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Homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22

Translations and interpretations of
same-sex behavior in Leviticus 18:22

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Which is the correct translation?

Obviously, it is important for a student of the Bible to resolve exactly what behavior is forbidden: is it:

bulletAll homosexual behavior, by either men or women, or
bulletAll sexual behavior between two men, or
bulletOnly anal sex between two men, or
bulletOnly anal sex in a Pagan temple ritual, or
bulletSexual activity between two men in a woman's bed?

Also, is the behavior forbidden to ancient Israelites, or modern-day Jews, or all males regardless of their religion, or all males and females, or some combination of the preceding.

Unfortunately, there is no consensus on the meaning of this verse. Many people tend to select that interpretation that most closely reinforces their initial biases about the Bible and homosexual behavior.

English translations of this verse:

These are not a great deal of help. Bible publishers are under strong economic pressures to turn a profit. If a translation of Leviticus 18:22 were included that did not generally condemn at least male homosexual behavior, confidence in the translation would drop precipitously and their sales would drop equally fast. They are unlikely to deviate from traditional interpretations, unless they were preparing a translation specifically for Christian and Jewish liberals.

Some translations are:

bulletESV: (English Standard Version): "You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is abomination."
bulletKJV: (King James Version): "Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination".
bulletLB: (Living Bible): "Homosexuality is absolutely forbidden, for it is an enormous sin"
bulletNet Bible: "You must not have sexual intercourse with a male as one has sexual intercourse with a woman; it is a detestable act." 1
bulletNIV: (New International Version) "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable."
bulletNLT: (New Living Translation): "Do not practice homosexuality; it is a detestable sin."
bulletRSV: (Revised Standard Version): "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination."

The LB and NLT translations use the term "homosexuality" That is unusually deceptive for three reasons:

bulletThe passage in the ancient Hebrew is clearly talking about male-male sex acts. By using the word "homosexuality," the English translation appears to condemn lesbian activity as well. The latter behavior is definitely not mentioned in the original Hebrew text of this passage. In fact, lesbian behavior is not mentioned anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures.
bulletThe term "homosexuality" has two distinct meanings in English. Sometimes it refers to sexual behavior (what some people do; their actions). Sometimes it relates to sexual orientation (what some people are; their feelings). One reader might conclude from an English translation that homosexual orientation is criticized in the Bible; others might assume that only homosexual behavior is criticized.
bulletThe word "homosexual" was first used in the very late in 19th century CE. There was no Hebrew word that meant "homosexual." Thus, whenever the word is seen in an English translation of the Bible, one should be wary that the translators might be inserting their own prejudices into the text.

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Various groups' interpretations of this verse:

bulletThe most common conservative Christian Interpretation: This verse condemns homosexual behavior of all types including consensual sex between two adults and  monogamous sexual activity within a committed relationship. Its meaning is clear and unambiguous. This verse is often quoted in Evangelical churches and on religious radio and TV programs. "Abomination" is defined in Webster's New World dictionary as "nasty and disgusting; vile, loathsome." It is a strong word indeed!

Mark Howerter writes:

"The American Heritage Dictionary says this is what abominate means: 'To detest thoroughly; abhor.' A thesaurus uses : a. hate b. despise c. loathe d. detest and e. execrate as synonyms for abominate. Lest we should ever forget how God feels about homosexuality, i.e., sodomy, the whole story of Lot in Sodom as found in Genesis chapters 18-19 should be read by every person in America at least once a year." 2

bulletSome common liberal Christian Interpretations:
bulletSome English translations of this passage condemn  both gay and lesbian sexual relationships. This is a mistranslation. It refers only to male-male sexual behavior.
bulletThis passage does not refer to gay sex generally, but only to a specific form of homosexual prostitution in Pagan temples. Much of Leviticus deals with the Holiness Code which outlined ways in which the ancient Hebrews were to be set apart to God. Some fertility worship practices found in early Pagan cultures were specifically prohibited; ritual same-sex behavior in Pagan temples was one such practice. 3
bulletThe status of women in ancient Hebrew culture was very much lower than that of a man and barely above that of children and slaves. When a man engaged in sexual intercourse with a woman, he always took a dominant position, as a penetrator; the woman would take a submissive posture. When two men engage in sexual intercourse, one of the men, in effect, takes the role of a woman. When a man takes on the low status of a woman, the act makes both ritually impure.
bulletMany would regard "abomination," "enormous sin", etc. as particularly poor translations of the original Hebrew word which really means "ritually unclean" within an ancient Israelite era. The Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (circa 3rd century BCE) translated "to'ebah " into Greek as "bdelygma," which meant ritual impurity. If the writer(s) of Leviticus had wished to refer to a moral violation, a sin, he would have used the Hebrew word "zimah." 
bulletThis verse says nothing about consensual same-sex activity today. It only condemns same-sex religious prostitution in Pagan temples.
bulletUniversal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches: This is a conservative Christian denomination with a special outreach to gays and lesbians. They enlarged on the condemnation of the ritual uncleanness of homosexual sexual behavior in Pagan temples:

"The seriousness of this idolatry in Hebrew eyes was compounded by the belief that 'to lie with a man as with a woman' violated the dignity of the male sex. Women were [considered] property but men were the direct image of God. To treat a man the way a woman was treated was to reduce him to property and, thereby, to violate the image of God. The issue was idolatrous activity which failed to acknowledge God's creation." 3

bullet National Gay Pentecostal Alliance (NGPA) interpretation: The NGPA has produced a word-for-word translation of the original Hebrew. 4 In English, with minimal punctuation added, they rendered it as: "And with a male thou shalt not lie down in beds of a woman; it is an abomination. That is, "... rather than forbidding male homosexuality, it simply restricts where it may occur." This may seem a strange prohibition to us today, but was quite consistent with other laws in Leviticus which involve improper mixing of things that should be kept separate. e.g. ancient Hebrews were not allowed to mix two crops in the same field, or make cloth out of two different raw materials, or plow a field with an ox and a donkey yoked together. A woman's bed was her own. Only her husband was permitted there, and then only under certain circumstances. Any other use of her bed would be a defilement.

An argument against this interpretation is that it would not blend well with the next verse. Leviticus 18:23 discusses a man or a woman engaging in bestiality. The traditional translations would make a smoother text. However, in defense of the NGPA translation, there is already a break in topic between verses 21 and 22. So a second break between 22 and 23 is not unreasonable.

bulletAuthor Jacob Milgrom suggests that the two passages do not prohibit homosexual behavior generally, but only:
bulletfor ancient Israelites, or to inhabitants of Israel, and
bulletwho are engaging in anal intercourse, and
bulletwho are men, not lesbians, and
bullet(perhaps) who are of the same kinship connections that would prohibit heterosexual relations. 5
bulletArthur Waskow, a writer and rabbi, points out that: "The whole structure of sexuality in Torah assumes a dominant, male and a subordinate woman." 6 In a male homosexual act of anal intercourse, one partner may be viewed as taking a passive role - the role normally played by a woman. Thus anal intercourse between two gay men would be as improper in Biblical times as a workplace situation in those days during which a woman supervised a man. Also, because woman were considered to play such an inferior role in society, sex between two lesbians are not condemned in the Old Testament. All women were of low status and thus neither would be seen as adopting a dominant or a subservient role during sexual encounters. This interpretation would obviously make the verse refer only to the tribal culture of the time, and not to today's western culture.

Waskow cites two alternative meanings to the passage:

bullet"Do not lie with a man as if it were the same thing as lying with a woman." That is, when two gay males have a sexual encounter, they should continuously be aware that it is different from a male-female coupling. It might be interpreted to mean: "Set up a parallel set of institutions for dealing with this kind of sexual relationship, different from those that apply to sexual relationships between a man and a woman."
bullet"Do not sleep with a man as it were with a woman" That is, if two males engage in a sexual act, neither should pretend that the passive partner is like a woman. They should be fully aware of their sexual orientation and maleness. i.e. they should come out of the "closet" and recognize their gayness. 6

He concludes that if this passage condemns some forms of homosexual behavior, it may refer only to the ancient Israelites, not to North America today. Perhaps: "at one time of human and Jewish history the path avoided gay male sexuality, and at a later time this avoidance might be null and void? Can the circle of the beloved community widen as we mature?"

Traditional Jewish and Christian belief is that God dictated the Torah to Moses. Thus every word was included for a specific reason. If God wished to ban all gay homosexual acts then it could be argued that the passage would have read "You shall not lie with a male." The addition of  the phrase "as with a woman" must have been included for a specific reason. Perhaps it was added to give the passage one of the above meanings.

bulletA second Jewish writer, Rabbi Gershon Caudill, is: "not convinced that the biblical passages (here in Leviticus 18: 22 and also in Leviticus 20: 13) refer to homosexual activity that is within a monogamous, stable, and loving relationship." He suggests that the passages refer to sexual promiscuity, not to homosexual activity within a committed relationship: 7
bulletHe notes that Leviticus 18:22 is located in a section of Leviticus that deals with incest and bestiality.
bulletIt is not usual for a gay man to have sex with another man as if he the latter were a woman. If he were to do so, then he would be pretending that he was with a woman and not with another man. Thus, he would not be in a homosexual relationship at all. The passage actually refers to a heterosexual male who is forcing himself to fantasize that he is having sex with a woman in order to be able to complete the act. In modern terms, this would be considered as a male heterosexual violating his own sexual orientation -- his own basic nature.
bulletAt the beginning of the chapter that includes this passage, Leviticus 18:3 states: "After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do: neither shall ye walk in their ordinances." Here, God is saying that the Hebrews are not to follow the practices of the Egyptians or of the Canaanites. Homosexual ritual sex in temples of both countries was common. Thus, one might assume that Leviticus 18:22 relates to temple same-sex rituals -- something that was ritually impure.

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  1. Net Bible® is a new translation by The Biblical Studies Foundation. It is available online and in printed form. See: http://www.netbible.com/
  2. Mark E. Howerter, "The Homosexual Lifestyle is Not Normal," at: http://www.otherside.net/
  3. "Free to be gay: A brief look at the Bible and homosexuality," Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, at: http://www.ualberta.ca/
  4. Anon, "What does Leviticus 18:22 really say?", Pamphlet, National Gay Pentecostal Alliance (NGPA), P.O. Box 20428, Ferndale, MI. 48220. Phone: 248-544-4442. They have an Internet presence at Yahoo Groups, at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ChristianandGay/
    bulletTheir essay on Leviticus 18:22 is at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ 
    bulletTheir essay on Leviticus 20:13 is at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ 

    This group has merged with Apostolic Intercessory Ministry; both groups are now known as Apostolic Restoration Mission. See: http://www.apostolicrestorationmission.4t.com/

  5. Jacob Milgrom, "Leviticus 17-22," Anchor Bible, Doubleday (2000).
  6. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, "Homosexuality and Torah Thought," at: http://shamash3.shamash.org/
  7. Reb Gershon Caudill, "A Heterosexual Jewish Rebbe's View on the (Supposedly) Homosexual Texts in the Hebrew Bible," at:  http://www.affirmation.org/

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Latest update: 2009-APR-19
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