A Good Life in the Closet?

The cover story in today’s New York Times Magazine, titled “Living the Good Lie“, highlights the often contentious debate between religious groups on one side, who cannot see their way clear to accept homosexuality and believe gay people “should just give up their orientation” — with some offering various flavors of controversial reparative or reorientation therapy — and nonreligious groups on the other side, who believe gay people “should just walk away from churches that won’t accept homosexuals as they are.”

According to the article, “Back in the ’60s and ’70s, the people who sought treatment were the ones who struggled with the discrimination and prejudice that they faced and sensed that they couldn’t have a life. But more recently, the people who come to treatment are people who have strong religious beliefs who cannot integrate that identity into their lives.” One therapist wrestling with this quandary wonders if “the most psychologically sound alternative for truly devout gay men and women would be to defy both groups”. What he doesn’t explore, however, is whether resisting the pressure to choose between these two options is also be the most biblically exegetically sound alternative.

We are often profoundly unaware of how our reading of Scripture is colored by our own cultural context and worldview. Case in point: one of the most prominent and pervasive themes weaving its way through almost every book of the Bible is that of paganism and the constant call to turn away from it. We find a continuous call to turn from the worshiping of false or pagan gods and to turn instead to the one true living God, Yahweh. In connection with the call to turn from worshiping pagan gods is the admonition to turn from participating in a multitude of pagan rituals or practices. Both the Old and New Testaments spend page after page condemning these pagan cult practices. But most of us have no idea what these practices were. They’re now extinct and therefore totally foreign to our contemporary thinking. As a result, statements like those found, for example, in Leviticus 18:22 (“Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman”) may appear clear on the surface, but their application and context are not.

Chapter 17 through 26 of Leviticus is referred to as “The Holiness Code”. It is designed to provide a standard of behavior and way of living that will distinguish the Israelites from the Canaanites whose land they have now been given by God. It is for this very reason that Leviticus 18 begins with a strict caution to avoid retaining the idolatries of Egypt, from where the Israelites had come, and of receiving the idolatries of Canaan, to where they were now going. This statement, according to the Matthew Henry Commentary, sums up the whole chapter of Leviticus 18.

But what were these idolatries? What kind of strange practices did they include? Well, for starters, we discover in the Old Testament that the Canaanites burned their children in honor to their pagan gods, they practiced snake worship, they performed sexual intercourse with animals, and a host of other gross and detestable practices.

Why did they do these bizarre things? What was the motivation behind them? FERTILITY! Fertility was highly prized in Ancient times in ways that are completely foreign to our modern thinking. In many ways, their lives literally depended on it. As a result of the great value placed on fertility, Canaanite religion was replete with practices believed to appease the fertility gods of the day and thereby win them the blessing of fertility: fertility of the land in the form of rains to boost crop production, fertility for the reproduction of their livestock, fertility so their women would have lots of children, and so on. Israel’s survival hinged on fertility and Baal was a god of fertility. This meant that Baal was the power behind the rain and the dew. With rainfall levels unreliable, famine was always a real possibility.

As any reputable Bible commentary would reveal, Canaanite culture also utilized cult prostitution as a way of promoting fertility. According to the IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, for example, “The Canaanite culture utilized cult prostitution as a way of promoting fertility. Devotees … would visit the shrine and use the services of the [male and female] cult prostitutes prior to planting their fields or during other important seasons … In this way they gave honor to the gods … in an attempt to ensure fertility and prosperity for their fields and herds.”

Similarly, say authors Harris, Brown and Moore about Canaanite culture in their book, New International Biblical Commentary: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, “… in order to ensure fertility of people, animals and crops, a person would engage in sexual intercourse with a cult prostitute, male or female, at the local Baal shrine. The purpose was to inspire [the Canaanite god] Baal to act likewise on the person’s behalf and thus to ensure fertility in all areas of life.”

Now having a bit of background on the text, let’s look at the passage from Leviticus in context:

Leviticus 18:21-23

21 Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.
22 Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.
23 Do not have sexual relations with an animal and defile yourself with it. A woman must not present herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it; that is a perversion.

We notice the prohibition here in Leviticus 18:22, against engaging in sex with a cult prostitute, is sandwiched right between two other forbidden pagan cult rituals: one in verse 21 against child sacrifice to the Canaanite god Molech, and another in verse 23 against women having sexual relations with animals. Both of these, as stated above, were practiced by the Canaanites and the Egyptians in fertility worship.

Why did women have sex with animals? This too was believed to increase their fertility. In the New Bible Commentary (21st Century Edition), scholar Christopher Wright says the following with reference to Leviticus 18: “Genital-anal intercourse between men, and both male and female intercourse with animals, are all known to have been part of pagan worship in Egypt, Canaan and elsewhere.”

So if one reads the passage in context we see that the Holiness Code of Leviticus prohibits these acts for RELIGIOUS reasons, not SEXUAL ones. The concern is to keep Israel distinct from the Gentiles. God’s covenant with his people required that the Israelites not partake in any of these pagan religious practices. Yet sadly, as we read through the Hebrew Scriptures, we discover that time and again the Israelites did not only borrow from the Canaanite ways of worship, but constantly relapsed into them.

If we don’t catch the fact that male-to-male pagan rite prostitution was a common practice in Bible times for the purpose of promoting fertility, we will completely miss the point of the biblical condemnation and misconstrue verses like Leviticus 18:22 to forbid any and all same-sex behavior. As professor of biblical exegesis, F.F. Bruce aptly put it: “It is not enough to say, ‘the Bible says’ without at the same time considering to whom the Bible says it, and in what circumstances.”

Clearly, a simple blog post like this does not allow for a thorough discussion of this or the few other passages that have been interpreted as addressing or condemning homosexuality. But the point is that if we’re reading the Bible responsibly, our goal is always to try and get at what the text meant to the author and to the original intended audience — without reading into it the many traditional interpretations that may have grown up around it. If we have no idea what the text meant THEN, we’re left to only guess at what it might mean for us NOW.

While the New York Times Magazine article asks some good questions, it doesn’t do as good a job at answering them. If the few verses in the Bible, such as Leviticus 18:22, that we’ve been taught are blanket condemnations of homosexuality are in actuality addressing something other than homosexuality per se, than perhaps we need to rethink what we’ve been taught about the passages.

We’ve been there before. Throughout the years many before us have found biblical “proof” that slavery was God-ordained, that women and blacks should not be allowed to vote, that interracial marriage was wrong, that women should not preach or teach, and so on. History has revealed, however, that what many of these well-meaning Christians were actually defending was their presumption of what the Bible teaches, not the truth of Scripture. Could we be there again?


About Alex Haiken

Born to a Jewish family in New York City, I came to faith in Christ in 1982 after trying to disprove the Bible. I found so much evidence in support of the claims of Jesus and the Bible that it required more faith to reject it than to believe it. I hold a Master’s degree from Westminster Theological Seminary and among other things am a lecturer, teacher, blogger and conference speaker. I came out as gay at a young age but was taught when I came to faith that I could not be both Christian and gay. I served for a time as a leader of an ex-gay ministry but shifted my views after recognizing that when the few passages generally appealed to in this debate are examined more closely and in context, the traditional anti-gay interpretations do not hold up to scrutiny. I learned that the ex-gay route is a scripturally unsound mirage, a specious illusion that deceitfully draws people not to a life-giving oasis but to a deeper and deeper spiritual desert. Seeing the immense need for education in this area, I began to speak and write about my experience and new-found convictions. I am also passionate about helping the Church better understand her rich Jewish roots; helping other Jewish people understand Jesus as their Jewish Messiah; and helping other gay people integrate a theologically sound, committed Christian faith with their sexuality. It is my hope that the reflections in this blog will prompt you to explore the paths they suggest, leading to your own more eloquent thinking, exploration and action. If you want, visit the “Contact” page and let me know what you think.
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8 Responses to A Good Life in the Closet?

  1. Steve says:

    Thanks for this. I especially like the way you framed the issue in your third paragraph. Do you happen to have a reference or support for the statement that warnings against paganism are “one of the most prominent and pervasive themes” in the Bible? I think you’re right and would like to be able to back that up.

    Thanks, too, for the Herrick article (new to me) and for the references to evangelical reference books. I think that’s effective. Well put.

    • Alex Haiken says:

      Thanks, Steve. No specific reference for that particular statement. But it was a major “Aha” moment during my own study when I realized just how pervasive the theme actually is in the OT. Then, of course, we get to the NT and its more of the same. Paul’s journeys took him to three continents where he saw paganism on a scale he had more than likely never seen before. It is from Paul’s witness of life in the pagan world of 2,000 years ago that come the letters we have today. If we miss the anti-pagan point of Paul’s letters, we fail to understand his mission and message. Paul’s mission was the same as was the mission of the Prophets of old, except he was sent primarily to the Gentiles. But he was just as anti-pagan as the OT prophets were (e.g. Acts 17:29–30). Paul was anti-pagan. To assume that he was also anti-homosexual is to put words in the Apostle’s mouth.

  2. seeingfaith says:

    Hey Alex – it’s great to find you! We have quite a bit in common (I was also raised Jewish and now am an active Christian, albeit a bit of an unconventional one). I also am strongly in support of gay rights and believe that this is totally consistent with my faith. I’m looking forward to learning from you. FYI – did you know that the past year’s Presbyterian Womens’ Bible study on Revelation makes some of the same points you make here? Their key point was that all of the references to ‘fornication’ in the Book of Revelation are more about avoiding pagan practice (and thus avoiding ‘cheating on God’) rather than about sex.

    Anyway – thanks for your blog and I’m looking forward to reading more. I also just wrote about this NY Times Magazine article, by the way, although in a different context (in contrast to last Sunday’s Magazine cover article about Dan Savage). -Louise

    • Alex Haiken says:

      Thanks for your note, Louise. Though being a Jew who believes Jesus is the Jewish Messiah may put us at odds with many in the Jewish community, the fact often overlooked is that the New Testament was written by Jews, for Jews and about Jews. Though it may seem odd to some today that a Jew can be a follower of Jesus and still be a Jew, the “oddity” in the first century was a GENTILE follower of Christ. We see in the New Testament texts how time and again they wrestle with the quandary of how to invite these Gentile believers into the fold and allow then to be partakers of something that is in nature and substance Jewish without at the same time requiring them to become Jews. Though this may seem like a no-brainer to us in the 21st century, it was a daunting dilemma to those in the first. For they knew Jesus had come for the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24), but it took a while for them to grasp that He didn’t come ONLY for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

  3. moonchild11 says:

    I really appreciate this article! I feel like I have a lot to learn from your blog! 🙂

  4. Alex Haiken says:

    Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad that you find it helpful.

  5. Andinho. says:

    The Leviticus 18:22 passage I totally agree with you, for me it’s only for pagan ritual cults. But unfortunately people use this passage as a clobber. Thanks a lot for your information, there are a lot of people who need the view like yours.

  6. Alex Haiken says:

    It’s not a question of what the text means “for you” or “for me”. Rather it’s a question of what the text meant to the original author and original intended audience. Exegesis is an investigation. As one of my seminary professors used to say, the question we always have to be asking is: What’s going on here? The reader today must somehow try to enter the world of the biblical writer and seek to understand what the writer was saying. If we fail to pay attention to the world in which the Bible was written, we will simply read biblical texts, infuse them with meaning from our own social and symbolic world and conclude that the Bible speaks directly to us.

    EXEgesis is the process of getting “out” of the text what is truly there in the first place. EISegesis is the process of putting “into” the text something that was not intended by the author. We are all guilty of eisegesis, to some degree, because we all read the Bible with modern eyes — and we must be cognizant of that fact. We all have our own beliefs, worldviews and biases, and letting them influence our interpretation of the Bible is an ever-present danger. So whatever we can do to leave our assumptions at the door before we approach the text will only help to not color what we’re going to come out with. It is respectful of God’s gift to us to go after the author’s intentions and meanings before arriving at our own.

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