Same-sex unions in eschatological perspective

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This is not going to be a conventional review of James Brownson’s book on gender and homosexuality in the Bible. I’ll begin with two very broad assertions, then look at the texts, and finish with some cautious and increasingly opaque conclusions—be warned. For a summary of Brownson’s argument see this post. For a detailed critical evaluation of the book see Andrew Goddard’s essay.

Two broad assertions

First, I think Brownson overstates his case. On the one hand, I don’t think it is as easy as he suggests to eliminate gender complementarity from the biblical notion of being “one flesh”. Same-sex union, therefore, would have to be parallel or analogous to the “one flesh” union rather than an emerging facet or subset of it. On the other, while it seems reasonable to claim that the biblical texts cannot be made to pass judgment on the apparently modern notion of loving, committed same-sex relationships, I rather doubt that the “moral logic” can be stretched to include the modern arrangement, for reasons that I will touch on below.

Secondly, it seems to me that the “moral logic” hermeneutics, in any case, is flawed. Because the problem of same-sex relations has traditionally been examined under the rubric of Christian ethics, the fact has largely been overlooked that in both the Old Testament and the New Testament the prohibitions are found in sharply defined narrative contexts, and that in the New Testament the narrative context is eschatological. Brownson has, admittedly, superimposed a very generalized new creation eschatology over what he takes to be the determinative logic of biblical ethics, but this leaves us with a too abstract framework to work with. I think that Paul’s argument in Romans presupposes an urgent kingdom eschatology which operates on a different level and with a different “end” in view to a new creation eschatology.

Now for the narratives….

Man and woman as “one flesh”

Humanity is created in the image and after the likeness of God as male and female (Gen. 1:26-27). In the narrative context this differentiates humanity from the living creatures, which are created “according to their kinds” (Gen. 1:20-25), and is expressed specifically in the progressive exercise of dominion over all living creatures. It is not man and woman, as such, but humanity that is in the image of God, specifically in its relation to other living creatures; but humanity exists as male and female.

In the Eden narrative woman is created from the “side” of man because no “helper fit for him” was found among the animals. She is, therefore, of the same bone and flesh as Adam (Gen. 2:23), not another creature from the earth—she is of the same “species”, so to speak. The language of being of the same bone and flesh is used in the Old Testament to signify shared kinship bonds. For example, Laban says to his nephew Jacob, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” (Gen. 29:14). For the man and the woman to become “one flesh”, therefore, should probably not be understood in terms of sexual union but as the establishment of “family” as a broader network of social relations. Nevertheless, while procreation may not be directly in view in the text, a kinship group of shared bone and flesh exists and is extended only through marriage and procreation. In this respect, in biblical terms, it does not seem possible to classify same-sex unions as “one flesh”.

Homosexuality and the land

There are two narrative contexts in which homosexual activity is condemned and prohibited for God’s people. The perplexing stories of thwarted homosexual rape in Genesis 19:4-11 and Judges 19:22-26 have no bearing on the “normative” texts.

The prohibitions of Leviticus 18 are prefaced by the command not to “do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived” or “as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you”. They are to walk in the statutes and judgments of the Lord their God, by which they shall live (Lev. 18:3-5).

A man is not to “uncover the nakedness” of “any relation of his flesh” (Lev. 18:6-18). He must not uncover a woman’s nakedness “while she is in her menstrual uncleanness” or to give the “seed of intercourse” to a neighbour’s wife, because it will result in uncleanness (Lev. 18:19-20). He must not give any of his “seed” to Molech to “profane the name of your God” (Lev. 18:21). A man must not lie with a male as lying down with a woman; this is an “abomination” (Lev. 18:22). He must not make himself unclean by lying with an animal; and a woman must not stand before an animal to lie with it, which is a perversion (Lev. 18:23).

There appears to be no good reason to think that the prohibition against male homosexuality presupposes a cultic context. There are religious practices that are described as abominations (eg. Deut. 12:31), but not every abomination is a religious practice (Deut. 25:13-16). There is reference to the offering of “seed” to Molech in verse 21, but the prohibitions of Leviticus 18:19-23 appear to have discrete practices in view.

The “moral logic”, if we can call it that, is made clear. The Canaanites had made themselves unclean by committing these “abominations”, and as a result the land had vomited out its inhabitants. If the people of Israel do these things, they can also expect the land to vomit them out. For this reason, offenders must be cut off from their people. The penalties are set out in Leviticus 20:10-21. “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them” (Lev. 20:13). The people of Israel will inherit the land that formerly belonged to the Canaanites, therefore they must not “walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you”. “You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Lev. 20:26). The land is intended to be a microcosm of the creation that has been corrupted by humanity’s rebellion; it is of the utmost importance, therefore, that its “cleanness” be preserved.

The prohibitions do not have in view homosexuality as a sustained lifestyle, whether monogamous or promiscuous, moderate or immoderate. They refer to “occasional” departures from normal heterosexual practice. But obviously, if an occasional departure from normal practice is to be punished by being cut off from the people, the opportunity for persistent homosexual behaviour hardly arises.

Homosexuality and the kingdom

The moral logic underlying Paul’s statement that neither catamites (malakoi) nor sodomites (arsenokoitai) “will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9–10) is rather different. The rationale is given in his very Jewish diatribe against paganism in Romans 1:18-32. I suggest that this should be read as a denunciation not of universal human sinfulness but specifically of the pagan culture that dominated the Greek-Roman oikoumenē—the sphere of classical civilization. I would read this in the light of Paul’s proclamation in Athens that the God of Israel is no longer willing to overlook the times of pagan ignorance and intends to judge the oikoumenē in a foreseeable historical future by a man whom he has appointed (Acts 17:30-31).

A culture that “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25) has been given over to sexual practices that dishonour the body. The point is less that this was an expression of excessive lust or passion, as Brownson argues, than that ordinary desire was oriented in unnatural and shameful directions, though the phrase “were burned up (exekauthēsan) in their appetites for one another” (Rom. 1:27) perhaps suggests a debasement or intensification of ordinary desire.

But the point to stress is that this is part of a narrative of judgment against a civilization that had long so deeply offended Jewish sensibilities. We have a similar argument when Jeremiah warns Israel not to learn the ways of the nations. The Lord made the earth, set upright the oikoumenē, and stretched out the sky. But people were stupid, lacking knowledge; “every goldsmith was put to shame at his carved images, because they cast lies; there is no breath in them”. At “the time of their visitation”, therefore, they will perish (Jer. 10:1-15 LXX).

Wisdom of Solomon connects sexual immorality (porneia) and the “corruption of life” with the “invention of idols” (Wis. 14:12). The worship of idols is “the beginning and cause and end of every evil”: ritual murder of children, frenzied revels, murder, theft, deceit, corruption, unfaithfulness, tumult, perjury, turmoil for those who are good, forgetfulness of favours, defilement of souls, corruption of lineage, marital disorder, adultery, and debauchery (14:23-28). But there will be a “visitation also upon the idols of the nations”, because they have become an abomination. Idols did not exist form the beginning, nor will they last forever; a “speedy end was planned for them” (14:11, 13-14).

So Paul believes that there will be a visitation or judgment on an idolatrous culture whose degradation is marked perhaps most prominently or notoriously by the fact that their women have exchanged natural use of the body for unnatural and their men commit shameless acts with men. That judgment will be part of the coming kingdom of God—when the God of Israel comes to rule in history over the nations through his Son. In this eschatological narrative the churches are to be what the synagogues failed to be—the benchmark of righteousness by which God would judge the pagan oikoumenē. For the detailed argument see my book The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom.

So it was of critical importance that the churches should not exhibit in their own lives the patterns of behaviour outlined in Romans 1:18-32. The word malakoi denotes the effeminate or submissive partner in a homoerotic relationship; arsenokoitai presumably refers to the dominant partner, though the word may derive from the juxtaposition of arsenos (“male”) and koitēn (“bed”) in Leviticus 20:13 and therefore have a wider frame of reference. Such activity was characteristic of pagan culture and would fundamentally compromise the eschatological purpose of communities that would inherit the kingdom of God. The coming of the kingdom of God, from Paul’s perspective, was the culmination of the conflict between the pagan narrative and a Jewish narrative that reached back to the clash with Canaanite culture but which had been reconfigured through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Some cautious conclusions…

Discussion of the New Testament texts, at least as far as their contemporary significance is concerned, does not usually take account of the narrative-historical components—the connection with idolatry, the handing over by God of an idolatrous culture to degrading practices, and the prospect of a divine visitation upon the idolatrous nations.

Brownson, if I’ve understood him correctly, suggests that a new creation narrative takes us beyond prohibitions which are, in effect, an attempt to preserve an old creation order. In any case, he thinks that an overarching biblical eschatology invites us to reimagine what is natural as the “convergence of individual disposition, social order, and the physical world”, which may conceivably embrace “consecrated and committed gay and lesbian relationships”.

The narrative-historical reading, however, suggests that the prohibitions presuppose an eschatology that culminates not in the final renewal of all things, new creation, but in divine judgment on the political-religious system that had dominated Israel’s world since the exile, and particularly since the Hellenistic period. This is what I mean by a kingdom eschatology: it has to do with judgment and rule within history.

The difficult question, then, is whether the continuation of the narrative beyond judgment on the ancient pagan oikoumenē, beyond Christendom and its demise, opens up a new historical-eschatological horizon that simply cannot be conformed—at least, not at every point—to the argument of Romans 1:18-32. Are social developments such as same-sex marriage forcing the church to construct a different prophetic reality for the sake of a different historical future and only partly in light of a final new creation? I’m not at all sure. Such an enquiry might be a good test of a consistent narrative theology, but it will have to wait for another day.