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BOOK REVIEW

Written 2004 for Feminist Theology

Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views
Dan O. Via and Robert A. J. Gagnon
Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2003, 117 pp.

 

According to the publisher’s preface these two contributions are designed to ‘enliven the discussion and bring fresh perspective to these issues’ (p. viii). Given the current stalemate, any such initiative is certainly to be welcomed. But does this book fit the bill?

 

Fortress Press has asked two prominent US scholars to engage in a dialogue. The titles they have chosen for their essays give some indication about their basic approaches. Dan Via’s contribution is entitled ‘The Bible, the Church, and Homosexuality’, whereas Robert Gagnon calls his essay ‘The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Key Issues’.

 

Via’s point of departure is that the Bible is opposed to homosexuality. However, this does not make him ignore the need for analysing the issue from different perspectives. Via acknowledges the problems surrounding hermeneutics, changing attitudes, homosexual orientation and the weight of tradition. Likewise, he is aware that there may be other valid viewpoints worth taking into account, including those of lesbian and gay scholars. Thus he quotes gay theologian Dale Martin. Via’s basic approach is that of a heterosexual male scholar with a good grasp of the core issues and who is genuinely interested in exploring them in detail.

 

Gagnon’s essay is considerably longer and wordier, which is in direct proportion to the author’s unmistakable zeal. He operates on the basic premise that the Bible is unconditionally opposed to what he calls ‘homosexual practice’, often referred to as ‘same-sex intercourse’. Gagnon consistently and vehemently speaks of the Bible’s ‘uniformly strong rejection’ as well as ‘sexual behaviours that are pervasively, absolutely, and severely proscribed’. His language is strongly anti-gay. Unlike Via, Gagnon rejects all talk of sexual orientation. He firmly believes that the supreme norm taught by the Bible, including Jesus, is the importance of heterosexual marriage, and that this is the only gateway to salvation. To Gagnon scripture is an infallible law book. In his view, gay people should ‘change’ or ‘take up their cross’, that is, become celibate.

 

The advantage of this book is its handy size. Anyone looking for a manageable introduction to current arguments in the bitter debate about Christianity and homosexuality will find it useful. It provides two largely incompatible approaches to an issue of great complexity. Whilst Via is open to dialogue, Gagnon’s writing is a monologue. Whilst Via engages with his material, Gagnon uses his as ammunition in a relentless crusade.

 

If Fortress Press considers this publication the first in a series on the subject, it is to be commended. It certainly focuses on central aspects. However, three major weaknesses need pointing out: (a) the voices of heterosexual male theologians like Via and Gagnon have been heard for centuries; (b) the book represents only a fraction of current theological reflection, and (c) such vital subjects as female homosexuality and bisexuality are virtually absent.

 

To make this material relevant to lesbian and gay people, other contributions are needed. Today’s world is blessed with outstanding lesbian, gay and bisexual scholars. FP would do well to produce a follow-up to reflect the hard-won insights of the very people whose lives and faith are at the heart of the debate.

 

 

 

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CONTACT

If you wish to discuss some of the issues mentioned on this page,

I may be reached at

biblioglot
AT
gmailDOTcom

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 
Removing the Sexual Cobweb:
To "Know" in a Text of Terror

Article written 2006
This summary 2007

 

Judges 19–20 is a story which a lot of people find unpalatable. The sheer brutality of this narrative, in which a young, defenceless woman is mortally wounded through sexual assault, is certainly shocking. This should not surprise us, as it is likely to be an integral part of the original agenda. As I understand the ancient context, this tale was written as a scathing attack on King Saul, his hometown Gibeah, and his tribe Benjamin. The narrator seems to have been in the service of David given that the argument of the story is clearly pro-Davidic, pro-Judah, and anti-Saul.

 

The most popular approach to the story is to read it in conjunction with Sodom and Gomorrah. While these two narratives have thematic similarities, they address very different audiences. One aspect they have in common is under-researched, namely, their political nature. Unfortunately, modern Bible translators and commentators tend to depoliticize the plots. One way in which this is achieved is by giving cross-references between Judges 19, Genesis 19, and Leviticus 18:22/20:13. Through this subtle procedure, these very diverse texts become interlocked within a specific sexual agenda. At the same time Judges 19–20 becomes severed from its historical roots. The sophisticated and manipulative political fiction of Gibeah has been recast in an all-out sexual mould, as a result of which it may be used to stigmatize same-sex relationships.

 

In recent decades, the story has been reread from a feminist perspective. Phyllis Trible has provided a suitable label: text of terror. While feminist approaches represent an important innovation, they have not liberated the text from the iron grip in which the sexualization of the Hebrew verb yāda, ‘to know’, has held it for centuries. This article points out some of the ways in which post-biblical tradition has sown confusion among Bible translators. For my discussion I pursue three goals: (1) to present the many linguistic reasons why yāda is better understood from a non-sexual perspective; (2) to document some of the distortions wrought by sexual translations of yāda, and (3) to propose a contextual and intertextual reading of Gibeah based on the biblical material.

 

The subtle nuances of the Hebrew language in Judges 19 reveal the narrator as a skilful communicator. Two Hebrew verbs in the text express physical assault, namely, ānâ and ālal. They channel the actual sexual aggression. There is no linguistic reason for distorting the fundamentally neutral nature of yāda. While the context speaks of sexual violence, yāda still means ‘to know’. A non-sexual interpretation of yādais likely to lead to a clearer understanding of an artfully constructed plot with a strong political message. 

 

 

 

The complete article is printed in 
Lisa Isherwood & Rosemary Radford Ruether (eds.)
Weep Not for Your Children.
Equinox, London, 2007.


 


The "Lyings" of a Woman:
Male–Male Incest in Lev. 18:22?


Article written 2009
This summary 2010

 

 

Whenever the issue of Bible and homosexuality is discussed, Leviticus 18:22 is quoted. However, do we know for certain what this short verse means? What exactly are the “lyings of a woman”? This arcane expression is found in the original Hebrew. Despite their unusual nature, these words belong to what many regard as a clear prohibition of homosexuality. In most Bible translations and commentaries Leviticus 18:22 is presented as such. For example, the New Revised Standard Version suggests this rendering:

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

 

In recent years several scholars have pointed out that Lev. 18:22 does not deal with female homosexuality. It addresses male Israelites only. In addition, there has been considerable debate as to the specific nature of the sexual act proscribed. Some think the verse simply aims at anal penetration. Others take the view that reproduction and the loss of valuable semen is the main concern of the lawgiver. The debate is far from over.

 

This article undertakes a close reading of the original Hebrew. It emphasizes that the wording is anything but straightforward. A literal translation may sound like this:

And with (a) male you shall not lie (the) lyings (of a) woman. (An) abomination (is) that.

To most English speakers such language is gibberish. To reach some form of clarity in accordance with modern English style, many translators have opted for a simple solution. They have taken the unfamiliar noun “lyings” and converted it to two familiar prepositions, namely, “as” and “with.” However, this procedure is problematic. Only at the very beginning of the sentence does the Hebrew feature the preposition “with” (Hebrew eth). The other preposition “as” (Hebrew ke) is entirely absent.

 

In this context, a specific issue has been underresearched for years: incest. In a recent scholarly work, Dr. David T. Stewart has suggested that Lev. 18:22 addresses the often-ignored issue of male–male incest. He bases his view on the fact that the primary concern of chapter 18 is precisely male–female incest: with mother, stepmother, aunt, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, daughter-in-law, etc. A supplementary clause in Lev. 18:22 proscribing male–male incest would make perfectly good sense. This hypothesis may be backed up with supporting literary evidence located in Lev. 20 and the book of Genesis.

The original Hebrew phrase is extremely difficult to translate. However, the incest link provides valuable insight into its possible meaning. This article arrives at the conclusion that male–male incest is indeed a major factor in relation to "the lyings of a woman". It should be taken into account whenever Lev. 18:22 is discussed.



The complete article is available online for purchase via this link:
www.equinoxjournals.com/ojs/index.php/TSE/issue/current
It is printed in Theology & Sexuality, Volume 15.2, 2009.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

BOOK REVIEW
First published in Quaker Studies, Volume 11, Issue 2,
March 2007, pp. 309-311.


The Quaker Bible Reader
Paul Buckley & Stephen Angell (eds.),
Earlham Press, Indiana, 2006.

 

 

 

When I first held The Quaker Bible Reader (TBQR) in my hand, I found the title intriguing. The idea of producing a volume of reflections on the Bible written by Quakers seemed very worthwhile. I live in an age in which Liberal Quaker theology as I know it has splintered into an indeterminate number of variants, some with very little in common. Many Friends have turned their backs on the Bible. As co-editor Paul Buckley explains, this is particularly the case of those who feel ‘wounded by scripture’: women, people of colour, poor people, and lesbian and gay people (p. xvi). The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are often rejected wholesale along with the letters of Paul, while some room is left for the four gospels. So it is indeed refreshing to come upon a work dedicated to the study of scripture, which not only engages with both the Old and New Testaments but also and unabashedly proclaims its Quaker heritage. 

 

Before I started reading, several questions arose: will this book live up to its name? How will it reflect the immense diversity within modern Quakerism? The assertive presence in the title of the definite article is noteworthy. For years I have tended to agree with Henry J. Cadbury as he stated that there is no such thing as the Quaker approach to the Bible; cf. his 1953 Ward Lecture A Quaker Approach to the Bible. Given the tension between Cadbury and TQBR on this score, I could not help wondering whether such a move from ‘a’ to ‘the’ was justified. I shall return to this below.

 

TQBR has a number of points in its favour. Firstly, it wisely divides its attention evenly between the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. Secondly, while the editors and most contributors are based in the United States, the book includes essays from other shores such as Kenya (Esther Mombo), Mexico (Manuel Guzmán-Martínez), and the UK (John Punshon). Thirdly, it spans a wide theological spectrum from Liberal Quakerism to pastoral and evangelical Friends. Curiously, the one who most openly declares his evangelical credentials is a European, namely, John Punshon (p. 268). He takes a critical stance toward George Fox’s attitude to the Bible (p. 254).

 

The range and nature of the biblical subjects covered in TBQR is compelling. Perhaps the quality of the reflections offered is variable, but the commitment of the contributors is in evidence throughout. This book is not the exclusive territory of seasoned biblical scholars. While several essays are eminently academic, none is packed with intimidating jargon. This book is clearly aimed at the educated reader without specialist knowledge of the biblical world. Helpfully TQBR follows the overall disposition of the Bible itself in the sense that the first essay deals with the creation story in Genesis and the last with the book of Revelation. This arrangement reflects editorial humility vis-à-vis the biblical sources, and all contributions are characterised by an attitude of respect.

 

It seems to me that, to qualify for the Quaker label, several requirements should be met. Firstly, this collection of essays would have to reflect the breadth and width of modern Quakerism, going all the way from ultra-Liberal Friends to the staunchly evangelical. Such is only partly the case. Most contributors belong on the Liberal side of the spectrum, while four have different backgrounds. Three of these have been mentioned, the fourth being a Conservative Friend from the US. Secondly, the Quaker testimony to gender equality would necessitate a balance between female and male contributors. This balance is not attained. Five writers are female while nine are male. Thirdly, some significant minority voices would have to be represented, including lesbian and gay Friends. In this regard, one contributor identifies herself as lesbian (Beckey Phipps). Fourthly, the geographical, cultural and theological diversity of Quakerism worldwide is such that containing it within a publication of 290 pages is a real challenge. The fact that only three countries outside the US are represented is a weakness. If this book had been presented as Volume One, one might expect the follow-up to fill some of the gaps. However, no such project is mentioned. So I draw the inevitable conclusion: on logical grounds, the definite article in the title is not justified. Indeed, for me this work would not have lost any of its appeal if it had been entitled A Quaker Bible Reader.

 

In the final analysis, does the positive outweigh the negative? My answer is an unwavering ‘yes’. The female contributors may be in the minority, but the parts that have made this book memorable for me were penned by women. Particularly moving are two contributions riddled with pain. Esther Mombo reflects on the life of her aunt Phoebe, who was struck by tragedy in the form of rape. No one in her African Christian environment knew how to help a survivor of rape and so everybody kept an embarrassed silence whenever they came near her. Phoebe was literally relegated to psychological exile within her own family and community, a socially imposed condition which aggravated her trauma and from which she never recovered. Mombo convincingly relates Phoebe’s plight to several biblical stories of rape as she draws attention to the value of contextual Bible study.

 

Another significant case is that of Beckey Phipps, who describes her long and arduous journey into and with the Bible. According to patriarchal church tradition, her lesbian orientation should bar her from engaging meaningfully with the scriptures. Yet her essay on Ephesians proves that, in addition to resisting church tradition, she is capable of overcoming her personal discomfort as she sets out to seek and find insights in seemingly barren places. Ephesians is not exactly for beginners, but Phipps has the courage to wrestle with it long enough for it to yield some important spiritual gold nuggets.

 

For the concluding essay Janet Ross has combined linguistic and historical insights to provide a fascinating analysis of the book of Revelation. I have always found this legendary apocalypse difficult, but thanks to Ross’ very helpful pointers I have begun to feel some measure of affinity with the ancient author. Throughout the Bible one of the primary concerns is idolatry, i.e. the worship of false gods. In Revelation, idolatry takes the form of various beasts. Ross describes the enforced worship of the Roman emperor in the form of a hollow statue at the marketplace, which John must have witnessed. She goes on to compare this to the tribute that our own civilisation pays to powerful modern-day idols. She concludes: ‘John is pointing us toward our responsibility… I have the ability to choose… to live from and with truth and integrity, turning away from the hollow beast’ (p. 289).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Homoeroticism and the Bible:
Time for a Fresh Approach

 

Article published in 2012 by Mozaik,

journal of the World Student Christian Federation,

Europe Region

 

Read the article at

http://wscf-europe.org/mozaik-issues/homoeroticism-and-the-bible-time-for-a-fresh-approach/

 

 

 

Below are summaries of a selection of articles
I have written on Bible-related subjects:

The "Lyings" of a Woman: Male-Male Incest in Lev. 18:22?
Removing the Sexual Cobweb: To "Know" in a Text of Terror
Culture Clash in Sodom: Patriarchal Tales of Heroes & Villains
Book review: The Quaker Bible Reader
Book review: Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views

Articles