Michael Messenger writes: Some months ago, I was alerted to an article in which David Instone-Brewer suggests that the prohibition of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 might apply only to activity between “heteroerotic males” (“Are there two types of men in Leviticus 20:13?”). While admitting that the evidence is “not enough to be certain” and “we cannot be certain what this law meant,” Instone-Brewer tentatively concludes that it is possible that “Leviticus 20:13 forbids any man from sleeping with a heteroerotically inclined man” only, and seems to suggest that the traditional interpretation of these verses as banning all homosexual activity should be abandoned, since it “may have ruinous consequences for many individuals” (p. 49).
Although Instone-Brewer’s article is highly technical, the central claim is easily grasped, and it would not surprise me to find advocates for the inclusion of LGBT people latching onto his tentative suggestion as if it were an assured finding enjoying the consensus of the scholarly community. Indeed, I have already seen it referred to several times in discussions on LGBT+ inclusion as evidence that Leviticus 20:13 bans intercourse only between two heteroerotic males. While I will not directly address the current debates on LGBT inclusion taking place in many churches, it is clearly important to assess the validity of Instone-Brewer’s study.
Instone-Brewer begins with the observation that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 prohibit lying “with a zakar [Eng. “male”] as with a woman” (NRSV here and throughout, unless otherwise indicated). He suggests zakar should be contrasted with ish [Eng. “man”] in Leviticus 20:13, which he believes is the earlier form of the prohibition. Instone-Brewer proposes that this variation must be significant because “in legal texts it is important to maintain the same vocabulary for the same referent” (p. 38), and “If the purpose of the law was to forbid sexual activity between two people of the same sex, we would expect two identical terms for ‘man’ to emphasize their similarity” (p. 33).
In support of this argument, Instone-Brewer notes that the Aramaic targums “did not regard ish and zakar as synonymous” (p. 39), but used gevar for “man” and dekar for “male”, with the Syriac following a similar pattern, while LXX and Vulgate use arsen and masculo to translate zakar, carrying the sense of “male” rather than “man”. He therefore rejects the possibility “that the two words are synonymous in this context” (p. 34), concluding that “all ancient translations wanted to reflect the meaning of zakar as distinctively referring to maleness” (p. 39).
Examining the biblical instances of zakar, he finds that its “particular nuance…was maleness in contrast to femaleness” (p. 38), and suggests that perhaps “when zakar occurred with ish this emphasized the zakar’s ‘maleness’ in distinction to men in general” (p. 40). Working on the premise that while the concepts of “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” are anachronistic in many respects, ANE societies may have had a “concept of non-masculine or homoerotic men” (p. 40), Instone-Brewer suggests that zakar may refer to a man of “heteroerotic inclination” (ibid), and that the prohibition intended only to avoid marital break-up and protect the family unit (p. 48) and would not apply in cases where the passive or receptive partner was a “homoerotic male”. Unfortunately, the Old Testament (which is our only substantial source for Hebrew usage), sheds no further light on the ish-zakar pairing, and therefore cannot show whether the concept of a “homoerotic male” was current in ancient Israel.
Since Akkadian “was the lingua franca of the first millennium BCE” and “was historically related to Hebrew and…continued to influence Hebrew and related languages” (p. 40), Instone-Brewer therefore turns to the more extensive Akkadian sources. He finds evidence in 14th century BCE laws that although it “was regarded as shameful”, for a man to assume the passive or receptive role in homoerotic activity it was not illegal (p. 43), while more generic texts attest the existence of a class of “homoerotic males” (assinnu and kulu’u) who, while despised, were tolerated. The assinuu and kulu’u are sometimes contrasted with zikaru, which in this context seems to indicate a “heteroerotic male”. Since the Hebrew zakar is a cognate of the Akkadian zikaru, Instone-Brewer concludes that the prohibitions in Leviticus may reflect this wider cultural background and only “prohibit any man from sleeping with a man of heteroerotic inclination” whereas “two men of homoerotic inclination…would not be punished under this law” (p. 48).
Impressive though this argument may seem to be at first glance, Instone-Brewer’s analysis of the meaning of zakar is highly questionable. The premise that the variation of ish and zakar is significant is itself novel, and none of the twenty commentaries consulted in preparing this response suggested that the variation was of any significance, tending instead to see the two terms as synonymous. This is also the case in the reception history, where there is no trace of any distinction being made between zakar and ish.
Similarly, the argument that the variation must be significant because legal texts such as Leviticus will employ uniform terminology for the same reference might seem convincing prima facie but turns out to be unfounded in this instance. Instone-Brewer does not conduct a survey of Hebrew legal texts or of Leviticus to support this premise, and the texts under discussion actually seem to call it into question in two ways. First, it is immediately clear that both Leviticus 18 and 20 use different terms for sexual intercourse (“uncover nakedness” and “lie with”). If it is surprising that Instone-Brewer seems to overlook this, it is still more puzzling that he fails to realise that his own hypothesis contradicts this assumption: if zakar emphasizes the “heteroerotic inclination” of the passive or receptive partner, it is certain that ish who is the active or penetrating partner is also of “heterosexual inclination”, given the context of ancient assumptions about how sexual roles related to status, dominance and submission. Contrary to the article’s title, what Instone-Brewer proposes is not that there are two kinds of men in Leviticus 20:13, but that two terms are used to refer to “heteroerotic” males.
As for the variations in the Aramaic targums, the Syriac, the LXX and the Vulgate translations of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, while these might indicate that ish and zakar were not considered synonyms, they may be equally well explained as faithful translations. Being aware that Hebrew used different terms, the scribes sought to replicate this difference in the reception languages. Such variations would in any case be significant only if it is shown that zakar indicates a “heteroerotic male”, but the immediate impression is that the reception history does not support this understanding. Instone-Brewer argues that although the scribes “were uniformly opposed to homoerotic practice (see: Philo, Abr. 135-136; Josephus Ant. 1.200-201 & C.Ap. 2.199-273; Aristeas 1.152; Enoch 10:4, 34:1-2; Sib. Or. 2.73, 3.596, 4.34, 5.166; T. Levi 17.11; T. Benj. 9.1; T. Ash. 7.1; T. Naph. 3.3-5; Jub. 2:5, 22.22.), and they regarded these laws in Leviticus as a reference to this” (p. 34), we cannot be certain how they interpreted the texts because they do not go into detail, but this is unconvincing: given the long tradition in Judaism of clarifying the meaning and application of Torah through discussion, one would expect to find some discussion of varying meanings of zakar if this were in doubt, and the absence of such discussion suggests that while the scribes may have distinguished between ish and zakar for the purpose of translation, the terms were in reality understood as synonymous.
Turning our attention to the Akkadian sources, the term zikaru may indicate a “heteroerotic male” when it is juxtaposed with assinnu and/or kulu’u. However, as Instone-Brewer has argued, the meaning of individual words is determined by their context. Even in the Akkadian literature, zikaru indicates a “heteroerotic male” only when it appears in contrast to assinnu and/or kulu’u, and similar juxtapositions are absent in the Hebrew Scriptures. There is therefore no reason to suppose that zakar bears such a sense in Leviticus 20:13 and 18:22.
In fact, the paucity of references to “homoerotic” males in the Hebrew Scriptures should itself give pause for reflection. There are, after all, various references to cult prostitution in the OT narrative texts (1 Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:46; 2 Kings 23:7; see also Job 36:13-14), and one might expect similar references to men of “homoerotic inclination” if the concept was present in ancient Israel. The only biblical evidence which Instone-Brewer can present for the existence of homoerotic individuals who are despised but tolerated is Deuteronomy 23:18, which prohibits bringing the “fee of a prostitute [Hebrew zona] or the wages of a male prostitute [Hebrew keleb, literally “dog” as indicated by the NRSV footnote] into the house of the Lord your God”.
The contrast with the preceding verse, which prohibits Israelites from becoming “temple prostitutes” [Hebrew qadesa/qades] certainly suggests a non-cultic form of sexuality but it is not necessarily significant that the text does not specify any penalty for the offence, since no penalties are specified for any of the transgressions dealt with in Deuteronomy 23:9ff, which is clearly concerned to safeguard the purity of the assembly (and, more widely, of the covenant community). Furthermore, while it is clear that the monies are “abhorrent to the Lord your God” because of the ways in which they are obtained, we do not know who might be bringing such an offering or what the “fee” or “wages” might be: it is not necessarily the zona or keleb who bring the offerings. However, even if we grant that the keleb might be a despised but tolerated “homoerotic male”, it remains the case that he is not, in this instance, compared or contrasted to a “heteroerotic” zakar, and the text therefore has little bearing on Instone-Brewer’s hypothesis.
Ancient understandings of the dynamics of sexual intercourse also pose questions which Instone-Brewer does not fully address. The Akkadian literature clearly shows that attitudes towards sexual practices were structured by a bipolar axis of domination and submission. The passive or receptive partner in same-sex activity was considered “unmanly” and degraded (if a willing participant) or demeaned (when coerced). Instone-Brewer does not really consider how this dynamic correlates to the supposed concepts of “heteroerotic” and “homoerotic inclination” which he employs, nor does he consider that if the passive or receptive role is “unmanly” it is unlikely that zakar in Leviticus 20:13 can refer to a “masculine” male of “heteroerotic inclination”.
These issues are further accentuated by a comparison of the penalties involved. In the Akkadian literature, a man who demeans his equal and deprives him of his masculine virtue is punished, but his “victim” does not appear to be prosecuted. In contrast, in Leviticus 20:13 both the ish and the zakar are considered equally guilty of an “abomination” and are both to be put to death. This is harsh if the zakar is a “heteroerotic male” who has been forced into assuming the demeaning passive/female role. If, on the other hand, we deduce that the imposition of the death penalty “clearly indicates consensual male-male intercourse” (Davidson, Flame of Yahweh, p. 149), then it has to be asked in what sense zakar indicates a “heteroerotic male”.
In the light of all this, I can only conclude that Instone-Brewer’s case is far from proven. There may be no evidence outside Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 “that sexually active homoerotically inclined males were subject to a death penalty” (p. 48), but Instone-Brewer has not provided sufficient evidence that a category of “homoerotic male” was recognised in ancient Israel. There appears to be only one instance in the Old Testament of a Hebrew equivalent to the Akkadian terms indicating such individuals, and while absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, this significantly weakens the argument that zakar implies a contrast with a male of “homoerotic inclination”, especially since keleb is not juxtaposed with zakar on this occasion.
If the ish-zakar variation is of any significance, then the key to its meaning surely lies in Instone-Brewer’s own observation that “The particular nuance of zakar was maleness in contrast to femaleness” (p. 38), and the prominence of male-female contrasts in legal contexts (Wenham, Genesis 1-15, p. 33). This suggests that the male gender of the passive partner in Leviticus 20:13 (and 18:22) should be contrasted not with ish, which appears only in 20:13, but with issha, which appears in both instances, and “the dominant concern with homosexuality…is that it breaks with heterosexual patterns” (Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, p. 198). If zakar echoes Genesis 1:27 (as argued by Ian Paul, Same Sex Unions, p. 14), where humanity is created “male and female” in the image and likeness of God, this highlights the impropriety of “putting a person gendered by God as a male in the category of female so far as sexual interaction is concerned” (Gagnon, “A critique”, p. 4). It may be objected that if the Levitical authors intended to echo Genesis 1:27, they would have used neqevah (“female”) rather than issh (so Bird, “The Bible in Christian Ethical Deliberation”), but this fails to recognise that Leviticus is probably emphasizing the impropriety of an ish-zakar union by echoing Genesis 2:24 (Ian Paul, p. 14) , where issha is generally translated “wife”, reflecting the presumption that the appropriate context for sexual intimacy is the union of husband and wife. The probability of such an echo of Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 is supported by Jesus’ similar elision of the two texts in Matthew 19:4-5, especially since he introduces his argument with the question, “Have you not read…?”, suggesting that this particular conflation of the texts may have already been common currency (the question is probably absent in Mark’s parallel account because he is writing for a Gentile audience who would not appreciate the nuances of Jewish rabbinical debate).
What implications can be drawn regarding current debates in the churches about the inclusion of same-sex partners? While the abstract states that “The possibility of this interpretation means it is no longer certain that Leviticus condemned all homoerotic activity – (Abstract, p. 33), Instone-Brewer is clearly aware that readers may weigh the arguments according to pre-existing “personal or doctrinal agendas” (p. 49) and cautions that “The proper conclusion from this study is that we cannot be certain what this law meant” (ibid). I certainly share Instone-Brewer’s pastoral concerns that dogmatic interpretations and inflexible applications of these passages could have potentially “ruinous implications” for individuals, and I take full note of the dangers of allowing pre-existing commitments to influence interpretation: nevertheless, I would suggest that the foregoing analysis focusses on the technical issues involved, and shows clearly that Instone-Brewer’s article provides no grounds for suggesting that the author of Leviticus might have been amenable to the inclusion of same-sex partners into the fellowship of God’s people.
Phyllis Bird, “The Bible in Christian Ethical Deliberation concerning Homosexuality: Old Testament Contributions,” in: Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture, ed. D. Balch, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 142-76.
John Barclay Burns, “Devotee or Deviate: the god (keleb) in Ancient Israel as a Symbol of Male Passivity and Perversion”, in Journal of Religion & Society (2000: vol. 2).
Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976).
Richard M. Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007).
Robert Gagnon, “A critique of Jacob Milgrom’s views on Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13”, (unpublished article, 2001), accessed online 16.08.21 at A CRITIQUE OF JACOB MILGROM’S VIEWS ON LEVITICUS 18:22 AND 20:13 (robgagnon.net)
David Instone-Brewer, “Are there two types of men in Leviticus 20:13”, in HIPHIL Novum vol. 6 (2020), issue 1, pp. 33-49.
Ian Paul, Same Sex Unions: The Key Biblical Texts (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2014).
William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2001).
Gordon Wenham, Exodus 1-15 (Waco, TX: Word, 1987).
Michael Messenger has been an ordained minister in a major global confession for nearly 30 years, serving in a variety of roles. He has chosen to publish under this name (a pseudonym) to avoid fanning the flames of controversy in his church, which is currently grappling with the issues of same-sex unions, inclusion, and faithfulness to the gospel, both in the UK and internationally.
The illustration above is one of the ancient clay plaques at The Israel Museum, made 1,500 years before the Kama Sutra, which display graphically that Old Babylonian culture held an ‘exalted’ view of sex. The commentary notes that Israelite culture was distinctive in the ANE in its omission of this kind of celebration of sex.