Dodgy theology (6): “your father’s nakedness”

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.

6 comments on “Dodgy theology (6): “your father’s nakedness”

  1. Stephen Cook says:

    A further comment on my interpretation of uncovering the nakedness of the father and uncle.
    My interpretation is neither new nor novel. The medieval Jewish commentator Maimonides, for example, lists intercourse between a male and his father, and between a male and his paternal uncle, amongst the prohibitions of the Torah. (Sefer Hamitzvot, negative commandments 351 and 352.) This Leviticus text and the possibility that it refers to sexual intercourse with one’s father and paternal uncle is also discussed in the Talmud (b. San. 54a).

  2. Hi Stephen,

    I hope I’m not making a nuisance of myself by playing devil’s advocate on your recent blog series. A couple of comments on this article. First, you may correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe I recall reading that one of the possible functions of the waw conjunction in biblical Hebrew is hendiadys between nouns, i.e. to conjoin two nouns that have a single referent. It seems to me that English translators of Lev. 18:7 who translate along the lines of “your father’s nakedness, which is your mother’s nakedness” are signaling that they read the function of the waw conjunction on וערות as forming a hendiadys with אביך. Thus they are not amending/emending the text, nor is their translation less literal than the one you have proposed. It is just a difference of opinion regarding the syntactic function of this waw conjunction, so the question becomes, which opinion fits the context better? Lev. 18:14 appears not to hinge on a waw conjunction but on whether two clauses are expressing distinct ideas or the second clause is clarifying the first. Again, both readings seem (to my untrained eye) to be syntactically possible, so context is key to deciding between them.

    Surely one of the relevant contextual points must be the similar prohibition in Lev. 20:11, 20, which appear to me to explicitly equate lying with one’s father’s wife with uncovering one’s father’s nakedness, and to explicitly equate lying with one’s uncle’s wife with uncovering one’s uncle’s nakedness.

    Second, if I understand your argument, you are claiming that because only these two specific kinds of homosexual relationships are forbidden, it follows that homosexual relationships in general are not. However, you also observed that other incestuous homosexual relationships (e.g., sex with one’s brother) are not explicitly forbidden, yet you do not infer from this that sex between brothers was permissible. If I understand you correctly, you are arguing that although sex between brothers was forbidden, the law did not explicitly say so because it concentrated only on relationships that would disrupt the family hierarchy. Does this not undermine the argument that since other, non-incestuous homosexual relationships (which would also not disrupt the family hierarchy) are not explicitly forbidden, they are therefore permissible?

  3. A 2005 JBL article by Bergsma and Hahn entitled “Noah’s Nakedness and the Curse on Canaan (Genesis 9:20-27)” argues that Ham’s “seeing his father’s nakedness” in Gen 9:22 is a euphemistic reference to maternal incest (of which union Canaan was the offspring, hence the curse being passed on him rather than Ham). Numerous other scholars have argued that this passage refers to paternal incest. This also seems relevant to the levitical passages discussed above.

  4. Stephen Cook says:

    Thomas, first a clarification: you said “If I understand you correctly, you are arguing that although sex between brothers was forbidden …” I haven’t actually argued that. As I read Leviticus the only forbidden male-male sexual relationships were with one’s father, a paternal uncle and a currently married man. Leviticus is silent about sex between brothers and I make no inferences from that.

    Your reference to Genesis 9 is interesting, and I think Bergsma and Hahn are almost alone in arguing that it refers to maternal incest, although being alone does not necessarily make one wrong! I personally find it extraordinary that in their review of the various options for interpreting the text they do not mention *rape* as the reason why Ham’s offence was regarded as “exceedingly evil” (Gagnon’s term). The crime in Genesis 9 was not so much that Ham had sex with his father, but rather that it was non-consensual and was therefore an act of violence.

    By the way, if you haven’t seen it you might also be interested in Phillips, A. “Uncovering the Father’s Skirt.” Vetus Testamentum 30, no. 1 (1980): 38-43.

    I do agree that there is a strong case for the writer of the Holiness Code to have been familiar with the P tradition in Genesis, so a connection with Genesis 9 may be important. As Rosenstock has noted “to uncover nakedness … is a phrase used twenty times in Leviticus 18 and 20 and, apart from one further occurrence in Exodus 20:26, nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible outside of the book of Ezekiel, where it occurs six times.” (A connection between Ezekiel and the HC should not be surprising). The difference in terminology between Genesis and HC may be more significant and a closer connection could possibly be made between Genesis 9 and Deuteronomy 27:20. However, I haven’t actually done any work on this and only thinking out loud.

    • Hi Stephen,

      I’m still struggling to reconcile some of your statements.

      You said,
      “Leviticus is silent about sex between brothers and I make no inferences from that.”

      However, previously you had stated,
      “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.”

      It sounds to me as though making inferences from the silences of Leviticus was the main purpose of this article.

      • Stephen Cook says:

        Hi Thomas,

        When I said I make no inferences from the silence of Leviticus about sex between brothers I meant with respect to your comment that I was arguing that sex between brothers was forbidden. That’s not what I was arguing, but hopefully that has now been clarified. Only three same-sex relationships appear to have been forbidden in Leviticus. I think it’s a misreading of my post to say that “making inferences from the silences of Leviticus was the main purpose of this article”. My main purpose has been to demonstrate that the case for condemning homosexuality has been built on some very slender ambiguous biblical evidence.

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