Bible Focus part 2 – Leviticus 18

First published on Benny’s Blog in 2010 and adapted for Accepting Evangelicals.

The first rule of understanding the Bible is prayer.  The second is context.

There is the story of a person who prayed and picked verses in his Bible to read at random. 

  • ·         The first verse said,  “And Judas went and hanged himself”
  • ·         The second was more disturbing when he read “Go thou and do likewise”
  • ·         The third verse nearly put him off reading the Bible forever when he read the words “What are you waiting for!”

He was reading Bible verses but not putting them in context and it could led to a very nasty conclusion!

If we want to find out what the Bible is saying  to us today, we have to see it in context.   There are actually two contexts we need to be aware of.  The first is an awareness of the people and cultures it was first written for.  Secondly, we need to see the verses we are reading in the context of the surrounding passage and indeed Scripture as a whole.  

This is especially true of controversial issues such as the verses on homosexual sex.

The first prohibition is found in Leviticus 18:22.  Among a number of sexual sins, it says,

‘Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.’ (NIV)

This might seem clear enough,  but there are 2 issues which make it far from an ‘open and shut case’. The first comes as we look at what else is described as “detestable” in Leviticus.

Leviticus 11:12 is a good example:

“Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be detestable to you.”

So apparently, prawns, shrimps and crab are detestable and although my wife may agree with that (she hates any shell fish!) that doesn’t make it an eternal law.

There are also other things which are forbidden in Leviticus which, if they applied today, would mean that many of us are living in sin   Eg. Leviticus 19 commands, “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard” (vs 27).   This is set alongside another command that prohibits eating steak cooked ‘rare’ (vs 26).  And yet these commands, which are hard to understand today, are set alongside others which we would endorse wholeheartedly like “Do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute” (vs 29) 

There is more to reading this part of the Bible than  simply extracting single verses, if we are to understand which rules apply today and which do not – and indeed what the rules do, and do not, prohibit.  They were written in a very different culture with its own taboos and concerns, and some of the commands in Leviticus reflect that culture, while others reflect the eternal will of God.  The challenge is to discern which are which.

The second issue with Leviticus 18 is the word which the NIV Bible translates as ‘detestable’.  We sometimes forget that the Bible was not written in English! What we have is a translation, and the constant challenge in any work of translation is discerning how to best convey the fullest meaning of the words we translate.This is not an easy task – as evidenced by the large number of translations out there.

The Hebrew word in this case is   תעב – ‘to-ebah’.  The King James version translates it as ‘abomination’.   In the list of sexual prohibitions in Leviticus 18, ‘lying with a man as with a woman’ is singled out in the list as ‘to-ebah’.  So what does this word mean?  And what picture would it have evoked in the Hebrews who first heard it?

The word ‘to-ebah’ occurs many times in the Old Testament, and is primarily associated with the worship of idols.

In Deuteronomy, there are 15 verses which use the word, and 12 of them refer to idolatry.  One example is Dt 27:15

Cursed be the man that maketh any graven or molten image, an abomination unto the LORD, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and putteth it in a secret place.

Another  (Dt 23:18) links ‘to-ebah’ to money which came from  male and female temple prostitutes.

In the books of Kings and Chronicles, ‘to-ebah’ is used 10  times, almost all of them referring specifically to the worship of idols and again there is a link in 1 Kings 14:24 with male temple prostitutes.

For they also built them high places, and images, and groves, on every high hill, and under every green tree. There were also male temple prostitutes in the land. They committed all the abominations of the nations that the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.              

So in the Pentateuch, and History books of the Bible there is a clear and specific link in the minds of the people of Israel between ‘to-ebah’ and idolatry, and between homosexual sex and religious male prostitution.

The link between ‘to-ebah’ and idolatry is also present in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  The only book of the Bible where this does not apply is the book of Proverbs which uses the word ‘to-ebah’ in a bewildering variety of contexts.   But then the book of Proverbs is poetry, written in a different style with different aims.  The Old Testament scholar, RN Whybray, in his commentary on Proverbs says “It cannot be too strongly emphasised that Proverbs is an entirely different kind of book from the other OT books; indeed it is unique.  It served an entirely different purpose …   Proverbs has one unifying characteristic: it is written entirely in poetry  … Suffice to say that in general poetry makes up in allusiveness what it lacks in precision.”

If we set aside this poetic use of the word in Proverbs, we find that 80% of the times where ‘to-ebah’ is used, the evidence points to false worship or the worship of idols, and in some of those references there is a clear link made with male temple prostitution.  In the remaining 20%, the meaning is often unclear or non-specific.

So why do we assume that it applies to  same-sex relationships?    Looking  at the evidence, it is much more likely  that when Leviticus condemns ‘men lying with men as with a woman’, it has in mind the homosexual activities observed in idolatry and temple prostitution, which is a world away from a self-giving loving committed relationship between 2 people of the same sex today.

The most frustrating thing about “Computer says No”(the Little Britain comedy sketch which started this series)  is the fact that no explanation is given, no discussion takes place – there no analysis of why the answer is ‘no’.  Yet in Biblical discussions on sexuality, we often find the same approach when both the Scriptures and LGBT people deserve so much more.

Next time – 1 Corinthians & 1 Timothy

For the First Blog in this series – Bible says No – follow this link.

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  1. Thanks for this, Benny.
    I think I’d like to add a couple of points to put this further into context. Firstly, the people Israel was a small people in comparison to its neighbours and thus depended on procreating, which is another reason, why a man lying with a man was a grave sin. The neighbouring people often engaged in temple prostitution and idolatry, and by these rules, Israel was to be different from other people. Secondly, a man lying with a man, implied that one was treated like a woman – in a man-centred society where women were more or less treated as property, treating a man like a woman was a sin as well – hence the prohibition of a man lying with a man.

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  4. Thanks, Benny.
    I fully agree with what you have said, but can I add another point about the use of to’ebah. It is used in Deuteronomy 14:3 about forbidden food, and yet in Mark 7:19 Jesus declares all foods unclean, and so he sets aside at least one OT command that uses this word. This therefore suggests that, quite apart from your point about the likely link with idoltary, the use of this word does not imply that the command in question is of continued validity.

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  6. I think that there is a logical problem if this verse is applied to temple prostitution. Both sides of the equation would then have to refer to prostitution which would result in something like the following translation. ‘Do not lie with a male temple prostitute as one lies with a female temple prostitute; that is detestable.’ This would make the verse inadvertently endorse female temple prostitution, which is clearly not the author’s intention!

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