Does Leviticus Actually Condemn Same-Sex Intercourse?

Preston Sprinkle —  August 29, 2013
This entry is part 4 of 20 in the seriesHomosexuality in the Bible
stop lying

Really? Do you keep ALL the laws of Leviticus?

No, it doesn’t. At least, these texts no longer carry lasting relevance for Christians. While many conservative Christians think Leviticus 18 and 20 offer everlasting authority for this issue, they are not only sadly mistaken but naïve in their interpretation. The relevant verses read:

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination (Lev 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 (Lev 20:13)

For five reasons, these two verses are not significant for today’s debate about homosexuality.

First, to point out the obvious, these two texts—the only two texts in the entire Old Testament that talks about homosexual sex—does not mention Lesbian sex. It only specifies male-male sex. Nothing in the Old Testament mentions Lesbianism and therefore it was never condemned.

case closed

The complexities of this passage can’t be contained on a church sign

Second, the context of these commands occurs in the section of Leviticus that commands Israel not to live like the surrounding nations (Lev 18:1-5, 24-30). “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt…and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan” (Lev 18:3). In fact, all of Leviticus 18-20 is focused on purity laws; laws that are to maintain Israel’s purity from the nations. The point is: these laws are time-bound and culture-bound. Like the dietary laws (Lev 11) and laws about mixing different types of fabric (Lev 19:19, ever wear a poly-cotton blend, you sinner?), these laws against male-male sex belong in the same category. And like all purity laws, they are no longer binding on Christians. Jesus (Mark 7) and the apostles (Acts 10-11, 15) made this crystal clear. Christians are no longer obligated to keep Israel’s purity laws.

Third, and related, male-male sex is called an “abomination” in Leviticus 18 and 20, but so are all sorts of other laws that Christians aren’t obligated to keep. For instance, Leviticus 20:25-26 says:

You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; you shall not bring abomination on yourself by animal or by bird or by anything with which the ground teems, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. (Lev 20:25).

So, Christians who still eat bacon yet use Leviticus 18 and 20 to condemn homosexual sex are inconsistent, if not naïve. They race to cherry-pick verses that support their pre-conceived notions of what they want the Bible to say, but check their brains at the door in the process.

Fourth, the reason Leviticus 18 and 20 gives for why male-male sex is wrong is because it makes the “receiver” act like a woman. “You shall not lie with a male as with a female” (18:22). But think about the underlying logic here. Israel was a patriarchal society where women were viewed as much lower on the social scale than men. So to treat a man like a woman (i.e. having sex with him) was shameful, not because the act is inherently sinful but because men are better than women and shouldn’t lower themselves by acting like a woman.

So, if you still want to quote Leviticus to condemn homosexual sex, then you must bring with it the inherent degrading view of women to make this command work.

any questions

Ya, I’ve got several questions! Got any answers?

Fifth, the type of homosexual sex described in Leviticus 18 and 20 has to do with male cult prostitution, not same sex intercourse in the context of a monogamous relationship. Again, this passage doesn’t carry any relevance for the modern debate. All it does is condemn male cult prostitution, but I don’t know anyone who would want to uphold this practice.

________________________________________________

Okay, I’ll stop. Some of you may have wondered what happened to me. Let me assure you: I don’t agree with most of what I’ve argued for above. Let me be clear: I was playing devil’s advocate in these five arguments. I believe that Leviticus 18 and 20 still carry lasting relevance for how Christians should view same sex intercourse. What I’ve done above is tried to understand and argue for the other side. The five arguments I summed up are, from what I’ve seen, the five best reasons to dismiss Leviticus 18 and 20. And some of these arguments are actually very good.

So here’s the point. Until you can refute these five points, you should probably not cite Leviticus as armament to condemn homosexual sex. The issue, as you can see, is more complicated than you might think. So far in my study, I have found that the Bible prohibits homosexual sex. But I’ve come to see that there are many good biblical arguments for the other side, and until we can address these arguments, we can’t have an intelligible, biblical conversation with those Christians who sanction same-sex, monogamous intercourse.

In the next post, I’ll argue against myself (!); I’ll show that the five points listed above don’t carry as much weight as they may seem.

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • Preston

    Good catch, Jared! Indeed, both 1 Cor 6 and Rom 1 picks up on Lev 18 and 20. Thanks for weighing in and thinking hard!

  • Preston

    Thanks for your encouragement, Brocole. I’ve never been on the fence on this issue (despite how some of taken my previous posts). I do see it as more complicated than I originally thought, but I haven’t been convinced by arguments from the other side.

  • MD

    This is fantastic… It is really refreshing to see someone discussing this topic critically. Thank you. I believe you already kind of said this, but this discussion is more between Christians than between Christian and non right? I mean, a discussion in house about the reality of moral law emanating from the nature of God and what he intended and prescribes is very different than the discussion of one individual’s need for God in every part of life, including sexuality. Would you say that the latter is more a conversation about identity, unfulfilled or wrongfully filled desire, and the love of God for the individual rather than a conversation about how sinful the individual is? What are the implications for the spread of the gospel to the homosexual community and how do you approach it?

    • Preston

      Thanks MD! Two things:

      1) Yes, this is a Christian conversation; that is, with those who see some measure of moral authority in the Bible.

      2) Good question…I think. I had a tough time understanding exactly what you are asking, but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t give a good answer yet. I need to do a lot more study (and conversing with people in the LGBT community) before I try to give a solid, Christian answer to the larger question of sexuality and identity.

  • Michael Snow

    “…ever wear a poly-cotton blend, you sinner?), these laws against male-male sex belong in the same category. ”

    So, do you argue that the prohibitions against incest in Lev. are also related to ‘cult prostitution’? What happened to context?

    • Preston

      Just curious…did you read the entire post, Michael?

  • Jean

    Preston, regarding point 5, the argument isn’t fully developed. How would we connect these passages with male cult prostitution? I think it would be helpful to fully grasp that argument. Thank you for your posts on this topic.

    • Preston

      Jean, thanks for pushing for being more thorough! I suspect you are quite familiar with that argument? For what it’s worth, I might have sacrificed thoroughness for concision to help others who aren’t familiar with the argument.

      If I was going to expand on it, I’d point to the connection with the laws in 18:6ff with the explicit context of not being like the Canaanites and the Egyptians (18:1-5, et al.). And–so goes the argument–the Canaanites engaged in male cult prostitution, so that’s what Moses was warning Israel against.

      As I’ll show in the next post, I think this argument is a really bad on for several reasons. In fact, I think it’s the worst argument of the 5.

  • Joel Kirkendall

    You made me pretty heated for a few minutes there and read extra slowly!
    Congrats on grabbing the attention of this person from the audience.

    • Preston

      You’re welcome, Joel!

    • Preston

      I am curious, though, Joel: Were you “heated” because you could not refute the arguments given, or because you could refute them so easily that you were “heated” at such horrible argumentation? If the latter, I’d love to hear your counterarguments.

  • Emil

    Interesting, but Dr. Preston, even though you were playing devils advocate, aren’t the OT laws obsolete? Meaning, we dont go to the OT to cite any law but we use NT law, namely, the Law of Christ. He did reinstitute some of the OT laws, but wouldnt it be better to play it safe by simply going to 1 Corinthians 6 for the condemnation of homosexuality?

    • Preston

      Emil, not all the OT laws are obsolete (Matt 5:17-20; Rom 3:28-30). And my series of posts is intended to work through all the major texts used in the discussion, regardless of whether they all carry the same weight. Yes, 1 Cor 6 is important, and Romans 1 is the most important. But several passages in the OT–Jesus’s Bible–need to be considered as well.

  • Preston

    Oh right, that makes total sense! Thanks MD. Yes, there are tons of people who have thought through this. There’s a lot of good stuff on the web. I’d start with this one:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/loveisanorientation/

    And then this one:

    http://www.loveboldly.net/

    I think with any sub-culture, the gospel needs to be contextualized. That is, we need to understand the history, pain, worldview, etc. of the people we are sharing with in order to effectively share and show the love of Christ to them in a way that’s truthful and compelling.

    With the LGBT community, this is tough. They’ve been so beat up by the Church that to just come out guns a blazin with God loves you but hates your sin (or, God hates you and your sin) is not going to get very far.

    Much more to say, but my next blog will address some of this.

  • Pingback: Leviticus 18 & 20 Revisited…for Real | Theology for Real Life

  • Aaron Saltzer

    What’s “the price of a dog” mean in Deuteronomy 23:18?

    • http://www.hoperemains.webs.com/ Rev. William H. Carey

      As best I can determine, it states that neither the money used to hire a prostitute (zonah) nor the price obtained for selling a dog is to be used as an offering in the temple. (Is this relevant to the current topic?)