Same-sex marriage: What does the Bible really have to say?
The Conversation By Robyn J Whitaker, Trinity College - Posted 23 Aug 2017, 6:59am
As Australia faces a postal survey on same-sex marriage, we are seeing a steady stream of articles arguing the Yes or No case. Many on the No side are prone to citing the Bible or appealing to "biblical values". But what does the Bible actually say about human sexuality and homosexuality in particular? What follows represents a summary of critical biblical scholarship on the issue.
Critical biblical scholarship draws on a range academic disciplines including literary criticism, archaeology, history, philology, and social science to offer the most plausible, historically grounded interpretation of the Bible. It is not simply a matter of personal belief or citing official church doctrine.
Australian scholars are among leaders in the field when it comes to sexuality and the Bible. William Loader has written several books on the matter and this Anglican collection of essays is also excellent.
When it comes to homosexuality there are, at most, six passages of the Bible that are relevant. So what do these passages say?
Genesis 19 and Leviticus
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 is well known. This is where the terms "sodomite" and "sodomy" originate, and it has long been associated with biblical condemnation of male homosexual sex. It is, however, actually about gang-rape. In this story, the men of Sodom seek to rape two visitors (who are actually angels). Their host, Lot, defends them and offers them protection in his house, but offers his virgin daughters to be raped in their place.
Note to Margaret Court: Margaret Court is wrong to claim marriage is "a union between a man and a woman as stated in the Bible," writes Robyn Whitaker. It is a deeply problematic and complex story that warrants an article of its own, but what is clear is that sexual violence and rape is harshly condemned, and so God destroys the town with sulphur and fire. Despite the linguistic history of the word "sodomite", Genesis 19 has nothing to say about homosexuality or mutually consenting adults of the same gender expressing their desire and love. Two of the laws of Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13) seem more pertinent. They call a man lying with another man instead of his wife an "abomination".
Again, we need some context. Yes, this verse clearly condemns adulterous homosexual sex in calling it an "abomination" (to'ebah), but here are all the other things also called an "abomination" in the Bible:
Banned likewise is wearing mixed-fabric clothing, interbreeding animals of different species, tattoos, mocking the blind by putting obstacles in their way, and trimming your beard.
To claim one set as timeless truths while ignoring the others is patently hypocritical and goes against the grain of the text itself.
The New Testament
The remainder of the biblical references occur in the New Testament, written between approximately 50 and 110 CE in the context of the Roman Empire. The attitudes and norms of Graeco-Roman culture are critical in understanding these texts.
The main ancient objection to male-male sexual activity was that one partner had to take the "woman's role" of being penetrated. In a patriarchal society, to be masculine was to be the active partner, whereas to be passive was deemed feminine and shameful.
These attitudes find their way into the New Testament in various forms. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:10 list a wide group of people who will not "inherit the Kingdom" without changing.
Paul is using a standard list of vices here to make a wider rhetorical point.
Where some English translations might include "homosexuality" on this list, the translation is not that simple, which is why various English words are used (adulterer, immoral persons, prostitutes).
The Greek word malakoi in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 means "soft" or "effeminate" and captures the Graeco-Roman distaste at a man taking a "female" role. In the Bible it is commonly used to describe fancy clothing, and outside the Bible was a term for cult prostitutes.
The word arsenokoites is rarer. Scholars have debated whether it refers to male prostitution or pederasty or something else. To translate it as "homosexual" is problematic for two reasons: it is
unlikely Paul had any concept of sexual orientation and he was certainly not describing a committed adult relationship.
In Romans 1:26-27, Paul condemns people swapping out their usual partner for one of the same gender. He claims this is a result of idolatry and uses it as part of his argument for why one should only follow (his) God.
It is typical of the strong "them and us" rhetoric of the ancient world, serving a larger argument and is not a statement on sexuality per se.
As New Testament scholar Sean Winter summarises:
"Paul shares a stereotypical Jewish distrust of Graeco-Roman same sex activity, but is simply not talking about loving partnerships between people with same sex orientation."
Considering the context
We need to put all this in perspective. These are six verses out of more than 31,000 verses or roughly 0.016 per cent of the text. In contrast, the Bible contains more than 2,000 verses about money (and related issues of greed, wealth, loans, and property), and more than 100 specifically on one's obligation to care for widows.
For certain Christian groups to make this the decisive Christian issue is simply a misreading of biblical values.
Lest readers think the Bible is against sexuality generally, there is an entire biblical book devoted to celebrating human sexual desire. Written in the style of a Mesopotamian love poem, the Song of Songs (sometimes called Song of Solomon), speaks positively of both female and male sexual yearning.
Serious Christians cannot ignore the Bible. They can, however, make sure that they interpret it with all the tools available to them, that they examine their own biases, and stop over-simplifying the issues.
The Bible offers a wide variety of marriage arrangements, many of which we no longer condone. It never condemns same-sex marriage, partly because it simply does not address the issue directly.
It does, however, give us an ethic to guide how we treat one another: an ethic based upon God's generous love and a profound concern for justice.
Robyn J Whitaker is Bromby Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Trinity College and a lecturer at the University of Divinity.
Originally published in The Conversation
Why is the Church anti-gay, if the Bible isn’t?
Many ordinary Christians are deeply conflicted by their desire to embrace homosexual brethren in the fellowship of the church, when some of their leaders are telling them that these people are sinners. Numbers of people feel very discomfited by the current debate.
Genesis 19: 1-28
The ancient story of Sodom and Gomorrah has been used throughout the centuries as a condemnation of homosexuality, to the point where anal sex is referred to as “Sodomy”.
Examining this scripture, the first thing we see is that all the people, in one mob, demanded that Lot bring out the visitors to them. If we are to believe that the account of Sodom & Gomorrah is a condemnation of homosexuality, then we must also accept the conclusion that the entire city consisted of homosexuals.
But if we look in the previous chapter, Genesis 18: 16-33, we see an account of Abraham negotiating with God to spare the people of Sodom, with the final outcome of God promising “I shall not bring it to ruin on account of the ten” (verse 33). God promised Abraham that Sodom would not be destroyed if only ten “righteous men” could be found I the city. If we are to accept the previous logic, this would mean that the “righteous men” referred to were, per se, heterosexuals.
Now it is a matter of Biblical “fact” that God (or rather, his angels) didn’t find anyone at all worth saving. But at this point, we then need to ask ourselves: what would be the odds of less than ten people in the entire region of Sodom & Gomorrah being heterosexual?
If for no other reason than to ask, “where did all the population come from?” They were all gay immigrants, presumably, begat by parents left behind in other places that were heteroesexual? We think not. So if homosexuality was not being referred to in this passage, then what was? Looking at the scriptures in Hebrew, we find an interesting usage of a couple of different words.
When the mob cries out “Where are the men who came in to you tonight?”, the Hebrew word that is customarily translated men is actually ‘enowsh which, literally translated, means “mortal” or “human”. This indicates that the mob knew that Lot had visitors, but were unsure of what sex they were. We can divine this because the Hebrew word for “man” (utilized in this same passage in Genesis 19:8) is entirely different. And one really has to ask: why would homosexuals want to have sex with two strangers if they were unsure of what sex they were?
The passage translated as “Bring them out so that we may have intercourse with them” needs further examination as well. Other Bible translations read “so that we may know them”. The Hebrew word that is commonly translated as “have intercourse”, or “know” is yada.
But this word, yada, appears in the Hebrew Scriptures a total of 943 times. And in all but ten of these usages, the word is used in the context of getting acquainted with someone.
Had the writer intended for his reading audience to believe that the mob wanted to have sexual intercourse with the strangers, he could simply have used the Hebrew word shakab, which vividly denotes sexual activity. Many people argue, therefore, that the correct translation should be rendered something to the effect of: “Where are the people who came in to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may get acquainted with them.”
So then, if the story of Sodom & Gomorrah was not a condemnation of homosexuality, what was it trying to convey?
Two verses in Exekiel sum up the story this way: “Look! This is what proved to be the error of Sodom your sister: Pride, sufficiency of bread and the carefreeness of keeping undisturbed were what happened to belong to her and her dependent towns, and the hand of the afflicted one and the poor one she did not strengthen. And they continued to be haughty and to carry on a detestable thing before me, and I finally removed them, just as I saw [fit]”. (Ezekiel 16: 49, 50.)
It is commonly assumed, because we’re referring to Sodom, that the “detestable thing” referred to in this passage is homosexuality. But in fact, the Hebrew word utilized here is tow’ebah, which translated literally means “to commit idol worship”.
This can be seen in the original Genesis passage, chapter 19, verse 8: “Please, here I have two daughters who have never had intercourse with a man. Please let me bring them out to you. Then do to them as is good in your eyes.”
One has to ask: If Lot’s house was surrounded by homosexuals, which presumably he’d know as everyone in the entire region was gay apart from him and his family, why would he offer the mob women? Note also that these women were virgins. And that the Sodomites were pagans.
Virgin sacrifices to idols were a common practice in this era. Therefore, it can easily be concluded that Lot was offering his daughters as a virgin sacrifice to appease the mob in an effort to protect the visitors. The
In the Greek scriptures, the story of Sodom is summed up this way: “and by reducing the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them, setting a pattern for ungodly persons of things to come”. This corroborates Ezekiel’s summation, once again showing that these were “ungodly persons”; in other words, idolaters, they were not worshippers of the true God.
If we have difficulty with the logic of 100% of any population being gay, can we rather believe in 100% of a population being adherents of a particular pagan cult? Yes, we certainly can. If for no other reason that there was no tolerance of those who didn’t share pagan beliefs in many early societies. Not to agree was to invite exclusion or execution. You were in, or you were out. The Jews themselves exercise this attitude continually throughout the Old Testament.
So the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, therefore, is almost certainly intended as a condemnation of idol worshippers, and of a greedy and inhospitable society that sought to treat visitors in a threatening manner – which was also a sin, to the early Jews, by the way.
Many people argue, therefore, that it is perfectly reasonable to propose that this key text on the judgement of this region had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with homosexuality!
Leviticus 18:22 & Leviticus 20:13
The message was clear to the ancient Israelites: semen was to be used for one purpose alone – procreation. Wasted semen, whether by masturbation, anal penetration, or homosexuality, was not to be tolerated. We have to place these edicts in some sort of historical context in order to understand them, if not to agree or disagree with them. Life in those days was a “numbers game”. One of the Bible’s earliest edicts, a theme repeated through the Old Testament, was to “be fruitful and multiply”. If your tribe was numerically stronger than those around it, then good things would flow from that dominance. (The same argument is currently used by the British National Party to argue for white Anglo-Saxon women having more children, but that’s another story.)
It’s an undeniable fact that many strict regulations were imposed on the ancient Israelites. The “chosen ones of God” understood each of these regulations to be equally important.
In the Greek scriptures, James points this fact out by stating: “For whoever observes all the law but makes a false step in one point, he has become an offender against them all.”
Fundamentalist Christians, however, selectively cite the two scriptures in Leviticus as a condemnation of homosexuality, overlooking James’ words which state, in essence, that if you’ve the broken just one of the laws, you’ve broken them all.
So why do we focus so frequently on homosexuality?
Leviticus 19:27, for example, condemns haircuts and shaving. How many long-haired, bearded males attend your local Church? Or to put it another way, do we have agonised debates about Ministers who might have short hair?
Leviticus 19:19 also condemns wearing clothing made of more than one type of thread. Anybody reading this wear clothing made of 50% cotton and 50% polyester?
Taking the Bible literally, such individuals are equally guilty as homosexuals.
This leaves aside, of course, any concerns about whether or not it is still OK for us to grab our neighbours and use them as slaves, or to go around killing anyone who works on the Sabbath.
TheWhen questioned by the Pharisees regarding these ancient laws, Jesus’ reply was “I came, not to destroy, but to fulfil”. In other words, Christianity and love of God and fellow man was a replacement for the strict ancient codes, many of which were no longer practical or relevant.
But let us forget, for a moment, putting things in an historical context, or the fundamentalists will simply argue that we’re “messing with the truth”.
Let us look at the arguments of those who believe these two passages don’t really condemn homosexuality at all.
Looking at the scriptures in Hebrew, one sees a different condemnation. Leviticus 20:13 states, in part, and was historically translated as, “When a man lies down with a male the same as one lies down with a woman”.
But had the writer intended to convey homosexuality being condemned here, he would surely have used the Hebrew word ‘iysh, which means “man”, or “male person”. Instead, the author utilises a much more complicated Hebrew word, zakar, which literally translated means “A person worthy of recognition”. Zakar was used to refer to high priests of the surrounding idolatrous religions.
In ancient societies, surrounding the early Jews, it was believed that by granting sexual favours to the high priest (a fertility rite), one would be guaranteed an abundance of children and crops.
Taking Leviticus 18: 22 into proper context, then, one should also look at the preceding verse 21: “And you must not allow the devoting of any of your offspring to Molech”.
So what we almost certainly see here are warnings to the Israelites not to engage in the fertility rituals of the worshippers of Molech, which often required the granting of sexual favours to the priest.
Many believe that if this been a mere condemnation of homosexuals, the writer would undoubtedly have used clearer or simpler language.
Romans 1: 26-27, 1 Cor. 6: 9-11, 1 Tim. 1: 9-11
Greek, like Hebrew, is a much more descriptive language than English. As an example, while we have the word “love”, Greek has agape, storge, philia, and eros – each describing a different form of love.
Ironically, “gay” is a classic example. Some say that it is easy to understand why words in ancient Greek could be misinterpreted, as are the terms “men who lie with men”, “abusers of mankind”, “homosexual”, and “pervert” in the above referenced scriptures.
The two words in Greek used in the above scriptures that are commonly mistranslated as such are arsenokoites and malakoi. Bible scholars now believe arsenokoites to mean “male temple prostitute”, as mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures at Deut. 23: 17-18.
The actual meaning of this word, however, has been lost in history, as it was a slang term which, literally translated, means “lift bed”. The Greek malakoi, literally translated, means “spineless” (some linguistics scholars translate it as “limp”, or “coward”).
What is important to note here is that both of these words are nouns. In ancient Greek, there is no known noun to define homosexuality. It was always expressed as a verb.
So just as in the Hebrew scriptures examined earlier, it appears that the Greek scriptures actually make reference to those who engaged in idolatrous practices, much of which, as we know, centred around sex in return for favours.
Neither the homosexual nor the direct idea of homosexuality appears anywhere in these passages. Had the writer intended to make a clear point about condemnation of gays, surely the Greek verb for homosexual behaviour would have been utilised rather than these nouns which are directly related to cowardice and idolatry?
But last – and by no means least – what about Paul’s apparently incontrovertible statement at Romans 1 where “females changed the natural use of themselves into one contrary to nature and likewise even the males left the natural use of the female and became violently inflamed in their lust towards one another”? This would appear to be a simple, trenchant condemnation of homosexuality.
But perhaps, yet again. the truth is actually more subtle than that. A clue lies in Paul’s words in the earlier verses 22 and 23: “Although asserting they were wise, they became foolish and turned the glory of the incorruptible God into something like the image of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed creatures and creeping things.”
So obviously, again, Paul’s reference here is to worshippers drawn into the ever-present danger of idolatry, one danger of which is unbridled sexual licentiousness of the kind that a conservative Jew like Paul would have found abhorrent. Especially when put in the context of his mission to the Roman Empire, with its endless parade of cults and religions, and very lax sexual behaviour generally.
As mentioned above in examining the Hebrew scriptures, many pagan idol-worshipping religions of Paul’s day also taught that by granting sexual favours to priests, the one giving the favour would be rewarded with fertility of crops and offspring.
Indeed, many such cults were, in reality, little more than brothels with quasi-religious overtones.
Unfortunately, of course, we have to read Paul’s words without the benefit of knowing all the background to his letters, but it certainly seems reasonable to suppose that his attack here is on a complex set of behaviours to do with people who reject the message of Christianity and continue to adhere to older religions.
It seems clear that Paul’s reference was not a dedicated attack on loving same-sex relationships, but his condemnation was focused instead on people who were normally heterosexuals who had been prevailed upon to rebel against their own sexual nature, in the granting of sexual favours to the leaders of pagan religions, in expectation of reward by the pagan gods.
So whilst his apparent rejection of homosexual behaviour seems unambiguous, the context of the comments is much more complex.
In conclusion, nowhere in the Bible, according to many Biblical scholars, is any unambiguously negative reference made to stable, loving same-sex relationships. And after all, it is now widely agreed that anything up to 5-10% of the population identify themselves as predominantly “gay” as regards their sexual preferences. So are 5-10% of those sections of the Bible discussing relationships dedicated to condemning their choice? Undoubtedly not. In all he is recorded as saying, does Christ ever address any remarks condemining homosexuality to one-in-20 of the population, or one-in-ten? No, not a word.
In fact, many gays argue that two positive references appear in the Hebrew scriptures of love between two people of the same sex:
2 Samuel 1:26 states: “I am distressed over you, my brother Jonathan, very pleasant you were to me. More wonderful was your love to me than the love from women.”
Ruth 1: 16, 17 states: “And Ruth proceeded to say: ‘Do not plead with me to abandon you, to turn back from accompanying you; for where you go I shall go, and where you spend the night I shall spend the night. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I shall die, and there is where I shall be buried. May Jehovah do so to me and add to it if anything but death should make a separation between me and you’.”
And while it must immediately be conceded that no mention is made of actual sexual activity between these people, it must also be pointed out that these couples had therefore made covenants with each other. And to the ancient Israelites, a covenant was viewed as a holy bond; a powerful uniting of two people.
We all have to wrestle with the truth of this matter in our hearts. Personally, I find it much more helpful to see what the Bible is arguing for, rather than what it is arguing against. Those who are currently affected by some Christians’ negative stance towards gays and lesbians should perhaps also seek comfort in the much greater preponderance in the Bible of messages of inclusion, acceptance, tolerance and understanding.
And the injunction, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
A correspondent kindly reminded me of this hilarious spearing of the literal truth of the Old Testament, from 2002. The introductory quotation is from that era:
The power of logic and quiet humour – “Dr Laura’s” anti-gay viewpoints – for which she later apologised – sparked a worldwide internet phenomenon which did more to mock anti-gay beliefs based on the OT than anyone could have imagined. Dr. Laura Schlessinger is a radio personality who dispenses advice to people who call in to her radio show.
Recently, she said that, as an observant Orthodox Jew, homosexuality is an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22 and cannot be condoned under any circumstance.
The following is an open letter to Dr. Laura penned by a east coast resident, which was posted on the Internet. It’s funny, as well as informative:
Dear Dr. Laura
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can.
When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the other specific laws and how to follow them:
When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15:19- 24. The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?
I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?
A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination – Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this?
Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?
Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?
I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? – Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)
I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.
Your devoted fan,