Meaning of “Abomination” in Leviticus 18:22

Colby Martin, author of “UnClobber”, in his treatment of the sexual sins listed in Leviticus chapters 18 and 20, says of the word “abomination”: “It comes from the Hebrew word toevah.  This is a plural noun which, in short, was used to stipulate certain actions that, if committed, would render an Israelite indistinguishable from the surrounding nations, a betrayal of the Lord’s unique calling to live holy (aka, set apart).  Toevah were cultural taboos, if you will.  They transgressed the boundary that was supposed to delineate the Israelite people from both the Egyptians (from whence they came) and the Canaanites (to where they were going)” (Martin, C. p. 89).  Further down the page he writes: “Calling actions toevah implied violation of cultural divisions.  They were actions that caused the boundaries between people groups to disappear.  Other cultures had their own set of behaviors considered toevah (Martin, C. p. 90). 

He cites as examples Genesis 43:32 and 46:34 in which the Egyptians would not eat with the Hebrews because “every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians” (46:34); and so were the sacrificial offerings of the Hebrews to God (Exod 8:26).  He continues, “If an act was identified as toevah, it did not therefore mean that the act in question was inherently, objectively, or eternally an immoral offense or a violation of God’s will….My point is that if an object or action was identified as toevah, then that is not, in and of itself, a sufficient reason for us in the twenty-first century to definitively declare that same activity, if committed today, as a sinful, immoral, objective offense.  Just because an action is labelled toevah doesn’t mean that the action belongs in the category of ‘always a sin in the eyes of the Lord’.  For example, in Deuteronomy 25 we find a list of instructions regarding how to handle certain controversies and conflicts between Israelites, such as not delivering more than forty lashes on a condemned offender (v. 3), or not muzzling an ox that treads the corn (v. 4), and the importance of a man marrying his brother’s wife if his brother dies (vv. 5-10).  Then, in one of the Bible’s most fantastic verses (vv. 11-12), the Israelite people were instructed to cut off the hand of a woman if, while her husband is in a fight with another man, she attempts to aid her husband by grabbing the testicles of the other man…The chapter then ends with an admonition to use proper weights when measuring goods so as not to rob one another (v. 13-15).  After all these instructions are laid out, we read, ‘For all who do such things are an abomination [toevah] to the LORD your God’ (v. 16 ESV)” (Martin, C. p. 90-91). 

Colby makes some valid points in these examples but he misses the point by softening the primary meaning of “abomination” i.e. to’ebah; or toevah as he has it.  And he rightly points out that God did require Israel to be separate from the surrounding nations: “Ye shall therefore keep all my statutes, and all my judgments, and do them: that the land, whither I am bringing you to dwell therein, spue you not out.  And ye shall not walk in the manners of the nation, which I cast out before you: for they commit all these things, and therefore I abhorred them.  But I have said unto you, Ye shall inherit their land, and I will give it unto you to possess it, a land that floweth with milk and honey: I am the Lord your God, which have separated you from other people….And ye shall be holy unto me: for I the LORD am holy, and have severed you from other people, that ye should be mine (Lev 20:22-24, 26).  God abhorred the nations because of their sins – this is strong language, but Colby glosses over it. 

Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary defines to’ebah “abomination” (8441) as: “…something disgusting.…an abhorrence….To’ebah means abomination; loathsome, detestable thing. (1) To’ebah defines something or someone as essentially unique in the sense of being dangerous, sinister, and repulsive to another individual (Gen 43:32; 46:34; Prov 29:27).  (2) When used with reference to God, this word describes people, things, acts, and characteristics that are detestable to Him because they are contrary to His nature; such as (2a) things related to death and idolatry (Deut 14:3); (2b) people with loathsome habits are themselves detestable to Him (Deut 22:5).  (3) It is used in some contexts to describe pagan practices and objects (Deut 7:25-26)….(5) To’ebah may represent (5a) the pagan cultic practices themselves (Deut 12:31), or (5b) the people who perpetrate such practices (Deut 18:12)…”.

And how can one read Jeremiah 7:9-10 and not see that the word “abomination” means something thoroughly detestable?  “Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not; And come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations (to’ebah)?”

DeYoung (2015, p. 44 Kindle) says, “Leviticus uses strong language in denouncing homosexual behaviour, calling it ‘an abomination.’  Outside of Leviticus, the Hebrew word to’ebah appears forty-three times in Ezekiel and sixty-eight times in the rest of the Old Testament, usually with respect to especially grievous sins.  We cannot reduce to’ebah to a mere social taboo or ritual uncleanness.  The word generally signifies something the Lord despises.  ‘There are six things the LORD hates,’ Proverbs declares, ‘seven that are an abomination to him’ (6:16; cf. Deut 12:31).  As revisionist authors are quick to point out, all the sexual sins in Leviticus are lumped together under the term ‘abominations’ (vv. 26-27, 29-30), but only male-with-male sex is singled out by itself as an abomination.  In fact, it is the only forbidden act given this label in the entire Holiness Code (of Leviticus)The death penalty, for both parties, also speaks to the seriousness of the offense in God’s eyes (emphasis mine).

Commenting on Lev 18:19-23, Wenham (2002, p. 146) says: “The sacrifice of children (21; Molech was the name of a god known in Canaan and elsewhere), genito-anal intercourse between men (22) and both male and female intercourse with animals (23) are all known to have been part of pagan worship in Egypt, Canaan and elsewhere.  That is probably the reason why they are grouped together here.  But the additional phrases at the end of each verse indicate that a more basic immorality was involved than pagan associations alone.  The actions are described respectively as profaning the name of your God (that is, bringing disgrace on the reputation of Yahweh among the nations), detestable (a term of strong disapproval in the OT, used for things which God hates or deplores), and perversion (lit. ‘confusion’; i.e. the unnatural mixing of what God created and intended to be separate)” (emphases mine).

The passages in Leviticus 18 and 20 indicate God’s detestation of the activities he has specified as sin.  These activities are inherently sinful, and that is why Satan requires them in the worship of other gods.  They didn’t become sinful when used in pagan worship; they are innately sinful.  If they were only sinful in the context of pagan worship, then we would be free to engage in them provided we weren’t doing them as part of worship of idols.  So if, as Colby insists, male-male sex is acceptable to God outside of idolatrous worship and in a loving same-sex relationship, then so is incest, and anyone can marry and/or have sex with another family member provided they don’t do it as part of worship, and it is in a loving relationship. 

The nations which committed these sins had defiled the land and as a result were cast out of it.  They were not the people of God and there was no covenant between them and God, yet he still regarded their activities as hateful and defiling because they were/are “contrary to his nature”.  They are not merely cultural issues.  Why would God demand the death penalty for cultural differences?  Death is the penalty for sin (Ezek 18:4, 20).  If Israel was warned that by adopting the practices of Canaan and Egypt they, too, would be cast out of the land (and individual Israelites were put to death for them), then the practices of these heathen nations were ipso facto sinful and hateful to God, let alone destructive to the people themselves.

God gave his laws to Israel because the customs and practices of Egypt and of the seven nations in Canaan marked for destruction were abomination i.e. loathsome and detestable; to the extent that they defiled even the land of those who committed them.  “Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations; neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you: (For all these abominations have the men of the land done, which were before you, and the land is defiled;) That the land spue not you out also, when ye defile it, as it spued out the nations that were before you….and that ye defile not yourselves therein” (Lev 18:26-28, 30).  It is sin that defiles, not mere “cultural taboos”

And his laws would be the admiration of the nations.  Moses said to the people: “Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people….For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call upon him for….And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments which I set before you this day?” (Deut 4:6-8).

Jesus, who is the God who gave Israel these laws, told us what it is that defiles a person.  “That which cometh out of a man, that defileth the man.  For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (Mk 7:20-23).  But don’t think that because same-sex sex is not mentioned here, it isn’t classed as sin and therefore defiling.  It is mentioned in Leviticus 18 and 20 and is called “abomination”, just as are the sins that Jesus specified here in Mark; they all defile the person and, in the OT examples, the land wherein they were committed.

And, just as the land ejected those who committed abominations and so defiled the land – which was a type of heaven and the new earth – so those who work abomination will be shut out of heaven and from the presence of God: “And there in no wise enter it anything that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie” (Rev 21:27).  And “For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie” (Rev 22:15). 

The bible passages under discussion show that all sexual sins, child sacrifice, lies, sorcery and other occult activities, and so on, are abomination and are called such by the bible; they defile the person because they are sinful.  But sexual sins, whether same-sex or opposite sex, have the capacity to degrade human beings and bring them into bondage more than anything else.  I’m not singling out same-sex sex or relationships as being worse than any other sin; it’s just that homosexuality is the subject of Colby Martin’s book and subsequently my response to what he says.  My response would have been the same if he had reinterpreted those passages in the bible which condemn and prohibit adultery or murder or theft.  

Her name is Woman

Again, Colby obfuscates, this time by presenting different words for “woman” for different occasions by going to the Hebrew.  What he says may be valid as far as having varying strict usages go.  But the meaning of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 is straightforward.  He says (in part): “First, there is an odd juxtaposition of nouns.  In Hebrew there is one word for ‘man/husband’ (ish) and a different word for ‘males’ in general (zakar).  And the same goes for women: a particular word for “woman/wife” (ishsha) and a different word for ‘females’ (neqevah).  Typically, you expect them to be used together: ‘man/husband with woman/wife’ (ish with ishsha), or ‘male with female’ (zakar with neqevah).  However, in these verses, the lawgiver uses the general ‘male’ (zakar) but then switches to the particular ‘woman/wife’ (ishsha).  If indeed the prohibition was intended to cover any and all instances of men having sex with men, we would expect a more general, ‘You shall not lie with males (zakar) as you lie with females (neqevah)’.  Or it might be even more specific: ‘You shall not lie with a man/husband (ish) as you do a woman/wife (ishsha)’.  But the Hebrew says, ‘You shall not lie with mankind as you do with a woman/wife’.  This suggests a nuanced or situational prohibition, as opposed to an across-the-board law against any and all sex acts between men” (Martin, C. p. 86).

Why has it taken 3000 years for the Church to realise that we’ve had the wrong understanding of the usage of these Hebrew words?   Why has every translation of these passages been essentially the same?  Why does even “The Complete Jewish Bible” have, “You are not to go to bed with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination”?  Don’t the Jews understand their own language?  Have they missed the nuance that Colby Martin has noticed?  Why did this Jewish translation translate them as essentially the same as every other bible translation?  Why haven’t any of the bible translators or commentators or scholars for the last 3000 years noticed this?  Even the Church Fathers of the first several centuries of church history interpreted the Clobber Passages in the way Christians understand them today. 

Or is it that these verses are indeed an across-the-board law against same-sex sex between men?  And that Colby is trying so hard to accommodate same-sex sexual relationships so that gay Christians can disobey the clear commands of God and express their sexual desires without fear of penalty, and live as if they were in right relationship with God?  So what if two Hebrew words have been used together in a way we would not normally expect?  It still refers to a man lying with a man as with a woman.  The meaning is still there; we understand exactly what is meant.  It is talking about same-sex sex, no matter how much Colby tries to fudge it.  Whether you refer to a man lying with a woman or with his wife or with another man’s wife, you’re describing male/female copulation.  And if you refer to a man lying with a man as with a woman or with a wife, you’re still describing a sexual act; you’re still describing sexual penetration; only in this case it is between two males.  There isn’t any nuance. 


The Clobber Passages are not hard to understand; they are straightforward and plain in their meaning.  But because Colby has rejected the long-held view of both the Jews and the Church and reinterpreted them, he has robbed them of their clarity and authority and left us with uncertainty as to what they mean.  The only certainty he has claimed is that they don’t condemn same-sex, loving, monogamous marriage and other same-sex activities.  And in so doing he has given a false hope to gay Christians, leading them to believe that God accepts their same-sex life-style.  And he lays guilt on heterosexual Christians for believing that they’ve been wrong after all and, like him, should be approaching gay couples in the street whom they’ve never met to ask them for their forgiveness.  He has made the guilty innocent and the innocent guilty.  Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness…” (Isa 5:20).   And his book with its reinterpretations will be received with glee by the enemies of God and used against Christians. 

For Christians, whether gay or straight, our identity is in Christ, not in our sexuality.  Many Christians, both straight and gay, struggle with refraining from unlawful sex, even though it may be with someone they love.  Many straight Christian men and women can’t find a partner no matter how much they try and pray for one.  But they don’t resort to finding sex in an illicit and sinful way – they wait on God, even though they may never find a spouse.  And many Christian widows and widowers, having lost their spouse, don’t try to make up the sexual deficit by visiting massage parlours and brothels – they wait on God and seek a partner through the right channels, refraining from sex until they are lawfully able to practice it.  Sexual relationships are valuable for emotional and psychological health, but they must not come at the expense of right relationship with God.  If and when it comes to a choice between a sexual and romantic relationship with a person, or a right relationship with God, God must come first.  Nothing we give to God is wasted – he will always replace it with something better. 

See “What were the Sins of Sodom and Gomorrah?” on this website for the rest of my response to Colby Martin’s book “UnClobber”.


DeYoung, K. 2015, “What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?” Published by Crossway UK (Kindle edition)

Friberg T, Friberg B, and Miller N F, 2000, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Martin, C, 2016, “UnClobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality”, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky

NKJV Study Bible 2014, Gen ed. Earl D. Radmacher, NT ed. H. Wayne House, “Jude”, publ. Thomas Nelson Inc., Nashville, TN

Strong, J.  Hebrew Dictionary of the Old Testament in “The New Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible”, 2001 Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN

Wenham, Gordon J, 2002, New Bible Commentary, “Leviticus”, ed. Carson, D. A., France, R. T., Motyer, J. A., Wenham, G. J., Publ. IVP Leicester, England,  and Downers Grove, Illinois, USA