his acceptance of slavery nor his statements about women.
We must understand at the heart of these texts misapplied to lavender folks is a deep misogyny. Contemporary homophobia is embedded in ancient misogynistic sexual codes that many of us no longer hold. The Hebrew scriptures do not speak of anything remotely about female homoeroticism nor does it mention male/female masturbation or male/female oral sex. There are only references to male-to-male anal intercourse in Leviticus. The violation is a gender transgression, a betrayal of the privilege of male status within a patriarchal culture that valued the male over the female. Nor does male rape have any of the features of contemporary gay male sexuality, relationality, or mutuality.
Paul has been used as the final word on homosexuality. Many churches have used these mistranslations of arsenkoites and malakos to exclude lavender people from their congregations, deny them ordination and refuse to bless and recognize their unions. The sin of Sodom has been magnified by such blatant and cruel inhospitality within many churches.
Many contemporary Christians object to Paul's views on women and his support of slavery in the Greco-Roman world. They have rejected his opinions on women and slavery as the word of God, realizing that these are his opinions, holding little weight in our contemporary Christian practices. Why many still cling to Paul's opinions expressed in Romans 1 and ignore sound biblical interpretations of scholars has less to do with theological or biblical reasons but motivations best left to the psychologist.
L. Robert Arthur, The Sex Texts: Sexuality, Gender and Relationships in the Bible, Omaha, 1994.
John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Daniel Boyarin, "Are There any Jews in 'The History of Sexuality'," Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 5, # 3, 1995, pp. 333-355.
Bernadette Brooten, "Paul's Views on the Nature of Women and Female Homoeroticism,'' in Immaculate & Powerful: The Female in Sacred Image and Social Reality, ed. by Clarissa Atkinson, Constance Buchanan, & Margaret Miles, Boston, Beacon Press, 1985, pp. 61-87.
Bernardette Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Gary Comstock, Theology without Apology, Cleveland, The Pilgrim Press, 1993.
L. William Countryman, Dirt, Greed, & Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1988.
George Edwards, Gay/Lesbian Liberation: A Biblical Perpsective, New York, The Pilgrim Press, 1984.
Michael E. England, The Bible and Homosexuality, San Francisco, UFMCC, 1986.
Victor Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1979.
Peter Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, New York, William Morrow & Co., 1996.
Robert Goss, Jesus ACTED UP: Gay and Lesbian Manifesto, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.
Daniel Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality, San Francisco, Alamo Square Press, 1994.
Tom Horner, Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times, Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1978.
Mark Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Jonathan Katz, The Invention of Homosexuality, New York, E. P. Dutton, 1996.
Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995 a.
Dale Martin, "Heterosexism and the Interpretation of Romans 1:18-32," Biblical Interpretation, vol. 3, # 3, 1995, pp. 332-335.
Dale Martin, "Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences," in Biblical Ethics & Homosexuality: Listening Scripture, ed. Robert L. Brawley, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1996, pp. 117-136.
John McNeill, The Church and the Homosexual, Boston, Beacon Press, 1993.
Jacob Milgrom, "Does the Bible Prohibit Homosexuality?", Biblical Review, December 1993, p. 48ff.
Martin Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1998.
Saul M. Olyan, " 'And with a Male You Shall Not Lie the Lying Down of a Woman': On the Meaning and Significance of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13," Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 5, 1994, 179-206.
Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1983.
Ken Stone, Gender and Homosexuality in Judges 19: Subject-Honor, Object-Shame?," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, vol. 67, 1995, pp. 87-107.
Thomas Thurston, "Leviticus 18:22 & the Prohibitions of Homosexual Acts," Homophobia and the Judaeo-Christian Tradition, ed. by Michael L. Stemmeler & J. Michael Clark, Dallas, Monument Press, 1990, in pp. 7-24.
Leland J. White, "Does the Bible Speak about Gays or Same-sex Orientation? A Test Case in Biblical Ethics: Part I," Biblical Theology Bulletin, vol. 25, # 1, Spring 1995, pp. 14-23.
Michael Vasey, Strangers and Friends: A New Exploration of Homosexuality and the Bible, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1995.
Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, trans. By J. H. Marks, Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1972.
Nancy Wilson, Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible, Harper SanFrancisco, 1995.
Walter Wink, "Biblical Perspectives on Homosexuality", Christian Century, vol. 96, # 36. Nov 7 1979, pp. 1082-86
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