This is the third of a series of posts examining Dr. Daniel Helminiak’s book, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. The first two posts are located here and here. This installment addresses two “abominations” referenced in the 18th and 20th chapters of Leviticus:
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
“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.”
As I have explained in the previous installments, Daniel Helminiak is a former Catholic priest, a Biblical scholar and a veteran of many years of ministry to the LGBT community. He uses a “historical-critical” approach to interpreting the Bible which posits that, in order to understand what passages of the Bible concerning homosexuality really mean as applied to modern society, one must understand and appreciate what the mindset was of the writers of such passages. This post describes Helminiak’s insights into and conclusions regarding these passages from Leviticus, viewed in the light of a historical-critical approach to their interpretation.
The Holiness Code
These two passages appear in what scholars refer to as “The Holiness Code” – a list of laws and punishments that spelled out requirements for Israel to remain ‘holy’ in God’s sight. As Professor Helminiak explains in his book, “to remain separate from the Gentiles was to be ‘holy’ – set apart, different, chosen, special, consecrated … Differences or specialness is the core meaning of holiness in the ancient Hebrew understanding. So, a main concern of The Holiness Code was to keep Israel different from the Gentiles … Homogenital sex is forbidden because it is associated with Gentile identity. It departs from the Jewish understanding of how things should be.”
“The prohibition of male-male sex,” continued Helminiak, “occurs only in The Holiness Code of Leviticus and nowhere else. But other prohibitions in The Holiness Code [such as adultery, incest and bestiality] recur in other places in the Bible … The implication is that the only reason for forbidding male-male sex is concern about uncleanness and ‘holiness.’ The argument in Leviticus is religious [i.e., ritualistic], not ethical or moral. That is to say, no thought is given to whether the sex in itself is right or wrong. The intent is to keep Jewish identity strong. The concern is purity.”
To better explain what he means when he draws a distinction between religious laws vs. ethical/moral laws, Helminiak uses the example of the prohibition on eating meat in the Catholic Church. There used to be a church law that forbade Catholics from eating meat on Fridays. That church law was considered so serious that violation was a mortal (i.e., extremely serious) sin, supposedly punishable by hell. Yet no one believed that eating meat was something wrong in itself. The offense was against a religious responsibility.
Male-Male Penetrative Sex
This example parallels, in Helminiak’s view, the prohibition of male-male sex in Leviticus. “Not sex,” he writes, “but violation of Judaism is what was prohibited … [and] the fact that two men shared a sexual experience was really not a problem. The only problem was when one man penetrated another. Among the early Israelites, to engage specifically in male-male intercourse was to mix the roles of man and woman. Such ‘mixing of the kinds’ was an abomination; it was impure … Though the Hebrew Testament certainly did forbid penetrative male-male sex, its reasons for forbidding it have no bearing on today’s discussion of homosexuality.”
And what was behind this Hebrew aversion to penetrative male-male sex? “Women [was] to be penetrated,” writes Helminiak, “and man is to penetrate. The very Hebrew word for woman, naqeba, means ‘orifice bearer’ – as if there were no orifices in the male body. The fundamental image of a woman was someone who was there to serve the man in sexual intercourse. So for a man to sexually penetrate another man in anal intercourse was to mix and confuse the standards of maleness and femaleness. It was to use a male in the function of a female. It was precisely this mixing of kinds, this confusion of accepted gender roles, that Leviticus 18:22 forbade – but not other kinds of male-male sex. In the ancient Hebrew mind, penetrative sex with another man disrupted the ideal order of things and thus was unclean, taboo, forbidden; it was an abomination.”
In this regard, I am reminded from a scene from the documentary I reviewed here, Trembling Before G-d, which explored homosexuality among orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities. In this scene, Steve Greenberg, who is reportedly the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi in the United States, describes visiting with a revered rabbi in Jerusalem and asking him about homosexuality. The rabbi pointed out that male-male penetrative sex is forbidden by the Torah. Greenberg replied that there are other ways to express homosexual love, which the revered rabbi admitted he had never considered.
The Abomination Word
And now, about that word “abomination.” In referring to Leviticus 20:25-26, Helminiak explains that “abominable” is just another word for “unclean.” “An abomination,” he writes, “is a violation of the purity rules that governed Israelite society and kept the Israelites different from other peoples … We do not fully understand the ancient Jewish worldview … The reasons for the purity laws of Leviticus are lost in history and in layer upon layer of editing … Whatever the rationale was behind the ancient Hebrew purity laws, such thinking certainly has nothing to do with ethics as we understand it.”
Helminiak also points out that the Hebrew term toevah used in Leviticus, which is commonly translated as abomination, could also be translated as “uncleanness” or “impurity” or “dirtiness” or “taboo”. The significance of the use of this word becomes clearer when one realizes that another Hebrew term zimah could have been used, if that was what the authors intended. Zimah means, not what is objectionable for religious or cultural reasons, but what is wrong in itself. It means an injustice, a sin. “Clearly, then,” writes Helminiak, “Leviticus does not say that for man to lie with is a “sin.” Rather, it is a ritual violation, an uncleanness.
Further textual support is found in the Greek Septuagint, which usually translates the Hebrew word toevah with the Greek word bdelygma, which means a ritual offense. In some places, it is translated as akatharsia, which means uncleanness. But, as with the original Hebrew, other Greek words were available, such as anomia, meaning a violation of law or wrong or a sin; or poneria, an evil practice; or asebia, meaning ungodliness. “These words, “writes Helminiak, could have been used to translate toevah. In fact, in some cases they were. In nine places in chapter 16 of Ezekial – where the prophet outright defines the sin of Sodom [see last week’s post on the Sin of Sodom] – toevah is translated as anomia, and the offenses in question are not just ritual impurity but real wrongs, like idolatry, child sacrifice, adultery and basic wickedness. Anomia also translates toevah in Ezekial 18:12, 13 and 24, where the discussion is about individual moral responsibility. In Proverbs 26:25, referring to a deceitful and wicked person, poneria is used to translate toevah. And in Ezekial 14:6, in reference to idolatry, the Greek word asebia is used to translate toevah.”
In the last post in this series, I mentioned a book, Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality, by Rev. Rack Rogers, Professor of Theology Emeritus at San Francisco Theological Seminary and former Moderator (President) of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). In his book, Professor Rogers sums up his comments on these two verses from Leviticus thusly (at pp. 69-70):
“Jesus was concerned with purity of heart. In Matthew 15 he said to a crowd, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles’ (Matthew 15:10-11). Later he explained to his disciples: ‘What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile” (Matthew 15:18-20).
“When we see Jesus as the fulfillment of the law, we understand that our challenge is not meticulously to maintain culturally conditioned laws, but rather, with Jesus, to love God and love our neighbor. When these texts in Leviticus are taken out of their historical and cultural context and applied to faithful, God-worshipping Christians who are homosexual, it does violence to them. They are being condemned for failing to conform to an ancient culturally conditioned code that is not applicable to them or their circumstances. Even Louisville Presbyterian Seminary New Testament professor Marion Soards, who opposes homosexuality on other grounds, agrees that ‘it is impossible to declare the necessary relevance of these verses for our world today.’”