Laurie J. Braaten
What some Old Testament passages really say about same-sex relations will surprise most readers.
When I joined the Church of the Nazarene in 1973, I already had clearly formed opinions regarding what the Bible taught about same-sex sexual relationships. I knew two young men (one a neighbor) who were gay and claimed to follow Jesus. I was certain that the Bible taught that they were living outside of God’s will and faced eternal punishment. After all, that’s what the Bible says, doesn’t it? Later, as I prepared for a teaching ministry through graduate studies, my views didn’t change much. But I was more careful not to make same-sex relations into a special category of “sin,” and viewed it as wrong to discriminate against them in private or public life. Then as a father I had to ask myself what I would do and say if one of my daughters told me she was gay? What would be the proper Christian response? I decided I would accept and love her, but pray that God would show her the truth (as I understood it then).
Slowly, however, my views on the biblical teaching on same-sex unions were challenged. They were transformed over nearly thirty years of pastoring and teaching Bible in two Christian colleges. A careful reading of some key proof texts didn’t seem as cut and dried as I once thought. Let’s take a look at some of these passages.
Sodom and Gomorrah
We’ll begin with the text that is probably most often cited by those who claim God disapproves of same-sex unions, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 17-19). Judgment is announced against the cities, and the demand of the men of Sodom to have sex with Lot’s male guests proves that the sin is same-sex relations (Gen 19:4-5), right? As obvious as this claim seems, the Bible doesn’t make this connection! True, these men were threatening rape, but that is a wrongful act of violence whether heterosexual or homosexual (compare Judg 19:22-26). But it is a leap to assume that same-sex relations is the sin of Sodom. When later prophets speak of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, same-sex relations are not mentioned! Instead, they focus on various acts of rebellion against God and violence and injustices against one another. For example, when Isa 1:10-17 compares Jerusalem to Sodom and Gomorrah, he mentions injustice, bloodshed, and not seeking the welfare of the marginalized. Jeremiah compared false prophets to the sinners of these cities because they commit adultery, walk in lies, and enable evil doers (Jer 23:14). Ezekiel described Sodom’s sins as people having an abundance of goods and not sharing with the poor and needy. The prophet also says the people were haughty and did abominable things (Ezek 16:49-50). When Ezekiel speaks of abominations elsewhere, he includes bloodshed, oppression of the marginalized, financial exploitation, robbery, and incest.
Did the prophets miss the obvious? Let’s look at the story itself. To our surprise, it doesn’t name a sin, it simply states that “a cry for help of Sodom and Gomorrah” for “great and weighty sin” has reached the Lord (Gen 18:20, translations are mine unless otherwise stated). The key is the “cry for help” word group (noun and verb forms) which usually indicates a cry for help to God. When victims of violence, injustices, and marginalization need rescue they cry out to God (Exod 2:23; Judg 6:6; Prov 21:13). The term does not mean an outcry or accusation against a neighbor because they were breaking a moral law that did not directly harm someone. Unfortunately, most Bible translations hide this fact by making it appear that Sodom and Gomorrah’s neighbors are complaining against them. The “cry for help of Sodom and Gomorrah” (v. 20a) is mistranslated as “the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah” (see NIV and NRSVue). Likewise, verse 21 reads, “Its cry for help that has come to me” (that is, the cry of the victims in the cities). It is similarly mistranslated as “the outcry that has come to me” (see NIV and NRSVue). Genesis 19:13 reads “… great is their cry for help before the Lord,” meaning many people from the cities are crying for help. Yet some popular Bible versions change the meaning by mistranslating it as, “The outcry to the Lord against its people is so great” (NRSVue, NIV, italics added in all quotations).
Before we go further, it is important to consider why the entire cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are called wicked and great sinners (Gen 13:13), and how there can be a great cry for help within the cities, and then the same verse say “their sin” is “so great” (Gen 18:20)? Doesn’t this support the traditional view? No, because in the Bible the character of an entire community is often determined by the actions and policies of those in charge. For example, we noted how Isaiah denounced all Israel as wicked, likening Jerusalem to Sodom and Gomorrah. The powerful abused the marginalized and there were innocent people crying for help (Isa 5:7). Although the innocent certainly outnumbered the wicked, Isaiah still declared that the whole country was wicked and deserved God’s judgment. We find a similar idea in the Sodom and Gomorrah story. The character of the city was determined by the unjust leaders, there were not even ten powerful righteous people (Gen 18:32) that would stand up for the marginalized.
The mistranslations in the story make it appear that outsiders are making an accusation to God against (the sexual moral depravity of) Sodom and Gomorrah. In reality, the texts say that a group of victims of oppression from the cities are crying for God’s help. In other words, there are no outsiders here offended by others’ behavior, only victims of evil doers crying for help. So we are back to where we started. This “cry for help” suggests exactly what the prophets later said: some of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were guilty of various types of violence against others, and these victims were crying to God for help. Unfortunately, one consequence of these mistranslations is that over the years many well-meaning Christians have considered them a mandate to do likewise. They see it as their duty to be God’s moral police and call out, condemn and discriminate against people within and outside of the faith if they don’t agree with their sexual orientation.
The Mosaic Law
Leviticus seems to be the clincher for Old Testament teaching about same-sex relations. For many people, the prohibition against same-sex relations is clear and decisive. But a closer look and a little reflection might lead to another conclusion. First, a central teaching of this part of Leviticus is that God is holy, and that people are holy by separating from unholy influences, and being separated to God. A central principle that guides this holiness is the call for Israel to love their neighbors and outsiders as they love themselves (Lev 19:18, 34). This shows others the holy love that God has shown them.
In many of its specific details, how Leviticus pictures holiness and love in action are much different from today’s standards. For example, there are directions about how men should trim their hair and beards, and prohibitions against tattoos (Lev 19:27-28). Holiness means not eating certain “unclean animals (Lev 11:1-47). Also, Leviticus often assumes that to be holy, things have to be one or the other; it’s either/or, and categories can’t be mixed. For example, people aren’t supposed to plant a field with two kinds of seed (it has to be wheat or barley), nor make clothes out of two types of cloth (it has to be wool or linen, Lev 19:19). This binary thinking is probably behind the prohibitions of same-sex relations; a man must behave like (most) men, which means his sexual partner must be a woman and not another man (Lev 18:22).
The section on sexual ethics in Leviticus 18:1-30 is introduced by a warning not to follow the practices of the Canaanites (vv. 1-5). The last three prohibitions (vv. 21-23) are against sacrificing children, male same-sex relations, and bestiality (sex with animals). In the conclusion (vv. 24-30), the entire list of sexual prohibitions are called Canaanite abominations. So it appears that Israel considered same-sex relations as wrong because they were practiced by the Canaanites, whom they regarded as sinners.
Matters of Law and Love
Our look at Leviticus raises the question about what we as Christians can accept as still binding. One suggestion is that an Old Testament law is binding on Christians if the New Testament repeats it. But this is only partially helpful. For example, Christians would agree that the incest and bestiality prohibitions still stand. Yet the New Testament does not have general rulings on these issues.
There are some who assert that if we disagree with Leviticus and say same-sex relations should no longer be considered wrong, then what’s to stop anyone from claiming that incest or bestiality aren’t wrong either? This all or nothing approach is a nonstarter. I have a hunch that no one who argues this keeps all the laws of Leviticus. In fact, they probably wear some clothing made of a cotton polyester blend, contrary to Lev 19:19. And I doubt this person would agree that if someone says it’s okay to wear blended clothing, plant tomatoes and cucumbers in the same garden, or get a tattoo, then what’s to stop anyone from claiming that incest or bestiality are also okay? This is inconsistent thinking. When it comes to these other laws in Leviticus, they decide their relevance on their own merit. I would add that each ethical command has to be evaluated in light of God’s love. There are good reasons today for saying that God’s love for the other compels us to love, accept, include, and affirm those with nontraditional (non-binary) sexual orientations.
Where Do We Go from Here?
It took much study of scripture, reflection, prayer, and time for me to change my views. I met some Christians who identified as gay or lesbian who evidence the grace and gifts of God as they proclaimed God’s Word and radiated a Christ-like spirit. How could I say that God doesn’t accept them just like he accepts me and others, with all our brokenness, faults, and, yes, sinfulness? Why should a same-sex monogamous relationship be considered wrong? But it is not up to me alone to open the doors of acceptance, it is up to all who take upon themselves the name of Jesus.
The Church is accountable to the Holy Spirit for leading them along the paths of grace for all of God’s creatures. Has that leading taken them on new paths? Yes!, most notably in the Church’s understanding concerning the injustices and immorality of enslaving other humans, and the sexism inherent in excluding women from ordained ministry and an equal role in the family and workforce. For centuries these biases continued unchecked, and largely unchallenged by the Church. When they were challenged, people accused them of disobeying God, rejecting scripture, and not being true followers of Christ. Now there are some in the Church who are asking us to reconsider our teachings and policies regarding LGBTQIA+ people, including those who proclaim Jesus as Lord. It is time to recognize that what the Bible says about this community communicates more about ancient cultural biases than it does regarding the love of God revealed in Christ. The people of God must now ask ourselves if God’s grace, love and acceptance is limited because of who one shares the marital bed with.
. From now on I will simply use the phrase “same-sex relations” instead of “same-sex sexual relations.”
. Leviticus doesn’t mention same-sex female relations.
Laurie J. Braaten earned an MDiv from Nazarene Theological Seminary (1979) and a PhD from Boston University (1987). He taught Biblical Studies at Eastern Nazarene College (Quincy, MA) and Judson University (Elgin, IL). He has also served in various pastoral roles. Laurie is currently active in the Society of Biblical Literature. For more information see judsonu.academia.edu/LaurieBraaten.