In my last post, I answered 3 of my 5 “devil’s advocate” arguments against the so-called traditional view of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13—the only two Old Testament texts that explicitly forbid male-male intercourse. We’ll carry on our discussion in this post by addressing the last 2 of those 5 arguments.
2. Prohibitions against male-male sex in Lev 18:22 and 20:13 are time-bound and culture-bound purity laws that were intended to keep Israel separate from the surrounding nations.
The implication of this of course is that they are no longer binding on believers. We can eat catfish, sand lizards, mole rats, and have sex with people of the same gender—so goes the argument. Prohibitions of these in the OT belong to the purity laws that kept Israel distinct from their Canaanite and Egyptian neighbors. To cite Daniel Helminiak again:
…the Leviticus code is irrelevant for deciding whether gay sex is right or wrong. Though the Hebrew Testament certainly did forbid penetrative male-male sex, its reason for forbidding it have no bearing on today’s discussion of homosexuality (Helminiak, 56).
I think this is the strongest argument against seeing Leviticus 18 and 20 as relevant for Christians. But I still see three problems with such reasoning.
First, male-male sex is called “an abomination” (Lev 18:22; 20:13). And as stated in the previous post, Leviticus never refers to purity laws, such as not frying up sea gulls, as an abomination.
Second, most people would consider all the other practices prohibited in Leviticus 18 as still relevant. For instance, Leviticus 18 condemns incest (18:6-18), adultery (18:20), child sacrifice (18:21), bestiality (18:23), and male-male intercourse (18:22). The only one that may be classified as an out-dated “purity” law is the prohibition of having sex during menstruation (18:19). This last one often throws interpreters a curve ball, but I wonder: are we sure this law shouldn’t be upheld by Christians? I’ll let Rachel Held Evans address that one. She’s good at the nitty-gritty.
Even if sex during menstruation is a purity law that’s no longer valid, it does not receive the same severe punishment as male-male sex. For instance, if a man has sex with a woman during menstruation, he is unclean for 7 days but does not receive the death penalty (or expulsion; Lev 15:24). But homosexual intercourse does incur the death penalty (20:13).
Third, I’m not sure if it’s that easy to distinguish purity laws from moral laws. “The Old Testament…makes no systematic distinction between ritual law and moral law,” writes Richard Hays (Moral Vision, 382). The best way to see if an OT law is still relevant for believers is, of course, to look to the New Testament. When we look at the New Testament—and this the most important counterargument—not only does the New Testament still prohibit same-sex intercourse, but it draws upon Leviticus 18 and 20 to do so.
Romans 1:18-32 is probably the most important text in the debate, with its well-known reference to gay and lesbian sex in 1:25-27. It probably has at least two allusions to Leviticus 18 and 20. First, Romans 1:32 says that these sins are revealed in God’s law and are “worthy of death,” which probably refers to Lev 20:13 where the death penalty is prescribed for same-sex intercourse. Second, the word translated “shameless acts” (asxemosunen) is used throughout Leviticus 18:6-19 and 20:11, 17-21 (“you shall not uncover the nakedness of…”). In fact, more than half of the OT uses of this Greek word occur in Leviticus 18 and 20 to refer to sexual sins. It’s very likely that Paul has Leviticus 18 and 20 in mind when he says that same-sex intercourse is a sin in Romans 1.
Paul refers to homosexual sex again in 1 Cor 6:9 when he coins the word arsenokoitai—literally “lying with a male.” Paul invents this word by combining two Hebrew words mishkav zakur (“lying with a male”), which are the same Hebrew words used in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Again, not only does Paul see same sex intercourse as sin, but he draws on Leviticus 18 and 20 to do so.
The prohibition of male-male sex in Leviticus 18 and 20 appears to remain relevant for new covenant believers.
1. The Old Testament never mentions lesbian sex and therefore such acts are not condemned.
This is sort of true. Nowhere is lesbian sex mentioned; Leviticus 18 and 20 only talk about male-male intercourse. In fact, lesbian sex is nowhere mentioned in legal material in the ancient world. Did it exist? Or did such women just kept in secret? Or did the male lawgivers only focus on making rules that involved men? We just don’t know. My best guess about why lesbian sex is not mention in Leviticus is that it wasn’t a (known) practice that needed to be addressed. What we do know is that when it is mentioned by later Greek and Romans writers, it is considered more appalling than male-male sex, which is often considered a supreme form of love.
In short, while it is true that lesbian sex is nowhere mentioned in the Old Testament, I don’t think this should be taken to mean that it was therefore okay for female Israelites or sojourners to engage in it. In any case, Paul does mention lesbian sex in Romans 1 and, from what I can tell, he condemns it.
I know that the name Robert Gagnon produces shrills from the LGBT community, but I can’t help but see his interpretive observations on Leviticus 18 and 20 as compelling. (Though I’m not convinced by his reading of Genesis 9 or 19). Gagnon points out that the laws in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 “are unqualified and absolute…They neither penalize only oppressive forms of homosexuality nor excuse either party to the act” (Homosexual Practice, 115). That’s because the Leviticus laws view the act as confusing God given gender roles. “For a man to have sexual intercourse with another male as though the latter were not a male but a female violates God’s design for the created order” (ibid., 157).
Let me end with the same caveat I gave in the previous post: If at any place you see that my interpretation or reasoning is wrong, or if you believe my argument is unclear, I genuinely invite you to critique me. I’ll do my best not to be offended, even if you respond offensively. After all, my goal is not to prove a certain presupposed view to be true, but to understand Scripture in order to bring its truth and love to bear on a broken world.