Bestiality in Biblical and Hittite Law
“Zoophilia,” “bestiosexuality,” “zooerasty,” “zoosexuality,” “sodomy”; these are but a few of the terms used for defining sexual intercourse between humans and animals. The most common term in this regard, however, is “bestiality.” This act constitutes a unique deviation from the normative frame of sexual intercourse in almost every society throughout human history.
Many social and cultural factors stand behind this pervasive objection to bestiality, which blurs the hierarchical boundaries between the categories of human and non-human. Sometimes, the social objection to bestiality became embedded in formal law. In the ancient Near East, such formal laws are found in the Hittite and biblical legal compendia.
Bestiality in Hittite law
The Hittites were an Indo-European population that lived in Anatolia—nowadays central Turkey—during the second millennium B.C.E. Their law collection was probably composed around 1650–1600 (though perhaps as late as 1500) B.C.E., and thus predates the biblical laws by many centuries.
Laws 187, 188, 199 and 200a address bestiality. Rather than offering a blanket prohibition, with a single penalty against bestiality, these laws distinguish between various cases where a man has sex with a particular animal. Notably, the laws are not comprehensive, i.e., no law that says, “it is forbidden to lie with all animals,” and thus far, no persuasive solution has been offered as to why these particular animals have been singled out.
The first statute reads:
HL §187 If a man [si]ns with a cow: abomination. He shall be killed. They shall conduct (him) to the king’s gate. The king may kill him, [the kin]g may spare [him], but he shall not approach the king.
The act is defined as “to sin” (waštai-), and is deemed “abomination” (ḫurkel). As was discussed by many scholars in the past, these two terms are understood as parallel to biblical חטא and תועבה, respectively. The phrase “he shall be killed” communicates that this is a capital offense, which is unusual in Hittite, which usually favors financial compensation (even for murder). As such, the perpetrator is to be judged by the king himself, who may decide to execute the man or to spare his life.
In addition, the perpetrator must not approach the king during his trial. The person who performed it became polluted, and his pollution must be kept away from the king, who also functioned as the chief priest of the kingdom, a capacity that required him to remain pure.
The next law states:
HL §188 If a man s[in]s with a sheep: abomination. He shall be killed. They shall conduct (him) [to the king’s gate]. The king may kill him, [the kin]g may sp[are] h[im], but he shall not approach the king.
This statute is identical to its predecessor, with “sheep” replacing “cow.” Cattle and sheep were basic herding animals, so occasionally, the law treated them jointly. And yet, unlike the biblical Hebrew term צאן, which refers to both sheep and goats, the Sumerian logogram used here, UDU, refers only to sheep. Goat is UZ6, and is not mentioned in the Hittite bestiality laws, despite its also being a basic herding animal, and despite our knowledge from certain Hittite magical texts that intercourse with goats was prohibited.
Pig or Dog
The third statute reads:
HL §199 If someone sins with a pig (or) a dog: he shall be killed. He shall be conducted to the palace gate. The king may kill them, the k[in]g may spare them, but he shall not approach the king.
Here the forbidden animals are a dog and a pig. Since this statute states that the king may kill or spare “them” (-uš / -aš), as opposed to “him” as stated in the previous laws, it is obvious that the death punishment was prescribed here for both human and animal. Both the pig and the dog are domesticated animals, and both could be offered as ritual sacrifices, but why the two of them were grouped together here is an enigma.
Leaped on By a Bull or Pig
Two intriguing cases appear subsequently,
If a bull leaps [on] a m[an]: the bull shall be killed, and the man shall not be k[illed]. They addu[ce] one sheep instead of the man, and they shall kill it. If a pig leap[s] on a man: there is no offence.
In this case, a bull or a pig “leaps” (watkuzi) on a man and rapes him. (Whether such a thing is even possible, I do not know, but this is what the law says.) As the bull is regarded as the perpetrator, it is to be killed, while the man is seen as an innocent victim, but a sheep is sacrificed as an atonement on his behalf. The second case, in which the man is assaulted by a pig, is regarded as “not an offence” (natta ḫaratar), and thus the pig is not killed and no sacrifice is required for atonement.
Horse or Mule
The final statute reads as follows:
HL §200a If a man sins with a horse or a mule: there is no offence. But he shall not approach the king, and shall not become a priest.
In this final ruling, horses and mules, both beasts of burden are treated together, though donkeys are also beasts of burden, and yet are absent from the list. Males having intercourse with a horse or mule is regarded as “not an offence” (natta ḫaratar), so no punishment is prescribed for either man or animal.
The human perpetrator was nonetheless forbidden to approach the king, or to become a priest in the future. This, in all likelihood, derives from the perception of bestiality as an act that pollutes the individual, and a man who does so bears the risk of contaminating his environment. The verb used to define the act is “to sin” (waštai-), which clearly indicates that this “non-offence” was still regarded as sinful. HL §200a does not permit bestiality with an equine; it only exempts the sinner, and the animal, from execution.
Reflecting on the Prohibitions
Why did the Hittites prohibit bestiality? This question cannot be easily answered, because—unlike Leviticus—the Hittites did not supply any explanation for these laws. One can only speculate that bestiality was generally proscribed in Hatti, and the different prohibitions specified in the four pertinent statutes were meant to convey the general idea of the ban, specifying several different animals, perhaps those domesticated that were the most abundant in the Hittite world and the most accessible to such treatment.
Moreover, it seems possible that these statutes were meant to convey a general ruling, without being overly meticulous about listing all cases. For example, even though sheep are mentioned specifically, the law should likely be understood as extending to the very similar goats, especially since, as noted above, certain Hittite magical rituals mention that goats are forbidden. Similarly, the law about intercourse with beasts of burden may have applied to donkeys as well.
This may caution us not to take the laws too literally: the laws may not necessarily be exhibiting a systematic and rational thinking, as much as presenting several examples of a prohibition, that was to be understood as a general one. Even if this is the case, it does not explain the enigmatic alleviations in case a pig leaped on a man, let alone the mystifying leniency about horses and mules.
Bestiality in Biblical Law
Biblical law condemns bestiality four times, in all three law collections: the Covenant Collection (CC), the Deuteronomic Collection (D), and the Holiness Collection (H).
The earliest attestation of the prohibition on bestiality appears in CC, in a mini-collection of offenses punishable by death (Exod 22:17–19):
שמות כב:יח כָּל שֹׁכֵב עִם בְּהֵמָה מוֹת יוּמָת.
Exod 22:18 Anyone who has sexual relations with an animal is to be put to death. (NIV)
This prohibition in Exodus 22:18 is formulated in a brief and laconic manner, and likely refers to a man or woman.
The second attestation appears in D:
דברים כז:כא אָרוּר שֹׁכֵב עִם כָּל בְּהֵמָה וְאָמַר כָּל הָעָם אָמֵן.
Deut 27:21 “Cursed is anyone who has sexual relations with any animal.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”
This reference to bestiality is included in the list of curses that appears after the main cluster of D’s provisions. The prohibition appears in the middle of other sexual prohibitions (vv. 20–23), all addressed to males. Many but not all of the offences noted in this chapter are capital in nature elsewhere in the Bible, though this passage curses anyone who commits any of these offenses, without noting any additional punishment.
The final two attestations appear in Leviticus 18 and 20 of the HC; these chapters overlap, and may derive from a common source. Lev 18:23 reads:
ויקרא יח:כג וּבְכָל בְּהֵמָה לֹא תִתֵּן שְׁכָבְתְּךָ לְטָמְאָה בָהּ וְאִשָּׁה לֹא תַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי בְהֵמָה לְרִבְעָהּ תֶּבֶל הוּא.
Lev 18:23 Do not have sexual relations with an animal and defile yourself with it. A woman must not present herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it; that is a perversion.
Leviticus 18:23 is comprised of two parallel parts: a prohibition for men to commit bestiality addressed to a male reader in 2ndperson singular, and a prohibition for women to engage in bestiality, written in 3rd person singular (i.e., not addressing female readers directly, but speaking about them, likely to the presumed male reader). Neither of the previous texts are similar, and whereas CC seems to cover both men and women, Deut 27:21 seems to address men specifically.
The law of the woman having intercourse with an animal is reminiscent of the second part of HL §199, in which a bull leaps upon a man. Nevertheless, the two laws have some important differences: First, the Hittite law deals with a man as the passive participant while the biblical law presents the case with a woman. Second, the Hittite law assumes that the bull is the sole offender, and the human is an unwitting participant, while the biblical law describes the woman as bringing the act about.
The forbidden act is defined as polluting (“לְטָמְאָה בָהּ”), and as תֶּבֶל, a “perversion.” Even so, in line with the rest of this chapter, this legislation does not list any penalty for these offenses.
The second reference in H is the most detailed of all biblical provisions against bestiality:
ויקרא כ:טו וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן שְׁכָבְתּוֹ בִּבְהֵמָה מוֹת יוּמָת וְאֶת הַבְּהֵמָה תַּהֲרֹגוּ. כ:טז וְאִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר תִּקְרַב אֶל כָּל בְּהֵמָה לְרִבְעָה אֹתָהּ וְהָרַגְתָּ אֶת הָאִשָּׁה וְאֶת הַבְּהֵמָה מוֹת יוּמָתוּ דְּמֵיהֶם בָּם.
Lev 20:15 If a man has sexual relations with an animal, he is to be put to death, and you must kill the animal. 20:16 If a woman approaches an animal to have sexual relations with it, kill both the woman and the animal. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.
This passage introduces two parallel statutes. In the first, the perpetrator is a man, while in the second it is a woman. And though it does not define the act as sinful or abominable, this passage introduces a new element to the sanction: not only the human, but also the animal involved in the forbidden act is to be executed.
No other biblical passage explicitly refers to the fate of the animal. This is reminiscent of the first part of HL §199, in which the pig and dog are to be put to death along with the human; apparently, in this statute, the animal is perceived as an accomplice to the sin.
The fact that H supplies the harshest and most elaborate ruling might result from its strong emphasis on sanctity and purity in this source of the Bible.
Interpreting the Biblical Prohibitions
We can only speculate that the severity of bestiality was such that all three biblical law collections addressed it, yet, it is not clear why bestiality is such a severe offense. Various modern biblical scholars have offered different suggestions for what stands behind this strong prohibition.
Anti-Paganism—Nahum Sarna (1923–2005), former professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, suggested that these prohibitions were “aimed at idolatrous practices, otherwise unrecorded, of the official pagan religious or popular cults.” Such suggestions, concerning possible cultic practices that were not recorded cannot be proven or disproven, and they remain in the eye of the beholder.
Differentiate Israel from Its Neighbors—A slightly different form of this argument picks up on Leviticus 18:24 (H), which follows up the prohibition on bestiality with the statement that this act—like many others—must be avoided by the Israelites, because it was polluting, and the Canaanite peoples who inhabited the land prior to the arrival of the Israelites polluted themselves by performing it.
In other words, H understood the ban on performing bestiality as a means of self-definition. Frequently, social groups establish their self-identity as an oppositional concept, contrasted with an image of otherness.
Unique rules that define what is standard and normative within the group mark the proper way of conduct of its members, in contrast to members of other groups, who behave differently. In this case, bestiality was defined as an act typical of the Canaanites from whom the ancient Israelites wished to differentiate themselves, whether this act was indeed typically performed by the Canaanites, or not. But even if this is the conception of H, it may not reflect the reasons for the prohibition in the earlier sources.
Category Breaching—Mary Douglas (1921–2007), an anthropologist whose approach to Leviticus and its laws has been very influential, acknowledged that in ancient Israel success and prosperity were assumed to result from godly blessing, and that God, being perfect, represented the ideas of completeness and wholeness.
Therefore, in the mind of the ancient Israelites, the mixing of categories needed to be avoided, since it contrasted the very concept of godly wholeness. The main rationale against bestiality, in her view, was simply an expression of the general prohibitions against category-breaching.
Separate Human from Animal—Calum Carmichael, Professor Emeritus of comparative literature and law at Cornell University, assumed that the bestiality laws were meant to reinforce the distinction between humans and animals.Similarly, Cornelis Houtman, Professor Emeritus of Bible at Kampen Theological University, suggests that the reason behind Exodus 22:18 was that the, “animal is not a suitable partner for man (cf. Gen. 2:18–24). Sodomy [=bestiality] implies dehumanization, violation of the holiness of human beings (cf. 22:30).”
The Uniqueness of the Hittite and Biblical Prohibitions on Bestiality
The possibility that the ancient Israelite legislators were aware of the Hittite laws concerning bestiality, and were influenced by them, seems unlikely. The comparative study of ancient civilizations, however, teaches us that similar phenomena do not require explanations of monogenesis.
In other words, social groups can behave similarly regardless of diffusion of ideas, imitation or borrowing. Bestiality is generally unacceptable among human societies, but formal legislation that bans it is not necessarily frequent. In the ancient Near East, only Hittite and biblical law explicitly prohibited it.
The similarities between the Hittite and biblical legislation concerning bestiality were explained by different scholars, in different ways. What seems to connect the two cultures is the emphasis on the separation between categories.
When assessing these ancient laws, we should pay attention to the inconsistencies they occasionally exhibit, and to the variations within the legal corpora themselves. The Hittite laws were not identical, and the three biblical law collections do not exhibit one monolithic picture. The differences may be due to the literary-historical processes of composing these texts: we have at our hand end-products that resulted from long scribal processes, of which we are mostly ignorant.
In sum, the taboo on bestiality is generally—however not entirely—universal. Nevertheless, its documentation as sets of prohibitions embedded in formal law singles out the Hittite and biblical legal corpora as unique in the landscape of the ancient Near East.
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May 9, 2019
July 3, 2020
Dr. Ilan Peled is an Assyriologist working in the department of Arabic, Hebrew and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Following the completion of his Ph.D. in Hebrew and Semitic Languages, from Bar-Ilan University, he held postdoctoral positions at the University of Pennsylvania, New York University, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Peled’s research focuses on cultural life in the ancient Near East, especially in the spheres of gender, law, religion and cult, and biblical interpretation in the ANE context. He is the author of Masculinities and Third Gender: The Origins and Nature of an Institutionalized Gender Otherness in the Ancient Near East (AOAT 435), and the editor of Structures of Power: Law and Gender Across the Ancient Near East and Beyond.
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