God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Who Says Homosexuality is a Sin?

Is homosexuality a sin?Who says homosexuality is a sin? The NLT does, right there in its “translation” to Leviticus 18:22: “Do not practice homosexuality; it is a detestable sin.”

But that’s not what the Hebrew says, and I’ve put the word “translation” in scare quotes because I think that what the NLT has here is an interpretation, not a translation.

The Hebrew in Leviticus — as is widely known — is more complicated. The first part of the verse is in commandment form. The NRSV’s rendition is fairly good: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman.” The second part augments the first with the explanation that, “it is an abomination.”

Homosexuality

Although the phrasing is odd to modern ears, the Hebrew almost certainly referred to men having sex with men. The NLT’s substitution of “homosexuality” is wrong for at least two reasons. Their English refers equally to men and women, while the Hebrew doesn’t address what women do. And their English refers to a wider variety of acts and attitudes than the Hebrew. But even so, I think “homosexuality” for a translation here is close enough to be considered okay for what the NLT is trying to do.

Sin

But when the NLT introduces the word “sin” for the Hebrew to’evah, I think it has left the realm of translation behind, replacing it with their understanding of modern dogma.

The Hebrew word to’evah occurs often enough that it’s not hard to figure out what it means. For example, in Genesis 43:32, the Egyptians don’t eat with the Hebrews because it is a to’evah for the Egyptians. Similarly, “every shepherd” is a to’evah to the Egyptians according to Genesis 46:34. Deuteronomy 14:3 helps us out further: “Do not eat any to’evah”; from context the to’evah is unkosher animals. Proverbs 21:27 teaches that the sacrifice of the wicked is a to’evah. In the moving lament in Psalm 88, verse 9 (also numbered verse 8, and in the LXX numbered Psalm 87:9) includes the woe that God has made the author a to’evah to his acquaintances.

All of this evidence — and more — points in the direction of “undesirable thing” for to’evah. The standard translation “abomination” is probably mostly right. (I sometimes wonder if “taboo” was included in the meaning.)

And it seems that the authors of the NLT knew this. In the very similar text of Leviticus 20:13, also about a man having sex with another man, the NLT translates the resulting to’evah as “detestable act.”

Leviticus 18:22 is politically and religiously charged. It seems to me that a translation that masks the original text — presenting an interpretation as though it were the original — is a disservice to everyone.

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March 17, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , | 74 Comments