The Abomination of “Abomination”.

The Abomination of “Abomination”. | Queering the Church: ” There may be no single word or concept that has been more greatly abused in discussion (or ranting) about faith and homoerotic relationships, than “abomination”, which comes to us via the mistranslation of the Hebrew “toe’vah”. If there is another that has been more greatly abused, it is probably “homosexual” which does no in fact occur at all). I have written elsewhere about how a more accurate translation of the Hebrew is the milder term “taboo” – but precisely because it is milder, that does not suit those who insist on misusing the Bible as a weapon against minority groups. It is also widely applied to all same-sex relationships, even though the text in Leviticus clearly applies to men only. ”

‘via Blog this’

The "Abominations" of the King James Bible

Scripture has been so commonly quoted in support of arguments against same sex relationships, that we too easily overlook the simple facts that the texts being quoted were written in  a foreign language, in a remote cultural setting, in contexts very different to that in which pseudo-religious bigots abuse these texts today. To extend correct understanding of these texts, every useful explanation deserves wide exposure.

At Religion Dispatches today, Jay Michaelson  has an explanation of one particularly treacherous and widely abused and misunderstood word, “abomination”.   Critics of the clobber texts routinely point out that the same word is used to proscribe certain foods, shaving, as well as “men lying with men”, and the inconsistency exposed in its modern use to attack  selectively one but not the others. Outside the scholarly journals however, not enough attention has been placed on the word itself, which emphatically does not have the connotations and strength of meaning in the original Hebrew text that it does in the modern English usage of its translation. (Renato Lings, meanwhile, has offered a useful analysis of the Levitical texts from another perspective, the words for “men lying with men”, and also finds that they simply do not mean what modern abusers of the texts think it means).

The Hebrew word is “toevah” (plural “toevot“), and it is to the King James version that we owe the appallingly inappropriate translation as “abomination”. In an extensive analysis of all 103 Biblical uses of the word, some key themes emerge. First, almost all have the connotation of non-Israelite cultic practices.

In particular, foreign forms of worship (“avodah zara“) he describes as the “primary” toevah, from which most other forms of toevot flow. Some of these are clearly serious, and would also be recognised as such in the modern West – such as  idolatry, child sacrifice, and witchcraft (Deut. 12:31, 13:14, 17:4, 27:15, and 32:16 ) – but unlike the Hebrews, we would not see this as sufficient justification for “the genocide of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanaites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites” . But in addition to idolatry, Ezekiel lists some further “toevot” that we would recognize as wrong, but would be surprised to see described as “abominations” –   usury (Ez. 18:13), haughtiness and pride (Ez. 16:47-50), heterosexual adultery (Ez. 22:11, 33:26), and violence (Ez. 33:26). (I hope that someone can point out to those promoting homophobic violence in the name of religion, that they are as much guilty of “abomination” as those they oppose.)

A further use from Ezekiel brings home an important feature of this notion of “toevah” as a general term for foreign acts (Ez. 16:51) – that it is foreign practice that is the problem, usually cultic, but sometimes not. As Michaelson makes clear, the point of toevah is that it is culurally specific. Just as some foreign practices are toevah to Israelites, so some Israelite practices are equally toevah to others:

Genesis 43:32 states that eating with Israelites is toevah for Egyptians. Gen. 43:34 states that shepherds are toevah to Egyptians—the sons of Israel are themselves shepherds. In Exodus 8:22, Moses describes Israelite sacrifices as being toevat mitzrayim—toevah of Egypt—although obviously Israelite ritual is not an objective “abomination.” If toevah means abomination, then eating with shepherds, eating with Israelites, and Israelite sacrifices themselves must be abominable! Since this clearly is not the case, toevah cannot mean “abomination” in any ontological sense—it must be a relative quality.

Toevot also include what Michaelson calls “ethical failings”, including pride (Prov. 6:16, 16:5), lying (Prov. 12:22, 26:25), scoffing (Prov. 24:9) and evil speech (Prov. 8:7) – some more in there that are worth drawing to the attention of those crying “abomination” against gay men and lesbians. I also like this:

Interestingly, Proverbs 13:19 says that “to turn from evil is toevah to fools,” again suggesting that toevah is something relative in nature. Similarly, Prov. 29:27 says poetically: “An unjust man is toevah to the righteous, and the straightforward man is toevah to the wicked.”

However, the KJV and many other biblical translations do not simply apply the inappropriate word “abominations” to the Hebrew “toevah”, but also to other Hebrew words usually associated with idolatry:   sheketz,  which refers usually to idolatry and occasionally to other taboos such as forbidden animals (Lev. 11:10-13). Likewise,  as pigul, which is how Leviticus 7:18 describes leftover sacrificial meat.

Here’s the crunch:

Progressive religionists must stop using the word “abomination” to refer to toevah. The word plays into the hands of fundamentalists on the one hand, and anti-religious zealots on the other, both of whom want to depict the Bible as virulently and centrally concerned with the “unnatural” acts of gays and lesbians. In fact, toevah is mostly about idolatry, and male homosexual behavior is only as abominable as remarriage or not keeping kosher. Whenever we use the word “abomination” we are perpetuating the misunderstanding of Biblical text and the religious persecution of LGBT people.

What word are we to use instead?

Personally, I like “taboo” as a replacement. It conveys the culturally relative nature of toevah, has some connotation of foreignness, and rightly aligns the taboo against homosexuality with taboos against, for example, eating unkosher food. It also has a vaguely archaic feel, which it should. Admittedly, “taboo” began as tabu, and specifically refers to a particular concept in Pacific indigenous religion; it is a bit inexact to import it to Judaism and Christianity. Yet the word has, by now, entered the common parlance, and in that general sense, it matches toevah fairly well. (Alternatively, we could stick with the Hebrew term, the foreignness of which heightens the foreignness of the Biblical concerns about homosexuality.) One thing remains clear, though: what’s really abominable here is the word “abomination” itself.

I like this. Taboo exactly captures that sense of something which is forbidden, in a cultural context. See how the impact of the Levitical text changes if we make that small adustment, from “abomination”, to a more precise, culturally appropriate  translation:

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination


Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is taboo for Israelis.


Clobber Texts: A New Reading of Leviticus

Two verses from Leviticus appear to present the most explicit biblical condemnation of homosexuality,  to which  LGBT affirmative commentators have offered a range of responses. For Christians (but not for Jews), the simplest rejection is just to note that they are part of the Jewish purity laws, and no longer applicable to Gentiles, just as Christians do not observe Jewish restrictions on diet, clothing, and many other issues.  Others note that the texts refer only to men, and so cannot be applied to homosexuality more generally, or point out that the modern cultural context for loving same – sex relationships from the Biblical one of military aggression, domination and humiliation of defeated enemies, that the prohibition is no longer relevant – or that it applies only to anal intercourse, and not to other forms of sexual interchanges.
The linguist and biblical scholar Renato Lings takes an unusual approach, in an article  called “The Lyings of a Woman: Male-Male Incest in Leviticus 18:22”, in the peer review journal “Theology and Sexuality”. 
Lings’ analysis, based on close study of the specific Hebrew words and the broader context of the passage, argues that the apparent agreement among the standard translations hides the complexity and opacity of the original Hebrew. Specifically,he suggests that the translators have erred with the phrase “as with a woman”, which is central to the conventional modern understanding. He states that there is no equivalent in the Hebrew text to the words “as with”, which distort the original meaning. To recover some sense of what that original meaning might be, he provides a close analysis of the specific Hebrew words as used elsewhere, and of the more extended context of the two verses in the full chapters that contain them.
These two chapters, he shows, are about different forms of incest. The conclusion that follows, is that the sexual activity that is prohibited is sexual relationships with males who are close relatives ! Two possible translations he suggests are:

(a) You shall not lie with close relatives, whether male or female;
(b) With a male relative you shall not engage in sexual relationships prohibited with female relatives.

Concluding, Ling paraphrases these as

You shall not commit incest with any close relative, male or female.

I hope this has whet your appetite. Look out for more formal evaluation later, from commentators better qualified than I. However, the article as a whole deserves to be read in full. Unfortunately, it is not possible to carry it here, so you would need to get hold of a copy of Theology & Sexuality from the publishers.
Remember, in all of the Old Testament, there are precisely three texts which even appear to condemn homoerotic relationships. The passage from Genesis 19, telling the story of Sodom, quite clearly has nothing to do with sexual relationships, which leaves only these two twin texts from Leviticus, 18:22 and 20:13. Lings’ analysis, combined with the other modern interpretations as described above, at the very least shows that whatever else the precise words may mean, they do no exclude all forms of loving relationships between men – as long as they are not incestuous, not done as part of temple or cult rituals, non-penetrative, and not between Jews.
That leaves open quite a lot of possibilities, then
A Quaker discussion of this paper at Friends World Committee on Consultation notes that incest, which Lings focuses on, is a neglected area in biblical research, and also refer to earlier work by the theologian David Stewart, who had reached the same conclusion as Lings:

Renato focuses on a major issue that has been underresearched and ignored for years: incest. In a recent scholarly work, David T. Stewart has suggested that Lev. 18:22 addresses male–male incest. He bases his view on the fact that the primary concern of chapter 18 is precisely male–female incest: with mother, stepmother, aunt, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, daughter-in-law, etc. A supplementary clause in Lev. 18:22 proscribing male–male incest would make perfectly good sense. Renato backs up this hypothesis with supporting evidence located in Lev. 20 and the book of Genesis.

The original Hebrew phrase is extremely difficult to translate. However, the incest link provides valuable insight into its possible meaning. In this article Renato arrives at the conclusion that male–male incest is indeed a major factor. It should be taken into account whenever Lev. 18:22 is discussed.

Recommended Books:
Countryman, William : Dirt Greed & Sex
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