A portion of David’s first letter. Image from Canyonwalker Connections.
Editor’s Note: All verses cited are from the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible.
People often cite certain passages in the Bible to speak out against homosexuality. These passages are described as clobber passages because “people will ‘clobber’ people over the head with them,” said junior Julia Clark, Religion major and administrative officer of Crossroads.
However, others offer different interpretations of these “clobber passages,” arguing that they do not have anything to do with homosexuality. Some scholars question even the use of the word “homosexual” in the Bible and argue that it is not an accurate or true translation.
In 1959, David, a young, gay seminary student, wrote a letter to Luther Weigle, head of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) biblical translation committee and dean of Yale Divinity School, challenging the introduction of the word “homosexual” in the Bible, such as in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10.
Weigle wrote back admitting that the RSV translation was an error and recognizing that a more accurate word or expression than “homosexuals” could be used.
A later version of the RSV replaced the word “homosexuals” with “sexual perverts.”
Researcher, author and founder of Canyonwalker Connections Kathy Baldock and her colleague, Ed Oxford, found the letters between David and Weigle in the Yale Archives in 2018. Baldock also reached out and connected with David. More information and details about David’s story can be found here.
Genesis 19 (Sodom and Gomorrah)
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah has been traditionally associated with condemning homosexuality.
Chris Doran, professor of Religion, said the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about forced sexual exploitation, not consensual same-sex unions.
“Just about every Old Testament scholar I know says this has nothing to do with how we’re dealing with same-sex attraction in the 21st century — this is a much different context,” Doran said.
Clark said the passage is also about hospitality.
“The men of the town are basically xenophobic, is essentially what’s happening,” Clark said. “It’s about hospitality in the ancient sense of the word, not in our modern sense of the word — like hospitality and welcoming the stranger and protecting the stranger.”
Clark said verses in the Bible that refer back to the Sodom and Gomorrah story discuss the city’s lack of hospitality as a major contribution to its destruction.
For example, in Ezekiel 16:48–49, it reads, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done. Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
Another reference to Genesis 19 in the Bible is Jude 1:7, which reads that angels who acted outside their own position of authority will face judgement “just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.”
Another translation that the ESV provides for the Greek word previously translated as “unnatural desire” is “different flesh.”
Clark said the Greek words for different flesh are sarx heteros, and the Greek word “hetero” means “different,” not similar. Therefore, one could conclude that it is because they were angels that their flesh was different.
“It didn’t matter that the angels were presenting as male in that story, and that’s just not something that the Bible’s concerned with, and so it’s one of those — you really have to take that out of the context of the Bible to use it in that way,” Clark said.
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13
The book of Leviticus accounts laws and regulations, including in Leviticus 18:22, which reads, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
Leviticus 20:13 also states, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their death is upon them.”
Doran and Clark said there is some historical context behind these laws. For instance, Doran said the ancient Israelites’ understanding of homosexuality does not address the modern question of today that asks about consenting gay relationships.
“Again, most Old Testament scholars would say this has very little to do with what we’re thinking about now, which is, is it morally illicit for consensual relationships between consenting males or females or other queer members,” Doran said.
Another piece of historical context involves the importance of procreation to the ancient Israelites.
Clark said the ancient Israelites were concerned with continuing the nation of Abraham; therefore, they considered sinful any act that they deemed a “misuse” of semen and was not going to continue the nation of Abraham.
“Even things like having sex with a woman on her period was considered sinful; masturbating was sinful. All of these things that were semen that wouldn’t result in a baby — that was an abomination,” Clark said.
The importance of procreation is also written about by Professor at Yale Divinity School John J. Collins in his book “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible.”
Collins wrote that everything that Leviticus 18 discusses is sexual except in verse 21, where child sacrifice is forbidden, and the punishment for this offense is death by stoning. With this understanding, procreation seems to be the common theme for this chapter of Leviticus.
“Waste of reproductive seed is an issue here,” Collins wrote in his book.
Clark said sex between women, on the other hand, was not held to the same concern by the ancient Israelite because no semen is “wasted.”
“Scholars have looked at that at the time; sex between two women was certainly frowned upon — it wasn’t this great celebrated thing, but in no way was it the same as two men because of this idea of semen,” Clark said.
Collins agrees with Clark in his book when he explains how the omission of the prohibition of sex between women in Leviticus further supports the idea that the main concern was about loss of semen.
Doran said the passages in Leviticus also have to do with the traditional gender roles of the time and the perspective that men should be dominant even in sexual positioning.
“There’s a lot of conversation about what does that even mean in a world where we tend to not think of women as servile to men,” Doran said.
Collins wrote in his book that the prohibition of male homosexuality should be understood in context of the “preoccupation with order” and concern with certain combinations deemed improper that exist in Leviticus.
Last, in the book of Romans in the New Testament of the Bible, the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Christian Church at Rome, “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.”
Doran said these verses are traditionally interpreted to condemn homosexuality as a sin.
“The traditional position is that Paul is using the example of people living in homosexual orgy-like relationships as evidence that things have fallen and that sin is pervasive in the world, and if you can’t see [sin] there, then you’ll never see it anywhere,” Doran said.
He said, on the other hand, non-traditionalist interpretations state that Paul is talking about “orgy relationships” involving sexual abuse of slaves, sexual exploitative relationships between male tutors and young boys, or war-like situations where warriors would sexually assault other men to denigrate them.
“In those three situations, none of those seem to be anything like consensual males or females engaging in consensual contact, and so I think that there’s a big difference there if you look at it from that traditionalist view,” Doran said.
The Rev. Joyce Stickney, of St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Malibu, shared her notes on this passage in Romans, where she wrote some other interpretations she has come across that she has found especially convincing.
She wrote that one interpretation is that Paul is concerned with condemning idolatry among Gentiles in Rome, cultic sex practices and orgies. Additionally, the Roman Imperial Court was known for these practices; therefore, some say these verses are a description of the court.
Another interpretation states that the words “natural” and “unnatural” pertain to customary and uncustomary gender roles, not physical anatomy.
“In societies that viewed women as inferior, sexual relationships between equal status partners could not be accepted. [I]t disrupts the social order and strict hierarchy,” Stickney wrote.
Stickney wrote that Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian and writer, argued that women are inferior to men; therefore, it is shameful when a man “submits to play the part of a woman” or when a woman is elevated to a masculine level in a lesbian relationship.
Clark agreed with Stickney about how this verse is concerned with women breaking out of submissive gender roles assigned to them.
Within verse 27 of Romans 1, it reads that “the men likewise gave up natural relations with women.”
Stickney pointed out the words “gave up” suggest the men were heterosexual and possibly married, which would make relations with another man “unnatural.”
“You can’t give up something you don’t have. This was a case of heterosexuals behaving like homosexuals,” Stickney wrote.
Stickney wrote that another interpretation considers the historical context of privileged married men in the Greco-Roman world indulging themselves in excess pleasure by exerting their power over other people’s bodies through pederasty, prostitution and the sexual abuse of slaves.
“For these men in the Greco-Roman world, a wife alone was not enough,” Stickney wrote. “Same-sex behavior, condemned as excess in this context, does not translate to homosexuality condemned as an orientation — or as a loving expression of that orientation.”
Doran said most scholars would say the passage Romans 1:18–32 actually ends and comes together in Romans 2:1, which reads, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”
He believed it is important to understand that Romans 2:1 is the closing line of the previous passage. He said, in this verse, Paul is saying that “you” are not the judge and the jury; only God decides what happens in the end.
“I think far too many traditionalist Christians sometimes have made it a habit of passing judgment on supposedly sexual sins like homosexuality or something like that,” Doran said, “and have taken the place of God and decided that sexual sins are somehow more egregious or more destructive than any other sin, and I’m not sure that that’s entirely appropriate.”
Email Emily Shaw: firstname.lastname@example.org
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