Chapter 5: What the Bible Says and Doesn’t Say about Homosexuality
In this chapter, Rogers deals with the few biblical texts that many use as “evidence” that the Bible is against homosexuality and same-sex relations. Before I get too far into the chapter however, if you haven’t read my post, “The Bible and Homosexuality: Enough with the Bible Already,” then I would recommend reading it. Many people interpreted the post as my way of saying that we just needed to get rid of the Bible. I made it clear in the post and comments that I was not recommending that strategy. However, I still think we need to realize the very personal nature of this conversation and recommend that people genuinely get to know people in the LGBT community. I think there are some who too easily interpret these passages to support varying degrees of homophobia and yet, they don’t know anyone who is gay. [I want to say that I do know others, who have close friendships with gay people and still hold conservative views on this issue]
The debate over the Bible and homosexuality generally focuses on these texts: Genesis 19.1-29; Judges 19.1-30; Leviticus 18.1-30; Leviticus 20.1-27; 1 Corinthians 6.9-17; 1 Timothy 1.3-13; Jude 1-25 and Romans 1. Rogers writes, “Together they cover a maximum of twelve pages in the Bible. None of these texts is about Jesus, nor do they include any of his words” (69). Rogers addresses the first seven texts in the first half of the chapter, and then spends some additional time looking at Romans 1. For some of you, this probably won’t be as in-depth as you are hoping for; I don’t have the time to do in-depth word studies on some of the Hebrew or Greek words, nor to go through every single aspect of each verse. However, I would recommend reading the entire chapter in Rogers’s book if you are really interested in what the Bible actually says, and doesn’t say, about homosexuality.
Genesis 19.1-29 (Sodom & Gomorrah) and Judges 19.1-30 (The Rape of the Levite’s Concubine)
As you might guess, Rogers claims that the thrust of these stories is really about hospitality, not about sexuality. In both of these stories, a host invites traveling men into his house. Angry townspeople eventually surround the house and ask that the foreigners be given over to them – clearly they are not welcome in these cities. It’s implied that they are going to be raped or killed. Rogers writes:
“…in the ancient world homosexual rape was a traditional way for victors to accentuate the subjection of captive enemies and foes. In that culture, the most humiliating experience for a man was to be treated like a woman, and raping a man was the most violent such treatment” (70).
The predominant issue in the ancient Near East was related to gender, not sexuality; maintaining male dominance was of critical importance. In each of these stories, the hosts offered women to to men outside. “In that culture, the hosts felt it was more important to protect male visitors in their house than to protect women, even their own daughters or common-law wife” (71)! Rogers goes on to quote professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, C. L. Seow, who says that “the sin of Sodom is mentioned several times elsewhere in the Bible, but never in connection with homosexual acts” (71). The sin of Sodom is not one of homosexual acts, but rather is mentioned other times in both the Old and New Testaments in connection with other sins:
“In Old Testament references to Sodom, the sins of the city are variously described as greed, injustice, inhospitality, excess wealth, indifference to the poor, and general wickedness. In the New Testament, when Jesus referred to the sin of Sodom, as recorded in Luke 10.12 and Matthew 10.15, he was passing judgment on cities that refused hospitality to his traveling disciples. A focus on the supposed homosexual aspect of the Sodom story comes only later in nonbiblical literature, influenced by Greek philosophy, and also in the Muslim Qur’an” (71).
Leviticus 18 and 20 (The Old Testament Laws)
I find it surprising (and shocking) that people continue to resort to using the Leviticus texts in order to make their case about the evils of homosexuality. Yet, many still believe these obscure laws from the Holiness Code in Leviticus are supposed to mean the same thing for us today as they did for the ancient Israelites. Rogers sets the stage for why God deemed it necessary for the Israelites to have a Holiness Code to begin with:
“The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt; they had wandered in the desert…They needed cohesiveness, cleanliness, and order in every aspect of their lives…They were struggling for their own identity. Failure to form a tightknit community could threaten their long-term survival. They needed a code for living” (71).
Rogers says that the Israelites were to achieve holy purity by having unique and separate worship practices, by not mixing with any other peoples or adopt alien customs and finally, by maintaining male gender superiority. Actions that might undermine male gender superiority brought about the death penalty: children cursing parents, adultery, and others. When men engaged in homosexual acts, they were put to death because one of the men had to take on a passive role and was penetrated, which was traditionally the role assigned to women in that culture. The effeminization of men went against the Holiness Code, and was thus an abomination; the Hebrew word toevah (abomination) refers to something that is ritually unclean.
Rogers argues that seeing Jesus as the fulfillment of the law means that we understand the challenge not to follow a rigid set of laws which are culturally conditioned, rather we are called to love God and love our neighbor.
“When these texts in Leviticus are taken out of their historical and cultural context and applied to faithful, God-worshipping Christians who are homosexual, it does violence to them. They are being condemned for failing to conform to an ancient culturally conditioned code that is not applicable to them or their circumstances. Even Louisville Presbyterian Seminary New Testament professor Marion Soards, who opposes homosexuality on other grounds, agrees that ‘it is impossible to declare the necessary relevance of these verses for our world today'” (73).
It is clear to me that these verses are culturally conditioned – as they sit next to other verses speaking of wearing those of mixed fibers, not eating shellfish and stoning wives and children. For a rather humorous take on these verses, check out Prop 8: The Musical.
1 Corinthians 6.9, 1 Timothy 1.10 (New Testament Vice List)
These New Testament references bring into play some hotly contested Greek words that are very unique and difficult to translate. The words are arsenokoites and malakos. Some scholars believe that they have to do with male homosexual activity. Some professors, like Brian Blount, current President of Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA, believe that these words’ meaning is not at all clear, and their reference to homosexuality has been challenged by many scholars. To make matters even convoluted, when Paul uses the word arsenokoites, it’s the first time the word is ever used in Greek or Jewish literature; that doesn’t help with trying to interpret it either. Arsenokoites probably has a meaning similar to “some kind of economic exploitation, probably by sexual means: rape or sex by economic coercion, prostitution, pimping…” (74).
Malakos has a somewhat easier meaning to define, as it literally means “soft” and has to do with effeminacy; something that scholars today could hardly assign a certain moral category to. Yet, the word is consistently used to promote the idea that homosexual behavior is sinful today. It’s important to be trying to come to terms with understanding of the plain text, and so “careful attention to the linguistic, historical, and cultural context has led to a richer and more nuanced understanding” (75) of the text.
Jude is that odd little one chapter book of the Bible that sits right at the end before Revelation. The Letter of Jude is the only book of the Bible that relates the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah to “sexual immorality.” In Jude 7, there is a parallel made between the “unnatural lust” of angels who wanted to have sex with human women (Gen. 6.1-4) and the men of Sodom who wanted to have sex with the (male) angels (Gen 19.1-29). Rogers mentions that there is a lot of talk about sex in the book of Jude; sex between humans and angels that is labeled as sexual immorality. However, Rogers doesn’t buy the parallel:
“…to make the leap that this text somehow condemns present-day Christians who are homosexual strikes me as bizarre. In studying the seven texts that are often cited in opposition to homosexuality, we discover a significant body of scholarship that concludes that these texts have no direct application to faithful, God-loving, twenty-first-century Christians who are homosexual. What is more, this scholarly consensus includes many people who have traditionally opposed equal rights for people who are homosexual, such as scholars Richard Hays and Marion Soards” (76).
Rogers gives Romans 1 an in-depth study, and highlights much more than I’ll have space for in the remainder of this review (kudos if you’ve made it this far already). Again, if you are truly interested in this subject, I commend Rogers’s entire book to you where you will see his arguments laid out in a much more detailed manner than I am able to give them in this review. There are a few points of Rogers that I wish to share with you regarding his interpretation of Romans 1 as it relates to this issue:
There are many who will use Paul’s language of “natural and unnatural” in Romans 1.26-27 as evidence for the nature argument – that homosexuality goes against nature, and goes against the way in which God created things to be – the “order of creation.” However, Rogers argues that “unnatural” is a synonym for “unconventional” for Paul. He uses the same word when talking about how God pruned the Gentiles from a wild olive tree and grafted them into the olive tree of God’s people. It wouldn’t be appropriate to say that what God did was “contrary to God” – but rather it was something that was “surprising” or unconventional. Rogers writes:
“Paul is not talking in Romans 1.26-27 about a violation of the order of creation. In Paul’s vocabulary, physis (nature) is not a synonym for ktisis (creation). In speaking about what is “normal,” Paul is merely accepting the conventional view of people and how they ought to behave in first-century Hellenistic-Jewish culture” (78).
In Romans 1.26, Paul writes, “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural.” Again, this is an issue that has to do primarily with male gender dominance. When two women have sex, one of them takes the man’s “active role” instead of being the passive “receiver” as she is supposed to be (according to the cultural customs of the time). When a woman does this, it becomes “unnatural.” Rogers writes, “The issue is gender dominance, and in that culture women were to be passive and not active in sexual matters” (78).
Rogers makes a point that Paul still does condemn sexual immorality – but that doesn’t mean that it’s only against homosexual sexual practices. Rogers gives the example of Paul walking into a party at the Playboy Mansion, and certainly he would be appalled and would condemn the activities there. But his condemnation would certainly not have ruled out ALL heterosexual acts – that logic just doesn’t fly. I think one of the most poignant quotes in this chapter came from Jeffrey Siker, professor of New Testament at Loyola Marymount University:
“We know of gay and lesbian Christians who truly worship and serve the one true God and yet still affirm in positive ways their identity as gay and lesbian people. Paul apparently knew of no homosexual Christians. We do” (79).
Rogers goes on to discuss nonbiblical theories that are often imposed on Romans 1, one of the biggest is that of natural law, which Robert Gagnon often appeals to. To summarize his position concerning the biblical texts that people use to condemn contemporary LGBT folk, Rogers says, “There are around 3,000 verses in the Bible that express God’s concern for the poor and oppressed. In contrast, there is a tiny handful of verses that some people claim condemn homosexuality. None of them, properly interpreted, refers to contemporary Christian people who are homosexual” (89).
As Rogers closes this chapter, he moves in the direction I was trying to encourage people with my post about “Enough with the Bible.” After analyzing the scripture texts and spending time immersed in the biblical witness, Rogers argues that we must immerse ourselves in the stories of the actual people we are talking about. Over and over again, we find ourselves discussing the “issue” of homosexuality and we can tend to forget that this is not just an “issue” but it’s about real people who the church has hurt, ostracized and turned her back on. Rogers closes the chapter with this paragraph:
“In the next chapter we will interact, not with theoretical stereotypes, but with real people who are homosexual. These real people evidence a commitment to Jesus Christ, in spite of continuing persecution from society and the misguided policies of many Christian churches. The Christians who are homosexual whom I know show a profound love for Jesus and a deep commitment to marriage and the care of children. Let’s get to know them” (90).
Finally, I have recently become a fan of West Wing, and particularly enjoyed President Bartlett in the scene below, where he is able to rattle off chapter and verse all of the other obscure laws in the Holiness Code that many have conveniently decided not to follow:
I’m going to include, at the end of each of these posts, a link to an article written by Real Live Preacher, on the issue of homosexuality. I’ve always loved his writing, and I hope you will too. In his post, “A Look at the Bible and Homosexuality,” he shares his thoughts on the few texts that people use to denounce homosexuality.
This post is part of an ongoing review of Jack Rogers’s book “Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality.” For more information about the series, you can read the first post here. Individual Chapter Reviews: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6 and Chapter 7. I also share some Final Thoughts about the book here.