In the first part of our lesson, we explored the importance of properly interpreting the Law as a whole in the greater context of the Scripture and the commentary of the New Testament which teaches us specifically what the Law is and how to view it. In this part, we will turn our attention to the specific passage before us.
“Also you shall not have intercourse with any animal to be defiled with it, nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it; it is a perversion.” — Lev. 18:23
“If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them.” — Lev. 20:13
These verses are pretty clear. They actually say what they appear to say. There is no mistake in the translation. However, they don’t mean what we commonly say they mean. The problem with the meaning assigned to it by most people is that the meaning is extracted without any consideration of the context in which the words are spoken.
Start With Context
As we already know, context is everything! Context can determine how a set of words or sentences is meant to be understood and applied. In this case, context does exactly that. If we look at the words spoken here and interpret them in the modern cultural context of same-sex relationships, we make the words say something they were never intended to say. We would, as has traditionally been taught now for some time, believe that men cannot have meaningful personal, sexually intimate and committed romantic relationships with other men. The problem is that this Scripture was not written by an author who lived in the modern cultural context of same-sex relationships.
To begin to see the context, we are going to go backwards to chapter 17.
“The reason is so that the sons of Israel may bring their sacrifices which they were sacrificing in the open field, that they may bring them in to the LORD, at the doorway of the tent of meeting to the priest, and sacrifice them as sacrifices of peace offerings to the LORD. The priest shall sprinkle the blood on the altar of the LORD at the doorway of the tent of meeting, and offer up the fat in smoke as a soothing aroma to the LORD. They shall no longer sacrifice their sacrifices to the goat demons with which they play the harlot. This shall be a permanent statute to them throughout their generations.” ‘ — Lev. 17:5-7
The verses immediately before this prescribe a very stiff penalty to any man who does not bring his sacrifice for God to the tabernacle to be offered by the priest. These verses offer the explanation of the reason for those rules. The reason is so that their sacrifices will be offered correctly by the priest and the people will not offer sacrifice to the goat demons. Evidently, this was already a problem for Israel. They have a habit of adding the ritual worship practices of the pagan cultures around them to the worship of Jehovah. These rules were intended to prevent them from continuing to adopt pagan worship practices. Now, we move into chapter 18.
“Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the LORD your God. 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 walk in their statutes.” — Lev. 18:2-3
These verses in chapter 18 allow us to see that we are continuing with the same purpose and context of chapter 17. The rules we are talking about are specifically in place to prevent the Israelites from adopting the horrible pagan ritual worship practices they saw in Egypt and will see in Canaan. Again in chapter 18, we see this verse.
You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.” — Lev. 18:21
Notice that this verse is the one before our text verse. It specifically mentions the ritual pagan worship practice of child sacrifice. Two verses later, we find this statement:
“Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, — Lev. 18:24
For what purpose would a person be considered unclean? It was specifically connected to Jewish ceremonial worship. Again, we see the purpose of these rules was to prohibit the Israelites from pursuing the pagan worship rituals of the land of Canaan. All of this information clearly establishes the context before and after the verse in question as a context for worship. Certainly, we don’t think that the author was bouncing back and forth between subjects. It seems highly unlikely that he was switching between subjects of intimate personal relationships and worship. This was about how to worship or even more accurately, not worship.
These facts work together to help us put the verses back into their original context. This passage was not written for instructions about home life, family lives, romantic relationships or even spousal sexual behavior. They were written to make sure that the Israelite males did not contaminate their ceremonial worship lives. Even Lev. 18:19 was meant to keep the man pure for his ceremonial worship rites. Contact with blood would have rendered him unclean and force him to go through ritual cleansing.
Homosexuality and Abominations
detestable thing, abomination, repulsion, i.e., an object which is loathsome and abhorrent (Dt 7:26), note: the object may be a concrete “thing” or a “way” or “practice,” as lifestyle behavior; 2. LN 6.96–6.101 idol, formally, repulsive thing, i.e., a worship object, with a focus that it is an item to be rejected
Much is made of the use of the word abomination and the corresponding command in Leviticus 20:13 to kill the perpetrators. This is actually one of the reasons for such a strong response on the part of Christians against homosexuality. Because, it is an ABOMINATION! That, they think, means that it is one of very few things that God hates above all else. Therefore, in their mind, it is especially important to stand against this behavior. God hates it and so should we. Because of that, I want to explore this idea of “abomination” in the Scripture and see if it measures up to what believers have said about it.
The most common use of this word is in the context of worship. It is not reserved only for the context of worship and we will explore some of those other uses. Worship is, however, the single most common aspect of the passages where the word is used. Here are some examples.
“The graven images of their gods you are to burn with fire; you shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them, nor take it for yourselves, or you will be snared by it, for it is an abomination to the LORD your God. You shall not bring an abomination into your house, and like it come under the ban; you shall utterly detest it and you shall utterly abhor it, for it is something banned. — Deut. 7:25-26
“When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations which you are going in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land,vbeware that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How do these nations serve their gods, that I also may do likewise?’ You shall not behave thus toward the LORD your God, for every abominable act which the LORD hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. — Deut. 12:29-31
Other passages that use the word “abomination” in the context of worship:
- Deut. 13:12-15
- Deut. 27:15
- Deut. 32:16
- 2 Kings 16:3-4
The fact that the most common use of this term is within the context of acts and things that are linked to worship further reinforces the concept that the context of Leviticus 23 is worship and not personal, family or romantic relationships.
As I noted, worship is not the only context where this term is used. Consider these things that are also regarded as an abomination.
- women wearing men’s clothes, men wearing women’s clothes (Deut. 22:5)
- a woman who has been divorced twice going back to the first husband (Deut. 24:1-4)
- using dishonest scales (Deut. 25:13-16)
- haughty eyes, lying tongue, killing the innocent, wicked plans, swift to evil, a false witness, a person who stirs up trouble in the family (Prov. 6:16-19)
Interestingly enough, even though these things are an “abomination” to God, we don’t find such a vehement response to them from Christians. How many straight Christian men would object to their girlfriend or wife wearing one of their t-shirts or another piece of their clothing? I have known of Christians who would actually encourage women who have been divorced and re-married to return to their first husbands as a matter of Christian obligation to honor their original marriage vows. Of course, we would all be against some things like dishonesty in matters of commerce (dishonest scales) but do we issue a vehement cry against this injustice? Or, what about lying or people who like to “stir the pot” of family disagreements? Do we issue strong public statements against them, condemn them as spiritually unacceptable and create laws to prevent them from enjoying the same privileges as other people? Of course the answer is no! But, why not? After all, each of these things is considered by the Scripture to be an abomination to God. It is the exact same term used in Leviticus for men who have sex with men. We must concede that the word “abomination” then does not automatically mean the level of disgust, hatred and fierce retribution traditional interpretations have ascribed to the passage in Leviticus. Could it be that out own preconceived notions of a subject, particularly that of homosexuality, have tainted the way we understand the word?
At first glance, it seems ridiculous that these prohibitions on sexual behavior could be related in the context of worship. We might be tempted to reject it outright without further consideration because it seems so far-fetched. How could statements about sexual behavior be given in the context of worship? The reason is that many of us are not aware of the rituals and ceremonies involved in ancient pagan religions. Many pagan religious rituals involved sexual ceremonies between the participants. It was so common, in fact, that there were people whose entire lives were dedicated to serve as temple prostitutes, both male and female. It is specifically this behavior, these rituals, that Leviticus was written about.
In the ancient world, sexual same-sex activities were known in only two contexts. The first was the context of behavior that we saw evident in Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis and Gibeah in Judges. The forced rape, often gang-rape, of a another person in order to exert power, control and humiliation. The second was the context of pagan worship. This second context was specifically the reason for these laws in Leviticus 18 and 20. It was to prevent Israel from following in the same behavior and steps as the people in the land had done.
Bible authors could not speak to or condemn that which they knew nothing about
Ancient culture, indeed the entire Bible, knew nothing about same-sex relationships which occur within the context of a monogamous, committed relationship between two people. While we do not want to venture into the greater conversation of Biblical sexual ethics (which is a significant conversation that should be had), this distinction about what the Bible could and could not have been speaking about is very important. Some would say that even if the authors had known about committed, loving same-sex relationships, they would have still condemned them based on other things we know about sexual teachings in the Bible. To that I can only respond that we cannot speak to the hypothetical contexts. We can only speak about the context that exists. In that context, Bible authors could not speak to or condemn that which they knew nothing about. For instance, we find no statements in the Bible condemning electricity. Therefore, we find it to be a good thing for modern life and most American Christians indulge in its consumption on a daily basis. Of course, we could say that if the Bible doesn’t explicitly condone a certain thing or behavior, then neither should we. People who believe this live in small communities, refuse electricity, modern vehicles and contact with the outside world. In this same thought, the Bible cannot condone or forbid romantic same-sex relationships or even same-sex marriage because the authors and culture of the Bible knew nothing of the possibility of their existence.
As we consider the impression that most Christians have of same-sex relationships and their opposition to them, we must also understand that they often do not know anything of the possibility of loving, committed same-sex relationships. The only impressions they have are the same ones that they read about in scripture. Homosexuals are often viewed as promiscuous participants in orgy style activities who force their perverted sexual behavior on others against their will. Of course, we know that this is not true. It is however, somewhat in line with the impression the Bible gives of same-sex behavior. Often, when Christians see people homosexuals involved in loving, committed relationships, long-term relationships, they begin to consider the possibility that homosexuals may not be as perverted as they once thought.
Now, let’s go back to our cultural context. Is there evidence that pagan sexual worship rituals are what is being prohibited in Leviticus? Absolutely! As a matter of fact, there is abundant evidence that this is what was prohibited by these verses and the same evidence will show that these verses were ineffective at prohibiting such behavior by the Israelites. This could be called the Bible’s dirty little secret. Of course there are many things that the average church-goer is not aware of in the Bible. This cultural practice would be at the top of that list. Consider these passages.
“None of the daughters of Israel shall be a cult prostitute, and none of the sons of Israel shall be a cult prostitute.” — Deut. 23:17
“And Judah did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and they provoked him to jealousy with their sins that they committed, more than all that their fathers had done. For they also built for themselves high places and pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there were also male cult prostitutes in the land. They did according to all the abominations of the nations that the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.” — 1 Kings 14:22-24
“He put away the male cult prostitutes out of the land and removed all the idols that his fathers had made.” — 1 Kings 15:12
“And from the land he exterminated the remnant of the male cult prostitutes who remained in the days of his father Asa.” — 1 Kings 22:46
“And he broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes who were in the house of the LORD, where the women wove hangings for the Asherah.” — 2 Kings 23:7
read more about temple prostitution on wikipedia.
From these passages, it appears that the problem of idolatry and following the example of the nations that surrounded them was rampant, at times, during Israel’s history. There were even dormitories for them in the Temple (2 Kings 23:7) Not only do these verses establish that it was a common occurrence in this culture to have “male cult prostitutes”, it also establish the connection with the statements of Leviticus 18 and 20. 1 Kings 14:22-24 notes, “..they did according to all the abominations…”. This is the same specific language that we see in Leviticus and the context in which all of theses passages encounters male cult prostitutes is a context of pagan worship.
The Influence of Language
As we explore this context and the verses that discuss it, it becomes very clear that our original impression of Leviticus was further off base than we may have thought possible. It also brings us to another aspect of this entire issue. The issue is the way that language affects perspective and beliefs. 1 Kings 22:46, as translated in the King James Version will serve as an illustration.
And the remnant of the sodomites, which remained in the days of his father Asa, he took out of the land. — 1 Kings 22:46
Notice the use of the word “sodomites” in this passage. It would seem that these people, whom we are taught were homosexuals, had infiltrated Israel and had to be taken out. They were called sodomites because of the connection of their behavior to the same sin of the men of Sodom. At least that is what one would think. A closer examination of the Hebrew term behind the English word “sodomites” should yield more light on the subject. After looking into it, you would actually find that the word translated “sodomites” here in the KJV is actually the same word translated in all the verses above as “male cult prostitutes.” As a matter of fact, most modern translations use some similar form to translate this word. Why is that? The reason is that the Hebrew word contains no relation whatsoever to the story or people of Sodom! It was a term coined by the translators of the King James Version in an attempt to explain something that presented a problem. The choice probably seemed like a good and wise one at the time. Unfortunately, over time, it has proven to propagate an erroneous interpretation of the story of Sodom and the actions that are being portrayed. In addition, it has also affected our the English language and Christian perception of homosexuality for years in a negative way.
(qodesh (קֹדֶשׁ, 6944), “holiness; holy thing; sanctuary.” This noun occurs 469 times with the meanings: “holiness”…Another noun, qadesh, means “temple-prostitute” or “sodomite”…The noun is found 11 times.2
This word for “sodomites” or “male temple prostitutes” comes from a word which is used to refer to things that are holy. This particular form refers to people that are considered “holy” or “consecrated” to their particular pagan god. There are multiple Bible dictionaries that attest to this meaning. This word has no reference whatsoever to Sodom. Even more, it has no reference whatsoever to the context of committed, same-sex relationships or, for that matter, romantic same-sex relationships of any kind. It specifically refers to people who participated in pagan sexual rituals. Once again, we find a word describing the specific acts which were forbidden in Leviticus that further reinforces the context of how not to worship. It has nothing to do with romantic, personal relationships.
A Call to Consistency
Just because something is written in the Bible as part of the Law of Moses, does not automatically make it something that we believe is appropriate as a rule for our lives today. There are many things in the Law of Moses which are considered acceptable by our culture and society. Many others things are commanded which we do not follow. As we have already seen, if we are to obey part of the Law, we are subject to all of the Law. We will not even mention the dietary regulations and ceremonial worship rules that we no longer observe. Consider these things contained in the law:
- Sex with a woman who is menstruating will cause a person to be exiled. Leviticus 18:19
- When harvesting a field, parts of it must be left for people who are in need to take for their supply, without charge. Leviticus 19:9
- It is prohibited to make fun of a deaf man or put something in a blind man’s path. Leviticus 19:14
- It is prohibited to take vengeance or bear a grudge. Leviticus 19:17
- It is prohibited to interbreed different kinds of cattle, to grow two different kinds of plants in the same field, or to wear clothing of mixed materials. Leviticus 19:19
- Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death. Leviticus 20:9
- Any man who has a defect (disability) is prohibited from serving in the tabernacle. Leviticus 21:21-23
Based on all of the information from parts 1 and 2 of this lesson, here are the conclusions we must reach about the passages in Leviticus.
- To condemn homosexuality (or anything) using passages from the Law is inconsistent with the nature of the Law, the purpose of the Law, and Bible commentary of the Law.
- If the standard of Leviticus is to be applied to acts of homosexuality, it must equally be applied to all of its commandments.
- The context of Leviticus knows nothing of committed, consensual, same-sex relationships so it could not condemn those relationships.
- The word abomination does not establish homosexual behavior as a behavior any worse than other actions. Some of those actions are acceptable by modern cultural standards by both Christian and non-Christian people.
- The acts Leviticus condemns are those of idolatrous acts of worship as revealed by other Bible passages and cultural behaviors of the time.
- These conclusions are supported by the language of Leviticus, the context of Scripture, the commentary of Scripture and cultural norms of the time.
 Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
2Vine, W. E., Unger, M. F., & White, W., Jr. (1996). Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Vol. 1, p. 114). Nashville, TN: T. Nelson.