Exhortation to Obedience and Life, 1-5

18:1 The LORD spoke to Moses: 18:2 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘I am the LORD your God! 18:3 You must not do as they do in the land of Egypt where you have been living, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan into which I am about to bring you; you must not walk in their statutes. 18:4 You must observe my regulations and you must be sure to walk in my statutes. I am the LORD your God. 18:5 So you must keep my statutes and my regulations; anyone who does so will live by keeping them. I am the LORD.

The so-called holiness code that contains Leviticus 18-20 is often interpreted as a list of divine demands that constitute God’s mandatory moral standards. Depending on the interpreter, these demands either represent the highest standard of human moral excellence or an unbearable burden designed to be contrasted with the future liberation by Christ. Some of the imperatives are cited by skeptics as evidence of the inherent absurdity of the Bible’s moral system. These interpretations are misguided because the text in context is not intended as a litany of moral instructions.’ (p.89) ‘The Old Testament legal texts do exist for a purpose, but that purpose is not for the formation of moral principles.’ (p.94) ‘The Old Testament’s legal wisdom literature in context is indeed supposed to shape Israelite society, but it is not supposed to provide a set of instructions by which anyone in any place or time can construct God’s ideal society.’ (p.101) ‘If we obeyed the particular instructions of the Old Testament text, we would become good citizens of the ancient Near East. If we obeyed the particular instructions of the New Testament text, we would become good citizens of classical Rome… A good citizen of the ancient or classical world is not a good citizen of the modern world.’ (p.23)’ (Walton & Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest)

Laws of Sexual Relations, 6-23

18:6 “ ‘No man is to approach any close relative to have sexual intercourse with her. I am the LORD. 18:7 You must not expose your father’s nakedness by having sexual intercourse with your mother. She is your mother; you must not have intercourse with her. 18:8 You must not have sexual intercourse with your father’s wife; she is your father’s nakedness. 18:9 You must not have sexual intercourse with your sister, whether she is your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether she is born in the same household or born outside it; you must not have sexual intercourse with either of them. 18:10 You must not expose the nakedness of your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter by having sexual intercourse with them, because they are your own nakedness. 18:11 You must not have sexual intercourse with the daughter of your father’s wife born of your father; she is your sister. You must not have intercourse with her. 18:12 You must not have sexual intercourse with your father’s sister; she is your father’s flesh. 18:13 You must not have sexual intercourse with your mother’s sister, because she is your mother’s flesh. 18:14 You must not expose the nakedness of your father’s brother; you must not approach his wife to have sexual intercourse with her. She is your aunt. 18:15 You must not have sexual intercourse with your daughter-in-law; she is your son’s wife. You must not have intercourse with her. 18:16 You must not have sexual intercourse with your brother’s wife; she is your brother’s nakedness. 18:17 You must not have sexual intercourse with both a woman and her daughter; you must not take as wife either her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter to have intercourse with them. They are closely related to her—it is lewdness. 18:18 You must not take a woman in marriage and then marry her sister as a rival wife while she is still alive, to have sexual intercourse with her.
18:19 “ ‘You must not approach a woman in her menstrual impurity to have sexual intercourse with her. 18:20 You must not have sexual intercourse with the wife of your fellow citizen to become unclean with her. 18:21 You must not give any of your children as an offering to Molech, so that you do not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD! 18:22 You must not have sexual intercourse with a male as one has sexual intercourse with a woman; it is a detestable act. 18:23 You must not have sexual intercourse with any animal to become defiled with it, and a woman must not stand before an animal to have sexual intercourse with it; it is a perversion.

v22 See Lev 20:13.

William Loader notes that no reason is given in the text itself for the prohibition against same-sex intercourse.  He suggests the following possibilities:

  • Such activity failed in the purpose of sexual intercourse, namely, procreation.
  • Such activity mixes things that differ, similar to the prohibitions against planting fields with two kinds of seeds, or mixing two kinds of cloth.
  • Such activity goes against the teaching of Genesis 1-3, understood as limiting sexual union to heterosexual activity.

(Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church, p22)

A religious or ceremonial, rather than a moral, offence?

Lev 18:22 – “You must not have sexual intercourse with a male as one has sexual intercourse with a woman; it is a detestable act.”

Lev 20:13 – “If a man has sexual intercourse with a male as one has sexual intercourse with a woman, the two of them have committed an abomination. They must be put to death; their blood guilt is on themselves.”

It has been argued that these texts are not relevant to homosexual practice today.

(a) One argument is that the texts refer to acts performed in the name of religion, and therefore not relevant to the general question about same-sex relationships today.

According to Walter Barnett (cited by Kostenberger),

‘the whole context of these injunctions [in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13] is a polemic against the Israelites imitating the defiling practices of the Canaanites whom they displaced in Palestine. Thus again, the prohibition is probably directed against the practice of ritual homosexual prostitution as found in the Canaanite fertility cult. In any event the intent cannot be to condemn all homosexuality and homosexual behavior.’

This argument turns on the meaning of the word translated ‘abomination’.  According to proponents of this view, the word usually refers to ritual impurity associated with idol worship.  The prohibition, here and in Lev 20:13, is not against homosexual activity per se, but rather against homosexual acts performed as part of the idolatrous Canaanite religion.

The Queen James Bible, which claims to be the world’s first gay Bible translation, renders this verse:-

‘Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womenkind in the temple of Molech; it is an abomination.’

This ‘clarification’ has, however, been achieved at the expense of changing the text of Scripture itself, by conflating the present verse with the previous one.  As Greg Downes remarks,

‘this flagrant distortion and twisting of scripture in an attempt to make the text say what it patently does not will fail to convince anyone committed to the authority of the Bible.’ (Christianity, Feb 2013, p31)

As Sam Alberry writes:

‘“An abomination” is often used to describe idolatry, and so some suggest these verses are not prohibiting homosexual behaviour in general, but only the cultic prostitution associated with pagan temples. But the language used is not that specific; the passages refer in general to a man lying with a man “as with a woman”, without specifying a particular context for that act. Moreover, the surrounding verses in both Leviticus 18 and 20 forbid other forms of sexual sin that are general in nature, such as incest, adultery and bestiality.’ (Is God Anti-Gay?, p29)

Ian Paul notes:

‘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.’

Ian Paul adds that the term translated ‘detestable’ is by no means limited to cultic prohibitions:

‘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.’

Ian Paul quotes Steve Schuh:

‘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.’

But, responds Ian Paul: these prohibitions are not focused on the cult, but on the family.  Moreover, it is illogical to claim that because cult prostitution was a notable instance of ‘detestable’ practice (see 1 Kings 14:24, for example), it was the only form of homosexual activity.  The text here does not use the language of cult prostitution: rather, it draws on the language of Genesis 1-2.

(b) A further argument is that these prohibitions reflect the assumptions of a patriarchal society, in which a man taking the submissive (female) role in sexual activity was considered shameful and demeaning.

But, as Ian Paul observes,

‘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’

(c) Another argument is that the prohibitions belong to that part of the OT law that has not binding on Christians.  Like the prohibition against sex with a menstruating woman in Lev 18:19, this prohibition is ceremonial, rather than moral, in nature.

For Matthew Vines, therefore, these laws are no more binding on believers today than the law of circumcision.  The debate was settled long ago by the apostles (Acts 15; Gal 6; Col 2; Rom 10:4; Heb 8:13, etc.).  Leviticus prohibits many things that we no longer avoid, and, claims Vines, homosexual relations belong in the same category:

‘Christians have always regarded the Book of Leviticus, in particular, as being inapplicable to them in light of Christ’s fulfillment of the law. So while it is true that Leviticus prohibits male same-sex relations, it also prohibits a vast array of other behaviors, activities, and foods that Christians have never regarded as being prohibited for them. For example, chapter 11 of Leviticus forbids the eating of pork, shrimp, and lobster, which the church does not consider to be a sin. Chapter 19 forbids planting two kinds of seed in the same field; wearing clothing woven of two types of material; and cutting the hair at the sides of one’s head. Christians have never regarded any of these things to be sinful behaviors, because Christ’s death on the cross liberated Christians from what Paul called the “yoke of slavery.” We are not subject to the Old Law.’

I should note that Vines recognises that there are some OT laws that are still binding on Christians – the Ten Commandments, for example.  But he does not, in my view, provide an adequate explanation of why homosexual behaviour does not belong in this category (along with laws about adultery, incest and bestiality), but belongs rather  in the category of laws that were limited to a certain people at a certain times (along with laws about eating shellfish and so on).

Vines concludes:

‘The default Christian approach for nearly two millennia now has been to view the particular hundreds of rules and prohibitions in the Old Law as having been fulfilled by Christ’s death, and there is no good reason why Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 should be exceptions to that rule.’

But if valid, this argument would also undermine other laws relating to sexual practices in the same chapter.  Moreover, ceremonial laws were binding on Israel but not on the nations, and yet Lev 18:27 and Lev 20:23 demonstrate God’s moral repugnance of incest and homosexuality.  Then again, Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor 6:9 echoes the LXX of Lev 20:13, suggesting that Paul presupposes and reaffirms the earlier text’s condemnation of homosexual acts.

‘As Lev 20:13 makes clear, it is consensual sex that is in view. In short, sexual relations are meant to occur between a man and a woman, not between two men (and not, by implication, between two women). This was in keeping with the theological backdrop against which Israelites would have read this law: namely, the Lord’s design that sexuality be expressed in marital, heterosexual relationship (Gen. 1:27–28; 2:22–24; cf. Matt. 19:4–5).’ (Sklar)

According to Livingout,

‘“an abomination” is often used to describe idolatry, and some suggest these verses are not condemning homosexual behaviour in general, but only the cultic prostitution connected to pagan temples. It is also often claimed that the fact that these prohibitions appear in a book full of other laws which no Christians think they are expected to follow today suggests that they should not be taken as having abiding moral relevance. But to take the first objection, the language used is not that specific; it refers to lying with a man “as with a woman,” – that is, in very general terms. Secondly, the surrounding verses in each instance describe other forms of sexual sin (such as incest, adultery and bestiality), none of which is anything to do with pagan temples or idolatry, and which we would take as being applicable to Christians today. It is moral, rather than just pagan religious behaviour that’s in view. Furthermore, Leviticus 20:13 highlights both male parties equally, again suggesting general, consensual homosexual activity (as opposed to gay rape or a forced relationship).’

A variation on this theme is the suggestion that these texts (and many others like them) are concerned not with issues of sin and holiness, but with matters of ‘cleanness’ and ‘defilement’.  This would mean (comments Ian Paul)

‘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.’

But, as Ian Paul remarks, there is, in biblical thinking, considerable overlap between the two sets of category:

‘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.’

(d) We come, then, to consider the view that these texts prohibit homosexual intercourse of every kind.

John Stott comments:

‘As William J. Webb points out in his recent work on hermeneutics, the issue here is primarily one of sexual boundaries. The incest laws protect the boundary between parent and child; the bestiality laws protect the boundary between human and animal. Similarly, the homosexual boundaries prohibit intercourse between members of the same sex. These boundaries are not cultural in that they change as Scripture develops, but transcultural, prohibiting such activities in any place at any time.’

Sprinkle, art. ‘Sexuality, sexual ethics’ in DOT:P).

Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today 4th Edition (Kindle)

Kostenberger, Andreas J. God, Marriage, and Family (Second Edition). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

v23 ‘Israelite law forbids all forms, calling it a perversion (tebel), a word whose root refers elsewhere to ‘mixing up/confusing’ something (Gen. 11:7, 9). In this context, it refers to an illicit ‘mixing up/confusing’ of sexual relationship (see also 20:12). The Lord has designed sexuality not simply to be expressed in heterosexual relationship, but in human relationship. To deny this is to deny his intent for creation and therefore his position as Creator.’ (Sklar)

Warning against the Abominations of the Nations, 24-30

18:24 “ ‘Do not defile yourselves with any of these things, for the nations which I am about to drive out before you have been defiled with all these things. 18:25 Therefore the land has become unclean and I have brought the punishment for its iniquity upon it, so that the land has vomited out its inhabitants. 18:26 You yourselves must obey my statutes and my regulations and must not do any of these abominations, both the native citizen and the resident foreigner in your midst, 18:27 for the people who were in the land before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become unclean. 18:28 So do not make the land vomit you out because you defile it just as it has vomited out the nations that were before you. 18:29 For if anyone does any of these abominations, the persons who do them will be cut off from the midst of their people. 18:30 You must obey my charge to not practice any of the abominable statutes that have been done before you, so that you do not defile yourselves by them. I am the LORD your God.’ ”