HANNAH: "Give Thy Handmaid a Manchild"

An Ephraimite named Elkanah has two wives. One, Penninah, bears him several sons and daughters, but Hannah (Hebrew "grace") remains childless, for Yahweh has "shut up her womb." The fertile Penninah taunts her to tears, but Elkanah loves Hannah, saying, "Why weepest thou? . . . Am I not better to thee than ten sons?"

When the family goes to worship in Shiloh, Hannah prays "in bitterness of soul" in the Lord's sanctuary. She asks Yahweh to "remember" her, and makes God a vow: "Give thy handmaid a manchild, and I will give him to thee, Lord, all the days of his life," and no razor shall ever touch his head--meaning he will be consecrated as a Nazirite (see SAMSON AND DELILAH).

Eli the priest, sitting by a post in the sanctuary, is watching Hannah tearfully pray, her lips silently moving. Old and nearly blind, Eli misinterprets this behavior. He reproaches Hannah for drinking too much.

Hannah responds that she is not "a daughter of Belial" (that is, a worthless woman) but rather is of "sorrowful spirit," that she has not drunk anything but has "poured out" her soul to the Lord. To this Eli replies, "Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition."

This lifts Hannah's spirits. Upon their return home, Elkanah, we are told, "knew Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her." Hannah conceives and bears a manchild named Samuel.

When the child is weaned, Hannah takes him to Eli, to dedicate him to the Lord's service as promised. "I have lent him to the Lord," Hannah says. Eli thanks her for "the loan," saying, "The Lord give thee seed" in return. And indeed "the Lord," so her story concludes, "visited Hannah, so that she conceived, and bare three sons and two daughters." As for Samuel, he grows up to be a prophet, anointing Saul as the first king of Israel. (1 Sam. 1:1-28; 2:20-21) (On to ELI AND HIS TWO SONS OF BELIAL)

F.W.W. Topahm, Hannah, Eli and the Infant Samuel / Christian Theological Seminary Library

HARLOTRY: "A-Whoring after Other Gods"

A harlot (zonah) in ancient Israel was a person to be avoided, according to scripture, for both economic and moral reasons, though prostitution was not illegal (provided the woman was single, that is, not committing adultery, and not a priest's daughter, "profaning her father" [Lev. 21:9]). Thus the Hebrew Bible warns that consorting with prostitutes (zanah being the verb form for sexual intercourse outside of marriage) can leave one broke ("He that keepeth company with harlots spendeth his substance" [Prov. 29:3]), and the Apocrypha states that right abhors wrong "just as a respectable and virtuous woman abhors a harlot" (2 Esdras 16:49-50). In Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son, a young man's whoring leads to his ruin (Luke 15:11-32), and the Apostle Paul says that a man who is "joined to an harlot" becomes "one body" with her, thus profaning that which belongs to the Lord (1 Cor. 6:13-16). "Whoremongers" are among those who "shall have their part," says the book of Revelation, in the lake of fire and brimstone (21:8; see also Eph. 5:5 and Heb. 13:4; for more on hell and sex, see FORNICATION: "GOING AFTER STRANGE FLESH").

Harlotry or whoredom (zenut) is often used in the Old Testament as a metaphor for the recurring idolatry of the Hebrew people. Thus they are described as "playing the harlot" (Ezek. 16:41) and "a-whoring after other gods" such as Baal of Canaan (Ex. 34:15-16; Judg. 2:17, 8:33; see BAALIM AND ASHTAROTH). The prophet Jeremiah accuses "backsliding Israel" of playing the harlot "upon every high mountain and under every green tree," followed by "her treacherous sister Judah" (3:6-8). The prophet Hosea, decrying "the spirit of whoredoms" that leads Israel to seek counsel from idols (4:12), even marries a whore, to personify how Israel "hath committed great whoredom, departing from the Lord" (1:2; see HOSEA: "UPON EVERY CORNFLOOR"). (For the long-held view, now seriously questioned, that such biblical passages are not all metaphorical but include references to fertility rites or cultic sex, see PROSTITUTION: IS NOTHING SACRED?.)

Wicked cities, Hebrew and non-Hebrew, are also referred to as harlots. Ezekiel 23 describes the profligacy of the sisters Oholah and Oholibah, symbolizing Samaria and Jerusalem, in language that is not used in church (see EZEKIEL: TALKING LEWD WOMEN); the prophet Nahum condemns "the whoredoms of the well-favoured harlot" Nineveh (3:2); Isaiah describes Tyre as a whore who fornicates internationally (23:15-17); and Revelation depicts imperial Rome ("Babylon") as "the great whore" and "the mother of harlots" (17:1,5).

Still, idolatry and wicked cities aside, the moral judgments of society did not prevent some "respectable" men in the Bible, as in all historical ages, from enjoying the services of harlots. The Hebrew judge Samson may have done more whoring than judging (Judg. 16:1-4), and Jacob's son Judah, mistaking his own veiled daughter-in-law for a roadside harlot, immediately hired her (Gen. 38:13-18). The tribal leader Gilead fathered Jephthah by a harlot--as a result of which Jephthah's half-brothers, upon dividing the family inheritance, conveniently left Jephthah out (Judg. 11:1-2).

A Canaanite harlot named Rahab became a heroine of the Hebrew conquest and the mother of Ruth's husband Boaz (Josh. 2:1-21; 6:17,21-25; Matt. 1:5 ). King Solomon, in a famous case used to illustrate his wisdom, handled a dispute between two harlots who claimed the same child (1 Kings 3:16-28). And Jesus makes the point that harlots who believed John the Baptist will enter the kingdom of God before the chief priests and elders who rejected John's message (Matt. 21:31-32). Typically, though, the Bible, reflecting a patriarchal society, is more concerned with harlotry's victimization of males than with the fate of the harlots themselves. "She sitteth at the door of her house," says Proverbs (9:14-18), to call passersby, and let him who "is simple," who "wanteth understanding," "turn in hither," for "he knoweth not that the dead are there," that "her guests are in the depths of hell." (See also EPHRAIM: "HER RULERS WITH SHAME DO LOVE" and ISRAEL: "BEGET SONS AND DAUGHTERS.")

Rembrandt, The Prodigal Son in the Tavern / The Dresden Gallery


When ascetic, camel hair-clad John the Baptist appears in the Judean wilderness preaching "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," even Herod Antipas, the tetrarch (governor) of Galilee, considers him "a righteous and holy man." This opinion is not shared by Herod's wife Herodias, however, when John attacks their incestuous marriage. "It is not lawful," John tells Herod, "for thee to have thy brother's wife" (see INCEST: "COME LIE WITH ME, MY SISTER").

Herodias is not only Herod's sister-in-law but his niece (being the daughter of Herod's half-brother Aristobulus). Even the gospel writers get confused by this incestuous family. Herodias' previous husband, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, was not (as biblically stated) Herod's half-brother Philip, tetrarch of the region east of Galilee, but Herod Philip, another half-brother, in Rome. It is Salome, Herodias' daughter from the marriage to Herod Philip, who eventually marries the tetrarch Philip, both Salome's and her mother's uncle.

The "perplexed" Herod has John imprisoned, not so much to punish him as to protect him from Herodias, who wants "to kill him." But then, at a birthday banquet for Herod, young Salome dances for her stepfather and his guests. The only gospel description of the dance is that it "pleased Herod" (the so-called dance of the seven veils is of modern origin), but Herod's words of appreciation suggest a remarkable performance indeed. "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will grant it," Herod tells Salome. "Whatever you ask for I will give you, even half of my kingdom."

Salome consults with her mother Herodias, who tells her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Salome duly makes the request, and Herod, not wanting to renege on a promise before his guests, reluctantly gives the order. John's head, we are told, "was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother." Thus the story of Salome's dance--what Richard Muhlberger has appropriately called "the only truly sensual episode in the New Testament"--comes to a macabre conclusion. (Matt. 14:1-12; Mark 6:16-28) (On to JESUS CHRIST)

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Salome / Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest



HOMOSEXUALITY: "That Which Is Unseemly"

"Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind," says Lev. 18:22, for "it is abomination." Lying with womankind--that is, reproducing--was the first of God's laws ("Be fruitful and multiply" [Gen. 1:28]), and what probably made homosexuality among the Hebrews abominable was the fact that it was no way to go about reproducing. It was a waste of seed and contrary to the created order of things, God having made man "male and female" (Gen. 1:27 )--"Adam and Eve," as someone has said, "not Adam and Steve"--that they might propagate as commanded.

The book of Leviticus later specifies the penalty for homosexual lovers: if a man lies "with mankind, as he lieth with a woman," both men "shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them" (20:13).

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul includes homosexuality under what he terms "vile affections": he deplores men "leaving the natural use of the woman," lusting instead for one another, "men with men working that which is unseemly" (Rom. 1:24-27). In the same passage Paul also attacks women lying with women, in the only reference to lesbian activity in the Bible. (See LESBIANISM: "AGAINST NATURE.")

The Bible's view of homosexuality thus appears to be unequivocally negative. Little wonder that there are no homosexual biblical characters--at least none who are "out." (On the apparent exception of the men of Sodom and Gibeah, see SODOM(Y) AND GOMORRAH.) It has been long conjectured that David and King Saul's son Jonathan were more than good buddies. We are told that there was a "covenant" between them (1 Sam. 20:8), that Jonathan "delighted much in David" (19:2), that each loved the other "as he loved his own soul" (1 Sam. 18:1, 20:17), and that during their last meeting "they kissed one another, and wept one with the other" (20:41). On the death of his "brother" Jonathan, David laments, "Very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women" (2 Sam. 1:26). (Since David certainly did not pass up loving women, any sexual relationship with Jonathan would mean that David was bisexual. He may have married Michal for power, Abigail perhaps for her wealth, and as an old man he was impotent with Abishag, but the attraction of Bathsheba was hormonal.)

The Rev. Robert Williams, author of Just As I Am: A Practical Guide to Being Out, Proud, and Christian, is convinced that Jesus Christ was gay. The evidence Williams cites includes the fact that Jesus had no wife (highly unusual for a rabbi of his time), and had in his company the so-called beloved disciple, an unidentified follower in the Gospel of John whom "Jesus loved" and who "was leaning on Jesus' bosom" at the last supper. (See JESUS CHRIST.) The sexual orientation of the Apostle Paul, a celibate who attacks homosexuality but suffers from some "thorn in the flesh" (2 Cor. 12:7), has also been a subject of speculation (see A. N. Wilson).

But such speculations aside, how if at all, considering the death penalty set forth in Leviticus, can gay Jews and Christians find biblical support for their lifestyle? The Rev. Williams makes a wily but unconvincing attempt to wiggle out of Leviticus: he sees the commandment against lying with a man as with a woman as meaning that during sex one man should not force another "into the receptive role," thus degrading him, in the patriarchal view, by treating him like a woman. The commandment "has nothing to say," Williams claims, "about mutual, consensual queer sex." But there is a far less fanciful explanation for the awkward or wordy way in which the Old Testament describes homosexuality (that is, lying with a man as with a woman): in biblical Hebrew there was no word for homosexuality. Likewise Paul uses roundabout language--"men with men working," etc.--for lack of a word for homosexuality in biblical Greek. (The rare word arsenokoitai [literally "men lying with men," NRSV "sodomites"], used in 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10, may have been coined by Hellenistic Jews from the language of Leviticus as they found it in Greek translation [see Furnish].) In any case the point seems clear in both testaments, however clumsily worded: homosexual acts were forbidden, irrespective of who played what role whether by choice or coercion.

Dr. Robert Goss, in his book Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto, uses a different tact in trying to get around Leviticus. What the Leviticus law prohibits, according to Goss, is male cultic prostitution. But this involves, among other problems, an unfounded premise: the existence of male cultic prostitution. ("There are six references," Goss states, "to male cultic prostitutes [qadesh] in the Hebrew Scriptures." Actually there may be none at all. See PROSTITUTION.)

The Jewish scholar Jacob Milgrom argues that the Leviticus prohibition of homosexuality applies only to Jewish males. This lets ninety-nine percent of the world's homosexuals off the hook--but unfortunately, as Milgrom acknowledges, not "the small number of male Jewish gays."

And what do gay Christians then do about the homophobia of Paul? John Boswell's argument that Paul is not attacking homosexuals, but only heterosexuals involved in homosexual activity, is no more convincing than Williams's interpretation of Leviticus. Gays would seem to have little recourse but to dismiss Paul and turn for support to Christ, who, in Goss's words, practiced "solidarity with oppressed men and women," which today includes "the sexually oppressed." Thus Jesus is seen as "gay/lesbian sensitive"--which certainly sounds better than Goss's statement that "God is HIV-positive."

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Jonathan Takes Leave of David / Christian Theological Seminary

HOSEA: "Upon Every Cornfloor"

"I found Israel," says the Hebrew God Yahweh in the book of Hosea, "like grapes in the wilderness" (9:10). But like an unfaithful wife, Israel--whom the prophet Hosea also refers to as Ephraim (a preeminent Israelite tribe) and Samaria (Israel's capital city)--turns to idolatry, "playing the harlot" (4:15), her "lovers" being Baal and the other Canaanite gods (2:13). In their adultery, says Hosea of the Israelites, they are like "an oven heated by the baker," an oven flaming in the morning while the drunken baker sleeps (7:4-6).

As if to symbolize his people's apostasy, Yahweh commands Hosea to "Go, take unto thee a wife of whoredoms and children of whoredoms, for the land hath committed great whoredom, departing from the Lord" (1:2). Hosea accordingly marries Gomer, a whore who bears three children--Jezreel ("God sows"), Loruhamah ("Not pitied"), and Loammi ("Not my people")--who are apparently not Hosea's (1:3-9; 2:4).

Not surprisingly Gomer leaves Hosea, after which Yahweh tells the prophet, "Go yet, love a woman beloved of her friend, yet an adulteress" (3:1). This is generally thought to be Gomer again, though it may be a second woman. In any case Hosea's love for the woman despite her adultery reflects Yahweh's love for and redemption of the chastised children of Israel (2:16-20; 3:5; 5:15-6:3; 14:4-7).

Hosea dutifully buys the woman (we are not told from whom) for fifteen pieces of silver and several bushels of barley. "Thou shalt abide for me many days," Hosea tells her, "thou shalt not play the harlot, and thou shalt not be for another man" (3:1-3). But the habitually unfaithful Israel, who loves "a reward upon every cornfloor" (9:1), seems unable to abide for long. Hosea thus calls upon Yahweh to make Ephraim miscarrying and milkless (9:14), and prophesies the slaughter of children and pregnant women in Samaria (13:16). Not even the kingdom of Judah to the south will escape divine punishment: "I will pour out my wrath upon (the princes of Judah) like water" (5:10; see also 12:2).

The book of Hosea ends with hopeful words of Israel's restoration. But Hosea's imagery of violence toward women (not to mention toward children)--imagery that is continued by other prophets (see ISAIAH, JEREMIAH, and EZEKIEL)--is no less troubling to feminist commentators. "Let her therefore put away her whoredoms . . . and her adulteries from between her breasts," says Yahweh, lest "I strip her naked" and (comparing her to parched land) "slay her with thirst" (2:2-3). "And I will not have mercy on her children," he goes on, "for they be the children of whoredoms" (2:4). "(I will uncover) her lewdness in the sight of her lovers, and none," says Yahweh, "shall deliver her out of mine hand" (2:10). (See YAHWEH: "THY MAKER IS THINE HUSBAND.") (Hosea) (On to ISAIAH)

Woodcut illustration
Hosea, Gomer, and Three Children
from Zurich Bible, 1531

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