However, read in their context as a part of the Holiness Code and in the wider Ancient Near Eastern framework, the verses aren’t necessarily about homosexual acts at all. Instead, the verses are concerned with illicit progeny (children), and, in this case, progeny created by a double-siring. Double paternity, or a child having two fathers instead of one, is something that existed in the conceptual framework of the ancient world but is something that is lost for us in our more scientific understanding of how babies are made. All of these Levitical prohibitions regarding sexual unions that could potentially result in questionable progeny were concerned with the ritual pollution of the Promised Land.
As modern commentators are keen to point out homosexuality, as we understand it today, didn’t exist in the ancient world, and hence the statutes cannot have referred to an equal, loving, and sensual relationship between two adult males. The statutes are also frequently interpreted as referring to a power imbalance, scholars insisting that they only forbid participation in the passive role of a man in the sex act, or that it forbids a forcible sex act performed on another man. To this end, there is ample evidence of socially accepted forms of same-sex relationships in the ancient world from the 4thmillennium BCE onwards. The problem with interpretations of the statutes, whether understood as being against homosexuality or not, is that they at once ignore the immediate context of the verses and apply outside knowledge of ancient cultural practices to supplement their chosen readings, but only as it pertains to same-sex relations.
The crucial phrase for the understanding the verses is ‘the bed(ding)s of a woman’, and, while both words are well understood and separately occur frequently, the phrase as a whole is not found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Most translations opt not to render the idiom but instead interpret it as referring to sexual relations between two males that happen in the fashion of a woman, meaning that one of the sexual partners would take up the receptive role of a woman in the act.
The translation of the verses is not difficult, but their interpretation is less clear. It is grammatically possible that the statute forbids a sexual practice in which two men share a single woman between them at the same time, a so-called ménage à trois (also colloquially known as ‘the Devil’s threesome’). This isn’t a new proposition, by any means. Hebrew students make it all the time.
But the motivation for this ban might be due to an ancient understanding of biology in which it was the semen of a man, his seed, which gave life and the body of a mother that merely gestated this being created out of the man’s seed. One need only look at embryogenesis in the works of Aristotle to see that ancient ideas of how babies are made differed starkly from a modern scientific understanding. While the ideas of embryogenesis may not have been identical between the author(s) of the Holiness Code and Hellenistic philosophers, it still proves that, in the first millennium BCE, it was generally accepted that children issued from semen and were gestated by mothers, not from the joining of a sperm with an ovum, as we understand it today.
Writing on the conception of double paternity among the natives of Lowland South America, Stephen Beckerman & Paul Valentine descrcibed how
Inhabitants of the modern Western world are well aware that each child has one biological father and one only. We know that, in sexually reproducing organisms, only one sperm fertilizes the egg, and we know this rule holds for people as well as penguins. The doctrine of single paternity, as a folk belief, goes so far back in Western history and is so extended through our social and legal institutions that it is difficult for us to imagine that anyone could entertain any other view of biological paternity. […] Before the end of the nineteenth century, although Western law and custom assumed that each child had a single biological father, that premise was simply a folk belief, resting on other folk beliefs about how babies are made and what the mother and the father contribute – beliefs that seem quaint to us now. […] This happy coincidence of folk doctrine and biological reality within our own intellectual tradition has not been without its unfortunate consequences. It has made it easy for us to presume that our folk beliefs concerning fertilization, conception, and fetal development must be everyone’s folk beliefs, inevitable and universal.
It is telling that the statutes following the prohibition are ones on bestiality, prohibiting both men and women from performing sexual acts with animals. Both occurrences may have occasioned fears of bestial offspring to the effect of centaurs, minotaurs, satyrs, or fauns. Such half-human hybrid creatures are also known from the folklore of the ancient Near East, like the Mesopotamian kusarikku (bull man) and girtablullû (scorpion man). These statutes stipulate that both the man or the woman and the animal are to be put to death for the infraction, in both cases slaying both the subject of the statute and the host possibly carrying the offspring of the illicit union.
The common denominator in many of the prohibitions in the Holiness Code is that the children that would result from the couplings would have unclear social roles. In the cases of incest, both the matrilineal and patrimonial lines of succession become confused. All of the categories enumerated in the Holiness Code would result in this kind of confused paternity regarding the children.
There is nothing else in Leviticus, nor indeed in the rest of the Hebrew Bible, which suggests that the voluntary sex acts of two consenting adult males would have been punishable by death, nor indeed why they ought to have been. The concept of double paternity, however, is not unknown in ancient texts. While most of the evidence we have for double paternity concern either divine or semi-divine paternity of an individual, the idea of a child being fathered by two men does not only exist in ancient conception, it was clearly used in attempts to solve difficult ontological problems.
Noga Aayali-Darshan discussed the double paternity of the storm god Baal in Hurro-Hittite traditions of the storm god Teshub as being the son of two fathers, Kumarbi and Anu. The double paternity of deified rulers in the ancient Near East is also known from texts from the Bronze Age to the Roman Empire, e.g. Alexander the Great having adopted the motif of double paternity in emulation of Herakles, but also Theseus, Odysseus, Plato, Pythagoras, Apollonius of Tyana, and Augustus who are famous ancient cases of narrative double paternity in Hellenistic biographies. Double paternity seems thus to have been a fairly common feature of semi-divine beings and ancient heroes, explaining their mortal and divine attributes. Gilgamesh, for example, is described as two-thirds divine and one-third mortal. The calculus of his heritage is perplexing to a modern reader but is easily explained by the idea of three parents. Double paternity, then, was conceptually possible, conceivable, in their world.
From the point of view of later tradition history, it is clear that the statutes were interpreted as condemning sex acts between men at some point. Purely from textual evidence, it doesn’t seem as though the texts were interpreted in the context of homosexual sex acts until the Hellenistic era. The perspective of the modern reader is irrevocably altered from that of the writers by the empires that, one after the other, conquered the Promised Land where the Holiness Code had been composed, the conquered both resisting and adapting to hegemonic ideas.
To read more about this, read the article Homosexuality, the Holiness Code, and Ritual Pollution: A Case of Mistaken Identity published in the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 45/2 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0309089220903431