Chapter 7

The Leviticus references

Leviticus 18:22; 20:13

(see also further Addendum notes on these references)

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 about?

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 Israel.

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 four centuries. (In both these references you will later see that Paul uses a word that refers directly to Leviticus 20:13).

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 it today.

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 references.

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.

Comparative studies

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 to'ebah, 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 prostitution.

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 importance.

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 the family;

+ 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 with them!

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 things.)

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 as incubators.

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 family.

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 and 20:13.

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.

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