I have written a Grove booklet on Same-sex Unions: the key biblical texts which you can buy from the Grove website. It explores, briefly, all the main biblical texts in the Old and New Testaments which come up in the debate on the issue.
Here is the chapter on the two texts in Leviticus.
Leviticus 18 and 20
Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable. (Lev 18.22)
If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. (Lev 20.13)
Although we do not now follow the penalties prescribed for these offences, the texts show how serious is the prohibition on same-sex sexual activity. It comes not in the context of cultic activity, but in general regulations about sexual conduct, and reflects the creation narrative of Gen 1 and 2.
The prohibition is set in the context of God’s people being distinctive from the worshipping practices of the cult of Molech, and so is most likely referring to homosexual cult prostitution. It is set within an outlook concerned with being clean rather than defiled, and we no longer share this outlook or its implications.
Leviticus reflects a priestly concern with holiness and order; other OT texts highlight different sets of concerns, but this focus links with the first creation account (in Gen 1), which is often identified with a ‘priestly’ influence. These texts come within a section of Leviticus known as the ‘holiness code’ (Leviticus 17–26), which consists of terse, tightly packed commands focusing on holy living as a distinct feature of God’s people, in contrast to the nations around them.
The context of chapter 18 is set by the introductory phrase, ‘I am the Lord your God’ (v 2), reminding the hearers of God’s initiative in delivering them from slavery in Egypt.17 In this way, the regulations here are offered as a response to God’s call and initiative, and involve embracing a distinct pattern of life from the surrounding nations as a reflection of God’s holiness. Paul reinterprets Lev 18.5 (‘Whoever does these things will live by them’) to contrast the oppression of ‘law’ with the liberty of grace. But in its context here, this verse suggests that these commands are to be received as life-giving, liberating disciplines.
OT law has two features which makes it distinct from ancient near east (ANE) law codes:
- Alongside ‘casuistic’ law, involving specific cases or situations, OT law gives particular emphasis to ‘apodictic’ law—general principles, usually as a reflection of the character of God—including concentrations in sections of central importance such as the Ten Commandments. Other ANE codes focus much more on casuistic law.
- OT law has a much more restrictive approach to sexual ethics in general, and same-sex activity in particular, compared with other ANE law codes. The context of this is the preservation of family life as the basic building block of society; the ‘good life’ is expressed in harmonious family living. The purpose of the law is to support and sustain this, rather than to protect individual rights.
Where the narrative texts use ‘know’ as a metaphor for sexual relations, this chapter mostly uses the phrase ‘to uncover the nakedness of…’18 The consistent theme here is the setting of boundaries for sexual practice out of a concern for purity, and the effect of this is the protection of various arenas of life from sexual activity. The prohibition on same-sex activity is set alongside prohibitions on incest, bestiality and the sacrifice of children. The whole list of prohibited activities is called ‘detestable’ (Hebrew toevah, translated ‘abomination’ in the AV) in the summary comment in 18.30, but in 18.22 same-sex activity is singled out with this term, and in the following verse bestiality is similarly highlighted as a ‘perversion’ (NIV). As with other regulations, these are not narrowly cultic but form part of a shared, national life for all who reside in the land (Lev 18.26), including ‘resident aliens’ who do not participate in cultic activity.
In verse 22, there is a change in the metaphor used for sexual relations which is not evident in all English translations. The phrase itself is very specific, literally, ‘With a male you will not lie on the lyings [beds] of a woman, abomination it [is].’ The use of ‘male’ (zaqar) alongside ‘man’ and ‘woman’ (ish and ishshah) creates an echo of the creation accounts in Gen 1 and 2; it is plausible to see the serious nature of the offence as reflecting its rejection of God’s creation order of ‘male and female.’ Since the phrase is quite general, there is no suggestion that the issue here is marital unfaithfulness, which is dealt with elsewhere.
The strong term toevah is used in a cultic sense of unacceptable sacrifices, or idolatry, both of which are ‘detestable.’ But its use is not limited to that. It is applied to distinct eating habits (Gen 43.32), more general racial antipathy (Gen 46.34), prohibited foods (Deut 14.3), magic and spiritism (Deut 18.12), remarrying someone you have divorced (Deut 24.4) and the use of dishonest weights and measures (Deut 25.16). It is quite striking in Lev 18 and 20 that the term qadesh, meaning male shrine prostitute (as in Deut 23.17–18), is absent. The context in Leviticus is everyday and particularly family life as the holy people of God. If there are hints of cultic language this is not because the prohibitions are located in cult but because the whole of life is to reflect the purity and holiness of Israel’s God.
There are three broad areas of critique of the traditional reading of these verses.
The first objection is that these prohibitions are related to patriarchy; same-sex relations threaten male dominance of women, particularly as a man is taking the submissive female role in the sex act, and for this reason are to be rejected. It is worth noting that these commands do appear to be addressed to the men in the community as the primary moral agents (a contrast with NT ethical texts). However, there is no clear patriarchal shape to the prohibitions, and the explicit prohibition on sibling polygamy in Lev 18.18 sets a clear limit on such patriarchal power as might be present.19 In Lev 20.10, there is symmetry in moral responsibility between those who commit adultery, with both partners being held accountable; the command shows no interest in any imbalance of power relations arising either from patriarchy or from abusive relations. (This offers an interesting perspective on the story in John 8 of the woman caught in adultery; where was the adulterous man?)
The prohibition in Lev 18.22 is not on acting as a woman with a man, but on acting with another man who is taking the role of the woman. To put it crudely, the prohibition is not on being penetrated (by another man) but on penetrating. In other words, the verse gives no suggestion that the act is seen as a breach of manliness or the man’s honour; rather, the issue appears to be the failure of this act to match the divinely given creation order from Genesis. (It is interesting, though, to note there is no reference in either Lev 18 or 20 to the importance of procreation; the same-sex act is not condemned for failing to satisfy the creation command to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’)
2 Anthropological Reading
A second objection is that the prohibition on same-sex activity belongs to a classification of life into categories of the ‘clean’ and the ‘unclean’ that we do not share. The system of sacrifices and prohibitions in Leviticus seems baffling and confusing to many modern readers. A significant contribution to making sense of this text has been offered by taking an anthropological approach, which involves a sympathetic reading that seeks to enter the symbolic world of these texts in their own terms in order to understand their ‘inner logic.’20 Two important insights emerge from this.
The first is to recognize within the text a ‘graded’ understanding of holiness, where some areas are not holy, others are more holy, and still others constitute the ‘holy of holies’—all based on their physical proximity to the presence of the holy God. Philip Jenson explains it thus:
Within Israel itself some spaces and some Israelites are holy in ways that others are not. This kind of graded holiness can be seen most clearly in the architecture and symbolism of the Tabernacle…This spatial marking of graded holiness correlates with the personal dimension. The nearer the centre, the more restricted are those who can enter, and then at special times and in special ways.21
As people move from one ‘level’ of holiness to another, they must undergo certain rituals that involve the offering of sacrifices. Although modern thinking might find it difficult to engage with this system, it has an important theological point to it:
The system of graded holiness allows us to safeguard God’s absolute holiness, while at the same approaching him to the degree that we are able.22
The other key insight arising from this approach is the distinction between sin and impurity. Sin is the result of disobedience to the commands of God, and results in guilt which can only be removed by the appropriate sacrifice. Impurity, on the other hand, can be caused by accident, without any intention on the part of the person who has become impure. This, too, is remedied by means of sacrifice, but it does not imply guilt in the same way as sin.
‘Common’ (sometimes translated ‘profane’) is a general term for the non-holy, which includes both the clean and the unclean. Above all the holy has to be kept apart from the unclean, for the unclean represents what God is not. ‘Clean,’ on the other hand, is a neutral term. To be clean is a stepping-stone either towards the holy (through consecration) or the unclean (through defilement). Becoming unclean is often just part of ordinary life, but deliberately bringing the unclean into contact with the holy is a serious sin, for it shows contempt for the holy God.23
So, it is argued by revisionists, the distinction between being clean and unclean is not as important as the distinction between holiness and sin. And the language of Leviticus 18 and 20 is that of ‘defilement’ (or ‘uncleanness’) rather than ‘sin.’ This means that same-sex relations belong to a pattern of cleanness versus defilement to which we no longer subscribe, rather than the pattern of holiness versus sin which we do.
The weakness in this argument is that the relation between these two patterns is rather more complex. To be impure might not imply sin, but to sin does make one impure—so these terms can, in fact, overlap. And that is precisely the case in Leviticus 18 and 20. Although ‘be defiled’ (tame‘) is the most common term in Leviticus 18, at 18.25 this is identified with sin, and being the reason for the land ‘vomiting out’ its inhabitants as a sign of God’s judgment. This forms part of the wider concern of the whole of the ‘holiness code’; it places the whole question of ethics under the question of purity, so that wrong action is seen as an offense against God’s holiness, not just against his justice. Purity is concerned with moral action, not ritual action alone.
3 Cult Prostitution
Steve Schuh offers a third common objection to the traditional understanding: the texts here prohibit homosexual prostitution in the context of pagan worship, but are not relevant to same-sex activity in other contexts.24
Schuh highlights the importance of cultic distinctiveness through the OT narrative—God is not to be worshipped in the manner that other gods are worshipped—and how God’s people repeatedly failed to observe this. He also notes the fairly frequent mention of male shrine prostitutes in the ‘Deuteronomistic’ history (Deuteronomy, Joshua, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings). He notes a connection with the Leviticus texts, in that 1 Kgs 14.24 also uses toevah, ‘abomination.’ As Robert Gagnon notes, ‘Homosexual cult prostitution appears to have been the primary form in which homosexual intercourse was practiced in Israel.’25
From this Schuh concludes that ‘The homosexual acts prohibited in Leviticus 18 and 20 are described in the immediate context of idolatry and therefore very likely refer to ritual acts of male homosexual prostitution.’ Here he appears to make a social, a textual and a logical mistake. As noted above, these texts are not particularly focused on the cult; the prohibition on child sacrifice appears to focus more on the child than the sacrifice; these regulations are about family relations and the protection and preservation of the family unit, not about cultic worship. And, logically, he appears to be saying that, because homosexual shrine prostitution is a (possibly main) example of ‘detestable’ practice, it must be the only one. This is like saying that because apples are a common kind of fruit, all fruit must be apples. It is quite striking that the term for cult prostitute used elsewhere is lacking here—something that Schuh fails to note in his discussion, and which considerably weakens his argument. Instead, the language draws on the general terms from Genesis 1 and 2. And, as Gagnon points out, the logic of Schuh’s observation is the opposite of what he concludes. In other Mesopotamian cultures, there was a general rejection of same-sex activity; the one area it was tolerated was in the pagan cult. If Leviticus is rejecting this, it is rejecting the most acceptable form of same-sex activity in its context, not (as we might suppose) the least acceptable form. The unqualified and general rejection of all male same-sex penetrative activity, whatever its context, in Leviticus is without parallel in other ANE texts.26
So these Leviticus texts are expressing a broad prohibition on same-sex sexual activity. They do so in general terms, in the context of drawing boundaries around sexual activity for the sake of purity, and alluding to the creation narratives. Although a significant example of such ‘detestable practice’ is found in male shrine prostitution, these texts do not make reference to this, and do not appear to have this specifically in view. Instead, the prohibition is connected to language of sin and holiness which Christians would still want to draw on.
17 Compare the introduction to the Ten Commandments in Exod 20.2 and Deut 5.6.
18 The use of a similar phrase in Gen 9.22 leads some commentators to conclude that Ham’s sin was to have forced same-sex activity with his father Noah, though others regards the evidence for this as weak.
19 In fact, the Leviticus texts do not appear to envisage the possibility of polygamy, unlike Deut 17.17 and 21.15.
20 A key proponent of this way of reading was Mary Douglas.
21 Philip Jenson, How to Read Leviticus (Grove Biblical booklet B67) p 7.
22 Jenson, ibid, p 8.
23 Jenson, ibid, p 13.
24 ‘Challenging Conventional Wisdom,’ http://www.courage.org.uk/articles/Challenging.shtml
25 Robert A J Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2001) p 130.
26 See Gagnon’s account of the ANE documents in The Bible and Homosexual Practice pp 44–66.