The “Sin” of Sodom
In early December, I opened up my Twitter app as I do on most days and was disappointed, but not surprised mind you, to see that the term “Sodom” was “trending.” Feeling a bit masochistic, I clicked on the word wondering what painfully sad and narrow visions of the story of Genesis Twitter had painted for me that day. Incredibly, one of the first tweets that reared itself was a video of a Republican congresswoman, Vicky Hartzler, crying on the house floor in opposition to the Respect for Marriage Act. This woman was actually crying that other people get marry the ones the love, specifically in same-sex marriages and interracial marriages. While there was (and is) plenty to say on the inherent white supremacy that caused a woman to cry that her white heterosexual Christian privilege was being challenged by providing other people with the same rights, at the time I felt instead a need to teach on the subject of homosexuality, as I could see the malicious intent of the term “sodom” trending. The twitterverse was in need of some schooling, and this rabbi was ready.
I believe one should always start with the most obvious point in this discussion. Whatever the Bible says, in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or English, good or bad, should not be relevant in this argument. America is not a Christian nation, as the Treaty of Tripoli stated in 1796 in no uncertain terms: “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The Constitution of the United States does not mention God once; it is a secular document, and our representatives swear to uphold that secular document, not to uphold any particular religious text. This should be the end of the discussion, but sadly, it is not. So, let us move on to the Biblical aspect of the conversation.
In my experience, Christians love to talk about how the Torah and its laws were “fulfilled” for them in that they need not “carry the yolk” of the mitzvot (commandments) any longer. That being said, they sure like to come back to Torah verses when it suits them. As both Jews and Christian texts agree, the Torah was given to the Nation of Israel, not to Christians. Therefore, the laws, such as in Leviticus, according to Christian texts, should no longer apply to Christian theology or life, as Christian instead “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ;” as the Christian text states clearly:
Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
This is to say nothing of Romans 10:4 “Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes,” or Ephesians 2:15, “by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace.” Seems pretty clear to me that Christians no longer have to worry about those pesky Torah verses that we Jews wrestle with daily…except, for some mysterious reason, a large percentage of Christians reach back and grab Torah verses like fortune cookies. Actually, the reason isn’t that mysterious. It is acts of eisegesis, as Christians did not find the texts they needed to condemn homosexuality in their own scriptures, so they needed to reach back to the Jewish ones, with new interpretations of course. This is problematic fo rmany reasons, especially because Jewish texts were written from a Jewish perspective and Jewish laws were written within Jewish context. So, let us confront the elephant in the room.
Yes it is true that Leviticus 18:22 states the following:
וְאֶ֨ת־זָכָ֔ר לֹ֥א תִשְׁכַּ֖ב מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֑ה תּוֹעֵבָ֖ה הִֽוא׃
“Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence”
Then a few chapters later, 20:13:
וְאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִשְׁכַּ֤ב אֶת־זָכָר֙ מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֔ה תּוֹעֵבָ֥ה עָשׂ֖וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֑ם מ֥וֹת יוּמָ֖תוּ דְּמֵיהֶ֥ם בָּֽם׃
“If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death—their bloodguilt is upon them.”
These verses, alone, have caused so much hardship and pain due to misinterpretation that it begs explanation. Before I go on, let us first push aside the notions of supersessionism, the arrogant notion that Christians understand Jewish texts better than Jews themselves. As Dr. Michael Cook explains, in the Christian perspective, “Jews do not understand their own scripture this way – creating dissonance best eased by “enlightening” Jews concerning the writings in which they should be the most expert.” This concept, unfortunately, does not cease in regards to the above verse but all verses that supposedly “predict” the coming of Jesus as the messiah (an article for a different time). However, the last point is exceedingly relevant to this discussion as Christians are experts at finding “obvious” hints and predictions of Jesus’ coming with nothing explicitly stated. Nothing. Therefore, the idea of a strong exegetical practice should, in theory, appeal to the Christian mind, as they are so hell-bent (pun intended) on seeing things beyond the face reading of any text. It is my hope that Christians can use that same wild exegetical excitement here as we parse out this text.
The verse in Hebrew in Leviticus 20:13 shows something that the English does not, namely that there are two words for “male” here. The first is “Ish” and the second is “Zachar.” The verse is a commandment to the men, the “anashim” (plural of ish), telling them that they must not “bed” with a “zachar” as they would with an “isha” (a woman). The verse could have used the word “ish” (man) here, but it does not. At the very least, even a Christian should notice the fact that the author (whether priestly or divine) chose a specific word, and the idea that the two words mean the same thing is absurd. Two kinds of male words means two different kinds of men, thus the verse is prohibiting a specific type of sex, most likely “the kind of sex between men that is designed to effect the power and mastery of the penetrator. Sex for the conquest, for shoring up the ego, for self-aggrandizement, or worse, for the perverse pleasure of demeaning another man is prohibited.”
It is also important to note that lesbianism, bisexuality, nor any other kind of LGBTQ+ lifestyle is explicitly prohibited in the Torah (or Bible for that matter). Indeed, it is only men, and only this kind of man on (different kind of) man sex. This alone should raise eyebrows of suspicion for those that even care to read Hebrew and not play the translation game of telephone through translation. Further suspicion should arise when we find that the words “mishkevei ‘ishshah” literally means “after the manner of lying with a woman.” Yes. After. Not “in the manner of.” Eyebrows raised yet? Robert Alter also reminds us that the “bedding” use here refers to sexual intercourse, but is ambiguous as to referring to anal or intercrural (a new word for cocktail parties) intercourse, the latter of which was practiced by the Canaanites, Greeks, and other nations while “other forms of homosexual activity do not seem of urgent concern.” Why? Because the Torah is very big on separating the Israelites from the practices of their other tribal neighbors. The laws against tattoos and dietary restrictions follow this same logic, and most importantly in this discussion, “The Canaanites used homosexual acts as part of their pagan rituals. Therefore the Israelites were prohibited from doing this, not because it was an act between two men but because it was symbolic of pagan ritual.”
Let’s face it, the verse itself is not clear in any way, and is confusing, even to Ibn Ezra, an 11th century distinguished Biblical commentator, who wrote a millenia ago:
Since we find, Behold, I lay yesternight with my father (Gen. 19:34), we see that the prohibition Thou shalt not lie applies to the one who lay and the one who is lain with. For Lot’s daughter was lain with and yet she said, Behold, I lay yesternight with my father. Rabbi Hannanel, of blessed memory, says that there are those in whose body a female genitalia is newly formed. According to Rabbi Hannanel our verse speaks of anal intercourse and vaginal intercourse with a man who has an artificial vagina. However, this is impossible according to the laws of nature. Scripture would not prohibit something which does not normally exist. There are those who say that the reference is to an androgynous person.
In other words, this verse has been confusing to everyone for a long long time, except for those who wished to weaponize it. Moving on, as Christians are masters of arguments from silence, the question nags, where is the explicit condemnation of lesbianism, bisexuality, or transgender people in the Bible? My late friend Bishop Shelby Spong stated once “It is interesting to note that Leviticus says nothing about lesbian relationships. Perhaps the author of Leviticus did not know there was such a thing.” In this case, my dear friend was mistaken, in that of course the Ancient Near East had homosexual relationships of all kinds, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and the like. Love of all kinds abounded atop the sands of Canaan, and the authors of Leviticus had no issue with it, except for a particular reason and agenda which we hinted at earlier, to distinguish themselves from the other tribes.
Leviticus as we know it today is a combination of manuscripts put together, edited and redacted, sewn together with ideological overlay and canonized by the 1st century CE, with the particular manuscript chosen as late as the 7th century CE. But what it was before is what should interest us. Scholarship, such as biblical criticism, literary analysis, and archaeological evidence, suggest strongly to us that the original book of Leviticus, which is called “proto-Leviticus,” was a priestly manual, meaning it was full of specific purity laws specifically to be followed only by the Israelite Priests. Why? Even if the priests followed these laws at all, which is unclear as many laws may have been a “wishlist” for the future, it is because scholarship and text shows us that priests were held to a much higher standard than most Iraelites, and while most of these laws involved sacrificial aspects or purity laws, it is the Holiness Code, Leviticus 17-26, that Christians seem to hover over.
The Holiness Code’s chapter 18 deals specifically with the family of priests, as moral laws before it was canonized and expanded incorrectly to deal with all Israelites. Chapter 18 covers a great deal, including a lot of “uncovering nakedness”. Leviticus 18:19 discusses not having sex with a woman during her menstral cycle, 18:20 is about adultery, and then 18:21 takes a turn and discusses “offering children” to Molech, “Do not allow any of your offspring to be offered up to Molech, and do not profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.” Christians, those of whom have even read the verses surrounding 18:22, may have trouble understanding this particular commandment as it appears to discuss child sacrifice, but Molech is the name of an image (an idol) and a general term for one whom a person would accept to rule or king over them. The word Molech was a Canaanite deity with the translation of “king,” and the Hebrew reassures the reader (if they can read it) the word “le-ha’avir” (to set apart) is to burn, for that was the way Molech was worshiped. Child sacrifice was practiced by the other tribes of the Ancient Near East, as archaeological evidence shows us, but this phrase “le’ha’avir lamlokh” refers to a “dedication ceremony in which a child was passed over the fire but not burned as a sacrifice.” The priestly prohibition is not against child sacrifice specifically (which was also not Israelite practice, by the way) but to not allow your child to be passed over to another religion, another tribe’s worshiping ways. The context here is important because it is this verse that directly precedes 18:22, that a man should not lie with a man as he does with a woman, because in the ancient Near East and in Israelite culture, men had power over women (patriarchal property and all that) and to equalize another man that way would lower his patriarchal status. This is then followed by 18:23, a prohibition against beastiality (only by women by the way), but it is 18:24 that we understand the full context of the verses. If only Christians would have the patience to read two verses from 18:22, they would see all they need to know:
Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I called it to account for its iniquity, and the land spewed out its inhabitants. But you must keep My laws and My rules, and you must not do any of those abhorrent things, neither the citizen nor the stranger who resides among you; for all those abhorrent things were done by the people who were in the land before you, and the land became defiled.
There it is! The Levitical author (or God, whatever) says you should not allow your children to convert to another religion (worship Moloch), because here’s what they do (they have power sex between men and their women practice beastiality) and you shouldn’t have defile yourself that way. Now, that’s some clarity. The repetition in 20:13 is simply two texts being molded together as there is no reason why a priestly manual should have the same commandment written two different ways two chapters apart, this should be obvious.
Robert Alter also provides us with the idea that the context also tells us about “spilling seed” (see Leviticus 18:20) and that the loss of children to another religion would constitute the “waste of seed” as would anal intercourse with a man, which suggests another aspect to why lesbianism is not mentioned or prohibited as no seed is “wasted.”
Before we even GET to Sodom, we should also briefly discuss why else the Levitical Priestly manual (proto-Leviticus) would not want men sleeping with other men, but with women. For that we turn to scholars such as Mary Douglas, who discuss at length the binary nature of the priestly worldview, keeping “lines of categorical distinction clear.” The Priestly author, who wrote proto-Leviticus as well as other aspects of the Torah per the Documentary Hypothesis, is known to have written Genesis 1 as well, and it is within this context that the trouble with men engaging in intercrural with other men is explained. The Priestly authors, descendants of Aaron (or representing their descendants’ interests) came from the kingdom of Judah, the Southern Kingdom and were very familiar with priestly practices and had access to those priestly documents and manuals. Everything we want to know about the Levitical Priests mind and worldview we can read from Genesis 1. Priests believed that the world began in Tohu va’vohu,a formless void, until a swirl of energy as God’s presence moved above the waters creating order where there was once chaos. Binaries became the symbols for order in Genesis 1, light and darkness, day and night, sky and water, evening and morning, sun and moon, man and woman. The Priests believed that binaries (order) can get muddied and understood that it was their job to keep the order that God created, the categories of creation, so as to not make God angry enough to pull back the natural orders and send the world back into swirling waters of chaos. The categories are laid out not only in Genesis 1 but in other Priestly sources:
You shall observe My laws. You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; you shall not put on cloth from a mixture of two kinds of material.
A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to the LORD your God.
And finally (though a non-exhaustive list of examples):
The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them: Speak to the Israelite people thus: These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals: 3 any animal that has true hoofs, with clefts through the hoofs, and that chews the cud—such you may eat.
If we read Leviticus 18:22 or Leviticus 20:13 in these contexts, the prohibition makes a great deal more sense. As Douglas tells us, “It is clear that the positive and negative precepts are held to be efficacious and not merely expressive: observing them draws down prosperity, infringing them brings danger.” The Priests feared the danger of letting order of any kind be disturbed, the binary categories. In other words, there was nothing hateful about what the priests felt; rather, they feared that any binary category in life, any gray area, any muddying of the waters, meant that the universe itself would collapse. Holiness, to the priests, always has, and still does to Jews, meant “separate”; keeping things separate makes them holy, keeping them in order makes God’s vision of the world, through the eyes of those living in antiquity. To the Priests, “Margins are dangerous. If they are pulled this way or that the shape of fundamental experience is altered. Any structure of ideas is vulnerable at its margins.”
So, in conclusion, as Jews (and Christians) in 2022, we no longer need to concern ourselves with God collapsing the universe because of gray areas instead of binary categories, we no longer have to worry about our children becoming idol worshippers and thus emulating their practices, nor do we need to associate power sex between men with the acts of an outside tribe or nation. Oh! I almost forgot about “the sin of sodom.” If Christians truly wish to reach back to the words of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, then perhaps they should reach back to Ezekiel 16:46-50:
Your elder sister was Samaria, who lived with her daughters to the north of you; your younger sister was Sodom, who lived with her daughters to the south of you. Did you not walk in their ways and practice their abominations? Why, you were almost more corrupt than they in all your ways. As I live—declares the Lord GOD—your sister Sodom and her daughters did not do what you and your daughters did. Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy. In their haughtiness, they committed abomination before Me; and so I removed them, as you saw.
I can’t really think of anything more explicit than a prophet of God telling the Israelites, “this was the sin of sodom” then listing the sin, most likely because other people were unsure about the sin of sodom and needed some clarity. Though, regarding the story, most Christians seem to forget that the mob within Sodom asks for men, but gets women instead and seem to be just fine, so saying that homosexuality was the sin seems a bit of a stretch. But, as we well know the term, thanks to Christians, “sodomy” now associates itself with anal penetration, which shows the intense power of misinterpretation and calcified homophobia within the Christian world.
In any case, I am a proud rabbi who is a proud supporter and ally of the LGBTQIA+ family and I will always fight against hatred disguised as holiness, I will always derail homophobia based on misinterpretation and eisegesis, and I will always charge the Bible to respond to modernity as we live in the modern world.
Rabbi Michael Harvey
Michael E. Harvey is the Amazon bestselling author of Let’s Talk: A Rabbi Speaks to Christians. An ordained rabbi, he has led congregations and served as a hospital chaplain. Rabbi Mike is passionate about social justice, interfaith cooperation, and bringing deep Jewish learning to the lay public. He has followed these passions in serving his community, including founding and directing the Interfaith Council of the Caribbean as well as directing the Interfaith Leaders of Greater Lafayette. He also serves on the rabbinic advisory council of the American Jewish Archives. Rabbi Michael Harvey is currently working on his second book From the Gospels to the Gas Chambers: How Christian Scripture Inspires a Pattern of Genocide, but has yet to find a suitable publisher.