I have been reading James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships in preparation for a theological forum next week. The book basically attempts a re-thinking of “the moral vision regarding gender and sexuality that Scripture commends” (3)—a rethinking prompted not least by the fact that Brownson’s eighteen year old son had confided to his parents that “he believed he was gay” (11). Brownson describes himself as having taken, prior to this, a “moderate, traditionalist position”. We are clearly heading in a less traditionalist direction, but I’m only on page 85.
One of the main biblical arguments against same-sex erotic relations is that the creation narrative in Genesis 2 describes a fundamental “gender complementarity” based on biology. The woman is created out of the man, therefore for the man to be complete again as “one flesh” he must be joined with a woman. Brownson quotes Robert Gagnon:
Only a being made from ʿadam can and ought to become someone with whom ʿadam longs to reunite in sexual intercourse and marriage, a reunion that not only provides companionship but restores ʿadam to his original wholeness. (25)
Brownson thinks that this is a spurious argument and sets out four “counter-theses” (26-34). It is the last one that particularly struck me.
- The original ʿadam of Genesis 1:26-2:18 is not a binary, or sexually undifferentiated, being that is divided into male and female in Genesis 2:21.
- The focus in Genesis 2 is not on the complementarity of male and female, but on the similarity of male and female.
- The fact that male and female are both created in the divine image (Gen. 1:27) is intended to convey the value, dominion, and relationality shared by both men and women, but not the idea that the complementarity of the genders is somehow necessary to fully express or embody the divine image.
- The “one-flesh” union spoken of in Genesis 2:24 connotes, not physical complementarity, but a kinship bond.
In support of the last point, Brownson notes that in the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon basar (“flesh”) in Genesis 2:24 is listed under the sense of “relatives”, so that “one flesh” means “one kinship group” (33). Perhaps this is common knowledge, but I must admit, I have always taken the verse to mean that sexual union is the defining element of marriage. The point of verse 23 would appear to be that the woman is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” because she was taken from the man’s side; therefore the woman’s identity in relation to the man consists in the shared physicality of sexual union.
Brownson notes that there are Old Testament parallels but doesn’t give details, which is a shame because a number of passages are cited under the meaning “kindred, blood relations” in BDB which give solid support to his argument. Laban says to his nephew Jacob, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” (Gen. 29:14). Abimelech says to his mother’s family, “Remember also that I am your bone and your flesh” (Judg. 9:2). The tribes of Israel say to David, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh” (2 Sam. 5:1). David says to the elders of Judah, “You are my brothers; you are my bone and my flesh” (2 Sam. 19:12; cf. 19:13).
So when a man leaves his father and mother, one primary kinship bond is dissolved; and when he attaches himself to his woman, a new kinship bond is formed. The rationale is given in the manner of the woman’s creation from the side of the man: such a new family could not have been formed through a union of the woman with a creature made independently from the ground (cf. Gen. 2:19). But it means, in Brownson’s view, that we cannot appeal to this verse as evidence for a “doctrine of physical or biological gender complementarity” that might explain the moral logic behind the Bible’s condemnation of same-sex erotic relations. “One flesh” is an image not of an essential and determinative human sexuality but of the origin of kinship groups that would later be characterized as shared bone and flesh. Perhaps the description of the man and woman as naked and not ashamed in verse 25 has misled us into reading primal rumpy pumpy back into the sociological comment. Or perhaps we’re just obsessed with sex.