Have you committed an "abomination" today?
The Iris Robinson Affair, as it might be called, centres on this MP's use of the term "abomination" to describe homosexuality. Mrs Robinson believes that the term "abomination", as used in the Bible, means that an action is wicked, vile, disgusting, and morally wrong. It may be helpful to take a look at the term "abomination" as it is used in the Bible to explore its actual meaning (to the extent that we can). So let me set aside the hot and heavy debates about Iris Robinson's comments, and consider the term "abomination", as it appears in the Bible and as it is sometimes used in public speech today.
Clearly, if you look up the word "abomination" in an English dictionary, you will find that the word means "vile", "wicked", "wrong" and "hateful". It is equally clear that the Bible was not written in English (but in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic). The 17th century translation of the Bible known as the King James Version (KJV) translates the Hebrew text of Leviticus 18:22 in this way: "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination." The term translated as "abomination" is the Hebrew expression תֹּועֵבָה (tō'ē'bā, a noun which may be pronounced "toevah").
There is widespread agreement among Hebrew scholars that the word "toevah" as used in Leviticus is not, in fact, a moral term; instead, it is a cultic term which indicates "ritual uncleanness". Any action that is said to be "toevah" is an action which requires a person to engage in ritual purification before they may come to worship. Sometimes, the term "toevah" can be used in the Bible to refer simply to sinful behaviour in general, but in the case of the text in question, scholars agree that ritual uncleanness is implied.
Thus, according to the same book of the Bible, eating pork is also said to be "toevah" (unclean). According to Leviticus 11:10, as rendered in the KJV, "And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you." This means that eating squid, prawns, lobsters and other shellfish is "toevah". Similarly, according to this ancient text, any man who has sex with a menstruating woman has has committed toevah (see Leviticus 20:18) . And any person who commits toevah within ancient Israel could not join the community in its acts of worship until they had been ritually purified.
Few today would regard shellfood restaurants as abominations; not would most regard eating pork as an unclean act; and I don't know anyone who believes a man has corrupted himself in any way by having sex with his wife during her menstrual cycle. Some may say that homosexuality is different, since the book of Leviticus also calls for the execution of those men who are found to have had sex with other men. But the Old Testament texts in question sanction the death penalty in all kinds of cases. The text tells us that a child (no age specified) who repeatedly disobeys his or her parents may be executed. The act of picking up sticks on the Sabbath was punishable by death. And even having sex with a menstruating woman is worthy of death, according to this ancient body of literature (see Leviticus 20:18; Ezekiel 18:13, and many other texts to that effect). Who today regards any of these acts as unclean or meriting execution?
All of which brings us to a more central question. Why does the book of Leviticus describe sex between two men as "toevah"? Many people offer may answers to that question, and many of those answers have been aired recently on radio and elsewhere. But one possible explanation I haven't heard outlined should be added to the mix. It is suggested by (amongst others) Rabbi Arthur Waskow (see his article: "Homosexuality and Torah Thought"). He argues that the text of Leviticus itself reflects the world in which it was written, and this ancient world was a culture dominated by men which subordinated women. This was a culture in which righteous men prayed daily giving thanks that they were not created female. Those who wrote this text would have regarded men having sex together as tantamount to one man playing (what was considered) a culturally inferior role (that of a woman) during sex. This would make a man less than a man, since he was making himself comparable to a woman. This would also explain why sex between two lesbians is not condemned in the Old Testament, since all women were thought to be of such inferior status that "neither would be seen as adopting a dominant or a subservient role during sexual encounters".
These are the kinds of issues being debated by scholars of the Hebrew Bible, and their considerations should be included in our continuing public debate about the use of an ancient text in the 21st century. There is much more to be said, of course -- and this post does not consider, for example, the New Testament passages concerning same-sex sexual intercourse. Nevertheless, if the Bible is going to be drawn into public debates about controversial social and moral issues, we can surely all agree that it is important to try to do justice to what the Bible actually says.