Abomination in the New Testament
Toward the end of John’s vision of the New Jerusalem, we read that “nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Revelation 21:27)
In the immediate context there is no indication what the practice of abomination refers to. But a few chapters earlier in chapter 17 there is another reference to abomination in reference to “Babylon, the prostitute” (Rome) in league with the Beast (Satan). Again, it is not entirely clear what the abominations refer to. Prostitution and adultery are common biblical metaphors for idolatry – of which Rome was guilty in spades. Rome’s persecution of “those who bore testimony to Jesus” would also qualify as an abomination.
The Greek word βδέλυγμα (bdelugma), translated “abomination,” occurs only a couple of other times in the New Testament. In both instances, idolatry is clearly the issue. In Mark 13:14/Matthew 24:15, Jesus warns of “'the abomination that causes desolation' standing where it does not belong.” This is an apparent reference to an idolatrous desecration of the Temple.
Idolatry is also the point in the only other place something is called an βδέλυγμα/abomination in the New Testament. In Luke 16:13, Jesus warns, “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon [wealth].” He goes on to tell those who love money, “God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”
Abomination in the Old Testament
Abomination shows up more frequently in the Old Testament. More than one Hebrew word gets translated as “abomination”, e.g., sheqets in Levitcus 11 and pigguwl in Leviticus 7. The Hebrew word most commonly translated “abomination” is to’evah (but also sometimes translated “detestable” or “abhorrent”). In Genesis 43:32 (Egyptians eating with Hebrews) and 46:34 (Egyptians’ attitude toward shepherds) to’evah refers to something a particular culture finds offensive. Most well-known, of course, “if a man lies with a male as with a woman” is declared to’evah. Before we look at that, here is a list of things the Old Testament declares to’evah:
1. As with abomination in the New Testament, to’evah most commonly refers to idolatry and behavior related to idolatry
· idolatry or idols (Deuteronomy 7:25-26; 13:14; 20:18; 27:15; 32:16; 1 Kings 11:5; 14:24; 2 Kings 21:1-11; 23:13; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 36:14; Isaiah 41:24; 44:19; Jeremiah 32:35; Ezekiel 6:9; 7:20; 11:18; 14:6; 16:36; Malachi 2:11)
· child sacrifice is wrong for lots of reasons, but is related to idolatry (Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10; 2 Kings 16:3; 2 Chronicles 28:3; Jeremiah 32:35)
2. Idolatry is false worship. To’vah also refers to wrong worship
· sacrificing an animal with a blemish (Deuteronomy 17:1)
· sacrificing and worshiping with a wrong relationship with God (Proverbs 15:8; Proverbs 21:27; Isaiah 1:13; Ezekiel 5:11; cf. Proverbs 28:9)
· payment at the Temple for a vow using money related to prostitution or Gentiles (Deuteronomy 23:18)
3. Magic and witchcraft are related to idolatry and wrong worship and are to’evah
· magic and witchcraft (Deuteronomy 18:10-12)
4. To’evah also sometimes refers to actions and attitudes we would more readily recognize as matters of morality
· arrogance (Proverbs 16:5)
· dishonesty (Proverbs 12:22)
· dishonesty and cheating in business (Deuteronomy 25:13-19; 20:10-23)
· usury, violent robbery, murder, oppressing the poor and needy, etc. (Ezekiel 18:10-13)
· violence (Proverbs 3:31-32; Ezekiel 8:17; 18:12)
· stealing, murder, and adultery, breaking covenants (Jeremiah 7:9-10)
· Proverbs 6:16-19 lists seven things which are also abominations: "haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are swift in running to mischief, a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers."
5. Animals declared unclean are also to’evah
· don’t eat unclean animals (Deuteronomy 14:3-21) Leviticus 11 refers to eating unclean animals as sheqets, usually translated as an “abomination” synonymous with to’evah
6. Various sexual behaviors are also declared to’evah
· cross-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5)
· remarrying a woman you divorced who has subsequently remarried and been divorced (Deuteronomy 24:2-4)
· adultery (Leviticus 18:20; Ezekiel 22:11, 33:26)
· incest (Leviticus 18:6-18)
· sex with a woman during her period (Leviticus 18:19)
· bestiality (Leviticus 18:23)
· male temple prostitution (1 Kings 14:24)
· male homosexual behavior (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13)
To’evah most frequently refers to idolatry and wrong worship which is a betrayal of God reflecting and leading to a breach in our communion with God. That leads to betrayal, abuse, and injustice – a breach in our communion with one another as represented in the fourth list of verses above. Communion with God and the communion with other humans (indeed, with the rest of creation) are integrally related. This is demonstrated in the Hebrew word, tzedakah, which is usually translated “righteousness” or “justice” and refers to both.
Abomination is not always forever – “unclean” food
The Old Testament food regulations primarily serve as markers setting the people of Israel apart from their neighbors. Eating “unclean” animals is declared to’evah – an abomination. Abomination is a strong word. One might expect that it refers to something that God finds inherently and eternally repulsive. But, in the New Testament, Jesus is understood to have declared all food clean (Mark 7:19) and Peter has a vision (Acts 10:9-16) in which he is commanded to kill and eat all sorts of animals and to “not call anything impure that God has made clean.” So, what was once declared an abomination is no longer an abomination and apparently not inherently and eternally repulsive to God.
There is an exception, though. The Council of Jerusalem asserted that while other laws about food did not apply to Gentile Christians, they were still to abstain from consuming blood (see Genesis 9:2-4, Leviticus 17:14, Ezekiel 33:25-26) and from eating meat from what is strangled (Acts 15:29). How many Christians worry about obeying the plain meaning of that rule? Not many. Why not?
It is also significant that the main point of Peter’s vision is not about food. It is about recognizing that Gentiles were no longer to be considered impure. This vision allowed Peter to recognize the faithfulness of those he had considered incapable of faithfulness, even though doing so called into question many of his assumptions of what faithfulness meant. When he made this case for Gentile inclusion, Peter appealed to the evidence that they had received the Holy Spirit – do not call anything impure that God has made clean. What are we to do if people we have considered incapable of faithfulness demonstrate faithfulness even though doing so calls into question many of our assumptions of what faithfulness means?
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