What’s This Abomination in Leviticus? (And How Context Can Help)
Leviticus 18:22 describes a man having sex with another man as a to’evah, commonly translated as “abomination.” But as we saw a few months ago, the Hebrew to’evah had to do with cultural norms, not absolute right and wrong (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? [Or: Why Couldn’t the Egyptians Eat with the Hebrews?]“).
Does this mean that Leviticus 18:22 is about preferences and not morality? Not necessarily.
I’ve frequently explained that the best way to figure out what a word means is to look at the different contexts in which it’s used. (This is how we figured out what to’evah means, for example.) There’s another kind of context, too: the particular environment in which a word is used. And it’s just as important.
In the case of Leviticus 18, we find a string of phrases that all have the same form: “Do not do X. It is a Y.”
In Leviticus 18:22, X is “a man having sex with another man” and Y is to’evah.
Five verses earlier, in Leviticus 18:17, X is “marrying a woman and her daughters or granddaughters,” and Y is zimah. While the nuances of zimah are difficult to discern, the word is clearly negative — “depravity,” according to the NSRV, “shame” in the NAB, and “wickedness” in the KJV.
In Leviticus 18:23, X is bestiality and Y is tevel, another negative word whose nuances are elusive. (The NRSV has “perversion,” the NAB “abhorrent,” and the KJV “confusion.”)
Leviticus 20 is similar, both in terms of the context and the pattern, though the details differ. (Tevel is used for a man who has sex with his daughter-in-law, among other differences.)
In fact, we see this kind of thing frequently. It’s common to find nearly synonymous words compared and contrasted in biblical Hebrew, though it occurs more often in poetry than in prose. In these cases of parallelism, what’s usually important is not the nuances of each word, but rather their combined effect.
For instance, Isaiah 1:2 reads, “Hear, O heavens, and listen O earth…” (NRSV). The point there is not the differences between hearing and listening, or why the heavens hear but the earth listens. Instead, the passage uses the two words to emphasize a single concept.
Similarly, Leviticus 18 and 20 seem to be to lists of forbidden activities, and focusing on the nuances of to’evah (or zimah or tevel) seems like the wrong way to understand the passages.
So even though (as we saw) to’evah, by itself, indicates something unacceptable to local custom, I still think the right way to understand the original intention of Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 is that they were meant to prohibit male homosexual sex. (What we do with this information, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, is of course complicated.)
I also think this is just one example of a more general pattern. We can’t understand the Bible without knowing what the words mean, but, equally, knowing what the words mean is just the first step.