Is It Clobbering Time? The Ambiguity of Lev. 18:22

In the debates about the current splintering of the United Methodist Church (UMC), Methodists consider many factors, centering on the issue of the ordination of queer clergy and same-sex marriage. During these debates, ironically the actual Bible passages that most explicitly mention same-sex acts (the so-called “clobber passages”) and their interpretations are rarely even mentioned. In the hegemonic, “orthodox,” or traditionalist view, the debate is already settled: homosexuality is sin, and the Bible is “clear” about it.

However, this opinion is far from true. A recent survey by Mark Stone listed twenty-one different interpretive readings of Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 alone.[1] Perhaps the hegemonic interpretation has been so dominant because not until 1994 was the hegemonic reading challenged with a philological reading.[2] As this verse has continued to be subject to exegesis, scholarship has shown that these eight Hebrew words are much more ambiguous than English translations reveal.

Susanne Scholz offers such an analysis in Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible: Feminism, Gender, Justice and the Study of the Old Testament.[3] Scholz’s analysis builds on the work of K. Renato Lings to formulate a new queer reading of the text. Scholz begins by noting Lings’ analysis of the words zākār and miškevē ‘iššâ.[4] The noun, zākār, is often translated as “man,” but the noun does not refer to age and should be more accurately translated as “male.”

The phrase miškevē ‘iššâ, usually rendered “as with a woman,” means literally “the lyings of a woman” or “bed” (from the phrase’s only other use in the Hebrew Bible in Gen. 49:4). Thus, a literal English translation of Lev. 18:22 could be: “And with a male you shall not lie down a woman’s beds.”[5] This terribly awkward phrase does not have an obvious meaning.  Scholz suggests that readers should not smooth out the ambiguity.

Yet Scholz also shows that the grammar of this passage refers to rape terminology due to the link to Genesis 49:4.[6]  Scholz draws from her previous study in Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible, to argue that the same verb used in Lev. 18:22 also appears in Gen. 49:4. There, Reuben rapes Bilhah, Rachel’s servant.[7] Therefore, Lev. 18:22 refers not to a consensual same-sex act but to sexual violence of an older man on a young boy. Accordingly, Scholz translates Lev. 18:22 in the following way: “You (masculine singular) shall not rape a male; it is like the rape of a woman; it is an abomination.”[8]

The benefit of this translation is not only that it is a grammatically and linguistically grounded translation but also an ethical one. Moreover, this [what? “this” needs a noun!!] respects anyone on the gender or sexual-expression spectrum because this translation of Lev. 18:22 affirms that all rape is an abomination. Protecting the rights and autonomy of young boys in society, Lev. 18:22 thus points to the deepest ethical foundation for Christians rooted in the Hebrew Bible: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).

[1] Mark Preston Stone, “Don’t do What to Whom?” A Survey of Historical-Critical Scholarship on Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13,” Currents in Biblical Research 20, no. 3 (2022): 212.

[2] Ibid., 208.

[3] Susanne Scholz, Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible: Feminism, Gender Justice, and the Study of the Old Testament (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), 139.

[4] Ibid, 139.

[5] K. Lings, “The “Lyings” of a Woman: Male-Male Incest in Leviticus 18:22?” Theology & Sexuality 15(2) (2009) 238.

[6] Scholz, Introducing, 140.

[7] Ibid, 140.

[8] Ibid, 141.