Straight Implications of a Levitical Law

The book of Hebrew scripture named Leviticus contains a plethora of laws and regulations the purpose of which is to maintain the purity of the Jewish nation.  Some of these laws are concerned with ritual issues and some of them are concerned with ethical issues, while many of the laws on face value appear to be concerned with issues incomprehensible to the modern reader.  Nonetheless, it is common in some quarters to pick out a particular pair of verses from Leviticus and contend that they demonstrate divine disapproval of homosexual people.  The law in question is found in two separate chapters and is translated as follows by the New American Standard translation of the Bible:

Leviticus 18:22  You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.

Leviticus 20:13  If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death.  Their bloodguiltiness is upon them.

From a literalist, fundamentalist, perspective these verses look pretty straight-forward, but is interpreting them really that simple?  If these verses are simply referring to gay males, it should be interesting to note that God forgot about lesbians or gay females.  Are we to infer that sex between women doesn't count?  It's likely the very people who use these verses against homosexuals would have a problem with that conclusion.

If you read all of Leviticus it becomes clear that many of the laws specifically regulate female sexual behavior.  For an immediate example, in the verse directly following Leviticus 18:22, both sexes are prohibited from having sex with an animal.  It's unlikely that if God had specifically wanted to outlaw homosexuality that lesbians would have been overlooked.  No, it should be difficult for anyone to believe that the true God would carelessly forget anything.  Even for those who aren't biblical scholars, including fundamentalists, this should be an initial clue that maybe this law is not simply about homosexual people after all.

In order to come to a better understanding, first, we should recognize that the two verses quoted above have been taken out of their context.  Even when you read all of Leviticus chapters 18, 19 and 20, it is not that easy to discern the overall intent of the laundry lists of "don'ts", let alone the specific intent of a couple select verses.  Fortunately, for Christians at least, Jesus interpreted the overall intent for us by telling us in Matthew 22:39-40 that God's overriding grand intention for the laws was given in:

Leviticus 19:18  You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself:  I am the Lord.

But does that liberal "love your neighbor as yourself" pronouncement Jesus quoted let gay men off the hook?

Let's get this straight - NO ONE is ever let off the hook by keeping the rules and regulations of the Levitical Law, and that includes the one about loving your neighbor as yourself.  Trying to live by a rule book leads only to self-righteousness, as the life of any fundamentalist who thinks that way will attest.

There is a different way and it is good news:  "For we maintain that one is justified by faith (trust in God's forgiveness) apart from works of the Law."  (Romans 3:28, see also the New Testament book of Galatians, note especially 2:16).  Practicing love is the fulfillment of the Law, but now there is a new order.  "We love, because God first loved us."  (1 John 4:19)

But if all of scripture was written for our instruction, and these laws are about loving our neighbor the same as we love ourself, what does this particular selected law tell us about loving our neighbor?  What can God be teaching us in these words?  Shouldn't we err on the side of caution and at least prohibit the "promotion of homosexuality," in an attitude similar to that held by Jesus' disciples when they asked in Luke (9:54), "Lord, don't you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?"

Honest to Goodness Understanding

Since there is no Bible passage where this Levitical law was invoked which would illustrate exactly what it means, let's examine that question by comparing it with a different law which does have an example.  One of the Ten Commandments prohibited working on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:15).  It even came with the same death penalty as is found in Leviticus 20:13.  Unlike the law we are trying to understand, in the book of Numbers (15:32-36) there is a situation described where the Sabbath law was broken and the death penalty was invoked.  You might conclude from this that you have a clear understanding of how God feels about breaking the Sabbath.  It may appear very clear, until you read the gospels and notice Jesus' attitude and statements about the Sabbath (e.g. John 5:18).

The Pharisees, the Jewish fundamentalists of Jesus' day, thought they had the straight-forward meaning of the Law, but in Jesus' evaluation they missed God's heart every time.  When you read Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, you may think you understand the verses clearly because you understand the English words you are reading.  But anything that is translated has been interpreted to some degree already.  Did the translators really know God's intention?  There are cultural and historical biases evident upon close examination throughout every translation of the Bible.  Does that mean that we can't read and trust our translations?  It probably depends on what you are looking for.  If you read the Bible as a whole, looking for God, you will undoubtedly find and discover God's heart and be found by God.  If you are looking for something else, you will probably find whatever that is too.

Lexicography and Hermeneutics

Recognizing the liability of finding only what you're looking for, one thing that can help prevent that is the scholarly task of trying to figure out what any part of the Bible was actually intended to mean at the time it was written.  Scholars generally know what individual words mean by how they are used in sentences and larger contexts.

In the case of these two verses in Leviticus, in the original Hebrew, they have a particular, crucial phrase in common which is not found anywhere else in the Bible.  The sentences which contain the phrase, furthermore, are sentences that are listing sins, the contextual connection with what precedes and follows them is weak.  Understanding a list of laws is not the same as understanding a story.

So this disconnected, crucial phrase, which occurs nowhere else in the Bible is what any interpretation of these verses depends on.  It is interesting that the New American Standard translation, which in its introduction takes pride in being an extremely "literal" translation and is a favorite of fundamentalists, inexplicably renders this one identical phrase two entirely different ways, "as one lies with a female" and "as those who lie with a woman".

Directly from Hebrew to English it most literally (and rather unintelligibly) would be translated "beds-woman" or "beds (plural) of a woman (singular)".  This type of shorthand phrase is called a construct because a phrase idea is constructed from just two nouns.  So our interpretation task is even more difficult.  All we have is a phrase built of a construct which is made up of only two nouns without a verb.

An Illustration

If the difficulty of translating this is not already apparent to you, an English example may help you see something of what a translator is dealing with.  Suppose the English language were no longer being spoken.  Now suppose a translator was trying to figure out what the English word "lady-killer" means.  Furthermore, suppose the translator would have to figure it out just by looking at its parts because the only place the construct was found was in a list of sins.  The translator would probably conclude it could mean either "a lady who kills" or "a person who kills ladies".  In reality, because we live in a time where "lady-killer" is used in everyday speech, we know it really means something else altogether.  In this illustration, the translator would have to get it wrong because its meaning is only indirectly related to the meaning of its parts.  We know a "lady-killer" is actually "a man who has his way sexually with a lot of women".  This is the same situation that any Hebrew translator is confronted with in translating this law in Leviticus.

What Then Can We Say?

Consequently, nobody knows for sure exactly what the Hebrew construct "beds-woman" means because it has no paragraph context which would make it more clear.  Translators may conclude it is something sexual because a bed is where people have sex and because the verses around it are about sex.  As for the word parts of the construct, you now know as much as the translators.  Just from the word parts used, you can notice, for instance, that this woman has more than one bed, "beds-[of-a]-woman."

To make use of the limited context available, scholars who do cultural and historical analysis can also inform us that verse 18:22 is found after prohibitions against sacrificing children to Molech (which was part of the Amonite religion of Canaan) and before prohibitions against bestiality (which was part of the Egyptian ram cult).  This fits well with the preamble of chapters 18-20 which states: "You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you.  Do not follow their practices."  (Leviticus 18:3)

So, even with our limited information, we know now that other literal understandings or translations of the phrase are possible, including some we could never guess.  It could be that the prohibition referred to idolatrous sex with male temple cult prostitutes as implied by the immediate context.  It's also possible that the verse is saying that sex with a man counts the same as with a woman -- having more than one bed is adultery.  Both of these interpretations are literal understandings of what we know about the text and neither prohibits love based sexual relationships for gay males.


Understanding the history of how people have conceptualized and understood marriage, homosexuality, sex in general, and other personal relationships, is a complex and difficult task.  Even many scholars who devote themselves to such things have extreme difficulty in extracting themselves from the time in which they live.  Despite the difficulties, one observation that is worth taking note of in relation to these Levitical laws is that it is only in relatively modern times that these passages have been invoked to condemn homosexual people and relationships.  We also know from the good news of Jesus that God does not expect us to live by Levitical law and certainly excludes no one on such a basis.  Even if such a lie were to be repeated for several centuries and believed by everyone in those generations, that by itself does not make it true.

Beware of the leaven of the fundamentalists (Matthew 16:6).

Text and images copyright © 2001,2003 by Clyde Zuber.  Copying and reproduction permission is granted as long as the entire text and this copyright notice are included.

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