The US Supreme Court is about to hear testimony on two cases involving gay marriage, which means the internet (or at least my corner of it) is buzzing with talk about homosexuality and gay marriage. I think a lot of the trouble people have with that issue is that the pro- and anti-gay marriage crowds are talking about marriage in slightly – sometimes not-so-slightly – different ways.
I want to get to that, and will. But every time I sit down to blog about it, my mind gets drawn almost immediately to the bad interpretations lots of Christians seem stuck in when it comes to certain Bible passages people think of when it comes to gay marriage. Interestingly, a lot of Christians from both sides of the aisle on gay rights tend to read these Bible verses in the same way. Many liberal Christians will agree that Leviticus 18:22 says gay sex is immoral, and they solve it by focusing on Jesus. I don’t think this is necessary; these verses only seem to be condemning homosexuality because they’ve been pretty widely mistranslated and misinterpreted.
So before I take on the marriage issue, I want to lay out what I think the Bible says about homosexuality. To be clear up front, I don’t think this has a whole lot of bearing on the marriage issue; whether a multicultural and secular society should let LGBT people get married is a very different question from whether a my religion condemns same-sex relationships and same-sex activity. But I hope it’s interesting in any case.
Sodom and Gomorrah
If you sat through as many Sunday School lessons as I did, you almost certainly came across the idea that the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because their people practiced sodomy. I mean, it’s right there in the name. But that’s not what the story says at all. Genesis 19:5-7, NKJV:
Now before [the visiting angels] lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both old and young, all the people from every quarter, surrounded the house. And they called to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know them carnally.”
So Lot went out to them through the doorway, shut the door behind him, and said, “Please, my brethren, do not do so wickedly! See now, I have two daughters who have not known a man; please, let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you wish; only do nothing to these men, since this is the reason they have come under the shadow of my roof.”
To be clear: the sexual sin being proposed here is rape, specifically gang-rape. If the people of Sodom had accepted Lot’s request that they rape his daughters rather than the men that would have been just as morally reprehensible. And believe me, I could write a whole post on the fact he offered them this choice. It’s a fascinating (albeit sickening) glimpse into gender views. But getting back to homosexuality, Sodom’s real fault had nothing to do with sex. The Bible makes this point clear in Ezekiel 16:49 (again NKJV): “Look, this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughter had pride, fullness of food, and abundance of idleness; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.”
As Gene Robinson puts it, “Most modern Old Testament scholars agree that our traditional interpretation of this story may be misguided and that the point of the story was Sodom’s violation of the rather strict and universally acknowledged norms of hospitality – a code of ethics one still finds in Middle Eastern cultures today.” Lot had rightly given his visitors protection when he took him into his house, and the people of Sodom wanted to drag them out into the public square and violate them. The fact that this was men wanting to have sex with other men is almost incidental.
Thou Shalt Not Lie with a Man…
Leviticus 18:22 is one of the most-quoted verses when it comes to protest signs against LGBT rights. For a bit of context, here’s Leviticus 18:20-25, NKJV:
Also you shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness as long as she is in her customary impurity. Moreover you shall not lie carnally with your neighbor’s wife, to defile yourself with her. And you shall not let any of your descendants pass through the fire to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God: I am the LORD. You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination. Nor shall you mate with any animal, to defile yourself with it. Nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it. It is perversion.
Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you. For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants. [emphasis mine]
Again, I could write a full post on the fact that God apparently thought these finer points of sexual immorality, committed by a people who didn’t have the benefit of a developed revelation, justified the genocide God commands the Israelites to undertake. Whenever I see those signs I have a bitter little chuckle when I remember that this was the one fact of that passage those people picked out on.
But leaving that point aside, this passage and the chapters that follow are interesting mash-up of things we would rightly think of as morally awful, and other things that seem at worst to be technical violations. Take two other commandments from this group: “you shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness as long as she is in her customary impurity” and “you shall not let any of your descendants pass through the fire to Molech.” While menstruating, women lived separately from their family and were in a state of ritual impurity, and it was forbidden to approach them; that’s how I understand the first commandment. On the other hand, passing through to Molech was a form of child sacrifice, where children were burned alive to a pagan God. The things mentioned in this chapter are a mixture of what we would consider serious today and things we’d think of as trivial.
If you’re committed to this idea that “lying with a man as with a woman” is a serious sin, it gets worse in the next chapter. The Israelites were forbidden from harvesting your fields to the corners (leave some gleanings from the poor), gossiping with other people, or holding onto a day-laborer’s wages until the next day. Oh, and that word abomination? Genesis 19 uses the same term for when you eat the peace offering more than two days after it was sacrificed. I’m not trying to trivialize these commands because many of them are important ways to not make things harder for the poor. But this admonition not to lie with a man as you would a woman is in the middle of very specific commands that people break all the time without incurring this kind of anger. If you’re going to use this verse to go after LGBT people, you should be just as judgmental of people who wear blended cloth fabric, touch pig’s skin (sorry football fans), or even just eat shellfish. Consistency is a good thing.
More to the point, this is part of the purity code, which most theologians agree don’t apply to Christians anyway. And many of these prohibitions, the sexual ones in particular, are more about banning certain idolatrous practices anyway. This prohibition doesn’t seem to apply to Christians, to me. At a minimum we should only emphasize it as much as we do these other commandments.
God also gave them up to uncleanness…
The rest of the Old Testament, so far as I know, is silent on the question of homosexuality, and the Gospels are similarly mum on the topic. Paul, however, mentions same-sex sex acts several times. Two verses in particular are worth discussing. First, from Romans 1, NKJV:
Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use of what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.
I grew up hearing this described as being about homosexuality, but if you read the larger context, it seems this lust develops as the people become more idolatrous. Actually, it reminds me of nothing so much as an orgy or perhaps the use of temple prostitutes that was common in that historical period. If I’m being particularly generous in my interpretation to the anti-homosexuality crowd, I might say this passage was condemning certain kinds of male/male or female/female sex acts. Even this is not the same as condemning all sex acts, though. And really, this seems more likely to be about idolatry and lust than the genders of the participants.
What’s most interesting here is that the men and women are turning away from their true orientation. As I read the passage, Paul is criticizing women who are naturally attracted to men but for whatever reason chose have sex with women here. This seems to come closer to the gay men and lesbians who choose to marry the opposite gender against their true sexual orientation. That decision isn’t driven by lust, and it’s not about worshiping a pagan god, but it is about people using sex for some other reason beside its true purpose: not the two-shall-become-one ideal, but as a sacrifice in order to get the traditional family (house, husband, kids, etc.).
I suppose a lot of this turns on whether you think a gay or lesbian orientation can be natural, what God intended. I do. But even if you don’t, I think it’s obvious that being gay, even having sex with someone of your gender, isn’t the same as acting out of lust. Quite often, it’s driven by the same desire for love and a shared life that most heterosexuals feel.
Lost in Translation
Paul’s other verse is a harsh criticism indeed, if it’s about homosexuals. He writes in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, NKJV:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.
That’s pretty scary stuff. If I were gay, I would read it as casting doubt on my salvation (how can I be “washed” or “sanctified” if I’m still longing to have sex with women, and on occasion doing it)? Lots of other folks are also criticized, but they are criticized for things they can stop doing. The only option for homosexuals besides sleeping with people of their gender is celibacy, and this is the kind of thing the Bible presents as something a select few are called to – not for everybody.
The problem is, it’s not at all clear that “homosexuals” and “sodomites” is an appropriate translation. The Greek words here are malakoi and arsenokoitai. Let me just quote from Gene Robinson again:
The first is a common Greek word meaning “soft,” and elsewhere in Scripture it is used to describe a garment. Nowhere else in Scripture is it used to describe a person. The early Church seems to have understood it as a person with a “soft” or weak morality. Later, it would come to denote (and be translated as) those who engage in masturbation, or “those who abuse themselves.” In our own time, with masturbation having been more popularly accepted, this word has often been used to denote homosexuals. All we actually, factually, know about the word is that it meant “soft.”
The Greek word arsenokoitai is an even greater mystery. It is found nowhere else in Scripture – nor is there any record of its being used in any other contemporaneous text. We have nothing, neither internal to the Scriptures nor external to them, to give us guidance as to its meaning.
When such a mysterious word appears in an ancient text, the translater must do something with it. Even with commonly understood words, a translator has choices to make about which English word best communicates the word’s meaning. In the case of a completely unknown word like arsenokoitai, the danger of mistranslating is heightened. Many translators have chosen to take the two words together, understanding the Greek word for “soft” as applying to the receptive partner in male-to-male anal intercourse, and have taken the arsenokoitai to mean the active partner. This is speculation at best.
Others have speculated that this receptive/active relationship applies to a practice (that would have been known to Paul) in which an older man took a teenage boy “under his wing,” taught him the ways of the world, and used him sexually. If this were its true meaning, we would all condemn such a practice as child abuse! No one is arguing for acceptance of such a practice.
Those “others” seem to include at least some people involved with producing the NKJV. The version I’ve been consulting (the web version through BibleGateway.com) includes a few short explanatory notes at the bottom of each chapter. I suspect (though am not positive) they’re part of the text themselves. And under 1 Cor. 6:9, for the word translated “homosexuals,” it helpfully clarifies “That is, catamites.” Which is, you know, kind of a big difference.
This seems like one of those situations where we simply can’t know what exactly was meant. Without careful study, and even then I’m skeptical about our odds because there doesn’t seem to be much to study, either from the inside the Bible or from other historical sources. The way the translation has cha28ed over time also makes me doubt that “homosexual” is appropriate here; the phrase seems like a convenient bogeyman for whatever sexual sin is deemed worthy of being condemned. And even the Bible recognizes that what we’re talking about is not so much homosexuality (as in, a romantic/sexual relationship between two consenting men or two consenting women), it was a form of pedophilia common in the ancient world.
Bottom line: the use of homosexual seems misleading at best. And that’s the more grounded of the two translation choices here.
And the Two Shall Become One
The last Bible passage I want to address is the creation story, which seems to set up male/female romance as the ideal form sanctioned by God. Really, you need to read Genesis 1-3 in its entirety to get a sense for what’s going on here, but let me just quote one of the most relevant parts, Genesis 2:18-24:
And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.” Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. So Adam gave names to all cattles, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper comparable to him.
And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and eh slept; and He took one of the ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. Then the rib which the Lord God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man.
And Adam said: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”
Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
Now, the standard way to read this is that males were created first but that God saw he was alone and no animal was a suitable pair for him, so God created females as a good helpmeet. Women are supposed to be designed so we complement men (and, if we’re being egalitarian, men also complement women). If this were true, the relationship between men and women would be unlike anything two men or two women could ever share. This would imply that homosexual romantic relationships really weren’t on par with heterosexual ones.
There’s a longstanding tradition both in Judaism and in Christianity that Adam was originally hermaphroditic. That doesn’t quite do it justice. Originally Adam was supposed to have the traits that were later separated into both men and women. So it’s not that the first Adam was male and females came later; it’s that first there’s humanity and that God later recognized it was good for us to have companionship, to yearn for something beyond ourselves, so later God separated humanity into men and women. Eve was created (or separated) because it wasn’t good for Adam to be alone. And Eve was uniquely suited to be Adam’s companionship. She was literally the other half of him.
Here’s the thing, though: It’s not like men and women are two completely distinct species; they are two halves of the same whole. So it is conceivable to me that a descendant of Adam’s and Eve’s might find the person who completes him or her comes in the same gender rather than the opposite gender. The way I read Genesis 2, it’s Eve’s otherness, her separateness from Adam and the way she complements him that makes her a good helpmate. This does not mean that in every case, from Adam down to the present day, a male would always be complemented by a female. This is because females and males aren’t distinct species. They’re part of the same species. Some girls are tomboys and some boys are more effeminate than others, and this is simply part of the full range of human nature. We should be careful about taking one incident where a man bound himself to a woman and take this as meaning every man should be bound to a woman.
There is one thing heterosexual couples can do that homosexual couples simply aren’t capable of: natural, biological reproduction. This is important, as it turns out, because God’s very first command to humans is to “Be fruitful and multiply; fall the earth and subdue it.” (Gen 1:28, NKJV) If this means to have as many kids as you can, this is one area where heterosexual couples definitely have an advantage. And for a long time, historically, that’s just what it meant. This is a big part of why powerful men took as many wives as they could, and why marriage usually wasn’t about romance. This whole idea of actually falling in love and marrying your soul-mate is a pretty recent innovation in human history.
Today, we separate sex from reproduction pretty thoroughly. People get married and go years before they even try to have a kid, where I presume they’re sexually intimate. If it turns out one or the other is infertile, they stay together. They use doctors to get around the problem, or they adopt, or they make a meaningful life without children. Often, people get married when they know they’re infertile, like elderly couples getting married after their first spouse has died. And they stay married after the wife goes through menopause, even though theoretically the husband could marry some younger woman and have more kids.
I’ve never met anyone in the most conservative of Christian circles who thinks, if a couple can’t literally “go forth and multiply,” it should end. (In fact, I’m fairly sure Jesus had a thing or two to say about divorce, and my guess is he’d frown on this move.) Make no mistake, this commandment is still important, but it doesn’t have to mean having more biological offspring. If you want to go the family route, there are born kids, both in America and around the world that need adoption. The earth is plenty subdued verging on being overcrowded, and I respect people who choose to adopt rather than have their own kids. I also respect people who try to subdue the earth in more figurative ways, working to make it a better place. There’s no reason why gay couples can’t do all of these things.
As a side note: Gene Robinson, whose book God Believes in Love I’ve quoted several times here, was married to a woman for several years and has two daughters (who sound lovely IMO). He is well-known as a gay man and an Episcopalian bishop, and he is now married to a man. Said man also sounds lovely, and he’s a major part of those girls’ lives. He seems as much their father as Gene is, even though there’s no biological relationship. This is another way that many gay men “go forth and multiply.” This is one of many reasons why I favor (civil) gay marriage, but that will have to wait for another post.
Btw, I am a philosophy graduate student playing at being a theologian here. That means it’s time to haul out the extra-big grain of salt. If you’re interested in this subject, do some reading on your own. Boswell’s classic Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality for a look at how Christians have approached this issue across history. I know the memoir Torn has been getting some really good discussions across the religious blogosphere. And for a more theological take on this subject, I’ve heard good things (but haven’t read myself) What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality by Daniel Helminiak. I’ve quoted a lot from the Gene Robinson book because I’ve read it most recently, but (while I am loving the autobiographical aspects) a lot of times he seems too ready to downplay what the Bible actually said in favor of broad themes like justice, care for the vulnerable, the limits of biological families, etc. There’s a place for that, and I highly recommend the book on other grounds, but if you’re looking for alternate reads on what the Bible said here, I’m not sure it’s the best place to start.
Christianity and homosexuality is a very complicated topic, and I’ve had to leave a lot out to make this post even halfway manageable as far as length goes. The relationship between religion and marriage, for instance, or how Jesus’s relationship with the Law affects how a Christian might read these passages, for instance. I’ve just barely scratched the surface of this topic, and I’m sure there are things people want to talk about which I didn’t go into here. But I hope it at least serves for a start, and is useful or interesting for anyone interested in the Bible and homosexuality.