walter wink on homosexuality & the bible (part 1): old testament

Sexual issues are tearing our churches apart today as never before. The issue of homosexuality threatens to fracture whole denominations, as the issue of slavery did a hundred and fifty years ago. We naturally turn to the Bible for guidance, and find ourselves mired in interpretative quicksand. Is the Bible able to speak to our confusion on this issue?

These words of Dr. Walter Wink, professor emeritus at Auburn Theological Seminary, ring truer than ever as Australians engage in constant debate about homosexual marriage. Whatever our position we must recognise that this is not a simple debate, nor is it abstract; it affects real people who are made in the image of God.

This post begins a two-part (maybe three-part?) series on Walter Wink’s thoughts on the Bible and homosexuality. This series is intended for the purpose of asking important hermeneutical and exegetical questions that often go overlooked in the course of all-too-common prooftexting. Such a practice is, in my view, inconsistent; why do we accept some of the Bible’s imperatives, but not others? Surely we need deeper biblical engagement on complex issues such as homosexuality. It is for this kind of discussion that I offer these posts.

(I expect people to be thoughtful and respectful if they wish to comment. The point of these posts is to converse, though any disrespectful comments will be deleted without hesitation.)

Conservative Christians are almost universally opposed to homosexual marriage and indeed homosexual activity typically on the basis of the Bible’s witness. But what if the biblical witness is not as simplistic as many have assumed? What if our hermeneutic (theory of interpretation) is flawed?

In his self-confessed piecemeal treatment entitled Christians & Homosexuality, Rowland Croucher quotes theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s thoughts on interpretation:

In Christian theology suffering must precede thinking. Christian theology becomes relevant when it accepts solidarity with present suffering.

Croucher goes on to say that one can know the Bible but miss the point, in the way that those working with AIDS patients tend to have a very different hermeneutic to those working from ivory towers. This means that in regards to homosexuality it is somewhat dangerous to talk about a theology without knowing and having suffered with a homosexual. That said, engagement with the Bible is nonetheless crucial for a Christian view, though solidarity with the subject is a hermeneutical necessity.

In his important piece Homosexuality and the Bible, Walter Wink explores the different biblical commands that give rise to the viewpoint among many Christians that homosexuality is sinful. While he does not give a definite conclusion, Wink shows that many such passages are incorrectly adopted (Gen. 19:1-29*; Deut. 23:17-18**), and others are at best unclear.

Wink’s article demonstrates a passionate desire to be faithful to the Bible and its authority. This however requires that we take seriously what the Bible is saying, and equally what it is not saying.

Wink does not deny that a number of Old Testament passages expressly forbid homosexuality:

Walter Wink

[There are] three references, all of which unequivocally condemn homosexual behavior.” Lev. 18:22 states the principle: “You [masculine] shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” The second (Lev. 20:13) adds the penalty: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

Such an act was regarded as an “abomination” for several reasons. The Hebrew prescientific understanding was that male semen contained the whole of nascent life. With no knowledge of eggs and ovulation, it was assumed that the woman provided only the incubating space. Hence the spilling of semen for any nonprocreative purpose–in coitus interruptus (Gen. 38:1-11), male homosexual acts, or male masturbation–was considered tantamount to abortion or murder.

Wink also notes that patriarchalism forbade men to act like women sexually, thereby compromising male dignity. It may be for these reasons, and indeed it is noteworthy, that female homosexuality was not at any point in the Mosaic Law forbidden.

Wink then goes on to say that we must, at the very least, take a consistent view to how we interpret Old Testament commands. Though the Old Testament takes a negative view toward homosexuality, many of the Hebrew sexual attitudes, practices and restrictions which are normative in Scripture are no longer accepted as normative today, even by the most conservative of Christians. Wink lists 14 (condensed here, but available in his article):

1. Intercourse during the menstrual period – Lev. 18:19; 15:19-24; “anyone in violation was to be “extirpated” or “cut off from their people” (kareth, Lev. 18:29, a term referring to execution by stoning, burning, strangling, or to flogging or expulsion…)”

2. “The punishment for adultery was death by stoning for both the man and the woman (Deut. 22:22).” Wink notes that adultery is defined solely by the marital status of the woman in the Old Testamant, and so a man did not commit adultery by cheating on his wife, but only by sleeping with another man’s wife. I know of no Christian who would absolve a married man who slept with an unmarried woman from the sin of adultery.

3. “Nudity, the characteristic of paradise, was regarded in Judaism as reprehensible (2 Sam. 6:20; 10:4; Isa. 20:2-4; 47:3).”

4. “Polygamy (many wives) and concubinage (a woman living with a man to whom she is not married) were regularly practiced in the Old Testament.”

5. “A form of polygamy was the levirate marriage. When a married man in Israel died childless, his widow was to have intercourse with each of his brothers in turn until she bore him a male heir.”

6. “The Old Testament nowhere explicitly prohibits sexual relations between unmarried consenting heterosexual adults, as long as the woman’s economic value (bride price) is not compromised, that is to say, as long as she is not a virgin. There are poems in the Song of Songs that eulogize a love affair between two unmarried persons, though commentators have often conspired to cover up the fact with heavy layers of allegorical interpretation.”

7. “The Bible virtually lacks terms for the sexual organs, being content with such euphemisms as “foot” or “thigh” for the genitals, and using other euphemisms to describe coitus, such as “he knew her.” Today most of us regard such language as “puritanical” and contrary to a proper regard for the goodness of creation. In short, we don’t follow Biblical practice.”

8. “Semen and menstrual blood rendered all who touched them unclean (Lev. 15:16-24). Intercourse rendered one unclean until sundown; menstruation rendered the woman unclean for seven days. Today most people would regard semen and menstrual fluid as completely natural and only at times “messy,” not “unclean.””

9. “Social regulations regarding adultery, incest, rape and prostitution are, in the Old Testament, determined largely by considerations of the males’ property rights over women. Prostitution was considered quite natural and necessary as a safeguard of the virginity of the unmarried and the property rights of husbands (Gen. 38:12-19; Josh. 2:1-7). A man was not guilty of sin for visiting a prostitute, though the prostitute herself was regarded as a sinner. Paul must appeal to reason in attacking prostitution (1 Cor. 6:12-20); he cannot lump it in the category of adultery (vs. 9).”

10. “Jews were supposed to practice endogamy–that is, marriage within the twelve tribes of Israel. Until recently a similar rule prevailed in the American South, in laws against interracial marriage (miscegenation).”

11. “The law of Moses allowed for divorce (Deut. 24:1-4); Jesus categorically forbids it (Mark 10:1-12; Matt. 19:9 softens his severity). … we ordain divorcees. Why not homosexuals?”

12. “The Old Testament regarded celibacy as abnormal, and 1 Tim. 4:1-3 calls compulsory celibacy a heresy. Yet the Catholic Church has made it mandatory for priests and nuns. Some Christian ethicists demand celibacy of homosexuals, whether they have a vocation for celibacy or not.”

13. “In many other ways we have developed different norms from those explicitly laid down by the Bible. For example, “If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity” (Deut. 25:11f.). We, on the contrary, might very well applaud her for trying to save her husband’s life!”

14. “The Old and New Testaments both regarded slavery as normal and nowhere categorically condemned it. Part of that heritage was the use of female slaves, concubines and captives as sexual toys, breeding machines, or involuntary wives by their male owners, which 2 Sam. 5:13, Judges 19-21 and Num. 31:18 permitted…”

Walter Wink with his wife June

The question of course is this – why do we not accept such commands to be normative for us today while most Christians accept commands against homosexuality in the same texts as binding? Even if one was to disagree with Wink’s interpretation of some of the above attitudes, we must nonetheless account for every single shift in our own sense of what is normative when compared to the biblical witness.

This is no doubt a complex issue, and I certainly do not have an answer. We must do serious business with it, however, for as I said previously it affects real people made in God’s image. Indeed, what if current Christian attitudes about homosexuality are equal to those regarding slavery 150 years ago? We would do well to put a critical eye on our views.

In the next post I will summarise Wink’s views on homosexuality as expounded in the New Testament. For now I will finish with this confronting quote from Homosexuality and the Bible (which I encourage you to read in full; my summary does not do it justice):

What is our principle of selection here?

For example, virtually all modern readers would agree with the Bible in rejecting: incest, rape, adultery, and intercourse with animals. But we disagree with the Bible on most other sexual mores. The Bible condemned the following behaviors which we generally allow: intercourse during menstruation, celibacy, exogamy (marriage with non-Jews), naming sexual organs, nudity (under certain conditions), masturbation (some Christians still condemn this), birth control (some Christians still forbid this).

And the Bible regarded semen and menstrual blood as unclean, which most of us do not. Likewise, the Bible permitted behaviors that we today condemn: prostitution, polygamy, levirate marriage, sex with slaves, concubinage, treatment of women as property, and very early marriage (for the girl, age 11-13).

And while the Old Testament accepted divorce, Jesus forbade it. In short, of the sexual mores mentioned here, we only agree with the Bible on four of them, and disagree with it on sixteen!

Surely no one today would recommend reviving the levirate marriage. So why do we appeal to proof texts in Scripture in the case of homosexuality alone, when we feel perfectly free to disagree with Scripture regarding most other sexual practices? Obviously many of our choices in these matters are arbitrary.


Read about Walter Wink’s view on homosexuality in the New Testament in Part 2 of this series…

* “…the attempted gang rape in Sodom … was a case of ostensibly heterosexual males intent on humiliating strangers by treating them “like women,” thus demasculinizing them. (This is also the case in a similar account in Judges 19-21.) Their brutal behavior has nothing to do with the problem of whether genuine love expressed between consenting adults of the same sex is legitimate or not.”
** “Deut. 23:17-18 must be pruned from the list, since it most likely refers to a heterosexual prostitute involved in Canaanite fertility rites that have infiltrated Jewish worship; the King James Version inaccurately labeled him a “sodomite.””

Posted on July 6, 2011, in Biblical Studies, Culture & Art, Hermeneutics, Old Testament, Sexuality & Gender and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Interesting post Matt. I found it even more interesting that Wink in talking against proof texting, became guilty of it himself is saying that Jesus totally forbid divorce. Interpreting the
    scriptures as a whole is no easy feat. 😦

    The one caution I would add to the argument is that just because modern society accepts the variety of changes he mentioned…does that in and off itself equate to a valid hermetical stance?

    Personally I think the hermeneutic issue of trying to force both our modern society and church as being Israel is suspicious and faulty and we don’t have a sense of living in the present in the mercy and grace of Christ, instead replacing them with rules and regulations.

  2. gregglesaurus

    Very good post, and some very interesting points – and this may be redundant – but what about NT scriptures that condemn the practice of homosexuality (1 Cor 6:9, 1 Cor 7:2 (implied) & 1 Tim 1:10)? Does it make any difference if they were in the NT? given that slavery seemed to be okay in the NT? However, in 1 Tim 1:10, Paul lumps slave traders in with those who practice homosexuality. Does this then nullify no. 14 from Wink’s list?

    It’s also interesting to notice how those who practice homosexuality are placed alongside those who are “promise breakers” or “liars” – things that most Christians at least wouldn’t see as bad as homosexuality.

    • I’m wondering if Matt is going to cover what I find to be one of the most intriguing aspects of this debate. I accept that “most Christians at least wouldn’t see (‘promise breakers’ or ‘liars’) as bad as homosexuality” but I cannot understand it.

      Significantly, most Christians are perfectly comfortable rating sins. Homosexuality is worse than lying or breaking promises, abortion is worse than pre-marital sex or using contraception, murder is worse than stealing, etc. I imagine, most could design some sort of ‘sin pyramid’, even.

      I looked up Luke 13:5 and put it into context, it seems that Luke 13:2 says forget that – all sin is bad. Interesting to use it in a homophobic protest.

      When confronted with a Christian who responds to the concept of homosexual Christians with “Are they prepared to give up their sin for Christ?” I want to respond with, “I dunno, are you gonna give up your bigotry for Him?” but I think I’m too gutless….

  3. Naomi, I think the categorization of sin comes not from its inherent sinful value (which is the same across the board) but in its consequential value. Looking at it in simple terms, the sin of murder *is* worse than the sin of telling a “white” lie, simply by virtue of the damage it does, in the same way that a double murder of kids is worse than a single murder of an adult. It’s all sin, but it’s not the same physical impact. That’s the mindset, I think.

  4. Paul also states in Corinthians that sexual sin is more damaging than any other kind because it is against the body.

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