A Gay Bible Study
With Manny Pacquiao recently saying that the LGBT community is worse than animals because he didn’t realise homosexuality exists in most animal species, and with Senator Enrile doubling down to tell the LGBT community to ‘go to another planet’, this issue is becoming more and more important. There’s a clear split in Philippine society between those who believe they are taking the Bible literally, and have a personal revulsion to homosexuality, and those of a more liberal mind.
It’s my hope for this blog post that both groups, and people in between, will be able to see things a little more clearly. People from a religious background will begin to realise the Bible isn’t so black and white. That there are fifty shades of grey in between, with a lot more weird sex going on in the Bible than the other book. Likewise if proponents of LGBT rights want to influence the Church and want to either remove them as an obstacle or even win them over as friends, then they’ll have to start debating using the Church’s own logic. Nothing will break down a Christian’s logic while they believe homosexuality is an “abomination”. Nothing trumps the Word of God.
That is particularly necessary in the developing world where wealthy American and European Churches have poured millions into deepening discrimination against groups they don’t like, so keep that in mind if you’re reading from Europe or the USA.
So let’s begin our Gay Bible Study…
How Many Verses in the Bible Refer to Homosexuality?
Judging by the number of evangelical pastors and politicians publicly speaking against homosexuality (who typically later turn out to be gay themselves) and politicians saying some variation of homosexuality is an abomination to win the Church’s vote, you’d expect it was a major part of the Bible.
So take a guess, how many individual verses speak directly about homosexuality?
Given the context, the mistranslations, and other factors a specific number will be debatable, but it’s less than 10. Many of those refer to ‘Somodites’ – but that’s a (w)hole other issue as we’ll see later.
There are 31,102 verses in the Bible. If we liberally agree on 10 verses, then that’s 0.003% of the Bible. There are literally more verses about a talking donkey than about homosexuality.
Why Gay Sex Isn’t an Abomination in the Bible
The most known verse about homosexuality is the simplest: Leviticus 18:22 says “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.” Leviticus 20:13 then says “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them.” At first glance this looks pretty clear cut.
But when you read the verses again in their proper context it may not be. One interpretation notes the context of the ‘homosexuality is bad’ part in Leviticus is actually about worshipping false gods – particularly Molech. Back in those days every tribe (of which the Jews were one of many) had their own gods (plural). Typically there was the main god, often sky gods like Zeus (Greek) and Jupiter (Roman) or otherwise rulers of the gods like Odin (Norse) and Osiris (Egyptian), and they each had a pantheon of gods who were the gods of agriculture, wine, war, and practically all aspects of life in the ancient world. This is why the Bible says “you will have no other god before me”. Not because Yahweh/Jehovah/El is the only God, but because He would become the only God the Jews worshipped. The usual custom was to worship the gods in each different area, gods were considered to have power only within their territories, i.e. if you went to Rome you would worship the Roman gods, if you went to Greece you would worship the Greek gods, and so on. The Jews, however, would denounce the other gods.
In the context of where the Jews were at this time, one of these Father gods was Molech. Molech’s fertility god was Astarte (sometimes distorted in literature to Ashtoreth to imply she’s an abomination). In Astarte’s temple, men would have sex with other men in order to worship her, like many agriculture or fertility gods who would be worshipped through orgies and similar displays of sexuality. This was nothing unusual back then. So this is where we see the context; Leviticus 18:21 talks about not sacrificing your children to Molech. Child sacrifice wasn’t unheard of, and in the Bible Jephthah sacrifices his daughter, albeit reluctantly, in praise of God after winning a battle.
And so the context of these verses is to denounce worship of other gods, not to actually denounce homosexuality (the act or the being). That is even more clear to a modern reader when Leviticus 20. You see more references there as it says that he who “giveth any of his seed unto Molech; he shall surely be put to death”. In other words the abomination isn’t gay sex everywhere, it’s having gay sex to worship this false god Molech. When you put your “seed” into another body, it didn’t matter what gender that body was, then, it mattered which god you were worshipping while doing it.
The Jews at the time would know that before because they understand the Hebrew and the context, a modern reader wouldn’t without a lot of research. Philo (a Jewish writer around Jesus’ time) also interpreted Leviticus as talking about shrine prostitution and not a general decree about homosexuality. Hence the problem with modern translation, we’ve lost the context. And so if we take the Bible literally we miss what it was trying to say in the first place. If homosexuality was such an abomination, much more would have been written in the Bible about it.
Different Kinds of Abomination
Further, abomination is a tricky word to translate. Depending on the version of the Bible you have, there are 67 “abominations” in the Bible. Two exist in the New Testament (Luke 16:15 says “love of money is an abomination” while Revelation 21:27 says anyone who has committed an abomination will not enter heaven). So out of the remaining 65, 13 of these abominations are dietary restrictions, e.g. not eating pork. Seventeen refer to improper sacrifice. Adultery and adultery caused by divorce are another three, Love of money is another two of those mentions, while the others are individual mentions of cross-dressing, stealing, murder, and others.
But this is from one particular translation and other versions of the Bible have different numbers. That’s because there are many different Hebrew words which are translated into English as “abomination” – in the same way as love is four different words in Greek, but refers to four different and specific types of love (agape, eros, philia, storge). Our single word in English, whether love or abomination, doesn’t capture the subtleties and we miss the relationships and underlying message on so many occasions as a result. This is one of the biggest problems with taking the Bible literally – we’re not actually taking the Bible literally, we’re taking a translation upon translation upon translation of it literally. And so much is lost in translation.
The original Hebrew segregates these 5 abominations; Shiqquwts (mostly idolatry and witchcraft), Sheqets (dietary abominations), Shâqats (meaning abhor or detest, more like the modern use of the word), Tōʻēḇā (more complex and describes a whole variety of abominations, including the Leviticus condemnation of homosexuality), while Tâ‛ab is the verb.
Here’s a convenient list of all the uses and all the citations.
The usual counter to the Leviticus statements of homosexuality as an abomination, is that so is eating pork or men having long hair. Though to be fair that’s not exactly true, or at least they’re not the same kinds of abominations. Indeed Leviticus is saying that gay sex was an abomination and it was detestable to God… but only specifically when it was to worship a false god – not in any universal way (the tribal culture at the time was morally relativist and universal/objective morality came much, much later – interestingly when monotheism had “triumphed” over the more pagan times, but that’s a different story).
“Be Fruitful and Multiply”
Another example of the importance of context in a sexual situation is where God strikes someone down for “spilling” their seed. Here, Onan’s brother Er has died and it’s his duty to impregnate his dead brother’s wife (Genesis 38). He pulls out, though, and is struck down by God and killed on the spot. However his crime is not wasting his seed, it’s not obeying his heavnely and earthly fathers in providing his dead brother’s wife with another child. Unfortunately taking that verse out of context was also where most Christians got their understanding that masturbation is wrong, that it was wrong to “spill your seed”. A less literal understanding of the text and more understanding of the context, and we could have all been spared a lot of guilt on that one.
Instead when the Bible talks about homosexuality it is about sexual relations, i.e. the act itself. It’s always described as “laying with another man”. Semantically it seems there’s little difference and the gay community of course shouldn’t accept the lame attempts of some to “love the sinner, hate the sin” as a result of modern semantics.
But the importance of this is how the Bible, or rather the time it was written, has little concept of being gay. Partly that is because of how public sex was back then. Even in Roman or Greek times sex was everywhere and far more public than even today. They had all kinds of graphic statues in public and in every home. A room without a sex statue wasn’t considered a room. And by sex I mean sex with men, women, animals, and just about anything living or breathing in just about any part of it. Without going into the history here, it’s possible to say that the Ancient World was in some ways far more sexually liberated than ours.
It’s also relevant to note that one particular necessity back then was reproduction; the Jews were a relatively small tribe who needed to “be fruitful and multiply” just to survive, let alone compensate for all that war. If the entire tribe gave up sexual relations with women, then of course they don’t reproduce, and growing as a tribe was a commandment in many ways. That didn’t culturally prohibit taking a gay lover either, it just meant also producing babies. It’s an issue of practicality more than morality.
But most importantly, that the Bible doesn’t condemn anyone for being gay lends more credence to the idea that when it does condemn the act, it was specifically condemning the act in relation to worshipping another god, i.e. Molech. Not in any other situation.
But What About Sodom and Gomorrah?
But God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for sexual immorality right? The story is so infamous that anal sex is known as Sodomy. This story is the justification for many a religious nut-case preaching how an earthquake or typhoon is God’s punishment for gays in today’s world.
Unfortunately for them, they’re wrong. Aside from the story itself, Ezekiel 16:49 says “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy”. In other words Sodom was not destroyed because it was gay, it was destroyed for not helping the poor, something the Church is often far too guilty of today also (again with some notable exceptions) and of which countless verses are written.
It wasn’t til much later than Jewish writes asserted that homosexuality was one of the sins which caused Sodom to get destroyed. They were writing in Jesus’ time and because of them by the end of the 1st century Jews commonly identified the sin of Sodom with homosexuality. That spread to the Gentiles as Christianity spread and that’s where the myth of homosexuality being the reason Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed comes from,and why anal sex is now called sodomy.
So, keen observers of the Bible will notice that Jesus came after the Old Testament. And so where ‘Sodomite’ is written in the Old Testament this is more likely to refer to how the Sodomites treated the poor, the needy, and those two particular angels who went to Sodom one day. Modern translators are using their own more modern understanding to translate the Bible, and we miss the original context and meaning.
If you don’t believe me, go back and read the story again: two angels arrive in Sodom one day. Here our protagonist is Lot, who sees the Angels and asks them to come to his house. The Angels initially refuse but Lot insists and they eventually give in and go to his house.
Then all the other men “both young and old” (verse 4) from the city surround them in the house. They all shout to Lot demanding to have sex with the Angels. Lot says no and the mob condemns him saying “This fellow came here as a foreigner, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” (verse 9).
So Lot appeals to their reason… by offering his virgin daughters: “Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof” (verse 8). So our protagonist, our holy man, is offering up his virgin daughters to gang-rape. But the people of Sodom reject that and say they want the two men (not yet revealed to them as angels).
Saving the day (tellingly not before Lot offers his daughters up for gang-rape), the angels make everyone blind and tell Lot to get everyone he has out of the city, including his sons in law, those men pledged to marry his daughters. So Lot tries to call them ahead of what would surely have been a contender for ‘most awkward conversation’ ever once they found out their father-in-law offered their brides-to-be up for gang rape. Unfortunately that conversation never happened as they thought Lot was joking when he told them God was about to destroy the city and they didn’t go with him. So they got destroyed too. Some people just can’t win.
As if this wasn’t all weird enough, as his family were walking away Lot’s wife turned to look back and was instantly turned into a pillar of salt. Some time later down the road, the daughters (now without husbands) got their father drunk (now without a wife) and slept with him to get themselves pregnant. The older sister begot Moab (who led the Moabites), and the younger sister begot Ben-Ammi, who fathered the Ammonites. There is good explanation for all this, a symbolic and metaphorical explanation in the same vein as Roman and Greek legends. But not as literal, historical sources. Many of the stories in the Bible are likewise loaded with symbolism and metaphors for the intended readers at the time it was written. Many of the stories didn’t literally happen, therefore, but they were allegories of the survival of the tribe with a message for the current Jews. However our modern culture, based on Greek logic and rationality, has entirely missed the original meaning while has corrupted others.
So Sodom’s sin (Gomorrah is just lumped into the destruction) was their lack of hospitality and wanting to rape these guys, as well as their treatment towards the poor and needy (Ezekiel). Certainly part of that is about sexual immorality, but then I think most people would call wanting to rape a couple of strangers who just came to your village sexually immoral. There’s a verse in Jude about it also, but we’ll get to that later in the New Testament.
Was King David Gay?
Sticking with the Old Testament, there is a thought that the shepherd boy who became King of Israel, killed a giant, and ushered in a new era for the Israelites was a wee bit gay. Some scholars assert, for example, that David and Jonathan’s friendship had more than a few benefits. That view isn’t a whole lot discredited when II Samuel 1:26 says “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.” My personal favourite translation, though, is the New Living Translation: “Oh, how much I loved you! And your love for me was deep, deeper than the love of women!” Now obviously with all the wives, concubines, and lovers, David liked the ladies. He killed Bathsheba’s husband so that he could add her to his collection of women. Ignoring the issue of Bathsheba’s age here (she was somewhere between 10 and 13 years old) it would be more correct to call David a wee bit bisexual if his love for Jonathan was more eros than philia. But in many ways sexuality back then was fluid. They didn’t look to categorise things in the same way we do. In other words, that was normal to them.
Then in the New Testament, remember that centurion who went to Jesus to heal his servant (Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10)? Jesus was amazed by how much the centurion loved his servant. Again the centurion’s love may be less agape or philia and more eros. The Greek word pais (meaning slave/servant) is often interpreted with sexual connotations (James Neil, Daniel Helminiak). Other scholars dispute that, same with David, so it’s not exactly 100%, but what is clear is that there was a whole load of love going round and Jesus says nothing against it. That should be telling enough.
Homosexuality in the New Testament
So, as promised dutiful reader (seriously getting this far I’m impressed), on to the New Testament references to homosexuality. Jude 1:7 says “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” For Bibilcal purists, this must be the Word of God despite the contradiction of the earlier Ezekiel passage. Aside from not specifying what kind of sexual perversion is involved, those examples are more often referring to the excess of lust and the abomination of sex to worship a false god. But for the more liberal reader (i.e. those not taking the Bible literally) we must also point out that Jude was written in the New Testament well after the event itself (if we even interpret Sodom and Gomorrah as an event and not a symbolic parable), and this is also during the time others were first attributing Sodom’s destruction to homosexuality.
There are three verses, then, which explicitly mention homosexuality in the New Testament. All are written by Paul. Here’s an article in the Huffington Post about that.
Two of the three, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:9-11, refer to ‘Sodomites’ in the context of the many types of sinners not inheriting the Kingdom of God. As we saw earlier, the idea Sodom being destroyed for being gay was an idea popularised after Jesus, indeed the same time Paul was writing. So it shouldn’t really be translated as ‘Sodomites’, but it does refer to homosexuals, as the original Greek is arsenokoitai (ἀρσενοκοῖται) which is typically understood as referring to men who lay with men. That’s also debatable as Philo wrote that the arsenokoit stem (which the word Paul used originates in) was about temple prostitution. Also there are exceptionally few uses of Paul’s version of the word and some believe he coined it himself.
Further remembering that these letters were written to specific Churches, those Churches would have to have been familiar with the issues there in order to understand what Paul was talking about, and shrine prostitution fits in that context.
Romans 1:26-27 also talks of women giving up “natural” sexual relations for “unnatural” ones, and the men doing the same. Admittedly I don’t know the particular context why Paul wouldn’t be generally condemning homosexuality here. We do have to acknowledge, though, that Paul is a particularly problematic writer. The idea that women speaking in Church is “disgusting” also comes from him (1 Corinthians 14:34-35).
The apologists have no problem talking about the context of those verses, though, claiming that the Church was being challenged by a group of rebellious women who refused the veil and were preaching against the Church, that the letter was written to the specific Church in Corinth and not anyone else, and that’s why the women there shouldn’t speak in Church – but can do elsewhere. However somehow that logic isn’t extended to other verses by the same writer.
The Tide is Changing
So in conclusion, we see there are only a handful of verses which specifically talk about homosexuality. They also aren’t as condemning as they first appear. If we want to use the Bible to justify our homophobia, we have to either live as a Jew did two and a half thousand years ago, or we have to agree with Paul on everything and so make women wear veils and call them disgusting if they dare to speak in Church.
More realistically, we can accept that the Bible wasn’t as condemning of homosexuality as we thought it was. It’s possible some of the greatest characters in the Bible had a gay fling or two (or more) understanding that it’s all about context, which unfortunately Western logic has missed out on. Likewise of all the things Jesus did condemn, nothing remotely homosexual is on the list. It’s a safe bet that it really doesn’t matter as much as most people thought it did.
In a topic which is often shows the worst in people, then, I’ll end with perhaps a little hope.
One of those groups trying to exorcise the gay out of people, Exodus International, closed down, apologising when they did. One part of their apology read: “For quite some time, we’ve been imprisoned in a worldview that’s neither honoring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical.”
Firstly they should be praised for their public statement and apology, it’s harder than you may think to reverse your entire worldview, no matter what their crimes before.
Then at the parades those kind of groups would normally protest, we find another particularly uplifting story.
One group went to a Gay Pride event and apologised for how they used to treat the gay community. Such stories are becoming more and more common. There are of course still many bigots, there are still many individual cases of hatred, of parents violently reacting to their son or daughter coming out as a gay. They’re still horrific of course, but the good news is that the tide is shifting. A few decades ago Pacquiao’s statements would haven’t have raised many eyebrows at all. Then again, thousands of years ago they would have been met with laughter and ridicule. It’s a bit of swings and roundabouts.
There’s never been a better time, then, for Christians sitting in Church wondering how to reconcile their loving God with the one who apparently hates all LGBT people, to stand up and say that’s wrong. There’s never been a better time for a Christian struggling with their own homosexuality to understand that it’s not a sin, and that they’re loved no matter what, as well as to find others in the same situation. There’s never been a better time for people questioning their faith and questioning some of the basic principles in the Bible to take an honest look and understand the context, and to explain that to other people in their Church too.
Importantly, though, there’s never been a better time for LGBT rights supporters to try and get the Church on their side – not just remove it as an obstacle for this progress.
Otherwise I think God will continue to look down on us with an Almighty facepalm…