Homosexuality in History—Leviticus 18:22

Homosexual practice is not a recent phenomenon. Various forms of homosexual behavior existed in most, if not all societies of the Ancient Near East. Such practices were not always exploitative and violent. Nevertheless, many cultures found themselves ambivalent toward homosexual behavior. While ancient society may have tolerated it under certain circumstances, for instance, in religious cult rituals, it was not the norm in everyday life and was not necessarily accepted by the vast majority of the population that upheld the value of heterosexual marriage and family relationships.

So far archaeologists have found no Egyptian laws dealing with homosexuality.1 While we do not find unconventional sexual practices well documented in ancient Egypt, some did exist.2 Pharaoh Pepi II (dated 24th cent. BC) may have had a homosexual relationship with one of his generals. However, scholars suggest that the Egyptians generally frowned upon homosexuality.3 Although they treasured family relations, pederasty did seem to have occurred. Apparently, Egyptians did not consider homosexual relations wrong as long as they resulted from mutual consent.4 On the other hand, in the Book of the Dead a deceased man who “appears before the judge in the next world” says: “’I have not had sexual relations with a boy. I have not defiled myself…. I have not been perverted….’”5

Probably the situation was similar in Mesopotamia. It seems that it too had no early legislation about homosexuality. In the middle of the second millennium BC some ancient documents do list homosexuality among sexual crimes. However, it is not known whether the law referred only to homosexual rape. The penalty was, among other things, castration so that the perpetrator cannot continue his behavior.6 However, the šumma alû prescriptions, a magical text, seems to condone homosexual practice under certain circumstances.7 The goddess Ishtar/Inanna as deity of love and war was an ambiguous figure, sometimes acting like a female and other times behaving as a male. She “was worshiped as a lovely maiden but also as a bearded warrior.”8 A Sumerian hymn claims that Ishtar had the power to turn men into women and women into men.9 No wonder that her devotees, the assinnus, the kurgarrûs, and the kulu’us or galas, exhibited the same pattern. “It seems that all three groups of cultic functionaries were born as men (or hermaphrodites), but … their appearance was either totally feminine, or they had both male and female characteristics.”10 Thus “it seems possible that the devotees sometimes participated in same-sex relations.”11 However, such practices related to the religious cult and may not reflect accurately what was commonly happening in society.

The ancient society in which homosexuality was most apparently widespread was that of the Greeks, perhaps to a certain extent not only because of the culture’s narcissistic nature but also because of its religious myths. After all, since the gods themselves practiced it (e.g., Zeus with Ganymede, Heracles with Iolaus or Hylas, and Apollo with Hyacinth), people had an excuse to indulge in it.”12 Pederasty was prevalent, but homosexuality was not limited to it. The claim that loving and permanent types of homosexuality were unknown in Paul’s time has been refuted by, among other evidence, Plato’s androgynous man-woman myth. According to it, humans were dual beings with four hands, arms, and legs, two heads, and two privy parts. Some were male-male, some female-female and some male-female. When they became too strong for the gods to control, Zeus divided them into two individuals each. The divided beings, however, were drawn to each other. The male-male and female-female had a homosexual attraction, while the male-female were heterosexual. Plato attempted to explain through his myth the attraction some men and women have for persons of the same sex.13

As the Roman Empire spread across Greek territory, it encountered widespread homosexuality but through the centuries developed several law codes to legislate the practice.14

Israel, however, took a different approach toward homosexuality. The OT contains not only clear prohibitions against it (Lev. 18:22; 20:13) but also treats its occurrences negatively. Such behavior is an “abomination” (to‘evah, Lev. 18:22) and will be punished. The OT Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha oppose homosexual activity, as does the Mishnah and Talmud. Mishnah Sanhedrin 8:7 “places homosexuality with the clearly universal crimes of murder and adultery and not with the ‘ritualistic’ offenses.”15

As Paul makes clear, God’s wrath is revealed against all who practice wickedness, including homosexuals and lesbians (Rom. 1:18, 26, 27). In fact, Christians who may have been involved with these and other sinful practices have left them behind and find a new identity in Christ (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Following this unique biblical position, Jewish and Christian societies long rejected any type of homosexual activity. Only recently have some churches, in response to cultural and secular government pressures, made provisions for a homosexual lifestyle among their members. The Bible teaches love and respect for all human beings. Christians consider homosexuals as persons of equal value and as people that need to be protected from violence without, however, advocating or condoning their lifestyle.


1Wold, Out of Order: Homosexuality in the Bible and the Ancient Near East, 56.

2Springett, Homosexuality in History and the Scriptures, 34.

3Wold, 56.

4 Wold, 59.

5 Wold, 57, 59.

6See Wol., 47-58; Springett, 40, 41.

7Wold, 48.

8Teppo, “Sacred Marriage and the Devotees of Ishtar,” 76.

9See Teppo, 85.

10See Teppo, 77.

11Teppo, 81. In her article Kathleen McCaffrey, “Reconsidering Gender Ambiguity in Mesopotamia: Is a Beard Just a Beard?” in Sex and Gender in the Ancient Near East: Proceedings of the 47th Rencontre Assyriologique, Simo Parpola and Robert Whiting, eds., 379-391, argues that those males who took on a female role would be considered a third gender in their society.

12 De Young, Homosexuality: Contemporary Claims Examined in the Light of the Bible and Other Ancient Literature and Law, 252.

13Springett, 97, 98. Cf. Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics, 353, 354. Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, 452, declares: “Paul witnessed around him both abusive relationships of power or money and examples of ‘genuine love’ between males. We must not misunderstand Paul’s ‘worldly’ knowledge.”

14Cf. De Young, 257.

15 Cf. De Young, 246.