You shall not lie down with a male, as with a woman: this is an abomination.
כב. וְאֶת זָכָר לֹא תִשְׁכַּב מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה
Ok wait, we know that Leviticus forbids men having sex with each other, and that the penalty is death. But does G-d give us a reason? Yes, She does. “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination.” When I was growing up and reading those words, I had no idea what abomination meant, but I knew it must be bad. I had visions of the abominable snowman attacking me if I did any of the mentioned activities that were said to be ‘abominations’. This fearful obedience stopped me from challenging my church’s beliefs about homosexuality for many years.
What does this strange word mean? Well, in Hebrew, the word is ‘to-evah’ (or to-ebah), but that helps little. The word is difficult to translate succinctly, but picture someone or something that is wild and dangerous, highly addictive and contagious. Picture something radioactive, that once unleashed, will spread like wildfire and affect (and infect) everything nearby. It’s not only wild, but disgusting, and describes detestable religious orgies, or idolatrous practices. If you were confronted with that kind of enemy, what would you do? You’d have to destroy it–stop it dead in it’s tracts (sic). If you didn’t, it would soon infect the entire population, yourself included.
One interesting fact is that the first time ‘ABOMINATION’ is used in the Torah is to DESCRIBE WORSHIPPING G-D, when Moses is asking Pharoah to let the Israelites worship G-d in the desert. The Pharoah inquired, “Why can’t they worship right here?” and Moses answered that if the Israelites worshipped G-d in Egypt, their acts would be an ABOMINATION to the Egyptians. Can you believe it? Worshipping the one true G-d is considered an abomination! Why? Because it is the religious rite of a different religion (from the perspective of the Egyptians–the Israelites were going to sacrifice animals whom the Egyptians worshipped, so it was considered detestable). Still don’t believe that toevah is about idolatry? “Do not inquire concerning their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations worship their gods? I also want to do the same.’ You must not do the same for the L-rd your G-d, because every TOEVAH that the L-rd hates they have done FOR THEIR GODS” Deut.12:30-1. This makes it clear, the abominations of the Canaanites weren’t just a bunch of random detestable acts, they were FOR THEIR GODS. As a child I wondered what ‘abomination’ meant, now I have the answer. The Bible gives its own definition in Deut. 12:30-31; an abomination is a detestable religious rite of a religion different from your own.
-from the B’nai HaKeshet (Children of the Rainbow) website
My stated intent to review Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian has inspired a lot of attention and responses on my blog post, on Facebook, and via email. One such email message led me to the B’nai HaKeshet website from which I quoted above. That quote was taken from a much longer missive which attempts to explain that the Bible never speaks against Homosexuality or Homosexual acts in general.
I Googled the definition of the Hebrew word “toevah” which is commonly translated as “abomination,” such as we see in Leviticus 18:22 and the search results returned a lot of the same information, basically saying that this portion of scripture is not a blanket prohibition against male on male sexual acts, but specifically addresses such sexual activity within the context of idolatrous worship. The issue supposedly isn’t a man having sex with another man, but a man having sex with another man (male temple prostitute) in association with worshiping an idol.
It’s difficult to find a source (at least by a quick Google search) that is objective or neutral and simply defines the word and its usage, but the closest I found was a newspaper opinion piece written by Rabbi Bruce Warshal called Lots of abominations in the Bible (Sept. 19, 2012).
Rabbi Silvers discussed the meaning of the Hebrew word toevah, which most English bibles translate as “abomination,” as in Leviticus, chapter 18, verse 22: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination. He pointed out that the Hebrew word toevah is used extensively in the Bible regarding food prohibitions, idolatrous practices, magic and ethical violations. His prime example is that eating shrimp (shellfish) is toevah. Yet today he knows plenty of Jews who eat shellfish.
With this in mind, we can turn to the word to’evot (abominations). What is an abomination? Do you think that it is something so hideous, so immoral, that it ranks among axe murder, rape and incest? Remember the cultural background of the ancient Near East. Something is to’evah’ when it is loathsome and detestable. It may be physical, ritual or moral. It is something offensive to values of the culture. That means to’evah is determined within the culture and community, just like mishpat. And that means God defines what He finds offensive within the community of Israel. The world may not find some of these actions offensive. That doesn’t matter. They are not regulations for the world. They are offenses to the Hebraic biblical way of life. If we want to demonstrate with our behavior the values that God expresses with His words to His chosen community, then these to’evot will not be part of our actions.
We must understand this perspective in order to understand why homosexuality, slander and human sacrifice are in the same category as dishonest business practices and the eating of unclean animals. When it comes to offenses to God’s values, eating pork is the same as child sacrifice; ritual prostitution is the same as cheating a man with false weights and measures; and homosexual behavior is just as repugnant as lying. Forget the arguments about morality. Put aside the nurture/nature nonsense. None of these matter when it comes to embracing the culture of the Kingdom. If you want to be in God’s community, then you behave in ways that honor Him. End of story.
Topical Index: abomination, to’evah, rule, mishpat, Proverbs 6:16-19, Leviticus 18:26
The sense I’m getting from all of this is that the word “toevah” can be applied to many different acts which God forbade the Israelites from performing, considering all of them “idolatry” or alternately “adultery” (I’ll get to that). But does that mean all of the forbidden acts (including sex with close relatives, see the wider text in Leviticus 18) are only forbidden when engaged within the context of idol worship?
(Remember, context, context, context. Leviticus 18:22 is included in the larger context of the Leviticus 18 “forbidden relationships and acts” list for a reason).
Saying that these various sex acts are only an “abomination” if performed as part of idol worship doesn’t make sense. That would mean it would only be forbidden for an Israelite to have sex with his sister or step-mother if that sexual act was performed as part of worshiping a foreign god.
The crux of the argument presented at B’nai HaKeshet is that for something to be an “abomination” it must be related to idol worship and cannot be a “stand alone” prohibition that crosses all contexts. Just read Leviticus 18:6-18 and you’ll see prohibitions against sexual acts all involving either incest or sex with other close relatives (mother-in-law, step-sister, and so on).
As far as Rabbi Warshal’s reference to Rabbi Silvers, just because some or many Jews today eat shellfish in violation of the Torah commandment doesn’t make it right. Disobedience to God is still disobedience regardless of how many people are engaging in the behavior.
Although on the surface, it seems as if the anonymous writer at B’nai HaKeshet has done her homework (she does state that she’s a woman), the logic she employs to come to at least some of her conclusions has “gaps”.
Here’s what I mean.
When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, “Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord.”
Rebuke your mother, rebuke her, for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband.
“Though you, Israel, commit adultery, do not let Judah become guilty.”
God compared the intimate relationship He has with Israel as a husband to a wife, with God playing the role of husband. When Israel strayed and worshiped false gods instead of or in addition to Hashem, it was compared to committing adultery. But did Israel to the last man and woman cheat on their spouses? Is that what God is talking about? No. He’s employing a metaphor through the prophet Hosea (to the point where Hosea is commanded to marry Gomer, a promiscuous woman) in order to illustrate His point.
Any act of disobedience committed by the Israelites is compared to idolatry and faithlessness. We can’t say that only an Israelite who cheats on his or her spouse is guilty of idolatry or that it is only forbidden for an Israelite to cheat on his/her spouse in performance of an idolatrous act is forbidden.
You have to look at the broader scope. It is my opinion that toevah can mean many different acts of disobedience to God, some directly related to idol worship but many others involving forbidden activities that are not or at least do not have to involve worshiping an idol. It was still forbidden of the Israelites to eat a ham sandwich, even if it had nothing to do with a pagan practice, just as eating ham (or shellfish) for observant Jews today is considered a forbidden act. That many secular Jews eat ham or shellfish doesn’t make it acceptable in God’s sight.
I’ll stop here rather than continue with my assessment of the B’nai HaKeshet author’s other assertions. I may address them at some other point, but I want to get this published quickly so any of my readers who goes offline for Shabbat can have a chance to respond before Saturday night/Sunday morning. Also, because I’m writing/editing very quickly, this missive isn’t as polished as I’d like it to be, so excuse the rough spots.
I’m not trying to be mean or insensitive and I hope I’m being objective, but it just seems as if a certain bias has entered how these texts are being read, especially in light of the larger context of the Bible and God’s relationship with Israel. I know this doesn’t specifically address Christianity and Homosexuality, but I have some ideas about how to consider that paradigm.
Last point. I wrote this as a way to get my head into the debate relative to Homosexuality and whether or not the Bible supports and endorses (or at least doesn’t outright condemn) homosexual acts in the community of faith. So far, I can’t say there’s overwhelming evidence that God is “cool” with such behavior. Your polite feedback, as always, is welcome.