Two passages that are far more significant than the story of Sodom and Gomorrah occur in what Isaac Asimov called ‘the dullest book in the Bible’ – Leviticus. This third book of what Christians call the Old Testament is basically a set of things that, unlike their Canaanite neighbors, Israelites and Judeans were forbidden from doing. It accounts for the bulk of the 636 Biblical laws and regulations designed to make the Jewish nation distinct from those among whom they lived.
These are of two types, rules that are concerned with moral sin and rules related to ritual cleanliness. Moral sin involves rebellion against God and is the more serious of the two. Uncleanliness for Hebrews was caused by touching something forbidden or doing something forbidden (such as eating pork); though generally less important, some of these were also major enough to involve the death penalty.
If translated word for word, Leviticus 18:22 is roughly ‘And with mankind you shall not lie beds (plural noun) a woman/wife (singular noun).’ This final two-noun phrase is unclear in the original Hebrew; it is shared with Leviticus 20:13 (yet sometimes translated differently in the two verses), and it doesn’t occur anywhere else in the Bible. Although ‘beds of a woman’ seems to be the consensus for its meaning, other prepositions and relationships are also possible. The obscurity of this phrase opens the way for a wealth of different translations among which, out of tradition, a single basic line of thought characterizes English translations.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the term ‘abomination’ was an intentionally bad translation, given how far it differs from the meaning of the original Hebrew. It is used with a set of different situations in the King James Bible, all of which are tallied here.
The Living Bible and its revision, the New Living Translation, by using the word ‘homosexuality’ (for which there was no linguistic or cultural equivalent in Hebrew times) add two further errors. First, they add lesbians to the condemned group with utterly no justification for doing so. Second, since ‘homosexuality’ includes not just homosexual acts but also the mere fact of being oriented toward the same sex, the translations condemn both. These two translations say that it is a sin to be the way God created gays.
Alternatively, the verse could be interpreted to produce ‘And with a male you shall not lie [in the] beds of a woman,’ which is to say that if two men are going to have sex, they cannot do it in a bed belonging to a woman, i.e., which is reserved only for heterosexual intercourse.
Both this verse and the other from Leviticus (see below) appear in a holiness code that applied to Israel rather than to gentile Christians in an age of grace. Both occur in the clear context of opposition to the practices of the local fertility god Moloch; verse 21 sets the stage for this one by forbidding people from allowing their children to be burned in sacrifice to Moloch, verse 23 prohibits intercourse with animals (the idol of Moloch was in the form of a bull with a man’s head and shoulders, so this verse too may refer to idol worship). At the time, in order to get a conviction, Jewish law required four (male) witnesses, so whatever the action condemned in Leviticus was, it was likely a public event (there are no instances recorded in the Talmud of anyone being brought before the Sanhedrin and charged with homosexual activity). Worship of other gods provided a context where sex is very public, and there are 59 other places in the Bible where the worship of other gods is called an abomination (in the KJV). How could these two verses not apply to temple prostitution?
The probability that ritual prostitution is the context of these two verses is underlined by a later mistranslation of the Hebrew word qadesh, which appears in Deuteronomy (23:17), 1 Kings (14:24, 15:12 & 22:46), and 2 Kings (23:7). Literally the word means ’holy one’; it is clearly used in these verses to refer to a man that engages in ritual (pagan) temple prostitution in order to encourage the god(s) to make the earth and its creatures more fertile. By analogy many scholars interpret the verses in Leviticus as specifically referring only to sexual activities in a pagan temple ritual.
In the King James Version the word qadesh was translated for the first time as ‘sodomite,’ a word that at the time generically referred to any person who engaged in ‘unnatural’ sexual acts of any type. The New King James and 21st Century King James translations inaccurately retain the word ‘sodomite’ even though today it refers specifically only to males who engage in anal sex; most other Bibles more accurately translate it as cult, shrine, or temple prostitute.
The exact meaning of the original passage in Leviticus is therefore unclear. Translators face a choice between alternative prohibitions of:
- homosexual behavior by either sex
- sexual behavior between two men
- sexual behavior between a man and a married man (or perhaps three people, including at least one man and one woman)
- just anal sex between two men
- just pagan temple ritual sex (between two men?)
- sexual activity between two men in a woman’s bed
Be aware that post-King James translations fixate on the first two. This has had a self-perpetuating effect; a Bible that strays significantly from this hate message won’t sell, which means it won’t get published. Deviating from traditional interpretations would certainly generate a lot of media hype, which would temporarily boost sales because of the publicity generated, but it would also block the use of the translation by many if not most purchasers of large numbers of Bibles. We’re stuck with this, guys.
Leviticus 20:13 is very similar to Leviticus 18:22 in its use of the same unclear phrase as mentioned. Otherwise it is different from the first citation only because it appears to add the death penalty – though the phrase that does this could as accurately be translated ‘they shall be cast out of society.’
Bible scholars believe that Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20, which deal with similar material (mostly a prohibition of sex with any close relative – though the most frequent form of incest, sex of a father with his own daughter, is not specifically mentioned) came from different sources , and both are included in the Bible even though they cover similar ground in order to get the ritualized punishments Leviticus 20 contains.
Is the death penalty supposedly assigned to practicing homosexual males – though not among the Ten Commandments – somehow more important than the proscription in the Commandments against working on the Sabbath? Or perhaps more important than the death penalty assigned to someone who curses his/her parent (Leviticus 20:9) or who commits adultery (Leviticus 20:10)?
This passage could fairly well be translated ‘If a man has sexual intercourse with another man in the bed of a woman (or as part of a cult-like ritual), the two shall be cast out of society.’ You can see how this would not appeal to rabid fundamentalists.
Literalist fundamentalists also overlook the fact that, though there are many laws in Leviticus that limit female sexual behavior, female same-sex behavior is ignored here and everywhere else in Hebrew scripture (unless the text is mis-translated, as the LB and NLT do – possibly having concluded that God just forgot to put his objections in the infallible Bible; infallibility does not preclude mistranslation).
In spite of the fact that the mistranslation of to’evah into English obscures the fact that these verses do not apply to a moral sin, at first glance (especially given the general unanimity of translations in basic meaning), the passages really seem to condemn gay behavior in the strongest possible terms. That a similar condemnation to death applies to disrespectful children is beside the point; the target audience is the people of Israel, and the subject is pagan shrine rituals, and the passages are simply irrelevant either to homosexual orientation or homosexual behavior in an age of grace under Christ.
The next logical passage to look at is Romans 1:26-27.