There are about half a dozen direct references to what we today term homosexuality in the Tanach and NT, and a few others which are relevant but not direct. Two of the most negative passages are found in the book of Leviticus, alongside a mass of ancient Jewish food and incest taboos, purification rituals and medical protocols. In the New Testament, there are several instances in the Epistles where Paul disparages homosexuality. Notably, at no point in the Gospel narrative does Jesus condemn homosexuality.
Another point to note is that there was no word for homosexuality, in the sense that we now use the term, in ancient Hebrew or Greek. So the text of the Tanach and NT uses circumlocutions or eumphemisms in these passages.
As far as lesbianism goes, the Bible is silent. There is no explicit mention (or condemnation) of female homosexuality in the Tanach, and it turns up only once (very tangentially) in the NT.
The King James Version
King James I, who commissioned the King James Version translation, was undoubtedly homosexual. It was whispered that "Elizabeth was King: Now James is Queen."
James I was responsible for reaffirming the Buggery Act of 1533, which criminalized sodomy in the UK. However, James I had several well-documented homosexual relationships. Although he had eight children with his wife, Anne of Denmark, they eventually decided to live apart. In 1607 he met Robert Carr, then age 17, at a joust, and had an on-going relationship with him for nearly a decade, which ended in a messy breakup. In 1614, he started a relationship with George Villiers, a commoner, eventually making him Duke of Buckingham in 1623. In 1624, James wrote Villiers a letter in which he asked "whether you loved me now...better than at the time I shall never forget at Farham, where the bed's head could not be found between the master and his dog."
In the beginning...
Some esoteric Jewish traditions hold that God is hermaphroditic in nature, and that Adam was originally an hermaphrodite. This is based on a reading of Genesis 1:27: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." This theme is developed with great detail in the Kabbalah; For instance see this passage from the Kabbalah Unveiled. Rabbi Samuel-bar-Nachman is quoted by Carpenter as saying "Adam, when God created him, was a man-woman (androgyne)". Maimonides (ibid.) is quoted likewise: "Adam and Eve were created together, conjoined by their backs." This is similar to the androgyne mentioned in Plato's Symposium.
The Sin of Sodom
Then there is the story of the destruction of the city of Sodom, (Genesis 18:16-19:29). Sodom has given its name to the now somewhat quaint-sounding term 'Sodomy', which originally meant a specific male homosexual sex act. Eventually it was expanded to mean any form of sexual expression which happened to be illegal, including things that married heterosexual couples do every day.
However, a close reading reveals the name to be a bit of a misnomer. To start off, Sodom is described simply as a 'wicked' place. Lot, Abraham's nephew, goes to live there to see if even one righteous person can be found there. The sexual theme starts when two disguised angels visit Lot. A mob, described as consisting of the men of the city, 'both young and old', attacks Lot's house and demands that Lot allow them to 'know' (in the language of the KJV) the two men. To 'know' is, of course, the famous KJV circumlocution for having sexual intercourse.
The next passage bears closer examination. Lot (Gen 19:8) asks the mob to 'do' his two virgin daughters instead, but not the two guests, 'for ... they came under the shadow of my roof.' The rest of the story is well-known: divine wrath ensues, the mob is blinded, the cities of the plain are destroyed by fire and brimstone while Lot and his family flee, Lot's wife is turned to a pillar of salt because she looks back, and only Lot and his daughters escape. In an often ignored coda to this story, Lot's daughters have incest with him by getting him intoxicated, (Gen 19:31), presumably to repopulate the country; a similar motif is found in the story of Noah. As in other Biblical narratives, even the heroes end up committing horrendous sins, driven by circumstances. But many ignore the entire context of the story in the rush to justify their own bigotry.
The sin of the city of Sodom was originally considered to be the violation of the rights of Lot's guests. Defining the 'sin of Sodom' to be male homosexuality was a later interpretation, which was made by medieval Jewish and Christian writers, as a reaction to Pagan acceptance of homosexuality. Near Eastern hospitality, to this day, implies a responsibility to protect guests under one's roof. The fact that Lot was ready to make a huge sacrifice by offering up his virgin daughters to the mob instead of his guests underlines this.
There is abundant Haggadah, ancient Jewish folklore, which tells of the cruelty of Sodom to strangers, and their mistreatment of the poor and homeless. Among other stories, travelers are given gold but not food; when they starve to death, everything is stolen including the gold and the clothes off their backs, and their bodies are left to rot. One of Lot's unfortunate daughters is burned to death for the crime of giving a starving man food. Another woman who assists a poor man is smeared with honey and left to be stung to death by bees. Some of these stories are suffused with dark comedic twists. A poor man is assaulted and robbed. Eliezar, a servant of Abraham, is hit on the head when he intervenes. A judge rules that he must pay his assailant for medical treatment! (Bleeding was considered a surgical procedure). Eliezar then hits the judge on the head, drawing blood, and tells the judge to pay his fine. See Ginzburg's Legends of the Jews and Polano's The Talmud: Selections, for many more stories along the same lines. After reading these, I guarantee you'll be rooting for the Lord to rain down the brimstone on the cities of the plain...
There are also numerous Biblical passages warning about mistreating strangers, (with the story of Lot being implied), for instance this one in the NT: "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." [Heb. 13:2]
Between the original concept of a violation of the law of hospitality and the medieval focus on a particular sexual act, there is an intermediate stage where Sodom was criticized for other reasons entirely. Where Sodom is mentioned in later books of the Tanach and in the New Testament, it is used as an example of a city which was corrupted by luxury, lacking in values such as charity and humility. Nowhere is this made clearer than in Ezekiel 16:48-50, where Ezekiel, speaking for 'the Lord God', enumerates the sins of Sodom: "Saith the Lord GOD...Behold, this was the iniquity of ... Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness ... neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. And they were haughty and committed abomination before me: therefore I took them away as I saw good".
Note that in this context 'abomination' means human sacrifice and idol worship, not shared tax breaks for long-term same-sex couples, or sexual practices you can see on cable after 10 o'clock. Furthermore, 'abomination' is at the end of the laundry list. The primary sin of Sodom, by this account, was that their society was materialistic, greedy and uncharitable. Social and economic justice is a thread that runs through the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament alike, and it is not difficult to extrapolate this to modern struggles for equality, such as those of LGBT people. When governmental and religious institutions and their leaders perpetuate oppression, it would not be farfetched to say that they are committing the actual sin of Sodom.
The book of Leviticus was probably composed during the Babylonian exile, from 550 to 500 BCE. Leviticus deals with issues of ritual purity and proscribed behavior. Traditionally attributed to Moses (it is part of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible), Leviticus was probably written by the author modern scholars call 'P'.
Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 are the two Bible verses which are most often cited as support for scriptural condemnation of homosexuality; the latter verse even demands that such behavior be punished by death. Both verses refer specifically to male homosexuality, but not female.
There is a condemnation of both male and female cross-dressing in Deuteronomy 22:5 as 'an abomination'. However, no particular punishment is specified. By contrast, the same chapter specifies harsh punishments for other transgressions: death by stoning of non-virgin brides [Deu 22:13-21], likewise both participants in an act of adultery [Deu. 22:22], and some instances of premarital intercourse [Deu. 22:23].
The background of the condemnation of homosexuality in Leviticus is a fascinating subject. The Jews were in conflict with Pagans who also resided in ancient Palestine. There was a lot of pressure for Jews to adopt various practices of the Pagans, to become just another religion in the melting pot. And so scriptural injunctions were developed which prohibited certain distinctive Pagan beliefs and practices.
Now some of the Pagan religions of the ancient Near East had male priests who, to honor a Goddess figure, emulated women. These priests, called Kedeshim in the Tanach, who, like other shamans world-wide, cross-dressed, took on economic and social roles normally associated with females and in some cases even castrated themselves. They also enaged in sexual acts as part of their ceremonies, similar to the Tantric practices. This included sex with other men.
So the rules against males cross-dressing and having sex with other men were based on opposition to this priesthood. However, over time it was generalized to similar behavior, regardless of whether it was part of a spiritual practice. The prohibition of homosexuality in Leviticus was used subsequently for hundreds of years as a precedent for the persecution of gays, and has been quoted in legal reasoning up to the present day.
The book of Leviticus contains many harsh commandments and regulations, and much of it can't be reconciled with modern life or contemporary standards of justice and human rights. Some other points of interest in Leviticus include:
- the punishment for blasphemy is death by stoning [Lev 24:16],
- likewise, a child who curses their parent will be put to death [Lev 20:9],
- locusts, beetles and grasshoppers are permissible food [Lev. 11:21] but not shellfish or mollusks [Lev. 11:10].
- Leviticus 25:44-46 was construed by slavery apologists to be divine authorization for the buying, holding and bequeathing of human beings as property.
Most Christian and Jewish groups today hold that many of the rules in Leviticus and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible should not be considered binding, or at worst, minor sins if transgressed, and that the harsh punishments are obsolete. For instance, there is an extensive debate in the Talmud (Sanhedrin, Chapter VIII). as to whether putting a 'stubbon and rebellious' child to death is an appropriate punishment by reductio ad adsurdum. And Jesus is quoted (see below) as saying that the law should consist of two rules, namely love for God and love for one's neighbor; this is an implicit criticism of the complicated and often extreme regulations of Leviticus.
David and Jonathan
There is an extensive and very sympathetic description of a same-sex relationship in the Bible, the story of David and Jonathan, e.g.: 1 Samuel 18:1-5, 1 Samuel 19:1-7, 1 Samuel 20:30-42, 2 Samuel 1:25-6. While their bond is described as non-sexual, it is difficult to characterize it as purely one of friendship.
Jonathan was the son of Saul, David's nemesis. Their souls are described as 'knit together'. David and Jonathan 'made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul.' The word convenant is significant, because in the Tanach this word always implies a formal legal agreement. To mark this convenant, Jonathan literally gives David the clothes off of his back, as well as other gifts such as weapons.
Later in the narrative, Jonathan successfully intercedes with Saul to spare David's life. At their last meeing, 1 Samuel 20:41, they are described as kissing one another and weeping together. David's grief at Jonathan's death is profound and moving. In Davids lament for Jonathan he describes their friendship as '(sur)passing the love of women'. This elegy, 2 Samuel 1:18-27. known as 'the Bow,' is one of the most beloved passages in the Hebrew Bible.
In the four Gospels, Jesus is portrayed throughout with a message of love and tolerance. Not once does he condemn homosexuals, demand that they be put to death, etc., as do some of his modern followers. Such a pronouncement would be a profound departure from the rest of the text. For instance, in Matthew 22:37, Jesus is quoted as saying:
22:37 ...Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
22:38 This is the first and great commandment.
22:39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
22:40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
And in John 13:34, he is additionally quoted as saying:
13:34 A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.
13:35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.
So Jesus turning around and saying 'Hate Gays' would be a bit out of character.
Not so with the disciple Paul. In Romans 1:26-7 Paul condemns both male and female homosexuality as 'against nature' (hence the term 'unnatural act'). Notably, this is the sole reference to female homosexuality in the entire Bible. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Paul says that the 'effeminate' shall '(not) inherit the Kingdom of God'. In 1 Timothy 1:8-11 Paul brands 'those who defile themselves with mankind' as criminals, along with thieves and murderers. These passages in the Epistles are the only four places where homosexuality is mentioned in the NT. These passages are considered to be a reaction against the Pagan Hellenistic and Roman society, which largely tolerated LGBT people and spirituality. Later, early Christian writers elaborated on Paul's themes, which led to centuries of persecution of LGBT people in Europe.
Gay Marriage in the Bible
Actually this is kind of a trick topic. There is no mention of gay marriage in the Bible (except, possibly, the account of the 'covenant' of David and Jonathan). But neither is there any mention of representative democracy, electricity, the Internet, or polyester clothing. For the vast majority of Christians and Jews (even those that believe in Biblical inerrancy), just because something isn't mentioned in the Bible doesn't necessarily mean that it is sinful or forbidden. Unless you are Amish, of course, in which case you probably shouldn't be reading this in the first place...
The Bible is a smorgasbord for those who need just one out-of-context quote to justify their personal views on marriage. Depending on which pinhole you look through, the Bible can be cited as both approving or forbidding polygamy, monogamy, divorce, and lifelong celibacy. So it is no wonder that there are quotes that can be manipulated in the same way to condemn gay marriage. For instance, the often quoted Genesis 2:23-4:
2:23 And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.
2:24 Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
Now before you say, "Aha! so the Bible does forbid gay marriage!", take another look, This passage does not say "'Thou shalt not let two men or two women get married, and get the same tax breaks and hospital visitation rights as heterosexuals." When a commandment or injunction occurs in the Bible it is stated explicitly, as throughout Leviticus.
This passage also has mystical overtones which literalists are apt to completely miss or ignore. It implies that Adam was at one time united with Eve in the same body, and the reason that people seek companionship is because they are searching for their missing half. (This is similar to Plato's theory of the androgyne). Also, both in the Tanach and the NT, marriage is used as a metaphor for the union of the soul with God, which is obviously binary.
In the Tanach, marriage practises such as bigamy, polygamy, concubinage, arranged and levitrate marriages are described as normal, as in fact they were at the time. All of these types of marriage are today either illegal in most western countries or considered highly unusual, much more so than monogamous same sex unions.
In Genesis 16 Sarah, Abraham's wife, encourages Abraham to impregnate her handmaid, Hagar, because she is barren (although Sarah miraculously later gives birth to Isaac). Later (Genesis 25) Abraham takes yet another wife, Keturah, who is also described as a concubine.
In Genesis 29 Jacob marries the sisters Rachel and Leah, who are the daughters of Laban, his maternal uncle. In the next chapter, Jacob has two sons by Bilhah, Rachel's handmaid, two sons by Zilpah, Leah's handmaid, then two sons by Leah, and finally Rachel bears Joseph.
Six wives of David are named in 2 Sam. 3:2.
Solomon is described as having seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. However, the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin) states that a king may have no more than eighteen wives.
Note that out of all of these arrangements, only marrying two sisters is explicitly forbidden in Leviticus 18; however it is permitted to marry a deceased wife's sister.
So it is absolutely disingenuous to speak of 'traditional marriage' (as a codeword for heterosexual monogamy) as biblical. It is even more absurd when this concept is uttered by members of the clergy, who really should know better.
The New Testament
However, in at least one passage in the NT, marriage is defined as monogamous. In Mark 10:2-12), Jesus is quoted as saying:
10:2 And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? tempting him.
10:3 And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses command you?
10:4 And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away.
10:5 And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.
10:6 But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female.
10:7 For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife;
10:8 And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh.
10:9 What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
10:10 And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter.
10:11 And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.
10:12 And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.
One reader commented that this passage proves that Jesus "hated [gays]". but I'm not sure how he came away with that conclusion. If you take this at face value, it says that remarriage after divorce is equivalent to adultery. The passage 10:6-9 is just a restatement of the passage from Genesis, leading up to the conclusion 'let no man put asunder'. In 10:10-12, Jesus explains the concept again, just in case we missed the point the first time around. As usual, the language attributed to Jesus is very specific and transparent.
Also of interest is 1 Timothy 4:1:
4:1 Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils;
4:2 Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron;
4:3 Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth
4:4 For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving:
4:5 For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.
This is a warning against the prohibition of marriage which has been mixed in with a condemnation of vegetarianism. This is probably a reference to some Gnostic group. Some Gnostics and early Christians were opposed to marriage in any form (including monogamous, heterosexual marriage). Marriage was considered a grave sin by some of the early Church fathers, and the only way into the kingdom of heaven to be the lifelong mortification of the flesh. This passage from the Epistles weighs in against this particular concept. On the other hand, some Gnostics and early Christians practiced group marriage, taking 'holding all things in common' to the extreme.
The sanctioned form of marriage in Judaism and Christianity has continued to evolve over the centuries. Policies on divorce have varied widely. There was a liturgy for same sex unions in one branch of the Eastern Orthodox church. During the Middle Ages and well into the renaissance, the vast majority of European marriages were 'common-law,' and had no religious sanction: church weddings were far too expensive for most people. Mormons originally practised polygamy, although they ceased that as a condition for Utah statehood. Today, same sex unions are consecrated in some liberal Jewish and Christian denominations.
In general, society has changed the definition of marriage widely, and religion has followed by sanctioning it.
Some interpret the passages above to imply condemnation of gay marriage, or to justify their prejudices against LGBT people. The reader is encouraged to look at the entire context and make up their own mind.
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