Same-sex same old story?

The narrative-historical approach recognises that the biblical story works on different levels. Modern (evangelical) theologies tend to highlight the universal story of the individual person who is a sinner in need of salvation, etc. More recently greater attention has been given to an overarching but largely uneventful story about God and the ultimate renewal of creation, which has helped to extend the ethical and social reach of modern (evangelical) theologies.

But there are two thick, dense, event-laden intermediate narrative layers that are almost entirely disregarded by modern (evangelical) theologies: the story of human history, which in scripture is mainly a story of pagan empire; and the story of Israel, from Abraham through to the proclamation of Jesus as Lord in Athens or Rome.

These two “political” layers interact with the cosmic narrative in important ways, and they obviously provide a controlling context for the multiple personal stories. They can also be extended beyond the end of the New Testament. So the diagram highlights the shift, first, from the story about Israel and the land to the story about kingdom and the nations; and secondly, from the kingdom story—the story of Christendom in effect—to the story of the church struggling to redefine itself under the conditions of secular modernity.

That is the general hermeneutical point: the church interprets and relates to scripture on the basis of a continuing narrative of historical existence. A couple of recent posts on Wright’s five act play model of biblical authority develop this model further:

What I want to do here is to consider whether this hermeneutic has a bearing on the difficult question of whether the church should affirm same-sex relations. If you like it’s an exercise in applied hermeneutics.

The land narrative

The prohibitions in Leviticus against same-sex relations presuppose a narrative about the land (Lev. 18:3). The previous inhabitants of the land had made themselves unclean by such practices and others (cf. the Sodom story) and had been vomited out of the land, just as unclean food is vomited out of the body.

The Jews are warned in the strongest terms before they enter the land that if they commit the same “abominations”, they will likewise, sooner or later, be vomited out of the land (e.g., Lev. 18:28). Hence the draconian punishment of males who lie with males as with a woman: they have “committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 20:13).

The kingdom narrative

The New Testament prohibitions against same-sex relations are formulated in a different context and presuppose a somewhat different narrative. If the churches imitate the characteristic same-sex practices of the idolatrous host environment, they will disqualify themselves from participation in God’s new future: catamites and sodomites will not “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).

The two narratives, in fact, are not as different as we might think. The “kingdom of God” is not an abstract spiritual condition, vaguely now-but-not-yet: it is—or so I argue—the eventual rule of Israel’s God over the nations of the Greek-Roman world. The kingdom narrative simply repeats the land narrative on a larger scale: the conquest of the land by the armies of Joshua would lead to the eradication of the unclean practices of the Canaanites—in theory, at least; the conquest of the empire by the martyr-armies of Jesus would lead to the eradication of the unnatural, dishonourable, shameful practices of the Greeks and Romans (cf. Rom. 1:26-27).

The new creation narrative

There is no explicit reference to people who engage in same-sex activity in the list of the unrighteous who will be consigned to the lake of fire as part of the renewal of all things in Revelation 21:8. It may be that they are included with the “sexually immoral” (pornoi), but the grounds for this are not strong.

In Paul’s lists the pornoi are a separate category: “neither the sexually immoral (pornoi)… nor catamites, nor sodomites” (1 Cor. 6:9; cf. 1 Tim. 1:10). Since he has “adulterers” (moichoi) as a separate category and then goes on to talk about porneia as bodily union with a prostitute (1 Cor. 6:12-20), it seems likely that here the pornoi are specifically men who visit prostitutes.

In the Septuagint, Pseudepigrapha and Philo the porneia word-group is used only for heterosexual fornication/harlotry/prostitution—or at least is nowhere explicitly connected with same-sex relations. Some have argued that for the Hellenistic Jew porneia would have comprised the whole catalogue of proscribed relations given in Leviticus 18, including same-sex relations. But I haven’t seen any evidence for this. I doubt that Jesus consciously included same-sex relations in his condemnation of porneia (e.g., Matt. 15:19), but the point here is that it wasn’t an issue in the Palestinian context. If the Pharisees had a dragged a man caught in sodomy before him for judgment, I imagine Jesus would have told him to go and sin no more. But it is striking how improbable such a story appears.

That said, it seems inconceivable that John the Divine would have embraced in the new heaven and new earth behaviours Paul so emphatically excluded from the kingdom of God.

So in scripture we have three stories: same-sex relations, as understood at the time, are explicitly prohibited in the stories 1) about the land and 2) about the coming reign of God over the pagan world; and we should probably assume 3) that John would not have tolerated sodomy in the new creation.

The modern narrative

But what about our situation today? What is the story that should form the response of the modern people of God to same-sex relations?

The church is clearly in two minds over whether what we understand by same-sex relations today can be equated with what scripture understood by same-sex relations back in ancient times.

Is it historically or morally reasonable to suppose that the modern ideal of a loving, long-term egalitarian same-sex relationship must be condemned along with ancient practices that were typically, if not exclusively, associated with inordinate sexual desire and the abuse of power and status? Are we talking about the same thing?

The world has changed in a quite significant way in this respect.

But I would argue, further, that we lack a prophetic narrative for modernity comparable to the biblical narratives about land and kingdom.

The church has contented itself with only the most general narrative frameworks: a now-and-not-yet narrative of the kingdom of God; an overarching narrative about the renewal of creation. These offer no help in formulating a response to the particular historical challenges facing the church after Christendom, under the rule of secular rationalism.

So we have no up-to-date narrative framework by which to formulate a reasonable and fitting response to the modern notions that homosexuality is a matter of personhood or identity in some sense and not merely of behaviour, that it is unusual but not unnatural in modern terms, and that gay marriage is, in principle, every bit as good as heterosexual marriage—or at least, that gay and lesbian people should be given the chance to prove the point.

We get some sketchy guidance from the large-scale creation narrative: humanity created as male and female, man and woman as one flesh as the basis for kinship, and the probable exclusion of classical same-sex behaviour from the new creation.

But as we have seen, the dominant storyline of scripture operates at a political level, having to do with the concrete existence of a people, amongst other peoples, over time, subject to the ups-and-downs of history. At this level, things are not what they used to be, and it’s only going to get worse.

So my contention would be that a proper “Christian” response to the modern validation of same-sex relations cannot be separated from the development of a viable prophetic narrative about the church as it makes its way through a post-Christendom and increasingly post-Christian wilderness, into a post-modern exile, or whatever.

I don’t know whether this course will lead to an affirming or a non-affirming position with regard to same-sex relations. I also think that the interplay between experience and story-telling, between mission and theology, will run both ways—and indeed, should do.

But it seems to me a necessary task of narrative theology that we ask whether and how the emergence of a fundamentally different same-sex paradigm in the modern era, as part of the wider triumph of secularism, should affect the story that we tell about the place and witness of the people of God in the world.

peter wilkinson | Tue, 11/01/2016 - 17:34 | Permalink

Not commenting one way or the other on the proposal. It needs further reflection.

On some of the detail though — in both Leviticus 18:22 (Leviticus 20:13) and Romans 1:24-27, the similarities of context are striking. Both have in view pagan shrine/temple practice, and especially male prostitution. This was Philo’s assumption of the Levitical passages — The Special Laws III, vii, 40-42 (40), and is an assumption shared by many modern scholars, even those who otherwise oppose same-sex practice - eg Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, p.130. The references to same sex relationships in the rest of the OT bear this out — being exclusively male cult prostitution (six references in all).

In Romans, Paul is looking at the consequences of idolatry, in which cult practice should be considered the cause of psychological depravity as much as anything. Philo described typical public festivals in which male prostitution was celebrated in his own, and Paul’s, day. The other types of same-sex practice Paul would have had in view in the ancient world were pederasty and master/slave relationships, which are not the issue in the current debates about equality (except to be rightly condemned as abusive).

It’s a pity you use the words ‘sodomites’/’sodomy’, since the attempted rape of Lot’s visitors in Genesis 19 tells us nothing about the sexual preferences of the inhabitants of Sodom (cp Gibeah in Judges 19), and provides no validity at all for the use of the words to describe same sex-practice, either as a translation of qadesh in the five of the six references to male prostitution mentioned above, or to same-sex practice then or now. The use of the words rings of the mistranslations in the KJV, and out of date legal language.

Simply on the basis of looking at the historical context of the practices condemned in OT and NT, in which fertility cults play remarkably similar roles, as well as what we know about same-sex proclivities and practices in Greek/Roman times, many, including myself, have been led to believe that the issues of equality and same-sex marriage today are of an entirely different order. If this is true, there is no need for a new prophetic narrative as such to provide justification for same-sex practice. The greater need is to understand what the bible was describing and condemning in the first place. In this regard, as far as same-sex relationships are concerned, the bible is ‘an empty closet’.

P.S. As far as the Genesis marriage covenant is concerned, the current political slogan (for that is what it is): ’marriage is between one man and one woman’ is confounded by explicit command in the OT — eg Deuteronomy 25:5-6; Deuteronomy 21:15; 2 Samuel 12:8, and so on. If variations were permitted (and in fact commanded) then, it weakens absolutism on biblical grounds against equal (same sex) marriage today.

The 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10 and Jude 7 passages are a study in themselves calling for separate attention.

I don’t see how you can claim that the Leviticus passages have cultic practice in view. Sex with menstruating women, neighbours’ wives, and animals were not cultic practices. Loader says: “Most conclude that Lev 18:22 does condemn same-sex anal intercourse between males in general, and is not restricted to particular settings” (The New Testament on Sexuality, 25). Gagnon says this regarding Phyllis Bird’s argument:

A problem for Bird is that 20:13 is, as she admits, “without clear cultic associations” and included “in the main series of sexual offenses.” (“The Old Testament and Homosexuality: A Critical Review of the Case Made by Phyllis Bird”, 379)

Philo does not restrict the Leviticus prohibition to temple prostitution. He complains of a general evil that has been let loose upon cities, “namely, the love of boys” (Laws 3:37)—in other words, pederasty. He then invokes the Mosaic command:

And it is natural for those who obey the law to consider such persons worthy of death, since the law commands that the man-woman who adulterates the precious coinage of his nature shall die without redemption…, as he is a disgrace to himself, and to his family, and to his country, and to the whole race of mankind. (Laws 3:38)

I would have thought that given the narrative context the attempted rape of Lot’s visitors is meant to tell us something about the intrinsic moral character of the men of Sodom. The angels go to Sodom to find out what is wrong with the place, the men of Sodom plot to rape them, the angels strike the men blind, and immediately instruct Lot to leave the city because they are about to destroy it. I don’t think that they saw the rape attempt as an aberration.

There is more to the sin of Sodom than homosexual rape, as is evident from Ezekiel 16:44-52, but God says of Sodom that it “did an abomination before me” and he removed them when he saw it. The singular toʿevah sounds like a direct reference to the Genesis story: what the angels saw was the attempted homosexual rape.

Philo seems to have thought that unnatural sexual relations was the characteristic moral failing of Sodom:

But God, having taken pity on mankind, as being a Saviour and full of love for mankind, increased, as far as possible, the natural desire of men and women for a connexion together, for the sake of producing children, and detesting the unnatural and unlawful commerce of the people of Sodom, he extinguished it, and destroyed those who were inclined to these things, and that not by any ordinary chastisement, but he inflicted on them an astonishing novelty, and unheard of rarity of vengeance… (Abr. 1:137)

It doesn’t seem so unreasonable, therefore, to connect what was regarded by the Jews as abusive anal penetration with the name of Sodom. Whatever misleading modern connotations may attach to the term, in the context of the Jewish critique of pagan sexual practice it does not seem inappropriate.

You write:

Simply on the basis of looking at the historical context of the practices condemned in OT and NT, in which fertility cults play remarkably similar roles, as well as what we know about same-sex proclivities and practices in Greek/Roman times, many, including myself, have been led to believe that the issues of equality and same-sex marriage today are of an entirely different order. If this is true, there is no need for a new prophetic narrative as such to provide justification for same-sex practice.

But that sort of makes my point. If you’re right about same-sex issues being “of an entirely different order”, we need a different narrative of the mission of the church and its engagement with the world in order to be able to affirm same-sex marriage. We do not currently have such a narrative. We have two narratives that condemn something that is easily confused with the modern same-sex ideal. And we have an overarching creation narrative that affirms the complementarity and union of male and female as the basis for kinship and human flourishing. We do not have a narrative that holds together 1) a heterosexual creation paradigm, 2) the biblical repudiation of certain types of same-sex behaviour; 3) the modern egalitarian ideal of same-sex relations; and 4) the post-Christendom, post-modern condition of the Western church.

I don’t see how you can claim that the Leviticus passages have cultic practice in view.

I’m not claiming anything, but repeating what others have already noted. So Robert Gagnon:

I do not doubt that the circles out of which Lev. 18:22 was produced had in view homosexual cult prostitution, at least partly. Homosexual cult prostitution appears to have been the primary form in which homosexual intercourse was practised in Israel (The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics, Abingdon Press, 2002, 130).

Orthodox Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, one time Chief Medical Adviser in the Cabinet of the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth is quoted by David Jackson (Risking Grace):

The Bible does not condemn homosexuality in general, but it does condemn three things: homosexual rape, the ritual prostitution that was part of the fertility cult that was apparently, at one time, in Jewish practice as well, and homosexual lust and behaviour on the part of heterosexuals. (Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View, London Vallentine Michel 2004).

The context of Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 is strikingly specific in both cases, with 18 beginning and ending with references to avoiding the practices of Egypt and Canaan (vs3/vs30), and 20 beginning with the ban on worship of Molech and ending with a general ban on practices of the Canaanites (vs 1-5/vs 23). Hence Philo also understanding Leviticus 18 in this way.

The final three verses of the list in Leviticus18 (21, 22, and 23) even form a group, addressing the specific category of pagan idol worship. Molech is explicitly mentioned in 21, worship of Baal entailed male cult prostitution (22), and  bestiality (23).

Loader’s statement (“Most conclude that Lev 18:22 does condemn same-sex anal intercourse between males in general, and is not restricted to particular settings”) seems to me to be ‘loaded’. Where is his evidence amongst contemporary scholarship? And even if he were correct in his assertion, majority opinion, is not always accurate opinion at any time in the history of scriptural interpretation.

It is not surprising that Philo condemns pederasty, since along with male shrine prostitution and master/slave relations, this was one of the three forms of same-sex relationships that were widespread in the classical world of his day. But what exactly is he condemning in the extract you quote? It looks to me as if it could be the second form of same-sex relationship, which is what Leviticus specifically condemns.

The question you have raised (and you cite Philo in support) is whether the ban on same-sex practice extends from these specific contexts to all forms of same sex practice, and whether the passages can be used that way. There is simply nothing in the bible to argue the case either way. Philo may have had access to information about Sodom which we do not have, but from a scriptural viewpoint, Genesis 19 says no more about the sexual preferences of the people of Sodom than Judges 19 says about the preferences of the people of Gibeah. 2 Peter 2:7 and Jude 7 are equally unhelpful. Judgment on Sodom had been decided before the angels’ visit, so the attempted homosexual rape did not in itself have a direct bearing on the matter. On the other hand scripture does tell us explicitly about the characteristic sins of Sodom, none of which were to do with same-sex practice, but being arrogant, overfed, unconcerned, not helping the poor and needy and being inhospitable to strangers were outstanding.

You describe the creation account as a “heterosexual creation paradigm”, which is true as far as it goes. But how far does it go? The Levirate marriage command in Deuteronomy already sets up a variation on the Genesis 2 covenant, as does God’s specific gift of Saul’s wives to David, and other examples. Admittedly these are heterosexual arrangements, but how far can variation extend, once it is allowed in some cases?

I’m already questioning what you have described as ‘the biblical repudiation of certain types of same-sex behaviour’, although I note you are here qualifying ‘same-sex behaviour’. As for your final points 3 and 4, I do not think we have exhausted the biblical narrative as far as “the modern egalitarian ideal of same-sex relations” is concerned (certainly not as Jesus went about interpreting ‘the narrative’), and “the post-Christendom, post-modern condition of the Western church” is a moot point.

I think if we were to look more thoroughly and closely at the kind of hermeneutic which Jesus employed in life and biblical interpretation, we might find a better way of moving forward today. Perhaps this is where the basis for a new prophetic narrative is to be found, though it would only be new in providing a fresh take on the old.

peter wilkinson | Fri, 11/04/2016 - 08:36 | Permalink

Just looking again at your response (Andrew) — I did not intend to convey that the entire list of prohibitions in Leviticus 18 and 20 describes activities that took place within a pagan temple or shrine. That would be ridiculous. But the bracketing of both passages with references to practices of the Egyptians/Canaanites and worship of Molech shows that they have the context of a pagan culture determined by idolatry in view.

The specific verses in question — Leviticus 18:21-23 — have their own inner context which I have described, which is to do with pagan temple/shrine practice (Molech — Baal — Baal). David Jackson (Risking Grace), counters Loader’s assertion: “Most bible scholars of the last century recognized that Leviticus 18:22 was about shrine prostitution”. I don’t think the specifics of Leviticus 18:22 are worth arguing over.

I notice a response has appeared from you, Rich, which for the sake of avoiding confusion, I may have to leave for now.