Leviticus Defiled: The Perversion of Two Verses

Leviticus Defiled: The Perversion of Two Verses

I love Leviticus. I really do. I think it is one of the most important books in the Old Testament for elucidating the New Testament. How can you understand what it means to say Jesus is the “once for all sacrifice” if you don’t understand the Old Testament sacrificial system which is described in Leviticus 1-7? How can you claim Jesus is your high priest if you’ve never read the role of the high priest in Leviticus 16? How can you quote the “greatest commandment” if you don’t know that it comes from Deut: 6:4-9 and Lev. 19:18? How can you understand Passover or Tabernacles (the “Great Feast”) or Pentecost (Shavuot) if you’ve never read about the festivals in Leviticus 23? How can you appreciate Jesus’ healing of lepers or the woman with the twelve-year flow of blood if you’ve never read the laws of clean and unclean in Leviticus 12-15? You can’t. You are missing the foundation of those stories if you’ve never read Leviticus.

But, Leviticus is a book that most Christians simply don’t read—won’t read. They find it tedious and difficult to understand. They say it’s “Old Covenant” so they don’t have to observe any of its strange laws (especially the dietary ones). “Jesus freed us from all that,” they say, happily. They see no real use for it, and say that it has no relevance to them. They ignore it, and the pages of Leviticus still stick together in their Bibles, the gold embossed edges unmarred.

Leviticus is the ugly step-daughter of the Old Testament—easily forgotten, overlooked, and untouched like an unclean woman.

Except when Leviticus is useful.

It’s useful when you want to pluck a few convenient verses out of context from the book to condemn and humiliate and justify hatred. Or when a parent wants to keep his/her child from getting a tattoo.

Such “uses” of Leviticus are defilement. When you use a biblical book only to condemn but ignore it otherwise, that’s bibliolatry. You are defiling God’s word by using it wrongly and selectively. When you ignore a book filled with important (but difficult) theology only to appeal to it when it’s convenient, you are abusing it. This is biblical pornography—putting selected verses on display in a way that defiles them and uses them for your own perverted purposes [1].

“God hates fags!” (Lev. 18:22; Lev. 20:13). That is Leviticus defiled. Does Leviticus really say God hates fags? No. Do people who use such verses have any other purpose than to promote hatred? No. Have these people ever read Leviticus in its entirety? Likely, no. And have they ever bothered to read these verses in context? No.

So, let’s take a look at the prooftexted verses of Leviticus and see what they really say in context.

Leviticus 18 and 20 forbid all sorts of sexual activity as well as foreign cult practices. In both, the purpose of the laws is clearly stated in the context of avoiding the practices of other nations. Lev. 18:3: “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you” (NRSV). Lev. 20:23: “You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them” (NRSV). Thus, the first thing we should notice is that the laws of Leviticus 18 and 20 are about avoiding the practices of other nations—nations which worshiped other gods.

Leviticus 18 and 20 differ in the order and in some of the practices they list. Leviticus 18 simply cites the practices and sometimes labels them as abominations or other such things. Leviticus 20 tends to cite the practices and also commends punishments for each one. Often the penalty is death.

Both Leviticus 18 and 20 emphasize avoiding the worship of Molech, a foreign deity, especially in regard to child sacrifice (Lev. 18:21; Lev. 20:2-5). This is another clue that these laws revolve around avoiding the practices of other nations. Interestingly, the law forbidding sacrificing children to Molech appears immediately prior to the oft-prooftexted 18:22, usually understood to forbid homosexuality.

Most of the laws of Leviticus 18 forbid sexual relations amongst family members (Lev. 18:6-18). One verse warns against having sex with a menstruant (Lev. 18:19; cf. Lev. 20:18 which states that both the man and woman will be cut off from their people!). One verse forbids adultery (Lev. 18:20). And the next forbids sacrificing children to Molech (Lev. 18:21). Next comes our prooftexted verse (Lev. 18:22), followed by a verse forbidding bestiality (Lev. 18:23). The remaining verses emphasize that such practices are forbidden because the “defiled” nations practice them (18:24-30).

The laws of Leviticus 20 are more diverse. The chapter begins with the laws forbidding worship of Molech (Lev. 20:1-5). This is followed by forbidding the use of necromancers (Lev. 20:6), admonitions to remain holy (Lev. 20:7-8), and a warning against cursing one’s father or mother lest one be put to death (Lev. 20:9). The laws that follow focus on forbidden sexual relations, including our other prooftexted verse (v. 13) (Lev. 20:10-21). The chapter concludes with a restatement of the importance of making a distinction between Israel and the other nations (Lev. 20:22-26) and a final verse forbidding the consultation of necromancers (Lev. 20:27).

Now to the prooftexted verses. Generally speaking, this is how most modern translations translate the verses in question.

Lev. 18:22

“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (NRSV). See also NIV, NASB, NET, KJV, ESV, etc. which all have something very close with slight variations, i.e. using “detestable” rather than “abomination,” and “sexual relations” rather than “lie with.”

Lev. 20:13

“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.” See also NIV, NASB, NET, KJV, ESV, etc. which all have something very close with slight variations, such as “blood guilt” or “blood guiltiness” rather than just “blood” and “sexual relations” instead of “lie with.”

The problem with all these translations is they don’t reflect what the Hebrew actually says. Here are my literal translations of both verses:

Lev. 18:22:

“And with a male you will not lay (on) the couches/beds of a woman; it is an abomination.”

Lev. 20:13:

“And a man who lays with a male (on) the couches/beds of a woman, the two of them have made an abomination, and dying they will die; their blood is upon them.”

Neither verse actually says “Do not lie with a male as with a woman.” Instead, both say you should not lay with a male on the couches or beds of a woman. The New American Standard Bible has a footnote that says, “Lit. “those who lie” taking the word “couches” as a participle. But it is not a participle. It is a plural noun. So what does this mean?

Well, first it means that translators have taken great liberties in smoothing out these verses. Second, it means that maybe these verses aren’t talking about homosexuality at all, especially in light of the context of Molech worship. An interesting parallel appears in Isaiah:

“Upon a high and lofty mountain you have set your bed, and there you went up to offer sacrifice. Behind the door and the doorpost you have set up your symbol; for in deserting me, you have uncovered your bed, you have gone up to it, you have made it wide; and you have made a bargain for yourself with them, you have loved their bed, you have gazed on their nakedness. You journeyed to Molech with oil, and multiplied your perfumes; you sent your envoys far away, and sent down even to Sheol.” (Isa. 57:7-9 NRSV [italics mine]).

Clearly, in this text, setting up your bed is a symbol for worship of Molech. Perhaps the same is true in Leviticus. And since both Levitical verses speak of lying with a male on the beds of a woman, perhaps the issue is sacred prostitution, not homosexuality.

Regardless, the sacred-cow prooftexts against homosexuality aren’t all that clear, are they? And if we keep the context in mind (and I realize people who use Leviticus to bash other people don’t care about context), these verses, like all the other verses, have to do with avoiding the practices of other Ancient Near Eastern religions.

Out of all the verses in Leviticus that could be singled out, people filled with hate have chosen two obscure verses and ignored their context. They don’t care about the fact that Leviticus 20 also forbids sleeping with your wife if she is menstruating, and if you curse your parents you should be put to death. They don’t care that Leviticus forbids wearing garments of mixed materials. They don’t care that Leviticus contains an entire dietary code that was obviously quite important. They don’t care about this book as God’s Word. They only care about perverting two verses.

Isn’t it interesting, that when Jesus quoted Leviticus, he quoted a verse about love (Lev. 19:18)? Maybe, if we’re going to pick one verse out of Leviticus to plaster on signs, that’s the one we should choose.

Additional Note:

I’ve consulted both the Brown-Driver-Briggs and the Kohler-Baumgartner lexicons to check into the use of miskab (the noun that means “bed”) to see if it can refer to the act of sex done on a bed. In other words, does “beds of a woman” refer to the act of sex done on womens’ beds thus allowing for the translation “as with a woman” in Lev. 18:22 and 20:13?

What I found is interesting. The word “bed” can refer to the act of sex, but when it does the Hebrew word yadah (know) is always used. For example, in Num. 31:17 Moses speaks of killing “every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him” (NRSV). A literal rendering of the Hebrew is “and every woman who knows a man to/upon/by a bed (miskab) (of a) male you will kill.” So, you could smooth this out by rendering it “every woman who has had sex with a man by bedding him, you will kill.” The same is true in Num. 31:35 and Judg. 21:11-12. BUT, these verses are describing women who are no longer virgins AND these verses ALL include the word yadah (to know) which, in these contexts means “to know sexually.”

Although BDB lumps Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 with the above texts, the Leviticus texts are different in that neither uses the word yadah (to know sexually) with the noun mishkebey (beds of). KB lists one meaning for the noun mishkab to be “a bed for cultic rituals” (citing Isaiah 57). Thus, it seems to me that the use of the phrase “beds of a woman” more closely resembles the use in Isaiah (bed for cultic ritual) than it does “the act of sex” in Numbers and Judges. The syntax and context of Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 match the syntax and context of Isaiah 57 not the syntax and context of Numbers 31 or Judges 21.

[1] See Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2006), 22, who discusses the pornography of God—God as object instead of subject. The Bible is often treated similarly, as an object to be used and devoured for despicable purposes. 

45 thoughts on “Leviticus Defiled: The Perversion of Two Verses”

  1. Great post. Love the ideas. You may want to fix the spelling of “lie” to “lay” before the trolls come out though.

  2. Actually Leviticus for me is an excellent textbook for 14th century BCE Public Health. God gave Moses some excellent commandments for keeping His chosen people healthy prior to the modern medical advances that we saw in the last century. I can give many more examples than these. You had almost no sexually transmitted diseases because you took the vectors outside the city and stoned them. (Fertility and fecundity were preserved.) Proscriptions against various foods served as warnings against trichinosis, hepatitis A and possibly C, cholera and many of the dysenteries.The lean diets, such as Daniel and his friends wanted to eat, were healthy and contributed to long life.Furthermore my interpretation of sexual intimacy puts God as the Subject of His laws (as scribalishness wishes). God wants us to have an incredible degree of intimacy with Him. He wants to be in us as we cannot comprehend. He has given us, man and wife, the most precious gift in the Creation. When Man and Wife lie with one another, the two become one, and they create new life. Sexual union is procreative. In the strictest sense, recreational sex for reasons other than the chance of procreation might be viewed as perverting God’s wishes for us. God loves children and families and he has given Man and Wife the ability to share in Creation! Man, with whom God wants intimacy, lying another man is just a shame, an abomination. The Man wastes the precious gift of his sexuality,which is ordained to be shared with man’s helper, his wife, and vice versa for women.
    S/ Ralph J. Turner, MD, FACOG

    1. I realize this is a popular way to try to make Leviticus seem relevant, but it does not work. Nothing about covering yourmouth when you sneeze and washing your hands. Nothing about cooking things at a particular temperature. No prohibitions that would consistently prevent food poisoning (although any food prohibition, including chicken and beef, would reduce some). It is better to respect what the text actually says. Gordon Wenham’s commentary, drawing on the work of Mary Douglas, is extremely helpful in this regard.

      1. I agree, James. I don’t believe that the dietary laws (or laws of clean and unclean) had anything to do with hygiene or disease (why isn’t human waste unclean, for example?) I think Jacob Milgrom’s view is really the best. He concludes that the prohibitions are, somewhat, arbitrary and cannot be explained even by anthropological approaches like Mary Douglas’s. Instead, he suggests that the purpose of the dietary laws is to limit violence and instill respect for life. My personal view is that all the clean and unclean laws are about respect for the mysteries of life and that “unclean” is an unfortunate translation, but similar to the later idea of “books that make the hands unclean” referring to holy books rather than something negative.

  3. I’m glad you wrote about this chapter/verse. Verse 22 came up in a business meeting of all places recently so I’ve been looking a little bit into it. I’m looking at the Hebrew and I’m kind of baffled. This may not be a question for the comments section, but Is there any grammatical reason to consider מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י a participle? BDB has it listed as the “act of lying” but it still is in the same form as it is in Isaiah 57, just without the suffix.

    Alter’s take on it is that verse 21’s use of “seed” instead of “child” links it to the preceding verses, the theme being a (re)productive use of seed. Verse 22 then is another example of wasted seed, which is why there is no mention of female to female relations. This makes sense to me, but really it just amazes me that often some of the most ambiguous and complicated scriptures are the ones used to condemn others.

    1. I’ve checked both Brown-Driver-Briggs and Kohler-Baumgartner lexicons and both have the word in Lev. 18:23 and 20:13 as a noun and not a participle. It would have to be a participle in a stem other than Qal, and under the verb shakab, neither lexicon lists a participial form in any other stem. I’m adding a note to the original post about the use of mishkab as a noun, and after looking at BDB and KB I am even more convinced that “act of lying” is not correct in the Leviticus verses. I’ll explain why in the note.

      Normally I love Alter’s stuff, but I wonder if wasted seed is really the issue. Why isn’t there a verse about masturbation then? Or a verse about coitus interruptus? Why would homosexuality be a “waste of seed” but none of these other practices? Just a thought.

  4. non of you gave said anything about Leviticus 1-7 and 1-8 stating that we are forbidden to unclean meats (pork)…

    1. What would you want to discuss about that? I think the sacrificial system is fascinating and completely misunderstood by Christians. I need to write a post on that, come to think of it. And as for dietary regulations, all sorts of stuff could be discussed there. Hmm. I think I have a bunch of posts I can do on Leviticus.

  5. Good observations all. However the case contra homosexual behavior isn’t constructed on Leviticus alone. I would be very interested in your exposition of Romans 1.

    1. True. And my post isn’t really intended to be the coup de grace in the battle over what the Bible says about homosexuality. I’m just trying to get people to stop prooftexting a book they otherwise ignore. I hate that! As for Romans, alas. I used to be a Greek scholar until I was wooed by Hebrew and can no longer translate Greek–I’ve forgotten all of it. But, there are plenty of NT scholars who could elucidate that passage for us.

    2. Let’s look at Romans 1:26 in it’s entirety:
      “For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, 27 and in the same way also he men gave up the natural function of the woman and burned with lust toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error…” First of all, you can’t “give up” something you never had in the first place. If I ask you for a million dollars, you can’t “give it up” to me if you never had it, right?? The use of the woman for gay men is not NATURAL. These men were obviously heterosexual if they were “leaving” their women for other men in the name of “LUST”. If they were with women, they were married to them, otherwise, they would be sinning too, right? So they were committing adultery, they were being lustful, and they were being promiscuous. If they did all 3 things with other women instead of men, would they NOT be sinning since they were having heterosexual sex? Second of all, no one is defending LUST. We would never read a passage of the Bible that dealt with heterosexual lust, adultery, promiscuity, and condemn all heterosexual marriages, would we?
      Furthermore, 1 Cor 11:13-15 “Does not the very NATURE of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him…” Nature had to do with CUSTOM not BIOLOGY. Unless of course you believe “nature” controls the length of a man’s hair!

  6. I’m not sure I buy into this interpretation. I’d like to believe it because it would make things much easier to explain that God deeply loves us irrespective of the sexuality that has been built into us.

    Do the Jewish rabbis also interpret this passage of Leviticus this way? There doesn’t seem to be much acceptance of homosexuality in that faith as well. And… what about the new testament condemnations of the practice? It would be disturbing to think that the translators took such liberties… and even if we accept your translation, it still seems like a pretty tenuous connection to the Molech thing… But I do appreciate your perspective and I will mention it to those who make an issue of the bible’s slant on homosexuality.

    Until I see it otherwise, just for the record, I still think that the practice of homosexuality is wrong for believers… as is heterosexual sin… which, I need to point out, seems to be MOST acceptable to the church and even IN the church. And really, for me, it’s all very unimportant to get all hot and bothered about other people’s sin… there’s all kinds of it all over the place and all this blather about homosexuality seems really quite stupid. And to think that some people think that we’re called to impose our church standards (much debated, in this case) on the secular world is … breathtakingly preposterous!

    I personally believe that above all, the Spirit is saying to the church: “Drop it. Move on now. (Now as in, right freakin’ now!) There are bigger battles out there. David fought who God told him to fight. I want you to wage your war against the Hittites (or whomever). The Amalikites are mixed up a bit… but those Hittites… the ones who oppress and manipulate and deceive and take from the widows, the poor and the downtrodden and live in opulence… take the battle to THEM and tear… them …down!” There are millions starving to death and working as slaves and hundreds of thousands of children who are being forced into prostitution… and some elements in the church actually think that God’s biggest concern is that we force some of our more contentious church rules into the secular world? They can’t be serious… and if these people are doing this for some kind of joke – a teeny tiny warning: I don’t think God is laughing too hard.

    So ya, it would be convenient for me to believe that the bible does not condemn the practice of homosexuality, but this crazy, exasperating book certainly wasn’t ever put together to be convenient for our PR needs! If one wants to use these passages to reject God or spread hate, knock yourself out. Hope you have a blast. But if you are reading the bible with your heart seeking truth, you’ll dig beyond such isolated and unelaborated statements and find it’s deeper value. I think the bible is what it is and it was so meant to be.

    1. This particular post isn’t really intended to prove whether or not the Bible condemns homosexuality because, obviously, that would require dealing with the NT passages and a host of other issues. My purpose in this post is to point out two things (1) that Christians tend to use Leviticus for the purpose of hate by plucking these two verses out of a book they otherwise never read and (2) that the verses they prooftext may not really be addressing homosexuality at all. That second goal, of course, plays into the overall question, “Does the Bible condemn homosexuality?” because if these verses aren’t talking about homosexuality, then you basically have no OT comment on it (except for those who point to Genesis 18 and Judges 21ff and those stories require blog posts of their own). Whether or not you agree with my translation is up to you. But my main point is that modern translations smooth these verses out in a way that does not reflect the Hebrew. (I’m adding a note to the original post to clarify this even more).

      I don’t think the connection to Molech is as tenuous as you do. I need to work more on this. But I would say that the overall context of both Leviticus 18 and 20 is idolatry and Molech worship in particular. And the Isaiah 57 passage seems to me to be very significant in supporting the Molech connection.

      I totally agree that the church ought to be paying attention to social justice issues rather than arguing over how we can use the Bible to hate people more. I wish people didn’t use Leviticus the way they do. I wish they actually read the book, because it’s filled with really important theology.

      I can’t really comment on how Jewish rabbis interpret this passage because I suspect that, just as in Christianity, there are as many interpretations as there are interpreters. It would be nice if some rabbis chimed in on the discussion! I will look at what Baruch Levine and Jacob Milgrom say in their commentaries on these verses (both of them are Jewish scholars) and see if their translations are any different. As I recall, they treat the verses the way other translators do.

      In any case, thank you for your comments. I wish prooftexting for the purpose of hatred didn’t happen. And that’s why I wrote the post.

      1. Yes. I see your point and certainly agree with what you were trying to achieve. I am guilty of avoiding books like Leviticus (and the weirder parts of Deuteronomy!) so maybe it’s time for me to get back into it. Even if it’s just so I’m not blindsided by some of my atheist colleagues who take great pleasure in watching me stammer and sputter out my explanations of parts of these books!

        …and I’ll give more thought to the Molech point. I do appreciate the fact that you’ve raised some relevant questions at the very least.

        …and, as a newbie here, I have to say that I am very encouraged to find that there is actually a community of believers who have a more ‘progressive’ (for lack of a better word) viewpoint. In my world, I don’t fit in anywhere! When I ‘out’ my Christian faith in progressive circles, I suddenly feel like a gay guy in Pat Robertson’s church… and when I mention that I detest the Conservative (Canadian version of GOP) corporate agenda in a church setting, it’s like I’ve turned to witchcraft! I was beginning to despair!

      2. Well, AWRM, there are plenty of progressive Canadian churches. the ACC, the UCC, etc. You might be happier somewhere like that. But if you combine progressive politics and conservative theology I guess you’d probably have a difficult time of it no matter what.

        Personally, I’d be happy to let the Bible says what it says, and then disagree. But it’s not always as harsh as people think, and if that’s the case here all the better. When atheists point to problem passages, AWRM, and I mean real problem passages, not passages they simply THINK are problematic, I say, “That bit’s wrong/made up.” They will usually reply, “So the Bible’s all made up?” And then I tell them, “No. A part is not the whole. Your restaurant can have a bad employee; it doesn’t mean you have a bad restaurant.” Then: “But why believe any of it? And how do you know which parts to believe?” Me: “Jesus, and common sense.”

        Anyway, Scribalishess, I would also be interested in reading what other commentators have to say, especially Milgrom.

      3. Hah! “Jesus and common sense” – that’s a pretty good foundation… Although, sometimes I find both a little nebulous… but therein is the battle us all… working out our own salvation with fear and trembling!

        And yes, the Bible is not as harsh as it sometimes sounds. The overarching message is love, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, justice,… It boils down to the MIcah 6 or the great two commandments… but there are passages that are really hard to reconcile… or as you believe, errors. I can live with both.

        I was raised Anglican. Church every Sunday and then later in life, in a private school, every day. It meant virtually nothing to me back then. A search for truth lead me away and then back to Christianity through some very conservative assemblies with their emphasis on a personal relationship with Christ. Culturally, it was difficult for me to align myself with these churches but it’s where God wanted me to be. Now, I love going back to the Anglican liturgy. It is so beautiful – now that I actually listen to it. So, maybe… I’m not completely conservative in my theology but maybe more so than many in this forum. I kind of don’t care about the theology though. Whether you think Jonah is myth or fact has little bearing in my mind on whether your faith is true or on what the Holy Spirit is saying to the church today…

        Thanks for your response.

  7. I agree with point that ‘Christian’ use Scripture to condemn. I believe the militant homosexual movement we see today is, to some degree, a result of the harsh treatment that the gay community received from the church where gluttony was ignored and homosexuality was demonized. I do believe that homosexuality is a sin, but I also believe that God loves the homosexual as much as the heterosexual, the rapist as much as the victim, the murderer as much as the murdered. That is not popular but it is true. There are different consequences for sin, but God’s love is constant. A harsh word stirs up anger. I think the church needs to own, again to some degree, the anger in the homosexual community.

    I also think a big part of this problem goes back to another Scriptural concept misused. We are taught not to judge, but then we are taught to judge those in the church so that the immoral person can be expelled. People in churches do not realize that they are supposed to truly evaluate the sincerity of their leaders to see if they are true or hypocritical. We are so PC even in the church that church discipline is a lost idea. But if Christians would begin to hold each other accountable, we would not have so many churches such as Westboro.

  8. Thank you — very helpful indeed. My wife is another Hebrew scholar (Sue Groom, author of Linguistic Analysis of Biblical Hebrew, Paternoster, 2002) and I’m going to send her a link. Whether she’ll have time or inclination to comment is another question, of course!

    As for me, I’ve moved from a conservative evangelical Brethren assembly background to become a progressive Anglican — quite a journey all told, from a “love the sinner, hate the sin” attitude to LGBTI people to full acceptance and I’ve been campaigning via my blog and facebook for equal marriage in the C of E. To sum up my argument in a nutshell: the way Christians have traditionally interpreted the Bible on the matter of same sex relationships is incorrect, based on a failure to take account of the context of the passages concerned: those passages do not address those living in stable, faithful same sex partnerships; they address heterosexuals engaging in extramarital sex. What those passages give us is a standard for all: faithfulness to one’s life partner; and exactly the same principle applies to heterosexuals, homosexuals and everyone in between.

    Your analysis, as I read it, seems to tally with this. Thank you once again.

  9. I want to say I love all of your work on this site. I have met many folk who say I’m not a true believer because of my views on Genesis (evolutionary creationism) and other bits, such as Leviticus. I was practically insulted by my pastor at a past church because of my views.

    The way I am spoken to by some it is as if they think I am the devil incarnate even though I accept and love Yeshua, love the text, believe much of the bible is very historically accurate, and other things such as that.

    1. Hi Dylan,

      I’m sorry you’ve been treated poorly for your views. It’s so sad when people get caught up in “right” theology that they forget how to love people and respect differences. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the posts and I hope they encourage you to “think different” in spite of what others think.

  10. I just found your blog today and find it very interesting.
    I have two degrees in Linguistics and have studied the Tanakh for about the last 50 years or so.
    What I think is missing in your analysis is (as you pointed out in a different blog post) the word “et” (aleph tav) marking a direct object, at the beginning of the verse.
    I would translate it as: ‘But [direct object] male do not [active verb for sex] so it’s not so much ‘lie with’ as have as an direct object of your sexual action…

    1. The word et can either be the sign of the direct object or it can be the preposition “with.” So, it could be “But with a male do not have sex with/lay” or “But a male do not have sex with/lay.”

      1. Here’s the thing: IMO, the verb l’shkov shin-kaf-bet is a verb meaning to engage in intercourse that takes a direct object, as do the vulgar English forms which I am trying to avoid using. Polite English lacks such a form. Though the English “to bed” someone may work and it has the same extension of the root word meaning a piece of furniture, used as a verb meaning to engage in sex.
        So putting in the “lay with” work around obscures the meaning. That is why I find it strange to translate the “mishkevai eesha” as the ‘couches of women’.
        If you look in verse 18:15 the Hebrew literally has “to give his [shikhva]” certainly, the man is neither giving his couch an animal, nor does the verse use the same form that is used with other people. People do not “lie with” animals in the Hebrew text.

  11. Christians use Leviticus to support hate? Really? So it is now “hate”
    to disagree with homosexuality? because we base it on what the bible , in it’s entirety, has to say? This article and subsequent comments sound very much like someone trying to cast doubt and tortuously divert/spin a biblical view to normalize homosexuality or say that wasn’t REALLY what the bible meat regardless of how many way you state it’s not your intent.

    1. Disagreeing with homosexuality can be very different from saying “God hates gays,” and putting it on a poster with selected passages from Leviticus.

      The Bible, in its entirety, is about loving God and loving fellow humans NOT about condemning homosexuals or anyone else. If Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, and Jesus didn’t spend any time discussing homosexuality, then perhaps we ought to take a cue from him: focus on loving God and loving others and stop pointing out the splinter in another person’s eye when there’s a plank in your own. From what I read in the Gospels, Jesus NEVER went up to someone and said, “God hates you because of your sin.” Instead, Jesus accepted people where they were and loved them. He forgave them. He asked them to follow him. The harshest condemnation Jesus ever launched at anyone was at the religious hypocrites who were condemning people because of their sin.

      If you read the blog carefully, what I’m pointing out is that (a) people selectively quote from Leviticus only when it suits their purposes of pointing out a particular issue as sin and claiming that it is an abomination. They do not read the book. They do not acknowledge context. They do not care that in the same chapter as the verses they use to condemn are verses that forbid all sorts of things they would consider “cultural.” The second point (b) is that the verses used from Leviticus are translated very tenuously. It is not clear at all what exactly they are condemning. Could it be male with male sex? Perhaps. Could it be male prostitution? Perhaps. Could it be men going to female cultic prostitutes? Perhaps. The two verses in question are ambiguous. I am not diverting or spinning anything. I’m pointing out translation problems. If anything, the typical translations of those verses obscure the difficulty of the language.

  12. Would you suggest that Lev 20:15-16 is also rendered tenuously?

    Would you suggest that these verses have influenced the translation of Lev 20:13 in some way, shape or form?

    1. No. Neither of these verses have the word “couch” nor is their translation ambiguous. V. 15 says “If a man gives his lying/copulation with an animal, dying he will die.” v. 16 says, “And a woman who draws near to any animal to copulate (different verb rab’) with it . . . .”

      Obviously all these verses have to do with sexual relations. But the immediate context suggests (and even states explicitly, see 20:22ff) that the problem is in participating in practices of the foreign nations.

  13. Let’s have a look at the immediate context of Lev 20:10-16. There are seven scenarios in which illicit sexual relations are described, one for each verse for this block of verses. For each scenario, the death penalty was prescribed for the defiled pair (except for scenario 5 in v.14, where all three are judged). The pattern is quite clear – there were illicit sexual relations that called for the death penalty for all involved “parties” in each scenario.

    Lev 20:13 is no exception: both parties were judged to be deserving of death. Even your literal translation acknowledges this. If, as you say, the issue was sacred prostitution, then what parties do you assert were put under judgment, and for what act was the pair judged?

    1. The act of sacred prostitution involved a man who went to a cultic prostitute of Baal or Asherah or some other deity. This would be an act of false worship for which the penalty is death. A sacred prostitute gave his or her earnings to the temple they served. Thus the issue, as with the other acts in this section, is about false worship, as indicated by the mention of Molech.

      1. Thank you for your reply. For your argument to be complete, explanation is needed concerning the specific prohibition against two males engaging with each other in the context of a sacred ritual. Why two males? Why not the obvious male and female pairing in a sacred ritual?

        Your syntax argument is a bit of a contradiction – if Lev 18:22 & Lev 20:13 are not about sex because “neither uses the word yadah (to know sexually) with the noun mishkebey”, then your assertion that this was about sacred prostitution is not tenable. As far as I know, prostitution was about sex. Furthermore, the immediate context of Lev 20:10-16 supports the observation that this passage is about illicit sexual relations.

        The reading of false worship in relation to the defiled practices of the foreign nations is not in question here. Everything that was ever wrong points to “false worship”. The contention here is the semantics of the phrase “the couches/beds of a woman”, which most translators have taken to be a euphemism. I don’t anything about Hebrew euphemisms, but the translators make no attempt to use lateral thinking in order to make some remote connection to other passages, whether that be to Isaiah 57 or elsewhere.

      2. I wonder if we are talking past one another. I did not say that 18:22 and 20:13 aren’t about sex. My point is that the translation “A man shall not have sex with a man as he would with a woman” is tenuous because of the syntax, but modern people assume it is prohibiting homosexuality. My point is that it may be about sacred prostitution which, yes, duh, involves sex. There were both male and female sacred prostitutes according to the OT. The prohibition would be that Israelites are not to visit sacred prostitutes as is done in the other nations. The issue is sexual. But these chapters are primarily about avoiding the sexual and cultic practices of the other nations, so the issue is religious as well.

        Translations are interpretations, always. And just because other translators haven’t made a connection with Isaiah 57 or questioned the consensus does not mean that I am automatically wrong. I have studied Hebrew for over 20 years, so it’s not like I’m just shooting from the hip here. Scholarship is all about questioning the consensus, and I believe I have made a cogent argument that, at the least, these verses should be reconsidered by translators. If another biblical Hebrew scholar were to engage me on “mishkebey” and argue that we should consider it a participle (“ones who lay”) rather than a noun (in spite of the fact that the major Hebrew lexicons consider it a noun), then we might have something to discuss.

        The main point of my blog post is that people use Leviticus to prooftext. They pluck out individual verses to support whatever argument they want to make but ignore the book entirely otherwise. They ignore context. They ignore other verses in Leviticus by claiming that only some verses are universal and other verses are cultural. This is a misuse of scripture. People do the same thing with Lev. 19:28 on tattoos. They claim that it is a universal prohibition against tattoos even though it is clearly in the context of worship for the dead practiced in other cultures.

        I suspect that you believe Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 are about homosexuality. They may or may not be. The translations are tenuous. But, even if they are about homosexuality, they are locked within the context of Leviticus 18 and 20 and the culture of Israel and its surrounding neighbors. If you’re going to make Lev. 20:13 prescriptive for all time and people, then, to be consistent, you must make 20:18 and all the other verses of the chapter prescriptive for all time. And the rest of Leviticus should be prescriptive too.

        The main thing is, if we’re going to prooftext any book (and ignore the rest) in order to judge others, we are not following Jesus’ teachings.

    2. Leviticus 18:22 (Hebrew translation) You shall not lie with a male [on] the bedding of a woman it is a despised thing.

      (The women”s portion of the tent was separated by a curtain from the men”s half, and it was strictly off limits. A male stranger who entered a woman”s quarters could be punished with death. Sisera hid in Jael”s tent, but paid for it with his life (Judg. 4:18-21).”

      Leviticus KJV 18:22 Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. (KJV)

      Leviticus 18:22 ESV You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

      Look, you must understand that the Old Testament was not written in English (much less American-English) As you can see, as we go from Hebrew through the translations and bible rewrites to English, to the present time (I’ve only stated a few examples but its a lot more complicated then this) it’s original meaning like many statements in Leviticus sound none relevant in modern society, if 18:22 stayed with its original translation nobody would pay any attention to it. The plural Hebrew word mish-che-ve (the bedding of) appears only 3 times in the Hebrew OT. The three places are at: Gen. 49:4, Lev. 18:22 & Lev. 20:13. The “bedding” or “bed” in tents consisted of the mattress which was stuffed with straw or feathers or animal skins spread out. So, I have just shown that it had to do with lying with a man on the bedding of a woman. Let me save us both some time and I’ll predict your next move. You will say that most scholars do not agree with that translation or interpretation, right??? The proof that I have the correct translation for Lev 18:22 and 20:13, “”Bedding” is the most widely attested translation of “mish’k’ vei”” (The dictionary of classical Hebrew Sheffield: Volume V Nun-Mem Ed. David J.A Clines. Sheffield Accademic Press, 200, p.526) There’s your proof. Since WE KNOW FOR A FACT that your translation is incorrect, what say you??? 😉
      So, looking at the meaning of the original text, we get a little closer with “Likewise male shall not lie bed wife is hated it”. Fixing the grammar just a touch can give us a better translation of “Likewise, (you) shall not lie down with a man in (your) wife’s bed. It is hated.”
      This actually makes sense in the context of the entire chapter, which also prohibits incest of various forms, and other sections of Leviticus that prohibit adultery. Many Christians don’t realize that some men today will pretend that homosexual sex isn’t adultery because it’s not “real sex”; I wouldn’t be surprised if this was going on in the days of Moses as well. And of course, it makes sense that the Bible would prohibit same-sex adultery. What doesn’t make sense is why the Bible would prohibit two males from having sex (under any circumstances) and not prohibit two females. When one interprets the Bible, they interpret Bible passages with other Bible passages. Furthermore, either you follow ALL the laws in the Old Testament or you don’t. Who gave you the right to decide that homosexuality is wrong, but trimming your beard is not (Lev 19:27)? What about eating shellfish, pork (Lev 11) wearing clothing that is made with more than one type of fabric (Deut 22:11), keeping the sabbath (Deut 5:12), ect? Christ came to set us free from the law of sin and death and we only have the new commandment that Galatians 5:14 talk about and so did Jesus in John 13:34.

      1. I don’t know if you’re responding to me (Susan) or to Robert, but I certainly agree that the word is “beds of” or “bedding of.” And I totally agree that you can’t just pick and choose select verses out of Leviticus and make them universally applicable while ignoring the rest of the book. That, in fact, is the main point of the original blog post. Thank you for your comments.

  14. I’m sure Jason was responding to me. I shake my head when I hear things like, “either you follow ALL the laws in the Old Testament or you don’t. Who gave you the right to decide that homosexuality is wrong, but trimming your beard is not (Lev 19:27)? What about eating shellfish, pork (Lev 11) wearing clothing that is made with more than one type of fabric (Deut 22:11), keeping the sabbath (Deut 5:12), ect? Christ came to set us free from the law of sin and death and we only have the new commandment that Galatians 5:14 talk about and so did Jesus in John 13:34.”

    Few people understand Paul, even fewer understand Jesus.

    It was Jesus who esteemed the Law: “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Yes, he was referring to Leviticus too.

    To enlighten us even further (or, alternatively, provoke us), he went on to raise the legal bar: equating anger/malice to murder, equating lust/remarriage to adultery, and abolishing the swearing of vows/oaths. Even John 13:34 raised the legal bar. No rabbi or religious elite ever came close to matching the radical teachings delivered by Jesus.

    You can work out for yourself from the NT which laws God just happened to change his mind about – circumcision being one of them – but please don’t give me such nonsense like God would abolish the incest laws.

    But I get your drift, it’s only a matter of time before we start celebrating polygamous same-sex unions. Perhaps same-sex adultery need not be an issue after all.

  15. I should likely come back to this when it’s daylight and i’ve had sleep, but…

    The point of this blog post is well-received by me. Too often I’ve seen/heard people misuse Scripture to their own ends. It makes me angry and sad, particularly when God is portrayed as this angry being who will just swoop in because you didn’t do everything just right. Works-based comes to mind…as well as condemnation felt by the person now in fear of God. There are so many facets to who He is… Thank you for sharing, again. A friend pointed me to your blog, and I’m intrigued. So many questions, not enough space to write them all, not enough organization in my brain yet.

    As for Hebrew, I know nothing about how to study it. I’m genuinely hoping to learn quite soon. I enjoy reading the thoughts and explanations of various translations/interpretations of what the original texts actually say.

    Progressive… It’s a term that, for me, holds so much negativity. I’m not sure where I fit anymore. I used to go to a non-denominational Bible college, attended several different churches over the years, and find myself uncertain more of denominations as a whole and more certain of the need for unity as a body of believers. Yes, there is belief, and knowing/understanding what you belief and why, so you can speak to others the hope that is in you, but there need not be one group lifting itself above another…see entirely too much of this.
    In short, I’m conservative on moral points, mostly. On social issues, I lean more, to use a term, “liberal”. I don’t like boxing myself or anyone else in, so let’s just say, the word “progressive” scares me, in large part because I associate it with accepting homosexuality as natural or okay, not being as strict with Bible interpretation, etc. There’s more, but I’ll let this lie for now, and try to sort more of it later.

  16. A bit late, but I am always unhappy when an appeal is made to the original languages of the bible that dozens of professional translators seem to have missed. There may be nuances that cannot be fully rendered in a translation, but the essential meaning is clear.

    I looked at the NET bible out of curiosity on the verses concerned here, as this version often gives useful information in the footnotes, and there doesn’t to me seem to be any reason to change the ‘traditional’ understanding of these verses.

    I am also wary when believers use arguments touted by atheists to try to discredit the faith. In this case, confusion as to whether or not gentile believers are not under the law of Moses (they are not) being used to argue that the moral law of the OT including its sex ethic no long apply either, when the NT clearly asserts the moral law does continue. So no to adultery, but yes to mixed fibres!

    1. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to appeal to original languages, especially when translators overlook the fact that the “traditional rendering” is just that–a consensus that has not been questioned. Translators, like all scholars, are supposed to examine the text and raise questions when necessary. In this case, the essential meaning really isn’t clear, and just because the NET Bible renders it like all the others and doesn’t have a footnote to that effect, doesn’t mean that it is correct. That’s sort of the point of looking at the original languages rather than the English. Assumptions have been made about how to translate this text. I am pointing out that it is not as obvious as it might seem, especially since the context suggests cult practices and not what in modern English is called homosexuality.

      I reject arguments that claim that some laws in the OT are “moral” and others are merely “ritual” or “Jewish.” In Leviticus, holiness is a holistic concept. They did not distinguish between moral vs. ritual laws. Holiness was both/and not either or. So, it was no adultery AND no mixed fibers. Besides, when Jesus dealt with the law, he didn’t loosen the standards, he elevated them. So, no adultery and no lusting with your eyes. I think Christians are much too quick to dismiss any laws of the OT that they find strange or unnecessary under the guise of “that’s just ritual law” when ritual law was also moral law. Plus, Leviticus intermixes what we might call moral laws (“love your neighbor as yourself”) with ritual laws (“do not cut yourself for the dead”) in the same chapter. When Christians look at Leviticus, they tend to pick and choose only what suits their preconceived notions. They don’t read the book. They don’t understand the book. And they ignore context. That is the problem I am addressing with this post. It is not okay to pick and choose and to ignore context and religious culture and the historical background.

      This is not a problem with atheists attacking the faith. This is a problem with Christians wielding the Bible like a weapon with no concern whatsoever for the original meaning in its original context. Christians of all people, should be very concerned about reading and interpreting the Bible honestly and diligently. When they prooftext the Bible to spread hatred, they are the ones who discredit Christianity, not atheists.

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