Clobbers and Comebacks

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Eventually, any discussion of queer theology must take into account what are known as the “clobber passages.” These verses from the Bible appear to outlaw homosexuality, or at least certain types of homosexual sex. The clobber passages have been used (as the name implies) to harm LGBTQ+ folks for many years, and so they should be wrestled with. However, it is my firm belief that the presence of several verses, often taken out of context, within a 2,000-page book should not override the Bible’s prevailing call to love and care for one another and to pursue justice. Ultimately, I am far less concerned with explaining away these few passages than I am with discerning how to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8) in the present time. While I acknowledge the need to wrestle with these texts, I am skeptical at best of the whole process, and I feel that sometimes, our attempts to counter the apparent bans on homosexuality do more harm than good.

One key argument is that the Bible does not include “homosexual” as a term of identity or orientation in the modern sense (see Colby Martin’s book UnClobber). I am bored of this line of reasoning. In fact, I think this argument by itself is dangerous. It neglects the very real through-lines between Biblical and modern thinking, leaving us open to accidentally buying into modern systems of oppression. First of all, it is dismissive — as if we should just throw out anything from a different cultural context. But obviously we don’t do that; the entire Bible is from a different cultural context, yet we still look to it for ethical and moral guidance. But more, it’s disingenuous. The argument continues, explaining that Biblical interpretations of same-sex intercourse were rooted in an understanding of active male and passive female partners; a man penetrating another man crossed the patriarchal boundaries of who was expected to be active/penetrating and passive/receptive. By implication, that is no longer how we understand homosexuality today. But that would be a false assumption. Homophobia, transphobia, and queerphobia are all deeply rooted in patriarchal/misogynist expectations of active and passive sexual partners. It’s why gay men are caricatured as (and mocked and beat up for) being effeminate; they are violating the rules of masculinity. It’s why anti-homosexual laws were disproportionately enforced against gay men rather than lesbian women, because (like in Biblical times) it was harder to imagine a woman taking an active sexual role. It’s why trans women are at higher risk of assault than trans men; they are turning masculinity on its head. We cannot divorce modern animosity towards LGBTQ folks from the very impulses that motivated Levitical laws against male-male penetration. 

There’s also the problem of divorcing gay sex from gay orientation. This argument leads lots of complicated places. On the one hand, you end up with people who admit it’s okay to have same-sex attraction, but maintain that the Bible clearly forbids gay sex, so all homosexuals must live in celibacy. (I reject this notion. I maintain that sexual expression is a part of all creation which God deemed good. I also know that this theology causes great trauma, and we are to judge teachings by their fruits. But also, it is a pretty convincing argument which follows from the idea that the Bible didn’t understand sexual orientation.) On the other hand, if you go too far down the “born this way” path, that also creates complications. What about bisexual people? Are they allowed to “choose” to have a same-sex partner, even if they hypothetically can be attracted to people of the opposite sex? How do you “know” that you are really gay, and therefore “allowed” to have gay sex? It’s not enough to just say that we now understand homosexuality isn’t a choice, so old understandings of gay sex are insufficient for our time.

There are, however, some more useful ways to counter the clobber passages of Genesis and Leviticus. One such passage is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. This story has much more about it than homosexual sex. It’s incredibly unclear what the ultimate sin of Sodom is — attempted sex with angels? Violation of hospitality? Mob violence? — and anyway, it’s not this one incident that incites God’s anger. God was already planning to destroy the city, and this particular moment just illustrates an example of Sodom’s sinfulness. When it was written, it doesn’t seem to have been about homosexuality — early commentators did not read it that way. Isaiah and Ezekiel hearken back to Sodom when they want to accuse their contemporaries of greed and injustice against the poor (Isaiah 1:17, Ezekiel 16:49). The authors of Jude and 2 Peter use Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of people who pursue the desires of the flesh (no specific mention of homosexual desires), reject authority, and “malign the glorious angels” (Jude 8). The victims of attempted rape in Sodom were angels, and in the ancient world, physical relations between humans and angels were a real concern. When Paul does appear to speak of homosexual relations, he does not reference Sodom. To me, that’s a convincing argument to read this story in a different way, not as condemnation of homosexuality.

The laws in Leviticus are honestly harder to argue away. Leviticus 18:22 says, “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.” One frequent rebuttal is that we do not follow all of the laws of Leviticus anymore. The comeback, “well, you eat shellfish and wear polyester-cotton clothing!” has always seemed a little flippant to me, but it does kind of hit at the heart of the issue. This is especially true with the law against clothing of a mixed cloth. Both the injunction against wool and linen in the same garment and the injunction against male-male penetration deal with putting things in their right place, not mixing them. 

Within this context, it’s interesting to note that Exodus dictates sacred vestments (for both priest and sanctuary) made out of woolen yarn alongside linen (Exodus 26:31, 28:5). The mixing of fabrics is holy, set apart, not for casual use. While I don’t think the original authors intended this, it’s fun to think about gay sex in the same way — special, sacred, beyond everyday understanding. When we get beyond apologetics and arguing about the clobber texts, we can start to discover more like that, more depth to both scripture and our own identities. 

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