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Are Biblical laws about homosexuality eternal?

By Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky


One of the reviews of The Bible Now that was favorable on the whole criticized us on one point in our chapter on homosexuality. The reviewer said that we were liberals, with a liberal agenda, and that we had twisted the clear meaning of the biblical law to fulfill that agenda.

Others have criticized us at times in our careers for being conservative.

As we said in the book, we are scholars, not politicians. Our job isn’t to score points for a side, push an agenda or to re-size the Bible to fit our personal views. So far as we know, all the other reviews and endorsements we have received thus far have gotten that point. That doesn’t make this one claim in this one review wrong. We don’t determine the truth by majority vote. Nor have we ever written a response to a review. So what are we supposed to do when someone criticizes both our scholarship and our integrity in one shot? We do what scholars are supposed to do. We go back to the evidence. So here’s the text and a summary of the evidence:

“You shall not lay a male the layings of a woman; it is a to’ebah” (offensive thing)
(Leviticus 18:22).

“And a man who will lay a male the layings of a woman: the two of them have done a to’ebah (offensive thing). They shall be put to death. Their blood is on them”
(Leviticus 20:13).

We just want to remind you first that this is just one point in a larger treatment of a very controversial subject, and there’s much more to the chapter. There are several points here that call for treatment: Why does the text prohibit only male homosexual acts and not female? Which acts does it forbid: only penetrative intercourse, or all acts? These are in that chapter, and they’re important, but they’re not the subject of this post.

The point on which we were thought to be “twisting” came up later in our discussion. We acknowledged that many people have recognized that these two texts pretty clearly do prohibit at least some kinds of male-male sex, but they have asked whether there is any legitimate “way out,” anything in the text that might provide for some change in the law. For example, one of our students once pointed out that it is, after all, impossible to lie with a man in the way one does with a woman — namely, vaginal sex — so no one can violate this commandment! That’s a clever, even fascinating idea, but why then would the commandment exist if it prohibits something that is impossible anyway? And besides, the plural phrase “a woman’s layings” (miskebê ‘issah) implies that many acts, not just vaginal sex, are included here.

Similarly, a daughter of one of the authors of this book pointed out that a homosexual man may not mind a commandment that tells him that he can’t lie with men the way he lies with women because he does not lie with women! This, too, is not a compelling argument (though it’s clever). We considered other such arguments as well but found all of them inadequate. For left or right, liberal or conservative, gay or straight, we don’t think that we can define our way out of the question by looking for such loopholes in the law. The law really means what pretty much everyone has taken it to mean for centuries. Whatever view one takes, one must address the law fairly in terms of what it says.

So we sought to contribute another perspective that we believe can be helpful on this subject. The text identifies male homosexual acts by the technical term to’ebah, translated in English here as “an offensive thing” or in older translations as “an abomination.” This is important because most things that are forbidden in biblical law are not identified with this word. In both of the contexts in Leviticus (chapters 18 and 20), male homosexuality is the only act to be called this. (Other acts are included broadly in a line at the end of chapter 18.) So this term, which is an important one in the Bible in general, is particularly important with regard to the law about male homosexual acts.

The question is: Is this term to’ebah an absolute, meaning that an act that is a to’ebah is wrong in itself and can never be otherwise? Or is the term relative — meaning that something that is a to’ebah to one person may not be offensive to another, or something that is a to’ebah in one culture may not be offensive in another, or something that is a to’ebah in one generation or time period may not be offensive in another — in which case the law may change as people’s perceptions change?

When one examines all the occurrences of this technical term in the Hebrew Bible, one finds that elsewhere the term is in fact relative. For example, in the story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis, Joseph tells his brothers that, if the Pharaoh asks them what their occupation is, they should say that they’re cowherds. They must not say that they are shepherds. Why? Because, Joseph explains, all shepherds are an offensive thing (to’ebah) to the Egyptians. But shepherds are not an offensive thing to the Israelites or Moabites or many other cultures. In another passage in that story, we read that Egyptians don’t eat with Israelites because that would be an offensive thing (to’ebah) to them. But Arameans and Canaanites eat with Israelites and don’t find it offensive. See also the story of the Exodus from Egypt, where Moses tells Pharaoh that the things that Israelites sacrifice would be an offensive thing (to’ebah) to the Egyptians. But these things are certainly not an offensive thing to the Israelites.

A former student of ours pointed out that right here in this text, in the broad inclusion of laws that are to’ebah at the end of Leviticus 18, are some that prohibit actions that the great patriarchs of the Bible had done. For example, Abraham marries his half-sister Sarah. He says:

“She is, in fact, my sister, my father’s daughter but not my mother’s daughter, and she became a wife to me” (Genesis 20:12).

But the law in Leviticus explicitly forbids such relations with a half-sister:

“Your sister’s nudity — your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, born home or born outside — you shall not expose their nudity” (Leviticus 18:9).

So what is not a to’ebah in the generation of the patriarchs has changed and become one in the generation of Moses. In a somewhat different way, the land itself can change from not being a to’ebah and can become a to’ebah as a result of the behavior of its residents on it. The prophet Jeremiah says:

“You defiled my land, and made my possession into an offensive thing (to’ebah)” (Jeremiah 2:7).

An act or an object that is not a to’ebah can become one, depending on time and circumstances. The word to’ebah does not automatically mean that something is immoral. Depending on the context, the period and the persons involved, it means that it offends some group.

Now, one might respond that the law here is different because it concerns an offensive thing to God — and is therefore not subject to the relativity of human values. But that is actually not the case here. The Bible specifically identifies such laws about things that are divine offenses with the phrase “an offensive thing to the LORD” (to’ebat yhwh). That phrase is not used here in the law about male homosexual acts. It is not one of the laws that are identified as a to’ebah to God!

If this is right, then it is an amazing irony. Calling male homosexual acts a to’ebah was precisely what made the biblical text seem so absolutely anti-homosexual and without the possibility of change. But it is precisely the fact of to’ebah that opens the possibility of the law’s change. So, (1) whatever position one takes on this matter, left or right, conservative or liberal, one should acknowledge that the law really does forbid homosexual sex between males but not between females. And (2) one should recognize that the biblical prohibition is not one that is eternal and unchanging. The prohibition in the Bible applies only so long as male homosexual acts are perceived to be offensive. This could involve arguments and evidence from specialists in biology, psychology and culture. They are beyond our range of expertise as Bible scholars. Our task here has been to make the biblical evidence known.

Our colleagues with expertise in biblical scholarship and especially in biblical Hebrew may agree with or challenge this analysis. So far they have been complimentary. But that reviewer claimed that we are playing a “game,” that we find the text in Leviticus to be “an embarrassment,” that we “belong to the category of Bible-seekers who do not believe that the Bible is divinely revealed,” and he completely misunderstood our treatment of the context of this law in the ancient world, calling it “a remarkable performance.” He thinks he knows our motives, our religious beliefs and our political side — and, apparently, our ethics. We can’t deny that this is hurtful and frustrating to be so badly misread. The reviewer does not come on as an enemy. On the contrary, he writes, “The Bible Now is an honorable book.” He just apparently thought we had dropped the honorable ball in this one section.

So, in the end, how do you decide if this is serious scholarship or if that person was right to think that we were doing the twist? We always hated authors who answer every question with, “Read my book.” But, in all honesty, to answer this question, that’s exactly what the discerning reader ought to do: Read the whole thing yourself.

Note: The review appeared in Tablet on July 5 2011 and was republished in The New Republic online on July 12. The author was Adam Kirsch. It should not be confused with a review by Jonathan Kirsch, who wrote that “Their approach is based on an exacting and meticulous examination of what the biblical text actually says and means.” (JewishJournal.com, June 16)

Richard Elliott Friedman is Ann & Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies and Katzin Professor of Jewish Civilization Emeritus, University of Georgia and University of California, San Diego, and Shawna Dolansky is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Northeastern University. They are the authors of The Bible Now. This article first appeared on Huffington Post.

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Recent Comments

  1. Timothy Lee

    As you said, it would be possible to respond that this particular offense is not subject to the relativity of human morality because it concerns something that is offensive to Yahweh. However, you say that can not be the case because the text merely says the thing is offensive and not, as elsewhere, offensive to Yahweh. But how can that be the case when these chapters are specifically attributed to Yahweh i.e. both chapters begin with a statement by Yahweh that what he is about to say to Moses should be repeated to the Israelites. I would think that when someone says that something is offensive, without any qualification, that means that the thing is offensive to that person or to those whom that person represents. So it seems that since this text is clearly attributed to Yahweh it is meant that Yahweh finds this thing to be an offense. A cursory examination of the usage of this word in the Pentateuch supports this conclusion. A simple search for the word to’ebat reveals that the word is used 25 times in the Pentateuch.

    It occurs twice in Genesis, once in Exodus, six times in Leviticus, and 16 times in Deuteronomy. The two in Genesis and the one in Exodus have already been referenced in the article. The six in Leviticus all occur in the chapters in question; 5 in chapter 18 and 1 in chapter 20. Out of the 25 uses of to’ebat in the Pentateuch, seven, all from the 16 in Deuteronomy, have the word as a part of the phrase to’ebat yhwh. The references are as follows:
    Deuteronomy 7:25, 17:1, 18:12a, 22:5, 23:19, 25:16, and 27:15.

    All seven of these places in Deuteronomy in which this phrase are used speak of Yahweh in the third person, whereas Yahweh is speaking in the six places in Leviticus.

    The word occurs a total of 114 times in the Hebrew Bible; 25 in the Pentateuch, 34 in the Writings, and 55 in the prophets. Of the uses of the word in the prophets, many if not most are used where the author is quoting from Yahweh, but none of those make use of the phrase to’ebat yhwh. As regards the 34 uses in the writings, the phrase to’ebat yhwh occurs several times in the book of Proverbs, but again, these all speak of Yahweh in the third person.

    To repeat, it seems that there is no instance in which to’ebat yhwh is used when it is Yahweh who is speaking. That is not hard to believe since people who speak of themselves in the third person tend to have their sanity questioned.

  2. [...] Here is an interesting blog post from Oxford University Press about the reaction to a book called The Bible Now, which explores the place of scripture in modern society. Reviews have been favourable, with the notable exception of comments about the chapter on homosexuality, which suggest that the authors have brought a liberal agenda to bear on their analyses. [...]

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