Is Homosexuality an “Abomination”?

Is Homosexuality an “Abomination”? July 2, 2010

At Religion Dispatches, Jewish scholar Jay Michaelson undertakes an in-depth study of the word, toevah, most often translated “abomination” in English versions of the Hebrew Scriptures.  His conclusion:

Now, if by “abomination,” the King James means a cultural prohibition—something which a particular culture abhors but another culture enjoys—then the term makes sense. But in common parlance, the term has come to mean much more than that. Today, it connotes something horrible, something contrary to the order of nature itself, or God’s plan, or the institution of the family, or whatever. It is this malleability of meaning, and its close association with disgust, that makes “abomination” a particularly abominable word to use. The term implies that homosexuality has no place under the sun (despite its presence in over 300 animal species), and that it is an abomination against the Divine order itself. Again, toevah is not a good thing—but it doesn’t mean all of that.

Progressive religionists must stop using the word “abomination” to refer to toevah. The word plays into the hands of fundamentalists on the one hand, and anti-religious zealots on the other, both of whom want to depict the Bible as virulently and centrally concerned with the “unnatural” acts of gays and lesbians. In fact, toevah is mostly about idolatry, and male homosexual behavior is only as abominable as remarriage or not keeping kosher. Whenever we use the word “abomination” we are perpetuating the misunderstanding of Biblical text and the religious persecution of LGBT people.

Personally, I like “taboo” as a replacement. It conveys the culturally relative nature of toevah, has some connotation of foreignness, and rightly aligns the taboo against homosexuality with taboos against, for example, eating unkosher food. It also has a vaguely archaic feel, which it should. Admittedly, “taboo” began as tabu, and specifically refers to a particular concept in Pacific indigenous religion; it is a bit inexact to import it to Judaism and Christianity. Yet the word has, by now, entered the common parlance, and in that general sense, it matches toevah fairly well. (Alternatively, we could stick with the Hebrew term, the foreignness of which heightens the foreignness of the Biblical concerns about homosexuality.) One thing remains clear, though: what’s really abominable here is the word “abomination” itself.

via Does the Bible Really Call Homosexuality an “Abomination”? | Sexuality/Gender | Religion Dispatches.

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  • Ben

    Yes Tony, culture is exactly how the Bible should always be interpreted. It amazes me how you allow sentiment to overrule good theology.


  • ben

    @Ben – could u elaborate on what u mean by that. Becquerel it seems like the posts attempt was the opposite. Your accusation seems like a cop out of the real challenge.

  • Rev. Chris Byars

    I love how it is paralleled to the kosher laws and not in the same realm of fornication, which is any sexual activity outside of the bonds of marriage. That would at least be comparing apples to apples. I also love the fact that the article justifies it because the questionable number of 300 species makes it OK, so I guess that hedonism should be something we celebrate which makes us no more than base animal creatures that have no ability to control our sexual desire. That is a good message of faith. Let us now redefine monogamy as one at a time also and a lifelong committed relationship is as long as you find each other attractive and “love” one another.

  • Tony, interesting quote. I agree that “abomination” may be the wrong word, but I disagree that “tabu” in on the right track. As you have written there are a lot of factors to consider and a variety of implications to sort through. As I see it, I have no problem with saying homosexuality is a sin, but what that means in terms of cultural and political considerations I am still sorting out. Typical/traditional Christian attitudes and actions towards homosexuals generally leave me cold. I think what we need, as a kind of foundation, is a better articulation of a biblical theory of sexuality. Sex, like many big topics/words, is one of those things we all assume we all know what it is but, in fact, while our politics may be sophisticated our theory of human sexuality may be a little too rudimentary. Maybe you could lay out your theory, a kind of “sex is…” philosophical position – which I assume you have in pieces throughout your various posts on this topic.

  • great insight Tony and fantastic video illustration!
    anytime you can use a Monty Python clip to make a point…well done

  • Michael Todd

    Michaelson said, “An ‘abomination’ conjures up images of things which should not exist on the face of the earth: three-legged babies, oceans choked with oil, or Cheez-Whiz.”

    Abomination does not mean that which should not exist. Admittedly, I do not know Hebrew to discuss toevah, but the word abomination comes from a Latin word which means ab- “off, away from” and +omin, the stem of omen. So, it means to shun as a bad omen.

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  • The article does a good job at its stated aim– disassociating the English word “abomination” and its particular sets of cultural meanings/baggage from the Hebrew word “toevah” and its particular sets of cultural meanings/baggage.

    What it does not address– nor does it try to address this from what I can see– is the question of holiness per se.

    By definition (well, biblical definition) something that is “toevah” is something considered “off limits” or “out of bounds” for those who seek to live out a holy life or a righteous life within a particular cultural or religious group.

    So while the Bible very likely does not call homosexual practices “abominations” as we use that term, it does stake the claim that homosexual practices, exactly like eating foods that are not kosher, are no part of holy living, and signifying that quite clearly by the use of the term “toevah.”

    What does and does not make for holy living in the context of covenanted community is a matter that is, necessarily, worked out in the context of that covenanted community. The Bible and much of subsequent history in Judaism and Christianity reflects a working out of that covenant in ways that fairly consistently reject homosexual practice as a sign of holy living.

    Does the church now have the authority to redescribe its definition of the bounds of holy living? We seem to have thought so for a variety of other practices deemed either by scripture and/or previous generations of Christians to be “out of bounds,” (issues around divorce and remarriage, or the ordination of women in some branches of the church) just as we have seemed to have excluded some practices that some of the witness of scripture or previous Christian teaching had not deemed completely out of bounds (the holding of slaves and polygamy, for example).

    The question that needs to be asked, then, is certainly not whether homosexual practice is abominable, nor even whether it is “out of bounds” simply on the face of it, but rather how is it that we understand what practices that form and signify holiness are and whether there are, or are not, ways or conditions under which homosexual practice could be held to be part of a covenant of holiness to God as the community of the baptized.

    As my own church (United Methodist) continues to struggle with this question, its current discernment (made official by majority vote at its highest legislative gathering) is that homosexual practice is not compatible with Christian teaching. As an elder ordained in this church, I am bound to teach what this church teaches, and I do.

    At the same time I recognize that, at least as far as I can see, the fundamental questions about what constitutes our covenant with God have not yet been brought to bear as they might be. In short, we’ve not asked the question “How are our disciplines of sexual practice (of any sort) compatible with the holiness we seek to embody as a community of the baptized”– a question that presumes community discernment and accountable paths toward growth in holiness in actual practices for all– but rather only, “Is homosexual practice right or wrong?”– a question of sort of disembodied moral absolutes from on high.

    I can imagine such a conversation generating better justice and faithfulness for all even if the conclusion reached along the way still finds it not possible to admit homosexual practice as part of the way of holy living our church will pursue. I can also imagine such a conversation might open up ways for us to remove the “toevah” from homosexual practice within our community.

    But we won’t know that– either way– and we won’t have the benefits of such a conversation until we actually have it, and my guess is, have it in a sustained, intentional way over quite a bit of time.

    Pray for us to find a way to this better conversation.

  • I highly recommend the documentary “For the Bible Tells Me So” which deals with this issue. It was there that I learned that the word “abomination” used in Leviticus has no moral connotations whatsoever. All the word meant was “below the statistical average.” It also uses the same word for eating shrimp (which proceeds it) and for a woman having short hair and a man having long hair. All of them are “abominations”.

  • Peter


    Leviticus 18:26 says “But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the aliens living among you must not do any of these [toevah/abominable/detestable/taboo] things, 27 for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled.”

    If Toevah is best translated as “taboo” and 18:26 says “any of these” are taboo then we can say:

    * Sexual relations with a close relative is taboo (18:6)
    * Sexual relations with your mother is taboo (18:7)
    * Sexual relations with your father’s wife is taboo (18:8)
    * Sexual relations with your sister is taboo (18:9)
    * Sexual relations with your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter is taboo (18:10)
    * Sexual relations with the daughter of your father’s wife, born to your father is taboo (18:11)
    * Sexual relations with your father’s sister is taboo (18:12)
    * Sexual relations with your mother’s sister is taboo (18:13)
    * Sexual relations with your aunt is taboo (18:14)
    * Sexual relations with your daughter-in-law is taboo (18:15)
    * Sexual relations with your brother’s wife is taboo (18:16)
    * Sexual relations with both a woman and her daughter is taboo (18:17)
    * Sexual relations after marriage to your sister-in-law while your wife is still living is taboo (18:18)
    * Sexual relations during the uncleanness of your wife’s monthly period is taboo (18:19)
    * Sexual relations with your neighbor’s wife is taboo (18:20)
    * Sacrificing your children to Molech is taboo (18:21)
    * To lie with a man as one lies with a woman is taboo (18:22)
    * Sexual relations with an animal is taboo (18:23)

    Certainly seems to make you think about what ‘taboo’ really means in this context doesn’t it?


  • Tony, et. al.,

    To follow up on Peter’s comments, it is hard to construe “toebah” in a culturally relative way. Just take a look at the context:

    Leviticus 18:20-24 (NIV):
    ” ‘Do not have sexual relations with your neighbor’s wife and defile yourself with her.
    21″ ‘Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.
    22″ ‘Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable (“toebah”).
    23″ ‘Do not have sexual relations with an animal and defile yourself with it. A woman must not present herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it; that is a perversion.
    24″ ‘Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled.

    Leviticus clearly equates same-sex sexual contact with adultery (20), human sacrifice (21), and beastiality (23) and then comments that these prohibitions did not only pertain to Israel. Instead, it was because of these violations that God would bring judgment on the surrounding nations (24)!

  • hassan

    Satan is a really good adversary. He takes a simple and natural expression like “sex” and feeds to us a retardation and extreme idea of sex. We should never forget that the purpose of sex is to reproduce ourselves. It has been made pleasureable to guarantee that we reproduce ourselves. Only sexual intimacy between a man and a woman can bring forth new life. Two men or two women can not reproduce life though they pleasure themselves. Since they can not reproduce life, then homosexuality is a “gross retardation” and an “extreme” imbalance of the sexual act of reproducing human life. I am not overly familiar with the hebraic Bible, but I do know the fundamental purpose of our sexual parts. In this light, the word “abomination” and everthing it conveys back then and now, is an excellent description of homosexuality. As salaam mu alaikum, Shalom, Hoetepp, and of course Peace.

  • cjbiggs

    Peter, thank your for a very thoughtful answer. I’d really love Tony to post a follow up.

  • One thing seems clear from this debate, the acceptance of homosexuality in the Church will cause more divisions, as it ought to. Ever come across Robert Gagnon’s explanation that under no circumstance is homosexuality ever looked on favorably and is compared to other sexual sins condemned in the Bible? If we declassify homosexuality as sin then adultery and incest must go. They all can be consensual.

  • It’s pretty clear that these laws are from God, not man. But since Tony doesn’t believe the Bible is inspired, then it isn’t surprising that he thinks that a bunch of men came up with the laws therein.

    Peter and Rev Chris Byars nail it in their comments. Nothing else needs to be said.

  • Darius,

    If you have decreed that nothing else needs to be said, why do you say anything, including the decree that 2 others have given the correct comment?

  • Rick, it’s called affirming someone else’s comments. They nailed Tony’s mistaken thinking perfectly.

  • “Yeah – if homos ain’t seen as sinners no mo’ pretty soon folks will be marryin’ their dawgs!”


  • Steve, it’s called logic. You might want to look it up.

  • It’s called a logical fallacy. In fact, plain and simply illogical.

  • Steve, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and leave you with this: if the comments above are logical fallacies, then so is Tony’s original post. The comments merely follow Tony’s line of logic.

  • Jason Derr

    Tony –
    It seems your wider point is affirming a new relationship with the concept of abomination. This is of course tricky for most participants as it places on the one hand the silliness of the issue of eating kosher or not, wearing clothes of mixed fiber etc and the other sexual prohibitions – sex with your mother, daughter etc etc etc. Beyond that it confronts us with the limitations of our own constructions of human sexuality. While I’m not sure your suggestion of Tabu works in this case I think your point is valid and deeply appreciated. As a person who attends church lead by 2 gay priests my own thoughts are the church needs to a) side on justice and b) get over it!


  • Darius is nothing if not consistent in his “logic.”

  • Jason,

    I think that the supreme question it this, “Is the Bible God’s Word or isn’t it?” Indeed, there are many things in it that I have wrestled with – things that I have found offensive. However, is this the basis upon which I accept or reject it?

    I’ve learned to accept it as His Word and learned to follow the dictum, “We believe that we might understand.” For now, some things might seem unjust, but as I’ve grown up in the Lord, I’ve found that they contain a wisdom that I had been unable to grasp. Indeed, if it is God’s Word, it will challenge our understanding and even our sense of justice, at times.

  • Jason Derr

    Daniel –
    In deed that is one way to see the issue and it is a faith perspective many have. Obviously across the history of Christian faith we can see that your approach to the scriptures is not the only one present. I will not get into an argument here over the issue, but will say that I am thankful for the perspective Tony has brought.


  • jeff


    I think you asked a loaded question when you asked whether or not the Bible is God’s Word. It would seem from the first few verses of John that the answer is No and that Jesus is the Word. Is Jesus the Word or is the Bible the Word?

    Maybe asking whether it is Holy Scripture that is inspired by God or not would be a better question and lead to less confusion for those of us that are, well, easily confused.

  • “Is Jesus the Word or is the Bible the Word?”


    Both are true. The Bible is Jesus speaking to us. Everything in the Bible points to Him, from the very beginning of creation to the His second coming.

    To answer your “inspiration” question: Jesus thought it was. I can give you several examples if you’d like.

  • jeff

    Thanks Darius, your answer gives me plenty to think about. I agree with your idea that everything points to him. On the other hand as I read John 1:1-5 again I don’t really think that you cleared anything up for me. It seems odd that the answer could be both. Maybe I could say something like, “Jesus is the Word and the Bible is the written word or story of God”, but Jesus and the Bible can’t both be the Word of God in the same sense can they? There has to be some sort of distinction.

    As far as the inspired part I was just trying to rephrase Daniel’s question. I certainly agree that the Bible is inspired and that Jesus quoted it as authoritative. But thanks for the offer.

    Anyway, thanks again for more to think about. Seems that I took us a little off topic.

  • Jason and Jeff,

    Perhaps I had had an advantage – my weakness. I had experienced so many years of depression and defeat that when the Lord got hold of me, I knew I wasn’t in a position to call-the-shots. I had been following my own inclinations all of my life, and that got me nowhere. So, in a limited sense, I was ready to hear what God had to say.

    Nevertheless, I still rebelled against it. I came from a radical background and when I read in Romans 13 about submitting to the civil magistrate, I was totally offended. To submit to the hated “pigs!” I tried to find an alternative interpretation. Thankfully, I couldn’t!

    Perhaps, if I had been surrounded by a community who also took issue with this teaching, and we were all reinforcing each other that this couldn’t be the right interpretation, I would have been swayed.

    Sadly, our day is generating all kinds of socially acceptable “interpretations” to accommodate to our lifestyles to our detriment.

  • Korey

    Darius, do you think you agree with Tony about anything? And I’m not trying to be smarmy.

  • Sure, Korey, just not on this and most theological issues. I largely agreed with his umpire post.

  • Korey

    I thought you might find something. 🙂

  • Way to avoid answering the question.

    Let me answer it for this mealy-mouthed apologist.

    Homosexuality may not be an abominations per se, since it’s more of a biochemical neural disorder, but the act of a man inserting his penis into another man’s anus is most definitely an abomination of the highest order.

    We are all children of God and therefore born equal. However, our Father in Heaven judges us by by our actions, behaviors and works. If you want to ever have a chance of sitting on the right hand of God you can’t be living an unapologetically homosexual lifestyle.