Christianity and Judaism have a long history of speaking out against homosexual acts. Of course, it is important to understand the specific kinds of acts that were spoken out against, at least scripturally, as Christianity and Judaism also have a long history of speaking out against heterosexual acts. I intend to explore the original context of scripture on this topic and bring to light many misconceptions caused by Biblical interpretations rather than translations. Having researched this topic extensively, I would like to be candid here, I do not see a ban on loving, committed relationships in scripture, regardless of the sexual orientation of the relationship.
You must not lie with a man as with a woman; that is an abomination.Leviticus 18:22
First, I’d like to examine the English interpretation of Leviticus 18:22, presented above. If general homosexuality were the target of this prohibition, it should have been enough to say, “You must not lie with a man”. Instead, a comparison is made, “as with a woman”, this implies that there is a more specific meaning being presented here. Let’s return to this caveat in a moment, and focus on the last part of the verse for now. Specifically, let’s focus on the word abomination. In Hebrew, the word presented here is toebah, which, when used as a noun, means an abhorrence; especially idolatry or (concretely) an idol.
Next, I would like to introduce a book called the Septuagint. The Septuagint is a translation of the Old Testament into Koine Greek in the 3rd Century B.C. It was translated by Jewish scholars, and gives us a very good idea of how the Old Testament was understood at the time leading up to Jesus’ birth and the writing of the New Testament. The Koine Greek word used in this passage, translated as abomination here, is bdelugma, meaning a detestation, i.e. (specially) idolatry.
After reviewing the meaning of the Hebrew and Koine Greek words used in this verse, both in the Old Testament and in the Septuagint, it should be clear that the word abomination in this verse is referring to a detestable act relating to idolatry, or more specifically, pagan worship of false idols through sexual acts. In Egypt and Canaan, fertility cults were common practice, and involved sexual acts, usually performed as a group. It does not appear that word abomination, in this context, is in reference to a loving, committed, homosexual relationship.
Two Words Translated As Man
If a man lies with a man as with a woman, they have both committed an abomination. They must surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.Leviticus 20:13
Here in Leviticus 20:13, as with Leviticus 18:22, we see this prohibition presented with a similar structure, and again, we must point out that the passage clarifies the context with the addendum “as with a woman” just as Leviticus 18:22 did. Once again, this passage would have been sufficient without this addendum, had the author intended a prohibition of homosexuality in general, and the additional clarification implies that there is a more specific context here. Fortunately, this verse has another clarification in it as well, although it may not be so obvious in the English translation.
Let’s take a closer look at the Hebrew words represented as man in this verse. The first word used here is ish, which is the common Hebrew word for husband, but may also be used when speaking about men in general. The next word translated as man is zakar, which has a more unusual translation; to be remembered. Now, zakar is commonly translated as male due to the way ancient near-eastern cultures viewed the man’s role in procreation. The child of a woman is of the man’s seed and is his continued bloodline. In this way, he is remembered through his progeny. There are other ideas regarding the meaning of this word, but this is the most direct and easy to understand.
Ultimately, we have two words translated as man, one commonly meaning husband and the other commonly meaning male. So, let’s use this new understanding to paraphrase the English translation; “If a husband lies with a male as with a woman, they have both committed an abomination”. In this context, we see a prohibition of same-sex infidelity in a heterosexual marriage rather than a prohibition of a loving, committed, homosexual relationship.
You Must Not Walk in Their Customs
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and tell them: I am the LORD your God. You must not follow the practices of the land of Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not follow the practices of the land of Canaan, into which I am bringing you. You must not walk in their customs.Leviticus 18:1-3
At this point, it is reasonable to ask why a husband would cheat on his wife with another man. This was a common practice in Egypt and Canaan during this period. In fact, the introduction to Leviticus 18 makes it clear that these laws are being put in place to ensure that Israelites do not fall into the practices of these neighboring countries. Some of these practices included religious and capitalistic prostitution, cult rituals, and even pederasty, which is the practice of claiming a young boy and using him for sexual purposes until he reaches a certain age. Some cultures embraced pederasty as an honorable path, with fathers selecting a “groomer” for their son, someone who would provide an education and financial opportunities as the child transitions into adulthood. Clearly, it would seem that the prohibitions in Leviticus were directed toward these sorts of practices, given the language used, rather than the prohibition of a loving, committed, homosexual relationship.
Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images of mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity for the dishonoring of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is forever worthy of praise! Amen.
For this reason God gave them over to dishonorable passions. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. Likewise, the men abandoned natural relations with women and burned with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.Romans 1:24-27
The verses above are commonly perceived as describing God giving men and women over to homosexual desires because of their sin. Let’s take a look at the context provided here. The people presented here worship and serve animal gods (idolotry), exchange the truth of God for a lie (dishonesty), and, most importantly, exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. Now, given the established context so far, animal worship and dishonesty, it does not seem as though this portion of the text is describing a loving, committed, homosexual relationship at all, but rather a pagan religion. So, let’s take a moment to focus in on the last point, exchanging natural relations for unnatural ones. A person cannot exchange something that they don’t have for something else, in this case unnatural relations. This means that the people in this passage had natural relations with the opposite sex, most likely obtained through marriage, and exchanged that for unnatural relations. As I alluded to earlier, this is most likely referring to pagan cult behavior, where orgies were a common method of worshipping various deities for different purposes; conception, rain, food, etc.
Many New Testament interpretations, I say this because they take certain liberties with meanings that go beyond a mere translation, use the word homosexuality in a list of prohibitions. This is strange because the first known usage of the term homosexuality is from a German pamphlet in 1869. There was no contemporary word for Paul, the author of the passages we will discuss, to have used. As a result, Paul coined his own term in Greek, and the exact meaning of the word, arsenokoites, is not known. However, if we consult a Greek Lexicon we will see that there are two definitions given; one who lies with a male as with a female, or a sodomite. This term, arsenokoites, is used in 1 Timothy 1:10 and 1 Corinthians 6:9 among lists of prohibitions, so let’s take a closer look at each of the definitions provided for this word.
Let’s discuss the first definition of arsenokoites; one who lies with a male as with a female. It is clear that this definition is alluding to the language used in Leviticus, which we have already discussed at length. If this is true, then it should be apparent that the term homosexual is not synonymous here, and the translations should be revised.
Now, let’s look at the second definition of arsenokoites; a sodomite. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is commonly used as an example for the definition of Sodomite, and oddly enough, this definition is usually considered to be synonymous with homosexuality. Let’s take a look at the story and see if that comparison stands up to scrutiny.
All the men of the city of Sodom, both young and old, surrounded the house. They called out to Lot, saying, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Send them out to us so we can have relations with them!”
Lot went outside to meet them, shutting the door behind him. “Please, my brothers,” he pleaded, “don’t do such a wicked thing! Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them to you, and you can do to them as you please. But do not do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”
“Get out of the way!” they replied. And they declared, “This one came here as a foreigner, and he is already acting like a judge! Now we will treat you worse than them.” And they pressed in on Lot and moved in to break down the door.Genesis 19:4-9
My friends, I should not need to convince you of the fact that this story is not referencing loving, committed, homosexual relationships. In fact, it is clearly a story of a murderous, angry mob attempting to rape and brutalize visitors to their town. I’m not sure how this story ended up being used as a comparison to homosexuality, or how the term sodomy became synonymous with anal sex, but these are unjustified comparisons.
Looking at the term arsenokoites again, if it was intended to be used as a synonym for sodomite, it should be clear that this is not referring to a loving, committed, homosexual relationship. However, for further clarity, let’s look at some of the context provided by 1 Timothy 1:10.
“We realize that law is not enacted for the righteous, but for the lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for killers of father or mother, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for arsenokoites, for slave traders and liars and perjurers, and for anyone else who is averse to sound teaching”1 Timothy 1:9-10
Looking at the context here, we see killers, murderers, sexually immoral, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and arsenokoites. Does it make sense to include loving, committed, homosexual couples with this group of people? With slave traders and murderers? Not really. However, if we translate arsenokoites as sodomites, and if we remember the behavior of the Sodomites in Genesis, then this makes perfect sense. The Sodomites were attempting to rape the visitors, in addition to murder most likely.
We see a similar context given in 1 Corinthians 6:9. Let’s take a look.
“Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who submit to or perform homosexual acts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor verbal abusers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.”1 Corinthians 6:9-10
This verse is a bit more complicated, and has been further obscured through various English translations. In this passage, there are two words being translated to English, malakoi and arsenokoites. Here is that section of the passage as presented by several translations:
- BSB – “nor men who submit to or perform homosexual acts”
- KJV – “nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind”
- NKJV – “nor homosexuals, nor sodomites”
- NASB – “nor effeminate, nor homosexuals”
As you can see, the language is incredibly inconsistent. NKJV translates malakoi as homosexuals and NASB translates arsenokoites as homosexuals, in direct contradiction of each other. All the while, the BSB equates the two terms, with one representing the submissive role and the other representing the dominant role. This is what I mean when I say that there is a difference between translating and interpreting the Bible. Clearly some of these translations took some liberties with the wording used, and while there may be a footnote addressing the language I doubt many people will take the time to notice it.
So let’s consult Strong’s concordance on the matter. Malakoi is presented as being of uncertain affinity; soft, i.e. Fine (clothing); figuratively, a catamite. A catamite is a boy kept for homosexual practices, or pederasty as we referred to it earlier. The Jerusalem Bible translates it this way as well. In fact, the Jerusalem Bible translates malakoi and arsenokoites as catamites and sodomites, respectively.
With that definition in mind, let’s look at 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 again, “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor catamites or sodomites, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor verbal abusers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.” This appears to fit the context much more appropriately and, again, does not appear to prohibit a loving, committed, homosexual relationship.
In this article I have gone through various biblical prohibitions which are commonly leveraged as evidence of a biblical prohibition on homosexuality in general, to include loving, committed, homosexual relationships. After reviewing the material, specifically the definitions and translation choices utilized, there appears to be no prohibition on a loving, committed, homosexual relationship. However, there is still one missing component; the definition of marriage. You will not find a description of a formal marriage ceremony in the Bible, the closest that we come is between Adam and Eve. This is not a ceremony, but rather a single verse explaining the symbology of marriage.
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.Genesis 2:24
If we are to strictly adhere to this statement as a commandment, then any man who does not get married, even if it is involuntary (unable to find a willing partner), would be guilty of violating it.
While we find several examples of marriage between a man and a woman in the Bible, what we do not have is a prohibition of marriage between two loving, committed, homosexual partners. Some may point to Matthew 19:4-6, where Jesus references the above verse from Genesis. However, two things should be noted here. First, Jesus was responding to a question about divorcing a current wife. Second, after stating that we should not separate what God has joined, Jesus goes on to explain a scenario where it is acceptable to divorce anyway. In this way, while the verse presented in Genesis is relevant and symbolizes a permanent union, it is also not a prohibition of any exceptions. In other words, it is a statement of intent, or an explanation of what we should strive for, rather than a prohibition of any alternative.
Regardless of our personal feelings about homosexuality or the structure of marriage, it is important, as always, that we do not judge. It is our duty to love God above all else and our neighbors as ourselves. We will have disagreements about the nature and meaning of scripture, but this does not have to divide us as a society. When we approach the question of loving, committed, homosexual relationships, let the following passage from Hebrews be our guide:
Continue in brotherly love. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were bound with them, and those who are mistreated as if you were suffering with them.
Marriage should be honored by all and the marriage bed kept undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterers.Hebrews 13:1-4