THE BLOG
03/18/2013 12:11 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2013

Don't Blame It on the Bible

Most Americans who oppose gay rights and same-sex marriage justify their opposition by turning to the Bible. But does the Bible really oppose homosexuality? You'd be surprised.

At the end of March, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8, which denies gay Americans the right to legally marry. Major polls show most Americans in support of marriage equality. Still a vocal and well-heeled right-wing evangelical opposition presents a formidable obstacle. Why? Because of a long-held belief that homosexuality is among the greatest of biblical sins.

But does the Bible really condemn homosexuality? Ironically it never answers that question conclusively. In fact, the biblical basis for the demonization of homosexuality is very thin and, ultimately, not at all decisive. Oddly enough, the notions of homosexuality that are so deeply rooted in American culture and law are based upon a surprisingly small number of biblical passages. If progressives are to successfully address the supposed divinely sanctioned circumscription of gay Americans' constitutional rights, it is crucial that they understand the biblical arguments that gay rights opponents use to justify their resistance. What follows is a brief primer on what progressives need to know about what the Bible says -- and does not say -- about homosexuality.

I.

First, it is important to recognize that the peoples of biblical antiquity had no idea of homosexuality as identity, orientation or lifestyle. The term "homosexuality" was not even coined until the latter half of the 19th century. In fact, the first use of "homosexual" or its cognate in any biblical translation in any language did not occur until 1946 with the Revised Standard Version.

As for the Bible, its first supposed condemnation of homosexuality is the well-known Genesis story of Sodom and Gomorrah, from which we get the term "sodomite" and "sodomy law," the latter of which criminalizes same gender sex, even between mature and consenting adults. In Genesis we are told that a group of men insisted that Lot send out to them his three male visitors (whom the crowd didn't know were angels) so they could sexually abuse them (Genesis 19:4-9). Even the most cursory reading of this text reveals that it neither states nor implies that the men in the offending crowd were anything other than heterosexuals; we are simply told that they sought to humiliate and gang rape Lot's guests. Yet from this somehow it has been derived that the crowd was comprised of homosexual men and that homosexuality was rampant in Sodom. This has resulted in the wrong-headed conclusion, now widely accepted as biblical truth, that Sodom was destroyed as punishment for the "sin" of homosexuality, an interpretation that doesn't actually seem to have actually entered Christian discourse until medieval times -- a full millennium after the final form of the Bible was canonized.

However, the Bible itself tells a different story, that long before the crowd clamored for Lot's guests God had already condemned Sodom as "wicked," an apparent catch-all phrase for all types of transgressions (Genesis 13:13). What did Sodom's wickedness entail? Ezekiel explains that it was not sexual sins, but rather "pride, excess of food [that is, for greed and unwillingness to share], ... prosperous ease" and because it "did not aid the poor and needy" (16:49-50). The prophet Jeremiah gives the same general reason (23:13), as does Jesus (Matthew 10:14-15). In fact, biblical references to Sodom and Gomorrah overwhelmingly cite the issues of unscrupulousness and domination of others as their fatal transgressions; there is little if any mention of any kind of sex. The inescapable conclusion is that the use of the term "sodomite" as a signifier for a homosexual person has absolutely no basis in the Bible -- none. This is crucial to recognize because much of the homophobia plaguing the world today can be traced to this tragic misunderstanding. However, if anyone is hell-bent on believing that the abusive crowd was really homosexual and that the entire Sodom narrative is divinely sanctioned and literally true, then they must also accept that the Sodom narrative also gives divine approval to sending daughters out to be gang-raped. One just cannot be a biblical literalist only when it suits one's case.

II.

There are only two other direct references to male-on-male sex in the Old Testament, one in Deuteronomy and one in Leviticus (interestingly, lesbianism is never mentioned in the Old Testament). The context for these Old Testament references is the Israelite's immigration into the land of Canaan, whose society already had well-established religious customs. As newcomers, there was much pressure for the outnumbered Israelites to assimilate into the Canaanite religious orbit, so laws and instructions were sacralized to prevent it.

One of the religious practices the biblical commands sought to keep Israelites from adopting was the ritual of male Canaanite priests honoring goddess figures by dressing like women, taking on social roles associated with women and, in some cases, even having themselves castrated. Another alarming practice was male and female Canaanite ritual temple prostitution, apparently for the purpose of appeasing their gods of fertility. The Israelites were forcefully admonished to avoid these practices: "None of the daughters of Israel shall be qedeshah (literally "a female holy/consecrated one" -- that is, a temple prostitute) -- "nor shall any of the sons of Israel be qadesh" -- a male temple prostitute (23:17).

It is with this backdrop of Canaanite temple practices that cross-dressing by Israelites is declared an "abomination" (Deuteronomy 22:5). It is also in this context that the following commandments are issued: "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination" (Leviticus 18:22); and, "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death" (Leviticus 20:13). These pronouncements have the appearance of timeless biblical laws, yet they were explicitly codified -- with little sense of the complexity of human sexuality -- to protect Israelites from seduction into the more powerful alien cultures that surrounded them. One of the most telling statements that the primary purpose of these pronouncements was ensure that Israelites cleave only to the God and religion of Israel is this : "You are to be holy" (qadosh, "set apart", i.e., from the practices of other societies) "as I myself (God) am holy" (Leviticus 19:1-2).

But again, if anyone chooses to accept the Bible's denunciations, even prescriptions of death for "a man lies with a male," then what about other biblical commandments that prescribe murder for disobedient children, for those who have sex during a woman's menstrual cycle? What about the commandments to stone to death adulterers (although a man could only commit adultery against the wife of another, never against his own), and the execution by stoning of women raped in the city, with the logic that if their rape was "legitimate" (shades of Rep. Todd Akins!), they would have been sure to scream loudly enough to be rescued? There is no leeway for picking and choosing. Again, either you are a biblical literalist or not.

As for the Old Testament, that's it for references to same gender sex. Not a word in Proverbs or the Psalms. The biblical prophets rail against every social and moral transgression in Israel, yet not one of them says a word about same gender sexuality. In fact, the Old Testament talks much more about adultery, incest, even about having sex with animals than it even alludes to same gender sexual intimacy.

So when considered in proper social and historical context, we find no unambiguous condemnations in the Old Testament of what we today call homosexuality, and no mention at all of lesbianism. But what we do find is the story of the love between David and Jonathan.

In the first of two biblical texts attributed to the prophet Samuel, we are told that "the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David ... and Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul" and that Jonathan sealed their covenant of love by giving gifts to David (1 Samuel 18:1-4). Later, David and Jonathan are described as "kissing each other and weeping" at their separation (20:41). After Jonathan's untimely death, David cries out to him, "Your love for me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women" (2 Samuel 1:20).

Here we have a biblical story of a great love between two men that is said to be even dearer to them than the love of women. Would this love be considered any less beautiful, would it descend from sacred to profane, become worthy of disgust or even of death, if we were to learn that the physical contact between Jonathan and the messianic figure David went further than mere kissing? It is a worthy question, because the biblical narrative of the love between David and Jonathan attests -- in sacred scripture, no less -- that love between two men can be as deep and as holy as any other love.

III.

When it comes to the New Testament, the most significant passages thought to specifically condemn homosexuality are found in Romans and First Corinthians. In Romans the apostle Paul writes, "God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving due penalty for their error" (1:26).

Contrary to widespread misinterpretations, here Paul's focus is not homosexuality, but "dishonorable passions," lust, orgiastic acting out, folks just "freaking," as they say in the street. Paul explicitly speaks about heterosexuals exchanging what is "natural" for what is "unnatural." That's why he calls their passions "unnatural," because they are doing what is unnatural for them as heterosexuals; for gay people, on the other hand, sexual intimacy with members of their own gender is not unnatural, it is purely natural. Like everyone else in antiquity, Paul had no concept of homosexual identity or orientation; no other idea of human identity was available in his world. So what he could only have been condemning certain unidentified over-the-top, lustful sexual actions by heterosexual people. Therefore Paul's condemnation of "unnatural lusts" cannot be used as a biblical support for condemning same gender love and intimacy; indeed, he is not describing love at all. But notice that here Paul has made an argument from nature, declaring what is natural and what is not. If opponents of equal rights for gay Americans accept Paul's argument from nature, why can't the recent insights of modern science be taken similarly seriously that sexual identities evolve in early childhood and, in a yet an undetermined percentage of gays, seem to have genetic origins?

In First Corinthians 6:9-10 Paul further writes, "Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes (malakoi), sodomites (arsenokoita), thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers -- none of these will inherit the kingdom of God."

Malakos, the term translated as "male prostitute," literally means "soft" or "effeminate," and is thought by many scholars to refer to male child prostitutes who, of course, rarely assumed that role without coercion; or perhaps it refers to pedophiles. The meaning of arsenokoitai, the term variously translated as "sodomite" and "sexual pervert," is not fully clear to us today, but it does seem to refer to some form of homosexual relationship, possibly exploitive in nature. Perhaps here malakoi refers to youths who are sexually used and arsenokoita to the men who use them, though we can't be certain. In the final analysis, however, no one can say with absolute certainty or integrity what Paul actually means in this passage.

IV.

Finally we come to the Gospels. Nowhere in any of the four Gospels does Jesus speak even one word about homosexuality. What he does say is that the two paramount commandments -- those that must be obeyed -- are to "love your Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength ... and to love your neighbor as yourself." But how can you love your neighbor as yourself if you would deny your neighbor -- any neighbor -- the happiness and social acceptability of their love and the opportunity to sacralize their committed spousal relationship in the eyes of God that you treasure for yourself? In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says that the primary way each of us will be judged as worthy of eternal life, as he puts it, is not by whom you share intimate love, but instead by whether or not we have lived justly, if we have tried to serve those in need and labored to establish justice in the land. There is nothing in the words of Jesus that gives even the smallest sense that one will be judged by what goes on in the privacy of one's bedroom.

V.

Speaking of bedrooms, the term "traditional marriage" is often used to challenge the very notion of gay marriage. Yet the Bible speaks of a number of kinds of marital relationships without condemnation and without presenting any of them as "traditional." There is polygamy, concubinage ("shacking up" or a woman on the side, in today's parlance). There is Sarah's urging of Abraham to impregnate their slave Hagar, Jacob marrying the sisters Rachel and Leah simultaneously and impregnating the female slave of each to boot. For his part, without criticism or a tinge of judgment Jesus speaks of serial polygamy, called Levirite marriage, which holds that if a man dies childless his widow was to engage in sex with his eldest brother to impregnate her in the name of her dead husband. If the eldest brother died without giving her a child, she went on to the next brother, then the next, then the next, until she became pregnant or ran out of brothers. In that none of these marital arrangements are condemned or even treated as exceptional in the Bible, they contradict the notion that there is one particular "traditional" type of biblical marriage. There is, of course, cultural notions of traditional marriage that hold sway in many societies, including our own, but they are just that: cultural traditions, not biblical traditions.

So does the Bible really condemn homosexuality -- and gay marriage by extension -- as sinful? As we have seen, the evidence is far too ambiguous and open to dispute for anyone to claim with integrity that it does. That is why the Bible cannot and must not be used to deny to gay citizens the full measure of the constitutional rights enjoyed by other American citizens. To do so is not only unconstitutional. It is a real biblical sin.

Obery M. Hendricks, Jr., author of 'The Universe Bends Toward Justice: Radical Reflections on the Bible, the Church and the Body Politic' (Orbis, 2012)