You shall not lie with man as with woman. It is a toh-eh-vah. – Leviticus 18:22
We read this verse in this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot. It is usually quoted and interpreted out of its context. When LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage are in the news, we tend to hear it quoted often and unwisely.
The context was set in verse 3-4:
You will not do according to the doings of the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you will not do according to the doings of the land of Canaan, where I will bring you, nor shall you walk in their laws. You will do my doings, and you will keep my laws to walk in them. I am the Eternal your God.
Verses 6-19 then go through a long list of people whose nakedness should not be uncovered, some discussions of defiling (including land and beasts.) Something to note: the verb l’da-at, “to know,” does not appear in this chapter. Instead we get a series of other verbs, “uncover nakedness,” “lie with,” “defile.”
And yet l’da-at is the verb the Bible generally uses for loving sex. Adam “knows” Eve in Genesis 4:1. Sometimes, as with Jacob and his wives, the verb is “he went in,” vayavo elecha. But the verbs from Chapter 18 of Leviticus, the verbs “uncover nakedness” or “lie with” are used. What do they denote, precisely? We see them elsewhere in Torah in the descriptions of Lot’s daughters having sex with Lot, and in the rape of Dinah, to name just two examples.
The practices forbidden in chapter 18 of Leviticus may be sexual on the surface, but they are not what goes on between two consenting people. The verbs used are the verbs used elsewhere to denote rape and incest. Even in translation, they are different: “uncovered his nakedness” and “lie with.”
Chapter 18 of Leviticus is saying that it is forbidden to copy the religious practices of the Egyptians and the Canaanites. Then it gets specific, listing sexual practices that, judging from the way the verbs are used elsewhere in the text, suggest incest and/or rape.
Just because a thirteen year old might read all of these translated verbs as euphemisms for sex doesn’t mean that they are the same thing as sex between a happy couple. If the parallels to Dinah and Lot apply, those apparent euphemisms may have more to do with rape, or incest, or ignorance or foreign religious practices, or some combination of them.
And as for the word toh-eh-vah, which has often been translated as “abomination,” it’s the word Torah applies to the practices of the Egyptians and the Canaanites. (Apparently one or the other group was fond of shellfish: eating it is toh-eh-vah, too.) The word denotes a particular type of transgression – anything else is an addition in the translation.
The moral of this story is that there is more to understanding a text than simply matching the words up with literal meanings. Also, that a poorly interpreted text can cause profound hurt. I am glad that newer editions of Plaut and other commentaries have seen fit to drop the “abomination” translation.
(P.S. – And seriously, folks, if you are going to scarf down shrimp cocktail, I don’t want to hear this nonsense about abominations in the Bible. Enough, already.)