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Why is homosexuality described as an “abomination”?

I think within the Halachic world there has been a remarkable redefinition of many of the more traditional attitudes concerning the congenital homosexual. Traditionally, most biblical translations render  tôʿēbâ as “abomination.”

According to Etymology Online, the noun “abomination”  is a 14th term term that means: “feeling of disgust, hatred, loathing,” from O.Fr. abomination,which in turn derives from the  Latin word abominationem (nom. abominatio) “abomination,” from abominatus, pp. of abominari “shun as an ill omen,” from ab- “off, away from” + omin-, stem of omen. Its meaning was intensified by the folk etymology derivation from L. ab homine “away from man,” hence rendering it as, “beastly.”

Thus, abomination is synonymous with  hatred, corruption, and depravity. The Latin root corresponds to the Hebrew term  tôʿēbâ derives from the Hebrew verb  tʿb “to hate” or “abhor,” but the original biblical text of Lev. 18:22  does not explain why homosexuality is so abhorrent.

Aside from its obvious association with homosexuality, tôʿēbâ also has a distinctly religious and idolatrous connotation as in Isa. 44:19, or even for a specific pagan deity, as in 2 Kgs. 23:13 where Milcom is called “the abomination of the Ammonites.” Until recently, it was supposed that homosexual behavior was associated with cultic prostitution. [1]

The distinguished British biblical scholar Gordon Wenham explains:

“Since male prostitutes were sometimes castrated and often took part in ceremonies flaunting their effeminacy, it may well be that aversion to homosexuality partially explains the ban on castrated men participating in the public assembly, or on wearing women’s clothes. The latter is described as ‘an abomination to the LORD’ (Deut. 23:1; 22:5). It could well be that the law is banning anything suggestive of homosexual practice  . . .” [2]

However, most modern biblical scholars doubt whether there cultic male prostitutes existed in ancient Israel. Despite the reticence of the modern scholars, given the carnivalesque quality of the ancient fertility rites, homosexual prostitutes most likely played a role alongside with the female prostitutes of antiquity. It seems doubtful their male counterparts would have been excluded.

If the Mesopotamian legal codes are of any relevance to the passage in Lev. 18:22, we may be able to decipher the Torah’s real meaning that the ban against homosexuality may well be referring to (a) father and son incest (as mentioned in the Hittite codes) (b) homosexual rape (as spelled out in the Middle Assyrian Codes), (c) male pedophilia, (d) castrating a male for sexual exploitation.

Bear in mind that ancient Israel was the only civilization to have formulated such a proscription against homosexuality. Indeed, the Talmud in BT Sanhedrin 54b interprets the word “zachor” to also include male child. The word “zachor” in the Bible frequently means “male child.” [3]

If this is indeed the real meaning of the text (and let me remind you that we have no way of knowing for sure), then it is possible that the prohibition was not directed at monogamous male relations, which was not the concern of the biblical writer, but was aimed at male incest, pedophilia,  and homosexual rape, i.e., anyone who sexually preys upon males of any age. In times of war, it was not unusual to rape male captives. [4] The sexual humiliation of a male living in a testosterone-driven society probably filled the biblical writers with complete revulsion. The story of Sodom (Gen. 19:1-11) supports this exposition as well. The ancients may have feared that the moral fabric of society might unravel should males prey upon other males.

According to one rabbinic legend, Ham was guilty  because he sodomized his own father while King Nebuchadnazar of Babylon was believed to have sodomized captive kings. Using other biblical texts as a type of intrabiblical commentary provides the rational behind the biblical prohibition of homosexuality and why it is called, “an abomination.”

Lastly, the one likely exposition we have not considered is the possibility that the Torah forbids homosexuality because it goes against the biblical imperative for human beings should ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and does not fit in the scheme of Creation as defined in Genesis 1 and 2. As Wenham notes, “God did not create a male partner for Adam, but only a female counterpart, with whom they could together become ‘one flesh.’ This would also explain why Paul in the Christian tradition regarded homosexuality as being, ‘contrary to nature’ (Rom 1:26), and this would explain why the Bible refers to it as an “abomination.”

While there is considerable merit to Wenham’s statement, I believe the biblical designation of tôʿēbâ as “abomination” is because the idea of  sexually exploiting males–of any age– horrified the ancient Israelite psyche, just as it still does even today. In short, the biblical writers did not concern themselves with the reality of a loving and monogamous homosexual relationship.

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Notes:

[1] Cf. Deut. 23:18; 1Kgs. 14:24; 15:12; 22:46.

[2] Gordon Wenham, “The Old Testament Attitude to Homosexuality,” Expository Times 102 (1991): 259-363.

[3] Cf. Exod. 12:48, Lev. 12:2, 15:33, 27:3 7;4 Isa. 66:7.

[4] Cf. Sanhedrin 54b.



Discussion

  1. Yochanan Lavie  February 10, 2010

    I understood the primary sin of Sodom was a lack of hospitality; a grave sin in the ancient world. (Compare Homer’s Odyssey, for example). Male rape is certainly not a hospitable gesture. Simply being gay was never a sin, as I understand it. But male anal sex is a sin, from what I know of halacha.

    There is nothing in the torah against lesbianism. The rabbis claim it’s the “Egyptian sin”, in total ignorance of Egyptian culture. Lesbianism was not a salient feature of Egyptian culture, the way it was accepted in Greek. Marrying half-siblings was an Egyptian custom (first among pharoahs, and then filtered down to the masses). Although expressively forbidden in the torah, the torah probably felt a need to reiterate it because of the strong cultural influence of Egypt felt throughout Canaan.

    Gay gezunte heit.

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  2. admin  February 10, 2010

    Well, I just fixed up the text a little bit. I appreciate your comment on lesbianism and there is more to say on this topic later when I have some free time (NOT!).

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  3. Gisela  July 15, 2012

    I am not gay, but i have the feeling that part of the bible was miss lead on purpose, it is amazing how the history gets lost in time, it would be wonderful if more people knows about this, so we can start spreading the seeds of a maybe brillant future for all of us.
    Information is a powerful tool, please, let everybody know!!
    And by the way, I am Jewish, but a lot of people that knows me doesn’t know that, and I am being a witness of how ignorance is the devil of our planet, because more and more non jewish people believe that we deserve our past.
    That is why I am afraid that it is only a matter of time to happend all over again. As we can see with this example of the bible.
    Lets fight hate with knowledge.
    God bless us all.

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