That Israel’s firm view of a male-female foundation for sexual ethics and sexual purity was intended to be distinctive within the broader cultural environment of the ancient Near East is precisely what the Holiness Code affirms. Israel must not follow the practices of the Canaanites and the Egyptians (Lev 18:2-5, 24-30; 20:22-26). This theme is consistent with Israel’s longstanding proscription of worship of other gods and of images of God (Exod 20:2-7, Deut 5:7-11), which marks Israel off from the surrounding culture as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6).
From the op-ed pages of the New York Times comes “The Secret History of Leviticus,” an improbable essay by Idan Dershowitz. A scholar of the Hebrew Bible and a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, Dershowitz has written for the Times a popular version of the academic argument he published recently in the journal Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel.
The Book of Leviticus contains two prohibitions against homosexual acts, the first of which (18:22) states: “You shall not lie with a male as though lying with a woman; it is an abomination.” According to Dershowitz, “before Leviticus was composed, outright prohibitions against homosexual sex … were practically unheard-of in the ancient world.” But he proposes that “an earlier version of the laws in Leviticus 18 permitted sex between men,” albeit tacitly. Supposedly, the laws were revised by a later editor so as to include the prohibition, and to “obscure any implication that same-sex relations had once been permissible.”
Dershowitz begins with “the core of Leviticus 18,” its incest laws. He points out two incest laws that are not presented in “a straightforward manner.” These are the two laws against homosexual incest: one against father-son incest (18:7), the other against uncle-nephew incest (18:14).
The nakedness of your father and the nakedness of your mother you shall not uncover: She is your mother. You shall not uncover her nakedness.
The nakedness of your father’s brother you shall not uncover. You shall not approach his wife. She is your aunt.
Dershowitz says that each of these laws comprises two parts: the law proper (which I have put in italics) and the explanatory note, or “gloss.” In the case of the other incest laws (all of which address heterosexual incest), the relation between law and gloss is straightforward and emphatic. For instance, the law against sex with one’s daughter-in-law is glossed, “she is your son’s wife.” But in the two cases above, the gloss transforms the law from a law against homosexual incest (with one’s father or uncle) to a law against heterosexual incest (with one’s mother or aunt). Dershowitz calls these glosses “strong evidence of editorial intervention.”
He speculates that these glosses were added by an editor, perhaps “more than a century” after the composition of the oldest parts of Leviticus, to bring all the incest laws into conformity with the prohibition against homosexual acts (which Dershowitz presumes was a comparatively recent addition). With these glosses, all of the incest laws became laws against heterosexual incest. How do such revisions accord with a turn against homosexual acts? According to Dershowitz, the editor feared the principle, “The exception proves the rule.” Dershowitz reasons: “A law declaring that homosexual incest is prohibited could reasonably be taken to indicate that non-incestuous homosexual intercourse is permitted.” Once the prohibition against male same-sex intercourse was added, “it became expedient to bring the earlier material up-to-date by doing away with two now-superfluous injunctions against homosexual incest—injunctions that made sense when sex between men was otherwise allowed.” Thus, Dershowitz infers an earlier version of Leviticus 18, according to which homosexual acts were permissible.
For Jews and Christians who treat the Bible as Scripture, the speculations of Dershowitz should have little relevance. What counts as authoritative is what made it into the canon, not what didn’t. In any case, I am unconvinced by Dershowitz’s arguments. Here’s why: