Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics

Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics

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by Robert A.J. Gagnon

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Gagnon offers the most thorough analysis to date of the biblical texts relating to homosexuality. He demonstrates why attempts to classify the Bible’s rejection of same-sex intercourse as irrelevant for our contemporary context fail to do justice to the biblical texts and to current scientific data. Gagnon’s book powerfully challenges attempts to

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Gagnon offers the most thorough analysis to date of the biblical texts relating to homosexuality. He demonstrates why attempts to classify the Bible’s rejection of same-sex intercourse as irrelevant for our contemporary context fail to do justice to the biblical texts and to current scientific data. Gagnon’s book powerfully challenges attempts to identify love and inclusivity with affirmation of homosexual practice.

. . . the most sophisticated and convincing examination of the biblical data for our time. —Jürgen Becker, Professor of New Testament, Christian-Albrechts University

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The Bible and Homosexual Practice

Texts and Hermeneutics

By Robert A.J. Gagnon

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2001 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-02279-3



Anyone wanting to know about the Old Testaments witness to homosexual practice will expect an exegete to focus primarily on two sets of texts: first, the narrative of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen 19:4-11 (within the epic written by the Yahwist, J); and, second, the legal proscriptions found in the section of Leviticus known as the Holiness Code (H), 18:22 and 20:13. Indeed, attention to these texts is justly deserved. Yet a proper treatment of same-sex intercourse in the Old Testament requires expanding discussion to other key areas. First, it is necessary to set the stage by examining the ancient Near Eastern background. In what ways did Hebrew attitudes toward homosexual practice reflect or differ from the larger cultural horizons? To what extent can gaps in our understanding of the ancient Israelite worldview be filled in by other ancient Near Eastern data? Second, the creation stories in Genesis 1-3 are important for grappling with a broader vision for male and female sexuality, at least on the part of the framers of P (the Priestly Writing) and J. Even though the creation accounts are directed toward other purposes, they provide guidance for the interpretation of homosexual intercourse. Third, two other narratives have an important bearing on the question of the Bible's attitudes toward same-sex intercourse: the story of the curse of Ham in Gen 9:2027 (J); and the account of the rape of the Levite's concubine in Judg 19:22-25 (within the Deuteronomistic History, Joshua through 2 Kings), which closely approximates Gen 19:411. Fourth, the question of homosexual cult prostitution during the period of the divided monarchy is pertinent for assessing attitudes toward homosexual practice held by the architects of Deuteronomic law (Dtn) and the author of the Deuteronomistic History (Dtr). Finally, the question of whether the relationship between David and Jonathan had any homoerotic aspects requires discussion.

I. The Ancient Near Eastern Background

Recent summaries and analyses by David Greenberg, Martti Nissinen, Donald Wold, and Saul Olyan provide a helpful starting point for describing ancient Near Eastern perspectives on homosexuality. Our overview will be ordered according to the amount of information available for a given region or ethnic group: Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Hittite kingdom in the Anatolian peninsula, and Canaanite territory.


Most of our data regarding homosexual behavior in the ancient Near East comes from Mesopotamia. Here there are four primary sources of information: laws, magical texts (omens, incantations), myth and ritual practice, and epic stories.

(1) Middle Assyrian Laws

Same-sex intercourse goes unmentioned in Mesopotamian law codes until the Middle Assyrian Laws of the late second millennium B.C.E. Laws 19 and 20 (tablet A) address the matter:

If a man [or: a seignior; i.e., an aristocrat] furtively spreads rumors about his comrade [or: neighbor], saying: "Everyone has sex with him" [or: "People have lain repeatedly with him"], or in a quarrel in public says to him: "Everyone has sex with you [or: People have lain repeatedly with you], I can prove the charges," but he is unable to prove the charges and does not prove the charges, they shall strike him 50 blows with rods; he shall perform the king's service one full month; they shall cut off (his hair?) [better: they shall castrate him] and he shall pay one talent of lead.

If a man [or: a seignior] has sex [or: lay] with his comrade [or: neighbor] and they prove the charges against him and find him guilty, they shall have sex [or: lie] with him and they shall turn him into a eunuch.

The word for "comrade" or "neighbor," tappa3u, denotes "a man of equal social status, or a man who was otherwise socially involved with the perpetrator, like a neighbor or a business partner." The verb for "have sex with," "lie with," niaku, means "have sex as the dominant (i.e., penetrating) partner." It is unclear whether the verb implies rape. It seems unlikely for A §19, but probable for A §20. Presumably, if the "comrade" in A §20 wanted to be penetrated, he would have no grievance to bring to the courts, and the man doing the penetrating would not be criminally liable.

In the case of both laws it was apparently regarded as degrading and shameful for a man to be penetrated as if he were a woman, regardless of whether the passive partner was a voluntary participant. To be routinely penetrated by other men was to be treated as a "man-woman" and hence made inferior in honor and status to those doing the penetrating. The principle of lex talionis explains the punishment: just as the penetrator deprives the penetrated man of his manhood, so too the penetrator will be denied his manhood by being castrated. It is thus assumed in both laws that no self-respecting man would want to be penetrated by another man. In light of this, Nissinen's comment may be misleading: "It cannot be said that Middle Assyrian Laws would take into consideration a case in which two men were involved as equals in a voluntary homoerotic relationship and for mutual satisfaction." It is not just that "neither homosexual acts nor heterosexual acts were considered as being done by two equals." There was something wrong or strange about any man who wanted to be penetrated as if he were a woman. Nevertheless, although such a man was an object of scorn or pity, he was not prosecuted.

Because The Middle Assyrian Laws were oriented toward protecting the rights of men in their dealings with other men of roughly the same social circles, all that can be inferred from the absence of a law protecting a man from being "mounted" by a social superior and/or one not living in spatial proximity is that the former had no recourse in the courts. In the nature of things, a social inferior (for example, a foreigner or resident alien, a prisoner of war, a slave) might have been expected to put up with the same-sex passions of a superior. The active partner, though, apparently did not incur shame, even when his behavior had to be criminalized to protect others. Indeed, his actions were taken as a sign of his superior social standing and power over the one penetrated. This was certainly true of homosexual rape, but probably it would also have been true when the passive partner was a willing participant. In short, the laws were interested in applying criminal sanctions only to two specific cases of (male) same-sex intercourse: a man who slandered another man with the charge of being repeatedly penetrated by other men; and a man who coercively penetrated another man of similar social status and/or belonging to the same clan. The penalty for such acts was severe (castration), though less than the maximum penalty of death prescribed for some cases of adultery (see A §§12-13).

(2) Magical Texts

In the Babylonian omen text, Summa alu (pre-seventh century B.C.E.), five of thirty-eight omens involve homosexual intercourse.9 Two of them are positive omens: "If a man copulates with his equal from the rear, he becomes the leader among his peers and brothers"; and "If a man copulates with a male cult prostitute (assinnu), a hard destiny (or: care, trouble) will leave him." The first confirms that the man who penetrated a male in his social circle lowered the latters status in relation to himself. The second indicates a form of homosexual intercourse that received societal acceptance or at least tolerance: sex with a male cult prostitute. A third omen, involving sex with a courtier (gerseqqu), appears to be moderately negative ("terrors will possess him for a whole year and leave him"). Two other omens foretell a "hard destiny": a man in prison who desires to mate with men "like a male cult prostitute" and a man who copulates with his house born slave. The prison omen reflects societal disgust for a man who takes on the role of male cult prostitute without in fact being one (that is, one who practices without a valid license to do so). The situation of sex with one's slave is less clear. Was having sex with one's slave an ill omen because "a sexual connection would erode a master's authority over his slaves," or because "a slave born at home is comparable to a family member," or because the slave's social status was too low?

Another text, an Almanac of Incantations, speaks favorably of "love of a man for a woman," "love of a woman for a man," and "love of a man for a man." The last mentioned category suggests that same-sex intercourse between two men in Mesopotamia could be construed as something other than a power trip by a dominant partner.

(3) Myth and Ritual Practice: Male Cult Prostitutes

As an omen text cited above indicates, there was a certain acceptability in Mesopotamian society for sex with an assinnu, kurgarrû, or kulu u (words sometimes translated as "male cult prostitutes"). They were closely connected with the goddess Inanna (her Sumerian name) or Ishtar (her Assyrian name), who was identified with Venus (masculine as the morning star and feminine as the evening star)—hence, a goddess possessing androgynous features and traits. In the mythic story, Inanna's (or Ishtar s) Descent to the Underworld, cult prostitutes helped free the goddess from the underworld. In keeping with their role in the myth, their liminal state between two sexes, and their status as devotees of the goddess, they were thought to possess magical power that could deliver people from sickness or other troubles, or bring people success against enemies. They dressed like women, wore makeup, carried with them a spindle (a feminine symbol), and engaged in ecstatic dance and ritual self-torture (probably including self-castration, like the galli of Hellenistic and Roman times); some may have been born hermaphrodites. The goddess, it was believed, had transformed each into a "man-woman" or even a "dog-woman" (with "dog" denoting a disgusting transformation of masculinity and possibly also intercourse in a doglike position). There is good evidence that they offered their services for a fee as the receptive partner in anal intercourse. Ideally, a man who had intercourse with an assinnu did so as a means of accessing the power of the goddess herself. Although the role of the assinnu, kurgarrû, or kulu u was institutionalized, they were often treated with great disdain. In addition to the epithet "dog," they were said to have been created from the dirt under the god Enki's nails, a mere "broken jar." One text speaks of them as those "whose masculinity Ishtar changed into femininity to strike horror into people—the bearers of daggers, razors, pruning-knives and flint blades who frequently do abominable acts to please the heart of Ishtar." Another text refers to their detestable lot in life: "Bread from the city's ploughs [a euphemism for penises] shall be your food, the city drains shall be your only drinking place, the drunkard and the thirsty shall slap your cheek."

(4) The Gilgamesh Epic

Some interpret The Gilgamesh Epic as depicting a homosexual relationship between Gilgamesh, the oversexed superhuman king of Uruk, and Enkidu, the uncivilized wild man created by the gods as a suitable partner for Uruk. Enkidu is described as a man with a hairy body and "tresses like a woman." A harlot with whom Enkidu falls in love describes Gilgamesh to him as a man whose "whole body is charged with seductive charm." Gilgamesh relates to his mother a dream in which "a sky-bolt (kisru) of Anu kept falling upon me.... I loved it as a wife, doted on it.... You treated it as equal to me" (a possible word play with kezru, a "male with curled [i.e., dressed] hair," and kezertu, a female devotee of Ishtar, a cult prostitute). In a second dream Enkidu is likened to an "axe" (hassinnu, a possible word play on assinnu). Gilgamesh's mother interprets his love for Enkidu "as a wife" to mean that the latter will be a friend who never forsakes Gilgamesh; that is, she does not interpret the erotic connotations of the dream to mean an erotic relationship in reality. When Gilgamesh and Enkidu finally meet, Gilgamesh defeats Enkidu in a fight. Then they "kissed each other, and formed a friendship." The story of their relationship never explicitly mentions sexual intercourse between the two. When Enkidu eventually dies, Gilgamesh laments his death with the words: "My friend has covered his face like a bride.... Enkidu, my friend whom I love so much." The degree to which one describes the relationship as homosexual depends on how much one wants to read between the lines. Nissinen characterizes their relationship as an accentuated masculine asceticism.... Eroticism is important first and foremost as the impetus to the transformation which leads first from savage sexual behavior to mutual love, and finally away from physical sex.... Especially noteworthy is the equal relationship between the men, with no clear social or sexual role division.... This exemplifies less a homoerotic than a homosocial type of bonding, which is often strong in societies in which men's and women's worlds are segregated.

Greenberg, who argues in favor of a homosexual relationship, has a different take on the question of equality. "Though Enkidu was certainly not effeminate, he is analogized to a female prostitute by virtue of the subordinate sexual role he played after being defeated by Gilgamesh." Both Greenberg and Nissinen compare the relationship to that of David and Jonathan, and Achilles and Patrocles in the Iliad. The analogy of David and Jonathan, however, might rather speak for an intimate but entirely nonsexual relationship. Wold contends that "Nothing in the language of the epic is suggestive of a homosexual relationship." Certainty is not possible. If the story expresses approval of a man offering himself for penetration (mutual, consenting, or otherwise), it is in tension with the Middle Assyrian Laws. Perhaps one should speak of a deep platonic admiration or even attraction between Gilgamesh and Enkidu.


Since no legal codes have been discovered in ancient Egypt, it is even more difficult to assess Egyptian attitudes to same-sex intercourse than it was for Mesopotamia. The evidence, such as it is, is conflicting.

(1) Although the Egyptian pantheon of gods (like the Mesopotamian pantheon) included hermaphroditic deities, there is no evidence of homosexual cult prostitution. However, a positive, metaphorical use of homosexual imagery in relation to the gods can be found in coffin texts; for example: "I will swallow for myself the phallus of Re" and "his (viz., the earth god Geb's) phallus is between the buttocks of his son and heir." Another coffin text, though, uses the metaphor of same-sex penetration to express fearlessness regarding a god's ability to do him harm: "[The god] Atum has no power over me, for I copulate between his buttocks."

(2) There is an account of Pharaoh Pepi II (ca. 2400 B.C.E.) making regular secret nocturnal visits to an unmarried general, Sisene, apparently for homosexual intercourse. It is unclear whether such a relationship would have been viewed at the time as a scandal because of the homosexual connotation. A tomb for two manicurists and hairdressers of Pharaoh Niuserre (ca. 2600 B.C.E.) pictures the two men holding hands, embracing, and touching noses. Pharaoh Ikhnaton (ca. 1370 B.C.E.) is depicted in intimate scenes (nudity, chin-stroking) with his son-in-law and probable co-regent Smenkhare. The former is drawn with a feminine physique and the latter is given titles of endearment normally reserved for Ikhnaton s concubines and queen.

(3) In one version of the myth of Horus and Seth (ca. 1160 B.C.E.), the gods are deliberating about which of the brothers should rule Egypt. When Seth reveals that he had "played the male role" with Horus, successfully ejaculating his semen "between Horus' buttocks" while the latter was asleep, the gods "screamed aloud, and belched and spat on Horus' face." However, Horus is able to turn the tables on Seth by mixing some of the sperm in Seth s food. Temple inscriptions at Edfu from the Ptolemaic period (third-second centuries B.C.E.) convey a similar theme: Horus eats lettuce (whose juice is identified with semen) so that he can ejaculate into Seth's anus. Both accounts are primarily about aggression, not homosexual desires. so that he can ejaculate into Seth's anus. Yet they do indicate that shame is associated with being a receptive male partner.


Excerpted from The Bible and Homosexual Practice by Robert A.J. Gagnon. Copyright © 2001 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Robert A. J. Gagnon isAssociateProfessor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He co-edits Horizons in Biblical Theology, and has published in the Journal of Biblical Literature, Novum Testamentum, and Catholic Biblical Quarterly.

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Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics 2.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Raycol More than 1 year ago
Recently Jean-Fabrice Nardelli, a classicist at the University of Provence in France, wrote a scathing review of Gagnon’s book. He says that Gagnon relies on tricks such as arbitrary analogy and circular logic and only uses evidence which supports his case. Also many arguments in the book depend on faulty methodology, irrelevant conclusions, or biased quotations of primary texts. Nardelli concludes that, with its peculiarities, defects and failures, the book actually belongs to the genre of phobic attacks. It is strident fundamentalist propaganda.
Colin Andrews More than 1 year ago
Recently Jean-Fabrice Nardelli, a classicist at the University of Provence in France, wrote a scathing review of Gagnon’s book. He points out that Gagnon relies on tricks such as arbitrary analogy and circular logic, and only uses evidence which supports his case. In addition, many arguments in his book depend on faulty methodology, irrelevant conclusions, or biased quotations of primary texts. Nardelli concludes that, with its peculiarities, defects and failures, the book actually belongs to the genre of phobic attacks. It is strident fundamentalist propaganda.