Updated: Nov 9, 2018
Contrary to popular misconceptions, the Bible actually says nothing about homosexuality. This is simply because the concept of sexual orientation was unknown to the ancient world. Indeed, it is only in the last hundred years that human sexuality been studied at all, and it is now understood that sexual identity goes to the core of a person’s being. It is part of how one expresses love, passion, and creativity. We are now also aware that a significant portion of our population is emotionally wired to cherish members of the same sex and that is as natural to them as heterosexuality is to the rest of the population.
Although homosexuality was unknown to Biblical writers, homogenital acts were acknowledged. These acts are referred to in Old and New Testaments in exactly five places: Genesis 19: 1-11, Leviticus 18: 22 and 20: 13, Romans 1: 18-32, and 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10/1 Timothy 1: 9-10.
In Genesis, the sin of Sodom is violation of hospitality through attempted gang rape. The books of Wisdom, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zephaniah, and Matthew (quoting Jesus) all list the city’s failures, and not one of them mentions sex. Only by equating sexual orientation with gang rape can the Sodom and Gomorrah story be considered a condemnation of homosexuality. But rape is an act of rage, not sexual gratification, and it has nothing to do with orientation. Therefore, citing Genesis to condemn gays is poor logic.
The two passages in Leviticus were written shortly after the Babylonian Captivity ended and Jews were beginning to repopulate Palestine. This book is a Holiness Code that would help Jews to maintain their unique identity amist the Caananites. Doing anything that would violate their covenant with Yahweh could result in another loss of the Promised Land. Therefore, dietary, dress, and worship rituals had to be regulated, and commiting na “abomination”—which in the Aramaic connotes ritual uncleanliness—was a very serious socio-religious crime.
Because the Code’s purpose was to keep Jewish identity intact, it was only concerned that Hebrews did not “do as they do in the land of Caanan.” No judgement was passed if homogenital behaviors were committed by Hebrew women or Gentiles of either sex, and since such acts were ritual offenses that could interfere with the duty of men to reproduce, they required absolution in the form of ritual baths, prayers, and fasting, the death sentence (which was applied to numerous violations, (eg. unruly sons) was rarely, if ever, enforced.
Which brings us to Paul and his letter to the Romans. He begins by berating the Gentiles for their idolatry. Some of them were, in fact, burning incense to the Roman gods as part of their “patriotic” duty. According to Paul, because of this, God gave their minds over to uncleanliness and “degrading passions.” Women have engaged in “unnatural” sex, but the Greek phrase Paul uses is “para physin,” an idiom referring to that which is uncustomary. Men who wear their hair long are acting para physin, and even God Himself is actin para Physin when He grafts Jew and Gentile into one church.
But the para physin acts of women are shocking, to be sure, but not necessarily limited to same sex acts. Anything women do to assert themselves even during heterosexual activities would have fallen into the realm of the “unnatural.” However, Paul is very clear about how he feels when men engage in sex with each other. They are committing “shameless” (aschemosyne, meaning without honor) acts of lust, which make them look disgraceful to other people, and that is their punishment for such behaviors.
But then, after a pause, Paul goes on to list the other sins that God gives the minds of the idolaters over to, and as this list begins, he switches vocabulary to use words that connote actual evil (asebia and adikia). He has made a clear distinction between same sex acts and behaviors that are morally wrong. But why?
Paul wants to get these newly formed house churches on the same page, but he must face the fact that they are split over the real issue of whether or not Gentiles must be circumcised and eat according to the Law of Moses. Much of his letter goes on to address this, but he needs to enter the argument in a safe way. Sexual customs aren’t a particularly divisive subject in his day, so he focuses on those to first go after the Gentiles, but follows up the practice of idolatry with a castigation of the Jews for having the Law to guide them but still falling short of obedience to God. Much of the rest of this letter is a plea for unity “in Christ.” Isn’t it ironic that Paul’s use of a rhetorical device to help establish cohesiveness in the churches of his day has become, in modern times, something that often works in opposition to his intent? Even the two words Paul used in 1 Corinthians (malakoi and arsenokoetae) which Biblical and linguistic scholars have come to believe are references to abuses of power, probably in concerning the exploitation of boy prosttutes, are totally lacking in references to women, indicating further that orientation was not the subject of his criticism.
In Scripture, God seems unconcerned about loving, committed same sex relationships. How could it be otherwise, when all people like Paul on understood all men to be heterosexuals for whom homogenital behaviors were merely acts of lust? But maybe we need to remind ourselves that Paul and the other writers of the Bible lived in an era that believed sickness was due to demonic possession and people that went to Heaven rose up into the sky.
If we want to get past the mental/spiritual prison created by the Shakespearean era language of the King James Bible, perhaps we need to understand more clearly what was on the minds of those inspired men who created the Scriptures. If not, we, as a society, will continue to victimize those we feel uncomfortable with.
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