by Josh Gould
There’s an ancient quote that says, “any interpretation of scripture which leads to hatred or disdain of other people, is illegitimate.” Some of you might recognize this quote from The Charter of Compassion that was launched a few years ago by Karen Armstrong. Rabbi Meir Baal Hanes who lived during the second century first uttered it and made it famous. St. Augustine also came to the same conclusion, but said it in different words.
So what does this have to do with homosexuality? Well, it doesn’t take much effort to see how evangelical Christians oppress and discriminate against someone who identifies as homosexual. These Christians claim that marriage is between one man and one woman and that anything else would destroy the sanctity of marriage, as God established in the Bible. They go out of their way to stand up against issues like same-sex marriage to the point where they pass amendments to ban such an idea. The media especially enjoys plastering their networks with video and pictures of people holding up signs that say, “God hates fags” and “God says fags should die.” Where do they get these ideas from and how can they be so bold as to speak on God’s behalf?
These ideas and interpretations about what God speaks through the Bible come from a place of hatred and, according to Rabbi Meir, this makes them illegitimate. But what exactly are they interpreting? Within the pages of the Bible, there are six verses that are commonly used across the board by Christians opposed to homosexuality: three in the Old Testament and three in the New Testament. Let’s take a look at the one that is arguably the strongest, most used verse in the Old Testament. We’ll find this verse in chapter 18 in the Book of Leviticus. It might be helpful to follow along in your own Bible, so feel free to turn there and skim down to verse 22. It reads, “do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, it is detestable” (TNIV). Before we begin breaking down the verse, a little context on Leviticus might be helpful.
The Book of Leviticus is found within a collection of books that make up what is called “Torah.” Torah is the first 5 books of the Bible and God’s law for the Hebrew people. Within it are two creation accounts, the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, a little bit of history and various laws and rules for the people to abide by, the latter accounting for the majority of the Torah. Leviticus is specifically a law book and there are five major movements within the book. It starts off with laws for sacrifice, then moves to the institution of priesthood, followed by laws for cleanliness, holiness (called the Holiness Code) and it concludes with the redemption of offered gifts. These movements are discussed in great detail, chapter by chapter as you move through the book. Chapter 18 falls within the Holiness Code section and deals with sexual prohibitions.
'et-zäkhär lo tish'Kav mish'K'vëy iSHäh Tôëväh hiw
A literal word for word translation goes like this: “and with male no lie down lying down woman, unclean it.” Now, the problem with the Hebrew language is that it’s a poor language. What do I mean by that? Hebrew has approximately 80 000 words. Compare that with English which has over 600 000 words. Often what happens in Hebrew is one word would often mean several different things. This is called semantic range. Words with a wide semantic range will mean two or more things and words with a narrow semantic range only ever mean one thing. For example, in Num. 18:38, God instructs to put tassels on the “kanaph” of their garments. Kanaph can mean either wings or corners. So which is it? You might automatically assume corners since garments don’t have wings, but where is the corner on a round garment? You can begin to see how there might be a bit of a struggle when translating.
You might be wondering why this is important. Isn’t translating as simple as converting the word through languages? After all, bonjour is just the French word for hello, so what’s the big deal? One problem that arises is that translators of the scripture will dilute the full essence of the word, whether intentional or not, so that we can understand it easier, but what often happens is the author’s original intent becomes distorted. Let’s look at some examples in verse 22.
The Hebrew word “zakar” is the word that gets translated “man” or “mankind” if you’re reading the KJV. Now, “zakar” is traditionally used as “remember” or “to recall.” Gen. 9:15 uses zakar as remember. God says, “I will zakar my covenant…” In fact it is used in this sense over 230 times in the OT. Seldom though, zakar can be used as “man,” though more commonly, the word man is actually the Hebrew word “ish.” Ish is used in the OT over 2100 times where zakar gets translated as man only 70 times. So what’s the difference? Ish refers to a man in the general, non-religious sense. When you want to refer to a man with a sacred, religious association, you would use the word zakar. An example would be “male priest” or someone with religious duties like a temple prostitute. We see this use of zakar in Deut. 4:16 and Ezk. 16:17 referring to male pagan idols.
Another word of interest is the word “tish’Kav” (pronounced shaw-kab). Tish’Kav means to lie down for rest or to lie down for sexual contact. This is the same word used in the Book of Ruth when the author is writing about Ruth seducing Boaz. The author’s choice to use tish’kav is interesting considering what this verse is talking about.
Now, let’s compare the use of tish’kav in Lev. 18:22 it to a couple different verses in the same chapter. Verse 20 says, “do not have sexual relations with your neighbors’ wife,” and verse 23 says, “do not have sexual relations with animals.” Verse 22 also says “sexual relations” in the TNIV. The natural assumption is to think that the author used the same Hebrew word as he did in verse 22 as in 20 and 23. He did not. He uses another word: “sh'khäv'T'” (pronounced shek-o-beth). Sh’khav’T is a word that has a narrow semantic range and is always translated to mean “copulation.” So the question is raised, why didn’t the author use that word in verse 22 when talking about same sex relations, unless the author is talking about something else?
At the end of verse 22, the author uses the phrase “mish'K'vëy iSHäh,” which translates literally “the lying down of a woman.” This is a strange phrase because it appears nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible. There are similar phrases that say “the lying down of a man,” which we see in Num. 31:18, 35 where is says in English “slept with a man” (TNIV). So if the writer wanted to prohibit male-male sex then he could have simply used the more common phrase “to lie the lying down of a man,” but he chose instead to use a completely unique phrase.
Let’s back up to the beginning of the chapter. God lays out what the context of the chapter is so we don’t have to go and speculate about what it is. In the opening verses God explains that He’s sending the Israelites to the land of Canaan where He doesn’t want them practicing the rituals of the native peoples. He then lists 15 prohibited sexual unions with woman, then mentions not to sacrifice children to the Ammonite god, Molech. It’s then after this mention of child sacrifice that he utters the infamous homosexuality verse followed by the prohibition to have sex with animals. What does sacrificing your children have to do with forbidden sexual unions and why does He mention more sexual unions after the fact?
During the time when these laws were written, there were very specific religious practices that the Cannanites observed, especially when it came to sexual worship. In the temple, you would offer sacrifices to the gods as payment for the blessings you have received and ensure they continued to bless you. The gift of children was considered a blessing from the gods. Before the days of modern medicine, it was believed that all of life was in the man’s seed and women were simply carriers of that life. If you were able to conceive then your seed was blessed. So just like food and money, you would offer your seed to the gods to say thank you, and by doing so you were securing more blessings, or more children. The way you did this was to engage in sexual acts with temple prostitutes of the fertility goddess, Ashtoreth (aka Astarte). Typically, you would do this with female prostitutes, but there were also male prostitutes called “kadesh.” The kadesh would take the place of a woman prostitute and receive your fertility offering. In other words, you offered your seed inside the male prostitute the same way you would with a female prostitute. Can you begin to understand why the writer might have used the unique phrase referring to a man lying down as a woman?
The word that gets translated as “abomination” is the word “toeVah” (to-ay-baw). While abomination is an accurate translation, the common day definition is not the same as the ancient Hebrew definition. Toevah occurs often enough in the OT that it isn’t hard to figure out its meaning. A few examples help illuminate it. In Gen. 43:32, the Egyptians don’t eat with the Hebrews because it is a “toevah” for the Egyptians. Deut. 14:3 says not to eat anything “toevah” when talking about kosher food such as pork, and shellfish. Ezekiel mentions toevah many times, and nearly every instance is in direct reference to cultic practices or idolatry, as found in chapter 8:1-18. There are six mentions of toevah in that passage all linking it to idolatry. I won’t go into much more detail because toevah is a widely discussed word that can easily be Googled. Point being, if it is almost always used in the context of idolatry, and considering Leviticus chapter 18 is specifically about temple worship, then it’s highly likely that toevah in verse 22 should also be translated as “ritually unclean,” or “idolatrous.”
If it’s possible that there has been a misinterpretation of Lev. 18:22, then perhaps we can re-translate it appropriately. Let’s recap what we’ve learned. “Zakar,” is translated as man, but it is specifically a man with religious duties. “Tish’Kav” is lying down for sexual contact, but separate/different from copulation which is the word “sh'khäv'T',” used in verse 20 and 23. “Mish'K'vëy iSHäh,” is translated as “lying down as a woman,” which is something a male prostitute (a male with religious duties) would do in the temple of Astoreth. Astoreth is the fertility goddess linked to Molech who is the god of the Cannanite people where the Israelites are travelling to and the subject of chapter 18 as a whole. Lastly, “toevah,” is used to describe something as idolatrous or ritually unclean. So, if we were to reword verse 22 to keep it culturally relevant and true to the original language, it would sound something like this: do not engage in sexual acts of worship with male prostitutes in the temple, it is idolatrous. With this new information and reformed translation of the verse, where does that leave the rationalization for the Church’s condemnation of homosexuality?
Let’s refer back to the commonly accepted translation: “do not lie with a man as you would with a woman.” Based on what we now know, has this translation been skewed? Is this interpretation the root behind Christian persecution of homosexuals? Does the hatred and contempt that Christians feel towards homosexuals stem from their understanding of this verse? Do Christians judge them as sinners who have no place in the Kingdom of God, and therefore withhold their love? I don’t know the answers to these questions, or even if it’s that simple, but if we look back to the opening quote by the Great Rabbi Meir, this commonly accepted translation of Lev. 18:22 and consequently its interpretations, have no place in the Bible, or God’s Kingdom on earth and in heaven. Also consider that in the very next chapter of Leviticus there is a command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, then from what we’ve witnessed within the Christian tradition, the clause “unless you’re gay” should be added.
Jesus makes no distinction between this sinner and that, and not one of us can say we are without sin. He simply loves without condition, contempt or condemnation. Jesus spoke to his disciples in John 13:34-35, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Why then do Christians rally to ban gay marriage? Why are gay teens being oppressed to the point of suicide? Why do we see whole Church communities proclaiming God’s hatred of gays? Why is some of the most offensive, perverse and hate-filled language used to refer to people who, in God’s eyes, are no different than anyone else? These actions do not reflect the heart of God, nor his plan for the Church based on the example set by Jesus.
My hope is that all people, and Christians especially, will begin to understand that the book of Leviticus does not condemn homosexual activity or homosexuality in and of itself. More so, I want the world to know that the persecution of homosexuals is not a reflection of the heart of God and should not be seen as the hallmark of the Christian Church. As Christians, we cannot even begin to try to love others as God loves us if we refuse to remove the barrier of hatred that stands between them and us. With this understanding Christians can open doors and cross bridges that were previously shut to them. When you understand that there is nothing wrong with being homosexual, then you can truly love that person, no questions asked, and you can let the world see that it is love that makes you a disciple of Jesus, not doctrine or creed; for they will know we are Christians by our love.