Tuesday, March 3, 2009

LDS Doctrine and Same-Sex Couples, part 3: The Scriptures

Part three of the continuing series... click for part 1 and part 2.

Another basis for asserting that homosexual relationships are condemned by God is an appeal to scriptural authority. While there are no explicit mentions of homosexuality in the Restoration era scripture, Mormons often borrow the argument made by other Christians that homosexuality is condemned in the Mosaic Law in Leviticus, condemned by implication in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and forbidden by Paul in his letters to the Romans and Corinthians. I will examine these scriptures one at a time, and attempt to show why these passages are a shaky foundation for the doctrine against homosexuality.

Mosaic law

The most explicit condemnation of homosexuality is Leviticus 18:22: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” At first glance, the passage seems clear—any sort of homosexual conduct is disallowed. And that interpretation would be correct, if we still followed the Law of Moses. The law has been fulfilled, however, by the coming of Christ, and the Mosaic Law is only binding if it reflects the purposes of the Higher Law. So, to determine whether the directive in Leviticus 18:22 is binding, we must examine the purpose of the prohibition.

Leviticus chapters 17–26 is referred to by scholars as the holiness code, and it is generally understood to contain injunctions given to avoid the pagan rituals of the Canaanites. The heading of his particular section acknowledges this:

After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do: neither shall ye walk in their ordinances. Ye shall do my judgments, and keep mine ordinances, to walk therein: I am the LORD your God. (Lev. 18:3-4)

Furthermore, the particular language used in the original Hebrew also suggests that the prohibition against homosexual relations is of ritual, rather than moral, importance. The word abomination is translated from the Hebrew to’eba, ritual impurity, which is contrasted with zimah, wickedness (used in the condemnation of adultery).1

This makes sense when looking at the particular rituals of the Canaanites. Ritual prostitution of both the homosexual and heterosexual variety was part of Canaanite worship, along with eating goats boiled in their mother’s milk, incestuous relationships, and dedicating children to Molech. In fact, the text itself refers to the things listed as the “customs” of the people in the land before the Israelites. (Lev. 18:30)

Thus, there is a real possibility that the injunction in Leviticus was meant to keep Israelites pure from pagan rituals. As such, it is not a compelling statement of the general doctrine of the gospel, especially since the Mosaic Law has been transcended by the Higher Law.

Sodom and Gomorrah

The Genesis account of Sodom and Gomorrah has also classically been cited as authority for God’s disapproval of homosexuality. The account tells of Lot, the nephew of Abraham, who was a resident of Sodom. One night, holy men came to his house. The account proceeds as follows:

[T]he men of Sodom, compassed the house . . . . And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, where are the men which came in to thee this night? Bring them out unto us, that we may know them. And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him, and said, I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly. Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof. (Genesis 19:4-8)

Lot, his guests, and his family escaped the men of Sodom, and God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of the wickedness of their inhabitants.

This story has a long history of being associated with homosexual conduct. Blackstone, in the Commentaries, referred to homosexual conduct as “a crime not fit to be named” and reasoned that it was a crime against God because of “the destruction of two cities by fire from heaven.”2 In fact, homosexual conduct has come to be known as “sodomy,” after the name of this story.

But does a careful reading of the text support such a conclusion? The men in Sodom were not asking to “know” Lot’s guests as part of a committed relationship, or even a consensual one. Rather, the relationship requested was one of attacker and victim. The most obvious reading of this text is that God is displeased with rape, be it of men or women. Reading the story of Sodom as an anti-homosexual morality tale is akin to reading a story about the rape of a woman as a prohibition against heterosexual sex.

The Bible itself does not support the conclusion that Sodom’s sin was homosexuality. Ezekiel explicitly lists the reasons why Sodom was destroyed: “Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) This interpretation of the sin of Sodom echoes the conclusion of many scholars who understand the sin of Sodom to be a lack of caring for strangers in their gates. The primacy of hospitality in desert cultures is represented by Lot’s willingness to sacrifice his daughters to protect his guests. Like the previous passage, the story of Sodom does not conclusively prove God’s displeasure with homosexual conduct.

Paul’s Letters

Paul’s letters to the Romans and Corinthians are also employed as evidence of God’s displeasure with homosexuals. Paul, in a passage condemning bringing lawsuits between believers to the secular authorities, condemns fraud and wrongdoing, declaring that “the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God[.] Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor. 6:9-10)

Other translations of the Bible replace the word “effeminate” with “male prostitute,” and the annotations of the LDS versions of the New Testament suggests the translation of “catamite,” a boy kept as a lover by men of high social standing. The listing of one of these terms along with the other likely refers to the passive and active partners in a pederastic relationship. Much like the previous passages, condemnation of prostitution and child exploitation is hardly a conclusive condemnation of any homosexual relationship.

Also relevant is Paul’s understanding of homosexuality. Paul speaks of idolaters in Romans, stating that because humans did not acknowledge God,

God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet. (Rom. 1:26-27)

Paul’s viewpoint, therefore, is that homosexuality is a consequence of idolatry. This is consistent with the Jewish worldview represented in the Old Testament. Burning with lust, a male body would work as well as a female body to satisfy carnal desires. The person Paul is condemning is not one who is primarily attracted to the other sex, but rather is overwhelmed in lust. Paul’s characterization of homosexuality bears little resemblance to the same-sex relationships that seek legitimacy today.

Also, as Latter-day Saints and believers in continuing revelation, ancient scripture is not the final word in doctrinal authority. The canon is open; practices, policies, and even our understanding of doctrine change as our understanding deepens and God reveals his will more fully to us. The point of having living prophets is to understand God’s will in the context of today’s society. Scriptural authority, therefore, is problematic basis from which to argue that homosexuality is incompatible with the gospel.

  1. See Phyllis A. Bird, The Bible in Christian Ethical Deliberation Concerning Homosexuality: Old Testament Contributions, in HOMOSEXUALITY, SCIENCE, AND THE “PLAIN SENSE” OF SCRIPTURE 142, 150 (David L. Balch, ed. 2000).
  2. WILLIAM BLACKSTONE, 4 Commentaries *215–16.

1 comment:

Charlie said...

Beautiful, Nate! Since the Bible has been used in the past to justify things like slavery, I don't think it's a legitimate document to cite when it comes to how we vote on civil rights. Notwithstanding, you have a very good point. Textually, the Bible does not support categorical condemnation of homosexual relationships. Culturally, homophobia has married itself to a few questionably-interpreted verses and has fraudulently presented itself as "God's word." Let's see if BYU invites you to present your reading at one of its religion classes...