Why forbid what one does not know at all?

Why forbid what one does not know at all?

Homosexual couple © Syda Productions (shutterstock)

As an Old Testament scholar, Ulrich Berges sees his task as protecting the Bible from false interpretations that give rise to traditions. And this also applies to quotes on homosexuality that are taken out of context.

Interviewer: After all, this biblical quote is pretty clear: "You shall not lie with a man as with aWoman; it is an abomination." Is there anything to interpret about it?

Prof. Dr. Ulrich Berges (Old Testament Seminar Uni Bonn): I would first respond to this with a quote from Pinchas Lapide, a very well known Jewish religious scholar. He said: Basically, there are only two ways of dealing with the Bible – you either read it literally or you take it seriously.

That is, if you only take it literally, you haven't taken it seriously, but you think you have taken it seriously, you understand it. But one reads it only literally. That is, one must first consider the context of these texts.

One more word on this, because it is very, very important. In the constitution "Dei verbum" of the Second Vatican Council, it says in no. 12 that in order to grasp what God wanted to communicate to us, the exegetes should carefully investigate what the sacred writers really intended to say and what God wanted to make known with their words.

So the intent of the statement is crucial.

Interviewer: How to approach the quote in this specific case?

Berges: One is guided in the analysis of the passage in accordance with all the evidence of the ancient Near Eastern time. The text Leviticus was written about 500 years before Christ. It always refers to anal intercourse between men, with anal intercourse always being an act of humiliation. So this is not at all comparable to a free life relationship entered into or promised between equal partners.

For example, we have a vase from the fifth century. There a Greek soldier penetrates a Persian prisoner of war. That was a humiliation. And so what is written here in the book of Leviticus is "an abomination," not because it would forbid a homosexual relationship. The Old Testament does not know that and neither does antiquity. Therefore the Bible cannot forbid it, because it does not know that at all.

A free decision between equal men or women for a lasting, valid, legally closed partnership is completely unknown there. This is historically proven, there is no doubt at all. Therefore, one must not abuse these texts, as churches unfortunately, unfortunately do, to establish a tradition that does not exist biblically in this way.

Interviewer: So the Bible condemns when sexuality is used for humiliation. But is there also a positive evaluation of the love between two men?? Is there something to find?

Berges: It exists in the Old Testament. There is this famous passage Jonathan and David in the Book of Samuel. There it says in 2 Samuel 1,26 – David says to Jonathan, the son of Saul: "I am sorry for you, my brother Jonathan: I have had great joy and delight in you; your love has been more special to me than women's love is".

This text is also interpreted in exegetical literature partly, not consistently, as a homoerotic relationship. What speaks against it – in my opinion – is that in the whole context there is no mention of sexual acts at all.

What does that mean then? The "Ahawa", Hebrew for "love", means trust here. We could be so trusting of each other. You as the king's son who should have been on the throne and I as the one chosen by God, that this is a wonderful friendship.

Interviewer: Is sexuality in the Old Testament then rather positively evaluated or is it mostly a sin??

Berges: It is positive throughout because it is a gift of life. Already in the first creation narrative it says: "Be fruitful and multiply". That's the blessing, life is passed on in sexual love.

A wonderful book that is terrific is, of course, the Song of Songs in the Old Testament. Shir hashirim, the song of songs, where without the context of marriage, two young people, man and woman, push toward each other in wanting and desire to be together. A wonderful poem says: "Love directs your course".

I think, on the church side, we really need to pay attention with these old texts. I say this as a Catholic exegete, a member of some commissions of the Bishops' Conference. We really have to be careful not to misuse these texts to cement traditions that are no longer acceptable in a liberal, enlightened society.

This is, of course, a problem for a Catholic Church that operates worldwide. Because that's not even accepted yet in many countries in Africa or Latin America. Think of Paragraph 175: a few decades ago, men went to jail for it in the name of the German people.

The interview was conducted by Carsten Dopp.

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Christina Cherry
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