What does Leviticus REALLY say about homosexuality?
Two verses in the Bible's Leviticus, 18:22 and 20:13, have been used time and time again by people insisting that God abhors homosexuality, and either being gay or certain gay sex acts (depending on who you talk to) are expressly forbidden among observant Christians and Jews. But is that really the case, or is that selective interpretation/translation? This article will make the very solid case that these Levitical commandments have nothing to do with homosexuality as we understand it today, but are rather prohibitions against male temple cult prostitution. Read on to see why.
Please note that I am not addressing whether we should be using the Bible as a moral code, whether it is historically accurate, whether its prohibitions are binding on Christians, Jews, or anyone else. I am simply addressing whether Leviticus does, in fact, prohibit gay/lesbian relations. That's it.
Let's start with the text
The King James Version of the Bible, translated in 1611, or more than 2,000 years after Leviticus was penned (the documentary hypothesis guesses at around 500 BCE), is what's usually used by those claiming the Bible condemns homosexuality. Let's look at their translations:
18:22 - Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.
20:13 - If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.
Things aren't quite so clear when we use the Intralinear Hebrew-English translation. It captures the ambiguities without the biases of the translator:
18:22 - And with male you shall not lie down beds of woman, it (is) abhorrence
20:13 - And man who is lying down with male beds of woman, the two of them they did abhorrence, they shall be put to death, the bloods of them in them
Certainly a bit more ambiguous, but that's to be expected when you're translating from ancient Biblical Hebrew. And, besides, Biblical scholars, both religious and secular, have long acknowledged that many parts of the Bible are ambiguous and where interpretation isn't necessarily clear. This might very well be a good example, but given the emphasis they're given to justify hatred towards gay people, it's worth the effort to analyze them more deeply.
Idolatrous sin vs wicked/unjust sin - different terminology
Both Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20 are concerned with the ritual practices of the neighboring Canaanite people, principally the cult of Molekh and Ashtoreth. The prohibitions against "lying with men in beds-of-woman" is encapsulated in these sections for a reason, which will be clearer soon.
Keep in mind the use of the word toebah is used to describe all of the pagan practices that the Lord was prohibiting; toebah is often translated as abhorrence or abomination in English, for the lack of a better word, but it is more accurately translated as bdelygmia in Greek, in early translations. Both toebah (Hebrew) and bdelygmia (Greek) carry connotations of idolatrous or ritually impure forms of detestable practices. In contrast, zimah (Hebrew) and anomia (Greek) are used to describe something that's wrong in itself, a wicked injustice, like murder and rape (in fact, this term is used for these crimes in the Bible).
Repetition in Deuteronomy - why is it missing?
According to the traditional understanding of the Bible, the third book, the Book of Leviticus, was delivered to Moses at Sinai, and then (primarily) transmitted to the Levites, or priestly class (hence its name). The law is then retransmitted by Moses to the Israelites in the form of speeches before entering the Promised Land in Deuteronomy, the fifth book.
Leviticus 18 describes many forbidden practices; Leviticus 20 repeats them, and details which deserve capital punishment. Deuteronomy repeats most of the laws of Leviticus, repeating that several are severe enough to merit capital punishment. What's interesting is that the prohibition, under penalty of death, for "lying with men in beds-of-women" is not repeated in Deuteronomy. Or is it?
Crimes punishable by death in Lev 20, repeated in Deuteronomy
Sacrifices to Molekh
Familiar spirits, divinations and wizards
Cursing your parents
5:18 & 22:22
Relations with your father's wife
Relations with your parents in law
"lying with men in beds-of-women"
Being a male temple prostitute (kadesh)
Well, isn't that odd...
Only one capital crime—20:13, supposedly against homosexuality—isn't mentioned at all in Deuteronomy.
But there is a prohibition that is probably related. It's Deuteronomy 23:17. Let's start with the KJV translation:
There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel.
And then the Interlinear translation from the original Biblical Hebrew:
She shall not become a hallowed prostitute (kedeshah) from daughters of Israel and he shall not become hallowed male prostitute (kadesh) from sons of Israel.
Despite the fact that the Hebrew word makes clear that these are female and male forms of the exact same word, King James chooses "sodomite" for the male version, something modern Christians most often translate to homosexual.
Those who know a little Hebrew will recognize the k-d-sh root to the words kadesh and kedeshah in kadosh, kiddush, and kaddish. The root means "holy" or "sanctified".
So it seems pretty clear that Deuteronomy is, in fact, repeating all of the capital prohibitions in Leviticus 20, but Leviticus 20:13, repeating Leviticus 18:22, is prohibiting male temple prostitution, not any sort of same-sex relations.
- Leviticus 18:22 according to Rabbi Ishmael
An exegesis (interpretation) according to 2nd c. CE Rabbi Ishmael's 13 hermeneutical principles for the interpretation of Torah. [Rabbinic Judaism]
- Shrine Prostitutes are never said to be homosexuals in the Bible.
Shrine prostitutes were not gays and lesbians. They were often heterosexual pagan worshippers of the fertility goddess.
If someone is willing to delve into the original language, and understand the pattern of repetition of the Bible, instead of accepting without question the translation of modern English interpreters, you are drawn to a very different conclusions:
- Leviticus does not prohibit—or even address—homosexuality.
- Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 prohibit male temple prostitution, as is clear from examining the pattern of repetition in Deuteronomy.
- The death penalty for Leviticus 20:13 is for a crime of idolatry, not a crime of injustice or wickedness.
Of course, there will be those who will close their eyes, put their fingers in their ears, shake their heads, and insist that Leviticus condemns homosexuality. Send them to this page to learn how wrong they've been.
More by this Author
What does it mean to be "agnostic"? Although often confused with "atheist", it means something quite a bit different. The term derives from the Greek roots "a" (not or without) and...
Step-by-step guide on how to give yourself an authentic I Ching reading! Lots of fun, and full of insightful advice.
Updated for 2016: Price per square foot for 20 prefab (modular) home companies' products, including Blu Homes, Proto Homes, ideabox (Ikea), weeHouses, and many others.