In Leviticus 18 and 20, the one specific sexual sin that is described as an “abomination” is “lying with a male as lying-with a woman,” that is, male homosexual acts. An abomination is an act that makes the land sick so that it drives Israel into exile. At the end of chapter 18, the text refers to “all these abominations” that cause the land to spew out inhabitants. That makes clear that other sexual sins were also considered abominations. But the specific one that is singled out as an “abomination” is sodomy.
There have been efforts to construe the law narrowly. 18:22 has been interpreted in the light of passages that distinguish virgins who have not known “lying-with a male” from nonvirgins who have known “lying-with a male” (Judges 21:12). That has led some to propose that the prohibited act in 18:22 is being the active partner in a penetrative homosexual act. Others have suggested being the passive partner is condemned. On either reading, only certain homosexual acts are prohibited. To make this work, one has to ignore or explain away 20:13, which condemns both partners in a homosexual act to death.
Others have tried a broader approach. On the basis of its placement in a holiness code and the use of the language of purity and pollution, John Boswell claimed that the prohibition of sodomy was a ceremonial and not a moral prohibition. The rule, Boswell claimed,“does not usually signify something intrinsically evil, like rape or theft, . . . but something which is ritually unclean for Jews, like eating pork or engaging in intercourse during menstruation, both of which are prohibited in these chapters. It is used throughout the Old Testament to designate those Jewish sins which involve ethnic contamination or idolatry. Thus, “Although both chapters also contain prohibitions (e.g., incest and adultery) which might seem to stem from moral absolutes, their function in the context of Leviticus 18 and 20 seems to be symbols of Jewish distinctiveness” (Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, 100-1). Homosexual acts were prohibited for ritual reasons to mark Jewish identity. Those reasons don’t apply outside Israel and especially not to Christians.
The distinction of ceremonial and moral is an anachronism. In Leviticus, purity issues and moral issues are inseparably mixed together. Again, Leviticus 20:13 is relevant: A “civil” penalty is imposed for homosexual acts; even if it has “ceremonial” aspects, the prohibition was also part of Israel’s public law. More generally, as Jonathan Klawans has shown, sexual sins pollute the land (Impurity and Sin in Ancient Israel). Klawans uses the category of “moral defilement” to capture the complexity of the Torah’s teaching on impurity and pollution. From this perspective, the prohibition of sodomy is on a par with the prohibition of idolatry. Both pollute the land, and so are “ceremonial”; both are also moral absolutes.
That implies that it’s impossible to label the prohibition of homosexual acts “ceremonial” in order to dispense with it. Instead of classifying various laws as moral or ceremonial, it’s more accurate to say that the entire Torah assumes that the Lord is present in the midst of Israel, in the sanctuary. Because Yahweh lives in His holy house in Israel, Israel is called to holiness both in the sanctuary and in the land, in worship and in the whole of life.
Whatever we might conclude about the applicability of these laws in modern societies, they do apply within the church. Like Israel, the church is a holy community, indwelt by the Spirit of God. Idolatry and unrepented sexual sin are moral defilements of the Lord’s house, the church that is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.