In 2020, I wrote a series of articles for my blog, Salty Bible Study, which has since been discontinued. The theme of these articles was a look at the scriptures which have for centuries been misrepresented in order to vilify members of the LGBTQIA+ community. The following is a compilation and updating of those articles.
Please be warned, there are graphic descriptions of sexual violence and other objectionable topics discussed in this article, as well as the use of outdated, sexist, and often offensive language. Some topics of modern importance may be oversimplified or even omitted as the focus remains on the biblical text and its cultural and historical context.
It is a centuries old misconception that the Bible condemns homosexuality. It is almost as old a misconception as that the Ancient Greeks approved of homosexual relationships. In fact neither is true. So what is it the Bible is so concerned about in the "texts of terror" which have been used for centuries to justify vilifying, condemning, and sometimes even murdering members of the LGBTQ community?
First of all, what is the LGBTQ community? If we are going to understand how the ancient past was different, it is important to understand the people we are talking about today. LGBTQ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer. Lesbians are women who are attracted to women. Gays are men who are attracted to men. Bisexuals are men or women who are attracted to people regardless of gender. Transgender people identify as a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth. Queer persons are those whose sexuality or gender identity does not fit neat categorization.
These labels are broad definitions and do not go nearly far enough to define the intricacies of sexual and gender identity. However, these do give us a starting point to talk about how the cultural norms of today, as embodied by these labels, would be very different from the cultural norms of Ancient Greece and Ancient Israel in the time of the Bible's writing.
It was expected in Ancient Greece that every man would marry a woman and every woman would marry a man. Heterosexual marriage was very much the norm.
There were alternatives to heterosexual marriage in Ancient Greece, but they were not very pleasant (although I suppose that may be a matter of personal taste, as I would not consider them very pleasant). For example, prostitutes were forbidden from later seeking a more reputable life by marrying. Virgin women could dedicate themselves to the gods and remain unmarried forever. Men, similarly could become eunuchs (castrated men) if they wished (or were forced) to hold certain positions in service to the gods or as guards of women.
No Gay Men in Ancient Greece
For men, an acceptable "homosexual" relationship in Ancient Greece would not look anything like an "acceptable" homosexual relationship today. A pederastic relationship between an older man ("erastes") and a young boy ("eromenos") was a socially acknowledged romantic relationship which was largely idealized in Ancient Greece. The erastes was a married man of good social standing who took on the role of mentor, educator, and lover to an eromenos, who was generally between 13 and 20 years of age. The relationship was idealized to be for the betterment of the eromenos.
A romantic relationship between two men of equal social standing (like a modern gay relationship) was considered shameful. Similarly, it was considered shameful for a man to pursue boys for sexual gratification. Such a man may be called a "corrupter of boys" ("paidothoros") or said to be "boy crazy" ("arrenomanes").
Pederastic relationships in Ancient Greece were considered normal, but today we would call this “pedophilia” and consider it a serious crime, the sexual abuse of a child, regardless of its 'intended' purpose or cultural context.
Would the Bible agree? Is the Bible condemning sexual abuse or a consensual, loving relationship between two adults? Now that we have the cultural and historic context, we can look at what the Bible actually says.
As strange a concept as it is today, in ancient Greece and even Israel, sacred prostitution was a common act of worship and a way of praying for fertility. Both men and women could be sacred prostitutes. It is known to have been practiced in Corinth, at the Temple to Aphrodite, in Cyprus, Sicily, Cappadocia, and even in the Second Temple in Israel.
The practice of sacred prostitution is forbidden in Deuteronomy 23:17-18, "There shall be no shrine prostitute (“kedeshah”) of the daughters of Israel, neither shall there be a shrine prostitute (“kadesh”) of the sons of Israel. You shall not bring the hire of a prostitute (“zonah”), or the wages of a dog (“kelev”), into the house of the Lord your God for any vow; for both of these are an abomination (“toebah”) to the Lord your God."
Because of the Babylonian Exile, the law had been lost. During that time, many things that had been prohibited had begun to be practiced again, including sacred prostitution. When the law was found during the time of the reign of King Josiah (2 Kings 22), these practices, including sacred prostitution (2 Kings 23:7), were ended.
Older translations render these words for "shrine prostitute" as "sodomite" or "homosexual" when they refer to male shrine prostitutes. However, this is far from accurate. That someone is gay does not, and should not, imply that they are "gay for pay," or vice versa.
We come across this practice again in the first of the five Texts of Terror, Romans 1:18-32. Paul warns that God's wrath is being poured out upon the wicked (1:18) because the ways of good and evil should have been obvious to them, being evident both in God himself, and in his creation, so that people are without excuse (1:19-20). The crime, for which God is punishing them, is idolatry (1:23). The form of their idolatry is shrine prostitution (1:24-27). The consequence of having turned away from God is to be filled with evil (1:28-32).
In Paul's letter to the Romans, God is not punishing people for being gay, lesbian, or bisexual. He is punishing those who turn away from him to worship idols. According to Paul, the worship of idols directly leads to evil acts. By focusing on the perceived sexuality of these idolaters, we may miss the message of Paul's letter, that it is for God to judge hearts, not for mankind (Romans 2:1-16), that the law is a sign of salvation, not a standard to be met (Romans 2:17-29), and that we are made righteous not by the adherence to the law (Romans 3:1-20), but by faith in God (Romans 3:21-31), not by human effort, but by God's grace (Romans 9:16).
The "Texts of Terror": What the Bible Actually Says About Being Gay
The following four passages have been quoted to justify hate and discrimination against the LGBTQ community more than any other passages of scripture. They are historically, some of the most mistranslated passages and consequently, their meaning has been twisted further from their original meaning ever since their first translation into English in the 17th Century.
A Bit of Hebrew Background
Part of the problem of translating these first two Hebrew passages from Leviticus is in their pronoun use. The pronouns used are gendered, but two are age specific ("man" and "woman") while two are not ("male" and "female"). Further, the King James Version renders one of these pronouns "mankind" which is actually a completely different word ("ha'adam") not used in any of these passages and which does not imply a specific gender.
First, let's define some terms. In Hebrew, the word "ish" means "man" and implies that the man is an adult. Similarly "ishah" is "woman" and implies adulthood. The similarity of the two words may have you recalling Genesis 2:21-24, and you would be right to do so. A man becomes "ish" when he becomes a husband, and a woman an "ishah" when she becomes a wife. The word "zachar" means "male" or "boy." It is not age-specific, but just like today, you do not call an adult man "boy." The word "neqebah" means "female" or "girl." Notice that the two words for "boy" and "girl" are not related like the words for "man" and "woman." This is because a "male" could be an unmarried man and a "female" an unmarried woman, regardless of their ages. If they were "known" to one another, they would be "man" and "woman," but they are unknown, so they are "male" and "female." There are no words in Hebrew for "husband" and "wife," just these four pronouns. The relationship between any two people must be inferred by context. That is part of the problem of translating these clobber passages from Leviticus.
The King James Version translates this passage as "Thou shalt not lie with mankind (zachar), as with womankind (ishah): it is abomination (towebah)." Several other translations render "zachar" as "man," but this is not correct. It should be "boy" or at least "unmarried male." A further clue to this error comes from the type of "abomination" listed. A "towebah" is an abomination of foreign origin. The context of the passage gives some further clue to its meaning. This verse is in the middle of a list of prohibitions against sex with close relatives and neighbors, along with the sacrifice of one's children to the foreign god Molech.
This passage could be read as a prohibition against pedophilia, or pederasty, especially regarding one's relatives. However, it would be a stretch to read it as a prohibition against all gay sex, as it is specifically concerned with those who lay with women (ie. men) lying instead with boys.
The King James Version translates this passage as " If a man (ish) also lie with mankind (zachar), as he lieth with a woman (ishah), both of them have committed an abomination (towebah): they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them."
This passage may seem subtly different from the other, but these differences are very important. Lets start with the part about putting both to death and "their blood shall be upon them." This clearly implies that both are responsible for their actions. This is not like rape, where one party is guilty and the other is a victim. Here, both have done wrong. However, this is clearly a crime as it carries the death penalty. So who is the victim? People do not get the death penalty for victimless crimes or crimes against society. Unlike the previous passage, there are three people in this passage, man, male, and woman. So how do they relate to one another?
Remember that men (ish) lie with women (ishah). A "zachar" is a "male" or "boy" who does not lie with women. "Man" and "woman" could be read as "husband" and "wife," and now we have a clear victim. This extends the definition of adultery to husbands who cheat on their wives with other men. So why should it not apply to two gay men? Quite simply because gay men are "zachar" and straight men are "ish." Gay men cannot lie with each other "as with a woman" because they are not "ish," they are not "layers of women" in any sense.
Neither of these passages apply to gay men, lesbians, or others of the LGBTQ community. They apply to straight and bisexual men who are married to women. These passages apply to men who are either pedophiles or adulterers. They do not apply to any two adults in a happily committed monogamous relationship.
1 Corinthians 6:9-11 & 1 Timothy 1:8-11
In these two Greek passages, Paul list a bunch of naughty things people should feel ashamed of, then reminds that "Some of you were such, but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and in the Spirit of our God." The Greek word for "homosexuals" in this passage is "arsenokoitai" and the word sometimes translated as "effeminate" is "malakoi."
Malakoi means "soft" and refers to men who spend far too much time on their appearance and who lack courage. Arsenokoitai is somewhat harder to define. All evidence points to it being a word which Paul made up. The only link to its meaning seems to be in the Septuagint, where it is a conjunction of the words "man" and "to lie." It has been suggested that it is taken from Leviticus 20:13 and that its meaning should therefore be linked to that passage.
That said, there are only two possibilities for "arsenokoitai," either its meaning has been lost due to its only appearance in ancient literature being in these lists, or it alludes to the prohibition against husbands cheating on their wives with other men in Leviticus 20:13. In either case, it should not be translated as "homosexuals" but as either "bisexual adulterers" or "pederasts."
As for why "arsenokoitai" cannot be translated simply as "homosexuals" or "bisexuals" is that verse 11 makes it clear that it is an action which can be repented and forgiven, not a person's sexual identity, which cannot be changed. It would be like forgiving someone of their gender, or their height, it just wouldn't make sense. Nor would it make sense in the context of the rest of the list. However, since we are linking its meaning to Leviticus 20:13, the meaning of adulterers does make sense, as this is an action which can be repented. God can forgive us what we have done, but not what we are, because what we are is made in God's image. This is why God's "name" is "I AM," because what I am is of God.
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of the most infamous tales of God's wrath in scripture. Most readers focus upon the perceived sexuality of the people of Sodom, but few wonder about the story's protagonist, Lot, and his wife, daughters, and sons-in-law. In trying to shoehorn the story into a predetermined shape, taught to us in sermons long before most of us ever read the story itself, we forego any chance of gaining new insight on the story.
This is a story about a man named Lot, the nephew of Abraham. We first meet Lot in Genesis 11:27, when his grandfather (Abraham's father) moves the whole family from Ur to Harran. In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham and tells him to resettle in Canaan. So Abraham packs up his family and Lot goes with him as well (12:4). Because of a famine in Canaan, they resettle in Egypt, where they become very rich. When the famine ends, they return to Canaan. Genesis 13 tells us of Abraham and Lot that "the land was not able to bear them, that they might live together; for their possessions were so great that they couldn’t live together." They have so much livestock that the land cannot feed them all. So they decide to separate. Lot goes east to the Plain of Jordan, toward the city of Sodom, and Abraham goes west into Canaan.
In Genesis 14, there is war in the land where Lot is living. Four cities go to war with five. Sodom and Gomorrah are plundered, and Lot is taken into slavery and his possessions plundered as well. Abraham rallies his household to battle and defeats the tired armies of four kings and rescues his nephew and restores his possessions as well as the possessions of all the land of Sodom. This is the last we hear of Lot or of Sodom for some time.
The story picks up again in Genesis 18. The Lord reveals to Abraham that he is going to Sodom to "see whether their deeds are as bad as the reports which have come to me." Abraham pleads with God not to destroy the city because there may be righteous people there. Undoubtedly he is thinking of his nephew and his family. He pleads and haggles and the Lord assures him, "I will not destroy it for the sake of ten [righteous people]" (18:32). Of course, even if Lot's whole family were found righteous, they number only six.
Genesis 19 opens with the two angels of the Lord, disguised as men, arriving at the gates of Sodom. Lot is sitting at the gate of the city. As soon as he sees them, he bows to the ground and invites them to stay at his home and enjoy his hospitality. It is easy to take this passage for granted. In our own rush to get into the city and what we think is the heart of the passage, we miss the first really strange thing about this story. Lot is not only very rich, but is a shepherd. What is he doing sitting in the gate to the city of Sodom? Further, why is he in such a rush to get them to his home? When they say that they will be just fine sleeping in the city square, he insists "strongly."
Does Lot suspect what the fate of these men might be if they sleep in the square? Obviously Lot knows how dangerous the city is. Perhaps he has been a victim of its violence himself. Perhaps they have taken his sheep and possessions, leaving him to beg at the city gates. Or perhaps he has seen this too often and has leveraged his wealth to afford him the luxury of retiring by the gates, waiting for strangers to save.
When the men of Sodom gather to violate Lot's guests, Lot pleads with them that they take his daughters instead of his guests "because they have come under the protection of my roof" (19:8).
The angels save Lot and cover his escape to gather the two men engaged to his daughters, but they think he is joking and refuse to leave the city. So Lot flees the city with his family and the city of Sodom is destroyed.
There is so much strangeness in this story, and it would be easy to go off on a tangent looking at it from all different angles. However, we have a particular focus. Was the sin of Sodom homosexuality, rape, or some worse act of violence they had planned? It would all be very academic except that there is a parallel passage in Judges 19-21.
This story's events are almost identical. It takes place in the city of Gibeah and the crowd is of the tribe of Benjamin. This time, there are no angels and the crowd is satisfied by the offer of the women, though only one woman is sent out to them (Judges 19:20-24). The crowd rapes and beats the woman all night (19:25). In the morning she collapses in the doorway, where she dies (19:26-28).
When the man reaches his home, he cuts up the woman and sends the evidence of her murder to the twelve tribes of Israel (19:29). They are astounded and say "Such a deed has not been done or seen from the day that the children of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt to this day!" It is not that this brutality had never been seen in the land, but in those days, the land was not Israel, it was Canaan, in the days of Abraham and Lot.
In response, the Twelve Tribes gather their armies, eleven tribes against the tribe of Benjamin, and go to war. The eleven tribes kill everyone in the town of Gibeah, then take the fight to the rest of the cities of Benjamin, killing tens of thousands.
In this story, the brutal act for which the city is destroyed is rape. It could have been a man or a woman. This story shows that the gender is irrelevant, it is the brutal rape and murder that is condemned. For this, God destroys a city and God's people destroy a city.
These stories are far more complicated than this one simple lesson, and there are numerous lessons to take from them. However, that homosexuality is a sin is not one of them. The sin of Sodom had nothing to do with gender and everything to do with rape and murder. Sodom and Gibeah alike brutalized their visitors, for this they were destroyed.
When people enter our neighborhoods and churches, or come as refugees, or are just passing through, do we welcome them at the gates and protect them from danger, or do we shut them out in the cold and leave to the mercy of whomever might happen upon them? Who do we consider a guest and how do we treat them?
If Lot were living today, who would he be waiting at the gate to receive? Who would he protect? This is how the church should be. Whomever comes, whoever they are, they are safe within these walls. There is food, and shelter, and family, and coming to church means you do not have to face the world alone. This is what the church can be, but not if we turn away the foreigners, or the homeless, or the LGBTQ community. We need to be waiting at the gates, offering hospitality to all.
"Eunuch" is not considered a kind word. Most commonly, in English, it refers to a castrated man. In Hebrew, the word is "saris" and in Greek it is "eunouchos." Both of these words can be used to refer to someone who has been castrated, but both languages have other words to communicate the same concept. Further, not everyone who is called a eunuch is castrated.
In Hebrew in particular, the word takes on a particularly favorable meaning. It is translated as "official" or "commander" and has connotations of being trusted, experienced, and reliable. In Greek, it refers to a person which attends to handmaidens, or virgins, as well as those who serve in high court positions.
When reading the scripture, it is important to remember that most eunuchs would not have been castrated, unless their job specifically involves the care of women. One notable example is Potiphar (Genesis 39) who was a eunuch and was also married.
In Matthew 19:11-12, Jesus talks about marriage and divorce, and then about eunuchs. He says, "Not all men can receive this saying, but those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake. He who is able to receive it, let him receive it."
Jesus recommends that people who can live like eunuchs should do so. He recommends against marriage, but he does not explicitly advocate celibacy. This is because eunuchs, along with not necessarily being castrated, are not necessarily celibate. Eunuchs do not marry and do not have children of their own; this is partly what makes them so trustworthy and dedicated to their work. Their work is their legacy, not their children.
So what are eunuchs if not celibate, castrated, or married? They're gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. They do not have children for the simple biological reason that two men or two women cannot reproduce. These are "eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb." Jesus specifically tells people of the LGBTQ community to be themselves. There's nothing wrong with you, it's just that God made you special, set apart, holy.
Time For Some Wild Speculation
Why would Jesus recommend that people be gay to be closer to God? Well, maybe because he and John were cuddling at the Last Supper (John 13:21-25). Maybe he had a special relationship with John, which is why he asked him to look after Mary, his mother (John 19:25-27), and why Peter wasn't sure whether it would be him or John to lead the church (John 21:20-23).
Regardless of Jesus' actual sexual orientation, there have been plenty of people who thought it was likely that the Son of Man was gay. King James notably said, "Christ had John, and I have George." Perhaps that is how we ended up with so many condemnations against male homosexuality in the King James Bible, the translators were not happy with their king's "defect."
Out of all the passages that are supposed to condemn the activities of gay men, not one of them actually applies to anyone who is gay. God seems to be concerned about the faithfulness of spouses, but the gender, not so much.
I hope you also noticed that in all the references I made to scripture, not once are lesbians mentioned. Weird right? That's because they're never mentioned in scripture. Not once. But I'm going to leave that as an open mystery for you to research on your own.
If you'd like to continue reading about this subject, I can recommend an excellent book, The Gay Gospels by Keith Sharpe is well researched and excellently written. (Barnes & Noble) (Amazon)