Bring Back the A-Word
Why conservatives shouldn't be shy about citing the 'abomination' Bible verse when objecting to gay marriage.
By David Klinghoffer
Just as homosexuality was once the love that dare not speak its name, there is a Bible verse that opponents of gay marriage rarely speak. It is Leviticus 18:22, which reads: �You shall not lie with a man as one lies with a woman, it is an abomination.� These ancient words, the Bible�s most direct statement on homosexuality, need to be rehabilitated. Why? Because American security and prosperity are linked with the sexual norms we sanction.
If you keep track of Leviticus on Google News (as, believe it or not, some of us do - sorry, the links are mostly dead now), you'll find that the verse is cited fairly frequently in media discussions about gay issues. Of course recently it's been coming up mainly in connection with major warpo Fred Phelps. One can perhaps sympathize with conservatives who don't want to be associated with him. But abusus non tollit usus, so let's see what Klinghoffer does with the verse.
A rabbinic interpretive tradition (one which goes back at least to the fourth century C.E. and is found in the midrashic book Sifra) understands another verse in Leviticus 18 to mean that the locals in Canaan actually conducted same-sex marriages, among other forbidden sexual practices the Canaanite peoples had sanctioned. It was for this that God ejected them from the holy land: �Do not become contaminated through any of these [acts]; for through all of these the nations that I expel before you became contaminated. The land became contaminated and I recalled its iniquity upon it; and the land disgorged it inhabitants� (vv. 24-25). The Canaanites suffered national defeat, invasion, humiliation. Finally, they disappeared from history. (Did you ever meet a �Canaanite�?)
The word "Canaanite" is a very slippery one: "Canaan" is a geographical term in the second millennium B.C.E., the name of an Egyptian province corresponding roughly to Palestine and part of southern Syria. But the political units of the time were the individual city-states, ruled by a king, and if you had asked one of these people if he was a "Canaanite" he probably would have said, "No, I'm a man of Hazor (Byblos, Jerusalem, etc.)."
"Canaanite" is one name in the Bible (there are others: Amorite, Jebusite, Hittite, etc.; see, e.g., Exodus 3:8) which refers to a number of groups who are best described as speakers of Northwest Semitic dialects close to (and probably mutually comprehensible with) Hebrew, with whom the Israelites had a disagreement about who should own the land. Whether the Israelites actually invaded from outside the land or grew up within it is a question still hotly debated by historians. In any case, for some centuries the Israelites were more the winners than the losers of the argument. We have less information about these speakers of Northwest Semitic than we would like, but we know that they were polytheists (like the rest of the peoples of the ancient Near East except at least some Israelites); that some of them practiced human sacrifice (as did some Israelites); and that they had the sort of myths, legends, and customs that we would expect people in that part of the world at that time to have. (This doesn't include same-sex marriage, by the way: Klinghoffer has to slip in a fourth-century C.E. midrash to connect that with them.) There's nothing about their morality or religion (the little we know of either) that marks them as unusual in comparison to contemporary ancient peoples. The Assyrians were also idolators and were far more cruel and barbaric.
It's not unreasonable to assume that at least some of the genetic material of the present-day Palestinians goes back to the "Canaanites." There's been lots of genetic mixing with other groups (e.g., Crusaders), but that's true for Jews as well (e.g., proselytes and converts). If one accepts some connection between the modern Palestinians and the "Canaanites," the argument over the land continues today and they are not a spent force.
Our only basis for the view that the ancient "Canaanites" were utterly despicable and depraved is some elements in the biblical narrative, which assert with not a great deal of moral consistency that they were so evil that God ordered the Israelites to slaughter them, men, women, and children (e.g., Deuteronomy 20:16-18; Joshua 6:17-21). This custom of imposing the herem or "ban" ("devotion" to destruction) on enemies was also practiced by the neighboring Moabites. The main issue, in both cases, came down to the view of one side that their God had given them the land currently occupied by the other side.
I've gone on at length about this to put in context my point that Klinghoffer is indulging in comic-book theology. His Canaanites are cardboard pop-up baddies, bereft of moral complexity and depth. He is accepting a simplistic and completely uncritical reading of the highly ideological biblical stories, spiced up by much later rabbinic legend, and advancing it as though it were serious history, upon which he then wants to build an in-itself-dubious post-hoc, propter-hoc theology. This argument is not worth taking seriously on any level.
The Bible doesn't frown on gay sex uniquely. In the first five books of the Bible (the Torah), homosexual intercourse isn�t the only act called an �abomination.� The book of Deuteronomy applies the terms to certain unethical business practices, which in Leviticus are denounced as a �perversion� (see Deut. 25:16, Lev. 19:35).
But same-sex intimacy is unique (along with incest and sex with animals) in being pointed to as among the failings of a non-Jewish people, the Canaanites, that brought about that group�s final moral dissolution. I don�t know of another category of sin that, in the biblical context, is both a) explicitly made applicable to gentiles and b) is spoken of in such emphatic terms as leading to societal breakdown, whether the society in question is Jewish or not.
Basic moral principles apply not only to Jews, in other words, but to all people, even those that don't follow Jewish dietary laws. If any country defies them, it will suffer a fate akin to the Canaanites'. The men and women of Canaan were not held responsible for not observing the Jewish Sabbath--to pick another example of a practice asked only of Jews; but they were held responsible for rejecting the fundamental moral tenet that marriage is between a man and a woman.
By this reasoning we also have to postulate a fundamental moral tenet that a man and woman aren't allowed to have sexual intercourse during her "menstrual uncleanness" (Leviticus 18:19 - three verses before Klinghoffer's major proof text and in the same paragraph and the same context). Then in verses 24-29 (RSV, cited in part by Klinghoffer above) we're told:
24: "Do not defile yourselves by any of these things [in vv. 6-23], for by all these the nations I am casting out before you defiled themselves;
25: and the land became defiled, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.
26: But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you
27: (for all of these abominations the men of the land did, who were before you, so that the land became defiled);
28: lest the land vomit you out, when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.
29: For whoever shall do any of these abominations, the persons that do them shall be cut off from among their people.
My emphasis. The text makes no distinction among the defiling sins in vv. 6-23. By Klinghoffer's logic, the "abomination" of sex during menstrual uncleanness is every bit as much of a threat to society as homosexual marriage. If he were consistent, he would have to assert this.
Back to Klinghoffer:
The message is clear: If the Bible possesses any real authority as a communication of God�s thoughts about man, then a country�s safety and stability are related to the kinds of sexual relationships it endorses.
I don't grant the truth of this statement: there are theological understandings of biblical authority that don't require this conclusion at all. But more importantly, I refuse to debate this political issue on these terms. Americans and Britons (I'm both) live in pluralistic societies that don't take a scripture, any scripture, as their legal or constitutional basis.
This doesn't mean we have to stone gays or carry out any of the other penalties for misbehavior outlined in the Hebrew Bible. These are meant to be applied only in a Jewish commonwealth, and then only under very special conditions. (There needs to be a Temple in Jerusalem with a high-court, or Sanhedrin, sitting in judgment there on capital trials. Look for these when the Messiah comes, ushering in a new world full of the knowledge of God where the need for harsh justice will thus be exceedingly rare.)
I notice that Klinghoffer didn't cite Leviticus 20:13 as his proof text ("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 blood is upon them." RSV). He's being quite inconsistent here: if biblical rules against homosexuality are so critically important for the survival of our society now, how can he say that the biblical penalty prescribed for the offending act is only meant for the messianic future? Why not say that the rule has only a future application too, when the penalty can be applied? And he doesn't explain where he gets all the stuff about the Temple in Jerusalem and the Sanhedrin, neither of which figure in Leviticus at all. He certainly gives the appearance of backpedaling so as not to come across as utterly barbaric; and a consistent position along these lines would be utterly barbaric.
There is no turning back the clock to biblical times. But conservatives have gotten into the habit of explaining our doubts about homosexual marriage in highly pragmatic, rationalistic terms having nothing to do with religion. Conservative pundits say you have to keep your arguments secular to reach the ideological middle.
To them, citing Leviticus would seem the grossest violation of good manners. But the advance of sanctioned gay marriage, creeping like ivy across the face of the American legal system, shows the futility of this strategy.
Let us consider telling the truth about what underlies the case against homosexual matrimony. After all, many Americans look to the Bible for their values. We live in a culture imbued, from the Pilgrims onward, with Old Testament values. That's who we are.
Any Bible-believer must agree that it�s God�s will, not man�s intellect, which decides profound moral questions. If conservatives started talking biblically about homosexual marriage, we would stand to energize those of our fellow citizens who share our traditional values.
After all, we are talking about laws of nature as God made it. An ancient rabbinic teaching says that in creating the world, He first looked in the Torah, Scripture�s first five books and their explanatory traditions. In other words, the Bible is not a set of arbitrarily imposed rules. It�s a blueprint of how the world works.
Mr. Klinghoffer, you are refreshingly candid about your presuppositions and agenda and I give you credit for that. Okay, you believe the Torah is a blueprint of how the world works, that it consists of "laws of nature," and that it rather than your intellect must decide profound moral questions. Fine. Follow it as you understand it and as you see fit. It is your right to conduct your personal life that way, which right I would support with all my strength. But a great many people in our society don't believe what you believe and the laws of our society aren't built on your presuppositions. If you want to convince the rest of us to do what you want, you're going to have to argue on the basis of something other than biblical authority. If you can't do that, we're going to ignore you and get on with the business of running a pluralistic society.
We Americans don�t live in a society governed by Mosaic law. However, neither did the Canaanites. When the Bible speaks of their moral failings in very specific ethical areas, and the consequent downfall of their civilization, there is a lesson not just for a Jewish society but for everyone. The way God sets things up, a society that institutionalizes same-sex unions will ultimately suffer tragic consequences--�disgorgement� from its place in the world. What, in very concrete terms, would that mean? Let�s hope we don�t have to find out.
I've read this paragraph over and over to try to understand it fairly and it still makes me very uncomfortable. He seems to be saying that, not the whole Mosaic law, but specific parts of it that he has seized on (using poor and inconsistent exegesis even on his own terms - see above) are so important to God that if we don't follow them we can expect the downfall of our civilization: God will "disgorge" us. The implication is that Americans must make - or refrain from making - their laws on the basis of Klinghoffer's version of biblical morality and his beliefs about biblical authority or else they're doomed. The argument isn't internally consistent in the first place and it doesn't work for anyone who doesn't share his religious presuppositions. It amounts to wanting the state to make political decisions on the basis of a narrow interpretation of a particular scripture, which strikes me as a very bad idea.
Mr. Klinghoffer, if you want to convince anyone who doesn't share your starting assumptions, you need to try again.
UPDATE (12 December): Welcome, readers of Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish. For more information about this blog, have a look at the "About PaleoJudaica.com" link to the right. If you are interested in ancient biblical and related history, please do visit again.
UPDATE: Reader Carla Sulzbach points to this 1999 article in Midstream by Thomas Herz, "Judaism and Homosexuality: Myth and Emeth," which also takes issue with views like Klinghoffer's.
UPDATE (14 December): Historian Gary Leupp reflects on the cross-cultural history of human sexuality and marriage in his Counterpunch essay "On Marriage in 'Recorded History.' An Open Letter to Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney."
UPDATE (15 December): Judith Weiss and her readers comment. Duncan Frissel comments:
One might wonder if Davila would make the same argument against Marxists or Republicans who base their political arguments on premises most people don't share or indeed anyone else.
Yes I would. Probably not here, unless they were discussing ancient Judaism. Otherwise I tend to pursue my (numerous) political arguments elsewhere.
Aren't all arguments made from presuppositions everyone in the polity doesn't share or else there would be no argument.
To the degree that one makes arguments based entirely on an ideology (fundamentalist religion, Marxism, etc., take your pick), to that degree people who don't share that ideology won't be convinced. I don't see what's so difficult about this point. And it's perfectly fair game to say to someone, I don't share the presuppositions behind that argument. Either convince me of them or convince me of your point with another argument.
As for the application of parts of Mosaic law and not others (no on sodomy, yes on eating unclean animals) this is long established Christian Theology.
My argument was more subtle than that. I said that Mr. Klinghoffer is inconsistent in his exegesis on the basis of his own presuppositions (which incidentally don't involve Christian theology).
And unless one spends a lot of time attacking almost everyone for making stupid arguments based on personal assumptions,
Why should we accept other people's stupid arguments based on personal assumptions and not challenge them? As for me, if people want to make historically inaccurate or exegetically (or otherwise) nonsensical claims about things having to do with ancient Judaism or the ancient biblical world, I'm likely to challenge them. Read my archives. No doubt I've missed some, but I do have a few other things to do, like my job for instance.
to concentrate on religious believers suggests unwarranted discrimination. There is a thread of belief on the Left (which I don't know if Davila shares) holding that religious beliefs have little or no place in politics or governance. But they should actually be treated like any other beliefs.
Sorry, but that first bit is just loopy. I love the phrase "unwarranted discrimination," as though I were a government agency or an insurance company. All "beliefs" of any kind, when advanced as arguments, are open to challenges regarding their consistency with the evidence and their internal consistency. I most certainly do not just concentrate on religious believers, as anyone who reads me regularly or bothers to look through my archives knows (and in any case, it's my blog and I'll cover what I want). (Don't assume I have no religious beliefs. This blog is not about them or about many other things, and I try most of the time to keep on topic.)
What I do in PaleoJudaica is to give my expert opinion (as a philologist and historian of religion) on what's being said in the media and on the Internet about ancient Judaism and related matters, as I have time and as things strike me as interesting. I dish out a good bit of criticism, a good bit of praise, and a good bit of critical interaction. I also frequently note things with no comment. Occasionally I toss in something irrelevant because I feel like it. I make mistakes sometimes and when I find out about them I correct them. If Duncan doesn't like what I cover in this blog and how I cover it, I will cheerfully refund his subscription fee.
UPDATE (19 December): Lloyd Letta and Joseph the "Amateur Philosopher (scroll down) comment.