Dodgy theology (4): “It is an abomination”

This short series will be longer than initially planned as I’ve been asked to comment on several specific biblical texts, including the two instances in the Hebrew Bible of what appears to be homosexual rape (Genesis 19 and Judges 19), the New Testament texts which, in some translations, use the word “homosexuals” and the description of some sins in the Hebrew Bible as “abominations” (including, it is claimed, homosexual acts). These texts weren’t specifically quoted (as far as I’m aware) by Israel Folau in his social media comments about those people who he thinks will go to hell, but I will cover them here in this series to keep my discussion of the relevant texts together.

In the texts referred to in an earlier post about the probition against a man “lying with a man as with a woman” Leviticus adds that “it is an abomination.”  Some translations have gone beyond the meaning of the Hebrew word and instead have “it is disgusting” (CEV), “loathsome” (JM),  “detestable” (NWT) or “I hate that” (NLB). But this is not what the word means. The Hebrew word תּוֹעֵבָה toʿevah is used in the Bible sometimes used to describe the customs of other ethnic groups. For example, “the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination [תּוֹעֵבָה] to the Egyptians” (Genesis 43:22). Similarly, according to Genesis, “all shepherds are abhorrent [תּוֹעֵבָה] to the Egyptians” (46:34). Moses also said to Pharaoh that “the sacrifices that we offer to the LORD our God are offensive [תּוֹעֵבָה] to the Egyptians” (Exodus 8:26). The use of the word תּוֹעֵבָה in these contexts demonstrates that there is no intrinsic  implication of sexual perversity. Within Leviticus several things are regarded as תּוֹעֵבָה an abomination to God because they were associated with the customs of the Canaanite tribes with whom they shared the land, or surrounding nations. The emphasis in the Levitical laws was that something was abhorent, not because it was necessarily intrinsically such, but rather because it was associated with Canaanite practices: “You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and commit none of these abominations … (for the inhabitants of the land, who were before you, committed all of these abominations, and the land became defiled)” (Lev. 18:26). The association with idolatry and worship of other gods is even more evident in the way the word is used in Deuteronomy: “The images of their gods you shall burn with fire. Do not covet the silver or the gold that is on them and take it for yourself, because you could be ensnared by it; for it is abhorrent to the LORD your God.  Do not bring an abhorrent thing into your house, or you will be set apart for destruction like it. You must utterly detest and abhor it, for it is set apart for destruction” (7:25-26). In Deuteronomy “the abhorrent practices of those nations” included sorcery, casting spells, and consulting the spirits of the dead (18:9-14). The prohibition against these things was because “you must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God” (v.13) and the implication is that all these practices were somehow related to the worship of other gods. For the same reason, making an idol was also abhorent (Deut. 27:15). Ezekiel refers to “your abominable idols” (16:36), confirming further that this word is more often associated with worship of other gods than with sexual behaviour.

In Deuteronomy eating  certain animals was also regarded as an abomination, including camels, hares, badgers and pigs (14:3-8). It is sometimes argued that these dietary laws had some health benefits, or they were intended to protect the Israelites from contracting diseases from animals which were more likely to be hosts to parasites. Yet there is no evidence that avoiding camels or hares had any health benefits, or that they were more prone to carry diseases. The reasons for these dietary prohibitions remains a mystery.

Offering an animal that had any kind of physical defect as a sacrifice to God was also “abhorent” (Deut. 17:1). Isaiah 1:13 says “incense is an abomination to me” and because incense was used in the tabernacle and Temple as part of the worship of the God of Israel this verse is best understood as a condemnation of the lack of sincerity on the part of those who offered it. These two texts suggested that faulty worship of the God of Israel was as much an abomination as the worship of foreign gods, or eating the meat of certain animals. There is nothing in these texts that even hints that these practices were “disgusting” in any moral sense. Those translations which use such terms in the translation of the same Hebrew word in Leviticus, in the context of “men lying with men”, are clearly prejudiced by a bias against the acceptance of homosexuality.

In one of the few places where “abomination” is connected with sexual practices, 1 Kings 14:24 reports that “there were also male temple prostitutes in the land. They committed all the abominations of the nations that the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.” The phrase “male temple prostitutes” is a translation of a single word in Hebrew (קָדֵשׁ). It seems clear enough from the context that the problem was not men having sex with men, but rather the “abomination” was that prostitution (of any kind) formed part of the worship of foreign gods.

We can conclude from the frequent usage of this word throughout the Hebrew Bible, where it occurs more than 100 times, that “abomination” can refer to practices such as eating with people from a different group (such as Egyptians refusing to eat with Hebrews), or disliking the religious observances of other groups (such as the Egyptians finding Hebrew forms of worship “abominable”). It can refer to almost any form of worship of other gods which was foreign to Israelites. Eating certain animals was also an “abomination”, for no clear reason. The behaviour regarded as abominable is often not specified, and the term is sometimes used in parallel with “evil” or similar terms (although in some biblical texts worshipping idols is regarded as the greatest evil). The word rarely refers to sexual behaviour. When it does, such as in Ezekiel 22:11, it refers to adulterous or incestuous heterosexual behaviour: “One commits abomination with his neighbor’s wife; another lewdly defiles his daughter-in-law; another in you defiles his sister, his father’s daughter.” There are only two texts out of more than 100 where the word apparently refers to sex between men: once with reference to male temple prostitutes (and even there it may refer to prostitution in general), and the other in the verse in Leviticus we have been discussing. There is nothing, anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, to suggest that homosexuality or homosexual activity per se was considered to be morally perverse.

Some people might refer to the “sin of Sodom” in Genesis 19, and a somewhat similar story in Judges 19 as examples of a biblical condemnation of homosexuality. I will discuss these texts in my next post.

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