Leviticus may be foreign territory for most Christians, but we’ve all heard Leviticus 18:22 (and its sister passage, Leviticus 20:13). This is one of a handful of “clobber texts” used to argue that homosexuality is unacceptable.
For many, Leviticus 18:22 is one of the most straightforward condemnations of homosexual activity in the Bible. But hang on a minute. Leviticus 18:22 doesn’t just sit there by itself. It has a context that shapes its meaning, as I was reminded while reading the whole book recently.
Many of us have assumed there’s only one way to interpret this text. But what if we’re wrong?
I can think of three options for interpreting/applying Leviticus 18:22 today.
Option #1: The conduct described in Leviticus 18 is universally prohibited because it violates the “natural order” of things.
On the surface, this view has a lot going for it. It’s the traditional view. It’s how most Christians through time have understood Leviticus 18. (It’s also how I read this text for most of my life.)
We can all agree (I hope) that at least most of the behaviors described in Leviticus 18 are unhealthy. There are 17 “do not’s” in this chapter, including the one about a man sleeping with another man. Twelve of the 17 “do not’s” deal with incest. One involves sex with animals (18:23).
But Leviticus 18 isn’t always clear-cut. What, for example, do you do with the command about “sexual relations during [a woman’s] monthly period” (18:19)? Leviticus forbids that too. Most Christians I know don’t think we’re obligated to keep this law today. And it certainly isn’t something we’d put in the same category as, say, an old man molesting his grandchild (18:10).
Mark Driscoll’s Real Marriage provides a good example of the typical evangelical approach to passages like Leviticus 18:19. Driscoll argues there’s a difference between Leviticus’ ceremonial laws (which deal with “the priesthood, sacrifices, temple, cleanness, and so forth”) and its moral laws. The latter are repeated in the New Testament and are still binding; the former applied only to Israel and are no longer in force. Driscoll puts the prohibition against sleeping with a menstruating woman into the “ceremonial law” category and says it’s “no longer binding on us.” But he considers everything else in Leviticus 18, including the prohibition against a man sleeping with another man, as moral (and therefore binding) law.
And that’s the problem with Driscoll’s approach. He makes a special exception for one verse in Leviticus 18 (the one most likely to affect him, conveniently enough) while insisting the others still apply. He acts as if Leviticus needs our help sorting its laws into meaningful categories. He and most evangelicals treat Leviticus as if it were a random assortment of laws, given without rhyme or reason — a jumble of ceremonial, civil, and moral laws listed in no particular order.
This approach ignores the inherent literary structure of Leviticus and imposes artificial categories on its content. So we miss what should be painfully obvious: Leviticus 18 is a single unit of content. Its beginning and end are clearly indicated. The laws here are grouped together for a reason. (More on that later.) In other words, Leviticus makes no distinction between sex during a woman’s period and the other activities prohibited in chapter 18.
All of them are described as “detestable practices” or abominations (Hebrew, toh-ey-vah), which Israel is to avoid at all costs. Leviticus 20 goes even further, calling for any man who sleeps with his wife during her monthly period to be “cut off from their people.” (The term translated “cut off” can also mean annihilate, kill, or amputate. In other words, more than just a slap on the wrist.)
But this is where Leviticus gets confusing (even more so than usual). Because just a few chapters earlier, sex during a woman’s period is characterized as a minor infraction, resulting in a man being ritually unclean for a week.
So which is it? Cut off from the community entirely? Or briefly excluded from ceremonial worship? Make up your mind, Leviticus!
The point is, almost all of us are selective about which regulations in Leviticus 18 we view as universally binding. Unfortunately, the categories we use to distinguish between “binding” and “non-binding” don’t take into consideration the content and structure of the book itself.
For the sake of consistency (if nothing else), we should either accept all the prohibitions in this chapter or concede that option #1 isn’t as persuasive as it first seemed.
Option #2: Leviticus 18 is addressing the issue of sexual conduct within the context of worship.
To start, let’s look at the larger, surrounding, and immediate contexts of Leviticus 18.
First, the larger context. Leviticus 18 is part of a book whose name means “pertaining to the Levites,” i.e. the Israelite priestly clan. Leviticus was Israel’s liturgical playbook. It dealt primarily with matters pertaining to worship: sacrifices, ritual cleanness, holiness, and the practice of redeeming property. Its chief purpose was to help Israel distinguish between what was holy and what was common as it related to worship, so they could avoid “defiling [God’s] dwelling place.”
Now zoom in a little closer. Leviticus 18 is surrounded by prohibitions concerning idolatry. Chapter 17 includes laws against sacrificing animals outside the tabernacle and against eating blood — both of which were pagan practices. Chapter 19 also addresses a number of pagan practices, including making idols, divination, and ritual self-mutilation.
So the larger context of Leviticus 18 suggests it has something to do with worship. The surrounding context narrows the focus to idolatry. Both are indications that Leviticus 18 might not be making a broad statement about human sexuality.
Now look at the immediate context. Notice how chapter 18 begins:
The LORD said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: “I am the LORD your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the LORD.” ’
Next, notice how Leviticus 18 ends:
‘ “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.” ’
The prohibitions in Leviticus 18 are introduced with a warning for Israel not to imitate its former neighbors (the Egyptians) or its new ones (the Canaanites). The behaviors listed here are called toh-ey-vah in Hebrew (“detestable things” or “abominations”), a term used to describe that which is prohibited in worship. To do as Egypt and Canaan did was to become taw-may — that is, “defiled” or “ritually unclean.” In other words, unfit for worship.
The larger, surrounding, and immediate contexts all indicate that Leviticus 18 is addressing matters of worship. In other words, the prohibitions are dealing with various forms of ritual sex.
Ritual sex was common among many ancient religious traditions. Temples across the ancient Near East employed (or enslaved) both male and female prostitutes (which explains why Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar was able to pass herself off as a “shrine prostitute” in Genesis).
If there’s any doubt Leviticus 18 is addressing religious practice, notice how it brings up another form of idolatry, child sacrifice, smack in the middle of all these sexual prohibitions:
Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek [a Canaanite deity], for you must not profane the name of your God.
The message of Leviticus 18 is that pagan practices like ritual sex and child sacrifice have no place in Israelite worship. The Egyptians and Canaanites may have done these things when they worshipped their gods, but this was not how Yahweh was to be worshiped.
Option #3: Leviticus 18 is dealing with predatory sexual behavior.
Another view (not incompatible with option #2) is that Leviticus 18 forbids predatory sexual activity.
Like most of Leviticus, the sexual prohibitions in this chapter are addressed to adult males. And for good reason. In the ancient Near Eastern family hierarchy, adult males always outranked females. Women were inferior, second-class. They were property. Even in the Old Testament law, women were valued less than their male counterparts, literally. For the purpose of making a sacred vow, for example, Leviticus set the value of men and women as follows:
- Men (20-60 years old): 50 shekels of silver
- Women (20-60 years old): 30 shekels of silver
(Remember what I wrote about Leviticus not being an easy book to like?)
Most of the prohibited sexual relationships in Leviticus 18 are incestuous in nature. But there’s another common thread connecting them all: each prohibited act involves an imbalance of power.
Sex in the ancient Near East was often a way of asserting dominance over someone else. That’s what was going on in the story of Sodom. That’s what was going on when Reuben slept with his father’s concubine; he was presumptuously asserting his power over the rest of the family as the firstborn son.
Predatory behavior is also in view in Leviticus’ prohibition against male homosexual activity (female homosexual activity is never mentioned in the Old Testament):
Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.
The phrase “as one does with a woman” is key. It emphasizes the passive, weaker role played by one of the two men. Which is exactly what you’d have if, as suggested by option #2, Leviticus 18:22 is describing an act of ritual sex in which one of the two members is a temple prostitute (and most likely a slave). In this case, the act becomes very predatory indeed. It was about one man brutally asserting his dominance over another, reducing him to the much lower status (in that culture) of a woman.
Every single act prohibited in Leviticus 18, whatever else it may be, can be understood as predatory — one person wrongly asserting their dominance over another.
One advantage of this view is that it helps explain Leviticus 18 in light of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” found in the very next chapter. Jesus, like many Jews of his day, insisted that this was one of the two greatest commands in all of Scripture (the other being “love the Lord your God”).
Every other command — all 611 of them — had to be interpreted in light of these two. Everything else was subordinate to “love God” and “love your neighbor.”
When understood as prohibitions against predatory sexual behavior, the commands in Leviticus 18 make perfect sense as an application of “love your neighbor.” In other words, do not prey on the vulnerable or the weak. Do not take advantage of your neighbor, sexually or otherwise.
These are the three ways I can think of to interpret Leviticus 18. What options do you see for understanding this text?
If Leviticus 18 is a prohibition against ritual, predatory sex, then what it doesn’t address is a committed, equal relationship between two males or two females. It seems that Leviticus 18:22 can only be used as arsenal in the debate over homosexuality when it’s pulled out of its cultural, literary, and religious context.
Of course, much is made of the fact that Leviticus calls a man “lying with another man” a “defiling” and “detestable” act. But take note of what else was considered “defiling,” “detestable,” or the antithesis of “holy,” according to Leviticus:
- Eating “unclean” animals, including pork, rabbit, and shellfish
- Eating raw or rare meat
- Cross-breeding animals
- Wearing mixed fabrics
- Cutting the hair at the sides of your head
- Clipping the edges off your beard
- Anyone with a skin disease
- Anyone who was disfigured in any way — the blind, hunchbacks, dwarfs, eunuchs, etc. — and thus prohibited from serving God
Today, we don’t exclude people with physical impairments from serving in the church. We don’t call someone “unholy” for trimming their sideburns. Most of us don’t see anything defiling or detestable about eating pork or ordering our steak medium rare. We wouldn’t ostracize someone with eczema or write them off as “defiled.”
What if our reading of Leviticus is too selective? What if Leviticus has nothing to offer when it comes to the contemporary debate over sexual identity?