The Bible and Same-Sex Marriage

What does it say about this week’s news from my home state that I would rather write about same-sex marriage than Illinois politics? Okay, here we go, on this week’s favorite topic other than the soon-to-be-former Governor of Illinois: the Newsweek article on biblical endorsement of gay marriage. As a divorce lawyer, I figure there is little enough love and commitment in this world that we should enthusiastically welcome it wherever it turns up. And I say this even though same-sex marriage would probably be bad for my practice, which currently includes all kinds of devices for making nonstandard same-sex families look like standard-issue straight families, including cohabitation agreements, custody agreements, and separation agreements.

The first thing any serious student of the Bible should notice, upon reading what it says about homosexuality, is that, in almost any paragraph where homosexuality is mentioned, adultery is also mentioned, and subjected to precisely the same penalties. So any biblical literalist who is not willing to see adulterers stoned to death should probably rethink the whole thing.

`The next, admittedly more subtle, thing for a Bible-reader to notice, is that almost everything the Jewish Scriptures (that’s the Old Testament, to you gentiles) says in the abstract about sex has to do with proper relationships of power and property. All of the “forbidden relationships” enumerated in Leviticus 18 and 20, for instance. Almost all of these strictures are addressed only to men (grammatically this is unmistakable in the Hebrew), except for intercourse with animals. No, that’s not the result of any sexist presumption. It’s the result of the political reality of biblical times, that only men could take the sexual initiative.

Sex with women “belonging” to other men was an infringement of property rights. Sex with women “belonging” to one’s father were an infringement of his dominance in the family. Sex with women “belonging” to one’s sons or brothers—that is, lower-ranking males–was an abuse of dominance. In this context, “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination” suggests strongly that power is an issue here, too, and that what the Author is really talking about is male-on-male rape, of the sort that happens in prisons. Which I think is an abomination, too. (Although I do like the interpretation of a rabbinical friend of mine, that lying with a man as one lies with a woman means grabbing all the covers and snoring.)

The fact is, most of the abstract things the Jewish scriptures says about sex have absolutely nothing to do with love and companionship (as opposed to several narratives about particular people falling in love and getting married.) The only exception is directed at polygynists—if a man has two wives, and loves one and hates the other, he is not allowed to let that disparity influence his treatment of their children. Which, as a divorce lawyer, I still think is a good rule, but these days, of course, we apply it only to serial polygamy.

What about the New Testament and sex? Well, Jesus had absolutely nothing to say about homosexuality, not a single word. On the other hand, he objected pretty strongly to divorce, either forbidding it altogether or permitting it only where adultery was involved. This was consistent with one of the major schools of rabbinical thought of that era, the School of Shammai. Which is interesting, given that Jesus mostly followed the teachings of the other school, the School of Hillel. But I digress.

Paul wasn’t keen on sex of any kind, gay, straight, married or unmarried. But, as with his Jewish predecessors, where he talks about homosexuality at all, it is almost always in the same paragraph and under the same strictures as adultery.

I’m not willing to go as far as Lisa Miller in her Newsweek analysis; I don’t believe the Bible necessarily endorses same-sex marriage. But I do believe that it provides for regulating it, as it regulates heterosexual marriage, along with eating, drinking, earning and spending money, and all of the other activities of daily life. Thus, another rabbinical friend of mine who will bless same-sex marriages the same as straight marriages, but will not do interfaith marriages of either kind, is, I think, being perfectly consistent by her own lights and the Jewish Tradition. Similarly, I believe that the Illinois Domestic Violence Act, which forbids assault and battery between husband and wife, cohabitating man and woman, and domestic partners (along with a whole bunch of other people in current and former relationships), is on the right track.

I also strongly endorse the distinction, utterly unknown to the Bible, between civil and religious marriage. Some of my clients have entered into religious marriages and never registered them with the state, either because state recognition violated their anarchist principles, or because it penalizes them in receiving Social Security or other benefits. A lot of my clients have married civilly but not religiously, because they just didn’t want to do the church thing, or felt they couldn’t afford it. When the religiously-but-not-civilly-married bunch shuffle off this mortal coil, they will undoubtedly make work for some lawyer, possibly me, regardless of their gender mix. The civilly-but-not-religiously-married bunch may make work for some Roman Catholic canon lawyer, or some rabbi, but thank heaven, that’s not my problem. I figure Jefferson’s sublime insight that the state and religion should stay out of each other business is especially sensible where marriage is concerned, and there is no reason not to apply it to same-sex unions too.

The Proposition 8 gang should read up on what happened (early in Gandhi’s career) when the British colonial government decided to stop recognizing all non-Christian marriages in South Africa. The results were a major setback for the colonial administration by people who, as Gandhi eloquently expressed, saw their wives branded as whores and their children as bastards. This hits people, quite literally, where they live.

Okay, enough for now. The heat has gone off in my office and I’m going home. Peace, light, and warmth to you all.


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