By Charles David Isbell
Louisiana State University
Last month I surveyed the biblical attitude toward male homosexuality and noted that the punishment for its practice was execution. I also noted the rabbinic attitude in support of the biblical condemnation of homosexuality along with their surprising interpretation of the sin of the citizens of Sodom as the failure of basic societal hospitality with no mention of homosexuality. In this installment, I want to explore two aspects of these teachings in light of the current debate on the issue.
I begin with an observation based on my own experience of teaching courses in Bible for almost forty years. Whenever I have posed the question, “Do you believe that homosexuality is a sin?” I have invariably received an answer of “Yes” from a majority of my students. The reason offered for such belief is constant: “The Bible says it is a sin.” And, of course, this is an accurate statement, based on two verses in Leviticus (18.22 and 20.13) and two New Testament passages (Romans 1.26-32 and 1 Corinthians 6.9-10), discussed last month. But my following question has not been so uniformly answered: “Which method of execution do you prefer as punishment for the practice of homosexuality?” I pose these two questions together to illustrate what I call “selective literalism.” If one’s opposition to homosexuality is simply that “the Bible says it is a sin,” then one cannot merely ignore the equally plain Scriptural teaching of both testaments, once in the same verse (Lev 20.13) and once in the same short passage (Romans 1.26-32) that death is the only appropriate response to that sin. Thankfully, to date I have never received the obvious biblical answer to my second question, and so far, no student has advocated the death penalty for homosexuality. Should this happen in the future, I am fully prepared to recommend a concomitant call for the death penalty to be applied to witches, adulterers (although, come to think of it, this might solve some of our current legislative difficulties nicely), disobedient sons, and non-believers.
My second observation is based not merely on four verses from Leviticus and Paul but on a wider view of biblical teachings coupled with a more sophisticated modern application of biology and genetics. Let’s take these in order. One of the thirteen basic principles of interpretation1 followed by the early rabbis demanded that attention be paid to “context.” However, the rule that “a thing is taught by its context” [דבר למד מענינו] is complicated by the fact that context may refer to the immediate surroundings of the text, or may be extended to a far broader appeal including the whole of biblical narrative. Using a broad contextual approach, we note that some of the sternest admonitions in the Bible relate to the responsibility of a covenant society to “widows, orphans, and alien residents” (see Deut 10.18; 26.12; Jer 49.11; Ps 68.5 inter alia passim), the elderly, the weak, and the physically handicapped (Lev 19.14).2 Now suppose that we had the opportunity to discuss these issues with the authors of Leviticus. And let us further suppose that we explained the following to them. For reasons that we cannot explain or defend, we now know scientifically that the good Lord in His wisdom chooses to create approximately eight to ten per cent of us with a pre-disposition to be attracted to members of our own gender.
Surely no one would argue that a widow chooses the death of her husband, orphans choose for their parents to die, or a crippled man walking slowly with a cane and a service dog (of whom I am one) chooses his physical condition. I believe the Levitical authors would have been surprised to learn that no one of us chooses either our heterosexuality or our homosexuality either, and I believe such new knowledge would have had a drastic effect on their interpretation of the issue. In my view, armed with a more adequate understanding of human sexuality, the biblical authors might well have added homosexuals to the list of those whom Israelite society was obligated to protect along with a short statement that the way we treat our homosexual brothers and sisters says more about the kind of people we are than it does about them.
Further, if we could explain to Paul that his monolithic view of Leviticus needed to be broadened, would he understand that his opposition to homosexuality had no clear basis in Scripture?
What if we could explain to the rabbis that homosexual relationships were not chosen in an attempt to disobey the clear call of God to “be fruitful and multiply” but were the natural expression of DNA wiring decreed by the Creator in His wisdom? Since the rabbis held the biblical view that the primary purpose of marriage was the production of children, it may be doubted whether they would have sanctioned homosexual marriage.3 But in my view, it is a reasonable assumption that the authors of the Torah who gave us the absolute dictum—“There must be only one law (torah) and one standard of justice (mishpat) among you”4—might have surprised us with their response.
1 Middot shənidreshet ha-torah bahen, “the rules by which the Torah is interpreted.”
2 And note the specific curse invoked against anyone who mistreats a blind person (Deut 27.18).
3 Neither the Bible nor the early rabbis opined on this specific question.
4 See Numbers 15.16, and note also Numbers 9.14; 15.29.