Human history, especially recently, has shown that we can be very wrong about some things, even things we’ve believed for a long time. The sun doesn’t revolve around the earth. Solid objects are actually mostly filled with space. And the Bible doesn’t condemn homosexuality. What? But don’t most Jews and Christians, the people of the Book themselves, say it does? Don’t they say the Bible condemns homosexuals even when they disagree with that condemnation? Doesn’t the Bible say homosexuality is an “abomination”?
The answer to the first question is “Yes, that is what they say.” But the answer to the second question turns out to be “No, it is a misunderstanding.” I myself was unhappily convinced, until a few years ago, that the Hebrew Bible did condemn homosexuality. I thought this was disturbing because I myself don’t agree. Homosexuality seems to me ethically neutral and grounded in genetic predispositions.
All of this changed when I took a closer look through the lens of some excellent Biblical scholarship basing itself solidly in the historical-critical approach, ie. in arguments based in textual criticism, archaeology, anthropology, and cross-cultural studies.
When we say “homosexual” today we generally mean people who are primarily sexually attracted to persons of the same sex. By “homosexuality” we mean people of homosexual orientation who engage, homosexually, in all the same sexual and romantic behaviours that heterosexuals do: casual sex, affairs, committed monogamy, and now marriage.
First off, no one in the cultural sphere of the Bible thought of certain people as “homosexuals” or had a concept of “homosexuality” like the one I describe above. There is no word for homosexual or homosexuality in Hebrew. In fact scholars assert that the category “homosexuality” did not occur in western culture until the 17th century. Before then, sex with another man was just seen as a “perverse desire”, a temptation that some people were more prone to than others.
What is at issue here in Leviticus is a certain act not a category of person. The verses in question are: “You shall not lay with a male as you would with a woman, it is a repulsive thing.” (Lev 18:22) and “The two of them have done a repulsive thing. They shall be put to death.” (Lev 20:13). We need to understand exactly what “laying with a man as you would with a woman” means, and why that was considered “a repulsive thing”.
Friedman and Dolansky (2011) offer a very compelling historical and cross cultural analysis here (For a detailed discussion and defense of their argument see here, what follows is a summary).
They agree with the mainstream Judeo-Christian interpretation the verses refer to sexual intimacy between men, which is supported by the language used. How exactly does one man lay with another like the second man was a woman, though? Friedman and Dolansky ground their understanding of why homosexual sex is forbidden in an Israelite aversion to one man being penetrated by another (the reason for the aversion will be explained below). The Israelites most likely understood “sex (laying)” to refer to “sexual intercourse” specifically. Even more specifically, the law is addressed to the active partner- “you shall not lay with a man”. In other words, the intention of the law is to forbid a man having sexual intercourse with another man by penetrating him. Now, you might think this is a law forbidding homosexual romance. But, Friedman and Dolansky explain, it appears you’d be wrong.
First off, they argue, homosexuality per se can’t be the problem. Why not? Because female homosexuality is not against the law. Think that “the misogynists” just didn’t bother to mention women? Au contraire: when bestiality is discussed, the authors specifically mention both men and women being forbidden to have sex with animals. Further they argue ancient Israel was polygamous and men were not only familiar with female homosexual acts but had relatively easy opportunities to observe them and even to enjoy them, as they had multiple wives. The proof? There is a Biblical law in Leviticus making it illegal for a man who has married two sisters to have sex with both of them at the same time (Lev 18:18). Sisters just, not wives generally. If threesomes were not known and common enough, why would this law be necessary? Yet there is no law in the Hebrew Bible forbidding sex between females.
A Christian pastor named Justin Cannon makes an additional argument that is relevant here in his book The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality. It is in fact a very Jewish argument! He points out that in the Torah “to lie with” refers to sex. The verses in question could have just said ” it is forbidden for a man to lie with a man”. Why do they add “like a woman”? This seems to qualify and make more precise what is being discussed: not intimacy or love between men of just any kind, but specifically sexual intercourse.
To understand why male homosexual intercourse would be repulsive to Israelites, Friedman and Dolansky look at mentions of anal sex in the surrounding cultures. A Babylonian divination text says that being the passive recipient of homosexual anal intercourse brings bad luck. Two Assyrian laws discuss anal penetration: The first states that someone who falsely accuses another man of often being a passive recipient of anal sex will be whipped, do forced labour, pay a fine, and be castrated. The next law states: if a man anally rapes a social equal than he will in turn be anally raped and then castrated. In other words: being penetrated by another man is degrading, and is a common enough form of male social violence to be mentioned in law. One very important detail: anally raping a social inferior is not punished. The reason for this is simple: the problem is not anal sex per se, it is the socially degrading nature of being the passive recipient. If you are already a social inferior of the one who pentrates you than there is no problem in the eys of the Babylonian law. All of this is relevant to understanding the Biblical law, as we shall see.
Egypt provides similar evidence. Egyptian literature generally portrays the passive partner as weak, cowardly and effeminate. In the bizarre myth of Seth and Horus a struggle between the gods is decided by who has managed to place his semen inside the other: the implanted god loses. What about famed Greek homosexuality? It turns out the picture is more complicated then you might have heard. Greek literature does not know of a general category of men called “homosexuals”, but it does know of homosexual love and sex. And even in Greece, it turns out, to be the passive recipient of anal sex was considered shameful, effeminizing, and humiliating.
Plato comments on the practice (with a strong note of misogyny): “Will not all men censure as a woman a man who acts womanly?” Here we have, of course, a very clear parallel to the probable thinking of the Biblical law: the passive partner is considered “as a woman”. Plutarch, a Roman inheritor of the Greek tradition wrote, “We class those belonging to the passive part as being of the lowest vice and accord them neither confidence nor respect or friendship.”
What Leviticus forbids is not what we call homosexuality, but the degradation of another man’s dignity and social status through an act which was widely regarded as humiliating and socially degrading. This is in keeping with the basic egalitarian intent of the laws of the Hebrew Bible, an intent brilliantly showcased by Joshua Berman. As Berman’s book shows masterfully, we mistake the laws of the Hebrew Bible when we see them as primarily about individual morality instead of economic, social and political dynamics (though grounded in a radical concern for individual human dignity). As Berman shows, the laws of the Hebrew Bible prevent the formation of a class structure; put the King under the law with everyone else; undercut the practice of slavery; alleviate poverty; prevent the formation of an inherited aristocracy, and restrain prejudicial treatment of foreigners and non-citizens, among other social justice measures unheard of in contemporaneous middle eastern and mediterranean societies.
Bearing this in mind we come to a shocking realization about the law against anally penetrating another man. Far from being a law about forbidding homosexuality, it turns out to be a law supporting equal dignity among men and a classless state. The law existed to prevent one man from socially humiliating and degrading another man. This doesn’t mean that the laws in the Hebrew Bible are perfect in promoting equality. They still contain inequalities, most notably between men and women. That does not change the fact that they were, in context, an attempt at building a new kind of Utopia, a rebellion against the stratified slave states of Egypt and Babylon. And it doesn’t change our fundamental point, which is that the law is not about what we think it is about.
The New Testament
This interpretation of the laws of the Torah is actually supported by a proper reading of the oft-cited and misused comments of Paul in 1 Timothy 1:9-10. Here Paul condemns a number of types of human immorality and includes the set “pornoi, arsenokoitai, and andrapodistai”. These are often translated “fornicators, homosexuals, and kidnappers”. Cannon argues, in The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality that in context these Greek terms are best understood as “male prostitutes, those who use them, and their procurors (literally “slave-traders/kidnappers”). All of these characters were present in the Rome of Paul’s time. This moral condemnation follows on the Hebrew scriptural idea of anal sex as fundamentally a degrading act for one of the partners.
A second text, Romans 1:24-7, condemns people who have turned away from God and are overcome with lust breaking through all boundaries and having “unnatural” sexual relations. Cannon and others argue that in this text the referent is in fact Roman religious orgies. The Evangelical ethicist David Gushee, following others, argues that this text may be a veiled reference to debauched behaviour at the Roman imperial court by the likes of Caligula and Nero. Either way, it cannot be taken refer to committed homosexual romances of the kind we know today.
We simply cannot take the Torah’s condemnation of anal sex between men out of its original cultural context. The act was condemned because of its social meaning then. As an illustration, consider this: in Thailand it is considered incredibly insulting to touch another adults head. Now imagine certain men were in the habit of touching the heads of other men in a way which marked them as social inferiors and exerted power and status. If one wanted to create a society of equals one might outlaw one man touching the head of another man. In our culture, however, touching another man’s head simply does not have that meaning. To insist that all “head-touchers” are immoral and worthy of censure in our context would make no sense.
Similarly to insist that male homosexual love relationships are immoral in all cultural settings on the basis of the Levitical texts is incoherent. In our culture sexual love between men is simply seen as another type of morally neutral romantic love. You might object that not everyone sees it that way. The irony is, of course, that those who see it otherwise are usually inspired by their fidelity to the Bible’s supposed condemnation of homosexual love! Their opinion, therefore, is not in need of respect but simply of correction.
The consequence of all of this is that centuries of religious interpretation aside, the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. In fact it does not even discuss it. We are left to make up our own minds about what the Bible might have said about homosexuality today given its underlying mission to promote a political state where all people are free and equal before God.
Berman, Joshua. Created Equal: How The Bible Broke With Ancient Political Thought. 2008, Oxford University Press.
Cannon, Justin. The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality. 2012, Justin R. Cannon (Ebook).
Friedman and Dolansky; The Bible Now. 2011, Oxford University Press.
Gushee, David P. Changing Our Mind. 2014, Read The Spirit Books.