In some ways, I’ve always found that the traditional interpretation of the Law in Leviticus 18:22 (and the parallel Law in Leviticus 20:11) to be one of the less threatening as far as accepting my sexuality. For the first half of this post, I’m going to assume that the text is correct, and that it prohibits a man sleeping with a man as he would with a woman. I was trained in a moderately dispensational school, and I do tend to take the Biblical instructions rather literal. There appear to be a number of “covenants” established between human beings and God over time, the most significant in this discussion being the “Old” covenant established by Moses between God and the nation of Israel, and the “New”covenant established between by Jesus between God and humankind. The former of these were very strict and specific, and included the prohibition against homosexuality in Leviticus. The latter is much more broad and free, and is built on the idea of loving each other. As we saw in the last two posts, this law would probably be more ceremonial than moral, so is not a law that would necessarily be brought forward into the New covenant (Abominations and Moral Law). So in my mind, the prohibition against homosexuality is right up there with being circumcised and eating specific types of meat. Not only has the Old Law effectively passed away, but trying to follow it can have a negative effect on your spititual life (Legalism).
Now usually when I make this assertions, I run up against a couple of problems. One of them is Jesus direct claim in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” To which I would respond that the Law been fulfilled. And in that fulfillment, it has become something new: a Law that is written on our hearts, and which is based on love. So far so good. But if God didn’t mean Leviticus 18:22 to be there for moral purposes, was he establishing a systemic, if only ceremonial, homophobia thousands of years ago, which would last into the future? The dietary restrictions and some of the other laws might seem random, but they aren’t hurting anyone. Unlike this verse. Even if it’s only ceremonial, it appears to lay the foundation for homophobia through the ages.
To which I have a couple of responses. Still keeping with the traditional translation, I would argue that there were possibly not as many queer people back then. It appears that homosexuality is partially a response to population pressure, so it could be that there just weren’t as may men who wanted to be together like that. And one of the biggest concerns about the nation of Israel was just making sure it would survive generation to generation. One’s family line was a key variable in making decisions about one’s future. At that time, where really was a much more important role needed for procreation. It’s one of the reasons men had potentially several wives and concubines as the base of their lives and their sexuality. Remember that treating a man as a woman back then involved a lot more than sex. Women were property; men were not. To treat a man as property was very negative. If interpreted this way, the law was not establishing homophobia in the Law, but was actually negating the mistreatment of others.
But I’m also not sure that the traditional translation of the verse is correct. Until I did some research, I had trusted that the scholars knew what they were talking about and were confident in the translation. Turns out this is not the case. There are several aspects that make this a difficult verse to translate. It turns out, for instance, that there is no part of the verse that equates to any kind of comparison, the phrasing “as with” that is so popular with English translations. The structure of the sentence is not something that scholars recognize or have previous examples of, so although we can figure out what the individual word are, it’s a challenge to identify what they mean together and in that order.
One example of a the progression of thought is described in this article on Medium (2019). Another very similar progression is presented in Progress (2015). I had often heard that this verse was actually in reference to pagan or cultic practices back then, but that had never really satisfied my curiosity. So I did my own research, which followed the same kind of pattern. It all keyed on the literal translation of the verse, which is essentially: “a man who will lie down with a male in a woman’s bed, both of them have made an abomination.” Maybe it’s just the way my mind works, but once I saw the structure of the verse and read up on some specifics about the words, this seemed pretty simple for interpretation. Most interpreters assume that “bed” has to be a figurative expression for a sexual act, but what if it is slightly less so? As in still involving a sexual act, but one still “in a woman’s bed”? Although this is talking about two men having sex, that is not the focus. This is what we might call a “three-way” or a “menage-a-trois”, two men and a woman. And the reason this was outlawed at the time was that it would have been hard to identify the paternity of any child conceived. (Which is also why the compliment, two women and a man, would not be discouraged. Indeed, considering that men had multiple partners…) It’s also not so difficult to understand why the “abomination” refers to “both” rather than all three. It is the men who have sinned by combining their “seed” and making it difficult to determine paternity. The third in the scenario (the woman) has done nothing wrong; any progeny would be fine (assuming that no other Laws were broken with respect to either of the two men).
I have only been able to find some support this theory: Benei Miqra ha-Qara’im, Does the Torah condemn Homosexuality? by Ya’aqov ben Yisrael. (There might be more, but searching for Leviticus & “menage a trois” comes up with a lot of interesting results, most of which are not related to my intent in that query.) Ya’aqov’s logic and skills in exploring Hebrew are much more in depth than mine, so he was able to follow a path that was much more detailed, and still lead to parallel conclusions. But as far as I can tell, this would end up being the only reference to a threesome in the Bible, so it’s not surprising that we’re not familiar with idioms used in that culture.
“Two men on a woman is a common fetish, today as well as then. However, this could lead to all sorts of problems in relation to descent, heredity etc. A woman in bed with two men can never know who the father is, at least not then.” (Ya’aqov ben Yisrael, 2013)
So is that what this verse means? I’m not sure. And using the same logic as above, I don’t think this is necessarily banning “three-ways” for all time. It did back then, and I would assume for precisely the reasons identified: that it would be impossible to be sure of a child’s lineage. Since that was such an important part of a person’s identity, it overshadowed the parent’s preferences. Today this is not so much of an issue, and so it doesn’t even occur to us that it should be translated this way. It does, however, provide an alternative translation for the text which is not as threatening to queer people. If understood in context, it’s not threatening to anyone. It’s simply a reflection of different priorities in different ages.