When a Man Lies with a Man as with a Woman
From The Fourth R
Volume 25-3 May – June 2012
People today widely believe that the Bible condemns being gay. They get this idea from, well, reading the Bible. When most people leaf to Leviticus 18:22 in their Bibles, they read something like this: “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.” In Leviticus 20:13 they find identical words, only adding death by stoning as punishment. That seems pretty clear. End of story. In our early twenty-first-century American culture, a man who “lies with a man as with a woman” is usually thought to be gay.
But the Bible was not written in our day nor for our time. These two texts were written about 2,500 years ago in a time and place scholars generally refer to as the Ancient Near East. What did it mean for “a man to lie with a man as with a woman” in the Ancient Near East? Male-male same-gendered sex in the Ancient Near East—so far as ancient texts discussed it—had three possible meanings: domination, recreation, and religious devotion. To understand the first, one need only think today of prison sex or war-time rape, or read the news from Syria, where male rape has recently emerged as a tool of government repression. This modern thing is actually a very old thing. In the Ancient Near East male-on-male sex was usually seen as an act of violence. This was (and is) not gay sex. It was heterosexual phallic aggression. It was generally frowned upon, unless done in a context where violence and domination were the point, as in war. Today the practice is shocking. In the ancient world, not so much.
Ancient Near Eastern recreational male-male sex was a similar thing. This is something one might do with a slave or personal servant in the absence of female companionship. It was also frowned upon in some cultures, who viewed it as exploitative and demeaning to the man or boy who was forced to play the role of “catcher” in such sexual activity. To lie with a man “as with a woman” pretty much captures the point. Men were supposed to be men, not women. Gilgamesh is a good example. The chief shortcoming of the ancient king of Ur was his voracious sexual appetite, which he satisfied with women, daughters, and sons—no one was safe.
In the Ancient Near East, male-male sex can also have a religious meaning. Sex as religious devotion is an odd concept for most of us, but it was not so for ancients. The Ancient Near East is a dry place. Agriculture there is a critical, but precarious undertaking. Consequently, agriculture attracted a good deal of religious attention in ancient times. Fertility gods were common, as were fertility rituals. Sometimes this involved ritual sexual activity with male priests, who, like the gods they represented, were thought to be androgynous—that is, both male and female. Devotees believed that by planting one’s seed in such a priest, one could ensure the fertility of the earth for another year.
None of these meanings depended upon the homosexuality of the participants. In fact, it was quite the opposite. All depended on the assumption that the initiator of the act (the “pitcher,” so to speak) was acting in the very heterosexual role of male. A man could dominate another man by buggering him, thus forcing him into the subordinate role of female. That was why it was permitted to rape one’s enemies at the end of a battle, but not to bugger one’s slave. In the first case, violent aggression is part of what the soldier signs on for. In the second case, you’re just taking advantage. In the case of ritual sex, the devotee (again, the “pitcher”) is seen as performing the heterosexual male role of planting his seed in another, in this case a man reimagined as part female. So, was there actual gay sex, as we today understand that concept, in the Ancient Near East? Probably. But it is never discussed in the surviving literature.
Male-male sex in the Ancient Near East does not mean “I love you.” It means “I own you.” Today, of course, it is different. Male-male sex can mean “I love you.”
What meaning, then, did the sex acts referred to in Leviticus have? Theoretically it could have been any of the three: domination, recreation, or cult sex. Most scholars think it was the last of these. This is because of the word used to condemn it: abomination, in Hebrew to’evah. This word is often used in contexts where religious offense is involved. And this section of Leviticus, known to scholars as the Holiness Code, is all about steering clear of foreign religious and cultural practices. So the Leviticus texts probably forbid engaging in sex with foreign priests—but we cannot be sure. Those texts might forbid the sexual exploitation of male slaves.
But we can say very clearly what the Levitical prohibition does not mean. It does not forbid falling in love with another man and having intimate sexual relations with him. Male-male sex just did not have that connotation in the Ancient Near East. Male-male affection was not unknown in that place and time. A famous example from the Bible is the close relationship between Jonathan and David depicted in 1 and 2 Samuel. David says of Jonathan, “Your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26). And yet, the account of their relationship never mentions sex. Male-male sex in the Ancient Near East does not mean “I love you.” It means “I own you.” Today, of course, it is different. Male-male sex can mean “I love you.” To such a thing Leviticus offers no comment.
Stephen J. Patterson (Ph.D., Claremont Graduate School) is Geo. H. Atkinson Professor of Religious and Ethical Studies at Willamette University. He is the author of several books including Beyond the Passion (2004) and The God of Jesus (1998). “When a Man Lies with a Man as with a Woman” appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of the The Fourth R.