A Gay Old Time

Every single society ever has had members who fall in love with people deemed the wrong gender for them (or it’s a society that doesn’t place those restrictions on relationships). Because my novel is middle-grade (about tween ages), I’m obviously not going into detail about sex, but there’s still love. And longing. And building family.

Same sex relationships are hardly a new concept. Nor is it true that they were once forbidden but now, in our enlightened modern era, they are finally being recognized. The reality is that every culture has them and there’s a huge variety in how they are treated.

What is a newer concept in Western culture is the idea that one marries for love. Love is a desirable side effect of marriage, but it was secondary to procreation, creating family units, and building community relationships (or political relationships). All of those things can be done without regard to gender, but most Biblical and descendent cultures prioritize male-female unions.

There’s really not much about same sex romantic or sexual relationships in the Bible. We have King David and his love, Jonathan (though David was married to many women and had children with them and Jonathan was also married with a child). And hints of others.

Biblical Prince Jonathan and David embrace, circa 1300 AD.  The British Library, London, United Kingdom

In Seven Gay Texts: Biblical Passages Used to Condemn Homosexuality, Christian writer Robert K. Gnuse analyzes four texts from Torah and three from the Christian Bible. Both the story of Noah and his sons and of Sodom and Gomorrah reference male/male sexual activity, but neither has anything to do with consensual sex, love, or relationships. The Christian texts are not relevant to our treatment here, but they make an interesting read.

That leaves only the two near identical lines from Leviticus.

Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence. (Sefaria)

You shall not lie down with a male, as with a woman: this is an abomination. (Chabad)

Leviticus 18:22. Sefaria translation and Chabad translation.

Then a couple of chapters later.

If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death—their bloodguilt is upon them. (Sefaria)

And a man who lies with a male as one would with a woman both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon themselves. (Chabad)

Leviticus 20:13. Sefaria translation and Chabad translation.

While interpretations both old and modern often assume this means same sex relationships and sex are wrong, there’s no real evidence of that. Gnuse does a much better job than I could in delving into the meaning of the passages, how they are situated with other parts of Torah, and historical background.

His conclusion is that the prohibition is on Canaanite cultic behaviors (specifically, male religious prostitution) and doesn’t really have anything to say about same sex romance.

Regardless of how you choose to interpret it, my point isn’t about whether same sex relationships were officially allowed (and note that the text says absolutely nothing about relationships between women) but how they manifested. Because they did exist.

Let us start with Ancient Egypt around 2380 BCE (about 1000 years before the assumed timing of the Exodus).

In 1964, archaeologists in Egypt opened the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep…[and found] the two were depicted in many of the stereotypical ways that heterosexual couples were shown in Egyptian funereal art: kissing nose-to-nose, holding hands, and standing very closely together, almost in an embrace. Their wives (and children) are also depicted in the tombs, though curiously, there are no paintings of either man embracing or kissing their wife.

If a man and a woman were depicted in this way, they would obviously be interpreted as a couple. And so, faced with all this evidence, archaeologists leapt to the conclusion that Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were… brothers — really, really close brothers.

themstory: Ancient Egypt Was Totally Queer

Mastaba of Niankhkhum and Khnumhotep. Photo of their tomb painting.

Then there is a piece of pottery from the Ancient Egyptian Rammeside-period (circa 1292–1069 BCE, just after the time period associated with the Exodus) which shows a rather explicit male sexual act. (Click here to see the very NSFW picture.)

An Egyptian statue from the time period just before the Exodus shows “two women, Idet and Ruiu, depicted in a form typical to married couples.”

Egyptian statue of Idet e Ruiu.  Limestone, probably from the Theban Necropolis, New Kingdom, 18th dynasty, 1480-1390 BC.

We also want to move forward in time to when the Book of Exodus was likely written.

The book of Exodus began as oral tradition when the Hebrew people arrived in Canaan in approximately 1,200 BCE according to Mosaic scholarship. It remained as such until sometime after 922 BCE when the unified kingdom of Israel was divided into Northern and Southern kingdoms. Between 922 and 722 BCE these stories were written down in different forms by priests of the two kingdoms. After the Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE and the population was exiled, some to Israel and some to other territories, the stories were combined into one text. This process occurred from 722 BCE to 587 BCE with a new Priestly line, Jeremiah the Prophet likely being one of the contributors. The final text was edited by a Redactor and completed around 400 BCE.

Within the Assyrian Empire, circa 700 BCE, there were no recorded laws against homosexuality. In fact, there were specific prayers for blessing same-sex male love relationships, as well as art, poetry, and religious iconography depicting homosexual intercourse. 

Given that the Israelite population had been severely decimated by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE, and then by the Babylonian Empire in 587 BCE, later prohibitions on same sex relationships could be a response to the need for procreation and therefore the survival of the religion. Surrounding cultures also practiced same-sex sexual relationships and as Israelites left their faith practices this same need would occur. 

Regardless, same-sex relationships have existed throughout history and were occurring throughout the time of the Exodus itself and during the writing of the book as well.

Biblical Historian Ari Hilton, personal correspondence with author, Nov 16, 2020

From Ancient Egypt to Ancient Greece and Rome, and societies in-between and elsewhere, you can find examples of male couples or female couples, as well as consensual sexual relations (usually between men). There are entire books on the subject and I won’t duplicate their findings.

So what does this mean for the characters of my novel? The time travelers from 1995 America are growing up in an era where openly gay relationships are reasonably common (and even on television), though same sex marriage is a distant hope.

For the Hebrews living first in Egypt then in the Sinai wilderness over 3000 years ago, they would not have used the words gay or homosexual, in any translation. But they would have understood same sex attraction and relationships.

I can imagine families sharing living space that consist of two couples, one male, one female. Or people forming romantic relationships with members of their gender after their spouse has passed away. And in all cultures there will be a few people who never marry at all, despite the importance that culture might place on the married couple as an economic unit or upon procreation. While not all such people are gay, some are and may find a way to join households with their partner of choice.


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