Leviticus 18:22 means what?

The Bible verse taken to mean gays should die isn’t so clear.


Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.” Christians love Leviticus 18:22, which seems so sleek and powerful an instrument of judgment. But check under the hood?

As Renato Lings notes, “the original Hebrew wording of this minuscule text is so arcane that the entire verse becomes almost untranslatable.” He suggests: “And with a male you shall not lie down the lyings of a woman.”

Jan Joosten, professor of Hebrew at Oxford, suggests an even more literal translation: “And-with a male not you-will-lie ‘lyings-of’ a woman.”

And for that, people should die?

“They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

We know that Leviticus 18:22, whose punishment is noted in 20:13, is regularly cited by Christians to suggest that gay people are outside of grace, or something.

But as I studied the verse, I wasn’t sure I knew what it means? Or that anyone else did either. Are gays, for starters, supposed to be killed?

Mark D. Smith, currently a professor at the College of Idaho is the author of a widely cited 1996 paper that says, yes, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are “reaffirmed” for Christians.

I wrote him, asking: Is the death penalty also “reaffirmed”?

“I read a number of studies on the topic, but I don’t remember any of them grappling with the punishment issue,” he replies.

He declines to say Christians should not kill gay people. Rather, the subject has been . . . insufficiently studied.

David E. Malick is currently pastor at Riverchase Baptist in ​Birmingham, Alabama, but in the early 1990s he was with Dallas Theological Seminary, and published two of the most annihilating anti-gay attacks in modern Bible scholarship: “The Condemnation of Homosexuality in 1 Corinthians 6:9” and “The Condemnation of Homosexuality in Romans 1:26–27.”

Should gays be executed, I asked?

“I do not think that all aspects of the OT carry through to the NT,” he replies. “I am not against people who are homosexual, even though I do believe that it is not a biblical choice.”


In Christian scholarship there is often little or no indication that the meaning of Leviticus 18:22 is essentially unknown.

“Commentators for more than two millennia have struggled to interpret these laws,” notes Saul M. Olyan in an influential 1994 paper, “‘And with a Male You Shall Not Lie the Lying down of a Woman’: On the Meaning and Significance of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.”

There is, for example, no ‘as one does with’ gluing the verse together. As Joosten says, “this particle is absent.”

But without it, the traditional meaning of the verse is no longer possible.

And what is ‘lyings’—“a difficult phrase,” Joosten says, “attested only here and in the parallel verse Lev. 20:13.”

“And with a male you shall not lie down the lyings of a woman.”

I studied the verse . The ‘male’ is singular; the ‘lyings’ is plural; the ‘woman’ is singular? A singular male acts sexually in plural ways on a singular female . . . who the tradition says is a male?

The Septuagint or LXX, the Greek translation of the verse (in Lings’ translation) is a little help: “And with a male you shall not lie a woman’s bed.”

That suggests ‘lyings’ means ‘bed’?—which in Hebrew are plural, and in the LXX singular. Having multiple versions of biblical texts is nothing new, but when people are going to be dying, there’s a high standard?


Rabbis, of course, pondered all the vexing scriptural issues, as David Brodsky details in “Sex in the Talmud: How to Understand Leviticus 18 and 20.”

If the verse is about sex between men, they asked, why doesn’t it just forbid a man ‘lying with a man’?

The Bible doesn’t repeat itself, is the Jewish way of seeing the scriptures. Every word is meaningful. If it says lyings — plural — the subject must involve . . . more than one way of being sexual?

The rabbinic mind pored over all the orifices of the male body, but could think of only one way to treat a man ‘like a woman’.

The plural might then require that sex with women be the subject? Women have two holes, after all, which might satisfy the scriptural requirements. As Brodsky explains:

The rabbis interpreted the plural “lyings of women” to mean that when a man has sexual intercourse with a woman who is Biblically prohibited to him, both vaginal intercourse and anal intercourse are prohibited, and each carries the same penalty . . .

It seemed a little eccentric that Leviticus would prohibit anal sex with married women? I kept in search.


Say I was willing to bite the bullet and say that, yes, Leviticus 18:22 forbids sex between males.

Does the verse forbid all intimacies between men? Can they have, say, oral sex, or kiss, or write love poetry, or gaze at each other over dinner?

And what about rape victims?

“Even the question of the partner’s consent remains unmentioned,” as Joosten notes. “The text single-mindedly focuses on the sexual act.”

Olyan observes as well: the ban involves acts “coerced and those voluntary…”

There are exceptions for female rape victims over in Deuteronomy 22:23–27, so one might staple those on as an appendix? But let’s acknowledge: Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13 don’t include that clarification.

Say a five-year old boy is anally raped. Is he not in violation of the verse?


Could the underlying reason for the prohibition be a guide? But it couldn’t just be “homosexuality” — there’s no condemnation of ladies getting cozy.

God wouldn’t be trying to affirm masculinity as a value. He loves strange, feminine men, especially if ‘beautiful’ — Joseph, Moses, David, etc.

Israel is God’s wife after all. In the Song of Songs, they’re the girl.

“Israel is to cultivate the virtues of submission, accommodation, reconciliation, and self-sacrifice — the virtues we have now seen are classified as feminine ones,” says Jacob Neusner.

Olyan suggests the reasoning behind Leviticus 18:22 might be to prohibit semen and excrement from mixing. Biblical law can seem to think in such terms. But then . . . anal sex with a woman, however, is not prohibited.

Maybe that was “not part of the Israelite repertoire of sexual acts,” Olyan suggests.

But here the feminist Bible scholars pipe up. Yes, anal sex with women is in the biblical ‘repertoire’. F. Rachel Magdalene points to Jeremiah 13:22: “your buttocks suffer violence…”

“The exact talmudic term for male-female anal intercourse is ‘penetration not according to her way,’” notes Daniel Boyarin.

But if anal sex with women isn’t prohibited . . . then the prohibition wouldn’t concern sex acts that are non-procreative. Another theory goes down.

And why does the Old Testament seem otherwise to encourage male closeness? In Ecclesiastes 4:11, anyone who sleeps separately are questioned: “How can one keep warm alone?”


Another theory! The word ‘bed’ in Leviticus 18:22 might be explained in reference to Genesis 49:4, where a guy sleeps with his dad’s concubine. The Levitical meaning then shifts to . . . incest?

Jan Joosten finds that a stretch, but the verse might be “a prohibition of sexual intercourse between Israelite males when either or both of them are married.”

I find anal adultery a less than obvious meaning, and was about to give up on finding out which holes of whose bodies God was criminalizing for phallic entry, or not . . . when I noticed a 2014 blog posting by Susan Pigott, a Christian professor of Hebrew at Hardin-Simmons.

In “Leviticus Defiled: The Perversion of Two Verses,” she suggests this translation: “And with a male you will not lay (on) the couches/beds of a woman.”

The context, she suggests, is a cue not to sex at all, but to cult religious practice. As she notes, “the law forbidding sacrificing children to Molech appears immediately prior to the oft-prooftexted 18:22, usually understood to forbid homosexuality.”

She peers closely at the Hebrew text.

Neither verse actually says “Do not lie with a male as with a woman.” Instead, both say you should not lay with a male on the couches or beds of a woman. The New American Standard Bible has a footnote that says, “Lit. “those who lie” taking the word “couches” as a participle. But it is not a participle. It is a plural noun. So what does this mean?
Well, first it means that translators have taken great liberties in smoothing out these verses. Second, it means that maybe these verses aren’t talking about homosexuality at all, especially in light of the context of Molech worship.

I sit back, wondering if Christians just don’t understand Old Testament references very well? Leviticus is written for priests, most likely, and maybe it means something to then that isn’t obvious to us.

As Pigott notes, the word ‘bed’ is used in Isaiah 57:7–9 in connection to idolatrous practices.

The Jewish Temple was the ‘bed of love’, as Ezekiel 23:17 notes. A temple, or perhaps a worship space in general, was called a ‘bed’?

In Jewish spirituality, as often in ancient religion, including Christianity, after all, the deity and humans are seen as ‘man’ and ‘woman’—married.

A scene of worship, where deity and humans meet, is then . . . ‘sex’? The place where that happens is often . . . a bed.

I pull out my Jewish Levite priest decoder ring. “And with a male you shall not lie down the lyings of a woman.”

This would mean—another deity—shouldn’t be allowed into the worship spaces—of the human community under Yahweh’s protection?

They belong to Yahweh. No other ‘man’ is allowed!


“Regardless, the sacred-cow prooftexts against homosexuality aren’t all that clear, are they?”

Susan Pigott is wrapping up.

“Isn’t it interesting, that when Jesus quoted Leviticus, he quoted a verse about love (Lev. 19:18)? Maybe, if we’re going to pick one verse out of Leviticus to plaster on signs, that’s the one we should choose.”