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From the op-ed pages of the New York Times comes “The Secret History of Leviticus,” an improbable essay by Idan Dershowitz. A scholar of the Hebrew Bible and a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, Dershowitz has written for the Times a popular version of the academic argument he published recently in the journal Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel.

The Book of Leviticus contains two prohibitions against homosexual acts, the first of which (18:22) states: “You shall not lie with a male as though lying with a woman; it is an abomination.” According to Dershowitz, “before Leviticus was composed, outright prohibitions against homosexual sex … were practically unheard-of in the ancient world.” But he proposes that “an earlier version of the laws in Leviticus 18 permitted sex between men,” albeit tacitly. Supposedly, the laws were revised by a later editor so as to include the prohibition, and to “obscure any implication that same-sex relations had once been permissible.”

Dershowitz begins with “the core of Leviticus 18,” its incest laws. He points out two incest laws that are not presented in “a straightforward manner.” These are the two laws against homosexual incest: one against father-son incest (18:7), the other against uncle-nephew incest (18:14).

The nakedness of your father and the nakedness of your mother you shall not uncover: She is your mother. You shall not uncover her nakedness.
The nakedness of your father’s brother you shall not uncover. You shall not approach his wife. She is your aunt.

Dershowitz says that each of these laws comprises two parts: the law proper (which I have put in italics) and the explanatory note, or “gloss.” In the case of the other incest laws (all of which address heterosexual incest), the relation between law and gloss is straightforward and emphatic. For instance, the law against sex with one’s daughter-in-law is glossed, “she is your son’s wife.” But in the two cases above, the gloss transforms the law from a law against homosexual incest (with one’s father or uncle) to a law against heterosexual incest (with one’s mother or aunt). Dershowitz calls these glosses “strong evidence of editorial intervention.”

He speculates that these glosses were added by an editor, perhaps “more than a century” after the composition of the oldest parts of Leviticus, to bring all the incest laws into conformity with the prohibition against homosexual acts (which Dershowitz presumes was a comparatively recent addition). With these glosses, all of the incest laws became laws against heterosexual incest. How do such revisions accord with a turn against homosexual acts? According to Dershowitz, the editor feared the principle, “The exception proves the rule.” Dershowitz reasons: “A law declaring that homosexual incest is prohibited could reasonably be taken to indicate that non-incestuous homosexual intercourse is permitted.” Once the prohibition against male same-sex intercourse was added, “it became expedient to bring the earlier material up-to-date by doing away with two now-superfluous injunctions against homosexual incest—injunctions that made sense when sex between men was otherwise allowed.” Thus, Dershowitz infers an earlier version of Leviticus 18, according to which homosexual acts were permissible.

For Jews and Christians who treat the Bible as Scripture, the speculations of Dershowitz should have little relevance. What counts as authoritative is what made it into the canon, not what didn’t. In any case, I am unconvinced by Dershowitz’s arguments. Here’s why:

First, if the glosses for verses 7 and 14 are later additions, then the same must be true for nearly all of the other verses 7-17. Otherwise, verses 7 and 14 would not conform to the standard literary form for this section (“the memorable phrase ‘uncover nakedness’”). That is an odd supposition. It requires the later editor to have added the glosses to verses 7 and 14 in order to remove the inference of allowable homosexual unions, then to have decided to add them nearly everywhere else in verses 7-17 to complete the coverup. It is far simpler to suppose that explanatory notes were present at the start for verses 7-17. This would mean that verses 7 and 14 never existed independently of a gloss making clear that other-sex incest was in view.

Second, verses 7 and 14 each appear to equate having sex with a man to having sex with that man’s wife—a dissonance Dershowitz dismisses as nonsensical. But the equation makes sense in the context of ancient Israel. A parallel in Genesis 49:4 describes Reuben’s intercourse with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah as “ascending your father’s beds,” without ever mentioning a female party. Similarly, the Yahwist’s story about the creation of woman in Genesis 2:21-24 depicts woman as the man’s missing flesh, reunited to him in marriage. Thus, his wife’s nakedness is his nakedness.

Even within Leviticus 18:7-17, one finds descriptions of “the nakedness of your father’s wife” as “the nakedness of your father” (verse 8), and of “the nakedness of your brother’s wife” as “your brother’s nakedness” (verse 16). So there is nothing tendentious about interpreting “the nakedness of your father” and “the nakedness of your father’s brother” as references to sex with one’s father’s wife and with the wife of one’s father’s brother.

The same connections are made in Leviticus 20: Lying with one’s father’s wife is tantamount to uncovering the nakedness of one’s father (verse 11); lying with one’s uncle’s wife is tantamount to uncovering one’s uncle’s nakedness (verse 20); and taking one’s brother’s wife in marriage is tantamount to uncovering the nakedness of one’s brother (verse 21). Even if Leviticus 20 is to be dated much later than Leviticus 18:7-17 (a dubious supposition), it still would constitute our earliest guide to reading 18:7, 14, and 16, and it would have been provided by circles that revered and sought to uphold the laws in 18:7-17. There is no reason to believe that these men misinterpreted the laws, which we only now, millennia later, understand correctly.

Third, Dershowitz contends that the explanatory note and motive clause in 18:7 and 18:14 “render the idiom ‘uncover nakedness’ incoherent.” Everywhere else in verses 7-17, “uncover nakedness” means “have sex with,” which (Dershowitz claims) no longer makes sense if “uncovering the nakedness of your father” (18:7) and “of your father’s brother” (18:14) does not refer to having actual sex with them.

Dershowitz is making a mountain out of a molehill. The text is simply saying that having sex with one’s mother is tantamount to having sex with one’s father, and that having sex with the wife of one’s paternal uncle is tantamount to having sex with one’s paternal uncle. What is stressed is the heinousness of the offense as an assault on the paterfamilias or his next-in-line (his brother).

Fourth, Dershowitz contends that the “new glosses” in 18:7 and 18:14, along with the proscription of homosexual acts in 18:22 and much of the rest of the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-24), arose in the Persian Archaemenid period (550-330 B.C.) under the influence of Zoroastrian traditions hostile to homosexual practice. These traditions are found in a Zoroastrian text called the Videvdad or Vendidad.

This is speculation heaped on speculation. We know little about when this Zoroastrian collection was fully written down (certainly long after the Hebrew Bible was complete), and even less about how far back in history individual elements existed in oral form. Nor is there any scholarly consensus about the date of the bulk of the Holiness Code, much about less the extent and date of allegedly later redactions.

The idea that Israel permitted homosexual relations until the Persian period, then under Zoroastrian influence suddenly switched to treating such relations as meriting a capital sentence, is (in a word) ridiculous. Early in the Exile, Ezekiel already knew a version of the Holiness Code, including its prohibitions of homosexual practice, by which he interpreted the story of Sodom’s destruction (Ezek 16:49-50). Texts attributed to figures scholars call “J” (the Yahwist) and “the Priestly Writer,” as well as texts in Deuteronomic law and in the Deuteronomistic History, cumulatively establish that from Israel’s earliest recoverable history a male-female prerequisite for sexual relations was maintained. In fact, every law, narrative, proverb, poem, and metaphor in Israel’s sacred texts having anything to do with sexual ethics presupposes this.

That Israel’s firm view of a male-female foundation for sexual ethics and sexual purity was intended to be distinctive within the broader cultural environment of the ancient Near East is precisely what the Holiness Code affirms. Israel must not follow the practices of the Canaanites and the Egyptians (Lev 18:2-5, 24-30; 20:22-26). This theme is consistent with Israel’s longstanding proscription of worship of other gods and of images of God (Exod 20:2-7, Deut 5:7-11), which marks Israel off from the surrounding culture as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6).

All of this suggests that Dershowitz’s speculation is more an extension of his ideological support for homosexual unions than a credible historical reconstruction.

Robert A. J. Gagnon is author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics and former associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

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