Friday, May 28, 2010

Leviticus 18

A lot could be said about this chapter! Robert Gagnon has probably said it already. Here I offer three observations:

(1) The whole chapter is important, not simply one or two verses. It is worth asking, what is the whole chapter about, and how do the individual proscriptions within it relate to the chapter as a whole?

(2) In respect of the topic of 'the Bible and homosexuality', 18:22 is very important. It is the key Old Testament text underlying the New Testament texts which are normally discussed within that topic (i.e. Romans 1:18-32; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:10). One reason for saying this is that in the Greek Old Testament, Leviticus 18:22, reads, "καὶ μετὰ ἄρσενος οὐ κοιμηθήσῃ κοίτην γυναικός· βδέλυγμα γάρ ἐστιν" so that the words for 'man' (arsenos) and for 'bed' (koiten) appear to be conjoined together in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 which both use arsenokoitai. (1 Corinthians 6:9 may in fact be the earliest use of this compound word, raising the question of whether it is directly conjoined from the Greek Old Testament).

(3) Leviticus is, quite obviously, part of the Law of Moses. Jesus had quite a bit to say about the Law of Moses. Any observations about Jesus' silence regarding homosexuality should engage with what Jesus had to say about the Law of Moses. On that topic, Jesus was not silent!


  1. Just as Genesis 19 could not be exegeted by itself with its own integrity, nor any reference made to the Hebrew original, but Jude 7 had to be brought in to interpret that text, so this time you leap right over the original Hebrew text and go straight for the Greek translation and fanciful New Testament constructions based on that (even acknowledged as fanciful here).

    You make no reference to verse 19 and its current significance in your evangelical circles. So let’s actually look at the verse you are obsessing about:

    18:22 V'eith zakhar lo thish'kav mish'k'veiy ishah toeivah hi
    “Elegant and erudite translations stemming from interdenominational, broad church heritages” would translate this in ways such as “Homosexuality is absolutely forbidden…” whereas the original is about zakhar not lesbians, and furthermore about actions, not orientation.

    Let’s translate it: And male not shall lay in beds of woman abhorrence it
    Sounds more like a prohibition against heterosexual activity!

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    When I write, "Here I offer three observations", I am not writing, "Here I offer a complete exegesis of this verse, let alone this chapter."

    I offered three observations knowing that many more can be offered; indeed already have been offered, here there and everywhere.

    Here, do I need to underline the point?, I offer three (3), only three observations.

    One of them concerns a connection with NT material, for which the Greek is relevant. I do not think it 'fanciful' in the sense that (i) the connection drawn makes sense (ii) respected commentators are noting the connection.

    Your own fancifulness appears to come into play when you offer the translation elegant and erudite translations stemming from interdenominational, broad church heritages "would" give. Can you please name which of those translations actually offer the translation you give?

    Another of the elegant and erudite translations I am talking about is the NRSV. Pretty much the standard translation used by English speaking academic biblical scholars these days. It provides, "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination." Are you saying this is a faulty translation?

  3. "Let’s translate it: And male not shall lay in beds of woman abhorrence it" ????

    No competent linguist would offer such an ungrammatical assemblage of English words as a translation from one language into another. Who is this anonymous Hebrew expert who seems not to have progressed beyond an interlinear text?

  4. eg. NLT "Do not practice homosexuality; it is a detestable sin."

  5. Thanks Anonymous for supplying a good example of a bad translation in a widely used version of the Bible.

    Personally I would not place the NLT in the category I have described as "elegant and erudite translations stemming from interdenominational, broad church heritages". I think it falls down on the 'broad church' descriptor as it comes from a strong, declared evangelical heritage.

  6. You were present at your General Synod that just debated the value of the NLT and passed it for a second time, having debated and passed it in 2008, after which it was debated and passed at every diocesan synod, hui amorangi, and diocese of Polynesia. Isn’t it a bit ironically late now to start complaining about it when it doesn’t quite fit with your points? I can only take from your comment that you do not regard your church as a “broad” one.

    Isn’t it also ironic to complain about it being a strongly evangelically based translation? But your point is well taken: evangelicals have a prejudice against homosexuality which they themselves often cannot acknowledge and which even influences their translating of the scriptures they say they hold so dear.

    The point of my “interlinear text”, which Howard is convinced I cannot progress beyond, emphasizes that every “translation” is in fact interpretation. Every “translation” is a commentary. So am I saying NRSV is a faulty translation? Yes; clearly and obviously. To 50% of the human race, women, the NRSV is saying that they are not to “lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination”. I am convinced this is not the intent of the text, whatever Howard might say about my competency as a linguist.

  7. Anonoymous @1.01pm, you were the one criticising Peter for not working from the Hebrew text, so my question about your linguistic competence was worth asking, in view of what you offered as a better starting point for interpretation.

    Putting that aside, you have now raised an important point about the implied audience of this text being entirely male. This leads me to wonder if some canonical texts may carry a divinely intended use-by date within them. In this case, we might be led to think that this commandment was meant to apply only to a patriarchal society, and that once God had led his people to a new consciousness about gender we might also be intended to discover some new things about sexuality. If so, the reflections of contemporary Jewish scholars might be significant. Hmmm ....

    Moving to safer ground, there is a more general issue about the Holiness Code and biblical halachah, which was given to mark out Israel as a special people living in their own land. The Code is all about cultural separation from all other nations. The New Testament, however, is characterised by a reversal of that general principle, in order to include rather than exclude other nations from God's saving grace. So Paul rejected circumcision of Gentile converts not just as unnecessary but as anti-gospel, along with the obligation to obey Israel's laws that it signified. So Christian ethics must begin from a new foundation, and a new understanding of the old regimen.

    A Christian interpretation of this verse in Leviticus involves wrestling with the theological question, "In what sense is the Church part of Israel?" Only in that greater context can we work out our relationship with Israel's laws.

    This is one reason why it is not only valid but necessary for Christians to explore what the New Testament might make of such a text, as Peter has briefly done. The task he has explicitly undertaken in this blog, after all is to attempt a hermeneutic of biblical texts relating to sexuality from a perspective that is not only Christian but evangelical. We can respond from different presuppositions, showing how these might give different readings, but not pour scorn on him for working at his task.

  8. Hi Anonymous
    Our GS moves in mysterious ways, its decisions to perform. Given the 'paraphrasing' nature of the NLT, the reason I presume one might give to justify their decision is that the NLT is widely used, and is popular among evangelicals, who in turn make up our broad church. But it is scarcely imaginable that our GS approved the NLT for public reading because it thought the NLT is a broad church translation/paraphrase.

    Thanks Howard for further thinking. Some things to ponder there!

  9. Thanks Howard.

    We appear to be much closer in agreement here, though I’m fascinated that in the same sentence in which you acknowledge gender issues you speak of God in the masculine. I apologise if there was any sense in which I was “pouring scorn on Peter for working at his task”. Please understand any inappropriateness on my part sprang from an intense feeling of frustration that contemporary exegesis of the six “anti-gay” verses appeared to have passed New Zealand by. I am still upset that the interpretation of Genesis 19 as still having a message about God’s siding with the outcast appears to get no mention – in other words the “anti-gay” Genesis 19 becomes, in fact, a word against the anti-gays!

    I am not at all sure about your concept of a “use by date” for God’s Word. Nor exactly what would be “a perspective that is not only Christian but evangelical”. I am still hoping to see, from my initial point, some reflection on 18:19. It is a much-neglected verse. Whatever interpretation is used for that, I believe, can become a lens, a paradigm for interpreting 18:22.

    Well done to Peter for setting up this discussion and for allowing vigorous discussion. I am surprised and saddened so few are participating. It is as if there is very little interest.

  10. Hi Anonymous
    I am not sure whether you write from outside or inside ACANZP but please do not be surprised by anything about our church :)

    I appreciate the way you have put the 'alternative' (at least to what I was emphasising) interpretation of Genesis 19: "Genesis 19 as still having a message about God’s siding with the outcast". I will ponder than more. Also Leviticus 18:19!