Homosexuality in the Bible: The Big Q&A
Q. Okay, so first off, why a Q&A about sexual orientation and the Bible?
A. Honestly? I’m tired of reading longform essays on topics like this, so in order to cover some of the questions I’ve seen on facebook and twitter over the past week, I thought a Q&A might be a more reasonable approach. This is the first in a series of 5 or so, I think. We’ll see how it goes.
Q. Then wow me, genius.
A. Let’s be clear here. I’m not a genius. Or a biblical scholar, for that matter. I studied theology and religion at a small liberal arts college over a decade ago.
Q. You’re not selling this series well.
A. Well, you’re already getting on my nerves.
Q. I’m you, bro. Anyway, let’s talk about whether being gay is a sin.
A. Wow, straight to the point. Okay, first we have to look at our prooftexts.
Q. Hold on, you lost me already. Prooftexts?
A. Yeah, don’t worry. It’s a pretty simple concept. When we want to say something is true based on evidence from the Bible, we often make a case based on actual passages from the Bible. Prooftexts. Texts that prove your argument.
Q. So where do we start?
A. Today, we’re going to look at two verses in the Old Testament, and some other passages, too, briefly. Because I’m also trying to find a job.
Q. Hey, whose fault is that?
Q. Anyway, I’m sure you want to start with Leviticus.
A. Do I ever!?!
A. Sorry. Okay. Here’s part of the passage in Leviticus 18 that people quote most. We’re going to include verses before and after just so we can have some context.
“You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness. And you shall not lie sexually with your neighbor’s wife and so make yourself unclean with her. You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. And you shall not lie with any animal and so make yourself unclean with it, neither shall any woman give herself to an animal to lie with it: it is perversion.”
Q. So that seems pretty clear cut. What are some other translations of verse 22?
A. That was the ESV (English Standard Version). Here are a few others:
“Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination.” KJV (King James Version):
“Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” NIV (New International Version)
“Do not practice homosexuality; it is a detestable sin.” NLT (New Living Translation)
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” RSV (Revised Standard Version)
“You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.” NASB (New American Standard Bible):
Q. So, let me get this straight, you’re somehow gonna argue that that verse doesn’t mean what it says it means?
A. Patience, okay? Let’s start with Leviticus 18–20 first. There are a bunch of laws here, given to the people of Israel, to set them apart from other nations that surround them. Remember, God wanted his people to be different, for a whole lot of reasons. We’re going to steer around that topic for now and just look at the laws in these chapters of Leviticus.
The first part of Leviticus 18 deals with sex with family members, and how you’re not supposed to do that. Your mother, your father’s wife, your sister, your granddaughter, your half-sister, your aunt, your daughter-in-law, your sister-in-law, the daughter or granddaughter of a woman you’re having sex with, your wife’s sister, your neighbor’s wife, and a woman on her period.
Q. Okay, first of all, that’s kind of sexist.
A. Haha, nice catch. You’re right that all the laws are there to keep predatory men away from women. One could infer that the gender opposite of each law is true, or if one wanted to, one could infer that women can have sex with whomever they want.
Q. Don’t do that. Keep to the point.
A. Okay, sorry. You’re right. So when we finally get to “lying with a man as with a woman” we’re at the end of a very long pattern. These are rules for the men of the people of Israel. These are political rules to keep the peace. And moral rules to keep them sanctified.
Q. So gay sex is a sin, right?
A. At the end of Leviticus 18, the punishment is clear for any of these. “For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people.” If you couldn’t remain set apart from sin, you couldn’t remain with the people of Israel.
Then chapter 19 tells them that idolatry is a sin, that farmers should leave some wheat in their field for the poor to glean, that stealing and swearing are sinful, that seed can’t be mixed in one field, that you’re not supposed to wear clothes made of two different materials, fortunetelling and tattoos are sinful, and that if a man sleeps with a slave, “assigned to another man and not yet ransomed or given her freedom,” he can make an offering and everything’s cool.
Q. Come again?
A. “If a man lies sexually with a woman who is a slave, assigned to another man and not yet ransomed or given her freedom, a distinction shall be made. They shall not be put to death, because she was not free; but he shall bring his compensation to the Lord, to the entrance of the tent of meeting, a ram for a guilt offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the Lord for his sin that he has committed, and he shall be forgiven for the sin that he has committed.”
Q. So if the slave was his?
A. No punishment.
Q. And since the slave belonged to someone else?
A. An offering. Not a cheap one, mind you. A whole ram.
Q. And then everything’s cool?
Q. Okay. That’s messed up. But okay.
A. Ask the other thing you want to ask.
Q. It’ll make me sound stupid.
A. Ask it anyway.
Q. So Levitical law is okay with slavery?
Q. Show me proof.
A. Lets go back to Exodus first. Chapter 21.
“When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.”
“When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.”
“When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
Q. This is making me very uncomfortable.
A. Good, that means we’re doing the hard work of theology. In honest theology you don’t get to ignore verses that get in the way or make you feel gross. You tackle them, head on, and struggle with them you until you admit you don’t know everything.
Q. But these are laws that seem to imply that slavery is okay. That the children of slaves are legally slaves, too. That it’s only a crime to beat your slave if you BEAT THEM TO DEATH. That a child in the womb is basically property of the husband.
A. Yeah, I get that. But my point is, let’s be wary of using any of these texts as our prooftexts for making a theological argument. Let’s look for other texts too, that back up our argument. But more on that in a bit. We’ve got a little more Leviticus to handle.
Q. Oh, joy.
A. Stop. You got this.
Q. I got this.
A. Chapter 25: “If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.”
“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.”
Q. Hahahahahaha so Israelites couldn’t be slaves, but foreigners could.
Q. Can we talk about the modern day immigration debate for a sec?
A. No, but that’s a great question. Someone else can handle that text and application. We’ve gotten off topic as it is. Back to Leviticus.
20:13 reads: ‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
Q. So how do you decide which of these laws apply to Christians today and which only applied to the ancient nation of Israel?
A. That’s a question we’ll save for our next Q&A. We’ll end it here with this. The Old Testament laws had a time and a place for the nation of Israel. Some folks are fine with that. Some folks are fine applying those laws to the church today. (But not always the punishments. It takes a special breed of “Christian” who thinks all gay folks should die.)
Q. And you?
A. I veer a different way. I’m okay saying Israel got some things very, very wrong. Men wrote the Bible. Not just humans, but men. The Old Testament laws are deeply patriarchal, deeply sexist, deeply racist, and based in the spirit of fear rather than in the spirit of love. That doesn’t seem much like Jesus, which we’ll get to next time, too.
Q. Lol, you just wrote 2000 words on this topic and you only addressed one verse.
A. I know, I know. But it’s a powerful verse. Do you remember how the New Living Translation translated it as “homosexuality” but the other translations didn’t?
A. It’s just interesting because the word “homosexual” didn’t exist in English until the 19th century. Gay and Bi folks have existed for centuries, yet we didn’t always have a concrete word for what that meant.
Q. Again, so?
The phrase probably shouldn’t be translated and simplified as “homosexuality.” Bad job on the guys who translated the NLT. But not only that, when read differently, the verse could mean some VERY different things: A) Man sleeping with men is wrong because one gives and one takes. Taking is for women. Don’t make men into women. B) Don’t have sex with a man in the same way you would with a woman. DO anything you want. Just stop at anal penetration. C) If you’re going to sleep with a man, don’t lie to yourself and pretend one of you is a woman. Be honest and open about your desire for each other in the community. In other words, don’t keep in the closet. Be out and proud.
There are lots of theologians that write about this stuff much better than I. I’m indebted to Arthur Waskow and Gershon Caudill for some of these alternate translations/interpretations.
Q. So you believe them?
A. No. I’m glad they’re doing the hard work of theology. But “believing them” is not the point, really. I’ve already admitted that the Levitical law is flawed. There are some alternate readings that attempt to “smooth out” those flaws. But I’m not going to do linguistic gymnastics to prove a point.
Q. So what is your point? Remember, you need to find a job.
My point is this: let’s not base our theology of sexual orientation on Old Testament Levitical law. It’s: 1) outdated — it applied to the political nation of Israel, not the present-day Church; 2) sexist, racist, etc. — I can’t believe some of the downright horrible laws I’ve read in the the Bible; 3) Confusing as hell once we’re open and honest about reading it as a whole, rather than piece by piece, verse by verse, striking the ones we don’t like, and keeping the ones we do.
Q. So we’re supposed to operate under the assumption that the Old Testament doesn’t speak to us today?
A. No, we’re going to operate under the assumption that Old Testament law is flawed, and that Jesus came to fix a very broken system. So if we’re going to create a Theology of Sex and Sexy Times let’s start with Jesus.
Q. Um lol, what?
A. Gotta save something for next time.
A. You love me.