Insights into my book Homoeroticism and the Hebrew Bible

By Karin Hügel

Before I began the research into my book I was already interested in homoerotic theological approaches, but also happened to find such topics, e.g. when I was concerned with the Christian antique sarcophagus within my studies of Protestant Theology at the University of Vienna and investigated the so-called "brother sarcophagus"(1). There are located two male portrait busts in the conch, which is the basic pattern for the portrayal of a married couple. Thus for spectators the two men don’t appear like brothers – as it is asserted in the scientific literature – but they are seen as a homoerotic couple, which obviously was intended by the orderers, too.

My book Homoeroticism and the Hebrew Bible (written and published in German as Homoerotik und Hebräische Bibel) is the first, which discusses the Hebrew Bible associated with queer theory as a whole. In contemporary usage, queer is an inclusive, unifying, sociopolitical umbrella term applied to people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, intersexual, genderqueer, asexual and autosexual as well as those who question their sexual orientation or their identification with the sociocultural gender assigned to them. It can also include gender normative heterosexuals whose sexual orientations or activities place them outside the heterosexually defined mainstream (e.g. BDSM practitioners or polyamorous persons). These people took the previously abusive word "queer" – which means "strange" or "odd" – for their affirmative self-designation and use it in the sense of "positive perverse".(2)

Within English-language scientific literature, there have been far more publications in this subject area than exist in German literature, which is why most of the secondary literature used in my book is in English.

In the first part of my publication, I discuss the controversy of scientists who deal with "sexuality" relating to antiquity, about similarities and differences between past and present concepts of sexualities, and about the question of whether it makes sense to talk about "homosexuality" (in the modern sense of exclusive sexual orientation toward partners of the same sex) when discussing premodern times. Then there is given an overview about the construction of the sociocultural gender as working hypothesis with definitions of terms. I avoid the term "homosexuality" because it is tied to modern concepts of sexuality. Instead I use the word "homoeroticism" and refer to the often anachronistic use of terms of the second half of the 19th century and later terms as e.g. "queer" for the Hebrew Bible.(3)

Because of the ongoing danger of anti-Judaism, I employ the term "Hebrew Bible" instead of "Old Testament." In the more frequently used term "Old Testament," a resonance of a hostility against Jews cannot be ruled out, namely, that within the Christian doctrine and annunciation the Christian relationship to the Jews is described as a contrast and that the Jews are so declared degraded, inferior and superseded.

Furthermore, I pursue the questions of the so-called "homosexuality" and biblical interpretation and the interpretation of same-sex relationships once and now in the first part of my publication. In several parts of my book statements of religious organizations are quoted to show their positions for which I asked by letter.

In the second part of my book I deal with all the passages in the Hebrew Bible relevant to homoeroticism – namely the legal texts Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 as well as the stories of Sodom (Genesis 19:1-28), of Gibeah (Judges 19), of Ham and Noah (Genesis 9:20-27), of Saul, David and Jonathan (1 Samuel 18-20 and 2 Samuel 1:26) and of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz (Book of Ruth) – within the framework of reader-response criticism and intertextuality. Feminist interpretations of these texts are woven in where it seems appropriate for me. Different concepts of reader-response criticism and intertextuality are introduced as well.

In dealing with the subject of homoeroticism and the Hebrew Bible, it is not correct only to refer to the legal texts Lev. 18:22 and Lev. 20:13 and thereby anachronistically deduce that "homosexuality" is forbidden then and now and carries a penalty. The man that is addressed in Lev. 18:22 and Lev. 20:13, and whose actions are interdicted, is the one who practices "sexual intercourses of a woman" with another man. In Hebrew there is written: miškěbê iššâ, which means literally "the lyings down" (= plural) of a woman. In contrast to the common concept that here only anal intercourse between men is punished, I argue that the Hebrew miškěbê ’iššâ refers to all forms of "sexual intercourse of a woman." The plural form Hebrew miškěbê could refer to a woman having sexual intercourse many times, or all the various ways how a woman has sexual intercourse, which seems more reasonable. In Lev. 18:22 and Lev. 20:13 such sexual practices of an adult, free and therefore legally responsible man with another man – there are no limitations regarding his status, age and origin – are proscribed.

I point out that in the Holiness Code it is not intended to protect the young and weak, because in these laws of the Book of Leviticus incest prohibitions of a father with his daughter and with his son or son-in-law are missing. In contrast to heterosexist positions, I suggest explicitly that the biblical material doesn’t contain anything directly relevant concerning different relationships of queer persons for contemporary disputes. For women, there is strikingly no prohibition of female homoeroticism in the Hebrew Bible and none in the Holiness Code. Moreover, I ask why the prohibitions regarding male homoeroticism are only handed down in the Holiness Code and not also in one of the two larger, older collections of law of the Hebrew Bible, namely the Covenant Code Exodus 20-22 and Deuteronomy.

The legal texts Lev. 18:22 and Lev. 20:13 are, in my view, most likely explained by the concept of status: for a man it is a loss of power to take the social position of a woman because there is a considerable imbalance in power between the sexes to the disadvantage of the women. It probably indicates a special degradation for a man to have sexual intercourse with another man the way described in Lev. 18:22.

Other "texts of terror" in the Hebrew Bible for queer people are the stories of Sodom in Gen. 19:1-28, of Ham and Noah in Gen. 9:20-27 and for the last three decades even the story of Gibeah in Judges 19, a city that became the paragon of "bisexuality" from the viewpoint of conservative interpretations, as distinct from Sodom, the province of "homosexuality." It is necessary to question the heterosexist bias inherent in citing these passages of the Hebrew Bible as so-called biblical references to "homosexuality."

The word "sodomy" was derived from the biblical city Sodom in the Christian Middle Ages. It had a number of different meanings, and referred to a whole series of certain sexual practices that did not answer the purpose of procreation. Regarding the story of Sodom, it must be said that the key Hebrew word yāda in Gen. 19:5 does not necessarily have to be interpreted in a sexual meaning. Not only "knowledge" in a sexual sense can be meant, but also just "getting to know" each other. The latter was argued e.g. also by John Calvin, in contrast to Martin Luther, in chapter 19 of his commentary on Genesis. Concerning the rape theory, which means that the Sodomites or the Gibeanites intended to "get to know sexually" the respective foreign sojourners I suggest that in context of Genesis 19 and Judges 19 the usage of the term "homosexual rape" in interpretations is misleading, creates homophobia and should be replaced therefore with "male rape," which is the more accurate term. Significant changes in the exegesis of the history of Sodom began taking place in the 1950s, when it became more common for historians and biblical scholars to challenge the equation of the sin of the men of Sodom with "homosexuality." Strikingly, the earliest interpretations of the story of Sodom in the Bible don’t emphasize the sexual nature of the sin of Sodom at all, but enumerate their sins as pride (Ezek. 16:49-50), xenophobia (Wis. 19:13-16) or lack of hospitality (Lk. 10,12). Also, in the earliest commentaries on the Koran the exclusive focus on homoeroticism – with which the wickedness of qawm Lūt(4) ("Lūt’s people") was associated later on in the Islamic traditions – had not yet emerged.

Also, the story of Noah and his son Ham in Genesis 9:20-25 – which is described by a number of scholars as a "splinter of a more extensive narrative" because of its brevity and its textual inconsistency – can be interpreted in many different ways: e.g. as an incest of Ham towards his father, or psychoanalytically as Noah’s same-sex desire for his son, or even as sexual encounter with him.

I come to the conclusion that there are many various references to male homoeroticism in the Hebrew Bible: I compare the legal texts Lev. 18:22 and Lev. 20:13 with stories like Ham and Noah in Gen. 9:20-25 or that of Saul, David and Jonathan in the Books of Samuel. I suggest that texts like Gen. 47:29-31 and Gen. 24:1-9, in which a man seizes or should grasp the penis – literally: "under the thigh" – of another man to whom he is swearing, also include sexual activities between men without forbidding them.

In my book I discuss if the affairs of the kings Saul and David and of the king’s son Jonathan can be comprehended as a loyal relationship among comrades-in-arms and nonsexual male bonding or as an example of homosociability or of homoeroticism. Not only have scholars since the latter half of the twentieth century interpreted the narratives about Saul, David and Jonathan in both Books of Samuel in a homoerotic way, but there was already a long tradition of literary homoerotic receptions and appropriations of visual arts and of music about the biblical figures Saul, David and Jonathan. Additionally, there is a small number of progressive works of the 17th century which try to criticize reasonably or mock the myth of Sodom, to apologize for same-sex love, or even to praise it. Such works, along with other literary receptions of Genesis 19 up to today, produce impressively homoerotic readings already prior and parallel to the scholarly interpretations of the 20th and 21th century.

While reading the Book of Ruth, I focused on the portrayal of Ruth’s relationship to a woman – namely Naomi – and on this relationship of women as a subsequent subscription of the way of affidamento. I also pointed to the blurring of sexually defined roles in the Book of Ruth. In particular, Ruth’s words of her liaison to Naomi in Ruth 1:16 allowed a queer appropriation of the Book of Ruth by lesbian and bisexual midrashim and queer ceremonies. Outside of strictly scholarly literature, there took place – not surprisingly – a more radical appropriation of the Ruth-Naomi bond for same-sex relationships.

My research goes on to place "homoeroticism and the Hebrew Bible" within the framework of queer readings to avoid heteronormativity. Interpretations based on "queer commentaries" contribute to the goal altogether of producing more queer ways of living. There is not only one queer method to read biblical text passages, but a great variety of queer approaches that are grounded in certain interpretations of the term "queer". I introduce different meanings of "queer" and give a summary of currently known queer ways of readings of these and other texts of the Hebrew Bible. So I investigate the creation accounts among others.

At the end I get into a predecessor of queer readings alluding to the Hebrew Bible in the 19th century, namely Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick, which appeared in the beginning of the American literature.

Different reactions to my book followed. While writing the text of Homoeroticism and the Hebrew Bible, I had difficulty finishing my study of Protestant Theology. The paper that I handed in for my thesis, however, was met with approbation. In the meantime, I gave workshops to different audiences in Germany and Austria based on the contents of my book. I provided a survey of my research at the second network congress of Christian Lesbian and Gay groups in Bielefeld in October 2008. My lecture "Homoerotik und Hebräische Bibel" ("Homoeroticism and the Hebrew Bible") has been published in volume 16 of Werkstatt Schwule Theologie (Gay Theology Workshop) in 2013. In my lecture at the Women’s Spring University in Graz, Austria, I focused on female homoeroticism in the Hebrew Bible. My article "Queere Lesarten des Buchs Ruth und der Schöpfungsberichte" ("Queer Readings of the Book of Ruth and of the Creation Accounts") is published in Frauenin/transFormation. Beiträge zur FrauenFrühlingsUniversität Graz 2009. A longer version of this article with the title "Queere Lesarten der Hebräischen Bibel. Das Buch Ruth und die Schöpfungsberichte" ("Queer Readings of the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Ruth and the Creation Accounts") can be found in Journal of the European Society of Women in Theological Research, Volume 18, 2010. I gave a mini-lecture on "Female Homoeroticism and the Hebrew Bible" at the 13th International Conference of the European Society of Women in Theological Research 2009 "Wrestling with God" in Winchester, United Kingdom.


(1) The sarcophagus known under the designation "brother sarcophagus" with two men in a conch before the upper frieze’s zone can be seen in the museum Pio Cristiano in the Vatican.

(2) An affirmative reinterpretation of swear words like the term "queer" is not new, there are also e.g. French "huguenot", Dutch "geus" and "boer", English "Quaker" and so forth. In linguistics such words which actually are used to insult people but are converted positively are called in Dutch "geuzennaam".

(3) Cf. e.g. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2357 resp. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (ed.), Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons. 1 October 1986, number 6, in: link, of May 5, 2009.

(4) Arabic words like lūtī or liwāt derive from Arabic qawm Lūt which is the exact counterpart of the "Sodomites".