Saturday, December 11, 2004

Love, Leviticus, and Abomination

The supplement to U.S. News & World Report that I have blogged on before, "Mysteries of the Bible," has a piece called "Love and Leviticus," by Alex Markels. Although Markels surveys a number of the Biblical passages relevant to the issue of homosexuality, he focuses on Leviticus 18:22 ("You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination") and 20:13 ("If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination").

In this article Markels displays a certain confusion about the word toevah, translated "abomination" in those passages.
God gave the Jewish people 613 mitzvot in the Torah ... and within them, there are the directives that are called in Hebrew "toevah".... Translated to mean everything from an "abomination" to something "ritually unclean," this "Holiness Code" identifies more than 120 of these instructions for behavior. ... Toevah includes the rules of kashrut, or kosher dietary regulations, which prohibit eating shellfish or pork or mixing meat and milk.

Well, with this amount of error, it's hard to know where to start. The most important correction to make against Markels is that toevah does not at all refer to ritual uncleanness. Even a cursory reading of the Torah in Hebrew will reveal that the vocabulary of the ritual approach to God is based on the poles of "purity, cleanness" (denoted by the word tohorah, טהרה) and "uncleanness, impurity" (tumah, טמאה). Toevah is just not part of this system. Ritual uncleanness can be got rid of by various means -- washings, sacrifices, etc. Whatever is toevah can only be shunned.

In Leviticus, toevah is not used for 120 rules of behavior; in fact, the word only appears 6 times in the book, and specifically of an act only in Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 quoted above. In Deuteronomy, on the other hand, it appears 17 times and is used more loosely. It is all too common, in and out of scholarship (such as here and here), to take the Deuteronomic usage (which does indeed use the word for non-kosher foods, Deut. 14:3) and apply it to Leviticus, as if the two texts were homogeneous.

Deuteronomy, it should be remembered, is a sermonic exhortation to keep all of God's law, a perspective that allowed the author to view even ceremonial infractions as displaying an attitude potentially dishonoring to God and therefore calling for moral censure. Leviticus, on the other hand, is not written in the sermonic mode and is obligated to use more exact language.

A survey of all the 116 usages of toevah in the Hebrew Bible shows, I think, that the term is overwhelmingly used as a term of moral opprobrium. I think that includes Leviticus. I won't go into all the texts. This is a philological issue that has unfortunately gotten tangled with the politics of equal rights. The temptation to defuse an explosive text by any means possible because it does not mesh with certain social or political aspirations (however laudable) is difficult to resist. But the effort should be made.


Anonymous said...

Actually, the overwhelming majority of "toevah" uses in *the Torah* are in reference to idolatrous/ritualistic practicies. One such idolatrous practice was that of male-male cultuc, usually a male lying with a priest. These priests were called "qadesh."

It's rather striking that when the subject of the "qadesh" came up the author of 1st Kings referenced the themes of *Leviticus* 18-20. This wouldn't make sense unless he thought Leviticus 18-20 referred to the qadesh. But the word "qadesh" isn't used even once in the *entire* book of Leviticus.

The cultic sex rituals also did not ever involve lesbian sex. If Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 refer to cultic sex then that would explain the absence of lesbian sex. This helps harmonize the Hebrew scriptures because the very same sin lists (in lev 18-20) list *both* males and female when forbidding adultery, incest, bestiality and dedcating childen to Molech. To not prohibit lesbian sex would have been wildly inconsistent *unless* the author was referring to cultic sex.

Leviticus makes it clear that the activities in 18-20 are Canaanite activities. The Canaanites, as a community, did NOT tolerate male-male sex per se. They did, however, tolerate male-male sex being used as a means of worship (passing semen along to their goddess). It's hard to believe that the author of Leviticus would have listed sinful activities of the Canaanites *without* listing cultic sex. Someone could counter this by suggesting that forbidding male-male sex per se would have also prohibited male-male cultic sex. While this is true, it's also true that forbidding idolatry per se would have also prohibited dedicating children to Molech, which Leviticus specifically lists. The author of Leviticus was *specifically* listing Canaanites activities. So why not list to the most common form of gay sex in Canaan?

Finally, with exception of Leviticus 18:22/20:13, every capital crime in Leviticus is repeated (specifically) again in another Hebrew text (mostly in Deut.). But the specific condemntaion of lying with a male as though a female is not listed anywhere else in the OT. Every other mention of gay sex is either rape or cultic sex. So Leviticus 18:22/20:13 must reflect that and must be in reference to either rape or cultic sex. My money is on cultic sex.

best wishes

-- Pat

Anonymous said...

Oops! That should read, "one such practice was that of male-male cultic sex"

I need to proof read more! lol

-- Pat

EMC said...

You need to look up the uses of toevah elsewhere in the Bible, especially Proverbs and Ezekiel. I think you'll find that it is overwhelmingly used with a moral, not cultic, valence.

Anonymous said...

As I tried to emphasize in my first post, the most frequent use of toevah in the **Torah** was that of idolatry (sometimes even the idols themselves). Moral transgression wasn't the standard use of the word until at least 100 years after Leviticus was written, during a time that we'd expect the word to take on a broader definition. For more on this see Buehler's article at

But even if the author of Leviticus were using the word to convey *only* moral transgression, that would not nullify the reformed view since cultic sex (sex used to worship a false god) is surely morally wrong.


-- Pat