To start reading from the beginning of the series, click here.
A note to readers:
In this post I present my own literary and theological reading of some stories from the Bible. For these readings, I am deeply indebted to the work of many other biblical scholars and theologians, some of whom I can name and some of whom I am certain are influencing my readings of these texts below the surface of my thought. For a succinct and accessible look at what the Bible texts actually say about Queer sexuality, I highly recommend the chapter “Doesn’t the Bible Condemn Homosexuality?” in Bishop Gene Robinson’s book God Believes in Love.
While my reading is a way to read these texts, there are certainly other ways. I speak with conviction about how I read the text, however, I hope that it is clear that I do not mean to press my reading on others. I hope, instead, that if my way of reading causes you to wonder about your own way of reading, that you’ll follow that curiosity wherever it leads.
So, when we start talking about human sexuality and the Bible, it seems inevitable that we start talking about sin.
Now sin gets defined in all sorts of ways. It gets employed rhetorically in even more ways. Is sin a disease of the soul? Is sin a series of actions? Is sin a way of describing relationships that are out of healthy alignment? We can talk about theologies of sin another time. Suffice it to say,
Sin gets around.
To add to the confusion, the Bible is not all that clear about what actions might constitute sin and what doesn’t. For instance, in the Hebrew scriptures (what Christian Bibles call the Old Testament), there’s a boatload of stories and laws (both legal and holiness codes) that can roughly be summed up as saying, “God doesn’t want you to act like the people from other ethnic groups and religions that live around you. Your morality should be distinctive.” Often (though certainly not always), these stories and laws are paired with texts where God is seen as ordering God’s folks to wholesale slaughter entire towns, villages, and nations–men, women, children, animals, etc. in efforts to eradicate the bad influence of these malcontents.
I sure am glad we have the option of just “unfriending” someone on facebook nowadays.
The other side of the coin is that there are all these other stories and even some laws that are mixed in, where God is supposedly telling God’s people that God is sick and tired of their laws and sacrificial systems, tired of their religious piety, and that what God really wants is for them to stop beating up on foreigners and strangers, and to take care of the poor, the widows, and the orphans. This portrait makes God seem like the type who wouldn’t be all, “murder children” and all that.
So what do we do with the tension of both of these being present in the biblical texts?
A last note about sin before we move on: With these two approaches around what constitutes sin and what constitutes holiness (or human flourishing), it’s also apparent that there’s a struggle to understand how sin impacts the human relationship with God. Some read the Bible and say sin separates us from God. There’s a little support for that reading (and I’d guess, a lot of mommy and daddy issues influencing our reading). Some read the Bible and say that sin harms us in our relationships, but has no bearing of God’s relationship with us. In this reading, sin doesn’t have the power to separate us from God. Textually, there’s a lot more support for this reading. If God supposedly can’t stand to be around sin, then there’s no accounting for all the stories where God moves toward people rather than away from them–especially people who are experiencing shame, isolation, and harm where sin/evil is present (both in their own actions and/or working against them).
A literalistic reading of the Bible that attempts to lay a chronological, modern historicity over the narratives misses the literary value of the text. These are stories that are complex, textured, and are meant to work like any good story, on multiple levels. They are literary stories that make claims about God.
The collection of writings that make up the Bible span thousands of years, various cultures, and are a sort of extended dialogue of ambiguity. We are handed these texts in collected form and it is ours to wonder, “Who do we believe God is?” and “How should we live in response to these beliefs?”
The stories exist in tension, because, the realities of the people in these stories are much like our contemporary realities–there are tensions in how we understand what it means to be a part of a group with a distinct experience and understanding of the world, and what it means to affirm common personhood of all humans across all groups without reading our own experience of being human as normative for everyone else.
***Trigger Warning: the following section deals with one of the most violently graphic texts in the Bible. It is the story of a gang-rape that occurs within a system of severe misogyny and xenophobia.
And then there are stories in the Bible that blur all the lines. One such text is the story of the town of Gibeah. Gibeah is kind of like the less popular sibling city to Sodom and Gommorah. If you aren’t familiar with the parallel stories of Sodom and Gibeah, I recommend reading this helpful study of the text done by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (disclaimer: I have not looked extensively at the ELCIC’s position within the conversation around human sexuality, I just found their treatment of this text to be a good introduction to the textual issues at play).
What becomes clear in reading these texts, especially when we read them in connection with the texts throughout the rest of the Bible that reference them, is this:
The sins of Sodom and Gibeah aren’t at all sexy.
Indeed, the issue seems quite clear that their sins are hostility and violence against outsiders that manifest in a particularly misogynistic (oppressive to women) ways. That a component of this is same-sex, sexual violence speaks much more to the role of violence, shame, and misogyny in ancient cultures than it comes close to speaking about any sort of homosexual behavior, and it says nothing whatsoever about homosexual desire or consensual homosexual relationships. In fact, the only sexual behavior that even occurs in either of these passages is the violent gang-rape and murder of the woman in the Gibeah story. The context of the story reveals deep systemic cultural sin that starts with treating women as property, and concludes with ethnocentric (values own racial or ethnic group over others) violence against strangers.
So then, it seems the link between homosexual sexuality and Sodom is more a function of a long history of prejudicial readings of the text that go so far as to have shaped our vocabulary; so that the word “sodomy” reinforces a damaging misreading of these passages each time it is used.
What’s even more textually interesting to me, is that the Gibeah story is also closely linked to another story about Abraham’s family. While most of the details of the story mirror the story of Lot and his guests in Sodom, there are particular details that mirror the first encounter that Hagar has in the desert with the angel of God.
In Genesis 11, Hagar, a foreigner and slave is treated as a piece of property who is sexually violated by her owners, Abram and Sarai. She runs away into the desert where an Angel finds her sitting by a spring and asks, “where have you come from and where are you going?” Hagar goes through this encounter and becomes the first person to name God–saying “You are the God who sees me.”
In this story, God sees the plight of the one who is violated, enslaved, abused and ostracized by those (Abram and Sarai) who are considered, according to the dominating narratives of the text (and often still, by Jewish and Christian religions) to be the righteous ones.
In the story of Gibeah, in Judges 19, the narrative begins with a story quite similar to Hagar’s. A woman who is enslaved as a concubine runs away from the man who is violating her (he also happens to be a levite, a member of the priestly clan). The woman runs back to her family and the man who owned her follows her, where he is welcomed and treated with exorbitant hospitality by the woman’s father (talk about evil and twisted family dynamics).
Finally, the man sets out with his recaptured wife/concubine (the text goes back and forth on this one, which emphasizes the complete misogyny and treatment of women as property in ancient cultures. Whether wife or concubine, she is given no say in this story.) and they go to the town of Gibeah, which is an Israelite town, but of a different tribe (so same religion but different family/ethnic clan). Here they sit in the town square, just as the two visitors do in Sodom, and an old man who is a resident alien (like Lot) comes up to them.
But here, the stories twist again and the old man in Gibeah echoes the angel in the desert’s question to Hagar, “Where are you going? Where did you come from?”
Quickly the text goes back to being an almost identical parallel to the Sodom text, right down to the old man supplying a daughter alongside the woman in the story so that there are two women being offered to the violent crowd who want to rape the male strangers who have come into their town (side note: the Levite man in the Gibeah story also had a male slave with him, so if this were really about homosexual behavior and he’s willing to throw his wife/concubine out to the crowd, why wouldn’t he have just tossed the male slave out to them instead?–Oh that’s right, it’s about misogyny and violence).
After this, the text diverges again. Instead of divine intervention stopping the rape, the man who owns the woman, throws her out into the violent crowd and allows her to be raped to death. He then gets angry when he finds her dead the next morning and further violates her body, cutting it to pieces and sending it all over the kingdom in order to declare war on Gibeah.
Like Hagar, this woman is violated sexually by the man who owns her. Like Hagar, no one from the dominant ethnic and religious group, or even her family, ever speaks to her directly. She is dehumanized and treated as a sexual object to be owned and used.
Why does the Gibeah story invoke the Hagar story? What theological claim is it trying to make by echoing this text so clearly?
I will venture to guess that it is to make us, as readers, pay attention to the evil done against this woman by a society that treats women as property and uses male normativity in such a way that violently raping a man–treating him “like a woman”–could become the most intense form of shaming possible in a culture (sound familiar?).
This reveals much about the inhospitality that God condemns. The story functions to warn ancient Israel that they are on the verge of becoming as evil as Sodom, which God destroyed. By invoking the story of Hagar, I believe the author wants us to recall Hagar’s words, “You are the God who sees me.” If God sees the plight of the most victimized and oppressed and stands on their side, then Israel should take heed, because they boarder being on the wrong side of God, who sees and sides with those whom the culture and religion reject (a notion that is played out in the New Testament by Jesus, who consistently angers the religious by siding with the oppressed; particularly those from other ethnicities and women).
So, how does this help us think about the Sodom and Gibeah passages and how they have been used to condemn people in homosexual relationships in our culture?
Can’t we clearly say that these texts are mainly about condemning cultural oppression of ethnic/racial/religious strangers through inhospitality and violence? Can’t we also say that these texts offer a way of pulling back the curtain on the evil of sexual violence, oppressing women, and treating women as objects?
I am thoroughly convinced that homophobia is intrinsically connected to the oppression of women and viewing maleness as normative for humanity (this is, of course, linked in these passages with racism/ethnocentrism and viewing the dominant culture as normative as well–in our context this exists as white privilege/supremacy).
The levitical laws that condemn homosexuality do so on the basis of a “man lying with a man as with a woman.” It’s clear these laws don’t value women as full humans, since they also stipulate scenarios in which proper application of the same legal codes means that if a man rapes a woman, he’s to marry her and they can never divorce–the implications are that she’s damaged property and he’s obligated to provide for her, never mind that she’s essentially being handed over to her rapist for the rest of her life. The implication in a society that views men as human and women as less-human property, is that for a man to lie with a man, one of them is being treated “as a woman” and that’s seen as a problem because it’s debasing to maleness.
There’s no notion within this system of a man lying with a man as with a man (which, by the way, is pretty much how being gay works).
What’s clear to me is that the texts of Sodom, Gibeah, and Hagar in the desert, all condemn these oppressive and sinful dynamics of societies and religions by exposing them to the reader.
It’s also clear to me that oppression of women and oppression of homosexual people are linked.
I will go so far as to say, until the Christian church confronts the oppression of women and stops using the Bible to justify misogyny, there will be no resolution of the debate about homosexuality in the church. Homophobia is simply another face of the sin of oppressing the stranger, the one who is other, the one who does not fit the dominant group’s definition of what is “normal.”
That’s precisely why the argument of what is “natural” gets employed. “Natural” is a code word for “my own experience.” That’s why homophobes and homosexuals both employ a born “this way” or “that way” argument. This is also evident in the way that Paul writes in the New Testament about what is “natural.” It seems clear that both then and now, the word “natural” gets employed in this debate as an argument about normativity.
What’s really at stake is the need for people in the dominant group to listen to and believe the oppressed group’s claim to their own experience in their bodies and the legitimacy of their humanity.
Along with male normativity, these ancient cultures have no apparent framework for considering people who are actually inclined relationally and sexually toward people of the same gender. Thus, for them a “man lying with a man” is a violation of their very notion of what it means to be a man (which for them is also mostly what it means to be human).
Thus, nestled inside male normativity, we find heteronormativity, and if we press it far enough, we find norms that define being human in terms of the gender, sex, religion, race, language, class, abilities of the people who are in power and privileged within a given society (speaking of no room, it’s also evident that these systems are typically set up as binaries: Male or not male. In the relgious group or out of it. Native speaker of the dominant language or second language learner. Able or disabled. Adult or child. It’s no wonder that this kind of system also has no room for bisexuality, transgendered people, intersex people, two-spirited people, gender queer people, etc.).
Just as two women getting married will not magically make a heterosexual marriage fall apart, homosexual love and sex does not make the beauty and goodness of heterosexual love and sex any less valuable. There’s not an inherent need for one to be on top of the other (see what I did there?), just like there’s no need for men to dominate and oppress women (or anyone) in order to claim the normalcy or validity of their experience.
The problem underlying the debate about gay sex and the Bible is the same problem that runs through the Bible–there’s the defensive vein that says we need to kill and oppress in order to live the holy life we are called to lead (thus squeezing into boxes typically defined by those with socially normative privilege), and then there’s that other vein that is just as present in the text that says that what we really need to do is stop trying to follow rules for holiness and just stop oppressing people and start treating strangers like guests.
It’s up to us to choose who we think God is in all this and how we ought to live our lives.
Before we decide, I invite us to sit in the tension of the text for a bit, and then to resolve the tension by intensifying it; by stepping into it the way Jesus did–the way that holds together loving God with loving neighbors (and defines neighbors as those who are outside our norms) in a way that leads to unraveling the oppressive dominant culture (for Jesus, this led to the point that they called for his death).
If we do this, I feel convinced that the questions about who is sleeping with whom will soon be put into proper perspective.
Like the stories of Sodom and Gibeah, this work isn’t sexy. The way I read it, the sin in these stories is about the harmful normativities that oppress people. It’s evident that a key theological claim in these stories (especially Gibeah and Hagar in the Desert) is that while God doesn’t always divinely remove our systems of oppression, God sees and is present on the side of the oppressed–on the side of those that the religious systems and legal codes are working against. And, in these stories, holiness is about dismantling systems of abusive power in a way that allows for all persons to be treated with hospitality, dignity, respect, and compassion.
Read part 7 here.