The Queerness of the Priests: Exodus 27-30

Ritual transitions in human life always involve festival attire. Commencements, birthdays, baptisms, weddings, and in liturgical Christian traditions: worship services. In Exodus 28 the story of flamboyant priests is encountered. This text expresses queerness on the basis of how detailed the descriptions for garments are in addition to precise instruction on rituals. This essay seeks to identify how Exodus 27-30 expresses queerness through flamboyance and ritual sacrifice, how G-d was in the midst of it, and how seclusion of the priesthood was formed.

Ritual sacrifice, perfume, and dresses tell a story of queerness. Spartacus, a modern-day TV series depicting fictional events during ancient times, even expresses this[i]. This series, filled with blood battles, casual encounters (hetero, homo, bi, and pan), sacrifice, and ritual, leading one to suspect that Spartacus seeks to glory in a historical pastime. Although fictional, this series is filled with imagery found in biblical texts, Greek folklore, and myology. The paradox between Torah imagery and mythology create queerness within themselves. One of the most critical of hermeneutical principles is that: readers grounded in their social location create biblical meanings. That being said, conservative methodical (in my opinion mythological) interpretations of sacred texts create an unfortunate paradigm of queerness. Be that as it may, myth is not necessarily what this particular Torah portion is about.

Queerness is about the fabulous becoming holy. Even in liturgical churches, particularly those following the high church tradition, the significance of pageantry, music, garments and sacrifice are apparent. In some cases, only certain individuals are allowed to participate in the ritual or serve at the altar. Priests are vested in ornate vestments, acolytes with cassocks and surplices pressed to the crease, and choirs singing harmonious melody without mistake. The ritual is rehearsed indefinitely, always seeking to be more perfect and glorious than afore. However, such rituals are not intended for God, but for human likeness, set apart for normative secularism.

The Ohel Moed is the root working of queerness. Being holy means segregating one’s self from et secularum[ii]. This Mishkan, or Ohel Moed is the “tent of meeting…the only place where sacrifices can be made[iii].” I contend that this place was one in which ideas where exchanged and emotions experienced. This is due to the fact that worship, on part of parishioners/participants, is a mystical experience in which complex forms of sensation and desire are conveyed. In essence, it creates a union with the divine that cannot be formulated as a binary, due to the fact that it creates oneness between the mystical, spiritual, and physical cognitions and manifestations of the individual. The root working involves the Parashat Tetzavah with is “offering [up] a robust mix of extreme moments[iv],” much to the metaphysics exhibited in the Catholic ritual of Easter Vigil. Nonetheless, “lighting the eternal flame [signifies] the constancy of G-d’s presence[v],” and such a presence cannot be mimicked, but only mystified as the same.

Ordination and anointing are the interchange toward an individual being queer. The queerness of ordination is rooted in that fact that not everyone is called to ordination. An old Black Baptist saying of no particular origin recounts this: “[S]ome are called, some went, some came, and some left.” In this passage, it is Aaron and his sons that are called to the eternal priesthood which presents a dichotomy. It is not Moses, the leader of the Israelites, but his brother Aaron that is anointed, along with only four of Aarons sons: Nadav, Avihu, Elazar, and Ithamar, and their sons, omitting the grandsons born prior to the establishment of the priesthood[vi]. This omission will in turn separate a family in a culture that tends to follow tradition. Ordination of priests becomes queer due to the fact that only a select few can participate.

As this social class of priests develops, so does the queerness of ritual. The text of Exodus 28 is extremely detailed in how a priest must dress, what materials these vestments are to be made of, and the participation in bloody rituals. Brettschneider states, “[P]reparing stunning attire is therefore a prayer. Wearing a magnificent frock is an aspect of one’s love of G-d[vii].” She contends, “[T]hese clothes and fabulous accouterments are ordered for no other reason than ‘dignity and adornment’ ([quoting Ex.] 28:40)” and “the femme, the butch, and the dyke take up such ablutions religiously[viii].” Young people of today would reply to her in thanksgiving shouting: “deep” and “yes girl!” But this is still not where the story ends.

The rituals of sacrifice during the Tetzaveh make queer theories come to life. “This is the stuff of great queer rituals,” contends Brettschneider as she explains the sacrifices of bulls and rams, “laying on of hands,” and exhibits of blood everywhere[ix]. Young people in my generation would state: “Shit just got real.” In this ‘realness’ the actions and theories associated with ancestral religion are trendy. Concoctions of aromas are being crafted from different animals sacrificed during day with other parts eaten. Not only does the realness of sacrifice occur, the realness of animal blood being put upon different parts of the human body, on the altar, over this and even that, is happening. I contend a queerness of these rituals because they mirror rites of purification and/or fraternal initiations.

Mysticism and everyday changes are queerness because it does not follow normative binaries. Brettschneider states: “[I]t is often in the extreme incarnations of the everyday that we are most conscious of navigating between the human and divine…it is through clothes and related components of affect that we push boundaries, given the disciplinary injunctions and effects of such in historical and cultural context[x].” Holiness, in essence, is fabulous because it seeks to push beyond the boundaries of human cognition[xi]. How does this relate to flamboyance? Brettschneider states: “[Q]ueers have heard endless rants about the godlessness of our most prized sites and practices of pleasure, meaning, and relationship. As a counterpoint, in Tetzavah it is here – in this place of lavish beauty – that G-d will meet with the Israelites, speak to us, and abide among us.” That’s how this passage relates to flamboyance.

In conclusion, pastors, priests, deacon, and laity are no different in ritual than the queers of the yesteryear and today. There are situations each of us engages to bring pleasure and peace. Sometimes this intimacy is with God, other times, often not. However, because God is creator, the glory of invention still belongs to YHWH because it is in YHWH that we live move and have our being. The only way we can continue to live in safety and joy is through that power alone[xii]. It enacts queerness which means that God is queer. Through the flamboyance of handiwork, God created human beings in a queer likeness[xiii], each possessing a mystical holiness and incarnation of the Divine. Aaron and his descendants brought in fruition the queerness of YHWH with adornment, vestments, sacrifice, and rituals in the tent. That fruition was already relevant, or else humans would not exist. Furthermore, this interpretation of Exodus 27-30 explains the Tohu Vavohu[xiv] in a way that is understandable: God’s queerness moves over the still waters in an anxious way through Parashat Tetzavah, in turn creating an Ohel Moed to bring pleasure, joy, justice and peace, and perhaps: sex.

 

 

 

Endnotes:

[i] DeKight, Steven, and Robert Tapert, writers. Spartacus. Starz. 2010-2012.

[ii] Latin, meaning “this or the world.”

[iii] Drinkwater, Gregg, Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer. Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. “When the Fabulous is Holy,” by Marla Bettschneider. New York: New York University Press, 2009.

[iv] Ibid, 106.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Exodus 28:1, NRSV.

[vii]Torah Queeries, 107.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid, 108.

[xi] Ibid, paraphrased in agreement with her.

[xii] Acts 17:28, NRSV, paraphrased.

[xiii] Genesis 1:27, NRSV, paraphrased.

[xiv] Genesis 1:2, NRSV, although this phase cannot be properly translated.

Leviticus 18:22

“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”[1] It is not a surprise that this verse seems to say that gay male sex is forbidden in the eyes of God. The dominant view of western Christianity forbids same-sex relations. This verse is one of the clobber passages that people cite from the Bible to condemn homosexuality. This essay first looks at the various ways the verse is translated into the English Bible and then explores some of the strategies used to create an affirming interpretation of what this passage means for the LGBTQ community. More specifically, it presents the interpretation of K. Renato Lings in which Lev. 18:22 refers to male-on-male incest.

While Lev. 18:22 is used to condemn homosexuality, we must realize that the term “homosexuality” was only recently coined in the English language. So did this term exist in ancient Israel? Charles D. Myers, Jr. confirms that none of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible mention homosexuality.[2] He also contends that in ancient Israel same-sex relations were viewed as an ancient Near East problem. The ancient Near East tradition included pederasty and relations between an older man and a boy, which was the primary form of homosexual sex at the time.[3]   While Myers’ theory is historically sound, it does not respond to questions about Lev. 18:22 raised by the queer community.

Bringing no answers from the history of ancient Israel, we must turn to the text itself. No matter how we read the Hebrew Bible, we must remember that we are not reading it in the original Hebrew language. Every Bible we read is translated from the original. Translations of Lev. 18:22 into English fluctuate.  The KJV translates the verse as: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.” The NIV offers: “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.”  The NRSV, 1989, states: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” The Priest for Equality translation makes a bold move with its translation: “Do not lie with a person of the same-sex in the same way as you would lie with a person of the opposite sex; it is detestable.” Interestingly translators of the Priest for Equality determined to not only forbid male same sex relations, but to blanket the statement to all same sex relations.[4]

As it is apparent, there is something happening in the various translations of Lev. 18:22.  In order to understand this verse we must confer with scholars and their commentaries. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary reviews several interpretations, but most of its attention to Jacob Milgrom’s work on Leviticus. Milgron finds that the word used for male and female words in the verse features a singular version for the male and a plural word for female. Milgron shows that the phrase translated “as one lies with a woman” is only found here and in Lev. 20:13 the phrase “as one lies with” occurs five times in the Hebrew Bible. [5] “As one lies with” occurs four times where it references bed and does not indicate a sexual act.  Genesis 49:4 designates a sexual act when Rueben sleeps with his father’s wife. Thus, Milgrom maintains that the phrase “as one lies with” should be understood as a place , not as a sexual activity.[6] Milgrom brings into question how Le. 18:22 been interpreted our contemporary society.

While Jacob Milgrom’s work may offer some doubt about our current interpretations, K. Renato Lings’ understanding of Leviticus 18:22 gives us a better idea about the meaning of the original Hebrew. Lings discovers that the text is not self-explanatoryin contrast to the version of most commentators. The Hebrew text is far more complex than English translators disclose.[7] Lings thus maintains that the English text should be translated on the basis of Hebrew linguistics. He builds on the work of David Stewart and the idea that this passage is really about male on male incest.[8] First, Lings notes that the word used for “man” is not the typical noun used for “man.” Instead, a word which translates to male occurs here. This noun for “male” includes both young and adult males.[9] Therefore, Lings translates the text of Lev. 18:22 as “And with a male you shall not lie.”[10]

Now that Lings has solved the linguistic problem with “man” and “male,” the first half of the verse is pretty straight forward. However, difficulties with translation start as one turns to the next phrase, “As with a woman” (NRSV). Lings contends that translators have taken liberties here by including the word “as”.[11]  Many translations also include particles “with” or “like.”  According to Ling, these words are not part of the original Hebrew text. Thus, he translates the verse so far as “And with a male you shall lie down the lyings of a woman.”[12]

Lings moves his work to the Hebrew word used for “lyings.”[13]  This word appears in the plural, which Milgrom misses and, according to Lings, it is only found in these Lev. 18:22 and Genesis 49:4. The singular version of the Hebrew word is used frequently.[14] According to Ling the reference in Genesis 49:4 depicts “lyings” as incest.[15] Lings argues that the term “lyings” refers to an action that is of “arguably illicit nature.”[16] He claims we must follow the principle of seeking out the more difficult reading and not to take the easy way out when we translate a biblicaltext.[17] If we take into account Genesis 49:2 then, we discover the text refers to forbidden act of incest.[18]

Finally, Ling discusses the noun for “woman.”  The KJV uses the word “womankind.”  While the word used for “male” is clearly referenced elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible for all ages, the one used for “woman” refers to an adult woman.  In fact, many times the word is translated as “wife” in English.[19] It is important to note that the Hebrew presents an adult woman only, but  uses a non-specific noun for the male.  The text can be talking about a young boy or a grown man,  but “woman” is clearly a grown woman.

Furthermore, Lings considers the context in which Lev. 18:22 is written. He explains that the passage “deals with various illicit relationships in the sexual realm: one marrying two sisters (18:18), intercourse with a menstruating woman (18:19), infidelity (18:20), and bestiality (18:23).”[20] Most of Leviticus 18 deals directly with incest. Notably, the list of laws from Leviticus 18 is reordered in Leviticus 20.  In Leviticus 18 the order of the topics is ambiguous, but in chapter 20 the so-called homosexual law appears within a list referring to incest.[21] Lings’ linguistic study leads him to conclude that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 continue the theme of incestuous relationships.[22] Thus, the passage should be paraphrased: “Sexual intercourse with a close male relative should be just as abominable to you as incestuous relationships with female relatives.”[23] Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 forbids male incestuous relations.

Because of Ling’s linguistic study that we find relief for the LGBTQ community finds from the homophobic interpretations of Lev. 18:22.  Lings’ interpretation illustrates that this verse and many other clobber passages do not stand solid ground.  Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 forbids male incestuous sexual relations.

Anonymous Student

[1] Lev 18:22 (NRSV)

[2] Charles D. Myers, Jr. “What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality.” Anima 19, no. 1 (September 1992), 50.

[3] Myers, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, 50.

[4] Susanne Scholz, “Toward a Future of Queer Bible Hermeneutics” (lecture, Perkins Theological Seminary at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, April 26, 2016).

[5] Temper Longman, III, and David E. Garland, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 Genesis-Leviticus  (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 744.

[6] Longman, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 744.

[7] K. Renato Lings. “The ‘Lyings’ of a Woman: Male-Male Incest in Leviticus 18.22?.” Theology & Sexuality 15, no. 2 (May 2009):

[8] Lings, The ‘Lyings’ of a Woman, 233.

[9] Ibid., 235.

[10] Ibid., 236.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 238.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 241.

[16] Ibid., 240.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 241.

[19] Ibid., 242.

[20] Ibid., 243.

[21] Ibid., 245.

[22] Ibid., 245.

[23] Ibid., 245.

1 Samuel 18-23: The Queerness of David and Jonathan

Scripture is filled with complex mysteries and modern scholars continue to struggle over the complexity of them. The story of David and Jonathan is one of those great mysteries of homoerotism in the bible. Since this infinity between the two happens prior to the philosophical era, it is difficult to describe or contend if the relationship between these two men was carnal or amicable. This essay identifies challenges in the text, the role King Saul played, and how the relationship amid David and Jonathan is queer. This is further supported by exegesis of the text and accounts from other scholars.

Is there a fixation with the uncircumcised giant, Goliath? In chapter 17 of 1 Samuel, the mystery of how a child killed a giant is recorded. From the very beginning, the infatuation of the phallus is apparent. David, in dialogue with Saul states, “[y]our servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God…The LORD, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine[i].” Indeed there is, otherwise the condition of his phallus would not have been communicated, nonetheless David cuts off the man’s head and delivers it to Saul. Saul, in the next chapter, perhaps to embarrass and get David killed, gives him a directive to collect the foreskins of one hundred Philistines in order to marry his daughter, Michal[ii]. Returning to the beginning of chapter 18, an introduction to the queerness of David and Jonathan is presented.

Jonathan sees a stripling[iii] and becomes infatuated with him. This occurs after a correspondence between Saul and David. The scripture states that Jonathan’s soul is bound[iv] with David’s. Bound in Hebrew is נִקְשְׁרָ֖ה, meaning, “to bind, conspire,” but is parsed as perfect third feminine singular[v]. This verse details the beginning of an attraction, and is feminine on the part of Jonathan. I contend that this being bound leads the two to become a single soul or connection. If it is connectional, then the appearance of David, perhaps as well built with six-pack abs, and Jonathan, a hairless and slim built male, parallels a scene for the Queer as Folk.[vi] The two see in in other a desire the other one craves and that sight paves way to a convent.

David and Jonathan establish a covenant, arguably in the resemblance of a Jewish Marriage. However, Hebrew marriage was not necessarily a bond. The Jewish Marriage was a covenantal-contract. Blu Greenberg supports this saying:

“[I]n its most technical sense, marriage in Judaism is a change in personal status. Neither sacrament nor mere legal transaction, it enjoys the trappings of both: an aura of sacredness, the language of sanctification, the richness of ceremony and rite, the sanction of religious leaders.” It also involves a contract, a formal declaration, witnesses, signatures, and an exchange of monetary value[vii].”

With the definition of Jewish marriage identified, it cannot be concluded that the bond possessed between David and Jonathan was a marriage. There is still a paradox that exists leading on to believe that the two created a marriage bond between each other, that is, in secret. However, this text provides homoerotic detail in the reviling of senses, and the question remains: how did the two become acquainted with each other moving toward a homoerotic disposition?

In defense of the origins of this relationship, Oley Keren states, “[T]he roots of Jonathan’s acquaintance with David lie in the episode in which an evil spirit terrifies Saul (16.15). Saul’s courtiers propose that a musician be summoned to calm his mind. When Saul agrees, they describe their candidate’s promising qualities: he is ‘skillful in playing, a man of valour, a man of war, prudent in speech, and handsome in appearance’ (16.18)[viii].” Keren continues, “Saul cannot turn away such a talented candidate and sends messengers to David’s father to fetch him. When David arrives, Saul takes a fancy to him and makes him his armour-bearer (16:21). To keep the lad nearby, Saul asks Jesse to allow David to stay at court[ix].” From this analysis, we learn that the two encountered each other upon condition of circumstances, leading each other to produce a courtship, later frowned upon by Saul.

Saul’s jealously of David leads to strife and Jonathan becomes the mediator. This jealously has insinuated initially on part of Samuel. This priest has anointed David as the next monarch of Israel after YHWH rejects Saul’s leadership[x]. On part of his jealously, Saul imparts every scheme to end David’s life. Each time this attempt is made, the scripture states that YHWH was with David. I contend that God’s protection of David further rested in the hands of Jonathan. The bond became queer because of YHWH, who as the scripture states, who produce an evil spirit upon Saul[xi].

In God’s protection of David, I believe that the queerness became established through the spiritual connection united amid two beings, operating under the prophetic. I state this because, when Samuel protects David, each time the king sends servants to seize David and frenzy overtakes them, moving them to prophesy and strip their clothing[xii]. Again, the act of participating in a ritual that is not normative expresses queerness. The men are engaged in a nude “frenzy,” all in the name of YHWH. This prophetic ritual of séance is undeniably not how Saul intended the situation to circumstance.

Jonathan expresses a sincere love for David with an exchange of vows for fraternal eros in in the next chapter. Keren states: Jonathan makes two requests of David concerning the future: (1) that David not kill him (20.14); and (2) that David protect his descendants (20.15)[xiii].” This exchange seems to occur after an impassioned discourse of encounter. In further dialogue between Saul and Jonathan an assumption can be made that David and Jonathan engaged in some sort of carnal activity based upon the commentary Saul utters toward his son in 20:30.

Again, I contend that bond these two share is part of God’s own intervention to protect David for Saul. Markus Zehnder takes a different approach as to defining this relationship as platonic, however offers a point that validates the premise stated above. He states:

“[A]gainst this background it has to be pondered how Jonathan’s delight in David is connected with YHWH’s delight in David, is Jonathan’s delight to be understood as a consequence of YHWH’s delight on the human level? Perhaps the connection hinted at here can be described even more specifically: YHWH’s delight in David becomes effective in David’s political success; Jonathan’s delight in David is the means by which YHWH’s delight operates. This would mean that Jonathan’s delight in David corresponds to the will of YHWH; YHWH would even be its ultimate source. Alternatively, Jonathan’s delight could be understood as a correspondence to the divine delight: David’s way is smoothed by the double support given him both by God and by men; thereby, the hint at David’s status as “beloved” that is included in his name is confirmed in a concrete manner[xiv].”

Work of the Spirit through prophetic encounters created a queer relationship between David and Jonathan. It is relationship or intense homoeroticism and covenant. Although a priest does not conduct the Jewish marriage rite, this text invites the reader explore to likelihood of common-law marriage known and facilitated by the two. God’s will, as contended above, contribute whole-heartily to this purpose, since David is the next chosen and anointed king of Israel. The queerness of their relationship intensifies as situations become more critical, just like any relationship that occurs in daily life. I further conclude that if it had not been for God’s intervention, the life of David would have been terminated by jealousy. Furthermore, David and Jonathan substantiated a bond that no being could “put asunder.[xv]” Lastly, based upon the little evidence present, it was an erotic relationship filled with passion and desire. David loved Jonathan perhaps more than he loved himself, and the same vice versa. True love was produced from the will of YHWH and such complexity led to lascivious simplicity.

 

Endnotes:

[i] 1 Samuel 17:34-35, NRSV.

[ii] 1 Samuel 18:25-29, NRSV.

[iii] 1 Samuel 17:56, Saul calls David this when inquiring of his nationality and origin.

[iv] 1 Samuel 18:1, NRSV.

[v] ‏”נִקְשְׁרָ֖ה“‎ (1 Samuel 18:1 BHS-T).

[vi] Queer as Folk. Directed by Russell Mulcahy. 2000. In episode 1, Brian and Justin spot each other outside of a club, latter retiring to Brian’s apartment.

[vii] Greenberg, Blu. “Marriage in the Jewish tradition.” Journal Of Ecumenical Studies 22, no. 1 (1985 1985): 3-20. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 3, 2016).(7).

[viii] Keren, Orly. “David and Jonathan: a case of unconditional love?.” Journal For The Study Of The Old Testament 37, no. 1 (September 2012): 3-23. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed May 3, 2016). (5).

[ix] Ibid.

[x] 1 Samuel 16, NRSV.

[xi] Throughout the entire story of Saul and David (1 Samuel 16-23), G-d initiates Saul’s jealousy with an “evil spirit.” However, each time this happens, God protects David, usually through Jonathan and once through his wife (Jonathan’s sister) Michal.

[xii] 1 Samuel 19:18-24, NRSV. An extreme state of chaos is occurring. It was perhaps like the day of Pentecost in Acts.

[xiii] Keren, 17.

[xiv] Zehnder, Markus. 2007. “Observations on the relationship between David and Jonathan and the debate on homosexuality.” The Westminster Theological Journal 69, no. 1: 127-174. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 3, 2016), p. 148. Zehnder is also quoting another author and adds: “Concerning the possible connection between the name “David” and the designation
”beloved,” see Johann Jakob Stamm, Beiträge zur hebräischen und altorientalischen Namenskunde (OBO 30; Freiburg: Universitätsverlag/Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1980), 25-43.”

[xv] Mark 10:9, KJV.

Genesis 19

A viscous attempt at rape.  An immigrant family fleeing for their lives.  Sulfur and fire raining down upon the unrighteous.  With elements like these, it is not surprising that the story of the judgment and destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah found in Genesis 19 has arrested the attention of Scripture readers throughout the millennia.  A surprising and unexpected interlude amid the story of God’s covenant-building with Abraham, this text is well-known in Jewish and Christian religious circles and is even somewhat recognizable to people outside these circles.  As a thrilling yet terrifying text, this narrative has not only been read many times over; it has also inspired a great deal of commentary. Herein lies the problem: The judgment against Sodom and its subsequent destruction in Michael Bay-esque fashion is so intriguing that scholarly commentators and casual readers alike have spilled copious amounts of ink trying to figure out just exactly what the cause of it all was.  What was it that made God so displeased with a city that God would entirely destroy it and the surrounding region ?  Many theories have been put forth and unfortunately many of these have laid the blame on the perceived homosexuality of the male Sodomites.  Interpretations of this nature make this text not only terrifying on account of what it depicts but also because of the ways it has been used against members of the LGBTQ community right up to the present day.  Thankfully, these anti-LGBTQ readings are not the only possibilities for the text. Readers need not view this narrative as a means of ostracizing and oppressing the queer community.

Before taking up the various interpretations of the text, we must first see what is going on in the narrative at hand.  Immediately before chapter 19, God tells Abraham that a great outcry has been made against Sodom and Gommorah and that God is sending messengers to see if the city truly deserves  destruction on account of its sins (Genesis 18:16-21).  The messengers arrive and are taken in by Lot, Abraham’s nephew who is a resident alien in Sodom (Gen. 19: 1-3).  After dinner, however, the story takes a turn. The men of Sodom (specifically all the men of the city) come upon Lot’s home and demand to be given the visitors “so that [they] might know them” (Gen 19:4-5). Lot tries to turn the crowd away from its horrific mission by offering something that is, at least in his mind, less awful. He tries to give them his virgin daughters, but the men refuse the offer and continue their demands (Gen 19:6-9). After this hectic scene, the heavenly messengers declare that Sodom must be destroyed. Subsequently, God pours out sulfur and fire on the entire region, while Lot and his family are allowed to escape to another town (Gen. 19:12-29).

It is not too difficult to see how interpreters have decided to lay the blame for Sodom’s destruction on the homoerotic desires of the town’s men.  This sort of interpretation of the text is fairly common in both Jewish and Christian circles, but it is more prevalent among Christian readers.[1]  Many interpreters in this strand make it clear that God is displeased with the sexual perversity of the Sodomites,  whose sexual deviancy is so vile that the only just recourse is to totally wipe the people from the face of the earth.  While the violent and domineering nature of the men’s attack is often taken into account, commentators make the case that it is the “unnatural lust” of the Sodomites that secures their destruction.[2]  Similarly, historical-critical commentators argue that Israel thought of Sodom as “the example of greatest depravity that men could think of.” [3]  While such interpretations often leave the nature of the depravity unspoken, it is clear that the Sodomites’ sexual lusts are at least part of the problem. For instance, von Rad offers other possibilities for the nature of Sodom’s depravity, but he also notes that God’s messengers must be thought of “as young men in their prime, whose beauty particularly incited evil desire.”[4]  Nowhere in the text is any mention made of the messengers’ physical appearance; von Rad’s remark is entirely fabricated.  Yet his interpretation further ties the depravity of Sodom to the sin of homosexual desire. There may be other things of which the Sodomites are guilty, but their evil lust for these gorgeous men clearly plays a prominent role in their eventual destruction.

These types of readings focus a great deal of attention on the men of Sodom’s sexual desires.  Being thus focused on perceived homosexuality, commentators are often quick to generalize the evil of the Sodomites to all people who seek sexual congress with someone of the same sex.  While Genesis 19 may not be the primary text used by anti-LGBTQ activists (Leviticus 18:33 and 20:13 are much more straightforward in their eyes and thus much more desirable), this narrative still gets cited as an example of God’s displeasure with homosexuality.  Indeed, some people go so far as to say that creating inclusive societies wherein members of the LGBTQ community can pursue love openly and freely would invite God’s wrath and lead to the destruction of the nation.  Through these pundits, Genesis 19 becomes an oppressive text, a sign that God loves some people but despises others.  Further, because the men of Sodom seek to satiate their “depraved desires” in a violent manner, anti-LGBTQ activists often use this text to imply that all homosexual people are not only sexually deviant but societally deviant as well.

This passage of Scripture, along with so many others, has been twisted and weaponized to oppress the queer community. Thankfully these oppressive readings are not the only interpretations available to us today.  Many commentators, who either come out of the queer community or who seek to deconstruct heteronormativity, argue that this passage does not condemn homosexuality in the slightest. Miguel de la Torre declares: “To claim that homosexuality is the sin of Sodom is problematic.”[5]  He also states that the biblical witness does not agree on the sin of Sodom. In fact, he argues, many different sins are offered up as explanations (for example, in Ezekiel, Amos, and Isaiah), but none of these texts places the blame on the men of Sodom’s sexual desires.[6]  Indeed, the link between the sin of Sodom and homosexual sex appears to have been a late addition to the biblical interpretational game: Such a link was not made until Philo of Alexandria came along at the turn of the era and did not really pick up steam until the 3rd century C.E.[7] If the sin of Sodom has not always been equated with homosexuality, what are other possible options?  Many contemporary commentators focus on the issue of inhospitality and violent oppression.  De la Torre is emphatic on this point: “The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, according to the Bible, was a lack of justice done in the name of the society’s dispossessed. God’s anger consumes Sodom and Gomorrah because of the dominant culture’s refusal to show hospitality to those residing on their margins.”[8]  Thus, the story of Sodom’s destruction is not a condemnation of human sexuality, but it critiques the drive to oppress and dehumanize the Other in our midst.  Such interpretations shed much needed light on the meaning of this text and may help liberate Genesis 19 from being used as a weapon of terror against the queer community.

 

An anonymous student

[1] Michael Carden, “Genesis/Bereshit,” in The Queer Bible Commentary, edited by Deryn Guest, Robert E. Goss, Mona West, and Thomas Bohache (London: SCM Press, 2006), 36.

[2] Claus Westermann, Genesis 12-36: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1985), 301.

[3] Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, revised edition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972), 217-218.

[4] Ibid., 217.

[5] Miguel de la Torre, Genesis (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 192.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Carden “Genesis,” 36-37

[8] de la Torre, Genesis, 194.

Judges 3:12-30

The obscure story of King Eglon and the Israelite deliverer, Ehud, found in Judges 3 can be read through a variety of hermeneutical lenses. The narrative begins, “The Israelites lived among the Canannites, the Hittites, the Ammorites, The Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites” and were sold into slavery because they “did what was evil in the sight of YHWH”. Israel “cried out to YHWH” as they had many times before this story and “YWHW raised up a deliverer for the Israelites…” Othniel, their judge and deliverer, served 40 years and died. Once again, the Israelites “did what was evil in the sight of God” and so YHWH “strengthened King Eglon of Moab, against Israel”. The second deliverer from YHWH is Ehud, a Benjaminite and “a left-handed man”. The literary location of Israel within this narrative establishes Israel as both the oppressed and the oppressor. They play the part of the marginalized “Other” as well as the part of the colonizing “Empire”.

The story takes a sinister turn when the reader finds Ehud deviously hiding a two-edged sword under his garment, attached to his right thigh. Ehud presents King Eglon with a tribute and later acquires time alone with the king in a private chamber. Deceptively, Ehud states, “I have a message from God for you” and as the king rises “from his seat” Ehud stabs him with the sword until even the hilt has disappeared into the portly King’s belly. “Dirt” is spilled from the king and Ehud escapes as Eglon’s guards stand outside of the private chamber thinking their King is relieving himself. Ehud “sounds the trumpet” to rally Israelite troops and “all ten thousand of the Moabites, all strong, able-bodied men” are slaughtered at the ford of the Jordan River.[i]  This massacre propels Israel from oppressed to oppressor.

Queering this reading first involves understanding the normative or heterosexual-androcentric hermeneutic through which it has been previously interpreted. The New Interpreters Study Bible, NRSV, from which the passage above is introduced, calls the murder of King Eglon an “assassination” and describes the story as “obscenely humorous.”[ii] Matthew Henry, in a commentary available through the Blue Letter Bible from the late 1600’s, describes the story in Judges as a, “particular account of the brave exploits of the first three judges.” Henry justifies the actions of Ehud as, “He put to death Eglon the king of Moab; I say, put him to death, not murdered or assassinated him, but as a judge, or minister of divine justice, executed the judgments of God upon him, as an implacable enemy to God and Israel.”[iii] Along with reading the story through the heterosexual-androcentric hermeneutic, both commentators read with Israel and against the Moabites. Interpreting the story in this manner places Ehud and the Israelites squarely in the role of the oppressor and furthers the assumption that Ehud’s actions are heroic and commissioned by God. As late as 2008, Rob Fleenor and Mark S. Ziese, in a commentary on these passages, describe the story as “an entertaining story about God’s deliverance for God’s people”.[iv] These interpreters also posit that Ehud’s left-handedness is a military strategy aimed at creating stronger warriors in the tribe of Benjamin. They conclude that Ehud is a hero: “Ehud is a shrewd trickster. The clever deceit he demonstrates makes him an admirable hero for the reader” and “Ehud’s sneaky escape all give the reader reason to cheer the underdog Israelite turned sneaky deliverer.”[v] Fleenor and Ziese also equate God’s intentions in this story with questionable character traits. They write, “God is willing to utilize a diverse range of skills for his purposes, including cunning”.[vi] The androcentric-heterosexual hermeneutic obscures the violent and oppressive activities within the story as well as the social, political and feminist implications contained therein.

Judges 3: 12-30, when discussed using alternative or queer hermeneutics through which this obscure story is also translated catapults it to near the top of the list of disturbing canonized texts. Johnny Miles finds the story filled with ethnic humor at the expense of the Moabites.[vii] Miles tarnishes the reputation of the Moabites by tracing their lineage back to the Genesis 19 incestuous story of Lot and his daughters. Miles also draws a parallel between the oppressive behavior of Israelites against the Moabites and the treatment of Latino immigrants by Americans of European descent who were themselves ostracized based on ethnicity. Miles reading of this text occurs through the lens of an ethnic minority suffering at the hands of a colonizing oppressor.[viii] Deryn Guest queers the reading. She highlights three qualities about Ehud’s character that, “suggest that his assassination of Eglon is meant to be read as a male rape scene”.[ix] Interpretive methods dealing with Ehud’s left handedness, multiple reference to “hand” and his Benjamite heritage work together to alter Ehud from a conqueror to a murderer. To be a Benjamite (son of the right hand) is, according to Guest, “an incongruity immediately suggestive of ambivalence, of things not being as they should be”.[x] This obvious irony of the “son of the right hand” being specifically named in the text, “a left-handed man” is magnified when one considers that Ehud is the only biblical character whose handedness is so explicitly described. Guest also points out the number of times the word “hand” (as in Ehud’s hand) is used in this story. She explains, “Certainly yad can simply mean ‘hand’, but it also bears the meaning of penis/phallus.”[xi] Guest’s interpretation turns the stabbing of Eglon by Ehud into a male rape scene whereby the portly Kind Eglon is penetrated by the yad of Ehud.

Guest’s male-on-male rape interpretation by pointing out that the description of King Eglon as “fat” and the literal meaning of the name Eglon as “calf” feminize his character according to Hebrew tradition.[xii] This construal of Eglon’s character as female supports the notion of rape as the heinous act committed by Ehud. Guest points out the ambiguity of the Hebrew noun belen “signifying both the female womb and the abdomen in general”. [xiii] This queer hermeneutics of male-on-male rape combined with the ethnic slurs proposed by Miles transform this story of a “brave exploit” into a nauseating story of exploitative viciousness. It is difficult to find any hero within the story.

The potentially damaging implications of interpreting the story of Ehud and Eglon through various hermeneutical lenses are important to note along with the impact of those interpretations upon readers of this text. If the story remains within the framework of the androcentric-heterosexual construct, marginalized readers of the text (women, people of color, and the poor) are at risk for a worsening self-image and continued exploitation by men in power.  Combine this androcentric-heterosexual interpretation with the authoritative and trusted position many conservative pastors enjoy and the marginalized shrink further into obscurity.  Queering the interpretation through a colonization hermeneutic may work like Ehud’s double-edged sword: adding strength to the colonizer through identification with Ehud the hero and by further intimidating the colonized through ethnic ridicule. Finally, the use of a hermeneutics of rape may cause some readers to reject all of the stories in the scripture. A rape hermeneutic also terrorizes those at risk of being a rape victim because it places God in the role of a complicit witness or, as Fleener and Zeise identify God, willing to use whatever means for [God’s] purposes. Susanne Scholz posits “All translations are interpretations,” and includes Judges 3: 12-30 when she writes, “All sacred texts are inherently flexible, elastic, ambiguous and opaque”.[xiv]  Scholz states, “Only vague, ambiguous, and veiled allusions allow for the possibility of viewing these stories as male rape texts. The interpretations are by no means obvious and require an ardent search for hermeneutical possibilities that read the texts as incidences of rape”.[xv]

The story of King Eglon and Ehud read via intensive investigation into the language and various methods of interpretation always bring new insights into biblical meanings. Thorough analysis of sacred texts, as opposed to assimilating the translation of others, provides readers with new perspectives. Readers, no longer bound by traditional, androcentric-heterosexual translations, can enjoy a deeper understanding of sacred texts. Judges 3:12-30 is not an enjoyable story but it does present an excellent example of various methods of interpretation. Susanne Scholz states, “Hermeneutics gives us the possibility to analyze our options and not be suppressed by another’s interpretations”. [xvi]

Endnotes:

[i] Walter Harrelson et al., eds., “Judges 3: 12-30,” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 351-352.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] “Blue Letter Bible,”accessed April 23, 2016, https://www.blueletterbible.org//search.

[iv] Rob Fleenor and Mark Ziese. The College Press NIV Commentary: Joshua. Eds. Terry Briley and Paul Kissling. (Joplin, Missouri: College Press Publishing Company, 2008), 73-78.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Johnny Miles. “Who Are You Calling “Stupid”? Ethnocentric Humour and Identity Construct in the Colonial Discourse of Judges 3:12-30.” The Bible and Critical Theory 4, no. 1 (2008): 04.1-04.16.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Deryn Guest, “Judges,” in The Queer Bible Commentary, ed. Deryn Guest et al. (London: SCM Press, 2006), 167-177.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Susanne Scholz, Class Lecture: Hermeneutical Principles. Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, September, 2014.

[xv] Susanne Scholz, Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 176.

[xvi] Scholz, Class Lecture, 2014.