The Laws of Leviticus

The second and third passages of scripture that are used to condemn homosexuality and clobber LGBTQ+ people come from the often-read book of Leviticus (sarcasm alert).

Before digging into these verses, let’s quote them here:

“Don’t lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.” - Leviticus 18:22

“‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” - Leviticus 20:13

These strong words in the Bible have armed anti-gay protesters with enough content to fill their picket signs with hatred and violence. “Homosexuality is an Abomination” and “God hates fags” and “To death with the gays” are all signs that make regular appearances at Pride parades throughout the world, unfortunately often held up by so-called Christians. Regardless of someone’s belief about homosexuality, I will never understand how some Christians see this as a Christ-like response.

While not all non-affirming Christians go to this extreme, many of the unhelpful comments and beliefs towards the LGBTQ+ community stem from this phrase in Leviticus that calls same-sex acts between men an abomination. So how do we responsibly deal with these passages?

How to approach the laws in Leviticus?

The book of Leviticus is filled with 613 laws that the Israelite people were instructed to obey. Many of these we still try to obey today (like those against bestiality, incest, lying, stealing, and child sacrifice) and many we do not (like those against shaving, wearing mixed fabrics, getting tattoos, sowing different crops in the same field, and sexual activity during a women’s period). Clearly, just because something was condemned for God’s people in Moses’ day doesn’t automatically mean it is condemned for Christians today.

Many non-affirming Christians say that affirming Christians just pick and choose which laws to obey and which to ignore, but I don’t know any Christians that still obey them all today. The truth is, we cannot and do not follow all of the laws that were given to the Israelite people in Leviticus. We all need to discern which laws are still God’s command for us today and which laws are no longer relevant. Even John Piper, one of the most popular non-affirming voices in the evangelical church, says that “there are laws in the Old Testament that are not expressions of God’s will for all time, but expressions of how best to manage sin in a particular people at a particular time” (Piper - This Momentary Marriage).

It is easy to forget how many laws from Leviticus we no longer follow. Leviticus 3 and 11 forbids eating animal fat or blood, or anything that lives in the water but doesn’t have fins and scales, or animals that walk on all fours and have paws. This means bacon, ham, sausage, clams, crabs, lobster and shrimp are all out of the question, plus many more. Leviticus 13 says that anyone with an infectious disease has to be quarantined and declare their condition by ripping their shirt and shouting: “unclean! unclean!” So we kind of got this one right during COVID, but what about our annual flu season?

How do we faithfully and responsibly discern which category these two verses against same-sex male acts fall into without just picking and choosing to suit our purposes? There are various means that people use to discern which laws are still appropriate for us to follow today.

Moral and Cultural Laws

The first way people discern between which laws from Leviticus are still relevant to us today is to separate them into moral and cultural commandments.

Some have claimed that Leviticus contains clear moral commandments that apply to all cultures and all situations such as the laws against murder or stealing. These laws are clearly still applicable today. They claim that Leviticus also contains clear cultural commandments, like those requiring ritual sacrifice or forbidding certain foods, which were applicable for various reasons at particular places and times in the past, but are no longer necessary for Christians today.

But what makes one command cultural and another moral? There is nothing in the bible that states which is which. Sure, Jesus and the New Testament authors often “overturned” some Old Testament Laws such as stoning a women caught in adultery and eating pork, but others such as wearing mixed fabrics are never changed, and yet I doubt any Christian today will claim that God condemns someone for wearing a poly-cotton blended shirt. And yet, for the ancient Israelites, all of the laws would have been moral laws, even the one’s that we easily dismiss today.

With this circular reasoning, it is easy for a non-affirming Christian to say that the above passages condemning same-sex male acts are moral commandments while affirming Christians can claim that they are cultural commandments.

Sexual laws

Some non-affirming Christians claim that while we can discard some laws like not eating bacon and shellfish, all of the laws relating to sex are eternal. However, we don’t adhere to all Old Testament laws on sex and marriage today, such as the command to not have sexual activity during a women’s menstrual period (Lev 18:19; 20:18), or that a virgin woman who is raped must marry her rapist (Deut 22:28-29), or that a man can marry his brother’s widow if he dies without a child (Deut 25:5-6), or the Old Testament acceptance of polygamy and concubinage (Deut 21:15-17; 2 Samuel 12:7-19). It is clear that not all Old Testament sexual norms and laws carry over to Christians.

The Death Penalty

Some non-affirming Christians will claim that a good discerning factor of which rules to still take seriously today are the ones that bring severe punishment such as the death penalty. Again, this argument falls short when we realise some of the other laws that brought about the death penalty: prostitution (Lev 21:9), using the Lord’s name in vain (Lev 24:16), working on the sabbath (Exodus 35:2), charging interest on a loan (Ezekiel 18:13), and children who disobeyed their parents (Deut 21:18-21). These “sins” do not get nearly the same attention in modern churches that homosexuality does.

An Abomination

Same-sex acts weren’t just condemned in this passage, they were called an abomination. Surely this harsh word means that the Old Testament law against same-sex acts is a moral commandment for all time? Unfortunately, as we dig a bit deeper, we discover that other things were also described as an abomination in the Old Testament, such as charging interest on loans (Ezekiel 18:13), burning incense (Isaiah 1:13) and eating forbidden foods (Deut 14:3-21) which was later overruled by Jesus and the apostle Paul in the New Testament.

In the vast majority of cases, when the word abomination is used in scripture it is referring to idolatrous practices of Gentiles. The same Hebrew word for abomination (toévah) is used in at least thirty-eight other passages in Scripture to refer to idolatrous practices. It is therefore not an ethical term, but a term of marking boundaries. The word toevah was meant to stipulate when Israelites were crossing boundaries and living in indistinguishable ways from the surrounding nations.

So maybe it is not responsible to use this harsh word in English to condemn homosexuality today.

So what was really going on here?

The Hebrew term abomination does help us get to the heart of the issue in Levitical Law and the two verses we are studying today.

For us to determine whether Christians should observe the prohibitions of same-sex intercourse today, we must discern the reason for the inclusion of this law in Leviticus. Were these prohibitions condemning all homosexual relationships for all time?

It is noteworthy that only same-sex acts between males is mentioned in Leviticus and not same-sex acts between women. If the issue were homosexuality being addressed, surely female same-sex relations should be condemned on an equal basis?

Scholars on both sides of the same-sex relationships argument agree that the Levitical commands to the Israelite people were mostly about the condemnation of cult prostitution which was the primary form in which same-sex intercourse was practiced in Israel and its surrounding nations. This understanding is supported by the use of the word abomination that referred to idolatrous practices. The prohibition of same-sex male acts was a part of Israel’s call to be both separate from other nations and holy to the Lord.

A Call to be Set Apart

The purity laws of the ancient Israelites, of which Leviticus forms a part, attempted to replicate the order of the original creation, where there was a “place for everything, and everything was in it’s place. They tried to preserve what was perceived as the order of creation, and avoid inappropriate mixtures. This included food to be eaten, clothes to be worn, and boundaries of appropriate sexual relationships. Emissions of blood and semen were especially problematic. One can see how this concern for a man “lying with a man as with a woman” would raise concerns in the context of these broad forms of moral logic.

In Leviticus, the Israelites are given a list of rules to keep them separate from the polytheistic cultures around them. “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt where I am taking you from and the land of Canaan that I am taking you to” (Leviticus 18:3). The people of Israel were called to live unlike every other nation around them.

While some of the rules in Leviticus seem strange to us today, back then they were ripe with meaning. Many, if not all, of Leviticus’ laws had theological and practical significance. Tattoos weren’t condemned because God disliked ink on skin; they were a part of certain pagan rituals that God didn’t want the Israelites associated with. Having strict dietary rules meant that adherents of those rules were not likely to eat outside of the faith community. Having to eat kosher food prepared in a kosher kitchen went a long way toward creating separation and encouraging the call to holiness at every meal.

As we saw in our study on Sodom and Gomorrah last week, many surrounding cultures to the Israelites used same-sex acts as a way to dominate and control others. In Mesopotamia, men were raped and turned into eunuch’s as a punishment to degrade their status in society. In Babylon, same-sex acts were used in predicting good or bad fortunes. In Egypt and Canaan, men that were overcome with lust used to abuse their power by having forced sex with boys and young men.

The priestly writers were aware of the variety of sexual practices among their neighbours and decided to define themselves in terms of a strict moral code that reflected their sense of values based upon their knowledge and the popular prejudices of their day. Their rules called them into a life of identifiable boundaries that set them apart from their non-Jewish neighbours.

Leviticus cultivated the sense of Jewish separation from everyone else that was deemed to be necessary for the maintenance of the Jewish national identity. It was incumbent upon the Israelites to define themselves as both holy and different. Therefore, Leviticus’ prohibition of male same-sex acts was because it was a violation of cultural boundaries, not because it was inherently evil or unnatural.

Christ’s role in God’s Law

The reason Christians don’t follow all of the Old Testament prohibitions is because of the saving, reconciling work of Jesus Christ. The New Testament teaches that Christ fulfilled the law (Matthew 5:17). Christ’s death made it possible for us to be permanently reconciled to God. Before then, only temporary atonement was possible through the sacrifices of Jewish priests. Paul explained in Romans 7 that the Law existed to expose our sin, revealing our need for a Saviour. Christ’s death on the cross liberated Christians from being bound as slaves to the law.

The overall agenda established by the book of Leviticus concerning purity was radically transformed by the gospel of Christ. It is inadequate, from a Christian perspective, to attempt to build an ethic based on the prohibitions of Leviticus alone. Our standing before God doesn’t depend on whether we’ve followed any laws.

The Context of Leviticus

The truth of the matter is that the ancient Israelite people had absolutely no concept of consensual, committed same-sex relationships as we do today. In their eyes, same-sex acts were always a perverted act or an act of idolatrous worship.

Like all other people, the writers of Leviticus could not escape their limitations in knowledge nor their place in history. Because of the advance in scientific learning, the ancient attitudes and ignorances of the past tend to die out as new revelations challenge old practices.

Overwhelming scientific and medical knowledge exists today revealing that sexual orientation is not a moral choice. It is therefore not morally culpable. The above texts in Leviticus should be viewed, like much of Leviticus and the Bible, as stages in human development that we have outgrown, that we have been educated beyond and should therefore abandon. Very few people today still argue for a flat earth and a literal seven-day creation of the earth, and yet that is what the biblical writers believed. How can we so readily move on from that understanding because of what science has taught us and yet we cling to archaic interpretations of issues around human gender and sexuality?

We should note that if someone had claimed to be a homosexual in ancient times and entered into a relationship with someone of the same sex I do not think they would have been affirmed or celebrated, and they would not have been permitted to openly enjoy a relationship with another man. Life would have been awful if they tried. They could have got killed for it. That being said, the same arguments could be made for being a woman in the ancient world. It would have been awful in many ways to be a woman—or a child, for that matter. A rebellious woman or child also could have been killed. The ancient patriarchal world was brutal, and many of its laws were founded on assumptions about the superiority of men.

The ultimate question is, if the ancient Israelites did have our modern scientific understandings, would they have viewed same-sex acts as sinful? The honest answer to this is that we will never know. Therefore, we need to discern the overarching direction that God has been inviting God’s people throughout Scripture and Christian history to determine how God is inviting us to respond to this topic today.

What do these passages mean for us today?

The laws in Leviticus were not arbitrary; they had a purpose. The Law was designed to move people toward love of God, self and neighbour. As Jesus said, all of the Law can be summed up in the two greatest commandments: love God and love your neighbour (Matthew 22:36-40). Therefore, any attempt to understand the laws today (and to understand how we might apply them today, if at all) must be done in the context of moving people towards love.

In discerning the purpose of the laws in Leviticus, we need to determine the direction that God is leading God’s people. This is the same principle Christians have used when reinterpreting the Old Testament’s support for slavery and polygamy. God was working within a flawed culture and people while ultimately leading people in the direction of greater progress, equality and love. Ancient Israel was dominated by patriarchal structures and norms, including its prohibitions of male same-sex intercourse. But far from being a reason to view Scripture as outdated or sexist, the Bible itself is what points us toward a path where patriarchy and homophobia is no more.

In terms of the biblical purity laws, we need to acknowledge that the larger canonical movement of the bible was away from defining purity externally and toward defining purity in terms of the motives of the heart and will. It was also a movement away from a backward look toward the old creation, and shifting to a forward look toward the new creation.

In determining how one should respond to LGBTQ+ couples who want to commit themselves to each other in lifelong relationships as faithful Christians who honour each other, Leviticus’ concerns about idolatry, violations of male honour and distinguishing themselves from other nations seem distinctly out of place. We can appreciate the way the ancient writer is seeking to preserve the integrity of Israelite life in Leviticus without assuming that the same concerns are relevant to life today. Simply put, the religious, purity, procreative, and honour-shame contexts that form the underlying moral logic of the Levitical prohibitions, understandable and coherent as they may be in their own context, simply do not apply to contemporary committed Christian gay and lesbian relationships.

When it comes to questioning the sinfulness of people born with same-sex attraction, or the sinfulness of a gay couple living together in a loving, committed relationship, these two verses in Leviticus simply do not help. We need to stop using ancient Levitical Laws that were designed for a specific purpose and a specific people as a means for understanding who we are today. It is not the proper place to discover what God’s dream is for us today and what it might look like to engage in a loving, committed, mutually respecting relationship with another person.

When interpreted faithfully, these two verses, which were written to help a liberated group of slaves understand how they were to be a uniquely called-out nation in the world, can not and should not be used to condemn the LGBTQ+ community.

It’s time we end the online trolling and throw away the picket signs, because those are the things that are truly an abomination.

Sources and Further Reading

Bird, Phyllis - The Bible in Christian Ethical Deliberation Concerning Homosexuality

Brownson, James - Bible, Gender and Sexuality

Gagnon, Robert AJ - The Bible and Homosexual Practice

Lee, Justin - Torn

Martin, Colby - Unclobber

Nissinen, Martti - Homoeroticism in the Biblical World

Olyan, Saul M - And with a Male You Shall Not Lie the Lying Down of a Woman

Sprong, John Shelby - The Sins of Scripture

Vines, Matthew - God and the Gay Christian


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