Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Homoexegesis

Conventional wisdom holds that the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament share a common position on homosexual conduct: they are against it. This condemnation is patent in certain “clobber texts,” such as Leviticus 18:22; 20:13, and Romans 1:26-27.

Not so, say some gay Christians and Jews, who are revisionists in this matter. Rightly understood, they claim, the Bible does not condemn same-sex behavior as such. The venom that has disturbed those who would reconcile their orientation with their faith is not, so the revisionists claim, truly toxic.

This detoxification effort began a half century ago with a book by the Anglican canon D.S. Bailey entitled Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (1955). Among other points he claimed that the Sodom story in Genesis 19 is not about homosexual rape. Other gay-friendly scholars have added to the stock of exclusions, so that it is now widely accepted in some quarters that the Bible has what amounts to a clean bill of health. Even if it does not actually permit homosexuality, the texts are problematic enough for us to conclude that the Bible doesn’t condemn the behavior. Needless to say, this program of reinterpretation finds little favor among traditional Christians and Jews, who stand by their conviction that “it means what it says.”

My own view is that while the revisions have achieved some paring down, a core of antihomosexual condemnation remains. Detoxification has only been partial. Still today, then, to be a Bible-based Christian or Jew, on the one hand, and a practicing gay man or lesbian, on the other, is an exercise in cognitive dissonance.

How is the detoxification achieved? There are three main gambits. 1) Subject the texts to a close philological reading. This technique yields the claim that the words that seem to refer to homosexual conduct did not have that meaning in ancient times; or that the syntax of the assertion has been misunderstood. 2) Assert that the condemnation refers to some special form of same-sex conduct, which does not exist today; or represents some distortion (as unloving promiscuity). 3) Insist that the supposed clobber texts belong to a social world that has long-since vanished. “Modern” Christians and Jews need pay no more attention to these outdated strictures than they do to dietary laws or the ban on mixed fabrics.

The last consideration sometimes takes a lapidary form: we are no more bound to eschew same-sex conduct than we are to avoid eating shellfish. I fear, though, that having sexual relations is not on the same plane as a trip to Red Lobster.

This linkage of prohibitions from the book of Leviticus reflects the idea that these prohibitions are random, just a kind of ragbag of disparate peeves. In fact they belong to several distinct categories: exclusion of impure species from one’s diet; avoidance of mixtures; and sexual transgressions—to name the three main categories. Since the monograph of the anthropologist Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966), it has been recognized that the first category, the uneatables (including shellfish), depends upon a kind of ecological determinism. “Proper” sea creatures are those with fins and scales. Creatures living in the sea who do not have these features have crossed a boundary. They should be one thing; in fact they are another. The dietary prohibitions reflect an insistence on maintaining boundaries. The ban reflects a basic human propensity for placing things in neat categories, shunning the muzzy thinking that comes from eliding appropriate distinctions.

However, same-sex conduct between males is not the result of such a pattern of thinking, where one thing is confused with another. If anything, assuming that this is the only relevant standard, homosexual behavior should be approved, since like is consorting with like.

Clearly then other considerations are at play. And in fact, the dietary rules belong to the first (the so-called “P part”) of Leviticus, while the ban on gay sex stems from the Holiness Code. These two textual collections have different origins. In the Holiness Code, Leviticus 20:13 calls for the death of any man who lies with a male as one lies with a woman. This is part of a larger set of transgressions that merit capital punishment, most of them dealing with sex.

As far as I can see, the prohibition against male same-sex behavior is the only one that ranks as an abomination while at the same time meriting the death penalty. This is a far cry away from eating shellfish, for which no penalty is specified. Comparing the two may give comfort to religious gays, but others will regard it as ludicrous and flippant.

Another seemingly telling parallel is with the ban on wearing fabrics made of two different materials in Leviticus 19. Scholars believe that this may be a metaphor for Hebrew mixing with gentiles. At all events, it has to do with mixing two d i f f e r e n t
things—not two things of the same kind (two males). And no penalty is mentioned for such a fashion transgression.

Eating, clothing, and sex belong to different realms. The biblical writers treat them as such.

Closely examined, such parallels do nothing to elide the deplorable slur on male-homosexual behavior as both an abomination and a capital crime. When gay apologists seek to reinterpret such passages, they forfeit credibility—except among others committed to the total detoxification enterprise. Unable to convince the majority of exegetes, gay Christians and Jews who adopt such arguments segregate themselves into another minority, an interpretive community at odds with the mainstream. In the end, however, there cannot be two truths on these matters.

I turn to some broader remarks. Leviticus is of course one of the books of the Pentateuch. Since the middle of the 19th century it has been recognized that those texts are not unitary, but composite--an amalgam of four separate strands (known to scholars as J, E, D, and P).

Rereading the texts for the first time after many years, it struck me that there is a more fundamental division, with Genesis and Exodus forming one whole, the other three books another. Whatever one may think of the theology, Genesis and Leviticus contain some of the most enthralling stories ever compiled. Who can resist the fascination of the stories of Noah and Abraham, of Moses leading the children of Israel in the Exodus? To be sure, an influential school of minimalist exegetes holds that all these stories are pure myth. But they are wonderful stories all the same.

When we cross into Leviticus (forming with Numbers and Deuteronomy the concluding triad of the Pentateuch), the atmosphere changes. We are immersed in a frightful miasma of intolerance; ethnic cleansing; preoccupation with blood, semen and other bodily fluids; and death for homosexuals and other deviants. While many passages are ostensibly concerned with maintaining ritual purity, the reality is that the reader is conduced through a slough of filth. Apparently James Frazer and William Robertson Smith had a similar reaction in their day.

No wonder modern believers tend to skip over these grim recitals. Understandably so. The Bible should only be honored selectively. That means, however, acknowledging the parts of it that are simply worthless must be set aside. One should resist the temptation to claim that the entire bible is fine: it’s just that parts of it have been “misunderstood.” In many cases the meaning is all too clear—and it is detestable.

Recently a new version of the Pentateuch by the literary critic Robert Alter has been garnering praise. The novel wordings of this effort reflect a contestable theory of translation derived from German-Jewish sources. In accordance with that theory, known to specialists as word translation, the lexemes (individual words) and syntax of the Hebrew must be imitated as exactly as possible. This produces results that are sometimes striking, but miss the central point. Translations should not render words but meanings. Moreover, as the title of his version “The Five Books of Moses” suggests, Alter is willfully ignorant of the advances of two centuries of Bible scholarship. His so-called “Commentary” is a miscellany of rabbinical embroidery. Alter throws these testimonia together in a haphazard way, so that not even a proper impression of the rabbinical tradition is conveyed.

At the opposite pole “The Jewish Study Bible,” edited by Berlin and Brettler (Oxford, 2003) is a wonderful resource, dealing honestly with the issues posed by the critical school. This volume should be the cornerstone of anyone’s biblical library.