God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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.

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October 3, 2012 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , ,

10 Comments »

  1. If these are treaty terms with the Suzerain (which I think they are) then “forbidden” might cover it all… “Abomination” is a “personal offense” kind of word in English.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | October 3, 2012 | Reply

  2. I think you should leave “toevah” alone and start focusing on the rest of the verse, “zakhar” in particular. I think that’s where the action is!

    Comment by Josh Gould | October 4, 2012 | Reply

  3. […] God didn’t say that geht es dann ganz passend um die entsprechenden Stellen zur Homosexualität im AT. Die Deutung, daß hier […]

    Pingback by Netzfunde von Donnerstag, dem 4. Oktober 2012 | Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott | October 4, 2012 | Reply

  4. So you limit it to local custom. To what extent did surrounding ANE cultures tolerate/promote homosexuality?

    As far as I’m aware, they tolerated it mainly as a means of dominance over another man: you prove your utter mastery over him by doing to him what no man would ever willingly allow. Or: well, if Astarte made you androgynous, then who are we to question Her will? Normally sex with males is a no-no, but a woman-man is acceptable as a shrine prostitute.

    Were there prevalent exceptions other than these two cases that I am yet unaware of? And, what was the rationale in the other societies for not fully promoting homosexuality (assuming they did not)?

    Comment by Gary Simmons | December 5, 2012 | Reply

  5. NIT version of Leviticus 18:22  “‘Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.
    King James vision of Leviticus 18:22 “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”
    Complete Jewish Bible (RY: iv, LY: vii)  “‘You are not to go to bed with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination. — Its simple and all the translation is the same, do not be a homosexual.

    Comment by Chad Ullom | March 13, 2013 | Reply

  6. You left out the translation of “mishk’vei”. The entire meaning changes if you translate the entire text (V’et-zachar lo tishkav mishk’vei ishah to’evah hu):
    “And with a male, thou shalt not lie down in a woman’s bed; it is an abomination.”

    Comment by Orsombre | April 3, 2014 | Reply

    • I didn’t leave out the word mishkav, but I also don’t agree that it always means “bed.” It also refers more generally to lying down.

      For example, in 2 Samuel 4:5, we find mishkav hatzohorayim — the “midday mishkav” — which pretty clearly refers to a siesta and not a special daytime bed.

      More generally, the word mishkav followed by “male” or “female” refers to sex. We see this not just in Leviticus, but also, for instance in Numbers 31:18, where mishkav zachar — that is, “male mishkav” — refers to sex with a man.

      Comment by Joel H. | April 14, 2014 | Reply

    • I know this has been quite some time since this posting, but could you elaborate more on this: “And with a male, thou shalt not lie down in a woman’s bed; it is an abomination.” I am doing my dissertation and it surrounds males having sex with males in scriptural times.

      Comment by truthandloveoutreachblog | February 19, 2017 | Reply

  7. What we need are a few people with ancient Hebrew as their native language:) On the other hand, scholarly debate over the meaning of scripture is a worthwhile and important activity in Judaism and to a lesser extent, Christianity. It’s important not to become so invested in one particular interpretation and this is the problem with Christians who use the “clobber’ passages in the Old and New Testaments to exclude, condemn, oppress and persecute law abiding persons who contribute much to the community.

    Comment by Linda McCracken | February 28, 2015 | Reply

    • Yes, Linda, native speakers would help enormously. But we don’t have any.

      A lot of my work focuses on how close we can come to understanding ancient languages in the absence of native speakers.

      Comment by Joel H. | April 13, 2015 | Reply


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