Does Leviticus Only Condemn Idolatrous Homosexual Practice? – An Open Letter from Robert Gagnon

Does Leviticus Only Condemn Idolatrous Homosexual Practice? – An Open Letter from Robert Gagnon March 28, 2013

When the biblical argument is made that human sexuality was designed for male and female, and the Bible condemns homosexual relations, one of the responses for the defense is that those portions of the Bible that appear to condemn homosexual relations are not really condemning homosexual relations in general but only a particular kind of gay sex — say, gay rape or gay sex associated with idol worship.  Robert Gagnon, author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice, responds to this argument in part in the guest post below, responding to Justin Lee, executive director of the Gay Christian Network and author of Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate.


An Open Letter to Justin Lee, Author of Torn: I Do Not Believe Lev 18:22 and 20:13 Indict Only Idolatrous Forms of Homosexual Practice

by Robert A. J. Gagnon

Dear Justin,

I would like to bring to your attention a matter that has come to my attention.

In your book Torn, you make a grand total of one reference to my work on the Bible and homosexual practice (unfortunately ignoring all the other arguments and evidence that I bring forward). In that one reference I believe that you are misleading. You write on p. 177:

Some scholars, arguing that the Bible doesn’t condemn modern-day gay relationships, maintained that this passage was actually intended to condemn ritual cult prostitution, a form of idolatry in that culture that involved male-male sex. But hey, they were arguing in favor of accepting gay relationships, so they might be biased. What did the other side say? Pretty much the same thing, it turned out.

You then cite me as allegedly agreeing with this point:

On Leviticus, Gagnon writes: “I do not doubt that the circles out of which Leviticus 18:22 was produced had in view homosexual cult prostitution, at least partly. Homosexual cult prostitution appears to have been the primary form in which homosexual intercourse was practiced in Israel” [The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 130].

To this you add: “So scholars on both sides of the argument agreed that this probably had something to do with cult prostitution. That made sense to me….”

Where you mislead readers is in not letting them know that this remark of mine comes in the context of a three-page section entitled, “The Connection with Idolatry” (pp. 129-32), whose whole purpose is to make the case that the Levitical prohibitions of man-male intercourse are NOT limited in their indictment to cultic prostitution. Indeed, the very next set of sentences (same paragraph, no less), which you fail to mention to readers, is (emphasis added):

However, male cult prostitution was not the only context in which homosexual intercourse manifested itself in the ancient Near East generally. It was merely the most acceptable context for homosexual intercourse to be practiced in Mesopotamia, certainly for those who played the role of the receptive partner. In our own cultural context we think that the banning of male cult prostitution does not take into account consensual, non-cultic, loving homosexual relationships. In the cultural context of the ancient Near East the reasoning has to be reversed: to ban homosexual cult prostitutes was to ban all homosexual intercourse. In any case, the authors of Lev 18:22 could have formulated the law more precisely by making specific reference to the qedeshim [= ‘the consecrated ones,’ an ironic reference to these cult figures] (as in Deut 23:17-18), if it had been their intent to limit the law’s application. That they did not do so suggests that they had a broader application in mind. Moreover, the Levitical rejection of same-sex intercourse depends on Canaanite practices for its validity about as much as the rejection of incest, adultery, and bestiality.

Prior to my remarks that you quote, I state (emphasis again added):

Few today give this argument [i.e. that the Levitical prohibitions of man-male intercourse were prohibiting only cultic or idolatrous forms of male homosexual practice] much credence and for good reason. The repetition of the prohibition against homosexual intercourse in 20:13 does not follow immediately upon the references to child sacrifice in 20:2-5, but rather is sandwiched in between prohibitions of adultery and incest (20:10-12) and prohibitions of incest and bestiality (20:14-16). The link with child sacrifice in Lev 18:21 probably involves nothing more than threats to the sanctity of the Israelite family….

I continue:

There is also the inconsistency in the application of 18:21 on the part of those who use it to limit 18:22 to cultic contexts. Those who contend that the broadly worded proscription against same-sex intercourse should be confined to cultic prostitution do not contend that the narrowly worded proscription of child sacrifice to Molech had no implications for other forms of child sacrifice. It is not likely that 18:21 was formulated as narrowly as it was in order to leave the door open for child sacrifice to other pagan gods besides Molech, or even to Yahweh. Clearly the authors and framers had in mind all kinds of child sacrifice—indeed infanticide of any sort. By what rationale, then, is a narrow proscription to be taken broadly but a broad proscription only narrowly?

The paragraph above comes immediately before that part of my book that you cite as confirming your view that “this passage was actually intended to condemn ritual cult prostitution” and only ritual cult prostitution.

Elsewhere in the book I make clear that in the history of the interpretation of these Levitical prohibitions they are never construed as indicting only homosexual acts in the context of cult prostitution. On the contrary, they are taken in the broadest possible sense. For example, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus explained to Gentile readers that “the law [of Moses] recognizes only sexual intercourse that is according to nature, that which is with a woman. . . . But it abhors the intercourse of males with males” (Against Apion 2.199). There are no limitations placed on the prohibition as regards age, slave status, idolatrous context, or exchange of money. The only limitation is the sex of the participants. According to b. Sanh. 54a, the male with whom a man lays in Lev 18:22 and 20:13 may be “an adult or minor,” meaning that the prohibition of male-male unions is not limited to pederasty.

You do acknowledge in your book that, according to the interpretation of some, Paul’s indictment in 1 Cor 6:9 of “men who lie with a male” (arsenokoitai) refers back to the Levitical prohibitions: the Greek words for “lying” sexually (koite) and “male” (arsen) are found in the Septuagint (i.e., the standard Greek Old Testament) translation of Lev 18:22 and 20:13. Yet you consider the allusion only possible and ignore the array of other arguments that I bring forward to show that Paul didn’t limit the term to acts involving cultic prostitution or pederasty (312-32).

It seems to me that fair citation of my work would have required you to note these facts and deal with the half dozen or so arguments that I raise rather than give your readers the false impression that I support your conclusion that Lev 18:22 and 20:13 are taking aim only at homosexual activity performed in connection with idolatrous worship. To be sure, you go on to express some doubt about whether the Levitical prohibitions condemn only cultic forms of homosexual practice. Yet you leave readers with the impression that while such an argument is not fully conclusive, it is probable.

So unjustifiable is the claim that Lev 18:22 and 20:13 reject only idolatrous forms of homosexual practice that even a Bible scholar who is strongly supportive of homosexual relationships and who has written more on the issue of sexuality in ancient Judaism and Christianity than any other scholar acknowledges that the Levitical prohibitions are absolute. According to William Loader, while some argue that these prohibitions refer only to “male cultic prostitution in Canaanite religion,” “the wider context … goes beyond the cultic, as does the verse about bestiality which follows. Most [scholars] conclude that Lev 18:22 does condemn same-sex anal intercourse between males in general and is not restricted to particular settings” (The New Testament on Sexuality [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012], 25]). Loader accepts this consensus. He also notes that while “the texts almost certainly envisage anal intercourse … the texts can hardly mean approval of every other form of same-sex engagement apart from anal intercourse” (ibid., 23).

I could go on and easily show that your reading of other biblical texts, including the story of Sodom in Gen 19:4-11 (see now for this and Paul’s indictment of homosexual practice in Rom 1:24-27 (to say nothing of, Jesus’ teaching on a male-female requirement for marriage), ignores numerous weighty counterarguments against your claim that Scripture only clearly indicts specific cultic or exploitative forms of homosexual practice. Why would you bother to write (or a publisher to print) a book on the subject that systematically ignores the mountain of evidence from historical and literary contexts that challenges your prevailing perspective?

I find it puzzling that in your book you say that you were “disappointed” that the Bible didn’t “clearly answer” your question about the rightness or wrongness of committed homosexual relationships between consenting adults (187-88). As it is, I see no indication in your study of the most relevant biblical texts that you ever gave careful consideration to the biblical witness. One would think that for such an important issue you would have done so, all the more since you even wrote a book about your wrestling with this and related issues. It is not too late to do your homework on the subject; a belated enterprise, certainly, but not too late.

I would be happy to discuss in person and publicly with you what the Bible says about homosexual practice. I’m sure that some church or churches out there would be willing to sponsor such an event and defray the costs. If you are confident in your view that Jesus and Scripture generally give no clear guidance about the kind of homosexual relationship that you want to be in, then such an event will give you ample opportunity to advance your cause.



Prof. Robert A. J. Gagnon, Ph.D., Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

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