by the Rev. Dr. C. Riddick Weber
In the Holiness Code of Leviticus, we find two passages that are often cited as plainly condemning homosexuality:
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. – Leviticus 18:22 (NRSV)
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. – Leviticus 20:13 (NRSV)
These seem pretty plain. But these were laws that had to do with ritual cleanness, who could and could not enter the holy part of the Temple; we must start by recognizing that Christians completely ignore most of the Holiness Code in this section. Christians routinely eat pork and shrimp and wear mixed fabrics; we hardly ever execute our disobedient teenagers, even if we might think about it on bad days. In fact, it could be argued that we should first need a coherent explanation as to why we ignore so much here before we would be allowed to select these passages as hard-and-fast rules for all time and all people.
Plus, the exact meaning of the passages is not necessarily as clear as we might think. We will deal with several other problematic words and phrases in a moment, but we will begin by addressing the meaning and translation of the Hebrew word תּוֹעֵבַה “toevah.” Though this has traditionally been translated as “abomination,” we have good reasons to question such a harsh translation. Proverbs 6 lists haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are swift in running to mischief, a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife in a family as things that are “toevah.” We generally consider some of these misdeeds are more serious than others, but my guess is that most people who consider homosexual activity problematic because it is “toevah,” would not consider being involved in a family squabble or a lie that they told to be as serious as the homosexual activity they condemn, yet the same word is used in the Hebrew Bible. Similarly, Hebrew shepherds, part of God’s chosen people, were considered “toevah” to the Egyptians (Genesis 46:34), but no one would argue that they were “toevah” (however we would translate it) to God.
We must note that not everything considered “toevah” was to be punished by death, as is the case in Leviticus 20:13. Once again, we need not consider this to be binding for modern people since the following things are also punishable by death in the Hebrew Bible: children repeatedly disobeying their parents, having sex with a menstruating woman, and picking up sticks on the Sabbath.
“Given our human contexts and experiences, we affirm that every reading of Scripture is an act of interpretation.”
One of the oldest English translations, the 1382 Wycliff Bible translates Leviticus 18:22 as “Thou shalt not be meddled, [(or) mingled,] with a man, by lechery of a woman, for it is abomination.” This translation makes it clear that a reference to a woman is somehow involved, but how are we to interpret “the lechery of a woman?” Men mingling with each other is bad when a lecherous woman causes it to happen?
The Living Bible translation of Leviticus 18:22 reads: “Homosexuality is absolutely forbidden, for it is an enormous sin.” This translation makes some huge moves away from the actual text. The word “homosexuality” does not exist in either Hebrew (or Greek), and did not appear until 1869. The term was first used in a Biblical translation in 1946, and those editors later changed it, admitting the usage was a mistake. Furthermore, homosexuality would include lesbian women, when this text is specifically about the actions of a man. Using our principles, we have to acknowledge that this interpretation is far broader than the original text is.
The New International version, which stays closer to the original text and is much more modern, reads: “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.” This translation makes it clear that this passage addresses activities of men rather than women, but it translates as “sexual relations” a very unclear part of the text in the original Hebrew, which would be more literally translated as “lyings of a woman.” A universal prohibition on male homosexual activity could simply say, “Do not have sex with a man.” How does this reference to the “lyings of a woman” relate?
The New Revised Standard Version translation: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” reveals another wrinkle. The word “male” is not the normal word used for a man.
If we now look at Leviticus 20:13 we see this particular difficulty more clearly. The NIV translates the text: “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” In the phrase, “If a man has sexual relations with a man,” the NIV and many other modern translations inaccurately use the word “man” twice. The NRSV translates this text: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” The NRSV and other translations that use the word “man” and “male” accurately translate in a way that reveals the Hebrew writer uses two separate words (וְאִישׁ “ish” and זָכָר “zachar”).1
Leviticus 18, as written to Israelite men, contains numerous prohibitions relating to men’s sexual activity, most of which are incest prohibitions.
From the context of Genesis 49:4, Jan Joosten argues that the very unusual phrase “the lyings of a woman” should not refer to the act of sleeping with a woman, but actually to the bed of woman.3 He argues that Leviticus 20:13 thus provides a specific prohibition against married men lying with males and therefore violating the bed of a married woman. This, he argues, means that these verses are not blanket prohibitions against male homosexual activity, but rather a prohibition on married men engaging in homosexual activity. This further preserves the sanctity of marriage, which is a widely attested Biblical concept and one which Jesus does address in the Gospels.
The Hebrew Bible did not treat women as equal to men.
Other Hebrew Bible scholars take note of the fact that these passages are included among prohibitions against bestiality and child sacrifice, practices thought by Israelites to be followed by neighboring peoples who worshiped other gods. The fact that Leviticus 20 also includes prohibitions against sorcery strengthens this argument, since this practice was also associated with Hebrew understandings of the worship of other gods. In this interpretation, this verse is a prohibition against cultic homosexual prostitution.
Most of these interpretations, making arguments based on different reasons, uphold that these passages prohibit some form of homoerotic activity. However, the scholars who argue for these interpretations would say that none of these reasons should be seen as universal prohibitions against every type of homoerotic activity, especially that experienced within the bonds of a mutually committed relationship among equal partners. You might not agree with any of these particular interpretations, but I hope you will agree that both textual and interpretive questions make it difficult to argue that these verses are ironclad prohibitions against all forms of male/male homoerotic activity, let alone any kind of prohibition against lesbian practice.
Given the very real questions related to the text itself and to the interpretation of it, and given the fact the we already have beloved LGBTQ+ members within our congregations, can we simply look to the fruits of the Holy Spirit so evident in their lives? Based on this, can we trust that God loves us all enough to be calling us together to share the Good News? Let us share this good news with a world desperately in the need of the message of God’s creative, redemptive, and sustaining power. I hope that we can all have faith enough to respond to and with such love.
The Rev. Dr. C. Riddick Weber is Associate Professor of the Practice of Ministry at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, PA. He has served as pastor of Fairview Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, NC
1 Ancient Hebrew had six different terms for gender
2 Idan Dershowitz, “Revealing Nakedness and Concealing Homosexual Intercourse: Legal and Lexical Evolution in Leviticus 18”, forthcoming in HeBAI, quoted in Jan Joosten, “A New Interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 (par 20:13) and Its Ethical Implications,” The Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 70, Pt. 1, 1-11, p. 4.
3 Jan Joosten, “A New Interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 (par 20:13) and Its Ethical Implications,” The Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 70, Pt. 1, 1-11, p. 10.