The Abomination above All Other Abominations

An abomination, from a biblically Hebrew perspective (תּוֹעֵבָה, toevah), is an object or a practice that is considered detestable, ritualistically and not from the perspective of said act being inherently evil,1 in the view of God or even of people. (link) The Egyptians, for example, consider the Hebrew sacrifices to their God an abomination (utterly detestable). (Ex. 8:26) But God also deems certain acts to be detestable, ritually abominable, and such include a man re-marrying a woman he divorced (Deut 24:4), eating certain kinds of meat (Deut. 14:3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8), or offering the LORD a defective animal for sacrifice (Deut. 17:1), none of which are considered relevant to New Testament Christians in the modern era.

So, then, not every act deemed "abominable" in the Old Testament is relevant today because the Law of Moses and other such commands are fulfilled in Christ (Matt. 5:17); God is establishing particular guidelines and laws for the covenanted Jewish people (Ex. 19:5; Deut. 14:2); and certain laws sustain the people of God during that particular era (cf. Acts 10:9-16). Regarding sexual relations, the author lists proscriptions according to rituals prescribed by the LORD, declaring: "You shall not lie [lie down, rest, sleep] with a male as with [lie down, rest, sleep] a woman; it is an abomination." (Lev. 18:22, emphasis added; cf. Lev. 20:13) Pay close attention to the italicized words as with. (Also see Boswell's comments at footnote 4.)

For years I was taught that "to lie with a male as with a woman" referred to all activity related to homosexuality in toto. I accepted this interpretation without question. That is, until recently, when I began to reconsider whether the seven so-called clobber passages are actually addressing what we know today as homosexuality -- and we should always be re-examining our beliefs about periphery issues unrelated to the core tenets of the Christian faith (e.g., views regarding eschatology, phenomenology, ontology, philology).

Regarding philology, the study of language, let us note at the outset that the word "homosexual" does not actually occur in the Hebrew or Christian scriptures: "homosexual" is not, strictly, a biblical word. The fact that the word appears in English versions of the Bible indicates that scholars are actually interpreting some passages rather than translating them from the original languages. The late Dr. John Boswell notes that "no extant [surviving] text or manuscript, Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, or Aramaic, contains such a word. In fact none of these languages ever contained a word corresponding to the English 'homosexual,' nor did any languages have such a term before the late nineteenth century."2 The English word "homosexual," and its contextual cognates (derived from Latin), originates from German psychologist Karoly Maria Benkert in a letter published as late as 1868. (link)

There are two aspects of both passages, Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13, that have troubled me: 1) why only a male proscription of alleged homosexual sex in these two passages? and 2) why does the author qualify this particular brand of male-to-male sexual activity "as with" that of a woman? Someone may quickly respond to my first query by suggesting that God addresses the men primarily because of the patriarchal context in which they abide. The same might also suggest that what is proscribed for the man is also, ipso facto, proscribed for the woman by implication. So, then, the command to a man, "You shall not uncover the nakedness of [a Hebrew euphemism referring to having sex with] your father's sister" (Lev. 18:12), should be understood by the woman as the following command: "You shall not have sex with your father's brother." What is the conclusion, then?

The conclusion is imagined: as a male should not lie with a male as with a female so, too, should a female not lie with a female as with a male. (I am interested in understanding why St Paul does not assume this same hermeneutic and comprehension when writing about a similar topic within his own patriarchal context at Romans 1:24-27.) Herein lies the problem: particularly how a male lies with a female is by penetration. Thus a female cannot lie with another female in the same manner as she would a male. (We are excluding the notion of the use of sexual objects that could be used between two females, in order to fulfill the manner of male-to-female intercourse, since the manner in which the male-to-male proscription is implicitly outlined would include solely the male genitalia.) Is the levitical proscription of male-to-male sexual activity, then, one merely against homosexual anal sex?

As with so many other passages throughout the Hebrew and Christian writings, the words alone, even when considering their contexts, cannot inform us as to what is being referred; in this case, what a male laying with a male "as with" a female entails, and so we must look to history for better understanding -- except, perhaps, by also noting that the use of תּוֹעֵבָה, toevah (abomination), is typically used to refer to that of an idolatrous nature, rather than that of a moral nature, which occasions use of the word זִמָּֽה׃, zimah (cf. Lev. 19:29).3 What is this abomination of a male laying with another male "as with" a female? The answer is as significant as the question, given the presumption of many Christians throughout the centuries who consider homosexuality the abomination above all other abominations, and who have even formed laws with severe punishments against LGBTQ persons over the last at least two millennia. This subject is as relevant as the morning news on the BBC.

There are two passages in the Old Testament that have historically been and still are used to abominate, castigate, and shame homosexuals and homosexuality: the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, found at Genesis 19:1-11, and the story of a Levite's concubine, found at Judges 19:1-30, both cases of which include men intent on raping other men. First, consider that male rape is not an accurate portrayal of homosexuality, and so to use these passages as support for proscribing homosexuality is not merely insulting but downright deplorable. Second, consider also that these men have wives and children, an historical fact which helps us better understand the context. In other words, these men are not homosexuals.

Such should be blatantly obvious in both passages. In the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative, when the men of Sodom demand that Lot bring out the two foreign men who come to visit him, Lot, knowing that the men will rape his guests in the open square, instead offers them his two daughters (Gen. 19:8). Understand three significant and relevant facts: 1) homosexual men are not accustomed to approaching the house of anyone demanding that the foreign men in the house come outside to be raped; 2) in this culture, foreigners and guests of the home of a Jewish family are protected at all cost, even at the cost of family members' lives; 3) we know these men are not homosexuals because Lot offers them his two daughters. Perhaps you are unaware of this fact, but, homosexual men do not desire to sexually engage women. So Lot's so-called offer is not at all enticing to the men if they are homosexuals.

The same is true for the narrative of Judges 19:1-30 -- that is, except for one caveat, in that the men actually accept the bribe of not raping the foreign male and, instead, they do rape the female concubine (Judges 19:25). Again, I am uncertain of your knowledge regarding gay men, but they maintain no interest in sexually engaging women. The two passages of Genesis 19 and Judges 19 cannot be used as support against homosexuality; and, if we are to be disgusted at the heinous nature of these men, perhaps we should be disgusted at the deplorable acts of these heterosexual men. Perhaps we should abominate heterosexuality. (I am being facetious and all should understand my rhetorically sarcastic point clearly.) To pejoratively name a homosexual a sodomite, then, more properly belongs to the aberrant heterosexual man who sexually offends another -- male or female respectively.

But hidden in these two passages is where I (and many others) find a cultural connection between Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, and the previous two passages of Genesis 19 and Judges 19: the male honor/shame structure. If there is a connection here, in the manner in which a male laying with a male "as with"4 a female is abominable at Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13, then these four Old Testament passages are entirely irrelevant for proscribing homosexual engagement today. Let us briefly turn our attention to the patriarchal honor/shame culture in which these passages are culturally relevant.

If the men of Sodom, Gomorrah and the surrounding areas are not homosexual, then why do they attempt to rape other men? In short: men of a certain territory protect their homeland from foreign invaders, including (male) spies, and even retaliate against them by raping, and thus shaming, them. (The honor/shame motif is still practiced today in some Middle Eastern countries.) How are the victims of this rape, specifically rape via anal sex, shamed? Because, in the mind-set of such men, they are reducing another male to the subservient position of a female. Recall that women, in this culture, are deemed property, without power and authority, and exist to serve men. Consider the following:
The book of Leviticus addresses the problem of a man having sex with a female slave who is pledged to another man [Lev. 19:20, 21, 22]. Such a case is considered a sin, since the man to whom the slave was pledged is harmed; but the penalty is notably milder (scourging) than that required by other forms of sexual misconduct. The case is clearly not considered equivalent to adultery or rape. Leviticus is notably lacking in any legislation against a man having sex with a slave who is not pledged to another man. This was considered a man's right, apparently even in ancient Israel.5 (emphasis added)
Women, in such a culture, maintain about as much rights as children. But we are informed by conservative evangelicals that the traditionalist approach to these laws from Leviticus, especially regarding human sexuality and ethics, are to be practiced. (Yet women are given equal rights not only in this country, in our egalitarian culture, but also considered the equal of men in the church regarding the salvation they share with men by grace through faith in Christ.) Does keeping the levitical laws indicate, then, that Christian husbands are to abstain from sexual relations with their wives during the time of their menstruation? (Lev. 18:19) Moreover, given the above instructions at Leviticus 19:20-22, is owning a female slave and engaging her sexually not permitted? Or do we pick and choose which to keep?

What are we to conclude, then, about the proscription from Leviticus regarding a man laying with (a euphemism indicating to have sex with) another man "as with" a woman? Dr. James Brownson writes: "Because the active role in male-male sex is portrayed so negatively in the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19) and the Levite's concubine (Judg. 19), we see very clearly in the biblical witness a resistance to sanctioning this kind of behavior, whether or not it might have been accepted elsewhere in the ancient world."6 God does not want the people of Israel to imitate the surrounding cultures (cf. Lev. 18:3) and, so, God establishes guidelines and rules and commands that apply to them and any who join them.

Dr. Brownson continues: "It [homosexual anal sex] was too closely linked to violence of the worst kind and inhospitality toward the most vulnerable."7 The prophet Ezekiel is even given, by God nonetheless, insight as to the true sins of Sodom. (Ezek. 16:8, 49, 50; cf. Wisdom 19:13, 14) What is not listed there is that acts of male homosexuality occasion the harsh judgment of God. St Jude notes, regarding Sodom and Gomorrah, that men "indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh." (Jude 1:7) Yes, indeed, the men of these areas certainly do "indulge in gross immorality" by adhering to their honor/shame mentality of anal-raping foreign men; as well as "going after strange flesh," most likely a reference to the angels, whom the men of Sodom mistake for mere men. (cf. Gen. 19:1, 4, 5)

Someone will demand that context will inform our thinking. This is misleading for two primary reasons: 1) even the context is interpreted through our hermeneutical lens; and 2) there is only one verse for some type of homosexual sex mentioned within the passage of Leviticus 18:22 (and Leviticus 20:13) with no direct condemnatory homosexual proscription in context. As a matter of fact, the author uses the Hebrew euphemism לְגַלֹּ֣ות עֶרְוָ֑ה, "uncovering the nakedness of" someone, when referring to sexual intercourse (cf. Lev. 18:6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19), but he does not use that expression when allegedly proscribing some form of homosexual sexual activity at Leviticus 18:22 (and Leviticus 20:13). Why? The author does not even use the Hebrew תִתֵּ֥ן (Lev. 18:20), "to have sexual intercourse with" someone, at Leviticus 18:22. Are we not to ask why?

I think a viable conclusion for our Leviticus passages is that the author is not referring to homosexual practice as we know homosexuality today. We do not practice honor/shame values; we do not abide by patriarchal standards; men and women are (or should be) deemed equal in our social and spiritual culture. Hence one male engaging another male sexually does not render him subservient in our culture. Moreover, homosexual men do not merely desire sexual relations with other men, but actually long to care for and love one another. Furthermore, we cannot -- we must not -- understand all Old Testament cultural regulations, biblical or otherwise, from thousands of years ago as being a proper guide for living our lives today.8 We have already noted brief examples above of why this is so.

Finally, neither passage, whether Genesis 19:1-11, Judges 19:1-30, Leviticus 18:22, or Leviticus 20:13, refer to homosexuality as two men committing themselves to one another out of genuine love, care, and concern (nor even, technically, to two consensual men desiring to engage each other sexually, if we consider the two passages from Leviticus to refer to one man shaming the manhood of the other). These passages refer to men in an honor/shame culture who value manhood as superior to womanhood, shame male foreigners whom they deem a territorial threat, and to men who are not homosexual in orientation. Hence to use these passages as a proper proscription against homosexual relationships is to misunderstand, misinterpret, and misuse Scripture. There are not seven clobber passages.


1 John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), 100.

2 Ibid., 92.

3 Ibid., 100.

4 In case I have been unclear: I am suggesting, from internal and external evidence, that a man laying with another man "as with" a woman, as noted by our author at Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13, is actuated when a male penetrator shames the manhood of a male penetrated, in the same vein as when a male rapes another male, for the sole purpose of shaming him. If an opponent suggests that the "real sin" here is properly framed within a complementarity motif, i.e., the reason for naming the act a sin is due to the design of God in creating male and female, we argue that this is an a priori of one's own hermeneutical construction, and may not actually reflect the cultural perspective of our author.

Understand, however, that we are interpreting the two passages of Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 upon what the Hebrew literally grants: "You shall not sleep the sleep of a woman with a man." Dr. John Boswell comments: "Jewish moralists have debated for a millennium about exactly what constitutes 'the sleep of a woman' and who is technically a 'man': see, e.g., in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 7.4-53A; and Maimonides' commentary in the Code 5.1.14. Moreover, since the actions of the kadeshim [male temple prostitutes] were specifically labeled as toevah [abominable, at 1 Kings 14:24], one might well infer that the condemnations in Leviticus were in fact aimed at curbing temple prostitution in particular rather than homosexual behavior in general. This was not the usual understanding of the later Jewish tradition, but it is suggested by the LXX [Septuagint -- the Greek version of the Hebrew Old Testament], upon which Christian moralists drew." (Boswell, 101)

Boswell is correct to note that the referred to toevah, abomination, is used to refer to an idol, as well to temple prostitution (cf. 1 Kings 14:24), while proscription against prostitution in general is not referred to as toevah but zimah, a word utilized for moral and not ritualistic concerns. Leviticus chapters 18 and 20 commence with a prohibition of sexual idolatry. If this is a proper hermeneutic, then the author may be proscribing, in the case of male-to-male sexuality, sexual idolatry at temple shrines, which sexual acts are anal in nature, as well as a degrading of the perceived manhood of another male.

5 James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church's Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 209, note 6.

6 Ibid., 210.

7 Ibid.

8 Yes, we all agree that some of the proscriptions and commands in the levitical codes are still relevant for us today, such as the forbiddance of incest, adultery, and bestiality. But what of sex during the menstruation cycle of the female (Lev. 18:19), reaping to the very edges of your land during harvest (Lev. 19:9), or a man having sex with a female servant of another man (Lev. 19:20)? So, then, we all agree that there are proscriptions and regulations that are no longer relevant for believers in the modern era. What is asked of traditionalists, regarding homosexuality, is whether what the authors of the Old Testament are forbidding is the same context that we understand homosexuality in the modern era. We think not.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.