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Does the Bible Condemn Homosexuality?

by Elizabeth Sweeny

Many people argue that homosexuality is a learned sin, condemned by the Bible, and cite passages from Leviticus and Romans. 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 are also sometimes cited as well. Homosexuality, however, as we think of it today, did not exist then; there was no concept of a homosexual "orientation," only homogenital acts. Also, scholars disagree on the meaning of an obscure Greek term arsenokoitai, which is the basis for the homophobic interpretations of some Biblical passages. It can in fact be argued that God approved of homosexual relationships such as those between Jonathan and David or Ruth and Naomi.

The sin of Sodom (Genesis 19:1-11) has been immortalized in the modern word, "sodomite," but i'm hard-pressed to explain how the sin of Sodom is homosexual sex acts. I read it and take away a condemnation of the homosexual rape acts. Maybe it's just my homophile leanings, but i see the rape as the main point of that story. I think i'm not too far off base in that, though, given that almost every time it is cited it is in regards to inhospitality, or sometimes idolatry. Ezekiel 16:49-50 for example, states clearly: "Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me" (NIV).

Leviticus contains what is probably the second most cited "condemnation" of homosexual acts. Leviticus 18:22 reads: "‘Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable" (NIV). Many translations go even further and call it an "abomination." What exactly was meant by "abomination," though? The Hebrew word used was toevah and the Greek used bdelygma. These words refer to a ritual impurity or uncleanliness, or a taboo, and are sometimes even associated with idolatry. Both the Hebrew and the Greek had other words (zimah and anomia, respectively) that could have been used to indicate something wrong in and of itself, but those words were not used in reference to homogenital acts in this context. Leviticus 18:1-5 states,"The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrewes and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them. I am the Lord'" (NIV). It seems clear that the "abomination" of homogenital acts referred to in Leviticus refers to nothing more than Jewish purity. Homogenital acts were common in much of the Ancient World and were often an important part of pagan rituals, particularly fertility ones. Men often had sex with temple prostitutes as a way of indirectly offering their seed to the goddess. Though these prostitutes were usually female, some were males who had voluntarily castrated themselves, sacrificing their manhood to the goddess.

1 Timothy 1:9-10 states that, "We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers and mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine" (NIV). The word translated in this version as "perverts" is the Greek word malakoi meaning soft and could have meant morally loose, unrestrained. Through the ages its translation has ranged from child molesters to effeminate to masturbators.

1 Corinthians 6:9 reads, "Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders" (NIV). The phrase translated as in this version as "nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders" is the Greek phrase oute malakoi oute arsenokoitai. Arsenokoitai seems to refer to the active (penetrating) partner in male-male sex. Coupled with the word for soft, this is probably a condemnation of both partners in male-male sex. Given the religious practices of the Canaanites, it is likely another reference to the practice of male worshipers having sex with male temple prostitutes. It could also refer to abusive male-male sex.

Paul's letter to the Romans, which includes the only Biblical mention of lesbian sex, is the most complicated. Too long to quote in full here (Romans 1:18-32), it basically says that God was angry because of all the godlessness and wickedness of the people and therefore gave them over to unnatural lusts. Romans 1:21: "For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened" (NIV). So it seems that their sin was rejecting God. Romans 1:26 "Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones" (NIV). Now what exactly does Paul mean by "unnatural." He seems to mean out of the ordinary. In 1 Corinthians 11:14 he says it is a violation of nature (physis) for a man to have long hair. In Romans 11:24 when he describes God grafting the Gentiles onto the tree of the Jews he uses para physin, for it is unusual to graft a wild tree into a cultivated tree. In Paul's time, many sexual acts besides homogenital ones were considered "unnatural," and few if any of those would be considered immoral today. In verses 26 Paul uses the term "shameful lusts" (NIV) and in verse 27, "indecent acts" (NIV). The Greek word translated "shameful" is atimia, meaning merely "held in ill repute" or "socially unacceptable;" this is the same word Paul uses when referring to men having long hair. The Greek word translated "indecent," aschemosyne, means literally "not according to form," or "inappropriate." Paul uses this word in 1 Corinthians 7:36 to refer to the father who refuses to give his daughter in marriage; that is not the socially acceptable thing to do.

Besides not condemning homosexual acts as morally wrong but merely at that time associated with idolatrous practices and socially unacceptable, the Bible may in fact hold the story of a loving homosexual relationship, that of Jonathan and David. 1 Samuel 18:1-4 tells that, "After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved as himself. From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return to his father's house. And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt" (NIV). Later, when Saul is angry with Jonathan, he tells him in 1 Samuel 20:30, "You son of a perverse and rebellious woman! Don't I know that you have sided with the son of Jesse [i.e. David] to your own shame and to the shame of the mother who bore you?" (NIV). Shame being a common Old Testament way of referring to sex, it is highly possible that Saul is referring to a sexual relationship between Jonathan and David. And at Jonathan's death, as David nears the conclusion of his passionate speech of mourning he says, "I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women." (2 Samuel 1:26 NIV).

It is also arguable, though there is less evidence, that Ruth and Naomi were lovers. Despite the lack of evidence for this hypothesis, it is worth noting the declaration of love Ruth makes to Naomi: "Don't urge me to leave you or turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried." (Ruth 1:16-17 NIV).

And on an ending note, Jesus himself said nothing on the subject of homosexual relationships but consistently preached a gospel of love.

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"
"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength [Deuteronomy. 6:4-5]. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself' [Leviticus 19:18]. There is no commandment greater than these."
Mark 12:28-34 (NIV)


Helminiak, Daniel A. What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. San Francisco, CA: Alamo Square Press, 1994.

The Holy Bible. New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984.

Horner, Tom. Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1978.

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