Sexuality & Scripture

The Sex Stories | Scripture 1

August 2007:  by Tobias Haller BSG | Just as I was about to continue my reflections on sexuality, in an examination of the place of Scripture in these discussions, I saw that Dr. Robert Gagnon has re-issued, with slight modifications, one of his many essays on this topic. As he is widely considered the “gold standard” spokesperson for the anti-homosexuality position, it would be helpful to take a look at how he addresses this issue from a Scriptural perspective.

It soon becomes apparent that Gagnon is seeking to frame a larger argument rather than merely citing the usual proof texts (as well as a few not-so-usual ones): a kind of Grand Unified Theory of sexuality that will cover all of the various offenses. It is a laudable goal, and Gagnon is not the first to attempt it. There are, however, two problems with his approach.

The first is that his general attitude can be summarized as, “Why does the Scripture condemn homosexuality?” This is, obviously, rather begging the question; he naturally believes the proof texts already have made his case, which he has laid out in exhaustive detail. But in the broadest sense they have not: for the Scripture does not “condemn homosexuality,” or even “homosexual behavior”in a general sense. As I have already noted in previous sections of this series (and will return to again) the primary missing factor in a “general condemnation of homosexuality” in the Law of Moses is the lack of any reference whatever to female same-sexuality, and the fact that the one verse alleged to address this in Romans more likely refers to something else. So Scriptures (definitely the Hebrew Scriptures and very likely the New Testament) neither condemn nor penalize “homosexuality.” Rather, the Law of Moses explicitly refers to one male homosexual act, and Paul may be alluding to this in a few places. (I will return to these Pauline allusions in a subsequent section of this reflection.)

The second problem is that Gagnon ultimately bases his argument not on the Law of Moses or on Romans, but on his reading of Genesis — which he holds to be determinative in establishing God’s plan for human sexuality. Gagnon sees everything else through that lens, relating Leviticus (and Romans itself) back to Genesis at every opportunity. What he derives from Genesis in this process is the understanding that “difference” and “complementarity” are key to licit sexuality. In addition to applying this to homosexuality, in the article I reference above he seeks to draw the incest prohibitions in Leviticus under this same rubric — that is, incest is illicit because the partners are not different enough from each other.

Responses to this view

This argument suffers in the critical challenge that biblical scholars raise concerning the sources for the various scriptural passages and their differing literary style and intent. But responses to Gagnon’s basic premise need not rely on the apparatus of higher criticism.

The first response to his theory is that it does not fit all (or even much) of the evidence. If, for example, difference were the defining requirement for licit sexuality, female homosexuality would also have been ruled out in the Law of Moses. It isn’t. If difference were of primary importance, exogamy would be the preferred marriage structure under Jewish law. It isn’t. One might go further and observe that if difference were in itself the basis for licitness, then bestiality would be permissible — after all what could be more different? Needless to say, it isn’t.

A second response is to note a greater difficulty with Gagnon’s thesis, based on his understanding of his fundamental text: for the creation account in Genesis 2 simply does not emphasize Eve’s difference from Adam, but her likeness to him: she is flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. Adam rejects the animals as suitable partners (which though made from earth as Adam was, are fundamentally unlikehim, and thus unsuitable) and chooses instead the woman who is made from his own substance, the one most like himself. That this is the correct reading is shown by Jesus’ use of this passage as the cornerstone for his doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage: what God has joined together (capable of proper joining not because different from each other, but because of the same flesh and bone) is not to be put asunder. The couple become one flesh because theyalready share that flesh. That is what Genesis says, and that is how Jesus applies it.

So Gagnon’s attempt to find out a “reason” for the prohibition on a male same-sex act (not all homosexuality, as he claims) fails. A Grand Unified Theory that will explain why some sexual acts are forbidden under Jewish law while others are permitted is perhaps possible; but we can rule out Gagnon’s theory on these two grounds.

Other theories

Better efforts at this involve either the concept of a divine command which is to be obeyed quite apart from any reason for it (a view favored in classical rabbinic Judaism), or the more anthropological approach (favored in present-day Jewish reflection on the subject) which sees the various laws as deriving from social constructions in a particular society or set of societies, constructions which may explain and unify some of the various laws, or at least demonstrate the process by which they came to be. Thus the incest law (and its mandated violation in the case of a childless widow) is not based on a concept of sameness or difference, but on concerns — both in prohibition and in mandate — about kinship and inheritance and avoiding the entanglement of multiple relationships.

Another important aspect of the sexual laws in general, is that far from representing a recognizable moral framework (in which all people are treated as essentially equal moral actors), the Mosaic sexual and marriage laws are strikingly asymmetric with regard to men and women: not only in the lack of the prohibition on female homosexuality, but (for example) on the question of adultery. Under the Law of Moses a man can only violate someone else’s marriage; a woman only her own. That is, a man could have licit relationships with a harlot, or take a concubine or a second wife, but was by no means permitted to have intercourse with another man’s wife. Similarly, the Law considers it a serious crime for a man to remarry his divorced wife if she has married another man in the interim. (Deut 24:1-4). I doubt anyone today would give such a rule any notice — they might even encourage it as a restoration of the original marriage — yet the Law opposes it in very harsh terms. Again, it would appear that the primary concern is not moral but has to do with kinship and inheritance rights — seen almost exclusively in terms of preserving the integrity of the male line and security of the father’s identity: with a related purpose to preserve the holy landand the inheritance it has become at the hand of God. Hence, most of these laws (as well as many others) refer to the land and its sanctity as a possession to be handed down everlastingly.

So if a Grand Unified Theory is to be sought, it more likely lies in the direction of understanding the sexual and marriage laws in relation to the separateness of Israel from the nations, their distinction in being deliberately unlike those nations, charged with preserving the holiness of the land and inheritance rights. Biblical scholars such as Jacob Milgrom (Leviticus, the Anchor Bible) have written extensively in this quest; and this approach does have the virtue of explaining much more than Gagnon’s employment of Genesis as a touchstone.

Applying these theories

This may help also to explain why female homosexuality is not mentioned in the Law. If Gagnon’s basic thesis were correct (that Genesis offers the key to understanding human sexuality, based on the union of differences) then both male and female same-sexuality would be equally prohibited, just as incest and bestiality are forbidden to men and women alike, and all in the same chapters of Leviticus (18 and 20) dealing with a male homosexual act. What does the Law actually say and what can we learn from it in seeking an explanation for the omission?

There is only one explicit reference to any form of same-sexuality in the Law: the act is described at Leviticus 18:22 and the penalty at Leviticus 20:13. It first says, “With a male do not lay the layings of a woman.” One might say more simply, “Do not (sexually) treat a male like a woman.” The wording of the second passage is slightly different: “A man who lays a male the layings of a woman” followed by the penalty for both. In both cases the word to‘ebah (abomination) is used to categorize the offense. I will address this word in a later section of this series. For the present, I want to ask, in keeping with the discussion, why there is no prohibition (or punishment) for a woman who “treats (sexually) a female like a man.”

I think the reason is quite simple, and it tells us a good deal about how the Hebrew culture saw sex, which supplements the notion of male primacy and inheritance. Put simply, sex is about something males “do” and females “allow.” The wording of the bestiality prohibition is indicative of this way of seeing things, in which men “lay” or “bed” an animal, but women “stand” or “lie down” before an animal to “present” themselves to it. (The vocabulary is different for men and women, reflecting the difference between what a man or a woman would do with an animal.) So the lack of an equivalent prohibition on female same-sexuality is based in part on the inability (from the Hebrew perspective) of a woman to act as a man towards another woman.

This also explains why later rabbinic law holds that a woman who engaged in sexual relations with a woman outside of marriage (a matter not addressed by Scripture) was not judged to have committed adultery, but rather was punished for disobedience:

Although this practice is forbidden [in the oral tradition], no flogging is imposed, since there is no specific negative commandment against it [in the Torah], nor is there any intercourse at all… Consequently, [women who do this] are not forbidden to the priesthood on account of harlotry, nor is a woman prohibited to her husband on account of it, since there is no harlotry in it. However, a flogging for disobedience (mardut) should be given, since they have performed a forbidden act. A man should be strict with his wife in this matter… (Maimonides,Mishneh Torah ‘Issurei Bi’ah 21:8)

So it would seem that there are ways to understand the asymmetry in the Law within its own context and without appeal to Genesis: as Maimonides puts it, lesbian sex isn’t sex (“there is no intercourse”), because sex requires a male.

In conclusion

This, of course, leaves us with what appears to be a clear biblical prohibition on at least one form of male homosexual activity, and a stern punishment for it. Obviously the church no longer demands the latter as much as some in it deplore the former. But is this a proper attitude to take towards this text, and the other texts which cast same-sex behavior in negative terms? In the next segment of this series I will address how we might best engage this and other texts, and the Scripture as a whole.