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SO WHAT IS THIS PROSCRIPTION REALLY ABOUT?
In true scriptural fashion, virtually all proscriptions are repeated several times – not just once or twice. While versions of the Decalogue – the Ten Commandments – appear three times, the admonishments contained therein are far more repetitive. Patterns and frequency of use, as mentioned earlier, help determine the meaning of difficult passages. There is, in fact, a pattern with regards to the significance of ‘bed’ in both the Hebrew and Greek.
The first occurrence of ‘bed’ (mishcav in Hebrew and coiteyn in Greek) is in Genesis 49, which reads:
1 Then Jacob called his sons, and said: “Gather around, that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come.
2 Assemble and hear, O sons of Jacob; listen to Israel your father.
3 Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might and the first fruits of my vigor, excelling in rank and excelling in power.
4 Unstable as water, you shall no longer excel because you went up onto your father’s bed; then you defiled it– you went up onto my couch! (NRSV)
The reference to defiling his father’s bed comes from Gen 35:22, in which Rueben went and lay with Billah, his father’s concubine (common-law wife). The act is adultery. The description is what happens to the bed. Rueben committed adultery with his father’s wife, but is described as defiling his bed. As the locus of marital relations, the bed is the focus of attention since it was the object defiled. For this to be a credible argument, however, more references to the sanctity of the bed would need to be uncovered.
Leviticus 15 provides a number of examples of the significance of the bed in Hebrew culture. This chapter describes in detail two emissions that are unclean – semen and menstrual discharge. In every instance, the unseemliness is discussed with regard to inanimate objects, including the bed. While in the earlier languages the bed is mentioned in verses 4, 5, 16-18, 21, 23, 24, 26 and 32, the reference to the bed is interestingly missing in the English translations of v.16-18 and 32. In these instances alone, the words seem to have been understood as a euphemism for ‘lying with someone’.
There are two problems with this interpretation. First, it breaks the existing pattern of reference to inanimate objects as the items that are despoiled, as well as the conditions for cleansing oneself if one touches these objects. These are common to the entire chapter. Second, a euphemism is not necessary. As was stated earlier, an acceptable and frequently used combination of words is readily available to express the concept of lying with someone.
While the focus of attention is on the acts that occur, the descriptions repeatedly use the location – the bed of relations – as the object that is spoiled. Because of this pattern of use, and the fact that in the original languages of Lev 18:22 and 20:13 the specification is ‘the bed of a woman’, the subject of the prohibitions specified in these verses is a sex act occurring in the specific location of a woman’s bed. Considering this, and the fact that in both Hebrew and Greek the words for ‘woman’ are also synonymous with ‘wife’, the prohibition is against committing adultery and, as such, is described as spoiling the wife’s bed. This pattern is in harmony with the description of Rueben despoiling his father’s bed and forms a consistent pattern of use.
The significant is not the genders of the partners involved in the sex act, but that the sex act itself is an act of adultery or infidelity of a man who is already in relationship with the woman. While the Levitical laws do not specifically allow for homosexual relations, neither do they condemn them, except when they represent an episode repeatedly condemned in scripture – adultery. On the subject of the morality of same-sex relations in and of themselves, Leviticus is and always has been silent, despite traditional translations to the contrary. On the subject of adultery, the scriptures are all but quiet. On the other hand, Christians have rightly abandoned killing or otherwise persecuting adulterers, the concept of forgiveness of sins having entered the picture long ago.