Home Opinion Columns Weekly Reflections: Understanding the historical context of biblical condemnation of homosexuality

Weekly Reflections: Understanding the historical context of biblical condemnation of homosexuality



“Do not judge others, so that God will not judge you, for God will judge you in the same way you judge others, and he will apply to you the same rules you apply to others” – Matthew 7:1-2

Interpreting the Scriptures

The Bible is most often used as a basis of condemning homosexuality. Certainly, there are at most nine verses in the Scriptures believed and interpreted to be against homosexuality, namely: Genesis 19:4-11; Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Judges 19:22-26; Romans 1:27; I Corinthians 6:9; I Timothy 1:10; Jude 7; 2 Peter 2:10. Be that as it may, we must, therefore, take the Bible seriously and study it carefully.

We believe the Bible is a book of faith, but it did not just fall down from heaven; it is a product of history. It has its own historical context, and therefore, it must be interpreted in the light of that particular context. There are at least three aspects of that context that we must consider at this point: the social, religious, and economic contexts.

Social context

It is easier to understand the Scriptural biases against homosexuality if we would examine the social context of the Biblical authors and the ancient Mediterranean world. Generally, we can speak of a patriarchal society at that time: men dominated women. At the same time, the genders were separated by different costume, hairstyle, workplace, etc. In this kind of society, the free and adult man had to be active and dominant. The woman was regarded as passive and inferior. Therefore, homosexuality was criticized. And in case of male homosexuality, one of the partners was understood as acting like a woman: passive and inferior.

The Hellenistic culture (not the Bible) however accepted one form of male homosexuality: a sexual relationship between a free adult and a slave or a boy. In this case, the slave or boy would play the role of the woman. Often he would have long hair and would use make-up. This was accepted because the free man would not give up his active and dominant position. The existing power structure was not broken. Like women and slaves, children and juveniles did not count. Hence, they could take over the passive feminine role in the sexual relationship. Apostle Paul and the author of I Timothy (1:10) criticized this kind of love between men and boys (I Cor. 6:9).

The Biblical texts are silent about female homosexuality. The only verse (wrongly interpreted) as a criticism of female homosexuality is Romans 1:26: “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural” (NRSV). But ‘unnatural intercourse’ refers – as in other verses – to intercourse with animals or anal intercourse. This is not surprising: the ancient patriarchal society did not care much about the sexual preferences of women. Anyway, they would be married and have children regardless of their feelings. A few ancient texts criticize female homosexuality in the same way male homosexuality is criticized. A female homosexual could threaten the normal order because she would act like a man: active and dominant.

Today, we cannot accept anymore that men should dominate and rule over women in democratic societies. Our modern ideal (born in the French Revolution) is equality. Already in the Bible, we find many stories showing the active participation of women which make us believe that the Bible, in many cases, was already protesting against the rule of men over women. The ideal of the New Testament is not a patriarchal society but the “discipleship of equals”. Even Apostle Paul realized that as he claimed, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

The condemnation of homosexuality is a consequence of a patriarchal society in which men have to rule and women have to obey. No confusion of these roles is allowed. Since our ideal in today’s democratic society is the equality of the sexes, why should we fear a man acting in a feminine or a woman in a masculine way?

Religious context

Now, let’s look into the Jewish religious context. Male homosexuality is “detestable” according to Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. The Hebrew word to’ebah, translated as ‘abomination’ is also used to discredit other ‘sins’ such as: to eat unclean animals (Deuteronomy 14:3); remarrying the former wife (Deuteronomy 24:4); sacrifice of deficient animals (Deuteronomy 17:1); to wear clothes of the other sex (Deuteronomy 22:5); and adultery (Ezekiel 22:11).

Behind this list of sins lies the Israelite concept of holiness or purity. According to this concept, certain things belong to certain groups and should not be mixed. To be holy means oneness, integrity, and immaculateness of the individual. This integrity is threatened if an unclean animal is eaten, a deficient animal is sacrificed, and the same man marries the divorced woman a second time. It is also threatened if a man does not act like a man – be it in costume or in sexual preference.

Today, we are no longer following the purity laws of the Old Testament. Men wear long hair, women trousers – only a few old folks might criticize it. We eat pork, we eat blood, and we have no problem in mixing meat and cream. In fact, this is already the trend of the New Testament. As Apostle Paul and the early Christians associated themselves with the Gentiles they gave up most of the purity laws.

The ideal was to become one community; strict purity laws hindered this process. Except for hints of such developments in Jude and Revelation, the New Testament did not justify any sexual rule by appealing to physical purity. Indeed, it exhibited a strong concern that purity, as a distinction dividing human societies from one another, should give way before a massive awareness of the grace of God, extended impartially to all human beings.

To quote the Bible condemning homosexuality is easy. But as we understand the context of purity and holiness in which it was written, we cannot just isolate this one regulation. If we justify our biases against homosexuality with the Bible, we should be aware that we would have to follow the other purity laws as well. We would have to abstain from blood, from pork, etc. But who can claim today to be really following such purity laws? Or else, we would just simply become hypocrites like the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time (cf. Matthew 23).

Economic context

Turning now to the economic context, in Biblical times to become husband and wife and to have children was not based on love. It was an economic necessity. Husband and wife was the basic economic unit. They worked together on their piece of ancestral land. Adults needed children to work on their land, especially when they get old. They needed children to care for them and to support them. It is the tragedy in the story of Ruth, that Naomi lost all her children (Ruth 1:13). It is the ‘sin’ of Onan that he denied Tamar to bear children (Gen. 38:8-10).

In such a setting, homosexuality seems to be an unwelcome disturbance, even a threat. Homosexual relationships cannot lead to children. Who would care for such homosexual couples in old age? Who would inherit their land? The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus, expressed his disgust for male homosexuals, because a homosexual works towards the desertion and depopulation of the cities, if he ruins his semen.

Today, most marriages in the Philippines are based mainly and ideally on love; not on economic considerations. In the cities, most husbands and wives work independently in different jobs – they form an emotional unit, but not necessarily an economic one. Pension plans and social security lessen problems of old age. The percentage of children among the population is high. Hence, there is no danger of depopulation if a minority would decide not to have children because they live in homosexual relationships.

A society today, like those in Biblical times, definitely reacts negatively if married couples would base their relationships on economical concerns. Generally, heterosexual couples today normally declare that the basis for their relationship is love. In the Early Church, when the believers were developing codes of conduct for Christian life, marriage relationship was understood to be characterized by love.

Apostle Paul had a very beautiful definition of love in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs; love is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth. Love never gives up; and its faith, hope, and patience never fail” (I Corinthians 13:4-7).

But why then do we criticize or even condemn homosexual couples, who base their relationship on love? Why do we criticize or even condemn if we know that homosexual relationships do not really endanger the society by not bearing children?

Christ as model

Jesus Christ our Lord should be the model of our Christian life. He never condemned homosexuals or any marginalized people of his day. In fact, he had only love and compassion for them. But, he had strong words for the self-righteous moralists of his day: “Do not judge others, so that God will not judge you, for God will judge you in the same way you judge others, and he will apply to you the same rules you apply to others” (Mt. 7:1-2).

Of course, this does not mean that we should not judge others at all. But when we do judge other people we should not make ourselves the criterion of judgment for this would make us self-righteous and condescending; rather we have to make Christ, his life and ministry, the very criterion of judgment. Then, we surely come to realize that all of us, indeed, heterosexual and homosexual alike, have fallen short of God’s glory. # nordis.net

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