“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman;
it is an abomination.”
— Leviticus 18:22 (NRSV)

An Abomination in Leviticus 18:22

Now we move into a section of the Tanakh which gives the Law for the Israelite nation. These commandments and expectations are spread throughout the Torah (first five books), but we focus on the book of Leviticus for this discussion. There are two parallel verses in chapters 18 and 20. We'll take them one at a time, starting with Leviticus 18:22.

Here are the questions I have when reading this verse:

  1. How do we apply this verse today, keeping in mind how we treat the old laws in general?
  2. Does the historic and textual context of the verse add any helpful information about the intent of this prohibition?
  3. What is an abomination (תֹּועֵבָה Toebah / Toevah) and does this word give any insight?

Handling the Law today

I believe the majority of Christians would agree that we are no longer obligated to follow the Mosiac Law. However, there are many commandments we find helpful and which have been brought forward for our faith in the New Testament. The question is, how do we know which ones to keep today? What criteria do we use? This is an important question as we look at the two texts from Leviticus.

Here are some examples of practices most Christians believe are not applicable to us today, but which were originally part of by the Law of Moses:

  • Forbidding eating pig, rabbit and shellfish, among other things (11:4-7)
  • Forbidding crossbreeding animals (19:19)
  • Forbidding sowing mixed crops (19:19)
  • Forbidding wearing clothes made with more than one kind of fiber (19:19)
  • Forbidding cutting the hair on our temples or trimming the corners of our beards (19:27)
  • Forbidding getting tattoos (19:28)
  • Forbidding women wearing any men’s clothing, and vice-versa (Deuteronomy 22:5)
  • All sacrificial rites and practices (many!)
  • All cleanliness code, though we certainly use many of the underlying principles (ch 11-15)

The items in italics above are also labeled with the word “abomination”.

I would love to see some of them brought back that we seem to have forgotten, such as:

  • No charging of interest on loans or taking profit from the poor (25:35-37)
  • Leaving some product of our labor behind for the poor (19:9-10)
  • Treating foreign residents as if they were equal citizens (19:33-34)
  • Ban on selling land permanently – preventing the divide between landowners and serfs (25:23)

There is enormous value in reading the laws as Christians today. I’m not proposing that we throw it away. However, the question we must have in the back of our minds as we read is: "How do we choose which prohibitions still apply?"

Applying the Law today for all sexual issues?

We have some help from New Testament authors Luke and Paul on this issue. During some early church debates, many Christians assumed that all of the Mosaic code still applied. It wasn't until Peter and James supported Paul's case during the Counsel of Jerusalem that the restrictions were pulled back to "abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood." (Acts 15:20). Later Paul even removes the food restrictions in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, leaving only the code against sexual immorality.

It would seem a clear case then to skip past this question since we are dealing with sex. However, even on this topic we don't accept every assumption in the Law about sex and marriage. For example, here are some things we do not consider ideal or required today:

  • Sex during a woman's menstrual period is a sin (Leviticus 18:19, 20:18).
  • Divorce granted if a husband "[finds] something objectionable about [his wife]" (Deuteronomy 24:1)
  • Forced marriage of a rapist (only if caught in the act) to the victim if she is an unengaged virgin (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)
  • Levirate marriage (marrying your brother's wife when he dies) is an important moral duty (Deuteronomy 25:5-6)
  • Assumption of having multiple wives (Deuteronomy 21:15-17) and concubines.

Without any other study or consideration, it seems most reasonable in this particular case to continue to apply this verse today in the way that the majority of the sexual and idol worship prohibitions would still stand. We'll leave the exact ramifications of that for later.

So let's set this general question aside for now, and dig into this particular prohibition next.

What is the book and chapter context of this verse?

Our first key verse is found in three-quarters through what appears to be a self-contained chapter in the middle of Leviticus, in a section know as the “Holiness Code”. The book of Leviticus in general is focused on religious practices for the nation of Israel, and this latter half moves on from instructions to the priests and cleanliness codes to instructions for the people to be holy (set apart from the nations).

Chapter 18 begins by declaring that the point of rules contained there are to set apart Israel from the nations around them. In the English translations I’ve looked at, the chapter is typically divided into four parts:

  1. Introduction: leave behind practices from Egypt and Canaan and live in God’s practices
  2. Instructions against sex with close relations.
  3. Instructions against what appear to be a mixture of mostly sexual things, where we find our verse labeled an “abomination”.
  4. Conclusion: a reminder to follow these rules so that you will not be cast out from your people or your land.

A Closer Look at thE Immediate Context

Let’s look more closely at part 3. At first glance, the immediately surrounding verses may not seem very helpful in our study, but let's list them out here and take another look:

  1. Don’t have sex with a menstruating woman.
  2.      Don’t have sex with your neighbor / kinsman’s wife.
  3.           Don’t give your "offspring" to Molech – profaning the name of God.
  4.      Don’t lie with a man as you do a woman.
  5. Don’t you (implying “men” at the time) or any women have sex with animals.

The center verse seems oddly out of place at first glance since it seems to be referring to child sacrifice when the rest are just about sex. Maybe we should look into that further to see if there are any clues here.

I've decided to consider a specific kind of literary construction that may be in use, as shown by my formatting above. Hebrew writers often use what’s called a chiastic structure where passages build up to and then recede from the most important point (either verse by verse or for an entire book). Is it possible that this is happening here? Regardless of that particular idea, is it possible that there is a connection between the five instructions which can account for the Molech reference?

Seeds, goats, and idols?

When reading the NRSV, it seems at first that the Molech reference is describing a form of child sacrifice, which definitely turns up in many other passages. However, the YLT uses the word "seed" instead of "offspring", so I dug deeper. It turns out that instead of using ben which is the typical word for child, this word is based on zera (זָ֫רַע 2233) which is used for seeds for farming, for speaking of descendants (hence "offspring" as in the promise to Abraham), but is also used in Leviticus chapter 15 for semen (verses 16, 17, 18, and 32). In fact, the verse above (18:20) about sex with your neighbor also references zera.

In other words, the five-item list we're looking at closely here may be building up to and then receding from the main point: "do not practice idolatry through sexual rituals". We may be able to make one final point here by looking at the final verse and cross-referencing Leviticus 17:7 which hints at goat idol worshipping through prostitution ("so that they may no longer offer their sacrifices for goat-demons, to whom they prostitute themselves." – NRSV) .

So, you may think this is a leap, but I think it’s worth pondering:

Is it within the realm of possibility that Leviticus 18:22 is speaking very specifically of sexual worship practices with idols?

Maybe we can learn something from looking at the word “abomination” which is added to this verse for some kind of emphasis or clarity. It is retroactively applied to everything in this chapter in the summary, but this one prohibition is specifically called out as if to emphasize something about this verse. I wonder why?

What is special about an “Abomination”?

The Hebrew word toebah (or toevah –  תּוֹעֵבָה 8441) which is traditionally translated “abomination” or “detestable thing” is only used in two sections in Leviticus (once in 18:22, four times in the summary of chapter 18, and once in 20:13). However, it is widely used outside of this book, 117 times in fact from Genesis to Malachi.

What does it mean? See Strong's definition here, from BibleHub.com:

To-ay-baw’ (toebah)
feminine active participle of ta’ab
(‘make to be abhorred, be, commit more, utterly’)

properly, something disgusting (morally),
i.e. (as noun) an abhorrence;
especially idolatry or (concretely) an idol
– abominable (custom, thing),
— Strong's Exhaustive Concordance

Obviously: this is not a positive label! That's pretty clear.

However, this is also not a trump word to indicate which prohibitions are uniquely lasting for us. There are a few of the practices called "abominations" which are not considered moral sins for most Christians today, at least not at the same level as sacrificing children to idols. Here are two examples from the Law, and some from the Prophets:

  • Eating pig, rabbit and shellfish, among other things – no lobster or shrimp! (11:4-7)
  • Women wearing men's clothing, and vice-versa (Deuteronomy 22:5)*
  • Not helping the poor and needy when you have resources to do so (Ezekiel 16:50-58)
  • Charging interest on loans and making a profit on the poor (Ezekiel 18:5-18, 22:11)

* I read one article suggesting that cross-dressing was part of some Assyrian priest rituals, calling on the power of the "mother goddess Ishtar", and therefore banned to set Hebrew practices apart. I have not researched further at this time.

One Old Testament scholar named Phyllis Bird has concluded that "it is not an ethical term, but a term of boundary marking" with "a basic sense of taboo." This brings us briefly back to the beginning of Leviticus chapter 18, where it's clearly stated that the purpose of these rules are to set the nation of Israel apart from those around them at the time.

One suggestion I've heard is that even if this prohibition is broader than simply applying to pagan worship practices, it could still not apply to today's environment because it had to do with the ancient Israelites avoiding all appearances of evil. Since the surrounding nations associated same-sex relations with idol worship, Israel was told to avoid it as a cultural taboo of the period, similar to the food and clothing rules. Our culture no longer associates same-sex relations with idol worship, so this would not be the same issue for us.

Looking for "abominations" throughout the bible

I decided to cross-reference every other use of the word in the Bible, and try to get a sense of what it was saying in use and in context (which sometimes takes reading a chapter or two around the exact verse). After a few hours of work, here’s some of what I found:

  • Out of 117 total usages, 78 (68%) referred to false worship, 45 to idols, 17 to sacrificing children to Molech, 19 to greed, 18 to sex in a negative fashion in some way, 10 to prostitution, and 7 to male-with-male sex (if we include the summary at the end of chapter 18).
  • If we take out Psalms and Proverbs which tend to use the word differently, we end up with 80% of instances directly related to false worship.
  • In the Pentateuch alone, 73% (19 of 26 usages) explicitly include some form of false worship.
  • Fun fact: In Genesis, the word was used to describe Egyptian prejudices against eating with the Hebrews, shepherds in general, and sacrificing to Yahweh!

Here’s the link to my very rough preliminary compilation: Toebah Analysis, based on the list of occurrences on this page: http://biblehub.com/hebrew/strongs_8441.htm

The word seems to be used in one of the following ways:

  1. Cultural taboos of the time (Egyptian prejudices and food laws).
  2. Certain banned sexual practices (though not all use this word).
  3. Idols and idol worship specifically.
  4. False worship of all kinds, especially child sacrifice (to Molech, often in the valley of Gehenna).
  5. Oppression and injustice, often rooted in greed.

So there's a lot of linkage to idolatrous worship practices, but it is applied in other ways as well. Therefore there’s nothing conclusive simply based on the word count study for any case in favor of homosexual relations inside of marriage.

(For an amusing take on toevah studies, read this account of a modern Rabbi who did this same Hebrew word research. I found it after completing my list.)

Parallel passages in Ezekiel?

Now, during the study I found a couple of parallel passages in Ezekiel chapters 18 and 22 when doing my research that might help us think about this. They list a variety of “abominations” which mostly contain those five instructions found in Leviticus 18:19-23, yet they leave out the “male-with-male” line and add in worshipping idols, eating at mountain shrines (“high places”), and a bunch of oppressions and injustices.

[In broader context for chapter 18, Ezekiel is arguing that every person stands responsible for their own actions before God, without any hold-over judgement from our parents’ actions.]

The three repeating sections in 18:5-18 list these specific offenses (roughly compiled):

  1. “Eating upon the mountains” - worshipping at high places?
  2. “Lifting up eyes” to idols.
  3. Sex with neighbor’s wife.
  4. Sex with menstruating woman.
  5. Unspecified abominations
  6. Oppressing people.
  7. Keep the offered collateral for a debt, and taking interest on loans.
  8. Robbery and extortion.
  9. Failing to give food and clothing to needy.
  10. Judges falsely.

In 22:6-12 we see:

  1. Shedding blood.
  2. Parents treated with contempt.
  3. Foreigners extorted.
  4. Orphans and widows wronged.
  5. Holy things despised, Sabbaths profaned.
  6. “Eating upon the mountains”
  7. Lewdness committed.
  8. Sex with mother.
  9. Sex with menstruating women.
  10. Sex with neighbor’s wife (“abomination”).
  11. Sex with daughter-in-law.
  12. Sex with sister.
  13. Taking bribes to shed blood.
  14.  Extorting, and profiting from charging interest to your neighbors.

I found some small potential significance here, in that sex with menstruating women and neighbor's wives is repeated along with idol worship, though of course there are things that don't seem directly attached to idol worship either. Again, there is absolutely nothing finally conclusive here.

support for "Abomination" Linked to sexual worship practices

My point is that once we start compiling all these references and then adding in the ones below, there seems to be some support for a reading of Leviticus 18:19-23 as a list of idolatrous practices instead of a list of general sexual prohibitions. We can also highlight some of the other uses of the term "abomination" that seem more clearly connected to pagan religious practice, some of which are explicitly sexual:

  • “male cult prostitution” (1 Kings 14:24 – more on this in the next chapter)
  • paying for Yahweh sacrifices with wages from cult prostitution (Deuteronomy 23:18)
  • participating in prostitution on the “high places” (Ezekiel 16)
  • the “harlot” or “adultery” imagery applied to Israel's false worship (Ezekiel 6:9, 23:36)
  • all the idol references (45 times) and the sacrificing to Molech references (17 times)

Summary of looking at Leviticus 18:22

So, what did we cover here?

  1. As Christians, we don't consider Mosaic Law directly authoritative to our faith, but we find much value there – provided we know how to apply it forward properly.
  2. In context, the prohibition against male-with-male sex could be referring specifically to pagan sexual worship practices that were in active use in surrounding nations.
  3. The attachment of the word toevah ("abomination") to a prohibition has no extra, unique lasting significance for us today, but it is fairly often linked to idolatrous worship practices.

My personal conclusion after studying this verse in-depth is that there is enough evidence for a connection to pagan cult rituals to make it hard to be sure that this is a general statement against all same-sex intimate relationships of any kind, for all time.

What do you think?

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