The Leviticus references
Leviticus 18:22; 20:13
When I first re-examined the Bible, I found that,apart
from these two verses in Leviticus,the only references in the
Old Testament to same-sex sexual expression were in the area of cultic
prostitution and sexual abuse.
So then I had to ask myself what these references in Leviticus might mean
- or rather this reference, as the second instance simply states the penalty
for the offence given in the first. Why was this written? What's it all
Several questions sprang to mind:
+ Is this isolated reference really about the condemnation of all male
same-sex sexual acts (i.e. the interpretation most people put upon it)?
+ Or is it about heterosexual men wilfully engaging in same-sex sexual
acts, when for them such acts would be an unnatural perversion?
+ Or is it about male cult prostitution and other forms of abusive same-sex
sexual practices as in all the other Old Testament references?
There is undoubtedly condemnation in the Bible when this or any sexual
act is an expression of sexual lust, exploitation or abuse. The Bible is
perfectly clear on this. But does it include the expression of homosexual
love for another within an enriching, loving, faithful and committed relationship?
I find it difficult to believe that it means the condemnation of all same-sex
sexual acts, for the following three reasons:
1. It is out of Biblical character
Given that all the other references to same-sex acts are about cult prostitution
or sexual abuse, it would be essentially the only reference in the whole
Hebrew Bible to include, within a blanket condemnation of all same-sex
sexual acts, a true homosexual man's loving and natural expression of his
love for his beloved.
Yet this is just not typical of the Bible as a whole. Where the Bible condemns,
commends or exhorts, it is repetitious in its condemnation, commendation
or exhortation, allowing little real room for doubt.
Take, for example, other sexual sins such as adultery and prostitution.
These are not only mentioned frequently in various forms, but are part
of the fulsome spiritual imagery of 'unfaithfulness' towards the God of
Is our Biblical view of the natural sexual expression of a true homosexual
within a loving, committed, faithful relationship to be based on, what
is in essence, one Bible reference?
This is a vital question, as the Hebrew scriptures was the Bible of the
Early Church (including all who contributed to the
New Testament) and for Jesus as well. This fact will prove
helpful to bear in mind when we examine two key references
in the New Testament, the canon of which was not finally agreed for nearly
(In both these references you
will later see that Paul uses a word that refers directly to Leviticus
2. Our sexuality is a 'given'
I also find it hard to accept the Leviticus reference at face value because
our sexuality is a 'given' - to homosexuals as well as to heterosexuals.
We are made such that we need to love at a deep level, and most of us,
when we find that deep love, need to express that love physically in various
ways towards the person we love within a faithful, committed relationship.
This raises an important question - one that I had to struggle with when
I first reached this point in my pilgrimage.
Would our Creator God have made people with a sexual attraction for another
of the same sex, only then to deny the validity of its expression within
a loving, committed, faithful relationship? (I didn't believe he would,
but I was trying to be open to an answer either way to this question.)
3. The writers weren't talking about the same thing.
There is yet a third reason I find it hard to accept the Leviticus reference
as applying to sexual expression in a loving, committed relationship.
When re-reading the Bible in the light of this issue, my overriding impression
was that the writers knew nothing of homosexuality as we know and understand
They wrote as though there were only heterosexual men and women, some of
whom had perverted their natural desires to perform unnatural sexual acts
- sometimes with others of the same sex, and sometimes with animals. Such
acts either took place in the context of fertility rites, or were depraved,
corrupt practices and rightly to be condemned.
Searching for further evidence
Now these three important considerations led me to believe that in all
probability the Leviticus reference was either about heterosexual men wilfully
engaging in same-sex sexual activity and/or about male cult prostitution
and other forms of same-sex sexual abuses - just like all other Old Testament
But I needed further evidence in order to be more sure about this. So I
decided to look at the evidence from two other angles:
* by examining any key words in the Leviticus
passage with reference to parallel accounts
of the same thing - in this case the Law;
* by examining the context of the Leviticus
reference - the times, culture, thinking and beliefs of the people that
wrote them down.
When I got to this point in my pilgrimage, I prayed hard as I studied,
asking the Lord to guide me so that I would be led to his will and not
dishonour him or mislead myself or others.
I first explored what appeared to me to be the most likely possibility
- that the Leviticus references were really to do with cultic prostitution,
as is the case with nearly all the other references in the Hebrew Bible.
Now one time-honoured method for gaining further insight into a difficult
text or passage is to compare different accounts of the same thing - in
this case the Law.
Theologians, ministers and preachers will do this, for example, when studying
the Synoptic Gospels ie Matthew, Mark and Luke), or when comparing parallel
accounts in Kings and Chronicles.
So I compared various passages in Deuteronomy (the 'copy of the law' )
with parallel texts in Exodus and Leviticus. This proved an enlightening
and interesting exercise. I found many parallels between Deuteronomy
and the other two books on all sorts of matters, including one reference
in each to same-sex sexual acts.
Deuteronomy 23:17 and Leviticus 18:22 are the
only references in these respective books to same-sex sexual acts.
It would seem that the law given in Deuteronomy 23:17 was parallel
to that given in Leviticus 18:22.
One point of particular interest is that the two texts are complementary:
Deuteronomy 23:17 says that no Israelite shall be a cult prostitute,
but does not specifically prohibit using the services of such - whereas
Leviticus 18:22 effectively does.
The final clues in Leviticus 18:22 (and 20:13), are firstly, the often-used
Hebrew word that is translated as 'abomination' [RSV] or 'disgusting
act' [GNB], and secondly, the context of these verses.
Three Hebrew words are translated as'abomination':
* sheqets, which relates to food regulations in Leviticus 11;
* shiqquts, relating to unacceptable and unworthy worship of God and
desecration of the Temple.
But this one in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 is different. It is used
of serving other gods - doing what other religions do, including fertility
cult customs and practices. That Hebrew word is
and is the word used for 'abomination' in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.
It is the same word that is used in connection with cultic prostitution
in Deut 23: 18 and 1 Kings 14: 24 (as well as in over 100 other references
associated with idolatry). The context of Egyptian and Canaanite
religion (Leviticus 18:3, 24-30; 20:23-24) confirms the connection of Lev
18: 22 and Lev 20: 13 with the statutes of the idolatrous cultus ie cultic
And if the New American Standard Bible is correct, the literal translation
of Lev 18: 22 is 'you shall not lie with a male, as those (plural) who
lie with a female (singular)'. This clearly implies prostitution. But the
case is strong without this.
So the Leviticus references, like the others in the
Old Testament, are linked with the hated Canaanite cults in which young
men and women were recruited for temple prostitution.
The sexual rites were supposed to 'wake up the gods' and make fertile the
herds, the crops, and those who entered the rites. Taken together, the
Levitical and Deuteronomical laws rightly banned any kind of involvement
in these cultic sexual rites.
Practical, cultural and religious factors
There are also powerful cultural reasons that point to why those references
in Leviticus were written. It was bound up with the beliefs and needs of
those ancient people. Family for them was of vital practical and religious
This was reflected in one of the earliest recorded commands, given in the
Creation story (Genesis 1:28) to 'Be fruitful and multiply.' [RSV] The
Jews learned their faith through stories (a tried-and-tested method that
Jesus also used), and this particular story related to a man and a woman
raising a family - a story with profound significance for their very survival.
Family was vitally important for a number of practical reasons, because
large families were needed:
+ to do the many chores needed to feed, clothe and generally sustain
+ to provide strong, healthy men to protect the tribe and to keep their
women, children, cattle and crops from being stolen;
+ to provide for care in later life.
In nomadic life especially, and even when the Israelites were settled in
Canaan, survival depended on large families helping one another.
Family was also important because they had no concept of eternal life such
as we have today in Jesus. Beyond this life there was only sheol - the
shadowy world of the dead. So they concentrated on this life, and 'lived
on' in their descendants. This was a powerful reason for the family
line to continue.
It was the reason for Levirate marriage (see Deuteronomy 25:5-6), whereby
a childless widow became the wife of her dead husband's brother. He would
then raise up a family and thus continue the line of his dead brother.
Any brother who refused to do this suffered at best a sullied reputation,
and at worst death (see Deuteronomy 25:7-10 and Genesis 38:8-10).
Also, because the Jews had no concept of eternal life (as we know it in
Jesus), they believed that the God of justice meted out justice in this
life (see Deuteronomy 28:1-57). They therefore believed that God:
- blessed the righteous with health, wealth and prosperity, security
and large families (remember his promise to Abraham, who had everything
else but family [Genesis 15:5-6])
- but cursed disobedient sinners with sickness, poverty, loss and barrenness.
It followed from this that those who prospered must have been favoured
by God because of their righteousness, while the poor, sick, barren etc.
must be experiencing the result of their disobedience - God was not pleased
We still hear people say 'What have I done to deserve this?' when things
go wrong, and this is where the idea comes from.
The book of Job wrestles with exactly this problem. (It became yet another
instance of where Jesus stood things on their head. In John 9:1-3, for
example, the people's reaction to the man's blindness is very much according
the Jewish way of thinking, whereas Jesus put a very different gloss on
Large families were a joy for many reasons - not least because they were
seen as a reward for righteousness.
Conversely, barrenness was viewed as a consequence of sinfulness. Thus
not only did women have cause to grieve when they were barren (think, for
example of Rachel in Genesis and Hannah in 1 Samuel), but they also had
to contend with the belief that it was their fault because it resulted
from their disobedience to God. There was nothing to stop their husband
taking another wife, or servant, or concubine, and fathering children in
order to show it wasn't his righteousness that was lacking!
So strong was the need for children that women might go to extreme lengths
to become pregnant. Among the best-known examples is that of Lot's widowed
daughters making their father drunk and lying with him because they saw
no prospect of children any other way (see Genesis 19:30-36).
And in Genesis 38 the widow Tamar dressed as a prostitute and solicited
her father-in-law Judah because he had not given her one of her dead husband's
brothers as the law pre-scribed - thus she had Judah's child.
So family was vital for various practical, religious and cultural reasons.
But the ancients also believed it was men that had within them the 'seed'
of life (the King James Version contains many references to 'seed', such
as in Genesis 21:13). Men's semen was seen as the human equivalent of the
seed planted in the ground, while women in pregnancy were merely viewed
This also explains why genealogies are traced through the male line. It
followed from this that if a man deliberately 'spilled his seed' in whatever
way, they viewed it as a sin against God and punishable by death (see Genesis
38:9-10). This was presumably because it took away God's prerogative to
give or withhold life; it was a man's duty to use his 'seed' to raise a
How, then, was a man treated whose genitals had been damaged?
You might expect him to be treated with compassion. Yet not only was the
poor man condemned to life without a family, but according to Deuteronomy
23:1 he was excluded from the assembly of the Lord (the Temple), because
they assumed he must have disobeyed God to have suffered such a misfortune.
Finally, how would they have viewed any sexual act that was clearly not
procreative? They would have seen it as disobedience to God - a crime against
the tribe (whose survival depended on procreation), and deliberately mocking
God (who alone should decide which were the righteous who should multiply,
and which the sinners who should remain barren).
People who committed such acts were condemned to death for disobedience
against God's command to be fruitful and multiply.
Does this still apply today?
We have just considered the most powerful cultural reason for the
condemnation of same-sex sexual acts that is contained in Leviticus 18:20
Yet the reasons for that law in Leviticus no longer apply today! We know
from our experience and from Jesus' teaching that the religious, cultural
and scientific reasoning behind Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 was wrong.
Men are not pre-eminent in having the seed of life within them. God does
not withhold family because people are sinners. There is eternal life.
God does not punish with death men who do not use their semen for procreation.
And far from needing to multiply, we now need restraint. It took from the
creation of humanity up to 1900 AD to produce a world population of two
billion; it has taken less than a century to nearly triple that number!
The world is over- populated, with people dying of starvation and disease
in the very places where people still feel the need to multiply for some
of the same reasons that motivated the Hebrews.
Fertility cult worship is certainly not part of the current scene. Some
sexual attitudes in society pose a danger to health as well as faith, but
as Christians we are aware of this and allow our faith to guide us, whether
we are heterosexual or homosexual.
Most importantly for this study, we know today that, just as the heterosexual
act can be born of lust or of love, so the homosexual act described in
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 can be an expression of lust, but can also be
an expression of responsible, faithful, intimate and committed love.
And as John explains in his first New Testament letter, where real love
is, there is God. Indeed, such love is God's greatest blessing - for
God is love!
So it is not what we are given, but whether we
use those gifts in true love, that counts with God.
We shall now move on to the New Testament references, and see if they bring
us to a different conclusion when considered in context.