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“Your love for me was more wonderful than the love of women.” Biblical inspirations for LGBT people

Pro-LGBT activists working from within the Church often engage in a defensive reinterpretation of relevant biblical passages. But although this task needs to be accomplished, it is merely reactive.
“Your love for me was more wonderful than the love of women.” Biblical inspirations for LGBT people
illustrator: Kasia Pustoła

The discussion on the presence of LGBT people in the Church has continued for a long time and is gaining momentum. The opponents of equal rights do not only invoke natural law arguments or aesthetic considerations. They also argue based on the letter of the Bible, and quoting a relevant passage is often treated as a conclusion to the debate. Meanwhile, such a treatment of the Bible is both unjustified and at odds with its overarching message.

A non-biblical fixation on sex

The Bible comprises 35,000 verses (the exact number varies slightly between translations). Those which might have any connection to a negative judgment on non-heterosexual behaviors can be counted on the fingers of two hands. If we consider the denunciation of homosexual practices as one of many ethical assessments made in the Holy Scripture (although never by Jesus), it will prove to be far less significant than the denunciation of social inequality, exploitation or violence against the vulnerable (The Book of Isaiah is notable here as it was quoted by Jesus numerous times, with over four hundred references to it found in the New Testament).

Admittedly, the importance of a given Bible verse has little to do with statistics. However, the numbers shed light on a key fact: the Church’s fixation on human sexuality is wholly unbiblical. Churches often become more focused on the “promotion” of heterosexuality and the “traditional” family model than on preaching the Gospel. Some seem to forget that the Scripture’s primary purpose is to pass on the divine news of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (from the Greek euangélion, a good story) rather than establish an ethical doctrine about this or any sphere of life.

As a result, pro-LGBT activists working from within the Church often engage in a defensive reinterpretation of relevant biblical passages. But although this task needs to be accomplished, it is merely reactive. Moreover, it allows their conservative adversaries to position themselves as the only defenders of the Holy Scriptures’ authority. Two issues play a key role in this discussion: first, the problem of interpreting biblical terminology; second, the question about which biblical commands and prohibitions still apply to the modern Christian, and which ones have become obsolete (e.g. orders against ingesting certain foods – Leviticus 11; tattooing – Leviticus 19:28; wearing trousers by women − Deuteronomy 22:5; or the countless mentions of stoning perpetrators to death or cutting off their body parts for various transgressions – Deuteronomy 25:11-12; Matthew 18:8). The analysis of the relevant verses can be rendered difficult by inconsistencies within and between Bible translations − which will be apparent in the examples discussed below − as well as the translators’ individual perspectives. This diversity shows that we cannot develop one “objectively correct” translation. (For the purposes of this article, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible was used.)

The Scripture passages which are routinely weaponized against the legitimization of LGBT people’s presence in the Church have been reinterpreted a number of times, including in academic papers. (In Poland, a key example is an article by husband-and-wife protestanttheologians Jakub and Iwona Slawik, entitled “Homoseksualizm problemem kościoła?” [Homosexuality: The Church’s Problem?] as a key example in Poland.) At this point, it is worth trying to liberate ourselves from the conservatives’ crossfire of Bible verses, which are often taken out of context. This requires us to find an understanding of the Bible which could become a positive point of reference for LGBT Christians.

In order to do that, we must first realize that despite what the circles who demonize LGBT people have been saying, same-sex (just like mixed-sex) relationships cannot be reduced to physical sexual activity. Human sexuality is rich and comprises a number of psychological components, such as love, commitment, attachment, friendship, compassion, tenderness or devotion. The abundance of this reality can also be seen in the Holy Scripture. The Bible has witnessed relationships where two people of the same sex develop feelings which are difficult to describe solely in terms of friendship. These passages portray images of femininity and masculinity which differ from what is commonly understood as legitimate for “the Christian civilization.” Two stories from the Hebrew Bible seem to be representative examples here.

Ruth and Naomi

The Book of Ruth – as the only biblical text discussing a unique bond between two women – should enjoy a special place within the debate on the depiction of same-sex relationships in the Scripture. The theme of ethnicity is also significant here: it is a story about Moabite Ruth’s extraordinary loyalty and commitment to Naomi, an Israelite from Bethlehem. After the death of her husband and sons, Naomi decides to return to Israel from the fields of Moab and tells her daughters-in-law – Ruth and Orpah (who soon disappears from the narrative) – to “go back … to your mother’s house” and remarry. Orpah initially objects, but ultimately obeys. Meanwhile, Ruth’s answer is unambiguous, and its words are among the verses most frequently quoted at Christian wedding ceremonies:

Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. … Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’ (Ruth 1:14, 16-17)

The word davaq, translated here as “clung to her,” has strong emotional connotations. For example, it appears in the second narrative on the creation of man in the well-known passage: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). The same Hebrew word was translated differently in the same book: “And [Shechem’s] soul was drawn to Dinah, daughter of Jacob; he loved the girl, and spoke tenderly to her” (Genesis 34:3). It can also be seen in a negative, strictly physical context: “The tongue of the infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst” (Lamentations 4:4).

Although the particular meaning of the term davaq depends on its context, it is frequently used to describe emotions or situations which are out of the ordinary. Ruth decided to break familial bonds in order to stay with Naomi. The words used here suggest that the pledge of devotion and lifelong commitment can be considered as comparable to the ties between man and wife described by God at the act of creation. Naomi accepts Ruth’s vows and welcomes her into the family despite their lack of consanguinity. It is especially evident when she refers to Boaz as “a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin” (Ruth 2:20; 3:2).

In the final chapter of the book, Boaz marries Ruth. The marriage is arranged by Naomi according to the levirate law. That way, both women gain social security of which they were deprived as widows. This legal fact is further proof of how determined Ruth must have been when she refused to return to the safety of her family home because she wanted to stay by her mother-in-law’s side. The social acceptance of Ruth and Naomi’s intimate relationship is evidenced by the local women’s reaction to the birth of Ruth’s son, Obed. They say: “A son has been born to Naomi” (Ruth 4:17) and:

“[Obed] shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” (Ruth 4:15)

Two biblical parallels are unusual in this passage. First, the word ahav was used (translated here as “loves”). It can refer to God’s love for man (“the Lord your God loved you,” Deuteronomy 23:6), paternal love (Abraham’s for Isaac: “take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love,” Genesis 22:2) as well as marital love (“Jacob loved Rachel,” Genesis 29:18). It is also the Hebrew root for the noun “lover” (“for all your lovers are crushed,” Jeremiah 22:20). Second, the phrase “more to you than seven sons” again seems to equate Ruth and Naomi’s relationship with the relationship of loving spouses, echoing the words used by Elkanah to comfort his childless wife Hannah: “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Samuel 1:8).

Can we definitively conclude anything about how profound Ruth and Naomi’s relationship was? Does the Bible depict it as a family tie between a daughter- and mother-in-law, a friendship, or a romantic relationship? Although it is difficult to give an unequivocal answer based on the above analysis, we can certainly say that the women shared an extraordinary and unusually strong bond.

David and Jonathan

Another example of a remarkably strong same-sex relationship is the connection between David and Jonathan. David, a young shepherd, is anointed by the prophet Samuel as the successor to Saul, Israel’s first king. Through his charm, musical talent and mastery in the art of war, David quickly gains popularity among the people, the court and the royal family. Saul’s daughter, Michal, falls in love with David and eventually marries him.

David also makes a great impression on Saul’s first-born son, Jonathan. When David brought Goliath’s head to show the king,

the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. … Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt. (1 Samuel 18:1, 3-4).

The author of this description evidently wants to illustrate the magnitude of the event between David and Jonathan by using poetic language. The term berit was translated here as a covenant – a mutual commitment, a pact – which can be made in a political context, like that of other nations against Israel (“against you they make a covenant,” Psalm 83: ), between God and people (“I hereby make a covenant,” Exodus 34:10) as well as between spouses (“she is … your wife by covenant,” Malachi 2:14). The fact that Jonathan offers his garments to David can be interpreted as a gesture of friendship and loyalty on the one hand, and a political display on the other hand, with the robe, sword, bow and belt being marks of royal status. By receiving them, David symbolically becomes Jonathan’s peer. The gesture could be an attempt to legitimize David’s later ascension to the throne.

Other words by the two men indicate a deeper and more personal relationship than one based on political calculations. When Saul’s pride is hurt after another one of David’s victorious battles, the king decides to condemn the successor to death. The sentence is never carried out because of Jonathan’s loyalty to David. He is the first to oppose his fathers will, thereby rejecting the predominant pattern of loyalty based on blood ties:

Saul spoke with his son Jonathan and with all his servants about killing David. But Saul’s son Jonathan took great delight in David. Jonathan told David, ‘My father Saul is trying to kill you; therefore be on guard tomorrow morning; stay in a secret place and hide yourself.’ (1 Samuel, 19:1-2)

The Hebrew word often translated as “to take delight” is hafets, also rendered as “to desire” (including sexual connotations,) “to delight in,” “to be pleased with,” “to take a liking.” Examples abound: there is King Ahasuerus and Esther („unless the king delighted in her,” Esther 2:14,) Joshua in his speech to the congregation of Israelites („If the Lord is pleased with us” – Numbers 14:8,) Solomon who finished building „all that … desired to build” (1 Kings 9:1,) or Shechem’s feeling towards Dinah (“he was delighted with Jacob’s daughter,” Genesis 34:19).

Saul’s reaction when he realized his son’s betrayal merits closer attention:

Then Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan. He said to him, ‘You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?’ (1 Samuel, 20:30)

Saul calls Jonathan and David’s relationship a “shame” or even “the shame of his mother’s nakedness” – a reference to the prohibition against sexual intercourse with a parent, a taboo proscribed in the Torah: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother” (Leviticus 18:7; words such as “nakedness” or “pudenda” are translations of the Hebrew “`ervah,” whose connotations are almost exclusively sexual). Saul considered his son’s relationship with David so abominable that he compared it to incest.

Jonathan, fulfilling his pledge of loyalty, helped David hide from the king. Moreover, during a secret conversation in the field, “Jonathan  again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life” (1 Samuel 20:17; the noun ahavah and the verb ahav are used here.) Later, when Jonathan informed David about the impending threat with a secret sign:

David rose from beside the stone heap and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept the more. Then Jonathan said to David, ‘Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the Lord, saying: The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, forever.’ (1 Samuel 20:41-42)

Even if we assume that no terms used here have erotic undertones – the word nashaq may as well refer to a child kissing a parent (“Let me kiss my father and my mother,” 1 Kings 19:20,) a greeting between strangers (“he bowed down and kissed him,” Exodus 18:7,) and a kiss between spouses (“Jacob kissed Rachel” – Genesis 29:11) – this passage demonstrates a special emotional relationship that developed between the men.

Your love more wonderful than that of women

David remains in hiding for a long time until a messenger comes to inform him that Saul with his sons and army died in a battle with the Philistines. In reaction to the news, the grieving David sings one of the Bible’s most moving elegies, with some words referring to Jonathan directly:

I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;

greatly beloved were you to me;

your love to me was wonderful,

passing the love of women. (2 Samuel, 1:26)

Due to the lack of actual family ties between the men, the expression “my brother” indicates the depth of their relationship. Similar verses can be found in the erotic poem Song of Songs. The bridegroom addresses the bride: “You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride … How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride!” (Song 4: 9-10). David’s words na’amta li me’od (greatly beloved were you to me) are reminiscent of the bridegroom’s exclamation from the Song of Songs: “How … pleasant you are” (Song 7:6, from naem: “to be beautiful,” “delightful,” “pleasant”). Most importantly, David considered his relationship with Jonathan as “passing the love of women” (notably, both David and Jonathan maintained sexual relationships with women; with David gaining a reputation of a “seducer”).

It is worth asking whether reading something more into Jonathan and David’s relationship is merely a contemporary tendency without any historical basis. A key context here is the Mishnah Pirkei Avot, a volume of Jewish didactic literature compiled sometime between 300 B.C. and 200 A.D. It evokes the two men’s story as an example of the archetype of altruistic love as opposed to the heterosexual relationship between Amnon and Tamar, which was believed to have been based solely on materialistic motivations:

All love (ahavah) that depends on something, [when the] thing ceases, [the] love ceases; and [all love] that does not depend on anything, will never cease. What is an example of love that depended on something? Such was the love of Amnon for Tamar. And what is an example of love that did not depend on anything? Such was the love of David and Jonathan. (Pirkei Avot 5:16)

Such a reading is also known in the Christian tradition. The 1584 Spiritual Canticle by John of the Cross, Doctor of the Church and mystic, contains a comparison of David and Jonathan’s love to the soul’s relationship to God:

“We may form some conception of [the union between God and the soul] from the love of David and Jonathan, whose ‘soul was knit with the soul of David.’ If the love of one man for another can be thus strong, so as to knit two souls together, what must that love of God be which can knit the soul of man to God the Bridegroom?” (Spiritual Canticle Ch. XXX, note 2).

To love and care for the excluded

We are unable to unequivocally determine the nature of the relationships discussed above. Each of the stories remains open, undefined and gives no basis to forming a final interpretation. It seems equally legitimate to read these passages as descriptions of solely non-romantic and asexual friendships between two people of the same sex, and to uncover homoerotic themes in them. However, no doubt remains that the stories of Ruth and Naomi, and David and Jonathan may serve as guidance for LGBT people as they search for their own path in life and build their Christian identity.

The attempt to base all of the Church’s teachings about the delicate issue of human sexuality on scattered and often ambiguous biblical passages (regardless of which position we take) hinders the development of a widely accepted stance. At the same time, the Scripture contains one common, consistent message. It was articulated by Israel in its experience of exile, extended by prophets in their calls for reorganizing religious and social life, and finally personified in Jesus’ being-together and compassion with social outcasts, with the sick and the poor, with prostitutes and tax collectors. The message relies on a vision of the Creator who stands beside the vulnerable, the Savior who liberates the oppressed. In this light, the imperative to love those who are excluded from the community and care for them seems unquestionably clear.

Translated from the original Polish by Aleksandra Paszkowska

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