Unclobbered-A Queering of Leviticus 18

The purity laws in the Hebrew Bible have been used to clobber LGBTq people. Yet, in the case of at least one of these laws, recorded in Leviticus 18:22, there is greater depth of meaning than meets the eye from an easy, surface reading of the verse. However, because English translators of the verse have used the easy translation of the verse, modern readers do not see the complicated nuances of the text.[1] Looking at the overall narrative of the book of Leviticus suggests a more difficult reading needs to be considered.[2] A more detailed “textual, contextual and intertextual” analysis  of Lev 18:22 will reveal that the overall narrative is about incest.[3]

Though the text in English seems straightforward, there are ambiguities in the Hebrew. Translators have taken liberties with their translations of the Hebrew into English. For example, most have translated the word for “male” as “man.” In the original context, a “male” is any person born with the male gender and refers to one born male at any age. Thus, “While a boy normally is considered to be male from birth, in most cultures he will have to wait until adulthood to be called man.”[4]  Ambiguities like this leave open the possibility of another translation.

In addition, translators have added words to make for an easier reading. As a result, the “common English translations are interpretive, not literal.”[5] For example, translators have added the English words “as” and “with” to make the English translation easier to read, since leaving these words out makes for an awkward reading of the text.[6]  However,  adding “as” and “with,” which creates an easier reading of the text, changes the overall meaning of the verse.

Because no other text in the Bible uses the language that occurs in the context of Leviticus 18 and 20, “no other biblical text comes to the translator’s rescue in terms of providing comparable contexts capable of shedding light on the obscurity of [these Hebrew words].”[7] However, looking at the only other place these words are used, Genesis 49, one can see that they are used in a text that is referring to incest.[8] This sheds some light on the text, but to find the meaning of the text it is necessary to read the overall narrative in Leviticus 18 and 20.

As Ling observes, “Lev 18 describes what might be termed ‘the wrong kinds of relationship’ to be avoided by all Israelites” and thus the overall text is giving different descriptions of incest[9]. Reading the text in light of its context and use of similar language elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible suggests it is not a prohibition against same-gender loving, but one against incest and rape. Using queer exegesis, a more exact interpretation comes to light. No longer should this passage be used as weapon against same-gender loving but as a prohibition of incest and rape of all forms.


[1] K. Renato Ling, “The ‘Lyings’ of a Woman: Male-Male Incest in Leviticus 18:22?” Theology & Sexuality 15, no. 2 (August 11, 2009): 234.

[2] Ling, 240.

[3] Ling, 231-249.

[4] Ling, 235.

[5] David Stewart, “Leviticus,” in The Queer Bible Commentary, ed. Deryn Guest et al. (London: SCM Press, 2006), 96-99.

[6] Ling, 233-237; Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), 498.

[7] Ling, 238.

[8] Ling, 241.

[9] Ling, 245.