The translations of this verse found in most English
Bibles are not supported by the Hebrew text.
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with
womankind: it is abomination. (KJV)
And with a male, thou shalt not lie down in
a woman's bed; it is an abomination.
Below, we have given a word by word translation of this verse:
ואת זכר לא תשכב משכבי אשה תועבה הִוא
V’et-zachar lo tishkav mishk’vei ishah to’evah hu.
(Transliterated using modern Israeli Sephardic pronunciation.)
V’et - This is two words. First, V’, which means and. This word cannot exist by itself, and therefore is attached to the word that comes after it, that is, et. This word means with. So the first two words of this verse are And with.
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. Therefore, this word translates as a male. The verse so far reads And with a male.
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.
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: sh-k-v, and it means lie down. The first letter of the word, 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 (male) shalt lie down. The previous Hebrew word, lo, negated the verb, so we have And with a male thou (male) shalt not lie down.
mishk’vei - This is a noun. The base form of the noun is mishkav, and it can be seen that the last three letters of the base, 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 English it often translates by placing the English word “of” between the two nouns. A good example is the Hebrew Beit Lechem (Bethlehem), which in English translates as House of Bread. This is because the first word, Beit, is in the construct state. Mishk’vei is in the plural construct state, meaning beds of. It would be a good idea here to explain a bit about Hebrew prepositions: 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 say that we miss them. But in Hebrew, the verb to miss is used with a preposition, and we say that we miss to 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 need it. Therefore, we need to insert the English word in before the words beds 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 beds of.
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 beds of a woman. Since this is awkward, we will rephrase it to "in a woman's bed." And with a male thou shalt not lie down in a woman's bed.
(Note: The word mishk'vei only appears three times in scripture: Gen. 49:7; Lev. 18:22; Lev. 20:13. In Genesis, it is paired with the word avicha, which means "thy father," and the phrase is correctly translated in most versions as "to thy father's bed." As in Lev. 18:22, the preposition is derived from context.)
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 ‘:’, and 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;
to’evah - This is a noun. It translates as abomination. Without a definite article, it translates as an abomination. 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.
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. 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. We want to repeat that: 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; there is 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 points for the correct word on top of 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 Middle Ages, Hebrew was developing dialects, primarily due to the fact that there were no vowels to tell people how to pronounce it. The Rabbis and scholars devised a system of dots and dashes to represent vowel 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; it
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 forms, 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 can't even be found in a dictionary or grammar book any more. They get along fine without it, 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 an abomination: And with a male thou shalt not lie down in a woman's bed; it is an abomination.
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).