Does the Bible call gays “dogs”?

Rainbow Dog by Stephen Wolfe via Flickr (2010; CC-BY-NC)Short answer: No.

The question arises because Steven Anderson, who founded and preaches for the Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona, attracted attention a couple of weeks ago for positing this metaphorical equation against LBGTQ individuals in the wake of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Specifically, the Friendly Atheist (Hemant Mehta) has drawn attention to a recent sermon in which Anderson ranted, “LGBT. They’re sodomites. They’re dogs. That’s what the Bible calls them: Dogs. DOGS!” To conclude his post, Mehta himself claims, “This is faith-based hate speech. You can say it’s not loving, you can say you disavow what he’s saying, but you can’t say the Bible has nothing to do with it.”

More properly, you can’t say that Anderson’s reading of a 400-year-old translation of the Bible has nothing to do with it. But before we go blaming the Bible for Anderson’s hateful sermon, let’s see if Anderson is accurately representing the Bible.

Spoiler alert: He isn’t, although he thinks he is; a problematic translation coupled with a misapprehension of the relationship between side-by-side verses has misled Anderson into misunderstanding his source. But demonstrating that is a process requiring several detailed steps. There is no shortcut and no tl;dr version. Also, please note that my purpose here is to investigate the meaning, translation, and use of two biblical verses—not to articulate a general biblical theology of sexuality, which takes a lot more work.

Anderson’s claim that the Bible calls LGBTQ individuals “dogs” can only derive from Deuteronomy 23:17–18 (vv. 18–19 in Hebrew; I will continue to use the English numbering for the sake of my English-speaking readers). None of the other references to “dogs” in the Bible (and yes, I looked at every single one while researching for this post) can possibly lead to the equation of “dogs“ with “sodomites.” Someone might want to make a case for Revelation 22:15, but that only works if you assume that the reference to “dogs” in Revelation 22:15 mirrors the reference to “dogs” in Deuteronomy 23:17–18, so the Old Testament text remains the key.

In the King James Version of the Bible, from which Anderson preaches, these verses read:

There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel. Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog, into the house of the Lord thy God for any vow: for even both these are abomination unto the Lord thy God. (Deut 23:17–18)

Hebrew poetry is especially marked by parallelism, a technique of repetition in which elements of poetic lines balance each other. Parallelism can also be found in prose. I can’t tell you whether Anderson consciously relied on parallelism to inform his sermon, but the quotation Mehta shared seems to rely on it. Verse 17 exhibits a very clear parallel structure: whore (female) // sodomite (male). Verse 18 also seems to exhibit a parallel structure: hire of a whore (female) // price of a dog (male). Since there seems to be an obvious connection between whore and hire of a whore (though looks can be deceiving),  Anderson probably assumes the same connection applies between sodomite and price of a dog. If that connection holds, then Anderson has his equation of sodomite with dog.

But if we grant Anderson the charity of this maximal “benefit of the doubt” reading, sodomite clearly must mean something other than “a man who has sex with another man.” Rather, if the parallelism posited above is at work here, the KJV’s sodomite must be “a man who offers sexual services for hire,” that is, a male prostitute. Indeed, most modern translations render verse 17 in this fashion, as referring to male and female prostitutes. (See the final paragraph of this post for more on this point.) Nothing in these verses suggests that this “sodomite” serves a male clientele, and nobody—not even Anderson, I presume—ever seems to assume that the “whore” of v. 17 serves a female clientele. Phyllis Bird (“Of Whores and Hounds: A New Interpretation of the Subject of Deuteronomy 23:19,” Vetus Testamentum 65 [2015] 352–364) points out that men hiring men for sex is unattested in the ancient Semitic world, unless Deuteronomy 23:17–18 is the one and only such reference. This alone should give us pause.

But we should also examine whether parallellism really obtains between verses 17 and 18. Clearly, each verse has an internal parallel construction, although not quite “parallelism” in the ordinary poetic sense. In the KJV translation provided earlier,  you can easily perceive the very balanced construction of v. 17. Let F stand for female and M for male, with a subscripted O indicating a person pursuing  the objectionable occupation. Using these symbols, the pattern of v. 17 is:

There shall be no FO among Israelite F;
there shall be no MO among Israelite M.

In v. 18, though, we have a completely different structure:

You must not bring the earnings of FO or the earnings of MO [to] the house of the Lord your God for any vow, because both are an abomination to the Lord.

Verse 17 contains two clauses with precisely the same structure as each other, joined by a simple coordinating conjunction. Verse 18 also contains two clauses, separated above by a comma, but they are not parallel in the way verse 17’s clauses are. Instead, the second clause in verse 18 is subordinate (not coordinate) to the first clause, the latter giving a rationale for the former. Nor does the first clause in v. 18 exhibit a structure similar to verse 17’s. Verse 18 does pair FO’s earnings and MO’s earnings, but they together form a object of a single verb, not subjects of two separate verbs (the same root, but stated twice and inflected for gender) as in v. 17. To distinguish the two verses still further, FO and MO are the third-person subjects of their respective verbs in v. 17, while FO’s earnings and MO’s earnings are the objects of a second-person verb in v. 18. Moreover, the KJV’s whore in v. 17 translates a different Hebrew word than its whore in v. 18. These are probably the considerations that led Bird to note that “the verses are not parallel in structure or content” (358, n. 17), although she did not spell this out in detail.

In sum, the Hebrew text does not promote, and in fact resists, reading vv. 17 and 18 in parallel with each other, which means further that the text does not equate “sodomites” (let alone all LGBTQ individuals) and “dogs” in the way Anderson’s surface reading of his KJV led him to believe, and does not mean by “sodomites” what Anderson means by “sodomites” (see the following paragraph for more on this). At most, Deuteronomy 23:17–18 refers to male prostitutes as “dogs,” but even this doesn’t seem to be intended, given the structural analysis above.

There’s an even bigger problem with the KJV’s translation of v. 17, and with Anderson’s interpretation of v. 18. Unpacking that problem requires digging into the Hebrew terms used in v. 17 (קְדֵשָׁה [qəday-SHAH] and קָדֵשׁ [qah-DAYSH]) and v. 18 (זוֹנָה [zohn-AH] and כֶּלֶב [KEH-lehv]), which I’ll do in a future post. Preview: קָדֵשׁ definitely doesn’t refer to homosexuals as a group, and almost certainly doesn’t even refer to male prostitutes (no matter where they work, if you’re already familiar with the debates about these terms), and I agree with Elaine Goodfriend, though maybe with some different nuances, that the “dogs” of v. 18 may well be actual canines rather than a metaphor for some group of humans (“Could keleb in Deuteronomy 23.19 Actually Refer to a Canine?”, pp. 381–397 in Pomegranates and Golden Bells: Studies in Biblical, Jewish, and Near Eastern Ritual, Law, and Literature in Honor of Jacob Milgrom [ed. David P. Wright, David Noel Freedman, and Avi Hurvitz; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1995).

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