[June 20, 2016] People often refer to this passage to “prove” that God condemns same-sex orientation and sexuality. It is a bad idea to interpret any passage of Paul in isolation from its context, so let us try not to make that mistake here. Paul is a great expounder of the Jewish Scriptures and usually forms his arguments on this basis, and we need to also keep that in mind. Let us try now to understand these verses properly.
First off, in Romans 1:16-17 Paul introduces his topic. He is going to show how the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation to not only the Jews but also the “Greeks,” i.e., those whose native language is Greek, or more loosely those who lived in the Hellenized world left behind by Alexander’s conquests (but probably he means gentiles in general). In Romans 1:18-32 Paul speaks first about the gentile world, its origin and characterization as described in the Torah and the Prophets, especially in Genesis, the book of beginnings and the first book of the Torah. Then shifting from the third person to the rhetorical second person, in Romans 2:1-16 Paul addresses the gentile world, especially those in its philosophical schools who look down upon others. Then in Romans 2:17-29 he addresses the Jews of the Diaspora, especially those who teach in the synagogues. (The letter is addressed to “the saints in Rome,” both Jews and Christians: Jewish synagogues and the church of Jews and gentiles.
The beginning of Genesis depicts the decay of the gentile world from the expulsion of the man Adam from Eden, to the murder of Abel by his brother Cain (whose descendants are the first builders of fortified cities and weapons to defend their possessions), to the violence of the human race and its conjugal relations with the principalities and powers of the heavens (“the sons of God went in to the daughters of Adam” and produced offspring, the “strong men” of renown) in the days of Noah, to the hierarchically organized collectives we call “civilization,” the patriarchal empires of China and Babylon and Egypt, etc., in the days of Babel. Out of this development of evil in the gentile world God called Abraham and Sarah to begin anew. This world is now dominated by the power of its false gods—the idols—which it worships, the “princes, authorities, world-rulers of this darkness, and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenlies”—and its earthly demonic manifestations. This is probably the development that the Rabbi Saul (our apostle) is probably considering.
In Jude’s epistle, verses 6-7 refer to two incidents which might shed light on this passage in Romans. After saying that “certain men have crept in unnoticed, who of old have been written of beforehand for this judgment, ungodly men, perverting the grace of our God into licentiousness and denying our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ,” it says, “I intend to remind you, though you know all things once for all, that … angels, who did not keep their own principality but abandoned their own dwelling place, [God] has kept in eternal bonds under gloom for the judgment of the great day; how Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, who in like manner with these gave themselves over to fornication and went after different flesh, are set forth as an example, undergoing the penalty of eternal fire.” What is he talking about? When did angels leave their own principality and abandon their own dwelling place? It was undoubtedly in the days of Noah when the sons of God went in to the daughters of men. The men of Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, who gave themselves over to fornication—this is a nice way of saying that the men went around in gangs and raped the vulnerable, whether they were men or women (see Judges 19 for another example of this kind of behavior)—when did they go after “different flesh”? Again, it was when they attempted to rape the angels who had come to rescue Lot and his family. Probably Jude is referring to the teachers of Docetism and nascent Gnosticism with its cacophony of hierarchical powers in the heavenlies. His reference to licentiousness in verse 4 would then be spiritual as much as physical.
2 Peter, written a decade or two earlier, speaks similarly in 2:4-7. After saying that “there arose also false prophets among the people, as also among you there will be false teachers, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their licentiousness, because of whom the way of the truth will be reviled, and in covetousness, with fabricated words, they will make merchandise of you, for whom the judgment of old is not idle, and their destruction does not slumber,” it says, “For if God did not spare the angels who sinned but delivered them to gloomy pits, having cast them down to Tartarus, they being kept for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world but guarded Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; and having reduced to ashes the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, condemned them to ruin, having set them as an example to those who intend to live an ungodly life, and rescued righteous Lot, who had been oppressed by the licentious manner of life of the lawless …” I mention this passage in 2 Peter because it also pairs together these two stories from Genesis. Both interpret the intercourse of Genesis 6:1-4 as between angelic beings and human women. This is also how Irenaeus of Lyons interprets Genesis in his catechetical writings.
When Paul says in Romans 1:26 therefore that “God gave them up to passions of dishonor, for their females exchanged the natural use (physikēn chrēsin) for that which is contrary to nature (physin),” nature refers specifically to human nature. Specifically, the females left the bounds of human nature in order to have sex with angels. There is no contextual basis to make the assumption that Paul is referring to women having sex with women. In fact, nowhere in the Scriptures is there ever a reference to women having sex with women or to what we mean when we speak of lesbianism. What did the women do in the Biblical harems of David and Solomon? We do not know—the men did not think it interesting enough to mention, if they knew.
When lesbianism is condemned by Christians in the same breath as their condemnation of male homosexuality it is always on the basis of this verse. All the other verses cited refer only to men.
It does not really matter then that we do not think this is credible (women having sex with angels). It matters that the exegetes of the first century thought it was. We can demythologize this act of contra-nature sex: perhaps in Genesis it does not refer to anything physical at all but rather a kind of spiritual licentiousness, i.e., idolatry. If we read that as the subtext in Romans, 2 Peter and Jude, we would not be far off. Our relationship to God and to idols is often spoken of in the language of eroticism and sexuality.
Paul, moreover, is probably coupling the same passages in Genesis as 2 Peter and Jude do when he continues in verse 27: “And likewise also the males, leaving the natural use (physikēn chrēsin) of the female, burned in their craving toward one another, males with males committing unseemliness and fully receiving in themselves the retribution of their error which was due.” The “retribution which they fully received” seems undoubtedly to refer to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities of the plain.
A typical interpretation sees the words “males with males” and assumes this is all about homosexuality, specifically, the physical act of “sodomy” or “buggery” (anal sex between men). Is it? This is a particularly male obsession, it seems to me (males must never be penetrated but must always be the one penetrating, i.e., dominating).
In Sodom the men certainly left the “natural use” of the female in order to work unseemliness (gang rape), though we need not limit the “natural use of the female” to the mechanics of heterosexual coitus. It could refer to why nature needs males in the first place, which is not so that they can dominate women. Think of the role of males before the rise of the warring patriarchal societies dominated by their “strong men” (the which is according to Genesis 3—11 contrary to nature). “Use” is an unfortunate translation because it connotes dominance. Notice it does not say “their” (the men’s) use of the female, but “the” use of the female. The word in Greek means “relations, function” or role. The men abandoned the role of the female, which nature designed to keep their aggressiveness in check and to guide and encourage them to use their strength for the sake of the weaker members of society. Nature gives priority to the life-giving and community-sustaining role of the woman.
“Males with males” may also be a misleading translation. It is not literal. The Greek literally says “males among (en) males,” which I think simply refers to their gang behavior: males not having sex with each other but males working together (ganging up) with other males, males acting with the cooperation and encouragement of other males. If that be the case, and we are considering the behavior of men acting out and aching to gang-rape an innocent, the “burning in their craving toward (eis) one another, males among males” need not refer to the act of sex between one person and another but rather to the fevered mentality of the gang working together as a pack. The word “craving” (orexei) does not imply sexual feelings but simply a longing or desire or appetite for something. In this case, it is their appetite for trouble and violence and rape. The word “burning” is literal. It refers to kindling or lighting a fire. The fire is this ugly appetite.
The verse, then, refers to the enflamed men of Sodom who left their homes at night and prowled around in gangs looking for what trouble they could wreck on those weak enough for them to dominate. That night they had it in their minds to gangbang the visitors who were staying with Lot. The account in Genesis says that the whole culture of the town legitimized this kind of behavior of its men, both young and old.
Using these two incidents—women who transgressed their created nature to have sex with angels and men who had no respect for the leadership of women and worked in gangs with each other to prey on the weak—Paul shows the depths to which the gentile world had sunken by worshipping its own ideations.
The passage to which so many resort as proof to condemn gays and lesbians does not speak of homosexuality at all. The following list which Paul gives to exemplify the works of a “disapproved mind” “which are not fitting,” namely, “unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice; [being] full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity; [being] whisperers, slanderers, hateful to God, insolent, arrogant, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, senseless, faithless, affectionless, [and] merciless,” include all things of which we are familiar in our society, but does not include homosexual relationships and love.