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Leviticus (18:12; 20:13)

(Fifth post on same-sex relationships.)

There are two verses from Leviticus that figure in the debates over the Bible and homosexuality. First, Leviticus 18:22, which says:

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

The wider context (Lev. 17-26) for both texts is often called the holiness code where stipulations are given with regard to holiness, on being pure. That section includes what one eats (Lev. 20:25), tattoos (Lev. 19:28), and wearing clothes from mixed fibres (Lev. 19:19). That concept of holiness brings us into a strange world.

Holiness, as defined in this wider passage is essentially ensuring that Israel will be distinct from the wider world, her pagan worshipping neighbours. To be different, set apart, pure, Israel must not assimilate to the surrounding cultures.

Sexual prohibitions are also included in this ‘holiness’ section, and given a) the importance of the body and b) the repeated warnings regarding sexual sin in the NT, we cannot simply ignore them in the same way that we ignore prohibitions regarding food, tattoos and clothing. Although we do not ignore the sexual prohibitions, a strong case can be made to suggest that there is an element of false worship that sits as the background, so that we are not simply reading prohibitions against certain sexual practices but against sexual practices tied to religious worship. The opening context of verse 3 places the prohibitions against the background of the other nations:

You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes.

This pagan cultic background could well indicate that the prohibition is aimed at the situation where male shrine prostitutes were an intrinsic part of worship to pagan gods and goddesses. There is repeated rhetoric against these shrine prostitutes at different parts of the OT (see Deut. 23:17; 1 Kings 14:24 (linked with abomination), 15:12, 22:46, 23:7).

A further point is to look more closely at the chapter where the prohibition against lying with a male is placed at the end of a series of prohibitions regarding incestuous relationships. It is possible that the male / male is continuing the theme of sexual relationships within the family.

The second text in Leviticus is in 20:13

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.

We again have the two contexts of foreign worship practices and of incestuous sexual relationships. The context cautions us from suggesting that these verses are a blanket prohibition against all same-sex relationships.

n the Hebrew text we have perhaps an interesting aspect. For we read if a man (ish) lies with a male (zkr). This has (and with the context being of prohibitions against familial sexual relationships) suggested to some that the term ‘male’ could be translated here as ‘male family member’. It is certainly interesting that we do not have the parallels of either ish / ish nor zkr / zkr; either parallel would imply a general situation of two (equally defined) males being together; the non parallel usage suggests something different. We can further comment that there does not seem to be an inference to the creation narrative as there (Gen. 1:27… created ‘male and female’) we have ish (male) and ne.qe.vah (female) whereas here we do not have ‘female’ (as per Genesis) but ‘woman’ (ish.shah). With no inference to creation and no parallel structure in the sentence we should not read that what is being condemned has any connection with God creating them as ‘male and female’.

Leviticus 20 does not seem therefore to be written against a creation background, but a cultural, cultic and familial setting. It would be pushing the text (and the one in Leviticus 18) too far to suggest that the prohibition applies to all same-sex relationships. In a similar way to the money-lending / mortgage example suggested that those are not in the same category so I suggest that we have to allow these texts to be approached in the same way. Abusive interest rates and mortgages / other loans are not in the same category, hence the prohibition against money lending cannot be used to become a blanket prohibition against all money lending; and in the same way the prohibitions here cannot automatically become a blanket prohibition against all same-sex relationship.


1. There are other arguments advanced, including one that suggests what is being prohibited is two males having intercourse with a woman. Joanna Töyräänvuori argues for this (“Homosexuality, the Holiness Code, and Ritual Pollution: A Case of Mistaken Identity.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 45, no. 2 (2020): 236-67). The spectrum of interpretations (and that spectrum, of course, includes a blanket prohibition against all same-sex relationships) should caution us from making our interpretation the right one.

3 thoughts on “Leviticus (18:12; 20:13)

  1. Excellent analysis, Martin, thank you. At the very least, AFAICS there is easily enough doubt about the interpretation to make it a matter of conscience, not a matter for legislation and division between believers. (And I won’t post any spoilers about the New Testament, as I think I can guess where you’re going next!)

    1. Bruce… thanks. Enough doubt… matter of conscience. Yes. And for some time, before thinking I need to get my head into this I was convinced the future would be more messy; genuine, authentic people in their integrity coming down on one side or another of various issues. Does not make it easier!!
      Interpretation – if only we could acknowledge that! (Last sentence is a note to myself…)

  2. Gotta give you credit Martin. . . you sure woke everyone up. The conversation is enjoyable. Keep it going please.

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