When I first began attending to Internet newsgroup threads about homosexuality and the Bible, I held the conventional view: the Bible condemns it. I knew of ways to discount each of the standard texts; I thought a person could in a piecemeal way discount all of them and stay just barely within the bounds of intellectual honesty. But, strictly personally, if I were to deny that the condemnation was biblical, I would not have felt honest. I thought – and told other pro-gay friends so when asked – such a denial couldn’t bear the accumulated weight of the six principal texts.
It had been decades since I myself believed that there was anything wrong with homosexuality. On this point, either the Bible was just plain wrong, or I was. Naturally, I thought it was probably the Bible; after all, if I think I’m probably wrong about something, I’m going to change my mind. But I was willing to learn otherwise.
I had not read the biblical arguments of Bailey or Boswell. (I still haven’t.) When I read posts presenting versions of those arguments, I often groaned inwardly at how weak they sounded. But a funny trend set in. Most of those weak arguments gained strength when I went and checked them against the Bible. And many of the anti-gay arguments that struck me as most forceful fell apart when I checked them against the Bible. I found the anti-gay posts did more than the pro-gay posts to push me toward the realization that the traditional case stood on flimsier ground than I’d thought. (Most of these discussions centered on interpretation of the Sodom story. I won’t bother to rehash any of it here, or to talk about Sodom at all.)
Then came a post that, as I thought, brought my whole pro-gay house of cards tumbling down. It was drawn from Joe Dallas, and it concerned the much-disputed word in 1 Corinthians 6:9, and in 1 Timothy 1:10. I had watched one anti-gay poster after another attempt to refute the assertion that arsenokoitai is a word which had no established meaning, which was unknown in classical literature and which was coined by Paul. They had succeeded only in digging themselves in deeper. Supposed classical references turned out to be from the third and fourth centuries; supposed verifications that it was used elsewhere to mean “homosexual” turned out to be appearances in sin lists just as devoid of context as are the two New Testament usages.
But Dallas took the bold step of acknowledging the truth: it was in all probability Paul’s coinage. And then he played his ace: if that is so, it is almost certainly the case that Paul coined it by joining together the two Greek words arsenos and koitein, which the Septuagint uses to translate both verses in Leviticus that forbid “lying with a man as with a woman”.
I’d seen so many outright falsehoods in the course of the threads that I refused to believe this one until I dug up a copy of the LXX and checked it out for myself. But there it was, all right. This famous mysterious neologism wasn’t so mysterious after all. Paul was forbidding the same thing, or the same sort of thing, as Leviticus was. Dallas’ conclusion was probabilistic, not deductive, but I couldn’t deny that it was compelling.
However, I knew that this was the same Paul who wrote that as Christians we now live “in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.” So I decided to go back to Leviticus and try to discern what the spirit of that old law was, what the reason behind it was. It would certainly give me a better understanding of Paul’s intent, and if God were really in agreement with the anti-gay line, it might even supply me at last with the moral insight that would realign my conscience with the opinion of the bulk of the church.
(At this point, I’ll drop the autobiographical past tense and carry on the rest of my discussion in the expository present.)
Does Leviticus just pronounce “thou shalt not” about homosexuality? Or does it supply a reason? Here are the two critical verses (I’ll stick with KJV, because it tends to stick to the Hebrew):
Lev. 18:22. Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination.
Lev. 20:13. 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.
So in both instances, Leviticus does provide a reason. It is “an abomination”; in Hebrew, it is toevah. What is the significance of this word?
The truth about toevah
A couple of years later, in 1996, a number of new English versions of the book of Genesis were published. I heard a radio interviewer ask one of the translators (I no longer remember which) what he found to be the most challenging piece of his task. He replied that it was translating the word toevah. No English word, he said, could capture its full connotation. The dictionary translation would simply be “something detestable.” But it carries a vivid suggestion of detestable religious practices, of idolatry and ritual orgies. It also conveys the idea of something wildly dangerous, something you want to put at as great a distance as possible. At one point, he said, he was thinking of translating it as “radioactive”. I thought his commentary was very interesting, coming as it did from someone with no special stake in the conversation about Leviticus 18 and 20. It reconfirmed what I had learned two years before.
Another source with no stake, which I had on hand in those days (although I recognize he’s not thought of as a major scholarly authority – for one thing, his heavy reliance on etymologically determined definitions makes him a little suspect), was Strong. Toevah is Strong’s number 8441:
to’ebah – fem. act. participle of 8581 [ta’ab, to loathe, detest]; prop. something disgusting (mor.), i.e. (as noun) an abhorrence; esp. idolatry or (concr.) an idol.
Given this, Leviticus might be naming either of two reasons for the prohibition: it is wrong because it is “disgusting” to God (which wouldn’t tell us why it is disgusting, and wouldn’t get us much further, but maybe there isn’t any further to get to), or it is wrong because it is a form of idolatry. So far, so good. Which of these two meanings is more likely? Well, a word is ultimately defined by its use. So (though we’ll want to return to study this particular use in its context), the question resolves to: which of these two meanings is more commonly used? Which meaning would have sprung first to the mind of a contemporary of the writer?
So I conducted an exhaustive word study on toevah in the Old Testament.
It is important to recognize that word usage changes over the course of centuries. And despite wide differences of opinion on many specific dates, conservative and liberal bible scholars are agreed that the OT was composed over the course of several centuries. Nor do they disagree that the Pentateuch and the pre-exilic prophets preceded the post-exilic prophets; and that the post-exilic prophets preceded the wisdom literature (in particular, the book of Proverbs). So if we want to know how the word toevah was used when the Pentateuch was composed, we will get the best idea from writings prior to the post-exilic prophets.
Those writings use the term (not counting the two Leviticus chapters in question) 51 times. The term is used by two post-exilic prophets (43 times by Ezekiel, once by Malachi). It is used twenty-odd times in Proverbs, and once in Psalms. (I’ll place Psalms with the wisdom literature; it would drop out of my final count in any case.)
Linguists generally expect that terms with strong negative or positive connotation will expand to wider and looser applications as time goes on. Accordingly, we would expect to find toevah linked specifically to themes of separation, contamination, and idolatry more often in the early books, with less frequency in Ezekiel, and with less frequency still in Proverbs; and that is what we find. For brevity, and taking advantage of hindsight, I will tally only the ‘idolatry’ theme here.
Here is a quick breakdown:
All early books: Idolatry or other strictly ritual offenses are specifically implicated in 38 out of 51 instances. Four other instances are too vague to determine what the offense may have been. Six instances apparently involve purely ethical offenses. The remaining three appear to be simple instances of detestation, with no ethical content. (I say “appear” in these last nine cases because in most of them there seems to be an issue of contamination, and perhaps of ritual contamination, driving the choice of word. For example, in Exodus 8:26, Moses tells Pharaoh that the sacrifices the Hebrews will offer are toevah to the Egyptians. Therefore, he says, we must go three days’ journey into the desert to offer them. Talk about “radioactive”! For another example, Deuteronomy 24:4 calls remarriage after divorce toevah . At first glance, this is an ethical consideration, and of course it is at least that; but it goes on, “because she has been defiled”; so a kind of ritual contamination is hovering in the background.) Summing up, of 44 instances of toevah which refer to specific offenses, 38 (or 86%) name offenses of idolatry or other ritual impurity.
In Ezekiel, the breakdown is: Idolatry or other strictly ritual offenses named in 35 out of 43 cases. Two are too vague to determine the offense; six name only purely ethical offenses. The usage for toevah has gravitated slightly toward the moral, but its primary significance is still worship of idols.
I haven’t gone back to retabulate Proverbs precisely, but in this one late book the linguistic change is complete. About half of the references mention no specific offenses at all; almost all the rest mention moral failings.
Very well. With fairly high probability, then (something like 86%), when Leviticus uses the word toevah , it is using the word as it is most often used before the exile; it is referring to the worship of idols. With that in mind, I’ll turn next to the full text of Leviticus 18 and 20. What do they contain to confirm or disconfirm a connection with idolatry, or to indicate what a connection with idol worship might be?
Organization of the Leviticus texts
The proper immediate context for the two verses under study is the whole of chapter 18 and the whole of chapter 20. Chapter and verse divisions were introduced late in the Bible’s history, and ordinarily shouldn’t be taken very seriously. In Leviticus, however, beginning with chapter 11, our chapter divisions result from clear markers in the Hebrew text, which is organized as a series of oracles, each introduced by a slight variant of the phrase, “The Lord said to Moses…”
I rely on several study bibles. The one closest to hand as I write is the St. Joseph edition of the New American Bible. Its usually helpful section headings read, for Leviticus 18, “The Sanctity of Sex”. Most study bibles give it a similar heading. Those who follow the tradition of dividing OT laws into “civil, ritual, and moral” tend to assert that the law against lying with a man as with a woman is a moral law, because it appears in a chapter of sexual laws.
On a slightly closer look, Leviticus 18 seems to have this basic structure: An introduction exhorting obedience (vv. 1-5), a set of prohibitions against incest, listing various degrees of consanguinity (vv. 6-18), a mixed bag of laws against various forms of sexual immorality (vv. 19-23), and a homily about avoiding all these things so the land won’t spit you out as it spat out the former peoples (vv. 24-30).
But the first of those laws against sexual immorality, v. 19, prohibits relations with a woman during the ritual period of “uncleanness” due to menstruation. Not exactly sexual immorality. And the third of those laws against sexual immorality, v. 21, is “You shall not offer any of your offspring to be immolated to Molech, thus profaning the name of your God. I am the Lord.” What’s that doing here?
And if we turn to Leviticus 20, we find that it repeats every prohibition on the odd list which appeared in chapter 18. It is obviously just a slight rewriting of chapter 18, and presumably has the same central concerns. It reorders the prohibitions by severity (or at least by severity of punishment); it places much greater emphasis on forbidding child sacrifice (placed first, and comprising four verses); it adds one more law – against mediums nd fortunetellers – which it repeats it in the last verse, so that examples of idolatry frame the chapter. Finally, in its summary, it urges the Israelites not to contaminate themselves with ritually unclean foods.
If the organizing principle of Leviticus 18 is really a discussion of laws “about” sexual morality, the same must be true of Leviticus 20. Yet no one makes this claim about Leviticus 20. (For example, my NAB labels chapter 20 “Penalties for Various Sins”.) The themes of idolatry and ritual purity are simply too prominent there.
Chapter 20 has a summary which echoes chapter 18’s very closely: its theme is that Israel is not to adopt the customs of the nations which formerly inhabited the land. They are to keep themselves separate and apart, not committing toevah, so that they will not also be cast out of the land.
In other words, the central concern here is not about things which the Israelites might do of their own accord, prompted by their ordinary human desires. The concern is about things which they might do by imitating the surrounding cultures. This accounts, incidentally, for the placement of the incest laws here. Israel regarded the border nations of Ammon and Moab as hotbeds of incest. For one thing, Genesis describes how, after the destruction of Sodom, Lot’s daughters made him drunk and seduced him. The children of these two incestuous unions are named Ammon and Moab [Gen. 19:36-38]. Deuteronomy places side by side the law which excludes Ammonites and Moabites from the congregation [Deut. 23:4] and the law which excludes the children of an incestuous union [Deut. 23:3]; both may be allowed in after the third generation.)
The Israelites were human. They did not need other cultures to show them how to engage in adultery. Nor, unless they were radically different from every other society in history, how to engage in homosexual behavior. But they did need outside examples to learn how to engage in adultery and homosexual behavior as part of a religious cult.
The introduction to Leviticus 18 frames all this still more clearly.
18:3. (KJV) “After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, ye shall not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do: neither shall you walk in their ordinances.”
These things that are about to be described are not just things that the Egyptians or the Canaanites did because they individually succumbed to various desires. They were things that they did by ordinance. They were religious laws of those peoples. The language here only suggests this, but Deuteronomy spells it out unmistakably:
Deut. 12:30. (NRSV) Do not inquire concerning their gods, saying, “How did these nations worship their gods? I also want to do the same.” 31. You must not do the same for the Lord your God, because every toevah that the Lord hates they have done for their gods.” (Emphasis mine.)
The Egyptians are mentioned first, then the Canaanites. The Egyptian state religion involved royal brother-sister incest, and the incest laws are mentioned first. Then comes a list of five “thou shalt nots”. The literary form thus suggests that these laws reject Canaanite religious practices.
The suggestion is reinforced by the fact that verses 26, 27, 29 and 30 refer to the items on this list as toevah; and we know that toevah usually means idolatry. It is further reinforced if we consider whether each of the “thou shalt nots” fits with what we know about the milieu of strictly religious practices within which Leviticus was written.
Item one is intercourse with a woman “while she is unclean from menstruation”. This is clearly a matter of ritual purity, and of fear of ritual contamination. (The menstruating woman is required in OT law to go off at a distance from the male community for a ritual period of seven days. Here we see the “radioactive” sense of toevah come into play again.)
Item two is “Having carnal relations with your neighbour’s wife, defiling yourself with her.” In “defiling” the theme of fear of ritual contamination is sounded again briefly. But the important thing to note is that the “ordinances” of the Canaanites did indeed require participation in free-for-all fertility rites. Archaeology confirms this, but we can learn it straight from the Bible: see the account in Numbers 25 of the orgiastic feast that payed tribute to Baal; and recall that Baal is the Hebrew word for “husband”.
Item three forbids sacrifice of children to Molech – obviously a matter of idolatry.
Item four is our prime text, forbidding ‘lying with a man as with a woman’. There is no dispute that male temple prostitution was a prominent feature of Canaanite religious practice; we’ll go through the relevant texts in detail later in this series.
Item five forbids mating with animals. I conjecture that ritual sex with animals believed to incarnate a god (or with priests dressed as such animals) was a cultic practice in Canaan. Certainly such practices are well documented in a variety of cultures. [I would be interested to learn information anyone has, pro or con, on this question. The Bible never gives an example of a violation of this particular provision.] For biblical inerrantists, of course, no archaeological evidence is necessary. They will know that the Canaanites mated with animals as part of their religion, since Leviticus lists it with the abominations, and Deuteronomy states that they did every one of their abominations for their gods.
Joe Dallas, in A Strong Delusion, puts forth the counterargument that if Leviticus prohibits homosexuality only within the context of idolatry, the other practices it prohibits must also be deemed morally unobjectionable outside that context. His counterargument fails, since the OT forbids again in other contexts every item forbidden in Leviticus 18 and 20 – with the sole exception of “lying with a man as with a woman”.
Echoes and silences
In debates over homosexuality and the Bible, one frequently hears advocates of the traditional view assert that homosexuality must be not only a sin, but a sin especially detested by God, on the grounds that Leviticus 20 prescribes the death penalty for it. What they fail to realize is that the “death penalty” argument is two-edged. One edge, which they believe cuts against homosexuals, is in fact blunt: we have shown that what Leviticus 20 makes a capital crime is probably not homosexuality as such, but some form of idolatrous practice. The other edge, cutting against the traditionalists, is sharp.
If an offense is a capital crime, then the chances are good that it will be taken very seriously. The chances are in fact excellent that if you write down the laws twice, you will get around to mentioning the offense each time. We therefore would expect, on finding a capital crime named in Leviticus, to find it at least forbidden somewhere in Deuteronomy.
That expectation is, in general, borne out. Here is a complete list of the offenses which Leviticus 20 says are punishable by death. In each case, we note the parallel passage in Deuteronomy.
|3-5 Sacrifice to Molech
|6 Mediums and wizards
|Not specifically, included in 'no other gods', 5:7 et al
|9 Cursing father or mother
|11 Incest: father's wife
|12 Incest: child's spouse
|13 Homosexuality - allegedly
|14 Incest: both daughter and mother
|15 Man committing bestiality
|16 Woman committing bestiality
Seven out of nine are repeated precisely in Deuteronomy – down to the details of which degree of consanguinity is involved in acts of incest. 27:12 (incest with a daughter-in-law) is not repeated precisely, but the same degree of consanguinity is forbidden in Deut. 27:23. Necromancy is not specifically forbidden again in Deuteronomy, but it is attested in a number of places outside of Leviticus 18/20, notably in I Samuel 28:8-10, which refers to the death penalty associated with the practice.
Many of these items are forbidden in numerous other places in the Old Testament, but Deuteronomy by itself makes the pattern clear. One offense, and one only, is deemed worthy of the death penalty but not worthy of mention in more than one place: homosexuality. The silence is strange. Given how common the offense is in all societies (far more so than bestiality, or incest with one’s father’s wife), the silence becomes even more perplexing.
Recall that, although an argument from silence is usually a very weak argument, it becomes valid if one can also present strong evidence that the speaker would have made a statement if the speaker had entertained a particular belief. We have strong reason to believe that the Pentateuch will state a prohibition more than once if it incurs a capital penalty: namely, that it does repeat such prohibitions in every case except this one.
A second silence is also mildly odd: Both men and women are forbidden to commit adultery, or incest with a parent, or incest with a parent-in-law. But, at least if the prosecution’s theory is true, only males are forbidden to have sex with their own gender. If we assume the traditional theory, both of these silences are unexpected, and both break the pattern of the way the Bible treats equally serious sins. The silences present a puzzle.
On the defense theory, however, there are no curious silences to be explained. If what Leviticus 18/20 forbids is a specific idolatrous practice, then:
- It is a practice which is also specifically forbidden in Deuteronomy, just like all the other capital crimes, and
- The cult which indulged in the practice had males coupling with males, but not males coupling with females.
The data fit the defense theory like a glove; try to slip the same data onto the prosecution’s theory, and these two unseemly holes, these two embarrassing silences, stick out like missing thumbs.
And what was this idolatrous practice?
Deuteronomy 23:17. (NRSV) None of the daughters of Israel shall be a temple prostitute; none of the sons of Israel shall be a temple prostitute. 18. You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute or the wages of a male prostitute into the house of the Lord your God, for both of these are abhorrent [Hebrew toevah] to the Lord your God.
Our study of Leviticus 18/20 led us to expect an idolatrous practice involving “lying with a man as with a woman”. Here the Bible itself spells out for us what the idolatrous practice was: male temple prostitution. Deuteronomy even repeats the same explanation for its prohibition which Leviticus had pronounced: It is abomination, toevah.
For many generations of Christians, the idolatrous significance of Deuteronomy 23:18 has been obfuscated. In the King James translation, the terms for temple prostitute and male temple prostitute had been translated as “whore” and “sodomite” respectively. It was simply a mistranslation, a fact on which all modern bible scholars, both conservative and liberal, concur. All modern translations – including the NIV, no friend to homosexuals – render it correctly, as the NRSV does above.
The reason it has become uncontroversial is that the Hebrew allows no room for confusion. The Hebrew term for the male temple prostitute is qadesh; for the female, the feminine form of the same word, qadeshah. It has the same root as the word ‘holy,’ and a literal translation would simply be “(male or female) holy one.” Obviously, the writer of Deuteronomy didn’t consider these people to be holy; but he was using the common name for them in Canaan: they were called “holy” there, because they had been dedicated to the god at whose shrine they offered their sexual services.
The overlooked five
The word qadesh appears five other times in the Old Testament. These are the verses concerning same-gender sex which never appear in the anti-gay literature. They are simply of no use in denouncing homosexuality, since they so obviously concern the practices of an idolatrous cult. The KJV mistranslated four of these occurrences as “sodomite” again; the last one it mistranslated as “unclean”, a term so bland that (so far as this writer has seen) the verse has been left entirely out of the debate on homosexuality and the Bible. The oversight is unfortunate, since, as we shall see, this last instance is perhaps the most revealing of the lot.
Here are the five (RSV):
1 Kings 14:23. “For they [Judah] also built for themselves high places, and pillars, and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree; 24. and there were also male cult prostitutes [qadeshim] in the land. They did according to all the abominations [plural of toevah] of the nations which the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.”
1 Kings 15:12-13. “He [the good king Asa] put away the male cult prostitutes out of the land, and removed all the idols that his fathers had made. 13. He also removed Ma’acah his mother from being queen because she had an abominable image made for Asherah; and Asa cut down her image and buned it at the brook Kidron.”
1 Kings 22:46. “And the remnant of the male cult prostitutes who remained in the days of his [Jehoshaphat’s] father Asa he removed from the land.”
2 Kings 23:7. [The entire chapter is spent describing King Josiah’s cleansing the temple, Jerusalem, and Judah of all sorts of idols and pagan practices.] “And he broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes which were in the house of the LORD, where the women wove hangings for the Asherah.”
If archaeology and the etymology of qadesh had left us in any doubt, these verses and their contexts of idol-clearing activities underscore the religious function of these male prostitutes. It is particularly clear in the 2 Kings passage.
Most telling is the instance in 1 Kings 14. On the traditional theory, Leviticus prohibits homosexuality in general, and only in Deuteronomy is male temple prostitution directly addressed. One would therefore expect the writer of Kings to echo the themes of Deuteronomy 23 when the subject of male temple prostitution comes up: the parallel with female prostitutes, the concern over bringing their pay into the temple.
But that doesn’t happen. Instead, 1 Kings echoes several of the specific themes of Leviticus 18:27-28: calling the practices toevah (echoing the whole phrase “did all of the abominations”); characterizing them as practices of the former inhabitants of the land; stating that those inhabitants were driven out of the land because of them. That the writer was not rather moved to allude to the supposedly more specific passage in Deuteronomy is a trifle odd – unless he regarded the Leviticus passage as likewise specific to the practice of cult prostitution.
Finally, we have Job 36:14. “They [the godless] die in youth, and their life ends in shame. (Footnote: among the [male] cult prostitutes.)” For some reason, no version seems to want to translate the Hebrew of this verse as it stands.
Let us sum up what we have learned. Aside from the complex of passages dealing with Sodom, the Old Testament mentions same gender sex exactly eight times. Of these, the two in Levticus may be regarded as ambiguous: it is possible they refer to male-male sexual behavior in general; it is possible (as rabbinical tradition has it) that they refer specifically to male-male anal intercourse. But most likely they refer only to male temple prostitution. This is made likely, first, by the stated reason for the prohibition – that it is toevah, which most commonly means idolatry. It is made likely, second, by its grouping with other prohibitions which can also be understood as concerned with idolatry. It is made likely, third, by the statement of Leviticus 18:3 that the prohibitions in the chapter are prohibitions of things the Egyptians and Canaanites did by “statute”. It is made likely, fourth, by the fact that otherwise this would represent the only death-penalty offense whose prohibition is never repeated. It is, fifth, made slightly more likely by the peculiar failure to extend the prohibition to actions of females with females.
The other six passages which refer to same-gender sex all use the term qadesh, and all commentators, liberal and conservative, agree that it unambiguously describes idolatrous male prostitution.
There is not a single passage which gives a specific example of any disapproved male-male sexual act, other than acts of temple prostitution. (Again, setting aside the Sodom complex, since we are all agreed that gang rape-murder is not a good thing.) The only two passages (and one might argue that Leviticus 18 and 20 are more like two versions of the same passage) which may prohibit male-male acts in general, we have shown, are most likely also directed to the same specific idolatrous acts.
The defense theory completely accounts for the biblical evidence. The prosecution theory requires us to ignore all the evidence which the defense has here submitted. It requires us to attribute the overwhelming weight of concern for qadeshim, the way Kings echoes Leviticus rather than Deuteronomy when discussing qadeshim, the failure of Deuteronomy to make any general same-sex prohibition, despite the supposed seriousness of the crime, the utter absence of a single historical case of non-idolatrous homosexual behavior among the half-dozen specific cases alluded to – all these it requires us to attribute to sheer coincidence.
The prosecution would have you believe that the central concern of the One who inspired these writings was to prohibit homosexuality in general, and that this Inspirer intended to make that crystal clear to every reader. They would have you believe that this Inspirer, being omniscient, knew that the very questions defense has raised here would arise. And they would have you believe that, nevertheless, said Inspirer, while including two specific examples of gang rape, and six specific examples of cult prostitution, chose to omit any example of two males cleaving sexually to one another out of secular motives, whether they be motives of lust or of love.
The defense does not believe that the One who inspired these writings was so inept at achieving His goals. We believe that the intent of the text is what the intent seems to be, when it is approached on its own terms without preconceptions as to the guilt of our clients. It prohibits gang rape. Of that charge, the prosecution will stipulate that our clients are not guilty. It prohibits the toevah, the idolatrous practice, of a man lying with a man who has been dedicated as a temple prostitute, a qadesh. Of that charge, the prosecution will stipulate that our clients are not guilty.
It is possible – although we have amply shown that it is not likely – that the intent of the text was indeed to prohibit homosexual acts in general. But we are in a court of law. You are not obliged – you are not permitted – to convict based on a mere probability; much less on a mere possibility. You must find the prosecution’s theory true beyond a reasonable doubt; or you must render a verdict of “not guilty.”
Please do not introduce your own personal feelings into your deliberations. You must decide based on the law, the text which is before us, and on the law alone. You must acquit.
Postscript: The New Testament revisited
Same-gender behavior, in one form or another, is mentioned in only three places in the New Testament. (Again, I lay aside the Sodom complex.) Two of these are sin lists in which the disputed word arsenokoitai appears. We have concluded that it is most likely a coinage based on Leviticus 18/20. Since we have now demonstrated that, in all probability, Leviticus described not homosexuality in general, but male temple prostitution; and since we know that similar institutions prevailed in 1st century Gentile culture, the defense theory accounts entirely for these two verses.
We would expect, on the basis of our defense theory, that when we turn to the other passage (Romans 1), we will find that it features idolatry prominently in its account. That is, of course, exactly what we find. Romans asserts that the same-sex behavior with which it deals (whatever it is) is a direct consequence of the worship of idols, of images of “birds and beasts and men.” At this point the defense could also rest its New Testament case.
However, in the course of researching this essay, I stumbled upon an extremely interesting correlation which, so far as I am aware, has not been remarked on previously. I discovered that like the term arsenokoitai, Romans 1 also echoes (most likely deliberately) an old testament passage. If the echo hasn’t been noted before, it’s because we don’t know our Old Testaments as intimately as the apostle Paul did!
Let us first briefly recapitulate the storyline of Romans 1. Paul’s narrative postulates a set of people who:
- Knew God and worshipped God.
- Declined to acknowledge him as God.
- Engaged in idolatrous practice, and
- As a punishment, engaged in some sort of same-gender behavior.
Now let us look at the full context for Job 36:14. Elihu is speaking to Job. The points he makes are a good deal more subtle and complex than the superficially similar points made by the previous speakers, the “false comforters”. He begins by saying, like them, that God unfailingly punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous. But then he continues, as they do not, with an “and if…” The structure of his assertion is what programmers refer to as a “nested if-then-else clause.” I’ll indent it to make its logical structure easier to follow. (I find Elihu’s discourse deeply fascinating, completely apart from its application to the current discussion.)
5.”Behold, God is mighty, and does not despise any; He is mighty in strength of understanding.”
There’s meat for a long sermon already! Do human beings measure how “mighty” someone is by his capacity to despise no one, or by his capacity to injure those he despises? Do human beings measure “might” by depth of understanding? Does Elihu foreshadow a God who shows his might by mingling with prostitutes, and by dying a violent and ignoble death? Religious people are fond of quoting that God’s ways are higher than our ways; but are they actually still higher, still stranger, than those people have usually imagined?…
6. He does not keep the wicked alive,
but gives the afflicted their right.
7. He does not withdraw his eyes from the righteous,
but with kings upon the throne he sets them forever,
and they are exalted.
8. AND IF they are bound in fetters [“they” here is “the righteous”]
and caught in the cords of affliction,
9. THEN he declares to them their work,
and their transgressions, that they are behaving arrogantly.
[So one may be “righteous” and still “transgress”]
10. He opens their ears to instruction,
and commands that they return from iniquity.
11. IF they [“the righteous” still] hearken and serve him,
[THEN] they complete their days in prosperity,
and their years in pleasantness.
12. BUT IF they [“the righteous” still] do not hearken,
[THEN] they perish by the sword,
and die without knowledge.
13. The godless in heart cherish anger;
they do not cry for help when he binds them.
14. They die in their youth,
and their life ends among the male temple prostitutes.
Ignoring the fortunate righteous in verse 11, (Paul gets to them in Romans 4), Elihu’s narrative postulates a set of people who:
- Knew God and worshipped God. (Like Job, they began “righteous”, as in verse 7.)
- Declined to acknowledge him as God. (Verses 12 and 13: they do not hearken; they become “godless in heart” and do not cry for help.)
- Engaged in idolatrous practice, and
- As a punishment, engaged in some sort of same-gender behavior. (Life among the male temple prostitutes encompasses both idolatrous practice and same-gender behavior.)
The parallel with Romans 1 is striking. I submit that Elihu must have been Paul’s primary model for the Romans 1 narrative, and a principal reason (though I think it was, as mathematical physicists put it, overdetermined) why the particular punishment he describes there involves same-gender sex. Having found this model, we can confirm the conclusion to which the rest of our old testament study, and the specific role of idolatry in Romans 1, had already pointed us: Just as in Job, the form of same-gender sexual activity Paul had in mind as he wrote Romans 1 was male temple prostitution.
With this final, unexpected, and welcome witness, the defense rests.