Was YHWH Gay?

Any evangelical and/or other homophobic types – please save us all some time and don’t bother asserting whatever it is you believe in the comments. We have a strict comment approval system and I will continue to delete your comments. Feel free to use this to bolster your sense of moral superiority. – APS

Many people struggle with the question of how to reconcile basic human decency and the clear testimony of the Bible, which in four or five difficult-to-understand verses clearly condemns homosexuality. Why? Well, it’s hard to come up with a reason that actually makes sense, but one thing is absolutely clear — the Bible is clearly against homosexuality and clearly condemns it. That’s just a brute fact that we have to deal with, clearly.

I don’t think it’s clear at all. In fact, through studying with Ted Jennings, I have become convinced that the majority of the Bible is actually pro-homoeroticism and that the few verses that seem to “condemn” “homosexuality” are not clear at all, in either their referent or their intention — in fact, the only “clear condemnation” seems to be a prohibition of male-male anal sex in Leviticus, a book of the Bible that is not and cannot be directly binding on Christians. Romans 1:26-27 is unclear in its referent, particularly 1:26, which is the only passage that can even arguably be construed as maybe referring to female-female relations — but which is in fact a very weirdly constructed, elliptical verse whose meaning is not at all clear. All the supposed references in Pauline vice lists are isolated words, one of which appears to be Paul’s own coinage, and none of which draws on the rich vocabulary of homoeroticism available to and widely known by speakers of Greek, for God’s sake, which is to say, the language of the culture most famous for its penchant for homoeroticism.

So: if the argument is that the Bible “clearly condemns” homosexuality such that we need to treat it as a brute fact, well, sorry — it’s not clear at all.

Of course, this post is rather impatient and unclear and probably unconvincing to those who need to be convinced. For that reason, I direct you to the first two parts of a projected trilogy by Ted Jennings: The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament and Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative In The Literature Of Ancient Israel. The third part will trace the origin of homophobia and show how it became grafted into Christianity. (It is unfortunate that this last one is not published yet, because it provides the back-up for many of my exegetical claims above.)

33 thoughts on “Was YHWH Gay?

  1. Perhaps someday I’ll have a peek at Ted Jennings books. I just don’t see how there is anyway to interpret Acts 15 as saying anything other than precisely that, while everything else goes out the window, the parts of Leviticus that applied to the people of the land before Israel, to sojourners, etc. are binding on Christians (that porneia in the N.T. means any violation of Levitical sexual codes is clear it seems to me, and the fact that Orthodox to this day continue to take as binding the prohibition against sex during a woman’s menstrual period is one good piece of evidence for this interpretation).

    Now, I’m willing to listen intently to arguments that, just as in Acts 15, something new and of the Spirit is happening, something that will change our relationship to the law again. As such biblical, theological, historical arguments for embracing gay relations by those such as Boswell or Luke Timothy Johnson (or even the Orthodox Rabbi whose name I forget, but who argues that homosexuality then was entirely different then it is now – domination v. mutuality, etc., etc.) are by far the most persuasive in my book. When I hear arguments such as Ted’s that Jesus was gay, I tend to roll my eyes and write it off to post-protestant inability to possibly conceive of singleness or of the possibility of close friendship without sex.

  2. Also, assuming that the events described in Acts 15 even actually happened, Paul’s letters do not seem to provide any evidence that he intended to enforce those regulations on his communities.

  3. The automatically generated “possibly related posts” are hilariously ironic.

    I do think that there are vast cultural differences, Old, and there are in fact people who have made this argument (including Troy Martin — teaches at St. Francis in Chicago). But, I have yet to see anyone expose the passages Adam is mainly homing in on (Romans 1:26-7 primarily) in an actual, cogent manner. I am much more inclined to agree with Adam that the “witness of the Spirit” in these folks’ lives (and their service in the Church) clearly bespeaks something of the Spirit’s own movement and descent and indwelling of their lives (precisely as the Spirit fell upon the Gentiles interrupting Peter’s sermon in Acts 10). In other words, it makes much more sense to me to say that Scripturally, my sticking of my penis in another man’s asshole is only sinful on two counts: because it would violate the relationship to my wife, obviously, or if it were to be done in such a way that would be idolatrous…idolatry is not located in any one particular action, but in a disposition of one’s whole person. Or something like that.

    Thanks Adam.

  4. Thanks for this post. I for one have gotten so tired of explaining my recent turn of life to my friends from my churchy days that I don’t even bother anymore. I’m not sure if you’ve read it (some of the hermeneutical theory is a bit trite), but I think Dale Martin’s “Sex and the Single Savior” is invaluable on the issue of the bible, gender, and sexuality. Paul and Jesus were pretty damn queer, if you ask me.

  5. I’m hesitant to continue the discussion for a few reasons, not the least of which is that I’m less than happy at the possibility of making someone like Grant feel like he has to either explain himself or not bother with me. I do live in a sister community around the corner from the only openly lesbian and gay friendly Catholic Worker in North America, and we are on terrific terms with them. In fact, while picking up our Good Food Box just now from one of the houses I ran into Jim Loney, the openly gay Christian Peacemaker Team leader kidnapped for several months in Iraq awhile back. He was shirtless and sweaty having just returned from a marathon training run. We chatted for several minutes including about the possibility of setting up coffee with his partner who works in the very most difficult homeless shelter here in Toronto … but I digress.

    All that to say that I live and work in constant close contact with dozens of lesbian and gay folks, many of them devout Christian whose passion for justice I deeply respect and happily work hand in hand with. Conversations with several of them have included discussions of my wife and I’s position on homosexual relations and not one of them has felt the need to justify themselves or leave off relating to us, even in the most intimate details of their relationships. And that’s the way I’d prefer such conversations to go rather than something like a blog comment war.

    But I’ll continue anyway since there are some rather interesting lines of discussion afoot …

  6. Dave, I think it was actually my argument, not Adam’s, about the possibility that what was happening now was vastly different, the work of the Spirit, etc. (i’m not fully convinced at this point). I fully believe that there are vast cultural differences and am persuaded of this in large part by Foucault. It’s part of the reason I have trouble with people that automatically assume that what would likely count as a homoerotic moment in our context should automatically be considered one in biblical texts. It would, in my view, be like going to South Africa and insisting that a huge percentage of the men were gay because they hold hands in public.

    As for Romans 1:26ff, the best pro-gay reading of the text I’ve heard comes from Duke N.T. scholar Douglas Campbell. Unfortunately, his published work to date on the question is atrociously written (one chapter in his The Quest for Paul’s Gospel). The wider argument for how to read Romans 1-4 is wonderful. He’s currently working on a book length treatment of ch. 11 of The Quest for Paul’s Gospel. The actual reading of these chapters sounds an awful lot like Adam’s rendering of the text in the Paul Week posts way back when.

    Campbell argues that Paul in these sections is writing in diatribe style with two different voices, neither of them his own, in order to reduce his opposition’s position to absurdity. The critical question is whether the diatribe starts in the latter half of chapter one and includes the homosexuality material or at the beginning of chapter two. The class I was in included a lively discussion of this matter. I’m no Greek scholar and several important points turned on questions of translation. From the various English translations available both published and stemming from those discussions, the ch. 2 beginning makes most sense to me, but the other reading certainly has much to recommend it. Hopefully Campbell’s forthcoming book will have a more demanding editor than the previous one.

    In terms of idolatry, I think your suggestions are quite right. Now whether we’ve fetishized sexuality (hetero, homo, and everything else) to the point of idolatry is very much worth asking.

  7. Adam, I would like to read some of Ted’s work someday and will do so in the same spirit that i’ve taken works such as Eugene Roger’s Sexuality and the Christian Body – as a work by an earnest and damn good scholar with whom I may ultimately disagree. Of course, I can’t help but think that the difference between Roger’s longtime monogamous, marriage like relationship and Jenning’s rumored very, very different sexual lifestyle will have some effect on how I read him.

    As for Acts 15, I don’t think exact historical description is necessary for my argument. Clearly something went on that mattered, even according to Paul. That Paul didn’t necessarily enforce the dietary portions of the supposed Jerusalem council is a fair enough argument. But with respect to porneia and idolatry it just isn’t the case. Paul denounces porniea perhaps a dozen times and often, as with prophets such as Isaiah, in close connection with comments on idolatry. Furthermore, I’m committed, as Luke Timothy Johnson, to the position that the canonized form of the text matters even if history matters too. Whatever happened exactly simply can’t be known with certainty. We can, however, be quite sure that very early on, Gentile Christians who otherwise whole heartedly rejected most of Jewish law, somehow took it that the Levitical sexual codes were still binding on them.

    Again, I think it’s a totally legitimate question as to whether we should do to Paul as Paul did to Moses and read Paul against Paul. In fact, I’m all for it. I just happen to think the movement of the spirit is toward a greater obedience to the law rather than lesser. I’m comfortable, however, with the possibility that Luke Timothy Johnson and others might be better testers of the spirits then me. Time will tell, and that’s fine by me.

  8. Old, you’ve given me a lot to chew on (and thanks for the Campbell reference). Thanks.

    (Oh, and sorry, I was pulling in a comment of Adam’s from that Faith and Theology blog about the witness of the Spirit, etc). Peace.

  9. I think Graham Ward, using the work of Luce Irigaray, has some significant reflections on gender and Jesus (with some implications for homosexuality). I posted on this (part 1 and <a href=”http://indiefaith.blogspot.com/2008/04/understanding-gendered-jesus-part-2.html”2). Ward explores the question through asking how the fully divine (encompassing and transcending gender) Jesus functions as biologically male.

  10. Old, I don’t understand what you are identifying as “wrong” about it. Is it that there is something inherent to the act, or in the orientation? Is it that it does not do something it should do with sexuality? If so, what? Or, are you just saying it is wrong because it violates Levitical Law? Or, is is some combination of inherence and Law-violation?

  11. I have to be honest… I have little patience for the knee-jerk homophobia.

    “The just argument against a stupid head is a clenched fist” – Nietzsche.

    (FYI: I don’t mean a position like Old’s. I don’t agree with his position and have some issues with it, but he’s not merely asserting a position. I think deep in his heart he probably hates homophobes too.)

  12. Dale Martin’s article on the passage from Romans is rather insightful. There are so many assumptions Paul makes in the passage that we would say are obviously incorrect that it makes it very difficult to take his conclusions seriously in any respect. Furthermore, Paul says so many odd things about sex and gender (and I’m not saying odd in our context – although they are; they’re odd even in his own context) that I really don’t think the utilization of his texts (or psuedo-Pauline texts) makes any sense when it comes to discussing issues of sex and gender or trying to promote more “traditional” sexual arrangements. Paul’s theology of gender is, at the end of the day, extremely queer.

  13. Furthermore…

    I went to a seminary where the issues of male headship and ordaining women were still live ones. A professor of mine and I always sort of shook our head and decided it was so antiquated a conversation as to not really be worth it. I feel similarly about this issue – 99% of people who have issues with homosexuality aren’t going to persuaded no matter what I say – the best argument in this case is refusing to argue and to go about living my life happily and healthily. Oh, and to brainwash your children by utilizing the media.

  14. Old,

    You say: “We can, however, be quite sure that very early on, Gentile Christians who otherwise whole heartedly rejected most of Jewish law, somehow took it that the Levitical sexual codes were still binding on them.” Ok. Well, I don’t know that they “took it” that way, but were rather given those restrictions through Judas and…whoever else that was that Paul and Barnabas sent (after the conclusion — what I’m calling the “compromise” — of the Jerusalem council). So, yeah, I think that what we find in Acts 15 (with James’ response) is that some part of the Mosaic proclamation of the Law must be retained even though Peter is also correct that the witness of the Spirit should remind us that even [we] the Jews — and thus so also [they] the Gentiles — are saved by grace in Jesus Christ alone. [Aside on “porneia”: not only do we have to consider our own cultural differences w/the NT writers and community, but also potential differences b/t OT and NT peoples on this question…does anyone know what the Hebrew which has been translated in the Septuagint translation of Leviticus as “porneia” is, for instance? I’m sure folks have done this kind of work — perhaps even Campbell].

    But, I tend to read the Jerusalem Council as a pretty intense, battle-worn kind of scene (over Jewish identity, especially circumcision, and the Law)…and I read the conclusion they reach after James gives his little ditty as more of a sort of “compromise.” The relation between “dietary” restrictions and “porneia” I think need to be reevaluated, perhaps (especially if porneia alone becomes associated with idolatry). In my mind (and forgive me for having very little scholarly evidence here — I don’t know much of the scholarship on Acts), Peter carries more of the spirit of Acts as a whole with his speech (about the freedom of the Spirit, and how all of us Jew and Greek are saved only by grace in Jesus Christ). Notice the way the Spirit moves in Acts. Early in the book we see folks getting baptized in the name of Jesus and immediately receiving the Spirit…but this is certainly not the “form” for reception of the Spirit…the Ethiopian Eunuch receives the Spirit and is then baptized…the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius receive the Spirit in the middle of Peter’s sermon, upon hearing the Word (and then get baptized — how could we refuse baptism to those who have received the Sprit?)…the Samarians are baptized in the name of Jesus and still don’t “get” the Spirit until racial reconciliation takes place (the laying on of hands between Peter and John and the Samarians…I prefer this reconciliation interpretation over the “apostolic” hand-laying interpretation)…this is Peter’s point with respect to the Jewish law, and it all relates to his vision about the nasty food placed before him — food which is neither clean nor unclean in and of itself, the Lord tells him (Nothing which I have created is unclean). Nevertheless, even though Peter (Simeon) has reported of his vision to the council refuting the Pharisees, and even though James agrees with him (!!), then James says “Therefore…” we should keep these essentials (which include food restrictions!!). I am not sure how to understand James’ “conclusion” (his therefore) as anything other than a compromise, then (if he actually agrees with Peter, how could the “therefore” which still includes dietary restrictions truly take into account the dietary restrictions Peter has just thrown in limbo?). If we relate idolatry both to dietary restrictions and to “porneia,” then I think we can say something about the upheaval of typical sexual relation as much as we must of typical food restriction. This is not to say that the freedom of the Spirit allows once idolatrous acts to now simply be okay…again, idolatry is about the disposition of one’s whole person (phronema, mind, or even more often “heart”). But, if we consider that porneia under the Jewish social system (and I think Paul props this system up at times, rather than questions it, as I think it should be) required the male’s proper use of his wife (literally, “vessel,” Stan Stowers reminds us), who is his property, by self-mastery over his passions — which is really sort of equivalent to “sex for procreation only” — then porneia in Acts 15 as well as in Paul’s letters refers as much to a disordered relation between male and female as same-sex relations (but, “disorder” in this instance would be a husband enjoying sex with his wife — giving into passions — rather than having “self-mastery” over his passions so that sex only was for “multiplying,” being fruitful). I think the theological move that has to be made here is that sexual relations (inherited social, structured hierarchy of the Jewish tribal system — male domination, especially of “the home”) must also fall under the “upheaval” of strict idolatrous association by the freedom of the Spirit. Just as the “dirty food” is not in and of itself unclean (which is really only a way of saying, the Gentiles are not in and of themselves unclean — but it at the same time is not only this, so that it also does mean a change in practical considerations of food restrictions), so Gentile sexual relations are not in and of themselves unclean (again, this is a theological move I’m imposing on the Scriptures — I don’t read this somewhere in Romans or Acts)…it is the “context” of those actions (both with respect to food and sex — two very important socially stratified practices) that truly matters (or, again “disposition” — I don’t like that word though).

    Sorry this is so convoluted, hope you follow where I’m going with this. Peace.

  15. And from what I’ve always known of Old, Anthony — and I have yet to meet you Old! — I think I know for certain that he holds homophobes in as much disdain as he does racists or other bigots.

  16. Neither Paul nor the Hebrew Bible promotes the notion of sex for procreation only. Notice in the passage where he recommends marriage as superior to “burning” — that would’ve been the perfect time to say, “But make sure you only have sex for procreation.” Instead, he says that you shouldn’t go overboard in letting prayer keep you from getting it on.

    Similarly, Leviticus specifies that soldiers should return from the front to fuck their wives, solely so that their wives will be sexually satisfied. Again, if the authors had wanted to say, “They should keep fucking their wives so that they’ll be sure to have children in case they die in battle,” they could have easily done so — apparently it didn’t occur to them.

    Sex for pleasure! I know, a weird concept.

  17. Adam, I haven’t done a lot of work in this area — like I said…so I’m willing to say that I’m very wrong on this. I should’ve added that the passage I was thinking of primarily in Paul was 1 Thess. 4:3-5 (and that probably a lot of what I was doing with sex and procreation is indebted to Stan Stowers’ book on Romans).

    I think it might be more appropriate to revise what I have said, then, in terms of the sexual hierarchy of male domination. That doesn’t require a notion of sex as procreation…we can still apply a theological critique of the “upheaval” of that stratified hierarchy of domination without needing to say that such a hierarchy is predicated on sex for procreation. So, yeah, I’m cool with that (I am not trying to make any arguments here, by the way — I’m by no means a biblical scholar…)

  18. The 1 Thessalonians passage doesn’t mention procreation, either.

    In fact, I defy you to find anywhere in the Bible that even implies that sex should be limited to procreation — the only place I can think of is the story of Onan, and that’s pretty clearly a special circumstance.

    I’ve even read some stuff from Daniel Boyarin where rabbis decide that anal sex with your wife is okay — based, interestingly, on the “condemnation of homosexuality” from Leviticus. (If lying with a man as with a woman implies penetration, then the only option must be the anus — but by that token, anal sex must be one of the permissible ways of lying with a woman!)

    Scholarship is fun.

  19. Adam, again, I wasn’t arguing for a position…my first post was much more stream-of-consciousness (or really a constructive proposal, and a pretty risky one, as I admitted)…so, sorry to say that I can’t really meet your challenge. I’m not trying to win out here.

    As far as scholarship goes, I don’t know what to say…I haven’t been in the position to study these texts yet…and of course that also means I haven’t chosen to read some of these texts, but that I haven’t read the exact same material shouldn’t mean that my lack of knowledge demands a challenge…your correction (because of your own studies) was actually enough in this instance. I now know that I need to consult these other texts. I don’t know what else to say…

  20. I intended that last line as referring to how you get to read convoluted arguments in favor of anal sex in the scholarship, but I immediately saw that it seemed super-dickish in context.

  21. Daniel Boyarin is one figure I seem to have just missed along the way…I’ve been meaning to read his stuff on martyrdom for like three years now. Looking forward to reading about anal sex, however, really brings this to the top of my list.

  22. And I really have been one of those theologians who passes through “biblical theology for theologians,” meaning: “interpretation for those who don’t want to actually read the primary texts that closely” (a passage far too many theologians take these days). And I think I got a “C” in Daniel Patte’s class on Romans. I’ve never been very good at reading the Bible (not necessarily meaning I don’t read it, but that I just don’t have the skills of reading that other folks do — like my wife, or you Adam…but this easily also applies to my reading skills in nuce).

  23. “this is Peter’s point with respect to the Jewish law, and it all relates to his vision about the nasty food placed before him — food which is neither clean nor unclean in and of itself, the Lord tells him (Nothing which I have created is unclean). Nevertheless, even though Peter (Simeon) has reported of his vision to the council refuting the Pharisees, and even though James agrees with him (!!), then James says “Therefore…” we should keep these essentials (which include food restrictions!!).”

    Well, the restrictions said to be binding on Gentile converts are “to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from pornha and from whatever has been strangled and from blood”. I think that all of these restrictions are compatible with holding that “what God has made clean, you must not call profane” (in the context of God having made all animals “clean”).

    What the Gentiles are called to abstain from, food-wise, would fall under one of three heads: it has been polluted by an idol, it has been strangled, or it is blood.

    The first is fairly clearly not a “dietary restriction” in the “shellfish shall be an abomination for you” sense, as is made clear in the discussions of food which has been sacrificed to idols elsewhere in Paul. The problem is not the food itself, here, but its social function as a cause for stumbling among the weaker brethren etc.

    The second also does not strike me as a “dietary restriction”, since I’m inclined to cash out the taboo against strangling animals as related to “caring for creation” or somesuch. It’s not that strangling an animal transforms a clean meatsource into an unclean meatsource per se; it’s that you shouldn’t strangle animals to slaughter them. It’s not a restriction that involves distinguishing between clean animals and animals which are not clean; so long as one slaughters them correctly, it’s compatible with all animals being “clean”.

    The third doesn’t strike me as a “dietary restriction” because I don’t think that’s the way the blood taboo functions in the Mosaic texts; it’s nothing so narrow as a dietary rule. Blood is set aside for the LORD; it is “the life thereof”. Rock badgers & swine are not set aside for the LORD; they’re just not clean animals. So I don’t see why abolishing the distinction between clean and unclean should affect the taboo against consuming blood. (It will be relevant for the taboos against menstrual blood, lesions etc., but I think that’s fairly clearly a different sort of “blood taboo”; no Levite ever poured menstrual blood onto the horns of the altar.)

    I’m also not sure that you aren’t slipping in going from “Nothing I have created is unclean” to “gentile sexual relations cannot be unclean”. One might argue (so to speak, theologically) that the tongue and anus etc. are clean, but that the relations they might stand in may or may not be. Sanctioning “relations” generally is clearly too broad, since relations can also be oppressive & sinful etc.

    So, I’m inclined to think this approach to Acts 15 and pornha won’t work.

  24. Daniel,

    Thank you for your time in your response. I think it would be best of me to bow out here. I’m not doing the typical blogological hit-and-run…this is really for my own sake…my depression keeps me from entering into these conversations with the kind of disinterestedness that is perhaps necessary (in other words, I am taking everything personally — see my response to Adam above). Again, thanks for your response, and please don’t be offended if I choose not to respond at this time. Peace.

  25. This is an interesting discussion, and I would like to contribute from a different perspective. Most comments have been around the interpretation of the text as a series of commands and instructions, as a kind of literal law. If, on the other hand, we take our cue from Badiou, we can instead look at the question of how a Christian is to live by the use of a transliteral, non-prohibitive law. That is to say, using a single “You shall” law rather than a conglomeration of “You shall not” laws.

    Now, whether we should all march to the tune of Badiou is debatable, but I think that his suggestion – that Paul overcomes the issue of legal adherence (Christ the end and the fulfilment of law) by positing a transliteral law of love which is also not a prohibition – is one worth adding.

    In other words, can we conceive of the Christian life in terms of what we are compelled to do? Or should we continue to conceive of it in terms of the remainder left after defining what we must not do?

  26. Andrew, I was just trying to disprove the argument as it is usually presented. Someone who is really hung up on “what the Bible clearly teaches” about homosexuality is going to think your position is nothing but vague feel-good liberalism. I mean, you might as well be telling them to follow the Sermon on the Mount, which — as anyone who’s talked to a conservative Christian knows — is the most dangerously naive thing in the world.

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