Leviticus 18: Using the hermeneutic principle "General-specific-general"

I’m not a Rabbinical scholar; I’m not a rabbinical student; I’m a (christian) theological student. Forgive me for my mistakes in what follows. Or rather, take it up with BZ who wrote a post on the matter. It is his post that I am using as inspiration, bringing a Jewish viewpoint into the Christian sphere.

Something I have learnt from researching for this post is that christian scholarship can miss out on a very rich heritage if the Jewish understanding/ hermeneutics of the Jewish Bible are ignored. I am not advocating that they yield a correct answer, but they allow a different angle upon a text we may be too comfortable viewing from our christian tradition. There are links to Wikipedia for those that wish to follow-up any of the Hebrew terms/ ideas.

midrash halachah is the Jewish sudy of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible/ Christian Old Testament) that attempts to link the laws written to the laws observed. Within this style of study there are 13 hermeneutical principles, as laid out by Rabbi Ishmael in the first century CE.

One such principle is kelal u-perat u-kelal; general-specific-general. The Practical Talmud Dictionary explains:

When a general term is followed by a specific term (or terms) that is in turn followed by a second general term, the halakha [the Jewish law code] neither includes the whole general class (since a specific term has been stated) nor is it restricted to the specific item(s) (since general terms have been stated), but it applies to all items that are similar to the specific term(s) stated in the Biblical text.

Daunting as a principle, but let’s apply this methodology to Leviticus chapter 18:

+18.1-6 becomes our first general term; you must never have sexual relations with your close relatives [NCV].

+18.7-20 become our specific terms; Sexual relations with female relatives (direct, extended, or neighbours) are comprehensively listed. You must not have sexual relations with your father’s sister [NCV] etc.

+18.22 can then become our second general term; You must not have sexual relations with a man as you would a woman. That is a hateful sin. [NCV]. The general term, in context of the specific terms, implies that a man is not to have sexual relations with his male relatives, in the same way outlined with female relatives. The specific term ‘You must not have sexual relations with your father’s sister [NCV] finds an implied cognate specific term, namely, ‘you must not have sexual relations with your father’s brother’.

From such a reading of the text the usual blanket prohibition of homosexual practice is transformed into a prohibition of sexual sin within a family, or within a small community. It is not necessarily a prohibition of homosexual practice in and of itself. An interesting reading indeed, when you consider that this is the only explicit teaching on the matter in the Old Testament.

As nicely as I want this hermeneutical principle to fit, I have a concern about 18.21/23, the verses that flank the suggested second general term. If we are to follow the pattern outlined above we must explain these two inserted ideas into the coherent unit. They do not seem, at face value, to highlight the above reading, or clarify it any further. If anything, 18.19-23 appears to be a separate unit to the preceding text; the idea of sexual sin among families and small communities (vv. 7-18) shifts to other sexual sins (vv.19-23). Yet this separation also fails to be completely coherent. 18.21 mentions infant sacrifice, not sexual sin.

The answer eludes me once again, but that seems to be the way. Wrestling with that messy book, within the messy Church, in this messy World; it’s the only way I’m going to see who God really is, and what he really wants.

This entry was posted in academic, bible, bisexuality, Christian ethic, Christianity, church, God, Halakhah, hebrew, homosexuality, Judaism, Leviticus, Midrash, Sexuality, worldview. Bookmark the permalink.

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