The Bible does not criticize or prohibit any form of sex between men (including oral sex, deep kissing, fondling and mutual masturbation) except for males penetrating males (anal intercourse). This criticism or prohibition applies whether the men involved are gay, straight or bisexual.
Biblical references to sex between men are:
The men of Sodom called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we may know them (have sex with them)." (Genesis 19:5)
Men of the city (Gibeah) …. said to the old man, the master of the house, "Bring out the man who came to your house so that we may know him (have sex with him)." (Judges 19:22)
Do not lie (have sex) with a male as a woman would. (Or Don’t let another man penetrate you.) It is disgusting. (Leviticus 18:22)
If a man lies (has sex) with a male as a woman would, both of them have done a disgusting thing. They shall certainly be put to death and their blood shall be on their own heads. (Leviticus 20:13)
…… the males also abandoning natural sexual intercourse with females, were inflamed with lust for one another. Males acted shamefully with males and received in themselves the appropriate payback for their error. (Romans 1:27)
…… wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God … males who have sex with males …. will not inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9)
…. law is made …. for …. males who have sex with males ….(1 Timothy 1:9–10)
Note that the Leviticus verses prohibit male-male sex, the Sodom and Gibeah stories express a strong dislike of male-male rape, and the verses in Romans, 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy criticize (but do not prohibit) male-male sex.
How do we know that these verses refer to males penetrating males and not to other forms of sex between males?
Genesis and Judges
The men of Sodom called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we may know them (have sex with them)." (Genesis 19:5) Men of the city …. said to the old man, the master of the house, "Bring out the man who came to your house so that we may know him (have sex with him)." (Judges 19: 22)
In the Sodom story (Genesis) and the story in Judges, men say that they wish to know another man or men. In each case, a woman or women are offered to the men to have sex with instead of the man or men they asked for. It is therefore clear that know here means to have sex with someone. In certain other places in the early books of the Bible (Genesis 19:8, 24:16 and 38: 26 and Judges 19:25) know means that a man has penetrative vaginal intercourse with a woman. Similarly, a man would know another man in a sexual way by having penetrative anal intercourse with him.
Do not lie (have sex) with a male as a woman would. (OrDon’t let another man penetrate you.) It is disgusting. (Leviticus 18:22) If a man lies (has sex) with a male as a woman would, both of them have done a disgusting thing. They shall certainly be put to death and their blood shall be on their own heads. (Leviticus 20:13)
The main reason that the Leviticus verses refer only to men penetrating men has been fully set out in papers* by Saul Olyan and Jerome Walsh. In brief, the verses only prohibit a male having sex (lying) with another male when the sex is (literally) the lyings of a woman. The phrase the lyings of a woman is the opposite of the lying of a male, which in the Old Testament (e.g. Numbers 31:17–18, 35, and Judges 21:11–12) means a male doing vaginal penetration. The opposite of this is female vaginal receptivity – the meaning of the lyings of a woman The male equivalent of vaginal receptivity is anal receptivity. Therefore the Leviticus verses prohibit a male from being anally penetrated by another male.
The death penalty for contravening the prohibition implies that the intercourse is anal penetration. It seems unlikely that the death penalty would have been prescribed for anything less than penetration.
Note that the use of lying (Strong’s Number 4904) refers to the act of lying down on a couch, bier, or bed for sexual contact. This horizontal position would imply penetrative contact more than non-penetrative contact.
The references are to sex between males. There is no similar reference to sex between females. This implies that the type of sexual intercourse is one which can be done by males but not by females (unless the females use an instrument). That is, penetration is implied.
Also note the context. All the other sexual offences (incest, adultery and bestiality) in Leviticus 18 and 20 involve full penetrative intercourse. To be consistent, male-male intercourse would also involve full penetrative intercourse.
The restriction of these verses to anal intercourse is the traditional Jewish Talmud interpretation. Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 54a refers to a man lying with a male as with a woman and there being only one kind of (sexual) connection between males. The Talmud rabbis said that sexual practices between males, other than anal intercourse, were not prohibited by the Torah (Leviticus, etc) and only came under the category of masturbation, whether solo or involving more than one man.**
Traditional Christian and Jewish belief is that God dictated Leviticus to Moses with every word being included for a reason. It can therefore be argued that had God wanted to prohibit all sex between men, the verses would have simply stated that a man shall not lie (have sex) with a male. Instead, the addition of the words as a woman would lie with a man restricts the prohibited form of sex to the male equivalent (anal intercourse) of how a woman usually has sex with a man (vaginal intercourse).
These Leviticus verses forbid only male-male penetration. One can’t assume that other forms of male-male sexual activity are also forbidden.
* Olyan, Saul M “'And with a Male You Shall Not Lie the Lying Down of a Woman': On the Meaning and Significance of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13," in Que(e)rying Religion: A Critical Anthology, ed. G. D. Comstock and S. E. Henking, 398-414, 513-24.
Walsh, Jerome T. “Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13: Who Is Doing What To Whom?” Journal of Biblical Literature 120/2 (2001), 201–209. Can also see the article here (pdf)
** Daniel Boyarin “Are there any Jews in ‘The History of Sexuality’?”, Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol 5 no. 3 (1995) 339
…… the males also abandoning natural sexual intercourse with females, were inflamed with lust for one another. Males acted shamefully with males and received in themselves the appropriate payback for their error. (Romans 1:27)
The Romans verse states that men abandoned natural sexual intercourse with women. Their subsequent activity is described in euphemistic terms such as inflamed with lust for one another and males acted shamefully with males (literally males in males working out the shameful act).
While not explicitly stated, it is most likely that the male sex act criticized is the male equivalent of their former vaginal intercourse with women, i.e. males having anal intercourse with males. Other forms of sex between males would not be covered.
The reference to males acted shamefully with males implies penetration because it reflects the ancient Greco-Roman concept that the passive man was being penetrated like a woman and this was a shameful thing for a man to allow or experience. It also repeats the criticism of males having sex with males in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy and the prohibition on men penetrating men in Leviticus.
1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy
…… wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God … males who have sex with males …. will not inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9) …. law is made … for … males who have sex with males …(1 Timothy 1:9–10)
Both verses criticize males who have sex with males. One Greek word (arsenokoitai) used for such people literally means males-bed or male- bedders, i.e. males who go to bed with males for sex. The word probably comes from the Leviticus verses prohibiting men penetrating men and therefore has a similar meaning here. Note that the King James Version translates the word as abusers of themselves with mankind. A second Greek word (malakoi), used in 1 Corinthians only, literally means soft men and, in this context, means men who are anally penetrated by other men.
Therefore the 2 words used in 1 Corinthians cover both the man who does the anal penetration and the man who is penetrated. In 1 Timothy only the man who penetrates is criticized.
What were the reasons for the prohibition on men penetrating men in Leviticus?
The only certain reason for this prohibition on one man sexually penetrating another man (anal sex) is given in Leviticus 18:3 and 24, where God tells the Israelites that they must not follow the practices (presumably bad) of the people of Egypt or Canaan and are not to defile themselves in any of the ways referred to in the Chapter, which would include one man sexually penetrating another man. It would appear that complying with the prohibition would help maintain a pure, holy and stable community.
Other reasons which have been speculated for this prohibition are:
In Mediterranean countries in Old Testament times, the male sexual role was seen as that of active penetrator and the female role was seen as that of passively being penetrated. Therefore one man sexually penetrating another man was thought to reduce the penetrated man from the high status of a man (penetrator) to the lower status of a woman (penetrated). This brought shame and dishonor on the penetrated man.
One man sexually penetrating another man was believed to be an abomination because it violated the God–given order of things in society and confused the boundaries of clearly assigned male and female sexual roles. The man being penetrated was thought to be crossing from the God-given category of male (and how a male should act) to the God-given category of female (and how a female should act) thus confusing the categories and he no longer being seen as wholly male. In other words, his masculine identity was undermined. The penetrator was also acting wrongly by helping the penetrated man to cross the gender (sex role) boundaries. A similar gender differentiation argument stresses that males and females (and their sexual organs) were created to complement each other. (These God-given categories are part of the Creation story but note that Leviticus 18 and 20 do not directly refer to the Creation). A good explanation of mixing and purity and male honor is given in this article.
The placing of the prohibition on one man sexually penetrating another man (verse 22) between the prohibition on offering one’s seed (children or semen) to Molech (verse 21) and the prohibition on bestiality (verse 23) indicates that the compiler of these laws, and probably the Israelite community generally, saw sex between men as a non- standard way of sexual intercourse. The standard way was sex between a man and a woman as explained in Genesis 1:28 and 2: 24.
Men penetrating men reminded people of the practice of strong or unruly men sometimes raping weaker men, by forced anal sex, to show their power and to degrade or humiliate the weaker men as it was treating them like women. This was attempted at Sodom (Genesis 19:4-9) and Gibeah (Judges 19:22-25).
One man sexually penetrating another man was wasting semen instead of its being used in its divinely intended purpose of procreation in marriage. It was important that the Israelite tribes increase their population in order to survive. However Leviticus contains no prohibition on male masturbation, coitus interruptus, male- female anal intercourse or other non-vaginal ejaculatory sexual acts. So wasting semen was apparently not a major concern.
One man sexually penetrating another man would result in the mixing of defiling emissions (excrement and semen) in the receptive body, thus violating the Israelite purity code. However it seems unlikely that this was considered as a major reason because there would be the same type of mixing in male-female anal intercourse, which was not prohibited.
One man sexually penetrating another man was an improper use of semen. In fact all sexual acts prohibited in Chapters 18 and 20 involve an improper use of semen. This explains why female-female sex is not prohibited, why giving one’s seed (semen) to Molech is prohibited and why instances of sexual crime are ignored where no improper use of semen is made, e.g. seduction. For further details of this point see Martin Cohen, "The Biblical Prohibition of Homosexual Intercourse," Journal of Homosexuality, 1990, Vol 19(4), p 3-20.
The Leviticus prohibition on one man sexually penetrating another man covered both men. This was a wider prohibition than in nearby cultures, where usually only being penetrated was prohibited or despised. Doing the penetrating was okay in these cultures. This difference was one of the ways in which the ancient Israelites tried to keep themselves separate from other peoples.
Why did people dislike the practice of men penetrating men in Bible times and why do they often still do so today?
The Bible does not say, and other sources do not reveal any predominant special reason. Reasons for disliking such intercourse could include the following:
There is a view that men should act like they are supposed to act, especially when having sex. In other words, a man should penetrate and a woman should be penetrated. Therefore if a man is penetrated by another man, he is thought to be acting like a woman. (This is emphasized in the Leviticus prohibitions). This is interpreted by some people as crossing sex-role boundaries (breaching gender differentiation) and by other people as bringing shame to male honor (breaching gender stratification). This concept of men acting like men and not like women, seems to be common across cultures and throughout history.
Some people claim that men and women were created by God to complement one another, anatomically and in other ways. They state that anatomical complementarity (where one body part fits into another) can only be achieved by men having vaginal sex with women, not by men having anal sex with men. These people point to God’s instruction that men and women should form family units and have sex to produce children. This would rule out men having sex with men.
Men penetrating men reminded people of the practice of strong or unruly men sometimes raping weaker men, by forced anal sex, to show their power and to degrade or humiliate the weaker men as it was treating them like women. This was attempted at Sodom (Genesis 19:4-9) and Gibeah (Judges 19:22-25). This practice was also expressed by soldiers sometimes raping defeated enemy soldiers.
The gut–feeling that it is unnatural for men to penetrate men, especially as it is done by a minority and is felt by many to be dirty and unclean. Men who do this are often disliked (as “others") as they are thought to be different from the majority. They can cause fear or anxiety when viewed as non- conformists acting outside the boundaries or expectations set by society. This is reinforced by the fact that men penetrating men is against the cultural mores and attitudes of many societies, including their individuals and institutions.
One man penetrating another man is wasting semen instead of its being used in its divinely intended purpose of procreation in marriage. Alternatively, one man penetrating another man results in the mixing of defiling emissions (excrement and semen) in the receptive body, thus violating the Israelite purity code.
Men penetrating men reminded people of the practice of men having sex with sacred male prostitutes during pagan idol worship.
Responses to these reasons for disliking the practice of men penetrating men
First are the views that men should act like men, a penetrated man is thought to be acting like a woman, strong men or soldiers sometimes rape weaker men or defeated enemy soldiers, and it is unnatural for men to penetrate men. Although these views about male sex roles are common across cultures, they are still just cultural views, not eternal truths. These views and attitudes are formed by the views of families, ancestors, friends, and cultural and religious institutions. It is recognized that these views are still important in many cultures today.
The claim that men and women were created by God to complement one another, anatomically and in other ways, is only part of the story. In fact, the first woman was created to help and be a companion to the first man, with the emphasis being on the fact that both are the same species, i.e. humans. Anatomical complementarity (the sexual parts fitting) was obviously important or else they could not have had children. Nevertheless the creation story does not state or imply that male-female complementarity is the only type there is.
While male-female complementarity is important, there is also male-male and female-female complementarity, although they are not so strong anatomically. Nevertheless the parts still fit when men penetrate men. But same-sex complementarity can be just as strong as opposite-sex complementarity in non-sexual areas, e.g. in interests and tastes. This follows from opposites attracting each other, even if they are both male or both female.
While the Creation story in Genesis explains the origin of marriage between men and women and its primary purpose of having children, it does not refer to any other forms of sexual intercourse. Therefore one can’t use this story to say that other forms of sexual intercourse, including men penetrating men, are wrong.
The argument that men penetrating each other wastes semen instead of its being used for procreation, is undermined by the Bible containing no similar prohibition on semen being wasted by male masturbation, coitus interruptus, male-female anal intercourse or other non-vaginal ejaculatory sexual acts. Also, as most men in Bible times were married, they could still procreate children with their wives as well as penetrating other men. Similarly, the concept that men penetrating each other results in the mixing of defiling emissions (excrement and semen) in the receptive body, is also undermined by there being no Biblical prohibition on male-female anal intercourse, which would have the same type of mixing.
In regard to the practice of men having sex with sacred male prostitutes, Leviticus prohibits men letting themselves be anally penetrated by other men. This rules out the prohibition meaning that men customers are not to anally penetrate sacred male prostitutes.
Is there any practical reason for the Biblical prohibition on men penetrating men?
There appears to be no major practical reason to prohibit male-male penetration other than to encourage having children through male-female penetration. Most Biblical prohibitions of specific sex practices can be seen to have practical bases, e.g. the prohibition on incest aims to stop the spread of certain congenital defects or avoid father/son or sibling rivalry over sex partners. Similarly, prohibiting adultery aims to stop one man from stealing another man’s wife.
However, the only obvious practical reason for the Biblical prohibition of male-male penetration is that its practice could lower the birth rate of the community. All the other reasons appear to be either religious (violation of the God-given boundaries of male and female sexual roles or males having sex with male cult prostitutes) or ones of perception (men seeming to act like women when having sex or anal sex being seen as dirty and unhygienic).
In the following books or articles, the authors agree that the Bible, especially Leviticus, condemns only men penetrating men (anal sex) and not other forms of sexual intercourse between males
The page numbers (p) are those on which the authors refer to men penetrating men.
Alter, Robert, The five books of Moses: a translation with commentary, 2004,p 623, 632 Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 54a and b
Boyarin, Daniel, “Are there any Jews in ‘The History of Sexuality’?”, Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 5 no. 3 (1995) p 339, 343
Brooten, Bernadette, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism, 1996,p 61
Cohen, Martin, "The Biblical Prohibition of Homosexual Intercourse," Journal of Homosexuality (1990) Vol 19(4) p 6
Daube, David, "The Old Testament Prohibitions of Homosexuality." Zeitschrift der Savigny- Stiftung fur Rechtsgeschichte Romantische Abteilung 103 (1986) p 447
Goss, Robert, Queering Christ: Beyond Jesus Acted Up, 2002, p 190
Greenberg, Steven, Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality and the Jewish Tradition, 2004, p 80-81
Helminiak, Daniel, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, 2000, p 59
Josephus, Against Apion 2.199
Levine, Baruch, Leviticus, 1989, p 123
Milgrom, Jacob, Leviticus 17-22, 2000, p 1568
Nissinen, Martti, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective, 1998, p 44
Olyan, Saul, "And with a Male You Shall Not Lie the Lying Down of a Woman”: On the Meaning and Significance of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13", Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 5, no. 2, (1994) p 185
Philo, Abraham 135
Roughgarden, Joan, Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People, 2003, p 373
Satlow, Michael, "'They Abused Him Like a Woman': Homoeroticism, Gender Blurring, and the Rabbis in Late Antiquity." Journal of the History of Sexuality, 5.1 (1994) p 5 note 12, 10.
Thurston, Thomas, "Leviticus 18:22 and the Prohibition of Homosexual Acts," in Homophobia and the Judaeo-Christian Tradition, ed. by Michael L. Stemmeler & J. Michael Clark, 1990, p 16
Walsh, Jerome, “Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13: Who Is Doing What To Whom?” Journal of Biblical Literature, Volume 120, No. 2 (2001) p 208
On the other hand, it might be noted that very few authors specifically say that the Bible condemns all forms of sexual intercourse between males.
Although many authors say that the Bible condemns homosexuality, they don’t say whether homosexuality means same-sex orientation or same-sex activity or both. This means that they don’t state what same-sex activity means. Their attitude seems to reflect uncertainty, intellectual laziness or anachronistic thinking.
Online sites which state that the Bible, especially Leviticus, condemns only men penetrating men (anal sex) and not other forms of sexual intercourse between males
There is no specific recorded case of same-sex intercourse in early Judaism (from the Second Temple period to c 300 CE). Regarding the possibility of Jews engaging in this behavior, a text from the rabbinic Tosefta comments simply: “Israel is not suspected” (Qiddushin 5:10). Robert Gagnon
Nowhere in the historical Hebrew literature (Old Testament) is homosexual behavior among consenting males mentioned. More importantly, prophetic denunciations of Israel's sins do not include homosexual behavior. Charles D. Myers, Jr
I read an article that said one man in ten men is gay.
I thought, No, one man in one man is gay; one man in ten men is a show off.