In that night, there shall be two men in one bed;
the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.
The sexual implications of Luke 17:34 have long been seen. But what is true in recent history was true in the past, as well. When it comes to two men in one bed, people are unable to name the thing, and had to express their objections indirectly. After all, there are things you simply can’t mention in polite company.
Many divines have discussed the closeness of the couple in verse 34, assuming the bed reading, emphasizing their intimacy and the resulting lesson that the coming of Christ will divide close friends and family members from one another.
Others seem to have felt uncomfortable with the intimate, close proximity of two people who could have been either a man and woman or two men.
They say, “It’s a Couch, not a Bed.”
Three people wrote briefly about their preference for couch instead of bed: Henry Jones Ripley (1842), Henry Charles Fox (1875), and John Hale Murray (1881).
Henry Jones Ripley
In his 1842 commentary on the gospels, Henry Jones Ripley asserts a symbolic interpretation for “in that night” instead of a literal night, writing, “The darkness of night is used as an emblem of distress, of most dangerous times.” Note that there is no distress or danger implied in the Luke passage; those meanings are simply asserted. Second, he writes: “In one bed; rather, on one couch, sitting or reclining together.”
With these two interpretations Ripley has obscured one clear and possible meaning, but since he gives no explanation for these interpretations, we can’t know, for certain, why. I nevertheless believe he wanted to avoid the implications of two men, in one bed, at night.
Henry Charles Fox
Henry Charles Fox echoes Ripley’s preference for couch, but he is quite emphatic in both
his declaration and the reason.
The passage, “Two men shall be in one bed,” is a rendering perfectly allowable, but for the fact that it is entirely contrary to Eastern customs. It should be, “Two men shall be on one couch,” i.e., seated together at a meal.
Fox not only wants to disallow the bed reading, but he would specify what they are doing as well—eating dinner.
His reason for wanting to disallow the bed reading is evidence that he saw the problem of two men in one bed in the context of the Great Separation. Unless someone can come forward with Fox’s evidence that two men in one bed “is entirely contrary to Eastern customs,” then I suggest that his assertion recognizes that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are the appropriate Old Testament antecedents for Luke 17:34. Fox seems to have clearly understood that the categorical prohibitions against male homosexual relations in Leviticus (“they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them“) were in contrast to the “one shall be taken, and the other shall be left” teaching of verses 34-35.
Fox hides the tension between the requirement for a double-execution in Leviticus and the teaching in Luke that some make it and some don’t. He insists on a rendering that obscures the discrepancy from the eyes of the reader. κλίνης, after all, can be rendered either couch or bed.
John Hale Murray
John Hale Murray echoed this preference for couch in his book, A Help for English Readers to Understand Mis-Translated Passages in Our Bible. Murray offered the following correction for our “mis-translated passage.”
“Luke 17:34. ‘Two men shall be in one bed,’ should be ‘on one couch,’ that is,
sitting together at meal.”
Murray follows Fox in specifying both the couch and the activity.
In addition to these nineteenth-century divines, an eighteenth-century interpreter saw the sexual implication of verse 34 as well. The comment of classical scholar Jeremiah Markland shows his awareness of how the presence of two men in such close proximity could be interpreted, even if κλίνης were rendered couch. His awareness is subtly telegraphed by a tag line which clarifies his point at the end of the comment. Some time before his death on July 7, 1776, Markland wrote about Luke 17:34.
This regards rich men: two men lying upon one couch; at supper, I suppose.
Markland was a poet with a penchant for irony, and understood the power of words that come at the end of a sentence: “At supper, I suppose.” The ironic skepticism is the same as someone saying in response to a seriously questionable election results, “The people have spoken—I suppose.”
I’m sure that arguments can be mounted against the following assumption, but my guess is that wherever couch is preferred to bed, or wherever the activity in the bed or on the couch is specified, the clarification that is being offered is the alleged “misunderstanding” that the “two in one bed” are two men.
The problem presented by verse 34 has been around for a very long time. For centuries, generations of clergy and Bible study leaders have had to clarify what “two men in one bed” does not mean, wasting precious minutes of preaching and discussion time.
“Can’t someone figure out a way to get us out of this mess?”
[To read all the posts on the gays and lesbians in Luke 17, click here.]