academic turned ayatollah, Answers to Emails on the Bible and Homosexuality, committed to Scripture, conservative scholars, David and Jonathan, destruction of Sodom, Ham, heteronormativity, homosexualist, incest, Jean-Fabrice Nardelli, Levite at Gibeah, only buddies, Robert Gagnon, Sodomites
A guest post from Jean-Fabrice Nardelli, on Robert Gagnon, “academic turned Ayatollah”:
In the latest snippet of his correspondance showcased on his website, Gagnon once more claims that
the scriptural case against homosexual practice is so overwhelming that it takes a concerted effort to ignore the mountain of evidence and/or to twist it into unreasonable meanings. There are ambiguous issues in Scripture. This doesn’t happen to be one of them.
– Robert Gagnon, “8/31/11: Are homosexualist [sic] advocates in the church as committed to Scripture’?”, Robert Gagnon’s Answers to Emails on the Bible and Homosexuality, RobertGagnon.net
Many things strain credibility here, none more that the fact that, actually, there is no mountain of proof supporting an absolute condemnation of same-gender affect in the Hebrew Bible. What evidence there is is marshalled by the betters of Gagnon in such a way that it fails to buttress the lofty claims usually proffered, for instance by R. Alter, in R. M. Schwartz (ed.), The Book and the Text: The Bible and Literary Theory (Oxford, 1990), 151 :
in the larger story of progeny for Adam, it is surely important that homosexuality is a necessarily sterile form of sexual intercourse, as though the proclivities of the Sodomites answered biologically to their utter indifference to the moral prerequisite for survival.
To put it bluntly, conservative scholars are affected by heteronormativity — few of them, thankfully, dare vent their homophobia in their academic work in the same way as Gagnon — and by and large behave in a wholly ad hoc manner when faced with homoeroticism in the Bible. They are fond of expanding the modicum of texts unambiguously concerned with same-sex matters (Lev 18: 22, 20: 13) so that these include much more elusive, if not frankly speculative, passages such as
- the ones concerned with the stance taken by Ham towards Noah (see R. M. Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament [Peabody, Mass, 2007], 142-145 : no evidence for a same-sex, incestuous rape there, but intertextual echoes with Leviticus 20 suggesting that even “the harboring of lustful thoughts and imagination” is sinful );
- the attitude of the Levite at Gibeah (which, if not moot, hopelessly blurs the line between homosexual forced coupling and homophile / homosocial disagreements : K. Stone, Sex, Honor and Power in the Deuteronomistic History [Sheffield, 1996], 69-85); and
- the destruction of Sodom (the sin of which has never been taken to be the preference for homosexual coupling before Late Antiquity and the Latin Church Fathers: D. S. Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition [London, 1955], 25-28 ; M. Carden, Sodomy: The History of a Christian Myth [London, 2004], 116-128 ; M. D. Jordan, Blessing Same-Sex Unions: The Perils of Queer Romance and the Confusions of Christian Marriage [Chicago & London, 2005], 32-40 ; D. Clark, Between Medieval Men: Male Friendship and Desire in Early Medieval English Literature [Oxford & New York, 2009], 71-73).
While they broaden in such a way their (otherwise sketchy) body of evidence, right-wing exegetes refuse to admit that the dealings of David and Jonathan can be pressed into a same-sex apology without too much special pleading. And what reasons do these conservatives offer in support of their adamant skepticism? That we do lack unambiguous textual pointers that Jonathan is depicted as David’s bedmate (so Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 53-154, or M. Zehnder, ‘Observations on the Relationship Between David and Jonathan and the Debate on Homosexuality’, Westminster Theological Journal 69 , 173).
Some, like Davidson (Flame of Yahweh, 165-167), are so sure that both heroes were only buddies and covenant partners that they dog the issue, viz. the very thing heteronormative conservatives cannot exhibit in favor of their reading of the Ham incident, even though here they can appeal to the authority of the rabbinic traditions. Now this homoerotic exegesis is probably the least motivated (so I. N. Rashkow, in J. F. A. Sawyer (ed.), The Blackwell Companion to the Bible and Culture [Malden, MA, 2006], 454-460, and D. M. Goldenberg, ‘What Did Ham do to Noah ?’, in M. Perani (ed.), ‘The Words of a Wise Man’s Mouth are Gracious’ (Qoh 10, 12): Festschrift for Günter Stemberger on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday [Berlin & New York, 2005], 257-265); if taboo there is in Genesis 9 :20-25, this is either the (parental) incest — something frowned upon in the ancient Near East (Y. Cohen, Taboos and Prohibitions in Hittite Society: A Study of the Hittite Expression natta âra (‘Not permitted’) [Heidelberg, 2002], 93-96) — or the breach of boundaries, not homosexuality per se!
Why explain away as homosocial or covenant-based the peculiarities of the bond between David and Jonathan which suspiciously look like the edited manifestations of an affective bond, despite their reluctance to admit of easy justification along the lines of a deep but sexless friendship, and, at the same time, take as homoerotic clues pointers in other passages that smell rather less of same-sex dealings or affect? This double standard is enough to cast doubt on the impartiality of those who belong to the conservative, evangelical trend; under the gloating pen of Gagnon, this bias becomes deeply offensive, not to say: insulting.
In a nutshell, “the scriptural case against homosexual practice”, far from being overwhelming and all-pervasive, rests primarily on the Leviticus condemnation and warrants caution, not unqualified pride. Thus D. Launderville, Celibacy in the Ancient World: Its Ideal and Practice in Pre-Hellenistic Israel, Mesopotamia, and Greece (Collegeville, Mn, 2010), 174, writes that “homosexual activity was either prohibited or severely curtailed in ancient Israel”, which is truer, but still eschews the key qualification that “it cannot be shown that any community in Israel ever opposed all homoerotic sexual acts, nor is it evident that consensual anal intercourse between males was proscribed by any circle before the Holiness School interdicted it (…)” (S. M. Olyan, ”Surpassing the Love of Women”: Another Look at 2 Samuel 1 :26 and the Relationship of David and Jonathan”, in Jordan (ed.), Authorizing Marriage ? Canon, Tradition, and Critique in the Blessing of Same-Sex Unions [Princeton & Oxford, 2006], 15).