I’ve written on Leviticus 18 and 20 before, regarding the so-called “gay passages.” My previous argument regarding these passages was to look at the structure of Leviticus 18-20 as a whole and reason from there that the “gay” passages were referring to cult prostitution. This is not an unusual conclusion in affirming circles, and commonly sneered at by conservatives on the basis of little more than prejudice.
But as I have continued to meditate on the passages in question, I find there is more to say. In my previous work I didn’t look much at the language of the passages in close up, because I was arguing structurally. But looking at the passages in a bit more detail actually bolsters the argument I was making before.
What do I mean?
My argument is thus: The Bible does not prohibit sex outside of marriage, even in the New Testament. Shocking, I know, but even Jewish scholars admit this is the case. There simply is no evidence that sex between unmarried persons is considered sinful. According to the Jewish Virtual Library,
Many people are surprised to learn that the Torah does not prohibit premarital sex. I challenge you to find any passage in the Jewish scriptures that forbits [sic] a man from having consensual sexual relations with any woman he could legally marry. It’s just not there!
The point here is not that we should take a libertine position on sexuality, but a matter of reporting what the Bible says and does not say. The Bible is concerned about vow-honoring. If you have taken a marriage vow, you should honor it. The marriage vow was so sacred that breaking it carried the death penalty. So when the Bible speaks about sexuality, it is largely concerned with protecting the marriage vow and preserving the patriarchal right of the man as the household ruler.
What does this have to do with LGBTQ issues and Leviticus 18 and 20?
It has everything to do with it.
The law in Leviticus 20 does not say, in the Hebrew, what it implies in the English. Our translators have been crafty, and stuck words into the verse that simply are not there and are not implied at all.
Here’s Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.”
But here’s the verse when translated literally: “And a man who will lie down with a male in a woman’s bed, both of them have made an abomination. Dying they will be put to death; their blood is on them.”
The implications here are quite different. The first takes the Hebrew mishkevay eesha as an activity; you shall not lay with a man like one would with a woman. But the second takes it as a location: a man will not lay with a man in a woman’s bed. Now the Hebrew word eesha means both “woman” and “wife.” The most likely way to understand this passage, then, is that it concerns the violation of “a wife’s bed.”
That is, the best translation for this passage is: “a man who will lie down with a married man, both of them have made an abomination. Dying they will be put to death; their blood is on them.”
Larry Behrendt has made this argument in explicit detail, pointing out that all of the usages of mishkevay and mishkav in the Old Testament are used to deal with married women or the defilement of the marriage bed. The only place they are taken in the way the anti-LGBTQ tradition takes it is in the translation of Leviticus 18 and 20, marking them out as a highly unusual usage, if nothing else. This should raise questions, at the very least.
Thus, the concern of this passage is related to adultery, the violation of marriage vows. It is therefore not applicable to premarital acts or to same-sex couples bound by marriage vows.
Then there is the word “abomination,” which in the Hebrew is toehvah. Far from the rhetorical force that “abomination” carries in our own language, as an absolutely corrosive and defiling act, this word is probably better read as “cultural taboo.” That is, this word refers to customs alien to the Torah and God’s vision for Israel in the Ancient Near East. The word is used for everything from child sacrifice and adultery to far less important issues to us today like maintaining the clean/unclean boundaries and avoiding unclean animals. The burning of incense (Isa. 1:13), remarrying your ex-wife, and so on. There’s over 100 things that are “abominations,” all of them culturally conditioned to Israelite life in the Ancient Near East under the Torah.
As a number of writers have noted, the word toehvah clearly refers to things that are culturally taboo, not universally prohibited. In Exodus 8:25-26, Moses points out that the practices of Yahweh were “abominations” to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians would kill them for violating their cultural norms. What was holy to God was an abominable practice to the Egyptians, and what was holy to the Canaanites was abominable to Israel. To offer Yahweh’s sacrifices while in Egypt “would not be right,” (Ex. 8:25). That word “right” is nahkone, which means “fixed, established,” or culturally determined. Genesis 43:32 tells us that Joseph, his brothers, and the Egyptians were all served separately at the meal because “the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination [toehvah] to the Egyptians.”
Abominations were cultural taboos, boundary markers between peoples. As we recall from the work of N. T. Wright, James Dunn, and E P. Sanders, the Torah functioned for Israel precisely in this way, as a boundary marker between Israel and the Gentiles. It was, thus, an expression of the cultural context of Israel in the land.
Thus, Leviticus 18 and 20 are laws that express the cultural nature of the Torah’s boundary markers, interested in protecting married women from being sexually defrauded by their husbands.