LGBTQ+ Writing: Liberating Scripture #2

In the first post in this mini-series, I wrote to show how the sciences have cleared up the misconception of creation as binary, revealing a cosmos (from molecules to galaxies) that is nonbinary and interconnected.[1] Creation theology is shedding bright light on the Bible. It serves as the backdrop for this second post.

Scripture is being liberated from a misinterpretation of three key passages: Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 and Romans 1:18-32. Today, I look at the Leviticus passages.

Context is everything, and the context for both verses is the Holiness Code that comprises chapters 18-27 of the book of Leviticus. It is the instruction given to the Israelites just before they entered Canaan. It sets forth a way of living that is different from life in Egypt (where they had been) and from life in Canaan (where they were going). The Holiness Code addresses a specific time and place, and it answers the question, “How shall we live as a Covenant people in the promised land?”

For that reason, every admonition in Leviticus 18-27 is historically and culturally conditioned. None are timeless or universal in their original context. That’s why even conservative Jews do not obey all the rules in this section of Leviticus. [2] As Christians, we are not obligated to obey them either. But of course, some of the instructions transcend time and place. The two verses about male sexuality are said to be among them. But how so? Again, context is everything.

In both verses Covenant violations are the context. With respect to Leviticus 18:22, the violation is idolatry. Males in Canaan would set aside their male/female marital relationships for same-sex relations in Canaanite temples. Why? Allegedly, to have better crops. [3] That’s what fertility religions taught. The behavior had nothing to do with homosexuality, and everything to do with religion that promised material prosperity and financial gain. The context is pagan religious rituals. [4] Male same-sex relationships were indications of idolatry, violations of the Covenant that began with, “you shall have no other gods besides me” (Exodus 20:3).

With respect to 20:13, the Covenant violation continues the idea of idolatry, but adds the dishonoring of the family unit in 20:9-21. In the original ten commandments, God had forbidden adultery and the taking of a neighbor’s wife (Exodus 20:14, 17). These two things constituted illicit sexual behavior. This is not only immoral but also idolatrous because the dishonoring of those whom God has made is a dishonoring of God.

The Levitical verses are about Covenant violations (idolatry and family destabilization), not homosexuality. With respect to sexuality, this meant three big things. First, it was polytheistic, not monogomatic. Illicit sexual activity was a violation of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4), where God’s oneness is revealed. Canaanite religion was polytheistic, and therefore, not to be practiced.

Second, it was egoic (lustful) sex, behavior which uses others for personal gain–in this case, better crops (18:22) and selfish pleasure (20:13). The sacredness of sex was lost, replaced by greed and hedonism. Lust is the perversion of sex, not identity, gender, or orientation. Lust is the driver for the two main expressions of illicit sex: fornication and adultery.

And third, it was promiscuous. The Hebrew word ‘shakob’ literally means ‘roaming’—what we call today “sleeping around” It was also temporary, like dew that does not stay on the ground. [5] Taken together, the Leviticus verses are prohibitions against sexual activity which lacks love and commitment—the defining quality of God (steadfast love) and the neighborliness (love of others) God intends for us to practice among ourselves. [6]

In these ways men violated the Covenant ethic by abandoning monogamy, sacredness, fidelity, and permanence. When we see this, these two verses are liberated from the misinterpretation of them–“the Bible tells us so.”

[1] The Newtonian concept of creation (the universe as a machine) which arose in the Enlightenment is being superseded by the quantum reality concept (the universe as organic) which posits an interconnected cosmos and teaches us to practice unitive thinking. Thomas Berry and Joanna Macy wrote a lot about this.

[2] Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, a conservative scholar, in his monumental three-volume commentary in the Anchor Bible series goes into detail about the limited intent and focus of the Holiness Code, rather than its being universal and timeless. As a textual document, it is not prescriptive. It contains transcendent principles, but it applies them to a temporary situation, i.e. Israel living as a Covenant people in Canaan. Samuel Balentine’s commentary on Leviticus in the Interpretation series takes a stance akin to Milgrom. Hence, my lifting up the two Levitical verses in relation to the Covenant in this post.

[3] This is why women are not mentioned. They did not go to the temples and engage in illicit sex for agricultural benefits.

[4] Given 18:23 is set in the context of pagan religious rituals, the verse likely forbids participation in the worship of Molech (18:21). The sin called out is idolatry.

[5] William Mounce, ‘Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words’ (Zondervan, 2006), 403.

[6] Walter Brueggemann, ‘God, Neighbor, Empire’ (Baylor University Press, 2016).

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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