Activity and Lesson Ideas
What Do the Scriptures Really Say About Homosexuality?
TOPICS DISCUSSED IN THIS LESSON:
- Which scriptures are used to condemn homosexuality?
- What do these scriptures really mean?
- Why isn't the church consistent in interpreting scripture?
- How can we help counter misuse of scripture?
A Bible, A Bible! Maybe we need more than a Bible?
While we often hear church leaders say that the scriptures condemn homosexuality, the reality is that only the Bible says anything that could conceivably relate to homosexuality (and, as we will see further on, even this must be qualified). One searches the Doctrine & Covenants, the Book of Mormon, and the Pearl of Great Price in vain for anything remotely related to homosexuality. Thus, it is to the Bible alone that we must turn to discover what the scriptures say, if anything, about homosexuality. This is not an insignificant fact. If homosexuality is such a great threat, as the current church policy dictates, why did Jesus and all the Book of Mormon prophets never say anything about it?
The list of Bible scriptures relied on to condemn homosexuality is probably fairly familiar to most of us by now: Genesis 19 (the story of Sodom and Gomorrah—how come no one ever calls us Gomorrahites?); Deuteronomy 23:17-18; I Kings 14:24, 15:12, 22:46; II Kings 23:7; Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13; I Corinthians 6:9; I Timothy 1:10; and Romans 1:18-32. Before we jump in, though, we should remember that scriptures don't fall out of the heavens ready-made. No, they come out of specific time and place, and reflect and are limited by the culture that produced them. Inspiration doesn't mean that there is no human element involved (think of the Book of Mormon), but that God finds a way to speak to us even through our human limitations. And as Mormons we know that no scripture represents the "last word" of God, since as II Nephi 29:9-10 teaches, God has much more to say to us. Keeping this in mind, let's move on to a closer examination of each of these scriptures.
Naughty Sodom or Haughty Sodom?
It may not seem necessary to explore this story, since we've all heard it many times. A righteous man named Lot is living in the city of Sodom. One night he opens his home to two visitors who are really angels, and then in the middle of the night, the "evil" men of Sodom come to the house demanding to "know" the angels. Obviously, these evil men didn't just want to get acquainted, we're told. Oh no, they wanted to KNOW them, i.e, have sex with them. God then destroys the city. Moral of the story? Well, as the Rev. Phelps, one of the most infamous homophobes of the Christian right has put it, God hates fags. Heck, he destroyed a whole city because of it. But is this really what the story of Sodom is about?
No, actually, the story of Sodom makes much more sense both as a story and as an expression of ancient Hebrew culture when one recognizes that the demand of the men of Sodom was not about sex but about knowledge. Despite the common mistake, the verb in Hebrew, yadha, almost always simply means "to know," not "to have sex" when used in the Bible. In fact, it is only used 10 times in that sense (not counting its use here and in Judges 19) and then only for heterosexual intercourse. So the question becomes, why would the men of Sodom want to know the strangers?
The answer to this depends on some knowledge of ancient Near Eastern culture. In those time, cities were often walled and strangers were seen as potential threats. Don't forget that Lot himself was a stranger residing in Sodom. It was quite natural that the men of Sodom would find his actions in harboring more strangers suspicious. Thus, their hostility and their demand to know them. Think rationally about it for a minute. Is it reasonable to think that ALL the men of Sodom, as the story says, were raging homosexuals, desperate to have sex with these two male strangers? If they were gay, why did Lot offer them his daughters (now there's true perversion!)? The short answer is no. This is a clear example of antigay prejudice twisting a story, rather than a story condemning of homosexuality.
So what is the true story? Fortunately, the Bible itself tells us what the sin of Sodom was. Take a look at Ezekiel 16:49-50, Isaiah 13:19, and Jeremiah 23:14; 49:18, 50:40. Are you surprised to discover that homosexuality is nowhere mentioned? Look too at Luke 9:51-56 and 10:8-12, where Jesus makes clear that the sin of Sodom was inhospitality to God's messengers. Joseph Smith also taught that the sin of Sodom was rejecting the prophets, with not a word about homosexuality (The Words of Joseph Smith, Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980, p. 156.).
- What does it mean to say the scriptures are inspired?
- What benefit, if any, is there to studying the historical, cultural and linguistic background of scriptures?
- If Sodom was not condemned for homosexuality, what reason does the Bible give for its condemnation?
- Do you think many gay men would prefer to have sex with their neighbor's daughters over their neighbor's male family members, given a choice?
Deuteronomy 23:17-18, I Kings 14:24, 15:12, 22:46; II Kings 23:7
No Whores or Sodomites in Israel
These scriptures are a classic example of how mistranslations can have serious consequences. The key word here is kadesh (singular) (kadeshim in the plural), Hebrew words that literally mean "holy man" and "holy men." To understand the condemnation, one has to know that cultic prostitution associated with pagan fertility rituals was already infiltrating the Jewish religion. During the reign of King Manasseh, in the late 7th century B.C., pagan fertility rites were even being performed in the Temple itself. These sacred prostitutes (thus called "holy") would have sex with both men and women in religious fertility rituals. While The King James version of the Bible ("KJV") correctly translated the feminine version of "whore," it mistranslated the male version as "sodomite." Why the discrepancy, since despite what the religious right would have you believe, not all gays are whores? This error is entirely the result of the cultural prejudice of the translators. By 1611 A.D., when they translated the KJV, the myth that the story of Sodom was about homosexuality was already widespread. Thus, a male prostitute had to be a homosexual, and thus they were called "sodomites," since Sodom was about homosexuality. It is a sad commentary on the lasting power of ignorance that sodomy is still used to describe homosexuality. But perhaps what is more amazing is that the footnotes to Deut. 23:17-18 and I Kings 14:24 in the LDS version of the Bible admit that the above explanation about cultic prostitution is correct, even while continuing to refer the reader to homosexuality in the Topical Guide! Never let it be said that facts stood in the way of a determined fanatic!
- What can you say the next time you hear someone tell you homosexuality is wrong because the Bible condemns sodomites?
- How helpful is it to learn something about Israelite history and culture?
- Isn't it true that all prejudice is based on mistaken ideas about other people? Can you give examples of other prejudices based on failure to understand the truth about another group?
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13
Homosexuality an Abomination?
These passages are often cited to support the claim that homosexuality is an abomination prohibited by God. The penalty for this abomination is death. Since it was prohibited as an abomination in ancient Israel, many argue, it should also be forbidden today. Strangely, those who use this passage to condemn homosexuality are not consistent because they do advocate the death penalty for homosexuals, as required by this passage. Why is the condemnation still valid but not the punishment?
The real story behind this passages requires, once again, an understanding of ancient Hebrew culture and belief. (There are no shortcuts to gaining true understanding, despite the call of the literalists who think that the meaning of scripture is self-evident. Their abundant mistakes provide argument enough against their simplistic approach.) The Hebrew word for "abomination" is to'ebah. In the Hebrew Bible, this word is typically used to refer to idolatry or to those practices associated with idolatry. These pagan practices were sometimes, but not always, sexual in nature. Both of these passages occur within the context of that section of Leviticus known as the Holiness Code. The purpose of this Code was to protect the Israelites from the idolatrous practices of the pagan who surrounded them. Both of these passages occur in sections that refer to the Canaanite fertility god Molech. Incest, bestiality and adultery were all practices associated with fertility cults, and are all condemned in that context. In this setting, it is more reasonable to infer that these verses are referring to the ritual homosexual prostitution associated with these pagan fertility cults. Thus, it is not homosexuality as such that is condemned but idolatrous sexual practices.
The more important question that the anti-homosexual must answer is why these passages are taken as binding today while other "moral" condemnations found in these same chapters are not. For example, a man who has sex with his wife while she is menstruating is to be banished (Lev. 18:19 and 20:18). The wearing of cloth made of two different types of fiber is banned (Lev. 19:19). Men with certain physical handicaps are prohibited from serving in the priesthood (Lev. 21:16-21). And what do we do with the death penalty that is required for same-sex relations? Why is one law taken literally and another ignored? What is the principle of interpretation being used here? Those who argue that these scriptures condemn homosexuality (rather than idolatry) have the burden of explaining how they can absolutize one passage while freely ignoring another.
- Can you give examples of "moral" commands that have changed? How do you account for such changes? Does the reason have anything to do with God adapting teachings to individual circumstances of our lives?
- What circumstances would have required the ancient Israelite men to abstain from ritual sex with other men?
- What is idolatry? Since there is little risk of our engaging in pagan fertility rituals today, are there any other ways we might commit idolatry?
I Corinthians 6:9; I Timothy 1:10; Romans 1:18-32
Angels yes, Fairies no
These New Testament passages have caused a lot of unnecessary pain to boys and men who feared they weren't "manly" enough to get into heaven. They seem to condemn not only homosexuality, but any boy who was ever called a "sissy," "pansy" or "wus" or who didn't like sports. What else could "effeminate" mean? Well, the leaders who told you "effeminate" referred to "homos" also told you that "abusers of themselves with mankind" also referred to gays. They were wrong on both counts. Here's the real story, and just as before, it requires a little knowledge of ancient culture and language. (Isn't there a lesson for church leaders in there somewhere?)
In I Corinthians, Paul uses two Greek words, malakoi and arsenokoitai, which are translated in the KJV as "effeminate" and "abusers of themselves with mankind." Arsenokoitai also appears in I Timothy. The idea that these two terms might mean "homosexual" in the modern sense is sheer speculation. In ancient Greek, there was no specific word for one who is homosexual. This was because the ancient Greeks who practiced homosexual intercourse were also often married and active heterosexually. Many Greek words existed to described those who practiced this kind of homosexuality: paiderastes, pallakos, kinaidos, arrenomanes, and paidophthoros. It is important to observe that Paul did not use any of these common, unambiguous terms.
Malakoi (the plural of malakos) literally means "soft" in Greek. In a moral context, the word could easily take on the meaning of one who is "loose" in morals, or lacking self-control. This is exactly the meaning the early Church Fathers gave to this Greek word in their own writings. It is also probably what the King James translators meant by the word "effeminate." ("Effeminate" in 17th century English did not have our current meaning.)
Arsenokoitai (literally, koitai, "those who have sexual intercourse" and arseno, "male" or "masculine") is also an ambiguous word. We need to know that ancient Corinth was a city dominated by the worship of the fertility goddess Venus. Ephesus, where Timothy lived, was also a center of fertility worship. Paul spends much of his time dealing with issues that directly faced Christian converts from those fertility cults, such as incest, meat offered to idols, sexual relations with prostitutes and the behavior and dress of women. Given this context, the word arsenokoitai may more plausibly be translated "cultic prostitutes." We know that the Romans of that time had a Latin word, drauci, that described male cultic prostitutes who had sex with both men and women.
Clearly the passage in Romans refers to same-gender sex. However, the context is Paul's wider condemnation of idolatry, and the confusion that results when humans worship the creature instead of the Creator. This includes heterosexual males giving up what is "normal" for them and seeking homosexual behavior out of lust and perversity. But to take this passage and apply it to someone who has never felt a "normal" heterosexual desire is to put words in Paul's mouth. In Paul's day, there simply was no idea that people might have a sexual orientation toward the same gender. Nor is it clear that Paul is speaking of same-sex activity among women. We have no definite statement that Paul was referring to homosexuality when he described women going "against nature." He could have meant they were performing certain heterosexual acts that to him appeared equally unnatural. Once again, however, it is unlikely that Paul could have been referring to lesbians, since by definition a lesbian is a woman for whom attraction to other women is natural, and not attraction to men.
Finally, we might ask whether what Paul considered to be in accord with nature was his own opinion or a reflection of God's view on the matter. It would not be the first time that an uninspired opinion appeared in Paul's writings (see I Cor. 7:25). In I Corinthians 11:14, Paul uses the same argument from nature to state that it is a shameful thing for a man to have long hair. In 14:34-35 Paul says that women are to remain quiet in the congregation, and that it is shameful for them to speak. How binding are these views of his today? Have we not felt free to discard them when they did not fit our own experience of God's voice?
- Can you give examples where LDS church leaders have voiced personal opinions in public that later have been discarded? (hint: think about statements on slavery, monogamy, polygamy or oral sex) Does moral authority always have to be right to be worthwhile? How can we tell when a leader is right or wrong?
- What does it mean to call something "unnatural?" How do we know what is natural or unnatural? Does "unnatural" always mean "immoral?"
- If God does not condemn "fairies," what can the condemnation of moral "softness" mean for us today? Are there sexual ethics or rules that guide gay and lesbian sexual behaviour and choices? How do we decide which ones to follow?
For excellent, indepth background information on these and other scriptural passages, see the Scriptures and Theology section in the Learning Center. Read also:
What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. Daniel A. Helminiak, Ph.D. Alamo Square Press, 1994.
Living in Sin?: A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality. John Shelby Spong. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. John Boswell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Jonathan loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times. Thomas Horner. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978.
Send your family members a copy of an Affirmation brochure on homosexuality and the Bible, with a letter explaining what you believe the scriptures mean. Invite your family or a family member to an Affirmation meeting where homosexuality and the scriptures will be discussed. Offer to host a small scripture study for your own family on these scriptures.
Don't be afraid to speak up when a scripture is being misused. If you're a teacher (and even if not!) provide the wider cultural and historical context for scriptures that are too often missing. The other class members will appreciate the break from the monotonous memorized answers to memorized questions approach. Share an Affirmation brochure on the scriptures with your branch president, bishop, relief society president, home or visiting teacher, stake president or another branch/ward member.