Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

GLBT Persons in the Church: The Case for Full Inclusion, 5

We come to two texts in Leviticus:

Lev. 18: 22, You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; that is an abomination.

Lev. 20:13, If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.

Well, that seems straightforward enough. There are no translation issues. The forbidden practice seems very clear: a ban on male-on-male anal sex. Since the prohibition is given twice in Leviticus with the second using nearly the same formulation, but expanded, it is likely that the second law was intended to clear up any confusion in the first formulation: Both partners are considered to have transgressed, not just the one penetrating or the one penetrated, and their punishment (death) is spelled out and there is an assurance that no blood-guilt attaches to executing the transgressors.

What is not clear from just reading these texts in isolation is the reasoning. The verses as they stand leave so many questions: Why aren’t sex acts between two women mentioned? Why the phrase “lies with a male as with a woman?” Same-sex eroticism, like heterosexual eroticism, takes many other forms than intercourse, are they also banned? If so, why weren’t they mentioned? If not, why this narrow focus on intercourse(penetration)? What does it mean to call something “an abomination?” What other actions are called by the same term? What unites them? Just what is going on that leads to these prohibitions?

Because of the nature of our source (Leviticus), which mostly lists commands without much explanation, getting trustworthy answers to the above questions is not easy. In what follows, I will present a summary of a widespread consensus among scholars (not all of whom come to the same conclusions I do about how to apply these verses, today), but the consensus is not beyond challenge. (People who speak of “the assured results of biblical scholarship,” are dealing with fantasy–at the level of those who dreamed of a “permanent Republican majority.” Today’s assured results can look very shaky tomorrow as new archeological finds, new tools or methods for considering background, etc. re-shapes the way scholars look at any texts.)

Holiness/Purity. In contemporary English, we tend to equate “holiness” with moral goodness. But that’s not how the ancient Hebrews, or many traditional societies, thought. Our two verses come from a large section in Leviticus (chaps. 17-26) called “the Holiness Code.” In addition to forbidding male-to-male intercourse, that Code outlaws heterosexual sex during a woman’s menstrual period, eating rare steaks, crossbreeding animals, child sacrifice, sex acts with animals, sowing two different kinds of seeds in the same field, wearing clothes of mixed fibres, adultery, consulting mediums, children disrespecting their parents, eating shellfish, and, for men, trimming the hair at the side of our heads or trimming our beards, as well as many other things.

What connects and/or distinguishes these different things? The concept of holiness involved a sense of awe or even fear connected with the sacred [See the classic study by Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (1926) or, more recently, Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane]. It also involved the necessity of separating the sacred from the profane or ordinary. The world as God’s Creation has ORDER (see Gen. 1) and things are properly to be separated into their proper PLACE. Things which cross categories are taboo: One can eat fish and land animals, but shellfish (shrimp, lobster, etc.) crawl on the ground like land animals, but live in the sea like fish–they cross boundaries and are therefore “unclean” and must not be eaten.

The Levitical prohibitions on male/male intercourse are holiness or purity prohibitions. [See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, and Leviticus as Literature.] To call these acts “abomination” is to declare that they make one who commits them ritually impure. It is not, per se, a moral judgment since one also calls wearing clothing with mixed fibres or eating shellfish “abominations.” Ritual impurity was considered to be contagious–it “polluted” those around it. So, the death penalty for male/male intercourse was to “cleanse” the community–just as the death penalty for disobedient children did the same.

Now, over time, and especially in the ministry of Jesus, holiness/purity became redefined or refocused to have less to do with ritual purity and more with justice and morality. [See Marcus Borg, Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus; L. William Countryman, Dirt, Greed, and Sex; or, from an evangelical viewpoint that would not draw the same conclusions I am, Craig Blomberg’s, Contagious Holiness: Jesus’ Meals with Sinners.]

A second thing may be going on in the background of Leviticus: the temptation to follow Israel’s pagan neighbors and have temple prostitution, including male temple prostitutes. To be holy was to be separate and distinct from the pagan nations–and to avoid any practices which even called to mind the practices of pagan religion. Hence the warnings against child sacrifice (specifically to the god, Molech). We know from the prophetic books (especially Ezekiel) that Israel sometimes lapsed into syncretistic religious practices which turned the worship of YHWH into something close to the surrounding fertility cults. “Abomination” is a term most often used about idolatry.

A final part of the background may be viewing sex as primarily (if not exclusively) for procreation. Women in the ancient world were not known to contribute anything to reproduction except “fertile ground.” (Only with the rise of modern science did we come to understand that women contribute as much or more to conception as men. Biblical authors all assumed that pregnancy was just men “sowing their seed” in women.) Male/male intercourse would be viewed as “wasting their seed” in “infertile ground.” This could explain why female same-sex eroticism is not even mentioned. As long as children are being produced, women’s sexuality is basically ignored in much of the ancient world, including almost all of Scripture.  The strong biblical prohibitions on adultery focus most on women because men needed to be assured their offspring were theirs–especially since ancient Hebrew thought considered immortality to be mostly a matter of having offspring and not “being forgotten.” (Thus, the practice of levirate marriage in which the childless widow is married to the closest male relative to the dead man and offspring from that union are considered the dead man’s children.)

Now, some of what is forbidden in the Holiness Code still makes sense to us today, to forbid on moral grounds: I don’t hear any voices within contemporary churches arguing for permitting child sacrifice, or bestiality, for instance. But neither do I hear any voices claiming that Christians are forbidden to wear polyester blends or crossbreed animals or eat shrimp. And few Protestant fundamentalists, at least, would condemn men who trim their beards–it would indict too many a clean-shaven evangelist! And, if some of us avoid marital sex during menstruation it has more to do with aesthetics than with either purity or morality concerns–i.e., it strikes us not so much as “bad,” as “gross.”

So, in deciding the application of these ancient laws today, we have to ask whether male/male intercourse is more like bestiality or child sacrifice (things we would still condemn) or more like eating shellfish or trimming our beards.  I will eventually argue that promiscuous male/male intercourse (and other forms of same-sex sexual intimacy) should still be condemned, as should all forms of exploitive sex.  I will, however, argue that covenantal same-sex relationships analagous to heterosexual marriage should be permitted–that forbidding them was more like forbidding consumption of shellfish than it was to forbidding bestiality or child sacrifice.  But, no matter which way we decide, how do we decide? How do we know which things in the Holiness Code should still be condemned and which should not?

Moral Law? One answer that has been given at least since John Calvin has been to divide the Old Testament Law into categories: Ritual laws, laws for running Israel’s civil society, and the moral law. In this way of thinking, Jesus abolished the ritual laws as binding on Christians, the civil laws are binding only by way of analogy in modern societies, but the moral law is still binding–we still forbid murder, and adultery, and theft.

There could be merit to this idea. But we have to notice something: Leviticus does not divide laws this way. The Holiness Code, for instance, places laws on gleaning (a way of providing for the poor), false scales, and defrauding neighbors right alongside laws about sacrifice, food laws, sabbath keeping, ritual purity, and not selling one’s daughter into prostitution.

So, the question for us, today, with our different views of sex, purity, and morality is this: Are all same-sex actions today more like murder, theft, and bestiality or are they more like eating shellfish, trimming beards, and wearing polyester blends?

To many, the answer to that question will seem obvious. I can hear the outrage that I should even ask the question. But, whatever way we answer the question, notice that we are making a judgment that brings outside criteria to the question. That is, we will not be deciding the issue for the same reasons that the writers of Leviticus did. Whether we decide to retain the ban on same-sex relations or lift it, we STILL will be using non-biblical considerations in making our judgment. Unless we adopt the entire Holiness Code without exception, we are not simply following the letter of Scripture–even if other biblical texts are among the influences on our moral decision.

I am not saying that these texts have no bearing on the contemporary questions surrounding gays in churches. Unlike the Sodom story, these texts do relate to our questions. But the way they relate may not be all that simple.

For further study: John Gammie, Holiness in Israel; “The Abomination of Leviticus: Uncleanness,” chapt. four of What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, by Daniel Helminiak; “Moral Abominations,” chapt. 7 of Ethics After Babel: The Languages of Morals and Their Discontents by Jeffrey Stout. More to be added as our study progresses.

January 19, 2011 - Posted by | "homosexuality", Biblical interpretation, blog series, ethics, GLBT issues


  1. […] but I haven’t forgotten it. For the previous posts in this series, see one, two, three, four, five, and this addendum. We come, at last, to the New Testament.  We shall have to spend much time (I […]

    Pingback by GLBT Persons in the Church: The Case for Full Inclusion, 6 « Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People | January 19, 2011 | Reply

  2. […] Two Texts from the “Holiness Code” in Leviticus. […]

    Pingback by GLBT Persons in the Church: Index « Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People | January 20, 2011 | Reply

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