Re-Analyzing the Biblical Law Against Homosexuality

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This is going to be a long article - probably double the length of my normal writings. The issue of homosexuality in the Torah is an important and difficult one, as we need not look far to witness the immense harm caused to those in the LGBT community by the hands of those who are “on the more religious side” of the spectrum.
Accordingly, this article is written for two different audiences, which I wish to delineate at the outset so there is no confusion regarding my motives for discussing such a topic. The first are those in the religious community, individuals who take the Torah to represent objective moral imperatives gleaned from ancient hierophanies, subsequently living their lives in accordance with those values. I want you to take a step back and allow yourself to be transported back in time to the days and cultural context of the Torah, really attempting to understand the fundamental rationale and morality within every commandment. My hope is that if you truly understand the historical context of the biblical injunction against homosexuality (much in the same way that great Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides understood a whole host of biblical edicts) it will forever change the way you view this law and its application.
Conversely, this article is also meant for people on the opposite side of the spectrum. People who write off the Torah as an archaic myth, one which serves no purpose to our progressed moral and intellectual modern selves. Here too, I want you to try and analyze the history and world that produced the Bible and its array of laws, ultimately understanding the moral progress represented within the ancient Jewish tradition and how that same rationale can help fuel our community today.
The most important line of the Hebrew Bible comes near the beginning. Towards the end of the sixth day of creation - once everything is in place - God creates humans.
“And God created humankind in His image.” (Genesis 1:27)
What? You mean all humans?
Even the poor, the bottom of the social hierarchy, children, immigrants, slaves? Really everybody?
See, the Hebrew Bible came onto the scene with a radical proclamation. Contrary to popular Iron Age belief, early Israelite prophets began to spread this crazy new idea that all humans were equal and should be treated as such. No longer should hierarchical caste systems favor one from the other. “You shall have one law for the stranger and the citizen” (Lev 24:22), the Torah taught. In other words, treat everyone according to the same set of rules whether he is your brother or an immigrant. As we will soon see, this moral cornerstone of the Judaic tradition is paramount to our understanding of biblical law within a historical context.
There is perhaps no more notorious line of the Bible than the edict against homosexual relations. In just eight words, the Torah writes that it is an abomination to lie with a man as one lies with a woman (Lev 18:22). And again, two chapters later, the Torah reiterates this law subsequently adding that the penalty for such action is death (Lev 20:13).
What are we to make of these laws criminalizing what can potentially be an individual’s most basic identity?
While this answer would certainly differ depending on whom you ask, to really understand the biblical injunction against homosexuality one must step out of their ideological beliefs (be they religious, ethical, etc.) as well as their lens of modernity. We often erroneously superimpose our modern anachronistic views onto the past - stymieing us from truly understanding a historical event. In order to do both history and the Torah justice, one must try and enter the mindset of the Israelite people and their nascent monotheistic society inside the ancient land of Canaan.
In the 21st century being gay is an identity. One identifies as a part of the LGBT community and while the boundaries are somewhat ill defined, when someone says they are gay we all generally know and understand what they are saying. This was quite clearly not the case in the ancient world of the Hebrew Bible where homosexuality was simply an isolated act with no implication of it being tied to one’s fundamental identity. To truly understand the ancient biblical injunction against homosexuality, we must first understand the sociopolitical context in which the Torah was created.
All scholars of the Bible understand that the Torah was heavily influenced by the surrounding cultures. While there is often debate about the extent and primacy of various influences, to truly understand a law in the Torah we must first understand the Egyptian, Canaanite, Assyrian, Persian, and Greek context in which the nascent Israelites were embedded.
So let’s go to the sources.  
Within the field of Egyptology there is plenty of debate amongst contemporary scholars regarding the place (or lack thereof) of homosexuality within the culture. Perhaps the most famous story about homosexuality in ancient Egypt is found in the Kahun Papyri, a collection of texts dealing with Egyptian administrative and medicinal issues in addition to a whole host of mythological tales and origin stories. It is here that we are introduced to the most quoted and influential ancient Egyptian text, the Osiris myth, where a jealous uncle - after killing his brother the king - attempts to stop his nephew from claiming the throne (think Lion King).
After Seth, the jealous uncle, repeatedly fails to kill his nephew Horus - he devises a new plan that would embarrass Horus so deeply that he would be forced to flee forever.
Inviting Horus to a party, Seth begins to feed him copious amounts of alcohol eventually attempting to rape his nephew. Apparently just this act alone would be embarrassing and damaging enough to his reputation to ensure that his nephew would never be made king. To make a long story short, the plan fails, as Horus is actually able to stop his uncle and actually reverse the effects.
While this popular myth doesn’t explicitly comment about the morality of homosexuality, many scholars interpret the story as a reference to the fact that the act of homosexuality was seen as extremely disparaging to the receiving partner. However, the implication of the above story may perhaps become clearer as we travel a bit northward, gleaning ancient Mesopotamian texts for their views of homosexuality.
The Summa Alu is a collection of ancient Mesopotamian clay tablets listing tens of thousands of omens for various actions. One such section deals with sexual acts eventually touching upon homosexuality. If a man copulates with his equal from the rear, this ancient Babylonian text teaches, he becomes the leader among his peers and brothers.
One can conclude from this that the act of homosexuality, especially from the giving partner’s perspective, is fundamentally empowering. This is how many, especially those who want to conclude that ancient Mesopotamia had a positive view of homosexuality, read the law. However, the fact that it was empowering for the giving partner is the key point for there must then be a reverse effect. From both our ancient Egyptian myth and our Mesopotamian omens a fuller picture, one of degradation for receiving partner, begins to emerge.
This interpretation becomes fully elucidated when we study the culture of the ancient Greeks. There, beginning in the late 7th century BCE, a phenomenon called pederasty began to proliferate.
Pederasty was a widespread social convention and rite of passage where a young Greek adolescent would go to live with an older man to be used for their sexual pleasure. Pederasty was so ubiquitous that it has been described as one of the cornerstones and dominant models for a free society. Now it needs to be granted that this was entirely consensual (although the boys in question were always under 18) - but the real kicker appears when we compare pederasty to the way that Greeks generally viewed homosexuality.
Across Greek culture homosexuality between two adult males was seen as demeaning to the receiving partner. However, when a minor was involved (and they were always the receiving partner) this was seen as acceptable and even encouraged given that the minor wasn’t seen as equal to an adult. When the child grew up, typically when he was able to grow a beard, homosexual relations became immediately unacceptable. The institution of pederasty highlights our earlier conclusion. Homosexuality was seen as disgraceful for the receiving partner, unless they were, for a variety of reasons, already inferior to their partner.
Making our way back to the Torah, the first story we are presented with is that of Sodom and Gomorrah - the biblical paradigm of evil. A group of foreign guests invited to stay at the house of a man named Lot immediately find themselves in grave danger when the xenophobic townspeople surround the house and demand that the guests come outside (Genesis 19:5). Now it isn’t that they necessarily want these visitors to leave the city, rather they wanted to “know” them - a clear biblical reference to sex. From the most straightforward and simple explanation of this narrative, it seems that the real desire of the townspeople was to degrade these outsiders, letting them know their place on the social hierarchy of the town. This idea is precisely the same idea that we found in our other texts - with one crucial and fundamental difference. At the end of this story Sodom is destroyed. The Torah rejected such actions.
By now you have probably figured out where this is going. Speaking in the context of the ancient Mesopotamian ethical system the Torah forbids all homosexual relations. It matters not if the “giving” partner is the king, rich, or the master of a house - he is forbidden from lying with any male counterpart regardless of how much “higher” on the social hierarchy he may be situated. From a worldview in which homosexuality was an act and a choice, not an identity or sexual orientation, this law must be viewed as a moral leap. In railing against social hierarchies, the Torah is outlawing an action which (from its point of view) was perhaps the ultimate sign of social dominance.
Today this is quite obviously not the case. Homosexuality is no longer representative of social structures of dominance, but rather sexual orientation and individual autonomy to act on that orientation. From the point of view of the halachists this probably wouldn’t make a difference as there is a well-known Jewish legal dictum that we do not change the law even if the fundamental rationale has expired. For this reason alone many Jewish thinkers actually forbade inquiries into the rationale behind certain laws.
However, the majority of people in the religious world (whether Jewish or Christian) do not live their lives according to Jewish/biblical law. Rather they attempt to live a moral life - based on their general interpretation/reading of the Bible. The verses against homosexuality, in all their austerity and simplicity, have lead to thousands of years of anti-gay sentiment throughout the Bible believing world.
In truly understanding the history of this law, and how today the reality of its application is perhaps the exact opposite of its original intention, I hope to complicate the common depiction of the Torah as an anti-gay book. Whether or not you agree with my conclusion, I hope that the history and sources give you something to consider and complexify your overall views regarding the subject matter.
 Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online. His blog entry, So You Have a Jewish Father, was selected as one of the three best for the third quarter of 5779. You can find it on the Jewish Values Online website at the top left.
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