A Theology of Sex: Leviticus and Homosexuality

God cares far more about your holiness than your happiness. It’s not that God is against our pleasure and joy, he is actually totally for it. But the idea that our happiness is the ultimate determiner of ethics is purely antithetical to the Scriptures. The Bible gives clear commands on what God calls for in obedience and faithfulness to him. So as we continue to look at the Old Testament’s teaching on homosexuality we must consider carefully the Levitical Holiness Codes.

Leviticus chapters 17-26 are covers a number of laws given by God focused on keeping the land free from sin. The Holiness Code, as it is refered to by a number of scholars, offers us two particular passages on the subject of homosexuality. Both Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 have traditionally been understood to condemn same-sex intercourse. The texts read:

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (Leviticus 18:22)

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

Both passages seem to speak clearly, but pro-gay advocates will point specifically to the word “toevah” (abomination), and suggest that a proper understanding of this term overturns the traditional interpretation.

Toevah is a term applied most frequently to issues of sexual immorality and idolatry in the New Testament, but two curious interpretations of the word have evolved within the GLBT community. The first, suggests that the word is simply a term to identify “ceremonially unclean” or “taboo” acts within the Jewish culture. So John Boswell writes:

The word…does not usually signify something intrinsically evil, like rape or theft (discussed elsewhere in Leviticus), but something which is ritually unclean for Jews, like eating pork or engaging in intercourse during menstruation, both of which are prohibited in these same chapters…the Levitical enactments against homosexual behavior characterize it unequivocally as ceremonially unclean rather than inherently evil. (Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. 100-102)

This is a particularly peculiar way to view the term, though, considering its general application throughout the scriptures. Throughout the Old Testament the word Toevah is applied to murder (Jer. 7:9; Ezek. 22:6; Prov. 6:17), swearing falsely (Jer. 7:9; Ezek. 22:9, 12; Prov. 6:19), habitual lying (Prov. 6:16; 12:22; 26:25-28), oppressing or not aiding the poor, alien, widows, and orphans (Ezek. 16:47-52; 18:7, 12, 16; 22:7, 29), and appointing to official positions in the temple those who are not loyal to Yahweh (Ezek. 44:6-8), among other things.  Furthermore the application of the term to sexual immorality is of a particular kind. Robert Gagnon clarifies the use of the term for sexual immorality. He clarifies that the term is applied to acts characterized in three ways: (1) “a sexual act regarded by Yahweh as utterly detestable and abhorrent;” (2) “a sexual act which rendered the individual participants liable to the death penalty or being ‘cut-off’ from God’s people;” and (3) “a sexual act which, if left unpunished by the nation, put the entire nation at risk of God’s consuming wrath, God’s departure from the midst of the people, and expulsion of the people from the land of Canaan (Leviticus 18:22, 26-30; 20:13).” It seems inconsistent with the text to make this a term merely of ceremonial uncleanness. It seems based on the Bible’s usage Toevah as “abomination,” as a universal term of condemnation for a moral evil, is the proper interpretation.

The other interpretation offered by the GLBT community suggests that this limitation is given only to those who are idolatrous. So two gay Christians need not apply this text to themselves, we are told. Again this seems a strange interpretation. There are a number of sins listed in the adjoining passages, including rape and incest. Obviously advocates of homosexuality do not condone such moral evils, even if they were to be done by professing Christians. The command is not altered by virtue of one’s relation to God. Those are universal sins, condemned throughout Scripture. The word of “toevah” is used most often in association with idolatry, but not exclusively. We have seen how it is applied generously to all sorts of universal sins throughout Ezekiel and Proverbs and Jeremiah. Unless one is willing to condone all the acts in Leviticus one cannot expect the act of same-sex intercourse to qualify for some extenuating circumstances.

Now that response raises an important question, and one that pro-gay theology advocates will jump on. If homosexuality is to be condemned based on this passage then what are we to make of the other matters listed in these texts that Christians do not condemn. The Holiness code talks about a host of issues such as having sex with a woman during her menstrual cycle (18:19; 20:18), prohibitions against planting two different kinds of seeds together, or wearing clothes made from two different materials (19:19), and restrictions on men’s shaving their facial hair (19:27). How can we condemn homosexuality and then go trim our beards? Aren’t both condemned in this passage?

This is an important question.It requires a careful response and so I want to take a separate post and discuss the use of the Levitical laws to condemn homosexuality. However we answer that question, though, we must concede that in the ancient Jewish mind, these laws were clear and universal for all God’s people. Same-sex intercourse was not a social taboo, but a moral evil for the Jewish people. Now the question to consider is whether or not such commands are relevant for us today.

Comments

  1. What about the greek version of toevah it holds to this. Also, toevah was used for the Egyptian to the jewish yet that would mean what the Egyptians found unclean the Jews should have to. The pagans were doing all of there things. SO god wanted Jewish people to not do there things.

  2. Also Zimah used for the word sin.

    The Torah certainly seems to forbid male sexual intercourse (cited in Leviticus 18:22) as toevah, “taboo” or an “offensive thing.” Most English translations render this as “abomination” or “abhorrent.” However, there is no justification for such a translation. This term occurs over 100 times, often meaning an “error” or something that is forbidden because of local custom. Many instances refer to idolatrous practices as well as acts of inhospitality and arrogance. All of a sudden when this act is mentioned in this verse, the term no longer indicates an “offensive” idolatrous practice of the Israelites’ neighbors; now it becomes a reference to sex, marriage and family. The “literal” reader is now using this word in a way it was never intended. In fact, it is never used in such a manner anywhere in the Bible!

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  1. […] latter is not also justified (for more on the discussion of homosexuality in Leviticus 18, see this post). The prohibitions are plain, simple, and straightforward. God’s standards are clearly […]

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