Same-sex Marriage in Classical Biblical Commentary

As I researched an upcoming post on Enoch, I stumbled upon this passage in Genesis Rabbah:

“The generation of the Flood was not blotted out of the world until they had begun writing nuptial hymns for marriages between males or between man and beast.”
Genesis Rabbah 26:5:4

That does say what you think it says: Fifth century Jews, at least some of them, thought that Noah’s flood was caused by gay marriage. I was shocked by this, but more because I didn’t think of same-sex marriage as a social issue until the modern era. The very fact that it was condemned fifteen-hundred years ago means that the practice must have existed in some form. I subsequently learned that there was a controversy about it in the Roman Empire and was banned right around the time the commentary was written. It is a small world!

This isn’t a post in favor of gay marriage or against it, but rather I want to look at the two (that I found) references in early Jewish sources which talk about the practice– and if you know of early Christian sources, please share them with me. It should go without saying that while the bible doesn’t mention the practice directly, the prohibitions against same-sex relations are clear and as I strive for the “plain meaning” of the text in my blog, I won’t apologize for that. I support same-sex marriage, but this post isn’t a biblical defense of that practice.

I hope too many people don’t unfriend me for posting this. Read on for more!

Portion of "The Deluge" by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel. The wicked (and surprisingly naked) people huddle together as the ark sails away.
Portion of “The Deluge” by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel. The wicked (and surprisingly naked) people huddle together as the ark sails away.

(This post is part of a special series on marriage in the bible starting with the creation story, and continuing with levirate marriage, polygamy, wives-as-propertytests for virginity, and the honeymoon. You may also be interested in my continuing series of commentaries on Genesis, starting at the very beginning.)

Sexual Immorality Before Noah

Let me start by explaining the passage that I quoted above. Genesis Rabbah is a commentary that I’ve talked about before, one of the ones that I turn to to see how a particular story in Genesis was interpreted at a specific time in Jewish history. It’s a line by line, verse by verse commentary which has something to say about nearly every passage in Genesis. Given the way my blog has been going, it’s an attitude that I can respect…

The portion of Genesis that the quoted passage relates to is this one, a story from Genesis 6, right before the flood:

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.
Genesis 6:1-2 (KJV)

You may notice that I flipped to the King James Version for this quote and the reason will become apparent in a second. This section has a whole bunch of questions attached to it that are outside the scope of what I want to discuss now, but be aware that there is debate over what is meant by “sons of God” and “daughters of men” and how their offspring would be the “mighty men of old, men of renown”. Some read into this a story of angels mating with humans, others see it as simply the righteous mingling with the wicked. I’ll just skip it for now.

What’s more important is that when we read this passage today, we read it as “they took them wives of all which they chose”. In other words, the evil men before the flood took any women they wanted for wives, as many as they wanted. They were adulterers and rapists. It was this immorality which led in part to the flood.

But the commentators who wrote Genesis Rabbah came at this passage a little differently, and how they did it is revealing in itself. Jewish commentators believed (and believe!) that the text of the Torah, the first five books of the bible given by God to Moses at Sinai, is perfect. It perfect not only that nothing can be added to it, but also nothing can be taken away and still have the same meaning. So when these commentators looked at that phrase “they took them wives of all which they chose” (in Hebrew, of course), they noticed that “all of which they chose” seems like it doesn’t add anything. It magnifies how they took wives, nothing more. So since the text would be the same if it was removed, they reasoned that they must be reading it incorrectly. Instead, they thought that “wives” and “all of which they choose” were two separate things that the people “took”. And since the word “wives” means women, who could the rest of the “all” be? Men and beasts, naturally. They had great imaginations.

This obviously isn’t a technique of textual criticism that I can get behind personally. Whenever you look for hidden meanings in the text, you’re more likely to find what you are looking for than what is actually there. But I can at least respect the careful way that they looked at these texts, even if I don’t agree with the conclusions they made. I also admit that this connection may be easier to see in the original Hebrew than in an English translation.

Same-sex Marriage in the Talmud

Traditional breaking of a glass at a Jewish wedding (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Traditional breaking of a glass at a Jewish wedding (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

There is another, arguably much more important, reference to same-sex marriage in early rabbinic Judaism and that is in the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud, for my Christian readers, is the more-or-less ultimate document of rabbinic Judaism. A rabbinical student friend of mine called it the “New Testament” of Judaism as it defined how Jews should behave and live after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Unlike the Christian New Testament, the Talmud is huge– more than 6,000 pages in English– and primarily consists of matters of law and philosophy as debated by early teachers. It’s a huge topic and one that I am personally just starting to scratch the surface in my own studies. Even today, Orthodox Judaism holds the Talmud as authoritative, while Reform and Conservative Jews may find it authoritative only in part or not at all.

Here’s what the Talmud has to say about same-sex marriage:

These are the thirty commandments which the sons of Noah took upon themselves but they observe three of them, namely, (i) they do not draw up a kethubah [marriage contract] document for males, (ii) they do not weigh flesh of the [human] dead in the market, and (iii) they respect the Torah.
Babylonian Talmud,  Chullin 92a-b

The context of this quote is an adventure in itself, but what the rabbis are speaking to here are the Noahide laws, the restrictions that were placed on all of humanity after the flood. Jews would be given a more restrictive set of laws later as the chosen people, but the Noahide laws were universal. According to the Talmud, these gentiles were given thirty laws but they weren’t able to keep most of them. And yet, they did manage to keep three: no same-sex marriage or cannibalism, and they “respected” the Torah.

Well, oops. Two out of three isn’t bad, right? The Talmud was probably speaking of life in the Assyrian, Roman, and Greek worlds which which they were familiar. I am surprised that the rabbis felt that they had respect for the Torah, but this could have hinted at the adoption of the Hebrew Bible as the Christian Old Testament or the general toleration of Jews. None of those cultures practiced cannibalism or same-sex marriage.

I find the logic of the Talmud here both brilliant and baffling and I would like to share a bit of the twisty logic that went into this pronouncement. I hope that I do the text justice and I value alternate opinions. This section of the Talmud actually starts off looking at something completely different, the prohibition against eating meat from the hip tendon. You might remember this passage from Genesis 32, after Jacob wrestles with the angel:

Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched [by God] near the tendon.
Genesis 32:32

From there, the rabbis descend into a tangent describing the prophetic use of numbers. I admit that I don’t precisely follow why, but I report it as I see it. They start by looking at the symbolism of a vine with three branches, from Joseph’s prophecy to Pharaoh:

In my dream I saw a vine in front of me, and on the vine were three branches. As soon as it budded, it blossomed, and its clusters ripened into grapes.
Genesis 40:9-10

The rabbis of the Talmud debated the meaning of these three branches and offered many interpretations. Did the branches symbolize Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Or do they stand for the three key figures at the reveal of the Torah: Moses, Miriam, and Aaron. Other alternatives included three classes of people, three parts of Jerusalem, or three sets of holy days. The text then turns to a prophecy from Zechariah:

Then I took my staff called Favor and broke it, revoking the covenant I had made with all the nations. It was revoked on that day, and so the oppressed of the flock who were watching me knew it was the word of the Lord. I told them, “If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it.” So they paid me thirty pieces of silver.
Zechariah 11:10-11

This prophecy connects the “covenant [God] made with all nations”, the Noahide laws, with the number thirty. By taking the number three from the prophecy of Joseph and connecting it to this later prophecy, the conclusion was drawn that the gentiles were given thirty laws but only kept three as per the above quote.

I admit that I do not understand how they reach the conclusion that those three were kept, or even why those two prophecies would be put together. In my mind, the connections seem arbitrary– if you connect symbols from any two disconnected tests, couldn’t you make just about any conclusion? I also don’t know how they reach the conclusion that those three laws were kept in specific. As I continue to study the Talmud, I hope to better understand how these rabbis make these connections. They may have had other tools or techniques which would better explain the connection.

In Conclusion

Noah's Tomb in Azerbaijan (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Noah’s Tomb in Azerbaijan (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

These two passages represent two different ways that same-sex marriage was understood by Jews in the early Christian era. While both center on Noah, the text from Genesis Rabbah emphasizes the sins of the pre-flood peoples while the Talmud considered the laws that were given to all after the flood. They are not mutually exclusive. Both texts use biblical sources to come to their conclusions, albeit in different ways. Even as their opinions differ from my own, I find their logic and the way that they approached holy texts to be fascinating and worthy of study.

Same-sex marriage has existed, if only as an object of derision, for much longer than I realized. As you no doubt read in my other posts on marriage, I can not agree with many of the ideas of a literal reading of “Biblical marriage”. The bible frequently treats women like property, promoted polygamy and sexual slavery, and elevated the concept of virginity above human decency. Same-sex marriage may not be biblical, but love is. I hope that people– regardless of their sexual orientation– can find someone to love in their lives.

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2 thoughts on “Same-sex Marriage in Classical Biblical Commentary”

  1. Hello,

    I am quite confused of your post. I’m not certain what you’re trying to clarify. First off, I come in love because I am saved by Jesus Christ. Any REAL Christian’s spirit lives within Him therefore only love comes from us in any situation. If we were to come any other way then any wise person would know that is NOT from Christ. Now that we’ve covered that, I have TRUTH itself to cover.

    Sexual sin has been going on for thousands of years. Of course the most infamous wrath of God would of occurred when the rainbow formed after the rain which was the covenant of God destroying same sex marriage. This is why when Jesus is asked in Matthew 24 36-39 “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only. But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.

    Even after the flood and King David passed his kingdom to his song Solomon.This is why you hear about 12 tribes, God divided King Solomon’s kingdom because he was in homosexual sin which is an abomination to God In 1 Kings 11:5-13

    5 For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. 6 Solomon did evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not fully follow the Lord, as did his father David.

    9 So the Lord became angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned from the Lord God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice, 10 and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods; but he did not keep what the Lord had commanded.

    11 Therefore the Lord said to Solomon, “Because you have done this, and have not kept My covenant and My statutes, which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to your servant.

    12 Nevertheless I will not do it in your days, for the sake of your father David; I will tear it out of the hand of your son. 13 However I will not tear away the whole kingdom; I will give one tribe to your son for the sake of My servant David, and for the sake of Jerusalem which I have chosen.”

    Nevertheless, homosexuality has been proven Pre-Jesus as the furthest evidence of rebellion against God twice, and then Jesus confirming that He is here to uphold the law and NOT abolish. And in Matthew Jesus Christ who is the truth, the way and the light to all confirms, when the times of Noah returns, so will He. We are living in the Biblical Prophesy and Salvation is near and I encourage all men to surrender and confess the sins that live inside you and call out, CRY out for God and be blessed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

    Supporting gay marriage is supporting rebellion against God. We MUST be careful of the deception Satan portrayed with this massive apostasy that Satan is using so well to capture 69% of our country. It fits EXACTLY as what Jesus warned us about. EVERYTHING is being fulfilled.

    Even in the book of Daniel the prophesy describes clearly the AntiChrist will use homosexuality as a weapon.

    Daniel 11:31-32
    31 And forces[a] shall be mustered by him, and they shall defile the sanctuary fortress; then they shall take away the daily sacrifices, and place there the abomination of desolation. 32 Those who do wickedly against the covenant he shall corrupt with flattery; but the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits.

    This is so clear and this is why it is so important to value your thoughts and NOT walk around the counsel of the ungodly. Homosexuality is a devise that the devil is using to divide. Don’t believe me? Why is ok for homosexuals to persecute God fearing men who follow the Bible, yet when we explain we cannot support their lifestyle choice most are immediate with insults, anger, hate and sometimes even worse like harassing businesses, peoples homes etc. In the state of Kentucky Pastors had to sign a form that stated “I do not believe homosexual marriage is a sin” If they wanted to continue their ministry. How is that fair? How can a business get sued for refusing business due to their beliefs that saved their life?

    I would really hope that you can see the truth in this and know it is impossible for something written thousands of years ago to be happening as we speak. ALL of the prophesy has been fulfilled, look at Israel. Over 1,000 years and 1948 they all of a sudden become a nation again after their almost annihilation. That was all written over 1,000 years ago and the series of events have conitnued to happen. Nation against nation on Israel, America turned their back on Israel, God warns any nation to curse Israel will be cursed, look at America now, worst it has EVER been, highest divorce rate, murdering of 4,000 innocent babies per day, highest crime rate, same sex marriage, no God in the school, activists who manipulate the constitution for intolerance when the Constitution was made to make the GOVERNMENT behave, not force us into corruption.

    I surely hope you took the time to read this as I did to write this. I do not have to have an opinion on gay marriage or just about anything. God already made the law. “Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understands ALL. ” Proverbs 28:9

    I’m not hear to sugarcoat something as important as where you go when you die for ALL eternity. Proverbs 28:23 “He who rebukes a man will find more favor afterward than he who flatters with the tongue.” As you can imagine, I am treating this as life and death because IT IS life and death. I have personally seen a gay man be saved when he surrendered to Christ and I knew this man for a very long time. He was a success story and evidence ALL can be saved. The next verse is the most important, it is the life of ANY Christian to help show the truth and save someone forever. I used to be a person going to hell yet I believed in Christ, I believed in God, but i practiced lawlessness and it took me to the darkest places you can even imagine. Someone took the time as I am taking with you and it changed my life. If you support gay marriage that means you do not have the Holy Spirit. With the Holy Spirit you will NOT have to think about what is right and wrong anymore, everything is already established in heaven, as it is in Earth. So let me share with you.

    James 5:20 “let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover multitudes of sins..”

    So, take care, I love you, if I didn’t I wouldn’t share with you what can change your entire life. My life is so good, so good I am obligated to share it with anyone I can. That is called a testimony. I lived and died, I know what it feels like to die. I know what it feels like to live without the Holy Spirit and I couldn’t even imagine going back to the deception Satan used against me which he is using on so many other. Either God is everything or He is nothing. His law is everything and Jesus came back to make sure no one gets left out, I love you, God bless.

    1 So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Acts 16:18

  2. Very interesting information! I was personally unaware of either of these, but stumbled upon your blog while searching them out, after one of them was referenced by Dr. Michael Brown, in one of his recent articles:

    If I may address a distorted concluding point you’ve made, it was in saying this:

    “Same-sex marriage may not be biblical, but love is. I hope that people– regardless of their sexual orientation– can find someone to love in their lives.”

    While I don’t begrudge you of holding to a worldly opinion and definition of love, you can’t hold to such a thorough accounting of the Biblical facts on one hand throughout your article, and then attempt to reference Biblical Love in order to make such a worldly conclusion!

    What I am saying is that “Biblical Love” is also just as clearly, Biblically defined as is the Biblical prohibitions against homosexuality. So, Yes! Love is indeed in the Bible. But Biblical “love” no more supports homosexuality and gay “marriages” than Leviticus 18:22 does!

    God is love, but Love is not God, my friend!

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