Leviticus and same-sex relations

YrJO7256906I have written a Grove booklet on Same-sex Unions: the key biblical texts which you can buy from the Grove website. It explores, briefly, all the main biblical texts in the Old and New Testaments which come up in the debate on the issue.

Here is the chapter on the two texts in Leviticus.

Leviticus 18 and 20 

Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable. (Lev 18.22)

If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. (Lev 20.13)

Traditionalist Reading

Although we do not now follow the penalties prescribed for these offences, the texts show how serious is the prohibition on same-sex sexual activity. It comes not in the context of cultic activity, but in general regulations about sexual conduct, and reflects the creation narrative of Gen 1 and 2.

Revisionist Reading

The prohibition is set in the context of God’s people being distinctive from the worshipping practices of the cult of Molech, and so is most likely referring to homosexual cult prostitution. It is set within an outlook concerned with being clean rather than defiled, and we no longer share this outlook or its implications.


Leviticus reflects a priestly concern with holiness and order; other OT texts highlight different sets of concerns, but this focus links with the first creation account (in Gen 1), which is often identified with a ‘priestly’ influence. These texts come within a section of Leviticus known as the ‘holiness code’ (Leviticus 17–26), which consists of terse, tightly packed commands focusing on holy living as a distinct feature of God’s people, in contrast to the nations around them.

The context of chapter 18 is set by the introductory phrase, ‘I am the Lord your God’ (v 2), reminding the hearers of God’s initiative in delivering them from slavery in Egypt.17 In this way, the regulations here are offered as a response to God’s call and initiative, and involve embracing a distinct pattern of life from the surrounding nations as a reflection of God’s holiness. Paul reinterprets Lev 18.5 (‘Whoever does these things will live by them’) to contrast the oppression of ‘law’ with the liberty of grace. But in its context here, this verse suggests that these commands are to be received as life-giving, liberating disciplines.

OT law has two features which makes it distinct from ancient near east (ANE) law codes:

  1. Alongside ‘casuistic’ law, involving specific cases or situations, OT law gives particular emphasis to ‘apodictic’ law—general principles, usually as a reflection of the character of God—including concentrations in sections of central importance such as the Ten Commandments. Other ANE codes focus much more on casuistic law.
  2. OT law has a much more restrictive approach to sexual ethics in general, and same-sex activity in particular, compared with other ANE law codes. The context of this is the preservation of family life as the basic building block of society; the ‘good life’ is expressed in harmonious family living. The purpose of the law is to support and sustain this, rather than to protect individual rights.

Where the narrative texts use ‘know’ as a metaphor for sexual relations, this chapter mostly uses the phrase ‘to uncover the nakedness of…’18 The consistent theme here is the setting of boundaries for sexual practice out of a concern for purity, and the effect of this is the protection of various arenas of life from sexual activity. The prohibition on same-sex activity is set alongside prohibitions on incest, bestiality and the sacrifice of children. The whole list of prohibited activities is called ‘detestable’ (Hebrew toevah, translated ‘abomination’ in the AV) in the summary comment in 18.30, but in 18.22 same-sex activity is singled out with this term, and in the following verse bestiality is similarly highlighted as a ‘perversion’ (NIV). As with other regulations, these are not narrowly cultic but form part of a shared, national life for all who reside in the land (Lev 18.26), including ‘resident aliens’ who do not participate in cultic activity.

In verse 22, there is a change in the metaphor used for sexual relations which is not evident in all English translations. The phrase itself is very specific, literally, ‘With a male you will not lie on the lyings [beds] of a woman, abomination it [is].’ The use of ‘male’ (zaqar) alongside ‘man’ and ‘woman’ (ish and ishshah) creates an echo of the creation accounts in Gen 1 and 2; it is plausible to see the serious nature of the offence as reflecting its rejection of God’s creation order of ‘male and female.’ Since the phrase is quite general, there is no suggestion that the issue here is marital unfaithfulness, which is dealt with elsewhere.

The strong term toevah is used in a cultic sense of unacceptable sacrifices, or idolatry, both of which are ‘detestable.’ But its use is not limited to that. It is applied to distinct eating habits (Gen 43.32), more general racial antipathy (Gen 46.34), prohibited foods (Deut 14.3), magic and spiritism (Deut 18.12), remarrying someone you have divorced (Deut 24.4) and the use of dishonest weights and measures (Deut 25.16). It is quite striking in Lev 18 and 20 that the term qadesh, meaning male shrine prostitute (as in Deut 23.17–18), is absent. The context in Leviticus is everyday and particularly family life as the holy people of God. If there are hints of cultic language this is not because the prohibitions are located in cult but because the whole of life is to reflect the purity and holiness of Israel’s God.

There are three broad areas of critique of the traditional reading of these verses.

1 Patriarchy

The first objection is that these prohibitions are related to patriarchy; same-sex relations threaten male dominance of women, particularly as a man is taking the submissive female role in the sex act, and for this reason are to be rejected. It is worth noting that these commands do appear to be addressed to the men in the community as the primary moral agents (a contrast with NT ethical texts). However, there is no clear patriarchal shape to the prohibitions, and the explicit prohibition on sibling polygamy in Lev 18.18 sets a clear limit on such patriarchal power as might be present.19 In Lev 20.10, there is symmetry in moral responsibility between those who commit adultery, with both partners being held accountable; the command shows no interest in any imbalance of power relations arising either from patriarchy or from abusive relations. (This offers an interesting perspective on the story in John 8 of the woman caught in adultery; where was the adulterous man?)

The prohibition in Lev 18.22 is not on acting as a woman with a man, but on acting with another man who is taking the role of the woman. To put it crudely, the prohibition is not on being penetrated (by another man) but on penetrating. In other words, the verse gives no suggestion that the act is seen as a breach of manliness or the man’s honour; rather, the issue appears to be the failure of this act to match the divinely given creation order from Genesis. (It is interesting, though, to note there is no reference in either Lev 18 or 20 to the importance of procreation; the same-sex act is not condemned for failing to satisfy the creation command to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’)

2 Anthropological Reading

A second objection is that the prohibition on same-sex activity belongs to a classification of life into categories of the ‘clean’ and the ‘unclean’ that we do not share. The system of sacrifices and prohibitions in Leviticus seems baffling and confusing to many modern readers. A significant contribution to making sense of this text has been offered by taking an anthropological approach, which involves a sympathetic reading that seeks to enter the symbolic world of these texts in their own terms in order to understand their ‘inner logic.’20 Two important insights emerge from this.

The first is to recognize within the text a ‘graded’ understanding of holiness, where some areas are not holy, others are more holy, and still others constitute the ‘holy of holies’—all based on their physical proximity to the presence of the holy God. Philip Jenson explains it thus:

Within Israel itself some spaces and some Israelites are holy in ways that others are not. This kind of graded holiness can be seen most clearly in the architecture and symbolism of the Tabernacle…This spatial marking of graded holiness correlates with the personal dimension. The nearer the centre, the more restricted are those who can enter, and then at special times and in special ways.21

As people move from one ‘level’ of holiness to another, they must undergo certain rituals that involve the offering of sacrifices. Although modern thinking might find it difficult to engage with this system, it has an important theological point to it:

The system of graded holiness allows us to safeguard God’s absolute holiness, while at the same approaching him to the degree that we are able.22

The other key insight arising from this approach is the distinction between sin and impurity. Sin is the result of disobedience to the commands of God, and results in guilt which can only be removed by the appropriate sacrifice. Impurity, on the other hand, can be caused by accident, without any intention on the part of the person who has become impure. This, too, is remedied by means of sacrifice, but it does not imply guilt in the same way as sin.

‘Common’ (sometimes translated ‘profane’) is a general term for the non-holy, which includes both the clean and the unclean. Above all the holy has to be kept apart from the unclean, for the unclean represents what God is not. ‘Clean,’ on the other hand, is a neutral term. To be clean is a stepping-stone either towards the holy (through consecration) or the unclean (through defilement). Becoming unclean is often just part of ordinary life, but deliberately bringing the unclean into contact with the holy is a serious sin, for it shows contempt for the holy God.23

So, it is argued by revisionists, the distinction between being clean and unclean is not as important as the distinction between holiness and sin. And the language of Leviticus 18 and 20 is that of ‘defilement’ (or ‘uncleanness’) rather than ‘sin.’ This means that same-sex relations belong to a pattern of cleanness versus defilement to which we no longer subscribe, rather than the pattern of holiness versus sin which we do.

The weakness in this argument is that the relation between these two patterns is rather more complex. To be impure might not imply sin, but to sin does make one impure—so these terms can, in fact, overlap. And that is precisely the case in Leviticus 18 and 20. Although ‘be defiled’ (tame‘) is the most common term in Leviticus 18, at 18.25 this is identified with sin, and being the reason for the land ‘vomiting out’ its inhabitants as a sign of God’s judgment. This forms part of the wider concern of the whole of the ‘holiness code’; it places the whole question of ethics under the question of purity, so that wrong action is seen as an offense against God’s holiness, not just against his justice. Purity is concerned with moral action, not ritual action alone.

3 Cult Prostitution

Steve Schuh offers a third common objection to the traditional understanding: the texts here prohibit homosexual prostitution in the context of pagan worship, but are not relevant to same-sex activity in other contexts.24

Schuh highlights the importance of cultic distinctiveness through the OT narrative—God is not to be worshipped in the manner that other gods are worshipped—and how God’s people repeatedly failed to observe this. He also notes the fairly frequent mention of male shrine prostitutes in the ‘Deuteronomistic’ history (Deuteronomy, Joshua, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings). He notes a connection with the Leviticus texts, in that 1 Kgs 14.24 also uses toevah, ‘abomination.’ As Robert Gagnon notes, ‘Homosexual cult prostitution appears to have been the primary form in which homosexual intercourse was practiced in Israel.’25

From this Schuh concludes that ‘The homosexual acts prohibited in Leviticus 18 and 20 are described in the immediate context of idolatry and therefore very likely refer to ritual acts of male homosexual prostitution.’ Here he appears to make a social, a textual and a logical mistake. As noted above, these texts are not particularly focused on the cult; the prohibition on child sacrifice appears to focus more on the child than the sacrifice; these regulations are about family relations and the protection and preservation of the family unit, not about cultic worship. And, logically, he appears to be saying that, because homosexual shrine prostitution is a (possibly main) example of ‘detestable’ practice, it must be the only one. This is like saying that because apples are a common kind of fruit, all fruit must be apples. It is quite striking that the term for cult prostitute used elsewhere is lacking here—something that Schuh fails to note in his discussion, and which considerably weakens his argument. Instead, the language draws on the general terms from Genesis 1 and 2. And, as Gagnon points out, the logic of Schuh’s observation is the opposite of what he concludes. In other Mesopotamian cultures, there was a general rejection of same-sex activity; the one area it was tolerated was in the pagan cult. If Leviticus is rejecting this, it is rejecting the most acceptable form of same-sex activity in its context, not (as we might suppose) the least acceptable form. The unqualified and general rejection of all male same-sex penetrative activity, whatever its context, in Leviticus is without parallel in other ANE texts.26

So these Leviticus texts are expressing a broad prohibition on same-sex sexual activity. They do so in general terms, in the context of drawing boundaries around sexual activity for the sake of purity, and alluding to the creation narratives. Although a significant example of such ‘detestable practice’ is found in male shrine prostitution, these texts do not make reference to this, and do not appear to have this specifically in view. Instead, the prohibition is connected to language of sin and holiness which Christians would still want to draw on.

17 Compare the introduction to the Ten Commandments in Exod 20.2 and Deut 5.6.

18 The use of a similar phrase in Gen 9.22 leads some commentators to conclude that Ham’s sin was to have forced same-sex activity with his father Noah, though others regards the evidence for this as weak.

19 In fact, the Leviticus texts do not appear to envisage the possibility of polygamy, unlike Deut 17.17 and 21.15.

20 A key proponent of this way of reading was Mary Douglas.

21 Philip Jenson, How to Read Leviticus (Grove Biblical booklet B67) p 7.

22 Jenson, ibid, p 8.

23 Jenson, ibid, p 13.

24 ‘Challenging Conventional Wisdom,’ http://www.courage.org.uk/articles/Challenging.shtml

25 Robert A J Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2001) p 130.

26 See Gagnon’s account of the ANE documents in The Bible and Homosexual Practice pp 44–66.


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71 thoughts on “Leviticus and same-sex relations”

    • Schuh is writing from a claimed ‘evangelical’ position, and his paper has been reasonably widely circulated.

      I am happy to have questions and critical comments tabled, but do please steer away from snide comments. Thanks.

  1. Ian

    Is there a difference between male homosexual acts and female homosexual ones with regards to sin?
    As I believe the only time female homosexuality is mentioned is in Romans 1 v 26.

    Also the Mosaic laws seem more weighted against women e.g. a woman who is not a virgin on her wedding night is sentenced to death (Deut 22 v 20 – 21); whereas a man who rapes a virgin is fined and has to marry her (Deut 22 v 28). So it seems odd that they don’t mention or punish female homosexual acts. (Apparently Lesbianism has never been illegal in Britain http://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-19315,00.html)

    • Tim, as I comment elsewhere (on this page), I do think the Leviticus texts are patriarchal in the sense that they address men as the moral agents, so it is not really surprising that lesbianism is not addressed.

      However, it is clear that by the Second Temple period, the rabbis read Leviticus as a prohibition on female as well as male same-sex activity, and to this extent Paul’s use in Romans 1 offers a fairly typical Jewish critique of pagan immorality. (I can try and track down references if you are interested.)

      Yes, I agree with you that there are quite a number of elements of Levitical law which look very problematic to us. I need to highlight that I am not, in this piece, arguing that we simply take all of these laws at face value and transferring them to our context. What I am arguing is that the reasons for not taking the prohibition on same-sex sexual activity seriously are not persuasive, even if they might be in the case of other law. (Note that, for example, I wouldn’t argue for the penalties set out in Leviticus.)

      In reading all these texts, we need to take seriously a. the culture b. the trajectory in Scripture and c. the comparison with other ancient near eastern (ANE) law codes. In comparison with these, Leviticus has a much stronger focus on the integrity of the family, on holiness in the whole nation (not just in the cult/worship) as a reflection of the nature of God, and has a much more stringent sexual ethic, including a unique prohibition on all same-sex sexual activity. This is without parallel in other ANE codes.

      All this has significance, and means we cannot write off these prohibitions as being ‘merely’ cultural.

      (For a study of the implications of the texts relating to women of all this, see William Webb’s book.)

  2. Thanks Ian, I’ll get the booklet. One thing has been on my mind though: while these texts are a prohibition of lying with a man as one would with a woman (which you’ve unpacked as referring to penetrative sex) is there perhaps therefore a way of ‘lying with’ a man that is not ‘as with a woman’ which, then as now, is not prohibited.
    My question arises really out of the observation that modern homophobia is largely based assumptions about the sex lives of others, who themselves do not define themselves or wish to be defined simply on the basis of sexual practices. To use the Victorian/ NRSV term, to be gay today is not always to be a sodomite.

    • Tim, I am not sure I understand your question.

      As I understand it, the trend today is the opposite: whatever your orientation, the only ‘authentic’ way to express this is to engage in the appropriate sexual act. That is why very few will accept the saying ‘Hate the sin; love the sinner.’ The ‘sin’ i.e. the act is integral to personal identity of the ‘sinner’.

      Or have I misunderstood you?

      • Ian, the thing is, my Hebrew is a bit rusty, but as you helpfully break down the relevant text into semantic units I was simply pondering on whether the text (and our approach to the issue) allows us to conclude that while lying with a man as with a woman is described negatively, there is however a way of lying with a man which would not be prohibited.

        Our problem is that, while in moral theology we may equate gay identity with ‘appropriate’ sexual practice, this just isn’t the case in modern society.

        • In theory, I would agree with you. But we need to note that the idea of a thing called an ‘orientation’ which is fixed, internal, and self-defining is a modern notion.

          The OT text is (characteristically) concern with actions, and it is the actions which are prohibited. I quoted elsewhere a really good piece on this from http://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/03/against-heterosexuality

          The Bible never called homosexuality an abomination. Nor could it have, for as we have seen, Leviticus predates any conception of sexual orientation by a couple of millennia at least. What the Scriptures condemn is sodomy, regardless of who commits it or why. And yet, as I have argued throughout, in our own day homosexuality deserves the abominable label, and heterosexuality does too.

          • Ian, ‘What the Scriptures condemn is sodomy, regardless of who commits it or why.’

            This discussion has largely majored on physical acts and whether or not Scripture regards them as sinful. I can’t help wondering if this is because loving, committed same-sex relationships simply weren’t possible in the biblical world and their only experience was of lustful, abusive, non-consensual or demeaning ones (as has applied throughout most of human history). Given the fact that it is now possible for same-sex relationships to be loving and lasting, committed and caring does this not call for a reassessment of the biblical texts for a context very different from that in which they were written?

          • Thanks John. I think there are several strands to this.

            First, the situation appears to me to be different in the OT and the NT. As Gagnon highlights, same-sex activity was accepted in many parts of the ANE, but this acceptance appears to have been confined to the cult.

            In the NT period, the situation appears to be quite different. There are numerous discussion of same-sex activity and relations/unions, many disparaging, some neutral, some more positive. It seems that there was a range of views (just as there is now). So I don’t think it is possible to argue (convincingly!) that ‘committed same-sex relationships weren’t possible in the biblical world.’

            Against all that, it is striking that the few biblical texts there are pay no attention to the ‘quality’ of the relationship in which same-sex activity takes place. The objection to the activity appears to be much more basic than that: same sex activity is a rejection of the God-given created order of sexual activity as the union (conjugation) of male and female.

  3. Well, you’re attempting to raise levitical law against us when even conservative Judaism has stopped and we should take it graciously? and you do not agree with Boswell

  4. Ian,
    Can you explian to me the prohibition on a man approaching a woman who is menstruating please? It seems to me that what your exposition of the Levitical texts about same-sex activity could equally apply to sex with a menstruating woman (note the juxtaposition of Lev.18:19 to 18:22), and yet nowadays this ban is no longer heeded.

    I read somewhere that the reason lesbianism was never made illegal in the UK is because when Queen Victoria was presented with a Bill of Parliament to outlaw it, she refused to believe that any woman could commit such a disgusting act and so she refused to legislate about someting merely hypothetical. This would seem to be more a matter of prudish sensibility rather than moral principle.

    • Thanks for the question Phil (and the info!). It is worth clarifying that I am not arguing that any or all laws in Leviticus should have abiding relevance just because they are in Leviticus. Neither does it seem to me that we can simply take a ‘surface’ meaning of these texts, nor read them in isolation. There appear to be culture-specific reasons why each of these laws had significance, and I do believe that the ‘anthropological’ approach can help us to appreciate these.

      There are quite a few texts in Leviticus which relate to menstruation (Lev 12.2, Lev 15.9, Lev 15.24-26, Lev 15.33, and Lev 20.18 as well as this one.). So the concern extends beyond this section, the Holiness Code (H). The repeated concern is explicitly identified, that of uncleanness (Heb tama). To be unclean is not to sin, but to disregard the regulation on uncleanness is to sin, hence the penalty in 20.18.

      This concern is explained well by the anthropological approach, since sex during menstruation would mix semen (a fluid of life) with blood (a fluid of death). But there is no connection here with the creation pattern, and there is no emphasis on the seriousness of this issue. This kind of concern was not unique to Israel, and something similar can be found in other ANE codes.

      By contrast, the prohibition on same-sex activity is rooted in the creation texts as a violation of how God created humanity in binary gendered form. Contrary to some commentators, this is not expressed in terms of status, or loss of manliness/feminisation or in terms of wasting of semen. The prohibition is unique in its generality and its offensiveness is highlighted by the repetition of ‘to’evah’ (‘abomination’ or ‘detestable’).

      From a canonical perspective, Jesus’ healing of the woman with the issue of blood in Mark 5 (and pars) is an important theological corrective to the idea that the first command should be carried over. By contrast, Paul reinforced the Levitical prohibition on same-sex relations.

      So I think the two commands, whilst proximate in Leviticus, have quite different statuses in Christian ethical thinking.

      • Surely Leviticus 18.26, 27, 29 and 30 indicate that all the offences listed, including sex during menstruation, are regarded as abominations? Likewise does not the sentence of being shunned by the whole community (Leviticus 20.18) indicate the seriousness of the matter?

        • Yes, all the offences are called abominations. But two things to note:

          a. ‘lying with a man as with a women’ is emphatically so labelled, and uniquely.

          b. this appears to be rooted in the creation narrative, where the menstruation prohibition is not, and it is picked up in the NT and reapplied, which the other isn’t either.

          So the prohibition has some distinctive within the narrative, but a greater one when read canonically.

      • Phil’s comment and your reply are more illuminating than the main post. They highlight the two reasons you suggest the Leviticus laws on “lying the lyings of a woman with a man” are still normative for Christians: (a) that they assume a heterosexual gender binary, allegedly from the creation narratives, and (b) that they are reinforced rather than countered in the NT.

        My off-the-top-of-my-head objections to these two reasons:

        (a) OK, so perhaps the text is conditioned by an idea of a compulsory heterosexual gender binary. And perhaps so are Genesis 1 and 2, and perhaps this text does draw on Genesis. But does that in and of itself suggest that such a gender binary is eternally normative, rather than arising from the patriarchal context (as Etienne and Savi have suggested)? I don’t think so. Especially when you take into account that if you dig beneath the surface of any condemnations (and even some commendations) of same-sex sexuality throughout history, the gender roles you find underlining the condemnations (and sometimes commendations) are (as far as I’m aware) always overtly hierarchical and patriarchal (until very recent Christian stances like yours).

        A major flaw in your thinking (highlighted in your response to Savi’s longest comment below) seems to be that you refuse to see how essentialist binary gender roles are inherently patriarchial, even though throughout history they have been a way males have dominated everyone else – even with the modern innovation of co-opting a pagan/Romantic logic of “complementarity” and claiming the gender roles are “different but equal.”

        (b) Does healing a woman from a flow of blood for many years really serve as over-turning all Levitical laws relating to menstruation? This seems extremely far-fetched. After all, in the same chapter Jesus heals people possessed by demons, and I’m sure most Christians don’t take that as saying that therefore demons are A-OK with Jesus.

        I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and say that the argument for overturning menstruation laws is actually better and more complex than how you have briefly described it here – if so, I invite you to expand.

        (c) – relating to both (a) and (b) – Patriarchal essentialist binary gender roles are in fact challenged in the New Testament; supremely in Gal 3:28 but also in Jesus’ and Paul’s attitudes to women, and undermining of “masculine” virtues in their ethics and lives. (William Webb, failing to realise that gender restrictions on sex is a gender issue, keeps the ‘trajectory’ on gender separate from the ‘trajectory’ on ‘homosexuality’ – which is completely nonsensical, both logically and historically.)

  5. Ian, you already know that I for one would not agree with you. I am though happy for anyone to follow the rules of Leviticus providing you apply all of the rules to their life and not to the life of others.

    I fear that your comparatively balanced approach will be used to fuel the sick minds of religious bigots and haters of all that is different, not an attempt to suggest your right to free speech should be limited but wondering aloud about wether our wholesome conversations should be about extending the Kingdom of God, rather than producing exclusive clubs with rules and ethics that are unobtainable (such as the the Levitican law).

    • Thanks, Paul. There is always a danger that things are misused. But there’s an old saying that the response to misuse is not no use but right use.

      You comment that ‘providing you apply all of the rules to their life and not to the life of others’. The difficulty here is that

      a. the OT law itself does not appear to take this approach, since some laws are presented as general and context transcending (e.g. 10 Commandments) whilst others are very context dependent.

      b. Jesus didn’t do this. He argues at some points against the continuing application of some laws, whilst citing and defending others.

      c. Paul specifically repeats this levitical law in 1 Cor 6.

      So if we are going to be faithful to Scripture, it seems we do need to engage in this difficult task.

  6. I agree that the most likely interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 is a complete ban on sexual relations between men. Ancient Israel had a typical pastoral subsistence economy and, just like similar societies today, would have been viscerally homophobic. When your life depends on your goat herd, you’re going to need as many children as possible to help you look after it. Anything that threatens reproduction is therefore dangerous and evil.

    Remember these people had a much shorter lifespan than us. Life was nasty, brutish and short and they could be carried off at any moment by the slightest injury or illness. A couple alone would have had very little chance of surviving and prospering in such a world. Only in the context of an extended family could some form of security be attained.

    Given the precarious nature of life and survival in the ancient world, it makes sense that a strong social taboo against homosexuality and in favour of reproduction would develop. That it was ritualized into notions of pure and impure is hardly surprising. That’s what religion is: the survival instinct ritualized to the point at which it becomes fixed and fossilized.

    To decode Leviticus you need to place it in the context of the society in which it was written and view it as a social manifesto rather than divine law. It’s the Jews saying “this is what we think we need to do in order to survive, so obey or deal with the consequences.” While you can certainly question the justice of it and feel sorry for the men who were stoned to death as a result of these laws, the Jews weren’t the only people who persecuted the individual for the perceived benefit of society. History is full of injustices, which when they touch us personally, can incline us towards bitterness and a desire for revenge. But what’s in the past can never be changed. All we can do is learn from it, understand why it happened and then make sure we build a society where that kind of persecution is no longer perceived to be necessary.

    Modern society is no longer tribal. Couples without children can not only survive but also prosper. The taboos that helped a primitive society survive in a hostile environment are not relevant to us today. The sooner Christianity comes to terms with this fact and reexamines its fossilized rituals in the light of modern realities, the happier we’ll all be. And I think that includes God, because if he really does exist then one assumes he’d like to see his creations progress, grow and mature in their understanding rather than sit there like stubborn children shouting “no, there really are fairies at the bottom of the garden!”

    • Etienne, thanks for commenting. I do appreciate your continuing engagement.

      I think I take your comments more positively than Clive below, but stlll think there are some questions to be asked.

      1. I am glad you agree with me on the meaning of Lev 18.22. My main frustration is with people who say they want to take the text seriously, but then try and make the text mean something else. I don’t think these attempts are at all persuasive.

      2. I agree with you that a subsistence agrarian culture will have very different concerns to our wealthy, highly leisured culture.

      3. For that reason, I don’t think that the laws in Leviticus can be carried over in toto into another culture—and interesting, the NT writers don’t appear to think that either.

      4. However, what is striking about the ban on same-sex activity is that is does not appear to be rooted in the kind of specific cultural concerns that you mention. I don’t think these texts can answer the question on their own, but it is striking both that they are located within the Genesis understanding of the gender-binary of humanity made in the image of God, and this appears to be why they are picked up more than once by Paul.

      5. You are right to raise the question as to whether *any* command of God in an ancient culture can have continuing relevance in a very different cultural context. But for Christians to believe that Scripture is ‘God-breathed’ (2 Tim 3.16) means that we have to be open to that possibility. I think this is about being rooted in a particular understanding of the nature of God. It is also worth noting that if God cannot speak with trans-cultural significance then, he can never do so, and so cannot now either. I am sure our culture will look pretty primitive in 3000 years’ time!

      • Personally, I still don’t understand how biblical inspiration works for you.

        You don’t stress biblical inerrancy (but haven’t said whether the Bible contains errors), but won’t allow that the Bible can simply be wrong about an issue. At the same time, you set aside some clear and universal NT prohibitions on women being in ministry and holding authority.

        It’s also circular: how do we know that the Bible is God-breathed? Because it claims it is. This is problematic even on its own terms, as 2 Timothy 3:16 almost certainly refers to what was scripture at the time of authorship, which wouldn’t include the NT.

        This issue is causing the church such a headache because it can’t just do what the rest of the world does, and argue from first principles: what’s actually *wrong* with gay relationships?

          • There isn’t, but that’s not the point: the point is that, if the Bible is contradictory on gender roles, it’s capable of error.

            There’s clear NT teaching that women shouldn’t be in authority over men (1 Timothy 2:11-15), linked back to a command by God in the Genesis story that women are the subordinate gender (Genesis 3:16). This is directly comparable to the biblical arguments against gay relationships.

            If we’re not saying that the teaching on gender is wrong when we use other passages to set it aside, what are we saying?

      • Ian,

        Is another difficulty with Etienne’s position her implication that sexual relations were at the time somehow limited to procreation and separated from pleasure, bonding, etc.. Although certain churches have taught this from time to time I have never been convinced such a view is appropriate. Another of her points you didn’t address was her assertion that religion is somehow a ‘fixed or fossilised’ survival mechanism. Such a view would justify our discarding scriptures in their entirety.

        • Thanks, Andrew. I think the point on sexual union and bonding has been used both ways. Brownson’s view, for example, is that Gen 2 articulates the existential connection between Adam and Eve, which he then suggests has nothing to do with gender differentiation. I think this is an odd logic, since the gender difference is prominent in the narrative, and arguably it is this (the otherness of the other) which makes the existential connection surprising. (There is otherness between Adam and the animals, but no bond).

          I am not very interested in the issue of Scripture being out of date here. My concern is the idea that Scripture allows something it clearly does not, and I do think that the ‘Scripture is primitive and should be rejected’ position has the merit of internal integrity. What I find unconvincing is the attempts of Brownson, Vines and others to argue that you can believe in Scripture and approve of same-sex sexual union.

  7. Dear Etienne,

    Can you not see that the idea that your progression of “My life depends on goats” = “I must have children” = “I therefore must be homophobic” has to be one of the most bizarre and illogical claims ever!

    Where is the evidence that these people had a shorter lifespan? The OT text for same period suggests an expected lifespan of 60 years for men. your assertion of a short, brutal life seems to only be inserted to allow you to emphasis the first bizarre claim by projecting the “I must have children” into “I really must have children”, but since your first paragraph was nonsense, your second paragraph isn’t doing any better.

    We have arrived at the point that having children does not actually make people homophobic so your third paragraph doesn’t work either.

    Ian Paul’s article deals with context in some detail whereas your fourth paragraph just wanders off into wild generalisation merely as a vehicle to justify your equally wild generalisation in the final paragraph.

    Not a very useful contribution when Ian Paul is simply trying to help others understand what is said in Leviticus.

  8. Would you please accept my apologies for the snarkiness. I read myself and there is no excuse for the tone of my previous posts. Could I however beg you to read some of the (even very very orthodox) Jewish literature on the matter before you publish or at least confine your subject to gay sex and not to “gay relationships” as you do in this article? On the matter of ‘abominations’ or to’ebah (cannot print Hebrew from an iPad) even the Gemara a couple of millennia ago had to resort to fanciful etymology to explain the term, although clearly it is not flattering, but there are loads of young Jewish gay men outside your circle of friends, and, trust me, their lives are not easy at all. Yasher koach.

  9. Ian

    Thanks for your reply; my gut feel is that all scripture does (as your unpicking of these verses shows) prohibit “all same-sex sexual activity”. But, at the risk of opening a can of worms, to me some of the above arguments seem problematic:

    In Western Society today men and women are regarded as equal or (my view) equal with differences*. My point with the Deuteronomy verses was not to introduce more problematic verses but to highlight that in Levitical Law men are treated differently to women – so potentially was Lesbianism okay? Thank you for explaining why it wasn’t, although the explanation raises another question:

    “by the Second Temple period, the rabbis read Leviticus as a prohibition on female as well as male same-sex activity.” Ever since I was a teenager I’ve had a problem with ‘the other Bible’ of culture, history (in this case ANE), archaeology and to some extent different emphasis and reading of scriptural texts: all scripture is God inspired but interpreting it seems to problematic if the interpretation is determined by what we understand from these other sources (and how our own society molds us).

    Finally, “the trajectory in Scripture” does this mean that whilst God doesn’t change, He has slowly revealed more and more about his character until by Revelation we have a complete picture of him and how to live? If so where in the Bible does it tell us that this revealing has stopped? And if it doesn’t then is God still revealing his will then how do we test what is from him and what isn’t? It also seems a bit tough on the Exodus women who transgressed the Levitical laws and were punished because their patriarchal men didn’t have a full revelation.

    * NB topical news from India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Sudan show that women are still very much regarded as second class citizens in large parts of the world.

    Phil McCheddar
    The link in my first post suggests that lesbianism was never made illegal because Queen Victoria refused to believe women could do anything so disgusting is an ‘old wives tale’. Apparently Lesbianism has never been illegal in this country which given Britain’s religious heritage I find surprising.

    “Modern society is no longer tribal”. I think modern society is incredibly tribal from the rise of UKIP and SNP in the UK and anti-European parties across the channel (and the World cup will bring out even more tribalism).

    A final thought given that male homosexuality was only made legal in 1967, gay rights have come on in leaps and bounds in 47 years. But I do wonder whether with the rise of far right groups, militant Islam and remarks such as Putin made (before this year’s winter Olympics) whether there is a real danger that the pendulum will swing back the other way in the next 100 bringing back with it unhelpful prejudices and injustices.

    • Tim, thanks for opening the hermeneutical can!

      Yes, I am aware that many ‘lay’ people find the introduction of historical questions very uncomfortable, for lots of reasons.

      For one, it means the commentator has expert power over them, and it is very difficult to argue back. For another, it means that the Bible on its own is not enough (so it seems).

      In response, I would comment that there is a danger of power dynamics entering here, and we have to work against that—part of which is encouraging further study of how we read the Bible.

      But more fundamentally, we *never* ‘just read the Bible.’ The black marks of print on the white page never do anything on their own. They always need to be read and understood. So it is a rightly understood Bible which communicates to us. And reading historically is an indispensable part of this; without it, we would have no translations into English, for example.

      I look at this question in more detail here: http://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/five-essentials-of-biblical-interpretation-2-context/

  10. The notion of ‘God’s creation order of “male and female'” as set out in the Law is based on a patriarchal social order, as was common in the ancient world. For instance a married woman who sleeps with a man other than her husband faces the death penalty (Leviticus 20.10), as does the man in such a case since he has encroached on his neighbour’s territory so to speak, but a married man can have no end of unmarried girlfriends provided none is the sister of his wife (Leviticus 18.18) or another close relative (and even this is sometimes couched as a violation of the honour due to a senior family member, e.g. Leviticus 20.11). However even the most promiscuous married man can submit his wife to a strange ordeal if he suspects her (however baselessly) of infidelity (Numbers 5.11-31). Even an engaged woman who is raped, if she is too frightened or traumatised to cry out for help, is to be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22.20).

    Against this background, for a man to lie with a man as with (or in the beds of) a woman (probably referring to penetrative sex) could plausibly be seen as a violation of the other man’s masculine dignity and the wider social order, while this does not apply in the same way to a woman who sleeps with a woman. There is also a potential mixing of categories in ways which are forbidden, as in planting the same field with different types of seed (Leviticus 19.19, Deuteronomy 22.9-11). The way the Law is framed might indicate that even a man who is raped should be put to death (Leviticus 20.15), like (in the subsequent verse) an animal that has been abused.

    Whether or not people at the time experienced such precepts as ‘life-giving, liberating disciplines’, they cannot be simply applied to today’s world.

    • Thanks for the comment, Savi. I don’t think I am suggesting that they can, in toto, ‘simply’ be applied to today’s world, as I clarify in a comment above.

      But you appear to be moving from not applying them simply to applying none of them at all, and on spurious grounds.

      ‘The notion of ‘God’s creation order of “male and female’” as set out in the Law is based on a patriarchal social order’. No it isn’t. There is no evidence in the text for that whatsoever. In fact, as feminist commentators have helped us see, the foundational texts in Genesis 1 and 2 are actually quite anti-patriarchal.

      ‘Against this background, for a man to lie with a man as with (or in the beds of) a woman (probably referring to penetrative sex) could plausibly be seen as a violation of the other man’s masculine dignity and the wider social order’. The key phrase here is ‘could plausibly’. In other words, you are suggesting a reading for which there is no actual evidence, and limiting the universal nature of the prohibition for no particular reason. It is very striking that this prohibition stands in contrast to other ANE texts—there are none which parallel this universal prohibition.

      I agree with you that the pattern and structure of many of the laws appears patriarchal—but this is part of reading the text in its social context. It is speaking into a patriarchal world, and so bears the marks of that, as we would expect. The key question is whether it justifies and reinforces this, or undermines it. There is no suggestion in the (brief) texts that the loss of dignity is the issue at stake. And given that this text seems to look back to Genesis and is referred to in the NT as a general prohibition, the question is: why are we look for such things?

      • I did not express myself very well: I believe that, in the Law, it is not always easy to disentangle the effects of the Fall, and the resultant patriarchy that can contaminate even the most intimate relationships, from what is depicted in the Creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 (however these are interpreted). For instance the indulgence in Leviticus towards husbands who have sex outside marriage in contrast to the death penalty for women in this position clearly conveys a particular view of male-female difference, but few would now argue that this is a God-given norm, though this might have been a common view at one time.

        • What do you mean by ‘the law’? Are you referring to the legal texts, or to the Pentateuch?

          I agree with you that things are mixed in the legal codes—and perhaps the best way to understand this is noting that the codes themselves relate to how life is, not how it ideally might be. There is clearly a patriarchal orientation to Leviticus.

          But I don’t really see how that undermines the reading of the texts I have given. Patriarchy does not appear to come into the prohibition—which did not exist in the same way in other, contemporary, patriarchal cultures.

  11. I note that one of the points in the Leviticus chapter of “Same-sex Unions: the key biblical texts” states “The prohibition in Lev 18.22 is not on acting as a woman with a man, but on acting with another man who is taking the role of the woman. To put it crudely, the prohibition is not on being penetrated (by another man) but on penetrating”.

    I would dispute this interpretation and would point out that philological analysis by Saul M. Olyan, as revised by Jerome T. Walsh, shows that the verse is actually a prohibition on a man being the passive partner in lying (having sex) with another man. As Walsh states:

    “The Levitical laws …. both speak of a man who “lies …. the lying down of a woman” — a cognate direct object construction to be compared with such standard Hebrew idioms as “to dream a dream,” “to sin a sin,” and the like. This construction regularly describes an action performed by the subject, not the subject’s experience of someone else’s action. Compare the similar though nonsexual usage in 2 Sam 4:5b: “they came to Ish-Bosheth’s house in the heat of the day, while he was lying the lying down of noontime”. The man to whom the laws of Lev 18:22 and 20:13 are addressed, then, is the one who performs the “lying down of a woman” — that is, the one who acts as the receptive partner.

    “This is confirmed by the specification that he lies rkz-ta , “with a male.” .…… The rkz with whom a man is forbidden to lie is the penetrator; the person addressed by the laws is the receptive partner. Thus the phrase hva ybkvm rkz-ta bkvy is best translated “to lie with a male as a woman would”.

    This argument is detailed in J. T. Walsh, “Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13: Who Is Doing What To Whom?”, Journal of Biblical Literature, Volume 120, No. 2, 2001, 201–209, above quotation at 205. The article is also on http://web.archive.org/web/20070104151350/http://www.sbl-site.org/Publications/JBL/JBL1202.pdf

    It might be noted that in the Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 54b Rabbi Akiva was of the view that Leviticus 18:22 could be directed to either the passive participant or the active participant, depending on the pronunciation or vocalization.

    The interpretation suggested by Walsh would give the Israelite law on male–male sex a similar emphasis to that in many of the ancient Mediterranean societies in so far as the passive male partner is the one who has the primary guilt or shame.

  12. I have read the entire discussion with interest, but I am most interested in how Ian Paul would respond to the last intervention by Colin Smith. Smith cites the article I published that attempts a strictly philological analysis of the passages from Leviticus, then from that analysis draws conclusions about what interpretations of the passages can and cannot be sustained philologically. I contend that, given the constraints of Hebrew syntax and semantics, the verse cannot be read as a condemnation of male-male sexual contact in general, but only of anal penetration and, probably, only of anal penetration of a free Israelite citizen. (The language of the law does not seem to envisage, for instance, male slaves.) Further, given the formulations, primary culpability is given to the passive partner in the prohibited to’evah. Culpability is attributed to the active partner in only one of the two cited passages and, even in that case, it seems linguistically to be a secondary expansion of the original text. It seems to me that the most likely explanation for such observations is that ancient Israel’s view of male-male sexual contact, similar to the views of other ancient Near Easter and Mediterranean cultures, is rooted not in a comprehensive ideology of sexuality but in a comprehensive ideology of masculinity. I look forward to Ian Paul’s comments on this argument.

    Jerome T. Walsh

    • Would you care to respond to Gagnon’s response to that article:

      ‘Jerome T. Walsh published an article in Summer 2001 issue of the Journal of Biblical
      Literature claiming: “The man to whom the laws of Lev 18:22 and 20:13 are addressed . . . is the
      one who performs the ‘lying down of a woman’—that is, the one who acts as the receptive
      partner. . . . The rkz [zakar, ‘male’] with whom a man is forbidden to lie is the penetrator. . . .
      Thus the phrase hva ybkvm rkz-ta bkvy [yishkav eth-zakar mishkeve ishah] is best translated ‘to lie
      with a male as a woman would’” (“Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13: Who Is Doing What to Whom?”
      JBL 120 [2001]: 201-209, here p. 205). Walsh has misunderstood the text.

      The phrase “lyings of a woman” has the sense “lyings with a woman.” In other words, Lev 18:22 should be read as “with a male you shall not lie (as though the) lying(s) with a woman,” where the person addressed—20:13 specifies an vya! [’ish], a man—is told not to lie with another “male” (rkz [zakar]) as though he were lying with a woman, that is, with sexual intent.

      Walsh is right that the man is doing the lying but incorrect in failing to see that “woman” here is an
      objective, not subjective, genitive. (For the objective genitive in Hebrew see GKC [= Gesenius’
      Hebrew Grammar] §128h.)

      This is true also of the OT texts that speak of a woman “who has known a man by (or: as to) lying of a male (rk*z* bK^v=m!l= vya! [’ish lemishkav zakar])” (Num 31:17; Judg 21:12) or “who has [not] known lying (i.e. what it is like to lie) of a male” (rk*z* bK^v=m! [mishkav zakar], Num 31:18, 35; Judg 21:11). Obviously, these texts do not refer to women who have sexual experience with (“know”) a man in the sense of “by lying as a man would” (i.e., in the penetrative role?).

      Most likely, “lying of a male” in these texts means “lying (i.e. sleeping, having intercourse) with a
      male,” with rk*z* functioning as an objective genitive. All the main modern English translations
      correctly translate the genitive “of a male” as an objective genitive “with a male” (RSV, NRSV,
      ESV, NASB, NIV, NAB, NJB, REB; see also, among many commentators, Baruch A. Levine,
      Numbers 21-36 [AB; New York: Doubleday, 2000], 448, 456: “through lying down with a
      male”). The same can be said for the standard dictionaries: “lying down of, i.e. intercourse with, a
      male,” alongside of “the lyings down of, acts of intercourse with, a woman” for Lev 18:22; 20:13
      (“bK*v=m!,” DCH 5:27); “in bed with a man” (HALOT); “every woman that has [not] lain with a
      male” (W. Beuken, “bk^v*,” TDOT 14:663).

      Indeed, Walsh does not argue otherwise for these texts. What he does argue…

      It is possible that the sense is: women who have sexual experience with a man “by a male’s lying
      (with her),” “
      Dead Sea Scrolls text

      The only comparable instances where, as in Lev 18:22 and 20:13, bK^v=m! is applied to sexual
      intimacy and with a following genitive, are the occurrences in Num 31:17-18, 35; Judg 21:11-12
      cited above. (Ezek 23:17 provides another sexual use of bK^v=m! (mishkav) but in an expression
      that is not germane to Lev 18:22 and 20:13, involving a genitive abstract noun: “the Babylonians
      came to her to/into the bed of love [<yd]]D) bK^v=m!l=, lemishkav dodim].) As such they are decisive for the objective genitive interpretation of Lev 18:22 and 20:13.

  13. I must begin by pleading that I have not read Gagnon’s book, which is currently inaccessible to me. I hope to be able to consult it in the near future (I’m 1000 miles from home at the moment). I have, however, seen some of the materials on the issue he has online. In what follows, I don’t intend to address all the issues he raises; I simply attempt to point out why I think the arguments attributed to him in the preceding post are insufficient from a strictly philological point of view. I would also ask the previous poster to cite a URL for the material he quotes from Gagnon, if it is not taken from Gagnon’s 2001 book. If it’s online, I’d like to take a look at it. Here are my comments:

    1. It is inappropriate to attempt to assign a meaning to a phrase outside of its syntactic context. One cannot determine whether a particular genitive is “objective” or “subjective” (to the extent that such western grammatical categories are even adequate to a Semitic language) without considering the whole phrase, including the verb. Thus phrases like “lyings of a woman” and “lying of a male” cannot be analyzed except as they are used in particular cases. Here, the verbs “know” and “lie” make a significant difference. To “know” something is to experience it. When a woman “knows the lying of a male,” she _experiences_ whatever the “lying of a male” refers to. I don’t think anyone questions what that experience entails. If one must assign a grammatical term to the phrase “of a male,” one assigns it on the basis of one’s understanding that the male is performing the (sexual) lying and the woman is experiencing it. Correlatively, when a man “lies with a male the lyings of a woman,” one recognizes the Hebrew cognate-object construction that typically describes something the grammatical subject _does_. So it is the “man” who is _performing_ the “lyings of a woman.” He is doing so “with a male.” It seems to me that the logical inference is that he is performing what a woman performs with a male, in other words, being the receptive party in an act of sexual congress.

    2. It is certainly true that the two verses in Leviticus are regularly translated and interpreted as referring to a “man” who is the active partner in a homosexual act rather than the passive one. That’s precisely why I wrote the article: because I disagree with the current interpretation.

    Jerome T. Walsh

    • Here you go-www.robgagnon.net/2Views/HomoViaRespNotesRev.pdf.

      While Ian’s comments delve into the philology, as your have, Leviticus 18 should also be harmonized, (as Radner does in his book Leviticus) with:
      1. The trajectory of the preceding chapter in which blood, as the ostensible medium of the God’s sovereign power over all life, is reserved for sacrifice alone.

      2. The use of the ‘nakedness’ metonymy to represent the consciousness of self-debasement (cf. Genesis 3).

      3. The defilements not construed as just inherently self-debasing of even the free Israelite citizen. As with the Canaanites, they cause such incongruence with the land (i.e. the place of divinely ordered redemptive providence in nature) as to rouse it to revulsion (vomit out).

      To quote Radner directly from his book, Leviticus (page 191):
      ‘The four prohibitions of Lev. 18:19 – 23–intercourse with a menstruating woman, dedication of children to Molech (whether literally by a fire sacrifice, or as Rashi (Rosenbaum and Silberman 1932:83) and others contended, through a nonfatal consecration to the Moelch cult), homosexual intercourse and bestiality-are of a seeming different order than the previous directives concerning relations of consanguinity and affinity.

      But they too fall within the obvious parameters of the family’s propagation and security. Moreover, they are all gathered together in 18:24 – 30 as things that together overturn the land’s capacity to receive and nourish Israel’s heritage. Together they destabilize the integral promise of people and land that is bound to the exclusive commitment to God and his law and that directs the purpose of Israel’s passage through time. Each mark, in its own way, a denial of the possibility of inheritance, the line of descent that will make possible the fleshly coming of the Messiah…’

  14. Thanks for the reference to Ian Paul’s notes. Again, being so far from my research base, I can’t access the book itself to see the context that the note is referring to. So my disagreement with his note remains, and I refrain from any further comment on the quotation from his notes

    The quotation from Radner, on the other hand, raises a significant hermeneutical issue. Is it true that one biblical text, in order to be understood, “should be harmonized” with others? Only, it seems to me, if one assumes that the entirety of the Hebrew and Christian canon speaks with a single voice. But that is a dogmatic assumption, rooted in a faith commitment. It is not an assumption that inevitably emerges from a consideration of a culture’s complex literary and intellectual heritage over the course of close to a millennium and the changes that culture undergoes in such a span of time. I make no claim that my understanding of Lev 18:20 and 20:13 was the way it was understood in second-temple Judaism, or by Josephus, or by early Christianity, or by centuries of Christian moral and systematic theolgians. In other words, I do not propose to be unveiling some “eternal truth” from the scriptures. I am asking only this: how might the earliest author and earliest audience (or, in the case of a redactionally complex text such as Lev 20:13), how might the earliest author and editor(s) and earliest audience(s) of the text have understood it, in their own historical and cultural contexts, insofar as we can reconstruct them. I do not assume that we are required to agree or to disagree with them. I do assume, however, that if we do not understand what they meant, we will have begun any theological reflection for our own day on the wrong foot.

    My conclusion in the case of Lev 18:22 and 20:13 is that late first-Temple period Israelites would not have understood these passages as delineating a moral theology of sexuality but an anthropological theology of what it meant to be a free Israelite male citizen, and that that theology was similar to, though not identical with, the ideologies of masculinity that we see in Assyria, Greece, and Rome (just as their ideologies were similar to, but not identical with, one another). Since the modern question emerges from a fundamentally different conceptual matrix (that is, it inquires about the moral dimensions of interpersonal sexuality), the answers given in Lev 18:22 and 20:13 (about the moral dimensions of individual masculinity) are only tangentially relevant. To apply them directly to the modern problem is a category error. They are not irrelevant, but their transfer to a modern conceptual grid is not simple. Does homosexual anal intercourse (which, as far as I, following Olyan, can see, is the only form of contact in view in these two verses) undermine what our theology (as distinct from our society) would understand as “masculinity”? Does the presence of a committed and mutual relationship affect one’s moral judgment on that “undermining”? These are questions for moral theology, not for exegesis. Biblical exegesis can offer evidence that, at one time, relevant ancient Israelite attitudes seem to have differed little from those of other ancient Near Eastern cultures and that, over the course of the biblical period, those attitudes changed both in their cultural underpinnings (from reasoning about “masculinity” to reasoning about “sexuality”) and in their concrete implications (from anal intercourse to including other genital contact, from male-male contact to any same-gender contact, perhaps even from free-citizen to universal human applicability). But beyond that, one leaves the bailiwick of biblical exegesis and enters the domain of post-biblical theological elaboration.

    Consequently I certainly do not intend my proposals about these two Levitical verses to offer a final word on the Christian moral theological debate on homosexuality. But I do want to wave a red flag that, in my opinion, the use of Lev 18:22 and 20:13 in that debate, at least as far as I have seen them cited, has been based on seriously deficient understandings of the Hebrew text in its cultural setting.

    Jerome T. Walsh

    • Dear Jerome

      Thanks very much for being involved in this discussion. I wonder if I can offer some comments from my own perspective.

      1. I am not sure it is wise to comment on any of these texts without reference to the work of Gagnon! This is not because he is necessarily the best scholar, or that he has some arbitrary priority, but simply that he has done substantial critical work which has been engaged with from all perspectives.

      2. I am not sure what you mean by this phrase ‘Thus phrases like “lyings of a woman” and “lying of a male” cannot be analyzed except as they are used in particular cases.’ Particular instances of language find their meaning from the systems of which they are a part. To use Saussure’s terms, ‘parole’ should never be understood in a way detached from ‘langue.’ So we do indeed need to make sense of these terms in the light of the way they are used elsewhere.

      3. I don’t understand the basis of your proposal ‘If one must assign a grammatical term to the phrase “of a male,” one assigns it on the basis of one’s understanding that the male is performing the (sexual) lying and the woman is experiencing it.’ You appear to be asserting this, rather than deducing it from the grammar. As Gagnon and others have pointed out, this is the opposite way to the natural way to read the grammar, and Gagnon uses the (standard grammatical) terminology of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective genitive’ to express this.

      4. It is not necessary to ‘assumes that the entirety of the Hebrew and Christian canon speaks with a single voice’ in order to read texts in the light of each others. The process of the formation of the canon was a statement about the meaning of the texts; the compilers were convinced that the texts belonged together, so had some sort of coherence. The formation of the canon was not a random act of compilation detached from questions of meaning.

      Having said that, I don’t disagree with you that the first meaning is significant, but I am not clear that that can be detached from the meaning of a text in its canonical context.

      5. If the Leviticus texts are part of a consistent biblical picture which prohibits same-sex sexual union regardless of its context, then it does have a direct application to our situation. To say ‘the situations don’t match; it has no relevance’ is, I think, simply an ethical and hermeneutical sleight of hand

      There is a good response to your proposal which explicates some of these points at


  15. Ian,

    As I said in an earlier post, I will look at Gagnon’s magnum opus once I get back to my home base.

    Your second comment does not really disagree with mine, I think, because determining the meaning of any phrase in an ancient, dead, language with a limited corpus of texts is inevitably a vicious circle. We must infer meanings from concrete usage, then rethink our interpretations of the individual passages in the light of those inferred meanings, refine our interpretations, and rethink our inferred meanings, etc., etc. All I mean by “cannot be analyzed except as they are used in particular cases” is this: I cannot assume the infallibility of Hebrew dictionaries, nor can I assume the unimpeachability of scholarly opinion, whether it be that of a single illustrious scholar or a consensus of the many. When I analyze the few passages that use the phrases mishkav zakar and mishkeve ishah, it seems to me that the verb governing those phrases is crucial to understanding their usage in these particular passages. I note that the verb governing mishkeve ishah is yada’, and the verb governing mishkav zakar is shakav. On the basis of Hebrew philology (and of human physiology), I come to the conclusion that “to KNOW the lying of a male” is to _experience_ something (that is, it is to experience the “lying of a male”), whereas “to LIE the lyings of a woman” is to _do_ something (that is, it is to do what a woman does when she is lying with a male). One can certainly disagree with my grammatical analysis. But I have not seen, in any of the comments made on my article, any cogent grammatical evidence to the contrary cited.

    I’m not sure what the problem is with my statement that one assigns meaning to the phrase “of a male” on the basis of what one understands the text to be saying. How else does one assign meaning? In the passages that use the phrase “know mishkav zakar” it is clear that the woman is being described as one who is experiencing penetrative sexual intercourse. I therefore infer that mishkav zakar, literally, “the lying of a male” is a term for penetrative sexual intercourse. That’s neither an assertion nor a deduction; it’s an inference. Similarly, in the passages that use “lie the mishkeve ishah,” the cognate-object construction convinces me that what the “man” is doing is the “lying of a woman.” I therefore infer that mishkeve ishah is a term for the passive role in penetrative sexual intercourse.

    Your paragraph about meaning and canonical context points up our quite different agendas and why, in a sense, we are talking at cross purposes. I am not trying to resolve the moral theological issue of homosexual behavior. I am not even trying to _contribute_ to such a resolution, though I am aware (and not unhappy) that what I propose will play a role in the debate—as the present exchange clearly demonstrates. I am simply trying to figure out what two verses of the Hebrew Bible meant to their original author(s) and audiences. I find the question important precisely because I think that both sides of the debate about homosexual behavior, at least as far as I have followed it, have regularly oversimplified, if not misrepresented, the biblical evidence.

    In your last comment you say, “If the Leviticus texts are part of a consistent biblical picture which prohibits same-sex sexual union regardless of its context…” Here I would have to reply with the same objection you made to me earlier. Are you not making a couple of assumptions here? For instance, that there is a “consistent biblical picture”? I agree that, from a dogmatic point of view, it is an a priori for many people that there must be a “consistent biblical picture.” But from the point of view of the centuries-long history of Israelite, Jewish, and Christian thought and culture, the idea that there is a “consistent biblical picture” to be found anywhere on any topic seems to me pretty unlikely. And do the Leviticus texts “prohibit same-sex sexual union regardless of its context”? One of my points in the article—it seems to have been regularly overlooked in later discussion—is that any careful reading of the text of Leviticus points to the free adult male Israelite as the addressee. The “you” of 18:22 and the “man” of 20:13 are, if the idiom of the whole book is taken into account, most likely the paterfamilias, the free adult male Israelite, not the male slave, not the “foreign resident in your midst.” The same legal prohibitions _may_ have been in effect for such others, but I see no way from the formulation of these laws to support that hypothesis.

    It’s also important to realize that I reject the idea that any worthy text, biblical or secular, can be reduced to a single “meaning.” Texts are by their very nature polysemous, and my explorations are an attempt to rescue from oblivion one of the more significant meanings that these two verses have borne in their careers. That, of course, opens a whole new can of worms. If a text is polysemous, how does one decide which of the many meanings the text has and has had, if any, is to be deemed “normative” or “inspired” or “divine”? (If anyone is interested in the hermeneutical issues that underlie this position, forgive me for recommending the first chapter of my own book, “Old Testament Narrative: A Guide to Interpretation.”)

    Thanks for the reference to Honeycutt’s paper. I read the first half, which deals more directly with the issues in our present exchange. I must confess that I didn’t find anything that touches cogently on the philological analysis that is fundamental to my position. He accepts the standard interpretation of the phrases, and then cites as evidence for that “fact” the writings of other scholars who also accept the standard interpretation of the phrases. But he does not attempt to demonstrate why that reading is better than my alternative one.

    Sorry this turned out so long. I’ll try to be more succinct in the future.

    Jerome T. Walsh

  16. Jerome, thanks for the further response. But on the grammar the key point in Gagnon is this:

    This is true also of the OT texts that speak of a woman “who has known a man by (or: as to) lying of a male (rk*z* bK^v=m!l= vya! [’ish lemishkav zakar])” (Num 31:17; Judg 21:12) or “who has [not] known lying (i.e. what it is like to lie) of a male” (rk*z* bK^v=m! [mishkav zakar], Num 31:18, 35; Judg 21:11). Obviously, these texts do not refer to women who have sexual experience with (“know”) a man in the sense of “by lying as a man would” (i.e., in the penetrative role?).

    I am not clear why you argue that in Lev 18 alone the grammar means the opposite (subject/object wise) to these other examples, where the sense is pretty clear.

  17. I’ll try one more time, Ian. The meaning is different because the verbs are different. The woman “knows” the lying of a male. In Lev 18 and 20, the man “lies” the lyings of a woman. That makes all the difference. What the woman does in the other texts is, she knows (that is, experiences) the male’s lying. What the man does in Lev 18 and 20 is that he does (that is, performs) the woman’s lying. That’s how the cognate-object construction functions in Hebrew. When one “dreams a dream” or “sins a sin” or “lies a lying” (as in 2 Sam 4:5: “he was lying down the lying down of noontime”), the subject is performing the action described: the subject is dreaming, or the subject is sinning, or the subject is lying down in the way the text describes. In 2 Sam 4:5, for instance, the subject is doing the sort of lying down that is typical of the afternoon siesta. In the same way, in Lev 18 and 20, the subject, the “man,” is doing the sort of lying down that is characteristic of a woman.

    Jerome T. Walsh

  18. Let me add one more grammatical point, just in case the technical terms are not clear to one or another reader. The categories “objective genitive” and “subjective genitive” have nothing to do with the grammatical subject of the sentence. They are applicable only to the construct-genitive phrase in question. Sometimes a single phrase may well be a subjective genitive in one sentence and an objective genitive in a different sentence; and only an examination of the meaning of the whole sentence will enable one to decide how to categorize the usage. That is not the case, however, in the passages we have been discussing. In them, both phrases, mishkav zakar and mishkeve ‘ishshah, are subjective genitives. It is the zakar who is doing the lying, and it is the ‘ishshah who is doing the lying. That statement does not determine whether the ‘ish who is the subject of the sentence in the Leviticus verses is taking the role of the ‘ishshah or not. That question is answered only when one considers the difference between the idioms “to KNOW the lying…” and “to LIE the lying.”

    Jerome T. Walsh

  19. Now that I am back home with access to my library, I can respond more confidently to Dr. Gagnon’s criticism of my article.

    His first criticism is that I have “misunderstood the text,” and he tries to illustrate this misunderstanding by claiming that I have misread the phrases mishkeve ishah and miskav zakar as subjective, not objective genitives. His explanation goes on to demonstrate that he in fact misunderstands what “objective” and “subjective” genitives are. The paragraph he cites from Gesenius is clear, but does not support his analysis in any way. The “objective” or “subjective” quality of the genitive depends on the relationship between the construct and the genitive in such phrases, not between the sentence’s subject and the construct-genitive phrase. As I said in my earlier post, both phrases are subjective genitives, not objective: in both cases it is the ishah or the zakar who is doing the “lying down.” Since the verb shakav is an intransitive verb in the Qal, and does not take a direct object, the phrase could not be an objective genitive, which would have to be translated, per impossibile, something like “the being-lain-down of the woman / male.”

    That construction in no way determines the relationship between the subject of the sentence and the construct-genitive phrase. As I said in my earlier post (and on p. 205 of the article that Gagnon disagrees with), the relationship between the subject of the sentence and the construct-genitive phrase is determined by the sentence’s verb—which Gagnon never attends to. The virgin ”knows” (that is, experiences) the “lying-down of a male”—in other words, the woman experiences sexual intercourse, by being penetrated by the male. But in Leviticus the “man” (20:13; or the “you” in 18:22) “lies” (that is, performs) the “lyings-down of a woman”—in other words, the man (or “you”) performs the sort of lying-down that a woman performs in sexual intercourse. The difference in verbs is decisive for a correct understanding of the verses.

    Gagnon recognizes that the term ish in 20:13 is a reference to an “adult male,” but he overlooks the fact that the text is a legislative text in a corpus of legislative texts, and the ish in that corpus (just as the “you” in 18:22) is a technical reference. It refers to the person to whom the corpus of laws is directed. In ancient Israel, this was the free, Israelite, adult, male head of the household, whose responsibility it was to oversee the behavior of the women, children, slaves, and other dependents in the household. The ish whose behavior is being explicitly regulated is not all “adult males,” but free, Israelite, adult, male heads of households. The law may or may not imply the propriety or impropriety of certain behaviors on the part of dependents and slaves, but such implications are not explicit. Furthermore, my grammatical analysis argues that 18:22 explicitly condemns only the acceptance of the passive sexual role by the free, adult, male Israelite in an act of anal intercourse. In 20:13, that condemnation is extended (probably later and secondarily) to the active male who cooperates in such an act.

    Gagnon is laudably careful not to claim that these laws envisage any activity other than “homosexual intercourse.” He does not fall into the common error of applying them to all male-male sexual contact. Yet his caution is disingenuous. He never acknowledges that there is a whole spectrum of male-male sexual behaviors other than “homosexual intercourse,” nor does he address the question of whether such behaviors are permitted or not. By his silence he leaves the impression that the expressed condemnation is all-encompassing. Would he, in fact, agree that these passages imply no condemnation of other forms of male-male sexual contact? And if he would not, on what grounds would he claim otherwise?

  20. It has been several months now since I submitted a detailed argument challenging Dr. Provan’s analysis of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, an argument that you referred to “helpful and challenging.” Is that where you wish to leave the issue? If my arguments are “challenging”–that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 cannot in fact be used to support Dr. Provan’s conclusions regarding homosexual activity except in reference to anal intercourse between free, adult, male Israelites, and that even then only one of the two texts condemns the roles of both partners–shouldn’t the challenge be taken up? As I said in my earlier post, I am not commenting on other arguments drawn from other disciplines such as moral theology. But I am strongly contesting the legitimacy of any argument that relies on Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, as Dr. Provan’s does. Does silence indicate that my arguments are convincing?

  21. Jerome T. Walsh,

    Your latest comment alerted me to this thread and prompted me to read your carefully argued piece in JBL. I don’t think Robert Gagnon engages at all well with your linguistic argument (and you are probably right about his failure to distinguish between sexual intercourse and other forms of sexual activity).

    But on second thoughts I wonder whether he has a point, however badly expressed. Let’s say that in the sentence “x lies down with y” x is the grammatical subject and y the grammatical object. The Hebrew idiom allows that sometimes x = the one who penetrates, at other times x = the one who is penetrated.* In other words, the idiom itself does not tell us who is the one who is penetrated.

    *From what I can see it is necessary that one of the parties (x or y) is an adult male. It looks as if the Idiom with shin-kaph-beth cannot be used for a woman having sexual relations with an animal (note the change of verb in Lev. 18:23; 20:16).

    Now, the sentence up to the construct state in Lev 18:22 is already complete (“you must not lie down with a man”) and maybe even on its own refers to sexual intercourse (although note the metaphorical use in Ezek. 32:27 which obviously compares death to sleeping rather thans exual intercourse). The question is whether the additional phrase clarifies or stresses the sexual nature of the lying down or whether it narrows the category of sexual intercourse in view so that “x lies down with y” is condemned only where x = the one penetrated, as you argue.

    Grammatically, the question is whether the phrase in the construct state should be rendered “as one lies down with a woman” (where the woman is the grammatical object) or “as a woman lies down with a man” (where the woman is the grammatical subject).

    Your argument rests on comparisons with Hebrew idioms such as dreaming a dream and sinning a sin in which the dreamer or sinner is always the grammatical subject. (This is the point which Gagnon does not seem to have grasped.)

    But here is a problem: In the idioms cited the object (a dream, sin) is already implied in the verb which is not the case with lying down. The verb “to lie down” needs an object to refer to sexual intercourse. Hence 2 Sam 4:5 does not easily support your reading. In the case of 2 Sam 4:5 the lying down is exactly that, a non-sexual lying down which therefore does not need an object.

    So one could argue that the phrase “lyings down of a woman” must be read “as one lies down with a woman” because while the subject is implied in the verb (and easily identified as the “you” that is being addressed in the verse), the object is not and therefore needs to be supplied.

    In sum, the objection to your reading would be that while in the phrase “x lies down with y” to refer to sexual intercourse the subject can be expressed by the verb itself and therefore need not be spelled out for the phrase to be comprehensible, the object is not contained in the verb itself and therefore must be supplied. Hence where only one of the parties (x or y) is spelled out, the party must be the grammatical object.

  22. Dear Thomas,
    Thanks for your thoughts. I was afraid this thread had simply petered out. Below I have quoted paragraphs from your remarks, followed by my own comments. I hope I have done justice to your position. If not, please don’t hesitate to point out where I have misunderstood you.

    But on second thoughts I wonder whether he has a point, however badly expressed. Let’s say that in the sentence “x lies down with y” x is the grammatical subject and y the grammatical object. The Hebrew idiom allows that sometimes x = the one who penetrates, at other times x = the one who is penetrated.* In other words, the idiom itself does not tell us who is the one who is penetrated.

    I agree. “x lies down with y” (Hebrew: X shakab ‘im Y) does not specify roles, any more than English “X sleeps with Y” does. Only when gender-specific nouns are used (“Joe sleeps with Mary” or “Mary sleeps with Joe”) can we infer who does what to whom. And in some situations (“Joe sleeps with John”) we simply can’t tell.

    Grammatically, the question is whether the phrase in the construct state should be rendered “as one lies down with a woman” (where the woman is the grammatical object) or “as a woman lies down with a man” (where the woman is the grammatical subject).

    I don’t disagree with what you say here, but I’m not entirely comfortable with the terminology you use. “Woman” in these phrases (in Hebrew) is neither a grammatical object nor a grammatical subject. It is a genitive. The relevant grammatical categories are “objective genitive” and “subjective genitive.”

    Introducing the terms “subject” and “object,” in my opinion, suggests a relationship to the sentence verb (rather than to the verbal force of the construct noun), and that muddies the analysis. Further, introducing the word “with” into the translation of the construct phrase is also misleading. It both arbitrarily narrows the extremely loose grammatical relationship of construct to genitive and suggests that the object of the “with” phrase is in some sense parallel to the “male” in the preceding phrase ’et-zakar.

    There is another potential disadvantage to introducing the terms “subject” and “object.” In Hebrew, as in English and in most languages with which I’m familiar, there are linguistic data (case endings, or word order, or something of the sort) that enable a reader to identify whether a word is “subject” or “object.” This is not true, usually, of subjective versus objective genitives. It is the reader’s construal of the whole sentence that grounds the categorization of the genitive. (“The condemnation of the politician was justified.” Only larger context will disambiguate whether the politician was condemned or was doing the condemning.) Consequently, identification of the phrase as one or the other sort of genitive should follow interpretation, which therefore must be based on other criteria.

    Your argument rests on comparisons with Hebrew idioms such as dreaming a dream and sinning a sin in which the dreamer or sinner is always the grammatical subject. (This is the point which Gagnon does not seem to have grasped.)

    As is the case here. It is the “man” (or “you”) who is the grammatical subject of “lying down the lyings-down.”

    But here is a problem: In the idioms cited the object (a dream, sin) is already implied in the verb which is not the case with lying down. The verb “to lie down” needs an object to refer to sexual intercourse. Hence 2 Sam 4:5 does not easily support your reading. In the case of 2 Sam 4:5 the lying down is exactly that, a non-sexual lying down which therefore does not need an object.

    I’m not entirely sure I follow this objection. Perhaps the problem here too is the use of the term “object” or the Englishing of the translation to avoid the cognate object construction. I see no grammatical difference between the cognate object construction of “dream a dream” or “sin a sin” and that of “lie down the lyings down” (shakab … mishkebe) in Lev 18:22 and 20:13. I would disagree that the verb “to lie down” needs an object to refer to sexual intercourse; it is an intransitive verb and does not take an object. It only needs a context within which the connotation of sexual intercourse is reasonable, but surely words like “male” and “of a woman” supply such a context. And 2 Sam 4:5 is as relevant to Lev 18:22; 20:13 as the idioms “dream a dream” and “sin a sin” are. It is certainly true that “lie down the lying down of noontime” is not a sexually charged phrase. But the cognate-object construction (lie down the lying down) and the construct-genitive complement (the [sort of] lying-down [that is characteristic] of noontime) are exactly comparable to the phrases in Leviticus: the [sort of] lyings-down [that are characteristic] of a woman.

    So one could argue that the phrase “lyings down of a woman” must be read “as one lies down with a woman” because while the subject is implied in the verb (and easily identified as the “you” that is being addressed in the verse), the object is not and therefore needs to be supplied.

    This is where resorting to paraphrase gets misleading. As an intransitive verb, shakab does not take a direct object, except in the sense of taking a cognate object, which is explicit in this verse: the man [or “you”] lies down the lyings-down [yishkab mishkebe]. And mishkebe, as a construct noun, takes a genitive, which is also explicit: the man (or “you”) lies down the lyings-down of a woman.

    I see no grounds for translating the cognate direct object to lie the lyings-of as “to lie as one lies with.” The subject, as you say, is implied in the verb in 18:22 and is explicit in 20:13. But no direct object needs to be supplied, since the intransitive verb shakab does not take a direct object. The verb shakab can take a complement referring to the sexual partner with whom one lies, and in those cases it uses not a direct object but a prepositional phrase: the sexual partner is lain with, using either ‘im or ’et. In the present passages that sexual partner is the zakar with (’et) whom the “man” (or “you”) is forbidden to lie. I agree that, in itself, that probably does not specify whether the “man” or the “male” is the penetrative partner. But as I read the Hebrew, that is specified by the cognate object + genitive phrase that describes the “man” (or “you”) as performing the lyings-down of a woman.

    I hope I have understood and not misrepresented your argument.

    J. T. WALSH

  23. Jerome, I agree that the categories “objective genitive” and “subjective genitive” are the correct ones for talking about the Hebrew phrase in question. But I understood you to say earlier that it is impossible to speak of an “objective genitive” here. For this reason I sought to tease out the ways in which a different understanding of the genitive results in different sentences in English which requires a finite verb to render the construct phrase. My comments about “subject” and “object” refer to the sentence “x lies down with y” (not to the phrase “lying down of x/y”).

    I am not persuaded that introducing “with” into the translation is misleading; it seems to be a requirement of the English language. “Lyings down of a woman” is not a translation but an imitation of the Hebrew text for heuristic purposes. In your JBL article you argue that the phrase “is best translated ‘to lie with a male as a woman would.’” More literally, you would have to say “to lie with a male as a woman lies down” but this doesn’t work in English, as you probably recognised. I used “…as a woman lies down with a man” to reflect your understanding of the genitive in the Hebrew text as subjective and “…as one lies down with a woman” to reflect the traditional understanding of the genitive as objective.

    (These requirements of English idiom are similarly obvious in, e.g., Num. 31:17 where it is hardly possible to translate “and kill every woman who has known a man in the manner of a male lying down” – English idiom requires us to render “…in the manner of a male lying down with a woman.”)

    But the first question it is of course how the Hebrew verb works. You are right to query my claim that shin-kaph-beth requires an object to refer to sexual intercourse. More precisely, what is required is either a direct object or a complement in the form of a prepositional phrase. I am talking about the Masoretic text here in which the verb is used transitively in some circumstances.

    If, for the sake of argument, we correct the half a dozen or so instances in which the verb is used with a direct object in the Masoretic text and read these as using the preposition aleph-taw, we can formulate my claim as follows: The verb shin-kaph-beth only refers to sexual intercourse when it has a complement using the preposition ayin-mem or its equivalent aleph-taw.

    In fact, “x lies down with y” pretty much always refers to sexual intercourse (it is hard to find counter-examples). By contrast, there is no example of sexual intercourse being referred to by the simple use of the verb without this complement. There are no instances of “x lies down [without complement]” or “x and y lie down” to refer to sexual intercourse.

    To my mind this raises questions about your claim that there are “lyings-down [that are characteristic] of a woman”. Does this not presume that “a woman lies down” can be used in Hebrew to mean “a woman has sexual intercourse” (or “a woman is sexually penetrated”)?

    Comparisons with other cognate-object constructions are not getting us far where the cognate object is simple as in “to dream a dream”. What we need is further examples of cognates being used in construct phrases, as in “he was laying down the laying down of noontime” (2 Sam. 4:5). I have already queried the validity of the comparison on the grounds that in my view non-sexual lying down does not operate under the same (grammatical) constraints as sexual lying down. But even apart from this consideration the example is problematic for your case because the qualifier (“noontime”) does not function in the way that you argue “woman” functions in the “lyings down” in Lev 18. We can see this, when we transpose the infinitive into a finite form. Then the genitive of the construct phrase would become a complement in the sentence (“at noontime”) and not the subject, just as I have argued is the case in Lev. 18 where the genitive “woman” becomes a complement in the sentence (“with a woman”).

  24. PS: A construct phrase can of course express all manner of relationships. The postconstructus can be the subject of the verbal notion (the blessing of the Lord) or the object (the fear of the Lord) or an adverbial relationship (loot of the cities) or other relationships (vessels of silver). The question is whether a tendency can be observed when the construct phrase uses a cognate.

  25. PPS: When I wrote “infinite” I should have written something like “the verbal idea expressed in the noun” as mem-shin-kaph-beth is a noun not an infinitive.

    For the benefit of readers who do not read Hebrew. My argument is that the Hebrew verb to which this noun relates behaves similarly to the English verb “to sleep”. We cannot really use “to sleep” on its own to refer to sexual intercourse, whatever the context. “John had more sex than anyone I know. In fact he slept every day” would not be normal English, if the second sentence is meant to say that he had sexual intercousre every day. We would have to say “In fact he slept with someone every day.” I argue that the Hebrew verb shin-kaph-beth similarly requires a complement to refer to sexual intercourse.

    The noun mem-shin-kaph-beth often refers to a bed or a couch but it can also refer to an act, the act of “having a rest” in 2 Sam. 4:5 and the act of “having sexual intercourse with someone” in the passages under discussion. In the latter case, the underlying verbal idea (sleeping with someone) is understood from the context but the “someone” with whom one has sexual intercourse still needs to be provided for the idiom to work. Therefore, I would argue, the noun needs to be in a construct phrase with a postconstructus that supplies the “someone” with whom the implied agent is sleeping.

  26. Dear Thomas,

    Thanks for your recent postings. They have helped me to understand your position and your reasoning more clearly and to appreciate the nuanced care with which you have formulated them. And your comments about my interpretation convince me that you have understood my position accurately as well. All of that leads me to the realization that we probably simply have to agree to disagree. I can’t think of any new *arguments* for either position, only reiterations and reformulations of the arguments that we have both already laid out and both understand. The key sticking point, it seems to me, is that each of us judges the most likely construal of the construct-genitive phrase mishkebe ‘ishshah to be different. For you, understanding the phrase as “lying [with] a woman” is syntactically reasonable; for me, it is unlikely—far less likely than understanding it as “a woman’s lying [with a man].” On both our parts those are subjective judgments based on our broader knowledge of the language, but not on a conviction that the other’s construal is impossible in Hebrew. And neither of us is likely to be persuaded differently without linguistic evidence that neither of us has yet come up with.

    At the end of the day, there are simply some linguistic questions that we can’t definitively answer given our present, non-native knowledge of the ancient language; and which of our readings is closer to the ancient usage is, I fear, one of them.

    I don’t mean by this to derail further discussion. I simply want to acknowledge that I think we’ve reached an impasse on the issue of how best to understand mishkebe ishshah in these two verses.

    Jerry Walsh

    • Jerome, thanks for your engagement; the discussion with Thomas has been very interesting. (Did you see that I have posted part of his argument as a new blog post, and that he has posted three entries on his own blog site?)

      I think you are right on the impasse about a decisive conclusion on the grammar—but that is far from an impasse in the wider debate, for two reasons.

      First, as I read it, your case appears to be that the ‘traditional’ interpretation is mistaken, since mishkebe ‘ishshah must be taken as ‘laying like a woman’ rather than ‘lying with a woman’. But the debate has demonstrated that we cannot have such certainty, so we do not have grounds to reject the traditional approach as a possible reading.

      Secondly, if we cannot be certain of the sense of the phrase through analysis of the text alone, then we need to attend to the history of interpretation of the text. This is not a question of a faith commitment to the notion of ‘canon’, but a historical observation about how this text was received and understood.

      To my knowledge, the consistent reading of this text in the ancient world understood it *not* as an offence against the masculinity of the receptive partner, but as a general prohibition on same sex activity—by the time of the rabbis, of women as well as men. In fact, if you accept the source critical analysis of Leviticus, Lev 20 can be read as the first reception of Lev 18, and we see the immediate move to a generalisation of the idea.

      This seems to me to be highly significant for our own understanding of the sense of the verse in Lev 18.22.

  27. Dear Jerome,

    I agree that we probably lack sufficient knowledge to make a decisive judgement which of the two, or maybe three, options would have been “correct” as far as ancient Hebrew speakers were concerned. We have also likely exhausted the arguments and considerations on both sides. But I have found it a good discipline to think through the alternatives and so I am glad I finally got round to reading your article in JBL and indeed Olyan’s earlier essay.

    Best wishes,


  28. Dear Ian,

    Forgive the lateness of this response; your posting of 1/25 appears on my screen ahead of Thomas’s posting of 1/23, so I simply did not see it until this evening. I will try to draft a response in the next few days. The quick-and-dirty reply, however, is two-fold: (1) I am primarily interested in what the passages most probably meant to the original author and readers; and (2) if later “tradition” understood the passage in a way that the original author and readers most probably did not, what is our responsibility as interpreters of the text?

    Jerry Walsh

    • Thanks Jerry—but there is a vital issue here. Later ‘tradition’ offers us a key window into what the passage meant to the ‘original author and readers’, since in Lev 20 you have a readership of Lev 18 which is close in time and context to the first readers. I think there is a prima facie case to answer if we are claiming that the text ‘really’ means something other than what it has meant to all successive generations of readers, including the second.

  29. PS. No, I did not see the posting you made of part of his argument “as a new blog post,” nor have I seen his separate blog. I would appreciate URLs for those sites. Thanks


  30. Dear Ian,
    Thanks for your comments. (I have not checked the other site yet; here I will simply respond to your remarks in your posts of 1/25 and 2/2. When I check the other sites, I’ll comment there as warranted.)

    1. It’s not accurate to describe my position as saying that mishkebe ‘ishshah *must* be taken as “lying with a woman”. I think that is by far the most likely grammatical construal, but Thomas Renz’s alternative is not impossible. So I don’t claim certainty, just likelihood.

    2. However, you go on to argue that, given the lack of certitude, “we do not have grounds to reject the traditional approach.” If this is true, then we likewise do not have grounds to IMPOSE the traditional view. That would be to turn tradition into dogma. In a dogmatic system (like an ecclesiastical community), one can do that sort of thing. In the intellectual endeavor of interpreting ancient texts, traditional interpretations are always challengeable.

    3. I agree that attending to the history of interpretation of the text is one element in the process. However, it is not the decisive element. Interpretations, just like original texts, are shaped by the contexts within which they are articulated, AND by the contexts within which the interpretations themselves are transmitted and re-read. It is certainly true that, historically, these two texts have often (but not always) been interpreted as condemnations of all homosexual actions. It is also certainly true that these texts say nothing about female-female contact. Do we continue to read them as condemnations of lesbian sexuality simply because “we’ve always read them that way”? Mutatis mutandis, the same question holds for reading them as condemnations of all forms of male-male sexual contact. Olyan’s article, in my opinion, shows that applying them so broadly is not an innocent “generalization” of these two texts but a misreading of them.

    4. It may be, as you contend, that “the consistent reading of this text in the ancient word understood it *not* as an offense against the masculinity of the receptive partner….” But I’d need some sort of clear evidence to support that contention. Since the influence of Hellenistic thought, in my reading of the ancient world, radically reconfigured the conceptual structure of much late Jewish thought (especially Diaspora Judaism) as well as almost all western Christian thought, I don’t think the witness of texts under Hellenistic influence helps us much in understanding the late-Israelite/early-Jewish anthropology implicit in Leviticus. I’m no expert in mishnaic or talmudic Judaism, but my impression is that those savants had quite widely varying views on precisely what Lev 18:22 and 20:13 had in mind.

    5. As far as the source critical issues are concerned, several points must be made here. First, no source critical analyses are definitive. To erect anything but a tentative hypothesis on a source critical scaffold is to balance theory upon theory. Second, even assuming that Lev 20:13 is a later composition than Lev 18:22, can that really tell us how the author of 20:13 understood 18:22? How do we decide whether he is “generalizing” (in the sense of drawing out what he sees as implicit in the earlier text) or “correcting” (in the sense of repairing what he sees as a lack in the original text)? In either case, it seems to me, we must recognize that what 20:13 adds to the 18:22 is either not in, or not clearly implicit in, 18:22. Finally, if one chooses to introduce source and redaction critical issues, the grammar Hebrew of 20:13 is awkward (technically, it’s an anacolouthon) precisely where the focus shifts from the singular subject (“the man who…”) to the plural verb (“the two of them do…”). It seems plausible to suggest that an earlier form of 20:13 had a singular verb and, except for imposing the death penalty on the (singular) perpetrator of the crime, said nothing more than 18:22 about the identification of the criminal. Only later was the verse amended and expanded (“the two of them”) to extend culpability and liability to the partner. I recognize that this suggestion is relatively close to what you are arguing. But turning what you call the “generalization” into a two-stage process, I believe, points up the arbitrariness of assuming that 18:22 necessarily had in mind what 20:13 (redacted) found there. My proposed reconstruction would mean that 20:13 (original) had the same dynamic in view as 18:22, and that any wider application became patent only when some later redactor of 20:13 felt a need to broaden its language.

    6. Most fundamentally, it seems to me that our differences here are rooted in our different agendas. You are in pastoral ministry, and you conduct your ministry under the guidance of the Bible and the Holy Spirit. It is of first importance for someone in pastoral ministry (and I’ve been there) to help Christian believers come to a committed understanding of how to live in accord with the traditions of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures—however a particular believing community understands and appropriates those traditions. My agenda is different. I’m a scholar of ancient Hebrew texts, which, as a scholar, I approach from two quite different methodological perspectives, NEITHER of which is primarily shaped by a faith commitment or an ecclesiastical orthodoxy. (That is not intended, please, to imply anything about my personal faith; it simply defines what I see as the requirements of scholarly integrity.) First, as a historical critical scholar, I want to discern how the original authors and audience of the text understood it, to the extent that any such discernment is possible. In this quest, “interpretive tradition” is a valid argument, but it is the weakest of all valid arguments. ANY reasoned argument based on evidence provided by the text or its context outweighs unevidenced “tradition.” (I once heard someone quote Tertullian as saying, “Tradition without reason is simply ancient error.” But I don’t know the context, and the citation may not really be germane here.) Second, as a literary critical scholar (not in the sense of source criticism, but in that of literary criticism of poetry and narrative prose in any literary tradition), I want to explore the range of understandings that can reasonably and persuasively be elaborated for ancient Hebrew poetry and narrative. The two perspectives differ in their goals: historical criticism has a univocal goal, namely, retrieving an “original” meaning, while literary criticism is more concerned with elaborating the numerous and varied ways in which the text can be coherently and cogently *read*. Neither of those perspectives, however, warrants asserting a normative orthodoxy. Ancient authors and audiences were just as historically conditioned as we are, and their values and views are not normative simply by virtue of their age. And literary criticism recognizes clearly the polyvalent nature of texts and, consequently, realizes that, while some readings are richer, deeper, “better,” than others, no single reading of any literary text is absolute or normative.

  31. Dear Jerome,

    I am not convinced. Where different readings are genuinely possible, is not the one that allows for the broader range to be preferred to the interpretation that only works by excluding certain readings?

    I read the syntax of Lev 18:22 like virtually all other grammarians and Hebrew scholars as specifying the prohibited act to be the going to bed with a male “as one lies with a woman”. My interpretation is that this prohibits homosexual acts. The observation that only men are addressed and the argument that the act is specifically penetration shapes my interpretation. In this sense, it is perfectly possible to revise traditional readings.

    You mount an argument that the going to bed is to be read “as a woman lies with a man”. I consider this interpretation of the syntax unlikely but my overall interpretation can allow for this possibility in that it is still male homosexual acts that are being condemned here.

    Your overall interpretation to do with the shame of a free man being feminized, by contrast, can only work on the specific and unusual interpretation of the grammar which you propose. To my mind, therefore, the relationship between grammar and hermeneutics is not the same on our two interpretations.

  32. Dear Thomas,
    My last post was not intended to “convince.” I think our discussion had reached agreement that we both recognize the theoretical possibility of the other’s position, but that we disagree on the relative likelihood of our two readings. Beyond that, I don’t think any further grammatical advances are likely without newer evidence and arguments.

    As for your most recent remarks, here we have a significant methodological difference. Given the existence of two arguably legitimate understandings of the text, I think choosing the broader is both unnecessary and misleading. First, why choose? Isn’t it more reflective of the actual situation to recognize that there are two possible interpretations, that competent scholars disagree on which is more likely, and leave it at that? Second, choosing the broader reading simply because it subsumes the narrower one begs the question. Jurisprudentially speaking, one may choose to act on that assumption (“building a hedge around the Torah”), though the ancient distinction between dubium iuris and dubium facti is relevant here, it seems to me. But *linguistically* speaking, to reduce one reading to the other is simply to pave over the question without answering it.


    • Jerome,

      You seem to me to conflate two different senses of “reading” the text. To say that there are two different possible interpretations of the syntax is one thing, to say that there are different but equally valid interpretations of the text is another thing altogether.

      I start from the syntactical possibilities – keeping both options open allows for my reading of the rhetoric of the text. By contrast, your proposal about the meaning and rationale of the original law can only work by foreclosing one of the two syntactical possibilities – and indeed the one that the majority of competent readers consider more likely (are there any Hebrew scholars who prefer your understanding of the syntax?).

  33. Jan Joosten just published “A New Interpretation of Lev 18:22 (par. Lev 20:13) and its Ethical Implications” online. He argues that there are two difficulties with reading mishkebey ishsha as “the lying-down of [with] a woman” parallel to mishkab zakar, “the lying-down of [with] a male” which is used for sexual intercourse in Num 31:18 and Judg 21:11-12. One is the lack of a particle indicating a comparison (“like”), the other the use of the plural. Instead he finds a parallel in Genesis 49:8 where Ruben is accused of having gone up on mishkebey ‘abika – your father’s bed, referring to the sex Ruben had with his father’s concubine. (He suggests that the “plural” may in fact be a dual, indicating a conjugal bed. The usual plural form ends on -oth.) He offers the translation, “You shall not lie with a male on the bed of a woman” and interprets it as a prohibition of male-male intercourse with a married man.
    See https://www.academia.edu/37045399/A_New_Interpretation_of_Lev_18_22_par._Lev_20_13_and_its_Ethical_Implications


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