Image: Ruth and Naomi, painting, Walker Art Gallery. Artist: Philip Hermogenes Calderon, 1833-1898.
Oft quoted, oft misunderstood: I’m talking about Leviticus 18:22. It’s one of the passages recited so often that just about anyone will recognize it, even if the Bible isn’t a book they read:
וְאֶ֨ת־זָכָ֔ר לֹ֥א תִשְׁכַּ֖ב מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֑ה תּוֹעֵבָ֖ה הִֽוא׃
Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is a to’evah.Leviticus 18:22
This line is often translated into English in ways that make it “obvious” that this is about male homosexuality. The Hebrew, however, isn’t nearly so clear. If you are curious about that, see Leviticus 18:22 in Queer Bible Hermeneutics, from the Perkins School of Theology of Southern Methodist University.
Language that suggests love relationships between same-sex individuals appears in the Tanakh. The best example is David and Jonathan, who were passionate about each other. (1 Samuel 18) The passionate vow that Ruth makes to Naomi (Ruth 1:16-17) sounds like a modern marriage vow. Granted, both David and Ruth went on to marry people of the opposite sex, but they did not express love for them.
So if this passage isn’t about homosexuality in the modern sense, what am I to learn from it, since it must mean something?
V’et zakhar lo tishkav – And (to) a male (you) do not lie-down
mish’k’vei isha – from/like the lyings-down of the wife
to’evah hu. – It is a bad-thing.
Zakhar designates something as male, whether it is a human, an animal, or a bit of grammar. Its opposite is nikevah (“female” or “feminine.”) It’s a binary: everything is one or the other. Zakhar overrides nikevah in grammar when both are present. If I put one male horse (sus) in a paddock with 15 mares (susot) the plural changes to male (susim.)
Ishah designates a woman, or more often, a wife. This, too, has power implications, but in this case it is the absence of power. This is a person who is acquired by others who have more power. The first verse of Kiddushin, the tractate of the Talmud devoted to marriage, states:
האשה נקנית בשלוש דרכים
A wife is acquired in three ways…BT Kiddushin 2a
I’m willing to read tishkav and mis’k’vei as having a sexual meaning, given the context of the surrounding verses. The first is a negative command: don’t be sexual this way. The second is a description of the forbidden sort of sex: having sex as one would with a lower-powered individual.
I think this is a verse about power, and especially about power differentials. I read it as saying that it is forbidden to have an intimate relationship in which one person holds the power, and the other is subordinate. To put it more positively, sexual intimacy is permitted only between equals. Coming as it does on the heels of a set of verses about incest, it makes sense that this is a passage about relationship and power.
One could make the argument that in the ancient world, and in much of the present-day world, most sex takes place between partners of unequal standing. However, that isn’t how it’s supposed to be: here in Parashat Acharei Mot, Leviticus holds up many ideals for us to pursue, whether or not we manage to reach them.
We strive for a world in which strangers are welcomed, and the vulnerable are protected. We strive for a world in which there is no incest and no abuse of animals. In the following chapter, we will be commanded to pursue justice, respect elders, share with the poor, deal kindly with the disabled, and to eschew revenge. We strive for those ideals, too, even though after millennia we still fall short.
We’re still working to live up to those. I read verse 22 to say that we are supposed to be trying to live up to the ideal of consensual sexual intimacy, whoever we’re having it with.
What do you think? How do you deal with Leviticus 18:22?