How a Look at Sex in the Old Testament Offers a Way out of the LGBTQ+ Maze
Love is not what valorizes a human sexual relationship in God’s eyes. Love, of course, is related to the idea of a deep and lasting bond between two human beings. But given how widespread the mantra “love is love” has become in valorizing various types of human sexual relationships, it needs to be mentioned separately. The rightness and goodness of a human sexual relationship is not to be found in the subjective feelings of the two human beings. Rather, it is to be found in the objective characteristics of God’s design for human bodies, minds, and relationships. If one is to find love in a sexual relationship, it will not be found in any structure of sexual relationship one chooses. Instead, it will be found by placing oneself within a sexual relationship designed by God.
Every day brings new evidence that the LGBTQ+ movement is capturing more and more territory in American life, and that more and more hearts and minds are being won over to the movement’s ideology, including among Christians. Confusion about sex runs rampant and threatens to trample traditional Christians in its path.
It might seem there is nothing for those of us who are traditionally minded Christians to do but look forward in anxiety. Yet, we would do well instead to look back at what God teaches us about human sexuality through his Word in the Old Testament. The culture today offers only shifting sands about the definition of words, the purpose of bodies, the nature of reality and identity, and truth itself. The Old Testament, in contrast, is direct and firm about these things, in ways that are directly relevant to our current predicament.
The Old Testament tells us that the world was created in a certain way, that it fell apart in a certain way, and that it continued on in a certain fallen way.
The way God created the world and how he wanted it to be can be seen in Genesis 1 and 2.
In Genesis 1:26-28, God created human beings. In particular, to render the Hebrew of Gen 1:27 literally, God “created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created it, male and female he created them.” Thus, God formed a gender binary of male and female (the “them”), and together that binary formed a human singularity (the “it”). He then instructed man and woman, acting together, to reproduce.
From this passage we see several things about how God designed human sexuality. First, there was no spectrum of sexes (or one could say genders; traditionally both words are inseparable from human reproduction); rather, God designed the world such that a person was created in one of two distinct and different human sexual forms – male or female. Second, the sex of a person was not determined by a person’s subjective state, not “assigned” at birth, nor was it changeable; rather, God designed the world such that a person’s sex is an objective and fixed fact of his or her existence from conception. Third, human reproduction cannot be accomplished in a variety of ways; rather, God designed the world for human reproduction to take place when one human male and one human female have sexual intercourse. Fourth, reproduction was a main purpose for God’s creation of two distinct and different sexual forms. Fifth, the distinct and different physical and sexual characteristics and reproductive roles of human males and human females were not in need of description or definition in the biblical text, nor waiting for an academic theory to make sense of them; rather, God designed males and females, and the human capacity to observe and gain knowledge, such that these things are clear, obvious, and objectively knowable facts of human existence.
Next, in Genesis 2:4-25, God creates a man, and states that it is not good for the man to be alone, the problem being the man’s inability by himself to be the image of God (Gen 1:26-28), reproduce (Gen 1:26-28), govern the world (Gen 1:26-28), tend the garden (Gen 2:15), and be psychologically and emotionally whole, a set of things which collectively will be referred to below as the pair-bond complex. God states that a special living being he will create will resolve the problem of the man’s aloneness. God then creates animals and brings them to the man, but the man does not identify any of them as the special living being. God then makes a woman, a female human, for the man. God brings her to the man, and the man identifies her as the special living being. The narrator then says that a man will cling to a woman and that the two of them will become one flesh, and so describes a male/female relationship as one of deep attachment, and the two as fitted for each other.
This passage shows us several things about how God designed human sexuality. First, God designed the human sexual relationship to involve one male and one female, not multiple males or females, or even a “spectrum” of sexualities. Second, this male/female pair was not a social arrangement which existed temporarily or periodically; rather, it entailed a lasting and continuous bond between a male/female pair seeking to live out the elements of the pair-bond complex. Third, God designed the world such that the only pair of living beings which would be able to fulfill all elements of the pair-bond complex would be a human male and a human female. This can be seen in the phrase God uses to describe the special living being. God says that this special living being was going to be kenegdô (Genesis 2:18; “I will make a helper kenegdô”). The Hebrew word kenegdô is a compound of the particle ke, meaning ‘like,’ the word neged, meaning ‘opposite,’ and the pronoun ô, meaning ‘him.’ This special living being was, therefore, to be “like opposite him.” It is, of course, important to be cautious about defining the meaning of a compound word by looking at the meanings of the word’s individual parts. In the case of kenegdô, however, its parts reveal why the woman is the special living being. An animal cannot be the special living being because, though an animal and a man are opposite each other (that is to say, different), an animal is not like a man because it is not a human being, and so an animal and a man cannot fulfill all elements of the pair-bond complex. Another man cannot be the special living being because, though a man and a man are like each other in being human beings, a man and a man are not opposite each other, and so a man and a man cannot fulfill all elements of the pair-bond complex. A woman is the special living being because a woman and a man are opposite each other, and a woman and a man are also like each other in being human beings, and so a woman and a man, and only a woman and a man, can fulfill all elements of the pair-bond complex together.
Turning now to how the world fell apart from what God intended, this is described in Genesis 3. Here we see that God gave the man and the woman instructions for how he wanted them to live and behave in the world. God also gave them the freedom to abide by these instructions or not. Using this freedom, they violated one of the instructions. God then punished the woman and the man, punishments which carried forward in time and affected the human beings who came after them, and indeed the whole created order.
We can learn several things from Genesis 3 regarding human sexuality. First, God established a moral framework for the first two human beings to live by. Their decision to go their own way and create their own moral framework had terrible consequences for them and their descendants, who carry on the family tradition of creating their own moral frameworks, especially in the area of sexual behavior and ethics, always with terrible consequences. Second, one of the punishments God gave is that there would be difficulties in the process of reproduction (Genesis 3:16). The text refers to childbirth becoming painful for women. Surrounding that pain would be all sorts of other reproductive problems such as infertility for women and men, miscarriage, and maternal/infant death. Third, another punishment which God gave is that the male/female relationship would become troubled and characterized by struggle thereafter (Genesis 3:16).
Turning now to how the world continued on in its fallen state, this is described in Genesis 4 and in the texts which follow. Here we see several things about human sexuality in the fallen world.
First, the appearance of reproductive difficulties led humans to devise various mechanisms to deal with infertility, mechanisms such as levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5-10) and the use of surrogates (Genesis 29:31-30:24). Although their intention accorded with God’s instructions to reproduce in the face of reproductive difficulties, these mechanisms lay outside the bounds of the creational design of a deeply bonded male/female pair of human beings.
Second, the disruption of order in the male/female relationship led to humans developing numerous configurations of the human sexual relationship which were at variance with the creational structure of a deeply bonded male/female human pair, configurations such as polygyny (1 Samuel 1:1-8), concubinage (Judges 19), and random sexual relationships (Judges 19). The disruption also led to the objectification and (ab)use of women by men, as seen in their abduction (Judges 21), their being divorceable (Deuteronomy 24:1-4), their being raped (2 Sam 13:1-22), and their being collected by powerful males (1 Kings 11:1-3) (for more on these configurations, and the reproductive mechanisms mentioned in the preceding paragraph, see here and here).
Third, the supplanting of God’s moral framework with self-constructed moral frameworks led to sexual behaviors which transgressed the creational design of a deeply bonded male/female pair. In response, God articulated laws which condemned and prohibited transgressive sexual behaviors such as the following: a human male with a human male (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13); a human male with an animal (Leviticus 18:23; 20:15); a human female with an animal (Leviticus 18:23; 20;16); adultery (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18); prostitution (Leviticus 19:29; 21:9; Deuteronomy 23:17-18).
As to why God prohibited these particular behaviors, remember that God’s creational design for the human person was for both the mind and the body of a human male to be intertwined with the mind and the body of a human female in a deeply bonded relationship. Each of the prohibited sexual interactions fails to conform to this design, and transgresses how God created and designed human bodies, minds, and relationships to work. Thus, God was using these laws to restrain prohibited behavior, but also, and more importantly, to bring into greater relief what his ideal, harmony-oriented design for sexual activity was, and to guide people back to that.
One way to appreciate more fully what God is getting at in these laws is to think in terms of the mechanics of sexual activity. Regarding this, there are two issues which these laws are concerned with:
1) what type of body human male genitals correctly and incorrectly penetrate, and what type of male genitals correctly and incorrectly penetrate a human female body
2) what type of body is human male semen correctly and incorrectly deposited in, and what type of male semen is correctly and incorrectly deposited in a human female body
The following diagram shows how the laws adjudicate these issues:
When the sexual behaviors which God prohibits and permits are looked at in this way, the bedrock role of anatomy and physiology in God’s design for a sexual relationship comes into stark relief. God’s design for a human sexual relationship entails a specific anatomical and physiological relationship between two human beings when they physically couple. This specific anatomy and physiology is heterosexual, and heterosexual anatomy and physiology is reproductive, and, as seen in Genesis 1, reproduction is a central purpose of the two sexual forms of human beings which God creates. Reproduction, however, is not possible in several of the prohibited sexual relationships (human male/human male, human male/animal, human female/animal), or welcome in others (adultery, prostitution). These sexual behaviors do not then comport with the fundamental physical and purposive aspects of God’s design for a human sexual relationship.
Something which highlights God’s focus on these visceral issues of penetration and deposit of semen is the absence of a prohibition against the sexual interaction of a human female with a human female. Such behavior transgresses God’s design for the female body and mind, but the genitals of a human female cannot deposit semen in the other female body. Thus, female/female sexual behavior is not topically relevant at this point in Scripture. It will, however, be dealt with elsewhere, namely, in Romans 1:26-27, where it is identified as not conforming to God’s creational design and thus as a transgressive type of sexual interaction.
But having said all of this about anatomy and physiology, that is not the only thing which has a bedrock role in God’s design for a human sexual relationship. There is also relationality. God’s design for a human sexual relationship entails a deep and lasting bond between two human beings, something which emerges from and is physicalized and perpetuated by the visceral qualities of heterosexual intercourse between them. This bond is important to the relationship between the man and the woman, but it also ensures that any offspring resulting from their union will come into the world within a structure designed to be stable and oriented to caring for them. Such a deep and lasting human male/female bond, however, is not possible in several of the prohibited sexual relationships (human male/animal, human female/animal), or welcomed in others (some cases of adultery, some cases of human male/human male, prostitution), or undistracted and single-minded in others (adultery). These sexual behaviors do not then comport with the fundamental relational aspect of God’s design for a human sexual relationship.
Two things follow these observations about the essential elements of God’s design for a human sexual relationship.
First, God’s design for a human sexual relationship does not entail solely a certain anatomy and physiology or solely a certain relationality. It entails both. One cannot have only one of the two and call the relationship good and right. Both aspects must be present for the bond to be in accord with God’s design. Thus, for example, no sexual activity between a man and woman in a structure of slavery can be called good and right; so too, a deep and lasting bond between two male sexual partners cannot be called good and right.
Second, love is not what valorizes a human sexual relationship in God’s eyes. Love, of course, is related to the idea of a deep and lasting bond between two human beings. But given how widespread the mantra “love is love” has become in valorizing various types of human sexual relationships, it needs to be mentioned separately. The rightness and goodness of a human sexual relationship is not to be found in the subjective feelings of the two human beings. Rather, it is to be found in the objective characteristics of God’s design for human bodies, minds, and relationships. If one is to find love in a sexual relationship, it will not be found in any structure of sexual relationship one chooses. Instead, it will be found by placing oneself within a sexual relationship designed by God – a deep and lasting pair-bond relationship of like/opposites who seek to live out the elements of the pair-bond complex together.
Dr. Richard Whitekettle and a Professor of Religion in the Religion Department at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI.