Thursday, March 18, 2010

Who Says Homosexuality is a Sin?

This is a question Joel Hoffman has asked.  And the answer is:  "The NLT does, right there in its 'translation' to Leviticus 18:22."

"Do not practice homosexuality; it is a detestable sin."

Hoffman goes on to say "that’s not what the Hebrew says" and explains how "what the NLT has here is an interpretation, not a translation."

I think how translator Robert Alter translates and how he explains is also useful:

With a male you shall not lie as one lies with a woman. It is an abhorrence.
The explicitness of this law–the Hebrew for ‘as one lies’ is the plural construct noun mishkevei, ‘bedding,’ used exclusively for sexual intercourse–suggests that it is a ban on intercourse and intercrural intercourse (the latter often practiced by the Greeks). Other forms of homosexual activity do not seem of urgent concern. The evident rationale for the prohibition is the wasting of seed in what the law appears to envisage as a kind of grotesque parody of heterosexual intercourse [i.e., for procreation primarily?]. (Lesbianism, which surely must have been known in the ancient Near East, is nowhere mentioned, perhaps because of no wasting of seed is involved, though the reason for the omission remains unclear). There is scant textual evidence to support the apologetic claim of some recent interpreters that the ban on homosexual congress is limited to the preceding list of incestuous unions. One may apply here the proposal of Mary Douglas that this is a culture that likes to keep lines of categorical distinction clear: no human-beast couplings are allowed (in contrast to the imaginative freedom on this topic of Greek myth), and any simulation of procreative heterosexual intercourse by the insertion of the male member in an orifice or fleshy crevice of another male is abhorrent.
Now, here's the Hebrew (at least it's the MT).  And then with all that Greek talk, we might compare the Greek (remembering how Aristotle, or at least a pseudo-sound-alike Aristotle used the word βδελυροὶ to express his disgust when discussing the shapes of women's body parts when they are unshapely and when they compare by his objective standard, sometimes, to κίναιδοι, or "catamites"):

וְאֶת־זָכָר לֹא תִשְׁכַּב מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תֹּועֵבָה הִוא׃

καὶ μετὰ ἄρσενος οὐ κοιμηθήσῃ κοίτην γυναικός βδέλυγμα γάρ ἐστιν

Is Alter's translation a myopic one?  Is the Greek translation, if it's a translation, a myopic one?  Isn't the NLT something else altogether (committing what Alter calls the "heresy of explanation" as if the explanation is a good one)? 

I'm out of time for now, but as always am interested in what you see and how you feel about these sorts of things.


  1. Since religious moral codes arose as a reaction to a need, I like to ask "why" to these regulations and sometimes there seems to be an apparent answer and often not. Nevertheless there is a reason for sure. Now in regards to this question you quote from Joel's blog, this is one issue of which I have asked and am not sure of an answer. It seems obvious that reproduction is a primary concern as it was at the time of the writing of this code seen as more challenging than today as we concern ourselves with overpopulation. Paul the apostle seems to want to maintain this code. We cannot be certain of his reasons either, but he also appears to include lesbian sexual activity in Romans 1. The concern over masturbation in the traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam might also be connected to this concern about reproduction, but then again it is not only limited to this matter especially in relation to women but is still seen as evil in these traditions. Such questions.???

  2. Yes questions.??? Maybe the answers are not ours to have. This sort of agnosticism, for me, is a bit refreshing against sexist and homophobic contemporary dogma. Were Moses's rules really meant for the goyim (or even Jews) centuries later, after the wandering in the desert? Were Paul's codes, the lesbian ones only directed to Rome, really meant for the Galatians back then or the even the Italians now? And masturbation, a concern? How is there not even one bit of instruction or code or law in the Jewish or Christian scriptures on this? But the translation questions, I think, are really compelling. They betray an all-too-prevalent assumption that everything in the scriptures must be read as always directed at each single contemporary reader in some natural way as ever relevant and equally important. What Hoffman shows the NLT doing with this bit of text is exactly what Alter calls heresy. Such questions. Indeed.

  3. I would tend to agree with Robert Alter except that I think the main reason for the Leviticus prohibition was the fact that the ancient Israelites interpreted sex between men as the penetrated men acting like a women. In a society where men should act like men (as intended by God), being penetrated by another men was prohibited. More information on this verse can be seen on the “Gay and Christian” website (

  4. I tend to agree with Raycol that the prohibition is on feminising of men through penetration, in a culture (middle Eastern not specifically Jewish or Hebrew or whatever) where anal rape of men was often used as a way of demanning one's defeated enemies. I suspect that the Levitical prohibitions are designed to promote male solidarity; you aren't going to be screwed by your fellow Israelites. Interestingly the Levitical proscriptions echo passages in the Zend Avesta, so I think there might also be a bit of imitation is the sincerest form of flattery going on here too, given that the Torah is probably a product of the Persian period and shows other evidence of Persian religious motifs.

    Re Paul and lesbianism I as surprised to discover only a few years ago that JOhn Chrysostom was the pioneer of reading Romans 1:26-20 as explicitly condemning/referring to lesbianism only. Furthermore it took a few centuries before Chrysostom's view became the standard reading of this passage. Consequently I don't think Paul is singling out lesbianism in Romans and there just aren't any other references to lesbianism anywhere in the biblical texts no matter which biblical canon of scriptures one uses.

    I tend to think the Pauline references to male male sex (clearly only in Romans, ambiguously elsewhere) again share the horror of the penetrated male which by Paul's day was pretty normative for most Jewish communities.

    Back to Leviticus I have been told that somewhere in the Oral Scriptures/midrashim, there is a story that says that the sexual taboos wee inserted into the Law by the deity after the incident of the Golden Calf by way of a punishment. The Israelites could hear YHWH dictating the additions to Moses. When it came to these two proscriptions the story says that on hearing them the men of Israel wept loudly. THere is also a tradition that the Messiah when he comes will abolish the punishing torah beriah and replace it with/restore the original torah d'atziluth.

  5. I'm also intersted in the fact that Alter reads Leviticus as banning anal and inter-crural sex (but not oral?) and cites the fear of wasting seed. It doesn't quite, ahem, fit for me. While such a concept might have been used to extend the frame of reference in later reception, I'm not so sure that it, ahem, lies behind this text. I think the motivation is more likely preventing the feminisation of fellow 'Israelite' males

  6. the ancient Israelites interpreted sex between men as the penetrated men acting like a women

    the motivation is more likely preventing the feminisation of fellow 'Israelite' males

    Raycol and Michael,
    Thank you very much for your comments. Most helpful are: the link you give, Raycol, and, Michael, your references to Zend Avesta, Chrysostom, Paul of course, and to "somewhere in the Oral Scriptures/midrashim"!

    As I hinted at above, my interests are in the Greek language choices here, as translation. It's fascinating to see the LXX translators interacting with Aristotle's text, avoiding much of his wordchoice in some cases but invariably coopting and appropriating a good bit of it too. The pseudo-Aristotle's "Physiognomics" has some of the language (and thinking) that appears mirrored in this verse of Leviticus.

    But your points about Alter's note are most important, I think. Alter reads with much too narrow a lens, I'm convinced.


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