Clobber Passages: Reexamined
HOMOSEXUALITY AND THE BIBLE, Introduction
A "letter to a friend" takes a quick look at the key verses.
By Bruce L. Gerig
As I promised and now that I have time, I am sending you a summary of thoughts on those passages in the Bible that are commonly used by (homophobic) conservatives to condemn homosexuals. As you know, a fierce war now rages in the Christian church and American society over homosexuality, which makes it all the more essential that Christian GLBT people do their own study of the Bible and of related material, so that they can come to a peaceful confidence in themselves (as many have already) that the Bible does not condemn the homosexual or transgender condition – but that God accepts all as he has created them. In the past, the Church has used four main sometimes-called "clobber passages" in the Bible to condemn homosexuals: the Sodom story in Genesis 19:1-29, a law in Leviticus 18:22/20:13, and two brief references in Paul's letters, in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Romans 1:26-27. When I was young, I remember struggling with the guilt that I felt over being gay – and trying prayer and fasting, visiting a faith healer, and undergoing psychoanalysis to try to change myself into a heterosexual – none of which worked. I also fought severe depression and attempted suicide (not uncommon among gays because of the social pressures faced), until one day the Lord gave me the blessed assurance that he loves me as a gay person just as I am. Today we benefit from the fact that the Bible passages related to homosexuality have been revisited and vigorously reexamined by scholars – who in general have come to the conclusion that many things have been read into the Bible in the past, related to homosexuality, that the text really does not sustain. Our purpose here, then, is to take a fresh look at these texts, to see what they really do say. So, please get out your Bible, so you can read the suggested verses for yourself. We'll quote from the King James Version since it is still widely used – but refer also to other translations and commentary, where helpful. The modern translations that I prefer – that have tried to remain as literal to the ancient texts as possible – are the New American Standard Bible, Updated (1999) and the New Revised Standard Version (1989).
GANG-RAPE AT SODOM – Read Genesis 18:16–19:29. When the two angels came to Sodom to pass final judgment, all the males of the city, from old to young, gathered and encircled Lot's house, ordering him to hand over the two strangers so that they could "know them [NIV: 'have sex with them']" (19:4-5). Lot does everything he can to dissuade the mob, including offering even his two daughters to the men for sexual abuse – which suggests that he viewed them as bisexuals. Indeed, there were young people running around (v. 4) and the city appears to have prospered. The fact that all of the men gathered so quickly reveals that they were waiting for a signal (a call) and indicates that by now an established tradition had developed in Sodom. Apparently whenever travelers came into the city seeking lodging for the night, all the males would gather to take the strangers captive and then abuse and gang-bang them. Gen 13:13 shows that Sodom had had a notorious reputation for many years, and Gen 18:20-21 shows that the "cry of Sodom and Gomorrah" (the screams of the victims) disturbed God a great deal – in fact, to the extent that he sent two angels (in the form of men) to Sodom to verify the cruel intent and perhaps to give the residents one final test. Obviously, sexual abuse and gang rape are wrong and wicked, whether heterosexual or homosexual – and so this passage cannot be used to condemn all forms of homosexual activity, from loving and caring to vicious and violent. Nowhere in the text does Lot mention homosexuality; instead, he pleads urgently with the mob not to violate his hospitality (a moral duty in the ancient Near East) extended to these visitors (19:8). Likewise, in the NT, when Jesus condemns Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt 10:12-15, Luke 10:8-12), he judges them for inhospitality, not homosexuality.
Surveying later references to Sodom and Gomorrah in Scripture (in 12 OT and 8 NT passages), one finds the cities' destruction used as a vivid example of how God punishes wickedness, with the latter defined by the various prophets in terms of current sins that they wished to condemn. Only one OT prophet (Ezekiel) addresses specifically the sin of Sodom. An overall reading of Ezek 16:23-52 reveals God's anger toward the people of the southern kingdom of Judah, who have forsaken the Lord to build pagan shrines everywhere, worship abominable idols, offer child sacrifices to the god Molech, and engage in spiritual and physical prostitution (visiting the cult prostitutes attached to the Canaanite shrines). Judah is declared even worse than Sodom and her neighboring towns (vv. 46-48) who although they had enjoyed many advantages did not "strengthen the hand of the poor and needy [NASB: 'help' them]" but "were haughty and committed abomination [NIV: 'did detestable things']." (16:49-50) "Detestable" certainly describes the raping of helpless strangers that went on, night after night, in Sodom and the other nearby towns.
Only one other passage speaks specifically about Sodom's sin – and in a different way – Jude verses 6-7 (read the whole short letter). Here Jude writes to a church where some new arrivals have introduced sexual activity (KJV: "feeding themselves"; RSV2: "boldly carouse") into church gatherings (v. 12), even the "feasts of charity [NIV: 'love feasts']", the communal meals where the Lord's Supper was shared. They also reject the lordship of Christ (v. 4), so are spreading dangerous false doctrine as well. Obviously concerned, the author warns the church how God destroys wickedness, in the past including the angels of Gen 6:1-4 for leaving their heavenly home to mate with human women (Jude v. 6), as well as the men at Sodom and Gomorrah for their "fornication [GNB: 'sexual immorality'], and going after strange flesh" (v. 7). "Strange [or 'different'] flesh" is a good, literal translation of the Greek sarkos heteras, while "unnatural lust" (NRSV) and "perversion" (NIV) load onto the text meaning that is not in the original Greek. Heteras is the same adjective that is used elsewhere to describe "other [heavenly or foreign] tongues" that the disciples spoke in at Pentecost (Acts 2:4-6) and any "different Gospel" that was preached from what Paul proclaimed by divine revelation (Gal 1:6; both quotes NASB, with italics added). If we look at Jude v. 7, we note that "Even as" and "in like manner" what was going on at Sodom was like what was going on in v. 6 – namely, the focus is on actual and attempted angel-human sexual union. If this text in its larger context teaches anything, it is that the church is no place for carousing and other sexual activity (see a similar passage in 2 Peter 2:13-14). In Scripture, then, what is condemned at Sodom is not homosexuality, but gross inhospitality, sexual violence and rape, and (attempted) sex with angelic beings.
CULTIC PROSTITUTION IN ISRAEL – One law in Leviticus relates to homosexuality, the prohibition given in 18:22 with the punishment added in 20:13. Lev 20:13 reads: "If a man [ish] … lie with mankind [zakhar, NASB: 'a male'], as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination [to'ebhah, NASB: 'detestable act']; they shall surely be put to death…" The death penalty was widely used as a deterrent in ancient times (prisons being rare) and was applied even to cursing a parent (Lev 20:9), adultery (20:10) and blasphemy (24:16). Since Lev 18:22/20:13 is the only place in the KJV where zakhar is (peculiarly) translated as "mankind," the term "male" used elsewhere (e.g. Lev 6:29, 22:19) is clearer and preferable. The fact that we find two different Hebrew words used here for a male (ish and zakhar) suggests that this may not be simply about an ordinary man (ish) having sex with another ordinary man. But what is meant here? A study of all of the (rare) uses of the word zakhar ("male") in the OT reveals that in 90% of the cases it apparently was applied to a man or male animal specially dedicated to a deity for some sacred function (see my other articles on “Homosexuality and the Bible” on www.epistle.us). Zakhar was applied, for example, to Israelite priests, sacrificial animals, circumcised men, Israelite men given various sacred duties, and (in some cases) to persons who were dedicated to pagan gods. In fact, could Lev 18:22/20:13 fall into this last category, forbidding Israelite men to visit the male prostitutes dedicated to serving the Canaanite deities? One might also note that "abomination" (to'ebhah) frequently was applied to things that related to idolatry (cf. Deut 7:25-26), which, of course, would be most offensive to the Lord God. That idolatry was of concern in Leviticus 18-20 is shown in 19:4, where the Lord says, "Turn ye not unto idols, nor make to yourselves molten gods: I am the Lord [Yahweh] your God."
This interpretation becomes even more plausible when we turn to Deuteronomy, Moses' review of the Law at the end of his life and before the Israelites entered the Promised Land. Not unexpectedly, there are many parallel passages, on common themes. However, when we look through Deuteronomy for something related to Lev 18:22/20:13, the only comparable passage that can be found is Deut 23:17-18, which reads:  "There shall be no whore [NRSV: 'temple prostitute'] of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite [NRSV: 'temple prostitute'] of the sons of Israel.  Thou shalt not bring the hire [NRSV: 'fee'] of a whore [NRSV: female 'prostitute'], or the price of a dog [NRSV: 'male prostitute'], into the house of the Lord [Yahweh] thy God for any vow: for even both of these are abomination unto the Lord [Yahweh] thy God." Surprise! Here the male cult prostitute is specifically mentioned! It is important to note in 23:17 that both Hebrew words translated in the KJV as "whore" and "sodomite" derive from a root meaning "holy" (qadosh) and so point to persons consecrated in service to a deity. "Temple prostitute" is therefore an accurate translation in both cases (see NRSV, NIV, REB, GNB) – while "sodomite" in the KJV (here and elsewhere where it appears) is a distorted translation of the Hebrew, which nowhere refers to Sodom. In 23:17, the Hebrew word for "female sacred prostitute" is qedheshah, and for "male sacred prostitute" is qadhesh. Then, 23:18 refers to a secular "female prostitute" (using zonah, a common word for "harlot") and to a "secular male prostitute", using the word for "dog" (kaleb) in a derogatory way. Money from none of these classes of prostitution was to be offered to the Lord, even though foreign cult prostitutes commonly supported their shrines through fees obtained by offering their passive sexual services to worshippers (to seek fertility and health in family and field).
When we turn to Israel's history, we find no case where any man (or woman) was tried, condemned and put to death for simple same-sex activity. In Judges 19, we do have a story similar to Sodom, where certain "sons of Belial [NASB: 'worthless fellows']" in Gibeah tried to get their hands on a Levite priest (whom an old man in that city had taken in, with his party, as guests for the night), so that the mob might "know him [rape him]" (19:22). To save himself, the priest handed over his beloved concubine, whom the scoundrels then raped so viciously that she died (vv. 23-28). The other tribes then gathered to punish Gibeah and the tribe of Benjamin (ch. 20) – but the crime here was heterosexual murder (20:5). The only later OT references to negative homosexuality that we have in Israel's history are sad, reoccurring passages that speak of the male cultic prostitutes operating in Judah (1 Kings 14:23-24; 15:12; 22:46), even within the precincts of the Jerusalem Temple itself (2 Kings 23:7). As it turned out, God's warnings in Lev 18:22/20:13 and Deut 23:17-18 were apropos, even though the Israelites later allowed the male cultic prostitutes to ply their trade.
SECULAR PROSTITUTION IN CORINTH – Virtue and vice lists were common in ancient Jewish and Greek writing and are also found in Paul's letters, including two with words that might relate to homosexuality. The more familiar list, in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, names ten types of persons who "shall [not] inherit the kingdom of God," including (as translated in the KJV): fornicators (NIV: sexually immoral), idolaters, adulterers, effeminate (malakoi), abusers of themselves with mankind (arsenokoitai), thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, and extortioners (NIV: swindlers). Words that appear only in word lists, not applied to a specific situation, can be notoriously hard to define – and such is the case with malakoi and arsenokoitai here. Malakoi basically meant "soft, delicate," but was also used to describe moral weakness or male effeminacy. Yet, Boswell noted that Church tradition held unanimously through the Reformation (16th century) and in Catholicism well into the 20th century that malakoi here referred to masturbation – although after the Kinsey sex reports (1948, 1953) showed that masturbation was widespread and not harmful, this view was largely abandoned. It should thus be noted how erroneous a longstanding tradition of interpretation of Scripture can be, and without any real support for it in Scripture. Arsenokoitai is a compound noun, joining arsen ("male") and koite ("bed," inferring sex). Paul may have coined this word, deriving it from a Hebrew phrase like mishkab zakur based on "lie with a male" in Lev 20:13 (which refers to a male penetrator) or arsenos koiten in the Septuagint translation of Lev 20:13 (which refers, in the Greek syntax, to a male being penetrated). Looking at the word itself, arsenokoitai could refer to "males" either as subject or object. What is important here, in context, is that all of the terms in this list, except for the first and last, appear to have been intentionally paired together: (1) idolatry was often associated with adultery in the OT, (2) malakoi and arsenokoitai, (3) thieves and coveters both passionately want what belongs to others), and (4) drunkenness often leads to reviling (NIV: slander). Therefore the meanings of malakoi (effeminacy of some kind) and arsenokoitai (male same-sex of some kind) seem linked.
Modern scholars have interpreted malakoi and arsenokoitai generally along four lines – as referring to: (1) "catamites" and "sodomites" – passive and active partners in same-sex activity (Bailey 1955, De Young 2000, Gagnon 2001) – although Bailey stressed that "homosexual" as a modern noun referring to same-sex orientation should not be read back into ancient Scripture; (2) "morally weak persons" and "catamites, corrupters of boys, or male prostitutes" (McNeill 1976/1988, Scanzoni & Mollenkott 1978/1994, Boswell 1980, Countryman 1988) – although Boswell and Countryman held that the second word probably referred to "male prostitutes" (who often serviced both sexes in ancient times); (3) "effeminate call-boys" and the "men who visit or keep them" (Scroggs 1983, Furnish 1985/1994, Coleman 1995); or (4) "effeminate males" in some sense and "males who go to bed" in some way, related to economic sexual exploitation" – but the Greek terms here defy any more specific definition (Martin 1996, Nissinen 1998). Such uncertainty explains why these Greek words have been translated so differently in various English Bibles. Yet, clearly any use of "homsoexual[s]" here (RSV, LB, NIV, CEV) is an inaccurate translation for two words that had more narrow, specific meanings in a very different cultural context. The ancient Greeks (and their ideas were absorbed by the Romans) never divided people up into "heterosexuals" and "homosexuals," but rather assumed that everybody could and might want to do both.
The second word list, in 1 Timothy 1:9-10 names fourteen types of law-violators, including (as translated in the KJV): the lawless and disobedient; ungodly, sinners, unholy and profane (NIV: irreligious); murderers of fathers, murderers of mothers, and murderers of others; whoremongers (pornoi), them that defile themselves with mankind (arsenokoitai), and menstealers (andrapodostai); and liars and perjured persons (NIV: perjurers). As Scroggs noted, there seem to be five word groups here (relating to civil law, religious purity, murder, prostitution, and falsehood). He proposed that the fourth group – including pornoi, arsenokoitai and andrapodostai – refer to boy prostitutes, the male customers who used them, and the slave dealers who procured them and sold them into prostitution. Although pornos in the NT generally took on the broader meaning of "fornicator," there is no reason why the older meaning of "male prostitute" might not be intended here. In ancient times, andropodistai ("kidnappers, slave dealers") sought out and bought or stole beautiful boys and girls to sell as slaves to the brothels throughout the Roman Empire.
Boswell's study of the early church fathers found that none connected arsenokoitai or 1 Cor 6:9-10 with homosexuality until Hincmar of Reims (9th century), and even he then seems to have understood the term, as did the Vulgate (Latin) Bible, as a reference to prostitution. As Scroggs noted, this association is backed up by Paul's use of the term in 1 Tim 1:10. Although malakoi never became a technical word for any sexual category, on occasion the charge of effeminacy was leveled by ancient writers against both the willing youth who consented to pederastic intercourse (anal intercourse was forbidden in Greek pederasty) and the male prostitute. Although some have suggested that malakoi in 6:9 refers to Greek pederasty, this hardly seems likely because the participation of Greek teenagers from citizen households in athletics was highly prized while effeminacy was widely criticized. However, sacred and secular prostitution surely flourished in Corinth in Paul's day, the largest and most prosperous city in Greece, a key port for moving merchandise and filled with pilgrims, sailors, merchants, soldiers, slave traders, and others in town for the games. It is difficult for us to imagine the number of prostitutes in major cities throughout the Roman Empire, who not only operated out of brothels, taverns, inns and eating houses, but openly advertised their wares on the streets, intersections, and bridges; at the city gates, public buildings, and places of entertainment; and in the temples, baths, and marketplaces. That Paul has prostitution on his mind is shown by his discussion of it at some length (1 Cor 6:12-20) following the vice list (6:9-11) – so that he condemns both homosexual and heterosexual prostitution. Scroggs is right on target when he suggests that malakoi refers to effeminate call-boys that Paul must have frequently passed on the streets (who Philo, a contemporary of Paul, said were very obvious in public places). Arsenokoitai, then, refers to the male patrons who bought their sexual services.