Scripture on Homosexuality (Part 1)

A Christian Researcher Says Biblical Prohibition Is Categorical

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PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania, MARCH 21, 2002 (Zenit.org).- What does the Bible say about homosexuality, and why?



For an in-depth answer, ZENIT turned to Robert A.J. Gagnon of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a graduate institution of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Gagnon is the author of "The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics" (Abingdon, 2001).

[The second part of this interview appears next week.]

ZENIT: Could you outline the principal passages in the Bible that you believe are the basis for prohibiting homosexuality?

Gagnon: There are two particularly important sets of explicit texts. First are the prohibitions in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which declare that for a man to "lie with a male as though lying with a woman" is "an abomination" or "detestable act" -- in Hebrew, "toevah" -- something utterly repugnant to God.

The second set is the Apostle Paul´s mention of same-sex intercourse in Romans 1:24-27, which he treats as "exhibit B" -- with idolatry as "exhibit A" -- proving gross and deliberate human sin on the part of Gentiles against the truth about God accessible in creation or nature.

There are also a reasonably large number of other texts that explicitly or implicitly indicate opposition to same-sex intercourse, leaving little doubt that such opposition was the consensus position of both Testaments, as well as the historical communities out of which these texts arose.

Q: Sometimes modern-day skeptics reject Leviticus ...

Gagnon: The texts in Leviticus are often dismissed on one or more grounds. For example, it is claimed that these prohibitions have no more significance for the church today than other defunct purity laws; or that they have in view only same-sex intercourse conducted in the context of idolatrous cults, prostitution or adult-adolescent unions. Yet such arguments overlook a number of points.

Q: Such as ... ?

Gagnon: First, the prohibitions against same-sex intercourse occur in the context of other types of sexual activity that the church today still largely regards as illegitimate: incest, adultery and bestiality.

The strong prohibitions against these forms of sexual activity represent the closest analogues to the prohibition of same-sex intercourse. This is particularly the case with the prohibition of incest which, as with the prohibition of same-sex intercourse, rejects intercourse between two beings that are too much alike. Leviticus refers pejoratively to sex with a family member as sex with "one´s own flesh."

Second, the attachment of purity language in ancient Israelite culture to such acts as incest, adultery, male-male intercourse, idolatry, economic exploitation, and the like -- far from suggesting an amoral or non-moral basis for the rejection of such acts -- actually buttresses the moral focus on the inherently degrading character of the acts themselves. It underscores that any talk about the positive moral intent of the participants is irrelevant.

For the same reason, the Apostle Paul many centuries later connected the language of impurity with acts -- usually sexual acts -- that are rejected on moral grounds: not only same-sex intercourse but also adultery, incest, sex with prostitutes, and promiscuous sexual activity. [Gagnon later cites some texts: Romans 1:24 and 6:19; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Galatians 5:19; 1 Thessalonians 2:3 and 4:7; see Ephesians 4:19; 5:3,5; and Colossians 3:5.]

Third, unlike a number of the now-defunct elements of the Holiness Code to which reference is often made, the indictment of same-sex intercourse is particularly severe, as suggested by the specific attachment of the label "toevah" and by making it a capital offense.

Same-sex intercourse was regarded by ancient Israel as a particularly severe infraction of God´s will. Indeed, we know of no ancient Near Eastern culture that adopted a more rigorous opposition to all forms of same-sex intercourse. True, the New Testament and the contemporary church does not apply the penalty attached to this act in the Levitical code. But, then again, it does not retain the Old Testament valuation of adultery, incest and bestiality as capital offenses either, even as it still rejects such forms of intercourse as immoral.

Fourth, the prohibitions of same-sex intercourse are not limited to particularly exploitative forms but are rather unqualified and absolute.

The general term "male" is used, not "cult prostitute," "boy, youth," or even "neighbor." The prohibition applies not only to the Israelite but also to the non-Israelite who lives among them -- see Leviticus 18:26. The fact that both parties to the act are penalized in Leviticus 20:13 indicates that consensual acts are being addressed.

Idolatry is hardly the main concern since the prohibition in 20:13 is set in between prohibitions of adultery, incest and bestiality; it does not follow immediately upon the prohibition of child sacrifice as in 18:22. Moreover, male cult prostitution was not the only context in which homosexual intercourse manifested itself in the ancient Near East generally. It was merely the most acceptable context for homosexual intercourse to be practiced in Mesopotamia, certainly for those who played the role of the receptive partner.

Fifth, the reason for the prohibition is evident from the phrase "lying with a male as though lying with a woman." What is wrong with same-sex intercourse is that it puts another male, at least insofar as the act of sexual intercourse is concerned, in the category of female rather than male.

It was regarded as incompatible with the creation of males and females as distinct and complementary sexual beings, that is, as a violation of God´s design for the created order. Here it is clear that the creation stories in Genesis 1-2, or something like them, are in the background, which in turn indicates that something broader than two isolated prohibitions is at stake: nothing less than the divinely mandated norm for sexual pairing given in creation.

Q: How are these prohibitions reflected in the New Testament?

Gagnon: The prohibition of same-sex intercourse is clearly picked up in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul, who emphasized that the Mosaic law had been abrogated, nevertheless saw significant continuity with the moral code of the Spirit.

The basic categories of sexual immorality -- such as same-sex intercourse, incest, solicitation of prostitutes, adultery, etc. -- remained in place for believers in Christ. Indeed, Paul formulated his reference to "men who lie with males" -- "arsenokoitai" -- one of the groups of people whom he insists will not inherit the kingdom of God in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, directly from the Levitical proscriptions of male-male intercourse. Clearly, then, Paul himself did not believe that the abrogation of the Mosaic law rendered obsolete the rejection of all same-sex intercourse for believers.

Q: What does Romans 1:24-27 say?

Gagnon: The text in Romans 1:24-27 is worth quoting at length: "because of the desires of their hearts God gave them over" -- that is, those who chose not to worship God as God -- "to an uncleanness" -- that is, filthy conduct -- "consisting of their bodies being dishonored among themselves. ... God gave them over to dishonorable passions, for even their females exchanged the natural use" -- that is, of the male as regards sexual intercourse -- "for that which is contrary to nature" -- that is, sexual intercourse with other females -- "and likewise also the males, having left behind the natural use of the female, were inflamed with their yearning for one another, males with males committing indecency and in return receiving in themselves the payback which was necessitated by their straying" -- that is, from the truth about God evident in nature.

Here the intertextual echoes to Genesis 1-2 are even more pronounced than in the Levitical proscriptions.

Q: You have examples of this, of course ...

Gagnon: In the context of Romans 1:18-32 there are obvious allusions to Genesis 1 in the words "ever since the creation of the world" [1:20] and "the Creator" [1:25].

Also unmistakable is the link between Romans 1:23 -- referring to idols "in the likeness of the image of a mortal human and of birds and of four-footed animals and of reptiles" -- and Genesis 1:26 -- "Let us make a human according to our image and ... likeness; and let them rule over the ... birds ... and the cattle ... and the reptiles."

Paul´s denotation of the sexes in Romans 1:26-27 as "females" and "males" rather than "women" and "men" follows the style of Genesis 1:27: "male and female he made them."

Q: What are the implications of such an echo to Genesis 1:26-27?

Gagnon: For Paul, both idolatry and same-sex intercourse reject God´s verdict that what was made and arranged was "very good," as Genesis 1:31 says. Instead of recognizing their indebtedness to one God in whose likeness they were made and exercising dominion over the animal kingdom, humans worshipped statues made in their own likeness and even in the likeness of animals.

Similarly, instead of acknowledging that God had made them "male and female" and had confined legitimate sexual intercourse to opposite-sex pairing, humans denied the transparent complementarity of their sexuality by engaging in sex with the same sex, females with females, and males with males.

Q: Would this harkening back to Genesis be natural for Paul?

Gagnon: That Paul should have the creation stories in the background of his critique of same-sex intercourse is hardly surprising.

In an earlier letter to Corinth, when Paul discussed the case of incest, he drew on a hypothetical analogy of sexual immorality -- solicitation of prostitutes -- and in the process appealed to the creation texts: "a man ... shall be joined to his wife and the two will become one flesh." See Genesis 2:24, cited in 1 Corinthians 6:16. It was in this context that Paul listed serial, unrepentant same-sex intercourse as one of the behaviors that could lead to exclusion from God´s kingdom -- see, 1 Corinthians 6:9. So, clearly, just as Paul had Genesis 1:27 in the background when critiquing same-sex intercourse in Romans 1:24-27, so too he had Genesis 2:24 in the background when critiquing same-sex intercourse in 1 Corinthians 6:9.

Like any other Jew in his day, it was hardly possible for him to think about sexual immorality apart from such an appeal. In the same way, when Jesus criticized divorce and remarriage he too cited from Genesis 1:27 -- "God made them male and female" -- and Genesis 2:24 -- "for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh."

Any assessment of sexual immorality by Jews and Christians of the first century ultimately had in view the creation stories.

It is for this reason that attempts to limit Paul´s -- or any other early Jewish or Christian -- critique of same-sex intercourse to particularly exploitative forms is doomed to failure. For all the occasional critique of homosexual behavior that could be found among some Greco-Roman moralists, it did not approach the degree of revulsion experienced by Israel and the church. Jews and Christians stood apart from all other cultures of their time in their absolute opposition to all forms of homosexual practice.

Paul´s own wording in Romans 1:24-27 makes clear that the contrast in his mind is not between exploitative and non-exploitative forms of homosexual behavior but between same-sex intercourse per se and opposite-sex intercourse. In Paul´s view -- and indeed in the view of every Jew or Christian from whom we have firsthand written records within a millennium or more of Paul´s day -- what was wrong, first and foremost, with two females or two males having sex is the same-sexness of the erotic act, an act that was intended by God to be a reunion of complementary sexual others according to Genesis 1-2.