Biblical Judaism

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BIBLICAL JUDAISM
STAGES IN THE EVOLUTION OF THE JUDAIC TABOO ON HOMOSEXUALITY

950-586 B.C. separatist anti-Canaanite prohibition of incestuous and sacral male homosexuality (and cultic transvestism of both sexes)
538-332 B.C. assimilation para-Zoroastrian prohibition of intermarriage with non-Jews prohibition of male in general
332 B.C.- 193 A.D. separatist anti-Hellenizing prohibition of male homosexuality as tantamount to murder (in Hellenistic Judaism, secondary condemnation of lesbianism) death penalty for sexual relations with non-Jews

The history of Judaism in the Persian period suffers from the paucity and unreliability of the sources. The major collection of documents is the three books of (First and Second) Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. It is generally agreed that they originally formed one book, which was given its final form by the author of Chronicles, the so-called “Chronicler”. Contemporary scholarship assigns Chronicles to the second half of the third pre-Christian century. No fact of Old Testament criticism is more firmly established than the untrustworthiness of the Chronicler as historian. “He distorts facts deliberately and habitually; invents chapter after chapter with the greatest freedom; and what is most dangerous of all, his history is not written for its own sake, but in the interest of an extremely one-sided theory. In passing judgment on his account of the Ezra-Nehemiah period ... where his account is not supported by any other witness, the matter is settled, strictly speaking, without further discussion”.[1] The Chronicler’s narrative is purely tendentious: his purpose in writing the entire pseudo-history was “to show that all the institutions of the true ‘Israel’, as they existed in the third century B.C., and as they had been established by Moses and David, were restored complete when the exiles returned” from Babylon.[2] The last phase of Old Testament history is thus as fictitious as the first, even if the mythical and legendary elements so prominent in Genesis are absent from Ezra and Nehemiah.

Only slightly more information is supplied by Josephus in the Jewish Antiquities, which carries the story from the time of Nehemiah and Ezra to the end of the Persian period and beyond. The modern historian has therefore even for the last centuries of Old Testament history only tendentious, self-serving and unreliable sources. This fact is not entirely surprising in view of the natural wish of the Jerusalem priesthood to conceal or falsify the true circumstances of the supposed “restoration of the Mosaic Law” to its pristine authority and vigor. The obscurity that hangs over the Persian period is not accidental, because only then did Judaism assume its normative, Biblical form–which, it is true, the priestly authors ascribed to the remote antiquity of the age of Moses. The actual debates within the inner circle of religious innovators as to what were the “true traditions” could not have been preserved because they would have confessed the late and heterogeneous origin of the enactments. Likewise the Chronicler uniformly suppressed all reference to the subordination of Jerusalem and Judah to the north“to the authorities in Samaria. The “unique dearth of all information concerning the Persian period” can be explained only in terms of the need to deny the political and religious past and to create a fictitious one in the interest of the Jewish community and the Jerusalem priesthood.[3]

The Pentateuch was edited in a clumsy and inconsistent manner; its main object was to draft a constitution for the Jewish community that would be ratified and enforced by the Persian autho­ri­ties. For more than two centuries critical scholarship has struggled to uncover the source of par­ticular narratives and laws by identifying peculiarities of language and style. What is certain is that the community which received the code as a divine mandate had no training in logic or in literary analysis. Dialogue with religious foes of the homophile movement is largely fruitless because the other side either insists that the Levitical statutes are an authentic revelation to Moses on Mt. Sinai, or holds that “all that matters is what is believed today.” In either case, for homophile apologists to concede one or the other is tantamount to losing the argument.

On the other hand, attempts to reconstruct the sequence of events suffer from the apologetic and parenetic tendencies of Jewish historiography, as well as from the usual Protestant errors and biases that limn the development as linear and in some sense final. The history of the Jewish people, for nearly the whole of its existence a client people politically and culturally dependent upon larger, more powerful and influential nations, has to be read as one of divergence and conver­gence, of separatism and assimilation, of the wish to maintain a distinct identity while participating in the economic and cultural life of the dominant power. This analysis is particularly true in regard to the evolution of the Jewish attitude toward homosexuality from the First Commonwealth (ca. 950-586 B.C.) to the redaction of the Mishnah (A.D. 193). The implacable hostility of the priests of Jahweh to the Ishtar-Tammuz cult, the influence of Zoroastrianism, and then the military and cultural struggle against Hellenization all played a role in the crescendo of homophobia that was to become the heritage of Christianity when the new faith broke from Judaism to begin its victorious progress through the Roman Empire.


THE PENTATEUCH, CONSTITUTION OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITY

Contrary to traditional belief, the Law of Moses could not have existed at the time when the Israelites invaded the land of Canaan, nor during the period of tribal amphictyony, nor even at the beginning of the First Commonwealth. The paramount cultural influence during all that time was Egyptian, and the Egyptians had no law codes–only laws. It was only in the last century of the old kingdom (680-586 B.C.) that Babylonian influence replaced Egyptian, and since the Babylonians codified their laws (the Code of Hammurabi being the most celebrated example) the client people followed suit. The first stage in this evolution is the book of Deuteronomy that was supposedly discovered in the Temple in the reign of King Josiah (622 B.C.).


NEHEMIAH

The composition of the Pentateuch in the form in which it became a sacred text belongs to the Persian period, and its motivation was external. It stemmed from the wish of the Jewish community living under Persian rule to gain autonomy.

The Babylonians and after them the Persians had annexed Judah (the former southern king­dom) to the province of Samaria (the former northern kingdom) and placed it under the authority of that governorship. Its status was not to change until 445 B.C. when Artaxerxes I commissioned his Jewish cupbearer Nehemiah as governor of Judah. When Nehemiah began to construct a wall around Jerusalem, ho was creating the fortifications needed by a provincial capital–a capital for the former southern kingdom which effectively deprived Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, of a segment of his province.

To secure the recognition of provincial autonomy by the Persian authorities, the Jewish community needed a written constitution–not absolutely new, but compiled by the scribes from surviving texts and traditions. In the form that subsequently became canonical it dates from the beginning of the fourth century, and is the work of Ezra the Scribe and the descendants of the priestly caste still residing in Babylon. In the last analysis it was a pious fraud, although its priestly editors could not have conceived it as such: it derived its authority from the historical fiction that it had been dictated by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai–a belief that critical scholarship unanimously rejects. From beginning to end it was a self-serving forgery with political aims: to affirm the claims of the Jewish community to the territory of Palestine, and to consolidate the role of the priesthood as its ruling elite.


EZRA AND HIS REFORMS

In 1910 Charles Cutler Torrey claimed that contrary to the above analysis, Ezra promulgated the Penta­teuch only in 398 B.C. This would place its redaction into the beginning of the fourth century, but would not alter the conclusions formulated above. The final, authoritative text, as adopted by both Jews and Samaritans (who split off about 336 to form their own, autonomous religious com­munity) forbade male homosexual acts under pain of death, and made both the active and the passive parties equally culpable. This legal enactment was the nucleus of the modern concept of “homo­sexuality.” In the eyes of the priests of Yahweh, the client who frequented the pagan temple and the hierodule who served him sexually or otherwise were equally abominable. By adopting a theo­logical definition that abolished the active-passive dichotomy, the Mosaic law created the fiction that the partners in a homosexual act were doing the same thing, even if in the real world their roles were complementary. The manner of execution is not specified; the Talmud later pre­scribed execution by the sword (decapitation), or under certain conditions by stoning or strangling. The penalty of burning at the stake is not Biblical and not Jewish. The Pentateuch made no mention of lesbianism, probably for the reason that homosexual acts between women could not figure in a cult in which the officiants (the qadoš and the kelebh) and the worshippers were equally male.

The significance of the Persian period for the evolution of the Jewish attitude toward homo­sexuality is that only then did Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 become part of the Mosaic Law, the con­stitu­tion of the sacral community that formed on the ruins of the Judean state after its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. During the two centuries of Persian rule, it is true, homosexuality did not preoccupy the leaders of the Jewish community. Intermarriage with non-Jews was their major worry, and in the reign of Artaxerxes II Mnemon (397 B.C.) the book of Ezra (9:1-10:44) has the children of Israel assemble humbled and penitent to hear that they must no longer “join in affinity with these abomination-laden peoples” with the appeal to God: “Wouldst not thou be angry with us till thou wilt have annihilated us down to the last remnant and survivor?” (9:14) They then enter into a formal covenant the first clause of which is “that we would not give our daughters unto the people of the land, nor take their daughters for our sons” (10:31). Not homosexuality but inter­marriage is the principal offense to the deity, but this sexual offense is dreadful enough to bring down the unsparing wrath of God on the entire nation. On this Torrey commented in 1896: “Race exclusiveness is not brought about suddenly and violently, by a wave of the hand. Whether the Chr[onicle]r’s purpose in this part of the narrative was to account for this same exclusiveness, or to work in its interests” he preferred to leave outside of speculation.[4] In order to prove that it was “demanded by the Jewish Law” this prohibition was read into Leviticus 18:21 and 20:2-6, which formally ban the sacrificing of children to Moloch. Subsequently, when Judea became independent thanks to Roman protection, the “Hasmonean Sanhedrin” (ca. 140 B.C.)[5] made sexual intercourse between Jews and non-Jews a crime punishable by death. Perhaps in deference to the belief that “God is long-suffering with all sins except fornication” later passages in the Talmud and the commentators added that the culprit was not even to be hailed before a court but to be lynched by vigilantes on the spot!

Also included in the Pentateuch was the book of Genesis, which modern scholarship dismisses as pseudo-history, or at best a historical novel, which at times includes two incompatible versions of the same event. This work–probably assembled in the fifth century–recounts the destruction of Sodom and three other “cities of the plain.” The final version of the legend of Abraham devotes two and a half chapters of the fifteen (one-sixth of the whole narrative) to Sodom and its vicissitudes, incorporating the legend of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Lot has the same function throughout the narrative: he is continually rescued from the misfortunes that befall him because of his residence in Sodom. In short, it is a Bedouin folk tale about the perils of city life. In chapter 14 Abraham is depicted as a Bedouin sheikh with an armed retinue that saves Lot when the cities of the plain are overwhelmed by an invading coalition. In the second half of chapter 18 he pleads for the city which God has determined to destroy. The crucial incident involving the two visitors, Lot and his daughters, and the “men of Sodom” (ch. 19) was adapted from the account of the outrage at Gibeah in Judges 19. Even though no homosexual act occurs in either narrative, the episode of Lot in Sodom with its doubly miraculous dénouement offered the point of departure for the myth that four of the five cities were divinely punished for the depravity of their inhabitants, although the Biblical account says nothing about the other three.[6] However, the aition took two variants: that the Sodomites practiced sexual vices among themselves, or that they violated the laws of hospitality by assaulting and violating strangers who set foot on their territory. The second variant was extensively developed in midrashic writings well into the Middle Ages.

Critical scholarship has established that Sodom never existed[7] and that the entire story is a geographical legend conceived by the mythopoetic mind of the ancients, although crypto-fundamentalists are still vainly searching for the site of the ruined cities.[8] The two and a half chapters devoted to Sodom are so riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions that they amount to a fairy tale, not a credible account of a historic event. But the first variant as suggested in Genesis 19 joined with destruction by “brimstone and fire”[9] reinforced all the paranoia latent in the pro­hi­bition of male homosexuality in Leviticus, and powerfully contributed to what I have dubbed the “sodomy delusion.” Moreover, the association with Abraham, the first monotheist who rejected idolatry and worshipped the true God, made the Sodom legend part of the heritage of all three “Abrahamic religions”: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.[10]

The notion sometimes found in modern rationalist interpretations of the Old Testament that the Jews prohibited homosexuality because they were too few in number to defend their territory against hostile neighbors, is less creditable than the one that the Greeks tolerated and even institutionalized pederasty beginning in the seventh century because they suffered from chronic overpopulation and had either to restrict the birthrate of their propertied classes or to colonize or conquer new territories for settlement. There is no direct evidence for underpopulation in Israel before the Persian period. Josephus says only that in the reign of Xerxes Nehemiah, seeing that the city [Jerusalem] had a small population, urged the priests and Levites to leave the countryside and move to the city and remain there...; he also told the people who cultivated the land to bring tithes of their produce to Jerusalem in order that the priests and Levites, having a perpetual source of livelihood, might not abandon the Temple service (Jewish Antiquities, XI 181-182).

At no time in late antiquity was there a general appeal to Jews residing in the Diaspora to return to their native land, and they definitively abandoned it after the second Christian century, when the center of Jewish life moved to Babylonia. Underpopulation in Greece after the Renaissance is men­tion­ed in Polybius and elsewhere to the effect that a few districts in Greece were depopulated and un­cultivated in the Roman period. Both the Jews and the Greeks–despite the differences in their sex­u­al morality“were numerous enough to create extensive diasporas in the pre-Christian era that could exert a powerful impact upon the cultural development of the entire Mediterranean basin which the Roman Empire later incorporated. But those differences led inevitably to a conflict of cul­tures lasting many centuries in which the moral beliefs of the one prevailed over those of the other.

There is no suggestion that a falling birth rate was ever a problem in that era, or that the prohibition (of male, though not of female homosexuality) had other than purely religious motives–to forbid all rites associated with Canaanite idolatry. Needless to say, the law could not be enforced apodictically, it required the police power of the Persian state, and specifically the authority which at the behest of the Jewish authorities the governor exercised to dispossess, flog or execute whoever disobeyed their commandments. At that time, to be sure, the Mosaic Law had no binding force save for the adherents of the Jewish cult, and its followers were but one of many subject peoples scattered across the vast realm of the King of Kings. So undistinguished were they that no Greek author before Alexander the Great mentions them in any connection. The Greek name of the territory, Palaistin, was taken from the Philistines who occupied the coastal cities. It was only in the Maccabean era (beginning in 142 B.C.) that Jewry achieved not only political independence once again but a visible role in world history.

The critical school further demonstrated early in this century that the account of the creation of Adam and Eve in the first chapter of Genesis is derived from an earlier Babylonian myth in which, however, there were three pairs of primal human beings, one heterosexual, the other two homosexual and lesbian, as we should now say. This formulation is independently attested in Berossus and in the myth of Aristo­phanes in Plato’s Symposium. The author of the narrative in Genesis suppressed the latter two pairs, leaving the Jewish (and Christian) creationist with no way of explaining attraction to one’s own sex except as the Vendidad imagined it–as an urge implanted by the Devil.[11] Thus the book of Genesis bequeathed to the Abrahamic religions an exclusively heterosexual concept of human sexuality and implicitly consigned homosexuality to the realm of demonic interference in God’s universe.

The events of the Persian period therefore set the stage for the rise of Jewish and then Christian homo­phobia, but do not explain the escalation to such paranoid intensity in later times. The influence of Zoroastrianism, which also forbade male homosexuality in language similar to that of Leviticus, may have reinforced the long-standing antipathy to the sexual rites in Canaanite idolatry. But under Persian rule homosexuality (in any of its variants) was no threat to the Jewish religion, at least it is never mentioned in the sources. The author of Chronicles (and of Ezra-Nehemiah) in fact suppresses all mention of the qdašim in passages where they figure in the book of Kings. This sup­pression, in contrast with the episodes in Genesis and Judges, may, however, announce the onset of the belief that homosexual behavior should be not only forbidden but unmentionable. It would mark the beginning of homosexual invisibility in history–of which the last chapter is still to be written. Given the general dishonesty and unreliability of the Chronicler, such a falsification would be perfectly compatible with his historical method. If in the four canonical gospels Jesus never alludes to the subject, it is because the Judaic milieu had for centuries relegated it to the unspeak­able. So invisibility has a Biblical precedent and sanction like all the rest of the “sodomy delusion.”

Thus while the Persian period remains obscure in many respects, subsequent history leaves no doubt that over those two centuries Biblical Judaism came to reject and penalize male homo­sexuality in all forms, and that Jewish religious consciousness deeply internalized this taboo. It became a distinctive feature of Judaic sexual morality, setting the worshippers of the god of Israel apart from the gentiles whose gods they despised. The stage was set for the confrontation between Judaism and Hellenism, which had developed a totally different set of institutions and values grounded in the practice of paiderasteia which mythology ascribed to the Greek gods and heroes. The age-asymmetrical homosexuality of the Greeks must have particularly exacerbated the abhorrence of incest that is the overriding principle of Judaic morality. Following the onset of the Hellenistic period in 332 B.C., this antagonism grew marked and bitter, and hardened into the later implacable condemnation and persecution by the Christian Church.

The underlying paradox of sexual psychology is the simple fact that it is impossible to know what another human being feels. One may observe the sexual behavior of others directly or indirectly through narratives, jokes and the like, but one can never experience either the sexual urge that compels others to behave as they do, or the sexual pleasure that they derive from actions that strike the observer as ridiculous, demeaning, and degrading. This incomprehension joined with the proximity of the sexual organs to the urinary system and the end of the gastro-intestinal tract makes for oscillation between ridicule and disgust. The Greeks seem to have experienced disgust only mini­mally and therefore relished the humorous aspect maximally, in contrast with the Judaic mentality that found every aspect of homosexuality too disgusting for public mention even in a humorous or satiric context. The invisible wall separating the two cultures generated the intense, paranoid homophobia that accompanied the Judean resistance to Hellenization in the Maccabean period and was bequeathed to Christianity when it broke from Judaism to become an independent world religion.

Magnus Hirschfeld, Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes (1914), pp. 812-814:

That the legal provisions of Leviticus and Deuteronomy against homosexual intercourse are in no wise to be ascribed to Moses is now fully recognized by Old Testament scholarship. It is the merit of Stade and Kautzsch to have brought chronological order into the highly confused strata of the Jewish priestly code.–The oldest part, although only of seventh-century origin, is for them the so-called “Book of the Covenant” (Exodus 20:24-32:19). This forbids only (22:18) lewdness with animals and punishes it with death. – The second oldest stratum is the core of Deuteronomy (ch. 5 and 12-26), which as the fiction of a farewell address of Moses to the people was found by the priest Hilkiah under King Josiah in the Temple in Jerusalem (2 Kings 22-23). It contains among other things prohibitions of the exchange of clothing by the sexes (22:5) and against castration (23:2), which was customary in the Phoenician-Syrian cults, “because they are an abomination to Jahweh”. Further, among the Israelitish girls there shall be no “consecrated one” in the service of a heathen divinity, nor should there be a “consecrated one” among the Israelitish youths. Likewise the hire of a harlot shall not be brought into the house of Jahweh on the occasion of any vow as “the price of a dog”, since both are an abomination to Jahweh (23:19). Temple prostitution in both forms is, to put it briefly, forbidden, but no penalty imposed in laws that agree with the historic data of the Books of Kings which originated about 600. Stade [fn. Geschichte des Volkes Israel. 1887. p. 657] is even of the opinion that this prohibition of the hierodules was only later inserted into the primitive text of Deuteronomy. The year 586 brought ruin to Judah: the small Jewish state succumbed to the superior might of the neo-Babylonian (Chaldean) army under Nebuchadnezzar II, Jerusalem and the Temple went up in flames, King Zedekiah and a portion of the people were exiled to Babylon, a small remnant fled with Jeremiah to Egypt. In Babylon a part of the exiles adopted the local religion. As a reaction to this there came into being the so-called “Holiness Code”, of which a preparatory draft is extant in Ezekiel (ch. 40-48), whose composition by the prophet himself at Tel-abib on the river Chebar is subject to no doubt. Here too it is only temple prostitution (Ezekiel 43:7-9) that is forbidden. The Holiness Code, which probably arose likewise on Babylonian soil in the priestly circle there, we now have to seek in the section of Leviticus chapters 17-26. With regard to the prohibitions that interest us here we must however probably assume that, since these are repeated in two variants (Lev. 18:22-30 and 20:13-16), the first version, which forbids homosexual intercourse to men and sexual intercourse with animals to both sexes as an abomination and an outrage, but likewise threatens only an extirpation from the people (exolothreuth_setai ek tû laû), which can be understood as mere expulsion from the land, contains the older jurisprudence of the Holiness Code.
Only the second version (Lev. 20:13-16) expressly demands the death penalty for the above-named crime, which is here even to extend to the animal involved. This version, which deviates too strongly from the first to be regarded as a merely emphatic repetition by the same author, must unhesitatingly be placed on the account of the final redaction of the Priestly Code, which is dated by Kautzsch into the end of the sixth century. Ezra brought this Priestly Code with him in 458 to Judea, but its official promulgation and the formal self-obligation of the Jerusalem community to its norms occurred only in 444 (Nehem. ch. 8).
The view was earlier expressed [fn. among others by H. Michaelis, Die Homosexualität in Sitte und Recht. 1907. p. 25] that the Jewish Priestly Code in harmony with Jahweh’s legendary promise to the mythical ancestor of the people (Gen. 22:17) that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens and the sand in the sea believed that it had to resort to such draconic measures against male homosexual intercourse in order to forestall even the slightest unfruitful expenditure of procreative matter. But the reason is to be sought in another area. Jahweh, originally only the tribal god of the tribe of Judah, was promoted by his priests to a universal god beside whom the tribal gods of the other peoples, the Baal-Berit at Shechem, the Moabitic Kamosh, the Ammonite Milcom, the Phoenician Tammuz and others were degraded to idols. Jahweh dwelt at Jerusalem and was to be honored only there, every other cult site and cultic form was to him, i.e. his priests, an abomination. For this reason first of all alongside the abolition of worship at high places the abolition of Temple prostitution was also demanded. When after the fall of the Jewish state the hierarchy replaced the secular kingdom, the regulations that hitherto had applied solely to the service in the Temple were extended to the entire people as the “denizens of Jahweh”. Thus there arose what Holtzmann sharply characterizes as the “almost repellent mingling of juridical and purely ethical-religious questions that constitutes the signature of later Jewish scribal learning”. And with what fanatical radicalism the Jewish priests also proceeded in other respects is proven by the (Ezra ch. 9-19) decreed and ruthlessly executed dissolution of all mixed marriages between Jews and the neighboring, tribally related peoples which had its roots in the exclusive worship of Jahweh.

The foregoing paraphrase perfectly summarizes the state of the question in 1913, when Hirschfeld was assembling his magnum opus. Since then many further studies and analyses have been published, but the corpus of texts on which the history of Judaism in the Persian period is based–Ezra and Nehemiah, the Third Book of Esdras, and the Jewish Antiquities of Josephus–remains essentially the same. As it happens, there are two sets of questions, the historical and the literary. For the historical we possess only a few, highly tendentious sources whose truthfulness critical scholarship rejects. More can be done with the literary documents, but these cannot be perfectly correlated with the historic events.

The one issue that has not been fully explored, although mentioned by pious commentators for more than a century, is the possible Zoroastrian influence on these verses of the Pentateuch. In his commentary on Leviticus (1872), M. M. Kalisch mentioned that according to the Vendidad, “sodomy is always practised on the instigation of the devs [demons], who are especially addicted to it, and in this manner multiply their own accursed race.” The Vendidad (VIII, 31) describes the offense as a sin beyond expiation: whoever commits the crime “is a dev, a worshipper of the devs, an instrument of the devs, he is a harlot of the devs, who is like unto a dev and is himself a dev, he is already before death a dev and after death an invisible monster.”

A further major development, as it happened, was the inclusion of the story of the destruction of Sodom in the cycle of legends relating to Lot and Abraham. Hosea had alluded to Admah and Zeboiim, Isaiah to Sodom and Gomorrah, Ezekiel to Sodom–but none of these authors specifically associated their destruction with the patriarch or his kin. The compiler of Genesis inserted into the narrative a version of the Sodom legend (chapter 19) based on the account of the outrage at Gibeah in Judges 19, even though the earlier chapter 14 incorporates a tale adapted from an Akkadian text referring to Babylon. This chapter depicts Abraham as a Bedouin sheikh with a retinue of 318 men who comes to the rescue of the Cities of the Plain after Lot is taken prisoner and emerges from battle a conqueror–the possessor of the Holy Land which God then promises to his descendants. A further passage (chapter 18) combines two sources in an exceptionally awkward manner to make Abraham plead for the Sodomites before the city’s obliteration by brimstone and fire (= burning sulphur, evidently an allusion to a volcanic eruption in the region east and south of the Dead Sea). None of the three segments in its present form could have been written at any one time and place in the history of Israel, but inconsistent and illogical as they are, they form part of the sacred text which modern apologists vainly attempt to explain away in reply to the obstinate stance of the fundamentalists. And just because the story comprises a sixth (two and a half chapters out of fifteen) of the cycle of Abraham, the first monotheist who rejected paganism and idolatry and wor­shipped the true God, it entered the heritage of all the Abrahamic religions, serving as an exemplary text for their condemnation of homosexuality.

Thus while the Persian period remains obscure in many respects, subsequent history leaves no doubt that over those two centuries Biblical Judaism came to reject male homosexuality in all forms and to penalize the active as well as the passive partner, in contrast with earlier folk beliefs which stigmatized only the latter. Jewish religious consciousness deeply internalized this taboo, which became a distinctive feature of Judaic sexual morality, setting the worshippers of the god of Israel apart from the gentiles whose gods they despised. The stage was set for the confrontation between Judaism and Hellenism, which had developed a totally different set of institutions and values grounded in the practice of paiderasteia which mythology ascribed to the Greek gods and heroes. The age-asymmetrical homosexuality of the Greeks must have particularly exacerbated the abhor­rence of incest that is the overriding principle of Judaic morality. Following the onset of the Hellen­istic period in 332 B.C., this antagonism grew marked and bitter, and hardened into the later im­plac­able condemnation and persecution by the Christian Church.

The underlying paradox of sexual psychology is the simple fact that it is impossible to know what another human being feels. One may observe the sexual behavior of others directly or indirectly through narratives, jokes and the like, but one can never experience either the sexual urge that compels others to behave as they do, or the sexual pleasure that they derive from actions that strike the observer as ridiculous, demeaning, and degrading. This incomprehen-sion joined with the proximity of the sexual organs to the urinary system and the end of the gastro-intestinal tract makes for oscillation between ridicule and disgust. The Greeks seem to have experienced disgust only mini¬mally and therefore relished the humorous aspect maxi-mally, in contrast with the Judaic mentality that found every aspect of homosexuality too disgusting for public mention even in a humorous or satiric context. The invisible wall separating the two cultures generated the intense, paranoid homophobia that accompanied the Judean resistance to Hellenization in the Maccabean period and was bequeathed to Christianity when it broke from Judaism to become an independent world religion.


  1. Charles Cutler Torrey, The Composition and Historical Value of Ezra-Nehemiah (Giessen: J. Ricker'sche Buchhandlung, 1896), p. 52.
  2. Op. cit. 22-23
  3. Sean E. McEvenue, “The Political Structure in Judah from Cyrus to Nehemiah,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43: 361 n. 22 (1981).
  4. Op. cit., p. 62
  5. The sanhedrin (from the Greek synédrion) was the highest legislative and judicial body of the Jewish state: it encacted laws and heard capital cases.
  6. John Boswell began his case that mainstream Christians were no more hostile to homosexuality than adultery or fornication with the spurious argument derived from Bailey (1955) that the Sodomites were punished for inhospitality rather than homosexuality by claiming like Bailey that “to know” in Hebrew meant “to get acquainted with a stranger” so as not to feel threatened by his presence, although in the same chapter Lot offers to the Sodomites his daughters “who had not yet known a man” (Genesis 19), which was of course the normal sense of the word. In any case all Jewish tradition interprets Genesis as well as the outrage at Gibeah (Judges) parallel to the Sodom story as a discussion of homosexuality. The Bailey/Boswell thesis is tendentious nonsense popular with Dignity and other neo‑Christian homosexual circles. This is a communication from Lester Segal, Rabbi and Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts‑Boston:
    The upshot of Genesis 19:4‑11 is that although the Sodomites were, to judge from the context, bi‑sexual (after all, Lot offers them his daughters), the meaning of verse 5, “that we may know them” is: to be sexually intimate with. (1) Although the “sin” of Sodom need by no means have been limited to homosexuality (2) there is, Bailey notwithstanding, no getting away from the meaning of “that we may know them” as sexual intimacy. This is the essence of Nahum Sarna's view of the matter, who also emphasizes the clear Pentateuchal legislation regarding homosexuality (3).
    Let me add the following three observations:
    1. With respect to the verb “know” in the context of Genesis 19, it is I think of some relevance to note that in verse 8, the same Hebrew verb is used by Lot when he says: “See I have two daughters who have not known a man”–a not uncommon Hebrew biblical way of referring to an unmarried woman.
    2. For the likely variety of Sodomite wrongdoing, see e.g. Genesis 13:13, Ezekiel, 16: 49‑50. These are cited by Bailey, too, p. 9.
    3. Bailey, p. 37, acknowledges the legislation in Leviticus, despite the problems he finds in ascertaining the precise other ancient Near Eastern practice in this regard. With respect to Leviticus, I consider it highly unlikely–purely as a matter of the realities that law codes are prone to reflect that “they (i.e. the relevant verses in Leviticus) are simply items of abstract legislation designed to provide against a future possible occurrence of the offenses penalized” (Bailey, p. 29).
  7. The very name is the Bedouin Arabic dialectal form sudummatu “sea,” just as Gomorrah is _umurratu in the same meaning. The Classical Arabic forms are sutummatun and _amratun. Paul Anton de Lagarde had noted that the names were doublets as long ago as 1889.
  8. The founder and later president of Cornell University, Andrew Dickson White, established this negative finding beyond a doubt in his History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), which devoted two whole chapters to the rise and decline of the legend. He based his arguments on the investigations of the French geologist Louis Lartet published in the third volume of the work of his patron the Duc de Luynes, Voyage d'exploration à la mer Morte, à Petra et sur la rive gauche du Jourdain (1871-75), particularly the chapter entitled “Formation du bassin de la mer Morte”. For the phenomena associated with the supposed site of the conflagration, and constantly evoked by the imagination of pious travelers, Lartet offered a scientific explanation: in prehistoric time it had been submerged by the Dead Sea, which covered a wider area than at present, and the fall of the water level, even by just a few meters, exposed the surfaces whose barrenness and desolation were then ascribed in the folklore of the Bedouin inhabiting the eastern and southern shores to divine retribution for the depravity of the erstwhile inhabitants. Though almost totally ignored by twentieth-century scholarship, this work has been confirmed by recent carbon-14 dating which shows that there was no urban culture in Palestine in the so-called period of the patriarchs. The book of Genesis in its totality has been erased from history: its background is anachronistic, Canaan in the period 1350-1300 B.C., on the eve of the Israelite invasion.
  9. The burning sulphur expelled by an erupting volcano, even though there has been no volcanic activity in Palestine in historic time. The motif was transferred from the volcanic regions on the eastern and southern rim of the Dead Sea, where eruptions occurred as late as the thirteenth Christian century.
  10. In quite recent times the French Catholic Orientalist Louis Massignon, who devoted much of his career to studying Islamic mysticism, composed a work entitled Les trois prières d'Abraham. II. La prière pour Sodome (1930). It was inspired by the incoherently assembled dialogue in Genesis 18, where Abraham pleads for the wicked city only to be told that there are not ten righteous men in Sodom. Massignon–the teacher of Henri-Irénée Marrou–professed to have discovered the “spiritual causes” of inversion, but his speculations in fact amount to the most sophisticated piece of theological homophobia in the twentieth century.
  11. Konrat Ziegler, “Menschen- und Weltenwerden. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Mikrokosmosidee.” Neue Jahrbücher für das klassische Altertum 31: 571-572 (1913).

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