Monday, December 8, 2008

Gay Marriage, Family Values, and the Bible: A Report from Newsweek

As my students just learned, the Bible does not support what are often touted as "family values" by conservatives...those same conservatives who look to the Bible to support their claims. What are the family values of the Bible? Largely polygamy, or as my academic advisor, Alan Segal, says, "One man, and as many women as he can pay for." What about Jesus? He changed a lot of things, right? Well, at least in the Bible we have, he was single. Moreover, he said he came to cause internal divisions between families: setting father against children, and vice versa, husband against wife, etc. In fact, Jesus was a single man in his early thirties (most likely) who called similar men in their prime to leave their wives and join him. Paul was also single. And, well, Paul suggested marriage only for those who could not contain their lust.

Newsweek, in fact, picks up much of what I am saying here:

Let's try for a minute to take the religious conservatives at their word and define marriage as the Bible does. Shall we look to Abraham, the great patriarch, who slept with his servant when he discovered his beloved wife Sarah was infertile? Or to Jacob, who fathered children with four different women (two sisters and their servants)? Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon and the kings of Judah and Israel—all these fathers and heroes were polygamists. The New Testament model of marriage is hardly better. Jesus himself was single and preached an indifference to earthly attachments—especially family. The apostle Paul (also single) regarded marriage as an act of last resort for those unable to contain their animal lust. "It is better to marry than to burn with passion," says the apostle, in one of the most lukewarm endorsements of a treasured institution ever uttered. Would any contemporary heterosexual married couple—who likely woke up on their wedding day harboring some optimistic and newfangled ideas about gender equality and romantic love—turn to the Bible as a how-to script?

It turns out, in fact, that the Bible does not support either modern-day conservative nor modern-day liberal concepts of the family or marriage. Why? Because it is not a modern document. We might as well turn to Plato's Symposium as a model of the family and love.... But back to the Bible. So, the Bible does not support our concept of the family, but what does the Bible say about GAY marriage?

First, while the Bible and Jesus say many important things about love and family, neither explicitly defines marriage as between one man and one woman. And second, as the examples above illustrate, no sensible modern person wants marriage—theirs or anyone else's —to look in its particulars anything like what the Bible describes. "Marriage" in America refers to two separate things, a religious institution and a civil one, though it is most often enacted as a messy conflation of the two. As a civil institution, marriage offers practical benefits to both partners: contractual rights having to do with taxes; insurance; the care and custody of children; visitation rights; and inheritance. As a religious institution, marriage offers something else: a commitment of both partners before God to love, honor and cherish each other—in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer—in accordance with God's will. In a religious marriage, two people promise to take care of each other, profoundly, the way they believe God cares for them. Biblical literalists will disagree, but the Bible is a living document, powerful for more than 2,000 years because its truths speak to us even as we change through history. In that light, Scripture gives us no good reason why gays and lesbians should not be (civilly and religiously) married—and a number of excellent reasons why they should.

This is true...the Bible is not some ossified document (again just like Plato's Symposium). The only reason it can survive is that it is reinterpreted as it meets new historical circumstances. And, by the way, it turns out the article and I received our information from the same source: my academic advisor:

In the Old Testament, the concept of family is fundamental, but examples of what social conservatives would call "the traditional family" are scarcely to be found. Marriage was critical to the passing along of tradition and history, as well as to maintaining the Jews' precious and fragile monotheism. But as the Barnard University Bible scholar Alan Segal puts it, the arrangement was between "one man and as many women as he could pay for." Social conservatives point to Adam and Eve as evidence for their one man, one woman argument—in particular, this verse from Genesis: "Therefore shall a man leave his mother and father, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh." But as Segal says, if you believe that the Bible was written by men and not handed down in its leather bindings by God, then that verse was written by people for whom polygamy was the way of the world. (The fact that homosexual couples cannot procreate has also been raised as a biblical objection, for didn't God say, "Be fruitful and multiply"? But the Bible authors could never have imagined the brave new world of international adoption and assisted reproductive technology—and besides, heterosexuals who are infertile or past the age of reproducing get married all the time.)

It is true that many of the laws in the Bible and condemnations against certain sexual practices are geared toward procreation. Even heterosexual acts that could not, at least in theory, lead to procreation, are sometimes condemned. "Onanism," which is not masturbation by the way, but coitus interruptus, is condemned in a context in which procreation is of the utmost importance. But it is true, we live in a world in which procreation is not only not as urgent to maintain the survival of our people, but, in many ways, perhaps should be curtailed because we have overpopulation. I sometimes wonder what the evolutionary reasons for homosexuality might be (especially since humans are not the only species that engages in homosexual behavior). And, one reason might be population control.

Nonetheless, does not the Bible oppose homosexuality in a few places at least? In fact, it does...but only really male homosexuality. Female homosexuality was of little concern for the (male) biblical writers. Leviticus and Paul are the (only) two places to mention it (it obviously wasn't really of great concern compared to other issues, like menstruation):

Twice Leviticus refers to sex between men as "an abomination" (King James version), but these are throwaway lines in a peculiar text given over to codes for living in the ancient Jewish world, a text that devotes verse after verse to treatments for leprosy, cleanliness rituals for menstruating women and the correct way to sacrifice a goat—or a lamb or a turtle dove. Most of us no longer heed Leviticus on haircuts or blood sacrifices; our modern understanding of the world has surpassed its prescriptions. Why would we regard its condemnation of homosexuality with more seriousness than we regard its advice, which is far lengthier, on the best price to pay for a slave?

Indeed, most Christians who disregard almost the rest of Leviticus are being extremely picky and choosy by ONLY following this commandment (and perhaps the ones surrounding it--it appears in a section on incest). But what of Paul's opposition in Romans. Newsweek cites Neil Elliott, who has a very recent book on Paul called Arrogance of the Nations:

Paul was tough on homosexuality, though recently progressive scholars have argued that his condemnation of men who "were inflamed with lust for one another" (which he calls "a perversion") is really a critique of the worst kind of wickedness: self-delusion, violence, promiscuity and debauchery. In his book "The Arrogance of Nations," the scholar Neil Elliott argues that Paul is referring in this famous passage to the depravity of the Roman emperors, the craven habits of Nero and Caligula, a reference his audience would have grasped instantly. "Paul is not talking about what we call homosexuality at all," Elliott says. "He's talking about a certain group of people who have done everything in this list. We're not dealing with anything like gay love or gay marriage. We're talking about really, really violent people who meet their end and are judged by God." In any case, one might add, Paul argued more strenuously against divorce—and at least half of the Christians in America disregard that teaching.

I can see that the list in Romans refers to people who combine all of the characteristics. But you do not have to do an "empire critical" reading here to note that homosexuality in the ancient world is NOT the same as homosexuality in the modern world. Ancient homosexual relations were mostly pederastic, and not the more recent concept which is between two equal, consenting adults. Although...

I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
You were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
More wonderful than that of women.

Here, the Bible praises enduring love between men. What Jonathan and David did or did not do in privacy is perhaps best left to history and our own imaginations.

I threw that one from 2 Samuel 1 to my students, but did not tell them where it came from and left out the names of the characters. Not knowing who it was and not knowing that it was from the Bible, they thought it was a homoerotic relationship: their jaws dropped when I reread the passage with the names in it and gave the reference. There are actually many examples of bisexuality especially among warriors in antiquity. In legend, we have Enkidu and Gilgamesh and perhaps Patroklos and Achilleus. In history, the most famous would be Alexander the Great and his life-long male lover whose name escapes me at the moment.

What does the Bible say about family values: something totally different than our values. It just shows that so-called "family values" are a result of more recent custom and tradition rather than ancient religious authority. They are grounded more in English commonlaw than biblical tradition. What does the Bible say about homosexuality? Not much. The Bible goes on and on about divorce, but homosexuality? Just about two or three lines total, embedded in practices that we have also thrown off: like slavery.... It is a document from a different world. It is not easily applicable to ours. Moreover, how was Jonathan better for David than women were? What was Jesus doing with a bunch of men, who had left their wives to follow him, wandering the hillsides of Galilee and teaching them the secrets of the kingdom of God? Perhaps we will never know!

UPDATE: I just remembered that Alexander the Great's male life-long lover's name was Hephaistion. For those of you interested, at least.


Liam said...

This is a great post, Jared. I wonder -- when did the Hebrews stop practicing polygamy?

Jared said...

What makes you think they stopped? ;)

After the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, the rule of thumb was to follow the laws of the land. So, Jews living in Christian countries, which outlawed polygamy, were monogamous. Those loving in Muslim countries, which allowed polygamy, could, in theory at least, be polygamous.

The limiting issue was "as many as you could afford." Most Jews could not afford more than one wife. So, while polygamous in theory, most would be monogamous in practice. Not out of any religious stance, per se, but out of sheer economics.

On the other hand, even in the European context, having a consort in addition to a wife was not really frowned upon until the 19th century, I think.