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In this post, I hope to challenge the many dominant and overwhelmingly negative narratives I grew up with in conservative Christian circles concerning “what the Bible has to say” on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) people. As outlined in my previous post, various problems occur when approaching a topic via the lens of “what the Bible has to say”: contradictory manuscripts, contradictory authors, lack of contextual information, misinterpretation of the genre, language ambiguity, etc…
As I progress with my argument, I ask – as difficult as it is for anyone, including myself – for you to put aside what you already know and freshly re-examine the evidence presented here (and preferably elsewhere!) for yourself. I have searched out the best presentations of the arguments from every possible angle and have weighed them up for myself, being aware of my biases, for a number of years now. I am still by no means certain of the conclusions I have reached.
Also, do note that this is a progressive argument. You can happily accept the claims I make in sections 1-2 but disagree with points raised in sections 3-4. If I merely nudge you to be slightly more inclusive of and loving toward LGBT people, then I shall ‘rejoice in your goodness’! (à la 2 Chronicles 6:41)
1. The Facts
The Protestant Bible contains around 31,000 verses (OT: 23,000 | NT: 8,000). Of these 31,000 verses, only 5 (i.e. 0.002%) seem to be directly applicable to the issue of homosexuality, the sadly-yet-appropriately-named “Clobber Verses” (CVs). For the sake of approximate comparison, out of the top 250 words used in the King James Version (KJV), these words appear the following times:1
Meanwhile, the word ‘homosexual’ appears zero times in the KJV, one time in the New International Version (NIV) and zero times in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).2 This is obviously not a priority of the biblical writers – not an opinion, this is a fact. Actually, I would go so far as to say it’s a non-issue. That is not to say that the different authors would not have views on the issue, but it was not something they considered important to write about.
Some further observations: (i) even ignoring both ‘Lord’ and ‘God’, words pertaining to men appear 42,207 times, while words pertaining to women appear 2,390 times, a ratio of roughly 18 words pertaining to men per word pertaining to women;3 (ii) land/property is perhaps the most referenced theme; and (iii) other key themes in order of references one could tease out would be family, nationalism/monarchy and ritual. Love does not make the top 250;4 contrary to many claiming that this is the number one defining theme in the Bible.5
Somewhat surprisingly, ‘sex’ (and any word containing ‘sex’) receives a grand total of 26 mentions in the NRSV while none in the KJV – we were pretty prudish back in 1611, after all. Of course, words relevant to the topic of sex should also be searched for to build up a fairer test. Nevertheless, the combined ‘sex-related’ total would still only just compare with the top 250 words.6
The take-away point is that once again, sex is nowhere near as big an issue in the Bible as some conservative religious folk may have you believe. In fact, it’s not even as important as ‘gold’! Performing a similar exercise on wealth-related words, money (and how to use it) was roughly 5 times as important for the Biblical authors to communicate their stance on as it was for sex.7
“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Matthew 19:21)
Perhaps the Christian community ought to live out this “literally” first, before focusing on the numerically negligible and far-from-clear Clobber Verses. See how quickly some Christians run to shunt ‘context’ into the above!
2. The ‘Clobber Verses’ (CVs)
I am due to attend a court as a witness during a trial soon. In the trial, I am going to give a statement and be cross-examined by a defence lawyer. One of the problems likely to be raised in the evidence given by fellow witnesses is that a number of them were inebriated (it’s a classier word) to varying degrees at the late time the relevant incident occurred. One may have a multitude of testimonies, yet if the pieces of evidence are weak when considered individually, then the whole argument itself is flawed.8 The same applies to the “prosecuting” case here, i.e. that the Biblical authors unanimously declare that acting in line with an LGBT identity is ‘sinful’.
When friends of mine attempt to convince me that the Bible is unquestionably condemnatory of homosexuality, they almost always rely on the following 5 sets of verses. The reason for this, as outlined above, is that the majority of Biblical authors, for whatever reason, simply do not care enough about the issue to write about it. Think about how much psychological anguish for LGBT people God could have saved by simply inspiring the Biblical authors to write about the topic more frequently. My personal recommendation would be to replace some of the ancient genealogies (Genesis 4, 5, 10, 11, 22, 25, 36 and 46; Numbers 3, 26; Ruth 4) which few read – and nobody knows quite how to interpret – with a number of clear statements on the issue from multiple authors in multiple books.
In the following sections, I intend to go further. I shall cover the CVs in as much depth as not to be too tedious, but to convince you, whether a ‘believer’ or a ‘non-believer’, that the Bible is not just unconcerned with the issue, but is far from clear in the places where the topic is supposedly addressed. I also hope you’ll enjoy the read of course, so I’ll try to be interesting too! (If not, leave a comment!)
Sections 3 and 4 have a trigger warning due to the rather unpleasant topics which have to be addressed in the discussion.
3. Genesis 19 (And Judges 19 Too!)
I intentionally begin with the easiest case to make. Yesterday, my wife Natasha heard someone repeatedly refer to homosexuality as ‘sodomy’. Fortunately, it was obvious from the context that the person involved did not mean to cause offence. However, I should like to see the word become extinct as soon as possible for two reasons: (i) it is loaded with connotations which will necessarily cause unnecessary upset for LGBT friends of ours; (ii) the word doesn’t even make sense, considering its origins. As most people know, the word derives from the truly horrific scene depicted in Genesis 19 – the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The first thing which is clear from the text is that whatever went on in Sodom and Gomorrah, it was totally depraved. These cities soon become bywords for moral evil throughout the rest of the Bible.9 The story begins with Abram’s nephew Lot, who leaves his uncle and settles in Sodom, whose population, we are told, were ‘wicked, great sinners against the Lord’.10
Notice that the text specifically tells us that Sodom is located in Canaan. Throughout Genesis, ‘Canaan’ is a land synonymous with moral evil, which is to be conquered by the ancient Israelites in the Book of Joshua. Why? One answer might be located in Genesis 9, where a hung-over Noah curses his son Ham (who fathers ‘Canaan’) for seeing his naked body lying on the ground. In this context, it would not be inappropriate to interpret this story in the way most Christians interpret the Tower of Babel story, found in close proximity, as non-history, i.e. a moral fable. (Genesis 11:1-9)
Anyway, that’s a tangent. So Lot and Abram went separate ways. Abram is blessed by God, has his name changed to Abraham and is visited by three mysterious angels who get fed cakes (lucky!) by Abraham’s wife Sarah.11 An angelic troupe also goes to visit Lot in Sodom and is not so fortunate; a mob appears at the door of Lot’s house, demanding to have sex with the angels.12
Lot, without asking them I should point out, offers his two virgin daughters to the mob and permits them to ‘do to them as you please’. The mob rejects the (rather morally repugnant) ‘offer’. Is that because they are homosexually inclined? Well, we are rather helpfully told that this mob includes ‘both young and old, all the people to the last man’. Two observations: (i) this sounds like an extremely common storytelling device where ‘all the town’ is involved or ‘only one righteous man was found’; (ii) homosexual and bisexual orientation is nowhere near that common. For example, in 2015, only 1.7% of the UK population identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual.13 Fortunately, the angels blind the angry mob and whisk Lot and his family to safety. Phew!
Bear in mind that we are told it was precisely this strange practice which enraged God so much that he decided to limit human beings’ lifespan to 120 years.14 Sure, there is no doubt that every reference to angels in the Bible is in the masculine gender, however, the angel-human intercourse referred to here is clearly heterosexual, since it produces mysterious offspring (with supernatural powers) – the ‘Nephilim’, ‘heroes that were of old’. Notice here, this is also implicitly non-consensual: ‘they took wives for themselves of all that they chose’.15
Judges 19 is also worth considering; it tells a curiously near-identical story, albeit with a more gruesome ending and only human participants. This time, the men do indeed take the morally repulsive “offer” of a ‘substitute woman’ (a poor concubine). Thus, it would be fair to say that the text is about extreme bisexual sexual violence (to say it lightly) and has nothing at all to do with what we know as consensual homosexual sexual activity. The ending of the book gives a clear indication of the gravity of the offence: “Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day? Consider it, take counsel, and speak out.”
In fact, it’s worth considering that the guest was a male and the “substitute” was a female. The response of the ‘master of the house’ is revealing: ‘No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing.’ (v23) Notice that he doesn’t forbid the act because the person involved was a man, but rather because the man was his guest.
6 And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgement of the great day. 7 Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
There are a bunch of fascinating inferences one can make from this text. I wholeheartedly confess the third one is totally irrelevant:
(1) The Greek phrase for ‘unnatural lust’ is sarkos heteras (σαρκὸς ἑτέρας). This is a time where I wished the NRSV had used its footnote translation instead of the one in the main text, which says ‘Gk went after other flesh’, because ‘unnatural lust’ continues to be associated with homosexuality, despite it widely occurring in the natural world.16 Also, somewhat ironically if understood to be referring to homosexuality, heteras in sarkos heteras is obviously linguistically linked to ‘heterosexual’.
(2) The phrase ‘likewise’, ton homoion tropon (τὸν ὅμοιον τρόπον) in Koine Greek, demonstrates the author’s emphasis of the essential sameness of the two immoral acts. The fact that sarkos heteras is linked with ‘sexual immorality’ or ekporneusasai (ἐκπορνεύσασαι) tells us that when we read ‘sexual immorality’ we can’t just assume the phrase means ‘adultery’, ‘homosexuality’, ‘fornication’ or whatever we want it to mean. Here, especially because of the author’s linking phrase, it quite clearly refers to human-angel sex; not exactly something you’d normally connect with ‘sexual immorality’; this should be born in mind for next week!
(3) Notice that apparently Sodom and Gomorrah ‘serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire’. The word ‘eternal’ is the Greek term aioniois. Perhaps this means the inhabitants of these cities of the plains are roasting forever in ‘hell’, right? Well, aioniois is used lots of times in the Bible. The Apostle Paul, writing in Romans 16:25, says that ‘the revelation of the mystery’ (i.e. Jesus) was ‘kept secret for long ages’ (chronios aioniois). Clearly, Paul doesn’t believe that Jesus was kept a mystery for ‘eternity’. So, this is another indication that we should all stop using the English translation we have to just ‘proof text’ whatever beliefs we want to hold. More to come on this issue in a future post – stay tuned!
So, if this story is not about homosexuality, what on earth are we supposed to learn from it? The moral lesson here is one about what the ancient Greeks called xenia (ξενία) or ‘guest-friendship’, what we might call ‘hospitality’. It is akin to the Greco-Roman myth of Baucis and Philemon, where gods took the form of human travellers to test mortals, found their hospitality wanting, then destroyed the cities they visited. Comparing Genesis 18 and 19 side-by-side, the message is to ‘not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it’, as Hebrews 13:2 puts it.
Sodom and Gomorrah became a Biblical byword for evil because it concerned the gang-rape of angels and the violent refusal to extend hospitality to strangers. Why else does Jesus say that the punishment for towns that will not welcome the Twelve Disciples will be worse than that of Sodom and Gomorrah?17 If we’re honest, in Biblical times, nobody even agreed what the sin of Sodom was. For example, Ezekiel writes in Chapter 16:
49 This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.
Speaking of ‘abominable things’…
4. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13
The only other section in the Hebrew Bible which might be talking about LGBT issues is found in Leviticus. Leviticus 18:22 reads:
22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.
There is a near-identical injunction in Leviticus 20:13, adding that ‘they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them’. Okay, so what is the context? Leviticus 18:6-18 prohibits approaching ‘anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness’, while v19 bans sex while a woman is ‘in her menstrual uncleanness’ and v21 forbids child sacrifice to Moloch. Leviticus 20 likewise condemns: child sacrifice (v2-5), turning to wizards (v6) or being one (v27), cursing your Mum or Dad (v9), sleeping with various people (v10-14, 17, 19-21), bestiality (v15-16), period sex (v18) and mixing up clean and unclean animals (v25) – because that’s an ‘abomination’ too, for some reason?
In fact, quite a lot of things are an ‘abomination’, i.e. sheqets (שיקוץ) or tōʻēḇā (תֹּועֵבָה) in the Bible: seafood, eagles, witchcraft, shepherds, cross-dressing, false witnesses, most insects, idolatry, unclean things.18 So we have an extremely mixed bag of immoral acts and ritual impropriety, which are all ‘abominations’. What, then, is this passage referring to? Of the two moral commands which precede Leviticus 18:22, one refers to something which any decent person would find abhorrent and the other refers to something which most people would find perhaps “messy”, but not “immoral”.
So Leviticus 18 and 20 are both really weird lists. As ever, context is our saviour. Biblical scholars refer to Leviticus 17-26 as the ‘Holiness Code’ (H), a source incorporated into the Hebrew Bible which was probably written in the 7th century BCE.19 It uses noticeably different vocabulary and style, repeating itself frequently. It also begins and ends with phrases which a typical Ancient Near Eastern law code would employ.
The aim of the Code is to distinguish the Ancient Israelites from all the surrounding nations and their religions. Now the previously inexplicable shift in Leviticus 18, from child sacrifice (v2-5) and wizards (v6) to blasphemy (v21) and unclean animals (v25), can begin to make sense. The transliterated Hebrew here is:
V’et zachar lo tishkav mishk’vey eeshah toeyvah hee.
And with a male you shall not lay lyings of a woman.
One could quite plausibly imagine that this refers to an extra man in the marital bedroom, i.e. a threesome. This could equally be interpreted as another man encroaching on the rightful territory of another woman, i.e. adultery. There are so many possible readings of this text it beggars belief. The best you can get from this text is that it’s talking about sex. How helpful…
Context would indicate with a very high degree of certainty that this is some depraved ritualistic sexual practice which formed part of the worship of Moloch. Whatever this mysterious phrase means, however, it is telling and disappointing that translators continue to put their own spin on it without meaningful footnotes. Speaking of footnotes, please do read mine if you’re so inclined!
5. Conclusion to Part I
They think it’s all over – well, it is now. Those two passages are the only mentions of homosexuality in the c. 23,000 verses in the Old Testament. In my next post, I will leap forwards hundreds of years to the three New Testament passages which may or may not mention homosexuality. In the meantime, abide by the Golden Rule! At least that’s much clearer than my writing style or the obscure passages above.
Please follow the blog (there is a button at the bottom of the page), like, share, comment or heckle. I would love to know your thoughts on what I’ve written above. Have I inspired you, enraged you or made a typo? Let me know; I want this to be a place for respectful discussion and learning from one another!
- Sporcle (2015), ‘Can You Name the 250 Words Most Commonly Used in the Bible’, http://www.sporcle.com/games/MrChewypoo/amen (Verified). Apart from the words ‘the’ and ‘and’ used for context, other similarly boring words like ‘shalt’ and ‘because’ have been excluded for brevity. Also, can we please appreciate that the Sporcle game was produced by a user called ‘MrChewypoo’? Thanks. ↩
- Since this search used http://www.biblegateway.com as its source, the search includes any word including the searched-for text. If I searched for ‘love’, for example, this would return 686 instances, but many of these would include ‘loved’ and ‘lovely’, as in ‘Leah’s eyes were lovely’ (Genesis 29:17), which is hardly a comment on love. That means I have not unfairly excluded words like ‘homosexuals’ or ‘homosexuality’ here. In fact, I have been overly generous, since the NRSV includes the Apocrypha unlike the KJV, which is not considered a part of ‘the Word of God’ by many Christians. ↩
- This is a crude comparison device since I am only looking at the top 250 words. On the other hand, looking at where it tapers off at 364 instances, it gives an excellent indication of the male/female split in vocabulary. In fact, given that named male characters are far more frequent than named female characters, the ratio would worsen were we to include all words. If you include ‘Lord’ and ‘God’, the number of words pertaining to men increases to 54,488, increasing the divide to approximately 23 words pertaining to men per word pertaining to women. ↩
- See above caveat at footnote 2; ‘love’ is mentioned in whole or in part a total of 686 times, using the KJV only for easy contrast. The NRSV has 731, for comparison, though it should be noted that the NRSV also contains Dueterocanonical books. ↩
- Jegede, Roland O. (2010). The Love Bible: Victory Through Love. Maitland, FL: Xulon Press; Grimsrud, Ted (2000). God’s Healing Strategy: An Introduction to the Bible’s Main Theme. Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House. ↩
- I have tried to be as fair as possible; please feel free to suggest any other significant words which you feel have been unjustly excluded and their word count. A number of negligible results have been left out of both tables, for the purposes of brevity (>5 references in both KJV and NRSV). The same methodology caveat applies as before; some of these ‘sex’ references for ‘lying with’, for instance, relate to sleeping, being buried and deceit. ↩
- http://www.forbes.com/sites/sherylnancenash/2012/05/24/is-the-bible-the-ultimate-financial-guide/#71c497016e98 ↩
- Technically, the argument could be given as a logical conjunction of the following premises: (P1) God exists and is a perfectly moral being in whom morality is grounded (Divine Command Theory); (P2) God inspired the Bible in such a way that every moral decree contained within its pages is one which ought to be universally followed; (P3) for all important moral issues, there are no contradictory early manuscripts; (P4) for all important moral issues, there are no contradictory moral injunctions among different passages, books or authors; (P5) the language used in relevant moral decrees is unambiguous; (C1) acting in line with an LGBT identity is immoral. It is hard to argue that this case is ‘logically invalid’ because each point works to imply the conclusion. If any one of these premises (P1-P5) fail, however, the conclusion (C1) is not logically sound. Do you think any of these points are weaker than the others? ↩
- Jeremiah 23:14, Amos 4:11, Zephaniah 2:9, Ezekiel 16:48-50. ↩
- Genesis 13: 13. ↩
- Genesis 18:7. ↩
- Genesis 6:1-8. ↩
- This ONS statistic has numerous flaws, of course, but it’s at least a good rough indicator that Sodom’s male population couldn’t all have preferred homosexual sexual activity. ↩
- Genesis 6:1-3. ↩
- 1 Enoch 7:1-2 can be used to loosely – since it is dated much earlier to the 3rd century BCE – support this point: ‘… let us select for ourselves wives from the progeny of men’. The idea of ‘choice’ is not really in scope here; but then again, that is true for women in the ancient world more generally. Sorry female readers! ↩
- Even the highly biased conservative website GotQuestions.org admits that homosexual and bisexual behaviour has been widely documented in numerous animal species. Of course, they argue, quite rightly, that something being ‘natural’ has nothing to do with whether it is ‘moral’ (the ‘Naturalistic Fallacy’). The most hilarious thing resulting from this, however? By admitting that homosexuality is indeed ‘natural’, they imply that the Apostle Paul cannot be referring to homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27, another Clobber Verse. Harry Amos: 1 – GotQuestions.org: 0. ↩
- Matthew 10:14-15. ↩
- Genesis 46:34; Leviticus 7:21; 11:10-13, 20-23; Deuteronomy 22:5; 2 Kings 23:24; Proverbs 6:16-19; Jeremiah 13:27. ↩
- Coogan, Michael D. (2009). A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 126. ↩
- B.A. Robinson (2016). http://www.religioustolerance.org/hom_bibh4.htm. The transliteration is available in essentially the same wording elsewhere, however. For example, Wilson, Alan (2014). More Perfect Union? Understanding Same-Sex Marriage. London: Darton, Longman and Todd. p. 73. This book is a really great read by the current Bishop of Buckingham, covering not just intellectual theology but deeply practical and pastoral theology. I thoroughly recommend it and am happy to lend it out to those close to me. (After I re-read its contents for next week’s blog post!) ↩