. . . that advocates killing homosexual men. This is how a commentator on the question of overrated novels, taunting bravely from behind the screen of anonymity, characterized the Bible. No other book in Western literature is so likely to generate an automated response. And nothing that I can say about it will change anyone’s mind at this late date.
Perhaps, though, I might correct a couple of errors. I am not qualified to speak of the Christian Bible, except to observe that grafting the Greek testamentum, written between 51 and 150 C.E., onto the Hebrew scriptures, some of which was written fifteen centuries earlier, created a literary monster. As a literary critic, Marcion had the better of the argument. But the early Church fathers, who decided to include the Hebrew scriptures in the Christian canon and to ostracize Marcionite views as heretical, were not interested in creating a book. The word bible derives from the Greek phrase employed by Hellenized Jews and later by Jewish Christians to refer to their sacred books—ta biblia. The expression was plural, and so was the canon. In canonizing what came to be called the Old Testament, the Church fathers were agreeing to recognize a textual tradition. They were not creating a singular text.
So too for the Hebrew scriptures. In my classes on the Bible as literature, in fact, I like to tell my students that the book might be more accurately called The Norton Anthology of Ancient Hebrew Literature. It is, in any event, a library—and no singular term, certainly not “1,000-page morality tale,” can adequately describe it. It contains tales, yes; but also historical chronicles, genealogies, songs and poems, legal codes, sermons, political tracts and propaganda, prayers, elegies, allegories, dream visions and apocalyptic visions, and proverbs and other wisdom literature. The only true “morality tale” is the book of Job, which belongs to that last genre.
But does it advocate the killing of homosexual men?
The post-Christian bien-pensant, for whom sexual freedom is the only freedom that dare speak its name, hasten to isolate two prooftexts to substantiate the charge. (Never mind that prooftexting entails a perversion of the text.) These are Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13. Since those who advocate the view that the Hebrew Bible advocates killing homosexual men are ignorant of the actual Hebrew text, I will set down the two pasukim (“verses”) here:
20.13: V’im asher ishkav et-zakhar mish’k’vey ishah toevah asu sh’neyhem mot yumato d’meyhem bam. And if a man beds down with a male as you bed down with a woman—an abomination done by both—they will die, yes, die; upon them is blood.
This reading takes on even greater plausibility when you step back and realize that lesbianism is not being proscribed. And lest you object that the prohibitions concern men alone, consider the very next prohibition in chapter 18. Not only is the sex act explicitly spelled out—“emission of seed” as compared to the more equivocal “bedding down”—but a woman is explicily commanded not to mate with an animal. If Leviticus had wanted to proscribe a man’s emission of seed into another man, or had wanted to forbid women from lying down with each other, the language was available to it to do so.
And as for the death penalty. The Hebrew text says only that a man who beds down with a male, perhaps a male child, will die—along with his partner or victim. No legal mechanism is created to carry out the punishment, which is spoken of as merely inevitable. Nor is anyone instructed to “kill” them. Again, the Bible could have given the instruction. After all, in the very first chapter of Leviticus, the Israelites are given detailed instructions to kill the cattle they are offering to YHVH. They could have been given equally detailed instructions to kill homosexual men. But they are not, because nothing of the sort appears anywhere in the Hebrew Bible.