The Book of Leviticus clearly condemns same-sex relations, as well as touching pork, eating shellfish, and getting a tattoo or a round haircut: ‘Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.’ The punishment for those who engage in same-sex relations is harsh: ‘they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.’ St Paul seems to echo Leviticus in condemning the ‘abusers of themselves with mankind’ and the ‘soft’ or ‘effeminate’, or again ‘them that defile themselves with mankind’—although, given the original Greek, and the cultural context, it could be that he is simply speaking out against the male prostitution that he found all around him.
What of Sodom, destroyed by fire and brimstone? In Genesis 19, Lot gives shelter to two beautiful angels. The men of Sodom (or Sodomites) threaten to force themselves upon Lot’s guests, and such is Lot’s idea of hospitality that he offers up his virgin daughters in their stead: ‘Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.’ But it is not clear whether the sin of Sodom was same-sex rape, lack of hospitality, or both or other.
The only reference to same-sex love between women, as well as men, is in St Paul’s First Letter to the Romans. To punish the people for their idolatry, ‘God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural (Gr. physikos, ‘produced by nature’) use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another…’ It could be that, rather than same-sex love, St Paul is in fact condemning the prostitution and pederasty of the Roman world; or, more specifically, the pagan practice of priests and priestesses prostituting themselves out of their temples; or else merely those people who go against their nature, that is, against their supposedly heterosexual orientation. Here again, his meaning is far from clear.
The concept of homosexuality as a sexual orientation is relatively recent. In the Bible, the only possible reference to homosexuality as a sexual orientation is in Matthew 19, when Jesus speaks of ‘eunuchs which were so born from their mother’s womb’. At the same time, the two greatest love stories in the Bible are not of husband and wife, nor even of man and woman, but of man and man, and woman and woman.
David rivalled Jonathan, son of King Saul, for the throne of Israel. After slaying Goliath, he appeared before Saul with Goliath’s head in his hand: ‘And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul … And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle.’ One evening, Saul rebuked Jonathan for favouring David over his own father and family: ‘Thou son of the perverse rebellious woman, do not I know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thine own confusion, and unto the confusion of thy mother’s nakedness?’ Upon learning of Jonathan’s death on Mount Gilboa, David lamented: ‘I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.’ David and Jonathan both had wives and children, and we are to believe that the love they shared was platonic rather than romantic or sexual.
In the Book of Ruth, Naomi is married to Elimelech. A famine leads them and their two sons to move from Bethlehem to Moab. In time, Elimelech dies, as do their two sons, leaving Naomi and her two daughters in law destitute. Naomi returns to Bethlehem, entreating her daughters in law, who are Moabites and thus from a different ethnic group, not to follow in her barren footsteps. But Ruth insists upon accompanying her: “Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from the following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, I will die, and there will be buried…” This sounds more like a wedding vow than anything I might say to a mother in law.
When the pair arrive in Bethlehem, Naomi tells the Bethlehemites: ‘Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara (‘Bitter’), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.’ Ruth takes to gleaning in the barley fields of Boaz, who it transpires, is a kinsman of Elimelech, Naomi’s late husband. With Naomi’s encouragement, Ruth marries Boaz, who bears Ruth a son, Obed. Interestingly, it is as if Obed were the son of Naomi: ‘And the women said unto Naomi, Blessed be the Lord, which hath not left thee this day without a kinsman, that his name may be famous in Israel. And he shall be unto thee a restorer of thy life, and a nourisher of thine old age, for thy daughter in law, which loveth thee, which is better to thee than seven sons, hath borne him. And Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it. And the women her neighbours gave it a name, saying, There is a son born to Naomi…’
Many traditional attitudes to same-sex relations have come down from the Bible. But the Bible is not only or even primarily an instruction manual. It is not a unified work. It sometimes appears to contradict itself. It lends itself to interpretation. It is open to misinterpretation. Choices made in style and translation can reflect the times and prejudices of the translator. Still, for better or worse, no single book has exerted a greater influence on the way we think and live.