According to Christianity, are gays supposed to be executed? I wouldn’t think so, but a police detective in Knox County, Tennessee named Grayson Fritts, in the news for a June 2 sermon at All Scripture Baptist Church, wants “LGBT freaks . . . to be put to death.”
His church’s home page lays it out: “God said homosexuality should be punished with the death penalty, as set forth in Leviticus 20:13.”
Or note Mark D. Smith, currently a professor at the College of Idaho, and author of a widely cited 1996 paper that says, yes, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are “reaffirmed” for Christians.
I wrote him, asking: Is the death penalty also “reaffirmed”?
“I read a number of studies on the topic, but I don’t remember any of them grappling with the punishment issue,” he replies.
He declines to say Christians should not kill gay people. Rather, the subject has been . . . insufficiently studied.
Read Christian commentary on these verses, and you realize: in their hearts they might just think these words are calling for that conclusion. Nothing Jesus said about love, etc., makes much difference. What matters is this: “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.”
The truth about Leviticus 18:22, however, is not so clear.
Let’s start with acknowledging the fact, widely noted by many scholars, that the language is unclear.
As Renato Lings notes, “the original Hebrew wording of this minuscule text is so arcane that the entire verse becomes almost untranslatable.”
He suggests: “And with a male you shall not lie down the lyings of a woman.”
Jan Joosten, professor of Hebrew at Oxford, suggests an even more literal translation: “And-with a male not you-will-lie ‘lyings-of’ a woman.”
Which means . . . what?
“Commentators for more than two millennia have struggled to interpret these laws,” notes Saul M. Olyan in a 1994 paper.
Let’s turn to the text of Leviticus 18:22, and see if we can figure this out. First of all, in the Hebrew there is no ‘as one does with’ gluing the two parts of the verse together. As Joosten says, “this particle is absent.”
So now, read the verse without those words: “Do not have sexual relations with a man [as one does with] a woman; that is detestable.”
The words ‘sexual relations’ are also not there.
The underlying word seems to have some association with the word ‘bed’ and is often translated by scholars as lyings— “a difficult phrase,” Joosten says, “attested only here and in the parallel verse Lev. 20:13.”
Then look at the dramatic and unexpected shifts in numbering. The ‘male’ is singular; the ‘lyings’ is plural; the ‘woman’ is singular?
A singular male acts sexually in plural ways on a singular female?
The Septuagint or LXX, the Greek translation of the verse (in Lings’ translation) is a bit helpful: “And with a male you shall not lie a woman’s bed.”
In the Hebrew, ‘lyings’ is plural, and in the LXX, ‘bed’ is singular. Note that we now have two quite different biblical texts.
Jewish rabbis have had to ponder these vexing issues in the original Hebrew, unlike Christians who prefer translations. The rabbis, following the twists and turns of each word, came to surprising conclusions, as David Brodsky details in “Sex in the Talmud: How to Understand Leviticus 18 and 20.”
If the verse is about sex between men, they asked, why doesn’t the text just forbid a man ‘lying with a man’? That would be simple enough.
But the rabbis, unlike the Christians, realized the text had to be respected. Every word is meaningful, and if it says lyings—plural—they believe the meaning must involve more than one . . . way of being sexual?
The rabbinic mind pored over all the orifices of the male body, but could think of only one way to treat a man ‘like a woman’. Since women have two orifices, they considered that sex with women was actually the subject.
As Brodsky explains:
The rabbis interpreted the plural “lyings of women” to mean that when a man has sexual intercourse with a woman who is Biblically prohibited to him, both vaginal intercourse and anal intercourse are prohibited, and each carries the same penalty . . .
For me, it was little eccentric that Leviticus would prohibit anal sex with married women? I kept in search.
If you respect the Biblical text—which Christians do not—then you’d have to acknowledge what the text does not forbid. Even if ‘lyings’ were understood to mean anal intercourse, then any other intimacy between men is not forbidden. Neither is ‘homosexuality’ as an inclination anywhere discussed.
Also, rape victims are not excluded. “Even the question of the partner’s consent remains unmentioned,” as Joosten notes. “The text single-mindedly focuses on the sexual act.”
Olyan observes as well: the ban involves acts “coerced and those voluntary…”
A five-year-old boy, for example, who is anally raped, must be killed—under the sexual reading of the verse.
Another problem is that lesbianism is not indicated at all. The sexual reading of the verse has created a special focus on male bodies touching which is difficult to understand.
Is the point that men aren’t to assume feminine roles?
That would be odd. God loves feminine men—Joseph, Moses, David, and many biblical heroes often carry feminine references. “Israel is to cultivate the virtues of submission, accommodation, reconciliation, and self-sacrifice — the virtues we have now seen are classified as feminine ones,” says Jacob Neusner.
Later in the New Testament, Paul regularly describes himself and other Christians in female terms. Israel was God’s wife, after all, as Christians are to be the ‘bride’ of Christ. So imagining males in female terms wouldn’t seem problematic in Jewish spirituality.
Olyan tries out the idea that Leviticus 18:22 is trying to prohibit semen and excrement from mixing. Biblical law might be thought to contemplate in such terms. But then . . . anal sex with a woman is not prohibited.
Maybe anal with women was “not part of the Israelite repertoire of sexual acts,” Olyan suggests. But here he is overlooking that anal sex with women is actually noted in the Bible, as F. Rachel Magdalene points to Jeremiah 13:22: “your buttocks suffer violence…”
“The exact talmudic term for male-female anal intercourse is ‘penetration not according to her way,’” notes Daniel Boyarin.
But if anal sex with women isn’t prohibited . . . then the prohibition of Leviticus 18:22 also would now clearly not concern sexual acts that are non-procreative. The body is never understood to be exclusively reserved for contacts that result in children.
Note the Old Testament seem to encourage male closeness in general? In Ecclesiastes 4:11, those who sleeps separately are questioned: “How can one keep warm alone?”
It might even seem that God wants humans to be close.
June Kozak Kane studies Leviticus 20:13, puzzling over the problems.
Looking at the precise Hebrew words in Leviticus 20:13, it is fascinating to note what we actually see and what is not there. What the text prohibits is a sexual relationship between a “man” (ish in Hebrew) and a male (zachar in Hebrew), not between an “ish” and another “ish.”
Perhaps the ish/zachar difference suggests pederasty, she suggests.
There are many theories. Incest maybe?
Jan Joosten finds that a stretch, but it’s maybe “a prohibition of sexual intercourse between Israelite males when either or both of them are married.”
I find anal adultery a less than obvious meaning, and was about to give up on finding out which holes of whose bodies God was criminalizing for phallic entry, or not . . . when I noticed a 2014 blog posting by Susan Pigott, a Christian professor of Hebrew at Hardin-Simmons.
In “Leviticus Defiled: The Perversion of Two Verses,” she suggests this translation: “And with a male you will not lay (on) the couches/beds of a woman.”
The context, she suggests, is a cue not to sex at all, but to cult religious practice.
As she notes, “the law forbidding sacrificing children to Molech appears immediately prior to the oft-prooftexted 18:22, usually understood to forbid homosexuality.”
She peers closely at the Hebrew text.
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. The New American Standard Bible has a footnote that says, “Lit. “those who lie” taking the word “couches” as a participle. But it is not a participle. It is a plural noun. So what does this mean?
Well, first it means that translators have taken great liberties in smoothing out these verses. Second, it means that maybe these verses aren’t talking about homosexuality at all, especially in light of the context of Molech worship.
That would help understand the prohibition on sex with animals in v.23, for scholars know this refers to ancient religious practices, as animals, of course, often represented deities (i.e. the golden calf of Exodus).
The scholar Robert Karl Gnuse explains: “A devotee might have sex with an animal that particularly represented a specific deity in order to have communion with that deity.”
So then we realize Leviticus is all about rituals and Temple practices by priests. Maybe that’s why it’s called Leviticus—the Levites were priests.
Maybe this is a set of instructions understood by them, and not understood by later readers to whom their lost world is largely unknown.
I developed my own theory, though. As Pigott notes, the word ‘bed’ is used in Isaiah 57:7–9 in connection to idolatrous practices.
So that means that idolatry and ‘bed’ are connected. That makes sense. The Jewish Temple was the ‘bed of love’, as in Ezekiel 23:17.
A temple was called a ‘bed’ because, in Jewish spirituality, as in Christianity, after all, God and humans are seen as married. (Christians are the ‘bride of Christ, of course.)
When there was a physical temple, then the place where the deity and humans met was, essentially, a marital bed.
I pull out my Jewish Levite priest decoder ring. “And with a male you shall not lie down the lyings of a woman.”
This would mean — another ‘man’ or rival deity — shouldn’t be allowed into the worship space— of Yahweh?
“Regardless, the sacred-cow prooftexts against homosexuality aren’t all that clear, are they?”
Susan Pigott is wrapping up.
“Isn’t it interesting, that when Jesus quoted Leviticus, he quoted a verse about love (Lev. 19:18)? Maybe, if we’re going to pick one verse out of Leviticus to plaster on signs, that’s the one we should choose.”