Just as homosexuality was once the love that dare not speak its name, there is a Bible verse that opponents of gay marriage rarely speak. It is Leviticus 18:22, which reads: "You shall not lie with a man as one lies with a woman, it is an abomination." These ancient words, the Bible's most direct statement on homosexuality, need to be rehabilitated. Why? Because American security and prosperity are linked with the sexual norms we sanction. A rabbinic interpretive tradition (one which goes back at least to the fourth century C.E. and is found in the midrashic book Sifra) understands another verse in Leviticus 18 to mean that the locals in Canaan actually conducted same-sex marriages, among other forbidden sexual practices the Canaanite peoples had sanctioned. It was for this that God ejected them from the holy land: "Do not become contaminated through any of these [acts]; for through all of these the nations that I expel before you became contaminated. The land became contaminated and I recalled its iniquity upon it; and the land disgorged it inhabitants" (vv. 24-25). The Canaanites suffered national defeat, invasion, humiliation. Finally, they disappeared from history. (Did you ever meet a "Canaanite"?) The Bible doesn't frown on gay sex uniquely. In the first five books of the Bible (the Torah), homosexual intercourse isn't the only act called an "abomination." The book of Deuteronomy applies the terms to certain unethical business practices, which in Leviticus are denounced as a "perversion" (see Deut. 25:16, Lev. 19:35).
But same-sex intimacy is unique (along with incest and sex with animals) in being pointed to as among the failings of a non-Jewish people, the Canaanites, that brought about that group's final moral dissolution. I don't know of another category of sin that, in the biblical context, is both a) explicitly made applicable to gentiles and b) is spoken of in such emphatic terms as leading to societal breakdown, whether the society in question is Jewish or not. Basic moral principles apply not only to Jews, in other words, but to all people, even those that don't follow Jewish dietary laws. If any country defies them, it will suffer a fate akin to the Canaanites'. The men and women of Canaan were not held responsible for not observing the Jewish Sabbath--to pick another example of a practice asked only of Jews; but they were held responsible for rejecting the fundamental moral tenet that marriage is between a man and a woman. The message is clear: If the Bible possesses any real authority as a communication of God's thoughts about man, then a country's safety and stability are related to the kinds of sexual relationships it endorses. This doesn't mean we have to stone gays or carry out any of the other penalties for misbehavior outlined in the Hebrew Bible. These are meant to be applied only in a Jewish commonwealth, and then only under very special conditions. (There needs to be a Temple in Jerusalem with a high-court, or Sanhedrin, sitting in judgment there on capital trials. Look for these when the Messiah comes, ushering in a new world full of the knowledge of God where the need for harsh justice will thus be exceedingly rare.)
There is no turning back the clock to biblical times. But conservatives have gotten into the habit of explaining our doubts about homosexual marriage in highly pragmatic, rationalistic terms having nothing to do with religion. Conservative pundits say you have to keep your arguments secular to reach the ideological middle. To them, citing Leviticus would seem the grossest violation of good manners. But the advance of sanctioned gay marriage, creeping like ivy across the face of the American legal system, shows the futility of this strategy. Let us consider telling the truth about what underlies the case against homosexual matrimony. After all, many Americans look to the Bible for their values. We live in a culture imbued, from the Pilgrims onward, with Old Testament values. That's who we are. Any Bible-believer must agree that it's God's will, not man's intellect, which decides profound moral questions. If conservatives started talking biblically about homosexual marriage, we would stand to energize those of our fellow citizens who share our traditional values. After all, we are talking about laws of nature as God made it. An ancient rabbinic teaching says that in creating the world, He first looked in the Torah, Scripture's first five books and their explanatory traditions. In other words, the Bible is not a set of arbitrarily imposed rules. It's a blueprint of how the world works.

We Americans don't live in a society governed by Mosaic law. However, neither did the Canaanites. When the Bible speaks of their moral failings in very specific ethical areas, and the consequent downfall of their civilization, there is a lesson not just for a Jewish society but for everyone. The way God sets things up, a society that institutionalizes same-sex unions will ultimately suffer tragic consequences--"disgorgement" from its place in the world. What, in very concrete terms, would that mean? Let's hope we don't have to find out.

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