Recently I came across a new book that I thought shed some useful light on the issue of homosexuality from a Hebrew Bible perspective. The book is The Bible Now: Homosexuality, Abortion, Women, Death Penalty, Earth, by Richard Friedman and Shawna Dolansky. In fairly short space it sets out a summary of most of the major arguments about specific Biblical references to homosexuality in the Hebrew Bible, those Jewish scriptures which overlap to a considerable extent with the Christian Old Testament.
Firstly they are very clear that the law in the Biblical book of Leviticus (notably, Lev 18:22 and Lev 20:13) cannot simply be wished away (p. 26). So for those who regard the Hebrew Bible as their moral pole star, the prohibition on (male) homosexual behaviour in the Hebrew Bible has to be addressed. But at the same time, they argue that we cannot ignore the context of these references either. It is a very different context to that of most contemporary western readers. For one thing, people in the ancient near east did not make the distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality as if it were a distinction between equal concepts. Heterosexuality was the norm across all these cultures. Homosexuality was not – as it is today in many parts of the world – a life-style choice or a marker of individual identity.
What these biblical prohibitions on homosexual behaviour seem to reflect in fact, is a widespread construction of sexual relations as relations of power; sexual encounters position each partner hierarchically according to whether their role is active or passive. So, for example, women are suitable sexual partners for men because their active domination by men has already been mystified in terms of their essentially inferior status. For the same reason, Friedman and Dolansky suggest, some encounters between men have also been socially condoned by association with this active/passive polarity.
The form of socially sanctioned homosexuality we know most about in the Western world – pederastia (boy-love) – existed as a more or less formalised system in Athenian society in the 6th to the 4th centuries BCE (p. 32). In this case, an older aristocratic male would court a young man of good family “much in the way a man might court a future wife” (p. 33), becoming his mentor and teacher, drawn by an attraction that was erotically charged even if not always acted upon. But tellingly, according to Plato (Symposium, 8,21), the young man – the eromenos – while respectful of his mentor – the erastes – was supposed to remain detached from his sexual passion. And once he reached adulthood and became his social equal, any continuation of a (passive/feminine) sexual relationship became shameful. In a similar way, Friedman and Dolansky look at references to homosexual acts between men in a number of other near eastern contexts containing similar associations between social status and sexual acts between men. (It is also interesting that Friedman and Dolansky insist that there is no prohibition on female homosexual acts in the Hebrew Bible.)
In other words, homosexuality, before the modern era, was always framed by considerations of social status and this forms the wider cultural background to the prohibtions on male homosexuality in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament. However there is also an important difference; male homosexuality is absolutely prohibited in Leviticus 18 and 20. Friedman and Dolansky suggest that this has to do with the fact that the legislative text of which these prohibitions form a part – the Holiness Code (p. 34) – reflects a particular theology of the land. All the people who settle on God’s land, both Israelites and aliens, are bound by its ritual and moral law: “In the Holiness Code, there can be no homosexual acts at all in Israel, since by cross-cultural perception such intercourse would necessarily denigrate the passive partner and violate his equal status under God’s law” (p. 35). Even the servant and the foreigner in Israel are equal in God’s land. And, of course, it remains the case that what is seen as immoral in homosexual acts between men is not the nature of male homosexual desire in itself, but the potential violation of a social equal – an act that would pollute God’s land (p. 35).
In relation to the issue of homosexuality, the authors of The Bible Now, come down fairly and squarely in favour of reading the biblical text carefully and in line with principles of critical biblical scholarship. These principles are derived from the so-called ‘higher criticism’ developed first by European, principally German, University scholarship in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These principles have formed the basis of most reputable western biblical scholarly interpretation since then – whether it is Jewish, Roman Catholic or Protestant. In other words, they are concerned with scientific approaches to history – what here is mythology and what can be cross checked with other evidence and source material from the same period and region. They take due care to learn and understand the original languages of the Bible so they can answer the question, what did the words mean in the original context and how does that differ from the translation? They discuss the genre and style of writing, conscientiously distinguishing, for example, between poetry, prose and law: “It is is one thing to tell a story about something. It is another to write a poem about it. And it is a very different thing to write a law that says ‘Thou shalt no do it!’” (p. 1). And finally, they recognise that all readers come to the text with an agenda, a desire to know God’s truth or to find the basis of a moral norm or to reveal the gendered, colonialist assumptions of previous readers. No reading is neutral; hermeneutics or the interpretation of scripture must scrupulously attend to the who, when and where of all readers.
This useful treatment of homosexuality in the Hebrew Bible ends on a timely note of caution “Our purpose is not to talk you into one side or the other in these matters. Our purpose is to reveal that this is not a matter for amateurs, and it is not easy. You cannot just open a Bible – especially in translation – and find an obvious answer.” (p.39) Friedman and Dolansky, both University professors and career academics are employed to do the work of the scholar and this is a lifelong task. This relatively short and accessible treatment of homosexuality in the Hebrew Bible represents the distillation of an extended period of individual training and reflection and an even longer period of institutional development within wider communities. If we cannot any longer sponsor the development of this kind of professional expertise and learning – and in the UK, University departments of Theology and Biblical Studies are in rapid decline – it is going to be much harder in future, to make sense of our cultural inheritance or in any sense, to profit from it.