Homosexuality in the book of Leviticus

I originally published this post a while back on my Wordpress blog. As I move content over to the new site, I'm going to periodically highlight certain posts. Here's another one.

Two of the more well-known verses in the Bible regarding the issue of homosexuality are Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Most Christians see in these passages a forthright condemnation of homosexual behavior and therefore trumpet them loudly. The issues surrounding the interpretation of these verses are more complex, though, than it might seem on the surface. As with Genesis 19, knowing the context and culture will shed some additional light on how these verses should be understood and provide a proper context for discussion. I'm going to discuss some exegetical details in this post, and in the next post I'll discuss some broader interpretive issues about using texts from Leviticus as a whole.

Both these verses occur within longer sections that detail a number of illicit sexual activities. Lev 18:6-23 simply details the prohibitions; Lev 20:9-21 details the prohibitions and the punishments. Most readers isolate these verses and take them to be straightforward prohibitions against homosexual activity. Here is Lev 18:22:

You must not have sexual intercourse with a male as one has sexual intercourse with a woman; it is a detestable act.

Here is Leviticus 20:13:

If a man has sexual intercourse with a male as one has sexual intercourse with a woman, the two of them have committed an abomination. They must be put to death; their blood guilt is on themselves.

As with any Bible passage, though, there is a lot more here than meets the eye. There are two arguments often made about these verses which lead some interpreters to conclude that what was in view here was not homosexual behavior generally but male cultic prostitution, which was fairly common in the ancient Near East. The verse immediately preceding Lev 18:22 details a horrible practice that wasn’t sexual at all: the offering of children to the pagan god Molech. The key word here translated "detestable act" and “abomination” is תּוֹעֵבָה, and in certain contexts it does refers to pagan idolatrous practices (see Deut 32:16; 2 Kgs 22:13; Isa 41:24; 44:19). So based on these lines of evidence, some argue that these verses don't refer to homosexual behavior generally and therefore should not be marshaled to condemn that behavior.

As evidence for a counter argument, there was indeed a historical connection between cultic prostitution and idolatry (see 1 Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:46), but the overall context of the Leviticus passages focuses more on sexual relationships within the family than cultic practices. Regarding the Hebrew word תּוֹעֵבָה, it does not appear to be a technical term describing repulsive idolatrous practices but a general term describing something abhorrent. The technical dictionary HALOT describes in one paragraph the use of this word in Deuteronomy. Note all the different things, some idolatrous, some not, which this word describes (marked with bold font):

Included in what is considered to be תּוֹעֵבָה (with KBL) are gold and silver from divine images Dt 726; the consumption of meat from unclean animals 143; the remarrying of a divorced woman (כִּי־תוֹעֵבָה הִוא לִפְנֵי יהוה) 244; תּוֹעֲבַת יהוה the sacrifice of imperfect animals 171; the wearing of clothing of the opposite sex 225; the giving of earnings from prostitution to the temple 2319; dishonest measures 2516; secret images of deities 2715; the sacrifice of children 1231; for further instances see Bächli loc. cit. 53.

Based upon the context of family and the general meaning of the word תּוֹעֵבָה, I do think it is fair to argue that these verses do prohibit male homosexual behavior generally. However, Christians tend to wield these verses like clubs, swinging as hard as we can to hit our opponents. Instead, we need to use them as invitations to dialogue, remembering that God is patient and forbearing to all who sin, and desires that all come to him in repentance. The discussion could start here in Leviticus, but it must end with an invitation to consider Jesus, who fulfilled the Law and died on the cross so that we might be free to walk in grace.