Today is the first day of pride month! Happy Pride!

I wanted to talk about the Torah, and what it says about being gay, and gay relationships. I am culturally Jewish, and an atheist. I think that studying the Torah is interesting for two reasons: First, it is a culturally significant work of ancient literature. Second, it contains law codes that many people structure their lives around. I don’t think it reveals anything about any higher power, but I think it’s worth studying regardless.

The Torah is often interpreted to ban gay relationships and sex. In my opinion, that is not an accurate interpretation of the text, and I’d like to discuss this matter of interpretation. I am leaving to the side questions of morality, ethics, good law codes, etc. I want to focus purely on the question, “What does the Torah actually say?”

I want to focus in particular on two passages in the Torah that are often interpreted as banning gay relationships and/or sex, Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13. I will be using the translation found in “The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition”, edited by Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, linked above.

I believe that with a full reading, in context, and with an understanding of the original Hebrew, these passages are better understood as prohibiting homosexual incest, rather than all homosexual sex, as they are conventionally interpreted.

Because the Torah is an ancient document written in a language very different from English, translation is difficult, and we must be careful to not make assumptions about what certain words mean. I decided to use a translation based on the Jewish tradition, rather than the Christian tradition, as I think it more closely tracks the underlying Hebrew. I will seek to illuminate the context in which these two passages occur, as well as discuss the specific word-choices made, in order to better understand what the text means.

Leviticus 18

To understand Leviticus 18:22, we will start at the beginning of Leviticus 18.

Context: Leviticus 18:1-21

This chapter is part of a legal code, framed as instructions from God to Moses, to pass on to the Israelite people.

Starting at Leviticus 18:6, instructions are given for types of incest to avoid. Lines 18:7 through 18:18 each specify a type of incest that is banned, banning 15 specific categories of familial relationships for which sex is banned.

Of note, each of the familial relationships that are banned in 18:7-18:18 are heterosexual in nature: Lines specify banning men from sex with categories of women: Don’t have sex with your mother, your sister, etc. As a reader, there is an obvious question hanging in the air: What are the rules on homosexual incest? This is left open for the moment.

Next, in lines 18:19-20 there are a few more prohibitions on certain types of heterosexual sex, banning sex while a woman is menstruating, and sex with a married woman. Again there is the question: Is homosexual adultery banned? Finally, line 18:21 bans offering one’s children as a ritual sacrifice.

Leviticus 18:22

Now, we get to the line of interest, Leviticus 18:22, which in this translation is given as “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.”

This translation elides an important subtlety, which is only apparent if we look at the original Hebrew. This line uses two words that indicate that it is referring to sex: “תִשְׁכַּ֖ב”, “tish-kab”, which refers to the action of lying somewhere, and “מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י”, “mish-ke-bay”, which is harder to translate.

“mish-ke-bay” is derived from “מִשְׁכַּב”, “mish-kab”, which is most commonly translated as “bed” or “bedchamber”. “mish-ke-bay” is the construct form of “mish-kab”.

The construct form is a Hebrew grammatical pattern which indicates that a given noun belongs to someone. It’s sort of an inverse to the English possessive. Where English would say “I found John’s watch”, Hebrew would say “I found John watch-(construct)”.

However, this sentence has no clear owner for the bed being discussed here: It’s an abstract bed, used euphemistically to refer to sex. To understand what it means, we will look it all the usages of the word we can find in the text.

The term “mish-ke-bay” only appears three times in the Tanakh (Torah and the rest of the Jewish holy books). We will discuss each of these three usages: Here, Leviticus 20:13 (the other passage often interpreted as banning gay sex) and Genesis 49:4. Unfortunately, the Tanakh is one of the only Hebrew texts of that time period that has survived to the present, so we don’t have other reference material to go by.

The rarity of this word is in contrast to the other terms for sex used in Leviticus 18. The term used in lines 18:6-19, “תְגַלֵּ֑ה עֶרְוַ֥ת”, “te-gal-leh er-wat” which is translated as “to uncover their nakedness”, is a common euphemism for sex used in multiple places in the Torah. The term used in line 18:20, which is translated as “carnal relations”, is likewise a more common expression for sex in the Torah.

The other word used in line 18:22, “tish-kab”, which means something like “you shall lie”, does not appear to have the euphemistic meaning towards sex that “lying with” has in modern English. In its other occurrences in the Tanakh, it refers to sleeping, the literal non-sexual act of lying on a bed, and other non-sexual acts.

Given that these more common ways of referring to sex were available, it’s important to analyze whether “mish-ke-bay”, the construct form of the word for bed, has any special meaning that the author was trying to convey.

Leviticus 20

To understand Leviticus 20:13, we will start at the beginning of Leviticus 20, with a focus on Leviticus 20:10-21.

Context: Leviticus 20:10-21

Leviticus 20, especially Leviticus 20:10-21, is essentially a reiteration of many of the points in Leviticus 18, in a slightly different order, and with more emphasis on punishment. These duplications are common in the Torah: scholars believe that the Torah was made by editing together multiple similar texts, and often kept both copies of a given passage, resulting in duplications.

Again, we find prohibitions on heterosexual sex, especially many specific kinds of heterosexual incest. These prohibitions again use the euphemism “te-gal-leh er-wat” seen in Leviticus 18:6-19, now in combination with the word “יִשְׁכַּב֙” “yis-kab”, another form of “tis-kab”, which is used elsewhere for both sexual and non-sexual lying and sleeping.

Leviticus 20:13

Now, right in the middle of this section prohibiting heterosexual incest, we find Leviticus 20:13, translated as “If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death-and they retain the bloodguilt”.

The context is important: The line immediately before, 20:12, prohibits sex between a man and his daughter in law, punishable by death, with the same phrasing of the punishment as Leviticus 20:13. The line immediately after, 20:14, prohibits marriage between a man and his wife’s mother, again punishable by death.

Reading this line in context, surrounded by prohibitions on heterosexual incest, the possibility that the line refers to homosexual incest again suggests itself.

Again, in this line, the term “mish-ke-bay” is used to refer to something sexual, paralleling Leviticus 18:22, and different from all of the surrounding terms for sex.

Genesis 49:4

Now, let us move to Genesis 49:4, the one other passage in the Torah where the word “mish-ke-bay”, the construct form of bed, is used.

In Genesis 49, Jacob, the third of the three Patriarchs who are described as founding Judaism, is on his deathbed, and is talking to his twelve children, the apocryphal forebears of the twelve tribes of Israel.

In Genesis 49:4, Jacob says to Reuben, his eldest son: “Licentious one, boil up like water no more-Oh, you mounted your father’s bed, then defiled my couch-he mounted my couch!”

Here the word “mish-ke-bay” is the word translated to bed in “your father’s bed”.

What incident is referred to in this passage? Earlier, in Genesis 35:22, Reuben has sex with his father’s concubine Bilhah. Note that in Genesis 35:22, “Israel” is another name for Jacob. Jacob’s deathbed description of this act clearly indicates that it was placed in the category of incest. It’s the type of act that Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20, with their prohibitions on heterosexual incest, are trying to ban.

So we find that “mish-ke-bay”, the one other time it is ever used in the Torah, is used to refer to an act of incest.

“Mish-ke-bay”: Who’s bed is it?

The word “mish-ke-bay” is the construct-form of the word for bed, indicating that the bed belongs to somebody.

Now we’re ready to return to the question: who’s bed is it?

In Genesis 49:4, we find an answer to the question “who’s bed is it?”, as “mish-ke-bay”, a construct-form noun, indicates that this is a bed that belongs to somebody. It’s the father’s bed.

Does this fit with the usage in Leviticus 18 and 20? Well, if we think of these passages as referring to homosexual sex, we still haven’t answered the question.

However, if we interpret Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 as instead prohibiting homosexual incest, things become a bit more clear. Throughout Leviticus 18 and 20, when the text prohibits incest, it repeatedly gives a reason for the prohibition: Because the incest would dishonor the relative through whom the two people are related.

Leviticus 18:8, for example, says “Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is the nakedness of your father.” Leviticus 18:13 says “Do not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister; for she is your mother’s flesh.” Here “uncover the nakedness of” is a euphemism for sex, while “nakedness” is a euphemism for genitals.

These passages indicate that the reason why incest is seen as bad is because of how it affects and reflects upon the person through whom the two are related. This is a very different understanding than our modern understanding, which emphasizes harms due to coercion and abuse, often to the younger or less powerful of the two individuals involved. This difference in understanding is to be expected with thousands of years distance.

We can now bring this understanding to bear when inspecting the word “mish-ke-bay”, and asking the question “Who’s bed is it?”, as the people of this time period would have understood it.

To them, incest is bad because it involves a closer relative’s child, parent, sibling or spouse. This closer relative, then, is the person who is harmed. The implication, therefore, it that this closer relative is the person to whom the bed belongs.

“Mish-ke-bay” metaphorically refers to the bed that “belongs” to one’s closer relative, which is defiled by incest, just as Reuben’s sex with Bilhah defiled Jacob’s bed. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 therefore can be understood as referring to the defilement that would occur if, for instance, a man slept with his mother’s husband, thereby defiling his mother’s bed.


By analyzing the context of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, and delving into the specific Hebrew words used in these passages, we find that the passages are best read as prohibiting homosexual incest, not all homosexual sex.

The passages fall during or immediately after prohibitions on incest, which only prohibit heterosexual incest, leaving homosexual incest otherwise glaringly unaddressed. Moreover, the word “mish-ke-bay” used in these passages is better understood as a specific euphemism for incestuous sex, rather than sex in general. This reading is motivated by its usage elsewhere in the Torah, by the ancient reasoning about who is harmed when incest occurs, and by the specific grammatical features of the Hebrew text.

These two passages are the only two passages in the Torah that are claimed to explicitly prohibit gay relationships and sex, unlike for instance the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which focuses more on the immorality of rape and on protecting one’s guests.

With our new understanding of these passages, we find that the Torah does not, in fact, prohibit gay relationships or sex at all.