Israel Folau’s dodgy theology (part 2)

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Israel Folau portrait session at Sydney Olympic Park, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Photo: Steve Christo)

Israel Folau is not alone in thinking that the Bible prohibits homosexuality. What he is probably not aware of is that the argument for this rests on some very dodgy translations of a tiny handful of texts in the Bible. I’ve seen comments on social media that, after all, Folau was only quoting the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. What many people don’t realise is that the KJV never uses the words “homosexual” or “homosexuality.” In fact, the word is a relatively modern invention and didn’t appear in any Bible translation before the mid-twentieth century.

What he also may not realise is that the ‘original’ Hebrew and Greek texts of the verses in the Bible which have been translated to condemn homosexuality are incredibly difficult to translate. One reason for this, in the case of the Hebrew (‘Old Testament’) texts, is that the sentence construction is so awkward we cannot be certain what the writer was actually saying, and at best scholars are guessing at what was intended. In the case of the Greek (‘New Testament’) texts an added difficulty is that the writer uses a word which occurs no where else in the Bible, or in any ancient Greek literature, so we really have no idea what it means. Again, scholars have to guess. There is considerable disagreement amongst scholars what these texts mean and how they should be translated. If a prohibition against homosexuality was so important to the writers of the Bible they could easily have made it clearer!

Let’s take a look at the main texts concerned. I’m a Hebrew Bible / Old Testament (OT) scholar, so my expertise is not with the Greek New Testament. I’ll focus on the OT texts. There are two verses in the book of Leviticus (18:22; 20:13), a legal text, which use a phrase translated as  “a man lying with a male as with a woman” or words to that effect, in the context of listing prohibited sexual relationships. The phrase contains an expression which is difficult to translate: מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה miškĕbê ʾiššâ. It literally means “the beds (masculine plural) of a woman” or “the beds of a wife” (“wife” and “woman” are the same word in Hebrew) so that the whole phrase would read something like “a man lying with a man on the beds of a woman/wife commits an abomination”. Scholars agree that this is an awkward way to say “a man must not have sex with a man” and there would be much simpler ways of saying it, if that was what the writer intended. The context in both verses is about individuals who are be considered  to be “off-limits” sexually due to their relationship with another individual. Grammatically, there are a lot of difficulties with the phrase, but without becoming too technical the best scholarly explanation I have read which makes sense of it in its context is that it probably has to do with ‘ownership’ and monogamous marriage. It is about family stability and prohibits a man from going to bed with a man who ‘belongs’ to a wife. In other words, a man can sleep with another man, provided they are both ‘single.’ But even if this explanation is wrong, to make any definite claim about such a gramatically difficult phrase is decidedly dodgy. Folau is on shaky ground.

Then there is the issue of the meaning of “abomination”. Eating shellfish, or wearing clothing made of two different kinds of fibre (Leviticus 19:19) are also “abominations”. I wonder, does Folau post on social media that people eating lobster, or wearing cotton-polyester shirts are also going to hell? I don’t think one gets to pick and choose with these laws: either you accept them all as binding, or reject them all.

A claim made by some of Folau’s opponents is that he is a hypocrite because he has tattoos, and the Bible allegedly prohibits tattoos. The sole verse quoted in the case against tattoos is Leviticus 19:28 “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you.” Interestingly, it is the same biblical book (Leviticus) which is quoted to prohibit homosexuality, so the argument goes that if one quotes Leviticus to condemn homosexuality one has to keep all the laws in that legal code, including the one about tattoos. In the interests of full disclosure I probably should confess that I have a couple of tattoos, although none as awesome as Folau’s! He also has a better canvas to work with!

The key words in this text are “for the dead.” Whatever it means, it probably refers to some ancient practice of cutting oneself as part of a mourning ritual. It almost certainly doesn’t refer to decorative “body art.” It’s in the context of some random laws, many of which relate to the customs of surrounding idol-worshippers. The verse immediately before it says “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.” It’s difficult to determine what was behind this prohibition, but it probably had something to do with a ‘pagan’ practice that was associated with the worship of another god. While Orthodox Jews have a particular way of interpreting and practising that law, mainstream Christians such as Folau wouldn’t see it as obligatory for Christians. The prohibition against cutting/marking the flesh for the dead, falls into the same category. Again, we can’t pick and choose. Either all the laws are binding, or none of them. I think Folau’s tattoos are awesome, and I’m happy with my own. I’m also ok with wearing cotton-polyester, and ordering a short-back-and-sides at the barbers. I’m not an Orthodox Jew and the laws don’t apply to me. So I’m not going to single out any that I like and impose them on anybody else. I’m not going to come after lobster-eaters and post on social media that you’re going to hell. I wish Folau would do the same.

8 comments on “Israel Folau’s dodgy theology (part 2)

  1. Stephen,

    Some valid points here as well. I’m far less knowledgeable than you about Hebrew, and haven’t studied the Leviticus passage in detail. Given the apparent ambiguity, one important question is how Jews understood this text in antiquity. This text does, moreover, have some relationship with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6 (maybe you are still going there as I’m still on the second article) since the compound word arsenokoites used there is constructed from the Greek words for “male” and “bed” used in the LXX translation of Lev 18:21 and 20:13. It is noteworthy that this suggests that the operative part of the commandment for Paul was being in bed with a male. The qualification bed “of a woman” (also present in the LXX) does not appear to be operative for Paul, since he drops it in the term he uses.

    Now I fully agree with you that we cannot just cherry-pick verses from the Torah and say arbitrarily that one is binding and one is not, or we will be guilty of inconsistency. What is needed is not an appeal to individual proof texts but a thorough and coherent moral theology, and in the case at hand, particularly à theology of human sexuality and of gender. In this respect, texts such as Genesis 1-2 (and their use in the NT), which highlight the complementarity of the sexes as intrinsic to God’s creative purpose with humankind, are arguably much more important to the same-sex relationships debate than these Levitical texts.

    • Stephen Cook says:

      Thanks for your input Thomas. Yes, I plan to get to 1 Corinthians 6 later in this series. I agree that we also need a theology of human sexuality and gender rather than cherry-picking proof texts. Strictly speaking I’m a biblical scholar rather than a theologian, but the Bible is a collection of theological texts so biblical scholars will inevitably have to make some theological conclusions, although probably coming from a different direction to a theologian. I hope to get to Genesis 1-2 as part of this discussion later.

      • Another thought to add here. Whilst admitting I’m unfamiliar with the finer grammatical details of these texts (and biblical Hebrew in general) it strikes me that when the words “a man” and “a woman/wife” occur in such close proximity and “man” is clearly generic (any man rather than a particular man), prima facie it strikes me as contextually likely that “woman” is likewise generic, meaning any woman rather a particular woman. Dropping the indefinite article in translation may illustrate what I am getting at: “Lying with man in the bed(s) of woman”. “Bed(s) of woman” would be understood idiomatically, a circumlocution for normative, heterosexual sex, and the transgression is then to violate the normative nature of the sexual act by exchanging woman for man as the sexual complement. Such a reading may, incidentally, help to fill in the background to Paul’s language in Roman’s 1 where (on my reading) he describes homosexual acts in terms of women and men “exchanging” the natural, normative sexual complement for a same-sex partner. This notion of “exchange” is also in view in Gen 19 and Judg 19 which I commented on previously, albeit in the reverse direction – exchanging a same-sex (and in these cases non-consensual) partner for an opposite-sex one.

        • Stephen Cook says:

          Thomas, the use of “man” and “woman” in this text is actually quite peculiar. The word translated here as “man” is זָכָר zakar which is the equivalent to the English “male” (its counterpart being נְקֵבָה n’qevah “female”. The two words occur in Gen 1:27 “male and female he created them”). But the word for “woman” here is אִשָּׁה ishah (its counterpart being אִישׁ ish “man”). So the Lev 18 text is peculair in that it literally reads “you shall not lie with a *male* as with a woman” when the logical way to say this would be “… as with a *female*”. The writer is not using complementary terms at all.
          The masculine term for “bed/lying” is also unusual, being a woman’s bed, and so is the plural “lyings/beds”. The singular term occurs in places such as in Numbers 3:17, 18 where it refers to the “lying of a male”. This suggests to several scholars that the writer does *not* mean “have sexual intercourse with a man as with a woman” but something else is going on with the text. The clustering together of three unusual or unexpected grammatical forms (male/woman, masculine, plural) suggests the writer is saying something quite different and has to use unusual forms in order to say it. The terms “male” and “woman” (not “female”) are probably to highlight that she is not just any female, but a “wife” ( אִשָּׁה ishah is the standard word for “wife”). The masculine form for “lying/bed” suggests the text is not referring to the bed/lying of a woman, but to something normally associated with males (e.g. property rights), and this is reinforced by the plural form. I agree that it is idiomatic, but it is not the standard idiom for sexual intercourse. It must be something else.

          • Serves me right for trying to do exegesis on my phone with no study aids. Okay, I concede there’s more to these texts than meets the eye. I need to do more reading about it before spouting off.

  2. I have read some secondary literature on Lev. 18:22 and 20:13, and three fairly recent studies that I encountered (Olyan’s [1994] from the Journal of the History of Sexuality, and Walsh’s [2001] and Hollenback’s [2017] from Journal of Biblical Literature) all concur that these texts prohibit male-male intercourse per se. They argue that the syntax is very specific about the physical act that is being described (I won’t go into detail here due to its sexual explicitness), and offer what seem to me to be plausible explanations of syntactic features such as the plural form of ‘lyings down.’ I’d be interested to read how you would interact with their arguments.

    • Stephen Cook says:

      Tom, here are some more articles which may interest you, and may answer your question:

      Dershowitz, Idan. “Revealing Nakedness and Concealing Homosexual Intercourse: Legal and Lexical Evolution in Leviticus 18.” Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 6, no. 4 (2017): 510-526. (Dershowitz also cites several other articles worth reading).

      Römer, Thomas. “Homosexuality in the Hebrew Bible? Some Thoughts on Lev 18 and 20; Gen 19 and the David-Jonathan Narrative,” Pages 213-231 in Ahavah: Die Liebe Gottes im Alten Testament. Edited by M. Oeming. Vol. 55 of Arbeiten Zur Bibel Und Ihrer Geschichte. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2018.

      Wells, Bruce. “The Grammar and Meaning of the Leviticus Texts on Same-Sex Relations Reconsidered.” Paper presented at Annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. San Diego, 2014. (Unpublished, but from memory it is available on his Academia page.) In particular, you may find Wells’ arguments about the plural “lyings down” to be of interest.

      Boyarin, Daniel. “Are There Any Jews in “The History of Sexuality”?”. Journal of the History of Sexuality 5, no. 3 (1995): 333-355.

      As you’ve mentioned an article by Saul Olyan you might also be interested in this one:

      Olyan, Saul M. “‘Surpassing the Love of Women’: Another Look at 2 Samuel 1: 26 and the Relationship of David and Jonathan,” Pages 7-16 in Authorizing Marriage? Canon, Tradition, and Critique in the Blessing of Same-Sex Unions. Edited by Mark D. Jordan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

      When you say Olyan, Walsh and Hollenback concur that the Leviticus texts condemn male intercourse “per se” you should note that in his “Surpassing the love of women” Olyan argues that “the laws of Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 prohibit anal intercourse specifically; they have nothing to say about other forms of same-sex sexual activity between men and nothing whatsoever to say about such activity between women. If this interpretation is correct, then the Hebrew Bible, even read canonically as a single work, only limits rather than proscribes sexual relations between men, and allows them between women.”

      Others argue that the Leviticus texts refer only to incestuous same-sex relationships. See for example Lings, K. “The “Lyings” of a Woman: Male-Male Incest in Leviticus 18.22?”. Theology & Sexuality 15, no. 2 (2009): 231-250.

      • Thanks for these sources Stephen, which will help me to better understand the range of opinions on this challenging and controversial text. I won’t take the exegetical discussion further for now, but to return to the Israel Folau controversy, I don’t think a theology of sexuality that rests on the premise that the Bible prohibits sex between men can be dismissed as dodgy. There are competent biblical scholars who continue to offer exegetical arguments supporting this premise. To be sure, there are also competent biblical scholars, yourself included, who offer exegetical arguments opposing it. There is a genuine difference opinion, and each one can weigh the merits of the different arguments but it isn’t a simple matter of good vs. dodgy theology or exegesis.

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