Monthly Archives: June 2014

St. Paul and Homosexuality

At a  gathering around the dinner table, a friend came out to his mother and siblings. His mother, an Evangelical Christian, informed him that according to Paul in Romans, he had been abandoned by God. That led me to read Romans and to the passage Christians often refer to when assuring gays they are promised damnation—and discovering, as I would often do after coming to Israel, how a Jewish perspective can offer a different reading, perhaps closer to that of Paul’s, on his text.. The following is taken from the New International Version of the Bible.

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

The question, really, is what is the essence of wickedness? It is, as Paul explains further on, idolatry.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.[1]

24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.[2]

The King James Version is, in many ways, clearer, perhaps, closer to the original, not glossing over it with modern interpretation.

22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,

23 And changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.[3]

24 Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves:

25 Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.[4]

The differences between the ITV and the King James versions are telling, and in many respects, they are the differences between a Christian reading (“sinful desires” and “sexual impurity”) and a more Jewish source that still uses the language[5] of kashrut and the halacha (“uncleanness,[6]” “lusts of their own hearts,” “to dishonor their own bodies”). In the Jewish tradition, the body is designed for two things: to recognize and praise God and to procreate, for the first commandment given to Adam was “be fruitful and multiply.” To lust after flesh is to make the body sacred and to treat it as one treats idols; those who lust after flesh forget they are meant to procreate. It is clear from the passage that for Paul all sexual pleasure can be understood as idolatry, not just lesbian and homosexual variants, which are extreme in that no procreation is possible.

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.[7]

Idolatry leads to the perversion of all righteousness. Curiously, the grab-bag of sins that follows parallels the list of sins for which Jews request forgiveness on the High Holy Days: a betrayal of God leads to a betrayal of one’s fellow human beings, from gossip to slander, from insolence to thievery and murder.

28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.[8] 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.[9]

Man is created in tselem elohim, in the image of God. The word that is translated as image in English has far more resonance in Hebrew than in English. After all, we can upload images on our computers, but we can never upload a tselem. The word appears only once in the Bible. The word tsel in Hebrew means shadow, and a more accurate feeling for the word would be to translate tselem as reflection. Man is an image of God as a reflection of him. In the Jewish tradition, that we are created in God’s image is a fundamental assumption that branches out to mean that we have been given the conscience to recognize God’s existence, we have been given moral and ethical duties, and we are to treat all human beings similarly as images of God: he who saves one life, saves the world. Therefore, if we are idolatrous, we betray our fundamental nature. If we are unclean, we betray the commandments of Him in whose image we are created.

It is possible to read this passage as a specific condemnation of same sex lusts, but that would be to incorrectly understand the context in which Paul was writing. All sexual acts based on the fulfillment of lust are wicked in Paul’s eyes; they are no less the embodiment of idolatry in man than genuflecting in front of idols.



[1] Romans 1, 18-23, New International Version (NIV) of the Bible.

[2] Romans 1, 24-25, ibid.

[3] The word in Hebrew is sharatzim, which appears in the Book of Genesis and, although they may be reptiles as translated above in the ITV, they are also crabs and snails and many other decidedly not kosher animals.

[4] Romans 1, 22-25, King James Version (KJV) of the Bible.

[5] A human body, as a creation of God, is meant to be unblemished. Tattoos are a form of desecration and of treating the body as a thing, an idol.

[6] Cleanliness is one of the primary virtues in the halacha and in kashrut. See Purity and Danger, Mary Douglass.

[7] Romans 1, 26-27, the NIV.

[8] This may be the earliest list paralleling the sins enumerated in the Avinu Malkenu prayer on the High Holy Days.

[9] Romans 1, 28-32, ibid.