After the Sodom story, the most cited passages in our current conversation concerning same-sex relations are Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. The first reads, “You must not have sexual intercourse with a man as you would with a woman; it is a detestable practice.” The second goes further: “If a man has sexual intercourse with a man as he would with a woman, the two of them have done something detestable. They must be executed; their blood is on their own heads.”
The word rendered “detestable” in the CEB (see also the NIV) was translated in the KJV as “abomination” (see also NRSV). Male homosexuality (note that nothing is said about women engaging in same-sex relations) is grouped here with other abominations–actions anyone would regard as unacceptable, such as incest (18:6-18), child sacrifice (18:21), and bestiality (18:23). In his GQ interview, Phil Robertson alluded to this passage, and indeed, many would say that we need go no further. The Bible says that homosexuality is an abomination, so how can we even think about tolerating such behavior?
The problem is that words–even very strong words such as “abomination”–only have meaning in context. We know this. If I say, “I’d kill for a cup of coffee right now!,” chances are no one will call the police. They know that all I mean is that I want coffee very, very badly–not that I will actually commit violence to get it.
In his delightful book Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll includes abundant wordplay, based on the slippery meanings of words. A famous exchange between Alice and Humpty-Dumpty illustrates this:
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
We need not agree with Humpty-Dumpty to recognize that the same word can have different meanings in different contexts. The word rendered “abomination” in the Leviticus passages is to’ebah in Hebrew. Its basic sense is something disgusting. So, in Genesis and Exodus, the term describes the Egyptian attitude toward the Israelites, whose language (Gen 43:32), customs (Gen 46:34) and religion (Exod 8:26) the Egyptians find repulsive.
There are six things that the LORD hates,
seven things detestable to him:
a lying tongue,
hands that spill innocent blood,
a heart set on wicked plans,
feet that run quickly to evil,
a false witness who breathes lies,
and one who causes conflicts among relatives.
The term appears most often in Ezekiel (43 times), where as we saw last week, it is nearly always used for the worship of idols. Similarly, in Deuteronomy (where to’ebah appears 17 times) and in 1 and 2 Kings (1 Kgs 14:23-24; 2 Kgs 16:3; 21:2, 11; 23:13), the term nearly always refers to idolatry. For example, Deuteronomy 7:25-26 commands,
Burn the images of their gods. Don’t desire the silver or the gold that is on them and take it for yourself, or you will be trapped by it. That is detestable to the LORD your God. Don’t bring any detestable thing into your house, or you will be placed under the ban too, just like it is! You must utterly detest these kinds of things, despising them completely, because they are under the ban.
Deuteronomy 22:5 is intriguing, however:
Women must not wear men’s clothes, and men must not wear women’s clothes. Everyone who does such things is detestable to the LORD your God.
We will have more to say about this usage of to’ebah shortly. But first, let’s get back to the two passages with which we began.
In the book of Leviticus, to’ebah appears only 6 times, in only two chapters: Lev 18:22, 26-27, 29-30 and 20:13. In each context, to’ebah is used together with other words, rendered wickedness (zimah) or perversion (tebel).
These two chapters come from a portion of Leviticus called the Holiness Code (Lev 17—26). Jewish scholar Israel Knohl neatly summarizes the distinctive message of these chapters: “the holiness of God is emphasized, and this is taken to imply a call to holiness addressed to the Israelites in general” (Israel Knohl, Sanctuary of Silence: The Priestly Torah and the Holiness School [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995], 2). So Leviticus 19:2 states, “You must be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy.”
Within the Holiness Code, Lev 18 and 20 are clearly related: essentially the same offenses, described in much the same language, are listed in each chapter. But there are also many differences. In Lev 18, second person commands (in form like the Ten Commandments) are used, while in Lev 20, the laws are set forth in third-person statements, addressing the community (much like the case laws found in the old Covenant Code; Exod 20:22–23:33). There are also some differences in content: Lev 20 adds laws against the cult of the dead (20:6) and dishonoring parents (20:9) not found in Lev 18.
Most striking are the differences in penalties imposed for violating these commands. In Lev 18, the penalty is exile (18:24-30): violators are to be cut off (Hebrew karat) from the community; indeed, this passage declares,
You must not do any of these detestable things, neither citizen nor immigrant who lives with you (because the people who had the land before you did all of these detestable things and the land became unclean), so that the land does not vomit you out because you have made it unclean, just as it vomited out the nations that were before you (Lev 18:26-28).
In Lev 20, however, some offenses, including same-sex relations, incur the death penalty.
The nature of the relationship between these two chapters is unclear : perhaps one of these two chapters is based on the other, or perhaps these are alternate forms of the same tradition. In the text before us, however, these parallel passages stand like brackets around Leviticus 19, a chapter that stands at the center of the Torah. It is here, as we have seen, that the theme of the Holiness Code is stated: the holy LORD calls forth a holy people (19:2). It is also here that we find what Jesus called the second of the two Greatest Commandments: “You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD” (19:18). We could say that, functionally, the purpose of Lev 18 and 20 is to point the reader to Lev 19!
How is to’ebah used in Leviticus 18 and 20? Our two chapters, as we have already seen, group male homosexuality together with other actions condemned by all human cultures, that no society would regard as acceptable, such as incest, child sacrifice, and bestiality. Yet right among these abominations, and in no way distinguished from the others, is this command: “You must not approach a woman for sexual contact during her menstrual uncleanness” (Lev 18:19). As with the commandment against male homosexuality, Lev 20 specifies the penalty:
If a man sleeps with a woman during her menstrual period and has sexual contact with her, he has exposed the source of her blood flow and she has uncovered the same. Both of them will be cut off from their people (Lev 20:18).
This command is so odd from our modern perspective that an explanation is needed. Israel’s priests regarded blood as highly precious: “A creature’s life is in the blood. I have provided you the blood to make reconciliation for your lives on the altar, because the blood reconciles by means of the life” (Lev 17:11). For this reason, Israelites are not to consume blood, or come into contact with blood (see Gen 9:4-6; Lev 17:10-14; but for a less restrictive ruling on blood, see Deut 12:15-16). By extension, this means that a woman is ritually unclean following the very bloody process of childbirth (Lev 12:1-8) and during her menstrual period (Lev 15:19–23). During her period, neither the woman herself nor anything she lies or sits upon are to be touched, because she is ritually unclean.
Obviously, in this priestly worldview, men should avoid sexual relations with menstruating women. But Leviticus 15:24 only states that the man who has sex with a woman during her period shares in her impurity—like her, “he will be unclean for seven days.” Lev 18:19 and 20:18 go far beyond this, however. In the radical view of ritual purity the Holiness Code upholds, sexual contact with a menstruating woman is to’ebah: an abomination to be punished by exile from the community (compare Ezek 18:6; and 22:11, where to’ebah may refer to Lev 18:19 and 20:18).
This command makes the meaning of to’ebah in these two chapters plain. In Leviticus, to’ebah is not about ethics or morality, but about ritual impurity and defilement. Lev 18 and 20 are purity legislation. This is, in fact, what Lev 18:26-28 explicitly states: these are acts which defile the land, making it unclean. Likely, this is the idea back of Deut 22:5 as well: this same chapter goes on to condemn planting a vineyard with two different kinds of seed, plowing a field with two different types of animal, and making a garment with two types of thread, and also requires fringes at the corners of every garment. Clearly these are not moral judgments; they are purity regulations. Like not eating pork (Lev 11:2-8) or shellfish (Lev 11:9-12), these are lifestyle choices that make Israel culturally distinctive.