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!
(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-property, tests 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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