Studies in Leviticus: The Sanctity of Sex (Leviticus 18)

LeviticusIt is perhaps surprising to the modern reader that God’s Word says so much about sexual intimacy. Sex and sexuality, after all, are part of that isolated realm of personal freedom, on which no one has the right to impose restrictions. God, however, as the creator of human sexuality does impose boundaries on what is right and good sex and what destructive sex is. Leviticus 18 gives some specific restrictions to the people of God regarding their sexual intimacy, but this chapter is about more than just sex. It is about being careful not to lose their distinctiveness as the people of God. Obedience to God’s sexual ethic means that His people will stand apart in the world.

Chapter 18 can be broken down into three sections, each of which follows the typical Suzerain Treaty style of the ancient world. A Suzerianty was a term originally applied to the Ottoman Empire, but the model has been more widely utilized in the ancient world. The contract was established by a sovereign nation over a subservient people. John Frame explains:

In this literary form, a great king (a suzerain) formulates a treaty with a lesser king (a vassal). The great king is the author. He sets the terms of the relationship. The document regularly includes certain elements: (1) the name of the great king, identifying him as the author of the document:  “I am king such-and-such”; (2) an historical prologue, in which the great king tells the vassal what benefits he has brought the vassal in the past; (3) the stipulations, or laws that the vassal is expected to obey in gratefulness to love or be exclusively loyal to the suzerain and particular commands indicating the ways in which this loyalty was to be expressed); (4) the sanctions, or blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience; and (5) continuity, or provisions for public reading of the treaty, royal succession, adjudication of disputes, etc. (The Doctrine of God, 31)

These five elements, which Frame outlines here – borrowing from Meredith Kline (The Structure of Biblical Authority) – can be found in Leviticus 18 as well. So, for example, there is an introduction of the name of the great sovereign (v. 2, 4, and 5). There is a historical context for the covenant (v. 3), and the basic covenantal stipulations (v. 4), along with the promised blessing for obedience (v. 5). Verses 6-23 make up the bulk of the chapter and they detail the rules and guidelines of the covenant obligation.  We might break the passage down as follows:

  1. Introduction (v. 1-5)
  2. Covenant Obligation (v. 6-23)
  3. Warning About Judgment (v. 24-30)

A simple survey of each section will serve us well in understanding the main thesis.

The first five verses introduce the content of this chapter as a call to be distinct from the other nations. Verse 3 very clearly states:

You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes.

The intent for God’s people is that they be different, set apart. The call or command is grounded in the person of God. “I am the Lord” is repeated three times in these five verses, in each case the intent is give reason for obedience. Verse one even begins by saying:

Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the Lord your God.

What follows is important and worthy of your attention because of the one who speaks it: the Lord your God!  The rules about sexual ethics that follow, then, are intended to set Israel apart from the other nations and are imposed not by cultural standards, but by the God who transcends all cultures and all peoples. His ways are universally true and obedience is required.

Verses 6-23 outline the various details of the prohibitions. Essentially they can be summarized as “unlawful sexual intimacy,” characterized under four headings: incest, adultery, child sacrifice, homosexuality, and bestiality. Incest referred to sexual intimacy within any relation, whether by blood or by marriage. Verse 20 makes a clear reference to sleeping with your neighbor’s wife, which was a concise way of saying anyone who is not your spouse.  Verses 22 and 23 clearly place prohibitions on same-sex sexual activity and on having sex with animals. Those inclined to dismiss the former as primitive will need to reconcile how the 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 communicated.

Verse 21 seems a strange inclusion. What does child sacrifice have to do with sexual ethics? It’s not entirely clear from the text what the relationship is between child sacrifice and sexuality. It seem probably to me that “dedication to Molech,” which is the best interpretation of the Hebrew, is a reference to temple prostitution. In the ancient world a child may be sold to the temple to be raised as a prostitute for the service of the temple. As such God puts strict prohibitions on such hateful sexual abuse.

The intent of all the prohibitions, established in verse 24 is to keep oneself from becoming “unclean.” This explains why having sex with a woman during her “menstruation” is also prohibited in verse 19. Israel must keep the worship of God always before them, even in their sexual expressions. God establishes here the consequences, then, of violating these commands. Uncleanness would result in removal from His presence, in this case, that meant even removal from the land. We read:

“Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25 and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. (v. 24-25)

If the land vomited out its previous inhabitants because of their sexual immorality, Israel should not think they will be spared (v. 28). “For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people” (v. 29).

The people of God are to be different. The world has always been obsessed with sex and sexual immorality. Perversion has abounded since the Fall of man, when Adam and Eve first saw their nakedness and were ashamed. Prior to sin nakedness did not come with shame, but now it can. It can be turned, used, abused, and demoralized. God’s people, then, find that their sexual expressions are to be different. A Christian’s sex life is to reflect the beauty and glory of God’s original intent. It is to be free from shame and perversion. The Gospel sets us apart and redeems, not just our souls but our bodies and our sexuality too.

In Ephesians 5 Paul compares the marriage relationship to the relationship of Christ and the church. This comparison teaches us that the spousal love is a reflection of the gospel. Our sex, then, has been redeemed to point to something far superior and far more amazing. The way we love, the way we cherish, the way we serve our spouses in sexual intimacy is a pointer to the glory of the gospel of God revealed in Jesus Christ.  Christians, then, of all people ought to enjoy sex – there is no shame in sexual intimacy, it is not a necessary evil as some have taught. Christians ought also, however, do sex differently. Because of all we believe about the gospel and the goodness of God’s love for his people, we ought to keep sexual intimacy in its proper context and boundaries. The New Testament establishes many related boundaries to sexual intimacy in marriage, which we ought to respect and obey.

The people of God are to be marked differently from the world. This applies not simply to our church attendance and our forgiveness, but it applies to our sex lives. The world’s obsession with sex and particularly with sexual immorality means that Christians will always look different. It’s by God’s design that we do. Leviticus 18 anticipates this distinctness and prepares us to see it in new light in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


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