Reading Leviticus 18:22 as a prohibition of male-on-male incestuous rape

The Bible
Gender and Sexuality
World of Diversity
Being Church
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Susanne Scholz

In this article Susanne Scholz, Professor of Old Testament at the Southern Methodist University Perkins School of Theology, Dallas, Texas, offers a feminist critique of heteronormative and homophobic readings of Leviticus 18.22.

When interpreters take seriously the linguistic, grammatical, and hermeneutical ambiguities of Lev. 18:22, they will reject the notion that this verse prohibits “homosexuality” among men and implicitly also among women.[1] Yet throughout the Christian and Jewish interpretation histories readers have adopted heteronormative and homophobic readings that ignore the textual possibilities.[2] Projecting their unexamined heterosexist and homophobic assumptions onto the verse without considering the difficult Hebrew grammar, they sanction homophobia and heterosexism even today.

Taking a Closer Look at Verse 22

A close linguistic and grammatical look at Lev. 18:22 shows that the verse prohibits not “homosexuality” but incestuous rape of boys. Verse 22 refers to one of the incestuous relations mentioned and implied in Leviticus 18, characterized as “abomination” (tô‘ēbâ). No incest relation, including the specific case of verse 22, is condoned whether done by a male Israelite family member or immigrant (gēr; v. 26). In other words, the reprimands in verses 26, 27, 29, 30 refer to all of the previously mentioned situations of incest and incestuous rape, whether between male and female or male and male. The singular feminine noun, tô‘ēbâ, in verse 22 condemns only one particular situation that stands within a long list of prohibited sexual relations in Leviticus 18. Thus, importantly, the admonition of male-on-male incestuous rape in verse 22 is part and parcel of the larger literary context of the whole chapter, in contrast to the dominant heteronormative and homophobic interpretation that singles out Lev. 18:22 as uniquely abhorrent.

For centuries, unfortunately, the eight words of Lev. 18:22 have been read as a condemnation of male gay sex. Most contemporary Bible versions translate the verse accordingly: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (NRSV), or: “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable” (NIV). Even the inclusive translation by the Priests for Equality offers an interpretation that does not question heteronormative assumptions and perhaps makes the prohibition even worse due to the generalizing language: “Do not lie with a person of the same sex in the same way as you would lie with a person of the opposite sex; it is detestable.”[3] Some translations obliterate completely the Hebrew syntax, such as the Living Bible: “Homosexuality is absolutely forbidden, for it is an enormous sin.”

Often interpreters quote Lev. 18:22 with other “clobber” passages that include Lev. 20:13, Genesis 19, Rom. 1:26-27, 1 Cor. 6:9-11, and 1 Tim. 1:8-11. Such interpreters assume the condemnation of gay sexualities as a matter of fact. Yet the eight Hebrew words are not easily translated into English because of the opaque, obscure, and puzzling Hebrew syntax. Contrary to popular belief, then, the meaning of verse 22 is not plain and simple as the truth.

Why Resist the Exegetically “Better” Translation?

The question is why Lev. 18:22 is so widely known as a prohibition against homosexuality when the verse’s translation as a prohibition of male-on-male incestuous rape is exegetically “better” than the homophobic reading. Three reason come to mind. One reason relates to the fact that most people do not want to address incestuous rape of boys, whether it appears in the family or in the Bible. This is distressing because child rape and pedophilia occur frequently in society although the extent of these crimes is unknown and notoriously underreported. The US-American Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 10-20% of “those who sexually abuse boys are intrafamily perpetrators.”[4] The largest anti-sexual violence organization in the USA, RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), explains that “[a]s many as 93 percent of victims under the age of 18 know the abuser.”[5] According to adult retrospective studies, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men are sexually abused before the age of 18.[6] When Lev. 18:22 is read as a prohibition of incestuous rape of boys, the Bible speaks directly to this grave social problem. Readers miss a huge opportunity when they disregard this interpretation of verse 22.

Another reason why interpreters are unaware of the exegetically “better” reading of verse 22 is that they do not know biblical Hebrew well enough. And even when they do, they do not question heteronormative and homophobic assumptions so deeply imbedded in their minds. Consequently, many interpreters gloss over the linguistic and grammatical difficulties because they are unsure about the difficulties of the Hebrew syntax. Trusting commentaries, they follow the hegemonic view that Lev. 18:22 condemns gay sex, even when they disagree with this position.  

Yet another reason explains why interpreters do not advance the exegetically “better” reading that reads Lev. 18:22  as a prohibition of incestuous rape of boys. Readers accept the transmitted hegemonic meaning because they do not want to believe that translators could have misled people for centuries. To accept the exegetically “better” translation would require acknowledging that readers were duped; a painful recognition. It is easier to stay with the familiar homophobic interpretation. Yet like Leviticus 18 as a whole, verse 22 prohibits sexual abuse, not of girls and women but of young male relatives. The same is also the case with the parallel verse of Lev. 20:13 although there the punishment is far more severe, as the verse orders the death penalty. If we are opponents of the death penalty, another discussion must be had on how to handle this prescription. Yet is there anyone who does not agree that incest must be punished, even if not with the death penalty?

The Conundrum of Two Nouns in Verse 22

The two nouns, miškĕbȇ ’iššâ, constitute perhaps the greatest translation challenge of Lev. 18:22. The specific constellation of the two nouns appears only here and in Lev. 20:13 although both nouns also show up in other biblical passages. The meaning of each word is not contested. The first noun, miškāb, means “couch,” “bed,” or “lying;” the second noun, ’iššâ, means “woman.” The question is how to translate the two nouns together, which the Hebrew grammar requires for this constellation. The phrase could be translated literally as “beds (plural) of a woman” or “lyings (plural) of a woman,”[7] but the meaning of this translation is unclear. Many English Bible versions add a comparative particle, a personal pronoun, and a verb, so that the phrase is smooth: “as one does with a woman” (New International Version) or “as one lies with a female” (New American Standard). The unclear grammar forces translators to become creative. Consequently, English translations insinuate linguistic coherence where there is none in Hebrew.

Importantly, the plural noun, miškĕbȇ, surfaces only one other time, namely in Gen. 49:4 where Jacob chastises Reuben, his firstborn son, for having “climbed into your father’s bed” (miškĕbȇ ’ābîkā). This is a euphemistic reference to Reuben raping (šākab ’et) Bilhah, the enslaved woman of Rachel, the sister of his mother, Leah, in Gen. 35:22. In Gen. 49:4, the father criticizes the son’s rape, as in Gen. 35:22 Reuben does not “lie with” (šākab ’îm) Bilhah, but he “lays” (šākab ’et) or rapes the enslaved woman.[8] The verb and object marker are šākab ’et, just like in Lev. 18:22, suggesting that the young boy too is the object of the male relative “laying” the boy.

The interpretation of Gen. 35:22 as a rape scene is important for understanding why interpreters struggled so much with this verse. For instance, in the Jewish tradition, Gen. 35:22 belongs to a list of “forbidden” biblical texts that the ancient rabbis advise “may be read [in Hebrew] but not translated [into the language of the congregation, e.g., English].”[9] The Christian hermeneutical strategy is similar. Even today, Christian lectionaries exclude Gen. 35:22 from the recommended list of biblical sermon passages. The influential twentieth-century interpreter, Gerhard von Rad, endorses indirectly the ecclesial silence when he observes: “The crime itself is condemned by the narrator, without the necessity for his expressly stating it. The note is so brief and fragmentary that one can form no opinion about what is told in vs. 21f.”[10] Since interpreters are interested in neither Bilhah nor the issue of rape, Reuben’s rape of Bilhah vanishes quietly, except in Jacob’s admonition in Gen. 49:4. There the scene reappears as a euphemistic reference; the rape becomes a violation of Reuben’s “father’s bed” (miškĕbȇ ’ābîkā). It is as if the father is raped by the son raping the enslaved woman who belongs to one of the father’s wives.

That the referenced violation in Gen. 49:4 refers to rape is crucial for the interpretation of the two nouns in Lev. 18:22. Similar to the son of a powerful family raping an enslaved woman in Gen. 35:22, an act admonished in Gen. 49:4, the man in Lev. 18:22 is also denounced for raping a young male relative. This reconstructed meaning requires modified vocabulary to make sense in English. The phrase, miškĕbȇ ’iššâ, means literally “a woman’s bed” just as the phrase of Gen. 49:4 means “father’s bed.” Yet in Lev. 18:22, the phrase ought to be modified to “the rape of a woman,” because the noun “bed” in Gen. 49:4 is a euphemism for Ruben raping Bilhah in Gen. 35:22.

In sum, the translation of the phrase, miškĕbȇ ’iššâ, indicates that Lev. 18:22 prohibits incestuous male-on-male rape with a boy. Incestuous rape is also prohibited in ancient Near Eastern law codes, such as the Hittite law 189: “If a man violates his own mother, it is a capital crime. If a man violates his daughter; it is a capital crime. If a man violates his son; it is a capital crime.”[11] The Hittite law mentions three cases of incestuous rape: that of a man’s mother, daughter, or son. In other words, ancient Near Eastern legislation knows of incestuous rape, including of sons. Read within the context of Gen. 49:6, Gen. 35:22, and ancient Near Eastern legislation, Lev. 18:22 prohibits not homosexuality but male-on-male incestuous rape. The Hebrew sentence, ve’et zākar lo’ tîškab miškĕbȇ ’iššâ tô‘ēbâ hiw’, ought to be translated accordingly:

You (masculine singular) shall not rape a (young) male; it is like the rape of a woman (of the family); it is an abomination.

The modified translation helps people to engage in tough conversations about the experiences of many children and teenagers. The goal of these conversations is to contribute to the ending of incest. The translation also ensures that Lev. 18:22 does no longer harm LGBTQI people and their families. It is high time for official Bible translators to repent from centuries-enduring, damaging, and still persistent heteronormative and homophobic interpretations of this notorious biblical verse.


[1] Already the rabbinic sages wondered why lesbianism is not mentioned in the Bible and added its prohibition to their readings, see Baruch A. Levine, Leviticus: The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 123.

[2] For a historical survey of the Christian heteronormative tradition, see Michael Carden, Sodomy: A History of a Christian Biblical Myth (London: Routledge, 2004).

[3] Priests for Equality, The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007), 71.

[4] See [accessed September 1, 2021).

[5] See [accessed September 1, 2021].

[7] See, e.g., K. Renato Ling, “The ‘Lyings’ of a Woman: Male-Male Incest in Leviticus 18.22,” Theology & Sexuality 15.2 (May 2009): 236.

[8] See also Susanne Scholz, Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 71-75.

[9] Michael L. Klein, “Not to Be Translated in Public,” Journal of Jewish Studies 39.1 (Spring 1988): 80.

[10] Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (trans. John H. Marks; 3rd rev. ed.; Old Testament Library; Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1972), 341.

[11] James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 196.


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