Leviticus 18:22 – A Queer Hermeneutical Analysis

This blog entry addresses the problematic translation of Leviticus 18:22, a verse commonly used as a “clobber passage” to justify prejudice against LGBTQIA people.  A hegemonic interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 posits a strict prohibition of male-on-male sexual activity. This interpretation is problematic because it conforms to idiomatic rules that do not exist in the original Hebrew.  Three problems discussed in this blog are 1) the unclear meaning of the Hebrew words “miskeve issa”, 2) the use of the word “zakhar” (male) rather than “is” (man), and 3) the proximity of the Levitical prohibitions against incestuous sex acts which preceding Leviticus 18:22. The misinterpretation of miskeve issa and the heteronormative pattern of thought in the preceding verses demand a deeper look at a queer hermeneutic.

The first point of discussion is the unclear meaning of “miskeve issa.”  A hegemonic interpretation of miskeve issa gives us the translation “as with a woman.”  K. Renato Lings exposes the error in this translation as he notes, “The two words miskeve issa literally mean “the lyings of a woman,” “the lyings down of a woman,” or “a woman’s beds.”[1]  Leviticus 18:22 when viewed as a whole does not make sense.  A literal translation of this text reads, “and with the male no you shall lay the lyings down/bed woman.”  The Hebrew does not contain the prepositional participle “ke” (as) or the second preposition “eth” (with) inserted before “issa” (woman).  Interpreters throughout history have taken liberties in translation to force the Hebrew to conform to grammatical rules to “clarify” the meaning.  The result is a clear meaning, however the meaning is completely at the discretion of the interpreter and therefore subject to question.

A second point of discussion is the word “zakhar.”  The use of the noun “zakhar” also complicates the heteronormative interpretation of Leviticus 18:22.  Zakhar is interpreted as “male”, not “man” (is).  Why this is done is not clear, but it does present problems in translation.  The work Zakhar can refer to males of any age, not the hegemonic interpretation of “man.”  Zakhar simply means male, including male children.  Lings stresses the significance of this nuanced use of language saying, “Yet it is worth pointing out that using one term rather than the other makes a difference in the sense that it may well have a bearing on our interpretation of the text.  While a boy normally is considered to be male from birth, in most cultures, he will have to wait until adulthood to be called a man.”[2]  When we adopt this interpretation of the text, the meaning shifts from man to a broader sweep of any male person.

Third, many of the prohibitions in Leviticus 18 center on heterosexual incestuous acts.  The first twenty-one verses of Leviticus 18 detail a number of prohibited sexual acts centering on male-initiated sexual acts of incest against women.  Ling writes, “Through a large part of chapter 18, incestuous relationships are described as legaloth erwa “to uncover the nakedness” of a close relative.  The general proscription of incest is introduced in 18.6.  Here Israelite men receive clear orders not to approach any near of kin for sexual purposes.”[3]  These verses contain no specific reference to male-on-male incest.  They do contain prohibitions against male-on-female incest, defilement by menstrual blood, and prohibition of sacrifice to Molech.  Only until the vague and unclear statement in Leviticus 18:22 is there any suggestion of prohibition of sex between males.  Immediately following Leviticus 18:22 are additional prohibitions against sexual relations with animals.

In sum, a queer hermeneutical reading of Leviticus 18:22 in light of the obtuse meaning of “miskeve issa”, the use of “zakhar” rather than “is”, and the laundry list of prohibitions about male-on-female incest endorse a different interpretation than commonly proposed.  Lings suggests, “Viewed in this light, it appears that the enigmatic miskeve issa operates in close proximity to series of stern warnings against incest.”[4]  Given this peculiarity Lings maintains that an accurate interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 is, “Sexual intercourse with a close male relative should be just as abominable to you as incestuous relationships with female relatives.”  Lings’ interpretation provides a compelling alternative to a classic “clobber text” in light of the interpretive challenges and the positioning of the text immediately following an exclusively heteronormative list of prohibited incestual sex acts.




[1] K. Renato Lings, “The ‘Lyings’ of a Woman:  Male-Male Incest in Leviticus 18:22?”  Theology and Sexuality 15, 2 (May 2009), 236.

[2] Lings, 235.

[3] Ibid, 243.

[4] Ibid, 244.