I wasn’t going to mention Israel Folau again, but then …

Australian BushfireI’ve been busy, but it’s that time of the semester when I’ve finished teaching and marking and now have some time to get back to writing for pleasure. I thought I’d finished with Israel Folau and didn’t want to give his bad theology any more publicity, but then he opened his mouth and spurted out more rubbish so I felt I just had to respond.

If his comments about homsexuals going to hell weren’t enough, this time he has claimed that the devestating bushfires raging across Australia are God’s punishment for same-sex marriage and abortion. This time Folau has proven how little he knows about the Bible.

The question of whether or not national calamities or personal disasters should be seen as a punishment from God is dealt with fairly extensively in the Bible in a ‘conversation’ that takes place over a long period, possibly centuries. There is little doubt that many people in the ancient world attributed disasters to God or the gods, and some of the writers of the Bible held the view that if you do the right thing you will prosper but if you do the wrong thing you will suffer. This view is often called ‘Deuteronomistic’ because it’s one of the hallmarks of the biblical literature which appears to stem from the book of Deuteronomy. For example, Deuteronomy 28 promises a number of blessings for Israel “if you will only obey the LORD your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today” (28:1), but “if you will not obey the LORD your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees, which I am commanding you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you ..” followed by a list of the sort of calamities they could expect as a nation.

Other biblical books endorse this explanation of the connection between obedience/disobedience with rewards and punishments, such as this comment in Proverbs: “For the upright will abide in the land, and the innocent will remain in it; but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the treacherous will be rooted out of it” (2:21-22). This verse may very well have been problematic for the generation which witnessed the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, and the deportation of a large proportion of the population into exile. Many scholars think that several books of the Bible were written or edited during the time in exile in Babylon in an effort to make sense of how God could allow his people to be dragged from their ancient homeland when so many of them were innocent. The ‘old’ ideas of rewards and punishments didn’t make a great deal of sense in the face of righteous or innocent people losing their homes, livelihoods, lives and independance as a nation. If it was only the ‘wicked’ who suffered, the punishment-for-sin explanation would stand up, but when good people suffered for no apparent reason it was right to question the Deuteronomistic ideas, or even to abandon them.

Biblical writings such as the book of Job are evidence of this process of questioning, reformulating and abandoning inadequate or unsatisfactory ideas in action. The story of Job is of a good man – even by God’s estimation he was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” – who suffered the loss of his possessions, livelihood, the deaths of all his children, and then a painful and debilitating disease. Throughout all his sufferings he remained “blameless and upright.” A long dialogue between Job and his friends, and then finally between Job and God, analyses and dissects various explanations for why people suffer. Ultimately Job is judged to have been faultless and the arguments of his friends – who claimed his sufferings must have been due to some fault which required punishment or correction – were dismissed as wrong. Behind Job’s suffering yet hidden from Job and friends – but known to the reader – was a story about a wager between Job and Satan as to whether or not Job would abandon his faith in the face of suffering. All his sufferings were the result of a bet! There was no cause-and-effect, no relationship between sin and suffering, no system of rewards and punishments for good or bad behaviour. Suffering is random, even unfair. There is no explanation for why good people suffer.

Yet at least two centuries later the old Deuteronomistic ideas still lingered and show up in the New Testament where, again, they are challenged and dismissed. A story in the Gospel of John tells of Jesus and his disciples coming across a man who was blind from birth. The disciples asked Jesus “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Behind their question is the notion that if someone suffered an ailment or disability this must have been because they sinned; but if this man was born blind, it raised the possibility that he was being punished for his parents’ sins, as he could hardly have sinned before he was born. The question itself highlights the absurdity of the argument that suffering is the consequence of sin, but to leave no doubt Jesus replied “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (v.3). Other sayings by Jesus also emphasize that there is no relationship between sin and suffering. In Luke 13:1-5, for example, Jesus referred to two instances in Jerusalem where people were killed, and said these people were no worse than anyone else and their deaths were simply random events: “Those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” It’s a rhetorical question: the answer is implicitly “no”!

To use Jesus’ words, we could ask “Those people who were killed in the bushfires, or who lost their homes and possessions—do you think that they were worse offenders than anyone else?” It’s a rhetorical question: the answer is implicitly “no”! We could broaden the question and ask “The bushfires and drought which has ravaged Australia—do you think it is because Australians are worse offenders than anyone else (by legislating for same-sex marriage)?” Again, the answer is a resounding “no”! (I’ve already dealt with Folau’s misquotations of the Bible on the subject of homosexuality so won’t go into them again).

Good people have lost their lives, livelihoods or possessions in the bushfires. Communities have been devestated. For a preacher to hold up the Bible and claim their suffering is the result of a decision to approve of same-sex marriage is not only unbiblical and absurd, it is callously insensitive and totally devoid of sympathy for their losses. It is obvious to anyone with a modicum of Biblical sense that Folau is ignorant of what the Bible actually says on the subject (possibly on any subject). I wish he would just keep quiet.


Homosexuality in the New Testament (2)

img_1704.jpgThe 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 GodGod 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 [1] 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.


[1] Byrnes, Brendan, Romans, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996) p.64.

Homosexuality in the New Testament

562153f47ccce_King-James-Bible-GHaving 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.

IMG_2788When 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 …

Dodgy theology (6): “your father’s nakedness”

David and Jonathan

David and Jonathan, stainglass window from St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Portobello, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1882

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
  • mother
  • father’s wife (i.e. step-mother, possibly also implies polygamy)
  • sister
  • 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.

Dodgy theology (5): the sin of Sodom


The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin, 1852

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.” [1] 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.


[1] Michael Carden, “Homophobia and Rape in Sodom and Gibeah”Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 82 (1999) 83-96.

Dodgy theology (4): “It is an abomination”

This short series will be longer than initially planned as I’ve been asked to comment on several specific biblical texts, including the two instances in the Hebrew Bible of what appears to be homosexual rape (Genesis 19 and Judges 19), the New Testament texts which, in some translations, use the word “homosexuals” and the description of some sins in the Hebrew Bible as “abominations” (including, it is claimed, homosexual acts). These texts weren’t specifically quoted (as far as I’m aware) by Israel Folau in his social media comments about those people who he thinks will go to hell, but I will cover them here in this series to keep my discussion of the relevant texts together.

In the texts referred to in an earlier post about the probition against a man “lying with a man as with a woman” Leviticus adds that “it is an abomination.”  Some translations have gone beyond the meaning of the Hebrew word and instead have “it is disgusting” (CEV), “loathsome” (JM),  “detestable” (NWT) or “I hate that” (NLB). But this is not what the word means. The Hebrew word תּוֹעֵבָה toʿevah is used in the Bible sometimes used to describe the customs of other ethnic groups. For example, “the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination [תּוֹעֵבָה] to the Egyptians” (Genesis 43:22). Similarly, according to Genesis, “all shepherds are abhorrent [תּוֹעֵבָה] to the Egyptians” (46:34). Moses also said to Pharaoh that “the sacrifices that we offer to the LORD our God are offensive [תּוֹעֵבָה] to the Egyptians” (Exodus 8:26). The use of the word תּוֹעֵבָה in these contexts demonstrates that there is no intrinsic  implication of sexual perversity. Within Leviticus several things are regarded as תּוֹעֵבָה an abomination to God because they were associated with the customs of the Canaanite tribes with whom they shared the land, or surrounding nations. The emphasis in the Levitical laws was that something was abhorent, not because it was necessarily intrinsically such, but rather because it was associated with Canaanite practices: “You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and commit none of these abominations … (for the inhabitants of the land, who were before you, committed all of these abominations, and the land became defiled)” (Lev. 18:26). The association with idolatry and worship of other gods is even more evident in the way the word is used in Deuteronomy: “The images of their gods you shall burn with fire. Do not covet the silver or the gold that is on them and take it for yourself, because you could be ensnared by it; for it is abhorrent to the LORD your God.  Do not bring an abhorrent thing into your house, or you will be set apart for destruction like it. You must utterly detest and abhor it, for it is set apart for destruction” (7:25-26). In Deuteronomy “the abhorrent practices of those nations” included sorcery, casting spells, and consulting the spirits of the dead (18:9-14). The prohibition against these things was because “you must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God” (v.13) and the implication is that all these practices were somehow related to the worship of other gods. For the same reason, making an idol was also abhorent (Deut. 27:15). Ezekiel refers to “your abominable idols” (16:36), confirming further that this word is more often associated with worship of other gods than with sexual behaviour.

In Deuteronomy eating  certain animals was also regarded as an abomination, including camels, hares, badgers and pigs (14:3-8). It is sometimes argued that these dietary laws had some health benefits, or they were intended to protect the Israelites from contracting diseases from animals which were more likely to be hosts to parasites. Yet there is no evidence that avoiding camels or hares had any health benefits, or that they were more prone to carry diseases. The reasons for these dietary prohibitions remains a mystery.

Offering an animal that had any kind of physical defect as a sacrifice to God was also “abhorent” (Deut. 17:1). Isaiah 1:13 says “incense is an abomination to me” and because incense was used in the tabernacle and Temple as part of the worship of the God of Israel this verse is best understood as a condemnation of the lack of sincerity on the part of those who offered it. These two texts suggested that faulty worship of the God of Israel was as much an abomination as the worship of foreign gods, or eating the meat of certain animals. There is nothing in these texts that even hints that these practices were “disgusting” in any moral sense. Those translations which use such terms in the translation of the same Hebrew word in Leviticus, in the context of “men lying with men”, are clearly prejudiced by a bias against the acceptance of homosexuality.

In one of the few places where “abomination” is connected with sexual practices, 1 Kings 14:24 reports that “there were also male temple prostitutes in the land. They committed all the abominations of the nations that the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.” The phrase “male temple prostitutes” is a translation of a single word in Hebrew (קָדֵשׁ). It seems clear enough from the context that the problem was not men having sex with men, but rather the “abomination” was that prostitution (of any kind) formed part of the worship of foreign gods.

We can conclude from the frequent usage of this word throughout the Hebrew Bible, where it occurs more than 100 times, that “abomination” can refer to practices such as eating with people from a different group (such as Egyptians refusing to eat with Hebrews), or disliking the religious observances of other groups (such as the Egyptians finding Hebrew forms of worship “abominable”). It can refer to almost any form of worship of other gods which was foreign to Israelites. Eating certain animals was also an “abomination”, for no clear reason. The behaviour regarded as abominable is often not specified, and the term is sometimes used in parallel with “evil” or similar terms (although in some biblical texts worshipping idols is regarded as the greatest evil). The word rarely refers to sexual behaviour. When it does, such as in Ezekiel 22:11, it refers to adulterous or incestuous heterosexual behaviour: “One commits abomination with his neighbor’s wife; another lewdly defiles his daughter-in-law; another in you defiles his sister, his father’s daughter.” There are only two texts out of more than 100 where the word apparently refers to sex between men: once with reference to male temple prostitutes (and even there it may refer to prostitution in general), and the other in the verse in Leviticus we have been discussing. There is nothing, anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, to suggest that homosexuality or homosexual activity per se was considered to be morally perverse.

Some people might refer to the “sin of Sodom” in Genesis 19, and a somewhat similar story in Judges 19 as examples of a biblical condemnation of homosexuality. I will discuss these texts in my next post.

More on dodgy theology (3)

IMG_1664I wasn’t planning to write a long series on the subject of Israel Folau’s dodgy theology, but to be fair to Folau and those who hold similar views I should cover the other texts which are quoted in the debate about the Bible’s statements on homosexuality. In my two previous posts I referred to the texts in Leviticus about “a man lying with a man” but I should note that Leviticus wasn’t actually quoted by Folau in his controversial message on social media. I dealt with the Leviticus texts primarily because I’m an Old Testament scholar. Although that doesn’t disqualify me from writing about the New Testament, it does mean I feel more competent dealing with Hebrew rather than Greek texts. However, the New Testament was written by people whose Bible was what we call the Old Testament, and they were writing against that background and were heavily influenced by OT writings, so the OT is always a good place to start. Apart from the Leviticus texts, the other OT verses often referred to in discussions on this subject are the verses which deal with the sin of Sodom. I’ll come back to that in a later post.

But first, let’s look at the text which was quoted by Folau in his message on social media, Galatians 5:19-21. The version used by Folau in his quote (the Kings Kames Version, KJV) was written in 1611 and uses terminology which isn’t in common use these days. The quotation below is from a modern version preferred by many scholars, the New Revised Standard Version:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

We should note a few things about these verses. First, Folau has obviously equated “not inherit the kingdom of God” with “going to hell.” I won’t get side-tracked into a theological discussion about this, but will simply note that they are not necessarily the same thing.  Next I note that this list says nothing about homosexuality. The closest we might come to it would be to include it under an umbrella term like “licentiousness” but that would require making an assumption about what the term means and includes. The Greek word is ἀσέλγεια aselgeia and can refer to unbridled lust and debauchery, as well as gluttony and insolence. It isn’t restricted to sexual behaviour, and there is no suggestion in the scholarly literature that is means or includes homosexuality. On the other hand, the word translated “fornication” is the Greek word πορνεία porneia which does refer to sexual immorality (and is the origin of our English word pornography). It’s a non-specific term in that doesn’t refer to any one form of illicit sexual behaviour, and can include adultery and prostitution. Again, there is nothing in the word itself or its biblical or classical usage to suggest it includes homosexuality.

While this list quoted by Folau doesn’t mention or even imply homosexuality, it does condemn “dissensions” διχοστασίαι dichostasia, which means “causing divisions”. The writer (of Galatians) may have meant causing divisions in the church specifically, although this isn’t certain. It could mean causing divisions in communities or in society. I’m not about to accuse Folau or anyone in particular of being guilty of doing this, although some outspoken commentators seem not to have realised that being divisive prevents someone from inheriting the kingdom of God as much as immoral behaviour. The fact that Galatians lists it together with  ἔχθραι echthra “enmities”, a term which can include being hateful,  ἔρις eris, “contention, strife”, and ἐριθεῖαι eritheia “quarrels” (a term which, interestingly, is used by Aristotle with reference to  those who use dirty tricks while electioneering for office to obtain popular support), suggests that the writer was just as concerned about those who stir up hatred and division in the community as much as he was about those who were sexually immoral. People who use the Bible to condemn others should take note, and take care!



Israel Folau’s dodgy theology (part 2)


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.

Israel Folau’s dodgy theology (part 1)

INSTAGRAM-GETTY-israel-folau-homophobic-1120The ongoing clash between Rugby player Israel Folau and Rugby Australia over a post by Folau on social media which said liars, atheists, adulterers, homosexuals and others would go to hell has triggered a fair amount of debate in the community. The main issues seem to be Folau’s rights to freedom of speech and to practice his religion, against whether a prominent public figure should keep his religious views to himself, especially if it is seen to target a group within the community (in this case the LGBTIQ community) which has already suffered enough. NRL player Ian Roberts has condemned homophobia in sport and pointed to the high rate of suicide amongst gay youth saying Folau’s comments could have an adverse impact on the “[gay] kids in the suburbs killing themselves.”

In this post I’m not going to weigh-in on the issues of freedom of speech or whether Folau’s comments have anything to do with freedom of religion. As a biblical scholar I want to look at his claim that the people on his list are going to hell. There are two issues here: (a) does the Bible say that liars, adulterers, drunks, etc, will go to hell? and (b) does the Bible condemn homosexuality?  In a subsequent post I will look at the claim by some people that Folau is a hypocrite because he has tattoos, and I’ll examine the verse they cite to say that tattoos are prohibited by the Bible.

First, who is going to hell? A lot of people are surprised when they learn that, according to the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”) everyone goes to the same place at death! The Hebrew word is sheol and everyone – good and bad – goes there at death. Sheol is often translated as “hell” in English Bibles (such as the King James Version), but it’s not the kind of fiery place of judgment that we find in much later Christian writings. We don’t get any kind of description of sheol in the Bible. Some of the latter parts of the Hebrew Bible to be written speak of the dead being resurrected at some future time, and thereafter face a “judgment” to determine their final reward or punishment. This idea of resurrection is more prominent in the New Testament, but it has its origins in a small handful of places in the Hebrew Bible and other ancient Jewish literature such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s pretty clear that to the writers of the Hebrew Bible sheol/”hell” was a kind of waiting room until the resurrection at the end of the world as we know it. (I’ve written more about sheol and the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible here.)

In the oldest translation of the Hebrew Bible that we know of, the translation into Greek known as the Septuagint (probably translated between 300-200 BCE), sheol is translated into Greek as hades. This is one of the words often translated as “hell” in the New Testament. Hades probably had a similar meaning for the earliest Christians as the Hebrew word sheol and didn’t have any connotations of fire or burning. The word that is associated with fire in the New Testament is Gehenna and is the word generally used by Jesus, also translated as “hell”. Gehenna is derived from a Hebrew phrase and refers to a valley to the south of the city of Jerusalem where the city’s rubbish was burned. The dead bodies of executed criminals were also burned there, and Jesus himself would have been burned in Gehenna if a rich politician hadn’t intervened and paid for his burial instead. But it wasn’t a place of torment as the people who were burned there were already dead. In fact, the New Testament does say (Acts 2:27-31) that Jesus went to hell! This is in a text quoting the Hebrew Bible and using the word sheol. The writer was almost certainly thinking that Jesus was in the place of the dead, waiting resurrection. The only place in the New Testament that associates hell with fire and brimstone is a text in the highly symbolic and enigmatic book of Revelation, where the devil, “death” and hades/”hell” are all cast into a lake of fire (Revelation 20:10-15). This text is at odds with the later Christian idea that the devil rules in hell, because here he is destroyed in the lake of fire, together with hell! How could “hell” be a lake of fire if hell itself is destroyed in a lake of fire? I said this is highly symbolic and enigmatic!

The idea that hell is a place of torment for the wicked dead is foreign to the Bible. According to both Old and New Testaments everyone goes to the same place after death. Israel Folau should get used to the fact that, according to the Bible, he is going to spend some time in sheol/hades/hell with everyone, good and bad.

In my next post I will look at what the Bible has to say (or doesn’t say) about homosexuality.