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.
What do dinner seating arrangements, shepherds, and Hebrew sacrifices have in common? It turns out to be an important question with an interesting answer.
1. Genesis 43:32 has a curious observation about the meal that Joseph ordered to be prepared for his brothers during their second visit. Joseph, still masquerading as an Egyptian — he recognizes his brothers, but they don’t yet know who he is — has a meal prepared for his guests. But Joseph eats alone, not with his brothers, because for Egyptians to dine with Hebrews is “a to’evah for the Egyptians.”
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.”
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.
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.