The Clobber Texts

This series has been about looking at some of the places queer folk of various stripes see our experiences reflected in Scripture and, in Friday’s post, the post-biblical Tradition. But, of course, there are texts which either explicitly or implicitly seem to condemn homosexuality, or at least homoeroticism. And it’s important to give these texts their due. And so this week, I’ll be looking at these so-called “clobber texts,” which are so often used to try to end the conversation about the inclusion of queer folk in churches before it begins. Today I’ll take a quick look at a few of these texts (Genesis 19, Leviticus 18.22 & 20.10, 1 Corinthians 6.9, 1 Timothy 1.10 ), before doing a full, integral study of Romans 1.18-32 later in the week.

As people of faith, who seek to honour the Scriptures in how we live out our lives, it’s important to listen to what the Bible says. But, this means that it’s important to ensure the Bible says what we think it does, or have been taught that it does. With each of the three selections I’ll be looking at today, this remains an open question.

(Note: In the interest of space I had to leave a lot of the ‘work’  and evidence for this post on the editing floor. Please look at the resource list for full bibliographic information and further reading)

The Sin of Sodom in Genesis 19

Throughout Christian history, the biggest text used to prohibit and vilify homosexuality has been Genesis 19, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. But, this is far from the most obvious interpretation of this story — and critically, it’s not the one the Scriptures themselves take when referring to the incident. Let’s look at the story again to see what it says.

God sends angels to the city of Sodom to investigate complaints against it and its neighbour Gomorrah (18.20-33). When they arrive, they are greeted by Lot, one of Abraham’s kinsmen, who welcomes them and offers them hospitality, as would be expected in the Ancient Near East (ANE) for traveling strangers. That same night, a mob surrounds Lot’s house demanding he hand his guests over to them. Lot goes out to negotiate with the men and even offers up his two daughters to the mob in order to protect his guests. But they won’t have it. They insult him for being a foreigner and try to force their way into the house. The angels blind the men and tell Lot to grab his family and get out of the city before God destroys it.

It’s safe to say that this is a horrible story and Sodom’s sins are indeed great: We have a refusal of culturally-expected hospitality, a violation of the protection offered by Lot, the attempted gang-rape (and likely murder) of strangers (who are angels), the ridicule of a resident alien, and the invasion of property. There’s a lot going on here and little of it even remotely touches on homosexuality. It’s sadly telling that the Church has traditionally focused its attention on the gender of the people the men want to rape rather than on the attempted rape itself!

But while the Church has largely used this story as a morality tale against homosexuality, the Scriptures themselves offer up a different explanation. The prophet Ezekiel (16.46-51) said that Sodom’s sin was that it “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” What got God’s attention was Sodom’s injustice — precisely what would later get Jerusalem into trouble. The deuterocanonical book known as Wisdom (19.14-17) took a different approach, but also one that better fits the story than the one we consider ‘traditional’, blaming Sodom’s destruction on its xenophobia and violation of hospitality. The two sets of sins — the indifference to the poor and vulnerable and the attempted gang-rape of guests — are two sides of the same coin: The sin of Sodom was that its people felt entitled to whatever they wanted, no matter the consequences for others and no matter what they had to do to get it. From a full biblical picture, the sin of Sodom is inhumanity, lack of compassion, abuse of power, and, in a word, brutality.

The association of this story with homosexuality does not seem to appear until around the turn of the common era, in Alexandria, Egypt, first in Jewish texts (especially Philo), and from there into important Alexandrian Church Fathers, such as Clement and Origen. If we recall that the point of biblical interpretation at the time was primarily to reinforce what the community already believed, it makes sense that they’d latch on to this story as a morality story about homosexuality — despite what the story itself says.

At any rate, it seems clear that, even if one wants to throw homosexuality in with the many sins of Sodom, it is far from the focus of the story. It’s a story about the violent abuse of power and lack of care for the vulnerable. And to make it about anything else is a gross exercise in missing the point and twisting Scripture to suit one’s presuppositions.

The Abomination of Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13

We face a very different situation with Leviticus 18.22 and 20.10, texts in the Law that clearly prohibit sexual activity between men.

  • You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (18.22)
  • If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their bloodguilt is upon them. (20.13)

While there is little controversy about what these laws mean, important questions remain for how they should be applied, especially for Christians. On a very real — if reductive — level, if you don’t have a problem eating shrimp or a ham and cheese sandwich, you shouldn’t be making an argument for anything based primarily on Leviticus. But yet many Christians still appeal to these texts. One common way Christians do this is to make a distinction between the ‘ceremonial’ Law and the ‘moral’ Law. This is a tricky argument, however, because the Law itself makes no such distinction. And even if we want to, the context for both laws places them adjacent to, if not within a ritual context. Ritual purity rather than morality is also suggested by the declaration of these acts as to’evah, which is poorly rendered above as “abomination.” Rather than the blanket and dehumanizing disgust ‘abomination’ suggests, to’evah is best understood, at least in the Law, as a violation of ritual boundaries.* The ancient Greek translation recognizes this cultic aspect of to’evah, translating it as bdelygma, ‘ritual violation’. A more accurate English translation is probably something like ‘taboo’.

One also has to wonder why, if this is a moral issue, male homosexuality is marked out as wrong, but female homosexuality is not. It’s probably because, to be crass, the ANE understanding of sex was all about penises and penetration: To penetrate was to be powerful, strong, and manly; to be penetrated was to be overpowered, weak, and feminine. The issue with male homosexuality in Leviticus is exactly as it says in the text: it’s about treating a man as you would treat a woman and thereby robbing him of his his natural honour due him as a man. This is why rape was a common humiliation for defeated soldiers in the ANE. But if we don’t believe that sex is inherently degrading to a woman or a symbol of her subjugation to her male partner, then it follows that we must also jettison this misogyny at the heart of male homophobia. (Please see Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s Wrestling with God and Men for a comprehensive exploration of this theme.)

Even if it weren’t problematic as Christians to act as though we’re under the Law, challenging the Law in this way would not be ‘faithlessness’; it’s how the Law works. There is always room of wrestling, challenge, and even overturning of the Law. We see this process within the Law itself: When the Hebrews challenge a Law that doesn’t allow for property to be handed down to daughters, Moses brings the issue to God and God changes the Law (Numbers 27.1-7). We also have seen it already in this series between the Law and the Prophets, with Isaiah’s overturning of the Law excluding eunuchs from the community’s religious life. And, of course, we see it with the New Testament, as Jesus feels free to reinterpret the Law. This process has continued throughout the rabbinic tradition through till the present day. The Law was not a ‘once and for all’ thing, but was meant to be questioned and challenged in light of later revelation and reflection, and the community’s needs.

Sin Lists in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1

The interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6.9 and 1 Timothy 1.10 rests entirely on how we understand two pieces of vocabulary, over which much scholarly ink has been shed over the past few decades. Objectively speaking, it’s likely impossible to make a conclusion as to the meaning of these words here one way or the other. But let’s take a look and see what we’re dealing with. As translated in the New King James Version, 1 Corinthians 6.9-10 states:

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals [malakoi], nor sodomites [arsenokoites], nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.

Interpreters who believe this text is referencing homosexuality seem to agree that the two words refer to the ‘passive’ and ‘active’ roles in homosexual sex between men. But this is far from clear. For one, both Greek and Latin had extensive vocabulary for describing sex, including sex between two men, and the terms Paul uses are not among them. It’s unlikely that Paul was using euphemisms to protect delicate sensibilities, since the normal terms were widely used by other Jewish writers of the time. And, there’s nothing to suggest that these two items of the list are thematically linked.

What makes the first word, malakos, difficult to interpret here is that it was very common and had a wide range of connotations. In its most basic meaning, it means ‘soft’, but it often took on a connotation of ‘morally soft’, ‘prone to luxury’, and because of cultural misogyny, therefore, ‘effeminate’. At this point, it’s tempting to fill in the dots between malakos and homosexuality, particularly the so-called ‘passive’ role. But we have to be careful here, because what is ‘effeminacy’ to us is not what it was in the first-century Mediterranean. In the broad Greco-Roman worldview, masculinity was about strength of body and character; and strength of character meant standing firm in the face of whatever life might throw at you. We might imagine masculinity in this context like a skyscraper barely impacted by a windy day; by contrast, femininity was thought of more like one of those inflatable balloon people on car lots, flailing about uncontrollably in the wind. And a very common way of labeling men who were ‘effeminate’ like this was to call them soft, ‘malakos’. This could refer to someone who engaged in sex with someone of the same gender, but it was also used for someone who had no self-control with respect to the opposite gender. Odd as it may sound to us, a womanizer would be considered effeminate in that culture: he lost his manliness by losing control of himself, his emotions, and his behaviour. The point is that malakos incorporated a wide range of behaviours that would be unacceptable to someone like Paul; this range could certainly include homosexuality, but is far from being defined by it. As such, translations which emphasize homosexuality are at best misleading. (It’s like seeing a reference to ‘the alphabet’ and interpreting it as ‘the letter T’; the alphabet certainly includes the letter T but such an interpretation ignores the fact that the alphabet also includes ABCDEF and so on, and is also a concept of its own that’s bigger than its constituent parts.) Interestingly on this front, the older English translations (”weaklings” – Tyndale; “wantons” – Geneva Bible; “licentious” -Malan) are more faithful to the breadth of the Greek than many of our current ones! For those of us who want to be faithful to the Scriptures, this is problematic: for the interpretation which singles out homosexuality actually hides the sin Paul is more likely talking about, one that applies to everyone in the Church and society, and which is rampant in our culture: the tendency to do whatever feels easiest in the moment, to pursue every passing whim or appetite.

The second term, arsenokoites, which is also found in 1 Timothy 1.10, is even more difficult, though for the opposite reason. Whereas malakos is too common, arsenokoites is too rare. It is unknown in any text pre-dating Paul and is found in only a handful after (aside from texts quoting this one). On the surface, it seems there’s good reason to think it could refer to homosexuality, since the word is a compound of words meaning ‘male’ and ‘bed’. Supporting evidence is found in the fact that the Greek translation of Leviticus 20.10 used forms of both words. And yet, strangely, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that it was interpreted in this way in the early Church. Even Church Fathers who were pretty vocal in their opposition to homosexuality, like Clement of Alexandria and John Chrysostom, don’t pick up on this word in their commentaries and homilies on either the topic or the texts. And Latin translations tended to use words belonging to the semantic domain of prostitution, not homosexuality. To the best of my knowledge (this may be out of date as new information comes to light), there is no reference to this word in connection with homosexuality until around the tenth century. On the conservative hermeneutical principle that something can’t meant what it never meant, it seems strange to think that we’d interpret a word in a way that it would seem people who spoke the language did not.

In those few texts outside biblical commentary that use arsenokoites, it is often used in lists of vices that are not overtly sexual. Both the Sibylline Oracles and Acts of John mention it in lists of general vices, but do not include it in lists of sexual vices. It’s more ambiguous in some other lists, which do include it alongside sexual sins, but in these examples — as in 1 Timothy — it is placed in between sexual and economic sins, leading some modern interpreters (see Dale Martin, for example) to think it may have bridged them conceptually too, referring to someone involved in prostitution or sex trafficking. And indeed, some of the Latin translations would agree with this interpretation.

So what does arsenokoites mean? The most honest answer is ‘we don’t know.’ I almost wonder if it’s somewhat analogous to the English term ‘screw’, originally a crude sexual euphemism that is now used primarily to talk about treating someone unfairly. At any rate, while we can’t rule out the possibility that the term is intended to refer to homosexuality, there is a lot that makes this interpretation questionable. We simply don’t have enough ancient evidence to know. It’s hard to know what translators should do in the face of this, but to act like its meaning is clear, and especially to do so in a way that targets specific groups of people, is disingenuous. Again the earlier, more ambiguous translations of “abusers of themself with the mankynde” (Tyndale), “the brutal” (Mace, 1729), or even “buggerers” (Geneva Bible) and “sodomites” (Wesley) — remembering that ‘sodomy’ was actually a very broad category in the 18th and 19th centuries — read far less into the text than the “homosexuals”, “homosexual perverts”, “homosexual offenders”, and “practicing homosexuals” of recent translations.

So where does all this leave us? In all three of the texts studied today, we find that there are big questions with interpreting them in ways that would exclude homosexual folk today. The story of Sodom is a story of xenophobic violence, the violation of hospitality codes, and an intended gang-rape. None of this activity in any way resembles consensual sexual activity within loving relationships. The Leviticus passages are within the Law of Moses, which Scriptures themselves feels free to set aside for the sake of a bigger, more welcoming Kingdom of God, and the whole of which is relativized by Jesus’ teaching, death and resurrection. And, the passages from 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy are entirely dependent on how we understand two words, neither of which form part of the customary language of homosexuality in Greek, and one of which carries a broad range of meanings, about which homosexuality is only a very small part and never the point, and the other of which is extremely rare, whose meaning is by no means certain, and which is never cited in ancient sources as being about homosexuality.

Therefore, while others will come to different conclusions, I for one, on very conservative exegetical grounds, think that using these texts to justify the exclusion and political marginalization of queer people today is off-base and a mis-use of the Bible.

If we zoom out a bit, we see that all of these passages rely on an understanding of human sexuality and gender that precludes anything resembling what any of us would call a healthy sexuality based on a loving coming together of equals (or complements) within a relationship. Rather, they all share an understanding of sex and gender that is based on male domination of a weak and subordinate female, and that to be feminine is to be without power and without honour. So, in addition to the conservative grounds on which to interrogate anti-queer readings of these passages, there are also good reasons from Christianity’s innate prophetic and justice traditions to interrogate how we apply these passages today.

And so, I have no qualms about these passages as a gay Christian. I can uphold them faithfully without explaining them away or relativizing them in irresponsible ways. The passage I’ll turn to later in the week, Romans 1.18-29, is a different story.


*The sense of to’evah is shifted in the Prophets and Writings to match their shift in focus to social justice rather than ritual as the primary arena for righteousness. I can almost hear it in Jesus’ voice: ‘You have heard it said that cross-dressing is to’evah (Deuteronomy 22.5) but I say to you it is charging interest on loans and abusing the poor that is to’evah (Ezekiel 18.10-13).

2 thoughts on “The Clobber Texts

  1. Thank you for this really succinct explanation. I have often asked about why shellfish is okay but homosexuality is not and been met with the ecclesiastical equivalent of “because I said so”.
    Interestingly, when I looked up homosexuality in the index of the Orthodox Study Bible, only the Leviticus passage and the 1Timothy passage are mentioned. The latter one is vaguely translated as “sexual immorality” (whatever that actually means is left to interpretation). I find it rather flimsy evidence. Which is I suppose one of the reasons why I left.

    Liked by 1 person

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