Scriptures and Theology
A Discussion Guide for Latter-day Saints in Understanding the Bible and Homosexuality
By Rick Fernández
The explorer returned to his people, who were eager to know about the Amazon. But how could he ever put into words the feelings that flooded his heart when he saw exotic flowers and heard the night-sounds of the forest; when he sensed the danger of wild beasts or paddled his canoe over treacherous rapids?
He said, "Go and find out for yourselves." To guide them he drew a map of the river. They pounced upon the map. They framed it in their town hall. They made copies of it for themselves. And all who had a copy considered themselves experts on the river, for did they not know its every turn and bend, how broad it was and how deep, where the rapids were and where the falls?
(from The Song of the Bird, pp. 32-33)
This short story illustrates the danger of self-deception in being an "armchair explorer," in confusing someone else's experience with the experience itself. The scriptures are records of other people's experiences that ought to prompt us to make similar spiritual explorations for ourselves. We should be unafraid to re-read the scriptures through the filter of our own experiences and in the light of both the guidance of the Spirit and the best in scholarship. Let's begin the process with a quick overview of the main passages traditionally used against homosexuality (since none of the Restoration scriptures deals with homosexuality at all, our primary focus must be the Bible). I will provide each scriptural citation along with its common interpretation, and then I will offer a series of points to consider in reevaluating the correctness of that interpretation.
The traditional interpretation has Lot taking in two visitors who in reality are angels sent by God to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness. An all-male mob surrounds Lot's house and demands that he expel the visitors, "that we might know them." The use here of the phrase, "to know," is commonly said to mean sexual activity. To placate the men, Lot instead offers them his two virgin daughters. The men, however, reject them and demand the angels (cf. the Joseph Smith Translation, which presents a harmonizing recasting of this aspect of the story). God therefore destroys Sodom and Gomorrah for their sin of homosexuality.
Points to consider:
The verb here, to know, is yadha in Hebrew. The Hebrew Bible uses yadha 943 times, almost always in the ordinary sense of "to know." Excepting its use here and in Judges 19:22, only 10 of those times is it used to mean "sexual intercourse." In those 10 cases, it always means heterosexual intercourse. When the Hebrew Bible does refer to homosexual intercourse or bestiality, it uses the verb shakabh, not found in this story (Bailey, pp. 181 ff.). It is also noteworthy that the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible used by the Jews of Christ's day) version of this passage implies nothing more than "become familiar with" or "become acquainted with" (suggenometha autois). This is in sharp contrast to the verbs the Septuagint employs in reference to Lot's daughters (egnosan, khresasthe), which clearly denote sexual activity (ibid., pp. 2-3).
If we allow the use of yadha here simply to mean "to know," the entire story fits much better into the context of the culture in which it was written. Lot himself was a resident alien living in Sodom, dependent on its hospitality and tolerance. By taking two strangers into his home within the city walls, he naturally aroused the suspicion of the locals, who would have felt every right to demand the identity of the strangers. A great city like Sodom had good reason in ancient times to fear unknown foreigners. The men of Sodom are roused to anger when Lot refuses their demand (v. 9 - "This fellow came to sojourn, and he would play the judge!").
In the ancient Hebrew world, hospitality was not an option but a sacred duty. This was because travel between cities was dangerous and often life-threatening (see Exodus 22:20; Lev. 19:33-34; compare to Matt. 25:35, 38 and 43). In this light, any mistreatment of Lot's guests would have been seen by the original readers as a serious sin against the obligation of hospitality (cf. Deut. 23:3-5). Note that even Lot points this out when he pleads with the men of Sodom in v. 8: "Do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof." To the ancient Hebrew, one characteristic of the righteous was the way they received strangers (Genesis 18:1-5).
Even if one assumes that the story as written was intended to condemn
homosexuality, why does the same scripture fail to condemn Lot's willingness
to offer his virgin daughters to be abused and degraded without their
consent? Why is the fact that the scripture says nothing about this
particular immoral behavior completely overlooked in attempts to draw
contemporary lessons about sexual morality from this passage? Most
Latter-day Saints would not hesitate to condemn the behavior this
passage attributes to Lot, yet with a strange inconsistency they do
not question the adequacy of the moral vision that underlay the condemnation
of homosexuality alleged to exist in this story.
The scriptures themselves never understand the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah to
be homosexual behavior. Ezekiel (16:49-50) says that the sin of Sodom
was living in pride, plenty and thoughtless ease; they ignored the
poor and needy, and committed abomination. Isaiah (13:19) condemns
Sodom for its injustice, while Jeremiah (23:14; 49:18, 50:40) defines
the sin as moral laxity. In the so-called apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus
(16:8) also views the sin as pride: "He did not spare the people among
whom Lot was living, whom he detested for their pride." Wisdom (19:13-15)
describes the sin of Sodom as unwillingness to receive strangers.
In Luke 9:51-56, Jesus refuses to call down fire on a Samaritan town
at the request of James and John who want it punished, as was Sodom.
What was the great sin of the Samaritan town? It was their refusal
to show hospitality. In Luke 10:8-12, Jesus makes explicit this parallel
between the inhospitality of Sodom and the inhospitality of those
who would reject him and his messengers.
The ancient Jewish rabbinical commentaries on the Hebrew scriptures, the Talmud and the Midrashim, are nearly unanimous in identifying Sodom's sin as pride, arrogance and inhospitality. Only once in all this voluminous body of ancient commentary is there any connection made between Sodom and homosexuality: "The Sodomites made an agreement among themselves whenever a stranger visited them they should force him to sodomy and rob him of his money."
Turning to the New Testament, two passages, II Peter 2:4-9 and Jude
6-7, seem to understand Sodom's sin as unnatural sexual behavior.,
which some have said must mean homosexuality. These two passages,
however, may be condemning a different sexual sin altogether: the
unnatural intercourse between "angels who kept not their first estate"
and mortals who go after "strange (in Greek, different) flesh." It
must be kept in mind that the ancient Jews believed that sexual contact
between mortals and angels, who constituted two different orders of
beings, was itself unnatural and wrong (see Genesis 6:1-8, where the
Flood is sent to destroy the earth, partly because the "sons of God"
take the "daughters of men" to wife). The Book of Enoch also mentions
the wickedness of this unnatural act, and Enoch 2 is actually quoted
by Jude in this very context. Two other ancient Hebrew works, the
Testament of Naphtali 2:4-5 and the Book of Jubilees 7:20-22, 16:5-7
and 20:5-6, make it clear that the Sodomites were cursed because,
like the angels of Genesis 6 who violated the order of nature by whoring
with the daughters of men, they too were violating nature by seeking
after the angels. This, not homosexuality, would be the sin of Sodom.
Such a non-sexual interpretation of Sodom is nothing new in LDS thought. Joseph
Smith himself taught that "the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah . . .
were destroyed for rejecting the prophets." (spelling modernized,
Ehat & Cook, p. 156) One contemporary LDS scholar has expressed a
view that reflects a non-sexual interpretation of the sin of Sodom.
Hugh Nibley, in Approaching Zion, p. 55, writes: "[Satan] 'decoys'
our minds . . . with false words and appearances. A favorite trick
is to put the whole blame on sex. Sex can be a pernicious appetite,
but it runs a poor second to the other. For example: We are wont to
think of Sodom as the original sex pot, but according to all accounts
'this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom': that great wealth made
her people cruel and self-righteous. The worst sinners, according
to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the righteous leaders
with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful
observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols,
their strict legality, their pious patriotism."
In a parallel story to that in Genesis 19, here we read of a traveling Levite and his concubine from Ephraim who seek hospitality in the village of Gibeah, in Benjamin. They are met by an old man who offers them lodging. The men of Gibeah then come to the house, and demand that the old man bring out his guest, "that we may know him." Like Lot, the old man begs them to refrain and offers his daughter or the concubine to the men, to do with them whatever they wish. The guest then throws his concubine outside and the men gang-rape her till morning, at which point she dies.
Points to Consider:
It is worth noting again that the scripture makes no comment on the moral quality of the actions of the old man or the Levite in offering women to be gang-raped. The adequacy of the moral vision offered in this passage and in Genesis at a minimum leaves much to be desired and hardly suffices as a sturdy basis on which to build a theology of sexuality.
Cast in sexual terms, the story makes little sense. If indeed the men of Gibeah, like those of Sodom, were homosexual, what possible interest would they have in having sex with women? Why would they even consider accepting such an offer, as they certainly did in this passage?
In the following chapter (20:4-5), the Levite makes it clear that the men of Gibeah wanted to kill him. The motive, therefore, of their actions could not have been simply sex but murder. Even granting that it were simply sexual, this would obviously be a story about rape, done by men who indulged in it as a degrading sport. This is, in fact, what the men did to the concubine, raping her to her death.
Deuteronomy 23:17-18; I Kings 14:24, 15:12,
22:46; II Kings 23:7
The LDS edition of the Bible uniformly accepts the King James translation
of the word kadesh (singular) or kadeshim (plural) as
sodomite. The Hebrew literally means "holy man" or "holy men." Both
the men and women of Israel were forbidden to be one of these (the feminine
form is kedeshah). The translators of the KJV assumed that these
passages all referred to homosexual behavior., and thus rendered the
Hebrew as "sodomites," since by the time of their translation (1611
A.D.), the belief that the sin of Sodom was homosexuality was quite
Points to Consider:
Modern researchers studying other literary and archaeological sources contemporary to the Bible have discovered overwhelming evidence of priests and priestesses of the Canaanite fertility cult who practiced ritual prostitution. The Canaanites believed that by having ritual sex with a priest or priestess (kadeshim), and paying them a "votive offering" for this service, they could gain the favor of their deities. The religion of Israel was often in danger of being infected by such practices, and all too often fell prey to them, in spite of frequent prophetic warnings (see I Kings 14:22-24 and II Kings 23:7). It is hard to understand how this type of cultic prostitution could ever be equated with same-sex affectional orientation.
It is interesting to observe that in the LDS edition of the Bible, the word "sodomite" in Deut. 23:17 is footnoted with the following: "HEB a professional male or female prostitute, or cultist." Nevertheless, despite this important clarification, the footnote goes on to refer the reader to Homosexuality in the Topical Guide!
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13
The law in these passages clearly prohibits sexual relations between males. The penalty for such a crime is death. Since it was prohibited as an abomination in ancient Israel, many argue, it should also be forbidden today.
Points to Consider:
The Hebrew word for "abomination" is to'ebah. In the Hebrew Bible, this word is typically used to refer to idolatry or to those practices associated with idolatry. These pagan practices were sometimes, but not always, sexual in nature. If one examines the context of these passages, they both occur within that section of Leviticus known as the Holiness Code. The purpose of this Code was to protect the Israelites from the idolatrous, defiling practices of their surrounding pagan neighbors. Furthermore, these passages occur in sections that refer to the Canaanite fertility god Molech. All the practices associated with fertility cults, such as incest, bestiality and adultery, are condemned in this context. In this setting, it is more reasonable to infer that these verses are, once again, referring to the ritual homosexual prostitution associated with these pagan fertility cults.
It is difficult to see how these verses could be used to condemn all homosexuality, as they often are. Why? Because they only prohibit sexual relations between males, and say nothing about women having sex with other women. This silence cannot be explained away by saying that what women did was unimportant, though in fact this was often the case in the ancient Hebrew world. In both of these chapters women as well as men are prohibited from having intercourse with animals. Why then, if homosexuality as such is being condemned, does the law only prohibit men from engaging in it?
A possible answer may lie in the fact that the Hebrews had a great reverence for male semen, believed that it contained the complete seed of life. They had no scientific knowledge about the nature of conception and gestation. They believed that the man simply placed the seed into the woman, who then carried it to term. They knew nothing about women having eggs. Nor did they know that mating between species could not lead to conception. Thus males were forbidden to waste their seed (Genesis 38:6-10) or from placing it inside of animals, lest a "confusion" result. Women were forbidden from sex with animals for the same reason, but presumably were not forbidden relations with each other, since there was no seed involved.
In the patriarchal society of the ancient Near East, male dignity was supreme. Anything, even the lives of women, could be sacrificed in order to protect it, as brutally illustrated in the Sodom and Gibeah stories. Women were seen as derivative and secondary to men. To treat a man "as a woman" was the ultimate humiliation. In light of this fact, it was not uncommon among Israel's neighbors for victors to rape their vanquished enemies after battle, thus reducing them to the status of women, as a sign of total conquest. It is likely that the ancient Hebrews were not immune from such cultural influences and thus also associated same-sex relations with degradation of the male sex.
Even if these passages are taken as absolute prohibitions on any sex between males, one must ask why these passages are taken as binding today and other "moral" condemnations found in these same chapters are not. For example, a man who has sex with his wife while she is menstruating is to be banished (Lev. 18:19 and 20:18). The wearing of cloth made of two different types of fiber is banned (Lev. 19:19). Men with certain physical handicaps are prohibited from being ordained to the priesthood (Lev. 21:16-21). And what do we do with the death penalty that is required for same-sex relations? Why is one law taken literally and another ignored? What is the principle of interpretation being used here? And what does it mean to say, as Paul does, that "now we are released from the law, dead to what held us captive, so that we may serve in the newness of the spirit and not under the obsolete letter" (Romans 6:7). If the Holiness Code has any meaning for us as Latter-day Saints today, does it not mean that we should take seriously the fact that we are still a "peculiar people," set apart and holy, and that our worship of God should be grounded in personal surrender, integrity and faith, undefiled by the attempt to control and use either God or other people?
I Corinthians 6:9; I Timothy 1:10; Romans 1:18-32
These passages speak of those people who, because of their immoral practices, exclude themselves from the Kingdom of God. Among these are the "effeminate" and the "abusers of themselves with mankind." Those who give up their "natural" desires and lust after members of their own sex are condemned. Many have understood these phrases to be clear references to homosexuals.
Points to Consider:
In I Corinthians, Paul uses two words in Greek, malakoi and arsenokoitai, which are translated in the KJV as "effeminate" and "abusers of themselves with mankind." Arsenokoitai also appears in I Timothy. That either of these two terms might mean "homosexual" as we mean it today is sheer speculation. In Greek, there was no specific word for one who is homosexual, since the ancient Greeks who practiced homosexual intercourse were also often married and active heterosexually. There were, however, many Greek words for those who practiced this type of homosexuality: paiderastes, pallakos, kinaidos, arrenomanes, and paidophthoros. It is instructive to observe that Paul did not use any of these common, unmistakable terms.
Malakoi (the plural of malakos) literally means "soft" in Greek. Thus, employed in a moral context, the word could easily take on the meaning of one who is "loose" in morals, or lacking self-control. This is exactly the meaning the early Church Fathers gave to this Greek word in their own writings. It is also probably what the King James translators meant by the word "effeminate," since in 17th century England this word did not mean what we understand by it today. Interestingly, the LDS edition of the Bible contains a footnote here stating that the Greek means "catamite," i.e., a boy who is kept for sexual purposes. Despite this, there is little evidence from ancient Greek literature that the word malakoi carried that implication.
Arsenokoitai (literally, koitai, "those who have sexual intercourse" and arseno, "male" or "masculine") is also an ambiguous word. It is unclear whether male is the subject, in which case it would mean "men who have sex," i.e., male prostitutes, or whether male is the object, in which case it would mean men who penetrate other men sexually. While some interpreters have understood this word to mean those who take the "active" role in homosexual intercourse, is it not relevant that not one of the native Greek-speaking Fathers of the early Christian church, men who though they were often rabid in their condemnation of homosexuality, never understood this word or malakoi to refer to homosexuality? Could we not expect that they would have readily used such scriptural texts against homosexuality, if indeed that is how they were understood?
Once again, it is critical to understand the historical and social context of the scriptures at issue. Corinth was a city dominated by the worship of the fertility goddess Venus. Ephesus, where Timothy lived, was also a center of fertility worship. Paul spends much of his time dealing with issues that directly faced Christian converts from those fertility cults, such as incest, meat offered to idols, sexual relations with prostitutes and the behavior and dress of women. Given this context, the word arsenokoitai may more plausibly be translated "cultic prostitutes." We know that the contemporary Romans had a Latin word, drauci, that described male cultic prostitutes who had sex with both men and women.
Even if one grants that these two terms refer to those who are "active" and "passive" in sexual activity, it is surely obvious that they cannot adequately describe the complete picture of what it means to be homosexual. If Paul is only speaking of the common practice of homosexual prostitution and condemning it, how can this be applied in the same way to loving, committed, respectful and life-enriching same-sex unions?
There can be no doubt that the passage in Romans refers to same-gender
sex. It is important, again, to situate Paul's comments in the wider
context of this section of Romans. He is condemning idolatry, and
describing what can happen when humans worship the creature instead
of the Creator. Because they have exchanged truth for a lie, God gives
them up to their depravity. The situation that results seems clearly
to involve what we could call heterosexual males giving up what is
"normal" for them and seeking homosexual behavior. out of lust and
perversity. To take this passage and apply it to someone who has never
felt a "normal" heterosexual desire is to force Paul to say something
far beyond the situation he was trying to describe. We must not forget
that in Paul's day, there simply was no idea that people might have
a sexual orientation toward the same gender, or even the idea of sexual
orientation as we know it today. Nor is it clear that Paul is speaking
of same-sex activity among women. We have no definite statement that
Paul was referring to homosexuality when he described women going
"against nature." He could have meant they were performing certain
heterosexual acts that to him appeared unnatural. Once again, however,
it is unlikely that Paul could have been referring to lesbians, since
by definition a lesbian is a woman for whom attraction to other women
is natural, and not attraction to men.
Finally, we might ask whether what Paul considered to be in accord with nature was his own opinion or a reflection of God's view on the matter (similarly, LDS church leaders have voiced personal opinions in public that later have been discarded regarding, e.g. slavery, monogamy or the unnaturalness of oral sex). It would not be the first time that an uninspired opinion appeared in Paul's writings (see I Cor. 7:25). In I Corinthians 11:14, Paul uses the same argument from nature to state that it is a shameful thing for a man to have long hair. In 14:34-35 Paul says that women are to remain quiet in the congregation, and that it is shameful for them to speak. How binding are these views of his today? Have we not felt free to discard them when they did not fit our own experience?
God Continues to Speak
In conclusion, the argument that scripture condemns homosexuality is far from decisive. There are too many unanswered questions yet to be resolved. It seems far more likely that the scriptures condemn immorality, rape, inhospitality and the refusal to acknowledge God as the Lord of creation. As to the phenomenon of genuine same-sex orientation, the standard works, as with many other contemporary issues, simply have never made any statement. This should not disturb or surprise Latter-day Saints. As a church, we have never believed that the scriptures are God's complete and final word on any subject. We believe that God continues to speak his Word. Our belief is that there are many important things still to be revealed that pertain to the building of the Kingdom of God.
One theme that we know is central to the building of the Kingdom,
however, is the inclusive nature of God's call. Isaiah 56:4-5 reveals
the broad nature of this call when he prophesies that the day will
come when even the eunuch will be called into the Kingdom. The eunuch
was despised for being barren. He was considered cut off from the
people of God. Isaiah foretells the day when the eunuch who joins
himself to God will have an everlasting name and a monument within
the Temple that is better than having sons or daughters. Such a blessing
was inconceivable to the ancient Jews, and should give modern LDS
reason to consider whether the current view of God's plan suffers
from similar limitations. In Acts 8:26-40, we see this prophecy begin
to be fulfilled as Philip, led by the Spirit, converts and baptizes
the Ethiopian eunuch, an outsider to God's plan on two counts. Are
we limiting God's inclusive work today by failing to reach out to
another group of people who have also been considered cut off? Thus,
the question should not be, "What do the scriptures say about homosexuality?"
but rather, "Given a new knowledge of what homosexuality is, what
is the Spirit teaching us about how we should respond?" Unless we
ask this question boldly, we risk seeking guidance from human-made
assumptions and not from the Source of truth itself.
The Bible and Homosexuality, Michael E. England, UFMCC, 1986.
The Song of the Bird, Anthony de Mello, an Image Book, 1982.
Homosexuality and the Bible: An Interpretation, Walter Barnett, Pendle Hill Pamphlet, 1979.
Homosexuality & Scripture from a Latter-day Saint Perspective, Alan David Lach, Affirmation/Gay & Lesbian Mormons, 1988.
Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition, Derek Sherwin Bailey, Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1975.
Human Sexuality, A Preliminary Study, The United Church of Christ, United Church Press, 1977.