Over the next few weeks, on Wednesdays, we will be discussing Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. (See Part 1 & Part 2.)
I chose this particular book because I think it provides the most accessible and personal introduction to the biblical and historical arguments in support of same-sex relationships, and because Matthew is a theologically conservative Christian who affirms the authority of Scripture and who is also gay. His research is sound and his story compelling, and he’s a friend—someone I like and respect and enjoy learning from.
Today we finally begin our discussion of those biblical texts often used to condemn same-sex relationships. These six passages (a remarkably small percentage of Scripture as a whole) are sometimes referred to as “clobber passages.” Drawing from the work of biblical scholars, most notably James Brownson, Matthew looks at the context, language, and historical background of these passages to conclude that the Bible does not directly address the issue of same-sex orientation or the expression of that orientation. “While is six references to same-sex behavior are negative,” writes Matthew, “the concept of same-sex behavior in the Bible is sexual excess, not sexual orientation” and so these passages do not apply to gay, lesbian, or bisexual Christians in committed same-sex relationships. Our focus for this discussion is on the Old Testament texts. Next week we will move on to the New Testament texts.
The Real Sin of Sodom
Given the vast and obvious disparity between the gang rape scene of Genesis 19 and those gay, lesbian, and bisexual people seeking to enter into committed, sacrificial relationships with one another, it still surprises me that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is used to condemn same-sex orientation and relationships. And yet it remains a favorite among those who protest against “Sodomites” outside courthouses and even churches these days.
If you are unfamiliar with the story, check out Genesis 18 and Genesis 19 (and prepare for a potential faith crisis—there’s a very weird bit about a pillar of salt which, as a child, left me frightened to look out the back window of our car lest I share the fate of Lot’s wife). Matthew wisely includes Genesis 18 in his analysis because the story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming the mysterious strangers into their home is meant to stand in contrast to the actions of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, who rather than welcoming the mysterious strangers, threatened to gang rape them. The author of Hebrews makes the connection, writing “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing, some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).
“The sin of Sodom,” writes Matthew, “had far more to do with a lack of hospitality and a bent toward violence than with any sexual designs the men had on Lot’s visitors.”
Throughout Hebrew Scripture, and particularly in the prophets, the evils of Sodom are referenced as a way of reminding the people of Israel to avoid falling into the same ways. (If you’re reading Enns’ The Bible Tells Me So right now, you’re probably making some fun connections here.) The prophet Ezekiel offers the most detailed description of the city’s sins, declaring, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me…” (Ezekiel 16:49-50, emphasis mine).
When was the last time you heard the “Sodomite” slur hurled at someone for overeating, indulgence, arrogance, and disregard for the poor? Hits a bit too close to home for most Christians, I guess.
Sexuality goes unmentioned, both in the Ezekiel passage and in every other Old Testament reference to Sodom following Genesis 19. “If Sodom’s sin had indeed been homosexuality,” writes Matthew, “it is highly unlikely that every written discussion of the city for centuries following its destruction would fail to mention that fact.” This is true for other ancient Jewish literature as well, he argues, where Sodom’s sins are identified as arrogance, indulgence, and lack of hospitality.
So what about the men of Sodom’s threats to gang rape Lot’s guests?
As Matthew points out, this has nothing to do with sexual orientation or an expression of sexual desire. In the ancient world, for a man to be raped was considered the ultimate degradation, a sign of total defeat. Warriors who wanted to shame their conquered foes often raped them in order to humiliate them. “Aggression and dominance were the motives in these situations,” writes Matthew, “not sexual attraction.”
Here Matthew compares this passage to Judges 19, where we find the gruesome and troubling story of the raped and dismembered concubine, who served as a substitute for the men of Gibeah who wanted to rape an old man’s houseguests. In both stories, hosts wishing to protect the male guests offer women—essentially considered property at the time—to the mob instead, which goes to show that this was not about sexual preference, but about violence and domination. It also goes to show how badly women suffered in this patriarchal culture. Notes Matthew: “Neither Lot nor the old man of Gibeah said, ‘Don’t do anything to these men, because that would be a same-sex act.’ Instead, they both expressed concern that the visitors had come under the protection of their homes. The men were their guests and the ‘sacred duty’ of hospitality…was paramount.”
[Pause here to consider the wisdom of appealing to any of these stories for our sexual ethics…Sorry. Couldn’t help it. Carry on. ]
But what about New Testament references to Sodom in Matthew 10:15, Luke 10:10-12, 2 Peter 2:7, and Jude 7?
Only the latter two passages make reference to Sodom’s sexual sins. Jude 7 says the people of Sodom and Gomorrah “indulged in gross immorality and went after stranger flesh.” But rather than referring to same-sex relationships, the phrase “strange flesh” seems to refer to the attempts to rape angels instead of humans. Jude 6 supports this connection by comparing Sodom’s transgressions with the unusual sins described in Genesis 6 where angels mate with human women.
It was the Jewish philosopher Philo who first explicitly linked Sodom’s sins to same-sex behavior, and his idea caught on. But Philo was operating from ancient assumptions regarding same-sex behavior, Matthew argues, and therefore condemning the actions of the men of Sodom as the excessive pleasure-seeking of men who could also be satisfied with women. “He was not taking a position on the issue we are facing today,” writes Matthew, “gay people and their committed relationships.”
The Abominations of Leviticus
Even though it was decided in the Council of Jerusalem that Gentile Christians are not bound to Scripture’s Levitical law, discussions continue to this day regarding how those texts apply to followers of Jesus. Often cited in the discussion regarding same-sex relationships are Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which describe same-sex behavior between males as an “abomination” punishable by death.
It’s easy to forget just how many of these laws are disregarded by Christians without much thought. Leviticus 3 and 11, for example, forbid eating animal fat or blood, shellfish, and animals that walk on all fours and have paws—all of which are denounced as “abominations,” along with having sexual relations during a woman’s period, and charging interest on loans.
As Matthew points out, in the vast majority of cases, the word “abomination” (typically the Hebrew, toevah, which is used in Leviticus 18 and 20) refers to what the Israelites associated with the idolatrous practices of the Gentiles, leading Old Testament scholar Phyllis Bird to conclude that “it is not an ethical term, but a term for boundary making,” with “a basic sense of taboo.” Many other biblical scholars share this view, which helps make sense out of why eating shellfish and charing interest on loans might have been considered taboo to the ancient Israelites, but not Christians today. “So while ‘abomination’ is a negative word,” Matthew says, “it doesn’t necessarily correspond to Christian views of sin.”
Furthermore, you can’t get very far in reading Leviticus or Deuteronomy before you notice laws regarding rape, marriage, menstruation, and women-as-property make it very hard to argue that while Old Testament laws related to diet no longer apply, Old Testament laws regarding sexuality do. In addition, there are no condemnations of either polygamy or concubinage, which are in fact assumed within the text.
Another argument that falls short is the argument that the severe punishment for male same sex behavior—the death penalty—suggests it was and is a more serious sin. We can’t forget that disobedient children were also to be stoned, along with a people who used the Lord’s name in vain and those who violated the Sabbath. Daughters of priests who fell into prostitution were to be burned alive, and in Exekiel 18:13, the death penalty is applied to anyone who charges interest on a loan.
But the most important point Matthew makes in these two chapter isn’t about Old Testament law and its many abominations. His most important point concerns gender complementarity:
“Non-affirming Christians who want to make the most persuasive arguments ground their case in the idea that Leviticus banned male same-sex relations because same-sex unions violate gender complementarity…So as we read these ancient texts, we need to keep this question in mind: Do these writings suggest that same-sex unions are wrong because of the anatomical ‘sameness’ of the partners involved? Or is the primary concern a different issue?"
Here Matthew points again to the work of Philo, whose views on sexuality reflect how it was understood in his time. According to Philo, the great crime of male same-sex behavior—pederasty, specifically—was that males would “suffer the affliction of being treated like a women” which Philo referred to as “the greatest of evils, unmanliness and effeminacy.” This posture is reflected widely in many of the writings from the world from which Scripture emerged.
In the ancient world, deeply misogynistic attitudes were the norm. Same-sex behavior between males was rejected because women were considered inferior to men and it was considered degrading for a man to be “treated” like a woman. In addition, it was believed that men who engaged in same-sex behavior did so out of an abundance of out-of-control passions, not because of fixed sexual orientation.
This understanding sheds light on why Leviticus contains no parallel prohibition of female same-sex relations. “If the issue were anatomical complementarity,” Matthew argues, “female same-sex relations should be condemned on an equal basis. And yet, the text is silent on this matter…The entire question of how bodies fit together doesn’t seem to be on the radar. The concern we see is centered around the proper ordering of gender roles in a patriarchal society.”
In light of this reality regarding patriarchy, Matthew advocates what some might call a “redemptive movement hermeneutic” regarding gender, suggesting that while Scripture reflects a patriarchal culture, it still grants women more honor and value than many of Israel’s counterparts and ultimately points to gender mutuality through the redemptive work of Christ. In other words, we can accept Scripture as authoritative and true without accepting the patriarchal assumptions of the culture from which the Bible emerged.
Frankly, I’ve never found arguments against same-sex relationships from these Old Testament texts particularly persuasive, and I suspect that if these were the only passages in question, there might be more unity of thought within the Christian community. What seems to trip most people up are references to same-sex behavior in the New Testament, to which we will turn our conversation next week.
Also, if you want to learn more about the Bible and sexuality, check out the Reformation Project conference in Washington D.C., November 6-8. Speakers include David Gushee, Allyson Robinson, Gene Robinson, Justin Lee, Jane Clementi, Danny Cortez, Frank Schaefer, James Brownson, Kathy Baldock, Alexia Salvatierra, and Amy Butler.
Questions for Discussion
1. How have these texts—the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and the laws of Leviticus—affected your understanding of the Bible and same-sex relationships? Do they factor in to your understanding or are the New Testament texts your focus? What do you think of Matthew’s argument?
2. Throughout God and the Gay Christian we see how patriarchy and ancient understandings of gender roles affected how same-sex behavior is referenced in Scripture. How does this affect your overall view of Scripture and how it should be interpreted regarding gender and sexuality?
I will be monitoring the comment section closely over the next 24 hours, after which the thread will be closed. Thanks for your participation!