Out of Order: Homosexuality in the Bible and the Ancient Near East
A review of Donald Wold's "Out of Order: Homosexuality in the Bible and the Ancient Near East," by Dr. James Beck.
Wold, Donald J. Out of Order: Homosexuality in the Bible and the Ancient Near East. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. 1998, $17.99.
Donald Wold has made a valuable and substantial contribution to the current discussion among evangelicals regarding homosexuality. The book’s central value centers on its review of homosexuality in cultures that surrounded ancient Israel and that thus provided the context into which we must place Levitical bans on homosexuality. The author scatters throughout the text refutations of arguments made by John Boswell, Mel White, and Tom Horner. Wold argues that homosexuality was widely seen as a violation of order, an important virtue for ancient societies. All Near Eastern cultures provided for ways of restoring order, whether by appeasing Egyptian deities with magic or by offering sacrifices on the altars of Israel. For ancient Israel, homosexuality violated God’s basic order for human society by defying the male-female model for sexual union found in the creation accounts and by defiling the sanctuary that housed God’s presence.
Wold notes that by the time Leviticus 18 was composed, a type of common law (Mesopotamian) existed throughout the Near East. However, that common law tradition did not impact the Hebrews, especially with regard to homosexuality. “There was no law like Hebrew homosexual law among the legal codes of the ancient Near East” (p. 44).
The author devotes an entire chapter to the sin of Ham against his father Noah as recorded in Genesis 9. (The chapter title is: “The Daze of Noah.”) Few treatments of the subject of homosexuality have devoted time and attention to this post-Flood account. Wold suggests that the account details not just a violation of cultural modesty but the contra-creation sins of incest, homosexuality, and rape at this point in the re-beginning of the human race. “What is hinted at in the narrative is made explicit in the law” (p. 76). The curse falls to Canaan whose descendants were premiere practitioners of these very sins (homosexuality, rape, and incest) and who thus deserved the extermination which Yahweh commanded of the armies of Joshua.
The book is very critical of the treatment of Sodom by John Boswell. Wold demonstrates that homosexual violations are central to the Genesis 19 account and cannot be ignored. He does concede, however, that the Ezekiel 19 material adds to this central theme by discussing violations of hospitality perpetrated by the citizens of Sodom. “The narratives portray both inhospitality and homosexual conduct” (p. 85). Wold views Leviticus 18 as a treaty modeled after Hittite treaties. Leviticus 18 has a preamble (vv. 1-2), an historical prologue (vv. 3-5), a list of stipulations (vv. 67-23), a rationale for compliance (vv. 24-28), a witness (v. 30), and a curse for noncompliance (v. 29). The curse (kareth) suggests to Wold that each of the sexual sins named in Leviticus 18 are deliberate sins for which the guilty person stands fully accountable. Wold see the kareth penalty of Leviticus 18 as not mutually exclusive with the death penalty of Leviticus 20. In contrast with Boswell who suggests that the ban on sexual activity during menstruation in Leviticus 18 trivializes the seriousness of homosexuality, Wold argues that the ban on homosexuality highlights the extreme seriousness of the sin of sexual activity during menstruation.
Wold makes the statement on page 115, “There is no explicit prohibition in the Bible regarding lesbianism.” Yet on page 116 he writes, “References to sexual relations between women are found in the later Greek literature and the New Testament (Rom. 1:26). Readers are left to wonder how these two statements fit together. Nor will all readers be convinced of Wold’s suggestion that Jesus makes an allusion to homosexuality in Mark 7:21-23 when he uses the word alelgeia. The evidence is not strong enough a warrant a firm conclusion on this issue.
Readers may wish that Wold had shared more of his expertise on kareth in this volume. How do we understand kareth as a serious punishment for serious sexual sins (Leviticus 18) when the banning called for by kareth is also the punishment for misusing holy oil or incense (Exodus 30), for eating a sacrificed peace offering on the third day (Leviticus 19), or for a great variety of other violations of ritual law?
Wold does not like the term sexual orientation because it conveys to the modern mind a lack of moral responsibility for presumably determined behavior. Most evangelicals will agree with Wold on this point. Wold would like to restrict the term orientation to “only a mind-set and not an inherited trait” (p. 23). “The Hebrew term yeser is used of mental purpose of frame of mind and is not far from some modern nuances of orientation” (p. 22). Yet Wold’s position here is inadequate given the host of data we must deal with. We need substantial and scholarly discussions of the topic of sexual orientation as it relates to the question of the sin nature. The sin nature orients every person away from God and prompts in some manner the person to commit violations of God’s laws. When the person decides to commit acts based on the promptings of the sin nature, the person is held responsible. No person, except the incarnate Son of God, escapes the power of the sin nature; for all have sinned. We are able to affirm the moral responsibility of all sinners and at the same time acknowledge a powerful, underlying orientation to that sin. Yet we do not seem able to do so when it comes to the sin of homosexual behavior.
The book is best suited for understanding the Bible’s condemnation of deliberate sins of homosexuality committed by adults. As mentioned at the top of this review, this contribution is significant and noteworthy. But it goes without saying that we continue to have much more to do regarding this topic. We have to understand why heterosexual orientation seems to be absent in some persons; we have to assimilate psychological and physiological findings regarding human sexuality as we exegete Scripture; we have to deal more thoroughly with the teachings of Scripture on celibacy; we need to understand more about eunuchs and how Scripture’s teaching on this subject may inform the broader discussion. We can only hope that additional works of the caliber of this current volume will carry on with the wider discussions that we all need.
Dr. James Beck
Professor of Counseling