In a previous post, I listed what I have found to be the five strongest arguments against seeing Leviticus 18 and 20 as prohibiting same-sex intercourse. In this post and the next, I’ll work through each of these
arguments and offer a counter argument. I’ll begin with the last argument first and work my way up.
5. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 don’t refer to all forms of same sex intercourse, but male-cult prostitution.
If this is true, then Leviticus does not speak to same sex attraction leading to consensual, monogamous sex. But I don’t find this argument convincing for two reasons.
First, there is little evidence that such cultic prostitution existed in the ancient world, let alone in Israel. In the past, scholars assumed that cultic prostitution was alive and well in the ancient world. But more recent scholars have shown that there is little evidence that it actually existed. There is no mention of it, for instance, in Babylonian, Ugarit, or Akkadian literature, and the Hebrew words (qadesh, qadeshah, qadeshim) often translated “[male] cult prostitute” (or “sodomite”) do not mean that. Translating these Hebrew words as “cult prostitute” or “male cult prostitute” assumes the existence of “male cult prostitution” in the ancient world, but there is little evidence that it did. There’s been a lot of scholarly literature written about this in the last 10-15 years, and most of it argues against the existence of male cult prostitution in the ancient world.
I could say much more about this, but we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. In any case, if you think Leviticus 18 and 20 refers to male cult prostitution, you need to first swim upstream and prove that there was such a thing in Israel.
Second, even if you did prove (against the opinion of most ancient near east scholars) that qadesh does mean “male cult prostitution,” Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 don’t use this word. When the Bible outlaws the qadashim in, say, Deut 23:18, it does so explicitly: “You shall not bring the wages of a qadesh into the house of the LORD.” But Leviticus 18 and 20 don’t mention the qadeshim. They prohibit a male having sex with another male. There is no evidence in the text or from history that this prohibition only had male cult prostitution in view.
4. The underlying logic of Leviticus 18 and 20 is that females are inferior to males.
Such is implied by the prohibition of lying with a male “as with a woman.” So, if we are to obey the prohibition do we also need to view women as inferior?
This is actually a good argument and needs to be carefully considered. However, I still think it reads too much into the text. After all, Leviticus says that men shouldn’t lie with men “as with a woman” but it doesn’t
explain why it’s wrong for a man to act like a woman. And I don’t think we can simply assume that it’s wrong because women were viewed as socially lower than men.
Here are a couple responses:
First, it could be wrong for men to act like women, not because women are inferior to men, but because men and women were created with divinely intended differences. Robert Gagnon (a scholar who defends the traditional view) says: “At issue was not so much status differentiation as sexual differentiation” (The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 142). In other words, same-sex intercourse violates the natural pairing of sexual differences; it doesn’t just demean male honor (i.e. acting like a woman). After all, the Hebrew Bible, though patriarchal to some extent, elevated the status of women much higher than in many surrounding cultures (see, e.g. Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?).
Second, in other ancient law codes, the only one who was shamed in the act of same-sex intercourse was the one who “played the female.” But—and this is key—Leviticus 20:13 gives the death penalty for both partners in male-male intercourse. If social status was a concern for Leviticus, then it would not have condemned the active and the passive partner.
The commands in Leviticus 18 and 20 are unqualified and absolute. That is, they don’t show the same concern for social status that other ancient laws about homosexual intercourse do. In contrast to other ancient laws, social status seems to be irrelevant for the prohibitions in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.
3. Homosexual sex is called “an abomination” in Leviticus 18 and 20 but so are a lot of practices that Christians have no problem engaging in.
For instance, dietary restrictions such as eating pork—so the argument goes—is also called an abomination.
This argument has been used by many recent interpreters who say that Bible doesn’t (clearly) prohibit same sex intercourse. Daniel Helminiak says that many things are outlawed as “an abomination” in Leviticus including eating unclean birds and fish (What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality). Justin Lee says something similar in his excellent book, Torn. I’m pretty sure both of these interpreters draw from the monumental work of John Boswell, who in 1980 said that the word “abomination” in Leviticus does not signify something that is “intrinsically evil” but is “used throughout the Old Testament
to designate those Jewish sins which involve ethnic contamination” such as eating pork or weaving together different fabrics (Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, Kindle loc. 2775).
This argument sounds devastating for conservative interpreters who love bacon and poly-cotton blends. But there’s one problem with the argument: It’s wrong.
Boswell and his later readers seem to be looking at the English word “abomination” and not the Hebrew word toevah. (Boswell looks at the Hebrew term, but misrepresents the evidence.) The word toevah is only used 6 times in Leviticus: 4 times in the plural, “abominations,” to refer broadly to all sins (mostly sexual) of Leviticus 18:6-29 (incest, bestiality, child sacrifice, and homosexual sex). But toevah only occurs 2 times in the singular—“an abomination”—in Leviticus: 18:22 and 20:13. In both occasions, it refers to (and only to) male-male sex.
Toevah is never used in Leviticus to refer to dietary laws.
In the rest of the Old Testament, it’s most often used to refer to acts that are intrinsically evil: murder (Jer 7:9), oppressing the poor (Ezek 18:7), robbery (Ezek 18:7-8), adultery (Ezek 22:11), among other sins. There may be instances where toevah is used in the way Boswell claims (e.g. Deut 14:3) but these are rare. And, most importantly, they are not used as such in Leviticus.
Same sex intercourse among males does not seem to belong in the same category as other dietary laws that are done away with in the New Testament. This feeds into the next and probably the most important argument against seeing Leviticus 18 and 20 as relevant. But let’s stop here to give you some time to digest.
Again, none of my thoughts here are written in stone, and I certainly don’t think I’ve understood all the complexities of homosexuality by doing a few word studies on Leviticus 18. But in order to faithfully and compassionately bring the Bible to bear on the current debate, I need to understand those debated passages that explicitly mention homosexual intercourse. 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.
We’ll come back in the next post and cover the last two arguments.