Thursday 25 November 2010

Bible says No - Part 2 - Leviticus 18

The first rule of understanding the Bible is prayer.  The second is context.

There is the story of a person who prayed and picked verses in his Bible to read at random. 
  • The first verse said,  "And Judas went and hanged himself"
  • The second was more disturbing when he read "Go thou and do likewise"
  • The third verse nearly put him off reading the Bible forever when he read the words "What are you waiting for!"
He was reading Bible verses but not putting them in context and it could led to a very nasty conclusion!

If we want to find out what the Bible is saying  to us today, we have to read it in context.  There are actually 2 contexts we need to be aware of.  The first is an awareness of the people and cultures it was first written for.  Secondly, we need to see the verses we are reading in the context of the surrounding passage and indeed Scripture as a whole.

This is especially true of controversial issues such as the verses on homosexual sex.

The first prohibition is found in Leviticus 18:22.  Among a number of sexual no-no's, it says ...

22 ‘Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.' (NIV)

This might seem clear enough,  but there are 2 issues which make it far from an 'open and shut case' The first comes as we look at what else is described as “detestable”  in Leviticus.

Leviticus 11 is a good example:
12Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be detestable to you.
So apparently, prawns, shrimps and crab are detestable and although my wife may agree with that (she hates any shell fish!) that doesn't make it an eternal law.

There are also other things which are forbidden in Leviticus which, if they applied today,  would mean that many of us are living in sin   Eg. Leviticus 19:27 commands, "‘Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard."   This is set alongside another command that prohibits eating steak cooked 'rare' (vs 26).  And yet these commands which are hard to get our heads around today, are alongside others which we would endorse wholeheartedly like "Do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute"! (vs  29)

There is more to reading this part of the Bible than  simply extracting single verses, if we are to understand which rules apply today and which do not - and indeed what the rules do, and do not, prohibit.  They were written in a very different culture with its own taboos and concerns, and some of the commands in Leviticus reflect that culture, while others reflect the eternal will of God.  The challenge is to discern which are which.

The second issue with Leviticus 18 is the word which the NIV Bible translates as 'detestable'.  We sometimes forget that the Bible was not written in English!  What we have is a translation, and the constant challenge in any work of translation is discerning how to best convey the fullest meaning of the words we translate.  This is not an easy task - as evidenced by  the large number of translations out there.

The Hebrew word in this case is   תעב 'to-ebah'.  The King James version translates it as 'abomination'.   In the list of sexual no-no's in Leviticus 18, 'lying with a man as with a woman' is singled out in the list as 'to-ebah'.   So what does this word mean?  And what picture would it have evoked in the Hebrews who first heard it?

The word 'to-ebah' occurs many times in the Old Testament, and is primarily associated with the worship of idols.

In Deuteronomy, there are 15 verses which use the word, and 12 of them either refer to idolatry.
One example is Dt 27:15
5Cursed be the man that maketh any graven or molten image, an abomination unto the LORD, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and putteth it in a secret place.
Another,  (Dt 23:18) links 'to-ebah' to money which came from  male temple prostitutes.

In the books of Kings and Chronicles, 'to-ebah' is used 10  times, almost all of them referring specifically to the worship of idols and again there is a link in 1 Kings 14:24 with male temple prostitutes.
23For they also built them high places, and images, and groves, on every high hill, and under every green tree. 24there were also male temple prostitutes in the land. They committed all the abominations of the nations that the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.       

So there would have been a clear and specific link in the minds of the people of Israel between 'to-ebah' and idolatry, and between homosexual sex and religious male prostitution.

The link between 'to-ebah' and idolatry is also present in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  The only book of the Bible where this does not apply is the book of Proverbs which uses the word 'to-ebah' in a bewildering variety of contexts.   But then the book of Proverbs is poetry, written in a different style and with different aims.  The Old Testament scholar, RN Whybray, in his commentary on Proverbs says "It cannot be too strongly emphasised  that Proverbs is an entirely different kind of book from the other OT books; indeed it is unique.  It served an entirely different purpose ...   Proverbs has one unifying characteristic: it is written entirely in poetry  ... Suffice to say that in general poetry makes up in allusiveness what it lacks in precision."  

If we set aside this poetic use of the word in Proverbs, we find that in up to 80% of the times 'to-ebah' is used, it refers to false worship or the worship of idols, and in some of those references there is a clear link made with male temple prostitution.

So why do we assume that it applies to  same-sex relationships?    Looking  at the evidence, it is much more likely  that when Leviticus condemns 'men lying with men as with a woman', it has homosexual temple prostitution to idols in mind, which is a world away from a self-giving loving committed relationship between 2 people of the same sex today.

The most frustrating thing about "Computer says No"  (the Little Britain comedy sketch which started this series)  is the fact that no explanation is given, no discussion takes place - there no analysis of why the answer is 'no'.  Both the Scriptures and LGBT people deserve so much more than that.

Next time - 1 Corinthians 6...

For the First Blog in this series - Bible says No - follow this link.
For the next Blog in the series - Bible says No - part 3 - follow this link


  1. Thanks for the post, informative on such a controversial issue for the church today. Look forward to the next one!

  2. Thanks for the post - I was aware of to-ebah before, but hadn't seen the link to temple prostitution so clearly explained.

    I also wonder if there is significance in the placement (and context) of Lev 18:22 in the text. As I recall there are a whole sequence of sexual prohibitions early in the chapter, then other admonitions, followed by this. In particular the immediately preceding verse Lev 18:21 is about sacrificing your children through fire (or some translations refer to sacrificing your children to the Canaanite God Moloch). This practice (sacrificing through fire) is condemned in the prophets (as I recall several times in Jeremiah). Given this context of the immediately preceding verse I wonder if this also increases the significance of 18:22 as describing religious ritual rather than the general case of same sex relationships?

  3. Thank you for both comments. Iain makes a very good point, and I am sure that you are right about verse 21. The other thing to notice is vs 23 which speaks against 'lying with a beast'. Although our culture might consider this to be at the extremes of moral depravity, it is not dscribed as 'to-ebah'- instead it is merely 'tebel' which means 'confusion'!

  4. Benny, thanks for your careful exploration of this issue. But I don't think the logic of your argument stands up.

    To say 'A is linked with B; B is bad; therefore A is only bad insomuch as it is linked with B' does not follow. There is a sense which you are right: all these issues will be understand to a greater or lesser extent in relation to pagan practices around. But there is nothing in the text of Lev 18 which points to cult prostitution per se.

    A much more convincing reason is that paganism rejects the male/female pattern in the creation account of Genesis 1, and it is this that Leviticus is rooted in, which is also why Paul picks up the themes of sexuality and creation in Romans 1.

    The phrase itself 'lie with a man as with a woman' is very general and not context-specific, which again points to the widest sense of prohibition.

  5. @Ian: Thank you for commenting on the blog.

    I am not sure that the logical argument you model is the one I am using.

    However, considering the 'A is linked to B' model, your assertion would want to points us towards a conclusion that A is wholly bad. This is certainly not justified.

    There is another step required before we can determine if something is wholly bad - we must look at all the links which it has - B,C, D and so on. If all of these are bad, then we can conclude that 'A' is wholly bad. But if any of C, D, etc. are good, then we cannot conclude that A is wholly bad.

    For example: Money is linked with Greed: Greed is bad. I would assert that Money is bad insomuch as it is linked with Greed - not that ALL Money is bad. To test this, we would have to look at all the things it is linked to, many of which are positive and productive. Because it is linked to some things which are positive, we cannot conclude that money is ALL Bad, merely that it is bad insomuch as it is linked to bad things - like greed.

    Or again: Heterosexual sex is linked with Adultery; Adultery is bad; But that would not lead us to the conclusion that all Heterosexual sex is bad.

    So to say that Homosexual sex is linked with pagan worship, and that pagan worship is bad cannot be used on its own to lead to a conclusion that all homosexual sex is bad.

    Many Christians like me have seen the love of God at work in faithful, committed same-sex couples in a way which blesses them and those around them.

    Of course Leviticus 18 cannot give us the full picture on the goodness or badness of homosexual relationships. It was written to address what people would have seen at that time - where same-sex acts certainly took place in pagan worship and culture, which made them 'to-ebah' - an abomination. It says nothing about the aspirations of LGBT Christians today.

    I hope to reply to your comment on Part 3 tomorrow.

  6. תעב, I see from my student notes from the middle ages combines four strands —

    (1) (to a small extent) offence against particularity of the people,

    (2) foreign behaviour,

    (3) idolatry (including offering of firstborn by fire when combined with verb to do) - wrong or foreign sacrifice

    (4) Tabu, including marrying a foreigner and especially eating non=Kosher Food (Dt 14).

    Not sure the English "Abomination" accurately represents any of these! Perhaps the best parallel is the toEbah of marrying out in e.g. Mal 2:11 and non Kosher food consumption which is certainly Toebah. I find it a hard one to in down, but it is plainly central to and characteristic of the food laws.

  7. @Bishop Alan:

    Thank you for this. I think that the other issue is the weighting of the word towards the religious context, which writers like Robert Gaganon acknowledge but fail to consider.

    A good prallel (but I am not suggesting this as an alternative translation) is the english word 'sacrilege'. As soon as we hear it, we are immediately taken to religious context in our thoughts - it carries that wieghting in our minds.

    That is not to say that it cannot be used in other contexts.

    For example, as a fan of Single Malt Whiskies I might refer (slightly tongue in cheek) to the idea of putting lemonade in a good whisky as 'sacrilege'! However, even here, the word has its power preciesley because of its religious association.

    I think that the evedence points to 'to-ebah' carrying the same kind of association in the OT.

  8. I strongly agree, Banny. I've had a look at a BDB, and it relates strongly and consistently to anti-idolatry contexts i.e. identity established by cultic difference. It's a key to kosher food laws because they, of course, were a means of establishing the particular election of the people in distinction to their Canaanite neighbours.

  9. Sorry if you get this twice - the website swallowed my post and I've no idea if it got through!

    Bishop Alan: What does the acronym BDB stand for?

    In general.

    What this is saying to me is that Christians are far too willing to use isolated biblical verses as a kind of oracular pronouncement, rather than looking at the proper context (textual or cultural).

    Before the election, my church handed out a leaflet with web addresses of places supposed to help Christians make up their minds who to vote for. One was a briefing from, I think, the "Christian Institute", which seemed to score different political parties on their stand on various issues considered to be traditional Christian morality:

    . the sanctity of marriage (esp. with respect to gay marriage).
    . the sanctity of life (esp. with respect to abortion).
    . (bizarrely) the right to hit your children.

    The best-scoring party on this narrow range of issues turned out to be the UKIP!

    None of this helps me, as a volunteer with the Samaritans (14 years now) in supporting, for example a young woman who has got pregnant & to have the baby would ruin her life and she is agonizing over whether to have an abortion, or someone struggling with issues of sexuality.

    What I have found is that the command not to judge (an absolute key principle Samaritans operates on) is incredibly liberating as it allows you to focus on the other person as a real human being with feelings and conflicting emotions, rather than someone to be put straight (no pun intended!)

  10. Oh, sorry. BDB is my trusty ole Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, on which I spent half my holiday earning in 1975.