Be sure to read parts 1 and 2 of this series before continuing on to this part. In part 1 I set up my project, and in part 2 I covered the first 2 of the 7 categories of biblical passages which address homosexuality. For the record, my thesis is that the Bible does not condemn either homosexual acts or homosexual people.
- Non-Christian Religious Homosexuality
The other social and political context in which the ancient Israelites would have had contact with homosexuality would be through the religious practices of the various people groups in the ancient Middle East.
In 1 Kings 14: 21-24 we are treated to the beginning of the reign of Rehoboam, the son of Solomon (yes that Solomon) as the new king of Judah. At this time there were two kingdoms of Israelites, the 10 tribes in the North, and the tribes of Judah (the largest tribe) and Benjamin in the south. Incidentally the province ruled by the tribe of Judah was also where the city of Jerusalem was.
So when Rehoboam became King one of the things he instituted was the worship of the goddess Asherah. Although there is some dispute as to whether or not this was actual institution of the worship of the Goddess herself, or merely an offshoot cult dedicated to worshipping certain aspects of her religion. Nevertheless one of the methods of worshipping Asherah involved having sexual relationships with male sex workers as part of the religious rituals.
Please note that the term sex worker is most often translated as prostitute. I am using the term sex worker instead for 2 reasons. First the exact nature of what these male sex workers did is unknown so the term prostitute may not actually apply. Second the term prostitute has come to have a negative and pejorative connotation, and I wish to avoid using a term that is so clearly value laden.
Anyways the end of the story, for the most part, comes in 1 Kings 15:9-15. In that passage the new king Asa, the grandson of Rehoboam, decides to drive out the cult of Asherah. He burned their religious icons, destroyed their sacred places, and put away their religious male sex workers. The polite thing to think is that they were merely out of a job, but more than likely they were killed or at least exiled.
Despite Asa’s destruction of the cult, in 2 Kings 23:4-14 another king by the name of Josiah, hundreds of years removed from Asa, once again destroyed the worship of Asherah. Once again the king of Judah drove out or killed the male sex workers.
Now having said all of that I have not actually mentioned anything about homosexuals, or even homosexual acts. The reason for this is that there is no particular reason to suspect that these male sex workers were exclusively homosexual. We do not actually know anything specific about how sexuality played into their particular expression of Asherah worship. It is most likely that their sexual activities were part of rituals that the male sex workers performed with other female sex workers in religious rituals designed to worship their goddess. This kind of thing was typical of other cults and religions at the time.
In other words it would be most accurate to think of these men as priests of their religion who only engaged in sexual activities as part of the worship of their female deity.
Even if some of those rituals did involve homosexual actions, it would be wrong to think of these priests as homosexuals based solely on those practices. Rather they were simply worshipping their goddess the way their particular religion said that they should. Their sexual practice as priests may have been entirely separate from their personal sexual practices as individuals. Thus they would not have been homosexuals, in the sense that they would not have necessarily identified their private sexual practices based on their religious sexual practices. A corollary in our own society could be found in how our actors and actresses may act out being heterosexual or homosexual in front of a camera, but this does not make them straight or gay, any more than it makes them a space alien or an ancient Egyptian Monarch. To be fair it is entirely possible, nay even likely, that if these practices included homosexual acts then those who identified as homosexual may have sought out this religion and the office of priest in order to express their personal identity in a public way.
Of course this is all speculation. There is no good account of what exactly the male sex workers did in the worship of Asherah.
I have only bothered to include this here because I occasionally run across the assumption that what made these particular priests so evil was that they were homosexuals. Despite the numerous problems with that, there just simply is no evidence to make this assumption.
Conclusion to 3?: The priests of Asherah engaged in sexual activities in the worship of their goddess. Yet there is no particular reason to think that these activities were homosexual in nature. Even if these acts were homosexual in nature these acts reflect a kind of public religious identity on the part of the priest, and may or may not reflect a private or personal sexual identity. In any case due to a profound lack of information about what these male sex workers did, then this is not even a clear case of the Bible addressing homosexuality.
- The Argument about Nature
The second most famous account of the Bible addressing homosexuality, after Sodom and Gomorrah, comes in the Epistles of Paul. Many of the books of the New Testament consist of the letters, or Epistles, of the Apostle Paul to the various Christian Churches scattered throughout the Roman World in the first century.
It is important to note that Paul was not actually in a position of religious authority over any of these churches. He was not their Bishop, their Pope, or their Priest. So in essence these letters amount to his best and most ardent religious advice and encouragement. Some of his letters are meant to be congratulatory and some are meant to be chastisement for specific things he has heard about. Yet none of these letters comes from a place where Paul claims to be an authority over any of these churches.
Paul’s most famous letter is perhaps his letter to the Christian church in the city of Rome. This letter is referred to as the Epistle to the Romans, or simply Romans. In Romans 1:18-32 Paul writes about those people who know God, thanks to natural revelation, but who do not properly worship him. Paul explains that anyone who looks at the world should be able to discern God’s “eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20 NIV). Yet he goes on to say that many people (exactly who he is talking about is either vague, or else it is supposed to be a statement about humanity in general), have not worshipped the one true God but have instead worshipped false gods made of their own imaginations.
Paul makes it clear that these non-believing people’s first sin was to worship gods of their own invention when they could tell by simply observing nature that there was one God who was responsible for everything.
God then decides to punish these natural non-believers by giving them over, or giving them up, or abandoning them. His punishment for their non-belief is to allow them to engage in impure and immoral sexual activities with each other.
Paul explains that these impurities involve their women (the women who are possessed by these unnamed people) exchanging natural sexual relations for unnatural. It is important to note that the women here are owned and not, in our modern sense, free and independent individuals. This of course is common in the ancient world and most likely refers to spouses, daughters, or slaves. Those are the kinds of women who would be possessed by certain men in society. So this excludes sex workers, and widows.
Paul also explains that the men (note that there is no possessive used to describe the men, because men are free and autonomous individuals) abandoned natural relations (the NASB translation actually says the natural function) with women and lusted after other men. Paul even explains that these men actually committed the shameful act, indecent acts, and or that which is unseemly, depending on your translation. They also received some kind of penalty in their own bodies for this act, although what this means is unclear.
Paul goes on to list some more sins and evil actions these unnamed people did, but you get the gist.
That was a long set up so I hope that my analysis will be appropriately brief. This is a passage about the sin of adultery.
Paul explains that the men abandoned natural relations with women, presumably the women they possessed who had also abandoned natural relations with their possessing men. The emphasis here should be placed on the idea that these men were already in committed sexual relationships with women. In fact it is quite telling that one translation describes it as the natural function. What these men did that was so immoral is they abandoned their commitments to procreating with women in order to engage in non-procreative sexual encounters with other men. Their sin is adultery, not homosexuality. The problem is that these people, men and women, were leaving their relationships, relationships to which they had made agreements and commitments.
Whether or not one thinks that monogamy is the only proper way to have a sexual relationship, we all do agree that you should keep your promises. If you marry someone and promise to stay sexually faithful only to them, then you have made a commitment and the moral problem with breaking a commitment or breaking a promise is the same moral problem we have with lying and deception.
Paul does not say that these men and women are wrong for seeking affection or even for seeking homosexual relationships. No, they are wrong for abandoning the situations which they were already in. Now in the case of women the social sexism here dooms them from the start. They are already owned by a patriarchal system which makes a claim on their bodies so any love they feel towards another person is inevitably going to be breaking that social rule.
Yet since the men are free then any love they express towards another man, which would be worthy of mentioning as an abandonment of their social place and a breaking of the moral rules, would only be relevant in the context of a man leaving a relationship to which he has freely committed.
The underlying reason for this whole passage is of course that Paul is trying to encourage the Roman Christians not to abandon their families and engage in orgies, or sexual relationships with people outside of their families. He is writing to the Christians in Rome where, due to cultural ideas and attitudes, this kind of infidelity is more problematic.
Conclusion to 4?: The unnatural sexual relations Paul writes against are relations where people have broken their promises to remain faithful to sexual relationships into which they had married and to which they were already committed. So in essence this is a problem of keeping your marriage vows, and Paul should have no problems with homosexual relationships which take place within a marital context, or at least between 2 people who have made a social commitment to each other.