Making Clobber Verses Safe(r) (Part Two: Abominations and Taboos)

symbols01-BLet’s continue our close reading of the “clobber verse” Leviticus 20:13. The New Revised Standard Version translation of this text is as follows:

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.

The Hebrew text of the verse reads:

וְאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִשְׁכַּ֤ב אֶת־זָכָר֙ מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֔ה תּוֹעֵבָ֥ה עָשׂ֖וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֑ם מ֥וֹת יוּמָ֖תוּ דְּמֵיהֶ֥ם בָּֽם

Or, roughly transliterated:

Veh-eesh asher yeeshkav eṯ-zachar mishkevay eesha toe-ehva asu senayhem mote yumatu demayhem bam.

Last time we looked closely at the two Hebrew words mishkevay eesha, translated above as “as with a woman,” to discover that mishkevay means “beds” (sometimes as a place of sleep, sometimes as a place where one has sex, and sometimes as a reference to having sex) and eesha means “woman” or “wife.” The construct mishkevay eesha (“beds woman” or “making love wife”) makes no sense to us unless we read other words into the phrase (such as “having sex like a woman,” or just as logically, “having sex with a woman” or “beds of a wife”). A reader wrote me privately to point out that the traditional reading of Leviticus 20:13 requires us to read two phrases into the Hebrew that aren’t present there: this works something like “If a man lies with a male in the manner of having sex with a woman.” As I wrote last time, it is neither clear nor obvious that these are the right phrases to insert into the text. Personally, I prefer something like “if a man lies with a male in the bed of his wife.” But regardless, the two words mishkevay and eesha don’t literally translate into “as with a woman,” let alone “gay sex.”  There is no “plain meaning” reference to same-sex sex in Leviticus 20:13.

Too often, we’re guilty of reading Bible translations as if they were the original text, and confusing the interpretation of the translators with the authoritative word of G-d. Please understand, when I say “we’re guilty,” I mean that I’m guilty. I’m as surprised as anyone to learn that a “clobber verse” that has been used as a pretext for persecution of LGBTQ folk literally refers not to “gay sex,” but to “beds woman.” We can see the same pretext at work when we look at how Leviticus 20:13 is translated to condemn male same-sex sex. The word of condemnation is the Hebrew “תּוֹעֵבָה“ (to-ehvah), a word often translated in our Bibles as “abomination.” From “abomination,” we get the idea that the Bible sees gay sex as horrible, vile, shameful and detestable. From this, the condemnation is frequently expanded, so that same-sex sex is described as sinful, unnatural and satanic. But is this a fair reading of the word toehvah?

We can get a better picture of what toehvah means by looking at other things labelled as toehvah by the Bible. A few examples of toehvah are things we truly revile today, such as child sacrifice and idolatry. Want to know what else is toehvah? Visiting a fortune teller. Eating pig or shellfish. Burning incense. Sacrificing a sheep with a blemish. Cross-dressing. A man marrying a woman he’d previously divorced, if in the interim she married someone else. Lending at interest, or investing to receive interest (except, perhaps, if the investor gives her earnings to the poor). Bible references to things toehvah go on and on; there are more than 100 of them. A few toehvah things are things we take seriously, but many address matters of little consequence to most of us. And if you’ve read some LGBTQ-friendly posts on the clobber verses, you’ve probably heard all this before.

But there are certain Bible references to toehvah that I bet many of my readers don’t know about. I certainly did not know about these toehvah things, which is surprising, since they’re the first examples of toehvah listed in the Bible! It turns out: herding sheep is toehvah. Herding sheep! Jesus called himself the good shepherd, and King David was a real-life shepherd, yet sheep herding is toehvah. Shocking, huh? Even more shocking: making sacrifices to G-d is also called toehvah. You wouldn’t believe it if the Bible didn’t say it.

OK, OK. You’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. The Bible says that shepherding and making sacrifices to G-d were things that Israelites did that Egyptians thought were toehvah:

Then Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron and said, “Go, sacrifice to your G-d within the land.” But Moses said, “It would not be right [nahkone] to do so, for the offerings we shall sacrifice to the Lord our G-d are an abomination [toehvah] to the Egyptians. If we sacrifice offerings abominable [toehvah] to the Egyptians before their eyes, will they not stone us?

Interesting what happens when we look at the actual Hebrew in our Bible texts! Evidently, what is toehvah in one place is not necessarily toehvah somewhere else. With toehvah, we’re not talking about actions like murder, stealing and bearing false witness, which are wrong everywhere. Actions are or are not toehvah depending on where they’re done.

Look back at the verse above. Moses said that the Israelites should not sacrifice an animal to G-d while in the presence of the Egyptians. Why not? Moses said that doing so would not be nahkone. Nahkone is translated here as “right,” but that’s not what nahkone means elsewhere in the Bible. Nahkone derives from the Hebrew word koon, meaning firm, fixed or established. Elsewhere in the Bible, nahkone is translated as “determined,” or more often, “established.” Moses was saying, I think, that animal sacrifice was toehvah in Egypt because this was not an “established” practice there. In our own language, animal sacrifice wasn’t “done” in Egypt.

By now, it should be clear that there’s something very wrong with translating toehvah as ”abomination.” Characterizing gay sex as an “abomination” makes it sound like it’s the worst thing in the world—not just “wrong,” but profoundly, obviously, horribly wrong. But:

  • The Bible labels as toehvah many things that most of us are fine with today.
  • Nothing is absolutely toehvah. Burning incense is not toehvah for an Egyptian, and herding sheep is not toehvah for an Israelite.
  • At least when it came to living among the Egyptians, Moses didn’t seem to understand toehvah in terms of “right” and “wrong.” At least when in Egypt, toehvah was a question of what was “established” or customary.

Genesis gives us another terrific illustration of the meaning of toehvah. Genesis 43 continues the story of Joseph, the favored son of Jacob who had received the famous many-colored coat (or was it just a long-sleeved coat?) and was sold into slavery by his jealous older brothers. Here’s the scene in Genesis 43: Joseph has improbably risen to the position of Vizier, the second most powerful figure in Egypt (after Pharaoh, of course). The land of Israel was in famine, and Jacob, Joseph’s father, has sent his remaining sons to Egypt to purchase food. Jacob’s sons met with Joseph, who was then in charge of the Egyptian food supply. Joseph recognized his brothers, but the brothers did not recognize that the mighty Vizier of Egypt was in reality their long-lost brother. Joseph and his brothers sat down for a feast, along with Joseph’s Egyptian attendants. Here’s the Bible’s description of how Joseph’s Egyptian attendants served the meal:

They served [Joseph] by himself, the brothers by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews, for that is detestable [toehvah] to Egyptians.

Is this not a crazy picture? Joseph’s Egyptian servants would not eat with Joseph, because they knew Joseph was a toehvah Hebrew. Joseph could not eat with his brothers, because no Egyptian would eat with a Hebrew, and Joseph was not yet ready to reveal his true identity. So the feast was segregated, with the Egyptians on one side, the Hebrews on the other. And poor Joseph—arguably the second most powerful human being on the planet at the time—was forced to eat alone!

But the fact that eating with Joseph was toehvah to Egyptians did not prevent Pharaoh from appointing Joseph to the position of Vizier. It did not prevent Joseph from doing a bang-up job saving the Egyptians from famine. It did not even interfere with Joseph being placed in charge of the Egyptian food supply, even though (ironically enough) Joseph could not eat any of this food at the same table as an Egyptian. Despite this business of toehvah, Joseph was able to give orders to Egyptians, have Egyptian servants, and even marry an Egyptian woman.

If the Egyptians had understood toehvah the way some of us currently understand the pronouncement in Leviticus 20:13, then the Joseph story could not have unfolded in this way. The toehvah Joseph would have been isolated, persecuted and possibly even killed in Egypt, long before his brothers arrived there in search of food. There would have been no Hebrew Vizier to greet the brothers on their arrival in Egypt. If the Egyptians understood toehvah the way some “religious bakers” understand it today, then the Egyptians would have refused to sell grain to the sons of Jacob. Jacob’s sons would then have returned empty-handed to their father, possibly to succumb to famine. In which case, there might not have been a Jewish people, and thus, no Christians either.

So long as we’re marveling over the ironies written in-between the lines of the Bible, let’s not let the Egyptians completely off the hook. Remember, the Egyptians too would have starved if the toehvah Joseph had not stumbled into their midst. And, of course, eventually the day came when the Egyptians forgot about Joseph … that is, if you believe that the early chapters of the Bible provide us with an historical account of “what really happened.”

But I digress. It should be clear that there’s something wrong with translating toehvah as “abomination.” Abomination is too strong a word for practices as diverse as child sacrifice and incense burning. Abomination is too absolute a word for something used to describe Egyptian objections to holy Israelite practices. A better translation for toehvah might be “taboo.” “Taboo” gives us a sense that the question of toehvah is culturally determined, and culturally relative. Functionally, toehvah marked the ethnic-national boundary between Israel and its neighbors.

I hope to have more to say about toehvah in a later post. But I want to close with a personal statement. I don’t think it’s exactly “good news” to say that toehvah should be translated as “taboo” and not as “abomination.” True, it’s important to stress that homophobia is a cultural creation. But it’s equally important to stress that homophobia is a personal choice. We can choose (wrongly, I am certain) to continue to embrace a taboo against same-sex sex that served thousands of years ago to divide Israel from hostile nations. But those nations no longer exist, yet the taboo lives on, perversely dividing us from our neighbors and potential friends. If this taboo ever served a useful purpose, surely it has long since ceased to do so.

  • I’m no scholar, but wouldn’t the proscription for the death penalty indicate that this *was* considered wrong at all times? I know that the death penalty wasn’t really enforced much, but I thought it was still supposed to be indicative of how serious an offense was considered.

    • JB, good question! We should probably distinguish between the “seriousness” of an offense, and whether the Bible tells us that the offense was wrong everywhere. But you’re asking a question I asked myself: doesn’t the fact of the death penalty mean that whatever activity Leviticus 20:13 was referring to, it meant to condemn the activity as wrong wherever and whenever it took place?

      But it’s hard to draw conclusions from the types of crimes where the death penalty was applicable (and you’re right, we understand from traditional Jewish sources that the death penalty was rarely applied). The death penalty was applicable to certain crimes we’d consider to be wrong wherever they were committed, like murder, kidnapping and bearing false witness. But it also applied to crimes that would only be considered criminal among the Israelites, like sacrificing to other gods, false prophecy, blasphemy and desecrating the Sabbath. It was even applied to “crimes” we wouldn’t consider to be crimes today, such as cursing or disobeying a parent. As it reads, the ancient law was harsh, and the Israelites took seriously those laws that marked their ethnic and cultural boundaries. But that’s not the same as saying that these laws were seen as setting forth moral principles that everyone need follow.

    • R. F. DeAngelis

      Think of it like a maxim sentence, that is after all how it was used. In the above examples, breaking these taboos for the Egyptians could get you killed (sheep herding, sacrificing) and we have seen throughout the ancient world where breaking taboos COULD get you killed. But more often than not, it didn’t.

      Law was not as we see it today, if something was against the law then, punishment was then metered out biased on who the offender was and why they did it. When this was done justly it meant stealing a loaf of bread to feed your family was overlooked, when it was done poorly it meant that the judge could let you go because you were his brother, owed him money or were rich and he wanted to curry favor with you.

      We gave that up for laws to be applied equally to everyone… I’m not going to get into which is worse.

      On top of that you had, much as you have today, people who wanted a strict enforcement of cultural taboos, and those that didn’t really care.

      Also remember, a lot of the laws of the bible are old Israeli legal code, not words from on high. We are viewing these culter laws from 3000+ years ago, through the eyes of Hellenistic philosophers, translated by Roman nobles trying to hold onto power when the Emporer went mad and changed the state faith, then retranslated by European nobility to give themselves validity.

      We think of Taboo/Abomination meaning one thing… we also think Apocalypse means the end of the world.

      These is not true for when the words were used. Hint Apocalypse means to reveal.

      In short, the Pharisees are once again in charge of the temple, once more their words make ‘sense’ as you would think it is better to be safe than sorry.

      Sadly Christ disagreed with them.

  • Selena Marie Wilson

    Sadly, many of those who truly need to read this will not.

    • But you did, even if you didn’t need to. Thanks!

      • Selena Marie Wilson

        Yes, and even shared it. Hopefully it will find its way to those who will accept it or need it.

  • Larry, it is good to see you taking on the whole puzzle of language here. Well done. In my own heart now nearing 70 birthdays, I still find myself asking whether the language/logic/law axis, for all its power, can do what we think we want it to do: give us that answer that everyone will agree with. I am in the camp that says it cannot. But what it can do is undermine our prejudice, assumptions and certainty.

    Yet even here, it is only with divine assistance that the ‘no’ works as well as the ‘fiat’. I am reminded of the negative way of Psalm 15. First there is the positive way: Who gets to live in Yahweh’s tent? One walking complete, and working righteousness, and speaking truth in his heart – all open ended, so give me a law: he does not slander with his tongue, he does not do evil to his friend, and a reproach he does not lift up over those near him – and a few more in later verses. Without getting side-tracked by the rest of the psalm, how can we interpret any of the instruction for our stability without the presence behind the words? Our problems with the sexual discussion happen when culture, conditioning, and convention constitute the authority and presence behind the words.

    I am sure that we all have this need to be undermined. I have heard these discussions of abomination before. I think abomination is a possible reading, but only if you use that word everywhere so that if we read, the other uses of the word in our language raise questions rather than answers. Whatever we read, the reading alone does not show us if there is another fuller way. Because this ‘completion’ (Hebrew תמם) is so personal, some would even say private (think of the white stone in the last book of the NT), the name known only to the individual and to G-d, it is moot whether prescriptive legislation (the answer that compels agreement on pain of retribution) can govern desire and consummation.

    I don’t know if you read Daniel Kirk’s blog. He has been dealing with the same subject these past few weeks.

    • Bob, I recently read Daniel Kirk’s blog piece that led off with the statement, “Certain kinds of people simply cannot be part of the people of G-d.” He meant that in an LGBTQ-affirming way, and I almost quoted him in this piece, because I think this is at the heart of our discussion: the need to draw borders to define a religious community. But Kirk’s meaning is complicated and is based on something akin to supersessionism that doesn’t fit on my blog.

      I’ve written about the need for borders, particularly for a tiny minority religion like Judaism. Without a border, we will be swamped by and disappear within the more powerful majority that surrounds us. The difficult trick is to define an open border, one that does not calcify and become rigid, one that allows people and ideas to pass from inside to outside, and vice versa, while maintaining the distinctiveness of the “stuff” within. In Judaism, this border consists of a mixture of practices and ideas that are more or less unique to us. But the border does not physically exist anywhere. It is to an extent imaginary, meaning that we have to believe in it, and to believe in it, sometimes it has to change.

      I agree with what you’ve stated above, except that I think you need to layer on top of this the idea of community. I won’t speak for Christianity, but Judaism is a collective identity. The “I” in my statement “I am Jewish” is always something of a “we.” Moreover, we don’t understand this “we” as universal. We don’t seek or expect everyone to become Jewish; we think that G-d is perfectly happy with a religiously diverse planet Earth. Hence a need to define the Jewish people as something distinct. You are right to suggest that Jewish identity is to an extent personal and private, but we have a need for it to be public, too.

      I love what you said about the “need to be undermined.” That goes to the heart of religion for me, which is the natural human “sixth sense” of wonder. I’m not much younger than you are, and I can feel MY borders calcifying! It’s only by undermining myself that I can maintain that sixth sense.

      Thanks again for a great comment.

      • Thanks Larry – I understand the borders issue – we differ, yet we are ‘one’ in some difficult to define way. It is the same with ‘I am Christian’ or ‘a Christian’. It is corporate and individual. I argued in my e-book, Seen from the Street, on this subject that the population of heaven is one. (It’s in the comic relief section).

        I understand borders because post shoa I have had to deal with the supercessionist reading of the NT, toevah to me, unacceptable. I have had to deal with boundary markers like circumcision, which I now must ignore. (I deal with this extensively in that mentioned book). Paul’s response to Galatians is precisely to maintain a border, yet open, but to break down walls that are not open. I have had to deal with the question of male and female and the roles of humans of either gender in the assemblies – and so have we all – but there are the intransigents…, those who will not cross the floor.

        This is a very personal and difficult discussion. Alternate realities stare at me. Some of them I don’t want to enter. But I must allow them to live. There are places where my tolerance stops – for myself and for others. I cannot ‘explain’ but I can ‘story’ the issues.

  • Kevin Kelly

    I don’t know who or what you are…..you certainly have no business translating the word of YHWH or Yeshua. You can twist and distort the scriptures any way you choose, but this be fair warning: you will be held accountable to HIM for your interference of HIS words.

    • Kevin, for someone who failed to engage what I wrote, you seem to have understood the gist perfectly. I am responsible to G-d for how I interpret the Bible. You too. On this, we agree.