Thursday, May 31, 2012

Homosexuality and the Christian, Part 2: Sodom and the Levitical Holiness Code

For thirty years or so the wider culture of the West has exerted increasing pressure on Christians to accept the moral legitimacy — for that really is what the notion of "tolerance" involves in cultural parlance — of both homosexuality and homosexual practice.  Not surprisingly, as I pointed out in a previous post on the issue, many Christians have, rightly or wrongly, succumbed to this pressure, particularly many who have resolutely sought to be culturally "relevant" in their discipleship.  Whether it is due to the biblical mandate to love one's neighbor, a two- or multi-tiered approach to biblical authority (e.g., a priority given to Jesuanic material over that of Paul, let alone the Old Testament), a tendency to derive "ought" from what "is," or simply the human response of sympathizing (true empathy, after all, being impossible for those of us having the majority's heterosexual impulses) with others deemed oppressed, many Christians are open to the notion of "welcoming" homosexuals without the criticism of such behavior that has traditionally characterized the church.

Nowhere is this pressure exerted more strongly than in the academy.  Over the past generation a steady stream of revisionist literature has appeared, arguing, for various reasons, that the traditional Christian antipathy toward homosexuality has no basis in a hermeneutically responsible reading of Scripture.  Some of this, in my view, is attributable to a "hermeneutic of wishful thinking" that certainly isn't the sole preserve of liberal scholars.  Much, likewise, is the result of the shift from modernist to postmodernist presuppositions and approaches to the text (many will no doubt be unsurprised to hear of the existence of what adherents refer to as "queer hermeneutics").  Exacerbating the problem for responsible traditionalists is the presence, in their midst, of a rampant "plank in eye syndrome" that resolutely overemphasizes the Bible's opposition to homosexuality while ignoring their own blatant sin and hypocrisy (for a particularly vile example of such, see this).  Why, so the thinking goes, should we follow (outdated?) biblical prohibitions against homosexual behavior when so many supposed "evangelicals" turn a blind eye to similar biblical prohibitions against divorce and are quick to forgive other extra-marital sexual behavior (to say nothing of massive dereliction of duty with regard to treatment of the poor and materialism)?  That's a good question, but the fact remains that inconsistency of application of biblical mandates should point to the need for more consistent faithfulness in application rather than the marginalization or elimination of the mandates already followed, if indeed such mandates are shown to have continuing validity.  Hypocrisy and moral inconsistency speak to the (lack of) character of the hypocrite, not necessarily to the truth of what they inconsistently proclaim and practice.

In the next few posts I plan to to look at the major biblical texts dealing with this issue to determine what the Bible actually says about homosexual activity in the conviction that faithfulness demands theological discernment as well as the love to which we as Christians are called.  In the present post I tackle two major passages from the Old Testament Torah (Law) and seek to provide (all-too-brief) answers to the counterarguments often given today by pro-homosexual advocates.

1.  Sodom (Genesis 19:1-29)

The Charge:  The story of Lot, the angels, and the men of Sodom is irrelevant in view of Ezekiel 16:49, which locates the precise sin for which the town was later destroyed: "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."  Indeed, Ancient Near Eastern custom would have located the town's sin as a lack of hospitality.

Answer:  This charge is a classic example of a false disjunction.  In other words, it should be understood as a "both-and" rather than an "either-or" situation.  Whatever the possible literary or oral prehistory of the Sodom narrative, the text as we now have it is a constituent part of the Torah which, as we will see, clearly presents same-sex intercourse as an "abomination."  Hence the desire of the men of Sodom to "know" these men — they were blissfully unaware that they were in fact angels, and that they consequently were, as Jude (Jude 7) later put it, "going after 'strange flesh' (sarkὸς traς, i.e., angelic flesh)" — was as sinful in the eyes of the Law as was their implicit and inhospitable impulse to rape them (the same goes for the intentionally parallel story about the men from Gibeah narrated in the Deuteronomistic Judges 19:22-25).  Their inhospitality, to put it differently, consisted in their desire to engage in illicit, same-sex relations with the visitors.  Later Jewish tradition clearly interpreted the sin of Sodom in this light (e.g., Testament of Naphtali 3:4; cf. J. A. Loader, Tale of Two Cities: Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament, Early Jewish and Early Christian Traditions [CBET 1; Kampen: Kok, 1990], 82 [text pointed to me by Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice {Nashville: Abingdon, 2002} 88 n. 121]).  Moreover, the "arrogance" with which Ezekiel charges them cannot be limited to a mere disposition.  Rather, as Victor Hamilton argued, it entails "arrogance, cynical insensitivity to the needs of others, and presumption. It is both a disposition and a type of conduct (both of which are inextricably connected)" (TWOT, 1:143, s.v. גאה).  "Arrogance" is in essence the prideful rebellion of the creature against his or her maker, as ben Sira later noted (Ecclesiasticus 10:12).  Such, the biblical authors believed, was illustrated clearly in the case of sodomy.

2.  The Holiness Code (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13)

 The Texts:
Leviticus 18:22 — "Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable."

Leviticus 20:13 — "If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads."

The Charge: These laws are contextually and temporally limited to Jews living under the Sinaitic Covenant and hence do not have universal validity.  After all, the Holiness Code likewise forbids, inter alia, interbreeding of cattle, sowing more than one kind of seed in a field, and wearing garments made of multiple types of material (Lev 19:19).

Answer:  Of course the Holiness Code does not, in all its particulars, have universal and transtemporal validity.  What educated Christian does not recognize that?  Indeed, such a viewpoint is the mirror image of a simplistic, unexamined fundamentalism that accepts the universal validity of everything commanded in Scripture without hesitation or interpretation.  And it thereby betrays the same sort of hermeneutical lack of sophistication. (One wonders at times whether or not such learned advocates of such a position as Jennifer Wright Knust don't know this, but continue to use such an argument in popular presentations because of its superficial persuasiveness and emotional power.)

Indeed, the common distinction often made by Christians between moral, civil, and ceremonial laws is an anachronistic one that finds no clear basis in the Torah itself.  All the laws were covenantally-based, and all were meant either to distinguish the people of Israel from the surrounding peoples (whether universally/transtemporally valid or metaphorical/temporally limited object lessons), manage their relation to God, or regulate their civil life as his covenant people.  Thus, while Christians have, as Paul put it, "died to the Law" (Romans 7:4) as a covenantal obligation, they still are those in whom "the righteous requirement of the Law" is fulfilled by the Spirit (Romans 8:4) in fulfillment of the New Covenant promise that God would put the Law in the hearts of his people (Jeremiah 31:33).  Mere inclusion in the Holiness Code, like that of the Torah as a whole, is no definitive argument against the continuing applicability of any particular laws.

With regard to the Levitical prohibitions against same-sex erotic behavior, two significant factors must be observed.  First, the Levitical prohibitions are correlated with similar prohibitions of other sexual vices, including those even pro-homosexual advocates proscribe (i.e., adultery, incest, and bestiality), which are all punishable by death.  These, in other words, are not matters of "ceremonial uncleanness" that can be rectified via sacrifice, offering, or time.  Both the prescribed punishment and the "company" homosexual behavior keeps are, at the very minimum, suggestive. 

Second, the stated reason why such acts are condemned is worthy of an extended quotation:
“‘Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled.   Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.  But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled.  And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.
 “‘Everyone who does any of these detestable things—such persons must be cut off from their people.  Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them. I am the Lord your God. ’” (Leviticus 18:24-30, NIV)
Such illicit sexual activities are deemed "detestable" and explicitly labeled as "sin."  Moreover, it was because of such sins that God had judged the original inhabitants of the land with the judgment of eviction.  And, contra such scholars as Knust, the prohibition applied to all people living in the land, not just the covenant people.  If one wonders why such a harsh judgment is leveled against such activities, one need look no further than the creation narratives of Genesis 1-2.  God created humanity (ādām) as "male" (kār) and "female" (nebâ), the latter gender meant to "correspond" or "complement" the former, so that the two together form a sexual whole (part of what is meant by the "one flesh" relationship between a man and his wife).  What incest, adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality have in common is the desecration of this divinely-intended union via either incompatible unions (different species, insufficiently distant relations, identical genders) or the willful breaking of a compatible union once consummated.  All such activities flout God's stated design for human sexuality.

It must be emphasized that the Torah by itself cannot settle the question of contemporary validity in view of the complex nature of how Jesus "fulfilled" it (Matthew 5:17).  To act as if it does opens one unnecessarily to the ridicule of people all-too-eager to point out the Levitical dietary and clothing laws.  Indeed, the hermeneutics of contemporary application of both the Old and New Testaments is exceedingly complex, not least with regard to questions of the enduring validity of certain biblical commands in light of the inbreaking of the New Creation in the midst of the the Old.  One who disregards this complexity in favor of a simplistic "following of the Bible" is hardly a serious student of the text.

We must also emphasize that the Torah speaks only of same-sex erotic activity, not predispositions to such activity or any putative same-sex orientation.  Indeed, nowhere in Scripture is such a concept even considered, and confusion on this issue has led far too many Christians down the path to an ungodly hatred of people who have a predisposition along these lines.  That being said, one cannot with a straight face seriously propose that the Torah presents any ambiguity about the appropriateness of homosexual activity. One certainly has the right to disagree with the perspective of the Hebrew Scriptures, but one should at least be honest enough to admit what it clearly teaches.


  1. we all have to have our judgement day homosexuals is a lust not love man and woman make children procreate together and have a clean family life as god intended not same sex relationships its wrong and they will get to see that on judment day rapture and the tribulation jesus is the truth the life and the way god bless a true christian

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