Several of the writers of the Bible didn’t care much for females. More than one thought homosexuals were vile. Some considered foreigners to be slightly less human than God’s Chosen People.If the Bible is the record of imperfect humans, each limited by his own historical and cultural context, struggling to comprehend the divine, then we can approach its contents as those who carry forward this legacy. We can marvel at what our forebears achieved in their attempts to see Goodness “through a glass, darkly” and to model their societies and their individual lives on what they saw. We can look with humility on their failings, knowing that, if we are willing, they can teach us about our own.
If, on the other hand, the Bible is the perfect revelation of an unchanging God to humankind, then he feels the same as those early writers about females, homosexuals, and foreigners, and a host of social issues like privileged blood lines, vengeance, and slavery. People who commit themselves to biblical literalism should know what this means. Recently, I read an essay in which an ex-believer told the story of his journey into and out of the faith. He said something like this: “Finally I found a church that was warm, loving, and accepting. Same sex couples were welcome, women were involved in the ministries, and members came from many different cultures. I didn’t know at the time how much of the Bible they had to ignore to create that kind of worship community.” How much did his church have to ignore? Let’s take a look.
What the Bible Teaches About Gender Equality
For starters, the God of the Bible is irrefutably male. The pronouns used for God are one indicator, and they are consistent throughout the Old and New Testaments. When God appears in human form, both in the Old Testament and in the incarnation of Jesus, he takes the form of a male human. Now, presumably, this male-ness isn’t sexual. It doesn’t mean that God has a penis. At the very least it doesn’t mean only that God has a penis. It means that in those core character traits that make the average woman different from the average man, God is more like the average man.Here are some things we can say with confidence about the ways male humans on the average differ from females: more physical strength, higher aggression, more focus on uniqueness and difference rather than similarities and shared themes, more mathematical ability, less verbal ability, more self-focus, more independence, and lower empathy.3 Together these qualities lead men, generally, to be dominant, to innovate more, and to nurture less. Exactly which combination of these qualities, or other differences yet unknown, cause the Judeo-Christian God to be described as a male, we don’t know. What we do know, if we take the Bible literally,
is that overall males are more God-like than females. The rest follows.
According to the second chapter of Genesis, the first woman, Eve, is made from the rib of Adam to be a companion to him after God finds that Adam is lonely. God brings all the animals to Adam, one by one, and he names them. But none is found to be a suitable companion, so God makes Eve.* From that beginning, it is clear that power and authority are in the hands of men.** The genealogies of the Old Testament list fathers and sons. When God blesses sterile women with babies, they are male. Righteous men offer up their daughters and concubines to marauding rapists, rather than offering up their male houseguests or themselves, and they remain righteous. When the Law is given, menstrual women are designated as spiritually unclean, as are women who have recently given birth. A woman is unclean longer after giving birth to a girl than after giving birth to a boy, twice as long, in fact (66 days vs. 33 days; Lev. 12). If a female is killed accidentally, the fine is less than for the accidental killing of a male.
The Patriarchs are patriarchs, not matriarchs. They have sex with their female slaves and concubines, but their wives have no parallel privilege. Priests are male, the greatest prophets of God are male, and when the civil authority of the Hebrews transitions from tribal chiefs to a monarchy, the Hebrews get kings, the wisest of whom has seven hundred wives. Women are veiled and are forbidden to wear men’s costumes. They worship in separate compartments from men, as do Orthodox Jewish women today. The writer of Proverbs complains that a nagging wife is like the relentless dripping of rain. He says that it is better to live in a corner of the housetop, or even in the wilderness, than in a big home with a contentious woman (Prov. 21, 25, 27). The Bible contains no analogous complaints about obnoxious husbands because there are no female writers.
Does the New Testament get better? “The head of every man is Christ,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians, “and the head of the woman is the man…” (1 Cor. 11:3). If a woman prays or prophesies with her head uncovered, she dishonors herself and should be shorn or shaven. If she doesn’t want her head shaved, she should keep it covered! (1 Cor. 13:5, 6). “[A man] is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man” (1 Cor. 13:7–11). Women are forbidden to speak in church, even to ask questions. “If they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church” (1 Cor. 14:34). The book of 1 Timothy elaborates. “Let the women learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding,
she shall be saved in childbearing” (1 Tim. 2:11–15).
Modern literalists often say that it isn’t that women are inferior, it’s just that men and women have different roles. And besides, men are taught to be loving and respectful toward their wives and to take good care of them. But those fundamentalists who boldly assert the inferiority of women are more aligned with the actual words of scripture and the attitudes of biblical figures from the patriarchs to the apostles than are their egalitarian brethren.
What the Bible Teaches About Homosexuality
I admit it. In contrast to what I’ve written about women, I’m on shaky ground accusing the Bible authors of a distaste for homosexuals. Scholars arguably have demonstrated that most Bible verses which appear to condemn homosexuality are mistranslations, deliberate substitutions of clearly anti-homosexual words for ambiguous Greek or Hebrew words, or scripture taken out of context.Even the term sodomite meant something different to the writers of the New Testament and the early church fathers than it does today. In the centuries before and immediately after the death of Christ, the core sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not seen as sexual. “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen” (Ezek. 16:49–50).
For much of Christianity’s first fourteen hundred years, homosexual behavior was seen as a minor sin like gluttony or greed.6 Even so, I don’t believe that verses like the following can be adequately explained, except in the context of the tribal, patriarchal desert society they were written in:
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall be put to death: their blood is upon them (Lev. 20:13).
God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error (Rom. 1:26–27).
The word that is translated abomination in Leviticus is the Hebrew to’ebah. This word has a specific use: to condemn pagan religious cult practices. Thus, it is likely that Leviticus refers to homosexual acts in the context of pagan worship. Furthermore, this verse is part of the Hebrew Holiness Code, which also condemned cutting beards, wearing cotton mixed with wool, and eating seafood, rabbits, or rare meat. So the prohibition against man-to-man sex must be considered in its context. Nevertheless, the behavior in question is condemned strongly, more so than most other code violations. It is condemned as strongly as premarital sex, which also carries the death penalty, though for females only (Deut. 22:20–21), and extramarital sex, which carries the death penalty for both participants (v. 22).
The verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans seems more clear. It expresses the view that homosexual acts violate God’s intentions. Again, this must be taken in context. Paul describes marriage between a man and a woman as a concession to prevent the temptation of promiscuous desires. Ideally, believers should be abstinent. (Paul’s writings inspired the celibacy of the priesthood in Catholicism and the exhortation for universal abstinence by Shakers.) So to some extent, sex itself is seen as a violation of God’s intentions. However, this perspective is interwoven with the idea that the union of a man with a woman is holy and provides an earthly model for Christ’s mystical union with his bride, the Church.7 No such beautiful words about homosexual unions are evident anywhere in Paul’s letters.
If we accept these direct incriminations of homosexual acts, then other, more ambiguous passages of the Bible appear consistent with this view (e.g. Jude 1:7). Several places in the New Testament, male prostitutes and [a word that may possibly mean gays] are barred from the kingdom of heaven, along with thieves, drunkards, and adulterers, which includes anyone who is divorced and remarried (1 Cor. 6:9–10; Matt. 5:32, Matt. 19:9). And gays (possibly) are listed among men who are lawless and rebellious along with murderers, people who kill their parents, slave traders, perjurers, and liars (1 Tim. 1:9–10). Biblical passages regarding homosexuality are open to interpretation, but most likely they reflect actual negative attitudes that existed in the culture surrounding the writers. It is not unusual for patriarchal cultures to look negatively on non-procreative sexual behavior or any kind of behavior that might blur loyalty, lineage, or a man’s claim to his wife(s) and offspring. Since the fifteenth century, the position of orthodox Christianity has been profoundly unambiguous, labeling homosexuality as contrary to reason and to natural law, and condemning homosexuals to ostracism and eternal punishment.*
If we take the Bible literally, female believers have at least a shot at righteousness, if not equality. “Women will be saved through childbearing —if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety” (1 Tim. 2:15). By contrast, homosexual believers, unless they are abstinent and avoid committing sodomy in their hearts, are doomed to live in the shadow of God’s disapproval along with remarried couples and liars.
What the Bible Teaches About the Brotherhood of Mankind
In the land of Palestine at the time of Jesus, there lived a tribe of people called Samaritans. Genetically and culturally related to the Jews, they were nevertheless distinct, having split from the rest of the Hebrews hundreds of years before. The Jews thought them lesser, unclean, and had no dealings with them. They were not the Chosen race. And racial purity mattered.The patriarch, Abraham, from whom all Jews are said to be descended, married his half-sister to make sure he got the bloodline right. He later sent a servant back to his ancestral home to fetch a wife for his son, Isaac. “Put your hand under my thigh. I want you to swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac” (Gen. 24:2–4). But for his son, Ishmael, born of a slave, he had no such concern. God had already declined to make Ishmael the favored lineage. The message of Genesis is clear. God may appreciate good behavior, but his chosen ones are his Chosen ones, and being chosen is about ancestry.
From Genesis on, God promises the land of Canaan not to those who worship him in spirit, but to the children of Abraham. As the descendants of Abraham claim this land, Canaanite children are cursed and killed for the sins of their fathers. Families are annihilated, not for individual wickedness, but because they belong to the wrong city and tribe. Always, massacres are justified because the people killed are heathens, enemies of the one true God. But the lines are drawn almost exclusively along tribal boundaries. And the deaths of foreign innocents warrant nary a mention.
Jump ahead to the New Testament. In Matthew, a Canaanite woman, a non-Jew, calls out, begging Jesus to heal her daughter, who is possessed by demons. “Lord, Son of David,” she calls him. But he ignores her. Finally, his disciples get sick of her following them and shouting, and they ask him to send her away. Finally, Jesus tells her he was sent only to the lost children of Israel. She keeps begging. In the end he heals her daughter, but listen to their conversation as depicted by the gospel writer:
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
“Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted” (Matt. 15:25–28).
If the image doesn’t bother you, try to imagine an American slave or a South African Black having to do and say the same things to get health care for her child. “Please, sir, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Jesus himself preached to the Samaritans, and his disciples took the message of salvation to the Gentiles—to the far corners of the world, they claimed. Paul, the Apostle, declared that in Christ there was neither Gentile nor Jew. But does that mean there were no longer Samaritans? I’m afraid not. Salvation was open to all, but as we will see later, God’s chosen people continued to behave much as the chosen people have behaved since the beginning of Genesis, four to six thousand years ago. Women aren’t the only ones who have been obliged to worship in separate compartments in the last 200 years.
Logically, one could argue that just because the Bible teaches that women are inferior, homosexuality is evil, and some races are Chosen while others are “dogs,” this does not mean that the Bible is wrong. Maybe women are inferior in some critical way. Maybe unrepentant gays are going to hell. And maybe God does prefer some bloodlines over others. But other explanations are possible.
We know factually that male humans are, on the average, more aggressive, more status oriented, and physically stronger than females. (So are male chimpanzees.) We also know that throughout the natural world, this combination results in dominance, the dominance of males over females in some species, females over males in others, and certain individuals over others within species, independent of gender. This has nothing to do with morality or with any of the virtues we cherish and attribute to God. Aggression is power. Strength is power. And, status orientation provides a strong motivation to use both in the service of dominance. In other words, we know that independent of any God-given mandate, male humans would pursue the top role and would largely succeed in obtaining it by virtue of biology. We also know that humans use rules and religious doctrines to maintain dominance once it is established. Consider, for example, the Hindu caste system, which maintains the status of the Brahmins, or the European feudal system that once protected hereditary nobility.
So, which is more likely:
? That the God who created the universe, the laws of physics, and sexual reproduction commands that one gender be subservient to the other.
? Or that males, being more aggressive, status oriented, and physically stronger than females set up the rules that way?
We also know that humans, like every other life form that depends on sexual reproduction, are, on average, preferentially attracted to members of their own species who have the potential to produce and rear viable offspring. Any species that wasn’t, would be at quite a disadvantage. The physical attributes that human males typically find attractive in human females are linked to fertility: large eyes, small waists, developed breasts, curves, smooth skin, and thick hair. Together these are suggestive of premenopausal sexual maturity and health, in other words, what scientists call reproductive fitness. We also know that these preferences are not cognitive but rather instinctive. Male humans, on average, are programmed to be turned off by characteristics which suggest that a potential sexual partner is post-menopausal, pre-pubescent, or male. The “yuck factor” kicks in.
So, which is more likely:
? That the God of mercy, justice, and love, (who, by the way, made a variety of animal species that engage in homosexual behavior) finds homoerotic behavior and same-gender love relationships to be morally abhorrent in humans.
? Or that humans (who must be attracted to the opposite gender for the sake of species survival and who, in consequence, typically have a built-in aversion to “misplaced” sexual attraction) mistake their own instinctive distastes for morality?*
We also have mountains of evidence that humans show a universal tendency to see the world in tribal groupings: in-groups and out-groups. Children form cliques, team loyalties, and school rivalries. Nationalism is easy to arouse in adults, and even within geographic boundaries, a Milosevic or Hitler has no trouble splitting a nation into opposing factions based on race, language, or religion.
All humans have different norms for how we treat insiders and outsiders. Sometimes these are very explicit, like rules prohibiting interracial or inter-sectarian marriage. Sometimes these are subtle, like differences in altruism or empathy. We perceive outsiders as slightly less human than our own group, are less horrified by violence committed towards one of them, and are less likely to help them at our own risk. Our natural tendency is to value our countrymen and co-religionists more than others, and we expect God’s loyalties to reflect our own. How many times have you seen a sign that says, “God Bless America?” How many times have you seen one that says, “God Bless the World?”
So think about it. Which is more likely:
? That the God of the universe has a favorite bloodline of humans and intervenes in tribal territorial disputes in their favor.
? Or that members of each tribal group and culture including the descendants of Abraham, think of themselves as the most important and assume that their god shares their bias?
These are grave questions, because the biblical attitudes described in this chapter promote division and oppression. They place the interests of one group above those of another. They justify behavior that contradicts other moral values including, ironically, those most emphasized in the gospels: peacemaking, caretaking, healing, and love. And they do so in the name of God.
It is convenient to believe that God sanctions our instincts to dominate certain others, to reject them, or to see their needs and suffering as lesser than our own. God’s stamp of approval removes the need for us to wrestle with ourselves. But are these instincts righteous or base? And does the existence of these attitudes in the Bible add credibility to the attitudes themselves or raise questions about the Bible as the timeless and inerrant word of God?
In absolute terms, the Bible codifies sexism, anti-homosexual attitudes, and racism. Literalists have little choice but to embrace these three attitudes, thus arguing that inequality is God’s will, or to deny that inequality is inequality, typically by using the same kind of “separate but equal” arguments that were once used to justify segregation. The one stance pits them against morality and the other against reality. Biblical literalism has a long history of pitting believers against morality and reality. Most of the harm done by Christians through the ages has been because of the tendency of church leaders or individual believers to take biblical texts literally and out of context, to develop doctrines based on this approach, and then to use these doctrines, or the texts themselves, to rationalize bigotry, violence, insularity, or self-interest.
In the past, many believers had no better way to understand the Holy Book. Mysticism seemed incomprehensible to most, and the tools of textual analysis had not yet been invented. Today, these tools are available to anyone who cares to understand the roots and essence of the ancient documents that make up the Bible. And yet many churches continue to ignore or deny the complicated history and ugly parts of scripture. In this way, they bind themselves to some teachings that are simply distracting and others that promote evils, both great and small.
A different approach looks at biblical mandates not in absolute terms, but in relative terms. It asks: how can we understand the Bible in the context in which it was written? How did Mosaic Law, the attitudes of Old Testament writers, the living example of Jesus or the teachings of Paul compare to what came before? Seen in this light, in their cultural context, many Judeo-Christian teachings can be seen to promote progress toward more egalitarian gender relations or a more inclusive understanding of humankind.* This allows a different set of questions. Instead of looking at a Bible passage in absolute terms and asking: does this passage teach racism or sexism, and does that racism or sexism constitute goodness?, one may look at the same set of verses in relative terms and ask: does this passage reflect progress, a trend, and does that trend constitute goodness?
*What God would have had in mind for reproduction before that is an interesting question. Whether Adam had genitalia before that; whether God then reconfigured the other animal species to add genitalia and females and sexual reproduction, these also are interesting questions to ponder.
**Christians who assert the equality of women emphasize Genesis 1, in which male and female humans are created simultaneously and two sexes share the image of their creator, or possibly creators.
*The “love the sinner, hate the sin” attitude frequently encouraged by Evangelical churches toward homosexuals is thin. It is one thing to say “love the sinner, hate the sin” when a person has stolen a candy bar or a car or engaged in some other behavior that is transitory or intermittent and contradicts that person’s own sense of identity. It is another thing altogether to promote this attitude when being gay (being attracted to/falling in love with/bonding intimately with people of the same gender) is core to someone’s sense of self. One cannot reject the sentiments and behaviors in question without rejecting the person.*I mean misplaced only from the standpoint of evolutionary biology with the assumption that sexual attraction is fine-tuned to serve the purpose of reproduction. In actuality, humans create loving sexual bonds for all kinds of reasons, social and emotional, and these may have little or nothing to do with reproduction. It is noteworthy that people often have the same reaction to a relationship between a young man and a much older woman that they have to homosexual relationships—yuck. It is also noteworthy that heterosexual couples who choose not to have children or who remain sexual after childbearing have been condemned during some epochs of Christian history.
*This is the stance of modern Judaism. Judaism values inquiry, “wrestling with God.” Consequently, in the 2500 years since the last manuscripts of the HebrewBible were written, Jewish scholars have produced a broad body of sacred interpretiveliterature. This provides a nuanced understanding of early religious textsand practices. Like Christianity, Judaism includes Orthodox members of thefaith who believe they adhere to literal interpretations of ancient rules. However,the strong tradition of inquiry means that these orthodox believers are asmall portion of those who call themselves Jewish.