HOMOSEXUALITY AND THE OLD TESTAMENT
Rev. Geoff D. Leonard-Robinson
Lesbian comedian Lynn Lavner is somewhat famous for making this observation: “The Bible contains six admonishments to homosexuals and 362 admonishments to heterosexuals. It isn’t that God doesn't love heterosexuals as much as God loves homosexuals, it's just that they require a good bit more supervision.”
In reality, those numbers are quite accurate. One would think that the overwhelming disparity between scriptural references to heterosexuals and those to homosexuals would be sufficient to silence anyone inclined to condemn same-sex orientation and same-gender marriage.
But the truth of the matter is that hate, discrimination, abhorrence, and denial of civil rights of and for lesbians, gays and same-gender relationships are still very much alive and strong—especially within the ranks of the religious. In fact, I would suggest that all of society’s biases against those with a same-sex orientation are rooted within the religious community, its lack of accurate biblical interpretation, and its blatant misrepresentation of God’s creation and the message of Jesus Christ.
There’s a Slovenian Proverb that says, “Speak the truth, but leave immediately after.” Well, it’s my intention to share what I believe to be the truth with you this morning—and over the next few weeks—regarding Homosexuality and the Bible. Whether it’s ill-advised or not, I do not plan to “leave immediately after.” So, it is my hope that, together, we can take an honest look at what the Bible does and does not say about homosexuality and same-gender relationships.
You may find some of this challenging. But, bear in mind that our understandings regarding biblical references may be based upon interpretations we have been taught for years—perhaps going as far back as our childhood. So to “wrap our minds around” a new or different interpretation may not come easily. All I ask is that we remember the words of the Lord as prophesied by Isaiah: “Come, let us reason together.” (Isaiah 1:18)
We begin this series by considering the biblical references to same-gender sexual activity found within the Old Testament. Believe it or not, within the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament, there are only two significant passages relating to our topic.
We begin with Genesis 19—The Story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
This is the first of the most familiar biblical passages used to proclaim God’s supposed abhorrence of homosexuality. We read how two angels came to the home of Lot and his wife. We’re told that before they all retired for the evening, men came to the door and demanded that Lot send out his visitors so that the mob could have sex with them. Finally, we’re told how the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God with “fire and brimstone”—or “fire and sulfur.”
However, a responsible exegesis—or textual study—of this passage clearly indicates that the lesson of this story does not relate at all to homosexuality as a sexual orientation or same-gender relationships. Consider these five points:
- We read in Genesis 19:4 that “the men of the city, both young and old, all the people to the last man,” surrounded Lot’s house and demanded to have the two male visitors. To interpret this as a story about people with a homosexual orientation would require us to believe that every man and boy in Sodom was gay.
- Genesis 19:8 tells us that, in an attempt to pacify the mob at his door, Lot said, “Look, I have two daughters [who are virgins]; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please.” That says a lot about how women were viewed in that culture, and would certainly be unthinkable to us today.
- Historically, it’s widely documented that it was a common practice in the Near East for conquering armies to rape the men of conquered armies as a means of humiliation in demonstrating their complete dominance over their enemies. Those actions represented brutality, hatred, and control—not unlike savage same-sex prison rapes that we know occur even today.
- To put the story into perspective, we should ask ourselves, “If the angels had been female would we then interpret the story to be a blanket condemnation of all heterosexual sex?”
- Finally, while there are some 20 references to Sodom and Gomorrah found later in the Bible, not one of them says that homosexuality was the sin of Sodom. In fact, Ezekiel 16:49-50 indicates that the sin of Sodom was indifference to the weak, the poor, widows, and strangers in their midst.
Then we have Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13—“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”
This could be the second most commonly referenced scripture regarding God’s supposed prohibition against same-gender sex. However, once again, we cannot lift these verses out of scripture—a practice called “proof-texting”—but we must consider them in context and within the religious and cultural settings in which they were written. In both references, a clear explanation is given as to what these laws reference and as to why they are being given.
Leviticus 18:3 says, “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.” Leviticus 20:23 states, “You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you.”
In other words, God was directing Moses to instruct the people not to adopt the religious practices of pagans—or unbelievers—in Egypt and Canaan. So, what were some of those religious practices, especially those related to sex?
The clearest example—practiced by both the Egyptians and the Canaanites—related to the worship of Ishtar, the goddess of love and fertility. Within the temples used to worship Ishtar were special priests called, Assinu. It was believe that physical contact with these special priests would ward off evil and bring good luck. So, touching the priests was a common practice by Egyptians and Canaanites in the worship of Ishtar.
In addition, because it was considered in that culture the “essence of life,” semen was considered the greatest gift one could give to Ishtar. And since Ishtar was worshiped through contact with the Assinu—the special priests—it was believed that if one deposited his semen into one of the Assinu, Ishtar would grant the worshiper immortality.
It was in condemnation of such practices—pagan rituals such as temple prostitution—that this Levitical law was written. It certainly does not make any reference to same-gender sex within the context of a committed and loving relationship.
When it comes to the Old Testament, that’s it. It is upon those passages that much of religion and society’s condemnation of gays and lesbians rest. Notice I said “religion and society’s condemnation,” not “God’s.”
Of course, when faced with how culturally based—or biased—were other Levitical laws, such as the prohibition against husbands and wives making love during a woman’s menstrual cycle, or the prohibition against planting two different crops in the same field, or mixing fibers in clothing, there are those who would say, “Yes, but that’s Old Testament law. My belief is based upon the New Testament’s condemnation of homosexuality.” So, next Sunday we’ll address concerns raised by the four New Testament scriptures relating to same-gender sex.
This discussion is critical. It isn’t enough to say we don’t think it’s wrong to be gay or lesbian. We need to be ready with an answer when our proclamation of God’s inclusive love is called into question.
We owe it to every person who has turned away from God and run from churches where they found nothing but rejection and condemnation because they were gay or lesbian.
We owe it to every precious teenager who has taken their own life because they honestly believed God didn’t love them or accept them as they were created.
We owe it to God who calls each of us to minister to all those around us.
We owe it to ourselves to discover the fullness of God’s grace and love by following Paul’s advice in his second letter to Timothy 2:15, “Study to show yourself approved by God, a worker that needs not to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.”