The Book of Leviticus contains an extensive list of commands and prohibitions known as the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17–26)
. Some of the regulations in this collection are intended for the people of Israel generally (see 17:1; 18:1; 19:1; 20:1; 23:1; 24:1; 25:1)
, while others are directed specifically to the priests (see 22:1; 23:1
). To catch the full effect of these injunctions, one should read at least Leviticus 17–20
in its entirety.
Two passages in this Holiness Code have been understood as specific rejections of male homosexual activity. Both forbid a man to "lie with a male as with a woman" (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13).
Strictly speaking it is physically impossible for a man to "lie with a male as with a woman." Since the biblical text would hardly prohibit something which is impossible in the first place, the meaning of this prohibition must be sought in an other than strictly literal interpretation of it.
The phrase is sufficiently imprecise to make one wonder whether it prohibits homosexual intimacy of any kind, or whether it is aimed at one particular kind of sexual behaviour, namely anal intercourse. Whatever the precise meaning of the phrase, such sexual relations are prohibited in both passages because they are an "abomination" (to'ebah).
This Hebrew word carries primarily cultic, rather than moral connotations. Actions which are identified as to'ebah are not necessarily morally wrong. Rather, the word refers to behaviour connected with the worship of other gods. The context helps to clarify the matter. Leviticus 18:3 reads, "You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, 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."
From this D. S. Bailey infers that the particular behaviour in question is condemned not because it is wrong in itself, but because it was connected with cult prostitution in the heathen temples. It represents lifestyle and worship of the Egyptians.
Bailey insists that we face a very different situation today. Homosexual behaviour as we know it is not associated with pagan religious ritual. Since it does not appear to have been rejected on moral grounds, it can now be tolerated.
Others consider Bailey's line of reasoning as forced. Karl P. Donfried doubts that one can simply dismiss Leviticus 18 and 20 on the basis that these regulations are cultic. While it may be true that to'ebah carries primarily cultic connotations, it is by no means clear that this is consistently so.
Richard Hays observes that the Old Testament "makes no systematic distinction between ritual and moral law." What is one to do with the prohibition of incest, for instance (Leviticus 18:6–8)? Hays poses what may be more than simply a rhetorical question, "Is that a purity law or a moral law?"
Some of the sexual behaviour forbidden in this context, such as lying with a neighbour's wife, appears to be more of a moral than of a religious nature (18:20). Yet that behaviour, too, is covered by the term to'ebah (18:26 "… do none of these abominations").
We are left with an uneasy but necessary responsibility. "In each case, the church is faced with the task of discerning whether Israel's traditional norms remain in force for the new community of Jesus' followers," says Hays. Many of the Levitical commandments have generally been disregarded by the church from the very beginning. In the case of circumcision and dietary practices, the biblical witness offers clear and unambiguous theological rational for declaring the law obsolete. In regards to other matters, the verdict is not quite so direct.
As far as forbidden sexual relations are concerned, the Holiness Code presents a rather extensive collection. It includes the following: sexual relations with a married woman (18:20; 20:10); male homosexual relations (18:22; 20:13); bestiality (either male or female) (18:23; 29:15f.); sexual relations with one's father's wife (20:11); sexual relations with one's daughter-in-law (20:12); marriage to both a woman and her mother (20:14); sexual relations with a menstruating woman (18:19); and offering of children to Molech (18:21). According to the second list (Lev. 20) all the sexual relations which are identified in it are punishable with death.
"Quoting a law from Leviticus, of course, does not settle the question for Christian ethics," says Hays.
In antiquity such lists do not clearly differentiate between cultic and moral law. This makes it even more difficult to deal with the fact that we have embedded in the Holiness Code a straightforward and sweeping condemnation of homosexual and related sexual behaviour. The matter is further complicated when we observe that from the very beginning, the church has embraced some of these regulations while declaring others as nul and void.
What Do You Think?
Which of the prohibitions in the Holiness Code are still in force and which are not?
How can we decide which of the prohibitions still apply and which do not?
Do these passages compel us to inflict the death penalty on homosexual behaviour?
Do these passages obligate us to treat homosexual behaviour with greater or with less severity than adultery?