THE BLOG
02/08/2013 11:29 am ET Updated Apr 10, 2013

Sodom and Gomorrah Revisited

Last year, my husband and I took a cruise of the Adriatic. Our traveling companions were a recently married gay couple. They had been together for 50 years by the time same-sex marriage was legalized in New York State. Once that happened, they decided to make their union "official."

As with most cruise holidays, there was a broad menu of entertainment each evening. My husband and I aren't much for late nights or parties. But on one particular evening there was a festive dance party taking place on the pool deck and the four of us decided to join in the fun. Our companions had never danced together in public, so I gamely danced with both of them -- in effect, serving as their "beard." After we'd all been dancing for a while, I gradually stepped back and our friends danced with each other. It was a signal moment for me and, I think, for them. After 50 years of loving each other, taking care of each other and sharing a life, they were finally together on a public dance floor.

As the Supreme Court considers the issue of same-sex marriage, I'm reminded of that cruise and what's at stake on a theological and human level.

Shortly before that cruise, I had lunch with a colleague of mine -- a gay minister. I met him through Tanenbaum's Workplace program, where we frequently address conflicts that arise involving religion and sexual orientation. So, it's not surprising that he and I got into a lively discussion about how a religious person reconciles his homosexuality with his faith.

One can deal with this issue strictly as a matter of human rights, which is a core value of all the Abrahamic religions. Or, as a matter of respect for diversity, which is the approach taken by Tanenbaum. But I want to examine the subject differently here. I want to address the issue on scriptural grounds -- and I do so as an individual, not as a representative of my organization.

While religious belief is so often the target of prejudice, the issue of sexual orientation is a case in which religious belief is the source of the conviction. When the Bible is used to justify repression, opprobrium and killing, I believe we have a moral obligation to examine the texts that inspire condemnation and question whether they really say what we think they say. That means looking at them in their historical and cultural context.

In the Abrahamic religions, the injunction against homosexuality originates in Leviticus 18:22: "Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination." This is the first of six biblical condemnations of homosexuality (two of these are found in the Hebrew Scriptures and four in the New Testament). Because this issue has assumed such centrality in this country's political life, and because gays continue to be victims of so many hate crimes, I think we need to examine the religious roots of this "abomination." Biblical literalists, whose beliefs require that they take Scripture as the literal word of God, won't agree with what I have to say. Indeed, they would correctly argue that literalism requires understanding the Bible on its own terms, not reading into it from the reader's point of view. I respect those convictions. Nevertheless, I feel called to consider an alternate perspective.

Scholars agree that the injunction against homosexuality is rooted in the Genesis story of Sodom and Gomorrah, twin cities marked for destruction because of their grievous sinfulness. A reprieve is offered if God's emissaries can find even "one just man." Two angels, disguised as travelers, come upon the house of Lot. In the nomadic ancient Middle East, wayfarers lives could, literally, depend on the hospitality of strangers. Consistent with that imperative, Lot invites the travelers into his home. But, Lot, himself an outsider, was never accepted by the Sodomites. By shielding strangers, he further antagonizes his neighbors. Soon after the travelers arrive, the inhospitable men of Sodom throng at Lot's door and demand: "Where are the men which came into thee this night? Bring them out unto us that we may know them" (Genesis 19:5). Hoping to placate the frenzied horde, Lot offers them his daughters, but they will settle for no less than the travelers themselves. But in those five words, "that we may know them," lies the heart of the "abomination." Why? Because "to know" generally denotes carnal knowledge. Hence, the presumed sin of the Sodomites has come to be known as "sodomy." However, "to know," along with other phrases that often imply carnal knowledge (e.g., "go in unto"), are used inconsistently in the Bible and have been distorted through many translations of the original Hebrew texts and the oral tradition that preceded them.

How, then, did this particular translation come to prevail?

Leviticus, which is thought to be a later book of the Bible than Genesis, was designed as a set of laws for the new Jewish nation. As a fledgling country, it had to be strong in numbers in order to survive. Life expectancy was short and children were needed as labor in an agrarian society. Therefore, it's not surprising that any intercourse that could not add to the population was condemned. But one can argue that it was condemned for practical, not moral, reasons.

Indeed, homosexuality was outside the mainstream of early rabbinic thought. It wasn't until the New Testament and Palestinian reinterpretation of Genesis 19 that it became a significant theme. Some scholars explain this shift by citing intervening events. One was the apocryphal Book of Jubilees. In this book, it was alleged that the Sodomites had created a race of giants by having sexual relations with a group of gods, the "Watchers," who lusted after mortal women. For this, the Sodomites were punished. The notion of "crime against nature" is a vestigial remnant of this legend, but also has scriptural roots.

The key factor seems to be the antagonism that developed between the pious Hebrews and their hated Greek conquerors. Homosexual intercourse was a hallmark of Greek culture, where it played a role both in its military might and in the mentoring of youths into Hellenic values. This clash between Hebrew and Greek culture, arguably, partly accounts for the framing of the "abomination" of homosexuality.

Shortly after our lunch, my minister colleague sent me a lecture, "What the Bible Says and Doesn't Say..." given by a nun, Sister Carol Perry, at Marble Collegiate Church, New York City, in 2009. In that lecture, Sister Carol gives an insightful exegesis on the meaning of "abomination" in ancient times.

She argues that, while "abomination" is a powerful word of opprobrium in modern western culture, in the 19th century B.C., it referred to otherness -- that is, what "outsiders did and thought that the Israelites didn't. ... Biblically, abomination is simply something that non-Jews did." This can be understood in the context of "chosen-ness" and the need to prevent the seeping in of outside influences.

As for homosexuality, Sister Carol points out that this word didn't even enter our vocabulary until the 19th century C.E. No such word is found anywhere in the Bible nor is any such sin ever mentioned in Genesis 19. Where the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah are alluded to in the Hebrew scriptures or the New Testament, they are: pride, excess of food, failure to care for the poor and needy, inhospitality -- especially inhospitality.

A Christian might argue, as did Paul in Romans, that one sin leads to another -- e.g. arrogance leads to selfishness, which leads to indulgence, of which homosexual acts are one form. But given that the injunction is rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures, arguing retroactively from Romans may impute meanings that may not have been originally there.

Sister Carol opened her lecture with this quote from Genesis 1:31: "And the Lord God looked at everything he had made and indeed it was very good." Note the word "everything."

A biblical literalist would counter that the injunction against homosexuality may begin in Leviticus 18, but the ordinance for heterosexuality is rooted in Genesis 1:2, where the relationship between man and woman is defined through the creation of Adam and Eve.

Regardless of whether one is a literalist or a relativist, it seems to me that the true abomination lies in centuries of vilifying, criminalizing and persecuting a group of human beings in the name of religion -- when the religious basis of that behavior can itself be subject to interpretation.

In discussing this with an evangelical Christian colleague of mine, he added an important dimension to this dilemma. He affirmed his absolute belief that homosexuality is a sin, but he does not judge homosexuals. After all, he said to me, "We're all sinners. It's just that some of us sin in ways that aren't visible on the outside."

This, it seems to me, is the heart of the matter: "Judge not lest ye be judged" (Matthew 7:1). It's possible to believe that homosexuality is a sin without translating that into gay-bashing, hate crimes and acts of contempt against our fellow human beings who, perhaps, only want to share in the simple pleasures of sharing a home and dancing together.