As I continue to investigate the issues around faith and sexuality, I am constantly in search of reliable information and analyses to set against the misinformation, selective quotations and misinterpretations that masquerade as the conventional wisdom on the subject. Recently, I was delighted when three different readers brought my attention to two useful sources, which between them contain some important, thoughtful material that deserves to be taken seriously.
The first of these that I want to introduce to you is an article by Renato Lings called “The Lyings of a Woman: Male-Male Incest in Leviticus 18:22”, in the peer review journal “Theology and Sexuality”. This journal, edited by the renowned theologians Gerald Loughlin and Elizabeth Stuart, carries an impressive range of scholarly articles, many in the fields of gay and lesbian theology, and of queer theology. (A second article in the same issue is on “Queer Worship”, which I have scheduled for publication tomorrow).
It was the well known and highly respected theologian James Alison, (who writes “from a perspective Catholic and gay) who referred me to “The Lyings of a Woman.” He wrote to me that he considered it an important article, and suggested that I get a suitable person to write a full review of it, for publishing here at QTC. I agreed fully with his assessment, and plan to publish a couple of such reviews shortly – one by John McNeill, and one by an Old Testament specialist from the Pacific Centre for Religion. I will publish these commentaries as soon as I receive them) .
Many people in the past have assumed that these two verses from Leviticus present a clear condemnation of all forms of homosexual activity. More recently, more careful analyses have shown variously that the passage is situated in the context of the Jewish purity laws, and so represent not so much a statement of sin as of transgressions of Jewish ritual purity, with only limited relevance to Christians; or refer only to sexual penetration, with no wider application to other forms of erotic activity; that the intended meaning is not against homoerotic relationships, but is tied up with the practice of male cult (or temple) prostitution; and apply only to males.
Lings’ analysis, based on close study of the specific Hebrew words and the broader context of the passage, argues that the apparent agreement among the standard translations hides the complexity and opacity of the original Hebrew. Specifically,he suggests that the translators have erred with the phrase “as with a woman”, which is central to the conventional modern understanding. He states that there is no equivalent in the Hebrew text to the words “as with”, which distort the original meaning. To recover some sense of what that original meaning might be, he provides a close analysis of the specific Hebrew words as used elsewhere, and of the more extended context of the two verses in the full chapters that contain them.
These two chapters, he shows, are about different forms of incest. The conclusion that follows, is that the sexual activity that is prohibited is sexual relationships with males who are close relatives ! Two possible translations he suggests are:
(a) You shall not lie with close relatives, whether male or female;
(b) With a male relative you shall not engage in sexual relationships prohibited with female relatives.
Concluding, Ling paraphrases these as
You shall not commit incest with any close relative, male or female.
I hope this has whet your appetite. Look out for more formal evaluation later, from commentators better qualified than I. However, the article as a whole deserves to be read in full. Unfortunately, it is not possible to carry it here, so you would need to get hold of a copy of Theology & Sexuality from the publishers.
Remember, in all of the Old Testament, there are precisely three texts which even appear to condemn homoerotic relationships. The passage from Genesis 19, telling the story of Sodom, quite clearly has nothing to do with sexual relationships, which leaves only these two twin texts from Leviticus, 18:22 and 20:13. Lings’ analysis, combined with the other modern interpretations as described above, at the very least shows that whatever else the precise words may mean, they do no exclude all forms of loving relationships between men – as long as they are not incestuous, not done as part of temple or cult rituals, non-penetrative, and not between Jews.
That leaves open quite a lot of possibilities, then
For a Quaker view of this paper, see the discussion at Friends World Committee on Consultation
Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality
Countryman, William : Dirt Greed & Sex
Rogers, Jack Bartlett: Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality, Revised and Expanded Edition: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church
Helminiak, Daniel What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality
- John McNeill: Homophobic Abuse and Distortion of Scripture (myqueerscripture.blogspot.com)
- The Queer Bible: Beyond Family Values (myqueerscripture.blogspot.com)
- The “Abominations” of the King James Bible (myqueerscripture.blogspot.com)
- “The Last Judgement”, and the Homoerotic Spirituality of Michaelangelo. (queeringthechurch.wordpress.com)
March 1, 2010 at 3:37 pm
While this proposed re-interpretation may be correct, the problem I have with it is that it assumes the texts are or should be authoritative for 21st century Christians, if we can just get at the true meaning. I think the simpler interpretation is to dismiss much of the Levitical Holiness Code as based on the worldview of ancient peoples that has long since become irrelevant for modern humans.
For me, the best insight into the worldview behind the Levitical abominations comes not from a theologian but from a cultural anthropologist, Mary Douglas, and her monumental 1966 work, “Purity and Danger”. It is a matter of not mixing unlike things because that confuses the purity that God intended and fails to reflect the wholeness of God. “To be holy is to be whole, to be one; holiness is unity, integrity, perfection of the individual and the kind … Holiness requires that individuals shall conform to the class to which they belong. And holiness requires that different classes of things shall not be confused.”
This thinking lies behind the dieterary distinctions between clean and unclean foods, mixing seeds in a field, fabrics in a garment, and … a male shall not lie with another male because that is inconsistent with the expected behavior of males (according to the ancient worldview) and therefore incongruent with their category. It is category confusion, improper mixing, non-conformity.
That’s my two cents.
March 1, 2010 at 4:09 pm
Thanks, Obie. I agree completely that there should not be a need to take the texts as authoritative. Even the Vatican warns that texts should be interpreted in the light of the historical cultural context – and the modern context. Unfortunately, they and others disregard this sound advice when dealing with issues that they find uncomfortable. As long as the forces of bigotry choose to abuse these texts as authoritative, I am grateful for as many counters to them as I can find.