Four Crucial Questions:  Taking Seriously the Differences between the Leviticus text and
the Romans text.  
(Lev 18:2; 20:13 and Romans 1:24-27)

    Question 1  Why the prohibition of male-male anal intercourse in Lev 18:22 and 20:13
    (unique in the Ancient Near East)?

    Question 2  Why the omission of any reference to female same-sex relations here in Leviticus
    and indeed in the entire Bible (Gen 19, 1 Cor 6:9, 1 Tim 1:10 and Jude 7 explicitly designate
    only males; Rom 1:26-27 probably fitting the same pattern).

    Question 3  What is Paul’s intention in Rom 1:26-27, where his letter rhetorically echoes the
    Leviticus prohibitions (without actually laying down any law or command)--but then in the
    remaining chapters largely deconstructs the elements of the sexual ideology present in the
    rhetoric of Rom 1:24-27?

    Question 4a If Rom 1:26 refers to female homoeroticism, why does Paul rhetorically amplify
    the Leviticus prohibitions of male-male anal intercourse to include females?  

    Question 4b  If Rom 1:26 refers to heterosexual anal sex, why does Paul rhetorically amplify
    the Leviticus prohibitions of male-male anal intercourse to include females who offer
    themselves to males?  

    Writers on Rom 1:26-27 commonly confuse questions regarding Leviticus with those about
    Romans, posing the question generally: “Why the prohibition of male same-sex intercourse?”
    (Gagnon 2001:128-142; see Brooten 1996:245-53), instead of taking seriously the
    differences between Leviticus (18:22; 20:13—legal prohibitions referring only to males) and
    Romans (1:24-27, in a letter consisting of rhetorical persuasion, addressed to and referring to
    women as well as men).  On the more popular level confusion is multiplied by lumping all the
    questions under the modern term “homosexual/ity” (referring primarily to the sexual orientation
    of persons, and always implying that lesbians are included).  The above four questions, of
    course, are crucial for any efforts to treat the Bible as normative—or even as a traditional
    source of human wisdom for judicial decisions—because if our answers simply point to ancient
    culturally limited conditions that are no longer universally applicable, the texts come to be
    treated more as a curiosity for the entertainment/edification of Bible students, rather than as
    of transcendent importance and authority for contemporary churches and societies.   

Conncectiong the Dots, Linking the Trees, Exploring the Forest

    1  The connection with idolatry.  Most commonly, both in the cases of Leviticus and
    Romans, scholars have pointed to the prominent references to idolatry (Lev 18:21-22, 1-5, 24-
    30; 20:1-5, 22-24, 27; Rom 1:18-23, with v. 25 inserted in the very center of the rhetoric
    against unclean sexual practices (1:24, 26-27).  Matthew Kuefler would even specify that Paul’
    s intention is to denounce pagan cultic prostitution (2001:257, 383-84, note 55; see above,
    Section 9). Robert Gagnon admits that “Homosexual cult prostitution appears to have been
    the primary form in which homosexual intercourse was practiced in Israel” (2001:130).  Given
    the idolatrous context of the sexual activities referred to, references to those practicing male-
    male anal intercourse are viewed as comparable to the eating of meat sacrificed to idols,
    where it is not the eating of meat itself that is condemned, but such an act as an expression of
    idolatrous worship and lifestyle (1 Cor 8-10; cf Rom 14:1-15:13).  Gagnon objects that the
    prohibitions of male-male anal sex are sandwiched between prohibitions of incest, bestiality
    and adultery (2001:129-132), but such practices also are often linked with idolatrous, pagan
    lifestyles (see the “Strange Woman” in Proverbs).  The multiple prohibitions of incest in both
    Lev 18 and 20 would reflect the concern that procreation of progeny and heirs take place in
    the context of stable households where women are protected against male predators (Milgrom
    2000:1567; similarly with reference to adultery).  Specialists in ancient legal documents remind
    us that a prohibition may remain unchanged over centuries, while the original motivation may
    be forgotten and be successively replaced by other motivations.        

    2  The connection with oppression, violence, child abuse, pederasty. Just as the
    “Exodus paradigm” of Yahweh’s liberation of oppressed Israelite slaves constitutes the heart
    of the Pentateuch, including the “Holiness Code” (Lev 17-26; Hanks 1982/83), so in Romans,
    God’s wrath against all idolatry and “oppression” (1:18, 29; 2:8; 3:5) provides the framework
    for the treatment of God’s giving over the Gentiles to enslavement to lust and sexual
    uncleanness (1:24-27).  Similarly, the reference to male sexual misbehaviour (arsenokoitai) in
    1 Cor 6:8-10 is subsumed in a vice list headed by “oppression,” and in the vice list in 1 Tim 1:
    12 the same term is immediately linked to slave trade (capturing youths for abuse in
    prostitution).  For Biblical writers the idolatry of successive empires was denounced as
    providing the religious rationalization for oppression and sexual abuse of the weak by the
    strong (Rom 1:18).  Thus understood, Paul’s negative rhetorical description of Gentile sexual
    uncleanness (1:24-27) is not basically concerned with the gender of the partner, but with
    raging sexual desires leading to abuses of power that harm the weak (see above, Sections 1,
    oppression-violence-rape; 3, covetousness; and 8, on paedophilia). Contextually interpreted,
    then, the rhetoric of Rom 1:24-27 does not aim to propound some new abstract universal
    “sexual ethic,” a new law condemning all homoeroticism, but to persuade Paul’s audience to
    manifest solidarity with him in his proclamation of a law-free gospel and in the establishment of
    inclusive, subversive churches throughout Nero’s empire.

    3  “A procreative dead end” (Gagnon 132-34).  In the case of the priestly Holiness Code in
    Leviticus (reflecting the priestly creation mandate to “be fruitful and multiply,” Gen 1:28, P),
    the most apparent intent of the laws is to maximize procreation in the disastrous post/exilic
    context (Jacob Milgrom 2000:1565-70; cf 1748-50, 1784-90).  Much of Leviticus 18 and 20
    reads like manuals for maximizing population growth (avoid child sacrifice and sex with
    menstruating women, animals and other males).   Sarah Melcher points to the relation
    between priestly procreation concerns with patrilineal inheritance and just land distribution, as
    defended in the Jubilee laws of Lev 25 (1996:98-99).  However, unlike the post/exilic priests,
    Plato, the Stoics, Philo and Josephus, Paul shared with Jesus an apocalyptic perspective that
    made him singularly disinterested with the procreation of more children (Rom 13:11-14; 1 Cor
    7; 9:5; cf Matt 19:12; Brooten 252).  For Paul, the quite limited and dubious value of
    heterosexual marriage had to do with reducing excessive sexual desire (“burning”) and
    satisfying the emotional needs of couples who were unable to discipline their passions (1 Cor
    7:2-5, 9, 36; Brooten 1996:248, note 97; quite different are Eph 5: 21-33, 1 Tim 2:15 and Tit 2:
    4, all from Paul’s later disciples).  

    4  Unholy mixing of semen with excrement.  According to Saul Olyan, in the case of
    Leviticus, “male-male anal intercourse may have been proscribed in order to prevent the
    mixing of two otherwise defiling substances [excrement and semen] and thereby prevent the
    defilement of the land of Israel” (1994:203).  Steven Bigger points out that the explicit concern
    in Leviticus 18 and 20 is not the mixing of semen with excrement, but with menstrual blood (18:
    19) and Robert Gagnon objects that there is not corresponding prohibition against
    heterosexual anal intercourse (2001:134-35), but Leviticus hardly offers itself as a complete
    sex manual (nothing about masturbation, oral or intercrural sex, cross-dressing or eunuchs; cf
    Deut 22:5 and 23:1).  In the case of Romans, however, all such interpretations overlook Paul’s
    radical deconstruction of the clean/unclean distinction (Rom 1:24 à 14:14, 20; see Section 5

    5  Gender Discomplementarity as a Violation of the Created Order (Gagnon 135-142;
    cf Brooten 1996:264-66).  Elsewhere, in 1 Cor 11:2-16 Paul uses, but also subverts, gender
    hierarchy; see Gal 3:28; Rom 16).  In 1 Cor 11 Paul employs rhetoric heavy with gender
    hierarchy references, not to reinforce gender hierarchy per se, nor to deny women positions
    of leadership, but for the simple goal of maintaining the cultural tradition of women’s head
    coverings when prophesying and praying in the assembly and thus avoid the kind of
    unnecessary offense that would render evangelism ineffective.  Notably, in the course of the
    20th century, almost all traditionalists relegated half a chapter of commands and supporting
    rhetoric regarding women’s head coverings to the sagging shelf of biblical items deemed
    culture-bound and no longer literally applicable to modern cultures--yet left unquestioned two
    verses regarding sexual behaviour in Rom 1:26-27 (despite the references to “nature” in both

    In 1 Cor 11:1-16 Paul does seek to maintain elements of the symbolism of gender distinction
    and social hierarchy: head coverings for women when praying and prophesying (Brooten,
    correctly, 1996:252).  However, just as the Apostle deconstructs the ideology and supporting
    rhetoric regarding “nature/against nature” (1:26-27à 2:14, 28; 11:24), so gender distinctions
    and social hierarchy also get deconstructed (especially in Rom 16; Gal 3:28; and even in 1
    Cor 11:11-12; cf. Brooten 191).  The Apostle’s apocalyptic disinterest in procreation is one
    factor that enabled him to deconstruct the entire ideology promoting acts that are “natural”
    and condemning any acts “against nature” (Rom 11:24).  Just as Jesus escaped Mary’s
    pressure to marry in John 2 (the wedding at Cana) and instead taught his disciples to “bear
    fruit” metaphorically (John 4:36; 12:24; 15:2, 2, 2, 4-5, 8, 16, 16), so Paul rejected literal
    procreation and refers to “bearing fruit” (Rom 1:13; 6:21-22; 7:4-5; 15:28).  Robert Gagnon’s
    insistence that Paul seeks to perpetuate a sexual ideology of male-female “complementarity”
    is a variation of gender hierarchy concepts (Brooten points out that “complementarity” is
    modern shorthand jargon for patriarchal male superiority).

    6  The connection with covering/excessive desire.  Roy Bowen Ward concludes that
    Rom 1:26-27 possibly “represents an antihedonistic, pro-procreation argument typical of
    Hellenistic Jews who wish to set themselves apart from the pleasure-oriented Romans” (1997:
    284).  He also considers possible Brooten’s interpretation of Paul as arguing from “an
    independent active/passive, gender hierarchical idea” (294) rather than the antihedonistic,
    pro-procreational tradition.  However, as Dale Martin (1995) and David Fredrickson (2000)
    have shown (section 3 above), what Paul opposes in Rom 1:24-27 is not pleasure per se, but
    excess desire.  As the epistle unfolds the Apostle makes clear that this “excess” of desire is
    defined, not by how much fun it is, but as that which leads to harming the neighbour (abuses
    of power, oppression, injustice that make peaceful community life impossible; Rom 13:8-10;
    Hanks 2000; Philip Esler, Rom 12-15). The Greek antihedonistic tradition was not echoed due
    to any opposition to pleasure per se, but only in so far as the pleasures in question involved
    coveting (excessive desire) that destroyed community.  

    7  The rhetorical trap.  What all these positions overlook, however, is that Romans is not
    Leviticus and Paul’s intention in his rhetoric in 1:18-32 in the context of the epistle  is not to be
    equated with legal material like the prohibitions of male-male anal sex in Lev 18:22 and 20:13.  
    Paul does not simply present an “argument” that reveals his intentions—he prepares a
    rhetorical trap: his rhetoric seeks first to reflect and appeal to the prejudices of his audience,
    not simply and rationally expound his own viewpoint.  When we recognize that in 1:18-32 Paul
    is laying his first rhetorical trap, we can understand how three of the key elements in his
    rhetoric get deconstructed as the letter unfolds (allowing only his critique of coveting,
    excessive desire that harms the neighbour, to stand).  The first rhetorical trap (1:18-2:16)
    catches the “homophobes” (be they Gentiles or Jews); the second (9:1-11:36) entraps “anti-
    Semites” (who despise Judaism; see Countryman,  Section 5 above).   

    Of course, we may be confident that certain elements in Rom 1:18-32 really do reflect the
    Apostle’s own convictions: God as the unique creator whose wrath is manifest against all
    idolatry, injustice, oppression, and violence (1:18-23, 25, 28-32)—behaviour that fails to
    manifest love for God and neighbor.  And even in 1:24, 26-27 the rhetoric against coveting
    (excessive desire leading to acts that harm the neighbour) continues as a norm for behaviour
    throughout the letter. However, the fact that Paul deconstructs the elements in his rhetoric
    regarding behaviour that is “unclean,” “unnatural” and resulting in social shame, makes clear
    that he does not intend to construct any “ethical absolute” against all non-procreative sexual
    behaviours, nor against any that subvert traditional gender hierarchy (or “complementarity”),
    be they heterosexual or homoerotic.  What survives the deconstruction process as
    transcendent norm for the churches is the prohibition of coveting (excessive desire that harms
    neighbour and destroys community solidarity) and the command to love neighbour (13:8-14).

    In his conclusion Roy Ward Bowen (1997:284) cites as something Paul opposed in Rom 1:26-
    27 a saying common in first-century Pompeii:

    May whosoever loves (amat) prosper,
    May he perish who knows not to love (amare);
    May he twice perish, whoever forbids to love (amare).

    Bowen concludes that Paul’s teaching in Romans 1:26-27 would fall under the anathema of
    this saying.  To the contrary, if we follow Paul’s letter to its conclusion, Paul (even more
    radically than Jesus), sets forth as the supreme norm for human behaviour that of inclusive
    love for neighbour that does no harm (13:8-10).  Although the Apostle does not repeat Jesus’
    specific words about wholehearted love for God as the first and greatest commandment, in the
    structure of Romans and its theology, glorifying and praising God undoubtedly should be
    understood as concrete manifestations of such love for God (note loving praise of God at the
    climactic points in the letter’s structure: 11:33-36; 15:7-13; 16:25-27).  

A Gay Apostle’s Queer Epistle for a Peculiar People: Romans 1:24-27 in its Context
Rev. Dr. Tom Hanks

Part 3
Connecting the Dots, Linking the Trees,
Exploring the New Forest  

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