The Real Reason the Bible Bans Homosexuality

    This post by Eric Berkowitz originally appeared at History News Network.

    With the exception of requiring husbands to be faithful to their wives — at least in theory — the Hebrews treated adultery much as their neighbors did. They struck out on their own, however, in designating a new sexual “abomination” where there had been no precedent: The Bible made anal sex between men a crime of the worst order, for which death by stoning became the only option. “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable,” commands Leviticus. “Their blood will be on their own heads.” Men had been “lying together” since the beginning of civilization, of course. This was the first time they risked their lives by doing so.

    The Code of Hammurabi, which ordered society in most of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley for more than a thousand years, has nothing to say about homosexuality. The laws of Eshunna and Egypt are also silent on the subject. The Hittites forbade father-son relations, but that was part of a general rule against incest. The Assyrians thought it shameful for a man to repeatedly offer himself to other men, and also prohibited men from raping males of the same social class, but all other male-male sexual relations were ignored. The Hebrews, by contrast, made no distinctions and left no exceptions. Sexual intercourse between men was out, regardless of who was doing it and how it was done. The Jewish God hated it so much he wrecked the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to prove it.

    But before that story (and here’s the punchline: It’s not true), it is worth looking briefly at why the Hebrews would have adopted such a position. As we saw earlier, the ancient Jews were consumed with a sense of physical vulnerability, which they translated into spiritual terms. By drawing rigid sexual boundaries, the Jews were trying to bulk up the body politic. Men having sex with men blurred the lines by putting males in the “receptive” role of females in sex acts that, like bestiality, produced no children. Sexual pleasure was never forbidden among the Hebrews so long as it occurred while husbands and wives were producing more Hebrews. When they sought erotic pleasure for its own sake, or when they had sex that resulted in illegitimate children (as in cases of adultery or incest), the nation of Israel as a whole was weakened. God threatened to destroy the Jews: If they enfeebled themselves from within, they would be destroyed from without.

    In this context, biblical antihomosexual laws were also instruments of foreign policy. Male-male sex was forbidden (the scriptures ignore lesbian relations) precisely because the Jews’ neighbors permitted it. Just as sex with animals was common in the region, so was a benign attitude toward same-gender sex. As it was the mission of the Jews, based on the commandment of their God, to “not do as they do” in other, non-Jewish societies, homosexual sex was just one of a litany of “filthy foreign” practices the Jews defined themselves by rejecting. If the Hebrews’ enemies permitted homosexuality, it was inevitable that Jewish law would forbid it.

    The Book of Leviticus was supposed to come to Moses directly from the mouth of God, so its threats of destruction for homosexual sex were taken, so to speak, as gospel. But a simple law is rarely enough in itself to change people’s behavior. The point needed to be driven home with a gruesome example of God making good on his threat. Oddly, the Bible provides no such illustrations. In a book crammed with anecdotes, allegories, and repetitions, the subject of homosexuality is addressed just twice, and in the comparatively dry language cited above. To fill the gap, some later scholars decided to recast the old Genesis story about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The effort was forced, to say the least — there is no evidence that either of those cities was a hotbed of homosexual sex — but it was very successful in the end. The tale of these two accursed cities became history’s single most influential myth to transmit antihomosexual prejudice.

    Abraham’s nephew Lot was a resident of Sodom, a locale known, along with Gomorrah, as one of the evil “Cities of the Plain.” News of the cities’ wickedness reached God, who sent two angels in the guise of foreign travelers to investigate. Lot offered them lodging for the night, but their presence in his house agitated the townspeople. Before the angels retired for the night, a mob of men gathered outside Lot’s house. They demanded to see the travelers “that we may know them.” Lot refused, which enraged the mob even more. The key to this part of the story is the meaning of the word “know” (ve’nida’ah in the original Hebrew text). Did the word mean simply “to become acquainted with,” as many scholars argue? Or did it directly imply sex? Were the townspeople demanding only to look the visitors over, or did they want to rape them? It is impossible to say, especially given Lot’s response: “I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” The crowd was not interested in deflowering Lot’s daughters; they wanted to “know” his guests. As they surged forward to break down Lot’s door, the angels struck them all with blindness. The next morning, Lot fled with his family, and God rained down fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah, destroying these cities forever.

    There is general agreement today that the Sodom mob’s crime was to ignore the custom of providing hospitality to strangers. By housing and protecting the two angels, Lot was doing what any decent Bronze Age Near Eastern host would do. The mob’s unruly demands to “know” the disguised angels were worse than rude, even if they had no intention of “knowing” the strangers carnally. But truth has never gotten in the way of a good story, and it did not take people long to turn this passage into a cautionary tale against homosexuality. The Jews themselves seem to have been the first to do so when, in the first century AD, they were horrified at all the homosexual sex going on among the Greeks and Romans. The reinterpreted story was soon swallowed whole by the Christian church, and thereafter became the basis of history’s most virulent antihomosexual laws. As early as the sixth century AD, the (Christian) Byzantine emperor Justinian pointed to Sodom and Gomorrah as the reason for his persecution of homosexuals. “Because of such offenses,” went one of Justinian’s laws, “famine, earthquakes, and pestilence occur.”

    Eric Berkowitz is a writer, lawyer and journalist. He has a degree in print journalism from University of Southern California and has published in The Los Angeles Times and The Los Angeles Weekly, and for the Associated Press. He was an editor of the West Coast’s premier daily legal publication, The Los Angeles Daily Journal. He lives in San Francisco.

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