(This piece is the fifth in our series so far. Before we get into it, just a heads up that this is a tad longer than the others in the series. If you are just joining us I would recommend before diving in you start with Part One)
Does the Old Testament condemn covenantal, committed, non-exploitative same-sex relationships ?
It seems to condemn men having sexual relationships with other men, but what is it actually condemning, and why?
James Brownson, in his book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the churches Debate on Homosexuality, makes the point that when reading scripture, we should not only be asking what the Bible is saying, but also questioning what it means for Christians today. James describes this as an attempt to seek the moral logic which sits behind the text.
So, when the Old Testament writers condemn homosexuality, we must ask ourselves, why?
What are their reasons for doing so, what concerns or issues were they addressing, and are those issues relevant to those we are facing today?
Before, addressing the question, let’s do a brief survey of the three main texts.
Noah, Sodom and the men of Gibeah
Genesis 9 records the story of Noah and is sons. In this account Noah falls asleep and his son Ham – after seeing him lying uncovered in his tent – brags to his brother’s about having seen his nakedness. When Noah wakes up he somehow learns what Ham has done, and subsequently curses Ham for his sin. Wold, a Traditionalist scholar and author of Out of Order: Homosexuality in the Bible and the Ancient Near East, makes the case that Ham did not just simply see Noah naked, but that he also raped him (if you want a deeper break down on how he reaches this conclusion, feel free to take a look at his book, listed above).
Genesis 19 tells the tale of the destruction of Sodom. Two men enter the town and prepare to sleep in the square for the night. However, before they can settle in Lot finds them and insists that they come and stay with him. In the middle of the night the men of the town form a mob and march to Lot’s door demanding that he release the visitors to them so that they can rape them. Lot refuses, offering his daughters instead, which the men refuse. It is here that it is revealed that the visitors are not human after all, but are in fact angels. They blind the men, and the next day help Lot and his family escape.
Judges 19 is a very similar story to the one just discussed above. A man enters a town and prepares to sleep in the square, another man – upon seeing him – insists that he come home with him and stay for the night. As with the story of Sodom, in the middle of the night the crowd form a mob and demand that the stranger be given to them so that they can rape him. This account is similar to that in Genesis, yet instead of being rescued by angels the stranger offers his concubine as a replacement. The mob take her, and brutally rape her until she is dead.
And then there is Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, two verses in total, both commanding men to refrain from having sex with other men, each verse names particular sexual act as an abomination, with the second verse going even further, commanding the death penalty.
So, what are these text’s saying, and what do these stories have to say about the sort of consensual, covenantal and non-exploitative relationships we are discussing?
We won’t go into each of the texts in detail, but due to how influential the story of Sodom has been on our collective consciousness, it’s worth taking a closer look.
There is some debate about what exactly the sin of Sodom is.
Some scholars -such as Meghan Warner and Marion Soards- argue that the sin of Sodom is not homosexuality, but rather inhospitality. Reading the account of Sodom in light of the previous chapter (Gen 18) Warner points to how the writer of Genesis contrasts the hospitality of Abraham, with the inhospitality of the men of Sodom. She also draws attention to the manner in which the rest of the Bible interprets the story of Sodom (Ezk 16:49-50, Ish 1:10-18) making the case that the central themes which the Biblical writer is critiquing is Sodom’s oppression of the weak, abuse of the vulnerable and neglect of the poor.
Bailey and Boswell go a step further, completely rejecting the notion that there is anything sexual about the men’s desire “to know” Lot’s guests. They attempt to make the case that rather than wanting sex, the men of the town merely want to become acquainted with them. Their argument is based on a technical debate regarding the manner in which the word yada has been translated (if you’re interested in digging into the detail check out Boswell: 1980, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, or Bailey: 1955, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition.) Donald Wold completely rejects this position, claiming that due to the context of the passage, it is evident that the Sodomites demands were of a sexual nature (Wold: 1998, Out of Order).
Gagnon accepts that the story of Sodom is about oppression and exploitation, however he argues that it is also very much about homosexuality. The fact homosexuality is viewed negatively in these texts is not only because of how degrading it was to men, but also because it demonstrates how sinful the men of Sodom were. Not only were they oppressive, inhospitable, rapists, they were also homosexuals. I think Gagnon is probably right. Ancient writers would not have been able to imagine non-exploitative, consensual same-sex relationships, because the idea of a man having sex with a man was viewed entirely through their patriarchal understanding of sex and gender roles (more on this later). For the ancient listener all of these sins would have piled on one another, making the sin of Sodom even more grievous.
However, David Gushee (leading Christian Ethicist, author of Changing our Minds) cuts to the core of what is going on in the story of Sodom. In his own words he says:
“The Sodom story is about the attempted gang rape of men, because they are strangers, because they are vulnerable, and because they are a juicy target for humiliation and violation. It is about a town that had sunk to the level of the most depraved battlefield or prison (2017: Changing our Mind)”.
The story in Judges can, I think, be read along similar lines, and the story of Noah (if Wold is correct) is a condemnation of both rape and incest.
None of the narratives in Judges or Genesis have anything to say about loving, consensual, committed same-sex relationships.
Now, don’t get me wrong, that isn’t to say that if an ancient Israelite met a Gay person today they wouldn’t try to stone them… they probably would. And there may still be a case to be made for a traditional approach to LGBTQ acceptance on the traditionalists side. However, these passages do not support that argument.
Each of these texts tells a story of men seeking to dominate, abuse, and gain power over men. None of these stories have any resemblances to loving consensual or covenantal relationships.
So, returning to our question, what does a story of rape, injustice, and oppression contribute to answering the question of whether covenantal, committed, non-exploitative same-sex relationships should be affirmed and supported within the Church today?
Well, I think the answer is fairly simple.
Leviticus however is a different kettle of fish. It seems to be pretty clear in laying out the Israelite belief that a man should not have sex with another man.
Now, there are of course many different arguments regarding what Leviticus is referring to here. And a lot of ink has been spilled to carry the debate back and forth.
One of the main arguments which often get’s put forward is that the author has in his sights male prostitution, which some argue was prolific in the surrounding nations.
If this is the case, than these verses are a condemnation of a very specific form of idolatry and sexually immorality.
However, scholars such as Gagnon and Wold contest this argument stating that if the Levitical writers had meant to condemn prostitution they could have been much more specific. Wold challenges the argument all together by making an interesting case regarding the fertility cult. I won’t get into that here, but if you’re interested check out his book listed above.
It is their belief that the Levitical writers would have condemned any sexual relationships between men, regardless of how those relationships presented.
On this point I agree with both of them. Considering the ancient Israelite’s assumptions and beliefs regarding sex, and gender roles, it seems to me that the Israelite’s meant to condemn all male same-sex intercourse.
So yes, I would say that Leviticus does condemn sexual relationships between men. However, it is these ancient assumptions about sex and gender roles that helps us to understand why.
Sex and Patriarchal Assumptions
The ancient world was extremely patriarchal, men were regarded to have both a different role within society, and a higher status than woman. To penetrate a man sexually was to utterly degrade him, and thus take power over him. The very act reduced him to the status of a woman. The stories of Sodom and the men of Gibeah highlight this by mentioning that in order to protect the men the attackers are both offered woman as substitutes to feed their lust . Inherit in this attempted trade is the patriarchal belief that as evil as raping a woman would be, it is far worse to degrade a man (Brownson: 2013).
Why aren’t Women included?
Another point to note is that none of the texts in the old testament say anything about Lesbianism. The two verses in Leviticus which provide the only direct condemnation of same-sex relationships are extremely clear that this condemnation is directed specifically to men. If same-sex relationships themselves are inherently evil, corrupt, and condemned by God, and if Leviticus was to be used as the basis for a universal command regarding sexuality, than why were women left out of the divine command?
Consensus on this is divided. In his book The Bible and Homosexual Practice, Gagnon provides a brief survey of different views which scholars hold on this question (144-45).
Gerstenberger for example suggests that lesbianism was perhaps unknown to the ancient Israelites. Whereas other scholars such as Nissinen point to the patriarchal assumptions that surrounded sex. Woman, he points out, could not lose honor if they had sex with one-another. In the ancient world, sex was often described using the language of active and passive, penetrator, and penetrated. Woman were to be the passive, recipients of men’s sexual desires. Therefore, female same-sex relationships were not as big a concern as they did not challenge dominate male power structures.
It is also possible – as Gagnon points out – that in such a male dominated society, that it would have been impossible for women to be in long term same-sex relationships. The underlying assumption would have been that “women would go on to marry men, regardless of what experimentation took place with other women before marriage”(145). Thus, placing no risk on the traditional family and social structures.
The interesting point I note throughout this survey, is that many of the reasons given above point to a view of sexuality and sex which has very little comparison to the way we think and talk about sex today. Today we speak of the importance of consent, of mutual submission for one another, of love. Yet, this is not how the the ancient Israelite’s spoke of sex. It is patriarchal, dominating, and very much focused on male power, position and procreation. If we spoke about sex today the same way the ancient Israelite spoke about sex back then, it would – in many cases – be condemned as abusive.
When evaluating how much relevance the Old Testament has in answering the question of a contemporary response to LGBTQ people within the church, it is important to understand the limitations the Old Testament has when speaking into this space.
As we have seen, there are only two texts (those in Leviticus) which speak directly about sexual relationships between men. However, when viewed within the context of the Israelite’s patriarchal understanding of sex and gender roles, it raises questions regarding whether or not these texts should be used to address the question of LGBTQ inclusion within the Church today.
In fact, if you really look at the text, you will notice that the text very specifically condemns the physical act of a man having sex with another man. As we have already explored these texts exclude women, but what we haven’t mentioned is perhaps more interesting.
No where in the Old Testament do the scriptures condemn, or even consider, the issue of sexual orientation.
Perhaps because the ancient Israelite did not have the understanding and knowledge regarding sexual orientation which we have today. The idea that a person could be born with a sexual orientation directed towards someone of the same sex is an idea that was unfathomable for the ancient Israelite.
Like gravity, or the shape of the world, it is unmentioned, because it was unknown.
This point alone should cause us to pause before developing intensive theologies on the subject of LGBTQ inclusion. It is of course still possible to defend a traditional position, however if we are to be true to scripture, and honest about what it says, we must admit that on the question of sexual orientation, the Old Testament is silent.
(Due to Christmas approaching, and several other projects which I am currently working on, this will be the last in the series for the year. In the new year we will be returning to explore the New Testament passages, as well as some other important considerations such as Creation theology etc. I hope you are enjoying the series so far, and that you are finding it useful in some way. Have a safe Christmas and a happy new year).