Homosexuality In the Old Testament

Enzo Cortese
Professor of Old Testament Studies,
Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, Jerusalem

It sometimes happens that in today's heated discussions of homosexuality we see somewhat hasty references to the Bible, which after a rigorous analysis prove rather unconvincing and somewhat simplistic. The Old Testament has also been used in this way, as often happens, on the basis of a certain predetermined understanding of the text, i.e., from a preconceived starting point. In our case, such prejudices are sometimes motivated by a benevolent attitude which, even if partly justifiable and proper, cannot do away with the need for honest objectivity, to avoid being influenced by any prejudice in interpreting the Bible's moral teaching.

But let us come to our topic and the question facing us: can any specific teaching on homosexuality be found in Sacred Scripture? To answer this, we will try to review the Old Testament passages usually quoted in discussions of this issue, carefully distinguishing, for methodological clarity, between legislative and narrative texts. Finally, we will make some contemporary applications of our findings.


The legislative texts

First of all we note the existence of several legal prescriptions which deal with or at least refer with sufficient clarity to our subject. First, let us cite the parallel chapters 18 and 20 of the Book of Leviticus, which belong to the collection commonly described as the "code of holiness" (Lv 17-26). Here, in very realistic terms, is presented a whole series of occasional or permanent relationships prohibited in accordance with a norm that seems to have very ancient origins. Specific unions, which are de facto possible, are forbidden to the males of a clan, whether they involve marriage or adultery: with any of the wives of either their father or their brothers, uncles or sons. We are dealing with a period when no federation of the tribes of Israel had yet occurred since the immediate aim of this list of prohibitions seems to be nothing more than preserving the purity of the clan. Although we must not claim that these archaic norms contain a formulation more explicitly based on clear ethical principles, it is significant that in the context of these concerns the passages of Lv 18:22 and 20:13 prohibit and describe as "abominable" (to'eba) the union of one man with another ("as with a woman"), which in chapter 20 is punished in the same way as other prohibited relations. It is true that some authors say that the condemnation only concerns the homosexuality practiced in pagan cults. But if this were so, a precept of this sort would not have been put in the context of norms concerning the children of Israel, but with those concerning possible dangers deriving from foreign cults. The norms as a whole aim at avoiding what is deemed particularly dangerous and harmful for the Israelite community. Therefore if the formulation of the sixth of the Ten Commandments according to the original text says only: "do not commit adultery" (Ex 20:14), it would be obviously mistaken to conclude from this that it permitted any other kind of carnal relations.

This is also true of the norm in the Book of Deuteronomy 22:5, where a woman is forbidden to wear male articles, and a man, to dress as a woman. Of course the pagan cults can be considered the source of this forbidden practice and consequently as the principal danger to be guarded against. And so it is correct to recall the prohibition in Deuteronomy 23:17: "There shall be no cult prostitute of the daughters of Israel, neither shall there be a cult prostitute of the sons of Israel". However it is also correct to remember that the Old Testament speaks of sacred male prostitution (certainly not for women, who in Israel lived under strict control) in the early period of the monarchy, after the break-up of the two kingdoms, therefore, at the end of the 10th century B.C. (cf. 1 Kgs 14:24; 15:22; 22:47; and later at the time of Josiah, towards the end of the seventh century: cf. 2 Kgs 23:7), in reference to the kingdom of Judah and not to that of the north! But the second hypothesis, that apart from cultic practice homosexuality would have been permitted on the basis of these texts cannot be maintained, just as it would be ridiculous to say that the various types of adultery forbidden in Lv 18 and 20 were only those of pagan cults while other forms would have been allowed!

On the other hand, the Old Testament perspective is that of a healthy but primitive civilization, and therefore not open and tolerant even towards certain situations for which there is a greater understanding today. This can be illustrated by citing two significant passages that are not usually considered in discussions like ours, but which can help situate the issue better. In the first, David curses his general Joab for having killed his counterpart in the northern kingdom, who had been negotiating a union with the southern kingdom limited to Hebron and Judah. The king says: "May the house of Joab never be without one who has a discharge, or who is leprous, or who holds a spindle, or who is slain by the sword, or who lacks bread!" (2 Sm 3:29). The third possibility mentioned, very common in ancient Babylonian and Canaanite literature, has an obviously scornful tone and is synonymous with effeminacy, since it wishes a feminine task on a man! In the second case, it was the prophet Jeremiah, in the sixth century B.C., who cursed Babylon, the empire that had destroyed the kingdom of Judah: "A sword upon her horses and upon her chariots, and upon all the foreign troops in her midst, that they may become women!" (Jer 50:37). The insult needs no comment.


The narratives

At the narrative level, we can mention three stories that have a bearing on our theme. Regarding the first two, we sometimes read that the action condemned in them would not necessarily be the vice of sodomy, while with respect to the third, it is sometimes maintained that homosexuality might even have been praised.

The first story, in Genesis 19, is about the inhabitants of Sodom and their attempt to abuse the two heavenly messengers (cf. 19:5) who had arrived in the city and were staying with Lot, a resident of that city. Lot's fellow residents, according to the account itself, wanted to teach Lot a lesson, a crude one indeed, since he forgot that he was the most recent arrival and presumed to oppose and judge them (cf. 19:9). Now it is true that Lot's reason for opposing his fellow residents' demand to treat his two guests as they pleased does not exactly concern the vice in itself but only his duties of hospitality. Nevertheless, the attitude that the Sodomites resent is precisely Lot's opposition to their homosexual demands, to the point that he is paradoxically prepared to offer them his own daughters (cf.19:8); this can only involve a condemnation of what is commonly called a sin against nature. In addition, anyone who tries to minimize the sin of the Sodomites has not taken into account that, as soon as the two messengers had set out for Sodom, leaving Abraham in God's company, it was God himself who complained that Sodom's sin "is very grave" (18:20), an "outcry" which has reached him (18:20ff; 19:13).

With regard to the second episode, which involves the Benjaminites of Gibeah (cf. Jgs 19), some explanations must also be given. The story has some very crude and even grisly aspects, but it leads to conclusions similar to those mentioned above. A Levite, a native of Ephraim and a guest at the home of a man of that city, was to have been the victim of the homosexual desires of the people of Gibeah, but it was his concubine who become the victim: after a night of abuse, she was found lying dead at the door of the house. Some have concluded that it was not a question of sodomy. But we must not forget the precise words of the text, which says that the men of that city, "base fellows", surrounded the house, beat at the door and told the old master of the house to hand over the stranger to them so that they could abuse him (cf. vv. 22-23). The master of the house came out and spoke to them in terms similar to those used by Lot; he warned them not to "act so wickedly" since the man had come as his guest, and offered them instead his own daughter, who was still a virgin (cf. vv. 24-25). But since the men would not listen to him, the Levite offered them his own concubine (vv. 25-28). In short, even though the sacred duty of hospitality is maintained, what is condemned and avoided as a "crime" (nebala) is, precisely, sodomitic behaviour (cf. 19:23ff.), even if the concubine's murder (cf. 20:6, 10) is an additional crime.

Then there is a third account, recorded in the First Book of Samuel, about the bond of friendship between David and Jonathan, Saul's son. In fact, after David's victory over Goliath and his meeting with Saul, we read: "When he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul" (1 Sm 18:1; cf. 18:3; 19:1; 20:4ff.). And after Jonathan's death in battle, David mourns him in lyrical words: "Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women" (2 Sm 1 :26).

Certain advocates of homosexuality would be satisfied to find a biblical foundation for it. But it would not be honest to omit certain clarifications of a philological and cultural nature. With regard to the first text cited, two observations must be made: one concerns the image of a soul closely linked to another (expressed by the Hebrew verb qashar), to suggest a relationship of the most intense love; well, this also occurs elsewhere with regard both to the love of the Canaanite Shechem for Dinah, the daughter of Jacob (cf. Gn 34:3ff.), and Jacob's own love for his son Benjamin (cf. Gn 44:30f.), which turns out to be no more than a mere, though very expressive, metaphor. The other observation concerns the phrase "he loved him as himself", which recalls Lv 19:18, where the people are enjoined to love their neighbour (meaning probably their compatriots) as themselves. (Some have preferred to translate it: "Love your neighbour because he is like you"), even if the case in question concerns a special relationship. With regard to the second text, it is true that in the manuscript tradition of the Vulgate the Latin "super amorem mulierum" created difficulties for some copyists, who altered it to "sicut mater unicum amat filium", referring instead to maternal love; but the text refers precisely to that type of love which God has instilled in his creatures and is so strong that it makes one forget father and mother (cf. Gn 2:24), but which in our case is recalled merely as an example. It is moreover significant that in ancient Jewish tradition, no mention is made of a homosexual interpretation of the story. In short, the texts concerning the relationship between David and Jonathan are a testimony to the experience of a strong, tender friendship, no different from other classical texts about Orestes and Pylades, Euryalus and Nisus, Cloridano and Medoro, and in the Old Testament itself, the two women Naomi and Ruth (cf. Rt 1:16f.). On the other hand, the relationship between David and Jonathan is also based on a military alliance made in the Lord's name (cf. 1 Sm 18:4; 20:8; 14-16).


Concluding remarks

Putting aside then the friendship of David and Jonathan, which does not properly belong to our case studies, the Bible's tough, not to say harsh, tone with homosexuality is surprising. But here an explanation seems necessary. We must not of course adopt the Bible's primitive attitude of drastic harshness, or we would end up requesting the death penalty for those who succumbed even once to this weakness. A homosexual who yields to his inclinations is no more guilty than an adulterer, especially if his behaviour is due to a particular psychological or even physical disposition. But to distance ourselves from this rather crude and primitive mentality does not mean to reject the moral principles and guidelines it reflects. In the Old Testament these are not as clear as they are in the New Testament and in later moral reflection. The Old Testament laws we have examined express, more than anything else, a preoccupation with acts which, should they gain a foothold, would threaten to destroy society. Nonetheless we can say that certain ethical principles, which will be better formulated later on, are already clearly, though implicitly, expressed in the Old Testament.

This appears even more clearly, if we consider the overall message about sexuality presented in the Bible, which we can only briefly mention here. It concerns the doctrine of the complementarity of the human couple created by God in his own image. It is not right to say, as did Philo of Alexandria, and has sometimes been maintained in the past, that for the Bible the only purpose of sexuality is conception and reproduction. The couple is created in God's image also for the love they express and achieve: the love of spouses which first spreads within the family, to create for the children brought into the world that atmosphere and spiritual warmth to which they have a right and which, they particularly need in their early years; the love which, by multiplying families with internal harmony, creates a society as the divine plan intends it to be.

It can also be pointed out that God's plan for sexuality and for society also includes demands of renunciation and sacrifice. Not only are the sacrifices of married couples needed to put this plan into action (including sometimes the sacrifice of being faithful to one's partner), but also the sacrifices of those who are celibate by choice or necessity: although they possess the normal sexual instincts, they are called to sublimate them for the good of society, or because of their particular situations or because they have accepted the mission of renouncing them in order to be better able to help others in fulfilling their mission. Jesus will explain all these things better in the New Testament.

But perhaps the greatest misfortune today is not that of homosexuality or adultery, which nevertheless cause or hasten the ruin of so many couples and families. There have always been weaknesses of this kind among men and women, proof of the deep wound inflicted on human nature by original sin. But there is also redemption: by becoming incarnate, the Word of God took on our own nature in order to heal it. It is important to open ourselves to him in faith, accepting the salvation he came to offer us. To do this, we must acknowledge that we are sinners and turn to him as our true Saviour. Indeed, without a sense of sin we are aware only of our own selfish needs. But the blame for this should not be placed so much on homosexuals as on man in general, who by eliminating the sense of sin, also eliminates the perception of his own moral limits, a perception that could instead offer him a smoother way towards self-fulfilment by a humble and trusting openness to the Redeemer's grace.

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Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 March 1997, p.10


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