This month, America’s newspaper of record — The New York Times — published an article suggesting that Leviticus 18, one of the clearest passages condemning same-sex activity in the Bible, was altered, and that the original version was pro-homosexual.
This was based on no groundbreaking archaeological discovery, no proof. But that’s not how the article reads.
“There is good evidence that an earlier version of the laws in Leviticus 18 permitted sex between men,” argued Idan Dershowitz, a biblical scholar and junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. “In addition to having the prohibition against same-sex relations added to it, the earlier text, I believe, was revised in an attempt to obscure any implication that same-sex relations had once been permissible.”
In “The Secret History of Leviticus,” the New York Times writer presented no evidence, but approached the text with an a priori assumption — that it was “created gradually over a long period and includes the words of more than one writer.” On this basis, he deconstructed the text, suggesting an “earlier version” of Leviticus for which there is absolutely no evidence, save in his own imagination.
Dr. C. John “Jack” Collins, the Old Testament chair for the English Standard Version of the Bible, told PJ Media the New York Times article “sounds like a conclusion in search of an argument.”
David Bennett, a fellow at the Oxford Centre of Christian Apologetics and author of the forthcoming book “A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus,” explained that Dershowitz “assumes a textual history for which he has no actual evidence at all. It is at best conjecture, worst an eisegetical twisting of the text.” (Eisegesis, as opposed to exegesis, is a process of interpreting a text like the Bible in such a way that your own presuppositions, agendas, or biases are read into the text.)
“There is an assumption in the article that same-sex activity was condoned before in Israel with no actual evidence of that being the case (archaeologically or otherwise),” Bennett noted. “This is an argument largely from silence — one has to construct a textual story that simply isn’t able to be substantiated.”
So what does Leviticus 18 say? The passage outlaws a whole host of sexual practices, listing various forms of incest, adultery, sacrificing children to Molech, and bestiality. Verse 22 states, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
Dershowitz argued, however, that the “original” Leviticus 18 did allow for same-sex activity, and “can be uncovered with a little detective work.” He argued that the “core” of the passage is the incest laws (verses 6-18), and that the phrase “uncover nakedness” just means a euphemism for intercourse.
From this, Dershowitz claimed that verse 7 is unclear. It reads, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover your nakedness” (emphasis added by Dershowitz).
“At first, this verse appears to outlaw sex between a man and either of his parents. However, the italicized explanation, or gloss, suggests that the law actually addresses only one parent: the mother. It is difficult to reconcile the two parts of this sentence,” he claimed. The New York Times writer also noted a similar situation in verse 14.
“Each verse in Leviticus 18’s series of incest laws contains a similar gloss, but the others are merely emphatic, driving home the point,” Dershowitz wrote. “Only in these two cases — the father and mother, and the father’s brother — do the glosses alter our understanding of what is prohibited.”
Here’s the key passage: “A law prohibiting sex with one’s father fades away, and a law against sex with one’s uncle is reinterpreted as a ban on sex with one’s aunt. What we have here is strong evidence of editorial intervention.”
From this, Dershowitz argued that the only “exceptional verses” address incest between men. “If a later editor of Leviticus opposed homosexual intercourse, you might wonder, wouldn’t it have made more sense for him (and it was probably a him) to leave the original bans on homosexual incest intact?”
“No,” the New York Times writer cunningly responded. “The key to understanding this editorial decision is the concept of ‘the exception proves the rule.’ According to this principle, the presence of an exception indicates the existence of a broader rule. For example, a sign declaring an office to be closed on Sundays suggests that the office is open on all other days of the week.”
Presto! “Now, apply this principle to Leviticus 18: A law declaring that homosexual incest is prohibited could reasonably be taken to indicate that non-incestuous homosexual intercourse is permitted.”
Notice what Dershowitz has done here. He claimed: 1 – There are two versions of Leviticus. 2 – “Uncover nakedness” clearly only means “have sex with.” 3 – Under this rigid interpretation, it seems weird to say sex with a mother means “uncovering the nakedness” of your father. 4 – Therefore, Leviticus was altered to add the prohibition on same-sex intercourse into it. 5 – The verse that clearly forbids homosexual sex is a later addition, a twisting of the text. Therefore 6 — The original version of Leviticus allowed homosexual activity.
All this is nonsense for which there is no evidence.
Is there really evidence of “editorial intervention,” or did Dershowitz merely insert this assumption into the text? The biggest problem with his interpretation is the assumption that “uncover nakedness” means “have sex with.” Dershowitz was clearly right that “uncover nakedness” is a euphemism, but in the world of ancient Israel, it’s not just a euphemism for “have sex with.”
Remember, Noah’s son Ham was cursed for gawking at his father’s nakedness (Genesis 9:22-27). There is a clear sense in Leviticus 18 that having sex with your mother would also mean knowing her in a way that only your father should. Your father has “uncovered his nakedness” to her, and so in the act of Oedipal incest, the son would “uncover his father’s nakedness,” shaming his father just as much as Noah’s son Ham did.
Once you remove this stumbling block, the passage falls into place, and there is no need to slice up the verses and suggest a later “editorial intervention” to the text for which no evidence exists.
Furthermore, Leviticus 18 is not the only chapter in the Bible that prohibits same-sex intercourse, nor the only reason why such intercourse is suspicious in the first place.
Jack Collins, the ESV Old Testament chair, noted that the Bible’s sexual “ethic doesn’t rest on Leviticus: It rests on the creation pattern, of a man and woman who become one flesh (and thereby produce children).”
“Leviticus derives its force, then, from this creation pattern, not from anything arbitrary,” Collins explained. “Traditional Jewish understanding certainly exhibits an aversion to such behavior.”
For Christians, the New Testament also underscores this sexual ethic — and repeats the prohibition on homosexual activity. “The further problem here is that Paul subscribes to the Levitical ethic,” Bennett told PJ Media. “It was established moral knowledge that Leviticus meant that all same-sex activity was outlawed, included in the definition of porneai used by Jesus (in the Gospels) and Paul (1 Corinthians 6).”
“This seems like a pretty desperate attempt to overturn a pretty well established ethic, right through to Jesus’ own time and Paul’s, as reflected in his own theological excursus in Romans 1,” Bennett explained.
Dershowitz seems not to care about Jesus, Paul, or the general story of mankind as established in the opening chapters of Genesis, however. He has his own ideas about Leviticus, and other verses of the Bible be damned.
Dershowitz’s ripping up of scripture is yet another step in the “Higher Criticism,” a nineteenth century German effort to reinterpret the first five books of the Bible — the Pentateuch — on the assumption that Moses did not write them, but that they were stitched together in the Babylonian Captivity.
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), noted that “liberal scholars began to argue that the Bible is merely a human book, written and edited and edited again, its various documents edited by human beings with clear theological agendas. The divine inspiration and Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch were simply set aside as supernatural claims beneath the dignity of modern scholarship.”
Fundamentally, Dershowitz suggested that Leviticus 18:22 was an aberration. “Before Leviticus was composed, outright prohibitions against homosexual sex — whether between men or women — were practically unheard-of in the ancient world,” he argued. If he had his way, Leviticus would be reinterpreted to force it into line with pagan sources.
But Mohler noted a key verse in Leviticus 20. “I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes,” God says in Leviticus 20:3.
Part of the entire point of the Pentateuch is that God was calling Israel to be different from the peoples around them. Dershowitz is trying to reverse that key issue of calling. It would be an understatement to say that his article does violence to the Bible.
Note: This article is arguing for a literal interpretation of the Bible as outlawing homosexual activity. According to the Bible, all people are sinful and need redemption, and those who suffer with same-sex attraction should not be singled out as worse than others. The redemption offered in Jesus Christ extends to all, and Christians are to love everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation.