Leviticus 18 and Homosexuality

Critics have been known to argue that rather than being rules against homosexuality, passages like those in Leviticus 18 are not against gay sex per se, but against "sex with boys" and that it was also prohibited because of the male "seed" was so valuable. Harvard Divinity School's Peter Gomes' The Good Book is sometimes cited in this regard.

Our two verses of concern:

18:22 Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.
20:13 If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

We have to start here with some basics. The laws of the OT can be broken down into three categories:

The question becomes this: Are the Leviticus passages in question in the first category as we say, or in the second category (related to temple cults, seed value, etc.) as the liberals say?

I have to conclude that there are in category 1, for the following reasons:

  1. Note first the CONTEXT of the 2 Lev. prohibitions: 18:22 and 20:13. Both are set in the middle of other laws regarding sexual behavior: Don't lay with your mom, your aunt, etc. Can it be seriously argued that *these* have anything to do with wasting seed, temple cults, etc.? (It should be added that nowhere is there any evidence that the Jews regarded semen as symbolic of life, as in other cultures; Wold, Out of Order, 115.)

    On the contrary, the context of the commands is that of Category 1 laws: Universal absolutes. This is especially so for the 2nd cite, which is smack in the middle of such prohibitions:

    Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the LORD, who makes you holy. If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother, and his blood will be on his own head. If a man commits adultery with another man's wife--with the wife of his neighbor--both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death. If a man sleeps with his father's wife, he has dishonored his father. Both the man and the woman must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. If a man sleeps with his daughter-in-law, both of them must be put to death. What they have done is a perversion; their blood will be on their own heads. If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. If a man marries both a woman and her mother, it is wicked. Both he and they must be burned in the fire, so that no wickedness will be among you. If a man has sexual relations with an animal, he must be put to death, and you must kill the animal. If a woman approaches an animal to have sexual relations with it, kill both the woman and the animal. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. If a man marries his sister, the daughter of either his father or his mother, and they have sexual relations, it is a disgrace. They must be cut off before the eyes of their people. He has dishonored his sister and will be held responsible. If a man lies with a woman during her monthly period and has sexual relations with her, he has exposed the source of her flow, and she has also uncovered it. Both of them must be cut off from their people. Do not have sexual relations with the sister of either your mother or your father, for that would dishonor a close relative; both of you would be held responsible. If a man sleeps with his aunt, he has dishonored his uncle. They will be held responsible; they will die childless. If a man marries his brother's wife, it is an act of impurity; he has dishonored his brother. They will be childless. Keep all my decrees and laws and follow them, so that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out.

    Note that what we have here involves a series of crimes and punishments. The punishments range from "worst to best", from death to expulsion to barrenness. This suggests that the crimes are in a "worst to best" range as well, and our verse of concern is smack in the middle - and one of those that gets the death penalty.

    The context, the structure of the commands, and the punishment together suggest that what we have here is a universal condemnation of all such behavior

  2. But here's a pushback - what about 18:22, which is, admittedly, after a prohibition on sacrificing to Molech:
    18:22-4 Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD. Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable. Do not have sexual relations with an animal and defile yourself with it. A woman must not present herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it; that is a perversion.

    I say this "admittedly" because I can see the liberal theologians trying to say, "See, that's a context that shows the next prohibition on men and men relates to temple practice."

    All right: Then to be quite blunt, and begging pardons for the crudity, what about the prohibition following that one, about having sex with animals? Can we say that no such prohibition existed if you wanted to have sexual relations with an animal, as long as it wasn't having to do with a religious rite?

    The conclusion must be as Wold [119] offers: The inclusion of Molech here is an incidental; here, the homosexual element is shown as (yet another) reason why worship of Molech is wrong.

    I have now seen one arguer try to get around this argument. Jeramy Townsley offers this:

    The one counter-argument that can be raised against this is that, if we say that each of these behaviors are now "clean" and we can engage in them then we are supporting incest and bestiality, since prohibitions against both of these are found in Leviticus 18 and 20. But this is not necessarily the case. While these particular chapters are designed to delineate ritualistic uncleanness, that doesn't mean that any of these activities can't be classified under another branch of law. For example, bestiality is mentioned in two other passages other than in Leviticus (Ex 22.19, and Dt 27.21), as is incest. Homosexuality, however, is never mentioned outside of these passages...

    That homosexuality is "never mentioned outside of these passages" is irrelevant (and in fact untrue). The two examples given, Ex. 22:19 and Deut. 27:21, are part of clusters of miscellaneous laws that do not go out and mention every possible alternative. Thus we would have the conclusion, using Townsley's logic, that Deut. 27:22-3...

    Cursed be he that lieth with his sister, the daughter of his father, or the daughter of his mother. And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he that lieth with his mother in law. And all the people shall say, Amen.

    ...unlike Lev. 18, allows incest with those relatives not named in Lev. 18 (father, grandchildren, aunt). This is simply a case of Townsley trying to erase the prohibition with a non-stated distinction. One may as well argue back that the reason that such behavior was "unclean" was because it was a generally prohibited relationship.

  3. It's important to note that the Jews NEVER interpreted these verses in any way other than against plain old homosexual behavior. They never saw any kind of "culture factor" behind this prohibition. (See here the works of Philo and Josephus, for example.)
  4. It *is* a valid practice to look for a "cultural factor" behind laws like the one about cutting your beard. But these involved things that were "universal" at the time, and work under the assumption that there is no "normal" use of beard cutting - i.e., to look hip or something. One presumably would never cut one's beard like that UNLESS they had some nasty plans! So if we want to say that the "men and men" cites are "cultural" we have to assume that there was no "normal" way that there could be "men and men" - which would mean that non-ritual homosexuality was thought to not be a normal practice, or was non-existent.
  5. Here's a point to ponder: If these were prohibitions against temple prostitution, why are "men and men" only mentioned when men and women combos were also used in the temples? Why single out "men and men" here? Who not just say "temple prostitution"? As in...
  6. ...there are very SPECIFIC condemnations of temple prostitution elsewhere (Deut. 23:17-8). This would suggest that the Lev. cites are not "roundabouts" or allusions to that practice.
  7. As side note, I'll add here that some try to circumvent this conclusion by dating Leviticus c. 520-400 BC and/or suggesting it was composed as a "mirror reaction" by Israeli men who were raped by Babylonian or Persian soldiers. I think such can be safely ignored as entirely speculative and presuming the very thing that needs to be proven.
  8. A second side note is an argument used by Townsley and others, saying:
    The usage here is not a single Hebrew word or idiom which can refer to any sex acts between the same gender. Rather, the texts clearly say, "if a man lies with a man as with a woman." There is no leeway in these texts to include lesbian acts in this pronouncement. This is important, because it does not seem consistent to condemn male homosexuality and not female homosexuality, if the point of condemning homosexuality is because it is "unnatural."

    Townsley is falling into the same trap as Skeptics: Ancient law codes, being didactic, do not need to be "consistent" with our modern, precision-oriented expectations; the condemnation of male homosexuality applies by exension to female homosexuality, just as laws that say "If a man..." do not mean a woman can get away with the same act with no punishment. (It's also questionable how widespread such behavior would have been anyway, given how closely guarded daughters would have been in the ancient household.)

Bottom line: While it is POSSIBLE that there is a "culture" factor behind these prohibitions, the burden of proof is on the liberal side to prove their case, which they have failed to do.