Newsweek’s Gay Apparel: Lisa Miller’s Travesty of Exegesis
Published: 29 January 2009 (GMT+10)
Given the current financial crisis, the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the election of a new President in the USA, one would think that the American weekly magazine Newsweek would feature something related to one of these stories on its Dec. 15 cover. But apparently turning a fire hose on Christian conservatives was deemed more important, as the cover instead featured a pedantic illustration of a Bible with a “rainbow” bookmark inside—representing the gay rights movements—promoting the story within titled, “Our Mutual Joy” by Lisa Miller.
Miller, who writes regularly on the topic of religion for Newsweek, takes the stance that “what the Bible teaches about love argues for the other side” of the gay marriage debate. Regrettably, Miller’s exegesis of texts used in favor of this stance indicate that, as I am fond of saying of many bibliosceptics, “exegesis” is to be defined as “putting an X on a picture of Jesus.” Miller’s renditions of biblical texts are devoid of defining contexts and transposed into new, alien contexts in order to support a case for “gay marriage” from the Bible.
Polygamy Loves Company: Miller attempts to use polygamous marriages in the Bible to defuse conservative attempts to define marriage in terms of one woman and one man. Of course, logically, even if this exception were granted without caveat, it would not open the door for gay marriage advocates to include their own “version” of the process. It would only open the door at most for polygamy. However, Miller fails to realize that biblical polygamy is clearly indicated to not be an ideal; it is, rather, always a case either of disobedience by biblical persons, or else a case of the moral imperative of monogamy being overruled by the moral imperative of aiding human survival in a strenuous, difficult world.1 Neither condition bodes well for an endorsement of gay marriage at any time.
The Lust Boat: Miller claims that Paul “regarded marriage as an act of last resort for those unable to contain their animal lust.” What Miller does not realize is that Paul’s directive is given within a specific context, in which he is actually answering those who did not endorse marriage. Scholars offer several ideas about the nature of Paul’s opposition; the most common connects Paul’s opponents to pagan thinking that the physical body was weak and/or evil, so that marriage as well as sexual intercourse was rejected. Paul’s comment that it is “better to marry than to burn with passion” is a response to those who denied that marriage ought to be had at all.2
Multiplication Tables. Noting that some Christians argue that homosexuals cannot obey the command to “be fruitful and multiply,” Miller responds that “the Bible authors could never have imagined the brave new world of international adoption and assisted reproductive technology … ” and also notes that infertile or elderly heterosexuals get married without this objection from Christians.3
On the latter point, Miller is unwittingly compromising her case with an appeal to dysfunction caused by disease or age. By analogy, then, homosexuality must also be a dysfunction which we would hope to correct! I am not sure Miller wished to make such a point, but she succeeded admirably in doing so.
The other appeals are far from useful to Miller either. Adoption is not multiplication; in mathematical analogy, it is a case of moving integers within an equation. Reproductive technology, on the other hand, is indeed multiplication, but it is still between a male and a female, not between male and male, or female and female.
Single File. No more useful is Miller’s appeal to the fact that Jesus and Paul were unmarried. Singleness is not a type of marriage that validates other types. Miller further claims that Jesus advocated “a radical kind of family, a caring community of believers, whose bond in God superseded all blood ties.” That is not quite true. Jesus’ commands are very much in line with the social world of the New Testament, one in which one’s obligations to one’s own group superseded all other obligations. Under normal circumstances, one’s own family was the primary ingroup to which one owed loyalty, but in cases where one’s family was disloyal to some greater tie—such as to God—precedent for leaving them for the sake of God is already found in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 13:6–11):
“If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him.
But you shall kill him. Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. And all Israel shall hear and fear and never again do any such wickedness as this among you.”
Far from being a “radical” view, Jesus’ admonitions are in ideological continuity with what was already present in Judaism of his day, and also in accord with how social groups in that society would regard those who deviated from the group’s norms. In terms of application, furthermore, this would hardly open any doors to homosexual marriage covenants!
Inequitable Condemnation. Miller goes on to make a point of the fact that only male gay sex is forbidden in the Bible, but not female gay sex, and appeals to an idea in the Anchor Bible Dictionary that it is because female gay sex “did not result in true physical ‘union’ (by male entry).” This argument simply fails to grasp the didactic nature of ancient law codes. Repeatedly, the Old Testament law says, “if a man” commits a certain crime, he is to be punished. Obviously, this is not intended to mean that the man can convince his wife to commit the crime in his stead, so that no one will receive any punishment! By the same token, it is completely unnecessary for the Bible to explicitly condemn female gay sex; the condemnation against specifically male gay sex would sufficiently make the point.
Additionally, Miller makes the standard argument that the condemnation against homosexuality is surrounded by other laws no longer obeyed: “Most of us no longer heed Leviticus on haircuts or blood sacrifices; our modern understanding of the world has surpassed its prescriptions. Why would we regard its condemnation of homosexuality with more seriousness than we regard its advice, which is far lengthier, on the best price to pay for a slave?” In this regard Miller is merely repeating the argument of the famous “Dr. Laura Letter” which has been repeatedly refuted.4 In the first place, the condemnation of homosexual behaviour stems from the creation ordinance that marriage was a man and a woman, which was endorsed by Christ (Matthew 19:3 ff. cites Genesis 1:27 and 2:24), so it applies to all people. But the Levitical laws included some commands for the people of Israel alone, not to Gentiles,5 including purity laws6 that reflected their moral separation from the idolatrous surrounding nations.
Pauline Points. Miller appeals briefly to an argument by Neil Elliott that when he condemns homosexuality, Paul is actually referring to “the depravity of the Roman emperors, the craven habits of Nero and Caligula” as opposed to gay love or marriage. That’s an interesting contrivance, but it finds little support outside of creative eisegesis.7 One may as well say that all advice against gluttony in the New Testament was specifically directed towards orgiastic feasts held by the Roman Emperors. The division in category is merely an invention; Paul targeted behaviors, not persons. (Miller’s further point that “at least half of the Christians in America disregard” Paul’s teaching is a good example of the tu quoque fallacy, but little else.)
Jon and David. Miller then notes that some gay activists appeal to the story of David and Jonathan. Miller prefers not to use this story herself, and is well-advised not to, as the behaviors commonly interpreted by homosexual exegetes as indicating homosexuality would also render American President George W. Bush homosexual for holding hands with the king of Saudi Arabia. Of course, such physically affectionate displays between men were and are normal in the Middle East, with no hint of homosexuality.8
The Greater Good? Next, Miller refers to biblical marriages “that defy convention yet benefit the greater community” such as marriages to persons of other ethnic groups. This of course begs the question that homosexuality is, like one’s race, an inborn trait rather than a behavior of choice, and one with serious moral questions attached. Miller’s further use of the marriage of Joseph and Mary does not help her case at all either, unless (as with Joseph and Mary) homosexual pairs have been receiving visions from an angel of God endorsing their behavior.
Misplaced Compassion. For her final appeals, Miller pulls out the sentimental and emotional drain stoppers. We are told of Jesus’ “message of acceptance” especially for “those on the margins”—while neglecting the point that Jesus still was quite plain in calling down sin where He saw it (tell the Pharisees how “accepting” Jesus was of their performances). And this, of course, reveals the bait and switch that lies at the heart of Miller’s message: Her entire premise is that homosexuality is not a moral act, but rather something like being Greek or Jew, slave or free, that a person cannot help. It does no good to sentimentally appeal to “human need” save where one is only concerned to persuade the gullible and uninformed.
Yes, Jesus would certainly reach out to homosexuals, just as Miller suggests – just as He reached out to the rich young ruler, and told him what he needed to repent of in order to become his disciple. It is up to those Jesus calls to repent, or alternatively to walk away with their earthly pleasures and desires intact. It cannot be both ways, and Jesus never expressed sentiment at the expense of ignoring sin. When sin was there, He showed compassion by urging people to repent of it! This includes telling the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more” (John 7:53;8:11).
The Travesty Unveiled. Of course, like many who bend the Bible to their own ends, it is unlikely that Miller even has any courtesy for such contextual considerations as those we have discussed. She describes the Bible as “a living document, powerful for more than 2,000 years because its truths speak to us even as we change through history.” The premise that the Bible (or some other document, like the United States Constitution) is a “living document” able to be re-interpreted by future generations is rather a modern fancy and convenience; one doubts that Miller would appreciate it if we professed that her text was a “living article” that we are now able, in our social conditions, to re-interpret as a manifesto calling for the death penalty for homosexuals.
Rather than trying to absorb the Bible into their fold, wax-nose exegetes like Miller should simply be bold and say, “The Bible is wrong about homosexuality” and then dismiss it. It would be the far more honest thing for them to do. But then that might alert the numerous Bible-believers in the USA to the real agenda of the gay lobby, which is essentially anti-Christian.
- See Jonathan Sarfati, “Does the Bible clearly teach monogamy?” at and James Patrick Holding, “Marriage Multiples”. Return to text.
- This is a common view; another idea, one I find somewhat more persuasive, is that Paul is responding to a crisis in Corinth at the time that caused serious food shortages, which in turn led people to decide against marriage until the crisis was averted. See Bruce Winter, After Paul Left Corinth (pp. 216 f. Eerdmans: 2000). Whatever the case, Miller has mischaracterized Paul’s position, and indeed, attributed to him the position of his opponents! Return to text.
- Strictly speaking, a simple use of “be fruitful and multiply” as an argument against homosexuality is not complete anyway. For more developed arguments, see for example Lamont: “This command is repeated to Noah after the Flood (Genesis 8:15–17). But procreation is not the only reason God made humans as sexual beings. The BUWA report affirms ‘that sexual intimacy between husband and wife is good, and is intended by God for bonding, pleasure and procreation.” Ann Lamont, “Homosexual behavior vs the Bible”; and also Jerry Bergman, “Creationism and the problem of homosexual behavior”; Adrian Bates. Return to text.
- For a response to this letter, which circulates widely on the Internet, and was even plagiarized on the West Wing, see my article, “Dear Crabby”. Return to text.
- The Jewish radio talk show host and author Dennis Prager writes: “As fate would have it, I am currently teaching the Book of Leviticus at the American Jewish University, the West Coast seminary of Conservative Judaism. And Shaiman tells a half-truth. Yes, Leviticus calls shellfish ‘an abomination’ and uses the same word for sexual acts between men. However, the text states that shellfish is an abomination ‘for you’, i.e., for Jews alone (Leviticus 11:12). The act of a man ‘lying with a man as with a woman’ is labeled ‘an abomination’ without the qualifying words ‘for you’. And Jews who do eat shellfish are never called or considered “abominations” any more than men who engage in homosexual acts are. Jews alone are prohibited from killing and eating pork, shellfish, and the other non-Kosher creatures.” Return to text.
- See J.P. Holding, “About the Biblical Concept of Clean ”. Return to text.
- Eisegesis is reading into the text what we want it to say, in contrast to exegesis, which is expounding what the text actually says. Return to text.
- For more on this, see my article “The Gay 1090s BC”. Return to text.