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Just what does the Bible say about gays?

          The Age November 1, 2004

We can cherry-pick biblical references to homosexuality, ignoring the message of love, writes Nicholas Kristof.    Pulitzer Prize-winner Nicholas Kristof is a columnist with The New York Times.

So when God made homosexuals who fall deeply, achingly in love with each other, did he goof? That seems implicit in US legislative efforts to oppose gay marriage.

Over the past few months, I've been researching the question of how the Bible regards homosexuality. Social liberals tend to be uncomfortable with religious arguments, but that is the ground on which political battles are often decided.

I think it's presumptuous of conservatives to assume that God is on their side. But I also think it's stupid of liberals to forfeit the religious field.

Some scholars, such as Daniel Helminiak, author of What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, argue that the Bible is not anti-gay. I don't really buy that.

It's true that the story of Sodom is treated by both modern scholars and by ancient Ezekiel as about hospitality, rather than homosexuality. In Sodom, Lot puts up two male strangers for the night. When a lustful mob demands they be handed over, Lot offers his two virgin daughters instead. After some further unpleasantness, God destroys Sodom. As Mark Jordan notes in The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, it was only in the 11th century that theologians began to condemn homosexuality as sodomy.

In fact, the most obvious lesson from Sodom is that when you're attacked by an angry mob, the holy thing to do is to offer up your virgin daughters.

Still, the traditionalists seem to me basically correct that the Old Testament does condemn at least male anal sex (scholars disagree about whether the Hebrew phrasing encompasses other sexual contact). A plain reading of the Book of Leviticus is that male anal sex is every bit as bad as other practices that the text condemns, like wearing a polyester-and-cotton shirt (Leviticus 19:19).

As for the New Testament, Jesus never said a word about gays, while he explicitly advised a wealthy man to give away all his assets and arguably warned against bank accounts ("do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth"). Likewise, Jesus praises those who make themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, but conservative Christians rarely lead the way with self-castration.

Theologians point out that that the Bible is big enough to encompass gay relationships and tolerance - as well as episodic condemnations of gays. For example, 1 Samuel can be read as describing gay affairs between David and Jonathan.

In the New Testament, Matthew and Luke describe how Jesus cured the beloved servant of a centurion - and some scholars argue that the wording suggests that the pair were lovers, yet Jesus didn't blanch.

The religious right cites one part of the New Testament that clearly does condemn male homosexuality - not in Jesus' words, but in Paul's. The right has a tougher time explaining why lesbians shouldn't marry because the Bible has no unequivocal condemnation of lesbian sex.

A passage in Romans 1 objects to women engaging in "unnatural" sex, and this probably does mean lesbian sex, according to Bernadette Brooten, the author of a fascinating study of early Christian attitudes toward lesbians. But it's also possible that Paul was referring to sex during menstruation or to women who are aggressive during sex.

In any case, do we really want to make Paul our lawgiver? Will we enforce Paul's instruction that women veil themselves and keep their hair long? (Note to President Bush: If you want to obey Paul, why don't you start by veiling Laura and keeping her hair long, and only then bar gay marriages.)

Given these ambiguities, is there any solution? One would be to emphasise the sentiment in Genesis that "it is not good for the human to be alone", and allow gay lovers to marry.

Or there's another solution. Paul disapproves of marriage except for the sex-obsessed, saying that it is best "to remain unmarried as I am".

So if we're going to cherry-pick biblical phrases and ignore the central message of love, then perhaps we should just ban marriage?