At a conference two excited youth workers approached and asked me to read the newly minted Hebrew tattoos on the back of their necks. I joined the fun, looked at the Hebrew letters, and impolitely began a gut-busting laugh. Unaware that Hebrew reads from right to left (not left to right) they spelled their desired word backwards so that instead of “gibbor” (“mighty man”) their tattoos read “robbig,” absolute gibberish in Hebrew (or perhaps a new term for “clueless”). Later, I wondered if they were aware of Leviticus 19:28 (the ban on tattoos) and had worked through this text or if they were indeed clueless? I’ll let the evidence stand for itself, written backwards in Hebrew on the back their necks.
Whether we read the OT or NT, bans on tattoos, or bans on same-sex practices we face the same set of questions: does this text state a principle that transcends time and culture? Or does this text wrap cultural clothing around primary principles (that transcend time)? So, for example, are tattoos wrong because Leviticus 19 expresses a principle that transcends time and culture? Or does Leviticus 19 simply put clothing on the principle of not worshipping other gods by forbidding ritual cutting and tattooing for the dead? Or, as in our recent discussions, does Deuteronomy 22:5 make a blanket statement against cross-dressing? Or does this text forbid cross-dressing because this practice has to do with the worship of other gods (for ancient Israel)? Which is it and how do we decide? I call on Shooter Jennings, 2Pac, Supermax, Ricky Fante, and Janie Fricke for an answer (just select your genre, decade, and sing-along): “It ain’t easy.”
Though not my original plan, your response to prior posts now calls our attention to the remaining texts in the OT that “speak clearly” about homosexuality or same-sex relationships. Both come from the book of Leviticus and begin:
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman…” (18:22 NRSV)
“If a man lies with a male as with a woman…” (20:13 NRSV)
It would be fast and easy to look at these texts and conclude that they are as clear as a cloudless day in West Texas: both speak against of male homosexuality. At least it’s easy until we slow down long enough to hear these texts against the backdrop of their literary and cultural contexts. Then we discover, “It ain’t easy.” In fact, at the end of the day we may disagree, but at least we will have a better understanding of these texts and a much better understanding and appreciation of each other. And so we begin.
Leviticus 18 (and 20) is unlikely to make any more sense than Hebrew read backwards unless we recognize several cultural and literary clues in the text. In fact, we need to understand at least eight starting-points before we read the verses in question.
- While Leviticus 18 explicitly addresses men, it indirectly includes women. A reflection of a culture in which men led in arranging marriages, though women were not necessarily left out of the decision-making process (see Gen. 21:21; 24:5, 57-58).
- Israel kept family allotments intact and property lines clear through marriages to near-relatives of the father (patrilineal endogamy). As a result, marriages were typically arranged within the clan, a subset smaller than the entire tribe (e.g., the tribe of Judah), but larger than the immediate family.
- When Adam saw Eve for the first time, he declared that she is “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” and Genesis describes their new relationship as a process of becoming “one flesh” (3:23-24). As we will see, Leviticus defines immediate family according to the concept of one flesh.
- Those living in such a system of marriage must make a crucial distinction. On one hand, who belongs to the tribe and would make a good marriage partner? On the other hand, who belongs to my immediate family and is too close to marry because we share one flesh through marriage? In Leviticus, if a man is already one flesh with a woman (by birth or through marriage) their marriage is forbidden. (Leviticus 20 works out the penalties for improper marriages described in chapter 18.)
- The phrase “to uncover the nakedness” is a euphemism or polite way of saying something else. In this case, “to uncover…” does not mean to look at someone naked, but to have sex with them or (because they are one flesh) with their spouse. So in 18:7 to “uncover the nakedness of your father” means to have sex with your mother or your mother-in-law (18:8). Sorry if you’ve already had lunch.
- Leviticus 18:6-18, however, is not a legalized list of sexual partners as if indiscriminate sex was appropriate for Israel. Instead, the formula for sexual behavior is employed to identify inappropriate marriage partners for men within the clan. Verse 6 uses generic language to introduce the topic: do not “approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness.” But by the end of this paragraph the idea of marriage is unmistakable as the writer prohibits uncovering “the nakedness of a woman and her daughter” and further clarifies that “you shall not take [marry] her son’s daughter…” (18:17), or “take [marry] a woman as a rival to her sister…” (18:18). Marriage is the issue, not simply sex.
- So, Leviticus 18 defines immediate family as it lists forbidden marriages. Immediate family includes:
- mother and mother-in-law (18:7-8)
- any sisters: full (by the same parents), half (sharing one parent), step (through marriage), or sisters-in-law (18:9,11,16)
- daughter-in-law (son’s wife, 18:15)
- grandchildren (18:10)
- aunts (father or mother’s sister, 18:12-13, or uncle’s wife on your father’s side, 18:14)
- An obvious omission from the list is most likely due to common sense: a man’s own children are clearly “his flesh.”
- Finally, Leviticus 18:6-18 assumes that the normal practice in Israel is marriage between a man and a woman. No male relatives are forbidden because such a marriage is beyond Israel’s horizon. An obvious point for our reflection, but please don’t run for the ink to write a conclusion yet—lest we print our text backwards and end up with gibberish.
We still have some distance to travel on the road to reading verse 22 and even further to go before we reach 20:13. Nonetheless, with these cultural and textual observations before us, I take my leave for us to have time to contemplate what we’ve seen to this point and for me to work on the next post: “Gibberish or Shirebbig? Reading the Ban on Male Intercourse.”
 See prior posts on Genesis 19 (“The Sin of Sodom? or America?”), Deuteronomy 22:6 (“RuPaul and the Clarity of Scripture” and “What not to Wear: Deuteronomy and the Clarity of Scripture”), and on the wisdom tradition (“Wisdom and the Emperor’s New Clothes”).
 The forbidden nature of these relationships is stressed by phrases such as: “their nakedness is your nakedness” (18:10), “she is your father’s flesh” (18:12), “she is your mother’s flesh” (18:13), “it is your brother’s nakedness” (18:16), or even “they are your flesh” (18:17).
Glenn Pemberton is a minister turned professor turned writer. After serving churches in Texas and Colorado, Glenn completed a Ph.D. (Old Testament). He then taught at Oklahoma Christian University before coming to Abilene Christian University in 2005, retiring as professor emeritus in 2017 due to a severe chronic pain. Glenn now spends his time writing for the church. Along with short essays he has published four books, including The God who Saves: An Introduction to the Message of the Old Testament (2015), and Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (2012). Glenn and his wife Dana continue to live in Abilene, Texas.