Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The 1,000-page morality tale

. . . that advocates killing homosexual men. This is how a commentator on the question of overrated novels, taunting bravely from behind the screen of anonymity, characterized the Bible. No other book in Western literature is so likely to generate an automated response. And nothing that I can say about it will change anyone’s mind at this late date.

Perhaps, though, I might correct a couple of errors. I am not qualified to speak of the Christian Bible, except to observe that grafting the Greek testamentum, written between 51 and 150 C.E., onto the Hebrew scriptures, some of which was written fifteen centuries earlier, created a literary monster. As a literary critic, Marcion had the better of the argument. But the early Church fathers, who decided to include the Hebrew scriptures in the Christian canon and to ostracize Marcionite views as heretical, were not interested in creating a book. The word bible derives from the Greek phrase employed by Hellenized Jews and later by Jewish Christians to refer to their sacred books—ta biblia. The expression was plural, and so was the canon. In canonizing what came to be called the Old Testament, the Church fathers were agreeing to recognize a textual tradition. They were not creating a singular text.

So too for the Hebrew scriptures. In my classes on the Bible as literature, in fact, I like to tell my students that the book might be more accurately called The Norton Anthology of Ancient Hebrew Literature. It is, in any event, a library—and no singular term, certainly not “1,000-page morality tale,” can adequately describe it. It contains tales, yes; but also historical chronicles, genealogies, songs and poems, legal codes, sermons, political tracts and propaganda, prayers, elegies, allegories, dream visions and apocalyptic visions, and proverbs and other wisdom literature. The only true “morality tale” is the book of Job, which belongs to that last genre.

But does it advocate the killing of homosexual men?

The post-Christian bien-pensant, for whom sexual freedom is the only freedom that dare speak its name, hasten to isolate two prooftexts to substantiate the charge. (Never mind that prooftexting entails a perversion of the text.) These are Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13. Since those who advocate the view that the Hebrew Bible advocates killing homosexual men are ignorant of the actual Hebrew text, I will set down the two pasukim (“verses”) here:

18.22: V’et zakhar lo tishkav mish’k’vey ishah toevah hi. And with a male do not bed down as you bed down with a woman: an adomination it is.

20.13: V’im asher ishkav et-zakhar mish’k’vey ishah toevah asu sh’neyhem mot yumato d’meyhem bam. And if a man beds down with a male as you bed down with a woman—an abomination done by both—they will die, yes, die; upon them is blood.
Although the interpretive traditions of both Judaism and Christianity treat the meanings of these two sentences as straightforward and obvious, they are anything but. Notice, first, that the prohibition is upon going to bed with a zakhar. A man (ish) is not forbidden to lie with a man (ish), but with a zakhar. Usually the word is translated “male,” and perhaps that is what it means here. But the word can also refer to a male child (Gen 17.10, Lev 12.2), and then the proscription takes on a very different meaning. What is abominable then is not male homosexuality, but child rape.

This reading takes on even greater plausibility when you step back and realize that lesbianism is not being proscribed. And lest you object that the prohibitions concern men alone, consider the very next prohibition in chapter 18. Not only is the sex act explicitly spelled out—“emission of seed” as compared to the more equivocal “bedding down”—but a woman is explicily commanded not to mate with an animal. If Leviticus had wanted to proscribe a man’s emission of seed into another man, or had wanted to forbid women from lying down with each other, the language was available to it to do so.

And as for the death penalty. The Hebrew text says only that a man who beds down with a male, perhaps a male child, will die—along with his partner or victim. No legal mechanism is created to carry out the punishment, which is spoken of as merely inevitable. Nor is anyone instructed to “kill” them. Again, the Bible could have given the instruction. After all, in the very first chapter of Leviticus, the Israelites are given detailed instructions to kill the cattle they are offering to YHVH. They could have been given equally detailed instructions to kill homosexual men. But they are not, because nothing of the sort appears anywhere in the Hebrew Bible.


Richard said...

I am an atheist and a leftist, and few things tire me more these days than so-called "rationalist" attacks on the Bible and religion. I'm especially weary of the tiresome commenter who, as if on cue, cannot refrain from snide attacks, who calls the Bible science fiction, or a 2000 year old novel, or, in your example, a "1,000-page morality tale".

I am admittedly woefully ignorant of the Bible itself, an ignorance that I have had the best of intentions of rectifying, intentions which so far have come to very little. But I have lately come around to the idea (influenced heavily by Gabriel Josipovici's The Book of God--do you know it? I think it's a marvelous book) that if we could re-learn to read the Bible we might gain much that has been lost in our rush headlong into progress.

D. G. Myers said...

Very nicely put, Richard. I would add that the Hebrew Bible deserves to be read literally—that is, among other things, independently of the interpretive traditions which are called Judaism and Christianity.

When read literally, the Hebrew Bible is an abidingly strange and powerful text. As Mike Potemra observed yesterday in the National Review blog the Corner, something like this is the argument of Leland Ryken’s new book Understanding English Bible Translation, which advances, as its subtitle puts it, the Case for an Essentially Literalist Approach.

R. T. said...

May I ask a question about a different point in the Torah? Exodus 20:13 says "You shall not murder" (in the TANAKH) and "Thou shalt not kill" (in the King James Version). (Perhaps this commandment is also related to the subject you have so generously explored in your posting today.) At any rate, I have been thinking about the impact of this commandment in the context of capital punishment and remain perplexed. My personal disposition puts me in fierce opposition to capital punishment, and I believe the Hebrew scripture supports that position; however, I suppose my reading of the commandment (out of context) is too simple. (I recognize that there are numerous contradictions, especially with respect to killings and murder, within the TANAKH and Christian New Testament, though you might disagree with me with respect to the TANAKH.) Are you familiar with and can you speak briefly about the ways Orthodox Judaism reconciles this commandment with killing on behalf of a society (i.e., capital punishment, warfare, etc.)? I'm not seeking an elaborated analysis but a simple clarification (if one is possible).

D. G. Myers said...

Two replies.

(1.) The Hebrew is simply lo tirtsah. The word appears forty times in the Hebrew Bible in both verbal and nominal forms. It means “take a human life” and refers to both murder (e.g. Judg 20.4) and manslaughter (Deut 4.42).

(2.) Only once is the word used in reference to capital punishment, and there it is used to describe the punishment meted out to a murderer, using a different form of the same word (Num 35.30). And yet in the same pasuk the Hebrew Bible says that one witness is not sufficient to condemn a murderer to death. There must be two witnesses to the crime.

Rabbinic Judaism developed this last hint and created so many obstacles to execution that the Mishnah described as bloodthirsty a court that executed a man every seven years—every seventy years, objected Eliezer ben Azariah (Makkot 7a).

R. T. said...

Thank you for so generously offering your time and thoughts in response to my question. There is, however, a complexity to the question-and-answer which leads me to admit and understand that I am a long way from building a well-developed opinion on the ways capital punishment may or may not be supported textually in the scriptures.

TheDenverBibliophile said...

The only problem with this interpretation is that most Jews today oppose homosexuality. If the Hebrew scripture does not proscribe homosexual love, then why has this hate of gay men been the abiding theme in Judaism?

R. T. said...

DenverBibliophile: I am no authority on scripture, but I do recognize an overarching generalization when I read one, and I detect one when you assert that most Jews oppose homosexuality. It seems to me that such a statement, without empirical support, is made too hastily. Whether or not the statement might be true (which I do not concede), I am curious about the reasons behind and the compulsion to make such an unsubstantiated assertion within the present context.

D. G. Myers said...


I pretty clearly distinguished my reading from “the interpretive traditions of both Judaism and Christianity,” which treat the meaning of the biblical texts on male homosexuality as “straightforward and obvious” when in fact, I said, “they are anything but.”

It is true that Orthodox Judaism does not, like the other branches of the Jewish religion, celebrate gay sexuality and welcome its lobbyists to alter the ceremonies and rituals of the synagogue. To say, though, that “hate of gay men” has been “the abiding theme in Judaism”—the abiding theme, mind you—is slander.

The reason for the opposition to homosexuality in Orthodox Judaism and traditional Christianity is simple, and has nothing whatever to do with the “hate of gay men.” As Irving Kristol observed, “The reason why Christianity and Judaism both take the same controversial view toward homosexuality is not because they are narrow-minded, but because legitimization of homosexuality flouts the injunction to be fruitful and multiply.”

Or, in other words, the Jewish opposition to homosexuality owes almost nothing to Lev 18.22 and 20.23.

As you know, I myself support the civil recognition of gay marriage, although I also, as an Orthodox Jew, will fight to the death any attempt to revolutionize the ceremonies and rituals of the synagogue.

tickletext said...

Do you have an opinion or estimation of Robert Alter's translations of the Hebrew scriptures?

D. G. Myers said...

I am ashamed to admit that I have not read Alter’s translations. Alter has perfect Hebrew, though, and a fine ear for style.

The translations that I recommend are the new Jewish Publication Society version (abbreviated NJV for “New Jewish Version”) and Everett Fox’s, which is the closest thing to a literal translation that I know.

The Denver Bibliophile said...

If one reads the Old Testament, it would seem that gays are disfavored by God and this interpretation is what seems to have become the one associated with the Bible's view on the matter of homosexuality. And this is the interpretation that most Jews and Christians, certainly more so the latter, seem to adhere to.

For example, the story of Sodom is one that has, like Leviticus, been traditionally used as evidence that gays are to be shunned and more, reviled. In other instances, God threatens to cast those who have disobeyed him "among the sodomites." So the Bible's abiding theme about gays is that of the gay person as something loathsome.

Whether misrepresented or misunderstood, these instances create a theme, indeed, in the absence of any positive reference to gays in the scriptures, the only theme about gays in the Bible.

I should not have written that hate toward gays is the abiding theme of Judaism, because of how it could be misinterpreted by some, but it is true that out of the Hebrew scripture all the instance mentioned above had been translated. Was it not incumbent on the original writers of the Hebrew bible to write as clearly as possible to prevent any misunderstanding? Write so that a runner may comprehend it was, I think, the command to a prophet. But we have a text that is complex, difficult to translate, and one that has lead some to take it as license for violence against those who are what they are through no choice of their own--for how can a man change the deepest currents of his heart?

In the light of this violence and in awareness that hate is being spread, should not effort be made to correct perception? And if no effort is being made, is not silence a form of complicity?

The Denver Bibliophile said...

To be fair to Hebrew scripture and its writers, I have to add that it was incumbent also on the Christian translators of the Hebrew scriptures to take extraordinary pains to prevent misunderstanding of the original. But since most Christian scholars lack a deep knowledge of Jewish oral tradition and have never studied with the Rabbis and since they are ignorant of other texts that interpret the Five Books Of Moses, such as The Zohar, their translations are bound to introduce an element of distortion.

Perhaps the reason why no correction has been made has a great deal to do with the fact that the fabula recovered from the translated text has become a political tool in the culture wars rather than with anything else.

D. G. Myers said...

The association of Sodom with homosexuality is post-biblical.

As for “any positive reference to gays in the scriptures.” Consider Jonathan and David, whose souls were bound up together (1 Sam 18.1). David mourned him by singing, “Your love was wonderful to me/ More than the love of women” (2 Sam 1.26).

Sylvia said...

Thank you for that. I'll file it under "things to tell people I probably shouldn't bother arguing with." ;)

tickletext said...

Yes, according to Alter, Fox is "the most boldly literal of modern Bible translators." (Alter, introduction to The Five Books of Moses, p. iv). I like what I've read of Alter's, but as a non-scholar I have to take the merit of such translations largely on faith, I suppose.

Raycol said...

Your readers may be interested in reading a paper by Jerome Walsh titled “Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13: Who Is Doing What To Whom?” Journal of Biblical Literature 120/2 (2001), 201–209 (also online at

In brief, Walsh argues that the phrase "the lyings of a woman" is the opposite of "the lying of a male", which in the Old Testament (e.g. Numbers 31:17–18, 35, and Judges 21:11–12) means a male doing vaginal penetration. The opposite of this is female vaginal receptivity – the meaning of the lyings of a woman. The male equivalent of vaginal receptivity is anal receptivity. Therefore the Leviticus verses prohibit a male from being anally penetrated by another male.

My views on the Leviticus verses are given on the Moses page of the “Gay and Christian” website at

Arun said...

There are a couple of billion Indians and Cinese who have never heard of Leviticus. If G-d wanted it to be universal law, one would have thought he would have spent some effort on it. All I can make of this omission is that you are free to reject Leviticus, you cannot find the Will of G-d there.