When a Man Lies with a Man

This is the first installment of a series of posts inspired by the legislators of Indiana who apparently believe that the Bible condemns love between people of the same gender.  Among critical biblical scholars, this matter was largely settled more than a decade ago.  In this series, which originally appeared in The Fourth R, I share with you the results of that scholarship.  SP


When a Man Lies with a Man as with a Woman

People today widely believe that the Bible condemns being gay.  They get this idea from, well, reading the Bible.  When most people leaf to Leviticus 18:22 in their Bibles, they read something like this: “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.”  In Leviticus 20:13 they find identical words, only adding death by stoning as punishment.  That seems pretty clear.  End of story.  In our early 21st century American culture, a man who “lies with a man as with a woman” is usually thought to be gay.  But the Bible was not written in our day or for our time.  These two texts were written about 2500 years ago in a time and place scholars generally refer to as the Ancient Near East.  What did it mean for “a man to lie with a man as with a woman” in the Ancient Near East?

Male-male same-gendered sex in the Ancient Near East—so far as ancient texts discuss it—had three possible meanings: domination, recreation, and religious devotion.  To understand the first, one need only think today of prison sex or war-time rape, or read the news from Syria, where male rape has recently emerged as a tool of government repression.  This new thing is actually a very old thing.  In the Ancient Near East male-on-male sex was usually seen as an act of violence.  This was (and is) not gay sex.  It was heterosexual phallic aggression.  It was generally frowned upon, unless done in a context where violence and domination were the point, as in war.  Today the practice is shocking.  In the ancient world, not so much.

Ancient Near Eastern recreational male-male sex was a similar thing.  This is something one might do with a slave or personal servant in the absence of female companionship.  It was also frowned upon in some cultures, who viewed it as exploitative and demeaning to the man or boy who was forced to play the role of “woman” in such sexual activity (note the inherent sexism).  To lie with a man “as with a woman” pretty much captures the point.  Men were supposed to be men, not women.  Men pitch; they don’t catch.  Gilgamesh is a good example.  The chief shortcoming of the ancient king of Ur was his voracious sexual appetite, which he satisfied with women, daughters, and sons—no one was safe.

In the Ancient Near East, male-male sex can also have a religious meaning.  Sex as religious devotion is an odd concept for most of us, but it was not so for ancients.  The Ancient Near East is a dry place.  Agriculture there is a critical, but precarious undertaking.  Consequently, agriculture attracted a good deal of religious attention.  Fertility gods were common, as were fertility rituals.  Sometimes this involved ritual sexual activity with male priests, who, like the gods they represented, were thought to be androgynous—that is, both male and female.  Devotees believed that by planting one’s seed in such a priest, one could ensure the fertility of the earth for another year.  Odd to our ears?  Yes, but other peoples’ religion often seems odd to outsiders.

None of these meanings depended upon the homosexuality of the participants.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  All depended on the assumption that the initiator of the act was acting in the very heterosexual role of male.  A man could dominate another man by buggering him, thus forcing him into the subordinate role of female.  That is why it is permitted to rape one’s enemies at the end of a battle, but not to bugger one’s slave.  In the first, violent aggression is part of what the soldier signs on for.  In the second, you’re just taking advantage.  In the case of ritual sex, the devotee is seen as performing the heterosexual male role of planting his seed in another, in this case a man re-imagined as part-female.  So, was there actual gay sex in the Ancient Near East?  Probably.  But it is never discussed in the surviving literature.

What meaning, then, did the sex acts referred to in Leviticus have?  Theoretically it could have been any of the three: domination, recreation, or religious devotion.  Most scholars think it was the last of these.  This is because of the word used to condemn it: abomination, in Hebrew “to (ebah.”  This word is often used in contexts where religious offense is involved.  And this section of Leviticus, known to scholars as the Holiness Code, is all about steering clear of foreign religious and cultural practices.  So it probably means, don’t engage in sex with a foreign priest, but we cannot be sure.  It might mean, don’t bugger your slave.

But we can say very clearly what it does not mean.  It does not mean don’t fall in love with another man and have intimate sexual relations with him.  Male-male sex just did not have that connotation in the Ancient Near East.  Male-male affection is not unknown in that place and time.  A famous example from the Bible is the close relationship between Jonathan and David depicted in 1 and 2 Samuel.  David says of Jonathan, “Your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26).  And yet, the account of their relationship never mentions sex.  Male-male sex in the Ancient Near East does not mean “I love you.”  It means “I own you.”  Today, of course, it is different.  Male-male sex can mean “I love you.”  To such a thing Leviticus offers no comment.

Note: Most of what I know about any of this comes from Martti Nissinen’s excellent book, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World (Fortress, 1998).  I know of nothing better on the subject.  This post originally appeared in The Fourth R.  To subscribe to this informative publication, visit the Westar Institute on-line.