In my Romans commentary I briefly addressed Paul’s condemnation of lesbianism (Rom 1:26), the only place in the bible which mentions same-sex relations between females. The reason for the biblical silence is understandable. The reason for Paul breaking that silence is rather intriguing.
Authors in antiquity avoided mentioning female same-sex relations because they posed a threat to the way men perceived sexual honor. Men were supposed to take the active role of the penetrator, while women, boys, or pathetic men took the role of the penetrated. To paint broadly: it was honorable for a man to penetrate, and honorable for a woman to remain chaste. Women in even submissive sexual roles could be shamed (not least honor-rapes), and so naturally the idea of a woman taking an active role (by use of dildo devices or fisting or whatever) caused masculine anxiety. In this light, the silence of lesbianism in places like the bible (save Rom 1:26), Athenian comedy, and other bodies of literature is easy to understand.
That Paul condemns lesbianism (1:26) before getting to male sodomy (1:27) is not the surprise. Like most men he would have viewed lesbianism as even more shameful than male sodomy, for the above reasons. The surprise is that he gives voice at all to the lesbian abomination.
It’s especially surprising — at least, at first blush — considering the tradition he’s working with. Sodom is in the background of Rom 1:18-32, and the sexual offenses at Sodom came from the men of the city who wanted to gang-rape other men (Gen 19). Jewish traditions of Sodom (Testament of Naphtali 3:4; Philo’s On Abraham 133-136; etc.) do not make reference to female homosexuality. But Philip Esler has noted a striking feature in Ezekiel.
Ezekiel presents the city of Sodom as an archetype of arrogance, abundance of food, failure to help the poor, boasting, and committing various iniquities before God (Ezek 16:48–50). There is no mention of any sexual offenses in this list of sins, let alone same-sex relations between women. But there is the curious “daughters of Sodom” phrase which is unique to Ezekiel. The “daughters of Sodom” are mentioned no less than six times (verses 46, 48, 49 x2, 53, 55), and as Esler says, in an oral culture this is a sort of catch-phrase that could easily float free of its context in Ezekiel, and become associated with the same-sex behavior that had been part of the Sodom story ever since Genesis 19.
Some might resist this proposal on grounds that Ezekiel doesn’t explicitly provide a basis for interpreting him this way. But by what standard? Modern intertextuality or ancient collective memory? Esler imagines the objections from his colleagues:
“[Those] dedicated to the study of intertextuality — the way one text influences another — would probably object that Ezekiel 16 is a denunciation of Jerusalem in which Sodom is presented as a mother and its inhabitants as daughters. The feminine imagery would be merely a result of the ancient tendency of personifying cities as female in gender, coupled with the fact that Israel is often portrayed as a woman who prostitutes herself. Furthermore, no mention is made of sexual sins in the list of Sodom’s sins in Ezekiel 16:49–50, and the feminine imagery of Ezekiel 16 says nothing about same-sex relations between women. Ergo, the idea that Ezekiel 16 could lie behind Paul’s reference to sexual relations between women is a very improbable one.
“Such an objection makes sense only in the context of modern reading habits dependent on physical access to the texts in question and is anachronistic in relation to the way that traditions develop in a culture where most people are illiterate. The notion of the sinful daughters of Sodom, unique to Ezekiel 16, is one of those isolated but striking details which tend to be remembered by people from stories and arguments they have heard, even long before. It is highly likely that this was a feature of Ezekiel 16 that drifted away from its position in the text and then became one of the many ingredients that, when collected together in the memory of Israelites, formed the composite image of Sodom.” (“The Tradition of Sodom”, in Bulletin of Theology, Vol 33, p 9)
Illiterate people knew their scriptures from hearing them recited, and when they recalled what they heard, they tended to remember isolated and striking details, often eliminating some parts while inventing others. (Anthropologists call this “constructive remembering”; see Esler, p 3).
If Esler is right (and I suspect he is), then at some point Ezekiel triggered a development in the Jewish collective memory of Sodom. “The daughters of Sodom” suggested that the women of the city were no less vile than the men. Paul doesn’t hesitate to bring those lesbians under fire.