Leviticus 18:22 – a primer

Leviticus is one of the books in the Jewish Torah and the Christian Old Testament. Chapter 18 of the book deals with a variety of sexual issues that the authors felt were important to Israelites in the Ancient Near East. Leviticus 18:22 is one of the “clobber passages” that Christians have often weaponized to use as a reason for denouncing homosexuality as a sin. To their understanding, the verse shows that the Bible gives a blanket condemnation of homosexuality. But does it? It is my contention, and also that of many other Biblical scholars both Jewish and Christian, that it does not. The text simply does not support the conservative Christian reading of that particular verse as I will briefly show in the paragraphs that follow.

To begin my argument, I would like to address the importance of ‘context’ because contextualizing scripture (or any type of literature) is imperative to understanding it. To illustrate I will paraphrase some lines from well known works of English literature which devoid of context can cause confusion for the reader. This literary exercise will also highlight how lifting one verse from a Biblical text can radically alter the meaning. In the novel Nicholas Nickleby the rakish Sir Mulberry Hawk obtusely opines that Ms. Nickleby is pining away because no one will “make love to her” while they are in a room with other people. In Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the Dubervilles in one scene Hardy notes that “The fly went haphazardly up the hill.” Devoid of context one could easily misinterpret these scenes. The context of each novel is Victorian era England. Miss Nickleby was not distraught because no one would come over to the couch she was on to have sex with her in full view of the others in the room. In Victorian England ‘to make love’ meant to woo someone with your words or engage in courtship, it was not a reference to sex at all as it is today. Similarly, the ‘fly’ from the Hardy novel had nothing to do with an annoying insect, but rather a type of wheeled conveyance that Hardy’s audience would have understood right away. These examples are from novels written in English less than 200 years ago. My point here is that context is important because the meanings of words change over time which can make translation difficult, and because the cultural context within which the Biblical texts were written is so different from our own. With that in mind, let’s look briefly at Leviticus 18:22.

Leviticus is in the Torah – that is one of the five books of Moses. Biblical scholar Jeffrey Stackert notes in his introduction to Leviticus in the New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha NRSV 4th ed. (aka NOAB 4) that the content of Leviticus is “primarily religious ritual and law” comprised of Priestly (P) and Holiness (H) source material which reflects “priestly perspectives.” (1) This is the context of the entire book and the verse we are examining here. Another important contextual piece is where the verse is situated in the text. Chapter 18 is primarily concerned with sexual practices purportedly practiced by Egyptians and Canaanites. These contextual facts will be important later.

Leviticus 18:22 as translated into English in the NOAB 4 reads: “”You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination,” and in Robert Alter’s The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, it reads, “And with a male you shall not lie as one lies with a woman. It is an abhorrence.” While both of these translations are similar in wording and convey the same meaning, translating the passage from the original Biblical Hebrew is an educated guess according to Biblical scholar Dr. Julia O’Brien. As she noted in our class devoted to this passage the original Hebrew says, “With a male, not will you lie, the lyings of a woman, it is abomination” and this is the only place where this phrase is found. Given that the translation of the passage amounts to an educated guess as Dr. O’Brien put it that day, it is hard to claim with certainty that it is a blanket condemnation of being gay. Most Christians will not know this translation issue though and only have the verse as translated in their Bibles, which may be translated differently depending on which translation they use. Devoid of context, reading the verse alone in English would appear to condemn homosexuality. Digging just a little deeper though that argument falls apart quite quickly.

To begin with, the claim that Leviticus 18:22 is against being gay falls apart when the reader realizes what is missing from the verse. Lesbians are gay, that is to say homosexual, and yet this verse has absolutely no mention of lesbian sex. It only mentions, or appears to mention, male homosexual penetrative sex. As Alter notes in his commentary on the verse, Leviticus 18:22 “suggests that it is a ban on anal intercourse and intercural intercourse (the latter often practiced by Greeks). Other forms of homosexual activity do not seem of urgent concern.” (2) Alter’s reading of the passage is that it is a prohibition on simulating procreative heterosexual intercourse that wastes the male seed – that is semen. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg noted in a Twitter thread devoted to same-sex relationships in the Bible said of this verse that there are several readings of it by rabbinical scholars which include: forbidding rape and domination, further forbidding or incest with male relatives, forbidding male-male intercourse because it is associated with idolatry (which would make sense given that Lev. 18:21 is specifically about the Canaanite god Molech and is among the list of other sexual perversions in the chapter) or even a prohibition against having intercourse with someone who is intersex. She goes on to say that, “If you think the verse in Leviticus is clear, that’s only because you’re bringing your own assumptions and baggage with it, or you’re reading a very bad translation.” (3)

So as you can see, there are multiple interpretations of the various translations of Leviticus 18:22, but a blanket condemnation of homosexuality is not a legitimate one because lesbianism is not mentioned, nor are other types of homoerotic activities among men, nor are homosexual relationships in general, which were common in the Ancient Near East, ever mentioned. And, the prohibitions that are mentioned throughout the chapter, came from a social context and time in history when ritual purity was a priestly concern for Jews. That is to say, these holiness and priestly concerns were specific to a time – antiquity, a place – ancient Israel after the exodus from Egypt, and a people – the Israelites, rather than injunctions for all times, all places, and all peoples. Knowing this shows the importance of context when attempting to interpret what a Biblical text means. As Dr. O’Brien stated in our class, these rules in Leviticus were written about culture and identity, and not about morality. A careful reading of the text which keeps the context of the writers and original audience in mind simply does not support interpreting Leviticus 18:22 as a condemnation of homosexuality in general or homosexual relationships in particular and anyone who says that it does is not taking the passage seriously. Those who read the verse homophobically are weaponizing scripture to justify their bigotry. Bigotry is a choice, being gay is not. Besides, if Leviticus 18:22 did say being gay is a sin, it wouldn’t make any sense at all that King David and Saul’s son Jonathan were in love and perhaps even married, but that’s a story for another time…

(1) NOAB 4, “Leviticus” page 141.

(2) Alter, p. 581 Kindle edition.

(3) Rabbi Ruttenberg Twitter thread on Same-sex relations in the Bible – https://mobile.twitter.com/TheRaDR/status/1276272329325248512


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