Thursday, July 12, 2018

Enough With Leviticus Already!

This is a departure from my normal posts and I tried hard not to turn it into a rant, but I'm not sure how well I did.

A few morning's ago the local news had a piece on the Episcopal General Convention being held in Austin and protested against by members of the Westbound Baptist Church. (The same group that we have seen protesting at funerals of service men and women, not against the war but against the LGBT community) The one and only sound-bite from the protesters was some guy dragging out Leviticus 18:22 as proof that Episcopalians are all going to hell and he is not.

Leviticus 18:22 happens to be a hot button of mine.

Having been given the gift of self-awareness and free-will I feel it's incumbent on each of us to develop a personal moral code to be used to guide us through this life in a useful and respectful way. Ideally this moral code is the result of education and thoughtful consideration rather than just parroting what someone else said it should be. But regardless, it would be nice if those who's moral code makes it ethically acceptable to attempt to dismiss, disenfranchise, marginalize, criminalize and/or ostracize an entire segment of the population that is doing no more harm than any other group within that population, simply based on their sexuality, would stop trying to use Leviticus 18:22 to justify their position because it's getting beyond annoying to see that broken crutch trotted out so often in an attempt to prop up and rationalize such actions.

Out of some 31,100 verses in the Bible there are, depending on how you count them 4 to 8 so-called clobber verses. These are the verses some hold up (or bash us over the head with, hence ‘clobber’) as proof that homosexuality, and by extension in some cases, anything other than hetero relations within the context of a church-sanctioned marriage, is bad. (never mind that for 1500 years the church considered marriage a private matter, more of a business transaction since women were property, and didn’t ‘sanctify’ it until 1563 at one of the meetings of the Council of Trent by declaring the only valid marriage was one done before a priest and two witness.) Unfortunately, mostly because at first glance it looks like such easy pickings, low-hanging fruit as it were, Leviticus 18:22 is often the front-runner, the opening salvo in what has long been an unresolved issue. But sometimes low hanging fruit is insect-ridden and rotten.

There are over 4 dozen English language versions of the Bible with variations on the theme, but one of the more common versions of 18:22's is You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination, though a really popular 'clobber' version of 18:22 is one of the two 'translations' (And I use the word translation very loosely here for reasons you'll see in a moment) that specifically use the H word.

The Living Bible's  Homosexuality is absolutely forbidden, for it is an enormous sin, or the New Living Translation's Do not practice homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman. It is a detestable sin

The temptation to trot one or another of these versions of 18:22 out so regularly is easy to see since, on the surface anyway, it seems like a no-brainer, but there are several serious, well known, and easily discovered issues with Leviticus 18:22.

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Is Leviticus even credible today??

Leviticus was written about 3500 years ago and is basically a list of some 247 ‘laws’ that the members of the Israelite tribe were to follow.  In the roughly 3500 years since Leviticus was written people, their cultures, their societal norms, and by extension their laws, have continuously evolved and changed. In our grandparent's day there were no laws about texting while driving, and today the sometimes elaborately complex laws designed to keep horseless carriage drivers from spooking horses (Such as being required to have a 'flagman' walk ahead of the automobile anytime it was actually moving to warn people of its coming.) have been removed from the books.

If we are to properly stand by the laws of Leviticus today, as opposed to cherry-picking the ones we like, which seems disingenuous to me, then we would never eat shellfish or bacon, women would never cut their hair or be allowed active roles in church, men would never shave, we would never sacrifice anything less than a perfect lamb to God, Alter Guilds would never display mixed bouquets, we wouldn’t harvest the corners of our fields, we would never wear linen pants over cotton underwear, and so on and so on. In addition we would kill children that curse their parents (20:9) and slavery would be alright (25:44).

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Hasn’t Leviticus been rescinded anyway?

The Council of Jerusalem, which convened around 49 CE, (Or AD for those of us that are old school.) clearly excused Gentile converts from following the laws of Moses. (Which includes all of Leviticus.) In addition there are some 37 New Testament verses releasing Christians in general from the old laws. Everything ranging from a very gentle the laws are obsolete (Hebrews) to a pretty harsh the law brings wrath on those who follow it (Romans).
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The foibles of translation

Then there is the telling issue of Leviticus 18:22 as it was originally written.

What we tend to accept today as a translation of 18:22 from it's original Hebrew is, in fact, actually an interpretation, and arguably, a bad one at that.

Parsed word for word into English, the original Hebrew, V’et-zachar lo tishkav mishk’vei ishah, (Transliterated here from its original Proto-Sinaitic script using Israeli Sephardic pronunciation,) actually reads and with male no you shall lie down beds of woman.

As is often the case, the direct word for word translation is a bit awkward, so shuffling the negative or the no around into something closer to English syntax and adding a couple indefinite articles, which ancient Hebrew did not have, all the while being careful to stick to translation and avoid interpretation, the sentence comes out more like and with a male you shall not lie down in the beds of woman.

In Hebrew the t of tishkav  (you shall lie down) makes the you in this sentence the male form of the word so there’s no mistaking that this verse is being directed at men. And yes, mishk’vei is the plural construct of the noun bed, so the proper translation is in fact beds of woman, which has a telling impact on the interpretation which is coming up in point 4.

What isn't in the original Hebrew text is anything akin to the lay down with man as with a woman that we have been taught Leviticus says. If that was in fact the intent, building a sentence to say so is entirely within the capabilities of ancient Hebrew.

But that’s not the end of the translation issues with 18:22.

The act, whatever that act may actually be, is usually labeled in modern "translations" of the Bible as an abomination or a sin, but the original Hebrew word used in 18:22 is to’ebah, which translates more correctly as ritually unclean. What wasn’t used is one of the 6 ancient Hebrew nouns and 3 Hebrew verbs that mean sin to one degree or another and which, collectively, are used over 1500 times in the Old Testament; just not in Leviticus 18:22.

This is a well-known issue, but publishers of the Bible, still the bestselling book in the world, therefore the most profitable for them, admit that English language versions of the Bible that use less divisive wording than abomination in 18:22 just don’t sell well.

Oh, and as for those so-called translations of 18:22 that explicitly use the word homosexual; the modern Hebrew word for homosexual, הומוסקסואל, didn’t exist at the time Leviticus was written. In fact, as evidenced by the lack of defining words in any of the languages of those days, the entire concept of sexuality was unknown at the time so there couldn’t be a word for homosexual or lesbian or heterosexual or any other terms associated with, what we now know today, are the highly complex realities of sexuality. So, although the original Israelites were obviously acquainted with variations of the sex act, there was no awareness of the sexuality 18:22 is so often used against these days. In fact sexuality is a fairly recent concept with the first appearance of the word homosexual in an English language work not showing up until 1892, and the first time it turned up in an English language Bible was in 1946. It certainly wasn’t written in Leviticus.

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Interpretation is in the eye of the beholder

Translation can a tricky thing that often morphs into interpretation rather than pure translation, but interpretation without fully understanding the context of a 3500 year old culture is even trickier.

Although there's a lot we don't know about 3500 years ago, we do know that a woman’s standing, all women, not just Israelite's, was pretty low, just barely above that of slave or children, which was only a tick above the herd animals, but oddly enough, a woman's bed was considered her own private sanctuary and using that bed without her knowledge or permission was considered defilement. In addition, though women back then were under very tight restrictions when it came to sex, men not so much. Frequenting prostitutes, of any gender, and using slaves, as well as the young men they were in frequent one-on-one contact with through the mentoring system that stood in for the as yet non-existent formal learning institutes, for sex was a long standing and somewhat tolerated activity for males among many cultures of the day. 

Is it possible then that 18:22, as it was originally written, and with a male you shall not lie down in the beds of woman, (Not in the bed of a woman but rather in the beds of any woman.) is reminding men not to use a woman’s bed for their male-male activities??  After all, Leviticus does go to the trouble of spelling out something so basic as not only when, but how, to wash hands, so is it much of a stretch to imagine that it also reminds Israelite's not to be sullying their wife’s or daughters beds? This is an interpretation that seems to be supported by the fact that the act has been labeled as merely ritually unclean, similar to our current injunction to never let the US flag touch the ground.

But clearly, until and unless more archaeological evidence is uncovered, from 3500 years ago there is no way to positively substantiate this postulation, or any of the several other alternatives presented by scholars and theologians over the years, but it can't be refuted either. Which illustrate the challenges of interpretation without full context.


So; if we ignore the issue of the irrelevancy of a law written for a time and culture so far removed from ours that they had to be reminded not to sacrifice their children on the alter fires (Leviticus 18:21), and also ignore the fact that the law was rescinded some 2000 years ago; that leaves the question of interpretation of the ancient text. Though there is evidence through literal translation and some applied contextual interpretation that Leviticus 18:22 had nothing to do with forbidding  same-sex activities and was just stating where those activities should not take place, at this time there's not enough meat in that evidence to definitively prove this point, but, conversely, neither can 18:22 be held up as unassailable proof that those activities are explicitly forbidden either.

So please, can’t we all just retire this worn and uselessly circular argument and get on with more productive things, like maybe judge not lest and loving your neighbor as yourself??


  1. I very much appreciate your post. You did great. You have clearly researched and put much thought into your post. Many things in the modern bible have been rewritten to serve the goals of the church and have been transformed from the original. Through history and in many cultures male sex has been common and acceptable. I believe it is part of the diversity and evolution of our human makeup. I'm for live and let live. I have gay friends and have worked with gay people and I greatly value their friendship and contributions. I wish some religious fanatics would quite making it their business to persecute these people. Thanks again. I enjoyed your post.

    1. We lived in Montrose, the gay community of Houston, for a couple decades and saw first hand how 'religious' doctrine was used to tear families apart, but we were also privileged to see how these men and women often built their own loving and supportive families within their community.

      The sad thing is how easy it is to discover all the information in this post with just a couple hours of research rather than blindly accept what a handful of dead dudes from centuries ago were spouting.