Lost in Translation: Alternative Meaning in Leviticus 18:22
Most traditional English translations interpret Leviticus 18:22 as a divine condemnation of erotic, same-sex relationships. However, careful philological, literary analysis of the original Hebrew shows another interpretation: a divine condemnation of same-sex rape. The original Hebrew is more ambiguous than the traditional English translation. Instead of practicing the principle of lectio difficilior probabilitor, “the more difficult reading and more likely reading,” modern translators dispel ambiguity by making the translation as simple as possible. However, the translators’ attempts to clarify the Hebrew text presents a reading that is not only harmful, but incongruent to the context of Leviticus. This essay focuses on three main points in K. Renato Ling’s literary analysis of Lev. 18:22 that provides a holistic interpretation. First, the addition of propositions within Lev. 18:22 by English translators alters the verse’s meaning. Second, the reoccurrence of the rare Hebrew word miškevēwithin Gen. 49:4 presents a philological nuance that is crucial to discerning the word’s incestuous connotation in Lev. 18:22. Third, when this alternative connotation of the miškevēis applied to Lev. 18:22 and compared to the textual context within the book, Lev. 18:22 becomes more cohesive.
First, the addition of propositions to clarify the literal translation of Lev 18:22 not only downplays the ambiguity of the Hebrew text, but skews its interpretation. The following text compares the Hebrew and NRSV translation of Lev. 18:22:
Hebrew:w’eth-zäkhār lö’ tiškav miškevē ‘iššâ
Literal Translation:With (a) male you shall not lie (the) lyings of a woman. (An) abomination is that.
NRSV Translation:You shall not lie with a male as with a woman, it is an abomination.
English translators add the prepositions asand withto the traditional translation for its “perceived lacunae.” This translation presupposes a comparison between a “normal” action (“lying with a woman”) and a “deviant” action (“lying with a male”). However, the grammatical construction of the Hebrew text does not warrant such an interpretation. To substantiate such a translation, the Hebrew equivalent for as (kě)must be connected directly to miškevē(“lyings”) since the Hebrew preposition attaches grammatically to either a noun or an infinitive.This grammatical construction is not present in the verse. Instead, miškevē is the direct object of the verb tiškav (“you shall not lie”). Similarly, another grammatical construction that validates the English translation “with a woman” involves the Hebrew preposition ‘ethappearing a second time in front of ’iššâ. This construction does not exist in Lev. 18:22. The Hebrew phrase kӗšōkhēv’eth(“as one lies with”) also conveys the same meaning that traditional English translators seek, but it is not present within the original text.The absence of an equivalent preposition in Hebrew casts doubt on a the interpretation that compares “normative” and “deviant” sexual actions.
Second, the plural wordmiškevē is a rare biblical word. Therefore, it warrants careful scrutiny. In fact, miškevēonly occurs one more time in the entire Bible besides its parallel occurrence in Lev. 20:13. In Gen. 49:4, the verse explicitly refers the incestuous activity of Reuben with his father’s concubine, Bilhah. While “lyings”, “acts of lying down,” or “beds” are possible translations for the word miškevē, the comparison to the Hebrew singular word for bed, yātsūa,suggests that the two Hebrew words are not interchangeable. Lings asserts that the plural miškevë may focus on the deviant nature of Reuben’s incestuous relationship with Bilhah. The philological nuance implies that miškevē means rape of a family member.
Finally, if one applies Lings’ interpretation of miškevē from Gen 49:4 to Lev 18:22 and compares the verse’s textual context, the incestuous connotation of miškevēmakes more sense in the context of Leviticus 18. A large portion of Leviticus 18 proscribes the divine condemnation of incest. Initially, the relationship of Lev. 18:22 to incest in Lev. 18:6-17 is not obvious, especially in comparison to Lev. 18:18-23. The comparison of Lev. 18:22 to the repetition of miškevē ‘iššâ(“lyings of a woman”) in Lev 20:13, uncovers a parallel relationship to incest. While Leviticus 18 focuses on the forbidden sexual relationships, Leviticus 20 focuses on the punishment for participating in such relationships. The laws are reordered in Leviticus 20 to emphasize consequences of deviant relationships. Themiškevē ‘iššâis an act that is punished identically to other acts that are clearly incestuous. Therefore, the likely meaning of miškevē ‘iššârefers more to incestuous male-male rape as opposed to all erotic, same-sex relationships.
In sum, traditional English translations of Leviticus 18:22 are known as “clobber passages” that condemn homosexuality. Lings’ philological, literary analysis undermines the inclusion of Lev. 18:22 among those texts. He legitimizes a reading of Lev. 18:22 that condemns incestuous, same-sex rape. Therefore, the use of Leviticus 18:22 as a weapon against all same-sex relationships is not only unjust, but linguistically misguided.
K. Renato Lings, “The ‘Lyings’ of a Woman: Male-Male Incest in Leviticus 18:22?,” in Theology & Sexuality (London: Equinox Printing, 15:2, May 2009), 240.
Lings, 245 & 241.