Wednesday 14 March 2012

Putting the Record Straight on - Leviticus

This little mini-series of posts aims to give an alternative viewpoint on people or ideas that have been suggested as being part of the lgbt community. Today I present my personal interpretation on a controversial subject.

Way back in the 1980s I spent a few years as a Methodist lay preacher. At the time there was a big fuss about gay clergy, and not being “out” at the time I felt too uncomfortable to continue.

More times than I care to remember I’ve heard people trot out those tired old verses from the Book of Leviticus :-
“Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination”.
(Leviticus 18:22, King James Version);
“If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death”.
(Leviticus 20:13, King James Version)

If you heard these words coming from a Christian you’d suppose they’d be speaking with some authority on the subject – but they’re not. Using selective quotations doesn’t prove you are right.

Leviticus was written 3,000 years ago and is essentially a “holiness code”. The name Leviticus means “book for the Levites – the junior priests”. It lists many things Hebrew priests can and cannot do. They can’t work on Sundays, have tattoos, eat pork or prawns, read horoscopes, play with a pig’s skin (at last, a reason to ban football!), or “lie with mankind, as with womankind.” Leviticus was primarily intended for Hebrew priests which, as a Christian, I’m not, so they don’t apply to me. As St. Paul explained to the early Christians in Greece the old Hebrew laws of Leviticus (whether for priests or anyone else) have been replaced by Christ’s laws.

The Bible has been translated and transcribed many times, and each time the scribe has reflected his/her own times and attitudes. And if they didn’t have their own word for what was written they’d replaced it with one they did have, usually one which may have had a different meaning. In the case of the quotations about the word “abomination”, the word doesn’t even appear in the original Hebrew texts.

Briefly, the word as it appears in Hebrew is (in Latin script) “to’ebah”. It doesn’t mean abomination, it has several meanings which include “idolatrous” and “unclean”. Fortunately, some modern translations of the Old Testament have gone back to the original texts and chosen different words for “to’ebah” – usually “distasteful”, which doesn’t sound as bad as “abomination”.

Anyway, Leviticus 20.13 doesn’t even say “lie with mankind, as with womankind…” It says “You shall not sleep the sleep of a woman with a man” – even Jewish historians haven’t worked out what that means, so its wrong to place any meaning on it today.

Leviticus was written after the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt led my Moses. They had camped at Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. All was well for a while, but then the Jews began joining pagans in worshipping idols. Leviticus was an attempt to give some responsibility to the priests to keep the Jews in order and within God’s laws. To do this the priests needed to have their own rules and laws describing how they should behave, and that is what Leviticus is all about.

I hope you don’t think I’ve been preaching. It’s a complicated issue that still affects millions of people on both sides of the debate. I’m a Christian and a historian and I’m gay. There’s nothing in the Bible to say I can’t be all 3 despite what evangelicals and anti-Christians say. As a historian I’ve used the Bible as a historical reference source just as I would with any other.

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