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Love Lost in Translation: Homosexuality and the Bible – R. Lings

February 27, 2014

LLITWhy is this issue so important?: young non-believers ….when asked to express their personal impressions of Christians in the United States….. the majority said that they found Christians to be (a) anti-gay,

b) intolerant, and (c) hypocritical. This survey succinctly reflects how the current negative attitude towards homo- and bisexuality inherited from medieval theology is perceived by non-Christians. In a number of cases, this perception is accurate…., the rejection of homoerotic relationships ranks as fundamental doctrine, having virtually become the touchstone of Christian orthodoxy.

We forget, at our peril, that most Christian scholarship and teaching is not based on the original text of the Hebrew bible. For Christians, it was the Greek translation, the Septuagint. This is quoted in the New Testament and was translated into the Latin Vulgate. So the whole edifice of Christian teaching is based on a translation of a translation so it shouldn’t be surprising to discover that Judaism sees things very differently (e.g. they have no notion of ‘original sin’) and that modern translators read this teaching back into their work on the Hebrew texts. (The protestant notion of ‘scripture alone’ was not a reference to supposed inerrancy but to the aim to disentangle teaching from the Latin and based on the original languages only – but they were too imprisoned in a mind set that made them unable to about reading into the texts their inherited presuppositions.)

Older translations like the KJV tried to find equivalent words whereas more recent translations follow the ‘dynamic’ approach whereby the general ‘meaning’ is conveyed – but if you are reading into it your own particular ‘meaning’ then your translation isn’t even worthy of being called a ‘paraphrase’. It’s interesting to note that S. Augustine cautioned against this misuse of scripture and called up people to exercise ‘discernment’ rather than following what they thought to be ‘the plain meaning’ of the text.

Elizabeth Stuart notes that: In public discourse on sexuality the western Churches currently give every impression of wanting to produce heterosexual desire rather than desire for God.

One reviewer, who admits to not having finished this book, so disgusted was he, asks how come this author is the first one to get it right during the whole of the past two thousand years. He has failed to see how blinkered translators within the mainstream tradition are. I studied Hebrew and Greek to degree level but I am woefully ill-equipped to deal with the issues raised here: Unfortunately our system of higher education I seems designed to keep the disciplines of biblical studies and linguistics isolated from each other, I and few theologians have been exposed even to those aspects of linguistics which are of most relevance to them…. This is so much the case that those exegetes whose knowledge of Hebrew is limited to the biblical texts find it very difficult to understand the Medieval Hebrew used in the works of Rashi, Maimonides, and others.

Those who trust the experts need to beware. We need the insights of queer theology, womanist theology etc. Because: ‘People from all situations of life are needed in the task of Bible exegesis. Your situation affects the questions you ask of the text, and questions that do not get asked also do not get answers.

Those who say that ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’ don’t realise that this is not what the text says. God created ‘adamah’, which could be translated ‘groundling’ and that this saw what we would now call hermaphrodite. It is only when he is cut in two (tsela ‘rib’ nowhere else in the bible means ‘rib’ but ‘side’) that he differentiated into ish and isha.   The woman is to be a ‘helper’ but this does not make her inferior – God is also described thus so she could be deemed superior. That her ‘desire’ is to be towards her husband doesn’t man sexual desire; in a subsistence economy, her childbearing means her desire, her needs for food will depend on her husband’s toil.

If God meant men to marry women, why did he give Adam choice, firstly of the animals. The divined blueprint, that which he saw to be very goods, is choice. So if a person chooses someone of the same gender, they are being faithful to ‘God’s plan’, not disobedient of it. In any case, Christians are called to imitate Christ, not Adam.

The idea that ‘the fall’ started sex is based on a Greek rendering of ‘flesh’ – sarx. This nuance isn’t found in the Hebrew.

The translators have flattened out differences in the Hebrew where God is singular and alone in one verse and dual or plural in another. Do they not see that the text is playful because God is beyond our imagination? And that if we are in God’s image then we have more possibilities than those laid down for us by traditional society and religion? Walter Brueggemann…. points out, the Hebrew Bible constantly challenges readers. It is material that insists on being taken seriously, and it refuses to be reduced or domesticated into a settled coherence. This refusal may not be simply a literary one but a theological one, pertaining to its central Subject. The restless character of the text that refuses excessive closure . . . is reflective of the One who is its main Character, who also refuses tameness and systematization.

This is faithful to Judaism: that Jewish tradition since antiquity has refused ‘to read the Torah as if it meant and has always meant only one thing’. From the perspective of Orthodox Judaism, all verses in the Pentateuch are pregnant with multiple meanings, ‘some on the surface, others more deeply hidden, and some yet unborn’. In addition, asking questions is a hallmark of Jewish spirituality. This is so much the case that ‘God loves it when we ask why’. Consequently, Greenberg emphasizes that there is no reason for making assumptions in advance about the meaning of the Levitical verses.

People talk of ‘knowing in the biblical sense’ whereas ‘know’ rarely means sexual intercourse (10/943 occurrences – the people of Sodom could, therefore, be seeking the credentials of Lot’s visitors). Bo and shakhav are the usual words for that. Consider ‘social intercourse’ – getting to know someone does not equate with sexual intercourse. And ‘go in’ need not just refer to penetration but to courtship – ‘going in’ to someone’s tent – for conversation? Wine?

When Abraham’s son ‘uncovered his nakedness’, some see it as a reference to sexual assault or even castration, yet it is more likely that he was making fun of ‘his old man’ (pun intended). When you realise that people did not understand about the female egg, they assumed that the whole ‘seed’ of future lives existed in the testicles. That is why ancient people swore oaths on their testicles – hence the derivation of ‘testimony’ and ‘testament’. It was like swearing on you (yet to be born/conceived) child’s life.

Just think of the damage caused to black people, thought to be ‘the sons of Ham’ as well as to gay people. Mistranslation is a life or death issue.

This story also has parallels which commentators rarely point out: God asks Adam, ‘Who told you that you were naked?’ (3.11) and Ham tells his brothers that their father was naked (9.22). So God clothes Adam and his wife, and Shem and Japheth cover their father….. Noah’s excessive intake of wine causes him to expose his genitals, creating another mirror-image flashback to the moment when Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit and suddenly become aware of their nakedness (3.7). However, Noah’s experience forms an intriguing contrast to the adventure in the Garden of Eden. From the moment in which they taste the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve gain important knowledge of the meaning of the concepts of life and death. This enables them to embark on a growing and maturing process in which they learn to face reality and adjust to adult life on the earth away from their childhood home. When he tastes a different fruit—the legitimate fruit of the vine, Noah undergoes the opposite process in the sense that he loses his rational, cognitive abilities to descend momentarily into the ignorance and concomitant nakedness brought about by drunkenness (9.21). In his case, the sequence is retrogressive as he returns to a state of unknowing innocence characteristic of early childhood. According to Brodie, these events complement each other to a considerable extent. Clearly the notion of nakedness plays a significant part in both stories: Adam and Eve proceed to cover their genitals while Noah bares his. Taken together, they represent two opposite processes: Noah’s temporary, unconscious state is contrasted with the newfound, permanent awareness of the inhabitants of Eden. Both in the Garden of Eden and in Noah’s tent it takes an intrusive visitor to trigger significant events. In Eden, the active intervention of the serpent facilitates the acquisition of knowledge (Gen. 3.1-7). In Noah’s case, his naked state is witnessed by his son Ham whose next move is to step outside to share the news

The famous versed in Leviticus that seems to call sex between males a, ‘abomination’ is not as straightforward as most translators, notably, Peterson in his ‘Message’ Bible think it to be. The ‘as with a woman’ is the problem. Every other time ‘woman’ is used in this book it is in relation to incest so it could refer to a man sleeping in his father’s bed and accessing his wife. The fact that Paul quotes this verse in1 Corinthians after mentioning just such incest within the Corinthian community should give us pause for thought. Also, a reference, earlier in Leviticus to uncovering ‘flesh’ where ‘flesh’ means ‘kin’ backs this up.

It doesn’t use the normal term for ‘woman’ and can simply mean ‘the place where a women sleeps’.

And the ‘male’ isn’t the same word as ‘man’ so could refer to a boy or, indeed, to a male animal. This verse was never mentioned by Christians until the fourth Century CE and not until the Twelfth Century was it used to prohibit homosexuality.

Cross-dressing is also a concern for Leviticus.

And is all gay sex forbidden or only anal sex? (Some straights think that ‘sex’ equals intercourse – are they useless at other forms of intimacy?)

‘Abomination’ is often assumed to show disgust, whereas Leviticus uses the term to cover all the things done by the inhabitants of the land to which the Israelites were going (or had gone, since this is most likely s post-exilic document).

The more liberal of scholars have, for years, taken this to be about cult prostitution and ‘the wages of a dog’ have been translated to refer to the wages of a prostitute but there is no basis in Hebrew for this interchangeability of ‘dog’ and ‘prostitute’. In any case, it is the aspect of idolatry that is being condemned, not sex per se.

‘Sodomy’ didn’t apply to homosexual, anal sex until the Eleventh Century C. E. As has been well-known for some time, the ‘sin’ of Sodom according to the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament and many rabbinical commentaries, is injustice and inhospitality. ‘Sodom’ comes to mean anywhere where there is oppression (Liberation Theology is nothing new.)  Queer theologians have suggested that the Sodom story is part of propaganda against Canaan and that God’s destruction/genocide of them is used to justify Israel’s conquest.

One reviewer remarked that no less than 204 pages were devoted to the Sodom and Gomorrah story. I too that that this was a tad obsessive, not least because no serious scholar thinks that this is about homosexuality. A few rabid homophones like Robert Gagnon go on about it but, more to the point, it has shaped Western thinking. So maybe it had to be done.

There’s a shift in the Epistle of Jude with its use of other flesh’ – other would normally imply hetero – heterosexual, but Jude is alluding to various pseudepigraphical books which refer to men having sex with angels (which relates back to the angels who visited Sodom and also to an earlier story in Genesis.) Before the canon of scripture was settled, many read pseudepigraphical books alongside what would later become orthodox books without knowing the difference – if you keep to scripture, then there is no basis for equating ‘sodomy’ with homosexual acts, though Luther, who insists on sola scriptura  does no such thing where homosexuality is concerned but follows Roman Catholic tradition. Incidentally, Luther was not too explicit in what he wrote because he did not believe there was any homosexuality in Germany until some Carthusian monks imported it from Italy.

Boniface the missionary regarded ‘sodomy’ as incest, promiscuity, adultery and unions with nuns.

Peter Damian believed that masturbation was a crime and his overriding concern is the fact that sodomy as he defines it seems to be omnipresent among the clergy of his time. In the world of the Book of Gomorrah, Sodomites are dangerous men who live in hiding among monks, priests, and bishops and against whom everyone must be on guard. Indeed, for Peter, male-male eroticism is a ‘vice against nature’ which, very like an infection, ‘creeps in like a cancer’.  He finds the presence of Sodomites among the sacred orders so pervasive that it is comparable to an outbreak of ‘destructive plague’. Most of all, Peter finds sodomy incompatible with religious vocation. The reforming zeal underlying Liber Gomorrhianus produces in Peter an ardent desire to purge the entire church body of ‘this shameful act’ (p. 32), ‘hidden poison’, and ‘filthy intercourse against the law of nature’. He does not hesitate to describe the act he has in mind as ‘worse than all other crimes’. He is one of the first to include lesbianism in his list of sins.

It even became a crime to discuss alternative views about homosexuality.

Very few people knew about the stories of rape in Gibeah untl feminist theologians dubbed it a ‘text of terror’. The rabbis rarely mention it, Athanasius saw it as an allegory of the struggles theologians go through (!?) and the Middle Ages’ only interest in the book of judges was the Samson story. It does noit app-ear in the Revised Common Lectionary (any more than most of Judges). It’s been treated as a doublet of the Sodom story because both involve visitors being raped at night, though it’s interesting that the Sodom story has been used to condemn homosexuality whereas the Gibeah story hasn’t been used to condemn heterosexuality. The girl who is raped is described as a concubine though she might have been a slave who was about to be married off to pay a debt. She seems to have run away from an arranged/forced marriage and this is her punishment. Worse, her body is cut into a hundred pieces and sent around the country. (Her being tied up and cut is seen by some as an echo of the binding of Isaac by Abraham.) Some have read the story as an allegory of David, whom was threatened by Saul and became toe target of persecution and attempted murder. Saul came from Gibeah and this story might have been pro-David propaganda

When we get to the New Testament, we are on more familiar ground. No other pairs are found in Paul’s vice-list in 1 Corinthians so it is odd that people like Gagnon see reference to active and passive homosexuals. To translate malakoi as the latter because it is inconsistent with Jesus’s use of the term, which talks of ‘men in soft raiment who live in king’s houses’ – the idle rich who probably exploit others. Some translate it as ‘effeminate’ but the Greeks used that term for men who were promiscuous with women. (Male to male sex was regarded as more ‘manly’) It also means ‘self-indulgent’

The other term, arsenokoitai may mean people who exploit others, male or female, for sexual purposes, those who kidnap young males and sell them as sexual slaves. In the Sibylline Oracles, it refers variously to acts of economic injustice and exploitation, accepting gifts which come from unjust deeds, betraying confidential information and oppressing the poor. Elsewhere are listed abortion, exposure of infants, ‘loosing the girdle’ of a maid for intercourse but no mention of homosexuality.

Paul was anxious to keep in the Roman Empire and to gain Gentile converts. So much so that he played down Jewish laws. So why would he condemn same-sex relationships when they were so common? That would be evangelistic suicide, a course upon which the bishops of the Church of England seem hell-bent today.

Romans 1 is the famous passage used by Christians even if they dismiss the Old Testament as inapplicable. Some suggest that it is profitable to read it backwards – starting with the end so as to see that the whole perspective is one of God’s inclusivity. In that perspective, the first few chapters are a rhetorical device in which Paul argues with a Jewish teacher that neither Jews nor Gentiles are better than each other. The unnatural sex referred to was not understood as homosexuality for at least four centuries. It was understood as men having anal sex with women, with men being penetrated by women with dildos dressed as satyrs in excessive cultic orgies which often ended up with the men castrating themselves (the ‘due penalty’ referred to in the text?): Whereas Wisdom was composed in Alexandria, Paul seems to have written his letter in the Greek city of Corinth where numerous temples existed…. Paul’s language in Romans 1.27 may be a reference to the cult of Cybele, which had a strong cross-dressing element. The rites involved orgiastic frenzies in which men allowed themselves to be penetrated, and which culminated in some of those in the frenzy castrating themselves, and becoming eunuchs, and thus priests of Cybele…. What it meant for galli to receive in their persons the due penalty for their error might refer to the castration…… Paul’s readers would have picked up the sort of thing he meant. Because, as any self-respecting Jew could tell you: this was just the sort of idiotic thing that Gentiles got up to as a result of their idolatry.

It wasn’t until John Chrysostom, the so-called ‘golden mouthed’ (foul mouthed as far as Jews and gays are concerned) that this verse became associated with lesbians and gays.

‘Against nature’, elsewhere in Paul, means ‘atypical’ – God himself has acted ‘against nature’ by grafting Gentiles into Judaism so to act ‘against nature’ isn’t necessary a bad thing.

That they ‘went astray’ is not how Paul uses the term elsewhere. ‘Make no mistake’ or ‘Don’t let anyone misleads you’ is what he meant when writing to Corinth.

Gagnon and his ilk make much of Romans 1 being an echo of Leviticus 18 but that ignores several differences: Leviticus was written to Jewish circumcised males and makes no mention of words like passion, nature and error whereas Paul is very accurate when quoting from the Septuagint.

The missing part of the jigsaw here (The whole book is like a jigsaw puzzle where everything comes together at the end and it is fun unscrambling and reassembling different pieces.) is the book of Wisdom which almost exactly parallels Romans 1 – the author lays the texts side by side, convincingly, on pp. 554-556, for example, Ro 1.27 Men committed shameless acts with men
Wisdom 14.23 For whether they . . celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs

The author need not have suggested that Paul regarded the Book of Wisdom as apocrypha – the canon came later and, in any case, not all of us regard Wisdom as apocrypha – it depends on whether you are protestant or catholic.

About Ruth (whose ‘clinging to’ Naomi mirrors Genesis’s man clinging/cleaning to woman: the joint strategies for survival adopted by Ruth and Naomi in Bethlehem are paralleled today by the efforts of thousands of couples around the world whose relationships do not respond to the norms of the heterosexual majority. Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz provide modern readers with a biblical precedent of how a creative new family structure is established. Celena Duncan has meditated on the story of Ruth from a personal perspective: ‘In the spirit of rabbinic tradition, I read the book of Ruth as a bisexual midrash.’

David’s elegy, ‘my brother’ is a term of endearment comparable to the use of ‘my sister’ in the Song of Songs (4.9-10; 5.1-2).

The translators are none too happy with the thought of John leaning upon Jesus’s breast: While two versions have used the verb ‘sit for this purpose, several others achieve a similar effect moving away from concrete terminology such as ‘breast’, ‘chest’, and ‘bosom and using more abstract paraphrases, procedure also applied by the majority to the common Greek prepositions en and epi.

For those who don’t have Hebrew, every word is transliterated.

It is good to see HB (Hebrew Bible) and ST (Second Testament) used instead of OT and NT.

I love the author’s dismissal of Robert Gagnon: Apparently Gagnon is ready to accuse anyone who does not share his arguments of having misunderstood the biblical material. He takes the view that ‘the burden of proof is entirely on those who would assert otherwise’ (2001: 29, 78). At first sight, Gagnon’s bibliography looks impressive, but the index of modern authors contains a series of names whose academic profile is at best insignificant and, in several cases, questionable….. the complete self-assuredness with which he trusts his personal criteria and intuition often causes his conclusions to be predictable.

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From → Biblical, Sexuality

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