This is Part 2 of a series on posts about the Old Testament passages related to same-sex intercourse. If you’re wondering why on earth we wouldn’t just take the super-clear, plain understanding of the laws in Leviticus, check out Torah Part 1.
For so long, I thought that affirming the sexuality of LGBT people like myself was at odds with the Bible, but I never understood why. People who affirmed LGBT people seemed to be doing what Jesus would do. But for those of us who take a high view of scripture, it isn’t enough to feel that something is more loving, we need to understand how that love is biblical love.
It wasn’t until I took a much closer look at the Bible that I realized how much better it’s teachings are than I could imagine. I want to share with you some things I learned about the texts of Leviticus and Genesis.
In my conservative and traditionalist seminary, I took a class on interpreting and applying the Old Testament Law. One of the principles I was taught is that the narratives of the Torah explain the laws of the Torah. That’s why I think it best to take the three Old Testament passages related to same-sex intercourse together along with the one additional passage that’s ambiguous. They help us to understand what is meant by the prohibitions in Leviticus.
The Leviticus verses, both 18:22 and 20:13 say, “A man shall not lie with a man as with a woman.” So we need to look at the stories that depict just such an act or an attempt at such an act.
The Sin of Ham
A strange story appears in Genesis 9. After the flood, Noah and his three sons were starting their new lives. Noah promptly planted a vineyard, made wine, got drunk, and lie naked in his tent. Ham went in and saw him, but not only that, the original language gives the idea that his eyes lingered on his father’s nakedness. In another seminary class, I remember the teacher describing how Ham was a homosexual and was disgustingly turned on by his father’s naked body. He then went out and told his brothers about Noah’s nakedness. The brothers walked backwards with a blanket to cover his nakedness.
No one is really sure what happened here. Uncovering someone’s nakedness is a euphamism for sex, but Noah uncovered his own nakedness and that’s not really the same. There is something less than rape and more than nothing going on here. There is a definite sexual tone. In verse 24 Noah sobers up and realizes what Ham “had done to him.”
One thing we do know, whatever happened Ham’s brothers reacted very differently than Ham did. They wanted to show their father respect, while Ham wanted to spread knowledge of their father’s disgrace.
The sexual overtone of this verse doesn’t seem to be about lust. If it was, he wouldn’t be bragging to his brothers. Yet he would speak so brazenly to his brothers if his goal was to humiliate his father. The indication is that same-sex eroticism here is about humiliating Noah.
The Sin of Sodom
This passage is where the word sodomy comes from. The story is found in Genesis chapter 19, but it really starts in chapter 18. I suggest a quick read. The basic story goes like this:
Angel’s show up at Abraham’s tent. He doesn’t know they are angels. He invites them in, gives them the best food, is all-around an awesome host.
They tell Abraham who they are and that they’ve come to destroy Sodom. Abraham pleads with them and they agree that if they find even five good people there they will spare the city.
The angels show up in Sodom. No one knows they are angels. No one helps them out. So they decide to sleep on the street. Lot realizes this is a terrible idea and invites them in.
Every single man in the city, young and old, gathers outside Lot’s home demanding the men to gang rape them.
Lot asks them to take his daughters instead, and they refuse then begin to push into the house.
The angels rescue lot and blind the men of Sodom who still try to get at the men but can’t.
The next day Lot and his family get out of there and the angels destroy the city.
Long before I had affirming theology, back when I was still trying desperately to be straight, I remember a line from a sermon describing the men of Sodom as “a group of gay men.”
Even when we live in this world of globalization, where queer people often pick-up and move to cities that are more gay-friendly, the most I’ve ever heard of is a city of 50% queer people (Palm Springs, CA, correct me in the comments if you know of a gayer city). So the idea that every single man in this city is gay is preposterous.
Besides, the idea that gay men are into gang rape is disgusting. I often see this type of reasoning in non-affirming works of theology, the assumption that queer people are different in more than just the gender we are attracted to. I’ve read that gay men would be into being temple prostitutes, that they would welcome castration, and in the Sodom story that they would be into gang rape. I know some great gay men; they wouldn’t hurt a fly.
A plausible explanation that scholars and commentators confirm is that these men were not motivated by sexual desire. They were engaging in a practice that has sadly always existed and still does today, men raping men to humiliate them and remove any threat.
Sodom was a city that had been attacked before (Genesis 13-14). While Abraham showed himself to be an exceptional host, Sodom showed itself to be bloodthirsty and violent to strangers. They craved a reputation that would strike terror in their enemies. Unlike the “gay men” explanation, this explanation takes the whole of the text into consideration.
Implications for Leviticus
So could the passages in Leviticus be referring to situations of power, humiliation, control, and violence?
If we arrive at the answer to that question not by falling back on our own personal prejudices, but by comparing scripture with scripture and relying on the narratives of the Torah itself, that is exactly what these verses are about.
There are still more reasons to see them this way.
In Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 the command is phrased differently than the other sexual prohibitions. The normal phrasing for sexual intercourse is that “you shall not uncover the nakedness.” Yet these verses say “you shall not lie with a man as with a woman.” Why the difference?
A sad reality of the Ancient Near East is that men had more intrinsic value than women. That’s consistent with the men in Sodom scoffing at Lot’s offer of his daughters. They wanted to inflict maximum pain, that meant harming those who had the most status and value.
In the Old Testament law, decisions are made by men, even women who aren’t slaves are bought and sold, and the vows a woman makes to the Lord can be retracted by her husband or father. Women had more agency in Israel than in surrounding nations, but much less than men.
So to lie with a man as with a woman isn’t described as a sexual intimate act of “uncovering his nakedness,” it’s an aggressive act of “lying with a man like a woman.” This is by nature an act of humiliation.
It’s not hard to arrive at that conclusion looking only at the Biblical text. It’s only confirmed by any book on Ancient Near Eastern same-sex eroticism. Male-to-male intercourse was viewed as a one-way act of domination of one man by another. The man who was dominated was treated as a woman and humiliated.
This understanding matches the narratives. It matches the laws. But it’s also a good interpretation for one more crucial reason: It’s a compassionate interpretation.
Interpreting this verse in the least nuanced, most literalistic way possible results in harm to LGBT people like myself. When applied to people who are in committed relationships of love and self-sacrifice, there is no harmony with the primary command in the Bible: Love God and our neighbor. How does limiting loving relationships promote love?
On the other hand, interpreting these prohibitions as I have suggested is in complete harmony with the most important principles of scripture. This command protects the vulnerable. It affirms biblical sexuality of love and respect. It brings judgement on aggressors and rids Israel of a disgusting practice that brought harm and pain.
It is also in harmony with the approach to Torah that Jesus himself took. Part 3 is coming for a detailed discussion of how Jesus interprets in Torah in Matthew 6-7.