For a while now I’ve been meaning to have a look at this essay by David Lose, on the question of whether or not the Bible is a reliable guide to morality. His answer is a qualified yes, where the qualification seems to be that you bring to your exegesis a highly-developed sense of right and wrong to keep you from taking seriously the Bible’s nasty bits. That seems a bit dubious, but rereading Lose’s column it is clear that addressing his argument requires first addressing this essay by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky
Friedman and Dolansky have written a book called The Bible Now, in which they presume to set the record straight about what the Bible says about various controversial topics. The essay linked above deals with homosexuality specifically, but previous columns addressed abortion and the status of women. In the skilled exegetical hands of Friedman and Dolansky, Biblical passages that sure sound like unambiguous condemnations of homosexuality turn out to be highly contextual prohibitions that can be ignored just as soon as they decide the moral zeitgeist has changed.
Not too plausible, but then I realized that Friedman and Dolansky were replying to this review of their book by Adam Kirsch at The New Republic, meaning that I really had to start there. So let’s have a look at Kirsch vs. Friedman and Dolansky, and leave Lose for another time.
In what follows, all Bible quotations come from the New Revised Standard Version.
There are no completely unambiguous references to homosexuality in the New Testament, though there are certainly verses to give us pause. Here’s 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10:
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers–none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.
The references to male prostitutes and sodomites sure sound like code words for homosexuals, and placing them casually among groups of highly undesirable people who will not inherit the kingdom of God provides no comfort to those who care about gay rights today. As it happens, though, the present discussion revolves entirely around two verses found in Leviticus. First we have Leviticus 18:20: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” We also have Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. ”
Someone possessed of a modern sensibility regarding gay rights is already feeling queasy, but things only get worse when we consider the surrounding context of these verses. Taking the second one first, we find that Leviticus 20: 1-5 reads:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Say further to the people of Israel:
Any of the people of Israel, or of the aliens who reside in Israel, who give any of their offspring to Molech shall be put to death; the people of the land shall stone them to death. I myself will set my face against them, and will cut them off from the people, because they have given of their offspring to Molech, defiling my sanctuary and profaning my holy name. And if the people of the land should ever close their eyes to them, when they give of their offspring to Molech, and do not put them to death, I myself will set my face against them and against their family, and will cut them off from among their people, them and all who follow them in prostituting themselves to Molech.
Here we have God Himself personally giving Moses a list of things He really doesn’t like. The list continues in verses 6-9. We pick up the action in verses 10-15:
If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbour, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall be put to death; they have committed perversion; their blood is upon them. If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. If a man takes a wife and her mother also, it is depravity; they shall be burned to death, both he and they, that there may be no depravity among you. If a man has sexual relations with an animal, he shall be put to death; and you shall kill the animal.
What more does God have to say to get the point across? Both participants in a homosexual act are to be put to death, and they are in the same moral category as those who have sex with animals. Case closed!
Things hardly improve in Leviticus 18. The opening chapter makes it perfectly clear that it is God Himself who is speaking, so we cannot argue that the various prohibitions listed so meticulously represent some ancient civil code that the Bible is acknowledging but not endorsing. Skipping ahead to verses 19-24 we have this:
You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness. You shall not have sexual relations with your kinsman’s wife, and defile yourself with her. You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. You shall not have sexual relations with any animal and defile yourself with it, nor shall any woman give herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it: it is perversion.
Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.
There are obscure passages of the Bible, but this is not among them. This prose is a model of clarity. I think that any writer, seeking to communicate the idea that homosexuality is really, really, really unacceptable, would write pretty much what you find in Leviticus. I’d say Friedman and Dolansky have their work cut out for them.
In his review, Kirsch writes:
The first chapter of The Bible Now is devoted to homosexuality, and it is not long before Friedman and Dolansky run into Leviticus 20:13. It is easy to sympathize with their embarrassment. Here the Bible is saying something they obviously regard as cruel and retrograde, something they would not hesitate to brand as homophobic in any other situation. What to do? Well, “for one thing, one must address the law in its context.” Turning from ancient Israel to Assyria, Egypt, and Greece, Friedman and Dolansky observe that these other Near Eastern societies generally had nothing against homosexual acts as such. They reserved their odium for the passive partner in anal sex, the man who was penetrated. A “Middle Babylonian divination text” instructs that “If a man copulates with his equal from the rear, he becomes the leader among his peers and brothers”; on the other hand, Plutarch writes, “We class those who enjoy the passive part as belonging to the lowest depths of vice.”
Never mind that these texts were written more than a thousand years apart, in two very different civilizations, neither of which was Israelite. Friedman and Dolansky use them to establish “the wider cultural context” of Leviticus, from which it follows that “what the authors of Leviticus … may be prohibiting is not homosexuality as we would construe the category today but, rather, an act that they understood to rob another man of his social status by feminizing him.” Why, then, does Leviticus, uniquely among ancient Near Eastern law codes, prescribe death for both partners in homosexual acts? Friedman and Dolansky argue, quoting another Bible scholar, that it is because Leviticus “emphasizes the equality of all. It does not have the class distinctions that are in the other cultures’ laws.”
This is a remarkable performance. Before you know it, a law that unambiguously prescribes death for gay men has been turned into an example of latent egalitarianism.
Kirsch is entirely correct here. I would add that if we take the text seriously then it is not the authors of Leviticus who are issuing prohibitions, but God Himself. As Kirsch notes, Friedman and Dolansky do not accept the divine authorship of the Bible, so they are free to understand the text as the creation of an uninspired human writer. But in that case, what is the point of this exercise? Why would it even occur to anyone to think the author of this portion of Leviticus, writing thousands of years ago, had any particular insight into sexual morality? The Levitical author plainly thought homosexuality was icky. That sensible moderns no longer think that is a welcome development, but it was not anything found in the Bible that led to this particular bit of moral progress.
How do Friedman and Dolansky get around Leviticus 18? Kirsch writes:
But wait: doesn’t Leviticus also say, in Chapter 18, that “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is an abomination”? Here too, Friedman and Dolansky have a reassuring response. “The technical term to’ebah, ”they write, is usually employed in the Bible not for absolute moral laws, but for cultic taboos: “an act or object that is not a to’ebah can become one, depending on time and circumstances.” Maybe homosexuality was once to’ebah, but “why do people assume that things relating to God must be absolute and unchanging? Even for a person who believes in God wholeheartedly, why should that person assume that God is never free to change?”
This is an extraordinary statement. That God is unchanging, at least on moral questions, is absolutely fundamental to quite a lot of Jewish and Christian theology. Especially among some Catholic theologians it is commonly argued that the notion of God changing his mind on some moral question entails a logical contradiction. God doesn’t choose to be good, He simply is goodness in its purest form. He can no more change His ideas of what is morally permissible than He can build a rock so heavy even He can’t lift it. This, moreover, is said to provide a way out of the Euthyphro dilemma.
Why should a believer in God reject the notion that God is free to change? Because such a notion completely puts paid to the idea of absolute morality grounded in God. Was God simply wrong when he said homosexuality was a sin? Unthinkable. But then are we to believe that homosexuality was wrong at the time that God condemned it but has somehow become right today? Then so much for absolute morality.
By this point, the game has been pretty well given away. “We must use [the Bible] with integrity–and humility,” Friedman and Dolansky remark in their preface. “We have to recognize what it teaches even when that teaching goes against what we want. Better to reject the Bible’s teaching than to twist it to make it say what we prefer.” Yet their treatment of Leviticus is nothing but a masterful example of twisting the text to make it say what they prefer. What licenses this kind of reading is the principle that “God is free to change,” that is, to change his mind about what is offensive and inoffensive, good and evil–but only, it seems, in ways that bring him more in tune with the views of people like Friedman and Dolansky (and, I hasten to add, myself).
Again, exactly right.
Let us turn now to Friedman and Dolansky’s response to Kirsch. They write:
We just want to remind you first that this is just one point in a larger treatment of a very controversial subject, and there’s much more to the chapter. There are several points here that call for treatment: Why does the text prohibit only male homosexual acts and not female? Which acts does it forbid: only penetrative intercourse, or all acts? These are in that chapter, and they’re important, but they’re not the subject of this post.
This is a useful paragraph for establishing the sort of hair-splitting in which Friedman and Dolansky engage. Are we seriously to think that verses declaring homosexuality to be a sin punishable by death, among other unpleasant things, is really worried about drawing fine distinctions between different forms of gay sex? And I doubt it even occurred to the male writers of Leviticus to worry about female sexual gratification. Their failure to mention lesbian sex specifically hardly seems like much of a reason for thinking the Biblical authors were OK with it.
But let’s move on to the real action.
The point on which we were thought to be “twisting” came up later in our discussion. We acknowledged that many people have recognized that these two texts pretty clearly do prohibit at least some kinds of male-male sex, but they have asked whether there is any legitimate “way out,” anything in the text that might provide for some change in the law. …
So we sought to contribute another perspective that we believe can be helpful on this subject. The text identifies male homosexual acts by the technical term to’ebah, translated in English here as “an offensive thing” or in older translations as “an abomination.” This is important because most things that are forbidden in biblical law are not identified with this word. In both of the contexts in Leviticus (chapters 18 and 20), male homosexuality is the only act to be called this. (Other acts are included broadly in a line at the end of chapter 18.) So this term, which is an important one in the Bible in general, is particularly important with regard to the law about male homosexual acts.
The question is: Is this term to’ebah an absolute, meaning that an act that is a to’ebah is wrong in itself and can never be otherwise? Or is the term relative — meaning that something that is a to’ebah to one person may not be offensive to another, or something that is a to’ebah in one culture may not be offensive in another, or something that is a to’ebah in one generation or time period may not be offensive in another — in which case the law may change as people’s perceptions change?
When one examines all the occurrences of this technical term in the Hebrew Bible, one finds that elsewhere the term is in fact relative. For example, in the story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis, Joseph tells his brothers that, if the Pharaoh asks them what their occupation is, they should say that they’re cowherds. They must not say that they are shepherds. Why? Because, Joseph explains, all shepherds are an offensive thing (to’ebah) to the Egyptians. But shepherds are not an offensive thing to the Israelites or Moabites or many other cultures. In another passage in that story, we read that Egyptians don’t eat with Israelites because that would be an offensive thing (to’ebah) to them. But Arameans and Canaanites eat with Israelites and don’t find it offensive. See also the story of the Exodus from Egypt, where Moses tells Pharaoh that the things that Israelites sacrifice would be an offensive thing (to’ebah) to the Egyptians. But these things are certainly not an offensive thing to the Israelites.
This argument completely backfires. The examples Friedman and Dolansky cite, in which the Hebrew word to’ebah refers to local customs and taboos, all have two things in common. The first is that they describe human beings talking to other human beings. In this they differ from the verses in Leviticus, which describe God Himself providing instructions to humanity. The second is that the context of their examples make it completely obvious that it is local customs that are being described. Again, not so in Leviticus. The verses in Leviticus look to virtually everyone like absolute prohibitions, which is why clever folks like Friedman and Dolansky must work so hard to argue for any other view. We now know that the Biblical authors were perfectly capable of expressing the idea of merely local taboos. Why then did they not do so in Leviticus?
More succinctly, when a person describes something as an abomination he is expressing an opinion. When God describes something as an abomination He is expressing a fact.
But they have an answer even to that:
Now, one might respond that the law here is different because it concerns an offensive thing to God — and is therefore not subject to the relativity of human values. But that is actually not the case here. The Bible specifically identifies such laws about things that are divine offenses with the phrase “an offensive thing to the LORD” (to’ebat yhwh). That phrase is not used here in the law about male homosexual acts. It is not one of the laws that are identified as a to’ebah to God!
What Bible did they read? As I’ve shown, in the Levitical verses we are told it is God Himself who is speaking. He is telling us directly what He finds offensive. This is not an instance of some priestly writer reporting on what he somehow knows is offensive to God. Moreover, the severity of the Biblical language against homosexuality makes it very hard to believe that it was just some trivial ancient taboo that was being described. After all, the land was defiled in part because of homosexuals, God punished them specifically for their behavior, and the land had to vomit them out. Is that usually what happens when you violate some local, changeable taboo?
Friedman and Dolansky close with:
Our colleagues with expertise in biblical scholarship and especially in biblical Hebrew may agree with or challenge this analysis. So far they have been complimentary.
I have no doubt that in the small community of Biblical scholars, this sort of analysis is considered very clever and highbrow. No doubt they endlessly pat each other on the backs for it and shake their heads sadly at those who think that when God personally describes something as an abomination, He actually intends to express His disapprobation for that something. But their arguments amount to nothing. To accept their conclusion we must believe that the Biblical authors once again (let us recall that the early chapters of Genesis come in for similar treatment at the hands of Biblical scholars) expressed themselves in ways that are most naturally understood in a manner almost precisely opposite to what they meant to say.
This is not reasonable. If you want to use the Bible as a moral guide then you are stuck with it. The text is not infinitely malleable, and you cannot reasonably interpret X to mean not X. Rather than try to twist the text to fit modern moral sensibilities, which despite their denials is precisely what Friedman and Dolansky are doing, why don’t we simply discard this particular ancient book and move on to more promising approaches to morality?