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Homosexuality in the Hebrew Scriptures

Books of Deuteronomy, Judges, Kings

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Analysis of Deuteronomy 23:17

This verse is controversial because of the many translations of the Hebrew word "Qadesh." The same Hebrew word and same translational difficulties also appear in:

bullet1 Kings 14:24, 15:12 & 22:46
bullet2 Kings 23:7

Some Bible translations of this verse are:

bulletESV: (English Standard Version): "None of the daughters of Israel shall be a cult prostitute, and none of the sons of Israel shall be a cult prostitute."
bulletKJV: (King James Version): "There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel."
bulletLB: (Living Bible): "No prostitutes are permitted in Israel, either men or women."
bulletNIV: (New International Version) "No Israelite man or woman is to become a shrine prostitute."
bulletNLT: (New Living Translation): "No Israelite man or woman may ever become a temple prostitute."
bulletRSV: (Revised Standard Version): "There shall be no cult prostitutes of the daughters of Israel, neither shall there be a cult prostitute of the sons of Israel."

(Emphasis ours)

Note that the King James Version refers here to a male "sodomite." Back in the start of the 17th century CE, when this version of the Bible was translated, the term "sodomite" referred to a person who engaged in what were then called "unnatural" sexual acts of any type, including anal sex, oral sex, etc. 1 Thus, the translators translated the Hebrew word "qadesh" into a generic term for what was then considered "unnatural" sex. It is interesting to note how the translators of the 21st Century King James Version handled this verse. The publishers claim that they updated the text of the original King James Version wherever word meanings have changed. The term "sodomite" in 21st century American has changed its meaning from 1611 CE. It is now a derisive term that refers only to male homosexuals. Yet, the translators preserved the verse from the King James Version without change. They might have feared economic repercussions if they upgraded the translation. People are used to "sodomite" appearing here.

In other biblical translations listed above, one refers to a male prostitute, and three refer to a shrine, temple or cult prostitute -- that is a prostitute in a Pagan temple. It is obvious that at least some of these English translations of this verse are in error.

Various interpretations:

bulletConservative Christians: Many Evangelicals prefer the KJV to the NIV translation of this verse. It condemns all male homosexual activity, and is thus applicable to all male gays today, whether they are involved in casual sex or in a monogamous, consensual, committed relationship. The other translations refer to male prostitutes (whether they offer services to men, women or both) and to temple prostitutes, which are extremely rare in North America.
bulletLiberal Christians and homosexual support groups: The translators of the KJV made an error in this verse when they mistranslated the word "qadesh" in the original Hebrew as "sodomite". One source speculates that the translators in 1611 CE believed that "qadesh" was in some way related to the sexual practices of Sodom as described in Genesis 19. 2 "Qadesh" literally "means 'holy one' and is here used to refer to a man who engages in ritual prostitution" in a Pagan temple. 3 Among Pagan religions in the Middle East, worship often involved ritual sex in the temple, "often with a sacred prostitute who was like a priest or priestess. This sacred sexual activity was believed to encourage the god(s) to bestow fertility on the earth and its creatures." [Typo corrected]. 7 There is no indication in the Bible, in other documents of the time, or in the archaeological record, that these male prostitutes serviced other males. When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into the Greek Septuagint during the 3rd and 2nd century BCE, the translators used six different terms for the one Hebrew word. None "would have suggested homosexuality to the theologians of the early [Christian] church." 4

The Living Bible also contains an obvious translation error; they refer to prostitutes in general, rather than only those prostitutes who engage in ritual sex in a ritual Pagan temple setting.

A particularly clear example of the effect of prejudice by translators is seen in the New King James Version which refers to a female "ritual harlot" and a male "perverted one." Other Bible translations, including the NIV, use accurate terms such as shrine prostitute, temple prostitute, and cult prostitute. The term "cult" in this case means type of religious service, not an evil, mind-controlling religious group.

The entire verse seems to condemn ritual prostitution in Pagan temples, whether by men or women. It has nothing to say about gay or lesbian sexual activity today, within either a casual or a committed relationship.

bulletA Jewish interpretation: Rabbi Gershon Caudill 5 quotes the Talmud 6 as concluding that this passage refers to homosexual ritual sex in the temple. But he refers to Targum Onkelos who concluded that the men provided sexual services to the female visitors to the idolatrous temples.

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Judges 19:14-29

An unnamed Levite visited the town of Gibeah in the tribe of Benjamin, with his slaves and a concubine. He met an old farmer and was made welcome. A gang of men appeared and demanded that the old man send out the Levite that they might homosexually rape, or assault him, or find out whether he was a threat to the town. (As in the similar story about Sodom in Genesis 19, it is again not clear what the precise meaning of the verb to know was). The old man argued that they should not abuse the visitor. He offered to give them both the Levite's concubine and his own virgin daughter to be heterosexually raped. The mob accepted the former, and serially raped her all night. She was able to make it back to the house, where she collapsed at the front door and died. The Levite had not bothered to check on her during the night; he only found her, dead, when he resumed his trip. He sliced up her body into 12 pieces and sent one to each of the tribes of Israel. This triggered a civil war between the tribe of Benjamin, and an army of 400,000 soldiers, drawn from the remaining 11 tribes. (Judges 20). Tens of thousands died during the fighting. Apparently all of the Benjamin towns were burned and their women systematically exterminated during the battles.

The event in Gibeah is similar to that that at Sodom. However, there are some differences between the two stories:

bulletGibeah was a Hebrew town of the tribe of Benjamin whereas Sodom and Gomorrah were Canaanite.
bulletThis time, the mob accepted the offer of a woman to rape in place of the visitor; the woman was killed by the mob.
bulletThe people of Gibeah were not punished by God but were killed by fellow Hebrews.

This war of genocide generated a major problem: The men of the remaining 11 tribes had earlier sworn an oath to not let any Benjamin man marry any of their daughters. Thus, the surviving Benjamin men had no way to obtain replacement wives. Since marriage to non-Jews was prohibited, the tribe was destined to eventually die out. The remaining Hebrews were distressed that one entire tribe would be wiped off the face of the earth. They conspired to find wives for the Benjamin men in two ways:

bulletBecause no men from Jabesh Gilead had assembled with the 11 tribes at Mizpah to prepare for the civil war, an army was sent there to kill every man, woman and child in the tribe, sparing only 400 young women who were lucky enough to be still virgins. The latter were kidnapped and given to the men of Benjamin. The oath was not broken, because none of the Jabesh Gilead fathers had given their daughters in marriage; all had been killed in the battle.
bulletThe elders engaged in a conspiracy with the men of Benjamin to kidnap girls from Shiloh during their annual festival. Since the girls were to be taken against their will and against the will of their fathers, the oath was not broken; none of the fathers gave permission for their daughters to marry the Benjamites.

Through much bloodshed and kidnapping, the surviving few hundred men of Benjamin were able to seize sufficient brides. Eventually, the tribe was rebuilt.

Various interpretations of Judges 19:14-29:

bulletConservative Christians: Most theologians would consider this event to be entirely separate in time and place from the story of Sodom in Genesis 19. The Schofield Bible dates Genesis 19 to 1898 BCE and Judges 19 to 1406 BCE -- almost a half millennium apart. Similarities between the two stories are simply coincidences. The citizens of the town were degenerate and sinful because they originally demanded to have homosexual sex with the male visitor. This was compounded by their rape and killing of the concubine. The passage condemns both homosexuality and the sexual assault of women.
bulletLiberal Christians: Most theologians would assume that this is simply a retelling of the original Genesis 19 story, in a different location and era. Either or both events were probably mythical.

Surprisingly, there was no condemnation against the Levite for causing the death of his concubine, or for committing an indignity to her body by mutilating it. Judges 20:5 emphasizes that the aim of the mob was to kill the stranger -- the ultimate act of inhospitality. It appears that these passages condemn abusive treatment of visitors. If they actually refer to homosexual activity, then they would have condemned homosexual rape, which is a crime of power. Its purpose would have been to humiliate the strangers. It would have been unrelated to consensual homosexual activity.

I Kings 14:24, 15:12 and 22:46; II Kings 23:7

These verses describe wiping out male prostitutes, either "in the land" or "in houses of male prostitution around [or in] the Temple." The key Hebrew word qadesh is again translated (incorrectly) as sodomite in the King James Version, but (correctly) as male cult prostitutes, or male shrine prostitutes in some other versions of the Bible. The Living Bible mistranslates "qadesh" simply as "homosexuality" in I Kings 14:24.

Various interpretations:

bulletConservative Christians: These are four more verses which show God's condemnation of homosexuality. They reinforce and confirm earlier passages in the Old Testament
bulletLiberal Christians: This again condemns male prostitution in Pagan temple cult rituals. It is unclear whether the male prostitutes had male or female customers. The verses are unrelated to today's consensual homosexual activity.

Conclusions:

Various Christian groups interpret Bible passages in totally different ways, and reach mutually exclusive conclusions:

bulletConservative Christians: God's Word in the Old Testament refers repeatedly and consistently to homosexuality as a forbidden, detestable practice deserving of the most severe punishment by God or mankind. Since God does not change, these prohibitions must be equally valid today.
bulletLiberal Christians:  These Hebrew Scriptures refer repeatedly to punishment of prostitutes who engage in ritual sex in Pagan temples, and punishment of people who rape women. The Hebrew Scriptures are silent on same-gender sexual behavior, whether in the form of casual sex, or within committed, consensual, loving homosexual relationships.

References:

  1. Inge Anderson, "What is an abomination to God?" at: http://glow.cc/ 
  2. "Curious 'translations' and editings," at:   http://my.ohio.voyager.net/
  3. "Deuteronomy 23:17," Whosoever, at: http://www.whosoever.org/
  4. Rev. Lindsay Louise Biddle, "Biblical self-defense source on lesbian, gay and bisexual concerns," at: http://www.mlp.org/ You need software to read these files. It can be obtained free from:
  5. Reb Gershon Caudill, "A Heterosexual Jewish Rebbe's View on the (Supposedly) Homosexual Texts in the Hebrew Bible," at: at: http://www.affirmation.org/
  6. BT Sanhedrin 54B.
  7. "Free to be gay: A brief look at the Bible and homosexuality," Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, at: http://www.ualberta.ca

Copyright © 1976 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update and review: 2009-FEB-14
Author: B.A. Robinson

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