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Homosexuality in the Hebrew Scriptures

The Mosaic Code & the Hebrew word To'ebah

(Often translated as "abomination")

The Mosaic code, and its applicability today:

The Torah is composed of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). It contains numerous laws which make up the Mosaic code. Rabbi Simlai wrote in the Talmud (Jewish traditional commentary about the Hebrew Scriptures) that God gave 613 commandments to Moses. One list finds 3 commandments in Genesis, 111 in Exodus, 247 in Leviticus, 52 in Numbers and 200 in Deuteronomy. These included 365 prohibitions -- a number equal to the nominal number of days in the year. Also included are 248 positive commandments which Rabbi Simlai said corresponded "to the number of organs and limbs in the human body." Hundreds of these dealt with animal sacrifices and other topics that are not currently practiced. That leaves about 300 commandments that can be practiced today. 

The Holiness Code in the Torah permits:

bulletslavery (Leviticus 25:44)

The code requires:

bulletA child to be killed if he/she curses their parent (Leviticus 20:9)

bulletAll persons guilty of adultery to be killed (20:10)

bulletThe daughter of a priest who engages in prostitution to be burned alive until dead (21:9)

bulletThe bride of a priest to be a virgin (21:13)

bulletRitual killing of animals, using cattle, sheep and goats (22:19)

bulletObservation of 7 feasts: Passover, Feast of Unleavened Bread, Feast of Firstfruits, Feast of Pentecost, Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement, Feast of Tabernacles (23)

bulletA person who takes the Lord's name in vain is to be killed (24:16)

The code prohibits:

bulletHeterosexual intercourse when a woman has her period (Leviticus 18:19),

bulletHarvesting the corners of a field (19:9),

bulletEating fruit from a young tree (19:23),

bulletCross-breeding livestock (19:19),

bulletSowing a field with mixed seed (19:19),

bulletShaving or getting a hair cut (19:27),

bulletTattoos (19:28),

bulletEven a mildly disabled person from becoming a priest (21:18),

bulletCharging of interest on a loan (25:37),

bulletCollecting firewood on Saturday to prevent your family from freezing,

bulletWearing of clothes made from a blend of textile materials; today this might be cotton and polyester, and

bulletEating of non-kosher foods (e.g. shrimp). This prohibition has been satirized on the God Hates Shrimp web site.
 

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horizontal rule

Of the 613 laws, most Christian denominations regard very few as binding on Christians today. Conservative Christians often accept: 

bullet The Ten Commandments as found in three locations in the Bible -- one of them being Exodus 20:3-17.

bulletLeviticus 18:22 and 20:13 which relate to sexual behavior of two men.

They generally accept laws which prohibit:

bulletSexual contact between individuals who are too closely related,

bulletBestiality: out-of-species sexual contact,

bulletAdultery, and

bulletSome laws regarding the execution of properly convicted murderers.

21st century Christians are free to have sexual relations during the wife's monthly period, wear tattoos, eat shrimp, lobster, pork or meat cooked rare, wear polyester-cotton blends, seed their lawns with a grass mixture, and get their hair cut. But most conservative Christians consider homosexual behavior -- and sometimes merely having a homosexual orientation -- as taboo. At first, we were unable to find any logical explanation that would justify conservative Christians concentrating so much on these two laws against homosexuality while abandoning most of the remaining 611 Mosaic laws. 

But further examination found the reason. Using an Protestant English translation of the Bible, conservative Christians believe that the validity of the two anti-homosexual "clobber" passages in Leviticus has been verified by passages in Paul's Epistles. The NIV and KJV of the Bible clearly condemn homosexual behavior at 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Romans 1:28 in the Christian Scriptures. These translations generally interpret the Greek words "malakoi" and "arsenokoitai" as referring to homosexuals.

We can be fairly certain that this is not the meaning that Paul wanted to convey. If he had, he would have used the Greek word "paiderasste." That was the standard term at the time for males who had sex with males. We can conclude that he probably meant something different from persons who engaged in male-male adult sexual behavior. Down through the years, Christians have interpreted these words as referring to people of lacking a high moral standing, or to masturbators, or to men who sexually abuse boys, or to boys who are the victims of sexual abuse. Interpreting these passages as referring to sexually active homosexuals appears to be simply the latest in a long series of attempts to make sense out of obscure words. The precise meaning is unknown; it was buried with Paul.

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The meaning of To'ebah (often translated abomination)

The Hebrew word "to'ebah" (or a form of the word) appears over 100 times in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament):

bulletTwenty-six times in the Torah:
bulletTwice in Genesis,
bulletOnce in Exodus,
bulletSix times in Leviticus,
bulletSeventeen times in Deuteronomy.
 
bulletIt is in the Major Prophets 58 times.
bulletFive times in 1 & 2 Kings,
bulletThree times in Isaiah,
bulletEight times in Jeremiah,
bulletOnce in Malachi,
bulletForty one times in Ezekiel.
 
bulletIn the Writings, it is found:
bulletOnce in Psalms,
bulletTwenty five in Proverbs.
bulletScattered throughout Ezra and II Chronicles.
 
bulletIt was not used by the Minor Twelve Prophets, or in Numbers.

It is often translated as "abomination" or "detestable" in English. It can refer to the breaking of either a moral or ritual law. 1 Examples of ritual codes involving "to'ebah" in the NKJ translation are:

bulletGenesis 43:32: "...because the Egyptians could not eat food with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians." If Egyptian religious belief were unchanged to the present time, this would imply that if the President of Egypt sat down with the Prime Minister of Israel for a meal, the President would consider this an abomination. Fortunately, the religious beliefs of Egyptians have changed significantly from Old Testament times.
 
bullet

Leviticus 11:10: "But all in the seas or in the rivers that do not have fins and scales, all that move in the water or any living thing which is in the water, they are an abomination to you." Eating a lobster is an abomination.
 

bullet Leviticus 11:41: "And every creeping thing that creeps on the earth shall be an abomination. It shall not be eaten." (We have been told that rattlesnake tastes just like chicken.)
 
bulletDeuteronomy 17:1: "You shall not sacrifice to the LORD your God a bull or sheep which has any blemish or defect, for that is an abomination to the LORD your God." When engaging in ritual animal sacrifice, it is an abomination if the animal is not perfect.
 
bullet Deuteronomy 22:5: "A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman's garment, for all who do so are an abomination to the LORD your God." Some might consider that this prohibition would include a woman wearing male jeans or a man wearing a kilt. Others interpret it as condemning transgender persons and transsexuals.
 
bullet Deuteronomy 24:4" "... then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD." This relates to a woman who has been divorced by two husbands. If she decides to be loyal once more to her original marriage vows and returns to her first husband, then she commits an abomination.

When "to'ebah" refers to the breaking of a ritual law it might be better translated "ritually improper," or "involves foreign religious cult practice." Almost all of the "to'ebah" passages are considered without significance to Christians today. Many activities which were "to'ebah" transgressions to the ancient Israelites simply do not apply to modern cultures. However, most conservative Christians consider the Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 passages to be different from all the others, and still in force today.

Rabbi Gershon Caudill wrote that:

"Jews do not obligate any other religion to the observance of the Torah laws, which were given specifically to the Jewish people and their descendants, including converts. This is with the possible exception of the seven Noahide Laws, and there is dispute among the halakhic authorities as to which seven laws non-Jews need observe IF they are indeed required to observe any Torah laws at all." 2

Although "abomination" is a clear mistranslation of the Hebrew word "to'ebah" we are probably stuck with it in English translations of the Bible for the foreseeable future. Bible publishers would be very reluctant to translate the word correctly because so many Christians expect to see "abomination" mentioned in Leviticus 18 and 20.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Inge Anderson, "What is an abomination to God?" at: http://glow.cc/isa/ 
  2. Rabbi Gershon Caudill, "A Heterosexual Jewish Rebbe's View on the (Supposedly) Homosexual Texts in the Hebrew Bible," at: at: http://www.affirmation.org/

Copyright 1976 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2015-AUG-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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