The Levitical Ban: The Final Verdict
Key Passage: Leviticus 18:21-23, Deuteronomy 22:5, Genesis 38:9-10
By Bruce L. Gerig

Our earlier two articles on "The Levitical Ban" attempted to refute an an erroneous (homophobic) trend on the part of some scholars today to deny that cultic male prostitutes (probably including castrated, homosexual, transvestite and hermaproditic elements) widely practiced their sacred duties in the ancient Near East. That this was pervasive is supported by God's warning given to Moses in Deut 23:17: "None of the daughters of Israel shall be a temple prostitute; none of the sons of Israel shall be a temple prostitute." (NRSV) Later comparison material to the Ishtar cult comes from the 3rd cent. B.C. - 4th cent. A.D., from Asia Minor, Syria, and Rome, which describes the cult of the great Mother Goddess (worshipped under different names), who attracted lay eunuchs who connect in manifold and profound ways with the earlier Mesopotamian sacred eunuchs.1 Apuleius (2nd century A.D. Roman satirist), in The Golden Ass, vividly portrays these castrated devotees (galli, sing. gallos) as passive homosexuals who seek out virile young peasant lads to satisfy their desires. Eusebius (4th century church historian) mentions effeminate priests attached to the moon goddess Nikkal (= Ishtar) in Harran, who carry on homosexual cult practices on Mount Lebanon.2 Greenberg observes that Ishtar had many lovers, yet remained childless. So, appropriately, both her female and male prostitute servants remained barren by uniting with male worshippers through anal intercourse. Not only did the goddess look favorably on the precious gift of semen, but the act brought good fortune, health and healing, and other benefits to the offerer and his household.3 Of course, such an ancient and ingrained relationship between transvestism and pagan worship certainly bears on such a verse as Deut 22:5, which forbids cross-dressing; and it is noteworthy also that eunuchs were not allowed to serve as priests in Israel (Lev 21:20) or gather with Israel to worship the Lord (Deut 23:1).

In contrast to private, nonviolent homosexual relations, which must have gone on with little notice in Israel (as they did throughout the ancient Mesopotamian world),4 the male sacred prostitute turned out to be a real and persistent problem in Israel. During the reign of Rehoboam, in the kingdom of Judah (late 10th century B.C.), the people "built for themselves [idolatrous] high places, pillars, and sacred poles" and "there were also male temple prostitutes [qedheshim] in the land. They [the Israelites] committed all the abominations of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel." (1 Kings 14:23-24, NRSV) Notice the same wording and condemnation here as found in Lev 18, in the chapter's preface (vv. 1-5) and conclusion (vv. 24-30). Then, when Asa (Rehoboam's grandson) came to the throne, he "put away the male temple prostitutes" (1 Kings 15:12); but later we read that Jehoshaphat (Asa's son) exterminated "the remnant of the male temple prostitutes who were still in the land" (1 Kings 22:46).

Yet, nine kings later, the qedheshim are still around. When Hezekiah came to the throne (late 8th century B.C.), he "disposed the idolatrous priests [who had been] ordained to make offerings in the high places" and "broke down the houses of the male temple prostitutes that were in the house of the Lord" and "defiled Topheth [the place of burning]" in the valley of Ben-hinnom, so that no longer children could be sacrificed to Molech - perhaps a god of the underworld5 (2 Kings 23:5,7,10). In this last passage, note that male cult prostitution is mentioned alongside sacrificing children to Molech. In fact, L.W. Countryman suggests that the three laws in Lev 18:21-23, directed against child sacrifice, male intercourse, and bestial union, may be tied together by their all having cultic associations. (A similar triad of laws is found in Exod 22:18-20, connecting and condemning sorcery, bestiality, and idolatrous sacrifice).6 Although we have no direct reference to the Israelites practicing bestial cultic practices, the allusion to the Ephraimites "kissing calves" at their bull sacrifices (Hosea 13:2, cf. 12:11) is a bit unsettling. (Other non-biblical references do mention specific bestial acts done in religious contexts.)

Returning to Lev 18:22, another major issue still needs to be addressed, namely, that most interpreters view this verse, in the overall Holiness Code (Lev 17-26), as a ban covering all male homosexual intercourse (if not all gay-lesbian practice). Jacob Milgrom, in his erudite study of Leviticus 17-22, lists the main explanations that have been offered for what lies behind the Lev. 18:22 ban – connecting homosexual union with idolatrous practices (Snaith 1967, Boswell 1980), wasting of male seed (Eiberg-Schwartz 1990, Biale 1992), blurring of gender boundaries (Douglas 1966, Thurston 1990), or mixing of semen with a defiling liquid (Bigger 1979, Olyan 1994).7 For Milgrom, the underlying issue is procreation vs. the producing of improper offspring (incest, adultery), no offspring (male or animal union), or the destruction of offspring (child sacrifice). Yet, he acknowledges that none of the ancients, including Israel, condemned the "spilling of seed" outside the womb, in any form (though Israel's law considered this defiling).8 Later, rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud would condemn masturbation (under Persian influence), while rabbis in the Palestinian Talmud would not.9 Milgrom connects 18:22 to fear of a stagnant birth rate, which would undermine God's Abrahamic covenant and promise that Israel would multiply exceedingly. Semen stood for life, and loss of semen stood for loss of life.10 Applying this ban to today, Milgrom holds that it applies only to Jewish gay males – who can, however, still fulfill the Eternal's call to "bear fruit" by adopting children.11

Yet, while various rationales have been offered for viewing Lev 18:22 as a comprehensive ban on homosexual practice, none of them can be applied without difficulties – except as related to idolatrous practices. Notice the clear command to Israel in Lev 19:1-4: "You shall be holy [set apart for me]. … Do not turn to idols or make [them]." With regard to the wasting of seed, "loss of seed" was not condemned in the Law of Moses, whether in night emission, masturbation, or incompleted heterosexual intercourse (Deut 23:10-11; Lev 15:16-17, 22:4b; Lev 15:18). The case of Onan in Gen 38:9-10 had only to do with not fulfilling the demands of the levirate tradition (to give a widowed sister-in-law an heir) and cannot be read in context as a ban on masturbation or interrupted coitus, in general. Israelite men were allowed to visit prostitutes (who would try to avoid pregnancy), and they were not banned from having sex during pregnancy or after menopause (neither of which could produce children). The command to "Be fruitful and multiple" (Gen 1:28, 9:1), while it made sense in terms of Israel's survival (and everybody married), makes little sense today in our overpopulated world, where many starve for lack of food. Even in ancient Israel, some women were barren, some men sterile, and others could not bear children for other reasons – so God's command could hardly be applied to everyone.

There would have been concern, of course, with a blurring of gender boundaries in the patriarchal mindset of the ancient world and among the Israelites – yet, as Nissinen notes, the important question in ancient times was not whether there was heterosexual vs. same-sex activity, but "Who's on top?" As long as a man was the active partner (the penetrator) and he was having sex with an inferior male (slave, foreigner, defeated enemy, eunuch, or boy), no dishonor nor disgrace was generally attached to any such act.12 Milgrom even notes that if an absolute ban on same-sex anal intercourse existed in Lev 18:22, it would have been unique in the whole ancient Near East.13 Bullough concluded that anal intercourse was widely practiced in Mesopotamia, and that there is no evidence that it was a taboo per se.14 Theologically, in Israel, the patriarchal system stemmed from the Fall and the curse that followed (Gen 3:16). In our age, so very different from ancient Israel, when women become every bit as well educated and capable as men, such gender divisions in labor, duty, and authority do not fit at all. With regards to the mixing of semen with a defiling liquid, it is bestial unions that are called "an [improper] mixing" (18:23), not lying with a zakhar ("sacred male," 18:22). This concern may have related to a fear people had that freaks (like centaurs) might result from animal-human mating. Bestiality is banned in general in the great curses in Deut 27 (v. 21) – but no similar ban here or elsewhere in the OT covering all homosexual intercourse.

So, the final verdict is in on the meaning of Lev. 18:22: Although Jewish rabbis many centuries later interpreted this ban as a condemnation of (Greek) homosexuality, many factors point to an original ban which was directed solely against the dangers of sacred prostitution being absorbed into the worship of Yahweh. Nowhere in the OT is any nonviolent, non-cultic homosexual act or relationship condemned or punished – and this is surely not because such did not happen. Indeed, when we look at the Jonathan and David story, we shall see how the writer there describes a clearly homoerotic friendship, with no hesitation or shame whatsoever.

FOOTNOTES:   1. Nissinen, p. 31-32.   2. Greenberg, p. 96-98; Nissinen, p. 31-32, cf. footnotes.   3. Greenberg, p. 106.    4. Horner, p. 23-24; Bottero, p. 97; Leick, p. 160.   5. Milgrom, p. 1558-59, 1564.   6. Countryman, p. 33.   7. Milgrom, p. 1566.   8. Milgrom, p. 1567-68.   9. Milgrom, p. 1658.   10. Milgrom, p. 1785-86.   11. Milgrom, p. 1568-69,1786-88.   12. Nissinen, p. 128-30.   13. Milgrom, p. 1566.   14. Bullough, p. 56.

REFERENCES:   Bottero, Jean, Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, orig. Fr. ed. 1992, Eng. trans. 2001.    Bullough, Vern, Sexual Variance in Society and History, 1976.   Countryman, L.W., Dirt, Greed and Sex, 1988.    Greenberg, Clement, The Construction of Homosexuality, 1988.    Horner, Tom, l Loved David, 1978.   Leick, Gwendolyn, Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature, 1994.    Milgrom, Jacob, Leviticus 17-22 (Anchor Bible), 2000.    Nissinen, Marti, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World, 1998.

TRANSLATIONS:   New Revised Standard Version, 1989.


© 2003 Bruce L. Gerig

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