2016-07-27
The discussion of homosexuality in the Bible usually focuses on texts prohibiting certain types of behavior. I would suggest one should rather look at the framework--the storied world in which such prohibitions are offered. That larger framework is the Biblical story of creation, fall, and redemption.

Let us then begin with the affirmations, not prohibitions. Genesis 1-2 says the male was incomplete without the female: "It was not good for man to be alone." The woman was created to be a suitable companion for the man. Indeed, as the rabbis were to say later, the woman is seen as the crown of creation--that which not merely completes creation, but prompts the benediction that now finally all was tov m'od--very good.

Following this there is what has been called the creation order mandate-"Fill the earth and subdue it." This mandate could only be fulfilled by a complementary pair of creatures, male and female. Both were required for the propagation of the species, as well as for the assembling of enough humans to eventually subdue the earth.

Christian theology demands that we distinguish God's original design for creation from the effects of the fall: we can't assume that "whatever is, is right." Not all forms of sexual sharing, even between consenting adults, can be affirmed as either good or "normal", however "natural" certain desires may seem. When nature is out of joint, it can not serve as a clear barometer of what is good.

It has become fashionable to suggest that the famous story of Sodom, found in Genesis 19:4-8, and its close parallel in Judges 19:22-24, have no direct relevance to homosexuality. The sin of Sodom, it is said, was being inhospitable to strangers, even to the extreme of seeking to rape them.

This reading is possible, though the earliest interpreters of these texts, from the author of Jude to Josephus, did not seem to think so, and it is not certain that these texts can justify it. The verb yada "to know" is used to mean sexual sharing in the Sodom story, when Lot offers his daughters for them "to know" (i.e. have sexual intercourse with). It's probable that it means the same thing earlier, when the citizens of Sodom ask Lot to bring out his guests so they may "know" them. Lot accuses them of acting wickedly--an odd charge if all they meant is that they wanted to interrogate them to discover if they were spies.

The biblical echoes of the Sodom story, furthermore, all clearly refer to sexual sin. Jeremiah 49:18 criticizes Jerusalem for its sexual sin, and says it is like Sodom. Ezekiel 16:49 is sometimes cited to prove that the sin of Sodom was only inhospitality. But the next verse says the residents of Sodom were destroyed because they did "abominable things before me." Abominable, is the very term Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 uses to criticize homosexual intercourse.

These passages in Leviticus are part of the so-called Holiness Code. Both clearly speak of an adult male lying with a man as with a woman, and both texts call this an abomination. The revisionist argument is that this behavior is objected to because of a concern for ritual purity, not immorality, but the supposed dichotomy between ritual and moral purity doesn't hold up. The Holiness Code concerns itself with such central moral subjects as adultery.

Our next stop is the Gospels. Jesus never condemns homosexual behavior, but his words about marriage and singleness are very pertinent. In Matthew 19:1-12, Jesus offers two options in regard to sexual behavior--fidelity in marriage or celibacy in singleness. He suggests that divorce was not God's original intent for human beings, and that he was now reinforcing the original creational intent for men and women to be together in holy wedlock. He then suggests that anyone who cannot handle fidelity in marriage should either become (or remain) a eunuch, or stay celibate for the sake of the kingdom of God. The implication of absolutely no sexual sharing outside of marriage, whether of a heterosexual or homosexual sort, is very clear. Jesus is indeed asking for celibacy in singleness, whatever one's sexual predilections might be.

We turn now to Romans 1, and here indeed we have the most complete and clear discussion of the matter. Verse 27b could hardly be clearer: "Men commited shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their sin."

Paul used homosexual and lesbian sin as illustrations of the more general problem of the effects of the fall. For Paul, not unlike other early Jewish writers, homosexual behavior is perhaps the clearest example of how flouting sexual distinctions is ultimately a rejection of the Creator, who made such distinctions. In other words, it is not just immorality, it is idolatry.

Much of what Paul says could apply to any sort of sinner, for all sin is ultimately rebellion against God. But verses 26-27 illustrate how this rebellion plays itself out by taking the example of lesbian and homosexual sexual activity. At verse 26, Paul introduces the concept of nature into the discussion. The verse says literally "they have exchanged the natural use for that which is contrary to nature."

Here Paul is using language frequently used in antiquity which knew no such terms as homosexual or lesbian, to refer to homosexual (unnatural) and heterosexual (natural) sexual behavior. One can not retort that Paul, no biologist, failed to realize that to some persons it seems "natural" to be attracted to those of the same gender. Paul is well aware of how sin becomes ingrained in human nature, to such an extent that it comes to seem perfectly natural. No, Paul is contrasting the creation order as originally given, versus various manifestations of human fallenness.

For any who might dismiss Paul as just another homophobic early Jew picking on an oppressed minority, Paul says at the end of Romans 1 that sinfulness that God condemns is also manifested by covetousness, malice, envy, murder, slander, insolence, rebellion against parents, ruthlessness, deceit, pride and the like. He is then able to say in Romans 2:1 "Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you that judge are doing the very same sort of sinful things."

In other words, all of us have fallen and can't get up without the grace of God. This means there must be no singling out of homosexual sin as somehow more heinous sin than the sins heterosexuals commit. Homophobia or heterosexual sexual activity outside marriage is a sin just as surely as same-sex sexual activity is.

We must turn now to two other Pauline texts. The first is 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Here Paul is trotting out a vice list of certain kinds of behaviors which will keep a person out of the final Kingdom of God. It is a general list that does not single out homosexual behavior but includes it along with fornicators, idolators, adulterers, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers and robbers.

The two terms in question are the Greek malakoi and arsenokoitai. The former term literally means something like effeminate or soft, and refers to the passive partner in a homosexual tryst. The other term is not found in Greek literature prior to Paul, and may even have been coined by Paul. It means literally a male copulator, someone who copulates with a male. Paul not only reminds his largely gentile Christian audience that some of them had practiced one or another of these vices, but points out that some seemed to be still persisting in them.

The witness of the Bible is univocal about same sex sexual activity. It is always rejected as sinful. There is no distinction made between homosexual behavior that is part of the consensual acts of adults and other forms of such behavior. Indeed most ancients were more likely to condemn consensual adult homosexual behavior than pederasty-- just the opposite of the situation today. We see such a condemnation in antiquity as early as Plato and as late as Josephus and beyond.

For those who indeed intend to continue to recognize the Bible as the normative rule, not only for faith but for ethical practice in the church or the synagogue, we cannot be about the business of making anyone comfortable in their sin, whether a heterosexual or a homosexual person. Equally, however, the way of Jesus in treating such situations is that balance of justice and mercy that says on the one hand "Neither do I condemn you" and on the other "Go and sin no more."


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