Analyzing the Bible: Textual Interpretations on Homosexuality
Revolutionary, inventor, and writer Thomas Paine once said, “The Bible is a book that has been read more and examined less than any book that ever existed.” The Bible is the number one best-selling book of all time. It is the moral guide for over thirty percent of the world, or nearly two billion people (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2005).
Through the reading of this highly regarded text, a major ethical debate has been raised by Christians as to whether or not homosexuality is a sin. In this piece, one will find that the passages of the Bible are not black and white, written in plain English, or readily accessible to the everyday reader. There are many obstacles to reading and truly understanding the Bible. Misconstrued translations, language barriers, and biased opinions are just a few of the quagmires one faces that can muddle the words and comprehension of this monumental literary work. It is the purpose of this paper to show that a textual analysis of the Bible reveals that Christians cannot successfully condemn homosexuals by repeating biblical passages and using the Bible’s words as weapons.
By simply asking around one will find that the vast majority of Christians believe that the Bible condemns homosexuality. Indeed, “some people take this to mean that the Bible justifies hatred and cruelty to gays and lesbians” (Helminiak, 12). The Bible itself says that “God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” and the church has spoken out labeling homosexuality a sexually immoral item (Hebrews 13:4 King James Version). Hence, we will first take a look at selected passages from the Bible, analyze them, and determine where the church gains its footing on this issue and what the actual words could possibly mean.
Genesis, chapter 19, verses 1 to 11 tells us the famous story of Sodom and Gomorrah:
And there came two angels to Sodom at even; and Lot sat in the gate of Sodom: and Lot seeing them rose up to meet them; and he bowed himself with his face toward the ground; And he said, Behold now, my lords, turn in, I pray you, into your servant's house, and tarry all night, and wash your feet, and ye shall rise up early, and go on your ways. And they said, Nay; but we will abide in the street all night. And he pressed upon them greatly; and they turned in unto him, and entered into his house; and he made them a feast, and did bake unleavened bread, and they did eat. But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter: And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them. And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him, And said, I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly. Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof. And they said, Stand back. And they said again, This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he will needs be a judge: now will we deal worse with thee, than with them. And they pressed sore upon the man, even Lot, and came near to break the door. But the men put forth their hand, and pulled Lot into the house to them, and shut to the door. And they smote the men that were at the door of the house with blindness, both small and great: so that they wearied themselves to find the door (Geneis 19: 1-11 King James Version).
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of the most cited pieces by Christians who use the Bible to condemn homosexuality. If one continues to read this passage they find that God destroys the whole city for its wicked ways. The story itself “reads like a plot summary for the latest macho, sexist, rape-and-pillage, straight-from-hell home video rental.” By simply going to church and listening to preachers one might gather that this story is all about male on male sex (Comstock, 41).
Today we can see this story in our everyday vocabulary, in fact, “the very word ‘sodomite’ was taken to refer to someone who engages in anal sex, and the sin of Sodom was taken to be male homogenital acts” (Helminiak, 36).
Admittedly, the phrase “to know” is generally accepted, in biblical terms, to mean “to have sex with.” However, this is not always the case, and thus, one can read this story in a few different ways.
A simple way of reading the story is to consider that the people of Sodom simply wanted to know who the strangers in there town were and what they were doing there. Since Lot was already considered an alien and an outsider in the town, it is very possible that they were discriminating against him and his guests for this sole reason. Additionally, it is important to realize that his story has to, at the very least, be about abuse. The townspeople were acting threateningly toward Lot and, many argue, they were seeking to abuse or beat up his visitors.
Even if we do assume that this story is about male-male sexual contact, the actual act that would be taking place is male-male rape, not consensual sex. It is important to note that in those times, male-male rape was an act of dominance usually carried out after victory in war. Hence, it would be fair to say that this attempted act of male-male rape (if this is truly what the story portrays), is actually condemning rape, not a loving relationship between two males.
Overall, the sin that is marked as reproachable in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah cannot be that of having a loving same-sex sexual encounter. One can say that the story punishes abuse, inhospitality to strangers, or even violence; however, this story cannot be used to be a modern moral compass for sexual behavior. This is made clear by the fact that Lot himself offers his two daughters to the hostile townspeople for sexual purposes. If one is going to try to use this story to condemn one type of sexual act, then they are missing the glaring point that this passage “is not sexual ethics” (Helminiak, 39). The bottom line here is that, “What is contemplated in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not consensual sex between people of the same gender, but rape of visitors who have become guests of a resident alien” (Sands, 175).
Furthermore, there are other passages of the Bible that state what the actual sin in the Sodom story is. The prophet Ezekiel states, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” Note how nowhere in that passage is homosexuality brought to point. Yet today we still are told that Sodom was destroyed for its sexual deviance (Ezekiel, 16:48-49 King James Version).
Even in the Book of Wisdom the sin of Sodom is depicted as “bitter hatred of strangers,” and “making slaves of guests who were benefactors” (Wisdom 19:13 King James Version). The notion of making people into slaves can very well be construed to mean sexual slaves; however, once again, we find no mention of consensual male on male sexual intercourse.
Jesus himself even mentions Sodom in the lines of Matthew’s Gospels, once again we find that there is no talk, whatsoever, about sexual practices:
Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave…If any one will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town (Matthew 10:5-15 King James Version).
Jesus focused on hospitality just as the previous passages above did. Search as one might through the Bible for links between Sodom and Gomorrah and homosexual sin, it can not be found. Even when reading further on into the Bible, references to the story of Sodom that can be found in Jeremiah 23:14, Zephanian 2:8-11, and Isaiah 1:10-17 and 3:9 (King James Version). The only sins that are articulated in these passages “are injustice, oppression, partiality, adultery, lies and encouraging evildoers. Adultery is the only sexual sin in that list, and even in this case, sex itself is not the concern” (Helminiak, 41).
Also, one should note the attitudinal differences between today’s Christians and the actions of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ “attitude toward those who offended the norm was one of compassion and forgiveness, e.g., toward the woman about to be stoned for adultery” (Nugent, 83).
The very fact that we see outspoken Christians belittling and condemning homosexuals brings to mind two related quotes. One line from Jesus himself, stating, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone…” (John 8:7 King James Version). And another saying from Gandhi in which he said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
The next biblical readings that are often utilized in the Christian condemnation of homosexuality are found within Leviticus and they read:
“Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination” (Leviticus 18:22). “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them” (Leviticus 20:13 King James Version).
To properly analyze this part of the Bible we must understand what section of the Bible this was written in. This area of Leviticus is called “The Holiness Code.” Within this area of the Bible are listed “laws and punishments” required in order for “Israel to remain holy in God’s sight.” The chief concern of The Holiness Code was to “keep Israel different from Gentiles.” Perhaps most importantly, this section of Leviticus is prefaced with the lines, “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan.” This phrase is then followed by the list of laws that include prohibitions on what were essentially religious rituals carried out by the Canaanites in Egypt.
Hence, it can be said that The Holiness Code found in Leviticus “prohibits male same-sex acts because of religious considerations, not because of sexual ones.” Same-sex relations were associated with the pagan rituals of the Canaanites; therefore, it was banned in order to distinguish Judaism from Gentile characteristics. The reasoning for this is not morally or ethically based. The “Hebrew Testament certainly did forbid male homogenital activity, its reasons for forbidding it have no bearing on today’s discussion on homosexuality” and can be compared to today’s notion of not eating meat of Fridays (Helminiak, 47). There is nothing wrong with eating meat on Friday in and of itself; rather, the church happens to have some distinctive rituals that have fizzled out over time.
It is also worth investigating what the word “abomination” truly means in the Bible. Leviticus also provides an answer to that question:
Ye shall therefore put difference between clean beasts and unclean, and between unclean fowls and clean: and ye shall not make your souls abominable by beast, or by fowl, or by any manner of living thing that creepeth on the ground, which I have separated from you as unclean (Leviticus 20: 25-26 King James Version)
It quickly becomes apparent that “abominable” is a synonym for “unclean.” This should be clear to anyone who is familiar with purity laws of the Old Testament, some of which many practicing Jews still follow today. Hence, if Christians today would like to use these passages from Leviticus to condemn homosexuals, they should first make sure that they are not an abomination themselves for: eating pigs, lobsters, or shrimp, mixing two types of seeds in a field (or perhaps a garden), or wearing clothing made of more than one type of fiber (to name a few). Additionally, purity rules make women a temporary abomination during their menstrual cycle or giving birth, men after seminal emission and everyone after attending a burial (Helminiak, 48).
Religion and our society teach us that certain things are gross, unclean, dirty, or wrong. It is imperative to become conscious that just because some people are religiously trained to believe that something is disgusting or dirty does not mean that it is wrong. Often times children are taught that sex is a taboo topic, and since we learn from a young age that we are not supposed to do things that are wrong, or say things that are gross, sex becomes something seen as dirty, impure, and wrong; when in fact it is not. The same can be said about and applied to homosexuality. Since people have repeatedly misinterpreted what the Bible actually says about this topic, there is no surprise that prevailing religious notions and uncleanly connotations are attached to homosexuality as a whole.
Finally, we will take a look at the sole New Testament that appears to express disapproval of homosexuality. The lines of interest are found in Romans through the writings of Paul and they read as follows:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is unnatural: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them (Romans 1:18-32 King James Version).
The above words, for most anti-homosexual Christians, would seem enough to send any lesbian woman or gay man to eternal damnation. However, there is a language barrier in the translation and interpretation of the text that allows for such a conclusion to be reached. The original Greek words that translated to “unnatural” are “para physin.” The physin part which was translated to mean “natural” can actually have numerous meanings.
Paul himself used this word to describe several different subject matters including: Jews by birth, those who are physically uncircumcised and those who instinctively do what the law requires. Additionally, the same word, physin, is used to say that “beings by nature (physei) are not gods,” and in Paul’s question “Does not nature (physis) itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him?” (Helminiak, 64).
The Greek word para is most frequently interpreted to mean “beside,” “more than,” “over and above” or “beyond.” However, in some situations, para can mean “contrary to.” So, indeed para physin might also be translated to mean “contrary to nature.” Nonetheless, a “historical-critical study of the Bible” and its proper translation says otherwise. The way that Paul uses this term and the way that he does so consistently throughout his writings would say that para physis means “unexpectedly” or “in an unusual way” (Helminiak, 65).
Overall, this would mean that the sexual practices described were not intentionally sinful or willful acts that purposefully went against God. Rather, interpreting Paul’s usage of para physis correctly leaves a reader with a different understanding altogether. Re-reading with this in mind, one gets the feeling that the actions of these people were “different from what one would generally expect,” atypical or unusual, but not sinful (Helminiak, 65).
In looking at the Bible as a whole, the passages that supposedly forbid homosexual activity are few and far between. The pieces, discussed and dissected above, have fallen apart into what most people could write off as misinterpretations; be it willful or otherwise. It is very interesting that the Church would take so much time to single out this one type of “sin” and preach against it; especially when the condemnations cannot withstand scrutiny. There are so many other transgressions that are more frequently and vehemently lamented in the Bible than homosexuality, one cannot help but wonder what the Church’s fascination is with this topic.
Some preachers and religious figures are so obsessed with homosexuality that they make it into the limelight with their denunciations of it. Fundamentalist Baptist Jerry Falwell has long spoken out against gays as “the apotheosis of America’s supposed devolution into wickedness, even blaming them for the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001” (Thumma, 367). Falwell has also been quoted as saying that “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals; it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals” (Dawkins, 289).
Ironically, the Catholic Church has more recently been revealed as being frequented by homosexual priests in its ranks. Indeed, “Priests, it turns out, have bodies, and many –not just Catholics either- use their bodies sexually in ways that may or may not be officially sanctioned” (Thumma, 372). Often times the same people condemning homosexual behavior are the same ones who are partaking in the festivities. The name Ted Haggard comes to mind.
All of these arguments against homosexuality which appear to be based in holy God-inspired biblical passages turn out to be based in nothing more than fear tactics and illogical biblically-based lies. Clichés such as, “The Bible says so” should not be enough to stop people from questioning once they realize that they have been fed false interpretations to begin with.
Yet another hollow argument used by the Church is seen in its Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons written by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1986. Here the Church “censures same-sex genital acts on the grounds that they are ‘against the Creator’s sexual design’ due to ‘not being able to transmit life’” (Badgett, 213). One should immediately be curious as to why the Church does not then prevent sterile individuals from having sexual contact. Moreover, one would expect that the Church should run an equally strict campaign against condom usage as it does in opposition to homosexuals.
It is clear that many Christians have been led to believe that homosexuality is “an affront to their religious views” (Boushka, 185). Yet, perhaps it is time to realize that the true and tangible offense is that they have been misled by their own Christian leaders. Entire stories from the Bible are taken by priests in the Church and then twisted in order to condemn homosexuals, rather then spread the story’s true message. Biblical interpretations that lead people to believe that homosexuality is an “abomination” in the literal English sense are simply false. Indeed, the real issues at hand are Old Testament purity laws which are no longer followed. Additionally, incorrect translations of key words from their original language into English have also led to unnecessary confusion.
All of these misleading teachings have only worked to push homosexuals away from the Church. Whole congregations are being lied to; be it willfully or otherwise. These messages of damnation and hate create an unforgiving atmosphere for homosexuals and cause Christians to treat others in ways that Jesus, according to the grapevine, never would.
Undoubtedly, a textual analysis of the Bible reveals that the Christian condemnation of homosexuality is unwarranted and baseless. Perhaps the Austrian economist and philosopher Ludwig von Mises put it best when he said, “Each epoch has found in the Gospels what it sought to find there, and has overlooked what it wished to overlook.”
Badgett, Lee. Sexual Orientation Discrimination: An International Perspective. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007.
Boushka, Bill. Teenage Sexuality: Opposing Viewpoints. Farmington Hills, Michigan: Greenhaven Press, 2006.
Comstock, Gary David. Gay Theology without Apology. Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1993.
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006.
“Christianity and the Religions of the World.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 11 May. 2008 http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/115614/Christianity-and-the-Re....
Helminiak, Daniel A. Ph.D. What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality: Recent Findings by Top Scholars Offer a Radical New View. San Fransisco, California: Alamo Square Press, 1994.
Nugent, Robert. A Challenge to Love: Gay and Lesbian Catholics in the Church. New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1989.
Sands, Kathleen M.God Forbid: Religion and Sex in American Public Life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000
The King James Version of the Bible was originally published in 1611.
Thuma, Scott. Gay Religion. Landham, Maryland: Rownman & Littlefield, 2005.
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