The following text is heavily dependent on work previously posted on the
Web by Gregory Jordan, Stephen Carlson, David Moore and Donn W. Leatherman.
The Septuagint text.
"Kai meta arsenos ou koimEthEsE koitEn gunaikos."
To bed or lay with
The word koitE often renders "marriage bed" but is more generally used
euphemistically for sexual intercourse. The Hebrew
that underlies koitEn is a plural noun ("beds of"). The use of the
plural where it would not be expected suggests an idiomatic expression
(compare "to lay with" rather than to "lie with" in English: to lay or
be laid is always a transitive verb and of archaic form; "to lie" is modern
and can be intransitive.) There are three examples of this expression in
the Hebrew Bible: the verse under discussion; its parallel in [Lev
[Gen 49:4]. The reference
in Genesis is undoubtedly to sexual intercourse since it refers to Reuben's
laying with his father's concubine [Gen. 35:22].
It might be presumed that an idiomatic expression of this sort has a like
meaning in the the two verses in Leviticus.
(Fe)male or (W)oman?
It should be noted that the phrase "...man...
as with a woman" usual in most English translations
is not present in the Greek. It simply does not do justice to the contrastive
pairs involved. In Greek, these are: arsEn
(male) vs. thElus (female) and anEr (man/husband)
vs. gunE (woman/wife). A transliteration might be "and
next male do not lie with in beds of woman".
Because [Lev. 18:22] juxtaposes "arsenos"
(male: not andros, man) with "gunaikos"
(woman: not thElus, female), it can
be argued just to forbid a man from physical
intimacy with a male in his woman's
bed: a species of adultery, not all homosexual behaviour. The idea
being that it is no less wrong to have a homosexual extra-marital
affair than a heterosexual one. This needs to be emphasized to prevent
it being argued that:
no progeny could ensue from such an affair,
no harm is done to anyone, and
the act is not imprudent, reckless and irresponsible,
it is licit for a husband to have casual male lovers
whereas it is illicit for him to have casual female lovers!
This argument may seem strange to modern ears, but it should be remembered
that [Lev 18:22] was written in a context
where polygamy was normal and sexual fidelity to one partner unusual. In
such a context, it could easily be argued that the only reason for condemning
promiscuity and adultery was the risk involved of pregnancy in the absence
of clear paternal liability. In such circumstances the father could disown
his causal responsibility for the child and burden some other man with
In evidence that the word pairs are not interchangeable, it should be
noted that the Septuagint (LXX) maintains a distinction first found in
the original Hebrew, which reads "We-et-zakar lo' tishkav mishkevey 'ishshah."
Notice the contrast:
ish (man/husband) vs. ishshah (woman/wife)
[cf. Gk anEr/gunE] [cf Lat vir/mulier]
vs. nekeva (female)
[cf. Gk arsEn/thElus] [cf Lat mas/femina]
The distinction is however abandoned in the Latin. The Vulgate reads: "cum
non commiscearis coitu femineo". The pairs
and vir/mulier are not as distinct in regards
to marriage in Latin: mas can mean a husband. If the Greek translator had
wanted to say "one shall not lie with a man/male
as with a woman/female"
he could have written either "meta arsenos
ou koimEthEsE hOs meta thElus" or "meta andros
ou koimEthEsE hOs meta gunaikos". Similarly,
the Hebrew text could read "We-et-zakar lo' tishkav mishkevey nekeva"
or "We-et-ish lo' tishkav mishkevey 'ishshah".
Neither the Greek nor the Hebrew text adopts these forms.
Woman or Wife?
GunE, which literally means "woman"
may be used for "wife" (as in idiomatic English:
or the woman.) Indeed, gunE can be
read as "wife" throughout Chapter Eighteen
of Leviticus quite consistently, to the extent that many English translations
assume licit and illicit marriages and threats to marriages are being systematically
dealt with there. Nevertheless, there is no clear indication that
[Lev 18:22] is anything but a general statement. One might expect
to see indications in the text if the meaning were "wife",
something along the lines of "the woman" or
"your woman". There are none. An idea of the
general meaning of gunE in [Lev 18:22] can
be obtained by comparing it to the corresponding part of the expression
in [Gen. 49:4]. In the latter we have
"koitEn tou patros sou"
indicating that Reuben had taken to himself sexual prerogatives that properly
belonged to his father (note both the "the"
and the "his"). In
[Lev 18:22] we have simply "koitEn gunaikos".
Nevertheless, assigning a meaning to the verse is problematic because of
the idiomatic nature of the expression "lay ... as with woman".
If gunE is to be translated "wife"
here, the dilemma arise of whose wife
the text is referring to - the wife of the
man addressed or the wife of the man with
whom he lays. In such a case, the meaning of
[Lev 18:22] would be equivocal and undefined. Only the addition
of a "your" or a "his"
would make such a construction specific. Of course, if adultery is being
condemned, it doesn't matter which man's wife
is involved: the moral situation would be as symmetric as the grammar
of the verse and the grammatical ambiguity be entirely appropriate!
The Hebrew text.
"We-et-zakar lo' tishkav mishkevey 'ishshah"
The first two words "we-et" simply mean "and with".
The word "zakar" means male. Hebrew
has no indefinite article (a, an), so when the definite article (the) is
not used, as in this case, an indefinite article is understood. Therefore,
this word translates as "a male".
The word "tishkav" is a verb. Everything
we need to know about tense and person is contained in its form. The root
of the verb is: sh-k-v, and it means lie down. It is used idiomatically
for sexual intercourse. The first letter of the word, "t", is not part
of the root, but indicates person and tense and even gender. The
previous Hebrew word, "lo", negates this verb,
so we have "Thou (male) shalt not lie down".
The word "mishkevey"
is a noun. The main form of the noun is mishkav. Its root letters, sh-k-v,
are the same as that of the preceding verb and it means bed.
Hebrew nouns have more than one form. In addition to having
singular and plural forms, many nouns also have absolute and construct
forms. An absolute noun stands alone, with its own meaning. A construct
noun is grammatically tied to the noun which follows it. In English, this
almost always translates by placing the English word of between the two
nouns. A good example is the Hebrew Beyt lechem (Bethlehem), which in English
translates as House of Bread. This is because the first word, Beyt, is
in the construct state.
"Mishkevey" is in the plural construct state,
meaning beds of.
Hebrew has prepositions which correspond to ours, but doesn't
always use them the same way. For example, when someone leaves us, in English
we say that "we miss them". But in Hebrew, the verb "to miss" is used with
a preposition, and should be transliterated as "we miss in them".
The opposite also occurs: sometimes English requires a preposition, e.g.
"lie in bed" when Hebrew doesn't. If a preposition can be derived
from context, Hebrew will sometimes leave it out. But in English, this
is never done.
The word "in" must therefore be inserted before "beds
of" in order for the sentence to be grammatical English.
The verse so far reads "And with a male, thou
man shalt not lie down in beds of".
ishshah - This is the Hebrew word for woman. Since there is no
definite article, it is understood to mean a woman.
A note on the standard mis-translation
In almost all English translations of [Lev
18:22], "mishkevey" appears to be translated by the phrase "as with",
which would seem to be barmy! In fact this first reaction is not quite
fair. In fact the verse is being paraphrased. The paraphrase is justified
on the notion that the word "mishkevey" can (and here does) mean "to have
sex with" (even though it is formally a noun, cf "bed" in English), and
that the verse should be transliterated "And with
a male, thou man shalt not lie down to have sex with a woman".
This rather obvious nonsense is then rationalized to "And
with a male, thou man shalt not lie down like with a woman".
Now, this is rather queer. It becomes queerer on further investigation.
The word "mishkevey" occurs forty-six times in the Hebrew Old Testament.
The King James version translates it as "bed" or "couch" thirty-five times,
and as "bedchamber" a further four times. The remaining seven "miscellaneous
renderings" occur in the following verses [Lev 18:22;
20:13] (these two are essentially the same text), [Num
31:17,18,35] and [Jdg 21:11,12]. In
the cases of the texts from Numbers and Judges, the word could have always
been rendered "bed", as follows:
"Now therefore kill every male among
the little ones, and kill woman that hath known man-bed male, but
all the girls, that have not known a male bed, keep alive for yourselves."
"And thirty and two thousand persons in all, of
women that had not known a male bed." [Num
"And this thing ye shall do, Ye shall utterly
destroy every male who woman-bed has known. And they found among
the inhabitants of Jabeshgilead four hundred young virgins, that had known
no man-bed male: and they brought them unto the camp to Shiloh in
the land of Canaan." [Jdg 21:11-12]
So there is no justification for ever translating "mishkevey" as anything
other than "bed"! The fact that it has been translated as "as with" in
all common English translations of [Lev 18:22 &
20:13] is preposterous, and savours of wilful dishonesty.
Interpreting the text
So, the Hebrew text means literally: "And with a male,
thou man shalt not lay in beds of a woman."
The meaning of 'ishshah', might be either
"a woman," or "a wife".
There are a number of possible interpretations of this prohibition:
A man is forbidden to lay with a
male in his own wife's bed.
A man is forbidden to lay with a
male in the bed of the wife of that male.
A man is forbidden to lay with a
male as he mighta woman.
A man is forbidden to lay with a
male as he might his own wife.
A man is forbidden to lay with a
male as that male might his wife.
A man is forbidden to lay with a
male in any bed belonging to a woman.
Note that the condition "mishkevey 'ishshah"
(whatever it means) is not required to specify sexual intimacy, as the
verb "shakav" itself idiomatically does so. It is enough to say "and
thou, man, shalt not lay with a male" the addition "in
beds of woman" or "as with a woman"
is superfluous if a blanket ban is to be indicated. The condemnation of
bestiality that follows [Lev 18:23] has no
conditionality associated with it. It does not condemn a man who lays with
a beast as with a woman, but just a man who lays with a beast
for defilement (this is the outcome, not a modifier) and a woman laying
with a beast to give herself to it (which is inevitable, given the
implication of "laying with", and does not specify any particular way
of giving herself).
The first two cases have already been considered under the heading of
the Septuagint text. The interpretation given there, based on the Greek
of the Septuagint remains tenable.
As we have seen, the next cases 3 to 5 strain the text. Nevertheless,
let them be admitted as possible translations. It is possible to see in
each of them a contrast between some form of sexual intercourse involving
a man and a woman/a wife/his wife, on the one hand; and relations
between a man and any
male (human being?) on the other. Something which is licit between
man and woman (note that this English
idiom also omits the expected 'his') is forbidden between a
man and any male. At first sight, it
would seem that the burden of proof is upon anyone who suggests this is
not a blanket condemnation of sexual relations between all men, and that
it rather applies in only some (unspoken) context such as (ritual) prostitution.
On reflection, however, it will be noted that this argument is flawed:
the woman is the wife of one party:
in which case what is condemned is sexual infidelity;
the woman involved is not the wife of either party,
and this argument implies that heterosexual adultery fornication is
Taking a different tack, the idea that a contrast is being between licit
and illicit behaviour can be dropped. In which case, it must be accepted
that the conditionality of the text specifies something about the character
of the "laying" that it is forbidden for a man with another male.
Taking a responsible view, one can either say that:
a contrast is involved and the woman is a wife of one party
in which case the essential wrong is adultery,
no contrast is involved
in which case the verse deals with an indeterminate sub-set of homosexual
The sixth and final case clearly forbids the use of any woman's bed to
two male lovers, but passes no comment on anything that they might do together
anywhere else. This interpretation is the most natural, both textually
and culturally. In ritual terms, a Hebrew woman's bed was her own. The
only person permitted in it apart from herself was her husband, and there
were restrictions on when he might share it with her. Any other use
of her bed would have been considered a defilement.
[Lev 18:1-18] forbids sexual relations with
various kindred. In all cases, the prohibitions are unconditional. [Lev
18:19-21] moves on to related matters, concerning ritual and justice:
menstruation; adultery where kinship isn't involved and finally human sacrifice.
18:23] begins, "ubekol-behemah lo' titen shekavteka letam'ah bah
. . ." (And with any beast, you shall not give/make your lying down
for uncleanness with it . . .) It might be thought that just as it
is extravagant to suggest that this refers only to bestiality in some circumstances,
for example when payment is involved; so [Lev 18:22]
must be taken as a blanket condemnation of homosexuality. On the other
hand, the verses immediately preceding and following [Lev
18:21&24] both explicitly concern pagan ritual; so the text
may only mean to condemn
ritual homosexuality and ritual
bestiality (without prejudice to any moral judgement of the wider issues,
which might in any case be different in the two cases).
[Lev 18:21] prohibits parents from dedicating
their children to Molech: probably by making them into ritual prostitutes
rather then sacrificing them in fire. Hence, in [Lev
18:22-24] we are most likely dealing with a religious (worship)
practice of the Canaanites. It is known that the worship of Molech involved
homosexual religious prostitution. The male ritual prostitute would dress
as a woman and perhaps wear a mask of the Goddess Astarte, Molech's mate:
so it was as though the male was a female. The devotee would be
a man: who would lie with a male as a female. The ritual did not
involve lesbianism. [Miner
& Connoley, 2002; Buehler; Feinberg, 1996; Norton, 2002]. Canaanite
sex rites also included bestiality, with both men and women copulating
with animals [Miner & Connoley, 2002; Collins,
Every other mention of gay activity in the Hebrew Bible (aside from the
Sodom complex, which was about gang rape) refers specifically to ritual
prostitution [1 Kings 14:23, 15:12-13, 22:46; 2 Kings
23:7]. Moreover, the penalty for the acts referred to by [Lev
20:13] is death. In the Torah, every crime whose penalty is death
in Leviticus is repeated in Deuteronomy, with the exception of "…
man lies with a male as with a woman" . However, Deuteronomy does
mention male sacred (religious) prostitution and even calls it "toevah."
Deuteronomy was written later than Leviticus,
at a time when syncretism was less of an issue. [Deut
27:20-23] roughly corresponds to [Lev 20].
It omits any reference to homo-gender sexual relations, while condemning
bestiality in general (no longer in any cultic context) and adultery (but
only within the family.) Moreover, Deuteronomy does not make it unlawful
to frequent a male prostitute:
"ou prosoiseis misthOma pornEs oude allagma
kunos eis ton oikon kuriou tou theou sou...hoti bdelugma ...estin"
"don't put the wages of a female temple prostitute
or the pay of a male temple prostitute ("dog") into the house of your Master
God, ...because it is an abomination." [Deut.
This only forbids becoming a temple prostitute or giving one's earnings
to the Temple (as if God were a pimp, like the ba'als). No mention is made
of either non-cultic prostitution or homosexual behaviour in general. This
suggests that the Hebrews tolerated homosexual behaviour among unmarried
men, just as many cultures and societies have done: for example, the Romans
(see Catullus, for example). The story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis shows
how schizophrenic Hebrew attitudes toward prostitution were: a whoremonger
could have a whore killed for doing what he asked her to do. This could
be mere hypocrisy, but it could also reflect the idea that gentiles were
acceptable as prostitutes, and that enjoying prostitution with them was
licit for Israelites, but that Israelites were not allowed to enter the
The Jewish Tradition
It may be thought that the modern reading of
[Lev 18:22] is culturally conditioned to the extent that readers
have imposed their own prejudice on the text, and have seen in it a broad
condemnation of homosexual practice which was not in the mind of the original
writer and readers. Against such a view, it must be said that from antiquity
Jewish scholars have offered their own understandings of such verses. These
interpretations, found in the Mishnah and Talmud, cannot possibly be tainted
by any modern misconceptions, and are provided for us by people who spoke
Hebrew as their mother tongue, and might be thought to have understood
its ancient forms better than anyone does today. These documents indicate
that indigenous interpreters understood [Lev 18:22]
to condemn all acts of sexual intercourse between males. Passages
such as [Sanhedrin 54a] cite this verse to
prove that anal intercourse with a male is punished by stoning. [Sanhedrin
54b] debates the age at which a child becomes legally responsible
(and thus liable to punishment) for a passive role in anal intercourse.
83b] specifies that the prohibition against sexual intercourse between
males applies also to hermaphrodites.
On the other hand, it is only in modern times that Christians and Jews
have started to think realistically about the origins of their religion.
Our ancestors generally thought that the entire Bible was a homogeneous
entity. Today we recognize that the Tradition
evolves over time, and that Biblical texts reflect various conditions,
cultures, and situations. Archaeology, comparative cultural studies, etc.
show us that the world in which the earliest parts of the Bible were written
(including Leviticus) were very different from those of later Bible times.
It is to be expected that the author of Leviticus would have an attitude
toward sexuality and gender vocabulary completely different from that of
any modern reader. Certain critical moments in Jewish history effaced or
distorted the memory of earlier conditions and beliefs. Hence, it is legitimate
to argue that the original meaning of a text might be lost, only to be
recovered by modern reconstruction. Talmudic scholars were certainly able
to argue about the meaning of a text, but because their methods
were poor, it is not clear that they adequately maintained, grasped, or
recovered the original meaning. The legal twistings and pullings
they employed were often transparently disingenuous. For the existence
of disagreement over [Lev 18:22] in ancient
times, see [Sanhedrin 33b]. The Sadducees,
who were usually more conservative in their interpretation of the Law than
the Pharisees (who often exaggerated commandments and generalized them),
were apparently in the habit of acquitting those that the Pharisees would
condemn to death.
It may be that all that is forbidden to a pair of male lovers is the use
of a woman's bed!
It is also possible that what is condemned by [Lev
18:22] is homo-gender adultery.
There are, however, three reasons for concluding that [Lev
a simplistic reading of the text itself
one view of the context of the verse (but this argument is contentious)
the indigenous interpretative tradition (but this argument is inconclusive)
On the other hand, there are reasons for concluding that
[Lev 18:22] envisages only ritual prostitution:
another view of the context of the verse (again contentious)
the fact that male ritual prostitutes certainly existed [Deut
the fact that Deuteronomy omits any reference to homo-gender sexual relations
A final possibility is that only some unspecified sub-set
of homo-gender physical intimacy that is like that between
a man and wife is forbidden.
Interpretation should be sensitive to context regardless of whether we
would then want to agree or disagree with the moral import of the passage.
Most Christians (rightly or wrongly) strongly disagree with the Old Testament's
casual acceptance of polygamy, and (rightly or wrongly) would demand
a more severe punishment for rape than that stipulated by Moses:
marriage! An intellectually respectable course for those who do not agree
with any general prohibition of homosexuality that might be found in Leviticus
is for them to disown it. This is quite legitimate, whether others like
it or not! History is replete with those who have objected to some parts
of Leviticus: the Apostles Peter and Paul individually, the Council of
Jerusalem and the bishops of the Oecumenical Council of Florence (which
positively teaches that circumcision
is a mortal sin) come to mind. To disagree frankly with what is said
is more responsible, and more productive of intelligent discussion, than
an attempt to twist Leviticus to correspond to current opinion.
J. Boswell, "Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality."
(Chicago, U of Chicago P, 1980).
J. Boswell, "Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe."
(New York: Villard, 1994)
C. Burr, "Homosexuality and Biology"
(Atlantic Monthly, 1993)
C. Burr, "A SEPARATE CREATION HOW BIOLOGY MAKES US GAY"
R. Buehler, "A Defense Theory..."
K. Collins, "Sexual Sin in the Bible"
L. Feinberg, "Transgender Warriors..."
J. Miner and J. Connoley, "The Children are Free: Reexamining the
Biblical Evidence on Same-Sex Relationships"
Rictor Norton "A History of Homophobia 1. The Ancient Hebrews"