Scripture has been so commonly quoted in support of arguments against same sex relationships, that we too easily overlook the simple facts that the texts being quoted were written in a foreign language, in a remote cultural setting, in contexts very different to that in which pseudo-religious bigots abuse these texts today. To extend correct understanding of these texts, every useful explanation deserves wide exposure.
At Religion Dispatches today, Jay Michaelson has an explanation of one particularly treacherous and widely abused and misunderstood word, “abomination”. Critics of the clobber texts routinely point out that the same word is used to proscribe certain foods, shaving, as well as “men lying with men”, and the inconsistency exposed in its modern use to attack selectively one but not the others. Outside the scholarly journals however, not enough attention has been placed on the word itself, which emphatically does not have the connotations and strength of meaning in the original Hebrew text that it does in the modern English usage of its translation. (Renato Lings, meanwhile, has offered a useful analysis of the Levitical texts from another perspective, the words for “men lying with men”, and also finds that they simply do not mean what modern abusers of the texts think it means).
The Hebrew word is “toevah” (plural “toevot“), and it is to the King James version that we owe the appallingly inappropriate translation as “abomination”. In an extensive analysis of all 103 Biblical uses of the word, some key themes emerge. First, almost all have the connotation of non-Israelite cultic practices.
In particular, foreign forms of worship (“avodah zara“) he describes as the “primary” toevah, from which most other forms of toevot flow. Some of these are clearly serious, and would also be recognised as such in the modern West – such as idolatry, child sacrifice, and witchcraft (Deut. 12:31, 13:14, 17:4, 27:15, and 32:16 ) – but unlike the Hebrews, we would not see this as sufficient justification for “the genocide of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanaites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites” . But in addition to idolatry, Ezekiel lists some further “toevot” that we would recognize as wrong, but would be surprised to see described as “abominations” – usury (Ez. 18:13), haughtiness and pride (Ez. 16:47-50), heterosexual adultery (Ez. 22:11, 33:26), and violence (Ez. 33:26). (I hope that someone can point out to those promoting homophobic violence in the name of religion, that they are as much guilty of “abomination” as those they oppose.)
A further use from Ezekiel brings home an important feature of this notion of “toevah” as a general term for foreign acts (Ez. 16:51) – that it is foreign practice that is the problem, usually cultic, but sometimes not. As Michaelson makes clear, the point of toevah is that it is culurally specific. Just as some foreign practices are toevah to Israelites, so some Israelite practices are equally toevah to others:
Genesis 43:32 states that eating with Israelites is toevah for Egyptians. Gen. 43:34 states that shepherds are toevah to Egyptians—the sons of Israel are themselves shepherds. In Exodus 8:22, Moses describes Israelite sacrifices as being toevat mitzrayim—toevah of Egypt—although obviously Israelite ritual is not an objective “abomination.” If toevah means abomination, then eating with shepherds, eating with Israelites, and Israelite sacrifices themselves must be abominable! Since this clearly is not the case, toevah cannot mean “abomination” in any ontological sense—it must be a relative quality.
Toevot also include what Michaelson calls “ethical failings”, including pride (Prov. 6:16, 16:5), lying (Prov. 12:22, 26:25), scoffing (Prov. 24:9) and evil speech (Prov. 8:7) – some more in there that are worth drawing to the attention of those crying “abomination” against gay men and lesbians. I also like this:
Interestingly, Proverbs 13:19 says that “to turn from evil is toevah to fools,” again suggesting that toevah is something relative in nature. Similarly, Prov. 29:27 says poetically: “An unjust man is toevah to the righteous, and the straightforward man is toevah to the wicked.”
However, the KJV and many other biblical translations do not simply apply the inappropriate word “abominations” to the Hebrew “toevah”, but also to other Hebrew words usually associated with idolatry: sheketz, which refers usually to idolatry and occasionally to other taboos such as forbidden animals (Lev. 11:10-13). Likewise, as pigul, which is how Leviticus 7:18 describes leftover sacrificial meat.
Here’s the crunch:
Progressive religionists must stop using the word “abomination” to refer to toevah. The word plays into the hands of fundamentalists on the one hand, and anti-religious zealots on the other, both of whom want to depict the Bible as virulently and centrally concerned with the “unnatural” acts of gays and lesbians. In fact, toevah is mostly about idolatry, and male homosexual behavior is only as abominable as remarriage or not keeping kosher. Whenever we use the word “abomination” we are perpetuating the misunderstanding of Biblical text and the religious persecution of LGBT people.
What word are we to use instead?
Personally, I like “taboo” as a replacement. It conveys the culturally relative nature of toevah, has some connotation of foreignness, and rightly aligns the taboo against homosexuality with taboos against, for example, eating unkosher food. It also has a vaguely archaic feel, which it should. Admittedly, “taboo” began as tabu, and specifically refers to a particular concept in Pacific indigenous religion; it is a bit inexact to import it to Judaism and Christianity. Yet the word has, by now, entered the common parlance, and in that general sense, it matches toevah fairly well. (Alternatively, we could stick with the Hebrew term, the foreignness of which heightens the foreignness of the Biblical concerns about homosexuality.) One thing remains clear, though: what’s really abominable here is the word “abomination” itself.
I like this. Taboo exactly captures that sense of something which is forbidden, in a cultural context. See how the impact of the Levitical text changes if we make that small adustment, from “abomination”, to a more precise, culturally appropriate translation:
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is taboo for Israelis.