Biblical Literalism Brings a Bloodbath




“The debate over homosexuality
is a remarkable opportunity,
because it raises in an especially acute way
how we interpret the Bible.”
Professor Walter Wink


Should we interpret the Bible literally?

Some believe we can open the scriptures and immediately apply any verse to our personal and national life. Proponents of this “flat Bible” approach often quip, “The Bible says what it means and means what it says.”

Really? Try applying this scripture literally: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death” (Leviticus 20:13). Many fundamentalists say all gay sex is sinful. None favor killing gay men while ignoring lesbians.

Most who oppose gays focus on the word “abomination,” and ignore the command to kill. This choice is arbitrary: Literalism is selectively applied. Also, do opponents of gays agree with every Old Testament abomination?

A town that turns away from the Lord to worship other gods is also an abomination (Hebrew, to-ay-baw’). In this case, Deuteronomy 13:12-16 requires slaying the people and burning the town. Will we enforce ritual purging and slaughter for these religious violations?

Should we also kill women who, having divorced at least twice, remarry a previous husband? This too is an abomination (Deut. 24:1-4). Consider also: “If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity” (Deut. 25:11-12). Our society would appreciate rather than mutilate this wife.

A multitude of executions are mandatory: A bride who is not a virgin shall be stoned to death, and both the man and the woman caught in adultery must be killed (Deut. 22:20-22). However, adultery applies only to the wife’s offense. A husband may have sex with his other wives, a prostitute or concubine—-but he dare not have intercourse with another man’s wife.

We cannot interpret the Bible literally nor can we arbitrarily select verses or portions of verses we like. Instead, we must interpret scripture with integrity. Are there any other ancient Middle East texts we fully comprehend when reading a translation? Even the relatively recent English of Shakespeare requires much study.

We must understand the cultural context of scripture. For example, the law defining adultery is based on women being men’s property. This explains why intercourse with another man’s wife was a violation deserving death, but a husband could have multiple partners.

Levitical priests also considered the man’s semen sacred. In their pre-scientific understanding, the woman was merely an incubator for a developing life. So the death penalty was invoked for intentionally attempting to prevent pregnancy through coitus interruptus (Gen. 38:8-10). Male homosexual acts also wasted the sacred semen and, likewise, deserved death. Lesbian sex acts had no such significance. No punishment was prescribed.

Pastors and lay leaders from 60 Rhode Island churches enthusiastically approved a speaker when he defended a man’s declaration, “Homosexual behavior is deviant.” Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council, also denigrated “rampant homosexuals” for obtaining the dismissal of a government board member who expressed such prejudice. Perkins stated this demonstrates that government “must suppress religious freedom” when it defends gays.

Expressing a religious view is different than advocating, as a government worker, prejudice against gays. We do not live in a theocracy. We cannot impose the ancient judgment of abomination upon one class of people while exonerating millions who also commit acts that, three millennia ago, were deemed abominations. Interpreting the Bible literally brings a bloodbath which we and our neighbors may not escape.

On many occasions, Jesus rejected purity regulations. Moreover, Paul wrote that for believers, “Christ is the end of the law” (Romans 10:4). The Spirit of Christ, not the letter of the law, must prevail. Instead of treating all gays and lesbians as lepers, we must recognize them as our brothers and sisters. Instead of following a flat Bible, may we pursue the immeasurable wisdom of the risen Christ.

©2006 Harry Rix. All rights reserved. 

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