Part 7: Listening to God's Word — The Old Testament
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Feb 3, 2016)
The following is the seventh in a series on Homosexuality and God's Merciful Love. You can follow the entire series here.
The Scriptures of ancient Israel are part of the Christian Bible for a very good reason: Jesus Himself looked upon them as "The Word of God" that "cannot be broken" (Jn 10:35; Mt 5:17-20, and 15:6). For Him, whatever Old Testament Scripture said, God Himself said (Mt 19:5). And His apostles taught that the Holy Scriptures were written under the special inspiration the Holy Spirit (II Tim 3:15-17; II Pet 1:20-21).
As we saw last week, Jesus refers to the teachings of the Old Testament, and even (implicitly) to the Levitical law, in His teachings about God's design for human sexuality. As soon as mention is made of "The Law of Moses," however, many people start to feel uncomfortable. Christians today are not bound by the whole of the Old Testament Law, it is said, especially the famous "Holiness Code" in the book of Leviticus, where homosexual acts are indeed condemned as an "abomination" to the Lord — along with such things as eating lobster and shellfish!
Indeed, as mentioned earlier in this series, Christians are not required to abide by the civic laws and ritual regulations of the Law of Moses. The moral commandments (such as the Ten Commandments), however, are another thing altogether. These usually apply in some way to all generations of God's People. As for shellfish: Ancient Israel had no seafront and no refrigeration, so eating shellfish was a reckless way to risk one's life — no wonder, in that place and time, it was an "abomination" to the Lord!
One part of the Holiness Code which seems to have a wider application is the part on sexual immorality:
In Leviticus 18 and 20, incest, bestiality, adultery and homosexuality are prohibited. And these prohibitions are repeated in the New Testament as well, making them not only part of the Law, but the broader biblical ethic. In fact, according to Leviticus 18:27, all the abominations practiced and prohibited in this chapter (adultery, homosexuality, incest and bestiality) defiled the land when they were committed by the land's inhabitants. God also stated that He "abhorred" the people who inhabited the land before the Israelites did, because they practiced these behaviors (Leviticus 20:23). Clearly, these practices offended God no matter who practiced them, or in what context (Joe Dallas and Nancy Heche, eds., The Complete Guide to Understanding Homosexuality: A Biblical and Compassionate Response. Harvest House, 2010, p. 122).
The trouble is that these same two chapters of Leviticus also list sexual intercourse with one's wife when she is menstruating as among these "abominations." Does this render suspect all of the other sexual sins listed in these chapters?
De Young points out that the stricture against intercourse during menstruation was actually meant to protect men and women from ritual (not moral) uncleanness. In general, any major involvement with body fluids and bodily decay rendered a Jew ritually "unclean" according to the Mosaic Law, and unable to participate in worship for a time, simply because worship was believed to require a complete turning away from this world and turning toward the transcendent God. In short, since this rule about menstruation was not really a moral commandment, it can hardly apply to Christians today.
Besides, De Young argues, in both Leviticus 18 and 20, there is a progression from the most serious to the least serious sexual offenses against God's design. Homosexual acts are always in "the middle of the pack;" sexual intercourse during a woman's menstrual uncleanness, by contrast, "is the lowest rung of the ladder in chapter 18, and not part of the progression at all in chapter 20" (DeYoung, p. 25).
In short, it seems clear that both Jesus and His apostles largely supported the Mosaic guidelines on sexual sin. Saint Paul even appeals directly to the Law of Moses to establish the sinfulness of incest In I Corinthians chapter 5 (Lev 18:18; Dt 22:30, 27:20) — and he does the same with regard to homosexual behavior, as we shall see. Jesus only amended the Mosaic Law because certain aspects of it (such as divorce and remarriage) he considered temporary injunctions, due to the "hardness of heart" of God's People (Mt 19:8).
Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is the one from which the term "sodomy" was derived for homosexual acts. At first glance, this tale appears to be a straight-out condemnation of such behavior:
Before they went to bed, the townsmen of Sodom, both young and old — all the people to the last man — surrounded the house. They called to Lot and said to him, "Where are the men who came to your house tonight? Bring them out to us that we may have sexual relations with them" (Gen 19:4-5).
Some Bible commentators now argue that the real sins that the men of Sodom sought to commit here were violations of the Jewish laws of hospitality, and seeking victims to rape; homosexuality was beside the point (see, for example, The New Catholic Answer Study Bible, 2011 edition, p.30 OT). Others, such as Peter Fitch, claim that according to Ezekiel 16: 49-50, the main sin of the Sodomites was oppression of the poor, and any other sins implied in the story are merely symptomatic and of secondary importance. Furthermore, as Catholic author Melinda Selmys has pointed out, the men of Sodom were probably upset by the presence of Lot and his entourage in the city because they were foreigners — perhaps even spies of Abraham:
It is impossible to imagine that [all the males in Sodom] ... insisted on raping the strangers because they were all simultaneously overtaken by intense homoerotic desire. As soon as you try to imagine the scene as something that could actually have happened, it becomes clear that the atmosphere is not of an orgy but of a lynch mob (Sexual Authenticity. Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 2009, p. 46).
On the other hand, even if homosexual acts were not the main sins committed by the Sodomites, they surely ranked among their moral corruptions. The sins of the city of Sodom were many, according to the prophet Ezekiel, which is precisely why the Lord ultimately destroyed it. That homosexual acts were included among their "abominations" (Ez 16:49) was the consensus interpretation of the story by the ancient Jews (see ancient Jewish documents such as The Testimony of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Testimony of Naphtali 3:4-5, Jubilees 16:5, as well as first century A.D. Jewish authors such as Philo and Josephus). More importantly, this was also the interpretation of the apostles. Jude, verse 7 tells us: "Likewise, Sodom, Gomorrah, and the surrounding towns, which ... indulged in sexual promiscuity and unnatural vice, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire."
Some commentaries (e.g., again, The New Catholic Answer Study Bible), claim that this verse in Jude really refers to an immoral attempt to have sex with angelic visitors. They cite the link made in Jude between verses 6 and 7, where verse 6 allegedly refers to the sins of fallen angels attempting to have sex with human beings (cf. Gen 6:1-4, Jude 14, and the Jewish apocryphal Book of Enoch). But Jude hardly can have believed that the sin of the Sodomites in the Genesis story consisted primarily in an attempt to have sex with their angelic visitors, since the men of Sodom had no idea that the guests of Lot were angels! In other words, of this moral crime they were in a state of "invincible ignorance."
Moreover, as DeYoung points out, according to Jude "the surrounding towns" also were guilty of committing the same "unnatural vice" (verse 7): "Are we to think that the other towns in the area also pursued sex with angels?" (DeYoung, p. 38). St. Augustine upheld the traditional Jewish and Christian interpretation of the story when he wrote:
[T]hose shameful acts against nature, such as were committed in Sodom, ought everywhere and always to be detested ... the law of God ... has not made men so that they should use one another in this way (Confessions, 3:8:15).
Next week: Listening to God's Word — The New Testament
You can follow the entire series here.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.