Homosexuality and the Old Testament


NATIONAL SAME SEX KISS DAY at Chick-fil-A at 825 Ellsworth Drive in Silver Spring, Maryland on Friday afternoon, 3 August 2012 by Elvert Barnes Protest Photography

Homosexuality is all over the news these days.  The U.S. military was forced to lead the way in accepting this perversion of God’s ideal sexuality. Not long after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down certain provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act, effectively legalizing (forcing) federal recognition of same-sex marriage.  Other local and state court decisions have expanded “rights” to homosexuals while taking them away from Christians and others who believe homosexuality is immoral; essentially forcing businesses and organizations to accept and approve of homosexuality or face the consequences of legal and/or civil litigation.

We live in a different world than did our parents and grandparents.  The default view of morality is no longer biblical, but could be drawn from any “sacred” source, religious or secular or it could even be dependent only on one’s own personal view.  Therefore, it is incumbent on Christians to know and understand what Scripture says about marriage and sexuality to avoid being sucked into our culture’s acceptance of an “anything goes” lifestyle, whether it’s monogamous homosexual relationships or promiscuous heterosexual encounters. Additionally, as more and more pressure is being applied to the Church to accept homosexual relationships as moral, members of the Church need to be prepared to have an answer as to why the Church should maintain its centuries-long condemnation of homosexual activity.

Looking at Scripture’s discussion of marriage, most passages do not declare that marriage is to be between a man and a woman but it is clearly implied.  By implication it seems that it is a reasonable assumption that heterosexual marriage is the norm.  In the creation narrative, God does not ponder whether to create another man or a woman to be a mate for Adam, but simply and authoritatively creates woman to be Adam’s mate.

Throughout the Old Testament, any discussion or narrative of a marriage relationship is revealed as between a man and a woman.  Grant it, there are examples of multiple wives and the use of concubines, but even in these examples (that are not necessarily prescriptive) they are heterosexual relationships and not homosexual.

Sodom and Gomorrah

Lot and his family fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah

Later in Genesis in the narrative of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19-20),  with which we can relate the similar story found in Judges 19, homosexual activity (along with other sexual perversions) appears to be the reason that Sodom and Gomorrah were so completely destroyed by God.  Some argue that it was the desired forced sexual relationship of those seeking to have sexual relations with the visiting angels and guests or even a lack of hospitality, but reading the text in context, it is the homosexual activity which is condemned.  Such words as wicked (Genesis 19:7), vile and disgraceful (Judges 19:23) lend themselves to acts more severe than not showing hospitality, getting to know, or wanting merely to be introduced to travelers.

Derrick Bailey and others suggest that the use of the Hebrew word yadha, defined as know, which can mean sexual intercourse, should not be understood as implying homosexual sexual activity in the context of this passage.  Bailey states, “Linguistic considerations alone, therefore, lend support to Dr. G. A. Barton’s view that ‘there is no actual necessity’ to interpret ‘know’ in Gen. xix. 5 as equivalent to ‘have coitus with’, and that it may mean no more than ‘get acquainted with’.”[1] However, John Stott successfully challenges this position when he points out that “Although the verb yadha is used in the Old Testament only ten times of sexual intercourse, Bailey omits to mention that six of these occurrences are in Genesis and one in the Sodom story itself about Lot’s daughters, who had not ‘known’ a man (v.8)”[2] indicating that the probability is high that yadha should be understood as meaning sexual relations in these passages.

The New Testament clarification of the Sodom and Gomorrah incident seems to clearly indicate that it was unnatural sexual relations which were the primary sin.[3] For example, Jude 7 states “…Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion.  They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire” (NIV).  According to Stott, for those “… who take the New Testament documents seriously, Jude’s unequivocal reference to the ‘sexual immorality and perversion’ of Sodom and Gomorrah … cannot be dismissed as merely an error copied from Jewish pseudepigrapha.”[4]         

The two times that homosexual activity is specifically mentioned in the Old Testament, it is strictly forbidden, adding that it is “detestable” and that the consequence is death (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13).  These passages use the Hebrew word Sakab which can mean to lay down on a bed, to recline, to sleep, to lodge, to humble oneself, to die or to have sexual relations.  Considering it in context, this passage clearly uses Sakab as “to engage in sexual relations.”[5]

Proponents of homosexuality argue that these Levitical texts refer to ritualistic or idolatrous sexual behavior, so therefore do not apply to committed, monogamous homosexual relationships.  However, Flavius Josephus, writing in the first century, supports the belief that this prohibition goes beyond mere ritual or casual homosexual activity when he writes, “But, then, what are our laws about marriage?  That law owns no other mixture of sexes but that which nature hath appointed, of a man with his wife, and that this be used only for the procreation of children.  But it abhors the mixture of a male with a male; and if any one do that, death is his punishment.”[6]

Hebrew Text of ScriptureDerrick Bailey adds, “It is hardly open to doubt that both the laws in Leviticus relate to ordinary homosexual acts between men, and not to ritual or other acts performed in the name of religion.”[7] William J. Webb continues, “A comparison of homosexuality with other sexual-intercourse prohibitions in Scripture reveals that the lack of covenant or the lack of equal-partner status is simply not a substantive issue.”[8] Webb goes on to explain how the Levitical texts on homosexuality as well as those on incest and bestiality are to establish appropriate “sexual boundaries—between humans and animals, between parents and children, as well as between same-sex participants.”[9]

There is little doubt that these verses forbid the practice of homosexuality for the Jewish people.  Conflict arises, however, as to whether this prohibition applies to non-Jews, or even to Christians, today.  As for enforcing Levitical law on non-Jews and non-Christians, the use of Scripture would be rejected in most cultures.  However, it is no secret that the basis of civil law in the West is Judeo-Christian law so it should be seen as foundational to identifying what is right and wrong.  Nevertheless, the move of cultural values in many Western societies is away from those espoused by Judeo-Christians so the search for a foundation for moral living in civil society needs to go beyond that of Scripture to natural law and other authoritative sources.

As for Christians applying these Levitical texts to themselves, even if Old Testament law is dismissed by the Christian claiming to be under grace, still the principle can be applied that in God’s eyes, homosexual activity has been established as being “detestable” which in itself should lead one to denounce it as an unacceptable practice.  According to William J. Webb:

The cultural environment and Israel’s theocratic setting may have influenced the severity of the Old Testament penal code, which called for the death penalty for homosexual behavior.  Yet, the inherent negative assessment of homosexual activity itself retains a transcultural dimension.  Thus, at least this prohibitive aspect of the homosexuality texts should be viewed as transcultural and applied as such within the Christian community today.[10]

The sexuality norms of the Jewish culture which either influenced, or were influenced by, the Old Testament texts remained a part of the Jewish and early Christian culture of the first century. In the next section, it will be shown how the New Testament writers and the teachings of Jesus build upon the events and prohibitions of the Old Testament as they relate to sexuality.




[1] Derrick Sherwin Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (Hamden, CT: Archon Book, 1975), 3.

[2] John Stott, Same-Sex Partnerships? (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1998), 22.

[3] Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2009), 275.

[4] Stott, 22.

[5] W.E. Vine et al., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985), 135.

[6] Flavius Josephus, “Against Apion, Book II,” in The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987), 632.

[7] Bailey, 30.

[8] William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 250.

[9] Ibid., 251.

[10] Ibid.



Photo credits:

Same-sex kiss:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/perspective/7707762058/

Sodom & Gomorrah: http://jimlwright.files.wordpress.com

Hebrew text: http://www.ynet.co.il


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6 comments on “Homosexuality and the Old Testament

  1. I guess my major problem with some of the exegetical research into the biblical notion of sexuality is that so many of us take issues that the bible is really not clear on (at least not in a 21st Century context) and pretend that they are black and white. But when Christ actually said to do something – like get rid of all your possessions, hang out with prostitutes and literally give your life – we pretend as if those are the moments God is being vague. Christians and Nazarenes are deeply biblical people. I read my bible every day and have studied it. But I also understand that personal experience plays a role in our faith and Christ-like love towards others puts us in a posture to learn new things. One of the things I have learned in taking a Christ-like posture towards others is that the idea of marriage is much different today than it was 3,000 years ago. I have friends who are in committed same-sex relationships, are Christian and play a major role in building the Kingdom. I can’t in good faith consider their love for each other to be any less than that between me and my wife, and picking and choosing passages, while ignoring others, doesn’t lend too much credibility with me. Don’t take this personally, but if the Internet existed in the time of Christ, there would be believers writing blog posts like this one and Christ would say “aren’t you listening to me at all?”

    • Ben, Thanks for taking the time read this post and replying. Honestly, your reply is just what I would expect. Really, it’s as though there’s a “playbook” that you guys follow! I’m not going to spend a lot of time on a response, but let me hit a few highlights:

      Yes, proper exegesis requires that we discern between Scripture’s moments of literalness and those which are metaphorical or symbolic-that’s elementary hermeneutics. You err, however, when you take those passages that are clearly literal and suggest that they’re not, like specific condemnation of homosexual acts.

      This isn’t a post about the entire Christian experience but specifically about the Old Testament treatment of sexuality, specifically homosexuality necessarily requiring the “pick and choose” approach. As such, the totality of the teaching of Scripture is not -or could not be- addressed. But even if I took the pages necessary to consider the whole of Scripture, including say, Jesus’ love for all, His emphasis on compassion, etc., it would still not contradict existing teachings from Scripture-in this case, homosexuality. If Jesus would ask me, “aren’t you listening to me at all” I would refer Him to my other posts where other Scripture and words of His are dealt with. If you have additional Old Testament passages that speak to homosexuality, by all means share them with and they will be addressed.

      Ben, you suggest that the Bible isn’t clear on this issue. Of course. You would not want it to be clear or it would cause all of your arguments for support of the homosexual lifestyle to crumble. Many scholars, ancient and modern (and even me), accept these Scriptures as being clear.

      You put a lot of weight in “experience” as any good Wesleyan should. But in this case you put too much weight in it. Wesley would have never supported the formulation of a Christian ethic based on experience that contradicts the clear (see above) teaching of Scripture. In addition, the differences in the institution of marriage between today and the days the Old Testament writers lived definitely are dramatic, but as Webb points out, many truths are transcultural, including God’s abhorrence of homosexuality.

  2. Daryl, I appreciate the response, but I’m not going to keep going round and round with you. We both probably enjoy it, but at the end of the day convincing you of the way I view this issue won’t change a darn thing. It’s your blog, so I will give you the last word on this issue. However, here is some advice: you have to stop labeling people. You continue to insult with your talk of “you guys” and assuming we all (whatever that means) have some type of playbook. Just like your talk about us being “kids” and even going as far as posting pics on your blog and saying just by looking at them you know what you need to know, your response shows that you have a problem with lumping people into categories and assuming that because you know someone’s age, sexuality or any other specific trait, you know everything you need to know. If I try to do anything in my writing with Nazarene Ally, its to try and convince other believers to stop reducing others. You can continue to believe the way you do about same-sex relationships, but try expanding your mind and looking past a person’s sexuality before you assume you know all there is to know about someone else. We can debate about what the bible says (its our protestant way) but Christ was very clear on not making assumptions about others and he would be against making the type of assumptions you do. PS: Speaking of posting pics, you seem to post a lot of pics of homosexuals on your blog for someone who says he’s against the lifestyle 🙂

    • 1st, the “you guys” is referring to a very broad and general group of people who support homosexuality, not just you few at NA. There aren’t many ways to make reference to a group, perhaps I should have said, “you upstanding men,” or “you people of differing opinions”? Doesn’t seem to flow . . .

      2nd, I had already recanted on the “kids” comments and edited them out of my original post, leaving only Tyler’s comments & my response (with the pics) because I struggle with deleting or editing other people’s posts/comments (like Tyler did mine on the NA site-though it’s his page,he can do what he wants). But I prefaced his comment and my response with my recantation.

      3rd, your reply to my reply sounds like more strategy from that playbook as you redirect the conversation from homosexuality to how I treat other people in how I write. (I’m going to have to get me a copy of that playbook!) I get it, sometimes issues are brought up to shift peoples attention away from the point of the debate or discussion as a technique, but I prefer to stay on topic.

      4th, I make no assumptions about other people or knowing everything about them. I’ve never made personal attacks or questioned anyones integrity or spirituality.

  3. Excellent post, Daryl!

  4. […] following article was written by Daryl Densford and was first posted at his blog, Here I Sit. It is reposted here with permission of the […]

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