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Homosexuality & The Bible: It Doesn't Say What You Think it Does
Okay, so I've finally made my way to the obligatory commentary on what the Bible actually says about homosexuality. Aside from abortion, there really isn't any other topic that's quite so exquisitely divisive between religious Fundamentalists and their more liberal and/or secular counterparts. And - maintaining the never-ending trend of people squabbling over the meaning of ancient and oft misunderstood religious texts - the Bible is (big surprise) at the heart and soul of the issue. According to Christians, the Bible openly and explicitly condemns homosexuality as a sin, the punishment of which is an eternity in hell. Is this assertion valid, this claim justified? Well, that's what we're about to find out.
The first thing we're going to do is actually read the passages in Scripture that Christians maintain support their view, if for no other reason than Christians have a long-standing bad habit of "remembering" certain details from the Bible that aren't actually there. Quite a bit of folklore has managed to sneak into mainstream Christian theology over the ages, probably due to the fact that the vast majority of Christians don't actually bother to read the Book their entire faith is based upon. Some rather harmless examples are: that Adam and Eve's "forbidden fruit" was an apple (the Bible just says "fruit"); that Jonah was swallowed by a whale (the Bible actually says "big fish"...which mammalian whales are not); that Jesus was born on Christmas day (early Church fathers freely admitted that nobody had any idea when Jesus was actually born, and his birth wasn't even celebrated until the 4th century when it was implemented to coincide with the Roman's pagan celebration of the birth of their Sun God); that three Magi visited the baby Jesus in the stable (the Bible never says how many Magi were present, but it clearly states they were no longer in the stable); or that the Sabbath is on Sunday (it's actually Saturday). There are also the often misquoted passages: "Money is the root of all evil" (it's actually the love of money...); or, "Spare the rod, spoil the child" (actual quote: "He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him."). Then there are the familiar quotations that are nowhere to be found in the Good Book: "God helps those who help themselves," "There's no rest for the weary," "Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven..." and, "Cleanliness is next to Godliness."
Thus, similarly "remembered" - though equally nonexistent - details and plot elements provide us with Christian Fundamentalists' most frequently cited and familiar attack against homosexuality: Sodom and Gomorrah. According to popular belief, Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God with fire and sulfur from heaven because all the inhabitants were flaming homosexuals. Scary. And now for the actual information provided in the Bible (Genesis 18:16-19:29): Two angels had entered the city of Sodom - intent on destroying it - and were invited into the house of Lot (Abraham's cousin and the only righteous man to be found in the whole city). During the night, the men of the city came a-knockin' on Lot's door, requesting the 2 visitors be brought outside so the townsfolk could "know" them (Bible-speak for "have sex with"). Lot is appalled by the townspeople's disrespect and inhospitality towards his guests, and offers his neighbor's a rough compromise: he'll toss his two virgin daughters out in the street and the men can rape them instead (somehow Lot is still deemed "righteous" after this suggestion). The men decline the offer, the angels strike the townspeople with blindness, and then Lot's family flees for the hills as napalm rains down on their home.
The point that is usually overlooked by those using this tale to denounce homosexuality is that Sodom wasn't destroyed because the men of the city wanted to have a go at a couple of angels disguised as men. Recall, God - citing Sodom's "wickedness" - had already set out to destroy the city before the angels even showed up. And what was Sodom's wickedness up until then? Fortunately, we don't have to conjecture on the matter. The Bible tells us in Ezekiel 16:49-50 exactly what it was:
"Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were full of pride and arrogance, overfed, and idle: they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen."
God charges Sodom with the crimes of pride, arrogance, haughtiness, laziness, and refusal to help the poor and needy; but never once mentions anything remotely regarding homosexual behavior, particularly the consensual variety. To the extent that Sodom's story has anything to do with sex, it appears to relate to gang-raping in general (which itself isn't even condemned here). And for all we know, this might have been the townsfolk's very first attempt at a such an endeavor. We're certainly given no information that would lead us to believe this had been an on-going, habitual occurrence. You could also make an equally compelling case that the "crime" here was attempted violence of any sort against strangers in general, and God's angels in particular. But both arguments are moot points. Sodom was destroyed for whatever they had done before the angels got there, not after they showed up. To read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and see any admonition against loving, consensual, and monogamous homosexual relationships is to bring a grossly misrepresented, unjustified, and preconceived bias to the tale. To make the appropriate analogy: Suppose you are on a tour of a maximum security prison, and the warden takes you past the cell block of death row inmates. As you're walking by, several of the inmates shout out various obscenities about what they'd do to you if they ever found you in the showers. Later, the warden informs you that all of the men on death row are there for multiple homicides. You ignore the warden, and - based on the prisoners' comments directed at you earlier - surmise that those criminals were actually apprehended, tried, and convicted in the first place for being gay.
Despite this, there are some Christians who offer up a rather feeble explanation as to why this story does indeed refer to homosexuals. I bring it up because it is a perfect tie-in to our next two verses, and because it is so easy to rebut. Their argument is this: the word "detestable" (some translations have "abominable") in Ezekiel 16:50 is the same word used in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 to describe God's opinion of a man lying with another man. Leviticus 20:13 goes so far as to insist they be put to death for such an act. There are a couple problems with this line of reasoning:
(1) Though Ezekial's passage does say the inhabitants of Sodom did detestable/abominable things in the eyes of God, it doesn't specifically clarify what they were. Throughout Leviticus, God found a plethora of various activities to be "abominable," such as planting 2 different kinds of seeds in the same field, wearing clothing made from 2 different fabrics, eating pork and shellfish, or even the touching the skin of a dead pig. Take off your shirt and look at the tag. If it says "80% cotton, 20% polyester," and if you wore it playing football in the backyard, you're now guilty of 2 separate "abominations" according to Leviticus. Bottom line is, there is no rational reason to leap to the conclusion that Ezekiel's "abomination" had anything to do with sexual behavior.
(2) Even though Leviticus does declare men lying with other men an "abomination," punishable by death, this Law wasn't enacted until some 450 years after the destruction of Sodom. This means that if Ezekiel's "detestable things" was referring to sexual behavior, God was punishing people for violating a Law He had no intention of conveying to anyone for another half a millennium. That hardly seems fair. Particularly when we recall that Leviticus 18 also describes a few other unlawful sexual practices that were punishable by death: sleeping with your daughter, and sleeping with your step-sister. Why do I bring those up? Because Abraham was married to his step-sister, Sarah, with whom he had a child; and Lot impregnated both of his previously-mentioned virgin daughters. Both men were deemed the only "righteous" men on the entire earth at the time, and God did not see fit to punish either for actions He would later call "abominable." So, tossing Sodom's rampant homosexuality in the pile with Adam's "apple," Jonah's whale," and the "three" Wisemen, let's take a closer look at the verses in the Bible which unmistakably speak of homosexual behavior.
As already mentioned, two of these passages can be found in Leviticus:
Leviticus 18:22 You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.
Leviticus 20:13 If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them.
I have several points to make about these 2 verses, and their relationship to homosexuality as we understand it today.
(1) Neither of these verses say anything about women. There is nothing anywhere in the entire Old Testament condemning - or even mentioning - lesbian relationships. Ladies seem to hold carte blanche to do as they please for now.
(2) Both of these verses allude to a specific sexual act between men, but say nothing about, or against, 2 men being in a relationship, kissing, hand-holding, and whatever else they can find to do without violating the letter of the law. If 2 men maintained a romantic relationship for the rest of their lives without engaging in that single act, they will not have violated anything written here.
(3) There is a strong case to be made that neither of these verses have any relevance to us living today in the 21st century. For starters, the entire Mosaic Law was specifically ordained for the ancient Hebrews/Israelites as a way of marking them different from their surrounding neighbors. They were described as a "peculiar people," commanded by God to do all sorts of inane things that had absolutely nothing to do with morality just so they could be 'different." God didn't pass these Laws on to any other culture or race because He wanted His "chosen" people to stand out from everyone else by their bizarre behavior. Furthermore, many of these Levitical laws were part of the Holiness Code specially designed for the priestly Levite tribe. Not only did God require of the Israelites behaviors He required of no one else, He also required even stricter guidelines within Israel itself for the Levites to distinguish themselves from the other 11 tribes. Now, since the vast majority of us are not of Hebrew descent, let alone from the priestly tribe of Levi, what obligation have we to observe these arcane laws?
(4) Even if you tried to make the case that all non-Levite, non-Jewish members of society were at least still morally accountable in God's eyes at some point in history for the Laws established by God through Moses, Paul later came around and informed us all that we're no longer bound by that Law due to Jesus' redeeming sacrifice (by "we," I assume he's referring to observant Jews, as the rest of us were never bound by that Law in the first place).
(5) What strikes me a really bizarre is that: A) Non-Jews were never asked nor expected to follow these laws; B) The Jews who were expected to follow these Laws were later told by Paul that they were no longer obligated to do so; C) Modern Christians (who are not Jewish) are now trying to hold other non-Jews accountable for ancient Laws specifically designed for Jews, even though they were later nullified! And on top of that, they pick and choose which Laws (or parts of Laws) are applicable today and which aren't. It's religion a la carte! Christians insist that homosexuality is an abomination - based on Leviticus - but they don't actually think we should kill the offenders, even though the same Leviticus commands it. They find the second half unpalatable, so they chop it off and sweep it under the rug. (Actually, I need to clarify that there are still religious fanatics today who sincerely believe that homosexuals should be put to death. I actually got the idea to write this article after listening to a radio talk show last week featuring a debate between an Episcopalian bishop who openly supported same-sex marriages and a prominent Baptist televangelist from Tulsa, OK, who stated that if it were up to him, every homosexual would be killed. When the bishop questioned him on this stance, the televangelist defended it with, "That's what the Bible says. Who are we to argue?" Had he been debating me at the time, I would have quickly pointed out that the Bible also commands adulterers to be put to death, that the Bible calls anyone who divorces his wife and remarries while his wife is still alive an adulterer, and that this particular televangelists was currently on his third marriage.)
(6) There are very good reasons to suspect that these Laws - supposedly laid out by God - were only for that distant time and place, and are completely irrelevant to us now. The reason I say that is that there are a plethora of other divine mandates and Laws pertaining to sex that we - even modern Fundamentalists - have since abandoned as obsolete, uncivilized, unethical, immoral, and even barbaric. We obviously firmly believe today that God has changed His mind on a wide variety of issues. Incest used to be condoned by God until He changed His mind and outlawed it. Polygamy used to be not only condoned by God, but proffered as a blessing from Him to His faithful servants. Extra-marital partners (read: concubines, sometimes by the hundreds) were also halmarks of divine blessing. When the Israelites went into battle, God usually commanded them to kill all the inhabitants of the towns, save the virgins. I'll let you surmise why. Husbands and wives engaging in sexual intercourse while the woman was on her period were to be put to death. A man who "pulled out" and ejaculated outside of the woman was to be put to death. Bi-racial couples were to be put to death. A widowed woman without an heir was commanded "by God" to sleep with each of her dead husband's brothers in turn until one of them gave her a boy child. A woman whose hyman was not still intact on her wedding night was to be stoned to death on her parents' front porch. A raped virgin was to either be put to death, or sold as a wife to the man who raped her, depending on her father's whim. These were all Biblical mandates at one time, but Fundamentalist Christians now soundly reject them all, while simultaneously clinging as tightly as they can to half of a verse about men sleeping together. It's simply staggering the double-standard, hypocrisy, and seeming arbitrariness employed by the faithful! If you're going to tell someone else that what they're doing is wrong simply because "Leviticus said so," you better be damn sure you have all your of own Levitcal bases covered. Otherwise, shut up. To summarize what can be gleamed from these passages in Leviticus: there is nothing pertaining to lesbians, there's not even anything pertaining to homosexuals in general. There is only a command against men engaging in a particular act with one another; surrounded by a handful of other sex-related guidelines that Christians are quite comfortable rejecting today.
God then remains silent on the topic for several thousand years. He later incarnates Himself as Jesus, and walks all over the country making speeches and giving sermons, but never says a word about homosexuality. He was really big into loving everybody and hanging out with prostitutes, adulterers, thieves, tax-collectors, and various other sinners. He had tons of advice, wisdom, and teachings to share with anyone who would listen to him; but none of it involved boys kissing each other. Nope, Jesus came and went with nary a word on the subject, and we had to wait around a few more decades before Paul gave us something relevant. Here's what he eventually had to say:
Romans 1:25-27 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.
Paul doesn't specifically state what the "degrading" and "indecent" acts were, but we can probably safely assume what he's referring to here: homosexual behavior. And suffice it to say that, after several thousand years without any restrictions, girl-on-girl action is finally coming under fire. Obviously I have several immediate objections to giving Paul's comments here much weight:
(1) Fundamentalists will argue with me on this - and that's to be expected - but I do not accept the Bible to be the inspired, infallible Word of God. The main reason is that it contains enormous quantities of internal contradictions, incoherent doctrines, historical inaccuracies, failed prophecies, ignorant science, demonstrable fiction, questionable morality, and abundant plagiarism. Therefore, I do not read Paul's words as flowing down from the divine, but rather as the personal opinions of an old-fashioned, prudish, religious zealot who had recently fallen off a horse and hit his head. So what if Paul found these particular acts to be indecent or degrading? He also though it was shameful and indecent for a woman to go out without her head covered, and that it was improper for her to speak in church. I'm quite sure he would be properly horrified by the minuscule amount of clothing that passes for "modest" in this day and age, even by religious Fundamentalists! Tabboos, and mores, and values, and socially acceptable behaviors vary from culture to culture and from era to era, so Paul's opinions as to what is degrading or not are irrelevant to me, in the United States of America, 2010.
(2) That just leaves the issue of whether or not these behaviors are "unnatural," as Paul asserts. What is or isn't "natural" - that is, adhering to the Laws of Nature - is a matter of science. Let's examine a few other scientific claims put forth by the Bible, just so we can get a handle on its track record in these matters. The Bible claims:
- Insects are creatures with 4 legs, as are some birds
- Bats (which are mammals with wings) are also birds
- Bunny rabbits are cud-chewing animals...just like cows (they're really not)
- Camels don't have split hooves (they actually do)
- Dragons, unicorns, sea-monsters, satyrs (half man-half horse), and cockatrices (half rooster-half lizard) are real
- You can get common farm animals to give birth to striped or spotted offspring by giving them water with striped sticks in it
- Bathing in a mixture of water and burnt cow remains can cure leprosy
- The earth is stationary, and the sun moves around it
- The sky is actually a solid dome over the earth
- The earth is flat, has 4 corners, and every city in the world can be seen from the top of a mountain in Israel
- Heaven is "up" and hell is "down"
- The earth rests on pillars
- The mustard seed is the smallest of seeds, and then grows into the greatest of shrubberies
- The rainbow is not as old as rain and sunshine
- The moon is an independent light source
- Light was invented before any sources of light (sun, moon, or stars)
- It is possible for stars to fall out of the sky
Every single one of these statements have 3 things in common: they're all statements of scientific value; they're all found in the Bible; and each and every one of them are completely wrong. You'll kindly understand why I'm a bit reluctant to take a Biblical claim about the natural world at face value. You'll be even more inclined to dismiss its claims when you learn that there are very few things more natural than, well...nature; and that scientists, biologists, and zoologists have been observing and documenting for decades rampant homosexual behavior in the animal kingdom. Scientist Peter Beckman noted that,
"No species has been found in which homosexual behavior has not been shown to exist, with the exception of species that never have sex at all, such as sea urchins and aphids. Moreover, a part of the animal kingdom is hermaphroditic, truly bisexual. For them, homosexuality is not an issue."
This evidence was put on full display at the Natural History Museum at the University of Oslo, Norway, detailing homosexual behavior in dogs, cats, bears, pigs, lions, elephants, chickens, raccoons, dolphins, buffalo, frogs, lizards, snakes, insects, primates, emu, and penguins, just to name a few. Author Bruce Bagemil's 1999 book Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, noted the plethora of documented evidence for homosexual or transgender behavior regarding sex, courtship, affection, pair bonding, and parenting. In some species of birds, male partners mated for life and were even given "adopted" eggs by females to hatch and raise as their own! It's plain and simple, folks...the Bible cannot bear the weight of scientific scrutiny; and all of nature itself declares that homosexuality is perfectly "natural." Thus, we conclude that Paul doesn't know what he's talking about, or at least that it has no relevance for us today.
(3) But, even if it were finally concluded that homosexuality is indeed "unnatural," how does it logically follow that it is therefore "wrong?" Perhaps the "indecency" of Paul's passage alludes to its lustful nature, not the object of its passion? After all, lust is equally condemned when done by heterosexuals, is it not? At the same time, what does "unnatural" have to do with 'immoral?" We currently engage in all sorts of "unnatural" activities that we don't regard as moral issues. Take flying. There are few things more unnatural than careening through the air at 500 miles an hour in a tin can 6 miles off the ground. Totally "unnatural," yet hardly "wrong."
Last but certainly not least, Paul finally lays the hammer down on us:
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 "Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God."
This is the Big Gun that all those "loving" Christians like to bust out to justify their homophobic, hate-mongering declarations.
There's just one problem with it: the Bible doesn't actually say that. The term "homosexual" didn't exist prior to 1869 - coined by Karl Maria Kertbeny of Germany - and indeed the entire concept of sexual orientation wasn't even developed before the late 19th century. Even after that, the word didn't find its way into the Bible until 1946, in the Revised Standard Version. So, if neither the word, nor the concept, of homosexuality existed at the time the Bible was written, what did it actually use to say? The Greek word used by Paul here was "malokois." This term referred to an effeminate, [usually] young, male escort or prostitute. There were 2 primary roles young men deserving of this title filled. The first is what we might call a "boy-toy." It was unusually common for elder statesmen, high ranking officials, military commanders, nobles, and various men of prestige and rank to enlist the...er..."services" of a younger male companion. The malakois would provide the "sugar-daddy" an outlet for whatever sexual pleasures he sought, and in turn would be fed, housed, groomed, and well taken care of. The other position was one of temple prostitute for pagan fertility rituals. Sexual rites pervaded the pagan religions, and if you didn't bring one of your own you could always rent one from the temple: either a woman, or a man dressed like a woman. And this is what Paul was warning against: not monogamous, consenting adults in a same-sex relationship, but young men whoring themselves out either to dirty old men, or to idolatrous, pagan religion practitioners! There is absolutely nothing in the original Bible (that is scientifically accurate) denouncing consensual, same-sex relationships (as we understand them today) that has any relevance for us. The problem today is not that some liberal, immoral perverts are thrusting their "agenda" in everyone's face; it's that the people busy doing all the labeling haven't really bothered to find out what the source material for all their angst actually says about the matter. So, if you still want to hate gays, at least have the courage to admit it has nothing to do with some farcical, nonexistent religious reason. Look, I get that some people are repulsed by the idea of 2 boys playing tonsil hockey. I really do. But, hey, some people are vegans, and are repulsed by the idea of somebody sinking their teeth into a big juicy steak. If you don't like meat, don't eat it. But what we don't need is a bunch of over-zealous, hate mongering crusaders trying to ensure that the rest of society conforms to their personal biases.