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:
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?