Clobber Texts: A New Reading of Leviticus

As I continue to investigate the issues around faith and sexuality, I am constantly in search of reliable information and analyses to set against the misinformation, selective quotations and misinterpretations that masquerade as the conventional wisdom on the subject. Recently, I was delighted when three different readers brought my attention to two useful sources, which between them contain some important, thoughtful material that deserves to be taken seriously.

The first of these that I want to introduce to you is an article by Renato Lings called “The Lyings of a Woman: Male-Male Incest in Leviticus 18:22”, in the peer review journal “Theology and Sexuality”. This journal, edited by the renowned theologians Gerald Loughlin and Elizabeth Stuart, carries an impressive range of scholarly articles, many in the fields of gay and lesbian theology, and of queer theology. (A second article in the same issue is on “Queer Worship”, which I have scheduled for publication tomorrow).

Dr Renato Lings

It was the well known and highly respected theologian James Alison, (who writes “from a perspective Catholic and gay) who referred me to “The Lyings of a Woman.” He wrote to me that he considered it an important article, and suggested that I get a suitable person to write a full review of it, for publishing here at QTC. I agreed fully with his assessment, and plan to publish a couple of such reviews shortly – one by John McNeill, and one by an Old Testament specialist from the Pacific Centre for Religion. I will publish these commentaries as soon as I receive them) .

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Many people in the past have assumed that these two verses from Leviticus present a clear condemnation of all forms of homosexual activity. More recently, more careful analyses have shown variously that the passage is situated in the context of the Jewish purity laws, and so represent not so much a statement of sin as of transgressions of Jewish ritual purity, with only limited relevance to Christians; or refer only to sexual penetration, with no wider application to other forms of erotic activity; that the intended meaning is not against homoerotic relationships, but is tied up with the practice of male cult (or temple) prostitution; and apply only to males.

Lings’ analysis, based on close study of the specific Hebrew words and the broader context of the passage, argues that the apparent agreement among the standard translations hides the complexity and opacity of the original Hebrew. Specifically,he suggests that the translators have erred with the phrase “as with a woman”, which is central to the conventional modern understanding. He states that there is no equivalent in the Hebrew text to the words “as with”, which distort the original meaning. To recover some sense of what that original meaning might be, he provides a close analysis of the specific Hebrew words as used elsewhere, and of the more extended context of the two verses in the full chapters that contain them.

These two chapters, he shows, are about different forms of incest. The conclusion that follows, is that the sexual activity that is prohibited is sexual relationships with males who are close relatives ! Two possible translations he suggests are:

(a) You shall not lie with close relatives, whether male or female;

(b) With a male relative you shall not engage in sexual relationships prohibited with female relatives.

Concluding, Ling paraphrases these as

You shall not commit incest with any close relative, male or female.

I hope this has whet your appetite. Look out for more formal evaluation later, from commentators better qualified than I. However, the article as a whole deserves to be read in full. Unfortunately, it is not possible to carry it here, so you would need to get hold of a copy of Theology & Sexuality from the publishers.

Remember, in all of the Old Testament, there are precisely three texts which even appear to condemn homoerotic relationships. The passage from Genesis 19, telling the story of Sodom, quite clearly has nothing to do with sexual relationships, which leaves only these two twin texts from Leviticus, 18:22 and 20:13. Lings’ analysis, combined with the other modern interpretations as described above, at the very least shows that whatever else the precise words may mean, they do no exclude all forms of loving relationships between men – as long as they are not incestuous, not done as part of temple or cult rituals, non-penetrative, and not between Jews.

That leaves open quite a lot of possibilities, then

 

See also:

For a Quaker view of this paper, see the discussion at Friends World Committee on Consultation

 

 

Recommended Books:

Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality

Countryman, William : Dirt Greed & Sex

Rogers, Jack Bartlett: Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality, Revised and Expanded Edition: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church

Helminiak, Daniel What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality

 

 

 

 

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