All A Horrible Mistake? The Bible’s Supposed Condemnation of Homosexuality

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.


The Consequences


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.


Some Fine Books

In the last six months or so I have read several books on Jewish topics which have been excellent- some of the best I've ever read. I want to briefly describe them here to encourage others who haven't read them to take a look.

1) The Philosophy of The Hebrew Scriptures by Yoram Hazony

Amazing. This book transformed my ideas of the essential vision of the Chumash. Among Hazony's fascinating excursions are a look at the “shepherd ethics” of Ancient Israel; a study of the phenomenology of the word “davar” (thing, word, idea); and an exploration of what God really wants from Israel- and its not unthinking obedience. Also interesting is Hazony's contribution to the theology of “vulnerability”- the growing number of Jewish and Christian theologians arguing for a vulnerable, personal, and evolving God (Schroeder, Levenson, Heschel, Brueggeman all develop this idea to come extent).


2) Created Equal by Joshua Berman

Masterful exploration of the laws of the Chumash in their context. This book brought my admiration for Tanakh to a new level. Clearly and compellingly sets out the revolutionary nature of early Israeli law.


3) The Bible Now by Richard Elliot Friedman

Fabulous discussion of the “pshat” (literal) level of the Chumash and what it does or doesn't say about homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, women and ecology. Truly excellent, and should be read by all lovers of Torah and, I would add, all the descendants of Abraham.


4) The Jewish Gospels by Daniel Boyarin

Think Judaism and Christianity are as far apart as the moon and the sun? Think again, they are as interconnected as the moon and the sun. Did you know some pre-Christian Jews were awaiting a semi-divine Messiah whose career would include suffering for their sins? Did you know Jesus kept kosher, wore Tzitzit, and told his Jewish followers to listen to the Rabbis? Or that Christians attended synagogue services for centuries after Jesus's death, and many Jews were followers of Jesus without leaving Judaism? This book tells the story of what it was like before the “great divorce” of the 4th-5th century CE when the Church Fathers and the Rabbis drew firm lines demanding you be either Christian or Jewish.


5) An Unsettling God by Walter Brueggeman

A good book on the character of God as revealed in the Tanakh, and the relationship between God, Israel, Nature and Humanity. Thought provoking work from a Christian theologian.


6) Not In Heaven by Eliezer Berkovitz.


This is a masterpiece. It explains the character of traditional Jewish law (not the modernist fundamentalist version). Beautiful, provocative, and inspiring.


7) God According To God by Gerald Schroeder


Thought provoking and engagingly written exploration of what the Tanakh says about the character of God. Along the way some other interesting cosmological and theological excursions, and some great science writing about Creation.

Parshat Kodshim: The Holiness of Heterosexuality?

“And YHWH spoke to Moshe, saying, “Speak to all the gathering of the children of Israel, and you shall say to them: You shall be holy, because I, YHWH, your God, am holy (Vayikra 19:1).”

So opens the the recently passed parsha Kodshim.  This sentence, with its stark and challenging grandeur, is a favorite amongst Jews of all denominations. What is it to be Holy, Kadosh? The parsha does not offer definitions. Instead it offers a long list of examples: the Ten Commandments, ritual offerings to God, justice, caring for the poor and the infirm, treatment of women, food, the illegality of sorcery, and loving both one’s neighbour and the stranger as oneself.

All of these examples have led many to see holiness as laying in following the mitzvot in general and more specifically the ethical mitzvot which predominate here. In fact the mitzvot listed in this parsha fall into both the categories of bein adam l’havero (between one another) and bein adam l’makom (between people and God) and so we can infer a definition of holiness from this: right relationship with other human beings and with God. The mitzvot listed suggest one’s relationship with others should be one of justice, honour and kindness. One’s relationship with God should be ritualized and disciplined and should involve binding oneself through ritual and custom to God alone. It should also involve not taking life without offering it back to its source in a sacred way, as in the Temple sacrifice ritual. Incidentally one could argue that this extends the mitzvot here to a third category: bein adam l’hayyot (between humans and animals).

All of this seems interesting and edifying until we get to Vayikra 20:13: “And a man who will lie with with a male like laying with a woman: the two of them have done an offensive thing. They shall be put to death.”

How is “laying with a man like laying with a woman” fatally unholy?

It comes here as part of a recap of some sexual laws from the previous parsha (Vayikra 18:22). Together these two parshas outline a number of forbidden sexual relationships, most of them easy to understand. All of them are physically (genetically) or emotionally dangerous. Anthropologists tell us that there are semitic tribes that to this day do not have incest taboos, so apparently these laws were indeed necessary. Also there was the Egyptian custom of sibling marriage and anthropologists claim that some tribes in Canaan practiced ritual homosexuality, and that in at least some cases this involved male on male anal rape.

One possibility thus presents itself: these laws were partially intended to differentiate the Israelites from their neighbours. Rabbi Gershon Winkler has argued that these laws were intended to outlaw homosexual rape specifically because it was widely practiced in Canaanite temples.

This is possible, but doesn’t seem that strong an explanation. It does seem reasonable that the phrase “laying with a man like a woman” does refer to anal sex. This is the interpretation that Conservative Jews have adopted and they have ruled that homosexual romance and marriage are permissible but not anal sex between men.

The difficulty is: since Israelites didn’t practice temple prostitution or sacred orgies, why did this one aspect of Canaanite Temple practice need to be discouraged?

Rabbi Steven Greenberg has suggested that the problem is not anal sex but the use of other men not for their own sake but as a mere replacement for a woman. In his reading one should lay with a man like one is laying with a man, not like one is laying with a woman. This is a good drash, but seems unlikely as pshat (the literal reading) to me.

Richard Elliott Friedman has suggested that homosexual anal sex is outlawed here not because it is offensive to God but because it is offensive to Israelites. The verse says, “Do not do X. It is an offensive thing.” Friedman suggests that the Torah is in effect saying “Do not have homosexual intercourse. It is something people generally find offensive and you are trying to be a refined, disciplined, holy people. Therefore abandon it.”

This reading is somewhat plausible. It seems to follow, intentionally or not, a Maimonidean reading of the text. In Moreh Nevuchim Maimonides says that many of the mitzvot were given simply to refine people: he includes in this list the laws of kashrut and the laws of purity. Maimonides also views a major part of Jewish law as a concession to human perceptions: the laws of Temple sacrifice. Maimonides writes that if Israelites hadn’t been conditioned to need to make sacrifices by the religions of their neighbours, God wouldn’t have instituted the sacrificial laws. Maimonides argues that the sacrificial laws were given not to encourage people to make sacrifices, but rather with an eye to weaning them from the practice altogether.

This is in harmony with Friedman’s view that since homosexual intercourse is no longer viewed as an “offensive thing” we can now abandon this law.

I find Friedman’s argument appealing but am ultimately unconvinced. Homosexual intercourse was punishable with death: this seems quite a severe punishment for the sake of promoting a sense of refinement of character based on Israelite biases. The severity of the law seems to reflect both an awareness that homosexual intercourse was appealing enough to some to warrant strong deterrence, and a passionate concern on the part of someone to prevent its occurrence.

One other possibility is that homosexual intercourse was outlawed because it was perceived as against the way of nature. The Tanakh is filled with praise for the divine wisdom inherent in nature. Some of the laws, like those limiting breeding hybrid crops or mixing certain types of fabric, seem to reflect this. Another key law with respect to this is found in the verse which outlaws men and women adopting each other’s dress. This seems a clear example of a law attempting to preserve what are perceivable as natural boundaries. Perhaps this desire to respect natural boundaries grew out of the Israelite perception, unique in the ancient middle east, of the whole world being an expression of the wisdom of one benevolent God.

This presents two problems for us today. The first problem is that we now know that homosexual desires are not a perverse inclination of the human heart but a natural inclination grounded in genetic predisposition. We also know that it is impossible for homosexual men to be “cured” of their desires. The evidence suggest that homosexual desire is in fact natural. This seems to conflict with the rationale we perceived above.

If we agree that homosexual behaviour is natural than we might be tempted to conclude, with the Conservative movement, that homosexual romance that excludes anal intercourse is kosher. I myself am empathetic to this view. I am neither a posek (obviously!) or a homosexual, and I feel that the combination of both attributes would be ideal in judging this matter. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, I think this seems a fairly equitable resolution of the conundrum for those committed to some form of traditional Jewish law. It preserves the halacha d’oraita (written law).

This still does not resolve our problems, however. Even if we do conclude that homosexual romance is permissible but not anal sex , how do we understand its being a capital offence? This capital offence is no more disturbing, however, then the death penalty for Shabbat violation.  However uncomfortable it makes us the Torah threatens death for many offences we would not even consider criminal today, there is no escaping that it does.

On a practical level we know that the Talmudic Rabbis legislated exhaustive restrictions on the application of the death penalty which made it impossible to actually implement. Still, the question of why the Torah mandates such harsh punishment for breaking laws that seem comparatively minor remains.

Another difficulty is that understanding the ban as only extending to anal sex is not an option open to Orthodox Jews. For Orthodox Jews the only options are to abstain from homosexual romance entirely or to engage in some degree of homo-erotic love, thus violating what they consider to be Torah law, while otherwise observing the rest of the mitzvot.

Thankfully no-one is able to enforce the Bibilical death penalty anymore. With regards to the option of engaging in homosexual intercourse whilst otherwise being observant I am reminded of the words of orthodox Rabbi Simon Rappaport. He pointed out that to fail to observe this mitzvah is no worse than failing to observe any other. To judge those born with desire for other men, or to (has v’shalom) publicly condemn or persecute them, is as unacceptable as publicly shaming and assaulting those who talk during prayer or drive on shabbat. Sadly some fundamentalist thugs might advocate doing that these days, but it is clearly against traditional Jewish law.