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The Bible  
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Significantly, no other biblical reference to Sodom assumes homosexuality to have been the sin for which the "cities of the plain" were punished. Rather, early rabbinic and patristic commentary on the story assumes that the Sodomites, a proverbially wealthy community, wantonly abused the power accorded them by their wealth, their attempted sexual abuse of defenseless strangers being part of a larger pattern of their inhumane treatment of persons less fortunate than they.

Their blinding by the visiting angels was, consequently, an appropriate punishment for having allowed themselves to become "blinded" by materialistic pride to the law of God and of becoming a law unto themselves; likewise, the sterility visited on their once-great cities is a reminder to live humbly in service to the poor rather than luxuriate in sexual self-indulgence.

Such a reading of the text is supported by the fact that it is not the single episode with the handsome guests of Lot that dooms the people of Sodom; rather, as verses 20-21 make clear, Yahweh had already decided to destroy them and sent the angels to Sodom as agents provocateurs. Curiously, for those who want to read the Sodom episode and the parallel story in Judges 19 as evidence of God's prohibiting homosexual behavior, characters in both narratives volunteer to substitute the heterosexual rape of their virgin daughter or bondswoman for the homosexual rape of a visitor, a critical challenge to "normative" sexual morality.

Once Philo Judaeus (around 50 C.E.) associated the "sin of Sodom" exclusively with homosexuality, however, a curious transformation of the interpretive tradition began. "Burning with insane love for boys," as Clement of Alexandria puts it, came increasingly to be seen, first, as one of the many instances of sexual excess to which the Sodomites' love of sensual luxury brought them, but eventually as their sole crime.

Even as late as the mid-seventeenth century, John Milton recorded in his commonplace book plans for a drama called "Sodom" in which "each evening everyone with mistress or Ganymede [walked] gittering along the streets"; he clearly still assumed biblical Sodom to have been the site of both heterosexual and homosexual license. But after the shift in Western attitudes toward homosexuality that John Boswell demonstrates as taking place between 1150 and 1350, such even-tempered approaches as Milton's became very rare.

Thus, the destruction of the biblical cities by fire justified for England's most influential jurist, William Blackstone, the punishment accorded sodomites in England by a 1533 statute. In his famous Commentaries (1765-1769) on the law, Blackstone asserts that both "the voice of nature and of reason, and the express law of God" determine sodomy to be a capital offense: "Of which we have a signal instance . . . by the destruction of two cities by fire from heaven. . . . And our ancient law in some degree imitated this punishment, by commanding such miscreants to be burnt to death."

By the late seventeenth century, the noun sodomite came to indicate, not simply an individual who engaged in anal intercourse, but an identifiable sexual orientation; George Lesley's Fire and Brimstone: Or, The Destruction of Sodom [1684] is not only a dramatic diatribe against "," but one of the first English-language tracts to identify as a discrete personality type men whose sexual engagements are exclusively with members of their own sex.

Biblical Authorizations of the Homoerotic

If Pauline and Levitical legal proscriptions, and narratives like that of Sodom and Gomorah, have provided the basis for the repression of homosexuality, three sets of biblical characters have offered models for homosexual love, strongly influencing its literary representation.


The narrator of The First Book of Samuel emphasizes the special relationship that existed between Jonathan, the son of King Saul, and David, the harp-playing shepherd turned soldier and fugitive, who is described as being "ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to" (1 Sam. 16:12). "The soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David," the narrator records, "and Jonathan loved him as his own soul" (1 Sam. 18:1).

Later, when Saul's murderous jealousy causes his young rival to flee the court, the two friends suffer a poignant parting at which "they kissed one another, and wept one with another, until David exceeded" (1 Sam. 20:41). Jonathan's death alongside his father in battle with the Philistines occasions from David this powerful lament: "The beauty of Israel is slain upon the high places; how are the mighty fallen! . . . I am very distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love was wonderful, passing the love of women" (2 Sam. 1:19-26).

Not surprisingly, the David story--unparalleled in the Bible for its depiction of male love so lavish that it becomes "excessive" (to adapt the telling word employed by the King James translator)--has inspired several of the best developed Western homoerotic literary traditions.

First, the David story has proved the most influential biblical justification for the description of sensuous male beauty. The lush description of David in the flush of early adulthood in lines 57-72 of Michael Drayton's "David and Goliah" (1630), for example, seems better fitted to an Ovidian celebration of sexual amorphousness than to a biblically inspired brief epic.

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