In the previous essay in this series on “The Bible and Christian Ethics” I argued that given the 2,000-year consensus of the Christian tradition on the subject of same-sex relationships, the contemporary church corporately and individually is “fully justified in being extremely skeptical of the argument made by some individuals that it has been wrong all these years in its understanding of…the teaching of the scriptures.” Traditional believers do not bear the burden of proof to justify their continued adherence to the traditional view of same-sex relationships.
Today I will examine a representative example of an argument that is used to set aside the 2,000-year consensus on the meaning of the Bible’s statements condemning same-sex intercourse. In his article “Seven Gay Texts: Biblical Passages Used to Condemn Homosexuality” (Biblical Theology Bulletin 45. 2: 68-87), Robert K. Gnuse aims to demonstrate that “there is no passage in the biblical text that truly condemns a sexual relationship between two adult, free people, who truly love each other” (p. 85). Hence the biblical passages that are traditionally used to condemn homosexual acts are irrelevant to the modern debate and “should not be called forth in the condemnation of gay and lesbian people in our society today” (p. 85). I will not take the space to do a full review of the very sophisticated historical and exegetical aspects of his argument. I will concentrate, rather, on the theological conclusions he draws from his exegetical work.
As the title indicates, the article examines the seven biblical passages most sited as condemning homosexual relationships. None of the passages, Gnuse argues, addresses the case of loving, adult relationships. All are directed at some abusive situation where there is idolatry, prostitution, lack of consent, or coercion. I will briefly summarize what he says about each passage.
“Seven Gay Texts”
The Curse of Ham (Genesis 9:20-27)
In this passage Ham, one of the three sons of Noah, looked on the naked body of his drunk father. After Noah sobered up he cursed Ham and his descendants. It is sometimes argued that Ham performed some sort of homosexual act on his unconscious father, which is the reason for the curse. The story is taken, then, to condemn homosexual acts in general. In response to this theological use of the text Gnuse points out that even if the text speaks of a homosexual act, it is also an act of incest and rape. The passage, then, cannot be used to condemn same-sex activity in general.
Sodom (Genesis 19:1-11; compare Judges 19:15-28)
This passage tells the story of the visit of two angels (apparently disguised as men) to the house of Lot and the demand by the men of the city of Sodom that Lot give his visitors to them so that they can rape them. Lot offers the men of the city his daughters instead, but the men angrily insist on having the visitors. In response, the angels struck the men with blindness. This story has been presented as proof of the Bible’s severe condemnation of homosexuality, so much so that the name of the city became a designation for homosexual acts and persons: Sodomy and Sodomite. Gnuse points out that homosexual rape (by heterosexuals) of strangers, slaves, and foreigners was a common way in the ancient world to humiliate and dominate vulnerable people. According to Gnuse, then, this passage condemns the men of Sodom for attempting to rape Lot’s visitors to whom he had given shelter. It “has nothing to do with homosexuality between free consenting adults in a loving relationship” (p. 73).
Leviticus 18:21-24 and 20:13
Leviticus 18: 21-24 condemns three practices: sacrificing children to Molech, same-sex intercourse, and bestiality. Verse 22 addresses same-sex intercourse: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is abomination.” Traditionally, verse 22 has been taken as a clear condemnation of homosexual intercourse in general. And, apart from consideration of the context, verse 22 seems to condemn all forms of this behavior, no matter what the circumstances. Gnuse, however, argues that this verse may be directed to practices common in the cultic worship of Canaanite gods. Interestingly, Gnuse admits the possibility that the prohibition could refer to homosexual relations in general. But even if it does so, Gnuse attributes the prohibition to the Israelite obsession with maximizing population growth “because as a people they always faced a chronic population shortage” (p. 76). Implicit in Gnuse’s explanation is the thought that the waste of sperm and absence of reproduction are the real sins, not the same-sex acts themselves. If these concerns were removed, as they are in contemporary circumstances, the text would lose its force as a general moral rule. I will make one critical observation at this point. Notice that verse 21 does not explicitly condemn child sacrifice in general but only that made to Molech. According to the reasoning employed by Gnuse in dealing with verse 22, verse 21 leaves open the possibility of sacrificing children to gods other than Molech.
Leviticus 20:13 says, “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.” On the face of it, this text condemns in very harsh terms homosexual intercourse in general. Gnuse takes this text also to refer to cultic prostitution, which would involve worshiping a Canaanite god or goddess. Gnuse concludes: “The real question is what the text really condemns, whether it be all homosexual behavior or cultic homosexual behavior. If it is cultic homosexual behavior, we should not use it in the modern debate” (p. 78).
How to “Theologize” Based on Biblical Texts
Gnuse’s replies to Robert Gagnon’s argument (The Bible and Homosexual Practice, Abingdon Press, 2001) that the Old Testament moral perspective at work in the texts themselves and in the background culture condemns all forms of homosexual behavior. Gnuse’s reply is worth quoting in full:
“He is probably correct about the cultural assumptions of that age and maybe even about the attitudes of the biblical authors. However, we theologize off of the texts, not the cultural assumptions of the age or something the biblical authors may have thought but did not write down….The homosexual texts, and the laws in particular, do not lead us anywhere; they simply prohibit certain forms of activity. But the bottom line is that we theologize off the texts, not our scholarly reconstruction of the cultural values of the authors. The texts appear to condemn rape and cultic prostitution, not generic homosexuality; we should not therefore conclude that all homosexual behavior is condemned” (p. 78).
If I am reading him correctly here he says that the Bible does not explicitly condemn loving, adult same-sex relationships, though we have good grounds to think that the biblical authors would have condemned them had they been asked about them. Nevertheless, we cannot use this knowledge to illuminate the texts or to inform the contemporary debate about same-sex relationships. In constructing Christian ethics, opines Gnuse, we are limited to what the biblical writers actually say about the circumstances at hand not what we think they would say about other circumstances.
I doubt that Gnuse can consistently apply this (very legalistic) rule to his own interpretation. The rule seems designed specifically to make these “gay” texts irrelevant to the current debate. Moreover it seems to me that this principle of theological interpretation makes it nearly impossible to argue successfully that the Bible teaches any ethics at all. For the Bible never speaks directly to contemporary circumstances. On any moral topic one can always assert that circumstances today differ from those addressed in these ancient texts.
To be Continued