As the coauthor of a book on homosexuality and the Bible, I’m often asked to speak to groups. Usually, I try to get them to let me talk about the affirming passages — the centurion and his slave, the Ethiopian eunuch, Hathach the messenger — but more often I’m asked to cover the seven passages commonly used against gay, lesbian, and bisexual people — the ones I call the Clobber Passages. It’s often too difficult for people to think about passages that affirm LGBT people until they’ve dealt with those seven texts of terror.
However, when read carefully, I think even the Clobber Passages can be a source of hope for LGBT people and a challenge to those who condemn us in the name of God. By now, most people know the sin of Sodom was inhospitality, not homosexuality, and those who turn LGBT people out of churches are the true modern sodomites. But what about the ever-popular “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve” or the “abomination” of Leviticus 18? I have become convinced that those texts should be part of the pro-gay toolbox — texts that call for embracing LGBT people as full members of God’s family.
It is Not Right for the Human to Be Alone
When people try to use Genesis 2 as a reason for denying the validity of my same-sex marriage, I often wonder, “When was the last time you read Genesis?” Because, when I read that story, I find it says just the opposite of what they think it says.
In Genesis 2, God has created the first human (Hebrew adam). The adam is called “he” because Hebrew doesn’t have a pronoun “it” — all Hebrew nouns are either male for female like in Spanish or French. However, the earliest Rabbis who interpreted this text told us the adam was neither male nor female, because God had not created the sexes yet. One image of the adam that I really like is of a creature with four arms, four legs, and two heads, similar to the image of the first humans in the Greek myth told by Plato.
God is happy with the adam, but realizes the adam is lonely. God says, “It is not right for the adam to be alone; I will make a helper corresponding to him” (Genesis 2:18, my translation*). Then God proceeds to make all the animals of the earth, the birds of the air, and everything that swims in the sea. With each, God brings the animal to the adam who gives it a name, but the text tells us “there was not found a helper corresponding to him” (Genesis 2:20, my translation).
I imagine it this way, God brings the cat to the adam and says, “Will this be a helper corresponding to you?”
The adam says, “That’s a cat.” He loves the way it purrs when he pets it, and the way it curls up next to him when he sleeps. The cat is a great stress-reliever and a wonderful companion when the adam is sitting under a tree thinking, but it’s not a helper corresponding to him.
So, God brings a dog to the adam and says, “Will this be a helper corresponding to you?”
The adam says, “That’s a dog.” He really loves how the dog worships him, and plays with him, and licks his face. The dog is a great companion on walks and in the fields, but it’s not a helper corresponding to him.
God brings the adam to the ocean side and shows him a dolphin. “Surely,” God says, “this will be a helper corresponding to you.”
The adam says, “That’s a dolphin.” It’s amazing how the dolphin almost seems to know his thoughts and talk to him. He spends hours swimming with the dolphin and playing with it, and the dolphin even helps him when he gets tired in the water. But, at the end of the afternoon, the adam can’t stay in the water and the dolphin is not a helper corresponding to him.
When all the animals have been made, and a helper corresponding to the adam hasn’t been found, God puts the adam to sleep, and takes one of his sides (the King James Version translates this as “rib,” but “side” is closer to the Hebrew meaning). Out of that side, God makes another human.
When the adam awakes, God brings the new human to him, and this time the adam exclaims, “This one, at last, is it! Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23, my translation). The adam has found a helper corresponding to him, and he decides to call her woman. Anyone who has fallen in love knows the feeling expressed in that exclamation, “This one, at last, is it!”
So, I ask, is the point of this story that only a woman can be a helper corresponding to man, or that only a human can be a helper corresponding to another human? What distinguishes the woman from the other beings God brought to the adam? Is it her femininity or her humanity?
I believe the message of Genesis 2 is that humans need human companionship. Dogs and cats are great companions, and it’s wonderful to commune with nature, but they can never offer the kind of companionship humans give us. Even if we’re not partnered, we are all “people who need people.”
And yet, some religious conservatives will use Genesis 2 to argue that certain classes of people are denied the companionship of marriage, because they fall in love with the wrong person. Arguing that Genesis 2 is all about the sex of the two humans, they say homosexuals must remain celibate for life. Worse yet, families and friends take this message and think it means they must disown their children, brothers, sisters, or friends. Having already denied them the companionship of marriage, they deny homosexuals the companionship of community.
This is a terrible misreading of Genesis 2. God said, “It is not right for the human to be alone,” but humans have twisted God’s words and added, “unless you’re gay, then you must be alone.”
You Shall Not Sacrifice Any of Your Children
Probably none of the Clobber Passages is as terrifying to gay men as Leviticus 18:22. It seems so clear when taken at face value, and the Fred Phelpses of the world are always quick to throw it at us with a disgusted twist of their mouths on the final word: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” (KJV) But what if I told you Fred Phelps was one of the most prominent violators of that very verse? When read in its historical context, I believe Leviticus 18:22 should strike fear into those who would destroy our queer youth in the name of God.
In unpacking the meaning of Leviticus 18:22, my first question is why women aren’t mentioned. If God intended this verse as a blanket condemnation of all same-sex relationships, then wouldn’t it make sense to add, “Women, do not lie with womankind as with mankind”? In fact, there are no prohibitions in the Bible against lesbian sex.** Doesn’t this seem like a big oversight if same-sex relationships are so abominable?
The most common response to this is to point out that women are pretty much ignored in the Hebrew Bible. The laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy were written for the ruling patriarchy and not for women, people say. However, the very next verse includes women. Leviticus 18:23 prohibits sex with animals and specifically states, “nor shall any woman give herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it” (NRSV). So, it looks like the author intentionally left women out of verse 22. This leads to the question, “Why would sex between men be prohibited if sex between women wasn’t?”
Here we need a little science lesson from 2,000 BCE. In ancient western Asia, where Leviticus was written, people believed semen contained little people. At the time, no one knew about women’s eggs, so they thought men provided the children and women provided the incubator. The man would implant the tiny person in the woman’s womb, and it would grow there until it was big enough to live on its own. Then it would be born.
This notion of how human life begins led to some other beliefs. Masturbation was thought of as killing one’s children before they were born. And offering one’s semen to a god was thought of as sacrificing one’s children to that god. The most common way this was done was by having sex with the priests who represented a god or goddess.
With this in mind, one possible explanation for the prohibition in Leviticus 18:22 is that it is a prohibition against child sacrifice. God didn’t want men having sex with temple priests and thereby offering their children to false idols. The context of this verse makes that interpretation seem even more likely. Leviticus 18:21 says, “You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord” (NRSV). Molech was a god of fire worshipped by the Canaanites, and one of the ways they worshipped him was by sacrificing their children through burning. Since authors tend to lump items in a list together in groups, it makes sense that this prohibition against child sacrifice would be followed by another prohibition against a different form of child sacrifice.
This leads me to ask, “How should this text be applied to our day and time? Do we still sacrifice our children to false idols?” And the answer is most definitely, “Yes.” We no longer burn our children on altars or have sex with temple priests, but we sacrifice our children in more subtle ways. I know many people whose parents forced them into professions they hated and weren’t suited for by threatening to cut them off. Like the Canaanites who wanted their families to be prosperous and so sacrificed their children to false idols, modern people sacrifice their children on the altar of medicine or law, believing a good-paying job is the most important thing in the world.
Other people sacrifice their children to false images of God. My spouse used to serve as the director of Indiana Youth Group, the LGBT youth group in Indianapolis. In that job he worked with homeless youth. And he discovered that, although LGBT people make up a small percentage of the general population, LGBT youth make up between forty and sixty percent of the homeless youth population. He also found that between fifty and seventy percent of LGBT youth have seriously considered suicide — not just thought about it, but planned how and when they would carry it out.
Parents throw their children out of the house in the name of an incorrect reading of Scripture, and God says, “Do not sacrifice your children to false ideals.” Parents abandon their children to hopelessness and suicide, telling them they’re an abomination, and God say, “Do not sacrifice your children to false idols.” Parents force their children into ex-gay therapy programs based on dubious science, and God says, “Do not sacrifice your children to false idols.” Fred Phelps assaults our queer youth with cries of “God hates fags,” and God weeps and shouts, “Stop! Stop! Have you not read Leviticus 18:22? Stop sacrificing your children to false idols!”
Too many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people continue to be afraid of the Bible, believing if they read it too closely they’ll find out God really does hate them. I believe the opposite is true. If we will only read Scripture carefully, take it seriously, and listen to the voice of God in the Bible, we will discover God calling the Church to repentance for its treatment of LGBT people.
Genesis 2 is a great story of love and companionship, which teaches us how much people need other people, and challenges the Church to rethink its attitude toward same-sex marriage. Leviticus 18:22 is a reminder not to sacrifice our children on the altars of a false image of god. Neither of these Scriptures should strike fear into the hearts of LGBT people, but they should challenge modern fundamentalists who want to exclude us.
Isaiah, speaking in the voice of God, said, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (NRSV). And in his final sermon to the Pilgrims on their departure for the New World, Pastor John Robinson said, “For God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from the Word.” If we let our fear keep us from taking the Bible seriously, we risk missing the new things God wants to do in our lives and in the life of the Church in the Twenty-First Century.
* I adapted the translation “helper corresponding to him” for the Hebrew phrase “ezer kenegdo” from Everett Fox’s The Five Books of Moses.
** I believe Romans 1:26 refers to male-female anal sex, and not lesbian sex.
Fifth-generation clergy who grew up in Zambia as the child of Wesleyan missionaries, Rev. John Tyler Connoley is co-author with Rev. Jeff Miner of The Children Are Free: Reexamining the Biblical Evidence on Same-Sex Relationships. He earned a master’s degree in religion and master of divinity from Earlham School of Religion and currently serves as conference minister in the Central Pacific Conference of the United Church of Christ.