Homosexuality in the Ancient Near East, beyond Egypt
By Bruce L. Gerig

Besides looking at “Homosexuality in Ancient Egypt” (see earlier supplement by this title in this "Jonathan and David Series"), how was this viewed to the north, in the rest of the ancient Near East? There was continual interaction between God’s people and the larger world in which they lived. The Bible records how Abraham came from Ur (Gen 11:31), a city of the Sumerians in Mesopotamia. During a famine, he migrated to Egypt (Gen 12:10); and when he returned to Canaan, he bought a tomb from the Hitittes, “the people of the land” (Gen 23:1-4). His sons and grandsons chose wives, for the most part, from among the Aramaeans, bedouins (desert nomads) who lived in the region of Syria (cf. Haran, Gen 11:31, 24:1-4, 28:1-2,10). Joseph, his brothers and their descendents (Gen 46:26-27) lived among the Egyptians for generations, until the Exodus. Back in the Promised Land, Samson and David lived a good portion of their lives among the Philistines (Judg 14:1-2, 16:4-5; 1 Sam 27:1-6), a people who settled along the southern coast of Canaan and dominated the area from ca. 1200-1000 B.C.1 From the beginning, the Babylonians (including the Sumerians, Akkadians, and Chaldeans) and Assyrians built great cities (Gen 10:10-11) and dominated the Mesopotamian valley through the 3rd-2nd millennia B.C.2 Tom Horner points out that the sexual mores of the Bible must have been influenced – tremendously influenced – by the sexual mores of the peoples and nations in whose midst this same Bible was produced – and among all the above-named peoples and nations, homosexuality existed alongside heterosexuality to a greater or lesser degree…”3 But what does this mean exactly and more precisely?

Law codes in the ancient Near East – including those of Urukagina (2375 B.C.), Ur-Nammu (2100 B.C.), Eshnunna (1750 B.C.), and Hammurabi (1726 B.C.) – virtually ignore homosexual acts.4 Vern Bullough notes that these law codes had a great influence on later law codes, were intended to deal with specific deeds (not general moral principles), and seem not to have been observed in all cases or at all times.5 The Hittites, who flourished in eastern Anatolia (Turkey) and Syria ca. 1700-700 B.C., had one law that stated, “If a man violates his son, it is a capital crime” (section 189c). The same judgment was declared on father-daughter incest and mother-son incest.6 As Hittitologist Harry Hoffner, Jr., observed, “a man who sodomized his son is guilty of urkel [illegal intercourse] because the partner is his son, not because they are of the same sex.” Later, he added, “[I]t would appear that homosexuality was not outlawed among the Hittites.”7

Two laws from a Middle Assyrian code, from Assur (12th century B.C. but probably copies or extensions of earlier laws going back to at least the 15th century B.C.8), also mention homosexuality. They speak of a “seignior,” someone of high social rank in the community, and his “neighbor,” someone of equal social status who lived in the vicinity.9 Later scholars simply view these laws as applying to any Assyrian man.10 Table A, paragraph 19 reads (translated by Theophile Meek): “If a seignior [an Assyrian man] started a rumor against his neighbor [another citizen living nearby] in private, saying, ‘People have lain repeatedly with him,’ or he said to him in a brawl in the presence of (other) people, ‘People have lain repeatedly with you; I will prosecute you,’ since he is not able to prosecute (him) (and) did not prosecute (him), they shall flog that seignior fifty (times) with staves (and) he shall do the work of the king for one full month; they shall castrate him [lit. ‘shall cut off’] and he shall also pay one talent of lead.”11 Harsh punishment was often decreed in ancient times, e.g. in this law code including death and cutting off ears, noses, lips and fingers (Cf. A,5,9,12). The meaning of igadimus (“shall cut off”) is ambiguous and has also been translated as “he shall be cut off” from the community (G.R. Driver and J.C. Miles, 1935) and “they shall cut off” his beard or hair as a form of branding (Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, gadamu, G, 8)12 The preceding prohibition (A,18) in this law code deals with false (or unproven) rumors spread about a man’s wife sleeping around (like a prostitute); and its wording and punishment are very similar to A,19, except there is no “cutting off” and less blows are specified. In both cases, the lord’s reputation was at stake in the face of a grave slur that had been circulated against him.13

Table A, paragraph 20 deals with a physical act done, not just a rumor: “If a seignior [an Assyrian man] lay with his neighbor [another citizen], when they have prosecuted him (and) convicted him [the first citizen], they shall lie with him (and) turn him into a eunuch.”14 This describes a situation where a man has forced sex upon a local resident or business partner, who then has the option of bringing a charge against him. Noticeably, the perpetrator is punished while the victim is not; so the crime here is rape. Homosexuality itself is not condemned, nor looked upon as immoral or disordered. Anyone could visit a prostitute or lay with another male, as long as false rumors or forced sex were not involved with another Assyrian male. Still, both of these laws suggest that for a male to take the submissive woman’s role in same-sex intercourse was looked down upon as shameful and despised.15

Pictorial and literary references in ancient Mesopotamia show acceptance of some forms of homosexuality, but wariness toward others. Anal intercourse was freely pictured in figurative art in the ancient cities of Uruk, Assur, Babylon, and Susa from the 3rd millennium B.C. on – and images show that it was practiced as part of religious ritual. Both Zimri-lin (king of Mari) and Hammurabi (king of Babylon) had male lovers, which the queen of Zimri-lin mentions matter-of-factly in a letter. The Almanac of Incantations contained prayers favoring on an equal basis the love of a man for a woman, of a woman for a man, and of a man for man.16 (Lesbian love is not mentioned, probably because of the low status of women in ancient times, when women were basically considered property, and adultery was considered a trespass against the husband’s property. A husband was free to fornicate, but a wife could be put to death for the same thing.17) The Summa alu, a manual used to predict the future, sought to do this in some cases on the basis of sexual acts, five of which are homosexual:

“If a man copulates with his equal from the rear, he becomes the leader among his peers and brothers.

If a man yearns to express his manhood while in prison and thus, like a male cult-prostitute, mating with men becomes his desire, he will experience evil.

If a man copulates with an assinnu [a male cult-prostitute], trouble will leave him (?).

If a man copulates with a gerseqqu [a male courtier, or royal attendant], worry will possess him for a whole year but will then leave him.

If a man copulates with a house-born slave, a hard destiny will befall him.”18

The fact that different kinds of homoerotic pairing will occur is taken for granted. What mattered was the role and the status of a partner, especially the passive partner – and the anticipated ramifications in each case. To penetrate a male who was of equal status or a cult prostitute was thought to bring good fortune; but copulation with a royal attendant, a fellow prisoner, or a household slave was thought to probably spell trouble.19

Another kind of same-sex relationship in the ancient Near East was the love found between heroes or warriors; and the most famous example of this is the Epic of Gilgamesh, a long poem that combines “man and nature, love and adventure, [and] friendship and combat” with the “stark reality of death.”20 Gilgamesh was a real king of Uruk, a Sumerian city-state, ca. 2600 B.C., whose exploits and glory elevated him to supernatural rank shortly after his death. Five legends about him survive in Sumerian, composed around 2000 B.C. However, after the Akkadians took Babylon and prospered under rule of Hammurabi (ca. 1750 B.C.), an unknown author of the period (c. 1600 B.C.) assembled a composite and far-reaching account uniting the earlier tales about Gilgamesh. This literary text was esteemed enough to be translated into Hurrite (spoken in N/NW Mesopotamia), it was abridged by the Hittites of Anatolia (Syria and E. Turkey), and remains have been found in Palestine.21 The fullest text available today is sometimes called the ‘Ninevite’ version, because it utilizes 35 manuscripts found in the great library at Nineveh of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (mid-7th century B.C.), along with other fragments found elsewhere.22 The story basically goes as follows:23

Gilgamesh, king of Uruk (called Ereck in Gen 10:10), is described as “most handsome.” But because he is two-thirds god and one-third human, he distresses the citizens of Uruk with his insatiable sexual appetite and boundless energy. So the gods create a companion for him, named Enkidu, a wild, hairy man with “long tresses like those of a woman.” After a prostitute is sent to tame and train Eniku, who also is “handsome … just like a god,” he is brought into Uruk, where he meets Gilgamesh. Meanwhile Gilgamesh has had two dreams, one of a falling star and the second of a mighty axe, toward which he feels strangely attracted. His mother explains, “A mighty comrade will come to you … [and] like a wife you’ll love him, caress and embrace him” (Tablet I). When Gilgamesh and Enkidu finally meet, at first they fight furiously, but then they “kissed each other and formed a friendship.” Gilgamesh persuades Enkidu to go with him to subdue the monster Humbaba, who lives in the Cedar Forest; so the king and his companion “took each other by the hand,” first to go have great weapons fashioned (Tablet II) and then to seek the blessing and prayer of Queen Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother (Tablet III). After Gilgamesh has a series of bad dreams, Enkidu comforts him, saying, “’Take my hand, friend, and we shall go [on] together, [let] your thoughts dwell on combat!’” (Tablet IV).

After they slay the forest’s guardian, with the help of great winds (Tablet V), Gilgamesh washes his hair, letting it fall down over his back, and puts on fresh clothes and his crown. When the goddess Ishtar, looking down, saw “the beauty of Gilgamesh,” she was filled with longing and asked him to become her bridegroom. When he refuses, enraged, she persuades the gods to release the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh. However, Enkidu grabs hold of the animal’s tail, while Gilgamesh thrusts in his knife and slays the great beast (Tablet VI). But the gods are now angry that their great bull has been killed, and so they decide that one of the heroes must die, namely Enkidu. And so Enkidu grows weak and dies (Tablet VII). Gilgamesh, beside himself with grief, covers the face of his friend “like a bride,” tears out his curly hair in clumps, rips off his fine clothes, and mourns inconsolably over the loss of his friend (Tablet VIII). Thereafter, he sets out to find a way to immortal life, so he can be reunited with Enkidu (Tablets IX-XI). Although numerous scholars have denied that there is a homoerotic content here, the intensity and exclusivity of their friendship, along with the emphasis on their beauty, makes this view difficult to maintain. Later we shall look more fully at the Gilgamesh Epic and its parallels to the Jonathan and David story.

Cult prostitution, involving heterosexual and homosexual acts, was found throughout ancient Near East history, as discussed earlier in the article "The Levitical Ban: More Clues in the Case," in the Main Series, of this "Homosexuality and the Bible" section. William Naphy notes how male and female prostitutes had intercourse with male worshippers in sanctuaries and temples in ancient Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Cyprus, Corinth, Carthage, Sicily, Libya, and West Africa.24 Norman Sussman explains that “male and female prostitutes, serving temporarily or permanently and performing heterosexual, homosexual, oral-genital, bestial, and other forms of sexual activities, dispensed their [sexual] favors on behalf of the temple. The prostitute and the client acted as surrogates for the deities,” representing both fertility and sexuality in an erotic sense.25

Another kind of homosexuality that existed in ancient times was the love for a beautiful boy. Michael Rice writes, “It is a fair assumption that all of the great cultures of antiquity regarded a good-looking boy as a fitting target for a man’s attention or admiration … and, given the way in which women tended to be protected in Mediterranean cultures, a good deal more accessible. There is plenty of evidence for the ritualization of the love of boys in societies which have developed strongly bonded groups of warriors and younger cadets.” Here the lover guided the beloved in “training in arms and for the hunt.”26 In fact, “It is widely believed that one of the principal uses of the Upper Paleolithic caves [with its scenes of running bulls, boy attendants, and acrobatic leaping] may have been the initiation of children [most likely boys] into the technique, lore, and mystery of the hunters’ way of life.” Added to the awe and fear could also have been the pain of circumcision and the initiates’ sexual use by the men present. “The homosexual emphasis in the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is an inheritance of an older life-style, of the dominant partner inducting his younger partner and companion” into the ways of the world; and in this story, as well, they have to face the mighty bull of heaven.27

Mespotamian scholar Jean Bottero notes that cultures in this region considered sex “far too natural” to write about, or to boast of sexual abilities and prowess. Also, “We find not the slightest declaration of love, no effusion or sentiment or even tenderness. Such impulses of the heart … are suggested rather than openly expressed.” It was expected that everyone marry and bear children, but still men who had the economic means could take one or more ‘second wives’ or concubines. Also, they were free to visit the professional prostitutes of both sexes. In fact, Inanna/Ishtar was called a ‘hierodule’ (a divine sacred ‘prostitute’); and many male prostitutes, homosexual and transvestite, served her. Making love was a natural activity that should not be demeaned, they believed; and it could be practiced as one pleased as long as no third party was harmed or a prohibition was broken (such as the banning of sexual activity on certain days, and some women were reserved for the gods).28 In fact, William Naphy notes that a striking feature of the ancient Near East was “how few cultures seem to have any significant ‘moral’ concern about same-sex activities. … Most cultures seemed to accept that males might have sexual relations with other males” – although for a male to assume the passive position in intercourse (unless he was an adolescent) was thought somehow to make him less than a male thereafter.29 Laws only banned certain negative forms of homosexuality, namely, slander, rape and incest. Kings had male lovers along with their wives, warriors developed romantic attachments, and ordinary men customarily had anal intercourse with male and female cultic personnel. Also, the tradition of youthful rite of passage comes down from prehistoric times. Tom Horner described three types of individuals who engaged in homosexual activity in ancient Biblical times: (1) military heroes, manly types, who shared a noble love; (2) cult prostitutes, often effeminate and eunuchs, who offered themselves to worshippers at pagan shrines; and (3) average citizens, who engaged in casual same-sex relationships, even though one or both of them might have been married.30

Tom Horner also wrote (1978) that the Philistines had a culture which “accepted homosexuality” and so probably influenced Israel in this respect.31 Now, a quarter of a century later, new findings can be reported that further clarify this possibility. But first, who were the Philistines? Battle scenes and inscriptions at Medinet Habu (near Thebes) in Egypt describe the victory of Ramesses III over certain “Sea Peoples,” who ca. 1175 B.C. attacked Egypt, including five groups, with the Philistines named first.32 Rebuffed, these Sea Peoples then settled (shortly after 1200 B.C.) along the southern Mediterranean coast of Canaan, where they set up a federation with five capital cities (Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath and Ekron) and took the name of their dominate group, the Philistines. (Genesis 21 and 26 record an earlier wave of “Philistines” who came to Canaan, but this term probably refers only to other “sea peoples.”33) Comparisons of the Philistines’ dress, arms and ships at Medinet Habu point to the Philistines coming from the region of the Aegean Sea, including the western coast of Anatolia (modern Turkey), the island of Crete, and the Greek mainland (specifically the locale of Athens and Mycenae, 50 miles to the west).34 The distinctive Philistine feathered headdress, pictured at Medinet Habu, has been found on objects dug up at sites south of Troy (Caria, Lycia and the Ionian islands), as well as on Crete and Cyprus.35

In the Bible, the book of Judges relates how the tribe of Judah took three Philistine cities (Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ekron) but was unable to subdue the whole Philistine territory, because of their iron chariots (Judg 1:18-19). Later, we read that because Israel turned to worship the gods of the nations around them, the Lord gave them over “into the hand of the Philistines” and the Ammonites, who oppressed them (Judg 10:6-8). Neal Bierling notes36 that this is probably why Samson could move freely back and forth among the Philistines (Judg 14:1-5a), visiting a prostitute and then taking up with Delilah (16:1-4). At the beginning of the first millennium B.C., the Philistines had contained Saul and established themselves as the leading political and commercial power in Canaan, where they flourished on an agricultural economy and from overland trade and ships that stopped along their coast.37

Interestingly, the Bible specifically links the Philistines with Crete. Amos 9:7 speaks of the “Philistines from Caphtor,” and Jer 47:4 of the “Philistines, the remnant of the coastline of Caphtor” (NRSV). The Hebrew kaftor has been linked with the Egyptian Keftiu (Kftyw), which in one text is specifically linked to four specific sites on Crete.38 Clearly, the Israelites believed that the Philistines (or a notable part of them) lived on Crete before they migrated to the southern coast of Canaan.

Crete is a large, 156 mile long island that marks the southern boundary of the Aegean Sea, lying nearly halfway from Athens to Africa and 300 miles west of Cyprus. It is mountainous, has fine harbors on the northern side, and in ancient times was forested and fertile. The Bronze Age on mainland Greece (centered in Mycenae), Crete, and the Cycladic Islands (scattered between Greece and Anatolia) occurred between 3000-1100 B.C., coming to an end with destruction of sites, large population migrations, and the replacement of bronze by iron. During the same period, Crete developed its own powerful civilization, called “Minoan” (3150-1200 B.C.) after the legendary king Minos. The Minoan culture reached its height between 2000-1500 B.C., during which time colossal, labyrinthine palaces were built at Knossos and other sites. However, after natural disasters (earthquake, volcanic eruption) and the subsequent invasion and destruction of Cretan centers (the palace of Knossos was finally destroyed ca. 1400 B.C.), the center of power moved back to the Mycenaean empire (ca. 1450 B.C.), which continued to the end of the Bronze Age, followed by the turbulent “Dark Ages” (1100-900 B.C.)39

Now we turn to a remarkable little cup which has become known as the Chieftain Cup. Found in Crete in 1903, its significance has only recently been deciphered by by Robert Koehl, a specialist in Bronze Age archaeology at Hunter College (CUNY), New York. Measuring only 4.5” high, this round but tapered drinking vessel is displayed in the Herakleion Museum, Herakleion, Crete.40 On the front, it displays two slender youths, both wearing necklaces and other jewelry, short kilts, and tall boots, who stand looking at each other.41 Dated ca. 1650-1500 B.C.,42 this cup was found at a large villa (estate) at Ayia Triada,43 located on a river near the south-central coast of Crete.44 By studying ancient Cretan hairstyles, Koehl noted that the youth on the left, with his hair tied in a topknot but short in the back, is the younger one (perhaps just having reached puberty). The youth on the right, with long hair flowing down the back and with front curls (along with his taller stature and better attire) is an older, more mature youth.45 Various interpretations have been offered for this pair, e.g. that they represent a god and a priest, a king and a commander, or children impersonating dignitaries.46

Light is shed on this cup by a description of a sexual rite in ancient Crete that was recorded by Ephoris (a 4th century B.C. historian) and preserved by Strabo (a 1st century B.C. historian). The rite of passage Ephoris describes began when Minoan boys were segregated into agelae (“herds”), to prepare them for manhood and to train them as soldiers.47 However, when an older young man, called a philetor (“lover”), saw a youth who attracted him by his beauty, courage, and manners, he would “capture” his chosen one, called a parastatheis, with the consent of his parents and help of his friends. Taking him to the local andreion (male dining club) where he was a member, the suitor would give the youth presents and then take him into the country (accompanied by some of the boy’s friends), where they spent two months hunting and feasting. Thereafter, returning to the dining club, the beloved would tell whether he was happy with how his lover had treated him; and the lover, if accepted, would present the youth with military garb, an ox, and a drinking cup, along with other costly gifts. After that, the youth was called kleinos (“famous”), wore distinctive clothing, and was given special seats at dances and races and other honors. All the new “famous” youths were then married in a mass wedding. This same-sex tradition displays all of the familiar elements of a rite of passage: initiation into a select group, seclusion for a time during which an older male teaches a younger male special skills, and then return to society where the initiate receives a new status and special garments.48 Excavation of the villa complex where the Chieftain Cup was found showed that it included a dining area with benches and a hearth in the middle (for cooking and sacrifice), along with adjacent rooms for cooking, storing food and cookingware, and sleeping (a bedroom with a raised platform). Male dining clubs like this have been documented in every town in later Cretan history.49

This initiation tradition may relate also to the story of Zeus, who falls in love with the young boy Ganymede and carries him off to Mount Olympus to be his cupbearer. In one version of this myth recorded by Athenaeus (xiii 601 f.), a 2nd-century A.D. Greek philosopher in Egypt, Ganymede was carried off not by Zeus but by King Minos, the legendary king of Crete (believed to be a son of Zeus by Europa). Koehl proposes that this myth originated in Crete during the Minoan era to support of their paiderastic rite of passage, then the myth moved to Greece where Zeus was made the main character. The Chieftain Cup may now be interpreted further. The long-haired lover presents his beloved with a sword and javelin. (The exact significance of the “sprinkler cover,” which the beloved holds in his left hand, is not known.) The reverse side of the cup shows three of the beloved’s friends bringing him flattened ox skins, from which would be made a shield. The cup the boy received is none other than the so-called Chieftain Cup, which may have originally been covered with gold foil. The Minos/Zeus myth clarifies why the chosen youth was called a parastatheis (“one who stands beside”); this is because after the pair returned from the countryside, the beloved would stand beside his lover at banquets in the dining club using this cup to serve him wine (a tradition that will also be seen at the Greek symposium).50 Very likely, Dorian Greeks who settled on Crete (according to Plato, Ephorus and Aristotle) absorbed this tradition and then returned it to Sparta and Greece.51

Archaeologists have also excavated a rustic shrine dedicated to Hermes and Aphrodite, at Kato Syme, located ca. 40 miles east of Ayia Triada and up on Mt. Dikte, 3,900’ above sea level, where numerous objects, particularly in bronze, were offered with animal sacrifices to the deities.52 Here and only here on Crete, chalices shaped like the Chieftain Cup but in stone and clay, have been found from the same period.53 Angeliki Lembessi found bronze figures of youths from the Minoan period (before 1100 B.C.), showing that this was a long-standing sanctuary site.54 But later bronze cut-out figures (8th-7th centuries B.C.) found here are also significant. One (Louvre Museum, Paris) shows an older youth with a beard pulling toward him a younger male with long, flowing hair and curls in front – the pair a bit older than the two depicted on Chieftain Cup. The older youth carries a horn and partly-finished bow (made from horn) and the younger male carries a slain goat on his shoulders – while their legs and feet touch and the genitals of the younger male are exposed.55 Lembessi’s team also found a bronze piece, dated ca. 750 B.C. (Heraklion Museum), which shows two helmeted but otherwise nude males, both with erections, who stand beside each other holding hands.56 Still another bronze cutout (7th century B.C.) shows a lad, nude except for a long, decorative cape and sandals, holding a bow and quiver.57 These pieces document that this Cretan initiatory tradition continued over many centuries and that later offerings left by pairs of lovers at this shrine became more elaborate and erotically explicit.58

But in Israel itself could such a romantic attachment between two heroes really have happened and been recorded? The attempted gang-rape of the Levite priest in Gibeah (Judg 19) is instructive in a number of ways. After the priest accepted the invitation of a kindly old man to spend the night with his party in his home, a “gang of local hell-raisers” surround the house, yelling, “Bring out the man who came to your house. We want to have sex with him.” (Judg 19:22, Peterson) The priest saves his life only by handing over his concubine, whom the mob proceeds to brutally rape and murder (v. 25-26). Some translators take a swipe at gay people by translating the Hebrew here as “a gang of sex perverts” (LB 1971) or “some sexual perverts” (GNB 1976) – only homosexuality is never mentioned in the priest’s report to the whole of Israel, whom he assembles to punish Gibeah and Benjamin, the tribe where it is located. A better translation of the Hebrew here is “worthless fellows” (NASB 1960; cf. CEV 1995) or “scoundrels” (JB 1966, NEB 1970). What is even more significant is the fact that if such a grossly negative form of homosexual activity is mentioned here, surely many other kinds of non-violent homoerotic desire and bonding must have been occurring in ancient Israel at the same time, but with little attention drawn to it.

During the period of Judges, only a few generations before the time of Jonathan and David, “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judg 17:6, 21:25, NRSV), which included intermarrying with the Philistines and other foreign peoples (ch. 16), the worship of pagan idols (even by Levite priests, ch. 17-18), and the officially-sanctioned abduction of girls worshipping at the Lord’s tabernacle at Shiloh, Israel’s religious center (ch. 21). One does not get the impression that this was an especially up-tight society.

Related to rites of passage, Israelite males were circumcised on the eighth day (Gen 17:12), not at puberty or in preparation for marriage as among the Egyptians and other peoples who lived along the western shores of the Mediterranean.59 Yet, puberty was an important milestone, when a child became an ‘elem (boy) or ‘alma (girl) who was old enough to marry and start a family.60 Israelite boys became full adults at the age of twenty (Lev 27:1-8), when also they were eligible for military service (Num 1:3). Although the Israelites had no homoerotic initiation rites like the Cretans (and perhaps the Phoenicians), in which youths were trained to hunt and fight, one would expect that Israelite youths sometimes learned military skills from older experienced warriors in some location away from the home.

Also, as Charles Fensham notes, “A highly developed cult of Baal and Asherah [Canaanite deities] existed that was based on the change of seasons and appealed to primitive human instincts. … The charm of this form of adultery [sexual activity with religious prostitutes] made Baal worship tempting to the ordinary man, especially to the ordinary Israelite who stood under the severe laws of Moses.”61 Early in 1 Samuel, we read that the sons of Eli, the priest at Shiloh, stole from the Lord’s offerings (2:12-17) and “slept with women [fertility cult prostitutes? – see footnote in the REB Oxford Study Bible, 1989] who served at the entrance to the [Lord’s] tent of meeting” (v. 22). No more than several generations after the reign of David, under Rehoboam, son of Solomon and the first king of Judah (in the Divided Kingdom period), the Israelites “built for themselves high places, pillars, and sacred poles on every high hill and under every green tree; there were also male prostitutes in the land.” (1 Kings 14:23-24, NRSV; and cf. 15:12, 22:46; 2 Kings 23:4-7). Of course, there were devout Israelites through this whole period who loved and served God as best they knew how (including Gideon, Ruth, Naomi, Hannah, Samuel, Jonathan, David, and others); but Israel was still a syncretic society, which absorbed influences from the cultures all around them.

So, what light might all of this shine on the Jonathan and David story? First, homosexuality in many forms pervaded the ancient Near East, and with more openness beyond Egypt. As long as persons got married and had families, homoerotic activity was generally accepted as part and parcel of life. Still, there was a certain stigma attached to a man who took the passive, womanly role in a sexual relationship. Second, Israelite men must have been aware of the Philistines’ acceptance of homosexuality. During 1 Samuel, the Israelites and Philistines fought against as well as continually interacted with each other. Israelite men must have seen (or heard of) expressions of homoerotic affection between certain Philistine men, in the street, shop, marketplace, and field. Third, generally judgment was only passed on certain negative forms of homosexuality, such as rape, incest and slander. Also, in the OT we see that it is (attempted) gang rape and cultic prostitution that are condemned. Meanwhile, nonviolent homoerotic love probably went on in secret and unmentioned, except in a few rare cases, like Jonathan and David, and Ruth and Naomi. Fourth, romantic attachments between two heroes were accepted throughout the ancient world, as is shown in the Epic of Gilgamesh and its long and wide popularity, even reaching Palestine. These may be dismissed as “comrades helping each other,” but for those who have strong homosexual desires, these attachments can carry a much deeper meaning. Fifth, a romantic attachment occurring at a royal court would probably have been ignored by the general public, who had their own more mundane, difficult lives to worry about. There were some who objected (like Saul who wanted a lineage for the throne) and others who admired it (like the gay-friendly scribe who included the Jonathan and David story in 1 Samuel).


See http://www.ou.edu/finearts/art/ahi4913/aegeanhtml/minoanpottery5.html for image of the Chieftain Cup. Scroll down to the sixth (last) photograph. This site is maintained by the School of Art, University of Oklahoma, Norman.

FOOTNOTES: 1. Horner, p. 20-21.     2. Wiseman, D.J., “Assyria” and “Babylonia,” ISBE, I(1979),332-33, 391-94.     3. Horner, p. 20-21.     4. Greenberg, p. 124; Pope, p. 416.     5. Bullough, p. 52.     6. Pritchard, p. 196.     7. Quoted in Naphy, p. 20.     8. Bullough, p. 53.    9. Greenberg, p. 125.     10. Nissinen, p. 26; Naphy, p. 18-19.     11. Pritchard, p. 181.     12. Greenberg, p. 125; Nissinen, p. 25,146.     13. Naphy, p. 19.     14. Pritchard, p. 181.    15. Nissinen, p. 25-27; Naphy, p. 19.     16. Greenberg, p. 126.     17. Bullough, p. 53.     18. Nissinen, p. 27; Greenberg, p. 126-27.     19. Cf. Greenberg, p. 127.     20. Speiser, E.A., in Pritchard, p. 72.     21. Bottero, p. 231-35.     22. George, p. xxvi.     23. Ibid., p. 1-100.     24. Naphy, p. 16-17.     25. Sussman, p. 9.     26. Rice, p. 256.     27. Ibid., p. 253,252.     28. Bottero, p. 91-97.     29. Naphy, p. 15.     30. Horner, p. 15-25.     31. Ibid., p. 27-28.     32. Bierling, p. 39.     33. Ibid., p. 15.     34. Ibid., p. 42,46.     35. Ibid., p. 40-41.     36. Ibid., p. 16-17.     37. Erhlich, p. 23.     38. Bierling, p. 47-50.     39. Bush, F.W., “Crete,” ISBE, I(1979),813-14; Higgins, p. 7,12-15.     40. Koehl, 1986, p. 99; 1997, p. 8,390.     41. Ibid., 1986, p. 99.     42. Koehl: 1700-1450 B.C., and Higgins: 1500-1450 B.C.; cf. Koehl, 1986, p.99, and Higgins, p. 208.     43. Koehl 1986, p. 109.     44. Greece, Ministry of Culture, map, p. 24-25.     45. Koehl, 1997, p. 7; 1986, p. 100-03.     46. Ibid., 1997, p. 7-8.     47. Ibid., 1986, p. 104,108.     48. Ibid., 1986, p. 106,105.     49. Ibid., 1997, p. 12-13; 1986, p. 109.     50. Ibid., 1986, p. 106; 1997, p. 13.     51. Ibid., 1997, p. 10.     52. Lebessi, p. 3; Koehl, 1986, p. 108; 1997, p. 10.     53. Koehl, 1997, p. 10.     54. Lebessi, p. 10, fig. 1.     55. Koehl, 1997, p. 11; 1986, pl. VIIb.     56. Lebessi, p. 4, fig. 4; Koehl, 1986, p. 107.     57. Lebessi, p. 6-7, fig. 6.     58. Koehl, 1986, p. 107; 1997, p. 10-11.     59. Packer, p. 450-54.     60. Pecota, D.B., et al., “Young(er) (Man), ISBE, IV(1988),1165-66.     61. Fensham, F.C., “Judges, Book of,” ISBE, II(1982),1160.

Bierling, Neal, Philistines: Giving Goliath His Due, 2002.
Bottero, Jean, with contributions by Andre Finet, Bertrand Lafont, and George Roux, Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, trans. by Antonia Nevill, French 1992, English 2001.
Bullough, Vern, Sexual Variance in Society and History, 1976.
Erhlich, Carl, The Philistines in Transition: A History from ca. 1000-730 B.C.E., 1996.
George, Andrew, trans. with introduction, The Epic of Gilgamesh, 1999.
Greece, Ministry of Culture, The Mycenaean World [an exhibition], 1988.
Greenberg, David, The Construction of Homosexuality, 1988.
Higgins, Reynold, Minoan and Mycenaean Art, 3rd ed.1997.
Horner, Tom, Jonathan Loved David, 1978.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4 vols., 1979-88.
Koehl, Robert, “Ephorus and Ritualized Homosexuality in Bronze Age Crete,” in Queer Representations: Reading Lives, Reading Cultures, ed. Martin Duberman, 1997, p. 7-13.
--------, “The Chieftain Cup and a Minoan Rite of Passage,” Journal of Hellenic Studies, 106, 1986, p. 99-110.
Lembessi, Angeliki, “A Sanctuary of Hermes and Aphrodite in Crete,” Expedition, 18, 1976, p. 2-13.
Naphy, William, Born to Be Gay: A History of Homosexuality, 2004.
Nissinen, Martti, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective, 1998.
Pope, Marvin, “Homosexuality,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: Supplementary Volume, 1976, p. 415-17.
Packer, J.I., et al., The Bible Almanac, 1980.
Pritchard, James, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts, Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed., 1969.
Rice, Michael, The Power of the Bull, 1998.
Sussman, Norman, “Sex and Sexuality in History,” The Sexual Experience, ed. Benjamin Sadock, et al., p. 7-70.

TRANSLATIONS: Contemporary English Version, 1995.     Good News Bible, 1976.     Jerusalem Bible, 1966.     Living Bible, 1971.     New American Standard Bible, 1960.     New English Bible, 1970.     New Revised Standard Version, 1989.     Peterson: The Message, 2002.     Revised English Bible (Oxford Study Bible), 1989.


© 2005 Bruce L. Gerig

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