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Leviticus Ch 18 verse 22

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  • The Septuagint Text : a form of adultery condemned?
  • The Hebrew Text : only some form of sexual intimacy condemned?
  • Conclusions

  • Bibliography
    The following text is heavily dependent on work previously posted on the Web by Gregory Jordan, Stephen Carlson, David Moore and Donn W. Leatherman.

    The Septuagint text.

    "Kai meta arsenos ou koimEthEsE koitEn gunaikos."

    To bed or lay with

    The word koitE often renders "marriage bed" but is more generally used euphemistically for sexual intercourse. The Hebrew that underlies koitEn is a plural noun ("beds of"). The use of the plural where it would not be expected suggests an idiomatic expression. 
    [Compare "to lay with" rather than to "lie with" in English. 
    "To lay" or "to be laid" always implies a partner, and is an archaic form.
    "To lie" is modern and is often intransitive.]
    There are three examples of this expression in the Old Testement: first, the verse under discussion; second, its parallel two chapers later; and third, Genesis Ch 49 verse 4. The reference in Genesis is undoubtedly to sexual intercourse since it refers to Reuben's laying with his father's concubine [Gen. 35:22]. It is reasonable to presumed that an idiomatic expression of this sort has a like meaning in the the two verses in Leviticus.

    (Fe)male or (W)oman?

    It should be noted that the phrase " as with a woman" usual in most English translation does not accurately represent the Greek because it does no justice to the contrastive pairs involved. In Greek, these are: arsEn (male) vs. thElus (female) and anEr (man/husband) vs. gunE (woman/wife). Hence a transliteration of the Greek text might be "and next male do not lie with in beds of woman".

    Because [Lev. 18:22] juxtaposes "arsenos" (male: not andros, man) with "gunaikos" (woman: not thElus, female), it can be argued just to forbid a man from physical intimacy with a male in his woman's bed: a species of adultery, not all homosexual behaviour. The idea would then be that it is no less wrong to have a homosexual extra-marital affair than a heterosexual one. This needs to be specified to prevent it being argued that:

        no progeny could ensue from such an affair,
        no obvious harm is done to anyone, and the act is not obviously imprudent, reckless and irresponsible,
        it is licit for a husband to have casual male lovers whereas it is illicit for him to have casual female lovers!
    This argument (that a homosexual affair is OK, whereas a heerosexual one is not) will seem strange to modern ears, but it should be remembered that Leviticus was written in a context where polygamy and concubinage was normal and so sexual fidelity to one partner unusual. In such a context, it could easily be argued that the only reason for condemning promiscuity and adultery was the risk involved of pregnancy in the absence of clear paternal liability. In such circumstances the father could disown his causal responsibility for the child and burden some other man with its upbringing.

    In evidence that the word pairs are not interchangeable, it should be noted that the Septuagint text maintains a distinction found in the original Hebrew, which reads "We-et-zakar lo' tishkav mishkevey 'ishshah."  Notice the contrast:

  • ish (man/husband)  vs.  ishshah (woman/wife)     [cf. Gk anEr/gunE]      [cf Lat vir/mulier]
  • zakar (male)           vs.  nekeva (female)             [cf. Gk arsEn/thElus]   [cf Lat mas/femina]



    [The distinction is however abandoned in the Latin. 
    The Vulgate reads: "cum masculo non commiscearis coitu femineo". 
    The pairs mas/femina and vir/mulier are, however, not as distinct in regards to marriage.
    In Latin, "mas" can be used to signify "a husband".]

    If the Greek translator had wanted to say "one shall not lie with a man/male as with a woman/female" he could have written either "meta arsenos ou koimEthEsE hOs meta thElus" or "meta andros ou koimEthEsE hOs meta gunaikos". Similarly, the Hebrew text could read "We-et-zakar lo' tishkav mishkevey nekeva" or  "We-et-ish lo' tishkav mishkevey 'ishshah".  Neither the Greek nor the Hebrew text adopts these forms.

    Woman or Wife?

    GunE, which literally means "woman" may be used for "wife"; as in idiomatic English: my or the woman. Indeed, gunE can be read as "wife" throughout Chapter Eighteen of Leviticus quite consistently, to the extent that many English translations assume licit and illicit marriages and threats to marriages are being systematically dealt with there. Nevertheless, there is no clear indication that our verse is anything but a general statement. One might expect to see indications in the text if the meaning were "wife", something along the lines of "the woman" or "your woman". There are none. An idea of the general meaning of gunE in our verse can be obtained by comparing it to the corresponding part of the third example of the expression [Gen. 49:4]. In it we have "koitEn tou patros sou" indicating that Reuben had taken to himself sexual prerogatives that properly belonged to his father (note both the "the" and the "his"). In our verse we have simply "koitEn gunaikos". Nevertheless, assigning a meaning to the verse is problematic because of the idiomatic nature of the expression "lay... as with woman".

    If gunE is to be translated "wife" here, the dilemma arise of whose wife the text is referring to - the wife of the man addressed or the wife of the man with whom he lays. In such a case, the meaning of  [Lev 18:22] would be equivocal and undefined. Only the addition of a "your" or a "his" would make such a construction specific. Of course, if adultery is being condemned, it doesn't matter which man's wife is involved: the moral situation would be as symmetric as the grammar of the verse and the grammatical ambiguity be entirely appropriate!

    The Hebrew text.

    "We-et-zakar lo' tishkav mishkevey 'ishshah"

    The first two words "we-et" simply mean "and with".

    The word "zakar" means male. Hebrew has no indefinite article (a, an), so when the definite article (the) is not used, as in this case, an indefinite article is understood. Therefore, this word translates as "a male".

    The word "tishkav" is a verb. Everything we need to know about tense and person is contained in its form. The root of the verb is: sh-k-v, and it means lie down. It is used idiomatically for sexual intercourse. The first letter of the word, "t", is not part of the root, but indicates person and tense and even gender. The previous Hebrew word, "lo", negates this verb, so we have "Thou (male) shalt not lie down".

    The word "mishkevey" is a noun. The main form of this noun is "mishkav". Its root letters, sh-k-v, are the same as that of the preceding verb and it means bed.

    Hebrew nouns have more than one form. In addition to having singular and plural forms, many nouns also have absolute and construct forms. An absolute noun stands alone, with its own meaning. A construct noun is grammatically tied to the noun which follows it. In English, this almost always translates by placing the English word "of" between the two nouns. A good example is the Hebrew Beyt lechem (Bethlehem), which in English translates as House of Bread. This is because the first word, Beyt, is in the construct state.
    "Mishkevey" is in the plural construct state, meaning beds of.
    Hebrew has prepositions which correspond to ours, but doesn't always use them the same way. For example, when someone leaves us, in English we say that "we miss them". But in Hebrew, the verb "to miss" is used with a preposition, and should be transliterated as "we miss in them". The opposite also occurs: sometimes English requires a preposition, e.g. "lie in bed" when Hebrew doesn't. If a preposition can be derived from context, Hebrew will sometimes leave it out. But in English, this is never done.
    The word "in" must therefore be inserted before "beds of"  in order for the sentence to be grammatical English.
    The verse so far reads "And with a male, thou (O man) shalt not lie down in beds of".

    ishshah - This is the Hebrew word for woman or wife. Since there is no definite article, it is understood to mean "a woman" or "a wife".

    A note on the standard mis-translation
    In almost all English translations of our verse "mishkevey" appears to be translated by the phrase "as with", which would seem to be barmy! In fact this first reaction is not quite fair. Rather, the awkward verse is being paraphrased. The paraphrase is justified on the basis that because the word "mishkevey" can (and here does) mean "to have sex with" (even though it is formally a noun: cf "bed" in English), it is therefore proper for the verse to be transliterated as: "And with a male, thou (O man) shalt not lie down to have sex with a woman". This supposedly obvious nonsense is then rationalized to "And with a male, thou man shalt not lie down like with a woman".

    Now, this is rather queer. It becomes queerer on further investigation. The word "mishkevey" occurs forty-six times in the Hebrew Old Testament. The King James version translates it as "bed" or "couch" thirty-five times, and as "bedchamber" a further four times. The remaining seven "miscellaneous renderings" occur in the following verses [Lev 18:22; 20:13] (these two are essentially the same text), [Num 31:17,18,35] and [Jdg 21:11,12]. In the cases of the texts from Numbers and Judges, the word could also have been rendered "bed", as follows:

    "Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill woman that hath known man-bed male, but all the girls, that have not known a male bed, keep alive for yourselves." [Num 31:17-18]

    "And thirty and two thousand persons in all, of women that had not known a male bed." [Num 31:35]

    "And this thing ye shall do, Ye shall utterly destroy every male who woman-bed has known. And they found among the inhabitants of Jabeshgilead four hundred young virgins, that had known no man-bed male: and they brought them unto the camp to Shiloh in the land of Canaan." [Jdg 21:11-12]

    So there is no justification for ever translating "mishkevey" as anything other than "bed"! The fact that it has been translated as "as with" in all common English translations of our verse is preposterous, and savours of wilful dishonesty.
    Interpreting the text
    So, the Hebrew text  means literally: "And with a male, thou (O man) shalt not lay in beds of a woman/wife." There are a number of possible interpretations of this prohibition:
    1. A man is forbidden to lay with a male in his own wife's bed.
    2. A man is forbidden to lay with a male in the bed of the wife of that male.
    3. A man is forbidden to lay with a male as he might a woman.
    4. A man is forbidden to lay with a male as he might his own wife.
    5. A man is forbidden to lay with a male as that male might his wife.
    6. A man is forbidden to lay with a male in any bed belonging to a woman.
    7. Two men are forbidden from having sex simultaneously with the same woman.
    8. Two men are forbidden from having sex simultaneoously with with two different women in adjacent beds.
    Note that the condition "mishkevey 'ishshah" (whatever it means) is not required to specify sexual intimacy, as the verb "shakav" itself idiomatically does so. It is enough to say "and thou, man, shalt not lay with a male" the addition "in beds of woman" or "as with a woman" is superfluous if a blanket ban on male-male sexual intercourse is to be indicated. The condemnation of bestiality that follows [Lev 18:23] has no conditionality associated with it. It does not condemn a man who lays with a beast as with a woman, but just a man who lays with a beast for defilement (this is the outcome, not a modifier) and a woman laying with a beast to give herself to it (which is inevitable, given the implication of "laying with", and does not specify any particular way of giving herself).

    The first two cases have already been considered under the heading of the Septuagint text. The interpretation given there, based on the Greek of the Septuagint remains tenable.

    As we have seen, the next cases 3 to 5 strain the text. Nevertheless, let them be admitted as possible translations. It is possible to see in each of them a contrast between some form of sexual intercourse involving a man and "a woman"/"a wife"/"his wife", on the one hand; and relations between a man and any male (human being?) on the other. Something which is licit between a man and woman (note that this English idiom also omits the expected 'his') is forbidden between a man and any male. At first sight, it would seem that the burden of proof is upon anyone who suggests this is not a blanket condemnation of sexual relations between all men, and that it rather applies in only some (unspoken) context such as (ritual) prostitution. On reflection, however, it will be noted that this argument is flawed:
    • Either
      • the woman is the wife of one party:
      • in which case what is condemned is sexual infidelity;
    • or
      • the woman involved is not the wife of either party,
      • and this argument implies that heterosexual adultery is licit!
    Taking a different tack, the idea that a contrast is being made between licit and illicit behaviour can be dropped. In which case, it must be accepted that the conditionality of the text (that is the "beds of a woman") specifies something about the exact character of the "laying" that it is forbidden for a man with another male.

    Taking a responsible view, one can either say that:

    1. a contrast is involved and the woman is a wife of one party
      • in which case the essential wrong is adultery,
    2. no contrast is involved
      • in which case the verse deals with an indeterminate sub-set of homosexual activity.
    The sixth case clearly forbids the use of any woman's bed to two male lovers, but passes no comment on anything that they might do together anywhere else. This interpretation natural, both textually and culturally. In ritual terms, a Hebrew woman's bed was her own domaine. The only person permitted in it apart from herself was her husband, and there were restrictions on when he might share it with her. Any other use of her bed would have been considered a defilement.

    The seventh case is perhaps the most natural of all. It is not clear what other form of words could better be used to outlaw the practice of two men simultaneously having intercourse with one woman - or simultaneously alongside each other with two sepperate women. 

    The eigth and final possibility is the only interpretation which explains why the text reads "in bedS of a woman" rather than "in bed of a woman". 

    Amusingly, the last two interpretations of the verse both free it from any reference to homosexuality at all!

    The context.

    [Lev 18:1-18] forbids sexual relations with various kindred. In all cases, the prohibitions are unconditional. [Lev 18:19-21] moves on to related matters, concerning ritual and justice: menstruation; adultery where kinship isn't involved and finally human sacrifice. [Lev 18:23] begins, "ubekol-behemah lo' titen shekavteka letam'ah bah..."  (And with any beast, you shall not give/make your lying down for uncleanness with it...)  It might be thought that just as it is extravagant to suggest that this refers only to bestiality in some circumstances, for example when payment is involved; so [Lev 18:22] must be taken as a blanket condemnation of homosexuality. On the other hand, the verses immediately preceding and following [Lev 18:21&24] both explicitly concern pagan ritual; so the text may only mean to condemn ritual homosexuality and ritual bestiality, without prejudice to any moral judgement of the wider issues - which might in any case be different in the two cases.

    Cananite ritual

    [Lev 18:21] prohibits parents from dedicating their children to Molech: probably by making them into ritual prostitutes rather then sacrificing them in fire. Hence, in [Lev 18:22-24] we are most likely dealing with a religious (worship) practice of the Canaanites. It is known that the worship of Molech involved homosexual religious prostitution. The male ritual prostitute would dress as a woman and perhaps wear a mask of the Goddess Astarte, Molech's mate: so it was as though the male was a female. The devotee would be a man: who would lie with a male as a female. The ritual did not involve lesbianism. [Miner & Connoley, 2002; Buehler; Feinberg, 1996; Norton, 2002]. Canaanite sex rites also included bestiality, with both men and women copulating with animals [Miner & Connoley, 2002; Collins, 1999].


    Every other mention of homogender sexual activity in the Hebrew Bible (aside from the Sodom complex, which was about gang rape) refers specifically to ritual prostitution [1 Kings 14:23, 15:12-13, 22:46; 2 Kings 23:7]. Moreover, the penalty for the acts referred to by [Lev 20:13] is death. In the Torah, every crime whose penalty is death in Leviticus is repeated in Deuteronomy, with the exception of " man lies with a male as with a woman" . However, Deuteronomy does mention male sacred (religious) prostitution and even calls it "toevah."

    Deuteronomy was written later than Leviticus, at a time when syncretism was less of an issue. [Deut 27:20-23] roughly corresponds to [Lev 20]. It makes no reference to homo-gender sexual relations, while condemning bestiality in general (no longer in any cultic context) and adultery (but only within the family.) Moreover, Deuteronomy does not declare it unlawful to frequent a male prostitute:

    "ou prosoiseis misthOma pornEs oude allagma kunos eis ton oikon kuriou tou theou sou...hoti bdelugma ...estin"

    "don't put the wages of a female temple prostitute or the pay of a male temple prostitute ("dog") into the house of your Master God, ...because it is an abomination." [Deut. 23.17] LXX

    This only forbids becoming a temple prostitute or giving one's earnings to the Temple - as if God were a pimp, like the ba'als! No mention is made of either non-cultic prostitution or homosexual behaviour in general. This suggests that the Hebrews tolerated homosexual behaviour among unmarried men, just as many cultures and societies have done. The story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis shows how schizophrenic Hebrew attitudes toward prostitution were: a whoremonger could have a whore killed for doing what he asked her to do. This could be mere hypocrisy, but it could also reflect the idea that gentiles were acceptable as prostitutes, and that enjoying prostitution with them was licit for Israelites, but that Israelites were not allowed to enter the profession themselves.

    The Jewish Tradition

    It may be thought that the modern reading of our verse is culturally conditioned to the extent that readers have imposed their own prejudice on the text, and have seen in it a broad condemnation of homosexual practice which was not in the mind of the original writer and readers. Against such a view, it must be said that from antiquity Jewish scholars have offered their own understandings of such verses. These interpretations, found in the Mishnah and Talmud, cannot possibly be tainted by any modern misconceptions, and are provided for us by people who spoke Hebrew as their mother tongue, and might be thought to have understood its ancient forms better than anyone does today. These documents indicate that indigenous interpreters understood [Lev 18:22] to condemn all acts of sexual intercourse between males. Passages such as [Sanhedrin 54a] cite this verse to prove that anal intercourse with a male is punished by stoning. [Sanhedrin 54b] debates the age at which a child becomes legally responsible (and thus liable to punishment) for a passive role in anal intercourse. [Yebamoth 83b] specifies that the prohibition against sexual intercourse between males applies also to hermaphrodites.

    On the other hand, it is only in modern times that Christians and Jews have started to think realistically about the origins of their religion. Our ancestors generally thought that the entire Bible was a homogeneous entity. Today we recognize that the Tradition evolves over time, and that Biblical texts reflect various conditions, cultures, and situations. Archaeology, comparative cultural studies, etc. show us that the world in which the earliest parts of the Bible were written (including Leviticus) were very different from those of later Bible times. It is to be expected that the author of Leviticus would have an attitude toward sexuality and gender vocabulary completely different from that of any modern reader. Certain critical moments in Jewish history effaced or distorted the memory of earlier conditions and beliefs. Hence, it is legitimate to argue that the original meaning of a text might be lost, only to be recovered by modern reconstruction. Talmudic scholars were certainly able to argue about the meaning of a text, but because their methods were poor, it is not clear that they adequately maintained, grasped, or recovered the original meaning. The legal twistings and pullings they employed were often transparently disingenuous. For the existence of disagreement over our verse in ancient times, see [Sanhedrin 33b]. The Sadducees, who were usually more conservative in their interpretation of the Law than the Pharisees (who often exaggerated commandments and generalized them), were apparently in the habit of acquitting those that the Pharisees would condemn to death.


    1. It may be that all that is forbidden to a pair of male lovers is the use of a woman's bed!
    2. It is also possible that what is condemned is homo-gender adultery.
    3. There are, however, three reasons for concluding that our verse forbids all homosexuality:
      • a simplistic reading of the text itself
      • one view of the context of the verse (but this argument is contentious)
      • the indigenous interpretative tradition (but this argument is inconclusive)
    4. On the other hand, there are reasons for concluding that our verse envisages only ritual prostitution:
      • another view of the context of the verse (again contentious)
      • the fact that male ritual prostitutes certainly existed [Deut 23:17,18]
      • the fact that Deuteronomy omits any reference to homo-gender sexual relations [Deut 27:20-23]
    5. Another possibility is that only some unspecified sub-set of homo-gender physical intimacy that is like that between a man and wife is forbidden.

    6. A final possibility is that our verse is not at all about homogender sexual activity at all, but condemns the practice of two men simultaneoulsy having sexual intercourse with the same woman - or even alongside each other with two sepparate women.

    Interpretation should be sensitive to context regardless of whether we would then want to agree or disagree with the moral import of the passage. 

    An intellectually respectable course for those who do not agree with any general prohibition of homosexuality that might be found in Leviticus is for them to disown it. This is quite legitimate, whether others like it or not! History is replete with those who have objected to some parts of Leviticus: the Apostles Peter and Paul individually, the Council of Jerusalem and the bishops of the Oecumenical Council of Florence (which positively teaches that circumcision is a mortal sin) come to mind. To disagree frankly with what is definitely said is more responsible, and more productive of intelligent discussion, than a disingenuous attempt to twist Leviticus to correspond to current opinion. Most Christians (rightly or wrongly) strongly disagree with the Old Testament's casual acceptance of polygamy, and  (rightly or wrongly) would demand a more severe punishment for rape than that stipulated by Moses: marriage! 

    However, it seems to me that it is profoundly unclear what our verse does mean - to the extent that it was ever meant to refer to homo-gender sexual activity at all!


      J. Boswell, "Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality."
        (Chicago, U of Chicago P, 1980).
      J. Boswell, "Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe."
        (New York: Villard, 1994)
      C. Burr, "Homosexuality and Biology"
        (Atlantic Monthly, 1993)
      R. Buehler, "A Defense Theory..."
      K. Collins, "Sexual Sin in the Bible"
      L. Feinberg, "Transgender Warriors..."
      J. Miner and J. Connoley,  "The Children are Free: Reexamining the Biblical Evidence on Same-Sex Relationships"
      Rictor Norton "A History of Homophobia 1. The Ancient Hebrews" W. L. Peterson, "Can arsenokoitai be Translated by 'Homosexuals'?",
        Vigiliae Christianae 40 (1986), 187-91.
      W. L. Peterson, "On the Study of 'Homosexuality' in Patristic Sources,"
        Studia Patristica 20 (1989), 283-88.
      R. Scroggs, "The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate"
        (Philadelphia, 1983).
      J. Wright, "Homosexuals or Prostitutes: The Meaning of arsenokoitai [1 Cor 6:9, 1 Tim. 1:10]",
        Vigiliae Christianae 38 (1984), 125-53.

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