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Thematic Guide: LGBTQ Sexuality and the Hebrew Bible

Rhiannon Graybill, Rhodes College
graybillr@rhodes.edu

Sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity are subjects of great interest for contemporary readers of the Bible. This guide will provide a concise overview of LGBTQ sexuality in the Hebrew Bible. After introducing the range of LGBT and queer approaches to biblical interpretation, it will outline ancient Israelite ideas of sexuality, as well as those of neighboring cultures. The guide will also review key texts for LGBT and queer reading of the Bible, including laws addressing homosexuality (Lev. 18:22 and 20:13) and cross-dressing (Deut. 22:5), the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19), biblical examples of homoeroticism, and texts that describe alternate forms of sexuality or gender identity.

Key terms

The term “LGBT” stands for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender.” Sometimes, “Q” is added, for either “queer” (a broad term with a range of meanings linked to non-heteronormative sexualities, discussed further below) or “questioning.” The term “homosexual” has increasingly been replaced by “gay” (for men or women) and “lesbian” (for women), though “homosexuality” is still used. LGBT/LGBTQ is preferred over previous formulations like “lesbian and gay,” which neglected bisexuality and transgender concerns. Sometimes, longer variants of the acronym are used, such as “LGBTQQIA,” where “I” stands for “intersex” and “A” for asexual (the two Q’s are “queer” and “questioning”). The nomenclature continues to evolve.

The term “queer” stands in an uneasy relationship to LGBT. While it was originally used as a pejorative, it has been reclaimed as a way of describing non-heterosexual or non-heteronormative sexualities. Its scope is broader than “gay,” “lesbian,” or “LGBT,” though it is sometimes used as a catchall to describe these categories. “Queer” can also be used to describe non-normative practices (homosexual or heterosexual) such as BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism). As a result of this range of meanings, the term “queer” has been both praised and criticized for its flexibility and breadth. Queer Theory is a recognized field of academic study, with its own body of scholarship. The term is also used in biblical studies; there is even a Queer Bible Commentary that covers every book of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament (London: SCM, 2006).

While “transgender” is grouped together with gay, lesbian, and bisexual under the umbrella of “LGBTQ,” it describes not sexuality but gender identity. Transgender means that one’s self-identified gender differs from one’s assigned sex. Transgender is different from “intersex” (“I”), in which biological sex is ambiguous for genetic, hormonal, or other reasons. Intersex has many causes and may occur in varying degrees.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Interpretation and Queer Criticism and Queer Theory are both used in approaching the Bible. Scholars have developed further nuances to the relationship between these two approaches. For readability and simplicity, this guide will use “LGBTQ” (grouping “queer” with “LGBT”) where such a compound term is possible; when necessary, it will distinguish between LGBT and queer or refer to specific subsets such as “lesbian interpretation” or “transgender interpretation.” In keeping with common practice in biblical studies, it will also use the term “homoeroticism.” This term describes a range of same-sex eroticism; it is also a response to a common criticism of “homosexuality” as a modern category, an argument advanced by many scholars in queer theory.

LGBTQ Interpretive Approaches to the Hebrew Bible

There are a wide range of LGBTQ approaches to the Hebrew Bible. The first wave of interpretations was openly political. Interpreters placed significant emphasis on “texts of terror” for LGBTQ people (for example, Gen. 19, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; the laws about male homosexuality in Lev. 18:22 and 20:13). The phrase “texts of terror” appears in Derrick Sherwin Bailey’s 1955 Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (London: Longmans). These texts were often wielded against LGBTQ people or used to justify homophobic violence. In response, LGBTQ interpretation has tried to intervene and offer rehabilitative readings of the biblical text and its related traditions. Alongside this work, other readers sought to discover LGBT and queer ancestors in the text, offering an alternative script to that of the “texts of terror.” Texts such as Nancy Wilson’s Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible (San Francisco: Harper, 1995) helped begin this process.

LGBTQ interpretation is not limited to apologetic readings of the tradition, however. A second strand of interpretation applies the traditional tools of biblical criticism, including the historical-critical method, to texts that appear to condemn same-sex sexuality. These approaches emphasize the historical contexts of the biblical texts, thus offering an implicit (or explicit) argument against using these texts to adjudicate modern sexual practices, homosexual or otherwise. Other scholars, however, have suggested that focusing on a limited spectrum of “texts of terror,” however laudable the intention, ends up reinforcing categories such as “homosexuality” that are anachronistic and conservative. An alternative is “queering the text,” a wide range of playful, deconstructive, and radical approaches that constitute queer criticism. The range of meanings assigned to “queer criticism” is broad because Queer Theory itself is suspicious of definitions and categories as unduly limiting. New LGBT and queer approaches continue to emerge in the field of biblical studies and in communities reading the Bible.

Sexuality in Ancient Israel

In the contemporary world, it is common to speak of sexuality in terms of “sexual orientation.” As this term suggests, the object of one’s sexual desire plays a key role in defining one’s sexual orientation. Is the object of the same (homo-) sex, or an opposite (hetero-) sex? Furthermore, identity categories such as “heterosexual,” “homosexual,” or “bisexual” are often treated as relatively fixed descriptions. As the popular LGBTQ slogan “born this way” suggests, sexuality is represented as an identity that is difficult or even impossible to change. (It is important to note, however, that this assessment is debated in sexuality studies, and some scholars argue that sexuality and sexual attraction are fluid, dynamic, and mutable.)

In biblical times, sexuality was understood differently. “Homosexuality” in the modern sense of an identity did not exist. Instead, specific sexual acts were regulated or prohibited. A number of laws regulated sexual practice; there are also narratives that establish or describe norms of sexuality. Procreative sex was most highly valued, reflecting the command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:26-28) as well as difficulties with pregnancy and childbirth faced by Israelite women. Forms of sex that did not result in offspring were criticized or forbidden, including bestiality (Exod. 22:19, Lev 18:23, 20:15-16; Deut. 27:21) and use of the withdrawal method (Gen. 38:8-10). Sexuality was also used as a marker of identity and difference;marriage functioned as both a way of marking group boundaries and transgressing them. Female prostitution was permitted but criticized; there is no evidence of male prostitution.

Regulations on sexuality were also linked to regulations of the body; genital discharges and certain forms of sexual conduct lead to ritual impurity. The penetration of the body, whether by weapons, through sexual intercourse, or otherwise, was a major threat to hegemonic masculinity in the Hebrew Bible. Policing and maintaining the boundaries of the body was thus important for reasons of ritual purity and gender performance. Comparative evidence suggests that relations in penetrative sex were indexed to social relations of power, with the active/insertive role considered more socially powerful than the passive/receptive role. Unlike in modern understandings, the gender of the sexual partners was not the primary concern.

Comparative Perspectives on LGBTQ

In addition to biblical texts and archaeology of ancient Israel, biblical scholars sometimes use comparative materials from the ancient Near East and the ancient Mediterranean to help understand and contextualize biblical ideas of sexuality. Assyriology has contributed a great deal to the study of the Bible; while studies of sexuality in ancient Mesopotamia remain limited, they have offered some useful parallels to biblical texts. Martti Nissinen (Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998])has demonstrated that the Middle Assyrian laws and Mesopotamian omen texts refer to male homosexual intercourse and distinguish between active and passive sexual roles (compare Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13). The Epic of Gilgamesh, meanwhile, describes the close relationship between the king Gilgamesh and his male companion Enkidu; a number of scholars have argued that this relationship is homoerotic. The goddess Ishtar/Inanna is associated with various forms of non-normative sexuality and gender performance, including prostitution, transvestism, and eunuchs.

Greek and Roman sexualities have received attention from both classicists and New Testament scholars. The same relations of power and penetration that are found in the biblical text existed, for example, in the Roman world. Sexual roles (active or passive) were indexed to social status; sex between men was acceptable as long as it represented the relative social positions (i.e., a more powerful man cannot be the receptive partner). The New Testament includes scattered negative references to homosexuality such as Rom. 1:26-27, 1 Cor. 6:9, 1 Tim. 1:10; these are sometimes read as referring specifically to prostitution, promiscuity, or pederasty. Scholarship on LGBT and queer sexuality in the New Testament can be a useful resource for readers of the Hebrew Bible as well.

Ancient Egyptian sexuality is also sometimes used to help understand the biblical views. Egyptian erotica included occasional representations of same-sex desire, both male and female.

Key Texts for LGBTQ Sexuality and the Hebrew Bible

Legal Texts Regulating Same-Sex Sexual Acts

The Hebrew Bible contains a handful of laws that deal directly with same-sex sexual activity. There are no prohibitions on lesbian sexual activity in the biblical text. In contrast, Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 explicitly prohibit male-male sexual activity. Lev. 18:22 states, “You (masculine singular) shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” The term abomination is used to refer to a large class of practices and things considered offensive or idolatrous by the biblical authors; it occurs frequently in the sexual laws. Lev. 20:13 offers a similar statement but adds a death penalty (“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.”)

These passages have been interpreted in a number of ways. “Lying with a male as with a woman” is usually but not always taken to mean anal intercourse between two men. A maximalist reading takes the passage to ban all same-sex sexual activity. However, the passage has been interpreted in a variety of ways, such as a prohibition only of male-male anal intercourse (but not other forms of gay male sex), a prohibition of specific roles (insertive or receptive) in male same-sex intercourse (though both men seem to be punished in Lev. 20:13), or a prohibition against male anal sex only within the boundaries of the land of Israel. Other scholars have emphasized the parallels between these prohibitions and other sex laws in Leviticus. For a fuller discussion of LGBTQ interpretations of this passage, see gay interpretation, as well as the resources listed below.

Legal Texts Regulating Gender Performance

Deuteronomy 22:5 prohibits cross-dressing by both men and women. This text is sometimes taken as a “text of terror” for transgender readers. The prohibition has been explained as part of broader enforcement of gender boundaries, present in both legal and narrative texts. It has also been linked to more general prohibitions on blurring categories and “mixing kinds” (Lev. 19:19), encompassing not just gender performance but also categories such as farm animals (Deut. 22:10) and fabric for clothing (Deut. 22:11). Many of the LGBT and queer interpretive strategies used in reading the sex laws in Leviticus may be applied to Deut. 22:5 as well.

Sodom and Gomorrah

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19) frequently appears in discussions of LGBT and queer sexuality and biblical interpretation. This is due both to the content of the biblical text and to the history of interpretation. The modern term “sodomy” is taken from the name of the city Sodom, as is “sodomite” (though the latter is no longer commonly used). However, the relationship between sodomy (the act) and Sodom (the city) is complicated. According to the biblical text, two messengers from God come to Sodom and lodge with Lot. When the men of the town find out, they surround the house and demand that Lot bring out his guests “so that we may know them;” generally interpreted to mean “have sex with them” (Gen. 19:5). Lot refuses, offering his virgin daughters instead. Subsequently, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed (Gen. 19:24-25). The question is why. Is the transgression of Sodom male homosexuality, homosexual rape, rape of any sort, or bad hospitality? The interpretation is further complicated by the intertextual parallels to the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19 and by scattered references to Sodom and Gomorrah in the prophets (for example, Isa. 1:9-10, 3:9; Jer. 23:14, Amos 4:11). Generally, these references emphasize destruction and desolation, though there is an association with sexuality in Ezek. 16:46-49. Scattered references also appear in the New Testament; Jude 1:7 identifies the transgression of Sodom as sexual. A survey of the reception history of the text yields a range of possible interpretations. (See further Mark Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997]).

Narrative Texts involving Homoeroticism

LGBTQ interpretation often gravitates toward texts that seem to display homoeroticism, if not outright LGBTQ sexualities. The relationship between David and Jonathan (1 Sam 18:1-4, 19:1-7, 20:1-42, 23:16-18), for example, has often been read as homoerotic. Jonathan professes his love of David (1 Sam. 18:1) and the two make a covenant (18:3; 20:8;23:18), an act that may be interpreted as indicating political alliance or personal affection. In addition, Jonathan removes his robe and armor to give to David, a gesture that can be read as either political or erotic (1 Sam. 18:4), and the two kiss and weep when parting (1 Sam. 20:41). David’s lament over Jonathan (2 Sam 1:25-27) also expresses love; verse 26 reads, “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” This statement parallels Gilgamesh’s lament over his male companion Enkidu (a story that is frequently used to understand David and Jonathan). David and Jonathan have been variously described as friends, lovers, homoerotic brothers-in-arms, and political allies. Some scholars have argued that David is involved in additional homoerotic relationships in the text; thus Theodore Jennings, for example, argues that the text presents a male love triangle of David, Jonathan, and Saul (and perhaps Yahweh as well; see Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel, New York: Continuum, 2005).

Beyond the David story, some scholars have argued that other close male relationships in the Bible are in fact homoerotic. This includes the relationships between the male deity Yahweh and the male Israelites, a relationship represented as a marriage (Hos. 2; Ezek. 16, 23) and described in sexual terms. Reading this as a marriage between men adds a queer dimension. The prophet Jeremiah describes himself as seduced and overpowered by God (Jer. 20:7); this scene has been interpreted as homoerotic, though others argue that the text is describing homosexual rape. In the New Testament, another common example is the “beloved disciple” in the Gospel of John, who is described as leaning on Jesus’ chest (John 13:23; note that most modern translations de-eroticize the description).

The story of Ruth and Naomi is the most commonly identified narrative of female homoeroticism in the Bible. The close relationship between the two women, along with Ruth’s profession of loyalty (Ruth 1:16-17) is often taken as a statement of love; it is sometimes used in contemporary marriage ceremonies (both same-sex and opposite sex). Other scholars, such as Deryn Guest (When Deborah Met Jael: Lesbian Biblical Hermeneutics (London: SCM, 2005)), have argued that biblical readers should be more attentive to possible female homoeroticism in the text; see further lesbian interpretation.

Texts Describing Non-Normative Sexuality or Gender Identity

The figure of the eunuch has long been of interest to LGBTQ interpretation. In seeking LGBTQ ancestors or allies in the texts, readers have often turned to the eunuchs, who seem to resist or repudiate heteronormativity. In Isa. 56:3-5, Yahweh promises “a monument and a name” to the eunuchs, often read as a message of inclusion. In addition, the book of Esther describes the eunuchs as figures with social power, challenging the exclusion of LGBTQ people from political and religious communities. However, some LGBTQ critics have criticized the embrace of the eunuch, arguing, for example, that there is not a meaningful continuity between being gay or queer and being a eunuch. Others have argued that the eunuchs act in the interests of dominant power structures (which are analogous to modern structures that oppress LGBT and queer people); as such, they are neither queer heroes nor allies.

The prophets, especially Jeremiah, offer images that are especially open to trans reading. Jer. 31:22 describes “a new thing…a woman encompasses a man,” an image that opens possibilities of gender variance. This passage has possible relevance to intersex readings as well. The prophet Jeremiah also speaks in a female persona in Jer. 4:19-26, 31 and 10:19-21, describing his womb and other features of a female body. These passages have been used as a resource for transgender readings.

Other Texts of Interest for LGBTQ Interpretation

Texts about sexuality or homoeroticism are not the only texts that have figured in LGBTQ interpretation. Indeed, queer readings of the Bible often take up texts that have no clear relationship to sexuality, or that seem to support heteronormativity. An example is Gen. 3, which Ken Stone reads as a “fall” into heterosexuality (Ken Stone, “The Garden of Eden and the Heterosexual Contract,” in Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible, ed. Robert Goss and Mona West (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 2000), 57–70). The Song of Songs, with its celebration of sexual pleasure and desire, has garnered a number of queer and LGBT readings, even though it primarily describes heterosexual sex. The book of Esther has been read as a “coming out” narrative hinging on Esther’s revelation of her Jewish identity. For LGBTQ religious communities struggling with AIDS and loss, the book of Lamentations has provided a resource for dealing with trauma and loss.

LGBT interpretation and queer criticism of the Hebrew Bible also intersect with other contemporary methods, including feminist criticism, masculinity studies, and disability criticism. LGBT and queer topics continue to attract the attention of scholars and readers, and new interpretations appear frequently.

Resources for Future Study

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Interpretation
Queer Criticism and Queer Theory
Homosexuality
Masculinity
Sex
Puberty, Marriage, Sex, Reproduction, and Divorce, Bronze and Iron Age
Gender, Bronze and Iron Age
Gender(thematic guide)

Further Reading

  • Goss, Robert E., and Mona West. Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible. Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 2000.
  • Guest, Deryn. Beyond Feminist Biblical Studies. The Bible in the Modern World. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2012.
  • Guest, Deryn. When Deborah Met Jael: Lesbian Biblical Hermeneutics. London: SCM, 2005.
  • Guest, Deryn, Robert E. Goss, Mona West, and Thomas Bohache, eds. The Queer Bible Commentary. London: SCM, 2006.
  • Jennings, Theodore W. Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel. New York: Continuum, 2005.
  • Nissinen, Martti. Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998.
  • Stone, Ken. Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible. JSOT Supp 334. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2001.
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