David and Jonathan
David and Jonathan, stainglass window from St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Portobello, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1882

Having argued in my earlier posts that the Hebrew Bible (‘Old Testament’) does not specifically prohibit homosexuality or homosexual activity, in this post I want to respond to the question of whether there is any evidence in the HB of homosexuality in ancient Israel, and in my next post I will look specifically at the case of David of Jonathan.

There is an intriguing series of prohibitions in Leviticus which begin with “None of you shall approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness” (18:6-18). So as not to leave in any doubt what is meant by “near of kin” the prohibited relationships are then listed:

You shall not uncover the nakedness of your:

  • father
  • mother
  • father’s wife (i.e. step-mother, possibly also implies polygamy)
  • sister
  • your father’s daughter (i.e. half or step sister)
  • your mother’s daughter (i.e. half or step sister)
  • father’s sister
  • mother’s sister
  • father’s brother
  • father’s brother’s wife
  • a woman and her daughter or grand-daughter
  • a woman and her sister, while the woman is still alive
  • a woman during her menstrual period (i.e. a wife is a ‘prohibited relative’ during her period)

To “uncover the nakedness” of someone is almost certainly a euphemism for having sex with that person so that the prohibitions against incest maintain a hierarchy within the family. In other words, it prevents any confusion about an individual’s position within that hierarchy and whether they can simultaneously be one’s wife and their mother, for example.

However, there are two problematic relationships in this list. The first probition is against having sex with one’s father: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of [or have sex with] your father.” Most English translators have recognised the problem that as these texts are all addressed to men this would therefore refer to an incestuous homosexual relationship. They “amend” the Hebrew text by translating the whole verse as “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness” (v.7). In other words, they interpret “nakedness of your father” as actually meaning having sex with your mother. But this is not what the Hebrew says! The Hebrew עֶרְוַת אָבִיךָ וְעֶרְוַת אִמְּךָ לֹא תְגַלֵּה אִמְּךָ הִוא לֹא תְגַלֶּה עֶרְוָתָהּ literally reads “the nakedness of your father and the nakedness of your mother you shall not uncover. She is your mother, do not uncover her nakedness.” The second half of the verse (אִמְּךָ הִוא לֹא תְגַלֶּה עֶרְוָתָהּ “She is your mother, do not uncover her nakedness”) is almost tautological – an unneccessary repetition of the prohibition that has already been made. I can think of two possible reasons for this: (a) the relationship between a boy and his mother is generally more intimate than the relationship with his father, due largely to the fact that from birth he was nursed at her breast and may have slept with her even into his teens, and therefore the prohibition against having sex when he came to maturity (or when his father died) had to be emphasised; or (b) the additional words were ‘interpretive’ (as the English translators have it) and explain what is meant by “the nakedness of your father”. The problem with this second option is that it renders the first half of the verse as unnecessary. Why say something if you need to immediately explain it? Why not simply say “the nakedness of your mother” rather than “the nakedness of your father and the nakedness of your mother” if you then need to explain what you mean? The conjunction implies two relationships, not that one is really the other. Hebrew has a perfectly adequate way of saying “that is” when an explanation is required, so its absence here is noteworthy.

The second problematic relationship in this list is “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother, that is, you shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt” (v. 14). Again, the translators have inserted the words “that is” which are not in the Hebrew. The Hebrew עֶרְוַת אֲחִי־אָבִיךָ לֹא תְגַלֵּה אֶל־אִשְׁתּוֹ לֹא תִקְרָב דֹּדָתְךָ הִוא reads literally as “the nakedness of your father’s brother you shall not uncover, do not approach his wife, she is your aunt.” To me, this reads most naturally as two prohibitions, not one.

If this list of prohibited relationships includes two same-sex relationships (i.e. with one’s father and paternal uncle), the implication is that other same-sex relationships are not prohibited. However, a question inevitably arises from this: why are only two same-sex relationships prohibited? If sex with one’s sister is prohibited, why not with one’s brother? If sex with a paternal uncle is prohibited, why not a maternal uncle (your mother’s brother)? To me, the most likely explanation is that in a patriarchal society the most dominant family member is the male head-of-the-family, the father. Next in the hierarchy would be his brother(s), then his mature sons in order of their births, then his wife, his brother’s wife, his son’s wives, unmarried daughters, and finally servants (or something akin to this order). The mother’s brothers have no place in the hierarchy, as they are attached to another family. For a son to have an intimate and  sexual relationship with the dominant males (father and paternal uncles) confuses or disrupts the hierarchy. For example, if a son was in an intimate relationship with his uncle, would this place him above his older brothers, or above other uncles who were younger than his lover? The same conflict does not arise with other male members of the family, and are therefore not specifically addressed in the list of prohibited relationships. Leviticus is careful to maintain order in the family and society. (Inheritances and property rights are also important and related to this hierarchical order and are dealt with elsewhere in Leviticus and Deuteronomy).

In a nutshell, the prohibition against two specific same-sex relationships in Leviticus 18 implies that other same-sex relationships were not prohibited. It further implies that they did exist. If I saw a sign on a cafe saying “closed on Sundays” I could reasonably infer that it was open every other day. So, a prohibition against certain same-sex relationships implies that all others were acceptable. I have already discussed the two texts which are often quoted as prohibiting all homosexual relationships and demonstrated that they do no such thing and most probably refer to relationships with married men. In fact, if such blanket laws did exist it would have been unnecessary to further prohibit two specific relationships that were already covered by the blanket prohibition. This further confirms in my mind that the only homosexual relationships which were prohibited in Leviticus were with one’s father, one’s paternal uncle and with a man who was already married to a woman.

In my next post I will look at the biblical story of David and Jonathan to see if there is any evidence that it was a homosexual relationship.