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THE OLD TESTAMENT AND HOMOSEXUALITY Print E-mail
Written by Kevin L. Howard   

(Also see, EXAMINING ROMANS 1:18-32--Paul's View of Homosexuality)

The homosexual movement has progressed significantly in America within the past several decades.  And the progress of this movement has inspired many homosexuals to be open about their lifestyles.  How should Christians respond to this lifestyle which seems to be growing in popularity every day?

The homosexual movement has progressed significantly in America within the past several decades.  And the progress of this movement has inspired many homosexuals to be open about their lifestyles.  How should Christians respond to this lifestyle which seems to be growing in popularity every day?

 

What does the Old Testament (OT) say about homosexuality?[1]  Can Christians rightfully use the Bible, specifically the OT, to oppose homosexuality?

 

It has long been accepted by most scholars that the OT addresses homosexuality.  The debate, however, comes at the point of trying to assert exactly what the OT says about homosexuality.  And, is it relevant today? 

 

There are several conclusions that we can come to when examining the OT regarding homosexuality: 1) it says nothing about modern day homosexuality (sex between two consenting adults); 2) it does not condemn homosexuality itself but only its immoral aspects (rape and idolatry); 3) it supports rather than condemns homosexuality; 4) it condemns homosexuality of all types.

 

The following paper will seek to examine Gen 19, Lev 18:22, and 20:13 to see what these texts say about homosexuality.[2]  It will also interact with some of the more popular interpretations of the OT information regarding homosexuality.  And finally, it will show how the OT discussion of homosexuality relates to the New Testament (NT) and to modern times.

 

GENESIS 19

The best place for us to begin our discussion is with Gen 19.  We will start here because it comes first canonically and because it is the largest and most famous passage relating to homosexuality.

 

Chapter nineteen of Genesis has much to say about the doom of the city of Sodom.  But it is important to note first the contents of Gen 18.[3]  In chapter eighteen  Abraham greets his three guests, and then God tells Abraham that Isaac will be born in one year.  While his guests are leaving, a dialogue between God and Abraham ensues.  Here we learn that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is exceedingly grave, and God is going to destroy them.  From there, we venture into chapter nineteen where we learn immediately that two angels have just showed up in Sodom.  Seeing these strangers, Lot, wanting to be hospitable, insisted that they be his guests.  Some scholars suggest that Lot's hospitality showed the inhospitality of the residence.

 

Many events began to unfold in Lev 19:4.  The men of the city, both young and old, surrounded Lot's house.  Verse 5 indicates their reason for doing such.  They demanded Lot's guests to come out so they "may know them" or as the NASV has it, "may have relations with them."  Much of the debate over Genesis 19 rotates around the meaning of the word behind this phrase. 

 

The word under discussion is yadha'.[4]  It is used some 943 times in the OT, but only about a dozen of those usages, excluding Gen 19:5 and Judg 19:22, refer to a sexual encounter: Gen 4:1, 17, 25; 19:8; 24:16; 38:26; Judg 11:39; 19:25; 1 Sam 1:19; 1 Kgs 1:4.  Also Num 31:17, 18, 35 and Judg 21:11-12 are passages in which yadha' occurs in connection with mishkabh, derived from shakhabh.  When yadha' has a sexual sense in the OT, it always refers to a heterosexual encounter, with the possible, but unlikely, exception of a homosexual reference in Num 31:17 and Judg 21:11.  Can we, therefore, rightly assert that yadha' has a homosexual meaning in Gen 19?  Yes, if the context supports such an assertion, because context determines meaning.

 

The author of Leviticus used Shakhabh regarding homosexuality and bestiality in Lev 18:22-23 and 20:13.  So why is shakhabh not used in Gen 19:5 and 8 if the Sodom story is really about homosexuality?  Perhaps because, shakhabh is not the only way to indicate homosexual conduct.  Yadha' is used to depict sexual encounters, and it could have been used in Gen 19:5 to refer to homosexual intentions, especially when verse 8 clearly speaks of sexual activity.

 

The LXX translates yadha' in Gen 19:5 as synginomai and translates yadha' in v. 8 as ginosko.  All the other sexual references to yadha' in the OT are rendered ginosko in the LXX.  So ginosko was clearly understood to have a sexual connotation.  Some scholars have contended that the translation of yadha' in Gen 19:5 as synginomai proves that the translators of the LXX did not understand v. 5 as a reference to homosexual activity, but rather to "getting acquainted with."  But Gen 39:10 demonstrates that synginomai is used in the LXX to refer to sexual conduct.

 

Some contend that Gen 19:5 merely means that the residence of the city wanted to meet these strangers.  Others say this phrase is the Bible's nice way of referring to sexual relations.

 

Derrick Bailey popularized the view that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were not guilty of homosexuality but of inhospitality.[5]  Bailey argues that v. 5 refers not to sexual relations but to a common custom in which citizens checked the credentials of their visitors.  Since Lot was not a full-fledged citizen, he was not qualified to keep such sojourners unless they had first been approved by those who were citizens.[6]  Tom Horner disagrees with Bailey and thinks that the men of Sodom were guilty of wanting to commit homosexual rape, but says that they were not necessarily condemned for homosexual desires, but for attempting or contemplating rape; it is just as wrong for

men to rape men as it is for men to rape women.[7]

 

It is clear from Lot's response in vv. 7-8 that he understood the intentions of the town's people to be sexual.[8]  If they were only wanting to meet his guests, Lot's plea for them to avoid evil and take his daughters would not make sense.

Although it seems like a safe assumption to interpret Lot's proposal-to give his virgin daughters to the town's men-as being evil, the text does not show moral approval or disapproval.  Lance thinks that Lot's offer shows his bad attitude toward women, and therefore, posses significant difficulty for those trying to extract a sexual ethic from this passage.[9]  But just because Lot's attitude toward women may have been skewed does not mean that the text could render only an immoral sexual ethic.

 

Could Lot have misunderstood their request?  It is not likely that he misunderstood their request, because the response of the men-"now we will treat you worse"-to Lot after he offers his daughters would make little sense if he had misunderstood them.  Certainly it seems, even if they were angry, that they would have clarified their intentions if all they wanted to do was get to know, or question, Lot's guests.  Their response to Lot reveals their evil intent.  Also, the similar story of Judg 19, which is based on Gen 19, leads us to believe that the Sodomite scenario was sexual.

 

Parker says that Lot's offer, of his daughters, shows three things: 1) the mob's demand was clearly sexual; 2) the mob was not what we would today call homosexuals; 3) the priority of protecting one's guest in this ancient culture.[10]   Comparing Gen 19 with Judg 19, according to Parker, clarifies that the initial proposal in both stories is sexual but that the desire for homosexual rape is not homosexual identity per se-the gang would rape or violate whatever it could get its hands on.[11]  He says that both stories are irrelevant for discussing sexual relationships between consenting adults.[12] 

 

It is, nonetheless, obvious that the men of the town intended to rape Lot's guests.  But why would they want to rape them?  Were they hungry for homosexual activity or were they merely seeking to shame these guests by sodomy?  Sodomizing others to demean them was a common practice used on prisoners of war.[13]  According to Wenham, ". . . the sin of Sodom is not primarily homosexuality as such, but an assault on weak and helpless visitors. . . ."[14]  White says that, ". . . the crime the Sodomites in fact intend is an act of trespass with sexual assault as a lesser included offense."[15]

 

Destruction came upon them because of ". . . the violence of its homosexuality."[16]  There are, however, those who think that the immoral issue in focus in Gen 19 and Judg 19 is merely inhospitality even though rape may have been intended.  Matthews argues that Lot, being a resident alien, had no right to show the strangers hospitality.[17] 

But because Lot did, the town's people were angry with him and his guests.   

 

Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because wicked people filled the cities.  Their sins were undoubtedly many, but certainly their sins included same-sex intent.  This does not deny that they were inhospitable, but their inhospitality must not be divorced from their sexual intentions.  The text says nothing about whether these people were truly craving homosexual intercourse or merely wanting to sodomize these men to shame them.  The text does not care about such things; it shows God's disapproval on such activity.  Genesis 19 depicts Sodom and Gomorrah's destruction as primarily because of their evil intent to rape Lot's guests and to harm him.

 

The main immoral issue in focus in Gen 19 is rape.  And some scholars claim this passage says nothing about same-sex encounters.  But of course sexual behavior is also a part of the whole story.  Some contend, nonetheless, that the real issue is rape and not same-sex intercourse.  This assertion seems right, but it does not pronounce same-sex relations moral or neutral. 

 

Lance uses the story in Gen 34-where Jacob's sons destroy Shechem for participating in the rape of Dinah, Jacob's daughter-to support his argument.  According to Lance, we cannot logically argue that Gen 34 condemns all heterosexual intercourse anymore than we can use Gen 19 or Judg 19 to say that all types of homosexual intercourse are condemned.[18]  But his illustration is weak at this point-Scripture tells us that heterosexual intercourse is morally acceptable under certain conditions (e.g., marriage), whereas Scripture never condones same-sex activity.  Rather it condemns same-sex relations.  In other words, just because the main focus of Gen 19 may not be homosexuality, we cannot extrapolate from the text that homosexuality is okay, especially when other passages dealing with same-sex intercourse warrant the opposite conclusion.

 

The Gen 19 story alone does not give us enough evidence to say that same-sex intercourse contradicts God's will, but neither can we conclude from Gen 19 that it is morally acceptable.  Actually, the remaining verses in Scripture-that refer to either Sodom/Gomorrah or to homosexual conduct-give no reason to believe that God would ever approve of homosexual activity.  In fact, they lead us to believe God disapproves.

 

OT REFERENCES TO SODOM AND GOMORRAH

Deut 29:23-This verse speaks of Sodom and Gomorrah's destruction and overthrow.  Israel will face the same ruin if they forsake God's covenant to serve idols.  (Note "abominations" in v. 17).

 

Duet 32:32-Sodom and Gomorrah are associated with metaphorically poison grape vines and bitter wine.

 

Is 1:9-10-Sodom and Gomorrah are associated with oblivion.  The people of Judah are referred to as the rulers of Sodom and the people of Gomorrah.  The verses proceed to associate the people of Judah with religious hypocrisy and injustice.  (Note  "abomination" in v. 13).

 

Is 3:9-Sodom, with no mention of Gomorrah, is mentioned in connection with those who are not ashamed of their sin.

 

Is 13:19-The overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah is compared to what will happen to Babylon.

 

Jer 23:14-The prophets of Jerusalem are compared with the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah (adultery, falsehood, etc.).

 

Jer 49:18-Edom's coming destruction is compared to the complete ruin of Sodom and Gomorrah.

 

Jer 50:40-Those who have taken God's people captive will be completely overthrown just as Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.

 

Lam 4:6-The iniquity of the daughter of God's people is greater than the sin of Sodom, which was overthrown in a moment.  Gomorrah is not mentioned.

 

Ezk 16:46, 48-49, 53, 55-56-In this context, God speaks to Jerusalem and compares their unfaithfulness to adultery.  Describing Jerusalem's sin, she is said to be closely related to the Hittites, the Amorites, the Samaritans, and the Sodomites.  God says that Jerusalem is guilty of more sins than Sodom.  Sodom was guilty of arrogance, abundant food, and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.  Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before God.  God says that He will restore the captivity of Sodom, Samaria, and Jerusalem so that they will return to their former state.  The pride of Jerusalem is emphasized over the sins of these "close relatives."  Gomorrah is not mentioned in Ezekiel.

 

Amos 4:11-Israel's overthrow is compared to the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah's.

 

Zeph 2:9-Because of Moab and Ammon's pride they are predicted to be a perpetual desolation like Sodom and Gomorrah.

 

From the above OT references of Sodom and Gomorrah, we note that these two cities are either connected with explicit sin or total destruction.  None of these passages clearly refers to homosexuality.  Usually the sins associated with Sodom and Gomorrah are sins such as pride or lack of concern for the poor.  But none of these passages rule out the homosexual interpretation.  Actually, some of these passages associate sexual vice and "abominations" with Sodom and Gomorrah. 

 

We must keep in mind that these references do not clearly speak of Sodom and Gomorrah in connection with intentions of rape, but the Gen 19 passage seems clear that rape was the mob's intention.  Therefore, just because these other OT references do not explicitly mention same-sex relations does not negate the same-sex element of the Gen 19 story.

 

Even though it must be admitted that some of the OT and NT references (Matt 10:15; 11:23-24; Mk 6:11; Lk 10:12; 17:29; Rom 9:29; 2 Pet 2:6; Jude 7; Rev 11:8) to Sodom and Gomorrah focus on inhospitality, we can still legitimately conclude that homosexuality was part of the mob's inhospitality in Gen 19.[19]

 

LEVITICUS 18:22 AND 20:13[20]

Leviticus 18:22 says, "You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination" (NASV), and Lev 20:13 says, "If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a women, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death.  Their bloodguiltiness is upon them" (NASV). 

 

Note the apodictic form in chapter 18 and the casuistic form in chapter 20.[21]  Parker points out that Lev 18 used the second person singular for all of its commands and that the commands in Lev 20 are in the third person singular; he concludes, therefore, that each section must have been composed by different authors.[22]  But we must not assume that such a writing style indicates different authorship.  Such a multi-author theory forces modern ideologies onto the ancient text.

 

The Levitical texts are straightforward and concise.  The use of "male" rather than "man" or "youth" in reference to the passive partner, shows that God forbid all types of male-male intercourse.[23] 

 

Few people contend that Leviticus refers to something other than same-sex relations, and of those who do, even fewer are Bible scholars.  But some people have suggested that the two relevant Levitical passages are not condemning same-sex relationships per se but only those connected with idolatry.  Even though idolatry is relevant to the context (18:21; 20:5), we cannot say that Leviticus merely condemns homosexual relations related to idolatry at the exclusion of "God-fearing" same-sex intercourse, because Lev 20:11-12, 14 directly relate to sexual behavior.  These sins are condemned because of their immoral nature rather than merely because these practices involve idolatry.

 

Certain scholars might say that the OT does not address those born homosexual or those who have a loving and consenting relationship with another adult.  Therefore, according to some, homosexual acts are morally acceptable.  But these arguments only cloud the real issue at stake in Scripture.  These Levitical verses are not concerned with whether two people of the same sex love each other while they are having sex, rather it condemns such activity without conditions.

 

One main difference between Lev 18:22 and 20:13 is that the second passage includes the death penalty.  Some Christians think homosexuals should still be put to death for their sin, but not all Christians feel this way.  We do not live under a theonomy as OT believers did.  And since we do not, we must allow for the possibility that not all sins and crimes should be dealt with in our society with the same measures that they were dealt with in the OT.  Suffice it to say that, in light of the changes the NT era brings, the death penalty is not necessary for all the sins that required capital punishment in the OT.  (For a defense of capital punishment for murderers, see article.)

 

But how do we justly say that homosexuality is wrong without also saying that wearing mixed clothing, having sex with one's wife during her menstrual period, breaking the Sabbath, or cutting one's beard is wrong?  This is by no means an easy question to answer.  And it certainly cannot be answered adequately in the remainder of this paper. 

 

There are at least two basic schools of thought on how the OT relates to today, and both thoughts see the NT as the key to understanding how we should live: one says the ethical system in the OT is automatically applied to us today unless the NT cancels it out.  The other says none of the rituals from the OT are applied to today unless the NT indicates so.  Determining which view is right is of paramount importance, but that issue will not be dealt with in this paper.            

 

The short answer will work here.  Some of the ethical codes found in the OT were specific to certain settings and other ethical regulations were trans-cultural.  We believe that some things in the OT are canceled out by the NT, and other things are reinforced, or even introduced, by the NT.  In short, we can assert that homosexuality is wrong even if the OT had never existed, because the NT tells us that homosexual acts are wrong.

 

Christians can, therefore, stand on solid biblical ground when they assert that homosexual activity is wrong.  Homosexual activists are wrong to promote their lifestyles and to seek special rights because of their sexual behavior.  The OT says homosexual behavior is wrong and the NT gives no reason to think otherwise.

 

ENDNOTES

 

[1] There will be no distinction made in this paper between homosexuality and homosexual acts.

 

[2] Other possible references in the OT to homosexual intercourse will not be dealt with in this paper: Deut 22:5; 23:17; 1 Kgs 14:24; 15:12; 22:46; 2 Kgs 23:7; Job 31:31-32; 36:14.

 

[3] Note Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16-50, Word Bible Commentary, vol. 2 (Dallas: Word, 1994), pp. 43-44, where he points out the parallel language between chapters 18 and 19.

 

[4] Much of the following information in the next three paragraphs is based upon information taken from James De Young, "The Contributions of the Septuagint to Biblical Sanctions Against Homosexuality," JETS 34 (1991): 158-161.

 

[5] In John Boswell's significant work, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 94, he supports this view.

 

[6] Derrick Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (Hamden: Conn.: Archon, 1975 reprint from 1955), 4-5.

 

[7] Jonathan Loved David. Homosexuality in Biblical Times (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), 48.

 

[8] See the similarities between Genesis 19 and Judges 19.  Few serious OT scholars doubt the Sodomite men's intentions of same-sex rape.

 

[9] "The Bible and Homosexuality," 141.

 

[10] Simon Parker, "The Hebrew Bible and Homosexuality," Quarterly Review 11 (1991): 6.

 

[11] Ibid, 8.

 

[12] Ibid.

 

[13] Gordon Wenham, "The Old Testament Attitude to Homosexuality," The Expository Times, Sept. 1991, vol. 102, p. 361.

 

[14] Ibid.

 

[15] Leland White, "Does the Bible Speak about Gays or Same-Sex Orientation? A Test Case in Biblical Ethics: Part I," Biblical Theological Bulletin 25 (1995): 20.

 

[16] David Wright, "Homosexuality: The Relevance of the Bible," The Evangelical Quarterly 61 (1989): 292.

 

[17] Victor Matthews, "Hospitality and Hostility in Genesis 19 and Judges 19," Biblical Theological Bulletin 22 (1992): 4.

 

[18] "The Bible and Homosexuality," 144.

 

[19] See E. A. Speiser, "Genesis," The Anchor Bible (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964), 142, where he thinks that OT writers disputed the reason for Sodom's destruction.  But such assertions are unnecessary.  Also, see Thomas Schmidt, Straight and Narrow? (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995), 87-88, for several possible reasons as to why other biblical references were not explicit about same-sex acts in Sodom and Gomorrah.  See pages 93-99 of Schmidt's book for treatment on NT references to Sodom and Gomorrah.  Further, see H. Darrell Lance, "The Bible and Homosexuality," American Baptist Quarterly 8 (1989): 141-43, where he also briefly looks at other OT references to Sodom.

 

[20] Note the LXX use of arsenos koitan in Lev 20:13 and the word arsenokoitai used in 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10 which most likely indicates that Paul coined his word from Leviticus.

 

[21] R. Laird Harris, "Genesis," Expositors Bible Commentary, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), p. 612.

 

[22] "The Hebrew Bible and Homosexuality," 13.

 

[23] Wenham, "The Old Testament Attitude to Homosexuality," 362.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

De Young, James. "The Contributions of the Septuagint to Biblical Sanctions Against Homosexuality." Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 34 (1991): 157-77.

 

Bailey, Derrick. Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition. Hamden: Conn.: Archon, 1975 reprint from 1955.

 

Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

 

Harris, R. Laird. "Genesis." Expositors Bible Commentary.     Vol. 2. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

 

Horner, Tom. Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978.

 

Lance, H. Darrell. "The Bible and Homosexuality." American Baptist Quarterly 8 (1989): 140-51.

 

Matthews, Victor. "Hospitality and Hostility in Genesis 19 and Judges 19." Biblical Theological Bulletin 22 (1992): 3-11.

 

Parker, Simon "The Hebrew Bible and Homosexuality." Quarterly Review 11 (1991): 4-19.

 

Schmidt, Thomas. Straight and Narrow? Downers Grove: IVP, 1995.

 

Speiser, E. A. "Genesis." The Anchor Bible. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964.

 

Wenham, Gordon. Genesis 16-50. Word Bible Commentary. Vol. 2. Dallas: Word, 1994.

 

________.  "The Old Testament Attitude to Homosexuality." The Expository Times 102 (1991): 359-63.

 

White, Leland. "Does the Bible Speak about Gays or Same-Sex Orientation? A Test Case in Biblical Ethics: Part I." Biblical Theological Bulletin 25 (1995): 14-23.

 

Wright, David. "Homosexuality: The Relevance of the Bible." The Evangelical Quarterly 61 (1989): 291-300.

 

Also see, EXAMINING ROMANS 1:18-32--Paul's View of Homosexuality

 
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