Gays In The Bible: What Does It Really Say?

Certain topics come around again every so often in online discussions.  Gays within Christianity are just about up again.  And, what with Prop 8 being overturned (read my thoughts on that here), I’m sure it’s going to be the talk of Xanga for the next few days.

A popular angle on this is the “The Bible doesn’t really say anything against homosexuality” take.  This stance claims that all the verses about homosexuality in the Bible have been misconstrued or misinterpreted, and that the Bible really doesn’t say anything bad about GLBTs.  Some take it further and claim that Jesus (or other biblical characters) actively endorsed or affirmed gay relationships.

Well, let’s establish something straight off the bat.  God loves gays.  God loves lesbians and bisexuals and transsexuals too.  God does not “hate fags,” as Westboro Baptist Church claims.  God does not hate his children, and Christians have no business hating anyone, gays included.  (If you haven’t read my thoughts on that matter, click the link and go read it before you keep reading here.  We’ll wait.)

HOWEVER: saying “God loves you” is not the same as saying “God is okay with what you’re doing.”  If something is considered “sin” by God, it’s considered a “sin” because it separates me from God.  God hates my sin because he loves me–because he doesn’t want to be separated from me.  How can God approve of something that comes between him and one whom he loves?

Now, understand, what God (or at least, what Christianity) considers to be “sin” should only matter to you if you’re Christian.  Christianity’s rules are for Christians; it’s not our job to enforce our beliefs about sin on nonChristians.  To quote C.S. Lewis, “…People [who are] not Christians… cannot be expected to live Christian lives.”

But still, the operative question, then,  is… Does the Bible really say that it’s a sin to be gay?
Let’s explore Scripture and find out.

1)  Levitical Law

Ian McKellen is perhaps best known for playing Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings series and Magneto in the X-men series.  In addition, while he’s not famous for it, he has also been known to tear certain chapters out of Leviticus in the Gideon Bibles of hotel rooms he stays in.  A gay actor, he considers this particular passage offensive and “pornographic.”

The passage in question has been used by Christians against GLBTs for ages, often quite abusively.  It’s in Leviticus 18, and it reads thus in the NASB translation:

“You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.”

This passage comes right after a long section of all the various people you should not have sex with: your neighbor’s wife, a menstruating woman, your granddaughter, your sister-in-law, your stepmother…  And it’s followed by a prohibition against bestiality and an epilogue to the chapter:

“Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled.  For the land has become defiled, therefore I have brought its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants.  But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments and shall not do any of these abominations…  For whoever does any of these abominations, those persons who do so shall be cut off from among their people.”

So, when we are told this prohibition has a context, it does–that these various sexual prohibitions were linked to the practices of the Canaanite tribes who lived in Palestine before the Israelite nation entered.  It doesn’t say that’s the only reason they’re prohibited, though, which is the case some try to make.  In addition, the prohibition against “lying with a man as with a woman” is given an additional emphasis “it is an abomination,” which is not given alongside the earlier prohibitions in the list.

Let’s explore this term, “abomination.”  Of course, this is an English word: we’re reading the Bible in translation.  The original Hebrew word here is to ebah  (תּוֹעֵבָה) which can mean “ethically disgusting” “ritually disgusting” or possibly “not what is natural.”  Of course, if the term here is meant in the sense of it being ritually disgusting, that’s not as bad as if it was meant in the sense of ethically disgusting: as a modern Gentile I am not bound by the rituals of ancient Israel, but the ethical laws of ancient Israel do contain ethics which derive from God, and thus I can learn from them.  (See also this post I wrote regarding why I as a Gentile Christian am bound by some Jewish laws and not others.)  So which is it?  In seeking to decipher which, I’ll push forward for another example.

The second prohibition that may refer to homosexual action is two chapters later, in Leviticus 20.  “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed a to ebah: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”  –Leviticus 20:13

That last part has nothing to do with a modern Christian, of course, because this was a law directed at a nation (Israel).  With the coming of Jesus, God no longer operates through a single chosen people, but opens the invitation to all nations and tribes through a new covenant.  As a Christian, it’s not my job to put anyone to death, quite the opposite.

But notice–once again, this particular injunction is particularly associated with the term to ebah, the “abomination.”  In this chapter, many of the same prohibitions are re-given, though this time with associated punishments: some carried the death penalty (adultery, sleeping with your stepmom, sleeping with your daughter-in-law, bestiality) while others carried a less serious punishment, such as banishment (sleeping with a menstruating woman) or infertility (sleeping with your aunt, sleeping with your sister-in-law).  Sleeping-with-a-man-as-with-a-woman is set among the most serious sexual crimes for ancient Israel.

Also, this term to ebah is used for some rather serious things later in the Bible, including child sacrifice (Deut 12:31), idolatry (Deut 20:18), and polluting the temple (2 Chron 36:14).  For lying-with-a-male-as-with-a-female to be considered to ebah, that was serious.

We, of course, coming to these passages as modern Westerners who do not originally speak the language, can wonder if we’re translating them correctly.  When the passage says “sleeping with a man as with a woman,” what exactly is it referring to?  My suggestion, read up on what those who were in that culture and closer to that time period thought it referred to.  A first-century Jewish rabbi will be more likely to get the author’s original meaning than a twenty-first century American Anglophonic monoglot like myself.  And according to Wikipedia’s fairly decent article on the subject,  “Traditional Jewish sources view these verses as prohibitions against anal sex between males.”

For further understanding of the traditional Jewish understanding of these passages, I submit the following excerpt from the Midrash, the Leviticus Rabbah:  “Rabbi Huna said in the name of Rabbi Joseph, ‘The generation of the Flood was not wiped out until they wrote marriage documents for the union of a man to a male or to an animal.”  I don’t know whether this is true or not, but because Rabbi Huna believed it to be so, that tells us something about the traditional Jewish interpretation of these Levitical passages: they read these passages as saying that male homosexual union (even a marriage, notice, not just pedastry) is a serious thing.

So what have we seen here?
–At at least one point in the history of Israel, God specifically prohibited (what is traditionally understood to be interpreted as) male-on-male anal sex, counting it among the most serious of sexual sins, and giving it a term (to ebah) which may denote its ethical status.
–In those passages, however, it was not forbidden to have homosexual urges, tendencies, or desires.
–No direct mention has yet been made of lesbian activity.

Hold up a second–I want to explore that last point.  These passages focused on men lying with men: no mention is made of what the women do.  However, both Jewish rabbis and early Christian church fathers saw these passages as applying to women (i.e. lesbian activity) by extension!  That’s an interesting thing to note: that the sins of these passages are apparently described from a male perspective, but were understood by ancient audiences to have a female application as well.  (So the prohibition against sleeping with your sister-in-law applies to women sleeping with their brother-in-law, I guess.)

To quote two:

  “For women to be mesollelot with one another is forbidden, as this is the practice of Egypt, which we were warned against: “Like the practice of the land of Egypt . . . you shall not do” (Leviticus 18:3). The Sages said [in the midrash of Sifra Aharei Mot 8:8–9], “What did they do? A man married a man, and a woman married a woman, and a woman married two men.”
–Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, c.a. 1170 A.D.

“[H]aving forbidden all unlawful marriage, and all unseemly practice, and the union of women with women and men with men, he [God] adds: ‘Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for in all these things the nations were defiled, which I will drive out before you.”  –Eusebius of Caesarea, Proof of the Gospel, c. 319 A.D.

Both this Jewish rabbi and this Christian father saw the specifically male prohibition as having a female extension.

(It is interesting to note, however, that though Maimonides did see Leviticus 18 as also forbidding lesbian activity, because this forbidding was indirect and not direct, he felt it should have a lesser punishment than male homosexual sex.  “Even though this practice is forbidden, one is not lashed [as for a Torah prohibition] on account of it, since there is no specific prohibition against it, and there is no real intercourse. [However] …it is appropriate to administer to them lashings of rebellion [i.e., those given for violation of rabbinic prohibitions], since they did something forbidden.”  To be honest, I don’t know how to take that.) 

Anyway, let’s move on.

2)  Sodom

We won’t park here long.  I simply want to point out that God did not destroy Sodom (or Gomorrah) because it had gays in it.  It never says that anywhere.

What it does say is that God was destroying Sodom (and the other cities of the plain) because they were wicked.  While it does describe several of the inhabitants of Sodom as threatening to rape two (apparent) males, this is never described as the reason for things getting all smitey.  The long and short of it is that they were wicked–God said he would spare the city if he could find ten good men in it, and couldn’t even find that many–and them threatening to rape those guys was an outflow of their wickedness.

However–the Bible does describe the wicked state of Sodom as lending toward particular types of sin.  Here’s two verses:

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did to ebah before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”  –Ezekiel 16:45-50

“Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these [fallen angels] ekporneuō and went after sarxos heteros, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.”  –Jude 1:7
(ekporneuō, (ἐκπορνεύω) “indulged in immorality” lit. “went out whoring”)
(sarxos heteros, (σαρκὸς ἑτέρας) “strange flesh,” lit. “another body” or “other natures”)

In the first passage, among the list of all the bad things that Sodom did (including being arrogant, overfed, and not helping the poor, all things that sadly can be said of modern America), doing to ebah (abominations) was among them.  And remember that in Leviticus, the lying-with-a-man-as-with-a-woman was specifically described as to ebah.  Likewise with the second passage: going after “other natures” is not described as the reason Sodom was destroyed, but as an outflowing of the reason they were destroyed–they engaged in the same sort of rebellion as the fallen angels.

The homosexuality of Sodom was not the reason it was destroyed.  It is, however, described as a symptom of the wickedness that infested it, and that wickedness WAS the reason it was destroyed.

3)  Arsenokoites: Jesus, Paul, and the New Testament

Entering the New Testament, the specifically Christian scriptures, the language changes from Hebrew to Greek.  That has its own issues, its own translation problems.

Some people comment that Jesus himself never says anything against homosexuality, only Paul does.  Well, maybe he did or maybe he didn’t: it all depends on the translation of a particular word.

“And he [Jesus] said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, porneia, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.”  –Mark 7:20-23

Porneia (πορνεία), in the Greek, is a broad term.  It basically means “illicit sexual activity,” and is often translated “fornication.”  This umbrella term may include gay sex as well, depending on what Jesus considered to be illicit.  However, since we are never given any real information to the contrary, chances are what he considered “illicit” was the same thing his audience considered “illicit”… his first-century Jewish audience.  What would a first-century Jewish audience have thought about, to name an example,  gay sex?  Well, they would have considered it to ebah.

This is, admittedly, an argument that contains a large assumption, so we will not consider it binding.  That is when we turn to Paul.

“For this reason [idolatry] God gave them up to passions of dishonor; for even their females exchanged the natural use for that which is contrary to nature, and likewise also the males, having left the natural use of the female, were inflamed by their lust for one another, males with males, committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the recompense which was fitting for their error.”  –Romans 1:26-27

Notice that this passage is the only place in the Bible which seems to directly reference lesbian activity.  This passage, under traditional interpretations, would appear to be referring to both male homosexuality and female homosexuality. John Crysostom, in his “Homilies on Romans” (c. 391 A.D.), writes, “All of these affections [in Rom. 1:26–27] . . . were vile, but chiefly the mad lust after males…  [The men] have done an insult to nature itself. And a yet more disgraceful thing than these is it, when even the women seek after these intercourses, who ought to have more shame than men.”  So clearly this church father, at least, interpreted this passage as referring to homosexual intercourse.

That’s not even the controversial passage, though.  Here’s the controversial passage:

“Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Pornos, idolaters, adulterers, malakos, arsenokoitēs, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”  –1 Cor 6:9-11

Here’s the problem here.  The problem is that Paul uses one word out of its normal use and seems to make up another word.

Malakos (μαλακός) literally means “soft.”  That’s all it usually means.  So what is Paul saying, when he says that the “soft” shall not inherit the kingdom?  The only other time this word is used in Scripture is to refer to the soft clothes that rich people wear.  Some have translated this word as “effeminate,” while others go with “male prostitutes” or “catamites.”  Personally I side with the ESV’s translation, which seems to feel that malakos is paired with arsenokoites to specifically refer to the receiving partner and the penetrating partner of homosexual sex–it’s used here in a sense of “soft” as in “penetrable.” But that is debatable; I’ll cede I have no proof of this beyond my sense of the context, and you’ll have to ask the ESV translators what their proof was.

Arsenokoites (ἀρσενοκοίτη) is a word that never existed, apparently, before Paul coined it here.  It has confused many.  Some point out, quite rightly, that ancient Greek already had a word to refer to being gay, and it was a different word, Androkoites.  But they take it a step further.  So if Paul really wanted to refer to gay men, they say, he would have used Androkoites instead, and so they think Paul must have meant something else by Arsenokoites.

Myself, I think this argument fails to take into account the Jewish context into which Paul was trained.  Arsenokoites is formed of two Greek root words, the word for “male” and the word for “bed/couch/place to lie down.”  In and of itself, “Male-lying-er” is not a conclusive term.  But remember this: Paul himself would have read the Hebrew Scriptures in translation.  While modern Protestant Bibles’ Old Testaments are translated from the Hebrew, Paul would have been using the Septuagint–a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.  And when you look at the Septuagint’s passage of Leviticus 20, both of Arsenokoites‘ root forms (Greek ἄῤῥην / ἄρσην [arrhēn / arsēn] and κοίτην [koitēn] both appear right next to each other: (καὶ ὃς ἂν κοιμηθῇ μετὰ ἄρσενος κοίτην γυναικός, kai os an koimaythay meta arsenos koiten gunaikos, “And if a man might lie with a male as with a female.“)  So it’s not a stretch to define arsenokoites as “a male lying with a male as with a female” a la Leviticus 20–it’s a direct reference to arsenos koiten.  What Paul is referring to in 1 Cor 6 is the same action as described in Leviticus 20.

This word surfaces again in the writings of Paul:

“Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for porneia, for arsenokoitēs, for menstealers [kidnappers/slave traders], for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine…”    –1 Timothy 1:9-10

(Arsenokotai is the plural term used in the verse, but it’s not necessarily feminine.  Other Greek words use that same ending in a masculine verb, such as the masculine mathetes becoming mathetai in its plural, or dikastes –> dikastai.)

One last thing about this word.  Some have claimed that Arsenokoites refers to homosexual rape, or to pedastry–the preying on young boys by an older male–but that consensual, loving, homosexual relationships are not what is spoken against here.  I would refute that by referring to later usage of the word.  Once Paul coined the term, the early Church fathers continued to use it.  Hippolytus of Rome wrote “The Refutation of All Heresies” between 170 and 236 A.D.,  in which he described (among other things) the beliefs of a particular Gnostic sect who believed an evil angel had sex with both Adam and Eve in Eden.  He wrote,

“Naas [supposedly the name of an evil angel in Eden], however, has committed sin, for he went in unto Eve, deceiving her, and debauched her; and (such an act as) this is a violation of law. He, however, likewise went in unto Adam, and had unnatural intercourse with him; and this is itself also a piece of turpitude, whence have arisen adultery and arsenokoitēs.”

If Arsenokoites only referred to pedastry, it would not be used here to refer to consensual sex with Adam.


4)  Counter-Examples

People like to bring up all these “examples” of how Jesus (or David, or someone) affirmed a homosexual relationship or GLBT actions, and thus showed that homosexual sex is okay.  Some common such examples given include:
–The Roman soldier who asked Jesus to heal his servant: apparently it is claimed the servant was his lover, and Jesus healed him, so Jesus was affirming their relationship
–David and Jonathan, who are alleged to have had a gay relationship.
–Jesus said that “it is not what enters a man that defiles him,” referring to anal sex.
–John was the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” clearly Jesus’ lover.

I find these counter examples tend to ignore context, differences between the culture of the reader and the culture of the text, and translation issues.  When it says that John was the disciple whom Jesus loved, the word is Agapao, not Eros as it would have been if John was Jesus’s sexual partner.  When Jesus spoke of “what enters a man,” it was in the context of eating, not sex–in the very next verse he says “for that which enters a man passes into his stomach…”  Yes, “Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt,” and yes, when Jonathan died, David said, “Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.”  But these were cultural customs that existed in platonic friendships in ancient Semitic culture.  Earlier in the Bible, Aaron performed a similar stripping to place his garments on his son, as a symbol not of erotic love but of succession.  No sexual relationship is explicit here, only a non-sexual friendship.  Likewise with the centurion: yes, homosexuality was frequent among Roman soldiers, but we have nothing for sure to say that such a relationship existed between this centurion and his servant–to say there definitely was is conjecture.

5)  In Conclusion:  What Have We Found?

When we look through the Bible for what it says about being gay, what does it say?

–In the Old Testament, it prohibited male-on-male sex as either a ritual impurity or an ethical impurity.
–The severity of its original punishment, the term associated with this particular act, as well as its continuation into the New Testament, seems to strongly suggest ethical rather than ritual impurity.
–It was believed by its original audience that this prohibition extended to female-on-female sex.
–In an infamous instance of smiting, homosexual sex was not the cause but was treated as a symptom of the cause.
–If Jesus maintained a traditional Jewish understanding of sexuality, he may have prohibited homosexual sex under the umbrella term porneia.
–Paul referred to both female-on-female sex and male-on-male sex as “unnatural,” “shameful” and “dishonorable,” though he stopped just short of calling it sin in that particular passage.
–Paul coined a term that specifically referred to the prohibition in Leviticus, and stated that engaging in such activity is a sign of being “unlawful” and “sinful” as well as being a disqualification for being “in the kingdom of God”
–Paul hinted that gays are not forever banned from Christianity, heaven, or God: he pointed out in 1 Cor 6 that many current Christians used to engage in homosexual activity, but now were “washed,” “sanctified,” and “justified.”
–In short, the Bible is consistently negative about homosexual intercourse, and speaks of it in terms of “sin.”

What did the Bible *not* say?

–That being born with a genetic predisposition towards homosexuality, or having gay tendencies, makes you sinful.  Actions and thoughts can be sins, but the potential for actions and thoughts is not.  I don’t know whether there’s a “gay gene” or not–and frankly I don’t care.  We all have tendencies toward our own desires and away from God’s, whether we’re gay or straight.  But it’s not our tendencies that make us sinners, it’s our actions and our meditations.  We’re all fallen, broken people, we’re just fallen and broken in different ways.
–That being gay is the “unpardonable sin.”  It’s not.
–That gay “sin” is worse than hetero “sin.”
–That God hates you because you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual or transsexual.
–That Christians are supposed to hate gays.
–That Christians are supposed to judge nonChristian gays.  Quite the opposite: 1 Cor 5 basically says that Christians are not supposed to judge those outside the church.

Whether you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, or straight, according to Christianity, God loves you.  He doesn’t want to be separated from you, he wants to be with you.  But if you want to try and say that God is just fine with homosexual sex, you can’t really do so using the Bible.  The context won’t let you.

You’re welcome to just ditch the Bible and do without–many people do–but understand you’d be ditching other things along with it–the teachings of Jesus, the message of unconditional love, the story of reconciliation with God.  It’s kind of a package deal.  The Good News starts with our fallen nature: you have to start there to get to the part where God rescues us from our fallen nature.  And part of that rescue is the giving up of our selves, including (among many other things) our sexual lives.

I hope that, without offending, this better explains exactly what the Bible says (and doesn’t say) about being gay.

3 thoughts on “Gays In The Bible: What Does It Really Say?

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