Leviticus 18:22

“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”[1] It is not a surprise that this verse seems to say that gay male sex is forbidden in the eyes of God. The dominant view of western Christianity forbids same-sex relations. This verse is one of the clobber passages that people cite from the Bible to condemn homosexuality. This essay first looks at the various ways the verse is translated into the English Bible and then explores some of the strategies used to create an affirming interpretation of what this passage means for the LGBTQ community. More specifically, it presents the interpretation of K. Renato Lings in which Lev. 18:22 refers to male-on-male incest.

While Lev. 18:22 is used to condemn homosexuality, we must realize that the term “homosexuality” was only recently coined in the English language. So did this term exist in ancient Israel? Charles D. Myers, Jr. confirms that none of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible mention homosexuality.[2] He also contends that in ancient Israel same-sex relations were viewed as an ancient Near East problem. The ancient Near East tradition included pederasty and relations between an older man and a boy, which was the primary form of homosexual sex at the time.[3]   While Myers’ theory is historically sound, it does not respond to questions about Lev. 18:22 raised by the queer community.

Bringing no answers from the history of ancient Israel, we must turn to the text itself. No matter how we read the Hebrew Bible, we must remember that we are not reading it in the original Hebrew language. Every Bible we read is translated from the original. Translations of Lev. 18:22 into English fluctuate.  The KJV translates the verse as: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.” The NIV offers: “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.”  The NRSV, 1989, states: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” The Priest for Equality translation makes a bold move with its translation: “Do not lie with a person of the same-sex in the same way as you would lie with a person of the opposite sex; it is detestable.” Interestingly translators of the Priest for Equality determined to not only forbid male same sex relations, but to blanket the statement to all same sex relations.[4]

As it is apparent, there is something happening in the various translations of Lev. 18:22.  In order to understand this verse we must confer with scholars and their commentaries. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary reviews several interpretations, but most of its attention to Jacob Milgrom’s work on Leviticus. Milgron finds that the word used for male and female words in the verse features a singular version for the male and a plural word for female. Milgron shows that the phrase translated “as one lies with a woman” is only found here and in Lev. 20:13 the phrase “as one lies with” occurs five times in the Hebrew Bible. [5] “As one lies with” occurs four times where it references bed and does not indicate a sexual act.  Genesis 49:4 designates a sexual act when Rueben sleeps with his father’s wife. Thus, Milgrom maintains that the phrase “as one lies with” should be understood as a place , not as a sexual activity.[6] Milgrom brings into question how Le. 18:22 been interpreted our contemporary society.

While Jacob Milgrom’s work may offer some doubt about our current interpretations, K. Renato Lings’ understanding of Leviticus 18:22 gives us a better idea about the meaning of the original Hebrew. Lings discovers that the text is not self-explanatoryin contrast to the version of most commentators. The Hebrew text is far more complex than English translators disclose.[7] Lings thus maintains that the English text should be translated on the basis of Hebrew linguistics. He builds on the work of David Stewart and the idea that this passage is really about male on male incest.[8] First, Lings notes that the word used for “man” is not the typical noun used for “man.” Instead, a word which translates to male occurs here. This noun for “male” includes both young and adult males.[9] Therefore, Lings translates the text of Lev. 18:22 as “And with a male you shall not lie.”[10]

Now that Lings has solved the linguistic problem with “man” and “male,” the first half of the verse is pretty straight forward. However, difficulties with translation start as one turns to the next phrase, “As with a woman” (NRSV). Lings contends that translators have taken liberties here by including the word “as”.[11]  Many translations also include particles “with” or “like.”  According to Ling, these words are not part of the original Hebrew text. Thus, he translates the verse so far as “And with a male you shall lie down the lyings of a woman.”[12]

Lings moves his work to the Hebrew word used for “lyings.”[13]  This word appears in the plural, which Milgrom misses and, according to Lings, it is only found in these Lev. 18:22 and Genesis 49:4. The singular version of the Hebrew word is used frequently.[14] According to Ling the reference in Genesis 49:4 depicts “lyings” as incest.[15] Lings argues that the term “lyings” refers to an action that is of “arguably illicit nature.”[16] He claims we must follow the principle of seeking out the more difficult reading and not to take the easy way out when we translate a biblicaltext.[17] If we take into account Genesis 49:2 then, we discover the text refers to forbidden act of incest.[18]

Finally, Ling discusses the noun for “woman.”  The KJV uses the word “womankind.”  While the word used for “male” is clearly referenced elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible for all ages, the one used for “woman” refers to an adult woman.  In fact, many times the word is translated as “wife” in English.[19] It is important to note that the Hebrew presents an adult woman only, but  uses a non-specific noun for the male.  The text can be talking about a young boy or a grown man,  but “woman” is clearly a grown woman.

Furthermore, Lings considers the context in which Lev. 18:22 is written. He explains that the passage “deals with various illicit relationships in the sexual realm: one marrying two sisters (18:18), intercourse with a menstruating woman (18:19), infidelity (18:20), and bestiality (18:23).”[20] Most of Leviticus 18 deals directly with incest. Notably, the list of laws from Leviticus 18 is reordered in Leviticus 20.  In Leviticus 18 the order of the topics is ambiguous, but in chapter 20 the so-called homosexual law appears within a list referring to incest.[21] Lings’ linguistic study leads him to conclude that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 continue the theme of incestuous relationships.[22] Thus, the passage should be paraphrased: “Sexual intercourse with a close male relative should be just as abominable to you as incestuous relationships with female relatives.”[23] Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 forbids male incestuous relations.

Because of Ling’s linguistic study that we find relief for the LGBTQ community finds from the homophobic interpretations of Lev. 18:22.  Lings’ interpretation illustrates that this verse and many other clobber passages do not stand solid ground.  Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 forbids male incestuous sexual relations.

Anonymous Student

[1] Lev 18:22 (NRSV)

[2] Charles D. Myers, Jr. “What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality.” Anima 19, no. 1 (September 1992), 50.

[3] Myers, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, 50.

[4] Susanne Scholz, “Toward a Future of Queer Bible Hermeneutics” (lecture, Perkins Theological Seminary at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, April 26, 2016).

[5] Temper Longman, III, and David E. Garland, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 Genesis-Leviticus  (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 744.

[6] Longman, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 744.

[7] K. Renato Lings. “The ‘Lyings’ of a Woman: Male-Male Incest in Leviticus 18.22?.” Theology & Sexuality 15, no. 2 (May 2009):

[8] Lings, The ‘Lyings’ of a Woman, 233.

[9] Ibid., 235.

[10] Ibid., 236.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 238.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 241.

[16] Ibid., 240.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 241.

[19] Ibid., 242.

[20] Ibid., 243.

[21] Ibid., 245.

[22] Ibid., 245.

[23] Ibid., 245.