Does the Bible Really Call Homosexuality an “Abomination”?

Homosexuality is abomination. The Christian Right says so all the time, and non-religious LGBT activists say it too, to relegate religion to humanity’s dustheap. After all, isn’t that what it says in the Bible?

No—and progressive religionists should not use the word. It’s a mistranslation and a misconception, doing harm to LGBT people and religious people alike.

The word “abomination” is found, of course, in the King James translation of Leviticus 18:22, a translation which reads, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it [is] abomination.” Yet this is a thoroughly misleading rendition of the word toevah, which, while we may not know exactly what it means, definitely does not mean “abomination.” 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. And indeed, this is how many religious people regard gays and lesbians. It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. Homosexuality is unnatural, a perversion, a disease, an abomination.

Yet a close reading of the term toevah suggests an entirely different meaning: something permitted to one group, and forbidden to another. Though there is (probably) no etymological relationship, toevah means taboo.

The term toevah (and its plural, toevot) occurs 103 times in the Hebrew Bible, and almost always has the connotation of a non-Israelite cultic practice. In the Torah, the primary toevah is avodah zara, foreign forms of worship, and most other toevot flow from it. The Israelites are instructed not to commit toevah because other nations do so. Deuteronomy 18:9-12 makes this quite clear:

When you come into the land that YHVH your God gives you, do not learn to do the toevot of those nations. Do not find among you one who passes his son or daughter through the fire; or a magician; or a fortune teller, charmer, or witch… because all who do these things are toevah to YHVH and because of these toevot YHVH your God is driving them out before you.

Elsewhere, Deuteronomy 7:25-26 commands:

[Y]ou shall burn the statues of their gods in fire. Do not desire the silver and gold on them and take it onto yourself, else you be snared by it, for it is a toevah to YHVH your God. And you shall not bring toevah to your home

Deut. 12:31, 13:14, 17:4, 27:15, and 32:16 further identify idolatry, child sacrifice, witchcraft, and other “foreign” practices as toevah, and Deut. 20:18 says that avoiding toevah justifies the genocide of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanaites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. So, toevah is serious, but it is serious as a particular class of cultic offense: a transgression of national boundary. It is certainly not “abomination.”

Toevah is used four times in Leviticus 18—once to refer to male homosexual acts, and then three times as an umbrella term. As in Deuteronomy, the signal feature of toevot is that the other nations of the Land of Israel do them: “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, and shall not commit these toevot… because the people who were in the land before you did these toevot and made the land impure (tameh)” (Lev. 18:26-27; see also Lev. 18:29). The term is repeated with reference to homosexual activity in Lev. 20:13.

Similarly, the Books of Kings and Chronicles use toevah nine times to refer to acts that other nations did in the Land of Israel:

  • 1 Kings 14:24 (general);
  • 2 Kings 16:3 (child sacrifice);
  • 2 Kings 21:2 and 2 Kings 21:11 (idolatry);
  • 2 Chron. 28:3 (child sacrifice);
  • 2 Chron. 33:2 (idolatry);
  • 2 Chron. 34:33, 36:8, and 36:14 (general). (Ezra 9:1, 9:11, and 9:14 use the word in exactly the same way.)

In all these cases, toevah refers to a foreign cultic behavior wrongly practiced by Israelites and Israelite kings.

And likewise, the prophet Ezekiel uses the term toevah a record-setting 39 times to refer to idolatry (Ez. 5:11, 6:9, 6:11, 7:20, 14:6, 20:7-8, 22:2, 44:6-7, 44:13), usury (Ez. 18:13), haughtiness and pride (Ez. 16:47-50; the “Sin of Sodom”—more on that in a future article), heterosexual adultery (Ez. 22:11, 33:26), and violence (Ez. 33:26), as well as a general term for foreign acts (Ez. 16:51) or transgression, often in a cultic context (Ez. 5:9, 7:3-4, 7:8-9, 9:4, 11:18, 11:21, 12:16, 16:2, 16:43, 18:24, 20:4, 33:29, 36:31).

In one extended passage (Ez. 8:1-18), Ezekiel is taken on a visionary tour of toevot, all of which have to do with idolatry and each, Ezekiel says, is worse than the previous one, beginning with an image on the door of the gate of Jerusalem, to idols and imagery in a house of worship, to women weeping for the god Tammuz,* to men worshipping the sun within the Temple itself. This extended passage, with six mentions of toevah, links the term in every instance with avodah zara, or idolatry.

In five instances, Ezekiel mentions toevah together with both idolatry and zimah or znut, “whoredom” (Ez. 16:22, 16:36, 16:58, 23:26, 43:8), strongly suggesting that the nature of sexual toevah is not mere lewdness, and certainly not loving intimate expression, but sexuality in a cultic context.

Detestable Because it is Foreign, or Foreign Because it is Detestable?

Now, so far, it is unclear whether a toevah is detestable because it is foreign, or foreign because it is detestable. This question is resolved elsewhere in the Bible, because Israelites are not the only ones with toevot. There are several examples of things which are toevah for Egyptians but perfectly acceptable for Israelites.

Genesis 43:32 states that eating with Israelites is toevah for Egyptians. Gen. 43:34 states that shepherds are toevah to Egyptians—the sons of Israel are themselves shepherds. In Exodus 8:22, Moses describes Israelite sacrifices as being toevat mitzrayim (toevah of Egypt), although obviously Israelite ritual is not an objective “abomination.” If toevah means abomination, then eating with shepherds, eating with Israelites, and Israelite sacrifices themselves must be abominable! Since this clearly is not the case, toevah cannot mean “abomination” in any ontological sense—it must be a relative quality.

Toevah can also mean other things. It can refer to ritual imperfection: Deut. 17:1 uses it to refer to the sacrifice of a blemished animal, and Deut. 19:19 bans as toevah sacrifices bought through prostitution or “the price of a dog.” Deut. 22:5 calls crossdressing a toevah (incidentally, in Orthodox Jewish law, this includes women wearing pants). Remarriage (i.e. of the same two parties) is toevah according to Deut. 24:4. The sole ethical use of the term in the Torah is in Deut. 25:16, in which the use of unequal weights and measures is called toevah.

In the Book of Proverbs (which comes late in the Bible but which scholars believe to have been composed prior to the Deuteronomic and Levitical material), toevah is used twenty-one times to refer to various ethical failings, including the ways, thoughts, prayers and sacrifices of the wicked (Prov. 3:32, 15:8-9, 15:26, 16:12, 21:27, 28:9), pride (Prov. 6:16, 16:5), evil speech (Prov. 8:7), false weights (Prov. 11:1, 20:10, 20:23), devious heartedness (Prov. 11:20), lying (Prov. 12:22, 26:25), scoffing (Prov. 24:9), justifying the wicked and defaming the righteous (Prov. 17:15). Interestingly, Proverbs 13:19 says that “to turn from evil is toevah to fools,” again suggesting that toevah is something relative in nature. Similarly, Prov. 29:27 says poetically: “An unjust man is toevah to the righteous, and the straightforward man is toevah to the wicked.”

Finally, other books of the Bible adapt the meaning of toevah in accord with their overall literary agendas. Isaiah uses it to refer to the sacrifices of hypocrites (1:13, 44:19), as a taunt against earthly power (41:14), and idolatry (66:3). Jeremiah associates toevah with idolatry (Jer. 2:7, 7:10, 32:35) and unspecified transgression (Jer. 6:15, 8:12, 44:22). Malachi (2:11) uses it to refer to the Israelites’ having “married the daughter of a foreign god.” And Psalm 88:9 poetically uses the term to refer to being alienated from one’s friend: “You have taken me far from my acquaintance; made me a toevah to him, put away, and I cannot come out.”

Even these variant uses, in most cases, point to the nature of toevah as something foreign or, more generally, something which is or ought to be far away from oneself. Proverbs’ use of toevah is the exception, rather than the rule; in the overwhelming majority of cases, toevah has nothing to do with ethics, and everything to do with cultic behavior, idolatry, and foreign ritual. However we may understand this type of transgression, it is certainly not “abomination” in the modern sense.

Indeed, “abomination” itself is an inexact translation, used by the King James and other biblical translations for multiple terms. The KJV uses the word twenty-six times to refer to sheketz, an analogous term to toevah which refers usually to idolatry and occasionally to other taboos such as forbidden animals (Lev. 11:10-13). Likewise, Leviticus 7:18 describes leftover sacrificial meat as pigul—but King James again says “abomination.” And 1 Samuel 13:4, speaking of King Saul and the Philistines, uses the term nivash, yet again rendered as “abomination.” And so on, including 1 Kings 11:5-7, 2 Kings 23:13, Isaiah 66:17, Daniel 11:31, Daniel 12:11 (sheketz), and many more.

The KJV even uses “abomination” six times in translation of New Testament texts (Matthew 24:15, Mark 13:14, Luke 16:15, and Revelation 17:4-5, 21:27). All these biblical terms refer to different, albeit similar, violations, yet the umbrella term “abomination” elides any distinction between them. As a result, the KJV lists exactly 150 occurrences of the term “abomination,” though only 103 of them translate toevah.

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.

*Originally characterized Tammuz as a goddess not a god (thanks to reader Kay Dekker for catching the error).


Dr. Jay Michaelson [@jaymichaelson] is Associate Editor of Religion Dispatches and the author of five books, most recently "Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment" (North Atlantic, 2013). He holds a J.D. from Yale and a Ph.D. in Jewish Thought from Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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  • imppress

    Leviticus declares shellfish an abomination more than homosexuality.
    Why aren’t Christians protesting at Red Lobster holding up signs “God Hates Clams”?

    One sin at a time, I suppose. Start with the one where you only have to oppress 4% of the population. They do NOT want to tell my wife that she’ll go to hell for her scampi. There will be words.

    Ah, yes, they tell me. Jesus declared shellfish clean and ONLY shellfish. Bountiful grace erases all the rules of the Torah EXCEPT man lying with man. Jesus doesn’t forgive that one, that’s a bridge too far. Affection between consenting adults is the only sure trip to the fiery pool of soul purging. Murder? Rape? Nah. Repent hard enough and you’re golden. Gay? Abandon all hope ye who spoon.

    Oh, let me not leave out the made up sin of woman lying with woman. I have yet to see the literal prohibition of lesbianism. Christians simply assume this one and we’re all cool with with that, right? Popes and televangelists rarely steer us wrong except for that whole Earth is the center of the universe thing. They love pointing to verses in the Bible for the anti-gay thing, but are content with their own judgement for interpretation for the ladies. Must be nice having that level of self-assurance that you channel God him/her/itself and mentally torture people that don’t bother you (except in their overactive imaginations which really can’t be helped.)

  • Sean

    What a great article on the probable meanings of the original Hebrew word and the incorrect use of abomination in English translations. Even now, more up-to-date translations than the KJV seem to refuse to re-examine the original Hebrew words and simply replace the word abomination with slightly updated but similar meaning words.

    I am no Hebrew scholar but I have read a number of explanations on the word toevah. What I found compelling was not just the author’s clear authority, having studied Hebrew in Jerusalem and lectured in religion, but also his clear explanations and ability to explain the subject matter well. I shall be keeping a record of this link as I feel certain that I can refer to this text in future discussions.

  • Michael Sonnier

    Who ever put out this lie, you will be judged by GOD for misleading people with false truths. You are one who takes the word of GOD and changes it to make sin acceptable, in other words your GOD is the devil. Watch out for false prophets it is warned about in the Bible. Those who twist the truth and try to encourage people to sin. If you do this then your GOD is not my GOD, your GOD is Satan. Good luck in hell, where you can cry to Satan all you like about how he fooled you. Guess what? In hell Satan cares about as much for you as he does here on earth, and that is not at all.

  • Drew

    You are a crazy man. Please take your medication. Then again, do they even have medicine for irrational hate?

  • Will_Mat

    These idiots, who believe in ministers who have a diploma of theology from a Cracker-Jack box, do not like being informed that they are wrong. When the real truth is shown, and they find that they have been fooled, they tend to lash out as this one did. This article is only one instance of several mis-translations in the Bible.

  • Will_Mat

    The Bible has a multitude of mis-translations, and this one has been said to have been done purposely. Another shocker, is when they say that the Hebrew word for maiden means virgin, which means a lot for Mary, mother of Jesus. On top of this, ministers like to say “Jesus, son of God”, when it is in reality, Jesus, son of man. Last, if you really want to choke them up, make them show you compelling evidence of a Holy Trinity. There is none, except for John the Baptist saying “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” during a baptism. The first mention of a trinity, was many years after Jesus Christ and the apostles was dead, and an invention of the Roman Catholic Church, or of man, since Jesus never put himself on the same level as God or his spirit. If Jesus were alive today, he most likely would tell the RCC that saying that was blasphemy.

  • imppress

    At the council of Nicaea, conqueror/warrior Roman emperor Constantine declared the official doctrine of the trinity. Previously, the trinity fans had been in contention with adherents of the Arian belief that Jesus, while holy was not part God. He was subordinate to God. Constantine inscribed his shield with symbols citing “Christ” as he went into battle. After all, Jesus was a big fan of killing people to further your agenda. THIS is the guy who made official doctrine for the followers of the King of Peace. My irony meter’s needle fell off when I found out. about Constantine’s connection to the trinity and how “truth” about Jesus was “discovered”.

    The Koran, meanwhile, states that Jesus was formed in Mary’s womb much as Adam was formed of dust. Created by God from substance other than sperm and egg. It acknowledges Jesus as an important, holy prophet much to the shock of many Christians.

  • Chuck U. Farley

    Its a shame that all you liberals actually believe your own lies!!!! Its very convenient to be able to choose words that don’t agree with your sick and sinful ways, and just say they mean something else just so it makes your sin…..not a sin!! Just because YOU don’t believe in God, doesnt mean Hes not real. You are ALL gonna find out here very very soon just how Real He really is……and youre not gonna like it!!! The Bible is CLEAR……Homosexuality IS a sin, and an ABOMINATION!!! Its IS an Unatural act!! How is it that you put two men together, with the same sex organs, that DO NOT go together, and believe its Not unnatural?? Men and Women were made for each other. All of their parts…..FIT together….because it is NATURAL!!! Two women try to put their parts together…..but surprise… doesnt work either. Because its Unatural!!! I don’t judge anyone. Its not my place to judge. God will judge you here very soon. But, I believe I can speak for a lot of God fearing people when I say we are all sick of this crap being shoved down our throats….figuratively speaking of course!!!! If you sick people wanna CHOOSE to sin and do sick things….fine, but stop trying to tell us that we HAVE to agree with it, and calling us colorful names like Homophobes because we don’t agree with you sick people. A phobia is something you fear. I don’t fear gays…..I just don’t agree with them. Stop telling us that we MUST be tolerant and MUST accept something that is completely intolerable to Christians, and to Almighty God!!! Because we will NEVER tolerate it, believe you were born that way, or support it, and we will NEVER turn our backs on God and go against our morals and beliefs and His commands, just so all you disgusting liberal baby killers can keep spreading AIDS all over the planet!!! Its Never gonna happen!!

  • Chuck U. Farley

    Oh, and I am on your side Mr. Sonnier. I just replied to your post to write mine, because I love your post. All these sick people will know they are about to be judged when they wake up one day, very very soon, and all the Christians are miraculously missing. All you sick people remember this…..cuz when billions of Christians have disappeared, I want you all to remember this conversation. Cuz youll know WE and GOD and the BIBLE were right the whole time, and youre all about to go through hell on earth, and then hell for eternity. Change your ways now before its too late. God WILL forgive you IF you are truly sorry and Truly repent.

  • Prelusive007

    You can call it an “abomination” or any other thing but the fact is still the fact. God rained fire and brimstone down upon those two cities in his anger over this and completely destroyed them. You can spin it any way you want but unless you’re in complete and utter denial, you can see God most certainly considers homosexuality a perverted thing that humans are not to do. If you live that lifestyle, prepare to defend it with God. He will be the judge of you. And it won’t be long before you have your ultimate answer.

  • Majoritysense

    This author seems to profess knowledge as to what the Bible says. He attempts to bend the truth and is obviously a unbeliever of the Way. Professing to be wise he has become a fool. Romans 1:22.

    Marriage is not just any relationship between human beings. It is a relationship rooted in human nature and thus governed by natural law.

    Natural law’s most elementary precept is that “good is to be done and pursued,
    and evil is to be avoided.” By his natural reason, man can perceive what is
    morally good or bad for him. Thus, he can know the end or purpose of each of
    his acts and how it is morally wrong to transform the means that help him
    accomplish an act into the act’s purpose.

    Any situation which institutionalizes the circumvention of the purpose of the
    sexual act violates natural law and the objective norm of morality.

    Being rooted in human nature, natural law is universal and immutable. It
    applies to the entire human race, equally. It commands and forbids
    consistently, everywhere and always. Saint Paul taught in the Epistle to the
    Romans that the natural law is inscribed on the heart of every man. (Rom.

  • Drake

    Every human being has a right to their free will, which that God do not even infringe on and no human being is justified for hating everyone who choose to exercise that free will. “but know this”The Word of God is the Word of God no matter how we feel about it and it change not. Leviticcus 20:13;If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. also Romans 1:26-27: “For this reason God gave them up to degrading
    passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the
    same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed
    with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and
    received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” so let not us judge one another(” unless divinely lead by the Spirit of the True and Living God”) let God Word be the Judge.

  • Chris Larosa

    “God rained fire and brimstone down upon those two cities in his anger over this and completely destroyed them.”

    Dude. Seriously? The very fact you believe this completely ruins your credibility. Gen 19 says NOTHING of the sort. This is a Christian folktale. Read it again. Find ANYWHERE in scripture that remotely hints that S&G were destroyed due to homosexuality. Then, when you are completely puzzled that you have believed a lie, go ahead and crack open Ez 16:49-50. Yea. Exactly. Whoops.

  • Prelusive007

    Just keep sucking those dlcks “Chris” and when you die, you can take it up with Jesus directly. You can explain ‘your interpretation’ and see how far it gets you. And oh by the way; no scripture is a private interpretation unto itself. In other words, you have to do a bit more studying and praying about it fvudgepacker so try a little harder with your studies and then get back to us with your realization.

  • Chris Larosa

    Wow. you’re a real piece of work there, ‘elusive’. Congrats on your guest vote up. Jesus must be so proud of your impeccable scholarship and humility.

  • Prelusive007

    You don’t believe in “Jesus”. Remember? So why do you continue to bring him up? The problem you have is you’re stupid but you think you’re smart because so many other stupid people have agreed with you. Or is it that you have agreed with them? Have you figured it out yet? The bottom line is still the same. You’re going to die. And when you do, you’re going to bust heII wide open. And I’m going to be standing there when they throw your sorry A $ $ in the pit. So go for it faqqot. Talk your crap. See you at the edge of heII.

  • Chris Larosa

    Holy krap, dude. You’ve got problems. Because I confronted YOU on your biblical illiteracy suddenly I’m automatically not a Christian?? And your attitude. How is that being Christlike at all? You’ve insulted me, assumed I’m gay, used vulgarities, condemned me to hell. What kind of church do you go to? Here’s my next challenge, Mr. Christian: copy and paste this conversation and email to your pastor, if you even go to church. You should be ashamed of yourself. Repent.


    Haha he didn’t have anything to say about that!!!