The translation of this verse found in English versions is wrong. Below, we have presented the verse, and will take it apart word by word to show what it actually says.
ואת־זכר לא תשכב משכבי אשה תועבה הִוא
V’et-zachar lo tishkav mishkvei ishah to’evah hu:1
(Transliterated using modern Israeli Sephardic pronunciation.)
ואת – V’et – This is two words. First, ו V’, which means and. This word cannot exist by itself, and therefore is attached to the word that comes after it, that is, את – et. This word means with. So the first two words of this verse are And with.
זכר – zachar – This word means male. Hebrew has no indefinite article (a, an), so when the definite article (the) is not used, as in this case, an indefinite article is understood for purposes of translation. Therefore, this word translates as a male. The verse so far reads And with a male.
לא – lo – This word is the Hebrew equivalent of our words no and not. It is used in this case to negate the verb that follows it. Because English has a more complicated verb structure than Hebrew, it will take more than one English word to translate the next Hebrew word, and the not will need to go in the middle of those words, so we won’t add this word to our translation yet.
תשכב – tishkav – This is a verb. Unlike English verbs, everything we need to know about tense and person is contained in this one word. No additional pronouns or tense markers are needed. The root of the verb is the last three letters: שכב sh-k-v, and it means lie down. The first letter of the word, ת t, is not part of the root, but indicates person and tense and even gender. To translate tishkav into English will require four words, as well as a parenthetical note to indicate the gender of the pronoun. The word translates as Thou (masculine, that is, speaking to a male) shalt lie down. The previous Hebrew word, לא lo, negated the verb, so we have And with a male thou shalt not lie down.
משכבי – mishk’vei – This is a noun. The base form of the noun is משכב mishkav, and it can be seen that the last three letters of the base, שכב sh-k-v, are also the three letters of the verb root above, meaning lie down. This noun means bed. Hebrew nouns have more than one form. In addition to having singular and plural forms, many nouns also have absolute and construct forms. An absolute noun stands alone, with its own meaning. A construct noun is grammatically tied to the noun that follows it. In translating to English, this usually involves placing the English word “of” between the two nouns. A good example is the Hebrew בית־לחם Beit Lechem (Bethlehem), which in English translates as House of Bread. This is because the first word, בית Beit, is in the construct state. Mishk’vei is in the construct state, meaning bed of.2 It would be a good idea to explain a bit about Hebrew prepositions now: Hebrew has prepositions that correspond to ours, but doesn’t always use them the same way. For example, when people leave us, in English we will say that we miss them. But in Hebrew, the verb to miss is used with a preposition, and we say that we miss to/for them. The same works in reverse, that is, sometimes English requires a preposition when Hebrew doesn’t. If a preposition can be derived from context, Hebrew will sometimes leave it out. In English, we nearly always need it. Therefore, we need to insert the English word in before the words bed of, in order for the sentence to make sense in English. The verse so far reads And with a male thou shalt not lie down in bed of.
אשה – ishah – This is the Hebrew word for woman. Since there is no definite article (the), it is understood to mean a woman. And with a male thou shalt not lie down in bed of a woman. Since bed of a woman is awkward in English, we would use our possessive case, and say “a woman’s bed.” And with a male thou shalt not lie down in a woman’s bed.
Punctuation as we know it was not part of the original text. Even modern Hebrew Bibles contain only one punctuation mark, which looks like a colon ‘:’, but serves only to point out the end of a verse (but not necessarily the end of a sentence). English is very difficult to read without punctuation marks, so we insert them as we translate. After the word woman, we may insert either a semicolon, or a period, to indicate that the following words are not part of the first phrase, but simply offer further information about it. And with a male thou shalt not lie down in a woman’s bed;
תועבה – to’evah – This is a noun. It translates as “hateful thing.” Without a definite article, it translates as a hateful thing. Hebrew word order often varies from ours, and this is one case where this is true. In English, this will be the last word in the sentence, so we will hold off on adding it to the translation until we have finished with the next word.
הִוא – hu – This little word serves so many purposes, not only for readers of the Hebrew text, but also for those today who wonder about the accuracy of the Hebrew text. You see, this word is a grammatical error made by Moses.3 Moses was well schooled in the arts and sciences of ancient Egypt, but not in the tongue of his own people. Although he evidently spoke Hebrew well enough to be understood, like so many today, he did not always use proper grammar. His meaning remained the same, but the grammar was wrong. Let’s say that again: His meaning remained the same, only the grammar was wrong. The word הוא hu means both he and it. It means it when applied to masculine nouns. But to’evah is a feminine noun, so Moses should have used the word היא hi, which means she and it. It means it when applied to feminine nouns. (All Hebrew nouns are either masculine or feminine; Hebrew has no neuter gender. This gender concept is grammatical in nature only, and has nothing to do with men or women, per se. For example, in Hebrew, a table is masculine, whereas, in the Romance languages, it is feminine. It has nothing to do with the nature of the table; it’s simply grammatical.)
So what does Moses’ error do for us? It doesn’t change the meaning, as we mentioned above. It still means it. But the significant thing is that the error has never been corrected. Why? Didn’t anyone notice it? Of course they did. But the Jewish people consider the text of the Hebrew Bible so sacred, that they will not alter even simple grammatical errors. The Jewish people considered even the shapes of the letters of the alphabet to be holy. The most they could do about the error was point it out, without correcting it. They did this by using the vowel point for the correct word with the incorrect word: הִוא The resulting word is more or less unpronounceable, but serves to alert the reader to the error. (The Hebrew alphabet itself has no vowels, only consonants. The reader was expected to be able to supply the vowel sounds from context, etc. By the early medieval period, Hebrew was developing dialects, partially due to the fact that there were no vowels to tell people how to pronounce it. Hebrew scholars devised a system of dots and dashes to represent vowels and alterations to consonant sounds. These vowel “points” are placed inside, above, below and next to letters, but may not touch the letters. They are not considered part of the text. Today they are used in Bibles, prayer books, song and poetry books, and children’s books, but are rarely used in newspapers, novels, etc.) And with a male thou shalt not lie down in a woman’s bed;
Our next point of grammar involves the present tense forms of the verb to be. In English these forms are am, art, is and are. Hebrew has such forms4, but almost never uses them, except in reference to God, or when absolutely necessary for context. The reason for this may be that the forms are too close to God’s name in Hebrew. While this may seem awkward to us, there are many other languages that don’t use the present tense of the verb to be. For example, Russian has become so used to ignoring the forms, that some of them are completely obsolete. (The Russian equivalent of am [есмь] can’t even be found in a dictionary or grammar book anymore.) They get along fine without those forms, and so does Hebrew. But English can’t, so we have to insert the appropriate forms when translating: And with a male thou shalt not lie down in a woman’s bed; it is
Finally, we put in the words a hateful thing: And with a male thou shalt not lie down in a woman’s bed; it is a hateful thing. This is the correct translation of Leviticus 18:22. It can be seen that, rather than forbidding male homosexuality, it simply forbids two males to lie down in a woman’s bed, for whatever reason. Culturally, a woman’s bed was her own. Other than the woman herself, only her husband was permitted in her bed, and there were even restrictions on when he was allowed in there. Any other use of her bed would have been considered defilement. Other verses in the Law will help clarify the acceptable use of the woman’s bed (Lev. 15).
1 Hebrew is written and read from right to left, the opposite of English.
2 Technically, “beds of,” as it is plural. But in Hebrew, use of a plural noun does not necessarily imply more than one. It can be used to emphasize importance.
3 There are some today who do not believe Moses wrote the Torah or Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament). They were historically attributed to him, and this author does believe he wrote them.
4 הווה hoveh, הווה hovah, הווים hovim, הוות hovot