Holy Love: Passages #2

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13

Honestly, I was not prepared for the complexity regarding these two passages.  Far from being cut-and-dried as a one-sentence, straightforward condemnation of male homosexual activity, the passages are in relation to a cultural and religious context far different from ours today.  An exploration of this context reveals a number of significant things.

First of all, the family system of ancient Israel was radically different.  Marriage was different, often with a polygamous configuration.  The status and role of women bears little resemblance to today.  The level of male dominance and authority was even greater than is typical now.  All three of these differences were not considered sinful then, even though some would be considered to be so today, and some aspects would even be illegal. [1]  

A second complicating factor has to do with the section of Leviticus in which the two verses appear, chapters 17-26 (or sometimes including chapter 27), called The Holiness Code.  It is the section which applies holy living to all the people, not just the priests.  It was a section specifically to instruct the Israelites as to how their behavior was to be different from that of the Egyptians (from whose land they had come) and the Canaanites (into whose land they were entering), see Leviticus 18:1-3.  What makes The Holiness Code complicated is that portions of it are no longer practiced today, even by many Jews (e.g. 18:19, 19:19).  For scholars this raises these questions: (1) Is The Holiness Code timeless or meant only to apply to its original historical setting?  (2) If it has a timeless dimension, but not all of it, which passages do we follow today?  There is no scholarly consensus on either question.

These two complicating factors have led some scholars to dismiss the Levitical verses as not applicable today (in much the same way nearly all scholars no longer include Genesis 19 in the discussion of homosexuality).  In ‘Holy Love’ I took a different approach on two levels.  First, I did not write about the historical factors because the book is a primer-level study.  But second, I did not dismiss the verses because they remain active and influential in the current conversation, and I felt that omitting them would be viewed as sidestepping a key portion of Scripture. 

My choice to include them is based on my general sense of biblical revelation—that even time-bound passages contain a message that can help us live faithfully and well in the present.  If we omit time-bound passages from our study, we reduce the influence of the Bible in our lives. Truth be told, every verse in the Bible is time bound from our vantage point.  The most recent passages are over 1900 years in the past, and the earliest may be nearly 4,000 years away from us.  To dismiss any passage because of its historical distance and difference is a decision that casts a shadow over the entire Bible one way or another.  We see this today in those who view the Bible as irrelevant precisely because it is an “old and outdated book”

In ‘Holy Love’ I have walked another path with respect to Scripture.  I have avoided a straight-line approach that generates a literalist mindset which says, “It’s in the Bible, so I have to practice it now as people did then.”  As I have already shown above, almost no Christians (even very conservative ones) read Scripture that literally.  There are historically-contextualized passages, and we must acknowledge them.  But that does not mean dismissing them.

I believe the two Levitical verses are significantly historically contextualized, so I do not simply  lift out the words and put them on today’s table saying, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”  The Levitical passages (and others in Scripture) are not that “then and now” cut-and-dried.  But neither are they irrelevant or devoid of a message for us with respect to human sexuality.  I take them seriously, and in doing so, two things stand out.

First, the context.  As I noted above, the Holiness Code is a statement about how the Israelites were to behave when they entered Canaan.  In short, the Code was about how they were to prevent Judaism from being amalgamated into Canaanite religion.  The two Levitical texts are culturally/religiously about not connecting Judaism to fertility religion,  a religion that included same-sex acts with temple prostitutes as a way to invoke agricultural prosperity.

In the cultural/religious context, the two verses are violations of the first commandment, “You must have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).  In that context, the two verses have nothing to do with the person’s sexual orientation.  They are about not being idolatrous.  God was saying, “Do not depend on the Canaanite deities for your agricultural prosperity, depend on me.”

The second thing to take seriously is the text itself, and the phrase “lie with” or “have sexual intercourse with.”  These are English renditions of the Hebrew word shakab. Rather than being a universal prohibition of male homosexuality it is a prohibition against promiscuity.  The word shakab means “roaming”—what we refer to today as “sleeping around.”

The Bible is against promiscuous sex because (as I pointed out in the last post) it violates all four aspects of the Covenant ethic: sacredness, fidelity, permanency, and monogamy.  That is the timeless message.  The verses have nothing directly to say about  male homosexuality itself (as an orientation); in fact, the practice prohibited by Leviticus (as we know from biblical history) was one that males in general were subject to practicing.  The verses prohibit promiscuity, have nothing directly to do with homosexual people, and are silent about whether or not two males (females are not mentioned) could have a lifelong relationship that keeps the Covenant.

There is one more point that we can make early on through the Leviticus texts, a point continued in the Bible; namely that there is no biblical teaching that LGBTQ+ people must be celibate.  That is a view 100% concocted by conservative Christians as a way to build their case for being “welcoming but not affirming”—a view I am personally familiar with because I held it for so long.  It is a conservative way of accepting LGBTQ+ people while denying them the right to marry.  It is a human constraint that puts LGBTQ+ people in a category the Bible itself does not create.  There is no biblical passage to support mandatory celibacy for LGBTQ+ people.  In fact, it is a prohibition that artificially precludes them from the opportunity to live in a Covenant relationship that honors sacred, fidelity, permanency, and monogamy.

Simply put, the Levitical passages send us a message, but it is not the one that many Christians say it is.  The Levitical message is this: promiscuous sexuality is not the will of God.  It is a message for us all, not just LGBTQ+ people. 


(1) Are you willing to look at these passages in a new way?

(2) If not, why?  If so, what have you learned as a result? 

[1] The CEB Study Bible has a good summary of sexuality in relation to the Israelite family system, p. 184 OT.  A much more detailed and scholarly study has been written by David Baile, ‘Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America’ (Basic Books, 1992). 

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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