The Grammar of Leviticus 18.22

YrJO7256906Last year, I wrote a Grove booklet on the text relating to same-sex unions; some of this material has also contributed to the resources for the ‘facilitated conversations’ in the Church of England. I posted on the blog an extract on the texts from Leviticus 18 and 22, which generated quite a bit of discussion. Some of the most significant comments came from Jerome T Walsh, who taught Old Testament at Botswana University and the University of Dallas, and has published several books on OT narrative. He has questioned the ‘traditional’ understanding of these texts based on philological insights in the work of Saul Olyan.

In response, the Revd Dr Thomas Renz, an OT scholar who is now an incumbent in London Diocese, argues that the translation Jerome Walsh offers for Lev. 18:22, “you must not lie with a male as a woman would,” while not impossible, is less likely than the traditional understanding along the lines of “you must not lie with a male as one lies with a woman.” Walsh’s conclusion that Lev. 18:22 does not prohibit all male-male sexual intercourse but only those in which a free, male citizen of Israel is penetrated is therefore not warranted. Thomas has published on the book of Ezekiel (which he talks about in this video) as well as technical aspects of Hebrew poetry, and is writing a commentary on Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah.

His argument (below) is quite technical. But for me the exchange demonstrates:

  • that serious debate is still possible, given the right context;
  • that there are some important issues at stake in biblical interpretation; and
  • that it is possible to come to a reasonable confidence in the ‘traditional’ reading.

Saul M. Olyan’s essay “’And with a Male You Shall Not Lie the Lying down of a Woman’: On the Meaning and Significance of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13,” in the Journal of the History of Sexuality 5 (1994): 179-206, is not readily accessible to most biblical interpreters. I myself have only seen the first page.

Jerome T. Walsh therefore did us a good service in drawing our attention to Olyan’s contribution in an essay published in the Journal of Biblical Literature. Both Olyan’s and Walsh’s article focus on the precise understanding of the phrase mishkebey isha in Lev. 18:22 and 20:13.

The phrase mishkebey isha consists of two nouns in a construct relationship. A construct chain has a head noun, the governing noun, at the beginning which is followed by a governed noun. The head noun is in the construct state, the governed noun is the postconstructus. (Construct chains may be longer than two words but this need not concern us here.) Strictly speaking, Biblical Hebrew does not have cases but the postconstructus is usually spoken of as a genitive.

A construct chain can express various relationships between head noun and postconstructus. In cases where the head noun includes a verbal notion, the genitive can be a subjective genitive (expressing agency or authorship), as in “the blessing of the Lord” where the Lord is the one who blesses, or an objective genitive (pointing to the one who receives the action) as in “the fear of the Lord” where the Lord is the one who is feared. But the genitive can also be one of, e.g., means or instrument as in “burning of fire” where we would have to use a preposition “burning with fire” (Isa. 1:7). Where no verbal notion is present further possibilities emerge such as genitive of material (“vessels of silver”) or result (“sheep of slaughtering” = “sheep for slaughtering”) and various forms of specification (“fair of form” or “people of hard neck”). Williams’ Hebrew Syntax (3rd. ed.; University of Toronto Press, 2007), pp. 13-18, offers a convenient summary.

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 22.57.12The head noun mishkebey is the construct plural form of mishkab. The word mishkab commonly refers to a lodging place or a bed. But it can also express the verbal notion of lying down on a bed, as in 2 Sam. 4:5 “he was lying down the bed of noontime” whereby “the bed of noontime” must refer to the rest typically enjoyed in the heat of day, the “lying down at noontime.”

In Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 the postconstructus is not “noontime” but “a woman”. Hence the going to bed is not specified here to be “at noontime” but “with a woman”. This at any rate is how the phrase has been understood traditionally. Olyan, as reported by Walsh, succeeds in demonstrating that Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 refer specifically to male-male anal intercourse on the grounds that “going to bed” or “lying down” with a woman refers to sexual intercourse.

This can be argued on the basis of the correlative phrase mishkab zachar (zachar = male) in Num. 31:17-18, 35, and Judg. 21:11-12. Num. 31:17 refers to “every woman knowing a man with regard to going-to-bed-of-male”. The NRSV translation reflects the usual understanding of the phrase as referring to “every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him.” Judg. 21:11 uses the shorter “every woman knowing going-to-bed-of-male” which again is usually understood as “every woman who has had sexual relations with a male.”

Lev 18:22 reads “with a male you shall not go to bed (or: lie down) mishkebey isha.” Going to bed with someone, as in English, usually has sexual connotations in Hebrew. The Hebrew verb shakhab (“to lie down”) seems to behave like the English “to sleep” in this respect. 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 several times” would not be normal English, if the second sentence was meant to say that he had lots of sexual intercourse. We would have to say “several times a day he slept with someone.” In the same way there are no instances in Hebrew where a sentence “x lies down” or “x and y go to bed” refers to sexual intercourse; it is always “x lies down / goes to bed with y” whereby x is usually a man but occasionally a woman.

In sum, the prohibition in Lev. 18:22 is usually read “with a male you shall not go to bed as one goes to bed with a woman” or “with a male you shall not lie down as one lies down with a woman.” The genitive is understood to express an adverbial relationship similar to the complement “at noontime” in 2 Sam. 4:5.

In “Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13: Who is Doing What To Whom?,” JBL 120 (2001): 201-209, Jerome T. Walsh argues that the traditional understanding of the construct chain, still followed by Olyan, is incorrect.

Walsh notes the difference of verbs used in the passages cited by Olyan: the women are said to “know” (experience) mishkab zachar, while the men are said to “lie down (with a male)” the mishkebey isha.[1]

The difference is that in Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 mishkebey isha is a cognate accusative. In other words, it has the same root as the verb. Walsh compares Hebrew idioms such as “to dream a dream” or “to sin a sin” and observes that “this construction regularly describes an action performed by the subject, not the subject’s experience of someone else.” He concludes from this that “the man to whom the laws of Lev 18:22 and 20:13 are addressed, then, is the one who performs the ‘lyings down of a woman’” and then assumes that the one who performs the lying down must be “the one who acts as the receptive partner” (all citations from p. 205). This is not warranted. When “x lies down with y,” x may be described as “the one who performs” and may indeed be “the receptive partner” but this is by no means certain and in fact more commonly it is the other way round.

From the observation that in the case of cognitive accusatives the construct regularly describes the one performing rather than suffering the action, he jumps to the conclusion that the postconstructus must further qualify the subject.[2] So while we may all agree that the one who lies down with a male is the one who “performs” the lying down, this does not yet decide whether he does so “as a woman” or whether his lying down is as if “with a woman”.

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 13.14.04Given the variety of relationships that can be indicated by a construct chain, how does one decide? Walsh appeals to the use of “male” rather than “man” to suggest that “male” here must mean “the penetrator.” But because “man” can be used in Hebrew impersonally without regard for gender (e.g., Gen. 13:16) or to refer generally human beings, again without regard to gender (e.g. Job 38:26), the use of “male” may simply draw attention to the sex of the people involved without on its own establishing who does what to whom.

My preference remains for the traditional understanding of the postconstructus as a complement, not dissimilar to 2 Sam. 4:5 (“at noontime”, here: “with a woman”).[3] This is based on the observation that the verbal sentence to which the construct chain is a shortcut in all attested cases has a complement. (As pointed out above, “x lies down” only refers to sex when it has a complement “with y”.) The subject of the verbal sentence implied (the x who performs the lying down) is implied in the verbal idea expressed in the construct noun. This makes it more likely, in my view, that the postconstructus provides the complement (“with a woman”) rather than a specification of the subject (“[as] a woman”).

[1] In Num 31:35 and the other parallels referenced above the women experience the “the lying down of a male.” Because “x lies down with y” can work either way, with the male being the x or the y, “the lying down of a male” could refer either to the woman “going to bed with a male” or “a male going to bed with them.” In Num 31:17-18 the question is in effect whether the phrase introduced with lamed (as to) qualifies the object (knowing a man, namely knowing him as a male going to bed with you) or the verb (knowing a man, namely knowing as in going to bed with a male). Both seems possible. If it were unambiguously the former, Lev. 18:22 could have been phrased analogously , “you shall not know a man mishkab zachar – knowing him as a male going to bed with you.” I owe this insight to my former colleague James Robson.

[2] Cognate accusatives are also used in sentences like “he offered burnt offerings” (Gen. 8:20), “he built the stones into an altar (1 Ki. 18:32), “if you vow a vow” (Deut. 23:22), in which it seems to make less sense to debate whether the accusative qualifies the person doing it or the thing experiencing it. Examples from Williams’ Hebrew Syntax (3rd. ed.; University of Toronto Press, 2007), p. 19.

[3] Strictly speaking, it would be possible to speak of the genitive here as objective because the Masoretic text allows for the cognate verb to take the direct object, as in fact does English when “bed” is used as a verb. But because the verb is regularly used with a preposition when it refers to having sex, it may be better to avoid the designation “objective genitive” here.

You can see the more detailed exchange on the previous post here.

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58 thoughts on “The Grammar of Leviticus 18.22”

  1. Thanks for posting video link – very interesting. I knew Thomas when he was doing his doctorate in Cheltenham and we met up in the Tyndale OT study group.

      • Mr Paul, my question is this: do not lie with a male as with a woman. Aren’t we talking about male to male intercourse? I would agree that is not an acceptable thing. It portrays dominance, and submission. Its also painful, and entirely “unnatural” So if its reasonable to assume masturbation is okay,” you will be unclean until evening,” than what about mutual masturbation between two males? Of course then we could go on to oral sex, but what about that? I had a cousin when I was young and we masturbated together, separately, we never touched, was that a sin? I can do without anal sex my entire life…no problem. When I’m in a relationship, I want to please the other person. With masturbation or orally.

  2. Good to know that the homophobia of the Bible is based on sound grammatical principles. The bigotry of Christians is bad enough without being compounded by a poor command of language.

    I have to say this blog always does a great job of pinpointing with devilish accuracy all the reasons why LGBT people should reject Christianity if they want to live happy lives.

    Knowing that to accept Jesus Christ as my savior means sacrificing all hope of an intimate and loving relationship on the altar of his father’s arbitrary homophobia makes my choice an easy one. Could you love a god who condemns you to the misery of lifelong celibacy and solitude without any kind of logical explanation? Who can love an uncaring tyrant?

    This member of the gay community salutes you, o most Worshipful and Honorable Dr. Ian Paul of Unparalleled Academic and Theological Renown! It’s not that you do more than any other Christian to make us flee from the clutches of your homophobic god. Almost all of you at one stage or another have provided us with ample reasons to reject your religion. But the Worshipful Doctor has a way of boiling the issues down to their essentials, so reading one of his blog posts is worth months of arguing back and forth on other Christian sites with less clear-headed individuals.

    What do you call reverse evangelism, i.e. the scaring away of potential new converts to Christianity by revealing the hatred and bigotry on which the faith is based? If they give out a prize for it, can I nominate the Worshipful Doctor for the next presentation of the award?

    • At the centre of Christianity is Jesus’ journey to the cross that results in the resurrection. He leaves behind everything in order to gain what the Father intends for him. Apostle Peter, setting the right example, follows Jesus’ way [Mark 10:28]. This is in contrast to the Rich Man [Mark 10:22] who wants to keep what he treasures.

      Many are not prepared to have God change the way they live. But Christianity is not supposed to be a club that will try whatever way possible to increase its membership. If Ian makes it as hard for people to enter the Kingdom as it is for a camel to enter the eye of a needle [Mark 10:25] then he has done a good job! That’s what the Gospel is all about – for those who do not have ears to hear. [Mark 4:11-12]

      • Thanks Jas…though I don’t think I would quite claim to be achieving that! The issue here is simply being clear about what this text is saying. There is still a lot to be done in moving from the exegesis of this one text, to

        a. a hermeneutical reading of this text, including locating it in its historical context

        b. locating it within the canon of the Hebrew Bible, and its vision of sexuality and sexual relations

        c. locating it within the whole canon of Scripture, including the teaching and practice of both Jesus and Paul

        d. the wider task of Christian ethical reflection in the light of our contemporary context and culture.

        But I do think that clarity about exegesis is an indispensable part of the wider process.

    • Dear Etienne, how good to hear from you again after a long break!

      There is, as you are well aware, a large debate to be had about the meaning of ‘homophobic’, how it relates to the notion of being ‘anti-gay’, or opposed to the equivalence between same-sex unions and male-female marriage. And a question of whether and how any ancient text, located in a very different culture, might merit any of these terms.

      However, I think you would probably agree that there is little mileage in pretending that the biblical text says something other than it does. If we aim for a non-homophobic church (by which we probably mean a church free from rejection of same-sex equivalence, rather than merely one free from fear of this), then we need to be clear about the texts in the OT to have a proper understanding of what to do with them.

      • OT or NT, I know exactly what to do with the Bible.

        What I don’t think it’s possible to do, or at least not honestly, is to pretend that the Bible says something it does not, even if what it does say condemns you to a life you don’t want to lead.

        I have very little time for the “revisionist” position because it seems to me to lack intellectual honesty. It seeks to reconcile the irreconcilable and in doing so makes a mockery out of the whole concept of “God’s word”. Either the Bible means what it says or everything in it can be reinterpreted to suit the needs and wants of whatever group is looking for validation.

        To me it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. Either you accept the Bible in its entirety, or you reject the whole thing as fantasy. I take the latter position because I don’t believe that a benevolent God would place me in the untenable position of needing love and intimacy while simultaneously banning me from ever having them.

        If my relationship was harmful to myself or anyone else in the way that every other sin can be shown to cause harm, then I might be able to understand it. But me being with another man causes no harm to anyone. If my partner and I have sex tonight, nobody else will suffer for it. Neither will we. The ozone layer won’t be depleted. The oceans won’t rise. Nobody will be cheated out of any money or goods. We won’t drop dead of a terrible disease and neither will anybody else. We’re in perfect health, in fact our physician commented just the other day that she’s never seen us looking so happy and healthy and that if only everyone could find the same sort of happiness, she’d have a much lighter workload to deal with. Alone of all the sins, gay sex results in no discernible harm to anyone or anything, and yet still it’s a sin. To satisfy God we therefore have to stop being happy together and start being miserable apart, for no reason other than to obey.

        All I can say is that if this is benevolence, I’d hate to see malice. Indeed it seems so far from benevolence that it gives lie to the story the Bible tells of a benevolent God. If that’s a lie, then nothing in the Bible can be relied upon, therefore it can be no more than a work of fiction. And a fictional Bible means a fictional God. Or at least if there is a God, he has nothing to do with the God of the Bible and we can know nothing about him. He therefore might as well not exist in the first place.

        So as I said above, I know exactly what to do with the Bible. It sits on my bookshelf amongst other great works of fiction. I’ve tried reading it, but didn’t get very far because the crabbed gothic print and all the thees and thous and begats make it rather heavy going. I’d probably chuck it altogether if it weren’t for the fact that it’s an antique family tome and therefore of some significance to me, quite apart from its content. I’ll probably pass it on to a nephew or a niece before too long, although I’ll wait until their children are past the age of rampant destruction, because it’s a delicate thing and it would be a shame if it were to be ripped apart or scribbled in by little savages when it’s survived so long in such good condition. Probably because it’s only been opened a couple of times in the last century. It’s a museum piece and as such will remain on my shelf until I can safely hand it on to someone else’s care. Otherwise it has no relevance to me or my life.

    • You would probably prefer the practice and thoughts and exegesis of Steve Chalke, Etienne.

      The differences are well rehearsed all over the place and this is just one blog of that.

      Can’t remember where it is, but I came across a video of two Christian leaders, heterosexual, married to each other, in love but still holding different views of what the bible actually says of life long same sex relationships. Their relationship while disagreeing is refreshing.

    • ‘the scaring away of potential new converts to Christianity’

      And for Christians, that’s a real cause for concern based on:

      1. Your bold assumption that Christ’s mission is primarily numerical growth at any cost (which it isn’t)

      2. Your credible personal experience of what it means to be a ‘potential new convert’ (which you aren’t)


    • I am afraid that the God you seek to worship is not the God of ordered creation, there would be no created order without the duality of male and female-which runs throughout the whole of nature.The complementarity of man and woman.You are seeking to worship a God of your own creation a reflection of your own disorder. Jesus himself makes it quite clear in his reference to marriage-God created male and female. And this word homophobia-a neologism created by the liberal left-literally means fear of the same-what a bizarre term simply used to denounce and condemn anyone who doesn’t accept the Gay worldview. No because those who seek to serve the Lord Jesus reject the Gay agenda does not mean that we hate Gay people no more than one who rejects adultery as a valid moral choice hates adulterers.

      • Steve, thanks for commenting. But I don’t accept your equivalence of ‘gay people’ with those who commit adultery.

        As you might know, I don’t accept the assumption that sexuality defines our identity. But I think those of us who want to hold on to a ‘traditionalist’ view need to offer a more convincing understanding of what is at stake here…

  3. Hi Ian,

    Translation work is an intricate and subtle art, and I take my hat off to you for your diligence and faithfulness in writing this blog.

    I have, of course, noticed the post from Etienne. Etienne, you seem to feel very bitter – blessings.

    • Thanks. I cannot take credit for the body of the argument, which is Thomas Renz’s, but I have taught Hebrew and so follow the logic.

      I think this has clarified for me that, if Walsh is wanting to argue that the sense of Lev 18.22 is limited to one context only, then there is quite a heavy burden of proof on him to demonstrate that his interpretation is the only possible way to read the grammar.

      It seems to me that Renz is arguing clearly that this is not the only way—though he does not claim that the ‘traditional’ reading is the only way either, only that it is the most plausible and natural.

      I think this parallels other arguments about these verses, where the (for want of a better word) ‘revisionist’ position is arguing that these texts are addressing only specific issues, whereas it is much more natural to read them as general prohibitions.

      • Thank you, Ian. I’ve never studied Hebrew, so I am, like many others, dependent on translators for my understanding of the text. I am therefore thankful to you and Renz for these explanations. ‘…’revisionist’ position is arguing that these texts are addressing only specific issues, whereas it is much more natural to read them as general prohibitions.’ Yes, I read them as general prohibitions, and it seems to me that St.Paul did, too, according to Romans1.
        ‘… there is quite a heavy burden of proof on him [Walsh] to demonstrate that his interpretation is the only possible way to read the grammar.’ This puts me in mind of the justice system, where the burden of proof is on the prosecutor. I have thought on more than one occasion that , with regard to SSM, the Church seems to have been put ‘in the dock’ and that it really is up to ‘revisionists’ to prove their case!

        • PS A small addition to my final sentence in my post of January 22 2015 at 12.17 am:

          …it really is up to ‘revisionists’ to prove their case BEYOND ALL REASONABLE DOUBT*
          So far, I don’t think they have!

          * I’m sorry about the capital letters – I wanted to use italics, but have not worked out how to do that

      • I have to take issue with this: “I think this has clarified for me that, if Walsh is wanting to argue that the sense of Lev 18.22 is limited to one context only, then there is quite a heavy burden of proof on him to demonstrate that his interpretation is the only possible way to read the grammar.” Neither Renz nor I have insisted that our respective interpretations are the only ones possible of the passages in question. He and I differ on which interpretation is philologically more likely, but we both recognize that each interpretation is grammatically possible. In my JBL article I presented my reading as reasonable and plausible, not as the only possible one. I did not attempt to calibrate probabilities. I simply wanted to present a reasonable defense for *an* alternative reading, thereby opening a previously closed question. In view of the discussion that has followed, I think I’ve succeeded in that. And in view of Renz’s agreement that my reading is not impossible, I think the subsequent discussion has created the possibility of recognizing that judgments, decisions, and policies based on the absolutism of a single interpretation could reasonably be reexamined.

        • I would distinguish between our interpretation of the grammar (syntax) and our interpretation of the text (rhetoric). While I think that the traditional interpretation of the syntax (“as one beds a woman”) is a whole lot more likely, I do not think that the reading “as a woman beds one” proposed in your JBL essay is syntactically impossible.

          I believe that the rhetoric of the text goes against (male) homosexual acts and this holds regardless of how we interpret the syntax. Your interpretation of the rhetoric of the text, by contrast, is only possible (and even then not required) on one specific reading of the syntax.

  4. I can’t ignore a discussion of Hebrew grammar. A couple points worth making:

    1) If Walsh called Lev 18.22 and 20.13 the use of the so-called cognate accusative, he is incorrect. The verbs in both cases (tishkav and yishkav, resp.) have complements/objects marked by the direct object marker ‘et, that is zakhar (a male). The phrases in question mishkevey ‘isha (in Lev 18.22 and 20.13) and mishkav zakhar are adverbial, indicating the manner of the verbal action. That is, in Lev 18.22, it simply says, “you shall not lie with a man (as) lyings-of-a-woman”.

    2) You are correct that the “construct” relationship is very flexible; it helps to avoid the case-based language of previous generations of Hebrew research, though. It is simply one word bound to a second and the semantics of the bound relationship run the gamut of possession, manner, material, patient (i.e., complement/object), agent. A better summary (though not perfect) is given in Waltke and O’Connor’s reference work, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax.

    3) I agree that given the options, the context in all of the examples you’ve cited suggests the that “lying-of-woman” and “lying-of-man” are probably best taken as “sex with a woman” and “sex with a man”.

    • Dear Robert, many thanks for your contribution. Looking at your CV, I can see why you cannot resist this discussion! Good to have your scholarly input.

      I am afraid (for reasons that I don’t fully understand) that the comments space does not support the Hebrew characters you have used. Would you be able to replace them with transcription?

      (I can edit your comment…and you might be able to as well.)

      Many thanks

    • The videos of your Biblical Hebrew course are very interesting too, especially the cyclical approach. I’ve just come across a Latin teaching course on the internet that seems to do a similar thing with classical Latin texts like Vergil and Caesar: a simple narrative, followed by a more developed, authentic version, then the original.
      I like the idea of using MFL techniques for learning ancient languages and I especially emphasise reading out loud and even conversational pieces. Everything we do in language teaching must stress that this a language that is spoken, heard and thought and not a code to be cracked.

      • Thank you. That is exactly what we’ve learned from many years of teaching. But our approach is not for everyone. It places a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of the instructor, to be creative and dynamic in class. 😉

    • I have to disagree with Holmstedt’s first point. In Lev 18:22 and 20:13 the phrase ‘et-zakar is not a direct object. The ‘et is the preposition “with,” not the object marker–as the translation he himself gives of 18:22 makes clear. As a usually intransitive verb, skb only very rarely is construed with the object marker.

      • Further to my preceding remark, which, like a bad scholar, I wrote before reading the ensuing comments. Renz’s subsequent remark is far more nuanced and judicious than mine. Though the difficulty distinguishing the preposition ‘et from the direct object marker ‘et is not usually a problem in Hebrew, it occasionally is. One must also occasionally reckon with a mis-vocalization on the part of the medieval Masoretes, who may have misread the grapheme ‘t. I know I have run across a few examples of ‘et/’ot confusion in the vocalized text.

        However, in the verses under discussion I find it difficult to understand reading ‘et as a direct object marker, given the fact that skb is almost always construed intransitively. Even Holmstedt himself translates ‘et as “with” here when he renders ‘et-zakar 18:22 “with a man.”

  5. Dear Robert,

    Many thanks for chipping in here. You command a lot of respect with me. Jerome T. Walsh uses the phrase “cognate direct object construction” (although on the earlier thread he has also spoken of shakhab in the qal as an intransitive verb). I have gone along with this when I used the phrase “cognate accusative”. This means reading the particle that goes with “male” as the preposition rather than the direct object marker. I am not sure that this question affects the material argument which is really about how to interpret the construct chain but I’d love to know whether and why you think we can be confident that “male” is a direct rather than oblique object here (to use the language in your textbook).

    I have pointed out to Jerome that in cases where the idiom takes an object in the form of a personal pronoun (suffixed to the particle), the Masoretes point as direct object although this is corrected by some scholars, so tentatively in HALOT which interprets the non-suffixed forms as the preposition in analogy to the preposition “im” also used with the verb. Would you prefer to interpret all these occurences of “et” as direct object markers?

    • Shoot, I just wrote a witty and substantive response (a rare combination) that was eaten by the internet.

      Anyway, to briefly respond to both Walsh’s and Renz’s comments together (and thanks to both for pushing me to clarify):

      The lexica acknowledge the issues of Masoretic pointing with this verb, though there is at least one case where the verb has an enclitic pronoun, which is clearly an object. I am fine with one, monovalent (similar to intransitive) lexical entry, making /’et/ the preposition, or two lexical entries, one monovalent and one bivalent (similar to transitive), allowing the direct object marker, etc. The real point, contra Walsh, is that my initial claim *does* stand — in neither case can the phrase /mishkav/ be the “cognate accusative”! If the verb is intransitive, it takes no objects. If it is transitive, then the much more likely object is the /’et zakhar/, etc.

      To paraphrase one of my favorite movie lines:
      You fell victim to one of the classic blunders – The most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia” – but only slightly less well-known is this: “Never go in against a Grammarian when interpretation is on the line!”

      • Dear Robert,

        I beg strongly to differ. The “cognate accusative” (also called the
        “internal or absolute object” [Gesenius 177p], the “internal accusative” [Waltke and O’Connor 10.2.1g], and the “accusatif d’objet interne” [Jouon 125q]) is well-attested in Hebrew. The grammars cited supply several examples, including examples drawn from intransitive verbs.

        Jerome T. Walsh

        • Sorry, Jerome. You’re simply not correct. I’ve been working with John Cook for 5 years on my Hebrew database for Accordance and part of that project has been John’s work in verbal valency, including a full verb valency lexicon. One of the observations that has come out of the project is the all too common mistake scholars make in reading English grammar back on Hebrew, especially concerning verbal valency. To wit, none of those verbs with “cognate accusatives” listed in, e.g., Waltke and O’Connor are monovalent/intransitive.

          You cite the example, I will show you how the verb is bivalent (or how the supposed cognate accusative is not at all, but adverbial, as in the case of the Isa 35.2, which WOC cite).

          • Dear Robert,

            Gesenius, Juoun, and Waltke and O’Connor may all be wrong on the issue but, for the time being anyway, I’ll stick with them.

          • First, they aren’t wrong, per se, and I never claimed that they were. It is simply their Indo-European case-based language must be interpreted, which you’re not doing well. They are trying to describe Hebrew in categories that don’t fit well. When a verb is “intransitive” it doesn’t take an object (that’s the very definition of intransitive); so again, you can’t have it both ways.

            Second, the irony here is too delicious not to point out — you’re retreating (though inaccurately) behind old grammatical analyses when it comes to the description of verbs but then challenging the traditional syntactic analysis that generations of scholars arrived at based on the very grammatical framework that you’re taking your stand on (but somehow finding a different analysis).

  6. Having received Olyan’s essay, the write-up of this discussion on my own blog relates more specifically to his essay. I suggest that the flaw in Walsh’s argument derives from adopting one of the two unwarranted assumptions Olyan made. Because Olyan’s view on what is prohibited in Leviticus is more accurate than Walsh’s, I was interested to see where Olyan goes with regard to finding a rationale for the distinctiveness of the Levitical prohibition vis-à-vis other bodies of law in the ancient world. I offer a summary and very brief critique at

  7. Another very interesting article, Ian, though I have to admit that all the grammatical discussion is way beyond me!
    In your Grove booklet you mention on p26 about the highly plausible link between malakoi + arsenokoitai and the Greek text (and behind that the Hebrew text) of Lev 18:22. If this is the case, then surely this provides us with a further argument for interpreting Lev 18:22 in the ‘traditional’ way. After all, I think the apostle Paul knew his OT Hebrew better than any of us can claim today.

    I have to say that so many of the ‘revisionist’ arguments might appear to be objective scholarship on the surface, but they actually come across as rather contrived and highly agenda-driven.

    • Yes, I think that is right, and this locates Paul within a clear tradition of interpretation within first century Judaism.

      On Facebook, Robert Gagnon also argues something even closer. If you accept the scholarly source-critical theory, then Lev 20 belongs to a later ‘layer’ of the tradition than Lev 18. So in fact our earliest interpretation of Lev 18 is in Lev 20, and so it is significant to see the way that Lev 20 ‘expounds’ Lev 18.

  8. You have to admire the attention to detail, the meticulous research, the hours of cross-referencing….but surely as Christians we are now under grace, no longer under the law? My understanding is that whatever Leviticus says or doesn’t say carries no bearing or penalty for us as 21st century disciples. Also, as a ‘revisionist’ I agree with Susan Cottrell when she says “If our interpretation of scripture leads us to reject, condemn, shun and shame another person, then our interpretation of scripture is wrong.”

    • Hi Jane,

      I am interested in your comment and I appreciate Thomas Renz’s response to it, and especially ;’…the root of the evil may not lie with the interpretation itself but relate to what we make of it.’

      Jesus told us not to condemn, and we can honour both this teaching, and the teaching in Leviticus by expressing our concerns in a spirit of gentleness, and by praying, either with the person(s) concerned, or in private.

    • ‘My understanding is that whatever Leviticus says or doesn’t say carries not bearing or penalty for us as 21st century Christians’

      This is just an obtuse assertion. Specifically, St. Paul employed the phrase ‘under the law’ to describe those who considered that divine blessing was accorded on the basis of merit for keeping the overt demands of the law.

      In every case, he highlights instances that pre-date the giving of the Law. The Genesis archetype of marriage also pre-dates the giving of the Law. Christ Himself harked back to this ancient archetype that presents marriage as a re-union motivated by God’s gift of sexual differentiation.

      Therefore, the enduring prohibitions against indulging homosexual desires pre-date the giving of the Law. Jude doesn’t identify inhospitality as the reason that God punished Sodom and Gomorrah before Moses brought the Law. The biblical account of their unbridled homosexual desires led him to declare as a timeless judgment of God thousands of years later:

      ‘Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire. (?Jude? ?1?:?7? KJV)

      • Thank you, David, for your comment here. I take the opportunity to reply because I can (and thankfully Ian doesn’t charge for the privilege) and because I continue to pray that one day you and I may ‘meet in the middle’.

        So, some of us believe that God blesses marriage and does not discriminate on the basis of the gender of the spouses (in very much the same way that we believe he does not discriminate on the basis of the race of the spouses ie mixed-race marriages are as blessed by God as same-race marriages – although this certainly wasn’t the prevailing view of the Church in the 1950s and 1960s but we seem to have moved on to an inclusive and affirming view now).

        The Levitical writers were keen to keep their people holy for God and this is true for our churches today – the global debate is around whether married same-gender couples are as ‘holy’ as married opposite-gender couples and whether we allow same-gender couples to attend our churches on the same basis as opposite-gender couples. Many of us hope that we are stumbling through to a Christian ethic on sexuality that treats everyone equally and will eventually root out any discrimination – and there is not one verse in the New Testament (not one) that endorses discrimination (it really doesn’t serve God’s purposes one whit).

        Feel free to quote Jude at me but I really don’t think this historical anecdote has much to add to the conversation. Please be careful too that your words don’t cause offence to LGBT people who might then revise their decision to visit your church.

        • Jane,

          Thanks for your reply. I think it’s worth distinguishing anti-discrimination from indiscriminate.

          As I’ve explained elsewhere, the Christian ethic that is indifferent towards gender and racial difference involves a trajectory with a launching point that is explicitly grounded in scripture. In contrast, whole chapters of both Old *and* New Testament must be swept aside to support the notion that God is indiscriminate regarding behavioural predispositions and violations of an order established by Himself prior to the giving of the Law.

          The idea that part of the admonition of the apostolic witness should be abandoned as irrelevant to ‘the conversation’ can only be derived from an X-acto knife hermeneutic: excise the bits of the bible that mawkish sentiment might find offensive.

          I have little worry that my words might cause some LGBT people. Apparently, even the scripture does thst all by itself.

          • Thank you David. It was a long and tough struggle to see black and white people treated equally in society and in the Church but most might consider that we’re there now. It was a long and tough struggle to see men and women treated equally in society (can’t say ‘and the Church’ because of course we’re still very far from that in some denominations). We’d like straight and gay people to be treated equally in the Church because society seems to be a whole generation ahead of us and it looks unchristian. It also seems that gay people in gay marriages enjoy the same life-enhancing flourishing that straight couples know and no matter how hard some of us blog to the contrary, it’s a witness to blessing.
            The Bible can still make a solid case to promote the idea that God is sexist, racist, homophobic and even tribalist (God smite the Amalekites!) but surely none of us retain this view of God now (some of my best friends are Amalekite).
            You should worry profoundly that anyone takes offence at anything you say – we still need to ‘be winsome to win some’ – and we are held accountable for how we treat people and how we put stumbling blocks on their journey to faith.

          • Jane, I don’t know if you are aware of the irony of you teaching David Shepherd about how long it took to eliminate racism in the church?

            I suspect he is rather well aware of it…!

  9. On the one hand, attention to the details of the biblical text is one of the things that makes me tick; others have other passions and that’s fine too. On the other hand, close attention to Scripture has always been a hallmark of lively Christian faith.

    On the one hand, we are not under the law. We are not under the commands of the law and not under its penalty. On the other hand, the book of Leviticus is part of the Word of God and the whole Word of God should have some bearing on us.

    On the one hand, if our interpretation of Scripture leads us to despise and reject others, something has gone wrong. On the other hand, the root of the evil may not lie with the interpretation itself but relate to what we make of it. (Admittedly, this depends on how we define “interpretation” which is not as easy as it might seem at first, to my mind anyway.)

    • So, Rev Renz, if that is the case, if the evil lies not with the interpretation itself but relates to what we make of it, what are we to make of an interpretation of Scripture such as Ian’s, which, historically, has dealt nothing but suffering and murder for centuries?

      • Lorenzo, could you please revise your comment. My interpretation has not ‘dealt suffering and murder.’ For you to say so not only muddies the waters but is both inaccurate and libellous.

        • Happy to, Ian, and my apologies, it was badly phrased. I meant ‘the view that homosexual practice is sin’ has dealt nothing but suffering and murder through the ages.

          • Lorenzo, thank you; I appreciate the response. That expression is less defamatory, but it is still inaccurate. The view that homosexuality is a sin has led to a wide range of responses. The view that homosexuality is disgusting and perverted is the thing that has led to violence and oppression, and I am opposed to it.

          • Rubbish, Ian, Theodosius II and Justinian did not introduce the death penalty because they suddenly thought that this was disgusting and perverted, they did it because they wanted to enshrine Christian principles in law, as did most of the legislators that came afterwards. Very few other civilisations (except arguably Islam) have decided to burn us alive or put s in stocks…

  10. And within living memory, mine, the church has opposed every single extension of our civil liberties or protection on the grounds that it was sinful. It fails to advance any convincing moral argument as far as secular society is concerned.

  11. I would love to believe that, but it seems to me that sin is always accompanied by stigma (gluttony, despair and depression, greed…) and that when a very small part of the population is singled out for a particularly egregious sin, trouble necessarily ensues.

  12. 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 49:4 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.


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