Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton of Sydney’s The Great Synagogue provides an interesting and refreshing perspective on the current Israel Folau controversy here.
The third New Testament text which is often quoted as evidence that the Bible condemns homosexuality is Romans 1:26-27.
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
One of the striking things about this passage is that it not only appears to refer to female homosexuality – which would make it unique in Biblical literature and rare in ancient literature generally – but also that such a reference to female homosexuality doesn’t become evident until the reader gets to the next verse which appears to refer to male homosexuality. In other words, the reader is left wondering about the meaning of “women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural” until they get to “men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another,” concluding that it refers to male homosexuality, and then having to read back female homosexuality into the earlier words. If this is the writer’s intention then it is certainly an awkward way to go about it. It is also odd that he doesn’t say “women with women” in the same way as he says “men with men” leaving open the question of what he means by women exchanging “natural intercourse for unnatural.”
Putting aside the conclusion of several scholars that this section of Romans is a late addition and was not written by Paul, I want to look at it in the context of the overall structure of this section of the letter which begins in verse 18. We should note a certain structural repetitiveness in this section:
1. “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (v.23), so “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (v.24).
2. “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (v.25) so “God gave them up to degrading passions” (v.26).
3. “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men … committed shameless acts with men” (v.26-27) “and since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done” (v.28).
The tight structure and repetition of “exchanged” and “God them up” highlights the three attributes of God which come in between: God’s glory, truth and knowledge. In his commentary on Romans, Brendan Byrne  describes this series of repetitions as ‘waves.’ Each wave begins with an ‘exchange’ and crests with God’s ‘giving them up,’ building in intensity until the third wave ends with a crash. Once we recognise the repetition we can see that Paul is providing three examples of idolatry: making images, worshipping idols, and sexual debauchery as part of idol-worship. Each example concludes with God “giving up” the idolaters to certain consequences.
The association of sexual debauchery with idol-worship would have been familiar to an ancient audience, and certainly to one familiar with the Hebrew Bible. In earlier posts in this series, for example, I have referred to Biblical texts which mentioned both male and female temple prostitutes and why it was regarded as abhorent for Israel to worship God in this way. The similarities between Romans 1:18-32 and two other texts in particular are so striking it is almost certain that Paul must have been familiar with them, and may have been directly alluding to them. For example, Paul’s line that “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” seems to come almost directly from Psalm 106:
They made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. (Psalm 106:19-20)
The Psalm continues with a list of various ways the people of Israel provoked or angered God in their worship of foreign gods and images, and leads into a section dealing with sexual debauchery as part of that worship:
They mingled with the nations and learned to do as they did. They served their idols, which became a snare to them … they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; and the land was polluted with blood. Thus they became unclean by their acts, and prostituted themselves in their doings. (Vv. 35-39)
Paul seems to get his “exchanged the glory/truth/knowledge of God… so God gave them up” language from this Psalm which continues with “then the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people, and he abhorred his heritage; he gave them into the hand of the nations, so that those who hated them ruled over them” (Vv.40-41).
There is an even more striking similarity to a long section in Wisdom of Solomon, a book found in the Apocrypha and quoted or alluded to many times in early Christian writings (including some of the writings of Paul). Paul’s language in Romans 1 is so similar to Wisdom 13-14 – a lengthy section condemning the worship of idols – we can be almost certain that he was familiar with it. The section ends by detailing the depraved sexual practices associated with idol worship, and the consequences. Similar to Paul’s mention of exchanging the truth and knowledge of God for a lie, Wisdom says “it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God” (14:22) and goes on to list practices associated with their idol-worship:
For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs,they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery, and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, defiling of souls, sexual perversion, disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery. For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil (Wisdom 14:23-27).
Wisdom concludes with the judgment that “just penalties will overtake them” – those worshippers who trust in lifeless idols – because “the just penalty for those who sin always pursues the transgression of the unrighteous” (v. 29-31). This too is similar to Paul’s “so God gave them up …” and he follows a similar line in his argument. These verses in Romans 1 are not primarily about homosexuality, but about sexual depravity associated with idol-worship. This sexual behavior regularly involved both male and female temple prostitutes and included both homosexual and heterosexual activity. While Paul speaks of men committing “shameless acts with men” during this idol-worship, homosexuality per se is not the focus of his argument and it would be wrong to draw any conclusions from it about sexual activity within the confines of a loving relationship.
 Byrnes, Brendan, Romans, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996) p.64.
Having dealt with the principal texts in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) which have often been quoted as mentioning or implying homosexuality I now plan to look at the New Testament texts.
There are only two texts in the NT where the word “homosexual” is actually used in some translations, and there are one or two others where it may be implied. Before taking a close look at these verses and the Greek words that are sometimes translated as “homosexual” I should give some history about the English word. No English translation of the Bible used the word “homosexual” prior to 1946 when the Revised Standard Version (RSV) used it for the first time in two places. Prior to 1946 the Greek was translated in a variety of ways, and I will come back to this. In fact, the word “homosexual” didn’t enter the English language until the end of the nineteenth century so it wasn’t even available to be used by earlier translations. The first known appearance of the word was in German, in an 1869 pamphlet arguing against a Prussian anti-sodomy law. In 1886, the Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing used the terms homosexual and heterosexual in a book about sexuality, and from there they were adopted into the English language. I find it somewhat comical when I read posts on social media (in support of Israel Folau’s assertion that homosexuals will go to hell) saying that he is simply “quoting the King James Bible”. The KJV was written 250 years before the word homosexual even existed! People would do well to read the Bible before they pretend to quote it.
The two places where the word occurs in some (but not all) modern translations of the Bible are (in the English Standard Version – ESV):
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
1 Timothy 1:9-10 The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.
In 1 Timothy 1:10 the phrase translated here in the ESV as “men who practice homosexuality” translates a single Greek word (ἀρσενοκοίταις arsenokoitais, while in 1 Corinthians 1:10 it is a translation of two words (μαλακοὶ malakoi and ἀρσενοκοῖται arsenokoitai). I will first look at the word ἀρσενοκοίταις arsenokoitais which is common to both (in cognate forms). This is a difficult word to translate for one simple reason: apart from these two places in the NT it does not occur anywhere else in ancient Greek literature; no where else in the Bible, in either the NT or the Septuagint, and no where in classical Greek literature. The technical term for a word which occurs in only one place is hapax legomenon, and they are notorously difficult to translate for the simple reason that we have no other texts for comparison to help us understand the meaning. Let’s take an example from English. If you came across the word butterfly in a text and did not know what it meant you could look at other texts to determine its meaning. It would be useless to try to make sense of it by breaking it up into what might look like its component parts, butter and fly. To do so would simply make a nonsense of it. The word ἀρσενοκοίτης arsenokoitēs appears to be a combination of two Greek words arsēn a male and koitē a bed, and therefore by implication refers to men “going to bed” with men. But we can’t be sure, and we have no other texts which use the word to help us out. Just like the word butterfly has nothing to do with butter, we can’t be sure this Greek word has anything to do with men in bed. Translators have to guess at a meaning.
When Luther translated the Bible into German in 1534 he translated ἀρσενοκοίτης arsenokoitēs with the German word knabenschänder which literally means “boy molester.” His translation suggests he understood the term to mean some form of sexual abuse, but like all translators he was still guessing. If his translation is right then perhaps it should have been given more prominence during the scandals (and, in Australia, a Royal Commission) involving institutional abuse of children, and the high profile trial of a Cardinal convicted for sexually abusing choir boys. There is nothing in the context of these verses to suggest that the word has anything to do with a loving relationship between two men, while sexual abuse or violence would make better sense in a list of vices.
The other word which is associated with ἀρσενοκοίτης arsenokoitēs in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 is μαλακός malakos, which literally means “soft”. There is a great deal of diversity in the way the word is translated. For example, the King James Version (KJV) translates it as “effeminate” while the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates the term as “male prostitutes” which is actually quite strange. They are clearly guessing, although they may have been influenced by the use of a Hebrew word קָדֵשׁ qadesh which is sometimes translated as “male temple prostitutes.” I referred to this term in an earlier post where I argued that the problem does not seem to be one of men having sex with men, but doing so as part of the worship of God. How the NRSV translators took the leap from “soft” to “male prostitutes” is anyone’s guess, but probably has something to do with an assumption that the word μαλακός malakos refers to the “passive” [soft(?)] partner in homosexual sex (presumably the receptive partner in anal sex) , and a further assumption that this was the part played by a prostitute. There are quite a few assumptions built into such a conclusion! If Paul did indeed mean “male prostitutes” then it may have been sex-for-pay that was the problem in his mind, and not male-to-male sex per se.
However, there is nothing inherently sexual about this word, let alone homosexual. The only other time it is used in the NT is in the parallel texts of Matthew 11:8/Luke 7:25, where it appears twice as a substantive neuter plural, malaka (literally meaning “soft things”) which in the context denotes “soft clothing” and has no sexual connotation whatsoever. In that context the writer used the term with reference to rich people who wore “soft” clothing in much the same way as we might refer to the privileged elite as “softies” – out of touch with the down-to-earth general population. Paul may have been condemning the rich who lived luxuriously at the expense of others, and this would be consistent with other terms in his list, “thieves, greedy persons, robbers.” We can’t be sure what he meant and there seems to be an almost endless range of possibilities including being rich. In my opinion, homosexuality is the least likely of the possibilities and seems to have been influenced more by prevailing social or religious attitudes in 1946 than by good scholarship.
To be continued …
A few posts back I wrote about the laws in Leviticus which are often quoted as evidence that the Bible condemned homosexuality, and discussed the term “uncover the nakedness of … [one’s father, mother, sister, etc].” I said there that this is generally regarded as a euphemism for having sex with that person, specifically taboo sex (i.e. incest). The phrase occurs rarely in the Bible outside these laws in Leviticus, although there are a couple notable exceptions. The first is in Genesis 9:22-23 in a story about Noah planting a vineyard after the flood, becoming drunk on wine which he produced, and then
“Ham [Noah’s son], the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth [Ham’s brothers] took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.”
The phrasing is not quite identical because in the Genesis story Ham “saw” his father’s nakedness, while the Leviticus laws are about uncovering nakedness. The first appears to be inadvertent, while the latter is deliberate. However, the fact that when Noah sobered up “and knew what his youngest son had done to him” (Gen. 9:24) and then cursed Ham’s son (Canaan), suggests to many scholars that what Ham did was more than to simply see his father naked. Some have argued that Ham exposed his father’s nakedness while others think he had sex with his father while he was drunk. This text probably deserves more attention, perhaps in a later post, but it is enough for now to say that seeing or uncovering nakedness probably both contain sexual innuendos.
I also wrote earlier about a possible homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan. If you’ve read my subsequent posts about David you will realise that I’m inclined to think that Jonathan had a homosexual attraction to David and was infatuated with him, but David was either oblivious to Jonathan’s feelings or he chose to use them to his own advantage. If David was a narcissist, as I suspect, then the latter could be expected. While taking another look at the D&J story I recalled that the story contains the only other reference to “your mother’s nakedness” outside of Leviticus (1 Samuel 20:30). In its context it seems to be an odd phrase:
Then Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan. He said to him, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?
The background to Saul’s outburst against his son was Jonathan’s loyalty to David in covering for David’s absence from the royal court because David was in fear of Saul. Interestingly, leading up to this incident, David and Jonathan spoke about Saul’s hostility to David, and David noted that Saul was well aware of their friendship: “Your father knows well that you like me” (literally, I have found favour in your eyes 1 Samuel 20:3). And then a little later the narrator reminds us that “Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life.” (v. 17, as if we needed reminding because he has already told us this twice!) I noted in my previous post that Virginia Miller has pointed out that when something is said three times in 1 Samuel it tends to be a case of overstatement for emphasis. So here I think the narrator is emphasising Jonathan’s attraction to David. And then comes this outburst about Jonathan choosing David “to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness.” Robert Alter has pointed out that this is quite violent and is a reference to the idiom for taboo sexual intercourse.  It is certainly odd why he would speak of “your mother’s nakedness” unless we understand it as an insulting idiom. He was not referring to any actual sexual intercourse between Jonathan and his mother, but it seems that for centuries the worse insults are those which make reference to having sex with one’s mother, giving rise to the idiomatic English expression “motherfucker”. I suspect that is what is happening here, but the very mention of shame (twice) coupled with a sexual innuendo suggests to me that Saul was making a slur of a sexual nature. Was he alluding to Jonathan’s attraction to David? Was this the first homophobic slur on record? Was this an ancient Hebrew idiomatic equivalent of faggot?
Because this phrase which we’ve encountered elsewhere is used here as part of an insult, and in the context where an emphasis is placed on Jonathan’s attraction to David, I would paraphrase it this way: “Shame on you! You’ve chosen to chase after your pretty boyfriend rather than being loyal to your family”, followed by some sort of derogatory slur of a sexual nature. Saul is hardly being commended for the slur. On the contrary, the narrator is describing Saul’s descent into insanity and the slur is therefore condemned rather than commended. Read this way it reinforces an interpretation of 1 Samuel which understands the friendship between David and Jonathan to have a homosexual element, even if the attraction was one-sided.
I should add a postscript that I don’t think the word “homophobic” is strictly correct in this context as there is no evidence that the ancient world had any concept of homosexuality, or heterosexuality for that matter. There is no evidence that they had a concept of sexuality at all. They were certainly familiar with homosexual acts, but probably had no need to categorise people based on their sexual preferences. So, if they didn’t have a word for homosexuality then homophobia would be equally out of place. But I use the word here because that is how we might understand it.
 Alter, Robert, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019, vol. 2, 263.
I am in two (or three) minds about the story of David and Jonathan in the book of Samuel. On one hand the description of their friendship is unique in the Hebrew Bible and displays an uncharacteristic intensity. I can understand why many writers have concluded that it was a homosexual relationship. Their relationship has been explored and commented on in scores of commentaries and articles, and it is well beyond the scope of this post to examine the history of scholarship on the matter, or to summarise all the arguments. When I say I am in two (or three) minds about the story it is because I see merit in three interpretations of the account of their friendship. They are not necessarily contradictory, and all three may be right, or at least contain elements which are harmonious. I will briefly summarise these three positions and am happy to provide references or further details in the comments section.
1. There are several elements in the D&J story which suggest an intensity beyond any other friendship between two men in the Bible. It begins with what seems to be their first meeting, at least as far as the record in 1 Samuel portrays it. Having just killed Goliath, and with Goliath’s severed head still in his hands, David was summoned to meet King Saul. He had barely introduced himself (“I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite” 1 Sam. 17:58) when Jonathan appears to have been immediately smitten.
“When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul“ (18:1-3).
Twice in three verses we are told that Jonathan loved him, but not why. We don’t even get any hint from the record that they had even spoken to each other at this point, and the repetition of “Jonathan loved him as his own soul” seems intentionally designed to emphasise that just seeing David and hear him speak was enough for Jonathan to fall head-over-heals in love with him. In addition to telling us that Jonathan loved David, the writer uses a variety of terms to describe the attraction: “Jonathan took great delight in David” (19:1), and David “found favour in his [Jonathan’s] eyes” (20:3). After Jonathan’s death David lamented that “your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam. 1:26). These words, perhaps more than any others, have convinced many readers that theirs was a homosexual relationship.
Some commentators read 1 Samuel 18:4 as homoerotic – “Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt” – while others see it as an act of allegiance, Jonathan seeing himself as a subordinate treaty partner. The use of the terms “servant,” “brother,” and even “love” would be appropriate in the context of a treaty, especially as 20:7-8 later describes a covenant between them. Joab’s speech to David (2 Samuel 19:6 [v.7 in Hebrew]) refers to David’s army as those who love him, so it is argued that Jonathan’s love for David was of the same type, that is, one of loyal devotion to a charismatic leader.
2. This leads to the second interpretation of the D&J relationship which I think has considerable merit. Lieut. Cmdr. Nathan Solomon, a military chaplain with the US Navy, wrote about the special bonds that often develop between soldiers in combat situations in “David and Jonathan in Iraq: Combat Trauma and the Forging of Friendship”  and argues that “no existing study of the relationship between David and Jonathan takes seriously their combat experience as a key to the friendship.” He writes:
It is in the chaos of combat and loss that friendships are forged that are unwieldy and intrusive in civilian life. The language used to describe friendships in the civilian world simply cannot carry the freight these relationships ask them to bear. Lacking the ability to verbalize the intensity with integrity, cultures default to language and categories with which they are familiar. The result is that the vocabulary of romance and kinship is often appropriated to describe what arises between comrades on the battlefield because no other suitable language or category exists.
Based on his work as a military chaplain working with men who have experienced the trauma of combat and the close bonds that are forged on the battlefield, he suggests that the friendship of David and Jonathan was not a homosexual relationship, but rather it “might be fruitfully analyzed as an intense friendship of the type forged in trauma, for it is the trauma that seems, in large part, to create and cement the friendship.” I personally think that Nathan Solomon’s perspective has a lot of merit.
3. We also need to consider the D&J story from a literary perspective and consider the role that it plays in the overall context of Samuel. What is the writer’s reason for writing the book, and what role does this friendship play for the writer in making his point, whatever that “point” is? There are a couple of things we need to note here about the D&J story within its overall context. First, we should note that the writer of Samuel reports a number of times that Jonathan loved David (adding in 20:17 that “he loved him as he loved his own life”), but never that David loved Jonathan. Was it a one-sided infatuation? Interestingly, Patricia Tull notes that the Bible doesn’t actually describe David and Jonathan’s relationship in terms of “friendship.”  Even in David’s lament on the death of Jonathan, he says that it was Jonathan who loved him, not that he loved Jonathan – “your love to me was wonderful”. The closest he comes to mirroring Jonathan’s love was to say נָעַמְתָּ לִּי מְאֹד “You were very nice to me” which hardly seems to be the kind of thing you’d say to your lover! Elsewhere in 1 Samuel we are given details of Jonathan acting rashly (for example, he is introduced to the reader when he attacked the Philistine garrison at Michmash prematurely without waiting for his father, in 13:2-3). It is part of a narrative which depicts Saul’s rejection as king, and Jonathan’s unsuitability to succeed him. The purpose of the story about Jonathan falling in love with David after the briefest of encounters may have been to further highlight his unsuitability as a future king, because he was impetuous and driven by emotions, while also serving the dual purpose of showing why David was so suitable for the job – even the heir to the throne loved him!
We learn another interesting thing about David from this relationship. Later in the story, long after Jonathan’s death, David enquired “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul to whom I may show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” (2 Sam. 9:1). The story goes on to provide details of a surviving son of Jonathan, Mephibosheth (aka, Meribaal). What strikes me as particularly odd about this is that if David and Jonathan were lovers how likely would it be that he knew nothing about Jonathan’s son, and did not even enquire about him until what seems to be a considerable time later? This could further support the theory that Jonathan was infatuated with David, but that it wasn’t reciprocal. It could also imply that if D&J were indeed close friends, or even lovers, that David was a narcissist and didn’t care much for Jonathan beyond the fact that he enjoyed having him as an admirer. That would make sense of many of the other details of the story in which David seems totally incapable of forging “normal” or enduring relationships. His family is disfunctional, close friends eventually abandon him, and he dies alone and lonely; classic signs of narcissistic personality disorder. That, however, would open another can of worms. Perhaps another time.
 “David and Jonathan in Iraq: Combat Trauma and the Forging of Friendship,” in Probing the Frontiers of Biblical Studies (ed. J. Harold Ellens and John T. Greene; Princeton Theological Monograph Series 111; Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2009), 21–32. See also Solomon, Nathan. ““Only God Can Judge Me”: Faith, Trauma, and Combat.” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 69, no. 1 (2015): 63-75.
 Tull, Patricia K. “Jonathan’s Gift of Friendship.” Interpretation: a Journal of Bible and Theology 58, no. 2 (2004): 130-143.
Having argued in my earlier posts that the Hebrew Bible (‘Old Testament’) does not specifically prohibit homosexuality or homosexual activity, in this post I want to respond to the question of whether there is any evidence in the HB of homosexuality in ancient Israel, and in my next post I will look specifically at the case of David of Jonathan.
There is an intriguing series of prohibitions in Leviticus which begin with “None of you shall approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness” (18:6-18). So as not to leave in any doubt what is meant by “near of kin” the prohibited relationships are then listed:
You shall not uncover the nakedness of your:
- father’s wife (i.e. step-mother, possibly also implies polygamy)
- your father’s daughter (i.e. half or step sister)
- your mother’s daughter (i.e. half or step sister)
- father’s sister
- mother’s sister
- father’s brother
- father’s brother’s wife
- a woman and her daughter or grand-daughter
- a woman and her sister, while the woman is still alive
- a woman during her menstrual period (i.e. a wife is a ‘prohibited relative’ during her period)
To “uncover the nakedness” of someone is almost certainly a euphemism for having sex with that person so that the prohibitions against incest maintain a hierarchy within the family. In other words, it prevents any confusion about an individual’s position within that hierarchy and whether they can simultaneously be one’s wife and their mother, for example.
However, there are two problematic relationships in this list. The first probition is against having sex with one’s father: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of [or have sex with] your father.” Most English translators have recognised the problem that as these texts are all addressed to men this would therefore refer to an incestuous homosexual relationship. They “amend” the Hebrew text by translating the whole verse as “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness” (v.7). In other words, they interpret “nakedness of your father” as actually meaning having sex with your mother. But this is not what the Hebrew says! The Hebrew עֶרְוַת אָבִיךָ וְעֶרְוַת אִמְּךָ לֹא תְגַלֵּה אִמְּךָ הִוא לֹא תְגַלֶּה עֶרְוָתָהּ literally reads “the nakedness of your father and the nakedness of your mother you shall not uncover. She is your mother, do not uncover her nakedness.” The second half of the verse (אִמְּךָ הִוא לֹא תְגַלֶּה עֶרְוָתָהּ “She is your mother, do not uncover her nakedness”) is almost tautological – an unneccessary repetition of the prohibition that has already been made. I can think of two possible reasons for this: (a) the relationship between a boy and his mother is generally more intimate than the relationship with his father, due largely to the fact that from birth he was nursed at her breast and may have slept with her even into his teens, and therefore the prohibition against having sex when he came to maturity (or when his father died) had to be emphasised; or (b) the additional words were ‘interpretive’ (as the English translators have it) and explain what is meant by “the nakedness of your father”. The problem with this second option is that it renders the first half of the verse as unnecessary. Why say something if you need to immediately explain it? Why not simply say “the nakedness of your mother” rather than “the nakedness of your father and the nakedness of your mother” if you then need to explain what you mean? The conjunction implies two relationships, not that one is really the other. Hebrew has a perfectly adequate way of saying “that is” when an explanation is required, so its absence here is noteworthy.
The second problematic relationship in this list is “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother, that is, you shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt” (v. 14). Again, the translators have inserted the words “that is” which are not in the Hebrew. The Hebrew עֶרְוַת אֲחִי־אָבִיךָ לֹא תְגַלֵּה אֶל־אִשְׁתּוֹ לֹא תִקְרָב דֹּדָתְךָ הִוא reads literally as “the nakedness of your father’s brother you shall not uncover, do not approach his wife, she is your aunt.” To me, this reads most naturally as two prohibitions, not one.
If this list of prohibited relationships includes two same-sex relationships (i.e. with one’s father and paternal uncle), the implication is that other same-sex relationships are not prohibited. However, a question inevitably arises from this: why are only two same-sex relationships prohibited? If sex with one’s sister is prohibited, why not with one’s brother? If sex with a paternal uncle is prohibited, why not a maternal uncle (your mother’s brother)? To me, the most likely explanation is that in a patriarchal society the most dominant family member is the male head-of-the-family, the father. Next in the hierarchy would be his brother(s), then his mature sons in order of their births, then his wife, his brother’s wife, his son’s wives, unmarried daughters, and finally servants (or something akin to this order). The mother’s brothers have no place in the hierarchy, as they are attached to another family. For a son to have an intimate and sexual relationship with the dominant males (father and paternal uncles) confuses or disrupts the hierarchy. For example, if a son was in an intimate relationship with his uncle, would this place him above his older brothers, or above other uncles who were younger than his lover? The same conflict does not arise with other male members of the family, and are therefore not specifically addressed in the list of prohibited relationships. Leviticus is careful to maintain order in the family and society. (Inheritances and property rights are also important and related to this hierarchical order and are dealt with elsewhere in Leviticus and Deuteronomy).
In a nutshell, the prohibition against two specific same-sex relationships in Leviticus 18 implies that other same-sex relationships were not prohibited. It further implies that they did exist. If I saw a sign on a cafe saying “closed on Sundays” I could reasonably infer that it was open every other day. So, a prohibition against certain same-sex relationships implies that all others were acceptable. I have already discussed the two texts which are often quoted as prohibiting all homosexual relationships and demonstrated that they do no such thing and most probably refer to relationships with married men. In fact, if such blanket laws did exist it would have been unnecessary to further prohibit two specific relationships that were already covered by the blanket prohibition. This further confirms in my mind that the only homosexual relationships which were prohibited in Leviticus were with one’s father, one’s paternal uncle and with a man who was already married to a woman.
In my next post I will look at the biblical story of David and Jonathan to see if there is any evidence that it was a homosexual relationship.
Genesis 19 has a well-known story about the destruction of two Canaanite cities, Sodom and Gomorrah. The story goes that Lot, a nephew of Abraham who was living in Sodom, was visited by two angels who came to warn him about the impending disasters and to encourage him to leave. Soon after their arrival …
“the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly”.
It is apparent from Lot’s reaction – “do not act so wickedly” – that their intentions were less than friendly. It is argued that the phrase “that we may know them” uses a well-known biblical euphemism meaning “that we can have sex with them” as in one of the first uses of the verb “to know” in the Bible: “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch” (Gen. 4:17). The story in Judges 19 is similar in some ways. That story is about a Levite who was on a journey with his wife/concubine from Bethlehem to his home in Ephraim and made a decision to spend a night in the town of Gibeah. They were taken in for the night by an old man who was also from Ephraim but living in Gibeah.
While they were enjoying themselves, the men of the city, a perverse lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door. They said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, so that we may know him.” (Judges 19:22).
The NRSV translates the phrase here rendered “that we may know him” as “that we may have intercourse with him” although it is identical in Hebrew to the phrase in Genesis 19 which they translate differently. The translators have understood it as a euphemism for having sex and removed any doubt with this translation. They are almost certainly right that this was the intention, although in rendering it this way the translation becomes less literal. The story continues using almost identical language to the story about Sodom:
And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing.
It is often claimed that these two stories demonstrate that the biblical writers regarded homosexuality as perverse, wicked and vile. In fact, neither account says any such thing. In both stories the men of Sodom and Gibeah are condemned for their attempted rape of strangers. In the Gibeah story the host offered his daughter and his guest’s wife to the men pounding on the door. This is similar to the story about Sodom where Lot offered his daughters. In both stories the offer was initially rejected, but in the Gibeah story the traveller “seized his concubine, and put her out to them. They wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go” (v. 25). The story has a horrific ending.
The Gibeah story makes it clear that the motivation in calling for the stranger to be sent out to them was not one of homosexual desire, but rather an intention to rape him. I’m sure I don’t need to explain the difference. The fact that these men had their way with the traveller’s concubine for the whole night demonstrates that the story ultimately condemns them for heterosexual rape. The issue is rape, not sexuality. In fact, the rape of men by men is most often committed by heterosexual men and is a violent, terrorising and abusive exertion of power by one person over another. It has nothing to do with desire or sexual attraction.
The predominant common element in both stories is that there was an attempt to exert power over strangers, or foreigners. The stranger was hated, perhaps feared, by a group within the community who asserted their ‘superiority’ over the unwelcome foreigner(s) by attempting to abuse him/them in an horrific way. Their motivation was hatred, or fear, not lust.
Significantly, when Ezekiel later referred to the “sin of Sodom” he said nothing about their sexual behaviour. He recognised that the real problem was their disregard for the poor and needy: “this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me” (16:49). It was this “haughty” attitude and their lack of concern for the needy which turned into violence against strangers.
“The sin of Sodom” was not homosexuality, it was a lack of concern for those in need. One scholar (Michael Carden) put it well in his conclusion to an article titled Homophobia and Rape in Sodom and Gibeah, where he argued that “Sodom represents … cruelty and meanness. Therefore xenophobia, racism, disregard for/exploitation of the poor and grasping miserliness should be considered forms of sodomy.” Rape and sexual violence – against both men and women – should come within the definition of sodomy and Carden rightly notes that “rapists should be regarded as sodomites, as should misogynists”. He further argues that homophobia and its violent expression should also be seen as forms of sodomy. Including homophobia as sodomy, Carden says, “might be surprising, however, for those of us from Christian traditions where homosexuality and Sodom and Gomorrah are so deliberately confused.”  Several scholars are in agreement with Carden’s conclusions about the sins of Sodom and Gibeah and have demonstrated that the ultimate evil of these cities, the evil which led to their divine destruction, had nothing to do with anal sex or homosexuality. It did, however, have everything to do with how one treats the poor and needy, and the stranger.
 Michael Carden, “Homophobia and Rape in Sodom and Gibeah”, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 82 (1999) 83-96.