The other week I was riding in the car of a senior missionary couple when the senior sister asked me, “If the Book of Mormon was written for our day, why doesn’t it say anything about homosexuality? After all, the Bible has the story of Sodom. Why doesn’t the Book of Mormon have anything like that?”
It’s a good question. One searches in vain for any explicit depictions or mentioning of homosexual acts in the pages of the Book of Mormon. Why might this be?
Before we answer this, we need to unpack what exactly we mean we say the Book of Mormon was written “for our day.” This understanding arises from passages such as this one: “Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing” (Mormon 8:35). The title page of the book indicates that the intended audience of the record is, first, latter-day “Lamanites, who are a remnant of the house of Israel,” and thereafter the “Jew and Gentile.” Inasmuch as the book is professed to have been written “by the spirit of prophecy and of revelation,” this naturally leads interpreters to speak about the book having been written for a modern audience.
But while it is true that the Book of Mormon was written for a modern audience, this claim requires some contextualizing. For one thing, the prophetic intentions of the Book of Mormon are specifically to “show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord,” and otherwise also that “that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.” It is not the point of the Book of Mormon to speak to every single cultural, political, or moral issue that would confront its latter-day audience. This is even acknowledged by the authors of the book, who continually excuse themselves for having to omit things they would otherwise like to write about but are unable to because of constraints with their writing medium (cf. Jacob 3:13; Words of Mormon 1:5; Helaman 3:14; 3 Nephi 5:8; 26:6; Mormon 8:5; 9:33–34; Ether 15:33).
This is the first issue facing us. The simple fact is that the Book of Mormon does not intend to address everything we might want it to. Instead it focuses on narrating the tribal history of three groups of people and drawing out some important principles and doctrines therefrom.
The second issues facing us has to do with how we define certain terms. As any historian of human sexuality and culture will tell you, the categories “straight,” “gay,” “bisexual,” and the like, are modern (and primarily Western) constructs. The idea of defining yourself or someone else within the categories of “heterosexual” or “homosexual” or “bisexual,” or the like, arose in the West basically towards the end of the nineteenth century. To be sure, humans have long been aware of sexual acts being performed by members of the same sex. The Bible, of course, notably condemns such (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13).1 So too does the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, which, in the so-called Negative Confessions, includes a denial of having committed sodomy (n nk=ỉ nkkw, literally, “I have not [sexually] penetrated a penetrator,” that is, “I have not committed buggery with a passive male partner”).2 But while the ancients clearly recognized the reality of homosexual acts, the concept of “being gay” (or “being straight”) would have been entirely foreign to them. It would appear they simply did not think the way we do when it came to sexual orientation and identity. In an ancient mindset (at least an Egyptian or Israelite one), you could obviously perform sexual acts with a member of the same-sex, but doing such would not have necessarily made you “gay” the way we might think it does today. Hence Parkinson reminds us that the negative confession quoted above is prohibiting “an activity, sodomy/buggery, not a category of person, a ‘homosexual’ inherently characterised by an action.”3
This may also explain why the Book of Mormon is silent on this issue. It probably would not have occurred to the ancient Nephites to think of “being gay” (or “being straight,” for that matter) as an orientation or identity that needed to be addressed. Nor, it might be argued, did they necessarily see homosexuality as being particularly heinous enough to single out. Inasmuch as the Nephite authors were more concerned with interpreting and contextualizing the gospel through the lenses of their own sad history, it would make sense that they would focus on sins such as pride, tribalism, militarism, nationalistic violence, exploitation of the poor, priestcraft, religious hypocrisy, and other related vices as more pressing to address and warn of since such is what they immediately confronted as threats to their existence. Said another way, it might simply be that the Nephite prophets did not address homosexuality because they did not see it as particularly dangerous to their society. Nor, it might be argued, did they see it as particularly dangerous for their future audience.
On the other hand, one might be able to read the totalizing language of certain Book of Mormon passages as implicitly condemning homosexual acts. Quite often the Book of Mormon condemns “all manner of wickedness,” including “all manner of” sexual sins (cf. 1 Nephi 22:23; 2 Nephi 27:1; Jacob 3:12; Mosiah 11:2; Mosiah 24:7; Alma 1:32; 16:18; 45:12; 47:36). One might reasonably assume that the Nephites, if they were continuing in an Israelite moral and religious tradition, would have included homosexual acts in this general category of “all manner of wickedness,” but such a reading must assume this to be the case, as the text is not explicit.
I hasten to add here that none of this logically demands that therefore homosexual acts aren’t sinful. To say the Book of Mormon’s failure to explicitly condemn homosexuality must mean the text condones such is an argument from silence. What’s more, Latter-day Saints are not scriptural inerrantists, but instead rely on both scripture and living prophets to inform their doctrinal and moral views. As recently as the October 2017 General Conference, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve reaffirmed the position of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints relative to same-sex marriage. Rather, all of this is to instead merely identify possible reasons for why the Book of Mormon is silent on the matter. Whether homosexual acts are sinful or not is a separate issue from why the Book of Mormon fails to really mention them in the first place.
But what about the biblical story of the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 19)? As this senior sister missionary I spoke to asked, why would the Bible include a story such as this if not to condemn homosexuality? And if the Bible does this, why doesn’t the Book of Mormon do so as well? Without getting too much into this, since this is a separate subject that’s worthy of another blog post, the point of the story of the destruction of Sodom is not really to condemn homosexuality in and of itself, but rather to condemn the mistreatment of guests who were under the assumed protection of hospitality rights.4 In this case the sin wasn’t that the men of Sodom were “gay,” or even necessarily that they were committing homosexual acts, but rather that they were attempting to essentially gang rape Lot’s angelic visitors, which would have been a grotesque violation of accepted hospitality norms in the ancient Near East. This gets back to what I mentioned earlier concerning the differentiation between same-sex acts, consensual or otherwise, and constructing a “gay” identity or orientation out of or around those acts. The ancient audience of this story likely would not have understood the men of Sodom as “gay” men participating in homosexual activity, but rather as attempted rapists flagrantly breaching hospitality protocols (cf. Ezekiel 16:49).5
But again, this is a separate matter. The point here is that the waters are much murkier than we perhaps appreciate when it comes to understanding what exactly the ancient authors of texts like the Bible and the Book of Mormon may have thought about sexual orientation and identity. It therefore seems prudent to me that instead of getting bogged down in arguments over debatable scriptural passages on homosexuality (such as they are), Latter-day Saints should instead focus on what modern prophets have taught about ministering to those of differing sexual orientations.
- See generally Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001).
- See the commentary by Richard B. Parkinson, “‘Homosexual’ Desire and Middle Kingdom Literature,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 81 (1995): 57–76, esp. 61–62.
- Parkinson, “‘Homosexual’ Desire and Middle Kingdom Literature,” 62.
- See the extended discussion in Ken Stone, “Queer Criticism,” in New Meanings for Ancient Texts: Recent Approaches to Biblical Criticisms and their Applications, ed. Steven L. McKenzie and John Kaltner (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 155–176, esp. 163–171. Stone very perceptively points out that the story of Abraham’s hospitality towards the angelic strangers in Genesis 18 is meant to narratively contrast with the inhospitality of the men of Sodom towards the same in Genesis 19, and that this failure to be hospitable like Abraham is the main sin being condemned by the narrator.
- Tikvah Frymer-Kensky goes so far as to compare the attempted rape of the angels entering Sodom to “the rape of newcomers in jail.” That is, the men of Sodom were attempting to subdue and humiliate Lot’s visitors. Tikvah Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 124.