Homosexuality and the Bible (Part 3 of 4)

Some months ago, I had the opportunity to be present at a radio interview concerning a Christian group known for its anti-homosexuality stance and a Christian who fights for issues of social justice and against homophobia. The anti-homosexuality group has placed their position together in an article titled, ‘The Abomination of Homosexual Theology.’ The article, written by Stephen Green, can be found here: http://www.christianvoice.org.uk/?page_id=893

These are the sorts of debates and pamphleteering I don’t usually want to respond to in detail, as I feel they can be short-sighted. I am answering this one in part to illustrate a key frustration which prompted me to begin writing these blogs: a lack of follow-through in much thinking when it comes to religious positions and civil — social and political — life. This post is intended to examine the interpretation of the Hebrew verses in Leviticus using a rabbinic hermeneutic.


Homosexuality and the Bible 3/4: Looking at the Hebrew Words

with an eye to Rabbinic methods for elucidating Torah

According to mystical tradition, Torah — the five books of Moses — is black fire written on white fire, the ‘blueprint’ by which the world was made, the ineffable name of God, which points beyond itself into a time before creation and to an inner world access to which is achieved by passing through the character and life of a person, to ultimately probe and transcend one’s uniqueness. Thus, the place of Torah’s statutes and precepts is to lead us through inner worlds to arrive at an increasingly refined comprehension of the divine life and the principles or inner essences from which the world around us grows. A midrash alludes to the Torah having been wrestled from the angels by Moses, while another records that the Torah is now on earth, and must be argued over by humans. One aspect of that arguing is the supplying of vowel points to the text, Hebrew being a language which can be written without vowels. Yet the vocalisations chosen for the text can shift the meaning one way or another, and thus the Torah is to be read and translated anew by every generation. No single reading is ‘the’ reading, and a myriad possibilities can be held in the mind and attitude of those who revere the Torah as a revelation. Overt time, certain methods have been articulated to keep the interpretation from becoming grossly misdirected. Among those methods are Rabbi Ishmael’s thirteen principles for elucidating the Torah. Torah itself means ‘law’, though it does not mean ‘law’ in the sense of say, canon law; it is more a sense of law like the laws of physics: something to be discovered, to be investigated, to be pondered over in light of new discoveries and possible contradictions.

The thirteen principles of Rabbi Ishmael are in a sense a type of legal theory, designed to question the text in order to clarify its application, or the extent to which it is applicable. For example, the proper way to slaughter a wild animal includes that its blood be covered — with dirt. From this case, we see that one method of elaborating the text is to move from a general to a specific in order to clarify its meaning. One can also move from a general to a specific case if the text said something like ‘bring sacrifices from the domesticated animals, from cattle, sheep, and goats’. Here, the law would not permit the bringing of other domestic beasts, but only of cattle, sheep, and goats. These examples are drawn from the immediate text of the law itself. Another principle is that similar words used in different places are meant to clarify one another. Technically, this applies to such cases as betrothal and divorce, these two having at one point been mentioned in the same verse, implying that similar procedures underlie them both. Thus, if only the technicalities of divorce are then discussed in the text, the implication is that such processes will also apply to divorce. Functionally, however, a midrash — a homiletic gloss on the text — may take the use of a word (really a set of consonants vocalised a particular way) from one part of the text and say that the words should be vocalised that way in another section, leading to a new reading of the passage at hand. In that way, material for contemplation of God’s law is continually renewed. The final principle occurs in the case of two verses contradicting one another, at which point a third is brought in to reconcile them.

In addition to those principles, another set of techniques were received from the tradition of Rabbi Eliezar, the son of Rabbi Yose the Galilean. These techniques were used to elaborate upon a text homileticaly, rather than strictly legally, but the two work analogously. The methods revolve around certain grammatical peculiarities of the Hebrew language. For example, no sentence in Hebrew, or at least no verb, traditionally began with the conjunction ‘and’ (a single Hebrew letter ‘vav’). If a verse thus began with a vav, Rabbi Eliezar’s school said that all we received in the text was the latter half of the verse — the previous half has been concealed from us, and its possibilities should be discussed. The assumption is that what has been concealed relates to the verse at hand; what we read in the text is not considered to be a random non-sequitur. Another example is the particle ‘et’ (or ‘eth’), which indicates the word following it is the direct object of the verb. The word itself has no translation or independent meaning, and it is not necessary to use it with every verb which takes a direct object. Not all verbs take an ‘et’ particle, nor do all direct objects; in fact, when people learn Hebrew, they often overuse it at first. This seeming randomness was given meaning by the Rabbis, who declared that the ‘et’ indicates ‘something additional’. Thus in the commandment to ‘Honour et your father and et your mother’, we could translate the ‘et’ as ‘not just’ or ‘not only’: ‘Honour not only your father and not only your mother’. The legal implication then is that one is to honour all those who stand in the place of one’s father and mother: teachers, government officials, judges, and so on. In other words, what that something additional is, will be revealed as the students of the text come to greater understanding, or when the people as a whole have advanced in their understanding of morality and holiness through practice. Other particles which amplify the verse are ‘af’ and ‘gam’; while ‘min’ and ‘akh’ limit it.

For a good summary of these methods, I would refer interested readers to:


I want to note that what follows are not Talmudic arguments regarding the verses of Leviticus concerned with male-male sex. Much of the argument here is derived from Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s Wrestling with God and Men; I am summarising that analysis and noting which of the above principles are being used.

Here’s the Hebrew text of Leviticus 18.22, in Latin transliteration:

v’ et zachor

lo tishkav,

mishk’vey ishah

to’evah hi.

Interestingly, the text begins with ‘vav’, meaning ‘and’. As noted above, verses which begin with the conjunction ‘vav’ indicate that the previous half of the verse was concealed. In other words, here we have a law which is known only in part, and should therefore be investigated for more than just a plain meaning.

The next word, ‘et’ or ‘eth’ is more important for our purposes. As already discussed, the word ‘et’ signifies something additional. Grammatically, it indicates that the word following it, in this case ‘zachor’ (‘male’), is the direct object of the verb ’tishkav’ (‘you lie down’ or ‘you bed’). Zachor means ‘man’ — as in someone with a penis, as opposed to humanity in general. ‘Lo’ means ‘not’ and negates the verb which follows. ‘Tishkav’ indicates laying down with, and if referring to sexual activity, is a reference to active penetration; it is active voice. (Thus, in contrast to Roman law, Hebrew law does not see the bottom or penetrated man as the one violating a taboo; it is the active partner who is the one being discussed here.) So taking the above mode of exegesis into account, we can say the verse thus says: “…and not only a man you shall not bed” or “…and not just with a man you shall not lie”.

That translation raises a problem: to what extent? Thus, at this point in the verse the generality becomes limited by a specification. However, the specification is also the word that causes problems for translators: ‘mishkeveh’. Only one other place in the Torah seems to use this word (it does occur later in the Tanakh); it shares the same three letter root with the previous word, tishkav. (Semitic words typically form off three-letter word roots; in this case the three letters are sh(in), k(af), b(et).) ‘Mishkeveh’ is a noun form of the verb, with a ‘heh’ added at the end, which as a possessive means ‘her’. To draw a parallel from Arabic, kitab means ‘book’ (likewise in hebrew) kataba means ‘he read’ ‘maktub’ can mean ‘it is written’ and maktib means library. Mishkeve would be the noun form of ‘to lie down’ thus, ‘lyings’ or ‘couch/ bed’. ‘Mishkeveh’ is followed by the noun ‘ishah’, which means ‘woman’. The pair reads, ‘mishkeveh ishah’ — ‘the lyings of a woman’ or ‘a woman’s bed’ in the sense of a place where lying down — sexually — takes place. Yet this isn’t the usual way of talking about sex in the Bible; usually someone ‘knows’ someone else. Thus, at this point not only is a specification needed for the law, but here is where words in other contexts are looked at to clarify the meaning of verse.

As mentioned, only one other place in the Torah uses this word. The verse where it appears is in Genesis chapter 49. verses 1 – 29, when Jacob is blessing his children before his death. Verses 3 – 4, in English reads: ‘Reuben, you are my first-born, my might and the first-fruits of my strength; the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power. Unstable as water, you have not the excellency, because you went up to your father’s bed and then defiled it — he went up to my couch.” The Hebrew text reads ‘ki aleyta mishkeveh avikha’ ‘as/ for you went up (onto the) mishkeveh of your father’ Mishkeveh in this context is translated as ‘bed’.

The switch from second person to third person, from “you went up” to “he went up to my couch” narrates a scene in which Jacob here turns to his other sons, after saying the first born will not have the inheritance usually given to the first born, and is reflecting on the disappointment of something long past, still stunned at the action of someone in his own family. What Jacob refers to was recorded earlier in Genesis. After Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, died, Jacob did not move his residence to the tent of his first wife, Leah, as would have been proper. Instead, Jacob resided with Bilhah, Rachel’s maid, one of Jacob’s two concubines. This act incensed Reuben, for it shamed his mother Leah. So Reuben decided to take revenge and ‘teach Bilhah a lesson’ as it were. (Thus Reuben lost his birthright as first-born son, and Jacob gave it to Judah who went to rescue Joseph; therefore the kings of Israel, with one exception, stem from the tribe of Judah, although the first king was from the tribe of Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, and only remaining child of Rachel after Joseph was presumed dead by Jacob.)

If, then, we are to take the meaning of ‘misheveh ishah’ in a sexual sense, which the overall context of Lev 18 would require, ‘mishkeveh’ would seem to mean the act of using sex as a way of humiliating or defiling or taking revenge on someone. If this be the sort of activity to which ‘mishkeve’ refers, then the verse thus far reads: ‘…and not just with a man you shall not penetrate in a way meant to exert power and violence, as over women.’

The final close of the verse is ‘toevah hi’, it is ‘obscene’, ‘taboo’, ‘forbidden’ — all are words used to translate ‘toevah’ ‘horror’ and ‘abomination’ are two other words often used. The Midrash to Leviticus relates that Bar Kappara interpreted ‘toevah’ for Rabbi to mean ‘toeh-attah-bah’, ‘you wander by (or in) this’. Other words, like ‘tevel’ are also explained (‘tevel’ is ‘tavlin yesh ba’, ‘is it really that spicy?’; ‘zimmah’ is ‘zu ma hi?’, ‘Which one is this?’).

Christian writers tend to focus on the meaning of ‘toevah’. Rabbinically, this is a touch misguided, since the subject is what needs clarification, not the predicate (i.e. what, exactly, is forbidden?). In particular, the vav and et are more important and intriguing in this verse, since they take the student deeper into the text. So, having looked at the verse according to its specification and in the manner a similar word was used earlier in the Torah, to what other(s) could the initial ‘et’ be referring? ‘and not only men, you shall not rape…’? The moral logic of the early twenty-first century would say: not only men, but also women.

Of course, at the time when the Torah was written down, a command not to rape women wouldn’t have been understood by practically any culture of the time. Thus, one could reason with the Rabbis that that portion was ‘concealed’ behind the ‘et’ until people grew up and realised women should not be maltreated, either, particularly in war. (Oddly, the verse doesn’t really appear among laws dealing with war, but even today male rape is used as a weapon during wartime. For more on this see Michael Scarce’s Male on Male Rape: The Hidden Toll of Stigma and Shame. Several cases deal with the case of otherwise heterosexual men raping men during wartime.) Genesis 35.22 is the verse regarding Reuben and Bilhah. Intriguingly, that verse also has an ‘et’ in it, right before Bilhah’s name. Was Reuben perhaps a ‘repeat offender’? Was it only when Reuben dared to go up to Bilhah that Jacob was told about all these activities? or was that when Jacob took notice (in part because Bilhah became forbidden to Jacob subsequently)?! cf Sifri Naso 5.3.

Finally, if we look at punishments for breaking various laws of the Torah, we can use the principle of eludcidating a matter from the general context of passage/ parsha, in the case of Lev 18, the general context is incest. (Technically, only the first half of the chapter is concerned with incest, the second with sexual relations with un-related persons.) The rabbinically ordained punishments for incest can be down-regulated from burning to excision, but adultery is punished by stoning, without any downgrading of punishment. Thus, if the entire passage of Lev 18 is speaking of incestual-type relationships, and homosexual relations are categorised with them, capital punishment could be waived, and heterosexual adultery stands as a more serious offence than homosexual activity. 

What the initial vav may conceal is something I’d be interested in pondering, but have no suggestions for now.

So, that’s the exposition of the text, the basic argument of which I learned from Rabbi Greenberg. Christian and Muslim ideas on the topic took different trajectories. Muslims, of course, have a different text from which to draw out their legal customs; the Christians of Europe and Egypt tended to rely on Greek translations of the Hebrew text (which technically does read more like ‘and with a man you shall not lie on a woman’s couch’). However, those Christians tended to read the verse with eyes accustomed to Roman law — and the weight of offence was thereby made heavier on the penetrated than the penetrator in male-male anal intercourse.



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