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WHAT DOES “…AS WITH A WOMAN” MEAN?
Lev 18:22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.
Lev 20:13 If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. (NRSV)
The wording of different English translations differs little with regard to these passages and, therefore, offers little help in examining meaning. The level of confidence in their validity, as prohibitions against same-sex relationships, is directly proportional to the credence given ‘literal’ readings of scripture. More literal – more important and damning; less literal – less consequential. I will argue, however, that the translations found in most English bibles are not very literal at all. In fact, quite generous interpretive licenses have been taken in the first place.
It can, quite obviously, be claimed that any literal translation would require an original document. Original documents, however, do not exist for any of the Hebrew Scriptures. Among the oldest in existence are those fragments known as the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran. These were predominantly in Aramaic and Greek. Beyond these are multiple references to early versions of the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the earlier Hebrew Scriptures. The earliest surviving copies of Leviticus in Hebrew are Masoretic from a much later time. Both the Septuagint and the Masoretic texts, however, are considered by most scholars to be the closest we have to original, an argument supported after finding the Qumran scrolls, and are, therefore, the best we have to work from.
For most discussions about these verses, the concentration is on the word to’evah, which means ‘a thing or ritual that is abominable’. The word occurs in each of the verses in question, and the discussion centers on whether it is used to denote something that is generally abominable, an abomination specifically reserved for priests, or a very particular indictment of pagan temple worship practices. It seems, considering that this discussion centers around attitudes of a people and culture long gone, that the argument could continue ad infinitum. Relying heavily on interpretation and opinion, it simply provides fodder for continued diatribe. The critical consideration, in my opinion should be given to the words mish’c’vey ishah, which are traditionally translated “as with a woman”.
This combination of words appears in both verses of Leviticus and is the core of the proscription against male-male relationships. The basic problem is that both mish’c’vey and ishah are nouns. Since mish’c’vey is a construct noun (one which attaches to the next noun with the context of ‘belonging to’ or ‘of’) meaning ‘beds’ or ‘couches’ and ishah is a noun meaning ‘a woman’, the appropriate translation would be ‘beds of a woman’ or ‘a woman’s beds’. Translating the entire verses renders:
18:22 [Also,] you will not lie down with a male on a woman’s beds; it is an abomination.
20:13 [And] a man who lies down with a male on a woman’s beds – they have committed (done) an abomination. Both of them shall be put (executed) to death; their blood is upon themselves.
The translation into ‘as with a woman’ presents something of a conundrum. It can sometimes be argued that a word does not exist in a language to describe the exact situation encountered. This, in turn, would require the use of less specific language. Words exist, however, to express ‘as with’ and are elsewhere used in Leviticus in general, as well as these verses specifically. In the Greek, the words used, coiteyn gunaykos, also translate literally to “a woman’s beds/couches” indicating that the concept was understood in Greek as it was in Hebrew. Greek is idiomatically different than Hebrew, so an idiom or slang phrasing having the same subtle or inferred meaning would certainly not use the same pattern.
The translation issue is not the last concern, however. Yet to be established is the inherent meaning of the phrasing. We cannot look to other occurrences or variations on the phrase, because such does not exist in the rest of the Old Testament. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are the only passages to use mish’c’vey ishah, or the Greek equivalent coiteyn gunaykos. Without a pattern of use, how an interpretation yielding “you [a man] will not lie down with a male on a woman’s bed” can have any appreciable effect on the traditional understanding of the passages remains to be seen. The answer would only come from identifying a repeated use of bed or couch to indicate some significance.