Dr. Richard S. Hess

Old Testament Questions from the desk of Dr. Richard S. Hess

What does the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, have to say about same-sex marriage relationships?

Parts of this essay have been presented elsewhere by the author in denominational and seminary discussions.

The Bible and Heterosexual Activity

The imago Dei “Image of God” is defined in Genesis 1:26-28 according to the command to rule and have dominion over the world. It is illustrated in Genesis 2 as the man takes care of the Garden and names the animals (recognizing their purpose). While sexuality is an essential part of the person in the pre-Fall state, and both male and female bear the image of God (Genesis 1:27), the actual description in Genesis 1 associates sex with reproduction and “filling the earth.” This command is also given to the animals who do not bear the image of God.

The emphasis on creation in God’s image undergirds male and female (Gen 1:26-27) and the assertion of a special physical and spiritual relationship between the two (Genesis 2:24). Sin broke apart the harmonious ideal (Genesis 3:16) so that all relationships after this are tainted.

Nevertheless, the romance of union and the joy for which God created male and female are celebrated in the Song of Songs. The role of this small scroll in the Old Testament is crucial to understanding the teaching of sexuality. Although the law books warn against abuse and the narratives, prophets, and wisdom literature forthrightly describe so much that is a violation of God’s intent, the gift of human sexuality is celebrated in this poetry. Here the man and woman have eyes only for each other in a committed loving relationship.

Thus sexuality, though now part of our fallen nature, is not hopelessly lost to sin. Its renewal and joy, in that spark that remains connected with God (Song 8:6), burns more brightly than any earthly relationship. By the presence of the Song of Songs in the Scriptures, the value of physical love continues to serve as a unique sign pointing us to the love of God. It is clear from this unified poem that the man expresses his marriage commitment to his beloved when he addresses the woman as “my bride” six times in the heart of the Song (4:8, 9, 10, 11, 12; 5:1). This marital joy and blessing is affirmed in the New Testament (Hebrews 13:4).

The Old Testament and Homosexual Activity

The major texts that address homosexuality are found in the practices of the citizens of Sodom (Genesis 19) and of Gibeah (Judges 19), in the holiness laws of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, and in the roles of certain participants in various cults. Some citizens of Sodom and Gibeah are understood as standing condemned for their sexual immorality (Jude 7). However, pride and lack of concern for those in need also characterize the sin of Sodom (Ezekiel 16:49). In both narratives the forced nature of the sex renders it difficult to evaluate the homosexual aspect of the intent apart from its nonconsensual status. Thus, we may see here the degradation and humiliation of something resembling a prison rape rather than the question of homosexuality by itself.

In turning to consider the Leviticus passages of chapters 18 and 20, it is clear that they address homosexual activity. Attempts to qualify these prohibitions by ignoring their broad apodictic nature are not exegetically convincing. For example, to argue as one Leviticus scholar does, that this applies only to close relatives who live in Israel, ignores the Wilderness context (according to the context of the book, Leviticus was not given in the land of Israel [Leviticus 1:2; 17:2; 18:2; 19:2; 20:2]) and its teaching to all Israel, the whole community of God, wherever they are.

On the other hand, the suggestion that the idiom, “lie in the beds of,” refers to a non-sexual activity, on the basis of four of the five other occurrences of this expression (Psalm 149:5; Isaiah 57:2; Hosea 7:17; and Micah 2:1), is problematic. The fifth occurrence, Genesis 35:22, does refer to an illicit sexual act (Reuben having sexual relations with his father’s concubine). Further, this interpretation misses the context of both Leviticus 18 and 20, which are primarily concerned with forbidden sexual activity. Further, only in these two locations, is the full phrase used, literally “you shall not lie in the beds of a woman.”

There have been other suggestions to interpret the Leviticus and other biblical texts as though they don’t refer to homosexuality. Every such idea I have seen is flawed. I have here chosen only one or two suggested by the major scholars in the field. I am pleased to address any others. There is a reason that the interpretation of the text as a prohibition against homosexual activity has been believed “everywhere, at all times, and by everyone (every Christian)” (5th century “canon” of Vincent of Lérins). These attempts to reinterpret the texts (and many others that have appeared) serve as special pleading to avoid the implications of these Scriptures which do address the practice of homosexuality.

The historical, sociological, grammatical, and literary contextual analyses agree in the meaning of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. They are here discussed briefly.

Historically, Leviticus 18:2-3, 24-28 identifies the prohibited practices here, including homosexuality, as forbidden because they were practiced by the Egyptians and by the peoples of Canaan. While mythic texts of Egypt and of Ugarit (a city on the modern Syrian coast whose myths regarding Baal and other deities provide a 13th century B.C. background for Canaanite beliefs) do indeed describe various sexual practices forbidden in Leviticus 18 (and 20), they do not specify homosexual activities. Across the ancient world (except for child rape which is banned), only the Middle Assyrian laws (14th-11th centuries B.C.) prohibit homosexual activity. Thus, as found at Sodom in Genesis 19 (and in the Canaanite influence at Gibeah in Judges 19), homosexuality may well have been practiced. The contrast with these non-Israelite practices would therefore be the subject of the texts in Leviticus 18 and 20.

Sociologically, early Israel (who first received these laws) was a patrilineal, kinship-based, agrarian society, generally living at a subsistence level and valuing large families for economic survival. This is demonstrated by the narratives of Judges, Ruth, and 1 Samuel. These all situate the center of Israelite life in the hill country in small villages. There, extended families live together around the oldest male and female. Married couples and young families tend to live with or near the husband’s side of the family and the identity of both men and women tends to be defined by the patronym (X son/daughter of Y, where Y is the father) and the male line.

This description also concurs with the archaeological excavations of ancient Israelite villages where we find clusters of the so-called four-room (or pillared) houses, ideal for an extended family. Such a pro-family context explains the particular incest relations that are prohibited in Leviticus. The specific laws fit in a patrilineal extended family. Generally, they identify relations a male would encounter in his household (e.g., a sister, mother, daughter, daughter-in-law, etc.). As with homosexuality they prohibit any sexual activity not open to the procreation of healthy and well children. This conclusion supports a sexual interpretation of the texts of Leviticus 18 and 20, including a prohibition of homosexual activities.

Grammatically, the default masculine gender is part of the patrilineal culture and found in other laws such as the Ten Commandments (e.g., Don’t covet your neighbor’s wife). However, as the Ten Commandments apply to women as well as men, it can be assumed that the corresponding incest prohibitions would exist for the women of the household as well as the men. The same is true of the homosexual prohibitions. They should be assumed to apply to both men and women. Further, the value placed on large families in this society would reinforce prohibition of sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage, especially the sort that would not provide for children. This would explain the inclusion of the prohibition of sacrificing children to Molech, as well. Besides committing murder and worshipping a false god, the practice destroyed the lives of potential family members. All these laws unite in protecting, preserving, and enhancing the procreation, nurturing, and wellbeing of the youngest and most vulnerable in the community of the people of God.

The literary context of the homosexual laws in Leviticus 18 and 20 considers three elements: the nature of the ban as “detestable,” its position in chapter 18 next to the law forbidding child sacrifice, and its double appearance. While Leviticus 18:26 characterizes all the practices in this chapter as “detestable,” only homosexuality is specifically “flagged” as detestable in 18:22 and 20:13. This suggests a special warning against the practice.

As for the law against sacrificing children to Molech in the previous verse (Leviticus 18:21), it is possible that homosexuality played a role in religious cults that practiced child sacrifice (cf. the following paragraph on cultic functionaries). However, this connection does not appear in Leviticus 20:13 and thus its application cannot be limited to homosexuality as practiced in other religious cults.

The fact that the law, along with the other sexual prohibitions, appears twice suggests a rhetorical emphasis designed to stress its importance. Like the Ten Commandments which occur twice (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5), this other list of forbidden sexual practices occurs twice (Leviticus 18 and 20). This repeated emphasis marks its importance. This emphasis and the “flagging” of homosexuality (as specifically detestable) may explain why Paul chooses this example of sin in Romans 1 as near the climax of his description of falling away from God (see below).

The question of religious officials and participants in various cults raises the matter of the identity of what the NIV refers to as “male shrine prostitutes.” These appear in Deuteronomy 23:17-18; 1 Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:46; and 2 Kings 23:7 (Hebrew qadesh, plural qedeshim). Other than their association with the “detestable” practices of the Canaanite religions, there is little that can be stated with certainty. Nevertheless, they may be associated with cultic homosexual activity. A feminine form occurs in Genesis 38:15, 21-22; Deuteronomy 23:17-18; and Hosea 4:14. None of these figures are part of the biblically endorsed worship of God.

The Old Testament contexts for homosexual practice are sometimes associated with either gang rape (Genesis 19; Judges 19) or with Canaanite (and other) religious practices (as in worshippers in other cults). Thus, condemnation of these figures may involve other considerations than consensual homosexual activity, although note the New Testament references below. However, this is not the case for Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Nevertheless, in Genesis 19 the statements about Sodom and the sin of Sodom are sometimese understood through the texts of Ezekiel where these are sins that are primarily social sins of greed and injustice. Such an interpretation fails to mention Jude 7 and second Peter 2:6-8 which clearly state in the Christian tradition that sexual immorality was involved. I think those words mean more than gang rape which I think is also going on there. However, there is clearly a description of sexual immorality that is understood in the New Testament. The failure to include these distorts the full meaning of Scripture as contained in both Testaments.

Returning to the clearest statements, those found in Leviticus 18 and 20, I have seen papers circulating that make representations concerning the Leviticus teaching on these acts using the Hebrew term for “detestable” (to’-ay-bah). There are a number of things that are clearly delineated as detestable which I will shortly mention. However, it is sometimes claimed that the exact same word also appears in Leviticus 11 with regards to eating shrimp, and in Leviticus 19 with regards to a woman’s period. That word does not appear in Leviticus 11. It does not appear in Leviticus 19, but I need to mention it here because such arguments continue to circulate despite being objectively false. The Hebrew term for “detestable” (to’-ay-bah) does not appear anywhere else in the book of Leviticus. It is false to suggest it does. It only occurs with regards to sexually related sins and sins of human sacrifice in Leviticus 18 and 20. Those are the only contexts in which “detestable” (to’-ay-bah) appears. It is in Leviticus 18, and it is repeated again in Leviticus 20, where it is mentioned only with respect to gay sex. Why is that? What is common about sacrificing children to Molech, about incest, about adultery, about homosexuality, about bestiality? There is one thing that is common, and that is the absolute value that the Bible, the Christian tradition, and the Old Testament tradition place on human life, its procreation, and its nurturing from conception onward (I have written on this elsewhere and would be pleased to share it with you if you wish). The Biblical teaching wishes to protect human life. With regards to sexual matters, God has given us those biological sexual aspects of our bodies for a specific purpose. If they’re used primarily for any other purpose, such a use is outside of the will of God. It has nothing to do with eating shrimp or any of these other things. As far as that usage is in Leviticus, which is what we are concerned with in terms of its teaching on holiness, the Hebrew term for “detestable” (to’-ay-bah) has only to do with improper sexual relationships and human sacrifice.

Some have claimed that following this interpretation of the Bible would ban divorce and ban contraception. I want to respond to these points here which are sometimes extrapolated from my emphasis on the procreative function of sexuality among God’s people. I certainly believe that there is a procreative function. However, I also affirm a unitive aspect which is as important (e.g., Genesis 2:24). In a heterosexual monogamous marriage, both of these dimensions remain open and can form significant parts of the physical relationship. Neither are explicitly banned. With respect to my personal view of biblical teaching, I do not reject divorce (see the helpful comments of my colleague Craig Blomberg, popularly at https://www.beemboldened.com/reclamation/episode/23d1a978/23-spiritual-abuse-and-divorce-what-you-need-to-know-with-dr-craig-blomberg – drawn from his academic discussion in Trinity Journal 11.2 (1990) pp. 161ff. “Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage, And Celibacy: An Exegesis Of Matthew 19:3–12”). I also do not reject contraception. A strong value and appreciation of the procreational aspect of sexual practice in marriage does not require that contraception can never take place, nor does Leviticus or any other text of the Bible make such a statement. However, Christian disciples seeking to serve God through their marriage will prayerfully want to weigh all such questions, and not merely engage in any sexual practices where the only goal is convenience or pleasure, with no regard for God’s will.

Taking into consideration the agreement of the grammar and of the variety of interpretive contexts (cultural, social, religious, and literary), the conclusion is that homosexual practice was contrary to God’s covenant with Israel. Note that the disposition of homosexuality it not addressed; only the practice of homosexual relations.

There is therefore no basis for reading the Old Testament, whether the law or any other part, as endorsing gay sex as within God’s will.

The New Testament and Homosexual Activity

Texts such as 2 Peter 2:6-8 and Jude 7 indicate that the apostolic authors found the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah to include sexual immorality in large measure. The description here and in the original text of Genesis 19 explains this activity as homosexual intercourse.

Romans 1:26-27 is the clearest passage where the practice is described as sin and repeated as such in vv. 29-30. As Paul moves to highlight the extremes of sinful practice, he chooses homosexual practice as the final specific example. I believe he may do this on the basis of the specific flagging of this practice as “detestable” in Lev 18:22 and 20:13. All the practices in Leviticus 18 are called detestable at the end of the chapter. However, only homosexuality is also given that designation in the same verse in which it is described. The other practices (incest & infant sacrifice) are not so highlighted.

Could it be that Paul noticed this in Leviticus and thus chose it as his strongest example of specific sins in Romans 1? 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 go further and condemn a sexual activity described in Greek as ἀρσενοκοίτης. The word is unique in all of Greek literature in and outside the New Testament (before the New Testament was written; afterwards early commentators on these texts may of course use the term). The word forms a combination of the noun for “male” and the verb “to lie.” The sense is “lying with men.” It thus describes the same activity using the same language that occurs in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.

Again, the texts support the Old Testament and the New Testament apostolic view that homosexual practice was not God’s will or in accordance with His Word.

The Universal Witness of Christian Interpretation

In applying this interpretation to Christian concerns regarding the practice of gay marriage by Christian leaders, I will conclude with two points.

First, I do think there is a kind of false dichotomy which is often presented by alternative views of the interpretation of Scripture. There is a tendency to argue that, on the one hand you have the good guys, the good people who love and accept and are ready to ordain practicing gays; and on the other hand you have people who really hate everybody who takes that position. These people, who believe that practicing gay sex is not of God and not good. That picture is not true. There is far more of a diversity involved. I am ordained into a Christian denomination as a professor at a Christian seminary. A week before I discussed this at the denomination, I prayed in my seminary class before we went into a study of Leviticus. I prayed before and confessed that we would in no way persecute or belittle those of different sexual orientation. Such practice is entirely wrong and out of place. At the same time, I prayed for those pastors who have been thrown into prison in Canada for preaching the historic meaning and understanding of Romans 1. I prayed for a private Christian school in the USA where the federal court had just refused to recognize them as a legitimate school because of their teaching of texts like this; and has withdrawn all rights to federal funds. I guess that this decision will close the school. I pray for those on both sides who are facing persecution because, whatever side they are on, they bear God’s image, and therefore such persecution is not of God.

Second and finally, I want to emphasize that the unified witness of the Old Testament, the unified witness of the New Testament, and the unified witness of 2000 years of church history in the Eastern Orthodox church, in the Roman Catholic Church, and in the Protestant churches has always been that gay sex among Christians is not God’s will. This is not to reject acceptance, love, and every good thing that we can do for people of every sexuality. However, it does reject that gay sex among Christians is to be celebrated, as opposed to regarding it as contrary to God’s will. Today we in the West are in small clique. The majority world – Africa, Asia, and South America – do not generally accept gay sex as God’s will. Thus, such acceptance is not a matter of a widespread view, but of a relatively small group of the past few decades who mostly reside in the Western world. That does not automatically make it incorrect, but it does warn about superimposing our own 21st century cultural norms and expectations to alter the interpretation of ancient biblical texts and to coincide with the spirit of the age.

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