I’ll just give you a warning: this post isn’t exactly going to be family-friendly. Oh, I’ll do my best to be as professional as possible about the whole thing, but the Bible is anything but PG-rated when it comes to the facts of life. We live in a fallen world in which all manner of immorality occurs. The Bible is frank without being vulgar, but there are some things that just aren’t pleasant to have to deal with. So…that’s my warning.
Throughout the entire Old Testament, it is very obvious that heterosexual monogamy is considered the norm. Not that homosexuality or polygamy in a variety of forms didn’t exist, but simply that these were distortions of the real thing. Let me first be very clear on something: the Bible does not castigate a person for their temptations. Jesus Himself experienced temptation by an external Tempter. No, it is not the desire to do wrong that is sin. It is meditating on, lusting after, or acting on those temptations. Whether it is nature or nurture that produces homosexual desires is- in a sense- beside the point. The existence of the temptation is not permission to sin. We would say the same thing of a man desiring a woman on a computer screen or in the next cubicle. However, we need not burden someone beyond what they can bear. God didn’t say “stop being tempted”, He reminded us through the Apostle Paul to “walk in the Spirit” so that we could avoid fulfilling the lust of the flesh. We are told to cast cares upon Him, to abide in Him, to meditate on His Word, and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. It is not the temptation that defines us; it is our true identity- in Christ or apart from Him- that makes us who we are. The Spirit and the Word have the power to transform despite our own innate failings and weaknesses.
To get started, a little history is in order, because it will better help us understand the context of the Old Testament. There is no clear law concerning homosexuality outside of Israel until the 2nd millennium BC. The Assyrian Law (Mesopotamians were known for being a little on the permissive side) states that if a man is accused of being homosexual in public and the accusation cannot be proven, the slanderer must be given “50 blows with rods; he shall perform the king’s service for one full month; they shall cut off his hair; moreover, he shall pay 3600 shekels of lead.” (“The Middle Assyrian Laws,” translated by Martha Roth) The same set of Assyrian laws requires that a man who rapes another man should be turned into a eunuch. Because the rapist has robbed a man of masculinity, his masculinity would also be taken from him. Near Eastern Law is big on the concept of “lex talionis” (an eye for an eye), therefore Assyrian law shows that homosexuality was not an acceptable thing to be involved in, as the punishment was itself painful and embarrassing. This concept of lex talionis will be very important later when we talk about the treatment of women in Jewish society. Right now, the point to be made is that homosexuality has been seen as unnatural from our earliest available texts. To even accuse someone of homosexual activity was serious business.
Other Middle Assyrians laws completely forbid homosexual activity, except within the religious cults, where cross-dressing prostitutes also functioned as actors, dancers, and musicians. (This is not to say, by the way, that performing in the Arts is inherently effeminate. There are many very masculine men who have been involved in these areas in history.) These cults had male prostitutes who dressed and acted as women, however, they were not respected by the general population and were considered social pariahs, often referred to as man-women or dog-women. Male prostitutes were thought of as a parody of womanhood, being considered a man who has been turned into a woman by the goddess Ishtar. (Jensen, The Relevance of the Old Testament) Beyond the cults, penalties for homosexuality were generally only levied against those that played the role of the male in a homosexual act. This method of punishment is true of most cultures that criminalized homosexuality.
In contrast, early Egyptian myths and royals seem somewhat favorable toward homosexuality. Imagery and religious texts describe this behavior in sometimes great detail. In the 15th Century, however, attitudes changed. The now-famous Book of the Dead linked homosexuality with pedophilia, and the religious attitudes of the time caused a cultural shift away from permissiveness. According to Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice, homosexuality in Egypt was completely outlawed about 300 years before Christ.
Noah and Sodom in Genesis
While there is no secular reference to homosexuality in the cultures surrounding Israel (Canaanites and other Semitic peoples), the Bible itself has something to say on this topic. The first incident that is often brought up is Ham’s viewing of a drunken Noah. I believe this to be a poor example of God’s statements toward homosexuality. We are told that Ham saw Noah naked, but we are not told that he “uncovered his father’s nakedness”- a euphemism in Scripture for sleeping with a man’s wife. We are only told that he “saw” his father’s nakedness. Furthermore, Ham’s two brothers remedied the situation by simply covering their father with their backs to him. If that is the remedy, the problem was not one of sexual activity. No, it would rather seem that Ham was extremely disrespectful toward his father, if not somewhat voyeuristic. Ham’s “seeing” in the Hebrew deals with “looking searchingly” and telling his brothers has overtones of delight. Rather than addressing the issue of homosexuality, I believe that this passage warns against making a mockery of what is private and being too interested or curious in things that are inappropriate. This is certainly a pertinent warning in the age of the Internet.
Perhaps the most well-known account of homosexuality in the Bible is the infamous incident at Sodom in which Sodom is destroyed for its evil just after Lot and most of his family escape. Some have argued that Sodom’s great sin was not homosexuality. They claim that the men of Sodom wanted to “know” the angelic visitors in the sense of hospitality. The problem is that the Hebrew word for know here is used of the case of incest between Lot and his daughters just a few paragraphs later, making hospitality completely a moot point. “Being good neighbors” simply doesn’t fit the context. James DeYoung’s book titled Homosexuality: Contemporary Claims Examined reveals that- in context- only sexual sin can be in view here due to the literary structure of the book of Genesis. Just prior to Isaac’s birth, Abraham intercedes for Sodom and Gomorrah, which are subsequently destroyed. Then, Lot’s daughters get their father drunk and essentially rape him. Following this narrative, there is the issue of Abraham claiming that Sarah is his sister which nearly gets Isaac claimed by the wrong father! In each of these three cases, sexual immorality occurs (or is in danger of occurring), divine judgment falls, and- in a sense- Abraham, his family, and his descendants are in danger. There is a literary coherence here- these three accounts are put together on purpose. It is further claimed, however, that the issue of Sodom is its attempted rape- not simply the act of homosexuality. However, to interpret the Hebrew verb (“yada”- to know) as “rape” rather than “have sex with” forces some incredible words out of Lot’s mouth: “Don’t rape my visitors. Here are my daughters, both virgins- rape them!” It also requires every single instances of “knowing” someone in the biblical sense to possibly indicate rape. This makes absolutely no sense.
The Mosaic Law
We move now to the Mosaic Law. I will say more about the nature of the Mosaic Law within a theocracy, lex talionis, and case law later. For now suffice it to say that the punishment does fit the crime, but not in the way you might suspect. Leviticus 18:22 says: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Unlike other ANE laws, both men were found guilty and penalized. Strange as it may sound, this is virtually unheard of in the ancient world, according to Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice. Normally, only the male/aggressor role is penalized. For those concerned with the issue of lesbianism, remember that there is a certain egalitarianism present in the Old Testament. Men were representative in language, but “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” in practice. All 10 Commandments, for instance, are written as to a male in the original language, however, God clearly intends for both genders to obey His commandments. Additionally, Louis M. Epstein’s Sex Laws and the Customs in Judaism make it clear that lesbianism was also banned by the Mosaic Law, according to nearly every Rabbinic interpretation.
In Leviticus 18:22, the punishment is being cut off from the people (Israel), while in Leviticus 20:13, the punishment is death. It is not an either/or scenario. They are removed from the drama of Israel’s unfolding history- a tremendous privilege- and their life is also forfeit. Homosexuality- among other sins- is an abomination. While all sexual sins in Leviticus 18 are collectively called abominations, homosexual intercourse is the only sin specifically given this distinction from the entire list. While some things are an abomination because they cause ritual impurity, other actions are called abominable in the sense that they are “utterly incompatible with the will of God and … are viewed by Him with repugnance because of its evil.” (P.J. Harland)
There are those that try to connect the type of homosexuality prohibited in the Old Testament with ritual cultic prostitution. The main evidence given for this line of thinking is the commandment forbidding homosexuality in Leviticus 18, which is preceded immediately by the commandment forbidding sacrificing children to Molech. However, the Leviticus 20 passage refers to homosexuality while also prohibiting incest and bestiality without mentioning idolatry specifically. While it is true that Leviticus is largely concerned with not being like the surrounding Canaanites, there is always a reason for not being like them. God never tells Israel to be unique just for the sake of being different.
Another charge often brought up is that these commandments are part of the Mosaic Law and are therefore not applicable today. The role of the Mosaic Law is a complex one that I won’t spend time on at this point, however, I would like to point out the punishment for homosexuality explained in Leviticus 18:26-29:
“But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either thenative or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people.
It is worth noting that, while the commandment against homosexuality was given to the Jews, these same sexual sins brought judgment upon non-Jewish nations prior to Israel’s arrival. When it comes to sexuality, God holds us all to the same standard. Sin is sin, no matter when or where you live. There is a universal moral law, regardless of whatever else may be true of the Mosaic Law.
What about Ruth and Naomi or David and Jonathan?
Homosexuals will often point to two key relationships in the Old Testament as evidence of God blessing homosexual activity. Ruth and Naomi are the first target, primarily because they kiss each other and weep together, and they live together alone. However, both women were previously married to men. Ruth also expresses incredible Abraham-like faith, throwing in her lot with God’s people rather than returning to paganism, and she is loyal to her mother-in-law against all odds. Naomi plays something of a matchmaker, but she is by no means a lover to Ruth. Their relationship is clearly mother-daughter, and any attempt to see it otherwise is reading into the text something that is simply not there. Ruth is, in fact, a beautiful love story which anticipates the arrival of Boaz at the end. Ruth’s inclusion in the line of David and Christ would be impossible if the Leviticus 18 and 20 prohibitions cutting her off from the people of Israel were followed. Speculation such as this is completely unwarranted.
1Samuel 18 says that “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul….Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.” 1Samuel 19:1 tells us that Jonathan “took great delight” in David. 1Samuel 20 tells us that they swore by their love for each other, kissed each other, wept with each other, etc. When Jonathan dies, David says in 2Samuel 1:26 that Jonathan’s love was better than the love of women. So was David gay, or possibly bisexual?
In short, no. David was certainly not strictly homosexual, and neither was Jonathan, as both men had wives (several, in David’s case) and children. What about “loving David as his own soul”? Would it surprise you to learn that, in Hebrew, this is not the first time that phrase was used of two males? In Genesis 44:30, Judah tells his brother Joseph that their father Jacob’s “life is bound up in the boys’ life.” The two phrases are of different wording in English, but the Hebrew behind them is identical. David and Jonathan share a bond similar to that of Jacob and his son Benjamin. There is a father-son affection between them; Jonathan was David’s mentor and friend. (We forget that Jonathan was old enough to be David’s father, being at least 20 years older.)
What about Jonathan’s love for David? The word for love here (“ahab”) has a variety of meanings. Just a few verses after we find that David and Jonathan loved one another, we are told in 1Samuel 18:16 that all of Israel loved David– the exact same Hebrew word is used. David may have had multiple wives, but frankly, reading sexual love into this verse is quite a stretch! That Jonathan took great delight in David is not unusual, his father King Saul is said to delight in David as well in 1Samuel 18:22. The word for delight simply means to “find favor.” In context, this seems to indicate political favor or professional interest.
As for two men kissing, we need to stop reading the Bible like 21st-century Americans! Other cultures permit kissing between men without reading sexuality into the action. In our own country, men were much more physically affectionate with each other than they are today. Men kiss throughout the books of Samuel with no sexual intent: Samuel kisses David (1Samuel 10), David kisses Absalom (2Samuel 14:33), Absalom kissed the people visiting him in 2Samuel 15, David kissed his friend Barzillai (2Samuel 19:40), and Joab kissed his enemy Amasa (2Samuel 20:9). As for the exchange of clothing and deep commitment expressed in 1 Samuel 18, this passage details the sealing of a covenant between David and Jonathan.In giving David his cloak and armor, Jonathan was symbolically handing David the throne. The David and Jonathan saga is about God’s will being providentially attended to, the power of extreme selflessness, and the importance of mentorship. It has nothing to do with homosexuality, and any attempt to read homosexuality into the text is simply revisionism.
Summary and Practical Application
So what are we to make of all this? Clearly homosexuality is forbidden, lacking any positive example in the Bible. This is not a strictly religious position, as most cultures are historically in opposition to the practice. Is there any grace to be found in a seemingly-severe textual landscape? In a word- yes. It is true that the Canaanites were driven from the land in part because of homosexual activity (see Leviticus 18 and 20). However, Genesis 15:16 reveals that God did not swiftly and immediately destroy the Canaanites, but graciously gave those committing abominations 400 years of probation. In that time, they were given opportunities to learn of God through national Israel, and many did join with God’s people before those nations were wiped out.
Sodom, too, saw grace of another sort. Abraham rescued Lot and all of the inhabitants of Sodom from a coalition of city-states that had invaded (Genesis 14) before Sodom’s destruction took place. They knew of Abraham and the God he served, and they knew, too, of Lot’s faith- though his heart quickly changed. Had Sodom held ten righteous people, God would have spared that city a second time (Genesis 18:32).
Under theocracy in Israel, and due to the presence of the Tabernacle/Temple and the indwelling Shekinah, judgment of homosexuality seems to us to be severe. Righteous justice may demand the death of the person, but that does not speak to what must be done with a person’s soul. A repentant sinner- no matter what the sin- can be saved and not lost because of God’s grace, mercy, and love. A person struggling with deep-rooted sin need not feel only God’s wrath, but also Divine grace and love. Consider Ezekiel 16:51, in which God reveals that Judah had multiplied abominations more than Sodom, including homosexuality and possibly bestiality. But what does God say in Ezekiel 18:31-32?
“Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.”
He goes on to promise blessings for His people, and promises to put His spirit within them in Ezekiel 36:27. Where sin abounds, grace much more abounds. Christians, we must express disapproval of homosexual practice, but we must do so with an awareness of our own fallenness. We must distinguish between desires, orientation, and the actual homosexual lusts and acts. Homosexual lusts and actions are sins, but there are many, many more sins out there that we all struggle with every day. And God loves us anyway. Let us therefore love others by blending grace and righteousness until they seem to almost merge into the same thing. There are many with sexual wounds and physical illnesses because of this sin- it degrades and harms like all other sin. We should welcome them in the spirit of Truth and Love, and not blast with hate, even if our favorite chicken sandwich is on the line.