The Levitical Ban: A Mysterious Puzzle
Key Passages: Leviticus 18:22, 20:13
By Bruce L. Gerig

Besides the Sodom story (Gen 19), another text in the OT has often been used to condemn gay people. It is an Israelite law found in Lev 18:22, 20:13 (first the prohibition is given, then the punishment). It reads: "[18:22] You shall not lie with a male [zakhar1] as with a woman [ishshah]; it is an abomination [to'ebhah]" … [20:13] "If a man [ish] lies with a male [zakhar] as with a woman [ishshah], both of them have committed an abomination [to'ebhah]; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them." (NRSV). In a close reading of these verses, it can be noted that: (1) this ban was directed toward Israelite men ("you shall not…"); (2) "lying with" was a commonly used OT sexual euphemism for "having intercourse with"; (3) "as with a woman" applied to two men must refer to anal intercourse (so other forms of same-sex sexual activity are not included here); and (4) only men are involved (so lesbianism is not included here). Later rabbis would condemn lesbianism under another nearby verse, 18:3: "You [Israelites] shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt [or] Canaan"2 – but almost anything could be stuck under such a general statement, including the kitchen sink. On the other hand, the church fathers simply stretched 18:22 to cover all people in all time and space – which moves again beyond what the text actually says.

Some have interpreted the DEATH penalty here as implying a particularly "heinous" crime, but it must be noted that this punishment was also assigned in Leviticus to cursing a parent (20:9), adultery with a neighbor's wife (20:10), practicing sorcery (20:27), and taking the Lord's name in vain (24:16). In fact, imprisonment was rare in the ancient Near East3 because maintaining prisons in desert land was cost prohibitive and among nomadic people totally impossible (although Joseph was thrown into pharaoh's prison). Another question that has been raised is how often these harsh laws and punishments were actually enforced. Bernard Bamberger notes that there is no record of a death sentence ever being carried out under Jewish auspices for "a man lying with a male."4 Whether this suggests that homosexual liaisons were "infrequent" in Israel (Bailey5) or "rampant" but overlooked if practiced in secret and without public spectacle (Patai6), probably the truth lies somewhere in between. The extreme cases of attempted same-sex gang rape at Sodom and later at Gibeah (Judg 19) suggest that milder, non-violent, and loving forms of homosexual behavior existed as well. Also, the absence of any later OT reference to any general ban on homosexuality raises the question as to whether this was the original meaning of Lev 18:22/20:13 at all. The fall of Jerusalem (587 B.C.) and subsequent exile of the Jews in Babylon clearly became a watershed that marked the end of their polytheistic worship and the beginning of a stricter religious outlook, which included an overall condemnation of homosexuality, drawing from the Persians (who believed that homosexuality was evil and demon-inspired) and reacting against the Greeks (whose pederastic education of youths had created a pervasive, bisexual social order).

With ABOMINATION (to'ebhah, Strong #8441), we come to a poorly-understood term in OT studies. The Hebrew word refers basically to something considered "offensive" by someone.7 For example, we are told that eating with foreigners (Joseph's brothers), shepherding (as an occupation), and sacrificing to foreign gods (Yahweh) were "abominations" to the Egyptians (Gen 43:32, 46:34; Ex 8:26). Strong lists to'ebhah ("abomination[s]" or "abominable") as appearing 116 times in the OT. While the word is used 21 times in Proverbs to refer to general wicked attitudes and actions (e.g., pride, lying, murder, sowing discord, etc., cf. Prov 6:16-19), such non-cultic application is unusual. Elsewhere, in the law, history, and prophets, to'ebhah is used most of the time to condemn the worship of false gods and related cultic practices in Canaan – which, not unexpectedly, would be most hateful to Yahweh. The only specific use of to'ebhah in Leviticus is in 18:22/20:13, although there are four other vague, nonspecific uses of the term (18:26,27,29,30). Note that another word, sheqets (Strong #8263), is also translated as "abomination" in Lev (esp. ch. 11), applied to certain "unclean" creatures that the Israelites were not to eat.

In Deuteronomy (where Moses gives the Israelites a review of the Law received in the wilderness before they enter the Promised Land, Deut 1:3), we can see how the Lord tends to use to'ebhah in conjunction with the Israelites. In Deuteronomy, to'ebhah is applied 11 times to cultic practices and only 4 times to general wicked acts. Specifically, the Lord condemns as "abominations" the Canaanite idols and (even) the metals they are made of (7:25-26); worshipping idols or the sun, moon and stars (17:2-5); enticing other Israelites to turn to idols (13:12-15); sacrificing children to the god Molech (12:31); and foretelling the future, practicing magic, casting spells, and communing with spirits, etc. (18:9-12). In later OT historical and prophetic books (ignoring nonspecific uses as well as the wisdom genre of Proverbs), to'ebhah is applied 41 times (87%) to foreign cultic practices, compared to only 8 times to non-cultic wicked acts. In the whole OT, then, to'ebhah is used 81% of the time in legal, historical, and prophetic material to condemn foreign idolatry and related cultic practices – a very high percentage and a focused meaning that appears even before the Israelites enter the Promised Land. Therefore, it behooves us to search for how the same-sex male anal intercourse banned in Lev 18:22/20:13 might be related somehow to the Canaanite worship of false gods.

With MALE (zakhar), we come to an even more unusual word. Several decades ago, Barrett Brick, a student at Columbia and of Hebrew (whose mother helped found PFLAG8) advised me, "Investigate zakhar – here you'll find the key to unlock the true meaning of Lev 18:22 and 20:13!" So what about this word? First, looking at ish (Strong #376, "man") and ishshah (#802, "woman") in Lev 20:13, we note that these are common words used throughout the OT for ”man" and "woman," conveying the sense of "husband, procreator, and father" and "wife, sexual partner, mother, concubine, or prostitute." (Brown) However, zakhar (#2145, "male") along with zekhur (#2138, a variant with the same meaning9) occur only 86 times in the OT10 – compared with 2,160 times for ish.11 As a companion word to zakhar, neqebhah (FEMALE, #5347), occurs 22 times in the OT. In the King James Version, zakhar/zekhur are usually translated as "male[s]" – but also 10 times as "man" and twice, peculiarly, as "mankind" (Lev 18:22, 20:13). These rare terms are applied to animals and birds as well as humans – but, more important, interpreters have noted that zakhar/zekhur often refer to sacrificial animals and circumcised men12 and in worship contexts (Strong, Brown). Appearing 60 times in the Pentateuch (Gen-Deut), for example, these terms are applied 10 times (17%) to sacrificial animals, 9 times (15%) to circumcised males, and 10 times (17%) to Israelite priests – half of the total use (49%).

The more specialized meanings of zakhar and neqebhah become clear right from the beginning of Genesis, where we read that God created Adam and Eve, the first "male" and "female," to fill and rule over the earth and to have fellowship with him (Gen 1:27-28, 5:2) – amazing sacred duties. Later, Noah is instructed to take representative land creatures, "male" and "female," into the Ark, to keep their species alive during the Flood (Gen 6:19; 7:3,9,16). God instructs Abraham to begin circumcising all the "males" of his family and lineage as a sign that the Israelites are His special, covenant people. In all of these cases, zakhar refers not just to a male, but to a male dedicated to God, with some special sacred function to perform. In fact, surveying all of the uses of zakhar/zekhur throughout the OT, one can discern in a full 90% of the cases a special sacred significance. As well as applied 32 times to sacrificial animals, circumcised males, and Israelite priests (37%), these terms are applied 28 times to certain classes of Israelite males who held special, sacred duties (36%) – including all Israelite men who were to visit the Lord's sanctuary three times yearly, men tied to the Lord in a sacred vow, men counted as potential warriors for holy war, Jews who returned from exile to Jerusalem to renew Temple worship, newborn sons in Israel (future spiritual heads of families), and boys dedicated to the Lord (like Samuel). Besides applied to Yahweh, however, the concept of "sacred male" (zakhar/zekhur) is also found applied to males dedicated to pagan deities (12%) – including the Midianites who first led Israel into licentious worship of Baal, other Canaanite men who would lead Israel astray, and their male (phallic?) idols.13

Returning to Lev. 18:22/20:13, we have already noted that ish ("man") at the beginning of 20:13 points to Israelite men – so zakhar must refer to something different. It could refer to sex with an Israelite priest, but no evidence supports this – or any of the other Israelite sacred-male categories. When we turn to Deut 23:17-18, however, what we do read is this: "[N]one of the sons of Israel shall be a temple prostitute [or bring] the wages of a male prostitute into the house of the Lord your God…" (NRSV) These two passages then fit together like pieces in a puzzle, the more precise meaning of "sacred male" (zakhar) in Lev 18:22/20:13 turning out to be a generalized reference (or sexual euphemism) for the male cult prostitute in Canaan, who sold his sexual services to worshippers of Baal to raise money for their pagan sanctuaries.


Uses of Zakhar/Zekhur ("Male") in the OT

FOOTNOTES:   1. Note that Hebrew words are usually pronounced by accenting the last syllable.   2. Cf. Dorff, p. 365.   3. IDB, I,742; ABD, V,555.   4. Bamberger, p. 881.   5. Bailey, p. 37.   6. Patai, p. 153,159.   7. Waltke, B.K. "Abomination," ISBE, I(1979),13.   8. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.   9. Appears in Ex 23:17, 34:23; Deut 16:16, 20:13.   10. Clements, R.E., "zakhar…" TDOT, IV(1980),82-83.   11. Bratsiotis, N.P., "ish…" TDOT, I(1974),222.   12. Bandstra, B.L. and A.D. Verhey, "Sex; sexuality," ISBE, IV(1988),432.   13. Clements, p. 85.

REFERENCES:   Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1992.   Bailey, D.S., Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition, 1955.   Bamberger, Bernard, "Leviticus," in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. by W.G. Plaut, 1981.   Brown, Francis, et al., Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 2000 ed.   Dorff, Eliott, Matters of Life and Death, 1998.   Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 4 vols., 1962.   International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4 vols., 1979-88.   Patai, Raphael, Family, Love and the Bible, 1960.    Strong, James, Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible…, 1890.   Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. by J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren, English trans. 1974- .

TRANSLATIONS:   King James Version, 1611.    New Revised Standard Version, 1989.


© 2003 Bruce L. Gerig

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