The Bible on Homosexuality

The Bible on Homosexuality
The Bible is not arranged topically to address the issues that arise in our lives or in the consciousness of any culture or society. It is not a book we can easily run to in order to find neat answers to the concerns raised by people living far removed from the circumstances of the Ancient Near East of First Century Palestine. That is just not how it was designed.
Life's issues are generally much more complex than what we might dig from the Bible by quickly looking up a few words in a concordance or web search. Some themes are treated throughout the texts that compose the Bible. Others are hardly present at all. What one text may seem to say another might spin differently, challenging us to take a closer look at the first passage and the second, as well.
When it comes to a topic like homosexuality, we are dealing with a short list of passages that may or may not have anything to do with what we understand as homosexuality. To further complicate matters, our modern notions of the concept do not seem to have originated prior to the 19th Century.1
There are various reasons for that, which would entail much more explanation that a simple yes or no, black or white response. Today we speak of homosexual marriage, but there is simply no context in which that would have made any sense a mere century ago. We may speak of homosexual acts and relationships, while the Greco-Roman world spoke and wrote of very different concepts expressed under the terms we tend to translate as homosexual.
For the purposes of this study, we will look at the Biblical texts traditionally associated with homosexuality. We will look at same-gender sexual contact in the Ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world. We will look briefly at marriage and how the concepts of marriage have changed over the centuries, especially in the last two. Finally, we will look at some other themes in the Bible that have bearing and offer guidance before pulling this together.

Biblical Texts:

When it comes to what the Bible says specifically regarding homosexuality, we are limited to a very short list of texts, and many of them do not actually deal with homosexuality as we know and understand it.

Genesis 9: Noah and Ham

Some have pointed to the finale of the flood narrative as the first mention of homosexuality in the Bible. Specifically, we find that Noah had planted a vineyard and become drunk after the flood. As Noah lay in his tent, his youngest son entered and “uncovered his father's nakedness.” While there are many varied interpretations as to what that phrase means, some have argued that Ham performed some kind of sexual act victimizing his father. That interpretation flounders in the textual contrast regarding how his brothers responded. Rather than jeering at their father being exposed, they walked backward into his tent and covered him with a blanket.
Rather than any kind of homosexual act, this text seems to be pointing to Ham's disrespect for his father. Covering Noah would have been a very inadequate response to Ham sexually abusing him. It was, however, an appropriate response to hearing that their father was unwittingly exposing himself.
Forcing this text to speak of homosexuality in any sense is an injustice to the text, as its context clearly shows.

Genesis 19: Sodom and Gomorrah

We get our term “sodomy” from the passage of Yahweh's messengers visiting Lot in the town of Sodom in Genesis 19. Traditionally, this text has often been referenced as God's condemnation of homosexuality. There are various issues with that interpretation, not least of all the way other Scriptures interpret Sodom's sin.
First of all, we need to look at Genesis 18, which sets up the parallel story of these same visitors from Yahweh coming to visit Abraham. As the strangers arrive, Abraham treats them with lavish hospitality, pressing them to accept the food, drink, and shelter he places at their disposal. By contrast, when the visitors approach Sodom, Lot calls them into the protection of his home for protection, while the Sodomites demand he release them into the street to be gang-raped by the men of the city.
Gang-rape and sex are not the same things. Rape is an act of violence, domination, and power. It is not about the physical or emotional pleasures of sex, other than being aroused at the misfortune and powerlessness of one's victim. Rape and gang rape depend on forcing the victim into abject submission. The gender of the victim or perpetrator is immaterial. All that matters is the victimization of the other, in this case, the foreign visitors.
Isaiah 1:9-17 critiques Jerusalem's rulers for being like Sodom in that they ignored God's teachings to deal appropriately with the powerless among them. They were offering sacrifices, but ignoring justice and the need to do good. Jeremiah 23:13 addresses a variety of offenses against God as equivalent to Sodom's sin. Ezekiel 16:49 tells us that Sodom's sin was ignoring the plight of the poor and needy around them. None of those texts mention homosexuality in any way as the cause of God's judgment upon Sodom.
If we try to make a discussion of God's destruction of Sodom about homosexuality, we really do not have a leg to stand on. The prophets spoke of injustice as the issue in Sodom. Genesis demonstrates that injustice in the framework of the attempted gang-rapes of foreign visitors. These are simply not descriptors of homosexuality.

Leviticus 18 & 20: Abominations

For the Hebrew Scriptures, the only text that really addresses homosexuality is the part of Leviticus spanning chapters 18 through 20.
Leviticus 18:22 tells us that a man lying with a man as with a woman is “an abomination” or “disgusting.” The Hebrew term carries the sense that it is somehow revolting and is, therefore, abominable.2 This description offers a more emotional response to the condemnation of homosexuality by contrast to any of the other items listed. None of the acts of sexual deviance portrayed in the list are given any descriptor.
Two verses later, a man lying with a man is described along with the whole list of sexual prohibitions of contact between men and their female relatives, the wives of others, or with animals as unacceptable. Verse 24 says that such sexual contact makes one unclean, or ritually impure. It goes on to regard these ritual defilements as the cause the nations of Palestine being forced out. This ties this list of items together mainly as concerns over ritual purity in regard to worship.
Leviticus 20 repeats essentially the same position as chapter 18, this time adding in legal consequences for stepping beyond the established boundaries. By commingling homosexuality and bestiality, there is also an emphasis here on maintaining the distinctions of defined categories within the guidance of the rules concerning ritual purity. This maintenance of distinctions is emblematic in many of the prohibitions of foods, where only fish with scales can be eaten, and only those ruminants with cloven hooves.
There is no question that Leviticus considers homosexual relations impure, but it couches that definition within the confines of ritual purity. It also places homosexuality as simply one among many issues of sexual impropriety, not as anything that would be considered more sinful than anything else.

1 Samuel 20: David and Jonathan

Some interpreters more recently have attempted to claim that the relationship between David and Jonathan was a homosexual relationship. The text simply does not give us any basis for making such a declaration. Yes, it speaks of David and Jonathan expressing their love for each other. One of them even compares the love they share to the love of a woman. What binds them together in the larger narrative, however, is their desire to serve Yahweh rather than use political power for selfish reasons. There is just nothing there on which to build a case for such a declaration.3

Romans 1: Unnatural Passions

Romans 1 is the clearest text in the New Testament in addressing homosexuality. It is not, however, as clear as we might wish it to be. Certainly, Paul is no fan of homosexuality, but there are questions as to what he understands homosexuality to be.
The more common understanding of activities that would have fallen under the umbrella of homosexuality in the New Testament world is not what we understand today as homosexuality. The more common concept was what should more appropriately be called pederasty, which has nothing to do with a relationship between equals.
Pederasty was a far cry from homosexuality, as we would address it today. It referred to a man keeping one or more boys as his sex slaves, along with his other sexual relationships with girls and women. Paul mentions women in like manner, and indeed it was also common enough in the Greco-Roman world for women to also abuse children for their own sexual pleasure. If this is indeed what Paul means, he is not addressing what we consider homosexuality in the modern world. He addresses what we would call pedophilia or even sex trafficking.
These practices were virtually unknown in Jewish circles and considered a gentile sin. Paul's argument simply accepts that premise inherited from the common Jewish perspective. It becomes part of a declaration that the gentile world was guilty of sin and worthy of condemnation. He then turns around to declare the Jews equally guilty for feeling superior to the Gentiles.4 While there were changing attitudes in regard to pederasty in the Greco-Roman world, the Jewish impressions of those shifts had not necessarily kept up with social critiques in the larger world, nor had those practices ended as is evident in St. Augustine's Confessions.
Secondarily, when Paul brings up the issue of homosexuality or pederasty, it is not actually the issue of sin to which he is pointing. The issue he actually raises is with idolatry. He then refers to sexual deviation as a consequence of idolatry. His critique of the Gentile world here is not in regard to homosexuality. It is in regard to idolatry. This was the issue Jews would readily accept as making them superior, any sexual deviation being viewed as a symptom of the real sin of the gentile world. This does not mean Paul approves of homosexuality, but it denotes that he viewed the sexual excesses and their deviations as a result of the larger issue of worshipping idols rather than God.
We are left, then, with some questions as to what Paul understood as homosexuality and that he raises the issue as a result of idolatry, not as the sin for which the gentile world stood condemned.

1 Corinthians 6: Arsenokoitai

Paul's writing to the Corinthians here echoes much of what he had already written to the Galatians. In both letters, he includes a list of sins, but for the Corinthians, he adds a reference to homosexuality that was missing in his letter to the Galatian believers. Right off the bat, however, we have to deal with some issues in the text.
In addressing homosexuality here, Paul uses a word he seems to have coined, arsenokoitai. As with any freshly coined word, we have to determine what it means. At face value, arsenokoitai would refer to men having intercourse. The socio-historical context is not entirely helpful, as we have to include what Paul would have encountered in the Greco-Roman world. The more commonly understood practices of male with male sexuality would have been a far cry from our understanding of homosexuality. Instead, it would seem Paul was referencing pederasty more than anything else. Pederasty, which was also beginning to be looked down upon within the Greco-Roman world, was commonly referred to in Jewish critiques of gentile immorality and sinfulness.5
Pederasty is not a sexual relationship between equals. It is an abusive relationship of forcing oneself upon another. We would consider it sexual abuse, rape, or sexual slavery today, not homosexuality. Male intercourse between consenting adults was less recognized than a male using young boys for personal gratification. It would appear this is what Paul was referencing, rather than what we have come to understand as homosexuality in our current context.

1 Timothy 1: Vices

Once more, a possible reference to homosexuality comes up in 1st Timothy, and once more, there is question as to its specific referent. In the list of vices we see in verses 9-10, homosexuality is couched among violent offenses. The list is murder, killing parents, selling slaves, telling lies (which in the context often resulted in a loss of property for the poor), and bearing false witness which resulted in injustice. This is not a generic list of sinful actions appropriate for the inclusion of homosexuality as we understand it. This is a list more in keeping with practices of pederasty, the victimization of people for one's personal pleasure.
It would appear that 1st Timothy is not referencing what we understand as homosexuality. It is referencing the active victimization of others akin to our concepts of sexual slavery, pedophilia, sexual abuse, and rape.

Summary of Biblical Discussions:

From this review of what the Bible says in regard to homosexuality, it would appear that only Leviticus is directly concerned with homosexual practice as a sin, and this in the context of ritual and religious purity. The New Testament passages seem to refer to pederasty, not to homosexuality. That leaves us essentially with one passage (Leviticus 18-20) upon which to base an argument for Biblical condemnation of homosexuality, and that within the context of religious and ritual purity. Accepted norms of Biblical interpretation and sound theological practice do not allow for basing doctrinal positions on an isolated verse or passage.
If our purpose is to understand homosexuality, the Bible remains essentially silent. If our purpose is to condemn homosexuality, the Biblical basis for that is the equivalent of very thin ice. Jesus did not give much weight to issues of ritual purity, as he cast those concerns aside and invalidated the Biblical basis for them. The New Testament seems to deal only with pederasty, and it appears to base its concerns on the subjugation of others which goes far beyond any concerns over homosexuality.

Homosexuality in the Biblical World:

While homosexuality indeed existed in the Biblical world, its main prevalence seems to have been among Greco-Roman cultures, beginning with the Greeks in the Sixth Century BCE. This was not, however, homosexuality according to the category we use today. This was a whole other category dealing mainly with the use of sex as a tool for both pleasure and the domination of a victim. We would consider this among the categories of pedophilia, statutory rape, sexual slavery, sexual abuse, or something such. This was not a question of a voluntary relationship among partners, but a relationship of domination and submission for abuse. This was not a category dealing with a perceived sexual identity and desire, but with violence toward potential victims. Rather than homosexuality, we would call this sexual exploitation.6
What we understand as homosexuality was simply not known or not discussed widely enough for us to have much record of it. We would not expect the Bible to address something that was essentially non-existent or at most unmentionable.

Marriage in the Biblical World and Its Development:

It is often hard for us to grasp just how much has changed in human relationships across the centuries of civilization. We barely understand that cultures and norms shift over time. In our own day, the West is often shocked to hear of rape existing in certain countries of the East as a matter of fact. We hear of honor killings and see them as atrocities with no connection to our own heritage. We miss as well just how close we are historically to concepts of women as less than fully human. We forget, somehow, that less than a century ago black people were discussed from pulpits across our own nation as subhuman or lacking a soul. In the same manner, many clung to an interpretation of a single verse of Scripture to decree that women could only be saved by bearing children.
While we might look at such issues as ancient, archaic, misinformed, and otherwise no longer acceptable, we miss just how much they affected so many aspects of life for a majority of the world population over the course of millennia. We fail to grasp how such attitudes affected cultural and social concepts of marriage at its very definition.
In the Ancient Near East, women could be bought and sold as property to become wives. They might be taken in war as spoil, either as wives, concubines, or slaves. In any case, they were not considered by society as full participants on an equal footing with men. When it comes to marriage, this is of extreme importance in understanding the standard relationships between men and women in marriage. While some Biblical texts hint at equality, they tend to speak outside the patterns of normal interactions and cultural expectations.
In such a context, marriage was not a partnership between equals. A woman needed a man to offer her protection in society. She needed a man to make economic decisions, negotiate contracts, and seek justice. Less than a hundred years ago, this was true in the United States. There were exceptions, but a woman could not open a bank account or purchase a car without her husband's permission. In the ancient world, this reality was heightened.
As such, marriage was an economic relationship in which the husband took possession of his wife. She became his property. She was dependent and subservient to him as more than her provider. He held the authority in the relationship as a matter of course. She existed to serve and fulfill his desires.
Any notion of homosexual marriage in such a context would be baffling. What man would take on the submissive role in such a relationship? What individual would willingly become the slave of another? There would be no point. When marriage is a contract among equals, its members become partners in life. When marriage is an economic contract between two people in which one purchases and rules the other, one exists for the good of the superior. Until marriage began to be seen as a relationship among equal or semi-equal partners (something we are still struggling to grasp and understand how to implement), there would be no sense in a homosexual marriage, even if two same-sex individuals chose to live with one another.
Marriage mostly existed for much of human history as a function of property rights, inheritance laws, and other economic concerns. Adultery was mostly viewed from the lens of abusing the property of another man. It was also looked at from a sense of making the line of one's heirs uncertain. These are very different concerns from those of publicly affirming the love of a couple and granting them rights that stem from the sharing of a household and partnering in most or all areas of life.
The Bible would never have spoken to homosexual unions in regard to marriage, as the accepted purposes of marriage were not those of marriage in today's Western world. Sure, there are texts which point to a higher purpose and understanding of marriage than the practical norm of human history, but those simply were not normative.

Other Biblical Themes with Bearing on the Topic of Homosexuality:

In dealing with any issue that would place people into one or another category, we should recall how Jesus dealt with people sidelined by the religious and social order of his day. Jesus took various individuals whom religious society sidelined as worthless, treating them with love, care, forgiveness, mercy, compassion, and acceptance. He took the Samaritan woman living with her fifth partner and allowed her to become a bearer of the gospel. He took tax collectors and made them his disciples. He commissioned the demon-possessed as his emissaries to their people.
Rather than deal in condemnation and exclusion, Jesus wielded acceptance and inclusion. Grace and mercy were the hallmarks of his ministry and teaching. As God called Peter to the home of Cornelius, something a self-respecting, religious Jew would never have done, we are called to walk alongside those who hear God's call from within a different walk of life.
The New Testament as a whole teaches us to deal with others in grace and understanding. It calls us to step outside our standard definitions of acceptability to become the friends of sinners and outcasts Jesus was accused of being.
There are, after all, multiple lists of sins in the Bible, some of which tout themselves the worst of all sins. Homosexuality is not mentioned in any of them. If there are orders of magnitude ranking sin, it would appear from the Biblical witness that economic injustice and other forms of violence rank at the top. Unfortunately, our traditions and heritage have generally chosen to focus on other issues like alcohol, drugs, and sexuality.
Biblically, sin's importance lies along two issues. The first is that it separates us from God. The second is that it demeans or violates those around us. In regard to the first, it is our shame for having fallen short of God's will for our lives that causes separation. God has ever sought to enact our reconciliation, but we are loathe to return to fellowship with God. In regard to the second, not all sin affects others directly. If there are degrees to sin, it would be in regard to how deeply and extensively it impacts the lives of others negatively. Often as not, homosexuality is not the sin that has impacted the lives of others negatively, rather, it has been the reaction of the religious community that has resulted in adverse impacts on the lives of homosexuals. If we are going to pass judgment, it must be on ourselves for the damage we have done, whether directly or indirectly flaming violent passions against people we have not understood.
The goal for believers in fulfilling the mission left us by Christ Jesus is that of reconciling the world to God. This is not accomplished by condemning people as subhuman or subpar. It is done in preaching Jesus' message of love and reconciliation. Pointing fingers of condemnation simply does not advance the cause of Christ.


The Bible really has very little if anything to say to concerns over homosexuality. Jesus never addressed the issue as far as we know, for there is no reference to it in the gospels, Acts, or Paul's quotations of Jesus. As such, even if we label homosexuality as sinful, the Bible gives less stress to that sinfulness than it does to lying, greed, or failing to offer cold water to the thirsty.
The concerns of Leviticus seem to revolve around issues of ritual purity, creating distance between the fertility cults surrounding Israel, and maintaining well-defined boundaries in life. These are the concerns behind not eating shellfish, prohibitions against eating blood, and keeping distance between worship and contact with bodily fluids.
The Bible does not deal with homosexuality as a relationship between equals. Its authors had no contact with such a relationship. We need to understand, therefore, that rather than looking for texts regarding sexuality to guide our comprehension of how the Bible speaks to homosexuality today, we should instead look at how the Bible addresses human relationships and the incorporation of the marginalized into the larger society. We need to address all people under the guidance of Jesus' declarations of God's love for all people, without exception.

1 Achtemeier, Paul J., Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature. Harper’s Bible dictionary 1985: 402. Print.
2 Louw, Johannes P. “Semantics.” Ed. David Noel Freedman. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary 1992: 1079. Print.
3 Evans, Mary J. 1 & 2 Samuel. Ed. W. Ward Gasque, Robert L. Hubbard Jr., and Robert K. Johnston. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012. Print. Understanding the Bible Commentary Series.
4 Jr., Charles D. Myers. “Romans, Epistle to the.” Ed. David Noel Freedman. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary 1992: 827–828. Print.
5 Mays, James Luther, ed. Harper’s Bible Commentary. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.

6 Achtemeier, Paul J., Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature. Harper’s Bible dictionary 1985: 402. Print.

©Copyright 2017, Christopher B. Harbin 


  1. Hi, Christopher. Jeanne here, also from Brasil & Lib MKs. One of the missionaries you may not remember joined a group of MKs having an informal rap session at Mission Meeting one night, way back in the early 1970s. One of us asked him about homosexuality. He told us about one night in the US leading another man, from another town, to Christ. After joint prayer, the man told him he was in a relationship with another man. What should he now do? Uncle G___ told this new believer to go back home & share Christ & his story. In conclusion, Uncle G___ said that, to that day, a group of [homosexual] believers had their own Christian community in that town. No edicts, no shaming, just sharing a story, which stuck with me all this time.

    1. Jeanne, thanks for sharing. There are definitely much more important issues for us to be concerned about than pointing fingers at people. After all, the gospel is about bringing near those who are far from God. Peace!


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