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Are Same-Sex Relations Condemned in the Old Testament?

When people want to show that the Bible condemns same-sex relations – either to justify depriving LGBTQ people of civil rights, to condemn them morally, to preclude them from serving in church offices, or even to participate at all in faith communities (or for any other reason) – there are a few passages that typically get cited, usually with vigor.

I should stress that there are only a few passages that get cited, since out of the entire Bible – thirty-nine books in the Old Testament, twenty-seven in the New – there are in fact very few that appear to relate to the matter directly.  I stress both the adverb “directly” and the verb “appear.”

In terms of “directly: It is possible to take thousands of passage that have nothing to do with same-sex relations and say that they are definitive for them (as in the phrase that was already worn out decades ago: Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve).

In terms of “appear”: virtually all of the passages that do seem to deal with the issue directly don’t mean what people think they mean.

It is very, very, very difficult to read ancient texts with our modern forms of common sense without (wrongly) thinking that *our* common sense is the common sense that people had in the ancient world.   People who have never considered the problem have, well, obviously never seen it.  They just assume that common sense is common to all people at all times in every context and every place.  No wonder people have so much difficulty understanding the commonsense views of people today in other parts of the world (Middle East, central Africa, Moscow: pick your spot), let alone people in other times/places (Germany in the late 20s; Romans in the 3rd century; whenever…).

This is especially a problem in the Bible.  With respect to the current thread, here’s the example I’ll get to in a few posts.  If the Bible says that a certain sex act is “unnatural,” we almost automatically think we know what the author means by that.  Hey, it’s not natural for a man to have sex with a man.  No vagina!!   Yeah, well, that’s actually not what ancient people meant by it being “unnatural.”  What they thought is not at ALL what we think.  If we don’t think that what THEY thought made it, then why should we agree with them that it is unnatural???

By the way, as I’ll also be arguing (just to show why this thread matters) that no one in the ancient world condemned homosexuality.  In the ancient world there was no such thing as homosexuality.  Ancients certainly knew that men had sex with men and women had sex with women.  But no one had any conception of “sexuality.”  Seems weird, right?  Yup.  Different world.  You’ll see what I mean in a later post.

Before getting to that, I want to turn to the one passage that virtually everyone starts with to condemn same-sex relations (and “homosexuality”).   It comes in a brief passage in the Law of Moses, the book of Leviticus chapter 18.  It does indeed look pretty straight forward at first glance:

It’s easy to see what I have to say next:  join the blog!   The membership fee is less for three months than a cheeseburger at Five Guys.  And the blog is so much healthier!   (OK, you probably don’t have to choose.  Do both!).  You get five posts a week and important subjects, and your entire fee goes to charity.  Good for everyone, especially you!

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  November 12, 2019

    Well, if I ever decided to be a certain kind of “Christian” and I owned a bakery, before I would bake ANYONE a cake I would ask them whether they wore cotton/polyester blends. And if they did I would chase them away with a Bible in one hand and a pure cotton T-shirt in the other, demanding that they shed their abhorrent duds and clothe themselves in garments suitable to the LORD! I mean, why not? That makes as much sense as asking them about their sexual orientation…

    • Avatar
      meohanlon  November 16, 2019

      Have you read “the Year of living Biblically”? One of the most informative and still funny books I’ve ever read.

  2. Avatar
    jhague  November 12, 2019

    Some use Leviticus 19:28 as a verse regarding modern tatoos. What is the ancient meaning of this verse?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 13, 2019

      I think maybe pretty much what it says. I met a fairly left-wing pastor with long hair and funky dress a few months ago who had Leviticus 19:28 tatooed on his forearm, with no explanation! 🙂

  3. Avatar
    jhague  November 12, 2019

    What is the ancient meaning of Leviticus 20:9 and Deuteronomy 21:18–21? Obviously not to execute all rebellious children or the Isrealites would not have had any children left!

    • Bart
      Bart  November 13, 2019

      Well, there’s a difference between legislation and enforcement!

  4. Avatar
    jhague  November 12, 2019

    “it was because Canaanite animal sacrifice frequently involved pigs.”

    Why were the Isrealites told to not eat shellfish?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 13, 2019

      We don’t know in most instances what the logic at the time was. I’m sure there are a bunch of theories on that one, but I’m afraid I don’t know!

  5. Avatar
    Renier Deysel  November 12, 2019

    The Christian community is quick to tell you that they are “free” from the bounds of the OT Laws, since Jesus came to fulfill the laws. But in the same breath they will tell you that certain laws must be adhered to, such as these being discussed today, and of course tithing (which they completely bend to suit their requirements). Funny bunch…

  6. Avatar
    eblevine  November 12, 2019

    Without being an apologist for traditional Judaism, I note that it too accepts “that many Ancient Israelites had all sorts of laws that simply aren’t applicable today.” The Talmudic Rabbis interpreted many laws as not applying to their own times (for example, animal sacrifices) or as not applying to their locale outside of Israel (for example, the jubilee), and some laws they virtually abolished, although without directly saying so (Leviriite marriage).

  7. Avatar
    mblackstad  November 12, 2019

    I was taught that the word we translate to as ‘abomination’ had different connotation from ‘sin’. Abomination meant something more like [ritual] impurity. Just as a woman on her period is an abomination (ritually impure and not fit to enter the temple), so too is a man who has laid with another man. For many abominations, as I understand it, the cure was to take a bath.

    Care to comment, Bart?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 13, 2019

      Right, not a bath, but a ritual cleansing. I haven’t done a word study, so I know you’re right that often the issue was ritual purity. Off hand I don’t know the relationship to “sin” (which is a very different thing)

  8. Avatar
    rborges  November 13, 2019

    Regarding the law against pork: I find your explanation very interesting (I’ve never heard it before), but I genuinely have some questions about it. Did the Canaanites sacrifice cows, sheep or goats? Or was it exclusively pigs? I am asking as a layman.

    Also, the law forbade camel and rabbit meat too. Did the canaanites sacrifice camels or rabbits?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2019

      I don’t know and I don’t know. I don’t recall camel and rabbit though: where is that?

      • Avatar
        rborges  November 18, 2019

        Leviticus 11: 4-6

        But among those that chew the cud or have divided hoofs, you shall not eat the following: the camel, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. The rock badger, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. The hare, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you.

  9. Avatar
    lobe  November 13, 2019

    I am so glad you finally brought up a topic that truly matters: Steak.

    I agree that Ruth Chris is some bloody expensive steak, but you have to admit it’s really GOOD too. Not sure if the marginal difference in goodness is worth the marginal difference in COST…but still the best steak I’ve had to date.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2019

      Yes, I’ve had some amazing steaks there; but a couple not so amazing….

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 13, 2019

    1. Leviticus 20:13 Why do people quote the part that men should not have sex with each other, but ignore the part about how these men should be put to death?
    2. Leviticus 17:10 quoted by Jehovah Witnesses to argue against blood transfusions.
    3. The concept of “homosexuality” was first used by physician Krafft-Ebing in 1886.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2019

      1. I know some people who would prefer not to ignore that part at all!! 2. Yup! 3. YUP!!

  11. Avatar
    dankoh  November 14, 2019

    I think the distinction here is between the historian, who is supposed to analyze people and events according to their own standards and practices, which change over time, and the theologian, especially the theologian of a revealed religion, who is a priori placed in the position of arguing that these are laws revealed by an omniscient God whose standards and practices can never change.

  12. Avatar
    drkdowd  November 15, 2019

    Dr Ehrman, as I read your recent blogs and the responses they generate, the more baffled I am that the Gospel of John was included in the New Testament canon.

    Clearly, the Historical Jesus was a man of his time- an apocalyptic Jew, who challenged the Sadducee order, but a human nonetheless whose message was for the people of his time. Some of his views support timeless moral principles, but other views of his time were flawed by our modern standards.

    The Gospel of John attempts to elevate him to something that he wasn’t.

    Christianity is not the religion of Jesus- it is a religion about Jesus. His earliest followers believed him to be fully human, until adopted by God when immersed by John the Baptist. However, the interpretation of who he was and what he talking about was taken way out of context by Paul and then the ‘Johannines’ to incorporate broader Greco-Roman philosopy.

  13. Avatar
    Martintee  December 2, 2019

    No one seems to have mentioned that Jesus never said a word about homosexuality, or for that matter of abortion. Jesus’ main focus was on helping the poor, the hungry, visiting those in prison and treating immigrants as brothers. I guess Christians are too busy stoning: disobedient children, neighbors who work on Sunday, and anyone who takes the Lord’s name in vain. No Christians actually follows the Bible, thank god(s). They cherry pick. In generations to come they will marvel that a civilization so technologically advanced could believe the nonsense from the bronze age. In no other endeavor of human enlightenment, do we blindly follow knowledge so old and unbelievable.

  14. Avatar
    dankoh  December 4, 2019

    Regarding the statement (earlier in one of the comments) that no one in the ancient world condemned homosexuality, I have to say that’s not entirely true. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Middle Kingdom edition, one of the “negative confessions” is “I have not committed homosexuality.” (It’s possible this only applied to the Pharaoh).

    OTOH, Trevor Bryce notes that the Hittite codes have a specific prohibition against a father sleeping his son, right after saying he shouldn’t sleep with his daughter, which is clearly a case of “specific to general” – male-male sex is generally acceptable, with this specific exception.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 6, 2019

      Yes, that’s the English translation. Ancient Egyptians didn’t have a word for homosexuality, because they didn’t have a concept of sexuality, only of sexual activity. The text is saying that the pharaoh had never had sex with another man. That’s a sex act, not an orientation.

  15. Avatar
    Barnsweb  December 8, 2019

    Second point is not mixing being fair to the person journeying through the land referenced back to their sojourns in Egypt. They didn’t break the law of Egypt and demand voting rights or welfare.

    Why on earth do people fail to note the examples God spoke of when saying things?

    THAT is what the context is for me.

  16. Avatar
    Enzoastro  December 9, 2019

    I read somewhere a gay Christian guy arguing that the prescriptions were to do with condemning prostitution in religious sites (temple?). I’ve not seen that line taken anywhere else, any truth to it?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 9, 2019

      It’s sometimes argued that way, but there’s not really any proof one way or the others. It would actualy make sense to some extent, but I don’t think we know.

  17. Avatar
    RorscHaK  December 10, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman

    Is there any indication on *when* did Sodom and Gomorrah start to be interpreted as primary about homosexuality? (Both for Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism)

    The homosexuality interpretation makes little sense since it seems to imply that things would be less bad had the two angels appear as women…

    And I’m rather astonished at some evangelicals attempting to shoehorn homosexuality into Ezekiel 16:50…
    “Stinginess and arrogance alone did not draw God’s wrath. Ezekiel anchored the list of crimes with the word “abominations.” This word takes us right back to homosexuality. The conduct Moses refers to in Genesis 18 he later describes in Leviticus as an “abomination” in God’s eyes.”

    (I didn’t make this up, I wish I was. I wish this is a satire but it isn’t…https://www.str.org/articles/what-was-the-sin-of-sodom-and-gomorrah#.XfBt9WQzY2w)

    • Bart
      Bart  December 13, 2019

      The first time I know of that it was interpreted this way in either the Jewish or Christian traditions is in Jude 7; although even there it is about illicit sex involving “going after other flesh” — presumably he means men with men, but the preceding example he uses about the fallen angels refers to the traditions about angels having sex with women in Genesis 6, especially as interpreted in the Book of the Watchers in 1 Enoch.

      • Avatar
        matthewe.rand  December 24, 2019

        This is a disappointing post. I was expecting something better than a warmed-up, red-herring, gay apologetics argument. It’s used to no effect against fundamentalist Christians and fantastically falls flat in the case of Orthodox Jews, who do care about those laws regarding mixing, keeping kosher, and women menstruating.

        Your argument that the prohibition against male homosexual acts is really about mixing and not being like the other nations is intellectually dishonest.
        God didn’t cast out the other nations for mixing wool and linen or eating shellfish, but your quote of Leviticus does mention that for acts such as bestiality and male homosexual acts God did cast out the other nations. If God casted out the other nations, He was punishing them. And if God was punishing them, there had to be laws that the nations were expected to follow regarding sexuality but failed. In other words, the prohibition against male homosexual acts is a universal law, not merely a law solely applied to the people of Israel. All nations are expected to follow the laws regarding sexuality, not only the Jews.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 25, 2019

          I’m sorry to hear you think it’s dishonest. But I don’t think an interpretation different from yours is necessarily dishonest. It may simply be a different interpretation that also deserves thoughtful consideration. A dishonest interpretation would be one that an interpreter knows is incorrect but puts it forth in order to mislead others.

          I would also say that there is no reason to think that if God punishes a nation it has to be for *sexual* sins. Why would it have to be that, in particular? I don’t know of any passage in the Bible that says God wanted the Canaanites destroyed because they were homosexuals! If that’s what you think, it would not be because the Bible says so.

  18. Avatar
    Syrimoon  February 24, 2020

    I grew up in the Catholic Church, which taught that OT laws were divided into cultural laws, ritual laws and moral laws, and that we are to keep the moral laws. Is there actually a historical bit for this or is it just the Catholic Church being, you know, the Catholic Church?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2020

      I think a case can be made for this view from the New Tesatment. But not from the Old itself!

  19. Avatar
    TMax  March 4, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman Just because homosexuality is named with some lesser violations of the law don’t make it as small a crime as sowing seeds in the same field. Look in Leviticus 18:21 the verse before it says don’t sacrifice your son to another god. So is it okay to murder your son now? Look in Leviticus 20:10-21 homosexuality is named with Adultery and other sex sins and was punishable by death. Even Paul a new testament writer that said the law was done away with, still said homosexuality was a sin Rom 1:27, 1Cor 6:9. Paul’s interpretation of the Tanakh (Old Testament) of the subject was the same as the as most people’s today. “Religious Israelites” historically have NEVER embraced homosexuality. Check the record. It looks like you are trying to take a modern Hollywood philosophy and justify it by twisting the Hebrew scriptures.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 4, 2020

      I’m not sure what you’re asking. Are you saying that because the Bible says we are to execute disobedient children that the law should still be in force? If not, then how are you choosing which lw to enforce?

  20. Avatar
    jennyadkins  April 4, 2020

    How it was explained to me: homosexual acts (and homosexuality for that matter, though I understand the distinction) are sinful because they are deviance from God’s plan for creation as set forth in Gen 1:27, “male and female he created them,” and Gen. 2:24, “man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (quoted later by Jesus when asked about divorce, and by the writer of Ephesians and 1 Corinthians).

    Further, the explanation goes, same-sex relations are in opposition to God’s directive for humans to “be fruitful and multiply,” a phrase often accompanied with a blessing from God, reoccurring many times in Genesis, and in Jeremiah & Ezekiel. Since God made humans in his image as male and female, and these are the only two sexes that can procreate, any other sexual combination is deviance. 

    Mustn’t one holding this view go further and say that any sexual goal aside from procreation is deviance from God’s plan? I wonder if Solomon would agree with that!?

    If modern audiences consider Leviticus 18:22-23 as part of the law that Jesus said he had not come to abolish, couldn’t it be argued that any sexual relations that are not between male and female, and where pregnancy is purposely prevented, are in opposition to Gen. 1:27? That seems to be the next step if people want to read Leviticus as applying to modern times.

    I can’t imagine American Protestant churches getting away with openly teaching that contraceptives are sinful, yet many openly condemn homosexuality (while their members divorce and remarry). These things seem at odds with each other. Instead, we know that Leviticus was written for a certain people at a certain time.

    But then, what do we do with Romans 1: 26-27?

    This is my first comment; thank you for the 2 month free membership! 

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2020

      Yes, that is indeed the traditional explanation of the passages of Genesis, though of course neither one is talkign about the propriety of same sex relatinos Those relatinos are condemned in Leviticus; as I point out in my other posts, it also condemns not obeying parents (death sentence!) and forbids not taking care of immigrants as well as fellow citizens, but most people don’t think those laws apply any more (or that Jesus supported them). So, well, it’s a problem! thanks for your comments! And welcome to the blog.

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