Amy-Jill Levine: How to read the Bible’s “clobber passages” on homosexuality

Views Amy-Jill Levine / September 12, 2022 Print this:
Amy-Jill Levine meets Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

Editor’s note: Outreach has preserved the author’s traditional Jewish usage of “G-d” out of respect for the Holy Name.

In 2017, I wrote an article for the Australian Broadcasting Company entitled “Not Good to be Alone: Rethinking the Bible and Homosexuality.” The prompt for this piece was the debate in Australia over same-sex marriage. Despite numerous, even countless articles on how to interpret the biblical passages typically cited in such debates, some pastors and priests continue to deploy the Bible in ways that exclude and condemn queer people. 

People arguing against churches being fully inclusive cite what are typically called the “clobber passages”: Genesis 19:1-38; Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:25-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:9-10 and Jude 6-7. A few also cite Genesis 1-2.

Conservative interpreters presume the meaning of these texts is self-evidently against consensual same-sex relations. In some cases, such as with the Levitical and Pauline materials, they are probably right.

However, limiting biblical interpretations to strict constructionist views is, theologically speaking, suggesting that G-d has nothing else to say, and so putting the Holy Spirit out of business. In terms of biblical studies, this approach ignores less apodictic, more ambiguous and even contradictory verses. 

Liberal interpreters adopt two major strategies to disarm the passages. First, they offer various historical claims that seek to read the verses as speaking to matters other than consensual same-sex relations (e.g., seeing the verses as related to sexual activity with slaves and/or children). Second, they sometimes relegate verses they find offensive to a “Jewish” mentality that Jesus rejects and Paul overcomes.

For these interpreters, the end, which is full inclusion for LGBTQ Christians, justifies the means: throwing both the Old Testament and the Jewish tradition under the bus.  

Usually missing in both cases is any humility. We do not know and cannot know what was in the mind of the authors and redactors of Genesis or Leviticus or the relevant New Testament passages; we do not know and cannot know what the first people to receive these works thought. In many of the clobber passages, we do not even know, for certain, to what the text refers. 

Let’s look at what the clobber passages say and at how they might be interpreted. I’ll use the term “Old Testament” to refer to the first part of the Christian Bible (rather than refer to the Tanakh, which is the Jewish Scripture), and I’ll argue from an historical perspective not on the basis of later Jewish interpretation, but simply on the biblical text.

My intent in this exercise is not to make historical claims based on my personal preference for queer advocacy rather than on my academic judgments. That would be dishonest. I write, rather, to provide support for people who have been harmed by citations of these passages, to show alternative readings and to listen to, rather than talk at, people.

I am not interested in debating those who still want to bar queer people from full enfranchisement, although I’ll happily add new positive readings to my list. I am also aware that this essay on gay and lesbian concerns does not address the specific concerns of trans, bisexual and other queer people. Here, I am here looking at the clobber passages in play when we only had “G” and “L” in our alphabet—and when “queer” was a term of insult. 

Genesis 1

G-d tells the males and females created in the divine image to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). From this first commandment, some Christians argue that sexual intercourse should be limited to fertile heterosexual couples and engaged in a way that could lead to conception. The argument fails on multiple levels.

First, the text is an endorsement of procreation, not a limitation of the sexual act. Second, this restrictive reading fails to allow sexual relations between couples who are incapable of reproducing, which is a denial of the goodness of creation. Third, this commandment was completed in Genesis 11:8-9, when humanity, following the fall of the Tower of Babel, filled the earth. 

Continuing with Genesis, we encounter the human creation story, a narrative that has led to the oft-repeated saying: “G-d created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” But G-d also created Steve. As for the idea that G-d created women as the man’s “helper” (Gen. 2:18, 20) because, unlike the animals, only women can help the man reproduce, this notion reduces women to wombs, negates any value for women who for whatever reason cannot reproduce and excludes the fact that childless couples can find fulfillment. 

Marriage and childbearing can be terrific (I speak from personal experience), but they are not the only markers of life abundant. Jesus never married and never had children. Paul states in 1 Corinthians 7:8 both that it is better to remain unmarried, as he is, and that the Corinthians would do well to imitate him.

Genesis 19

Genesis 19, the account of the punishment wrought upon Sodom and Gomorrah, has nothing to do with consensual sexual relations; the sins of Sodom are inhospitality, threat, and finally, attempted rape. Should this point not be clear, Ezekiel makes it so. Ezekiel 16:49 reads, “This was the sin of your sister Sodom; she did not support the poor and needy.” 

Should Ezekiel’s explanation not suffice, we can turn to Judges 19, a scene that recapitulates Genesis 19. In the first story, two strangers (they turn out to be angels) enter Sodom. There, Abraham’s nephew Lot offers them hospitality.

“All the people” (Gen. 19:4) of Sodom—including the women, which necessarily broadens their concern beyond male-male relations—seek to “know” (Gen. 19:5), that is, have sexual relations, with the strangers. Attempting to protect his guests, Lot offers the mob his two virgin daughters—another horrific subject for another time—but the mob insists. The angels rescue Lot and his household, and G-d destroys the city. 

In Judges 19, a Levite and his concubine seek shelter in the Benjaminite city of Gibeah, but no one welcomes them. Finally, a man from the tribe of Ephraim—like Lot, a foreigner in the city—sees the strangers in the open square and invites them to lodge with him. Now the Genesis replay: The locals seek to “know” the Levite (Judg. 19:22).

“Here’s a thought experiment: If we determine that same-sex relations are forbidden because they cannot increase the population, then given today’s problems with over-population, the logical conclusion is that we should commend non-procreative sexual expression.”

The host, protecting the Levite, offers the mob his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine instead. (In the biblical mentality, and for many even today, sexual abuse of men is considered more heinous than sexual abuse of women.) When the mob rejects the offer, the host tosses out the concubine, whom the Benjaminites abuse until morning. Once again, the plot concerns sexual violence, not homosexuality. 

Leviticus 18:22; 20:13

Leviticus 18:22, translated literally from the Hebrew, says, “and with a male (in Hebrew, zakhar) not will you lie the lyings (i.e., bedding) of a woman (mishkave isha); it is an abomination.” Leviticus 20:13 says basically the same thing, but it adds the penalty of capital punishment.

We do not know what “the lyings of a woman” are, and the only times the term appears are in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. If the text had simply said, “Don’t put your penis in the following locations,” we’d have a better idea of what it meant. Thus, even if we conclude that in relation to male addressees, “the lyings of a woman” is an idiom for male anal intercourse, we are speculating.  

On the liberal side, the arguments are extensive. Here are the top five.

First is the claim that the text forbids Israelite men from engaging in sexual relations with other men, because that’s what Canaanites were doing. A narrower version of this argument sees the prohibition directed at “temple prostitution.” Not likely: There is no evidence that such relations were celebrated in Canaanite contexts, and there is no clear evidence for such homosexual cultic prostitution.  

Second is the claim that the injunction intends to prevent male rape in the context of war. Again, nothing suggests such a limitation. 

A third view claims that Leviticus forbids male same-sex sexual relations because they cannot lead to procreation. Again, no: The Bible never forbids men having sexual relations with a pregnant or post-menopausal woman. (Sarah conceives in her 90s, but that’s a one-off.) Nor are sterile men forbidden to have sexual relations with women.  

The fourth view extends from the third: The claim that male-male sexual relations are forbidden because they would prevent heterosexual cisgendered relations, and so, decrease the birth rate. The point is silly. Gay and bisexual men can and do father children. A gay man can easily engage in sexual relations with another man and then (in most cases, given some amount of time) do the same with his wife.  

Also, on the third and fourth views, here’s a thought experiment: If we determine that same-sex relations are forbidden because they cannot increase the population, then given today’s problems with over-population, the logical conclusion is that we should commend non-procreative sexual expression.  

Fifth is the health claim: Anal intercourse (if that is in fact what the commandments prohibit) leads to anal tearing and therefore, Leviticus is promoting male health. Again, no, since there is no prohibition of heterosexual anal intercourse. Moreover, a number of women, especially post-menopausal women, experience a thinning of the vaginal walls which can also lead to tearing during sexual intercourse, but there is no prohibition of post-menopausal women engaging in sexual activity with men. 

What is the purpose of these Levitical verses? As with determining exactly what verses forbid, we can only speculate about their purpose. Here’s my take: I think Leviticus 18 and 20 are concerned about categories, organization and separation. Genesis starts with this organizing: separating light and day, the waters above from the waters below, the sabbath and the work week. It goes on to separate Israel from the nations. For much of the Bible, such separation is the way to organize life and avoid chaos.

Thus, in the biblical view, men do what the culture considers appropriate for men, and the same for women. Today, we call these concerns “gender roles,” culturally constructed patterns of behavior. For a male to “lie with a male the lyings of a woman” puts one of those males into the woman’s role, which would be category confusion. Thus, the injunctions probably, but not certainly, seek to forbid male anal intercourse.  

However, before leaving Leviticus 18 and 20, we do well to consider at least six other points. 

First, Leviticus says nothing about lesbians. For Leviticus: No penis, no ejaculation of semen, no problem. Thus, we see how the biblical text has a different definition of sexuality than we do today. 

Second, the Levitical passages are geographically limited to the land of Israel. This point does no good for my gay friends in Tel Aviv, but it should be good news for those in New York or Nashville. 

Third, these commandments are addressed to Israel, not to the gentile nations. Since Christians today are generally Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews), the laws given specifically to Israel, unless they are also repeated in the New Testament, are irrelevant. Christians need no more attend to Leviticus 18 and 20 on sexual relations than they need attend to Leviticus 11:10, which prohibits the consumption of shellfish. 

Fourth, the injunctions occur in the broader context of familial relations and what we today would call incest. Leviticus 18:9, for example, forbids brother-sister relations, whether the sister is the daughter of the man’s father or the daughter of the man’s mother (presuming blended families). The only other time the phrase mishkave, “the lyings of,” appears elsewhere in Torah is in the context of incest.

Genesis 49:4, Jacob’s testament to his sons, describes Reuben as having gone up to “the lyings of your father”—which is what Reuben did by having relations with Rachel’s slave and Jacob’s wife, Bilhah. Thus, Leviticus 18:22 may be focused on incestuous relations (males in the same family) rather than males from different households. 

“Thus, in the biblical view, men do what the culture considers appropriate for men, and the same for women. Today, we call these concerns “gender roles,” culturally constructed patterns of behavior.”

Fifth, let’s say that the commandment against “lying with a male the lyings of a woman” forbids anal intercourse—which seems to me a likely reading—then this single commandment does not forbid other forms of male-male sexual expression. 

Finally, if the text is about categories, then the take-away for today’s reader is possibly good news: You, male person, shall not lie with a male as with a woman—that is, gay relationships need not correspond to a heterosexist “husband and wife” model.  Did the author of Leviticus “intend” this reading? I doubt it. But the text can bear this meaning. 

Romans 1:26-27

To this gentile congregation Paul neither founded nor yet visited, the Apostle explains that despite not having the benefits of Torah instruction, they should have recognized the one G-d either through the wonders of creation or through the promptings of their own conscience. But the Gentiles instead “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25).

For this reason, Paul states, G-d handed them over to pathe atimias, “dishonorable passions,” so that “their females exchanged natural use (physiken chresin) for contrary to nature (para physin), and likewise even the males, giving up natural use of females, were inflamed with appetites for each other, males with males engaged in shameless acts” (Rom. 1:26-27a). 

Our first problem is what “natural use” signifies. While some interpreters claim that “natural” use means that a penis fits better into a vagina than it does into other apertures, the claim ignores the lack of injunctions against heterosexual couples engaging in anal intercourse as well as the lack of injunctions against oral sex and intercrural penile penetration (a typical form of pederasty). 

Our second problem is that Paul argues from nature. The problem, as I’ve elsewhere explained, is that what Paul thinks of as nature we today think of as culture. Nature does not prove that same-sex relations are unnatural, for the non-procreative is not the same thing as the non-natural. Nor are same-sex relations absent from more than 1,000 non-human animals, including sheep, female bottlenose dolphins and lions. 

Some commentators argue that Paul is speaking about heterosexual men who turned from what is “natural” for them, meaning intercourse with women, to what is “contrary to nature” for them, meaning intercourse with men. Others think that Romans 1 concerns orgies, given that the immediate narrative context speaks about lust, dishonorable passions and shameless acts. While I do not find either claim compelling, these speculations help us in realizing that Paul’s language is not clear. 

Finally, Paul’s label “contrary to nature” (para physin) is exactly the same description he uses in Romans 11:24 to describe how Gentiles “have been cut from what is by nature (kata physin) a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature (para physin), into a cultivated olive tree.” Here, an act contrary to nature creates being in a right relationship with G-d.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10

Paul’s first (extant) letter to the Corinthians says, “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! pornoi, idolaters, adulterers, malakoiarsenokotai, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” The key terms, which I’ve given in Greek, are the first problem, since we do not know exactly what they mean. The second problem: We do not know why Paul included these elements in his vice list. 

Pornoi, whence the English term “pornography” derives, has something to do with improper sexual behavior. The standard English translation is “fornicator,” although some versions offer “sexually immoral” or the quaint “whoremongers.” The problem: Definitions of what is sexually improper change over time. Prostitution? Sex out of wedlock? Flirting? A woman showing her ankle? A kiss?

“Since Christians today are generally Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews), the laws given specifically to Israel, unless they are also repeated in the New Testament, are irrelevant. Christians need no more attend to Leviticus 18 and 20 on sexual relations than they need attend to Leviticus 11:10, which prohibits the consumption of shellfish.”

Then we come to our two particularly relevant terms. For malakoi, translations include “male prostitutes,” “effeminate,” “catamite” (a prepubescent boy kept for pederastic relations), “homosexuals,” “sexual perverts” and “those who make women of themselves.” But malakos, in Greek means, “soft.” It connotes passive as opposed to active, and it can suggest men who spend too much time in self-indulgence and not enough time in disciplined physical training. 

It can also suggest a male who is penetrated by another male. In modern terms, we might imagine a man who spends more time in the library or in the laboratory than in the gym or on the football field. I’m okay with that.

Finally, arsenokotai is a neologism from arsen, meaning male (the Hebrew equivalent is zakhor) and koite, like the English coitus, coming from the Greek word for “bed.” Although frequently translated as “perverts” or, more often, “sodomites,” arsenokotai could also refer to pimps or procurers (i.e., those who put people in men’s beds for sexual gratification).  

What these words mean, or what they would have meant for Paul and his gentile friends in Corinth, we can only guess. It’s possible Paul constructed the term arsenokotai on the basis of the Greek translation of Leviticus 20:13 (LXX), which in forbidding the “lyings of a woman” uses the expression arsenos koitan gynaikos (of a male, bed/sexual intercourse/of a woman). 

It’s also possible that malakoi connote “bottoms” and arsenokotai connote “tops,” the so-called active and passive partners in a male-male sexual relationship. If this is the case, however, there is no reason for Paul to have created a neologism. 

1 Timothy 1:10

This so-called “Pastoral Epistle,” written in Paul’s name, offers us another vice list. The technical terms are, in the dative case, two words we have seen: pornois and arsenokoitais, plus a third term, andrapodistais. The last term, which first appears here in Greek literature, comes from andros, meaning “male,” and pous, meaning “foot.” The term probably refers to “kidnappers,” or better, “people-stealers” or “slave dealers” who took captives and sold them into slavery.

When we keep all three terms together, we may find a reference not to consenting relationships, but to coerced, commercial transactions: the “fornicator” who is interested in procuring an enslaved boy or man, the pimp or head of a brothel who provides the boy or man and the enslaver who sold the boy or man in the first place.

If we backtrack from 1 Timothy to 1 Corinthians, the definitions of pornoi as men seeking slaves for sexual satisfaction, malakoi as the boy-slaves and arsenokotai as the men who provided them offer another reading that has nothing to do with consent. 

Jude 6-7

According to Genesis 6:1-4, the “sons of G-d” saw that the “daughters of men” were beautiful and had sexual intercourse with them. This scene, which occurs immediately before the story of Noah and the Flood, gave rise to, or even may be a vestige of, the idea of heavenly beings who rebelled and so fell to earth. Greek stories of the Titans, defeated by the Olympian gods and consigned to the underworld, may be connected. 

The pre-Christian, Jewish text 1 Enoch details the activities of these “fallen” angels, including their teaching humankind the arts of war, of cosmetics, and of writing—activities that prevent honest face-to-face communication. Drawing from 1 Enoch or associated traditions, Jude 6 speaks of “the angels who did not guard their own realm, but left their own home, for the great day of judgment, being imprisoned/chained, under gloom, he [G-d] guarded.” In more colloquial terms, G-d consigned the angels who left the heavens for earth to what we think of as hell to await judgment day. 

“However, because we do not live in the early Iron Age or in the first-century Roman empire, we must judge whether what was appropriate then is appropriate now.”

Now, the clobber verse, with its allusion to Genesis 19: “Like Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, which with the same customs, acted in a sexually immoral way (ek-porneusomai, from porneia) and went away after other flesh (sarkos heteras), setting an example by suffering in a punishment of eternal fire.”  

Genesis 19 is about the attempted rape of strangers, who are, in fact, angels. Jude reverses the motif, for it alludes to angels who are engaging in inappropriate relations with women. For Jude, the issue is divine-human coupling, which is contrary to the nature of angels, who are, as Jesus puts it, neither married nor given in marriage (Matthew 22:30; Mark 12:25; cf. Luke 20:35). The text has nothing to do with homosexuality. 

Five quick, closing thoughts

1. We can, as I point out in my earlier piece, use Genesis 2 to trump (the term comes from bridge, not politics) Leviticus 18 and 20. If it is not good for human being to be alone, why would we condemn queer people to lives of singleness and celibacy? Similarly, we see the good in the “unnatural,” as Paul puts it, since it is through the “unnatural” grafting of the shoot from a wild olive tree into a cultivated tree that, metaphorically speaking, Gentiles can be justified.

There are other verses that have been, and can be, read as affirming to those outside of heterosexual monogamous relations, as there are verses that suggest that the G-d of the Bible transcends any gender roles we might construct.  

2. Those who argue that passages in the Bible speak against same-sex sexual activity are, in some cases, correct. Therefore, people who make such arguments should not be, pending lack of other evidence, condemned as bigots or haters. They are doing the best they can with the theological perspective they have. In such cases, it is often helpful to mention other matters on which the Bible is more clear, and more emphatic, the legitimacy of slavery and the second-class status of women being the most obvious.

These passages have been generally repudiated or rendered metaphoric by most of those who read the verses prohibiting same-sex sexual activity so strictly. The way forward, if we take seriously the idea that we are all molded in the divine image and likeness, is to determine the touchstone, such as love of neighbor and love of stranger. Anything that prevents such love needs to be questioned, if not eliminated. Not all passages are of equal import, and not all actions lead to wholeness. 

3. To rely only on the Bible, or on particular interpretations of particular verses, and to dismiss what we know from both science and from personal testimony is both harmful and theologically aberrant. Knowledge does not stop with the last verse of John’s Apocalypse. 

4. All biblical texts, like all law codes, must be interpreted. We do well to look at the Greek and the Hebrew, to see the texts as historical documents and to try to discern what they meant in their own time. However, because we do not live in the early Iron Age or in the first-century Roman empire, we must judge whether what was appropriate then is appropriate now. 

5. Discussions of these passages are not just matters of debate: lives depend on how we choose to read. When it comes to the lives, especially of young queer people, the hackneyed “love the sinner but hate the sin” does not help. Nor does telling them to “pray the gay away.” For people who have found their own gender or sexual identity, and who know what is true to them and for them, that truth sets them free from the constraints some church people would put on them.  

As the great RuPaul asks, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love someone else … Can I get an amen?”

Amy-Jill Levine

Amy-Jill Levine, one of the world's leading biblical scholars, is the Rabbi Stanley M. Kessler Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, Hartford International University for Religion and Peace, and University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies Emerita, Vanderbilt. Her publications include "The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus" and the co-edited "Jewish Annotated New Testament."

All articles by Amy-Jill Levine

Outreach is part of America Media. To support Outreach you can make a donation or subscribe to America.
5 Comments
  1. Very insightful and extensive overview of the various interpretations and scholarship around these passages!

    One small critique on the ‘thought experiment’ aside mentioned in the piece given that it’s a highlighted and enlarged blurb: it seems incorrect to state there is a matter-of-fact over-population problem in the world. This simplistic claim is at odds with evidence of collapsing birth rates across the world (which present their own problems) and feeds neo-Malthusian tendencies on the far right and far left. Even a passing claim like this should include much more nuance given its political valence.

    Reply
  2. I like most of the article, but Im a bit surprised that in the discussion of 1 corithians 6:9-10 it is not mentioned 1 corithians 6:11, as the full paragrah is not 9-10, but 9-11. And the meaning of the phrase change completely, as this is a paragraph of salvation, not of condemn. Basically St Paul was saying “all of you, sinners (from being drunk to avarice) were saved and justified by the glory of Jesuchrist and the Holy Spirit, so do not fear or despair anymore. It is a paragraph of salvation, not of condemn that is used to condemn just cutting the final part. Could be a worse manipulation of St Paul words, of Bible, than to cut this paragraph on half? A similar thing happen in Romans 1:25-26, which continues until Roman 2:11 and it is also about do not judge others, but it is used to judge and codemn, again but taking just a phrase out of context of the whole paragrah. In Romans the text is longer and split in two different chapters long after St Paul died, so I understand is harder to make the connection, but in 1 cor 6:9-11 they are literally just together but yet people chose to “forget” about verse 11, changing completely the meaning of the whole paragraph.

    Also I would like to point that 1 Cor 7:8 specifically defends asexual people as a good orientation, even better than heterosexual. Asexual people are also part of the LGTBQ+ community and also critized a lot for their sexuality, do 1 Cor 7:8 should be highligthed a lot, in my opinion, to stop asexual people to be pressed to do things they dont want, as if they were “timid” heterosexual persons, when they are not, they are simply asexual.

    Reply
  3. AJ Levine once again looks at scripture in ways that enlighten and educate. Her exploration of the clobber passages in the Bible is thorough and fair. This article is brilliant.

    Reply
  4. In what Christians call the “New Testament” Jesus never says anything to the effect that letting a part of one’s body touch or rub a part of another’s body; or that inserting a part of one’s body into an orifice of another’s body, had anything at all to do with “salvation” or with entering the “Kingdom of G-d.”

    Reply
    • What he does say earns entry into the “Kindom of G-d” is found in Matthew’s gospel chapter 25. There are just two groups of people to be judged.

      Reply
Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.