This is part 2 of a series on the Bible and homosexuality. Part 1 is here.
Last time, I stated my intent to offer a different way of looking at the Bible with regards to what it says about queer people. It's something many have done before me, and in my opinion they've done a fine job. Certainly good enough to convince me that my friends (and I, when I figured things out about myself) weren't sinning by virtue of being in relationships.
Still, I have friends who are either on the fence or are firmly in the "gays are sinners because they're gay" camp. Until now, I recommended books, documentaries, long essays, and hour-long Youtube presentations to support my arguments. It was clunky, but it was what I had. Now, I have a chance to go about this a different way, that lets me utilize the resources I have in such a way that the amazing arguments shine but I can also allow for more specific citations. So, for example, say someone says "Well Leviticus says that it's a sin for a man to lie with another man!" I can link them to a post which specifically breaks down that passage.
Speaking of which...
"Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable." (NIV)*
"Thou shall not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination." (KJV)**
The punishment for doing so is spelled out in Leviticus 20:13. Basically, if you're a dude sleeping with a dude? You get to be executed.
This is, from what I've seen, the most commonly-used verse to argue that homosexuality is a sin, no matter what. I can understand why, too. It's so cut-and-dry on the surface.
Yes, on the surface. You see, no person with half a brain believes that the Bible was originally written in understandable English. Jesus likely spoke Aramaic, the Apostle Paul wrote in Ancient Greek, and the records of the law and the prophets of Jewish scripture (Christians call it the Old Testament***) were in Hebrew. This leads to some interesting translation choices.
"The term abomination (to'ebah) is a religious term, usually reserved for use against idolatry; it does not mean a moral evil." -Candace Chellew-Hodge, Bible and Homosexuality (Whosoever Magazine)
"...'abomination' in Hebrew refers to anything forbidden for the Israelites. For instance, Leviticus 11 says that eagles are an abomination, and so are owls, storks, various types of water creatures, 'and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth,' just to name a few. Locusts, by the way, aren't abominations." -Justin Lee, The Great Debate: Justin's View
"When the term 'abomination' is used in the Hebrew Bible, it is always used to address a ritual wrong, never used to refer to something innately immoral. Eating pork was not innately immoral for a Jew, but it was an abomination, because it was a violation of a ritual requirement." -Rev. Dr. Laurence C. Keene, For the Bible Tells Me So
Leviticus is a book in the Bible which deals with the Holiness Code- things the Israelites should and shouldn't do to be obviously different from the cultures around them. This included abstaining from consuming certain foods (such as pork, rabbit, and shellfish), not wearing fabric woven from two different kinds of fibers, not having tattoos, etc.
Notice something funny? None of these things are strictly observed by Christians today. One of the strongest Christians I know, my mother, once said that there had better be bacon in Heaven. I personally love some good shrimp cooked in oil. The most popular tattoo out there is a cross. There is universal appeal to the cotton-poly t-shirt.
Why are these laws no longer followed?
"In the year 49 AD, early church leaders gathered at what came to be called the Council of Jerusalem, and they decided that the Old Law would not be binding on Gentile believers. The most culturally distinctive aspects of the Old Law were the Israelites’ complex dietary code for keeping kosher and the practice of male circumcision. But after the Council of Jerusalem’s ruling, even those central parts of Israelite identity and culture no longer applied to Christians." -Matthew Vines, The Bible and Homosexuality
"The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God." -Hebrews 7:18-19
"So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another" -Romans 7:4
Some conservative Christians hold that Christians are not beholden to the ritual law anymore (dietary and aesthetic laws), but we are still bound to the moral law (no gayz) of the Old Testament. The problem is, you see no such distinction in the New Testament. When Paul talks about the law, he just seems to say "the law".
"In Colossians 2, Paul writes that, through Christ, God 'forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.'" -Matthew Vines
"There are those who recognize that Christians are under a New Covenant and yet state that the Old Covenant was divided into three parts, civil, ceremonial and moral. They then insist that the moral part of the Old Covenant remain in force. This distinction can nowhere be found in the Old Covenant itself...Who, then, has the authority to decide 'this is morality, but this is civil procedure and this is ceremonial...'?" -Candace Chellew-Hodge
In one of Paul's letters, he states that the sum of God's commandments is "love your neighbor". If you behave toward others in a loving way, you automatically fulfill what Jesus said was the second greatest commandment.
"For example, adultery is an inherently unloving act. If you were living in a loving way toward your spouse, you'd keep your vow without being told to. Similarly, you wouldn't murder someone if you loved them, and you wouldn't steal from someone if you loved them. And if you truly love someone, you don't covet the things they have; instead, you're happy for them when good things come their way, not lusting after those things for yourself. We could literally go through every single one of God's commandments and show that each one of them is simply an extension of this basic principle to live a life of servant love." -Justin Lee
Every commandment, of course, except this one.
This law in Leviticus does not fulfill Jesus' command to love our neighbor. How do we know? Well, when the law is ignored, we see joy- I know I certainly have a happier life through my romantic relationship with a woman than I would with mere friendship and familial relationships. Hannah is a rock for me like my mom is a rock for my dad. I know so many same-gender couples who are insanely happy together, much more so that they would have been if they were partnerless their whole lives. When the Leviticus verses are heeded, there is shame, guilt and fear, the very things from which Christians keep saying Jesus freed us. If people take the prescribed punishment in Leviticus 20 seriously, we get dead queer folks, killed by people who use the Bible as justification. That's how laws like those in Uganda happen, which prescribe death for gay people.
"Okay, but the penalty is death – certainly, that indicates that the behavior in question is particularly bad, and that we should still regard it as sinful. But this overlooks the severity of all of the other punishments in the Old Law. Given the threats posed to the Israelites by starvation, disease, internal discord, and attacks from other tribes, maintaining order and cohesiveness was of paramount importance for them, and so almost all of the punishments in the Old Testament will strike us as being quite harsh." -Matthew Vines
"That particular section on a man not lying with a man goes to procreation- it is about a nation trying to grow. At the time, the Hebrew people understood that male seed was actually all of nascent life contained right there. Women had nothing to do with the actual birth except just incubation. So that particular section was just about saving seed, saving seed only to procreate so the nation could grow." -Reverend Susan Sparks, For the Bible Tells Me So
The harsh punishments for those who violated the law weren't because anything was particularly immoral- it was to stress the importance of preserving Jewish culture and expanding the nation.
This law also comes from a culture where, as discussed last post, being perceived as feminine was a source of deep shame for men. Eunuchs, or castrated men, were stereotyped as effeminate and weak; they weren't even allowed to worship in the temple. For a man to willingly take a receptive role in sex would be offensive and perverse, not because it's two men, but because he's making himself "like a woman". This is a culture where a woman, after giving birth, was ritually unclean for twice as long if she had a daughter than if she had a son.
Notably, women aren't banned from sleeping with women. The Bible Now speculates that, then as now, men found the idea of women having sex arousing, and since it was common for men to have multiple wives and concubines (Leviticus has nothing negative to say about polygamy), a man would have wanted to be allowed to watch his wives or concubines have sex with each other. This is, of course, mere speculation, but it is food for thought.
In Romans, which will be addressed in the future, we find the one verse which refers to women having sex with women as well as men having sex with men.
So this is where we stand: the act of a man sleeping with a man was ritually impure (to'ebah) because it wasn't something Jews were supposed to do. It was perceived as wasting seed which could have been used to impregnate a woman and help the nation grow. To stress the importance of this, man-on-man sex was made a capital offense (woman-on-woman sex is completely ignored).
Christians believe that, because of Jesus' death on the cross, the purpose of the law was fulfilled and we're no longer bound to it. Paul stresses over and over again that there is no need for Christians to follow any part of the law- indeed, Paul argues that Christians following any part of Jewish law were then obligated to follow all of Jewish law, because they were rendering Christ's sacrifice pointless.
Leviticus 18:22 is, on the surface, a cut-and-dry condemnation of homosexuality. When we go below that surface, however, we find a mess of cultural assumptions and flawed translations. The most amazing thing, however, is that Christians technically shouldn't be using Leviticus as moral guidance anyway. Throughout history, it seems that Jewish law has been used by Christians only when someone wants to defend a cultural norm, such as slavery.
I look at these facts and I think- well, first of all, I think "Holy crap the Bible is complex"- I think of how much misunderstanding has to be slowly untangled. I think of how Christians shouldn't even be using Jewish law as an authority on how to live our lives, as opposed to providing context for the world in which Jesus lived and preached.
Of course, even though the Jewish law may not be needed anymore, there are several verses in the New Testament which are interpreted to condemn queer people, and not just men this time. I will address those next.
Until next time!
*New International Version is my preferred reference for serious Bible study because it's currently, in my opinion, the best and most well-researched version of the Bible we have.
**King James version because it's the more famous translation of this verse and because some strange people think that it's the only valid translation.
***I'm fully aware of how much it hurts some Jewish people that Christians call their holy writings, the stuff they live their lives by, "old," like it's irrelevant. The best explanation I can offer is that Christians believe that through Jesus' death, all people were freed from the law of the Torah and are no longer bound to the 613 commandments. The Old Testament is "old" because Christians believe we no longer need it as guidance for being a righteous person. We keep it as a means of establishing context for what Jesus and Paul later discuss in the "New" Testament. For Christians, the Torah is descriptive, not prescriptive.