Reading In and Around the Bible: Divorce and Homosexuality

Still writing up notes on the Biblical book of Acts, which I finished reading last Friday, and working my way through Ehrman’s JESUS BEFORE THE GOSPELS, which I’ve returned to after having read the four gospels. Ehrman’s comments about Jesus’ several, inconsistent, admonitions about divorce reminded me of a passage I found a few weeks ago about why the early Jews (in Leviticus) would have had such harsh penalties for homosexuality. This is from Louis Crompton’s HOMOSEXUALITY & CIVILIZATION (Harvard, 2003), an exhaustive account of how there have always been homosexuals throughout all of recorded human history. (That is, it’s not the result of some contemporary falling of American culture from some idealized past, or from a past Biblical foundation, as some simplistic right-wingers claim.)

Let me record this for now, because it relates to my theme of “the arc of moral progress”, especially how morality is often a reflection of environmental and social pressures and constraints at any given time.

Early in the book, Crompton address early Greece, and then, Judea. p34-35:

Most writers who have tried to understand the fierce homophobia of ancient Judea have sought an explanation, understandably enough, in its political and military situation. The Israelites, according to the Bible, were originally a nomadic people desperately seeking land on which to settle.

As a small tribe facing mighty and hostile powers — Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia — the Jews naturally strove to increase their numbers: military security demanded this. The concern for procreation has been the most commonly suggested rationale for the anti-homosexual legislation of Leviticus. Jewish popular tradition put great emphasis on marriage and large families. In Talmudic times unmarried men were censured and, on occasion, could be forced to wed. The ancient Jews frowned on celibacy and, the presumption is, on exclusive homosexuality. Yet it seems difficult to believe that this, in itself, would lead to so draconian a measure as the death penalty. …

Author goes on to explore this issue, discussing Nazi Germany, the Hebrew Bible’s silence on masturbation (Onan’s sin wasn’t about spilling his seed, but about not fulfilling the obligations of his marriage), and so on.

Despite the heated rhetoric of some Talmudists and medieval theologians who equated loss of sperm through masturbation with homicide, no society has ever been willing to legislate on this principle.

Not to get enamored in details, but the obvious point is that ancient tribes struggling for survival, needing children to expand their tribes, would need to discourage any practice that did not encourage the production of children.

Related, but not quite analogous, insights might be suggested for issues about divorce — and adultery, and men marrying their deceased brothers’ wives to have children by them, and so on, to recall other rules from Leviticus. It’s all about maintaining and expanding the tribe — and maintaining patriarchy. The problems with divorce, I suspect, can be understood because any incident of divorce would complicate tribal life with questions about which children were born of which fathers. And that complicates paternal allegiance. Better just to prohibit any practices that would raise those complications.

This entry was posted in Bible, Morality. Bookmark the permalink.