The Bible and Homosexuality; Leviticus

Lev. 18

19 You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness. 20 You shall not have sexual relations with your kinsman’s wife, and defile yourself with her. 21 You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD. 22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. 23 You shall not have sexual relations with any animal and defile yourself with it, nor should any woman give herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it: it is a perversion.  24 Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you defiled themselves.  25 Thus the land became defiled; and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.

Lev. 20

13If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.

The Leviticus prohibition of homosexuality is the clearest single text in the bible on this subject, until we come to Romans.  Unlike the other OT texts we’ve looked at so far, there is nothing in it to indicate that it might refer only to a specific form of homosexuality, such as temple prostitution, or homosexual gang rape.  It speaks simply of “lying with a male as with a woman.”  As with all the verses around it, it is addressed to those who are the (male) heads of the household and their male relatives.  It is so clear that Gordon Wenham, in the 1970s, can make his commentary on Leviticus 18.22 in a single sentence; essentially, “homosexuality is wrong”, and leave it at that.  By contrast, Bailey, when he reaches that verse in 2005 needs to spend several pages addressing claims that homosexuality is not wrong.  Only one of Bailey’s points[1], however, is specifically addressing the text at hand – his arguments seem to arise from everywhere but his text – and at that one point he is addressing the one scholar that nearly everyone quotes; Jacob Milgrom.

How do we read the Old Testament from a New Testament perspective?

…the call to be holy like Yahweh is clearly restated in the NT.  Jesus taught, “Be you perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matt 5.48).  Peter heard this well for he makes this call the keystone of his first epistle (1.15-16).  Holiness is the goal of all believers in Jesus, who are called hoi agioi, “the holy ones, saints” (Acts 9.13, 32; Rom 8.27; 12.13; Eph 2.19; etc).  Since all the laws in Leviticus offer insight into the nature of the holy, the study of these laws is profitable for Christians.  Although Jesus did away with the laws of ritual purity (e.g. Matt 15.10 – 20//Mark 7:14-13), he strengthened the call to holy living.  The laws of personal relationship continue to address Christians, though they have to be translated from one era to another, for they reveal the principles essential to holy living.  In addition, through the study of the ancient law we discover how the principles were applied to concrete situations.  Then we have paradigms for applying those principles to concrete situations in contemporary society.

(Hartley 1992, lxxiii)


Our task, then, is to understand the “principles essential to holy living”.  In seeking these principles we are not at liberty to ignore texts we dislike, but must seek for the fullest meaning of each text.  That won’t be possible if we ignore the details.

Leviticus Laws all about protecting life:  Milgrom writes as a Jew, and presents a specifically Jewish perspective on what is a very Jewish text.  His main understanding of this section of Leviticus is that it is all about the promotion of the family through the preservation of male seed.  To understand his argument we need to step back a little from the one verse in which we’re interested, and look at it in the wider context.  This is necessary also because while this one verse from Leviticus seems quite clear, so are many other verses from Leviticus which we comfortably ignore entirely!  If we decide that this particular verse is still relevant to us, we must explore the grounds on which we say that it is, and this requires us to see it in its wider context.

Immediate Context: The first thing to notice about Leviticus 18.22 is that it is surrounded by similar prohibitions; the others prohibiting sexual relations with animals or with close kin[2].  There is also a law prohibiting the offering of children to a god called Molech, another prohibiting intercourse with a woman during menstruation, and another prohibiting adultery (intercourse with the wife of a kinsman or neighbour).  The beginning and the end of the chapter tells us that these prohibitions are ways in which the people of God are to be different to those around them, implying that all these things were done by the nations surrounding Israel[3] or that from which they had come (Egypt).  In other words, they are deeply concerned with holiness.

Leviticus 18 and 20 as ‘Bookends’ The second thing to notice about the prohibition in ch 18 is that it is echoed by punitive sanctions in ch 20.  In other words, ch 18 says “Don’t do this”, and ch 20 says “If you do this, the consequence is…”  Like Ch 18, Ch 20 begins with the command of God to Moses, and concludes with the warning to be different to the people who came before, and the real danger of polluting the land and the land vomiting them out.  The question arises, why has the sanctions chapter been separated from the prohibitions chapter? Part of the answer may be that between them they form bookends for Ch 19, which is described by one commentator as the centre of the book of Leviticus[4] – and by Milgrom as the centre of the Torah – the five ‘Books of Moses’.   Focusing attention on one part of scripture by surrounding it with related blocks is called chiasm, and can occur at the level of a couple of verses, or, as in this case, whole chapters.

Leviticus 19 – the Centre:  If chapter 19 is the centre of Leviticus, – or even the whole Torah – then surely reading it will help us to understand ch 18 and 20 better?  At first glance, it seems like a real hodge-podge of quite arbitrary laws – except maybe they aren’t so arbitrary?  Half of the 10 commandments are included.  And so is the verse Jesus quoted as the second greatest commandment (19.17) – and that is echoed within the chapter as applying specifically to the alien (19:34).  There are also laws about horticulture, and about temple sacrifice, cultic practices (‘witchcraft’, tattoos, cutting and shaving), care for the disabled, deference to the elderly, the rights of slaves, protection for girls from forced prostitution, neighbourly attitudes and honest economic activity.  The impression given is that this is a display case of the best of the Law; a sort of sample bag, with the constantly repeated refrain that this is the way things should be because “I am the Lord – your God.”

The Law is Respect for Others out of Reverence for God:  Overwhelmingly, these verses give the impression of a society ordered along the lines of respect for the needs of others based on reverence for God.  If this is the direction of the law, how then should we read the laws of Leviticus 18 and 20?

These Chapters are about Holiness and Holiness means separation: Finally, we should notice that Leviticus 18 – 20 are part of what is called the ‘Holiness Code’ in Leviticus, starting from Ch 17 and going to ch 27, with a specific focus upon holiness.  Milgrom argues that the significance of separation and holiness is anchored in the “basic themes of creation and life” [5]  In other words, holiness, or separating things out, is what God does as part of bringing life to the earth and order from chaos[6].  This is what lies behind prohibitions on cross-breeding animals, mixing fabrics in clothing, or mixing seeds in sowing in Lev 19:19.  He sees the prohibitions of Leviticus 18 as means of promoting and protecting life, with an underlying theme of maintaining the distinctiveness of good things.  So, because animals are good, and humans are good, mixing them by mating them is bad.   Similarly, maleness is good, and femaleness is good, confusing them by having a man ‘lie with a man as with a woman’ is bad.  “The mixture of species and social roles is anathema to scripture”[7]Gordon Wenham places a great deal of emphasis upon this point also, saying

The word “perversion” is a significant mistranslation of the rare Hebrew word tebhel, which has as its meaning mixing or confusion…  We can conclude that holiness is exemplified by completeness.  Holiness requires that individuals shall conform to the class to which they belong.  And holiness requires that different classes of things shall not be confused.[8] 

Thus one of the principles by which we respect others out of reverence for God is by not blurring the boundaries of the good thing they are created to be; specifically, in this instance, male and female.

Protecting the Seed of Life: Milgrom also puts a lot of emphasis upon the promotion of life through condemning the waste of the seed of life – semen (the role of ova wasn’t known at this time).

…the bible’s impurity rules are part of a symbol system representing the forces of life and death.  Israel is required to avoid these impurities and adhere to the laws commanded by God, who promotes the forces of life.  …semen stands for life, and the loss of semen symbolizes the loss of life.[9] 

Thus he argues, especially on the basis of the inclusion of child sacrifice in the Lev 18 list, that the intent of the prohibitions is to eliminate all but legitimate procreative intercourse[10], and protect the fruit of that intercourse for the sake of the stable family.[11]  This is the single point that is disputed by Bailey[12] who argues that if this was the key concern then there would also have been a prohibition of masturbation.  Milgrom, however, believes that this is covered by Lev 15:16 and Deut 23:9[13].  A more convincing argument to temper Milgrom is to note that this chapter also prohibits heterosexual intercourse between close relatives, where it is quite likely that children might be the result, and so a concern for procreation per se cannot explain everything.  More likely, the key concern here is to maintain the gender distinctions of creation; and so men are prohibited from sexual intercourse with those who are too ‘like’ (family members and other men) and too ‘unlike’ (animals – who were unable to provide Adam with companionship).  This argument, however, doesn’t explain why the prohibition against child sacrifice was included here, and so there may be some place for Milgrom’s thinking after all.  This is especially so when we also consider Milgrom’s emphasis upon caring for children (the fruit of procreation) by maintaining the stability of the family unit through prohibiting intercourse with close kin, and thereby eliminating the sort of conflicts experienced by Jacob and his children.  One consequence of making procreation the central issue for Milgrom is that he sees our situation as quite different to that of ancient Israel; fertility is not our problem, but over-population.  His suggestion here is that gay men could fulfil the requirements of the law by adopting children[14].

Leviticus protecting and affirming marriage and family:  Bailey, like Milgrom, sees the goodness of God’s creation as vital background to these prohibitions, but rather than interpreting this in terms of the bringing forth of life, or order (Gen 1), he focuses upon God’s creation of marriage (Gen 2), which is a step further than Milgrom goes in affirming the goodness of male and female.  How, specifically, did these laws function to protect the family?  Some[15] note the importance of the protections offered to women in an ancient household by the incest prohibitions.  Most people lived as part of an extended household; these laws prevented the head of the household from using his power to coerce others into sexual relations, meaning that they could go about their daily lives without fear of molestation.  It is probable, given that sexual relations were almost always seen as intrinsically unequal in biblical cultures, that the whole chapter could be read as protections; covering animals, children, women, and younger men.  This interpretation may be supported by later rabbinic readings of the text; Scroggs tells us that Palestinian rabbinic discussion about the biblical injunctions and penalties for homosexual acts assume an age difference between the partners, even though none is specified in the text.  Scroggs sees this as indicating the degree to which they were influenced by their (Hellenistic) surroundings.  They take the active verb to indicate the ‘active’ partner, and read the prohibition of Lev 18 as being against the ‘active’ partner only, implying that the relationship was not equal and therefore not consensual.

Is Leviticus prohibiting homosexual prostitution?  The thinking of the Rabbis, however, led them to further interpretation: they noticed that although they interpreted the prohibition of Leviticus 18 to be against the ‘active’ partner, the penalties of Lev 20 apply to both parties.  As rabbinic thinking requires a prohibition for there to be a penalty they therefore interpret Deut 23’s prohibition against male prostitutes to be a prohibition generally against those who take the ‘passive’ role, and therefore both prohibited (in Deuteronomy 23) and penalised (in Leviticus 20)[16].  This, along with the other Biblical texts regarding prostitution referred to above, raises the possibility that while pederasty (and protections against it) may well be in view in these texts, one of the essential aspects of the context is the possibility of cult prostitution.  Regarding Lev 18:24-26, one commentator says

These laws are given in order to prevent Israel from adopting the various sexual practices of the peoples who inhabited Canaan.  These practices defile God’s people.  Israel’s polytheistic neighbours energetically pursued fertility rites to insure the fertility of their fields, flocks, and households.  But for Israel a close bond exists between human behaviour and the fertility of the land…  Ironically the very fertility rites the people engage in to increase the fertility of their land will pollute the land.[17]

What is the intent of the Law?  Three possibilities:  As with the texts from 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, we have to ask ourselves what the biblical writers had in mind when they wrote this particular prohibition.  We have looked at three options: 1)It is probable that throughout the chapter they were intending to provide protections to the more vulnerable members of the household from sexual abuse.  What is notable is that the prohibition is so much broader than the similar, Hittite prohibition[18].  Not only is the son protected but all men of the household – including slaves.  Israeli society is intended to be different to those around it – to stand out as built on respect for others out of reverence for God.  2) Similarly, these prohibitions may well be aimed at preventing Israeli men from falling into the trap of seeking fertility for themselves and their land through cultic prostitution – and all the disasters that could follow on from that[19].  3) Finally, these prohibitions marked the importance for Israel of celebrating God’s goodness in creation through respecting the distinctness and uniqueness of things.  Holiness comes from the work of God in bringing forth life.  Out of marriage, the celebration of the unique male and female union, comes children and all of society.  Diverting sexual energy away from marriage, and confusing sexual roles, is to negate God’s gift.

Do these passages apply to women as well?

We should also note that there is, here, no condemnation of female homosexual actions. Although the Leviticus passage refers only to men, some argue that it should be taken to refer to women also, as other laws which don’t specifically refer to women are taken to include men and women even if masculine pronouns are used.  However, the word ‘male’ used in this passage is only used in the Septuagint (the Jews’ Greek translation of the OT) when males are referred to in distinction to females, so it does appear that this text was not intended to include women.  For further evidence that Jews saw female homosexuality as different to male, Scroggs states that there is only one Rabbinical text considering the (probably hypothetical) case of whether a woman who has had sexual relations with another woman could marry a priest – who is only supposed to marry a virgin.  Rabbi Shammai said ‘no, and Rabbi Hillel said ‘yes’!  (Scroggs 1983, 80) The point of the discussion was almost certainly not the morality or otherwise of her actions, but seeking a definition for virginity.  Nevertheless, this does seem to support Milgrom’s suggestion that a primary concern in this passage was either the loss of male seed – and Milgrom takes it as such, (Milgrom 2000, 1568 & 1787).  It is only Paul, in Romans 1, who has treated female homosexuality equally with male.



What about the death sentence? The final consideration in this section is the penal sanction found in ch 20.  If it is proposed that the Leviticus prohibition of homosexual acts still applies today, does this mean that the penal sanctions still apply as some have argued[20]?  In this respect Gordon Wenham is most helpful.  He discusses how the ordinary state of things, assumed throughout the book of Leviticus, is ‘clean’ – though some things are by nature ‘unclean’ or ‘polluted’ (certain acts and animals) or they are made ‘holy’ (certain people and places) by God’s action.  People and objects can become either ‘holy’ through contact with holy things, or they can become ‘unclean’ through contact with unclean things.  People and things can become ‘clean’ again – that is, normal, through rituals of purification (washing, waiting, sacrifice, burning) or, if they have been made holy through contact with a sacrifice, through washing or destruction.  Both Holy and Unclean states are dangerous and subject to a number of restrictions.

The requirement for purity through sacrifice is met in Jesus Christ:  When something becomes unclean through someone’s actions there are a raft of regulations for restoring normality, ranging from washing, for sickness or ordinary bodily emissions, through sacrifices of various sorts.  The more intense the degree of uncleanness, the greater the sacrifice.  Wenham notes, however, that in the most severe cases no sacrifice is required to restore cleanness to the community; those occasions that call for the death of the offender.  The sacrifice of that individual’s life fulfils the requirements of the law for the cleansing of the community, and this is seen throughout the narratives of the Torah, where specific offenders are executed in order to make the whole community ‘clean’ again[21].  In other words, the death has a religious significance as purifying the community; it is not simply a civic penalty.  Because of this, Wenham has no hesitation in pointing to the way in which Jesus Christ’s sacrifice fulfils the moral and religious requirements of the law[22].  So, ‘no’, if one asserts that the Leviticus prohibitions still apply, it does not follow that the sanctions do also, as the penalty for sin has already been paid by the Lord Jesus for all those who follow him[23].


Does the death penalty for both imply equal partners?

The other point arising from consideration of the penalty of Leviticus 20 is that it is applied to both parties.  This leads some to think that it implies consenting acts, as the innocent would not normally be punished with the guilty. Deut 22:22-30 is instructive in this respect; clearly there is an acceptance of the fact that women are vulnerable to sexual attack, and that they should not be punished for something they could not prevent.  It was this sort of consideration which led the Rabbis to interpret the text as applying to prostitution, as above.  Were the Rabbis simply blinded by their own contemporary culture, reading their own situation of cultic prostitution into the ancient law?. Another way of thinking about it is to read the Leviticus passage alongside the similar prohibition of, and penalty for, bestiality in which the animal is killed alongside the offending human.  This is because the unclean act has made the animal unclean also.  It is possible that homosexual acts are seen as such a severe infringement of God’s law that there can be no exceptions for those involved in them regardless of their age, status, or consent; the impurity must be completely expunged from Israel.

 In Conclusion, We can see there are a range of reasons for the Leviticus prohibition.  How many of those reasons still apply today?  We would agree that prostitution, whether it was cultic or not, homosexual or not, is an evil to be opposed.  We would agree that families and households need good sexual boundaries to prevent people using others for sex when there are unequal relationships.  We would agree that God’s creation is good, and should not be disregarded or diminished.  And we would agree that holiness, in a sinful world, requires us to be ‘separate’ in some ways from those around us.  How do we apply these principles in our context today?

[1] (L. R. Bailey 2005, 255)

[2] There is some suggestion that some of these prohibitions may have arisen from the vexed relationships of the patriarchs; e.g. Abraham, who married his half-sister, and Jacob, who married rival sisters.

[3] Milgrom notes that male homosexual intercourse was common to the ANE, and was subject to regulation in some of its forms e.g. a man was forbidden to sodomise his son in Hittite culture (implying that he could do so to other men or boys in his power); similarly Hittite law allowed bestiality with a horse or mule (animals used by the military), but prohibited other animals. (Milgrom 2000, 1570) Only the bible completely proscribed homosexuality (Milgrom 2000, 1566).

[4] (Balentine 2002, 149)

[5] (Milgrom 2000, 1371)

[6] Gen 1:4,6,7,14,18

[7] (Milgrom 2000, 1571)

[8] (Wenham 1979, 24)

[9] (Milgrom 2000, 1786)

[10] This also explains the banning of intercourse with a woman “while she is in her menstrual uncleanness” (Lev 18.19) – not just while she is menstruating, but for a 7 day period (Lev 15.19), meaning that when intercourse is possible again, she is likely to be approaching the most fertile part of her cycle.

[11] This is also, he argues, the reason that lesbianism is not mentioned in the list of forbidden sexual unions; not because it was unknown but because, as lesbian acts do not ‘spill seed’ there was no need to prohibit them. (Milgrom 2000, 1568 & 1787)

[12] (L. R. Bailey 2005, 255)

[13] (Milgrom 2000, 1567)

[14] (Milgrom 2000, 1566 – 1569, 1786)  He also argues that these prohibitions, related as they are to the wellbeing of the land, apply only within the borders of ancient Israel and only to Jewish men.  However, for Christians, we see the borders of God’s reign as encompassing the whole earth, and certainly the whole of our lives, wherever we live, and we also see the Old Testament as having relevance to those of us who have been ‘grafted in’ to Israel (Rom 9:13-20).

[15] (Balentine 2002, 158 ) (Hartley 1992, 298 )

[16] (Scroggs 1983, 78-9)

[17] (Hartley 1992, 298)

[18] See above, note 105

[19] They undoubtedly knew that sexual promiscuity all too frequently brought about infertility through sexually transmitted infections

[20] (Guy 2002, 133 – 134)

[21] (Wenham 1979, 27)

[22] (Wenham 1979, 28), See also (Bonnington and Fyall 1996, 13) 1 John 2:1 – 2, Heb 10:1-18

[23] This does not mean that there is no penalty for sin for those who are found outside of Christ on the Day of Judgement, simply that final judgement is reserved for that day, when we all face the one who is truly without sin.


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