In Leviticus, there are two different texts which deal with homosexual intercourse. The first is in 18:22 and the second in 20:13 (all citations NIV):

Lev 18:22: Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.

Lev 20:13: If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

The first part of this question is:

  • Are these two related, and should they be interpreted identically? Alternatively, should they be understood separately since they were recorded with different motivations by the author? If they are related, why include this twice?

Secondly, I have heard 4 possible interpretations for these verses:

A) They stand alone and should be interpreted independently from context.

B) These should be interpreted as being related to idolatry and worship of Molek. This is hinted at by John Hartley in his commentary on Leviticus in the Word Biblical Commentary series and is also based on the proximity of 18:22 text to the proceeding verse, 21 which reads,

"Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord."

Chapter 20 also discusses idolatry in 20:1-5:

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any foreigner residing in Israel who sacrifices any of his children to Molek is to be put to death. The members of the community are to stone him. I myself will set my face against him and will cut him off from his people; for by sacrificing his children to Molek, he has defiled my sanctuary and profaned my holy name. If the members of the community close their eyes when that man sacrifices one of his children to Molek and if they fail to put him to death, I myself will set my face against him and his family and will cut them off from their people together with all who follow him in prostituting themselves to Molek."

C) This edict is purely based on hygienic concerns which are inherent to this type of intercourse and this text should be regarded in the way we deal with ritual washing and eating pork. This is supported by the proximity to 18:19:

Do not approach a woman to have sexual relations during the uncleanness of her monthly period.

And 20:18

If a man has sexual relations with a woman during her monthly period, he has exposed the source of her flow, and she has also uncovered it. Both of them are to be cut off from their people.

D) This passage is purely a result of the reality of being a small tribe and the need for this tribe to enlarge itself through offspring

Thus the second part of the question is this:

  • Is there anything (additional) in either the language of the text or other passages which support or discredit any of the above conclusions?
  • Which is the most probable meaning, or is there another meaning to these texts?

1 Answer 1


I don't think any of your four options answer your question. From an Orthodox Jewish perspective, the answer to your question is that each verse serves a different purpose.

In the Torah -- the Five Books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy) negative commandments (i.e. anything that says, "thou shalt not...") are brought out in two separate verses -- one that discusses the crime or sin, and a second that explains the punishment or consequence of doing the sin. In the example you gave, the first verse is there to make male-to-male anal intercourse a crim, and the second verse defines the penalty. The same is true for the two verses you cited concerning menstrual purity. Another example, the commandment to not testify falsely is given at Exodus 20:13, and the penalty for violating the commandment is given at Deut. 19:19.

The rabbis presumed that there would always be pairs of verses linking a crime to its punishment, and they used this presumption to explain difficulties in translation, especially where a word seems to be misplaced in context with surrounding verses. For example, Exodus 20 -- which describes the Decalogue -- lists several crimes for which the death penalty is called for (penalty listed in parenthetical), e.g.: blasphemy (Lev. 24:16), sabbath violation (Ex. 34:15), dishonor to parents (Deut. 21:18-21), and adultery (Lev. 20:10), in addition to false testimony, cited above. Two commandments at Exodus 20:13 bothered the rabbis -- לא תרצח (literally "do not kill") and לא תגנב (literally "do not steal") seemed out of place because (a) there was already two verses out there about stealing and the punishment thereof, and the crime of stealing property is not a capital crime), and (b) "kill" is a vague word -- sometimes killing is not only permitted, as in war or self defense, and, when done without clear intent to murder, would only be subject to a fine (see Ex. 21:18-27 and Babyl. Talmud, Bava Kama 83b-84a). Context should dictate that these verses describe capital offenses as well!

The rabbis, therefore, analyzed the verses in context with the pairing of commandments prohibitng an act with another verse describing the punishment for the crime. They determined that rather than "kill" the word תרצח should be understood as "murder" that is intentional and motivated by hatred, because murder is a capital crime, as explained at Ex 21:14-15, and there is no other verse to pair it with to simply describe the crime of murder. Similarly, תגנב could be understood as a prohibition against kidnapping (i.e. stealing a person), for which there was also a verse providing a penalty (Ex. 21:15-17) without a separate verse detailing the crime. See Bably. Talmud, Sanhedrin 86a.

I realize that there are people today who want to rationalize the Torah commandments to justify modern behavior that is inconsistent with the plain meaning of the Bible. You cited two rationalizations popular today -- association of a commandment with idolatry, and explaining commandments as an out-of-date solution for hygenic or health issues. The fact that homosexuality is discussed in close association to commandments prohibiting idolatry does not mean that because today idolatry is less of an attraction to people, all of the related commandments should be chucked. Indeed, every prohibited act mentioned in context with idolatry is as forbidden now as it was then.

With respect to "health" concerns -- you mentioned the laws related to menstruating women and their husbands, and others mention dietary laws in the same context. All in these cateogories argue that today we have hygenic and sanitary tools to make these laws unnecessary. But those arguments rely on the assumption that the purpose of the commandments was to solve health issues. Traditional Jews can cite to much different reasons which are too detailed to get started here now. We continue to observe these commandments -- and all others that we possibly can -- because God commanded them, and we do not try to second-guess God and suggest that the Torah is less than perfect by adding to, or subtracting from, its commandments. Deut. 4:2.

In light of the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutional of same-sex marriages, I would like to add this amendment. My good friend Rabbi Gil Student wrote some interesting insights on the opinion from an Orthodox Jewish perspective. One of his points is that when the Torah was given at Sinai, Moses presented some new prohibitions regarding who can marry. For example, although Jacob married sisters (Gen. 29), and Moses' father married his aunt (Ex. 6:20), the Sinai commandments directly prohibited marriages with close relatives (Lev. 18).

The reaction to these laws came as a blow to families where near relatives were married and would now have to divorce. We find this hinted at Numbers 11:10, which tells us that "Moshe heard the people weeping, family by family." The Gemara of the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 75a) interprets the phrase "family by family" to mean that the people were crying "about family matters," the newly forbidden relationships. Rashi, commenting on that verse, explains that the crying was about the new prohibitions above and beyond the seven Noahide commandments. The Jerusalem Talmud (Ta'anis 5:4), written well before the Babylonian Talmud, agrees that this is what the families were crying about.

However, Maimonedes (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Issurei Bi'ah 22:18) seems to say that the people were crying over all the forbidden relationships, even those of the Noahide commandments. See also Babyl Talmud, Shabbat 130a.

Undoubtedly, the Jews who heard Moses give these commandments had the response: "What about love? Can't two people who love each other be married to each other." The Bible, however, tells us that despite the love a brother and sister might have for each other, or a uncle and niece, or two men or two women, the argument was not relevant to God. Whatever His reasoning, He made the rule and we follow it obediently, even if we subjectively disagree.

  • Sorry I'm late to the party/answer, but a statement you made in your last paragraph interests me. You said (apparently in relation to menstruation/dietary laws), "We continue to observe these commandments..." Are you a Christian? If so, do you believe Mosaic Law Dietary Requirements are still binding upon Christians?
    – mbm29414
    Jul 5, 2015 at 18:10
  • @mbm29414 No, I am not Christian; I converted to Orthodox Judaism 35 years ago. Jewish law says non-Jews are only required to observe seven commandments that were given to Noah. Our tradition teaches that these laws were: 1) Do not Blasphemy; 2) Establish courts of Law; 3) Do not commit Incest; 4) Do not commit Bloodshed; 5) Do not commit Robber; 6) Do not commit Idolatry; and 7) Do not eat Treifus (Heb. for non-kosher; more correctly, "do not eat parts of animals while they are still alive"). To remember this, my wife created an acronym: "B'li Brit," Hebrew for "Without the Covenant." Jul 6, 2015 at 12:45
  • Ah, well, that makes your statement completely different, then. Funny enough, I just read about the 7 Laws of Noah last night. Probably a bit off-topic, but what's the Jewish understanding of the eternal outcome of a Gentile who obeys the 7 Laws of Noah vs. one who doesn't vs. a faithful Jew vs. an unfaithful Jew? My reading of the OT says that, prior to Christ, Gentiles wanting a relationship with God needed to be converted to Judaism. Just curious.
    – mbm29414
    Jul 6, 2015 at 12:50
  • @mbm29414 Our sages taught (Sanhedrin 105a) that the righteous of all nations shall have a place in the world to come. The balance of the scale seems to favor the Noachide because he has only 7 commandments to follow, and the Jew has up to 613 commandments (not all of which apply to any individual Jew). However, because Jews have more commandments, they have more opportunities to achieve higher levels of holiness. But since we do not know how God weighs any one commandment, we assume that our good and bad deeds are even and our next good or bad choice could decide our final judgment. Jul 6, 2015 at 13:46
  • Numbers 11:10 @BruceJames . The family are crying for lack of meat.
    – user4951
    Jul 6, 2015 at 15:28

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