Love Lost in Translation: Homosexuality and the Bible

Love Lost in Translation: Homosexuality and the Bible

by K. Renato Lings


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Love Lost in Translation: Homosexuality and the Bible by K. Renato Lings

Most people believe that the Bible is hostile to homoerotic relationships. However, this view is influenced by the Church Fathers and medieval interpretations of the Bible. Negative Christian attitudes to sexuality are based on tradition, not on the Bible. Mistranslations into Greek and Latin occurred early, and some fatal translation errors have persisted until the present day. Many current English versions of the Bible continue to mistranslate the relevant texts, including the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and the letters of Paul. This problem is at the heart of the painful controversy about homosexuality, which has rocked Christian churches for decades.

Love Lost in Translation invites translators to adopt a fresh approach to the Bible. If this unique, sacred work is translated meticulously, according to strict linguistic and literary criteria, readers will discover that the Old and New Testaments are treasure troves of cultural information, literary sophistication, psychological insight, and spiritual depth. In biblical times, attitudes to close same-sex relationships differed considerably from the general condemnation that became the norm during the Middle Ages. The Bible does not exclude people on the basis of their sexuality. Instead, it urges believers to treat fellow human beings justly, responsibly, respectfully, and generously.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466987890
Publisher: Trafford Publishing
Publication date: 06/05/2013
Pages: 786
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.88(d)

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Love Lost in Translation

Homosexuality and the Bible

By K. Renato Lings

Trafford Publishing

Copyright © 2013 K. Renato Lings
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4669-8790-6



He called them 'groundling' on the day of their creation.

—Genesis 5.2


It is often said that the Bible is 'very clear' in regard to homoerotic relationships (Gagnon 2001: 26–8). Yet current literature on the subject provides little insight into some biblical themes that are crucial for understanding the basic issues involved. In particular, two subjects are under-researched: (1) sexual language in the Bible and (2) the biblical meaning of the verb 'to know'. Since information on these is scarce and has to be sought in a variety of academic sources, chapters 2 and 3 are dedicated to these subjects. Furthermore, while the creation story in the book of Genesis is widely discussed, relatively few scholars focus directly on the importance on this text for anyone wishing to gauge biblical approaches to homoeroticism. For these reasons, the present book's part 1 starts with a chapter on creation.

Many readers are likely to ask whether the opening pages of the book of Genesis have anything to do with homoerotic relationships. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people rarely think of the biblical creation story in relation to the various orientations inherent in human sexuality as they are understood today. However, the circles most hostile to awarding civil rights to the so-called sexual minorities often search this part of the Bible for arguments (Stone 2000: 59; Kraus 2011: 29). Characteristically, they will say 'God created man male and female'. This means, in their view, that it is the divinely ordained destiny and duty of all human beings to marry heterosexually and produce children (Nissinen 1998: 135).

The popularity and pervasiveness of this approach motivates me to undertake an in-depth analysis of the original Hebrew narrative. The first half of this chapter consists of an extensive literature review for the purpose of gleaning insights from contemporary scholars on this pivotal part of the Hebrew Bible (HB). A wide range of innovative approaches are available from Jewish, feminist, and queer theologians. Their research is documenting how rich the creation story is in biological, psychological, and social insights and the extent to which it excels in symbolic, mythological language. All of this poses major challenges to translators and biblical interpreters in general, which is why I pay special attention to translation issues. The second half of the chapter explores the Hebrew text of Genesis 1–4 in order to gauge the meaning of key words such as 'God', 'Adam', 'male', and 'female', which play a prominent role in Genesis 1. Subsequently, 'rib' and 'one flesh' occur in Genesis 2, while the concept of 'sexual desire' appears in Genesis 3. Marriage and childbirth enter the picture in Genesis 4. The language associated with sexual intercourse makes its first appearance in Genesis 6 (cf. this book's chapter 2).

Creation in the Christian Tradition

According to traditional Christian theology, the book of Genesis explains that God created the first human beings as male and female (1.27). This apparently precise statement makes it clear that the masculine/feminine duality exists due to an act of divine will and that humans should respect it at all times. Thus, Robert Gagnon (2001) argues that the differentiation between the sexes is inherent in being created in the image of God. In addition, this is the way in which procreation is ensured (pp. 57–8, 61). In terms of anatomy, male and female bodies were made to be joined (p. 365). Therefore, the complementarity of the sexes naturally excludes any intimate union between two people of the same sex (p. 156). According to Gagnon, the female is not there in the opening verses of Genesis 2. When the first 'man' feels lonely, God asks him to choose a 'helpmeet' from among the animals (cf. Gen. 2.19). However, the experiment does not produce a satisfactory outcome and this causes the Creator to decide on surgery. During the operation, a 'rib' is removed from the man (cf. 2.21). From this bone, the Creator shapes a woman and presents her to the man. The latter receives the new arrival with delight, accepting her as companion.

On the basis of this passage, Gagnon infers that man and woman were created to complement each other (2001: 60). Marriage is the institution that enables successive generations to reassemble what was divided on that day of separation (p. 194). In Gagnon's view, this is the significance of the phrase 'become one flesh' in Genesis 2.24 (p. 61). He concludes that intimate same-sex relationships do not match the criteria established by Genesis. He applies the same argument to Jesus's statements on divorce in the Gospel of Mark 10.2–12, interpreting Jesus's words as an absolute ratification of Gagnon's own approach to the subject (2001: 193).

According to other traditional readings of Genesis 2, the arrival of woman in the Garden of Eden occurs after the man has been there for a while. The story has caused Christian tradition to posit that God is male and has conferred superiority on the human male vis-à-vis woman (Svartvik 2006: 225). In other words, for many Christian thinkers the story of the rib operation and subsequent events justify the subordination of women (Bechtel 1993: 77; Meyers 1993: 129). It is important to point out that this way of reasoning is indebted to the letters of Paul, e.g. 1 Corinthians. Prominent advocates of biblical interpretation from the perspective of male superiority among the fathers and doctors of the Christian church include John Chrysostom (García Estébanez 1992: 85, 95), Thomas Aquinas (p. 79), and Augustine of Hippo (p. 97–8). In this context, it is important to recall that the early church—including the authors of the Second Testament (ST)—did not study the Hebrew Bible in the original language but rather in Greek translation (LXX). Subsequently the Latin Vulgate became normative for the medieval church. This situation continued for 1500 years. In other words, the vast majority of Christian theologians would discuss the creation story as presented in Greek and Latin translations without consulting the Hebrew original. The many centuries of Christian misogyny continued into the Protestant Reformation and beyond—clearly expressed in the writings of, for instance, Calvin and Luther (Milne 1993: 150). Given the long, pervasive influence of this approach to the initial chapters of Genesis, the continued presence in modern theology of misogynous elements is hardly surprising (Stuart & Thatcher 1997: 151–5).

Non-Christian Perspectives on Creation

For centuries, Jewish interpretations of the creation story have diverged considerably from Christian approaches. It is significant that Jewish commentators never abandoned their studies of the HB in the original language. This section summarizes contemporary interpretations of the Hebrew text offered by Jewish and non-Jewish scholars with concerns and methodologies rarely found in mainstream Christian theology.

According to Everett Fox (1995: 18), the opening events in Genesis have been subjected to multiple interpretations. Perhaps the psychological approach is among the most original and creative. The Eden story offers 'a vision of childhood and of the transition to the contradictions and pain of adolescence and adulthood'. Adam and Eve begin their lives as children, in all senses of the word. Once they have broken the rules by eating the forbidden fruit, their actions betray bewilderment as they are unable to cope with important, newfound insights. Their banishment from the garden leads them into awareness of the great difficulties, including death, which all human beings have to face: 'Knowledge and mortality are inextricably linked'. This may be a tragic discovery, but it is also essential for life on Planet Earth. The way in which the rebellion against the rules established by God is narrated in Genesis 3 stresses the element of choice, a major facet of human existence (1995: 18).

Robert Alter (1996: 3) observes that in some parts of the HB, the noun ruach, 'breath', 'wind', or 'spirit' (Gen. 1.2) describes 'an eagle fluttering over its young and so might have a connotation of parturition or nurture as well as rapid back-and-forth movement'. In Genesis 1.26, Alter disagrees with those who translate adam as 'man' because it is 'a generic term for human beings', which does not automatically suggest maleness. Similarly, Alter points out that 'him' in this verse is 'grammatically but not anatomically masculine' (p. 5). One Hebrew phrase that is 'notoriously difficult to translate' is 'ezer kenegdo (Gen. 2.18). The second term literally means 'alongside him' or 'opposite him', but 'ezer is more than just 'help' or 'helper'. In fact, 'ezer connotes 'active intervention on behalf of someone'. For the context of Genesis 2, Alter proposes the translation 'a sustainer beside him' (p. 9).

According to Gordon and Rendsburg (1997: 36), 'the knowledge of good and evil' is a much misunderstood phrase. In antiquity, it was used as the literary device known as merism. In the Genesis context, the phrase means 'everything'. By eating the magic fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the man and the woman gain 'knowledge that up to that time had been the monopoly of divinity'. Prior to that moment, they had virtually been living like animals unashamed of their nudity. The new knowledge includes a sense of decency. If the story is examined objectively, one realizes that both woman and man grow intellectually. The new insight available to them enables them to move to a higher level. Indeed, the so-called fall of man is no such thing. It would be more appropriate to speak of the 'rise of man halfway to divinity' (p. 37). Similarly, in Thomas Brodie's view (2001: 101), 'the story of the Fall is not primarily about a distant historical event but about an inner process' that is 'deeper than history'. In actual fact, the idea of a fall does not appear until Genesis 4.6–7 where God asks Cain why his face is 'fallen'. The word introduces a double meaning in reference to Cain's state of mind as well as to the crime he has just committed (2001: 153).

For her part, Lyn Bechtel (1993) questions the well-known 'fall' of Adam and Eve and the alleged biblical basis of 'original sin' (pp. 78–9). Such pessimistic concepts leading to resignation are not found elsewhere in the HB. Indeed, they are the product of the Hellenistic era, which is a time of major cultural transformation. From a sociological point of view, the crucial shift from group-oriented societies to predominantly individual-oriented societies is particularly noteworthy (p. 80). The language employed by the Hebrew narrator is characterized by mythological imagery full of symbolism (p. 81). An important concept is 'shame' (Gen. 2.25; 3.7). Bechtel interprets it as a psychological phenomenon that appears naturally during the formative years in which human beings mature from early childhood and adolescence into adulthood (p. 84).

For Samuel Terrien (1985), the creation narrative was told from the very beginning as 'a pungent description of every man and every woman'. In this sense, the story is a 'true' myth, i.e. 'a parable of the human situation' (p. 8). It reveals 'the perennial temptation of human beings in every age' to acquire infinite knowledge in order to become like God. The initial loneliness of the groundling has to do with the human condition: 'True life is not individual but corporate and social' (p. 9). Unlike many Christian commentators, Terrien argues that the Hebrew narrator is far from being anti-feminist. Instead, the storyteller was 'a theologian who unabashedly admired womanhood' (p. 9). The solemn verb used in Genesis 2.22 to describe the creation of the woman is banah, which means 'build' (1985: 12). In the HB, this word appears frequently in relation to works of architecture (cf. Gen. 4.17; 8.20; 11.4–8). The Hebrew term ezer denotes that the woman is not a simple 'helper'. Rather, her important role vis-à-vis the man is comparable to the way in which God delivers the oppressed Israelites (1985: 10–11). Thus, the Woman delivers the man from 'the distress of his solitude' (p. 11; cf. Wenham 1987: 70).

For Rabbi Jonathan Magonet (2004) and his faith community, the Eden story illustrates the impossibility for human beings to linger indefinitely in a paradise-like state. The narrator seems to say that the appropriate place for us to live is the earth. We are formed by both earth and breath (spirit) and thus possess a close link to the earth. With our Creator, we share the ability to shape, mould, and create (p. 121). The mention of death in Genesis 2.17 is not intended as a threat but rather a statement of fact (p. 122). According to Magonet, many Christian interpretations of this text are influenced by the arbitrary fragmentation of the biblical text into separate chapters that occurred during the Middle Ages (p. 123). The dialogue between the serpent and Eve represents a psychological process whereby the woman grows in awareness of the world around her and of the forces governing it. She is taking the first steps toward another level of existence, which leads to the independence inherent in adulthood (p. 124). Only by leaving behind the innocence of childhood do we humans become able to absorb the knowledge of good and bad, that is, of the facts of life. In other words, to become responsible adults we need to achieve a state of psychological maturity. This entails learning to take decisions and to foresee their consequences for our lives on Planet Earth. In the Rabbinic view, the eating of the fruit and the subsequent expulsion from Eden 'was ultimately a great liberation' for it gave the first human beings 'the chance to grow up' (p. 132).

Feminist Perspectives

In recent decades, feminist scholars have produced a number of critical essays inviting readers to rethink their understanding of the creation story by considering elements that have been overlooked for centuries. Like Jewish and HB scholars in general, they tend to highlight significant elements in the Hebrew text. Luise Schottroff (1993) focuses on the gender of the important noun ruach, which occurs in Genesis 1.2. Grammatically female, the word means 'breath', 'wind' or 'spirit'. Schottroff quotes Martin Buber for whom ruach represents a giant mother-bird hovering above the waters (1993: 24). According to Schottroff, the biblical narrator conceives of the Creator as a three-dimensional being: a conscientious craftsman, a mother-bird, and a sovereign king (p. 26).

Adrien Janis Bledstein (1993) underlines the fact that in Genesis 3, the woman is not the object of a curse. Rather, the word 'cursed' is applied to the serpent and to the earth (p. 142). For Bledstein, the word elohim spoken by the serpent in Genesis 3.5 is plural meaning 'gods' (as opposed to the proper noun Elohim, 'God'): 'you will be like gods, knowing good and evil'. On a different note, the 'desire' of woman for her man (Gen. 3.16) reflects the Hebrew term teshuqah, which is often translated as 'urge' or 'lust'. However, for Bledstein the word is multifaceted and may be interpreted as an adjective in the sense of 'desirable' or 'attractive' (p. 143). In this context, Bledstein is struck by the curious parallel to sin's 'desire' for Cain in 4.7. She understands the latter passage to mean (p. 144): 'It [sin] is powerfully attractive to you, but you can rule over it'. If a similar approach is adopted for Genesis 3.16, teshuqah becomes part of a warning: 'you are powerfully attractive to your husband, but he can rule over you'. Bledstein continues (p. 144),

her erotic allure is powerful. But beware, she is cautioned, her man has the capacity—not the license nor the authority—to dominate her. Cain is admonished that he is able to master his arousal toward sinful action.

For Carol Meyers (1993: 120), the biblical writings are characterized by enormous complexity. The above-mentioned notion of the 'fall' attributed to Genesis 3 is, in Meyers's view, extra-biblical (pp. 126–7). When it comes to the social status of women in the hill country of Palestine approximately three thousand years ago, Meyers applies sociological methodology to the Hebrew text. She observes the frequent occurrences of the verb akhal, 'eat', which to her denote a persistent concern for food. In other words, subsistence was a key issue for the people of Palestine (p. 128). Meyers wonders what it means that man will 'rule' over woman in Genesis 3.16. In her analysis, both man and woman are meant to share the toil and labour required to produce the daily bread. According to Meyers, if man is ordered to 'predominate' it means that his efforts in agriculture are destined to be greater than the contribution of woman. This is so because she has the additional responsibility of childbirth and childcare (p. 134).

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Table of Contents


ABBREVIATIONS....................     xix     

SPELLING AND STYLE....................     xxi     

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS....................     xxiii     

INTRODUCTION....................     xxv     

PART ONE Creation, Sex, and Knowing....................          

1. BEGINNINGS....................     3     

2. THE LANGUAGE OF SEX....................     44     

3. TO KNOW IN THE BIBLICAL SENSE....................     79     

PART TWO Curse and Prohibitions....................          

4. NOAH'S NAKEDNESS....................     123     

5. CONSECRATED....................     155     

6. WITH A MALE....................     195     

PART THREE Sodom and Gomorrah....................          

7. SODOM IN THE BIBLE....................     241     

8. SODOM YESTERDAY....................     282     

9. SODOM TODAY....................     325     

10. TRANSLATING SODOM....................     358     

11. THE VICTIM OF SODOM....................     400     

PART FOUR Politics, Polemics, and Passions....................          

12. THE OUTRAGE AT GIBEAH....................     445     

13. SOFTIES AND MALE-LIERS....................     486     

14. BEYOND NATURE....................     521     

PART FIVE The Language of Love....................          

15. LOVE LOST IN TRANSLATION....................     569     



APPENDIX 1....................     625     

APPENDIX 2....................     629     


HEBREW GLOSSARY....................     645     

GREEK GLOSSARY....................     650     

LATIN GLOSSARY....................     654     

BIBLIOGRAPHY....................     657     

SCRIPTURE REFERENCE INDEX....................     699     

NAME INDEX....................     723     

AUTHOR INDEX....................     731     

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