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Friday, 26 April 2013

Leviticus 18:22 and Homosexuality

I recently read with interest an open letter to the church from a young American on behalf of his generation, which basically presented an ultimatum: embrace homosexuality or alienate the youth. I also read a response from Dr. Michael L. Brown, a leading voice of opposition to gay marriage.

The socio-cultural issues here are complex, and I've generally refrained from commenting on them. However, as a theology student there is one issue in the letter (and ensuing comments) that I think needs to be addressed. The author of the open letter says that while he has long been told that Christianity and homosexuality are incompatible, he has lately become aware of "evidence that the Bible could be saying something completely different about love and equality."

He doesn't say what evidence he is referring to, but one of the comments gives a take on Leviticus 18:22 which, if it is making the rounds as a legitimate interpretation, needs to be corrected. This verse reads: "You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination" (NASB). Referring to the Hebrew word tow'ebah, here translated "abomination", the respondent gives an alternate rendering as: "Not shall you lie with man [in the] bed of woman, [it is] against custom." He goes on to say that the word tow'ebah "essentially means frowned upon", and he reaches the following conclusion: "It appears more that it was saying not to fool around with your boyfriend in your wife’s bed."

It should be noted that, while the comment begins with a quotation mark, it doesn't cite any source. This is unsurprising, because this interpretation is completely untenable and without scholarly support. The respondent considers it "odd" that the commandment refers specifically to the bed. But it hardly needs to be said that "bed" here is a euphemism for intercourse; the issue is the act and not its location (cp. Num. 31:17-18Judg. 21:11-12). Furthermore, it is preposterous to think that this text, contained in what is commonly referred to as the "Holiness Code" of the Law of Moses (Rooker 2004, 4) should presuppose that a married man might also have a male lover!

In support of his view that tow'ebah means "frowned upon", the respondent points out that the word is also used with reference to dietary restrictions, menstruation, mixing of fabrics, and other "minor things." However, this definition lacks lexical support. Moreover, the respondent has drawn our attention to certain uses of tow'ebah while ignoring many others. The word is used, for instance, in Prov. 6:16: "There are six things which the LORD hates, Yes, seven which are an abomination (tow'ebah) to Him". Here, the parallelism suggests that tow'ebah is anything but minor. Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, the word is used with reference to child sacrifice (Deut. 12:31), injustice (Deut. 25:16) and idolatry (Deut. 27:15). And it was because of the tow'ebah of Israel that Ezekiel prophesied that they would fall by sword, famine and plague (Ezek. 6:11). Thus the word tow'ebah does not lend support to taking Lev. 18:22 as a minor thing.

Even more problematic for the view that the conduct described in Lev. 18:22 was merely "frowned upon" is the fact that it was a capital offence (Lev. 20:13, where tow'ebah is also used).

There are biblical scholars who argue that the commandment in Lev. 18:22 is not binding on the church today. However, these scholars do not dispute that the commandment (together with Lev. 20:13) prohibited homosexual intercourse in the strongest terms. The interpretation of this text in its original setting is broadly agreed upon. What is controversial is whether or not the commandment applies to the church today. It is this question that I plan to address in the next blog post.

References:
Rooker, Mark F. 2004. The Best Known Verse in Leviticus. Faith and Mission 21(2): 3-14.

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