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Leviticus 18:22 means what?


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Do Christians think gays should die? It can seem so. In 1980, Bob Jones III called for executions “as the Bible commands.”

But he apologized in 2015. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church seemed to side with executions. “Gays worthy of death,” as one of their picketing signs read. But even Fred Phelps wasn’t planning to do it.

“I’m not urging anybody to kill anybody,” he’d clarify.

Evangelicals can seem torn

They view a Bible verse, Leviticus 18:22, as establishing the faith’s position on ‘homosexuality’. But, as noted in Leviticus 20:13, this is a capital crime. So — do gays die?

In 2019, a pastor in Tennessee in 2019 was in the news for giving a sermon at his Baptist church, hoping “LGBT freaks…be put to death.” But he never did it. As an Evangelical, perhaps, you go on hope?

I try to find a scholar to clarify the matter. Mark D. Smith authored a widely cited 1996 paper that says Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are “reaffirmed” for Christians. I wrote him, asking: Is the death penalty “reaffirmed”?

He replied: “I read a number of studies on the topic, but I don’t remember any of them grappling with the punishment issue.”

He wouldn’t say that Christians that should not kill gay people. Rather, the subject has been…insufficiently studied.

For Christians, Leviticus 18:22 seems so clear.

It’s as if God had spoken the words in English—to be recited by many a pastor in many a fiery speech.

“Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.”

But as it turns out, there’s a lot of problems — like: How is this offense to be punished? Christians used to execute people for ‘sodomy’, but for most people, by some hazy interpretive process, the penalty shifted to insults, exclusion, and overall psychological warfare on gay people.

Leviticus 18:22 is actually not clear at all.

The translation seems so coherent, but peek under the hood and it’s another story. As the scholar Renato Lings notes, the Hebrew text “is so arcane that the entire verse becomes almost untranslatable.”

He suggests: “And with a male you shall not lie down the lyings of a woman.”

The scholar Jan Joosten suggested an even more literal translation: “And-with a male not you-will-lie ‘lyings-of’ a woman.”

Susan Pigott, a Christian professor of Hebrew at Hardin-Simmons, suggests this translation of 18:22: “And with a male you will not lay (on) the couches/beds of a woman.”

She studies the Hebrew text, and writes:

“Neither verse actually says ‘Do not lie with a male as with a woman. Instead, both say you should not lay with a male on the couches or beds of a woman. The New American Standard Bible has a footnote that says, ‘Lit. “those who lie” taking the word ‘couches’ as a participle. But it is not a participle. It is a plural noun. So what does this mean?”

Christians are usually not told about the long interpretive crisis.

To get into scholarly discussions is, then, a surprise. “Commentators for more than two millennia have struggled to interpret these laws,” notes Saul M. Olyan in a 1994 paper.

To try and understand even the words is a real chore. The Hebrew original, to begin with, does not have the connecting words “as one does with.” As Joosten says, “this particle is absent.”

But try to read the verse without them:

“Do not have sexual relations with a man [as one does with] a woman; that is detestable.”

The words ‘sexual relations’ are also not there. There’s a word which seems to be connected with the word ‘bed’, and is often translated by scholars as lyings — “a difficult phrase,” Joosten says, “attested only here and in the parallel verse Lev. 20:13.”

The ‘male’ is singular; the ‘woman’ is singular — but the ‘lyings’, whatever those are, are plural. Is that a problem?

The Septuagint or LXX, the Greek translation of the verse (in Lings’ translation) may help: “And with a male you shall not lie a woman’s bed.”

In the Hebrew, “lyings” is plural; in the LXX, “bed” is singular.

Jewish rabbis came to surprising conclusions.

David Brodsky covers this subject in a 2009 paper, “Sex in the Talmud: How to Understand Leviticus 18 and 20.” As he explains, rabbis asked: if the verse is about sex between men, why doesn’t the text just forbid a man “lying with a man”? And what are these “lyings”?

For the rabbis, the text had to be respected. If it says lyings — plural — there must be more than one way of being sexual?

So the plurality of women’s vaginas and anuses might be in view? As Brodsky explains:

“The rabbis interpreted the plural ‘lyings of women’ to mean that when a man has sexual intercourse with a woman who is Biblically prohibited to him, both vaginal intercourse and anal intercourse are prohibited, and each carries the same penalty…”

For me, it was little eccentric that Leviticus would prohibit anal sex with married women. I kept in search.

If you respect the Biblical text — which Christians do not — then you’d have to acknowledge what the text does not forbid.

Even if ‘lyings’ were understood to mean anal intercourse, then any other intimacy between men is not forbidden. Neither is ‘homosexuality’ as an inclination being discussed.

Rape victims are not excluded. “Even the question of the partner’s consent remains unmentioned,” as Joosten notes. “The text single-mindedly focuses on the sexual act.” Olyan observes as well: the ban involves acts “coerced and those voluntary…”

Then there is the problem of God’s mysterious logic in focusing on male same-sex intimacy—when lesbianism seems not to be indicated.

Is the point that men aren’t to assume feminine roles?

But God loves feminine men — Joseph, Moses, David, and many biblical heroes often carry feminine references. “Israel is to cultivate the virtues of submission, accommodation, reconciliation, and self-sacrifice — the virtues we have now seen are classified as feminine ones,” says Jacob Neusner.

Later in the New Testament, the apostle Paul regularly describes himself as a female (Gal 4:19; 1 Thess 2:7; 1 Cor 3:2). And all Christians seem to be the ‘Bride of Christ’. Is God really against men in female roles?

Maybe Leviticus 18:22 is a ban on semen and excrement mixing?

Old Testament law does create rules around these substances. But then there’s the problem that anal sex with women is not prohibited.

Maybe anal with ladies was “not part of the Israelite repertoire of sexual acts,” Olyan suggests. But it’s actually noted in the Bible. F. Rachel Magdalene points to Jeremiah 13:22: “your buttocks suffer violence…”

“The exact talmudic term for male-female anal intercourse is ‘penetration not according to her way,’” notes Daniel Boyarin.

If anal sex with women isn’t prohibited, then the prohibition also would not concern sexual acts that are non-procreative.

June Kozak Kane, studying Leviticus 20:13, puzzles over the further problems there.

She writes:

“Looking at the precise Hebrew words in Leviticus 20:13, it is fascinating to note what we actually see and what is not there. What the text prohibits is a sexual relationship between a ‘man’ (ish in Hebrew) and a male (zachar in Hebrew), not between an ‘ish’ and another ‘ish.’”

Maybe the ish/zachar difference suggests pederasty? Just her guess.

Scholars have many theories, and complex maps of scriptures are used to try to understand what is banned in Leviticus 18:22. Could it be incest?

Jan Joosten thinks it’s “a prohibition of sexual intercourse between Israelite males when either or both of them are married.”

I find male anal adultery less than obvious?

Idan Dershowitz points to a possible problem earlier in Leviticus 18. Several verses have a ban, then an explanatory phrase. For example, Leviticus 18:12 reads: “Do not have sexual relations with your father’s sister; she is your father’s close relative.

But in v.14, there’s a hiccup. The explanatory phrase re-locates the context.

“Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother: do not approach his wife; she is your aunt.”

You’re not supposed to have sex with your dad’s brother—or aunt? Had the explanatory phrase not diverted focus away from the brother, as Dershowitz notes, the ban would be on male-male sex acts with one’s uncle.

But other male-male acts are fine?

He wonders if the text was edited somewhere along the way.

The debates go on and on.

Why are Egyptian customs the general context, as 18:3 says “Do not follow their practices…” Gay stuff doesn’t seem to be noted as a concern in narratives around Egypt.

Susan Pigott thinks the context is cult religious practice of some kind. As she notes, “the law forbidding sacrificing children to Molech appears immediately prior to the oft-prooftexted 18:22, usually understood to forbid homosexuality.”

She takes a dim view of Christian efforts to use it against gays.

“Out of all the verses in Leviticus that could be singled out, people filled with hate have chosen two obscure verses and ignored their context. They don’t care about the fact that Leviticus 20 also forbids sleeping with your wife if she is menstruating, and if you curse your parents you should be put to death. They don’t care that Leviticus forbids wearing garments of mixed materials. They don’t care that Leviticus contains an entire dietary code that was obviously quite important. They don’t care about this book as God’s Word. They only care about perverting two verses.

Isn’t it interesting, that when Jesus quoted Leviticus, he quoted a verse about love (Lev. 19:18)? Maybe, if we’re going to pick one verse out of Leviticus to plaster on signs, that’s the one we should choose.”

Does it matter what Leviticus 18:22 means?

It does if you make a false accusation. That’s a clear offense in Jewish law—for which the penalty, God says, must be strictly enforced.

A false accuser must be punished according to the crime which had been accused (cf. Exo 20:16; Deut 19:18–21).

If a false accusation is being made against gays, that signs the accuser up for the penalty — which was imagined for them? 🔶

Thomas Lineweaver
Thomas Lineweaverhttps://tommyclineweaver.com
Thomas Lineweaver is a real likable guy with a passion for technology, design, music, and helping mankind. He is an accomplished journalist, writer, and podcaster since 2012. He currently resides in Nashville, TN with his husband Michael.


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