Does Leviticus Actually Condemn Same-Sex Intercourse?

Preston Sprinkle —  August 29, 2013 — 21 Comments
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.
  • Aaron Saltzer

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

    • 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?)

  • One of the most significant problems with the two Leviticus verses is that they are incorrectly translated in every English version I have ever seen. These translations do not agree with the Hebrew text (nor with the Septuagint and Vulgate). The translations all contain a type of comparison “as with.” That comparison is absent in the Hebrew text. What the Hebrew text does have in both verses is a phrase that correctly translates as “a woman’s bed.” But somehow, that never made it into any of the translations.
    The phrase in question, mishkvei ishah, is found only in these two verses. In fact, mishkvei is found only three times in the whole Old Testament. The first use is in Gen. 49:4. There, it is part of the phrase mishkvei avicha, correctly translated in KJV at least as “thy father’s bed.”
    Mishkvei is the construct form of the noun mishkav, which means bed. When a Hebrew noun is in the construct state, it is grammatically tied to the following noun. Often, we translate this by putting “of” between the words. But where using a possessive form is less awkward, we use it: thy father’s bed is less awkward than bed of thy father. A woman’s bed is less awkward than bed of a woman.
    In all three verses using mishkvei, there is no preposition written. In Hebrew, if a preposition can be derived from context, it might be omitted. This is particularly true if the verb implies the preposition. In Gen. 49:4, Jacob tells his son, “Thou wentest up TO thy father’s bed.” The TO is not in the text, but is implied.
    Now let’s look at Lev. 18:22 – V’et zachar lo tishkav mishkvei ishah toevah hi.
    Literally “And with a male not thou shalt lie down bed of a woman abomination it.”
    Less confusing, “And thou shalt not lie down with a male IN a woman’s bed; it is an abomination.” Here, I have inserted the preposition IN. I could also use ON, depending on whether you prefer to lie in a bed or on a bed.

    Lev. 20:13 – V’ish asher yishkav et zachar mishkvei ishah to’evah asu shneihem, mot yumatu d’meihem bam.”
    Literal: And a man who will lie down with a male bed of a woman abomination have done both of them dying they will be put to death their blood in them.
    Less confusing: And a man who will lie down with a male IN a woman’s bed: Both of them have done an abomination; dying they will be put to death. Their blood is on them.
    (Dying they will be put to death: a gerund followed by a future tense form in Hebrew implies certainty, so “they will surely be put to death” is an acceptable translation.)

    So rather than prohibitions of homosexuality, these two verses seem to have more to do with improper use of a woman’s bed. Lev. 15 has other rules about a woman’s bed.

    As for temple prostitution, there is a lot of confusion about this topic. This was originally a feature of a Babylonian religion, and was used as a form of worship of the fertility goddess. Having sex with a prostitute was meant to ensure fertility. Obviously, fertility is not an issue with homosexual sex. This prostitution was always heterosexual: male worshipers visited female prostitutes and vice versa. Both the goddess (under a different name) and the form of worship were adopted in Canaan. A temple prostitute was called “kadesh” if it was a man, and “k’deshah” if it was a woman. These words actually mean holy ones!

    In Deut. 23:17, God let Israel know that this form of “worship” was not acceptable to Him. Unfortunately, the KJV translators completely messed up this verse so it does not even appear to be dealing with temple prostitution. Here’s what it should say: There will be no k’deshah of the daughters of Israel, and there will be no kadesh of the sons of Israel. A person doesn’t need to know Hebrew to see that whatever it was that the daughters couldn’t be was the same as what the sons couldn’t be. KJV decided to translate k’deshah as whore, and kadesh as sodomite. Both are wrong. (The word for an ordinary prostitute is zonah in Hebrew, not k’deshah.)

    Israel ignored this warning fairly early in their history. Eli’s sons, the priests Hophni and Phineas, instituted temple prostitution as a form of worship to the Lord. In 1 Sam. 2:22, we see that they were acting as temple prostitutes, having sex with the women of Israel in the doorway of the Tabernacle. (The location proves that this was temple prostitution, not just two men cheating on their wives.) And as we can see, it was heterosexual. Since temple prostitution (outside of Hophni and Phineas’ little jaunt) was always a feature of a fertility cult, it was ALWAYS heterosexual.

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

      • MD

        Awesome, thanks Preston.

        I think the main question I was trying to get at was what does it practically look like to share the gospel with a person who identifies as a homosexual? Do you think it changes much? have you or have you heard of people who have had these types of conversations, and what did that look like?

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • Jared Tabor

    Look forward as to how you answer your own questions. I thought Hays was helpful in his ethics book by pointing out that these two passages are presupposed by Paul in 1 Cor. 6/1 Tim 1:10 (probably acts 15 as well) when he speaks about homosexuality. New covenant theology is helpful in pointing us to what OT passages were picked up by NT writers and by Jesus (mark 7:21) and then emphasizing on the clearer revelation we have. However, that can appear to downplay the OT’s teaching and make it appear to be less authoritative, its a tricky subject but I’m sure you will show us the way.

  • Brocole

    Preston I always enjoy your posts. I love how you approach topics examining both side without an agenda, or without as much as anyone can. I love to talk to people about thing and try to always keep an open mind. I can not wait to read more. I strive to see the Bible and all of the passages in the way they were intended and in context. There are many issues I am on the fence about and I admit this has never been one. Keep up your good work. I want to know the truth of the text an not what I want it to mean.