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The Bible  
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Perhaps no other book has been more influential--for better or worse--in determining the construction of gay and lesbian identity in the modern world, as well as social attitudes toward homosexuality, than the Bible. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah, for example, has given the name to "," and Levitical and Pauline imprecations have supplied the language used to legislate against many same-sex behaviors.

At the same time, however, the Samuel narrative has provided one of most influential models of male beauty, and the relationships of David and Jonathan, of Jesus and John the Beloved Disciple, and of Ruth and Naomi have authorized same-sex relationships. Indeed, the Bible has proved to be one of the richest and most creative sources of challenge to the gay and lesbian literary imagination, as well as one of the most powerful tools of self-validation.

The Sexual World of Ancient Israel

The world of ancient Israel was deeply charged sexually. Early biblical narratives, designed to reassure readers or listeners of the beleaguered tribe's survival in a politically inhospitable climate, concentrate on miraculous propagation; Genesis, for example, deals not simply with the creation or genesis of the cosmos, but with the act of sexual generation as well. Barren or seemingly unmarriable women are repeatedly blessed with remarkable issue, often under dramatic circumstances.

Widowed Tamar, for example, disguises herself as a prostitute in order to become pregnant by one of her late husband's reluctant male relatives (Gen. 38); Lot's daughters get him drunk so that they may seduce him and become pregnant (Gen. 19:30-38); and in a daring plan to force Boaz to propose to her, Ruth is so bold as to "uncover" her kinsman's feet as he lies sleeping on the threshing room floor at harvest time (Ruth 3:4-7). Hannah prays so fervently to be made fertile that she is rebuked by the priest for coming to the temple intoxicated (1 Sam. 1:12-16); and sisters Rachel and Leah frantically compete to see who can become pregnant the most often by their joint husband Jacob (Gen. 29-30).

So important is it for a family or a tribal line to continue that the leaders of Israel encourage the Benjaminites to abduct the virgins of another tribe after they are punished for the fatal rape of a Levite's concubine by having their own women taken from them (Judg. 21). Life must go on in the biblical world, no matter the cost to what modern readers might consider normative sexual morality.

This concern with the issues of survival and generation is responsible for the Old Testament's seemingly contradictory attitudes toward male and female homosexuality. As Jane Rule points out, "a people continually threatened with extinction must be concerned with producing as many strong and healthy children as possible," making the "spilling of seed" in male homosexual practice "wasteful and dangerous."

A woman's sins, conversely, "are the sins of the field, remaining barren or accepting seed foreign to her designated crop." Thus, as long as she bore children to a Jewish male who had been circumcised, and did not confuse his line by committing adultery, a woman might seek emotional and perhaps even sexual fulfillment with another woman without alarming her culture; significantly, there is no direct prohibition placed on female homosexual acts in the Hebrew Testament.

On the other hand, it is only when bonding with another male provides the beleaguered hero with the physical and emotional support essential to his survival--as in the cases of David and Jonathan, and of Jesus and John the Beloved Disciple--that a male relationship is promoted as a model for others to follow.

This survivalist instinct seems also to have led the Israelites to figure their covenant with Yahweh as a heterosexual marriage relationship. The original covenant that Yahweh makes with Abraham equates devotion with propagation, Yahweh promising not only to make Abraham "exceeding fruitful," but guaranteeing to him "and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan," if he will "circumcise the flesh of [his] foreskin," male circumcision being the "token" of their covenant (Gen. 17:8-11).

The covenant is recast in more explicitly heterosexual terms in Hosea, however: "And I will betroth thee unto me for ever . . . and thou shalt know the Lord" (2:19-20). Here Israel becomes a woman whose fertility depends on the extraordinarily potent lovemaking of her husband; in their worship of the carved images of foreign gods, Israel and her sister nation Judah are seen as harlots who left their loving husband and "defiled the land" by committing adultery "with stones and with stocks" (Jer. 3:6-9).

The agony of the Lord in Hosea as an unrequited lover, refusing to throw off his adulterous wife, always willing to take her back, is one of the most powerful images in Hebrew scriptures, especially when read in the context of the sensual, celebratory lyric exuberance of The Song of Songs, traditionally interpreted to figure the marriage relationship between Yahweh and His chosen people.

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The fronticepiece in a Latin edition of the Bible entitled "God the Creator of Heaven and Earth."
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