On the New Word

It will come as no surprise that I am a member of a Facebook group called Biblical Theology Nerds. My comment on a recent post in that group resulted in an interesting conversation which I thought I’d share here. The post shared a message from the Reformation Project (a movement whose goal is to harmonize LGBTQ issues with Christianity), which defended the claim in the image above: that the word “homosexual” wasn’t used in the Bible until 1946.

The biblical theology nerd who posted it asked: “Anyone here a Greek language scholar? Thoughts?” I replied with a link to my article Is Homosexual New to the Bible? What ensued was an interesting conversation with a gentleman named Jeremiah Vance:

VANCE: This isn’t real linguistic research. This author only relies on dictionaries or lexical definitions not actual usage or syntax defined by context. His conclusions are in error as well.

SOLBERG: Interesting. What error(s) did you find in the conclusions?

VANCE: It’s pretty obvious this author has no real experience studying Greek or Hebrew. In his discussion of Leviticus 18, he fails to do any research at all, besides looking at a dictionary, on the Hebrew word zcr translated “male.” The normal Hebrew word for man is “ish” or “adam” yet he does zero syntactical research to determine what the difference is. When you look at the usage, zcr is used with the same verb for prostitution in other texts in reference to young boys prostituted in cultic pagan sacrifice.

He makes another amateur blunder with the word arskenosite, making the false assumption that the word means the sum of its deconstructed parts. Again, he only references a dictionary and Google translate. Even a novice search of studies done on this word would show research in its other Hellenistic contexts meaning exactly what he is dismissing.

SOLBERG: Gotcha. So you listed some issues with the apparent methodology. But I was asking about the errors you found in the conclusions. What specific conclusions do you find erroneous?

VANCE: The two above that I mentioned. His conclusion on arskenosite and on “male” from Leviticus 18.

SOLBERG: Hmm…The conclusion that arskenosite “means the sum of its deconstructed parts” was taken from the NAS Concordance. So perhaps your problem is with that dictionary, which defines the compound Greek term arskenosite as “sodomite.” And while the normal Hebrew word for “man” may be ish or adam, in the specific verse quoted (Lev 18:22) the Hebrew word used is zcr (za-char). And I’m not clear on your point that “zcr is used with the same verb for prostitution in other texts in reference to young boys prostituted in cultic pagan sacrifice.” How does this make a difference to the context of the word in Lev 18? What are you suggesting would be the proper interpretation of Lev 18:22?

VANCE: Nobody that actually studies languages relies on dictionaries. That’s the mistake he makes. You look at usage in the context of every occurrence. A dictionary or lexicon is just a tool. Accurately interpreted, Leviticus 18:21-22 makes no mention of homosexuality whatsoever.

In Hebrew, a specifically unusual word is used for man (zcr) which should be understood as an infant up to 3 years old. Also, the word used for sex is a euphemistic use of the word “to bed.” Here, it is uniquely repeated two times, denoting a Hebrew expression of superlative or emphasis or force. The superlative in repetition removes any notion of consentuality.

In addition, this verse is a clause connected by a specific kind of conjunction in Hebrew sentence structure that links verse 22 with verse 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.” So here, the clear context is child sacrifice to Molech, not consensual gay sex. The verb in 21 translated “sacrificed” is the same word for “Passover” (i.e., a sacrifice or offering) and the verb at the end of verse 22 translated “detestable” is a pun for this word, demonstrating the two verses are inseparable. With the Hebrew considered, the verse should be translated:

“Do not give your seed (sperm) as a Passover offering to Molech and so profane the name of your God, I am Yahweh; and do not continue to force your infants to bed with the beds of a woman, it is an unclean (pagan) Passover offering for her.”

Leviticus 20:13 has the exact same expression, except it adds one word to refer to any man who would cause this act to happen indirectly, i.e., by paying people to carry out the culticly sacrificial acts on his behalf.

Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel refer to this same verse in Leviticus with the specific word for “man” or “young boy” (zcr) in the context of child prostitution and cultic sacrifice:

“Even their young boys remember their altars and Asherah poles beside the spreading trees and on the high hills.” (Jeremiah 17:2).

“You also took the fine jewelry I gave you, the jewelry made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself images of a young boy and engaged in prostitution with them.” (Ezekiel 16:17).

SOLBERG: Thanks for that detailed and compelling explanation, Jeremiah! I’m sure you’d agree yours is a bit of a heterodox interpretation of Lev 18:22 in that it contradicts traditional Jewish and Christian scholarship on the passage.

  • The translation of the Tanakh found on the Jewish website Chabad renders Lev 18:22 as “You shall not lie down with a male, as with a woman: this is an abomination”
  • The Orthodox Jewish Bible translates it as “Thou shalt not lie with zachar, as with isha: it is to’evah (abomination, detestable),”
  • The Complete Jewish Bible renders it, “You are not to go to bed with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
  • Mechon Mamre, a group of observant Jewish Torah scholars in Israel interpret the verse as, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination.”

I think it’s safe to assume that these four Jewish sources know their biblical Hebrew pretty well. And none of them interpret this verse to mean anything resembling “and do not continue to force your infants to bed with the beds of a woman, it is an unclean (pagan) Passover offering for her.” I admit this doesn’t necessarily mean that you are wrong, but I hope you can see how it’s a bit of a red flag.

Also, you mentioned that “In Hebrew, a specifically unusual word is used for man (zcr) which should be understood as an infant up to 3 years old.” Yet, the word zcr is not really an unusual word. It’s found 82 times in the Tanakh, most often being used to refer to the male gender. (ex. “…He created him, male (zcr) and female…” (Gen 1:27)) Maybe what you meant is that it’s unusual to use the Hebrew word zcr to refer to “an infant up to 3 years old”? If so, I agree. Just like it would be specifically unusual in English to say “My father is an infant.” It seems to me this is a clue that the word zcr is not referring to an infant at all, but rather a male.

I agree with you that Lev 20:13 uses the same expression as found in Lev 18:22. And that expression, as translated by Jewish scholars in the Mishnah Torah, is “And a man who lies with a male as one would with a woman both of them have committed an abomination…” Again, nothing about forcing infants to bed with a woman or unclean offerings.

Lastly, neither Jeremiah 17:2 nor Ezekiel 16:17 quote from or refer to Leviticus 18:22. Jeremiah 17:2 uses the Hebrew word beneihem (which means son), not zcr. And Ezekiel 16:17 uses zcr in reference to “male images” (zachar tzalmei), most likely referring to phallic symbols.

VANCE: First of all, that isn’t an accurate representation of the Jewish tradition on that verse. In all the corpus of rabbinical law, there’s not one single example of this verse being used to condemn a homosexual. Listing translations is what people do when they haven’t or can’t do original exegesis themselves.

Anyone can look up the number of occurrences of a word in a lexicon. You have to actually translate each occurrence if you want to determine meaning. What’s clear is that either ish or adam is the normal Hebrew parlance for man. Zcr never occurs once in normal Hebrew parlance for a man. You understand the syntactic difference when you translate the 82 occurrences. The word is only used in very specific contexts and all involve dehumanization. Zcr is used when a man is reduced to a number, like in a census. Zcr is also used when the word female is also immediately present to denote the contrast of gender, not in the context of personhood. Or zcr occurs in the context of cultic child prostitution and sacrifice. Zcr never occurs in any other context than those and is never used in normal Hebrew parlance for a man, that word is either ish or adam. Clearly there is a syntactic distinction, it’s a different word. So the burden of proof shifts here to those who need to prove there’s no syntactic distinction when clearly there is. It’s a different word.

You also misinterpret the word for sex, shakav, which commonly refers to prostitution, and the fact that it’s repeated twice is the Hebrew grammatical construction for emphasis or superlative, which here indicates force.

The text ends with feminine pronoun clearly identifying the sin is her pagan passover offering (same word for offering used in the verse before for Molech) not his sin.

To deny this is a denial of basic grammar and linguistics of context. Verse 21 is clearly in the context of child sacrifice and verse 22 is connected by grammatical construction. To deny this is a persistent eisegetical denial of basic rules of context.

Zcr is the first word in Jeremiah 17:2. I can screenshot it if you need me to embarrass you on this. Maybe you should stop here until you learn some Hebrew? Ez 16:17 uses zcr in specific reference to cultic prostitution with specifically young boys. It says that explicitly.

Both these verses reference Ashera, the fertility goddess of prostitution and child sacrifice. This is the only context zcr occurs in that is not otherwise dehumanizing by reduction to a number or contrast of genetics.

Both these verses clearly explain the context for the zcr in Leviticus. The context is prostitution of seed/sperm in use for child sacrifice. To deny this is to deny clear linguistic evidence.

SOLBERG: First of all, and I mean this sincerely, thank you for taking the time to explain yourself so clearly. I am learning a lot from you.

You’re not off-base when you say that “listing translations is what people do when they haven’t or can’t do original exegesis themselves.” However, while consulting multiple translations may be unoriginal, it is not inaccurate. In fact, I would argue that it is often more accurate than one person’s original exegesis. If one were to exegete a passage to mean A, and upon consulting the larger body of scholarship find that it was widely understood to mean non-A, that person should, at the very least, double-check their work.

I am no expert in Hebrew. But the multiple sources I quoted are. So when “some guy on Facebook” (and I don’t mean that disrespectfully, it’s just that I don’t know you) puts forth an interpretation of a verse that contradicts every Jewish and Christian translation and commentary I’ve read, I tend to go with the majority on the issue. (For example, see this list.) Perhaps you have a good reason why your heterodox interpretation of this verse is more accurate than thousands of years of Jewish and Christian scholarship?

It seems to me that in Lev 18:22, zcr is being used not to refer to a man, but to denote the male gender, which is why it is translated into English as some version of “You shall not lie down with a male, as with a woman: this is an abomination.”

And I see that you may have a point about zcr being the first word in Jer 17:2. It is not listed as such in the NASB Lexicon I consulted:

But I did notice “zakar” used as the first or second word in other lexicons. As I’m sure you know, zcr in Hebrew can mean “male” or “remember.” In the context of chapter 17, it is always translated as the latter. So it’s unclear to me how you’re concluding that Jeremiah 17 gives us a proper context for Lev 18:22.

Also, I can find no interpretations, commentary, or scholarly support of a linguistic connection between Lev 18:21 and 22 that indicates they should be understood as a connected thought. If you have a source, please share it so I can learn more about that connection.

And lastly, I would point out that the traditional understanding of Lev 18:22 as a prohibition against homosexual acts is consistent with (a.) the context of Lev 18 as a whole (which is essentially a list of all sorts of prohibited sexual acts), and (b.) the context of Scripture as a whole. (Gen 19, Lev 18 and 20, Rom 1, I Cor 6, 1 Tim 1, etc.)

Mr. Vance never responded and thus the conversation ended here.

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