Archives For Leviticus

Matthew Vines has written a very thought-provoking book, one which exemplifies sound thinking and humble research. In reading his book, I often found myself rubbing my eyes vinesthinking, “I can’t believe this guy hasn’t even graduated from college!”

Matthew, you’re a diligent student of God’s word and I appreciate the work you put into this.

In any case, while I love to eat catfish and wear poly-cotton blends, I still believe that the prohibitions of male homosexual intercourse in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are still valid today.

To argue that the laws regarding male homosexual intercourse are no longer binding on Christians, Vines cites a few outdated laws in Leviticus: sowing fields with different seeds (Lev 19:19), wearing clothes made of mixed fabric (19:19), getting tattoos (19:28), and shaving the edges of your beard (19:27). Vines also points out that laws regarding circumcision and dietary laws—bye, bye Shrimp Cocktail—are no longer binding on Christians.

So, since all of these laws are done away with in Christ, it’s probable, argues Vines, that the sexual laws about male-male intercourse are no longer binding as well.

Once again, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate Matthew’s tone. It’s gracious. Cordial. Humble. And he actually addresses the “what about…” questions that conservatives will have. I often found myself thinking, “Ah ha, but what about…oh…you actually address that. But, have you considered…oh…um…you actually have.”

In any case, there are problems with Matthew’s treatment of Leviticus 18 and 20.

While Matthew highlights the laws of Leviticus that are no longer valid for Christians, he fails to make mention of all the laws that are clearly still binding. In fact, as I’m sure Matthew knows, Leviticus 18-20 is a distinct literary unit. These three chapters are like one long chapter in the book. And this section lists tons of laws that the Israelites were supposed to obey if they were to get along with each other. Now here’s the thing: while some of these laws are clearly overturned (or fulfilled) in the New Testament, most of them are not.

Most of the laws in Leviticus 18-20 are binding on believers. Matthew only cites a few that aren’t; but here are the rest: incest (Lev 18:6-18; 20:11-14, 17, 19-21), adultery (Lev 18:20; 20:10), child sacrifice (Lev 18:21; 20:1-5), bestiality (Lev 18:23; 20:15-16), theft (Lev 19:11), lying (Lev 19:11), taking the Lord’s name in vain (Lev 19:20), oppressing your neighbor (Lev 19:13), cursing the deaf (19:14), showing partiality in the court of law (Lev 19:15), slander (Lev 19:16), hating your brother (19:17), making your daughter a prostitute (Lev 19:29), turning to witches or necromancers (Lev 19:31), not taking vengeance (Lev 19:17), and loving your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18).

While Matthew correctly points out a few laws that are most probably done away with in Christ, he doesn’t even mention the large pile of commands that are clearly binding on Christians—commands that surround the prohibition of male-male intercourse.

Now, to be fair, adding up the valid and invalid laws that surround the homosexual prohibitions polycotton blendsdoesn’t seal the deal—even if the homosexual prohibitions are drowning in a sea of valid laws. (I do think it puts the burden of proof on affirming scholars, however.) Vines ends up bringing in another argument: the moral logic of homosexual prohibitions.

Discerning the “moral logic” of a command means that we dig deep underneath the actual command to find out the reason for the command. Take tattoos, for instance. The question isn’t so much if tattoos are forbidden, but why they are forbidden. And if you look closely at Leviticus 19:28, you’ll see that tattoos were forbidden because they had to do with some sort of cult of the dead. The tattoos that were forbidden for the Israelites were cultic and pagan; they symbolized allegiance to other gods. And that’s the “moral logic” for the prohibition.

But what about gay sex? What’s the moral logic underlying the prohibitions? Gay sex is clearly forbidden—but why? And are the reasons for the prohibition still valid today?

Vines argues extensively that the reason—the moral logic—for the homosexual prohibitions in Lev 18:22 and 20:13 is because of an assumed male hierarchy. That is, men were valued above women, and when men have sex with other men, they treat the passive partner as a mere woman.

One problem: Nowhere in the context of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 does the text assume some sort of gender hierarchy—that females were inferior to males and that’s why men shouldn’t assume the female role in sex. Nothing. (The phrase “as with a female” only speaks of gender boundaries, not gender hierarchy.) The two prohibitions are “unqualified and absolute” (Gagnon); that is, they simply say that men shouldn’t have sex with men. Period. There is no “moral logic” revealed in the command (just as there is no clear moral logic revealed in the incest laws, though I suspect God gave the commands for similar reasons.) The only hint of moral logic is that men shouldn’t violate their God-given gender roles in sexual intercourse; that is, men should have sex with women, and women sex with men. The command tells men not to have sex with men “as with women.” In any case, assuming some sort of hidden gender hierarchy as the reason for the prohibition is…well…an assumption. An assumption that’s not in the text.

Moreover, every single other sexual prohibition in Leviticus 18 and 20 are still valid for Christians today: adultery, incest, bestiality, etc. They are all valid. Now, Vines points out, or assumes, that the prohibition of sex during a woman’s menstrual period (Lev 19:19) is no longer valid; apparently, men can have all the sex they want during a woman’s period. But my question is: where in the New Testament is this command overturned? Is there any biblical basis—biblical basis—for assuming that men can have sex while their wives are on their period? I’m having troubling recalling a verse, and I can’t explain theologically how it is that Jesus “fulfilled” (yikes!) this prohibition.

So, the point stands: all the prohibitions surrounding sexual immorality in Leviticus 18 and 20 including incest, adultery, sex during menstruation, and male homosexual intercourse—along with a whole host of over commands in Lev 18-20—are still binding on Christians. There’s simply nothing in the context of Leviticus 18 and 20, or in the New Testament, that suggests otherwise.

After two weeks of listening to testimonies and putting flesh on the “issue,” we dove back into the text last Tuesday night in week 8 of our Homosexuality class. As I warned my students, this week was going to involve some nitty gritty, in-depth, bust-out-your-lexicon interpretive questions.

After finding our classroom (you had to have been there…), we spent the first half of class finishing our discussion of Romans 1. Last week, we summed up the logic of Paul’s argument, and this week, we answered all of the “what about this” and “what about that” sort of pushbacks to the traditional view. Isn’t Romans 1 just about idolatry? Or lust? Or seven-vices-by-jim-fetter-40124360158heterosexuals having homosexual sex? Or isn’t Paul just talking about pederasty (sex with boys), or prostitution, or other forms of non-consensual, exploitative sex? If he is, then Romans 1 would be irrelevant for gay men and women seeking a consensual, monogamous, no-sex-until-marriage sort of relationship.

But after looking at the historical situation, literary context, rhetorical context, and the meaning of the phrase para physin (“against nature”) in light of its Greco-Roman and Jewish context (yes, it was a tedious first hour of class!), we concluded that Paul’s words do indeed apply to all forms of homosexual sex—not just the bad ones. But I’ve already written a bunch of blogs, perhaps too many, on Romans 1, so I’ll sum up the second hour of class.

I haven’t actually blogged about Paul’s references to same-gender sex elsewhere in his letters. So this part of the class was new territory for me. On two other occasions, Paul mentions some form of same-sex eroticism, but there’s a massive debate about what he’s talking about. Here are the passages:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality (malakoi and arsenokoitai), nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10)

“the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality (arsenokoitai), enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine (1 Tim 1:9-10)

In these passages, Paul mentions some sort of homosexual activity in a long-list of vices, and the words he uses—malakoi and arsenokoitai—have been subject to much debate. Hence Daniel Helminiak’s evaluation that “There is no real certainty about what these texts mean…Nobody knows for certain what these words mean, so to use them to condemn homosexuals is really dishonest and unfair” (Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says, 107).

I appreciate Helminiak’s interpretive honesty, but I’m afraid that his conclusion is terribly overstated. The Greek word malakoi (and its Latin equivalent) was widely used in the Greco-Roman world to refer to effeminate men. The word doesn’t describe guys who were artistic and bad at sports, but men who crossed gender boundaries in significant ways. Malakoi were men who dressed like women, acted like women, talked like women, shaved their body hair like women, and—not always but most of the time—were known for having sex with other men, just like women. Not everyone who was malakoi (lit. “soft”) received sex from other men, but many did. And since the word is listed after sexual immorality and adultery, and before arsenokoitai (a sexual term as we’ll see), it’s almost certain that Paul had in mind not just men with a limp wrists who couldn’t throw a football, but precisely men who received sex from other men. Or, as the note in the ESV correctly states: “the passive partner in homosexual sex.” Such usage was common in Paul’s Greco-Roman world.

This interpretation is confirmed by the meaning of arsenokoitai. Now, to be fair, arsenokoitai never occurs in all of the ancient Greek literature prior to 1 Corinthians 6. Paul creates this word, but not ex nihilio. That is, he coins this term by smashing two Greek words together: arsen (male) and koite (bed), or “one who lies with another male.” Where does Paul find his inspiration for such a word? Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13—the two passages in his Bible that mention and condemn consensual homosexual sex.

The Greek translation of Leviticus 20:13 reads:

kai hos an koimethe meta arsenos koiten gynaikos.

Even if you don’t know Greek, you can tell that the two words arsenos (“male”) and koiten (“lying”) look a lot like the one word arsenokoitai used in 1 Cor 6 and 1 Tim 1. That’s because Paul’s word is created out of Leviticus’ two words. In fact, the Hebrew original (mishkab zakur) of Greedy1Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 was widely used in Rabbinic literature to refer to male-male homosexual sex (b. Sanh. 54a; ib Sabb. 17b; b. Sukkah 29a; y. Ber 9.50.13c) and its likely that Paul—a Hebrew of Hebrews—is forging a Greek version of the Hebrew phrase. Most importantly, Paul is creating a term about homosexual sex from a passage (Leviticus 18 and 20) that prohibits consensual, same-gender sex.

The fact that 1 Timothy 1:9-10 references “the law” and also uses the term arsenokoitai, derived from Leviticus 18 and 20, suggests quite strongly that Paul is thinking of Leviticus 18 and 20 when he mentions homosexual sex in his list of vices.

Sure, there’s work to be done here. But after the words are studied, it seems clear that malakoi and arsenokoitai refer to the passive and active partners in homosexual sex. I don’t think Paul’s audience would have been terribly shocked or thrown off by Paul’s words. Paul is simply assuming the view held unanimously in Hellenistic Judaism that same-gender sexual relations are against the Creator’s will.

But—and here’s what it gets dicey—so is greed. So is heterosexual immorality (porn?). So is stealing (burning the latest Coldplay album and giving it to your friend). So is slander (Facebook comments?). Whatever we say about homosexual relations, we must also say about all the other sins mentioned in Paul’s list of vices.

Consistency. It’s a tough and often unpracticed virtue.

Last Tuesday was our third class for “Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church,” and we continued to study what the Old Testament says about homosexuality.

First, we briefly looked at Genesis 1-2 to identify its relevance for the debate. Put simply: Does Genesis 1-2 show that a valid marriage is essentially heterosexual, or is heterosexual marriage simply the typical, though not essential, form of a valid marriage?

We quickly brushed aside the “God created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve” argument, since it ignores many aspects of the actual text. For instance, Eve was considered to be a suitable helper for Adam (Gen 2:20, godhatesshrimp222), but was that because she was a female (and not a male) or because she was a human (and not an animal; see 2:19)? Does the “one flesh” statement (2:24) refer to their biological complementarity, or to a new “kinship bond”? And is sex only valid if it has the potential to procreate? This, of course, would rule out homosexual sex. But it would also rule out contraceptives, sex in old age, and the sexual validity of infertile couples.

As you might be able to tell, some of our interpretive options necessarily rule out homosexual marriage, while others could allow for it. My point wasn’t to solve these questions, but to show that Genesis 1-2 doesn’t clearly end the discussion about what validates marital union. We need to look at the overarching biblical theology of gender, sex, and marriage, along with other passages that explicitly mention homosexual activity. Which is why we focused most of our evening on two verses in Leviticus:

Lev 18:22 “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”

Lev 20:13 “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.”

We began by observing several basic points about these verses. First, the statements are unqualified and absolute. That is, they don’t seem to talk about a specific form of gay sex (e.g. wartime rape, incest). Second, the verses use generic gender categories: male and female. They don’t only prohibit men from having sex with boys or with slaves, for example. Third, both verses use basic sexual terminology—the verb “to lie with.” Most often in Scripture, such terms refer to consensual sex, rather than, say, rape. For instance, Deut 22:22 condemns both man and woman for having an affair. Why? Because it was consensual. But Deut 22:25 only condemns the man because he “seizes” another man’s wife and “lies with her.” The verb “seize” connotes coercive sex, while “lie with” with no other qualifiers most often refers to consensual sex. Leviticus 18 and 20 only use the verb “to lie with.” And lastly, both parties are condemned in Leviticus 20:13, suggesting that the sex-act was mutual.


Justin Lee

Now, some people have argued that Leviticus 18 and 20 are probably talking about male cult prostitution—men who had sex with other men out of devotion to a pagan deity. Justin Lee, for instance, leans toward this view in his book Torn (a book which I really like, BTW, and have assigned to my students). In fact, much of his analysis of what the Bible says about gay sex rests on the probability that Leviticus 18 and 20 are talking about cult prostitution.

However, not only does Lee misrepresent his primary source, Robert Gagnon (see Gagnon’s responses HERE and HERE), but he assumes the existence of an institution that most scholars now believe never existed; see Lynn Budin’s aptly titled book, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Even if there was such an institution as cultic prostitution in the ancient world, Leviticus 18 and 20 don’t use words related to this (probably mythical) practice (e.g. the Hebrew qadesh or qadeshim). The cult prostitution view has little credibility.

The most popular and persuasive counter argument for the traditional understanding of Leviticus 18 and 20 is that Christians are totally fine with eating catfish, wearing mixed clothing, and other things forbidden by Leviticus. Why, then, do they still observe the prohibitions against gay sex?

Instead of summing up this counter-argument, I let Matthew Vines do it himself. No, he wasn’t a guest speaker—unfortunately. Rather, we showed a clip of his lecture that went viral on YouTube last year. Vines is a gay Christian and he took a two year leave from college to study what the Bible actually says about homosexuality. This sermon represents the fruit of his findings and has been hailed as the most devastating critique of the traditional view of homosexuality.Vines

What I wanted the class to see first hand is that there are at least some gay Christians who are not sacrificing the Bible on the altar of sexual orientation. Rather, they are basing their views on the inerrant, authoritative word of God. And it’s because of, not in spite of, their view of God’s word that they believe that God does not prohibit monogamous, consensual, loving gay unions.

In any case, after working through Vines’ compelling argument, there are several things that don’t seem very accurate about his interpretation of Leviticus 18 and 20 (my response will only make sense if you first watch the 10 min section linked above).

First, Acts doesn’t actually say that the entire law is no longer applicable for Gentile Christians. In fact, Acts 15:20 says explicitly that Gentiles are to refrain from “sexual immorality” (porneia). This is an umbrella term that very well could include all the sexual prohibitions in Leviticus 18:6-23. At the very least, I’d need to be shown that porneia does not include homosexual sex. In any case, Vines’ doesn’t mention this important verse in his discussion of Acts 15.

Second, Leviticus 18-20 is a distinct literary unit. And the vast majority of the commands in this section are universally binding; they talk about things that are intrinsically good or evil and are not culturally bound.

Third, Vines does not represent the evidence very well when he talks about the Hebrew term “abomination.” Contrary to Vines, the Hebrew word does not occur in Leviticus 11. In fact, the Hebrew term toevot (“abominations” plural) only occurs 4 times in Leviticus 18:26, 27, 29, 30, and 2 times in the singular (toevah) to refer to the homosexual acts in 18:22 and 20:13. Now, Vines is correct that the term is used in Deut 14:3 of unclean animals, but most often toevah refers to things like murder, theft, lying, oppressing the poor, etc., things that are intrinsically evil. Not every time, but most of the time. Vines makes it sound like the word only refers to outdated purity laws that separated Israel from the nations. But he only points out uses of the word that support this view and ignores the rest—which are many—that work against his view.

Lastly, and most importantly, Paul seems to draw upon Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 when he coins the Greek word arsenokoites in 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10. This would suggest that the gay sex prohibitions in Leviticus 18 and 20 are still relevant for believers since they were repeated in the New Testament.

I hope this post doesn’t come off as impersonal and clinical. I don’t mean it to be. And if you’ve followed my other blogs on this topic you’ll see that I’m trying hard not to treat homosexuality as just an academic question about Hebrew words. But as I told my class, we have to both befriend people who are LGBT (get to know names and faces and stories) and rigorously study what the Bible says about same sex relations. In this last class, we focused on the latter.

Next class, we’re going to have a couple guest speakers who will help us with the former. Stay tuned! You won’t want to miss it.

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.

Hebrew BibleThe 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.

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.