Homosexuality: Continuing to Examine Scripture

We move on now to two laws found in Leviticus. We’ll deal with both together, because they are very similar. I am quoting here from the NIV, not because I think it’s a particularly good translation, but because it’s widely used and familiar.

Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable. Leviticus 18:22

If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. Leviticus 20:13

The original verses were written, obviously, in Hebrew. I don’t know much Hebrew at all, so I’m relying on others for anything connected to the language used. What I do know is that translating from Hebrew to English is very difficult; it’s made even more so by the huge gulf between ancient Jewish culture and modern Western culture - many things we think are ‘obvious’ have no correspondence in ancient Jewish culture, and vice versa. So some concepts don’t translate well, if at all.

If the Hebrew words of Leviticus 18:22 are translated literally into English, the scholar Renato Lings notes (in his 'Love Lost in Translation: Homosexuality and the Bible') that the Hebrew text becomes “so arcane that the entire verse becomes almost untranslatable.” He suggests this :

“And with a male you shall not lie down the lyings of a woman.”

The Hebrew scholar Jan Joosten has an even more literal translation (in his 'A New Interpretation of Lev 18:22 (par. Lev 20:13) and its Ethical Implications'):

“And-with a male not you-will-lie ‘lyings-of’ a woman.”

As one translator said in his commentary: “If this English translation is less than lucid, then it faithfully transmits the clarity of the Hebrew original.”

The Septuagint (2nd-3rd century BC Greek translation of the Old Testament) doesn’t seem to shed much light; and English translations of the Septuagint seem to be afflicted by what I mentioned in my previous post about the need to sell copies and thus they translate the Greek into English in a manner consistent with conservative theology.

It’s very, very, hard to make any sense of these verses. There are some authors who maintain that ‘lyings-of’ has sexual connotations, and others who say it doesn’t; still others say that it depends on context.

If we look at the context though, most of the commandments around these two verses concern sexual morality: who it’s okay to have sex with and, more particularly, who it isn’t - which is mostly those to whom one is related. So it may well be that this series of commandments are as much about ensuring that people live well together in community as anything else! Therefore, it is possible that it means what we’ve been taught that it means - but equally it may not - as far as I can tell, the phrase translated above as ‘lyings-of’ occurs in this form only in these two verses, and nowhere else, so it’s very hard to establish what it means.

One commentator, Susan Pigott, professor of Hebrew at Hardin-Simmons University, suggests this translation of 18:22 (https://scribalishess.wordpress.com/2014/02/28/leviticus-defiled-the-perversion-of-two-verses/):

“And with a male you will not lay (on) the couches/beds of a woman.”

She comments that: “Neither verse actually says ‘Do not lie with a male as with a woman. Instead, both say you should not lay with a male on the couches or beds of a woman.” So it’s even possible to interpret this verse as saying that it’s okay for a man to have sex with a man, so long as he doesn’t do it in a woman’s bed!!

In contrast to all our assertions that these verses are condemning homosexual sex, Jewish scholars seem to have interpreted them as being a prohibition on married women being penetrated anally by men.

I feel I should also note here that nothing is said, anywhere at all in the Old Testament, about lesbianism - arguably, that’s true of the New Testament too, depending how you interpret Romans 1:27 (which we’ll come to in a later post).

I’m not going to come to any conclusions here, other than to say that these verses are very, very, confusing - it’s extremely difficult to work out what they mean; and that therefore, in my opinion, to use one translation amongst many possibilities to condemn outright a whole section of the population, and say that they aren’t welcome in our churches on that basis, is unjust - there simply isn’t enough certainty about what is said to justify such a draconian act.

Next time we’ll move into the New Testament.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022