The Old Testament texts
The Incident in Sodom vs. Contemporary Definitions of “Sodomy”
Genesis 19: 1-11) “Two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. He said, ‘Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night.’ …He urged them strongly…so they entered his house….but before they lay down, the men of the city, 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 two men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may rape 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. Look, I have two daughters who are virgins; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof…”(NRSV) (Note: soon after this, God vaporizes the city of Sodom for its wickedness.)
Many biblical passages reflect on the “sins of Sodom,” but none of them mention homosexuality as being among those sins. The definition of “sodomy” as “anal intercourse”, so common today, only occurs after the Bible was written. Within the Bible itself, “the sins of Sodom” are specified as the serving of other gods (Dt. 29:22-27), violence and injustice toward the poor (Isaiah 1: 10-17), adultery and lying (Jeremiah 23:14), wasteful and indulgent living (Luke 17:28), licentiousness of all sorts (II Peter 2:7), and arrogance, haughtiness, apathy toward injustice, and selfish living (Ezekiel 16).
The story in Genesis 19 is not about a romantic tryst between two men who feel a mutual attraction. It is about a gang of men deciding to “stick it to” a couple foreigners who have entered their town. From a literary perspective, this passage provides background within a larger narrative about Abraham, a man chosen by God to be a change agent in a violent and crumbling world. Lot is not a hero in Genesis. Every decision he makes is selfish and foolhardy, including his decision in Genesis 19 to offer his daughters for rape.
This passage is not a moral teaching against same sex love. It is a piece of raw historical insight, reminding us of the recurring violence of antiquity. Enemies were often humiliated and tortured by means of both heterosexual and homosexual rape. The argument is irrational that all homosexual behavior is wrong just because ruffians tried to rape Lot’s guests. It make no more sense than saying: since heterosexual rape is wrong, therefore ALL heterosexual sex is wrong. The Bible is worthy of logical analysis, not irrational manipulations.
The Prohibitions from the Book of Leviticus
Leviticus 18:22 “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.” (NRSV)
Leviticus 20: 13 “If a man lies with a man, as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; and they shall be put to death.” (NRSV)
The literary context: These verses are found in Leviticus, the middle “book” of a section known as The Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The protagonist in this work is God, whose fundamental character is goodness. God first reveals this goodness in creation itself: where the cosmos exhibits harmony and miscellany pleasures.
Humans, however, have trouble getting the hang of goodness. When trying to imitate God, they miss the mark. Instead of relating to others in a spirit of mutuality, they keep slipping into control and domination. The consequence is a world morphing into war and slavery, greed and injustice.
God’s solution to save everyone from this calamity is to raise up a nation (Israel), bless it with wisdom and prosperity, and then turn it loose to bless the rest of the world’s peoples. And even though Israel itself will know slavery and war, it will also know the exodus out of such misery. Its story will be one of recurring escapes, harrowing journeys, and quests toward a Promised Land.
The first leader that God commissions to lead Israel is Moses, who joins the story after they have been enslaved for centuries in Egypt. The ancient Israelites had been slaves for so long that they had forgotten what it meant to be human…or that goodness ever existed. But Israel’s escape from slavery alone wouldn’t complete their restoration. Those who managed to steal away from their masters discovered new evils: neighbor on neighbor violence and constant warfare between kingdoms and clans. Post-slavery life, just like enslavement, was degraded, cheap, futile…
The historical context: Make no mistake about how much slavery and war utterly ravage humanity: extinguishing virtually all empathy and causing people to mutate into creatures who are terrified and aggressive, simultaneously. The reptilian brain prevails in this world.
And so Moses sets out to restore Israel’s psyche and society: through migration, storytelling, legal codes, a new religion (that is ironically iconoclastic), institution of festivals, population expansion…and topped off with vignettes of a promised land. The Books of Moses give us insight into an astonishing (albeit imperfect) transformation of an entire community.
Leviticus is the compilation of those laws that helped liberate and humanize Israel. The key to interpreting and obeying the verses above is found in the genius of Leviticus.
The verses in the context of a legal code: Israel’s first laws would need to address its internal problems. Foreign threats were real, but domestic chaos posed an even greater risk. The Five Books of Moses, in fact, single out chaos as the primary danger that human beings need to navigate. The book of Leviticus is a comprehensive approach to managing chaos, as the people of Israel comprehended it 3100 to 3300 years ago.
Most of the rules in Leviticus establish procedures for religious rituals. Sacred rites can be quite effective in healing and restoring the damage that slavery and war inflict on a person’s subconscious.
Leviticus also contains regulations addressing what to eat and how to approach diseases. Those regulations seem strange today, since our approach to diet and medicine is vastly more sophisticated. But even for modern folk, “health rules” are as much to assuage anxieties as they are to actually make us healthy. Levitical laws gave people confidence in the face of frequent starvation and swift death. Other rules, regarding blood and wild animals, gave them a pathway through a world that often seemed overwhelming and overbearing.
A poignant section of Leviticus brings reform and decency to bear on people’s closest relationships: relatives, neighbors, and comrades. Instructions about sex appear in this section. The internal chaos of community must be conquered so that people can trust and collaborate with one another, without fear of betrayal…or intrusion against one’s consent. The prohibition against sex with one’s relatives and comrades moves toward establishing this domestic security. The insinuation of aggression in the repeating phrase “thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of…” resonates with our own #me too movement. (Leviticus 18: 6-20)
Levitical laws also mention things that are an “abomination.” A biblical “abomination” is something that is especially dangerous to the community’s well-being. Consider a more contemporary way of phrasing it: that something is a cancer among us. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus identifies love of money as the cancer, or abomination. The prophets of the Old Testament warn against being stingy with the poor…and idol worship. The wisdom literature of the Bible singles out pride. And in the Books of Moses, it was an abomination to imitate the inhumane customs of Israel’s neighbors: child sacrifice, incest, raping males, bestiality, and a few obscure dietary and dining customs. Abominations aren’t the only sins mentioned in the Bible, but they were the ones most likely, at any given time in history, to destroy a community from within.
The linguistic context: What does the phrase, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman”mean? In ancient Hebrew, the phrase “lie with” signifies several things: stretching out at night on one’s bed, being put in a graveyard with other corpses, or having sexual intercourse. Such intercourse might be either consensual or and act of rape. Thinking logically, the context of Leviticus 18-20 makes it highly probable that these verses refer to anal penetration. And so we wonder, in the light of historical circumstances, what reasons and circumstances might likely have led to this prohibition?
The theological context: The fundamental difference between Israel’s God and the gods of the surrounding Canaanites centered on human worth. Israel’s God crafted human beings after his own good image. Canaanite gods wanted slaves and commodities for themselves, so they fabricated human beings. Israel sought to imitate the holiness of its God by demanding that people honor and lift up one another. Canaanite nations revealed that “you should do unto others before they do unto you”. Canaanites sacrificed their children to the gods, engaged in incest, encouraged intercourse with temple prostitutes (male and female), and thought men might prove their superiority over other men by raping them. Levitical law named these practices abominations because they exemplified the polar opposite of Israel’s mission: to treat others humanely.
The logic: Do the prohibitions of Leviticus 18 and 20 prohibit all male/male sex? Or do they only outlaw the pervasive practices observed among the Canaanites? The terse phrases are too succinct for us to know with any certainty. But the Israelites clearly saw something in their neighbors that reeked of cruelty and heartlessness. It was highly unlikely that they were witnessing acts of tender and private love between two Canaanite men. It was, however, very likely that they had often witnessed men from victorious armies raping the losers.
Males raping males is a part of the “war mentality” that exists even into our own day. In antiquity, the Roman historian, Tacitus, records the custom of conquering soldiers raping young boys in the nations they had defeated. In modern times, in the 1980s, during the civil war in El Salvador, over 70% of the POWs were raped while in captivity… male on male. In the U.S., the Pentagon reports that there are 14,000 male on male rapes per year, American men raping each other, in their own units; 38 male on male rapes in the US military every day.
It is slightly possible that the abominations mentioned in Leviticus 18 and 20 refer to loving, same-sex couples. It is most probable, however, that the abominations and prohibitions refer to rape. It is, therefore, NOT logical to conclude that Leviticus contains an eternal law prohibiting all same sex intimacy.
Unfortunately, these Levitical texts are usually “taught” out of context and manipulated with logical fallacies. The consequence is that God is widely rumored to hate all homosexual behavior. Misinformed Christians are often at the forefront of those who revile and attack LGBTQIA+ persons. Their religious assumptions ignore several logical premises: that God is the one who created people with multiple sexual orientations; that all God’s creation is good; that the mission of Israel and its scriptures is to liberate people in order to fulfill what God created them to be, and that all human relationships need help in becoming more just, joyful, and loving.
Contemporary application: If the Levitical codes should not be used to prohibit all homosexuality, how are they instructive to us? We can start by thinking about abominations, then and now: behaviors that weaken a person’s character and poison relationships within a community. It is ironic: people today who follow Leviticus to the letter often commit several abominations in doing so. They debase their own character with judgmentalism and bullying… and terrorize individuals they loathe. On the other hand, those who are faithful to the spirit of Leviticus work to identify and resist whatever abominations are threating human dignity and survival in our own times. In the spirit of Leviticus, let’s talk with one another. For my part, I’ll bring to the table concerns about consumerism; trusting in violence as an answer to violence; alienation from the environment; nationalism; and tribalism within nations. Every age concocts its own abominations, and in every age, people of spirit resist.