An Ancient Law Written on the Heart

When I studied Akkadian, the language of Mesopotamia, we would occasionally spend class time reading ancient legal texts. It often provoked discussion because laws reveal much about a society’s concerns. While laws regarding homosexuality in the Near Eastern codes are relatively rare, Tablet A, 19-20 of the Middle Assyrian Law Code (ca. 1400 BC) describes the punishment for falsely accusing someone of engaging in a homosexual act as well as the penalty for the act itself:

“If a man has secretly started a rumor about his neighbor saying, ‘He has allowed men to have sex with him,’ or in a quarrel has told him in the presence of others, ‘Men have sex with you,’ and then, ‘I will bring charges against you myself,’ but is then unable to substantiate the charge, and cannot prove it, that man is to be caned (fifty blows), be sentenced to a month’s hard labor for the king, be cut off [hair], and pay one talent of lead.”

The very next law establishes the penalty if the accusation is proven in court:

“If a man lay with his neighbor, when they have prosecuted him [and] convicted him, they shall lie with him [and] turn him into a eunuch.”

Since justice for the Assyrians was based on reciprocity, the convicted man would have been sodomized before being castrated. This suggests that the criminality of the act was seen as something other than its intrinsic nature.

In the law of Moses, however, homosexuality was viewed as an offense against God, making it intrinsically evil:

“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, they have committed an abomination; the two of them shall be put to death; their bloodguilt is upon them” (Leviticus 20:13).

If the Assyrians saw homosexuality as a crime against the state, what then was the nature of the crime? Assyriologist Marten Stol argues that homosexuality was despised because it was not procreative and thus not productive for the community. Children were highly desirable and essential for the passing of property and wealth, as well as caring for elderly parents. It has been established that at the time only half of all children made it to adulthood and census records from the time show that the fertility rate was not always at the replacement level.*

In Romans 2:14-15, Paul explains that people like the ancient Assyrians actually did possess God’s law; the Mosaic law was written on their hearts:

“For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them.”

The key phrase is “by nature”; the Assyrians instinctively knew that the act was contrary to nature because it was non-procreative. God’s judgment of individuals is based on the measure of truth that each one has had access to. Gentiles with no knowledge of the Hebrew God nevertheless possessed some truth by the fact that they were made in His image and likeness, and their conscience testified to it.

On the other hand, when individuals or a society approves or promotes that which is against nature, people’s consciences will be troubled by “conflicting thoughts” (guilt). In western society today, where unnatural behaviors like homosexuality and transgenderism are considered morally acceptable, the excessive hostility towards those who disagree is likely fueled by inner guilt. It can range from ad hominem attacks like calling people “deplorables”, to physical assaults. The guilt is projected, as psychologists say, through excessive condemnation of others.

“If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you” (John 15:18-19)


*See Victor H. Matthews, “Marriage and Family in the Ancient Near East,” in Marriage and Family in the Biblical World, ed. Ken M. Campbell (Downers Grove: InnerVarsity Press, 2003).

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