This is the second in a series of articles examining the Biblical bases for opposition to homosexuality by The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire and visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, DC.
First, and most famous, of the scriptural texts used to condemn homosexuality are the two references in the Holiness Codes of Leviticus: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Lev. 18:22) and “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” (Lev. 20:13)
The context of these two passages are the holiness and purity codes set down for the people of Israel – rules set forth both to define what was clean and unclean before God, as well as what set the Hebrew people apart from their heathen neighbors who worshiped gods other than the one true God. In a memorable speech on homosexuality at Trinity College in 1992, The Rev. Dr. Frank G. Kirkpatrick put the biblical code in context: This “purity code assumes a ‘normal’ or natural state for things, any deviance from which is abnormal, deviant, and therefore unclean, impure, and polluting. Menstruation is not ‘normal’ for women (since it occurs less frequently than periods of non-menstruation): therefore when women are menstruating they are regarded as unclean. Blemishes [including blindness and lameness] are abnormal, therefore unclean.”
Kirkpatrick further explained: “Men who act like women are abnormal, therefore unclean. Now the assumption here is that to be a man is to desire women. Anything else is acting against one’s nature. Thus when a man lies with another man he is acting contrary to his own nature. It was inconceivable in this context that a man could be genetically or biologically predisposed to desire other men. To be engaged in homosexual activity therefore was to do what one was literally not inclined or predisposed to do. Thus it was acting against one’s own conscience and predispositions. This is what made it unnatural and therefore a violation of nature.”
This is an important point, difficult for the modern day mind to grasp: homosexuality as a sexual orientation was unknown to the ancient mind. Same gender, intimate physical contact was not unknown, of course, but everyone was presumed to be heterosexual. In his book Embodiment, An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology, James B. Nelson wrote, “It is crucial to remember this, for in all probability the biblical writers in each instance were speaking of homosexual acts undertaken by person whom the authors presumed to be heterosexually constituted.” Therefore, any man who lay with another man as with a woman was considered to be a heterosexual man acting against his true nature.
The psychological construct of a homosexual orientation was not posited until the late 18th century – the notion that a certain minority of humankind is affectionally oriented toward people of the same gender, rather than the opposite gender. For people so oriented, intimate physical contact with people of the opposite gender would be “against their nature.” Such a possibility was unknown to the ancient mind. And so, these verses from the Leviticus Holiness Code must be read in the context of the assumption that everyone was heterosexual by nature, and acting contrary to that was not “normal,” and outside the will of the Creator.
In practice, we modern day Christians have regarded most of the injunctions in the Holiness Codes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy as culturally bound to the ancient times of the Hebrews–but not binding on us. These same purity codes forbid eating shellfish, planting a field with two different kinds of seed or wearing simultaneously two kinds of cloth. They would prohibit us from ordaining to the priesthood any handicapped person – not to mention women. We cannot, then, isolate these passages about homosexual acts and impute to them the kind of enduring authority which we ascribe to nothing before or after these passages. One has to wonder why the biblical literalists who cite this passage against homosexuality don’t seem to go all the way and advocate for death as the punishment for homosexual behavior! We cannot have it both ways.
One other guiding principle in these codes which I presume most modern day Christians and Jews would not espouse is the bias against women. Women are generally regarded as problematic, less worthy, and more unclean than men. A man who had a discharge of semen was ritually unclean until sunset, but a woman who menstruates was unclean for a week. When a woman gave birth to a boy, she was unclean for a week – but when she gave birth to a girl, she was unclean for twice as long! I would maintain that part of what made the sin of a man lying, as Nelson wrote, “with a male as with a woman” so abominable, was the scandal of the noble, privileged, favored male of the species giving up that privilege to take on the role of the less clean, less noble, certainly less privileged female. Indeed it is not extraneous to note that during wartime, a common practice in the ancient Middle East was “the submission of captured male foes to anal rape. It was an expression of domination and contempt, a powerful symbol of scorn in societies where the dignity of the male was held in high esteem. Here a man was using another man as he might use a woman.” Nothing could be worse. So in this context, these injunctions are not surprising.
Finally, there is the context of the “science” of conception of that time. Male sperm was thought to contain all things necessary for procreation. Women contributed nothing but a place for the nascent life to incubate. Therefore, the “spilling of seed” (male sperm) on the ground was a kind of abortion, the killing of life. This “scientific” understanding led to other proscriptions in the Holiness Code. Male masturbation is condemned. And the so-called “sin of Onan” was also condemned. Onan was a heterosexual man who withdrew from intercourse with his wife before ejaculation, spilling his seed on the ground instead of depositing it in his wife’s womb. And God strikes him dead.
Add to this the ancient Israelites’ need to grow the population. Upon their return from slavery in Egypt, they were surrounded by hostile cultures, eager to destroy the invaders who had returned to their “Promised Land.” The Israelite nation needed to populate themselves in order to withstand the challenge to their presence. For a man to spill his seed on the ground rather than grow more babies was not only a sin against God, but against the nation!
Oddly enough, we have relaxed these “rules” against a man “spilling his seed” through masturbation and birth control, yet we hold onto “a man shall not lie with another man as with a woman” as if it were eternally binding on believers. Such an inconsistency simply does not make sense.
Given these changes in our modern understandings and contexts, it is no longer appropriate for us to condemn men who have intimate sexual relationships with other men based on this proscription in the Leviticus Holiness Code. Either all of these proscriptions must be tossed out as binding on us, or they all must be adhered to. Biblical “literalists” cannot have it both ways, picking and choosing which proscriptions are still appropriate.
The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson is the IX Bishop of New Hampshire, in the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, and a visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, D.C.