This post is part II in my Star-Crossed Christian series, to see part I click here.
As we have already established, there is little basis in Genesis, for an anti-homosexuality argument; but the book that sheds the most light on this issue is Leviticus, the third section of תּוֹרָה Torah (Law).
Firstly, we must learn to ask the right questions.
Exegesis is a term that describes a particular approach to interpreting scripture – an approach that we will take in this post. Whilst we, as imperfect humans, tend to ask subjective questions like “what does this mean to me?” the exegetical method asks “what did this mean to the authors?”
This means that we must understand the context in which Leviticus was written.
Leviticus is prefaced by Exodus (a book not discussed in this series, as it says nothing regarding homosexuality), which chronicles the Israelite’s journey out of Egypt and towards the Promised Land. As a consequence of being held captive in Egypt for 400 years, the Israelites impression of God had become distorted by the polytheistic pagan gods of the Egyptians; Accordingly, Leviticus served the purpose of providing instruction on restoring the Israelite’s relationship with God.
Leviticus is comprised of two parts – narrative history and instruction. It touches on many topics including requirements for offering sacrifices (chap. 8-10) and diet (chap. 11).
Which brings us to Leviticus 18: 22:
וְאֶ֨ת־זָכָ֔ר לֹ֥א תִשְׁכַּ֖ב מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֑ה תֹּועֵבָ֖ה הִֽוא׃
hî tō·w·‘ê·ḇāh ’iš·šāh; miš·kə·ḇê tiš·kaḇ lō zā·ḵār wə·’eṯ-
You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.
a commandment which is then reaffirmed in Leviticus 20:13:
וְאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִשְׁכַּ֤ב אֶת־זָכָר֙ מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֔ה תֹּועֵבָ֥ה עָשׂ֖וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֑ם מֹ֥ות יוּמָ֖תוּ דְּמֵיהֶ֥ם בָּֽם׃
wə·’îš, ’ă·šer yiš·kaḇ ’eṯ- miš·kə·ḇê ’iš·šāh, tō·w·‘ê·ḇāh ‘ā·śū šə·nê·hem; mō·wṯ yū·mā·ṯū də·mê·hem bām.
If [there is] a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them.
The most important word here is the transliterated tow’ebah, or more accurately, toe’vah.
According to Strong’s Hebrew concordance, this word appears 117 times in the Tanakh (Old Testament), where it’s commonly translated to mean “abomination” or “detestable act”.
The Talmud records Ancient sage Bar Kappara offering a different perspective. When asked to explain toe’vah to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, Kappara said
“Toe’vah means toeh-attach-bah = you go astray because of it”
Medieval scholars Rashi, Tosafot and Ran all made clear that Kappara was implying that a male would leave his wife and family in order to pursue a homosexual love affair, thus destroying the stability of the already established family unit.
Other explanations include this commandment falling into the category of chukim (commandment that transcends rationality), or a reference to the sin of lust.
Christians do not follow Rabbinical Law however; meaning we still do not have our answer.
the answer we are searching for, is in fact, staring right at us. Yet for over 400 years, Christians have been getting it wrong (Thanks a lot King James!).
toe’vah is consistently used to refer to, not only abominations, but also idolatry and practises that are ritually unclean.
It would make sense to interpret Lev 18:22 in this way, because as I stated before, Leviticus was about improving the Israelites relationship with God and to help the process of unlearning the Egyptian’s ritually unclean worship practises.
expert James Neill states, in The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies, “The condemnation of male homosexual acts in Leviticus is taken by many to be a straight forward prohibition, like the commandments of Moses. However, the origins and context of the provisions as well as the choice of words used make it clear that their original intent had more to do with… practices of foreign elements, chiefly the rituals of Baal (weather god) and Asherah (fertility goddess).
In fact, just one verse before, Lev 18:21 discusses other forbidden temple practises, such as child sacrifice to the pagan god Molech:
¹וּמִֽזַּרְעֲךָ֥ לֹא־תִתֵּ֖ן לְהַעֲבִ֣יר לַמֹּ֑לֶךְ וְלֹ֧א תְחַלֵּ֛ל אֶת־שֵׁ֥ם אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃
šêm ’eṯ- ṯə·ḥal·lêl wə·lō lam·mō·leḵ lə·ha·‘ă·ḇîr ṯit·tên lō- ū·miz·zar·‘ă·ḵā Yah·weh’ ă·nî ’ĕ·lō·he·ḵā
You shall not give any of your offspring to offer them to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God; I am the Lord.
Our understanding of this verse is furthered considerably, when we have a basic understanding of the referred practises, in the immediate Canaanite context in which they take place.
For example, monotheistic Jews were a minority at the time and majority of people were members of the Baal religion/cult. Religious practises among this group seemed to centre around the cycles of nature deemed necessary for population growth and survival. For this reason, Baal was believed to be the god of weather and fertility, and Asherah was believed to be the goddess of motherhood and fertility. Baal worshippers also believed that their actions were able to manipulate the gods, unlike the Jews who believed that it was the the other way around.
It was for this reason, that a practise known as “sacred prostitution” was sufficiently widespread. Acts committed by temple prostitutes were thought to arouse Baal, who would then in turn, rain down on abundantly – thus helping the people’s crops to thrive.
Furthermore, when we re-examine the lexicon of Lev 18:22, it is obvious that the Hebrew ‘zakar’ has been translated to “mankind”.
To again quote James Neill – “While the term zakar can refer to a male, it is primarily used to refer to males with sacred associations, such as priests or men with special religious duties, or males dedicated to Yahweh in some sense…When one considers 1) the cultic or sacral connotations of zakar, the male with whom the act is performed, 2) the fact that the prohibited act is a male taking a female role in intercourse, 3) the priesthood’s historic animosity towards goddess worship and her homosexual attendants, and 4) the religious associations of to-ebah, and its use to condemn idolatry elsewhere in the scripture, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the writers of the text had male sacred prostitutes specifically in mind in composing the verse (Lev 18:22)…”
It should also be noted that whilst beastiality and child sacrifice are “toe’vah” in regards to unclean rituals practises, the Bible makes it very clear that these are sins in ANY circumstance because they are exploitative (Exodus 22:19, Jeremiah 7:31).
With all of this in mind, the obvious conclusion is that use of Leviticus in anti-homosexuality arguments, is inappropriate and misinterpreted.
Stay tuned for Part III!
Westminster Leningrad Codex (WLC), (v. Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Leviticus 18:21).
Exhaustive Concordance Of The Bible by James Strong,. (1890). Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham. Retrieved From: https://archive.org/stream/exhaustiveconcor1890stro#page/n11/mode/2up
New American Standard Bible (NASB),. (revised edition 1995) (v. Leviticus 8, Leviticus 9, Leviticus 10, Leviticus 11, Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Leviticus 18:21, Exodus 22:19, Jeremiah 7:31). Lockman Foundation.
Babylonian Talmud, (Nedarim 51A).Retrieved From: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/FullTalmud.pdf
Neill, J. (2009). The origins and role of same-sex relations in human societies. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.
Greenberg, S. (2004). Wrestling with God and men. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press.
Baalbek Temple prostitutes and Holy Prostitution for Baal. (2016). Ancientdestructions.com. Retrieved From: http://www.ancientdestructions.com/baalbek-temple-prostitutes-holy-prostitution-baal/