Gays and the Old Testament




“The Levitical regulations had
no hold on [early] Christians.”
John Boswell, History Professor


Are all gays “sodomites”? Some Christians conclude that Sodom was destroyed because of homosexuality. Could they be right?

In Genesis 19, Lot offers food, shelter and safety to his guests, a sacred obligation in nomadic cultures. Prompted by necessity, this Mediterranean practice of hospitality was essential for safe travel. Even enemies received hospitality for three days. Unlike our culture, punishment could be severe for failing to welcome and protect visiting foreigners.

Lot says the men of Sodom want to “know” Lot’s guests. Lot replies, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly” and reminds them of the obligation of hospitality: Lot’s visitors are “under the protection of my roof” (see Gen. 19:5-8).

Though some scholars disagree, the evidence suggests that one of the sins of Sodom is the threat of homosexual gang rape. A brutal homosexual assault, however, does not condemn all homosexuals any more than heterosexual rape condemns all heterosexuals.

None of the 47 other biblical references to Sodom states that homosexuality caused its downfall. To the contrary, Sodom’s inhabitants are destroyed “because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord” (Deut. 29:23-25). Ezekiel says Sodom’s sins included “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (16:49, emphasis mine). Indeed, Jesus compares towns that “do not welcome” his traveling disciples to Sodom (Luke 10:10-12).

Given the above, I propose the following footnote is appropriate for Genesis 19:5:  “The men of Sodom attempted to humiliate Lot for failing to protect his guests, the sacred duty of hospitality.” Rape was probably intended. Either way, the central truth stands: Sodom’s offense is violating hospitality and the motivation is domination. Ancient peoples throughout Mesopotamia knew this—-we should too.

Nowhere does the biblical text indicate gays are “sodomites.” After a decade of impressive research, Yale scholar John Boswell surveys three millennia and concludes that a homosexual interpretation of Genesis 19 is “relatively recent” (Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality). Calling gays “sodomites” reflects social prejudice—-not scripture.

Only two other Old Testament verses refer to same-sex acts (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13). Both state a man lying with a man is an “abomination” (tô‛êbâh). However, this Hebrew noun pertains to idolatrous practices such as male temple prostitution (I Kings 14:24). Like many other idolatrous offenses, homosexual idolatry makes a person ritually unclean. The evil is idolatry, not homosexual acts themselves.

Moreover, the Holiness Code of Leviticus 17-20 repeatedly warns against idolatry. Examples include worshipping Molech or violating the covenant. This context is consistent with prohibitions against male temple prostitution, not faithful relationships between gay men (lesbianism is never prohibited in the Old Testament).

Some Christians assume the death penalty in Lev. 20:13 applies to all homosexuals. Again, the context of homosexual idolatry renders this conclusion dubious. Also, the Bible records no enforcement of this penalty against any homosexual.

Our prejudice is apparent if we apply the Holiness Code exclusively and broadly to all gays. Shall we stone women who are not virgins when they marry? Should we kill all adulterers? (this involves married women only; Deut. 22:20-22). If we enforce these purity regulations—-directed primarily at women—-the ensuing bloodbath would slaughter millions.

Jesus repeatedly rejects these regulations, including offenses deemed abominations. He rebukes his disciples when they ask their Lord about calling down fire from heaven on a town that rejects Jesus (compare Luke 9:51-55 with Deut. 13:12-16). He also negates the death penalty for adultery (Deut. 22:20-22; John 8:3-11).

Given the above, I suggest the following footnote for Lev. 18:22: “Abominations are idolatrous practices, such as temple prostitution, and do not condemn all same-sex acts.” For Lev. 20:13, I suggest the footnote: “The death penalty is prescribed for homosexual idolatry, not for all same-sex acts.”

Next week’s column is “Gays and the New Testament.” As journalist Kristina Borjesson comments, we are entitled to our own opinions, not our own facts. Let us take with utmost seriousness our obligation to examine this controversial issue in the spirit of truth.

©2006 Harry Rix. All rights reserved. 

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