Human history, especially recently, has shown that we can be very wrong about some things, even ones we've believed for a long time. The sun doesn't revolve around the earth. Solid objects are actually mostly filled with space. And the Bible doesn't condemn homosexuality.
What? But don't most Jews and Christians, the people of the Book themselves, say it does? Don't they say the Bible condemns homosexuals even when they disagree with that condemnation? Doesn't the Bible say homosexuality is an “abomination”?
The answer to the first question is “Yes, that is what they say.” But the answer to the second question turns out to be “No, it was a misunderstanding.”
I myself was unhappily convinced, until recently, that the Hebrew Bible did condemn homosexuality. I thought this was disturbing because I myself don't agree. Homosexuality seems to me mostly a result of genetic predisposition and in itself ethically neutral.
I am aware of attempts, notably by Jay Michaelson as well as others, to interpret the texts in Leviticus apparently condemning homosexuality so that they do not. These attempts are usually either midrashic or speculative, by which I mean that they either find new meanings in the old words by playing with their etymology or speculate as to possible alternative intentions for the verses based on reasoning and imagination. Neither of these approaches satisfied me.
Then I read an amazing book, which I recommend to all fearless and intellectually honest Christians and Jews and anyone who has grown up in the Biblically based cultures of Europe and the modern Americas. The book is the “The Bible Now”, written by one of the world's great secular Bible scholars, Richard Elliot Friedman and his esteemed colleague Shawna Dolansky and published by Oxford University Press. This book bases itself solidly in the historical-critical approach, ie. in arguments based in textual criticism, archaeology, anthropology, and cross-cultural studies.
The book purports to use the immense riches of 20th century discoveries to take a look at what the literal text of the Bible has to say about several pressing moral issues in its original historical context. The authors address several hot button topics: abortion, women, ecology, capital punishment, and homosexuality. All of these topics represent areas where passionate, and often passionately biased people, use and abuse the Bible with very little knowledge of what scholars have to say about its original meaning and intentions.
The whole book was enlightening, but nowhere more than in its discussion of homosexuality.
The verses in question are: “You shall not lay with a male as you would with a woman, it is a repulsive thing.” (Lev 18:22) and “The two of them have done a repulsive thing. They shall be put to death.” (Lev 20:13). Friedman and Dolansky's translation of these verses will be discussed below.
When we say “homosexual” today we generally mean people who are primarily sexually attracted to persons of the same sex. By “homosexuality” we mean people of homosexual orientation who engage, homosexually, in all the same sexual and romantic behaviours that heterosexuals do: casual sex, affairs, committed monogamy, and now marriage.
First off, say Friedman and Dolansky, no one in the cultural sphere of the Bible thought of certain people as “homosexuals” or had a concept of “homosexuality” like the one I describe above. There is no word for homosexual or homosexuality in Hebrew. In fact, they argue, scholars assert that the category “homosexuality” did not occur in western culture until the 17th century. Before then, sex with another man was just seen as a “perverse desire”, a temptation that some people were more prone to than others.
What is at issue here in Leviticus is a certain act not a category of person. We need to understand exactly what “laying with a man as you would with a woman” means, and why that was considered “a repulsive thing”.
Friedman and Dolansky do assume that the verses refer to sexual intimacy between men, which is supported by the language used. How exactly does one man lay with another like the second man was a woman, though? Friedman and Dolansky note that the phrase used for the forbidden activity means literally “you shall not lay with a man the layings of a woman.” They argue that the plural “layings” suggests that the meaning is “any of the ways that one would have sexual intimacy with a woman”. In other words, it refers to any form of sexual intimacy between a man and a man. On this point I disagree. I think that if you wish to represent the plural in the translation the phrase is most coherently translated as “you shall not lay with a man in the way you would lie with a woman”. It is more natural to represent “that way you would lie with a woman” with a plural, since we are referring to a habitual, repetitive way of doing something.This point is important because Friedman and Dolansky will ground their understanding of why homosexual sex is forbidden in an Israelite aversion to one man being penetrated by another (the reason for the aversion will be explained below). They think that all “sex acts” are banned, seemingly in order to prevent the “repulsive act” of male anal sex.
I think that Israelites understood “sex (laying)” to refer to “sexual intercourse” specifically, and that the law only refers to sexual intercourse between men. Even more specifically, the law is addressed to the active partner- “you shall not lay with a man”. In other words, the intention of the law is to forbid a man having sexual intercourse with another man by penetrating him anally.
Now, you might think this is a law forbidding homosexual romance. But, Friedman and Dolansky explain, it appears you'd be wrong.
First off, they argue, homosexuality per se can't be the problem. Why not? Because female homosexuality is not against the law. Think that the misogynists just didn't bother to mention women? Au contraire: when bestiality is discussed, the authors specifically mention both men and women being forbidden to have sex with animals.
Further they argue ancient Israel was polygamous and men were not only familiar with female homosexual acts but had relatively easy opportunities to observe them and even to enjoy them, as they had multiple wives. The proof? There is a Biblical law in Leviticus making it illegal for a man who has married two sisters to have sex with both of them at the same time. Sisters just, not wives generally. If threesomes were not known and common enough, why would this law be neccesary? Yet there is no law in the Hebrew Bible forbidding sex between females. This supports their claim that it is only sex between men that is being condemned, and even more specifically, anal sex.
As an aside, a Christian pastor named Justin Cannon makes an additional argument that is relevant here in his book The Bible, Christiianity, and Homosexuality. It is in fact a very Jewish argument! He points out that in the Torah “to lie with” refers to sex. The verses in question could have just said ” it is forbidden for a man to lie with a man”. Why do they add “like a woman”? This seems to qualify and make more precise what is being discussed: not intimacy or love between men of just any kind, but specifically anal penetration, which supports my argument.
To understand why male homosexual acts would be repulsive to Israelites, Friedman and Dolansky look at mentions of anal sex in the surrounding cultures of Greece, Babylon, Assyria, and Mesopatamia. As I mentioned above, I feel that their argument is stronger when percieved as making sense of why anally penetrating another man is fobidden, as opposed to why male homosexual intimacy is forbidden. As I argued above, I don't think the law forbids any form of male homosexual intimacy as such, but is aimed at preventing anal sexual intercourse specifically.
To develop their argument Friedmana and Dolansky look at a series of texts. A Babylonian Divination text, the Summa Alu, discusses the auspiciousness or inauspiciousness of different types of anal sex (not their morality or immorality). As Friedman and Dolansky write, it seems being the active part in homosexual intercourse with someone of high status (an equal, a cult prostitute, or a courtier) brought good luck, while penetrating someone of lower status (like a slave) or being the passive recipient of anal sex (outside of cretain religious rituals) brought bad luck. What we see here is that anal sex per se is not bad, but who penetrates and who is pentrated are of symbolic meaning and even bring good or bad luck. The key point is that to actively penetrate another equal is auspicious, to be penetrated by another man is inauspicious.
Two Assyrian laws also discuss anal penetration. The first states that someone who falsely accuses another man of often being a passive recipient of anal sex will be whipped, do forced labour, pay a fine, and be castrated. The next law states: if a man anally rapes a social equal than he will in turn be anally raped and then castrated.
There are two striking things here aside from the brutality of these laws: to be penetrated by another man is shameful, and to be anally raped by an equal is shameful. To be anally raped by a superior is acceptable in law- the concern here is not human rights but protecting the status of elite men. This law reinforces the values existing in the Babylonian law: to be the passive recipient of anal sex is shameful, and implies a lower status than that of the active partner.
Egypt provides similar evidence. Egyptian literature generally portrays the passive partner as “weak, cowardly and effeminate”. In the bizarre myth of Seth and Horus there is a competition between Seth and Horus, two gods, for higher divine status. Seth tries various stratagems to anally penetrate Horus, but is unsuccessful. Horus manages to catch Seth's semen in his hand and brings it to his mother Isis, who is enraged and cuts off Horus's hand, throwing it in the marshes. She then magically sprinkles some of Horus' semen on lettuce which Seth eats. When Seth claims before the divine assembly to have bested Horus, she asks them to call forth their semen as proof. Seth's semen comes forth from the marshes where it was thrown, not from within Horus. Horus's semen, however, is shown to be inside Seth and emerges as a disc surrounding his head, humiliating him. The cultural meaning of actively penetrating another man is pretty clear here, to say the least.
But what about Greece? It turns out the picture is more complicated then you might have heard. Greek literature does not know of a general category of men called “homosexuals”, but it does know of homosexual love and sex. And even in Greece, it turns out, to be the passive recipient of anal sex was considered shameful, effeminizing, and humiliating.
The most common and idealized form of homosexual relationship in Greece was called “paederastia” or “boy-love”. The relationship had a very specific, socially prescribed form. An older man from an aristocratic family was to select a younger man, not yet an adult, from another aristocratic family. The older man would penetrate the younger and enjoy him sexually while also acting as a mentor and sponsor. The young boy was not supposed to enjoy the act, but to “look on stone sober at the other drunk with lust”. When the boy reached adulthood it was required that the relationsip end so as to avoid the shame of one adult male being penetrated by a social equal. Great was the disdain shown to the passive male recipient of anal sex. Plato comments (with a strong note of misogyny):” Will not all men censure as a woman a man who acts womanly?”
Here we have, of course, a very clear parallel to the probable thinking of the Biblical law: the passive partner is considered “as a woman”.
Plutarch, a Roman inheritor of the Greek tradition wrotes, “We class those belonging to the passive part as being of the lowest vice and accord them neither confidence nor respect or friendship.”
What Friedman and Dolansky are arguing here is that it is more reaonable to assume that the Israelites thought like their neighbours in Assyria, Babylon, and the Mediterranean than that they think like us.
What Leviticus forbids is not homosexuality per se, but the degradation of another man's dignity and social status through an act which was widely regarded as humiliating and socially degrading. This is in keeping with the basic egalitarian intent of the laws of the Hebrew Bible, as also argued by Joshua Berman in his masterful book “Created Equal”.
Bearing this in mind we come to a shocking realization about the law against anally penetrating another man. Far from being a law about forbidding homosexuality, it turns out to be a law supporting male dignity and a classless state. The law existed to prevent one man from socially humiliating and degrading another man. Why, then, in Leviticus are both men stoned? The issue here is consensual sex not rape and the Bible holds both men responsible for entering into the degradation. This parallels the Bible's punishment of a freed slave who rejects their freedom and opts to stay with his master (Exodus 21:6 as understood by Rashi).
Now this doesn't mean that the laws in the Hebrew Bible are perfect in promoting equality. They still enshrine certain inequalities, most noteably between men and women. That does not change the fact that they were, in context, an attempt at building a new kind of Utopia, a rebellion against the stratified slave states of Egypt and Babylon. And it doesn't change our fundamental point, which is that the law is not about what we think it is about.
The New Testament
This interpretation of the laws of the Torah is actually supported by a proper reading of the oft-cited and apparently oft-misused comments of Paul in 1 Timothy 1:9-10. Here Paul condemns a number of types of human immorality and includes the set “pornoi, arsenokoitai, and andrapodistai”. These are often translated “fornicators, homosexuals, and kidnappers”. Cannon argues, in The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality that in context these Greek terms are best understood as “male prostitutes, those who use them, and their procurors (literally “slave-traders/kidnappers”). All of these characters were present in the Rome of Paul's time. This moral condemnation follows on the Hebrew scriptural idea of anal sex as fundamentally a degrading act for one of the partners.
A second text, Romans 1:24-7, condemns people who are oversome with lust breaking through all boundaries and having “unnatural” sexual relations. Cannon convincingly argues that in this text the referent is in fact Roman religious orgies and again cannot be taken refer to homosexual romances of the kind we know today.
We simply cannot take the Torah's condemnation of anal sex between men out of its original cultural context. The act was condemned because of its social meaning then. This is only reinforced by the word the Torah chooses to characterize one man anally penetrating another: “repulsive”. This word is first used in the Torah by Moses to describe the way Egyptians feel about certain Israelite practices- they are “repulsive” (toevah) to the Egyptians (Exodus 8:2). Later the word is used to refer to certain practices which are, or should be, repulsive to Israel. Famously this includes eating non-kosher food (Deuteronomy 14:3). Now eating bacon is surely not a universal moral scandal. My point is that anally penetrating another man is repulsive in terms of the culture that Israel is trying to build in the promised land, but that doesn't suggest a moral judgement true irrespective of time, place or people.
As an illustration, consider this: in Thailand it is considered incredibly insulting to touch another adults head. Now imagine certain men were in the habit of touching the heads of other men in a way which marked them as social inferiors and exerted power and status. If one wanted to create a society of equals one would need to outlaw one man touching the head of another man.
In our culture, however, touching another man's head simply does not have that meaning. To insist that all “head-touchers” are immoral and worthy of censure in our context would make no sense.
Similarly to insist that male homosexual love relationships are immoral in all cultural settings on the basis of the Levitical texts in incoherent. In our culture sexual love between men is simply seen as another type of morally neutral romantic love. You might object that not everyone sees it that way. The irony is, of course, that those who see it otherwise are usually inspired by their fidelity to the Bible's supposed condemnation of homosexual love! Their opinion, therefore, is not in need of respect but simply of correction.
In summary, the consequence of all of this is that centuries of religious interpretation aside, the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. In fact it does not even discuss it. We are left to make up our own minds about what the Bible might have said about homosexuality today given its underlying mission to promote a political state where all people were free and equal before God.