By DANIEL A. HELMINIAK
According to Leviticus 18:22, “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman: it is an abomination.” Abomination sounds bad, but the Hebrew and its ancient Greek translation use words, toevah and bdelygma, that merely mean religious violation: unclean, impure, taboo—just as in sewing two different cloths into one garment, two seeds in one field, or having a menstrual flow or a seminal emission. Abomination implies religious uncleanness. It suggests something is askew: dirty. It does not necessarily imply wrong or sin.
According to the ancient Jewish conception, the going “science of the day,” the essence of maleness is to penetrate, and the essence of femaleness is to be penetrated. One Hebrew term for “female,” naqeba, means something like “orifice bearer”! But essences were not to be mixed. So sea creatures without fins and scales and non-cud-chewing, cleft-hoofed animals are aberrations, anomalies; they are unclean, not to be eaten. Similarly, penetrative sex between men is taboo, not to be done.
To depart from this Jewish worldview was to betray one’s Jewishness and to misuse God’s creation as it was understood. It was a violation of heritage and religion—but not of the inherent “nature” of sex. Not nature, but culture, is at stake; not ethics, but religious practice.
Revealingly, sex between women was not forbidden. It is not that women were forgotten. The very next verse about sex with animals mentions men and women. It is that two women cannot have sex that counts: they cannot penetrate. Furthermore, the Talmudic commentaries hold that the Torah does not forbid non-penetrative sex between men.
Jesus rejected those ancient purity laws: sin is in the heart, not on the unwashed hand (Mark 7:1-8). Taboo is not injustice, wrong, or sin. Custom and ethics are very different things. This was Jesus’ challenging teaching—so relevant to our current world order!
“Unnatural” Another key passage on male-male sex is Romans 1:26-27: “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.”
The Greek term para physin has been translated unnatural, but it should read atypical or unusual. In its technical sense, yes, the Stoic philosophers did use para physin to mean unnatural; but this term also enjoyed widespread popular usage. The popular is the sense in Paul’s writings, and it implies no ethical condemnation.
In Romans 11:24, Paul uses this very term to speak of God’s doing. God grafted the Gentiles into the Jewish people, a wild branch into a cultivated vine. Not your standard horticultural practice! An unusual thing to do! Atypical! Nothing more. The anti-gay cry of “unnatural” rests on a mistranslation.
Besides, Paul uses two other words to describe male-male sex: dishonorable (1:24, 26) and unseemly (1:27). Neither are these terms ethical for Paul. In 2 Corinthians 6:8 and 11:21, Paul relates that even he was held in dishonor—for preaching Christ. Clearly, these words merely indicate social disapproval.
Paul is referring to Leviticus. He is talking about uncleanness, cultural taboos. He says so outright in 1:24: “God gave them up…to impurity.” Contrast his words about sex—don’t run them together—with 1:28’s “things that should not be done,” ta me kathekonta, another Stoic term meaning genuine wrongs.
Paul’s point, with Jesus, is that impurity is irrelevant for Christians. Paul used male-male sex as his commonplace and hardly controversial example, taboo for the Jews but standard among the Gentiles. Paul himself is indifferent: “I know and am persuaded in the lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (14:14).
Far from condemning non-standard sex, Paul was reprimanding the Jewish Christians (2:1-4, 29) for dividing the Christian community over it: “As in one body, we have many members, and not all the members have the same function” (12:4).
Conclusion Biblical matters are sometimes subtle; they require study and thought. That’s too bad. Simple answers have popular appeal, especially in emotional matters. Thus, the literalist bandwagons roll on, honking and blaring about divine condemnation—but in light of the Bible’s original intent, they’re going down the wrong road.
Recently returned to hometown Pittsburgh, Daniel A. Helminiak is a retired Professor of Psychology, University of West Georgia. He holds PhDs in both theology and psychology, has taught Human Sexuality for over 20 years, and has published ten books on theology, psychology, spirituality, and sexuality. His What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality, the basis of this article, is an international best-seller, translated into seven languages.
(TMC newspaper VOL. 48 No.8 October 2018. All rights reserved)