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The Bible  
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Nonreproductive homosexual sex, which assumes the basic equality of the lovers, could not answer the psychic needs of the ancient Israelites who--threatened by enemies of superior size on every border--were desperate for the protective reassurance that a hierarchical, heterosexual trope imaginatively provided.

Finally, the Hebrew attitude toward male homosexual activity was complicated by its association with idolatry. The native Canaanites valued the communities of men and boys who lived at the temple and at local shrines that were marked by stone pillars or columns presumably phallic in shape; intercourse with a kadesh (a temple prostitute) seems to have been perceived as a way of ritually enhancing both the individual's fertility and the tribe's power. (The judge Samuel, in fact, may have functioned early in life as a temple prostitute.)

The communities of kadeshim were dissipated by the seventh-century B.C.E. prophetic movement that attempted to purify Judaism of foreign influences that threatened cultic purity. Deuteronomy 23:17-18, for example, strictly enjoins that "there shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite [kadesh] of the sons of Israel. Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog [male prostitute] into the house of the Lord thy God for any vow: for even both these are abomination unto the Lord thy God."

Likewise, 1 Kings 14:23-24 links "sodomites" with the worship of false idols "on every high hill, and under every green tree." Josiah's breaking "down the houses of the sodomites, that were by the house of the Lord" (2 Kings 23:7) indicates the tension that persisted over the coexistence of the two institutions despite Asa's earlier attempt to drive "the sodomites out of the land, and remove . . . all the idols that his fathers had made" (1 Kings 15:12; see also 22:46).

The opprobrium heaped on homosexual behavior in the Levitical "Holiness Code," then, reflects not a disparagement of homosexuality or of homosexual persons per se, but of idolatrous religious practices. It must have been especially offensive to the Israelite elders that the Canaanite cult prostitutes, who presumably were uncircumcised, should threaten the divine covenant by encouraging the practice of idolatry in a sexually sullying way. Thus, "if a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them shall have committed an abomination," Leviticus 20:13 unflinchingly threatens; "they shall surely be put to death."

This obsession with cultic purity was extended by St. Paul into the Christian era. His concern for the holiness--and reputation--of the founding Christian churches led him to concentrate in particular on the sexual practices of early Christian communities, many of which took Christ's commandment to love one another quite literally.

Paul seems to have been particularly troubled by the number of men in the early Christian communities who engaged passively in homosexual acts. The "abusers of themselves with mankind" (1 Cor. 6:9-10; see also 1 Tim. 1:9-10), as Paul termed them, leave "the natural use of the woman" to "burn in lust one toward another."

But, Paul assures his followers, they have been given up by God to "uncleanness," "vile affections," and "a reprobate mind" (Rom. 1:26-27) and are to be excluded from the Christian community. (Some readers take Paul's vague complaint that even the women of the ungodly "did change the natural use into that which is against nature" to refer to lesbian activity, which would make Romans 1:26 the only biblical imprecation against female homosexuality.) His reiterated concern over homosexual practices, however, suggests how common they must have been.

Conservative social critics charge that any restoration of a historical context that mitigates, if not entirely erases, biblical imprecations against homosexuality is but special pleading and so is culturally and intellectually suspect. The danger of decontextualizing such influential biblical teaching, however, is illustrated by the interpretive history of the Sodom narrative (Gen. 19:1-11).

The Sin of Sodom

The story of Sodom seems originally to have been intended as an object lesson about hospitality. Lot takes home as his guests two male visitors to the city whom he must defend later that evening against a crowd that demands he send them outside "that we may know them." Lot offers his virgin daughters instead, is rudely rebuffed, and is saved from violence himself only when the visitors reveal themselves as angels and strike the men of Sodom blind.

The episode is similar to Zeus's testing the hospitality of Lycaon in Book 1 of Ovid's Metamorphoses and to Odysseus' defending himself from the uncivil Cyclops in Homer's The Odyssey (Book 9) as the beleaguered hero makes his way home from the Trojan War. Such tales remind a seafaring people like the early Greeks, or a nomadic people like the early Israelites, who were forced to depend on the hospitality of indigenous peoples for their own survival, of the reciprocal responsibilities of host and guest.

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