Leviticus 18 and 20, Redux

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.

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Genesis 1-5 as Ancient Memory

I have recently discovered the work of Riane Eisler, and particularly her classic 1988 work The Chalice and the Blade. Eisler is a second-wave feminist who has specialized in cultural history. Her book is an overview of the apparently substantial archaeological evidence that human society during the Neolithic pre-historical period (that period that before written historical records, before the rise of the Egyptian empire) was radically peaceful, cooperative, and egalitarian.

It turns out, there is no evidence that Neolithic communities built fortifications or defenses around their towns, no evidence among what we can find of their metallurgy that they manufactured any weapons, and from what we can tell about their social lives, men and women lived in equalitarian peace, neither patriarchal or matriarchal.

Thus, Eisler distinguishes between two ultimate types of social structures, which she terms the “chalice” and the “blade.” Or, phrased differently, the cooperative and the dominator culture, each organized around the common cup or the power of the sword. It was not until the nomadic herdsmen swept down from the steppes to expand their grazing territories that weapons and defenses begin to be seen, and over a period of centuries the peaceful Neolithic communities were conquered by various nomadic warlords. The Minoan culture on the island of Crete was the last remaining peaceful, egalitarian society, finally conquered by the warring mainland Myceneans (Greeks) in 1420 BCE.

Her research is helpful for us in that it demonstrates that competition, violence, and domination are not inevitable for the human person or the human community.

As a Christian, I found her insights of prehistory and the emergence of patriarchy as a later “de-evolution” from a cooperative, peaceful community very interesting. I was thinking this week about how we might view the earliest portions of Genesis as the collective memory of the Hebrew people, living in and often part of the patriarchal model of human society, of a lost age of peaceful and unoppressive human community.

That is, Genesis was probably written or compiled during the Babylon exile, when Israel was in captivity and under the oppression of the dominator model of human community. While prior to this historical point, Israel had come into Canaan and settled there, eventually displacing the peaceful people that lived there and had desired a king like the dominator model (in 2 Samuel 8), by the time they began to collect the earliest stories of their people and culture, they were slaves and prisoners to this same system. Thus, the idea of a former age of peace and a tragic fall came into their yearning. In other words, because they were enslaved and suffering, they sought the hope that such a plight was not inevitable, but that there had once been an age without such oppression and suffering, and then a fall from such a human community.

To make this clearer, Genesis is a foundational mythic retelling of a cultural memory of a distant past. There are glimmers of a genuine lost historical age found under the mythical trappings of the story, much as there might well have been a real flood that gave rise to the flood account of Noah.

When we turn to Genesis 1-5, then, we see the remnants of their ancient memory of precisely this neolithic past, passed down in stories through the collective memory of the community, of a way of being human in community that had been lost (but might be recovered in some eschatological future). The story of Adam and Eve dwelling in harmony with each other, the creation, and God in the Garden of Eden is the expression of what the Hebrews called “shalom,” or peace, a comprehensive peace and harmony between all creation, where all relationships were properly ordered in equalitarian and healthy, nonviolent terms. (I am here assuming that Phyllis Trible and various eco-theologians are correct in seeing Genesis 1-2 as egalitarian and opposed to androarchy, mankind-rule and people-centrism.)

When the serpent turns up, it inserts disorder and disharmony into all of these relationships, humanity with itself, between the genders, between humanity and the animals and the creation. There is now “enmity” (Gen. 3:15) that interferes with shalom. This could well be, once again, the collective memory of an ancient neolithic past in which communities of shalom and cooperation and harmony were conquered by warlords, which would have plunged people into enmity with one another and with the world. Later, in Genesis 4, this enmity bursts into violent murder between agrarian Cain and herdsman Abel, the precise two kinds of communities that fought with each other in the later neolithic age. Cain, the violent one, then goes on to found the first city (and the implication of it, empire, domination, oppression).

In the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, the word “enmity” in Gen. 3:15 is echthran. This is important for the gospel, as Ephesians 2:14-18 makes clear:

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.

In this passage, pseudo-Paul mentions “hostility” twice as something that Jesus killed. The Cross, then, was the ultimate act of violence of God’s part–the violence of enemy-love, to suffer rather than retaliate, and in that way execute hatred and violence forever. That word “hostility” is echthra, forging a close connection between the serpent-dominator who gets between healthy, harmonious relationships with its enmity [echthran], and the Christ-liberator, who finally killed enmity [echthra] itself in the human soul and in human community. By killing enmity, Jesus opens up new ways of being human and living together in community, restoring “peace,” shalom, that ancient human community based in cooperation, love, peace, and egalitarian life.