August 2011

The eminent scholar of Ethiopian studies/languages Wolf Leslau, in his Comparative Dictionary of Ge’ez, gives the definition of kwannana as to “regulate, rule over, have dominion, govern, judge, pass judgment, pass sentence, plead, convict, condemn, punish…” In discussing the etymological origins of the word, Leslau rejects Grimme’s suggestion (1901) that it from Hebr כנן (‘establish’), as this is a polel stem. He settles for the possibility that it may be taken from “Semitic kwn (Heb. ken, Syr. kawwen ‘erect, admonish’) with reduplicated last radical.”

I’d like to suggest what is, in my view, a better candidate: it is instead taken from חנן. The hithpael of חנן, to “ask for/seek grace, kindness; to plead,”* coheres well with the meaning of takwanana, “plead, press for justice.” The hithpael here merely “[seeks] what the simple stem designates”*: “to show favor/be partial to,” which puts us closer to the idea of “judgment” that most of the meanings of kwannana seem to revolve around—at least those instances in the Hebrew Bible where !nx is used in a context where one figure or one group is favored over another, or is beseeching someone to favor them over another.

Yet all of the occurances of חנן in the Hebrew Bible—if accurate to say that some of them have ‘judicial’ hints—only have connotations of positive judgment. It’s not clear whether any more general judicial connotations can be teased out of this.

Earlier this week, Richard Friedman and Shawna Dolansky posted an article in the Huffington Post examining the passages on homosexuality in the book of Leviticus. As any position on this invariably invites accusations of bias—religious or political, whether one way or the other—before I respond to their arguments, I’d like to offer a caveat, as they did, on my personal leanings.

My main field of study is in ancient Near Eastern culture and texts, with an emphasis on the Hebrew Bible. I am, as Friedman and Dolansky also profess, first and foremost a scholar, not a politician. I am also an atheist who is committed to the idea that the only correct methodology for interpreting ancient texts such as the Bible is in assuming that they are solely the product of human minds—without supernatural inspiration—and that they can only be understood in light of their original historical/cultural contexts.

As my only concern is in recovering the original historical meaning/connotations of the Biblical passages under discussion—Leviticus 18:22 and Lev 20:13—I have no preference as to whether the texts indeed display an anti-homosexual agenda, or whether there is a “way out” that calls for a re-thinking of their meaning, and a “homosexual-friendlier” interpretation (this despite the fact that I am a strong supporter of homosexual rights).

For the sake of background, the two passages from Leviticus are offered in translation by Friedman and Dolansky as follows:

“You shall not lay a male the layings of a woman; it is a to’ebah” (offensive thing)
(Leviticus 18:22).
“And a man who will lay a male the layings of a woman: the two of them have done a to’ebah (offensive thing). They shall be put to death. Their blood is on them”
(Leviticus 20:13).

Their main focus in challenging traditional understandings/translations of these passages centers around the term to’ebah (in original Hebrew, תועבה):

Is this term to’ebah an absolute, meaning that an act that is a to’ebah is wrong in itself and can never be otherwise? Or is the term relative — meaning that something that is a to’ebah to one person may not be offensive to another, or something that is a to’ebah in one culture may not be offensive in another, or something that is a to’ebah in one generation or time period may not be offensive in another — in which case the law may change as people’s perceptions change?

Friedman and Dolansky point to other uses of the term in the Hebrew Bible that suggest that it does in fact have relative meaning—specifically passages that refer to the undesirable or offensive customs of one culture in the eyes of another (for example, Genesis 43:32, “the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is to’ebah to the Egyptians” [note: all subsequent Biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version]).

While it is true that most of the occurences of the term in the Hebrew Bible are in contexts in which they refer to characteristically foreign practices (mainly negatively—but also implicitely acceptable to those cultures), there are several things to bear in mind on this: first, to’ebah is almost always used with a modifying preposition that specifies to whom the action or practice is offensive; second, there are significant examples throughout the Hebrew Bible where the only person to whom to’ebah is offensive is God, or where to’ebah refers to general practices that are not characteristic of any particular ethnicity—for example, its use in Deuteronomy 25:16, which follows a list of possible domestic offenses, such as having two different kinds of weights or measures in the home (a usage repeated throughout the book of Proverbs).

However, further attempting to show that to’ebah itself implies “relativity,” Friedman and Dolansky also remind us that laws in Leviticus barring to’ebah actions are violated by the patriarchs themselves elsewhere in the Torah, citing Abraham’s marriage to his half-sister Sarah, a violation of Leviticus 18:9, which prohibits a man from sleeping with his mother or father’s daughter. Thus, according to the authors,

An act or an object that is not a to’ebah can become one, depending on time and circumstances. The word to’ebah does not automatically mean that something is immoral. Depending on the context, the period and the persons involved, it means that it offends some group.

But that Abraham violates Levitical law does nothing to show—as they seem to suggest—that the concept of relativity is embedded in the meaning of the word to’ebah; the example only shows “relativity” in the sense that two biblical books (certainly written by different authors) perhaps do not see eye-to-eye on this issue*—the author of one of which happened to believe that this type of marriage was wrong (even if a later lawgiver or a different culture did not believe such).

Yet having underscored that to’ebah is used in the Bible in contexts of human relativity, they set up for their proposal on the Leviticus passages on homosexuality:

Now, one might respond that the law here is different because it concerns an offensive thing to God — and is therefore not subject to the relativity of human values. But that is actually not the case here. The Bible specifically identifies such laws about things that are divine offenses with the phrase “an offensive thing to the LORD” (to’ebat yhwh). That phrase is not used here in the law about male homosexual acts. It is not one of the laws that are identified as a to’ebah to God!

It is hard to imagine how Friedman and Dolansky, as professional scholars who proclaim to only be after the truth of the matter, could in good faith adopt this line of argument: the phrase “it is an offensive thing to the LORD” (תועבת יהוה אלהיך הוא) appears only a handful a times in the entire Torah, and only in the book of Deuteronomy—this despite its hundreds of laws, the violation of which must implicitly be offensive to God (that is to say, offensive to the various Torah authors’ conception of God), even if not explicitly said to be so. Further, as we mentioned earlier, even the most tedious of domestic disputes, such as having two differing types of weights, are said to be to’ebah to God.

Despite these things, they finally conclude, on the weight of all of the “evidence,” that the prohibition against homosexuality “is not one that is eternal and unchanging,” and that “[t]he prohibition in the Bible applies only so long as male homosexual acts are perceived to be offensive.”

The fallacy at the heart of their arguments is a false dichotomy of an autonomous human sphere of justice and order, and a divine one. This dichotomy does not exist — in the Bible, sexual offenses of the kind homosexuality is, are doubtlessly thought to be violations of God’s created order. Bearing this in mind, whether it is explicitly specified in Biblical texts that a certain offense is undesirable or particularly offensive to humans is irrelevant (which we have argued, however, is an unsustainable interpretation).

Yet Friedman and Dolansky have stumbled near a truth that deserves to be repeated: of course humans are the ultimate judges of what they find to be offensive or distasteful. Of course the God of the universe wouldn’t be concerned with things such as whether humans plant two different types of seed in the same field, or wear clothing of two types of material (both prohibited in Leviticus 19:19), or whether they eat the meat of cows and chickens but not pigs. It is indeed humans who put these rules in the mouth of God.

Of course it is humans alone who believe homosexual acts are offensive. And it is well past the time that we drop this belief. But why do we need the Bible’s permission?


* This, however, is not the only interpretation. See Gershon Hepner, “Abraham’s Incestuous Marriage with Sarah a Violation of the Holiness Code,” Vetus Testamentum 53 (2003): 143-155 for several different proposals as to the two passages’ relationship.