Key Question: Does this passage say anything implicitly or explicitly about committed, loving, monogamous, covenanted same-sex relationships?
I am going to look at both Leviticus 18 and 20 together, as they are very similar, close to each other, and have the same interpretive issues as far as I can tell.
Leviticus is a tricky book for 21st century Christians, but a crucial part of the Old Testament canon and central to the Jewish Torah. While the book must be understood in its historical and theological context, there is much to learn and glean from it for us today. I am actually a big fan of Leviticus and think it is a sadly, too often overlooked, book in today’s church.
The basic context of Leviticus is a spelling out of “the law” for how Israel is supposed to live as God’s chosen nation. Israel finds itself in a situation as a young nation surrounded by enemies — many of which were engaged in moral practices that were totally antithetical to the teachings and heart of Yahweh. The most prominent of these practices was child sacrifice to the pagan God Molech.
If you want to have a solid understanding of why certain things are banned in Leviticus (and some of them are downright weird — such as boiling a calf in its mother’s milk or wearing clothes made of different types of fibers) just remember this basic formula:
God, in essence, says to Israel: whatever you see THEM doing, I want you to do otherwise!
That is how messed up the world Israel found itself had become. Whatever the Canaanites and others do, you are to do the opposite!
This is where much the “holiness code” comes from — a set of rules and laws that were designed to set Israel apart (and therefore to guarantee its cultural survival) from its neighbors. These includes dietary, liturgical, sexual and other types of rules (such as the mixed fabrics, already mentioned).
One the most important teachings of Leviticus is that “all things are spiritual” — if you thought God was only interested in a small aspect of your life, you are very wrong!
The big question for Christians reading Leviticus is which the commands still apply as binding commands on Christ-followers today? Let’s be clear… to say that certain commands are no longer binding on us is not to say that (a) they were wrong, (b) there is nothing to learn from them today, or (c) that there is not potential wisdom in them. It is just to say, they are not binding on believers today.
There are 613 explicit commandments in the Torah, many of which are in the Book of Leviticus — and the vast majority of which Christians do not follow.
To understand how theologians approach these issues, it is helpful to know the basic breakdown of Leviticus. Broadly speaking, chapters 1-16 are instructions to priests and chapters 17-27 are instructions from priests to the people of Israel. More specifically:
- Chapters 1-7 — Regulations in regard to animal sacrifices
- Chapters 8-10 — Initiation into appropriate worship rituals
- Chapters 11-15 — Purification and purity codes
- Chapter 16 — Establishment of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) practices
- Chapters 17-26 — “Holiness Code” for the people
- Chapter 27 — Establishment of vows and dedications
What the text DOES SAY about homosexuality?
Leviticus 18:22 says:
“Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.”
Leviticus 20:13 says:
“‘If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
I think these texts clearly teach that Mosaic law prohibits homosexual intercourse/activity and that the punishment for such activity was to be the death penalty.
We could go through the rest of these chapters to highlight some of the commands we obviously don’t follow anymore, but that is unnecessary. The text tells us the purpose of this whole section of teaching and law in both Lev 18:1-3 and again in Lev 20:22-26 —
The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘I am the LORD your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. (Lev 18:1-3)
” ‘Keep all my decrees and laws and follow them, so that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them. But I said to you, “You will possess their land; I will give it to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey.” I am the LORD your God, who has set you apart from the nations. ” ‘You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds. Do not defile yourselves by any animal or bird or anything that moves along the ground—those which I have set apart as unclean for you. You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own. (Lev 20:22-26)
Simply put, WHATEVER THEY DID YOU ARE TO DO THE OPPOSITE!
This teaching is unique to what God was doing in and through Israel at this time in history.
What the text DOES NOT SAY about homosexuality?
So the real question is whether these passages from Leviticus are binding on Christians today. My belief is that none of the Holiness Code is binding on Christians today. This is for several reasons:
1. Christ has fulfilled the law and we no longer live under it.
2. The Holiness Code was unique to the nation of Israel and what God was doing in and through them at the time. Just as the sacrificial system is no longer valid, the holiness code also does not still apply to us.
3. Our “holiness” today comes from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, our baptism and our obedience to Jesus Christ.
4. The Holiness Code must be understood as a whole — either it is all binding on us today or it is not. We cannot claim certain verses as binding (such as on homosexuality) but not others (such as eating of blood) — let alone that one half of a verse (Lev 20:13a prohibiting homosexuality) is valid while the second half (Lev 20:13b – that the death penalty is appropriate for homosexuality) is not valid.
Now I don’t think most people will find this a controversial conclusion. This is pretty much the orthodox way of reading the holiness code
within the church for the past 2000 years. And most Christians I know who oppose homosexuality, so not do so based on the holiness code of Leviticus.
That said, let me respond to a couple of “objections” I would expect from a more fundamentalist response:
OBJECTION: Does this mean you think incest, bestiality, etc, are all OK?
ANSWER: No, I do not. However, I do not base that conclusion on the holiness code found in Leviticus. Some people find the “slippery slope” argument powerful; I do not because it is a fallacy. There are lots of reasons — both biblical and non-biblical — to oppose incest, bestiality, etc. I do not rely on these verses to make that case.
OBJECTION: Doesn’t the Jerusalem Counsel (Acts 15) tell us that the sexual prohibitions of Leviticus are still binding on Christians today?
ANSWER: What the Jerusalem Counsel in Acts 15 decided was that Gentile Christians in the 1st Century did not have be circumcised (that is, become Jewish) in order to become Christians. The counsel said that all they had to do was follow the teachings on both sexual immorality and the prohibition against eating blood. (Two major topics in the Leviticus section we are looking at). Some argue that Peter’s vision negates the dietary restrictions, but that comes in Acts 10 — so either Peter did not share that vision with those at the counsel or he was out voted. And to be clear, if you aren’t eating Kosher meat, you are eating meat with blood in it. As the church developed (and became less Jewish), they increasingly realized that the holiness code was no longer binding.
Those are my thoughts on this passage… what are yours? Questions? Observations?