I wrote the following essay a year ago while in a Writing 2010 course at the University of Utah. Although I have posted on the topic a couple of times before, it may or may not come as a surprise that I never intended to write on homosexuality. I remember a number of conversations in high school, while serving my mission, and soon thereafter where I argued against same-sex marriage, primarily from a theological standpoint. While my theological convictions and belief in the church might still ring true, my approach and viewpoint on the social and political topic has drastically changed. I think that this can happen for anyone in the church. The primary reason in my case was a number of close friends that came out, either privately to me or publicly on Facebook or another venue. Up to that point I never had the opportunity to know how it was from their perspective. It is my belief that without that experience it is almost impossible to feel empathy for those in the LGBT community around us. Empathy is an essential factor in charity, and, as stated by Paul (1 Cor. 13:8) and echoed by Moroni (Moroni 7:46), “charity never faileth.”
While I have written on the topic elsewhere, I want to focus on the this essay. Below I try to answer, specifically dealing with the Hebrew Bible (the New Testament is whole world of its own, and even that is very limited in arguing against homosexuality), whether or not the biblical text states that homosexuality is a sin. If so, how and where? I am dependent in my analysis on Jacob Milgrom’s imminent work in his commentary on Leviticus, and Jacques Berlinerblau on the intersection of politics and religion in America. I can only hope to help further the conversation on the topic by attempting to clarify what the text of the Hebrew Bible does or does not say. This is always a driving factor for me academically.
Homosexuality: Is the Bible Against It?
In the wake of events surrounding gay marriage, especially the fact that the Supreme Court recently ruled on Proposition 8 and DOMA, many individuals on television news channels, online chat rooms, and people in general are asking questions about what should and should not happen to certain states’ laws having to do with gay marriage. Most people in the discussion already have their sides; they are either for or against it. Many religionists argue that it is wrong and should not be allowed, citing the text of the Bible as authority. Others think that the gay community should have the same rights as those of the heterosexual community, and that religion should not play a part in this decision. I am of the opinion that all people should have the same legal rights, especially couples and marital rights, and that one group should not be targeted and denied rights according to their sexuality. In this essay we will evaluate the use of the Biblical text to argue against gay marriage, and see what the text of the Bible really says in order to come to some conclusions on how the Bible should and should not be used in politics.
Jacques Berlinerblau, a renowned Biblical scholar who now spends his academic career in Washington, D.C. discussing the Bible and politics made the point that, “Some of the nation’s most contentious public debates now feature participants who claim biblical warrant for their views. Appeals to Scripture are evident in controversies over the environment, immigration, abortion, stem cell research, gay rights, public school curricula, the treatment of the poor, and foreign policy, to name but a few.” Earlier Berlinerblau also says that the Bible “is surging into American politics with an intensity perhaps not equaled since the nineteenth century.” With this in mind it is obvious that the Bible is very important to politics today. Many who believe the Bible to be the inerrant word of God look to every single sentence for divinely inspired directives in their life. It is a very important, and probably the most important, text for the formation of western civilization, and therefore needs to be understood correctly.
Many who oppose gay marriage often cite the story in Genesis of Sodom and Gomorrah, so we will use this section as a test case for how Americans use the Bible in political discourse. I was recently discussing the issue of gay marriage with my parents and they made this very reference to Sodom and Gomorrah; it comes up often. The argument is based on the traditional interpretation of the narrative about Lot, the angels, and the men of Sodom and Gomorrah approaching the house of Lot, where Lot is attending to the needs of the two angels who are also referred to as foreign men. The men of the city demand that Lot bring the angels out of his house so that they can know them. The interpretation rests on what most people think today is an implied sexual knowledge, reading ‘know’ in Gen. 19:5 as wanting to have sexual relations with the men. “[The men of Sodom] called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.’” The Hebrew for “know” is yada and occurs multiple times throughout the text of the Hebrew Bible; it is often, but not always, used in reference to sexual knowledge. The traditional interpretation is influenced of course by the next verse, where Lot offers his two daughters who “have not known a man,” meaning they were virgins, as a replacement for the angels. The conclusion is then offered that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of homosexuality.
While these verses most likely are describing the men of Sodom desiring to sexually molest these angels that is not the central message of this passage of scripture. Biblical scholars today believe that this passage is saying that Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed not because of homosexuality, but instead because of inhospitality. As Hermann Gunkel stated,
The shameful behavior of the Sodomites stands in sharpest contrast to Lot’s cordial hospitality. At the same time, their shamefulness offers the opportunity to highlight Lot’s hospitality once again. Contrast was the most preferred stylistic device in Hebrew literature in all periods.
It was not the idea of the ancient priestly writer to condemn Sodom and Gomorrah because of this act alone, but instead to show that they were inhospitable to even servants of God, let alone their fellow man. Even later in Ezekiel the author does not state homosexuality in his list of sins that Sodom had committed, but rather “[Sodom] had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me therefore I removed them when I saw it.” They had not helped the poor; they were full of pride and did not care about the feelings of others.
This view is also represented by the author of the epistle to the Hebrews, where he references the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and states, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” It is apparent that even in early Christian dialogue the narrative about Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis was interpreted to be destruction through inhospitality.
One other example that is commonly used to argue that the Bible is against homosexuality is Leviticus 18:22, which states, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” This would seem to be very straightforward and unmistakable, but becomes much more complicated upon closer investigation. In his monumental commentary on Leviticus, Jacob Milgrom discussed the difficulties that this passage presents to the exegete. The most crucial part of understanding this passage is found in the qualifier, “as with a woman,” or as Milgrom translates, “as one lies with a woman.” The Hebrew here is miskebe issa and means literally “as the lyings down of a woman,” referring to vaginal penetration. On this topic Milgrom makes it clear that, “it may be plausibly suggested that homosexuality is herewith forbidden for only the equivalent degree of forbidden heterosexual relations, namely, those enumerated in the preceding verses.” The preceding verses speak specifically about sexual relations that are condemned within family relations. On page 1531 Milgrom provides a wonderful chart detailing who in the extended family was eligible and who was not for these kinds of relations. Milgrom goes on to state that,
However, sexual liaisons occurring with males outside these relations would not be forbidden. And since the same term miskebe issa is used in the list containing sanctions (20:13), it would mean that sexual liaisons with males, falling outside the control of paterfamilias, would be neither condemnable nor punishable. Thus miskebe issa, referring to illicit male-female relations, is applied to illicit male-male relations, and the literal meaning of our verse is: do not have sex with a male with whose widow sex is forbidden. In effect, this means that the homosexual prohibition applies to Ego with father, son and brother (subsumed in v. 6) and to grandfather-grandson, uncle-nephew, and stepfather-stepson, but not to any other male.
Milgrom makes it clear that this law, that the ancient Israelite was to not “lie with another male as with a woman,” cannot be taken out of context, or completely at face value. The Hebrew itself is speaking specifically of relations within the family, and is condemning the Israelite from having sexual liaisons with his father, brother, uncle, nephew, son, etc., and not with any other male outside of these relationships. With this in mind a theologian will be hard pressed to find evidence in the Hebrew Bible that completely agrees with his understanding and condemnation of homosexuality as he views it today. This is another reason why we must be careful with how we use the biblical text, and not just take an interpretation as it applies to our day at face value, but also ask historical questions for what it would have meant to the ancient Israelites themselves. As Milgrom makes obvious, homosexuality is not condemnable today using this passage the way that theologians and religionists do.
In conclusion, many individuals in the debate completely misuse the Bible. There are certain ways that the Bible can be used in the political and social arenas. As Jacques Berlinerblau states, “In American politics it is not unhelpful to assert that one’s policies have biblical sanction,” because “a majority of the electorate is Christian…” I study the Bible and I love the Bible, but I think that Americans need to be more responsible with how they approach using the Bible. There are obvious radical views on how to interpret the Bible, and other more moderate approaches that are not as harmful but still incorrect. If we are going to use the Bible we must use it correctly, realizing that it is an ancient document representing a completely different culture and nation, with its own social customs, that are represented in its pages. We cannot take the Bible wholesale and apply its laws and rules into our society today.
 Jacques Berlinerblau, Thumpin It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today’s Presidential Politics (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 2.
 Ibid, 2.
 I do have to note here that although the interpretations of the Bible I will be discussing are probably shared with many Christian politicians, “[e]xcessive reference to Scripture in political rhetoric is an incivility rarely associated with either Republicans or Democrats. It usually occurs outside of the two-party mainstream, on the political and cultural fringes,” (Berlinerblau, op. cit., 79). This means that the use of the Bible to fight against gay marriage is more in the popular debate, rather than in the political debate. The popular ideas are, of course, integral to the political debate, since we do live in a democratic society.
 Although it does not discuss Sodom and Gomorrah specifically, this article is a good representation of the opposition to gay marriage, where the author is in dialogue with those who argue for gay marriage:
 Biblical quotations will be taken from the NRSV unless otherwise noted.
 John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (USA: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 93; Marvin Pope, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976), 415-417.
 Hermann Gunkel, Genesis (Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1997), 207.
 Gomorrah is not mentioned alongside Sodom here, but rather Samaria is. See Martin J. Mulder, “Sodom and Gomorrah,” in David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictinary, Vol. 6 Si-Z (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 100-101.
 Ezek. 16:49b-50.
 Heb. 13:2.
 Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22 (Anchor Bible Commentary, Vol. 3A; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 1569.
 Ibid, 1569.
 Ibid, 1569.
 Berlinerblau, op. cit., 20.
 Take for example, this citation in Berlinerblau, op. cit., 79, where the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas interprets the Bible extremely negatively toward homosexuals, completely misusing the text:
“In summary, sodomites are wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly (Gen. 13:13), are violent and doom nations (Gen. 19:1-25; Jgs. 19), are abominable to God (Lev. 18:22), are worthy of death for their vile, depraved, unnatural sex practices (Lev. 20:13; Rom. 1:32), are called dogs because they are filthy, impudent and libidinous (Deut. 23:17; Mat. 7:6; Phil. 3:2), produce by their very presence in society a kind of mass intoxication from their wine made from grapes of gall from the vine of Sodom and the fields of Gomorrah which poisons society’s mores with the poison of dragons and the cruel venom of asps (Deut. 32:32, 33), declare their sin and shame on their countenance (Isa. 3:9), are shameless and unable to blush (Jer. 6:15), are workers of iniquity and hated by God (Psa. 5:5), are liars and murderers (Jn. 8:44), are filthy and lawless (2 Pet. 2:7, 8), are natural brute beasts (2Pet. 2:12), are dogs eating their own vomit and sows wallowing in their own feces (2 Pet. 2:22)…”
I’ve always interpreted the verses in Sodom and Gomorrah as a story of the citizens exerting power and control by way of rape. And the reasons they refused Lot’s girls was because women were like cattle back then, it would not give them power to rape them, and also because the angels were visitors in their city, and they wanted them to know that they had no power there.
So to me, the story has nothing to do with sex at all, because rape not sex.
There is a similar story in Kings that seems to support my interpretation. A man is traveling through a dangerous city and stays the night, well some men came pounding on his door demanding he come out so they could rape him, instead he practically throws his concubine out to them to save himself. That women was beaten gang raped and died from her injuries. Those men placed her body at his doorstep as if sending a message.
Yeah, I’ve always been flabbergasted at the way homosexuality becomes the hot topic when discussing Lot’s story and not gang rape… since one of those things is a violent sexual crime.
Love this explanation of the Leviticus verse. Awesome post, Hans.
Thanks Leah! One of the most interesting things to me when discussing this issue is that I didn’t first learn this aspect of the story of Lot and Sodom and Gomorrah from reading commentaries and literature (interesting because a common reaction is that I’m just studying “wordily” literature, and not paying attention to the gospel). It was in an Old Testament 1 class in the Religious Education department at BYU while I was a visiting student during the Spring term of 2012. The professor mentioned in passing that homosexuality had little to nothing to do with the destruction of Sodom and Gormorrah, but rather that it was inhospitality. I found that idea fascinating. I discussed that with him at the time (as I did many things; ex. later Jewish traditions that Isaac actually was killed by Abraham, but resurrected) and have really appreciated his kind words while I visited. And then, of course, a conservative Jewish rabbi (Jacob Milgrom) had some incredible points on Leviticus 18. 🙂
Loved it Hans. Great post! The narrative is definitely more powerful when it’s about hospitality. And how people are more upset by homosexuality than rape is rather too strange, I absolutely agree.
Thanks for this! Super interesting.
This is pretty much the prime example of why it’s easier to believe a dead prophet over a live one. Squint your eyes and turn the Bible sideways and you can make it say what you want it to. Those prophets we can believe in. But living prophets whose words can’t be changed to accommodate our personal and political beliefs? Far more difficult to believe.
Is Jacob Milgrom God? Why do you trust his knowledge. Read the Bible and believe it. If you do not believe what you read your totally confused.
I was always incredulous that Lot would offer his daughters to be raped! Hello?! And he’s supposed to be the one righteous man left that the angels were sent to rescue? A real father/man would go down fighting before he ever let that happen. I know that as a mother, it would be over my dead body.
(Anybody see the TV footage of the father of 3 daughters in court that tried to take down Dr. Nasser, the child molester of most of the US Olympic Gymnastic team).
Don’t try to argue it wasn’t a big deal then, otherwise the brothers of Dinah (aka son’s of Jacob/Israel) wouldn’t have taken revenge for their sister having been “inappropriately deflowered” prior to marriage.