Love, Levitical Style

There is plenty in Leviticus that Christians and even many Jews today not only do not observe, but do not even feel the slightest tinge of guilt about not observing. Yet Leviticus gets quoted all the time by such people as an argument against homosexuality.

I suspect that a good place to start discussing material in Leviticus is by asking why certain things are prohibited. Presumably most would agree that, if we cannot figure out why something was against the Levitical code, or if we clearly do not accept the assumptions behind a particular law, then it would be difficult if not impossible to justify enforcing it today. It might even be reckless to do so, since the same rule may have completely different significance in a different cultural context.

So what do you think was behind the author of Leviticus’ objection to “lying with a man as one lies with a woman” (18:22; 20:13)? Was it a matter of ritual purity? Canaanite cultic practice? An attempt to introduce monogamy based on the principle of creation? My initial reaction was that the latter seemed unlikely given that polygamy was accepted in ancient Israel. But then I found I could not recall any legislation in Leviticus related to polygamy, apart from prohibition of certain specific situations, such as marrying a woman and her sister at the same time (Leviticus 18:18).

We have a tendency to read ancient Israel’s laws and stories through the lens of our own cultural practices and assumptions regarding marriage (see the post on Sansblogue today about Ruth and Romance).

So what do you think? What do you think this ancient author was prohibiting, and why? And if the reason for the prohibition was purity or some other concern that Christians today do not share, would you agree that in that case Christians should not quote such verses from Leviticus as an argument against homosexuality?

[FOOTNOTE: The photo I included is from a story about same-sex marriage being legalized in Iowa. I included it for two reasons. One is the fact that Leviticus says nothing about lesbian relationships or marriage between same sex couples. But the other is because it is a beautiful picture, and I know one of the things that is often an unfortunate aspect of our social context is that same sex couples who make a committment to one another (whether in a civil ceremony or only in a church ceremony, as the law in their state allows) sometimes feel that because of the stigma attached to them by some, they cannot share openly the joy of having married the person they love. And so I wanted to share this photo of joy and challenge those who oppose what is shown in the photo to explain why. And unless you do everything Leviticus requires, an answer along the lines of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” isn’t going to cut it].

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  • I would say that one important thing to consider in researching the absence of a law against lesbianism is the degree to which Levitical law may, by default, address men. Are there other laws that forbid men specifically from doing something women could equally do? In such cases, is it reasonable to conclude that what is true of men would have been implicitly true for women? What laws specifically concern women, and are these things that could equally apply to males? If so, why write them to women (or is there indeed a masculine counterpart)? If not, what does this suggest about the absence of laws against female homosexuality, for which there is a masculine counterpart. I haven't looked into this, but these are the questions that immediately came to my mind that I would consider if I were to investigate Leviticus on this matter.And of course, none of my questions and the fruits thereof immediately bear on the implications for today.

  • Given that ancient Israel was a patriarchy and that Mosaic Law was addressed to an assumed, male audience, I think the lack of specification about female homosexuality was simply a matter of not having a culture in place that would allow for widespread female homosexuality.Men had much more freedom and time to be alone with each other, or out on their own. Women were more frequently tied to family groups and probably less opportunity to explore any type of sexuality. That doesn't mean that it couldn't exist….but would the male leaders and Law-makers even be aware of what women were doing at home or with their friends?Could they even conceive of the average women as having an inherent sexual desire. Wife/Mother or prostitute/adulteress are the usual categories women would be placed in.Laws are written to address issues that are relatively commonplace, or causing enough of a disruption to society that leadership feels obliged to address it. Male homosexuality must have been conceivable in order to be singled out, whereas female homosexuality was simply not on the patriarchy's radar.

  • ah…typing at the same time as Joseph…who made some of the same points1Great minds, I guess! 😉

  • I think the reason is that the author of Leviticus 18 believed that God at creation had established clear boundaries. I know that Leviticus 18 is technically H, whereas the author of Genesis 1 was P, but the same idea may underly H's opposition to homosexuality. People were not to cross-dress because God established boundaries between male and female. They were not to sleep with animals because God separated humans from animals. I think the law against homosexual sex has the same motivation.That said, it should be noted that some of the stuff prohibited in Leviticus 18 was done by the patriarchs. That seems to undermine the whole "natural order" argument, unless God decided to affirm the natural order when he gave the Torah, whereas he winked at violations beforehand.

  • You don't really need Leviticus to make a biblical argument against homosexuality.

  • The structure of the opening argument is easily reduced ad absurdum:There is plenty in Leviticus that Christians and even many Jews today not only do not observe, but do not even feel the slightest tinge of guilt about not observing. Yet Leviticus gets quoted all the time by such people as an argument in favor of loving one's neighbor as oneself. The shame.Everyone I know receives the book of Leviticus, not in a vacuum, but within the context of a tradition of interpretation and a larger set of traditions, the entire canon to begin with, which forms a robust moral imagination. Prohibitions of homoeroticism, not only in Judaism and Christianity, but in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., not to mention ancient Egyptian religion (censored out, curiously, by Miriam Lichtheim in her anthology of AEL) and so on, need to be understood in terms of a Gestalt understanding of the cultures they occur in, and in terms of what cognitive scientists refer to as the ethics of disgust / empathy.The classical Jewish and Christian moral imaginations are challenged by the determination of a subset of the GLBT community to embed their relationships within a mono-amorous and mono-gamous template with the intent, often enough, of raising children as well.The situation is momentous and highly charged with evaluations being made on the basis of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience on the one hand, and a concept of justice and civil rights on the other. It might be better to launch a discussion of the situation based, not on a prejudicial use of a pretext, a sort of mirror-image of fundamentalist methodology, but on an attempt to situate the debate on a much larger canvas.James, I commend you for bringing the topic up, but I wonder about the methodology you have adopted.

  • John, I think you are right that discussing Leviticus is an odd way to go about this. But I am not persuaded that not dscussing Leviticus will be effective in certain circles. And so I'm trying to foster discussion of what is behind the selective use of Leviticus in relation to this topic.

  • John, most people you know interpret Leviticus in the way you describe, but most people that I know do not. Of course it seems silly to debate fundamentalist arguments with a "mirror-image" methodology as you suggest, but unfortunately most people who let their presuppositions guide their discourse are willing to admit to fundamentalist interpretations of scripture, even if they wouldn't necessarily consider themselves fundamentalist. Therefore, the clobber verses in Leviticus are commonly accepted by most people because it confirms their prejudices, not because they have a fundamentalist interpretation of the text. I don't really question why James would address this particular concern; I think the topic deserves the attention.

  • This is what I struggle with: the oft-adopted rhetorical strategy of attacking a position one doesn't agree with based on a critique of, not its strongest, but one of its weakest forms. A better place to start, and where I have started in the past for the sake of conservatives and non-conservatives alike, is John Stott's Same-Sex Partnerships? A Christian Perspective (Zondervan, 1998).Stott differentiates between a person's sexual orientation and his/her sexual behavior, between casual and often anonymous sex, and lifelong and loving homosexual partnerships. He shows how little merit prooftexting has, from whatever point of view. He speaks out strongly against the dehumanization of homosexuals, and in favor of the Western trend of decriminalization of divorce and homosexual acts. Nonetheless, he develops an ethics of sexuality based on a holistic understanding of scripture which affirms the following:1. Heterosexual gender is a divine creation; 2. Heterosexual marriage is a divine institution; and, 3. Heterosexual fidelity is the divine intention.Stott's volume is short and sweet, 98 pages. A question I always ask, on a thread like this: what comparable work from a liberal Christian perspective is worth recommending to all who would engage in a non-prejudicial debate?

  • Thinking about these posts and the comments made me ask a question:Is the form of modern-day homosexuality–attempting be monogamous and raising a family a family in that context–a Christianized version of homosexuality?Has a push to accept same-sex relationships ever become a "normal" part of society in any society that is not Christian, or post-Christian?A curious tangent..

  • John, I seem to remember Jack Rogers' book Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality as being a good one, although it has been a while since I looked at it. Although I've never read it, Mel White's Stranger at the Gate is bound to be good (I really liked his Religion Gone Bad). Also useful is The Children Are Free: Reexamining the Biblical Evidence on Same-sex Relationships by Miner and Connoley. These are just books I've happened across over the years, and so if there are others that other readers recommend, please do mention them!

  • Terri,I don't think that is a tangent. It is an enormous tribute to the Judeo-Christian heritage if it is now the case, and it is, that homosexual couples (and other types of couples in which one or both partners are B and/or T – yes, I know such couples) seek to conceive of their relationships in terms of sexual fidelity and lifelong commitment, and as an appropriate context in which to raise children.I don't think that there are any real historical precedents to this in the Ancient Near East or Greco-Roman antiquity. Furthermore, I've known many homosexuals over the years who think the concept of same-sex marriage is the goofiest thing ever. They look with pity on both heteros and homos who make lifelong vows of fidelity and dedicate their lives to raising a family. They think that to do so is against nature. In a sense, I think they are right about that. But Judaism and Christianity have never been about simply conforming to nature.

  • I think the law was largely used to promote procreation of the species. Great nations were largely dependent on numerical strength – discouraging sexual practices that did not achieve this end made sense. It could also be part of the general theme of Leviticus – which was to create a rigidly moralistic society based on piety. This was, of course, in sharp contrast to the hedonistic culture of ancient Egypt. The Israelites were not only seeking geographic separation from their former masters, but also a sharp moral and integrity separation as well. Almost a situation of, "whatever you are, I'm going to be the exact opposite." Because I am not like you. …just some initial thoughts.

  • Note, however, that the ancient Egyptians abhorred homosexuality. In this instance, we are not talking about religio-ethnic differentiation.It is a commonplace of Jewish tradition (in the Talmud, and in Jewish Hellenistic literature before that) that Israel would never do such things, whereas the Gentiles did them constantly.

  • But your point indicates that the aforementioned Jewish view is inaccurate. Homosexuality was rejected by some Gentiles and not by others. And, from a Greek perspective, it was embraced by the Greeks and rejected by barbarians.If the Torah had emerged in a Greek context, Jews and Christians might have ended up having the opposite discussions today, arguing from the Bible against those who reject homosexuality! :)We do not, today, embrace ancient Israel's marriage regulations, which are decidedly patriarchal and seem at points to resemble property laws more than anything else. And so the question I posed remains: why, if at all, should Christians adopt the view that homosexual relations are wrong?The most straightforward argument I can think of in favor of Christians accepting homosexuals as they are is Galatians. If one encounters Spirit-filled gays and lesbians, can't Paul's argument for setting aside circumcision so as to include Gentiles as Gentiles in God's people be expanded to apply to homosexuals?

  • "The most straightforward argument I can think of in favor of Christians accepting homosexuals as they are is Galatians. If one encounters Spirit-filled gays and lesbians, can't Paul's argument for setting aside circumcision so as to include Gentiles as Gentiles in God's people be expanded to apply to homosexuals?"Except Paul himself specifically says that is not the case (Romans 1:27 for instance). Are you saying Paul would change his mind between writing Galatians and Romans? And then how do you make that consistent within Galatians itself, for example, 5:16-21 that talks about not gratifying the sinful desires of the flesh, including sexual immorality as well as the incompatibility of the of the flesh and the Spirit in 5:17. I am willing to say he would include homosexuality in that category based on Romans 1, although it is not specifically mentioned here.This all gets tricky and we all have some assumptions to make on these issues. We just have to try our best to have those assumptions be as in line with the text as possible…something I am still working on and obviously, will never get perfectly right.

  • Well, James, take off your liberal theologian's hat for a moment.You tell me, as a historian, why among the commandments Christianity inherited from Judaism, some of which were radicalized and made more rigorous, others of which were relativized, and still others of which were allegorized without remainder, the sexual strictures were upheld and in some cases made more rigorous, inclusive of a growing commitment to monogamy?The distinctive sexual ethics of early Christianity, in terms of heritage and trend lines, I would think to be, from a historical point of view, part of early Christianity's DNA.I can lay out the reasons if you want in terms of trends within Hellenistic Judaism in the context of a far wider propensity for ascetism of various kinds; the gradual but ever increasing privilege given to the one husband of one wife model, to the exclusion of all others; Jesus' teaching on divorce (yes, it is relevant, because homoeroticism in Greco-Roman world was routinized in terms of mores at utter variance with the baselines Jesus takes for granted for sexuality in his teaching on adultery); the great attention paid to Genesis 1-3 with a view to understanding the divine order for created existence, both in Judaism and Christianity; and so on. As a historian, I can't imagine early Christianity, any more than coeval Judaism, adopting Greek acceptance of (opposite-sex) pedophilia, ephebophilia, homosexuality as constructed culturally at the time, promiscuity of various kinds, abortion, exposure of infants, etc. One of the first things we see, for example, is Christianity working hard to up the marriageable age of girls. All of this I think goes to core dynamics within the faith, not to marginal issues. Now, if you want to talk about our historical context, and what could, should, might, and has already changed, and why – that's fine, too. But then it's going to be important to widen the discussion still further.

  • Matt, what I was suggesting is that sometimes Paul's principles did not get fully implemented by him or in his time. He spoke of there not being slave or free, but did not take steps to abolish slavery. Yet we may see such abolition as an appropriate outworking of his principle.Moving on from that, Paul made the case for setting aside the stipulation in Genesis that all Abraham's household, including those not biologically related to him, need to be circumcised. His argument, like that found in Acts, is that God gave his Spirit to people who did not have these "works of the Law" and that indicates that God accepts them without such works. And so could we not argue as Paul did, that Spirit-filled gay and lesbian Christians demonstrate that God accepts them as they are? Why would we accept Paul's argument in the case of Gentiles but not the exact same argument applied to the case of homosexuals?I think this can also be applied to answering John's question. We see a very negative view of sexuality emerging in some streams of Christianity very early. In the Acts of Paul, for instance, where Paul's message is "blessed are the chaste." And that shaped much Christian thinking down the ages. But to the extent that the core values in the Bible, the ones we view as enduring, are love, committment, and faithfulness, I am still unclear why there would be any objection to arguing that a positive view of committed same-sex relationships is in keeping with and indeed an outworking of those principles.

  • Well, I have my doubts that Galatians 3:28 proleptically anticipates the abolition of slavery. Paul could just as well have said that you are no longer father and son, husband and wife (in fact, elsewhere he says that more or less), but you are one in Christ Jesus. With that Paul would be emphasizing that all of these are relativized and transformed, not done away with.But I will say this: now we are on the right track in terms of dialogue about these things. What is at stake is the question of core values. Genesis 1:28 has usually been understood to be a core value of Judaism and Christianity, despite strong headwinds to the contrary (of which the Acts of Paul are one index). I know of many ways that the mandate of Gen 1:28 is fulfilled by heteros and homosexuals alike. We all do. That might become a basis of discussion.

  • Hey John, are you and Stott saying that a committed, monogamous homosexual relationship is accaptable or unacceptable? I'm a little unclear on that point.

  • Muffy

    "I think this can also be applied to answering John's question. We see a very negative view of sexuality emerging in some streams of Christianity very early. In the Acts of Paul, for instance, where Paul's message is "blessed are the chaste." And that shaped much Christian thinking down the ages."I think this is an important point. Even in the canonical New Testament, it's important to consider:- Paul accepted marriage to prevent "burning" with passion, but still saw celibacy as better for those who are able.- According to tradition, Paul was celibate himself, as was Luke. That means most of the New Testament books are attributed to unmarried men. I don't know about the other putative authors. -Jesus himself is never recorded as performing marriage, getting married or encouraging marriage. -The only story in the Bible about Jesus going to a wedding focuses on the booze, not the bride and groom themselves. -Jesus says that nobody will be married in the resurrection.- The Book of Revelation says that the 144000 chosen ones are virgins who have not been "defiled" by women. So is heterosexuality the Christian ideal, or is asexuality?

  • Hi James (Pate),Stott (BTW, a man who has remained a celibate priest) argues for the view that men and women with a same-sex orientation to be fully accepted within the Christian community, but that they cultivate friendships and community, but not sexual relationships. He is an evangelical Anglican. Evangelical and simply old-fashioned congregations I am familiar with include those who never married, some of whom are pretty obviously gay or lesbian, though that it is not a matter for polite conversation. That's the old contract, don't ask, don't tell, with the assumption being that no one has a lover on the sly, hetero or homo. I'm a traditionalist, too, though I think about this a lot, since I have plenty of family and friends who are gay or lesbian, others bi-, and have been called to be the pastor of trans individuals as well.

  • Muffy,I think you are forgetting a lot of texts in the NT, for example, the household codes (Ephesians 5-6; Colossians 3, 1 Peter 2-3), with their gender-differentiated advice for husbands and wives, and again, for parents and children. Then take a look at the Pastorals, with the advice that a congregational overseer be a husband of one wife. Then go back to 1 Cor 7, and it be obvious that heterosexual marriage was the norm, the marriage bed considered undefiled, even if singlehood was understood as a gift (charism) on a par with being married, better even than being married. In brief, there is more than one ideal in early Christianity in general and in the NT in particular. Yes, there was a tendency to regard a celibate lifestyle, in accord with a larger trend in some philosophical circles (Cynics, late Platonism), and among some Jews, (the Essenes, the Therapueti), as a higher ideal than that of being the husband of one wife. But the church battled long and hard against encratites within and without, who were proto-PETA (against meat-eating) and against sex tout court. It's important not to assimilate the orthodox church's stance to that of the acts of Paul, though one must also take note of the fact that the boundaries were fluid on precisely these issues.

  • muffy

    "In brief, there is more than one ideal in early Christianity in general and in the NT in particular. "Exactly! Many Christians, however, only look at the passages that show heterosexuality as the norm and take them as a given. They talk about the holy "Christian" institution of heterosexual marriage as a given when in fact the New Testament (and early Christianity in general) wrestles with the topic. My point in mentioning the issues I did was to challenge Christian romanticisation of holy heterosexual matrimony as an ideal. As for lesbian sex, I wouldn't be surprised if the reason why it isn't explicitly mentioned in Leviticus (and other places) is due to the perception that it simply can't exist. For many, a sexual encounter must involve penetration, and the penetration itself is viewed as the potential threat,

  • James M,I see what you are saying now about being filled with the Spirit. That was certainly an extremely important part of who to include in a time when those boundaries had yet to be defined properly regarding Jews and Gentiles, as with Cornelius.The problem is, you have them speaking in tongues and doing things that clearly show the indwelling of the Spirit that may not be so evident today. So by what criteria do you decide someone is filled with the Spirit today? For them the outward signs made it obvious. For non-charismatics today, it might not be an easy call.

  • I think it is interesting that some assume that a lack of specific mention of lesbianism indicates that it was not viewed negatively, while others assume that the lack of mention is because they never considered it, but if they had, they would have condemned it. It seems we fill silences with what we want to find. But it would be interesting to consider, in the context of polygamy in ancient Israel, whether these were simply women each with a single marriage to a man, or whether this could have been considered a marriage involving multiple individuals, with any sexual contact between any of the spouses considered legitimate. Is the failure to discuss such a scenario indication that it was accepted, or that it was unimaginable?As for evidence of the Spirit, it seems that a few indications are provided in the New Testament: Paul says that no one declares Jesus to be Lord except by the Spirit, and he also describes the fruit of the Spirit. Couldn't those provide a sound basis for drawing a conclusion, in the absence of speaking in tongues, which Paul implies that not everyone does?

  • Arguments from silence are always dangerous. Father-daughter incest is also not explicitly prohibited, despite the long list in Lev 18. Does that mean it was permitted? Few have been so "brave" to so suggest.What we do know is that lesbianism was not permitted in post-biblical Judaism and Christianity. That being the case, one would want to have some ethnographic parallels in which male homosexuality is abhorred but female homosexuality is not. Perhaps there are examples of such; but I can't remember hearing of them. If none can be cited, the hypothesis that lesbianism was permitted in ancient Israel would seem to be fundamentally unsupported.

  • I do recommend Wrestling with God and Men by Rabbi Stephen Greenberg. The arguments around what is permitted or not are almost all in the flesh. If a gay person claims that he or she is in Christ, even the beloved bride is not to argue. As Paul says, it is not our custom. Greenberg has, however, a reading of all the clobber texts of Torah that is different and non-violent. There is no law against tenderness. I have mentioned this book before and I have no instruction from Hashem to have changed my mind since. If there is one who is in Christ, who am I to condemn them. Is it not the Anointing that teaches and saves – or is it some other power structure?

  • Hi Bob,Like you, I would not deny that the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of believers who(1) know themselves to have a same-gender sexual orientation, accept that as who they are, but feel God is calling them to a celibate lifestyle, or to a heterosexual married life (neither choice is particularly unusual);(2) know themselves to have a same-gender sexual orientation, accept that as who they are, and feel God is fine with them achieving sexual satisfaction within a mono-amorous, mono-gamous relationship;(3) know themselves to have a same-gender sexual orientation, accept that as who they are, and feel God is fine with them achieving sexual satisfaction in whatever context they see fit, such that sexual expression is not understood to be a language of commitment, but more simply, a language of pleasure.I have known and know self-identifying believers in all three categories.Category (1), which used to be and probably continues to represent the majority, is under seige by the "out" GLBT community, which view their choices as a form of betrayal. However, in correspondence with Mel White about this, I remember him saying he would feel free to accept such choices if his own choices – Category (2) – were accepted in the same context.Category (2) poses a problem for traditionalists in all the major religions. But that is not the same thing as saying that the Holy Spirit leaves people, or does not otherwise sanctify them, even in the midst of what is, on the traditionalist view, a grievous sin. Realities on the ground are more complex than that.In the same way, let's say I have a church member whose marriage is disintegrating (or has disintegrated) and who commits adultery. In my church polity, a possible scenario is that the person who is in an adulterous relationship is removed from any positions of leadership he or she might have, but not from the worshipping community, at least until the divorce is finalized and remarriage occurs. In other church polities, divorce itself is grounds for dismissal from the pastorate. I have a friend whose brother was a Lutheran pastor. His wife, who had and still has severe mental health issues (bipolar, I believe), divorced him despite the fact that he tried very hard to save the marriage and is a kind and gentle man. No matter. He cannot be a pastor his church polity anymore. It's not a logic I would want to be under, but I think it is a coherent and defensible one. Nobody really knows how to handle these kind of issues. There are tradeoffs no matter what choices are made. On the traditionalist view, members of the GLBT community who are in committed lifelong relationships are not comparable to adulterers in the sense that adulterers are thieves. Category (2) people tend rather to be thought of as mixing in a way that is against nature. The moral objection has more to do with what cognitive scientists refer to as the "ethics of disgust," symmetrical to, and in distribution with, an "ethics of empathy." This kind of moral objection is common among non-believers as well.Category (3) believers are not that unusual either. I'm always amazed at how many people regard promiscuity as fine in their book, so long as, from their point of view, they are not hurting anyone. As a traditionalist, I regard such believers as utterly confused but once again, I don't see evidence for the view that the Holy Spirit abandons such people completely.

  • I'm not saying that the Holy Spirit sticks with us regardless. The fate of Saul, in which a person of faith on account of faithlessness ends up in a thoroughly tormented state, this, too, is a not uncommon occurrence. Nor do I feel as if I am in a position to judge when faithlessness takes the form of not being able to overcome deep-rooted predispositions. But that is not the same thing as saying that I condone faithlessness in such instances either.I am not saying that we should take sin lightly. Aside from the fact that what constitutes sin is precisely what is at issue here, Paul is certainly right to say that if we break one commandment, we break them all. A corollary: we are all in the same boat, straight, gay, bi, whatever. At the same time, it does not follow that anything goes. This is very long already. I'll stop there for now.

  • Hi James–I think you're right, in that homosexuality in Levitical law was seen as a violation of the social order–it was a use of sex for purposes other than establishing the patriarchal family system.It did have to do with procreation anxiety among ancient peoples, yes–fail to procreate in sufficient numbers and your lineage might die off, or be conquered–but I think you're right that it was more than that. Marriages were devices to enforce social, cultural, and political (and economic) influence. Family representation was important. Providing resources to children was important. Homosexual relationships couldn't play a role in such systems–they made no sense to the powers that be. They were, in effect, useless–a waste of time, in a world where resources were scarce.Let's hope that we've learned better ways to deal with scarcity than Leviticus. Your photo is indeed inspirational.Mike Z.