On the West Wing/Dr. Laura Letter
Video version!

One of the items making the rounds these days is a "letter to...", variously. Dr. Laura, President Bush, or whoever, and the issue has also apparently been modified as needed (from general homosexuality to same-sex marriage, in the incarnation we received). The source was a television program, I never watched, West Wing, in which a Presidential character spoke to what was meant to be a "Dr. Laura" character.

Ordinarily we don't bother with such things - after all, a television writer is hardly an authority to address the Bible, certainly not on the order of a Ben Witherington - but for the sake of those who need a reference, we've decided to reproduce the letter and offer some comments.

Dear _____________,

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from you and understand why you would propose and support a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage. As you said, "in the eyes of God marriage is based between a man and a woman." I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination... End of debate.

It's as well to start here with the core point of the letter, which is a logical chain that runs as follows:

  • Lev. 18:22 is used to condemn homosexuality/same sex marriage.
  • But Leviticus has a lot of stuff that people wouldn't follow today.
  • Therefore, the Levitical ban on homosexuality is also outdated/outmoded.

    From a strictly logical perspective, this argument is errant. Taken to its eventual necessary conclusion, Old Testament laws against murder and stealing are likewise outmoded, merely by their association with Leviticus. In actuality, both sides are simply making non-credible appeals; ignored completely is the important question of what sort of law Lev. 18:22 actually is (see article here), and whether indeed, objectively, homosexuality is an immoral act.

    The answer to that question is beyond our scope; suffice to say that neither side is offering anything in the form of a sound argument. Dr. Laura's/President Bush's side merely appeals to Leviticus as authority; but this works only if one has reason to grant authority (religiously speaking) to Leviticus in the first place.

    On the other hand, the "Dear So and So" side argues more fallaciously from association. (The first side is at least consistent within their own paradigm, if nothing else.)

    I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God's Laws and how to follow them

    Those with a sincere interest in what relevance indeed the Levitical law may have for today are encouraged to see here. In terms of the specifics:

    1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

    2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her? (I'm pretty sure she's a virgin).

    Aside from the same matter of presumptive equivocation noted above, we would refer the reader to the essays here. OT "slavery" is more properly a form of indentured servitude -- and a mechanism of survival for the destitute of the ancient world, who, unlike a modern Westerner, did not value individualist freedom above all else. A famine in a neighboring nation made the indentured servitude of a person in that nation, to one in a more fortunate nation, a viable and desirable option. Likewise, famine in one's own nation made Ex. 21:7 a way to ensure that your daughter didn't die.

    The use of the emotionally-loaded word "slavery" is a simplistic form of argumentation in context.

    3. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord - Lev.1:9. The problem is, my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

    Only comfort-concered moderns would make much of an odor to begin with; but at any rate, the question to ask in reply is, "Who is more important - the Lord, or your neighbors? Whom should be obeyed?" The question begs an implication of animal sacrifice as primitive and backwards savages who also ban enlightened activities like homosexual sex.

    Of course, if you did happen to use a barbeque grill this past weekend, you're no more sophisticated in practice.

    4. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2.clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it? How can I help you here?

    This one and the remaining four all neglect the conception of ritual purity - see here. The purpose of laws such as these was to set Israel apart from other nations by making them different. Linked into this is a concept of holiness, or set-apartness (see here).

    Why are these ritual purity laws not followed now? For an answer, see here. For why neither we nor the police are obliged to execute such a person now, see link above on the role of the law.

    5. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination - Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this? Aren't there 'degrees' of abomination?

    The point of this question - aside from the matter of not knowing what ritual purity is all about - is lost; if there is a sincere interest in knowing if there are "degrees" of abomination, just ask this simple question: Are there degrees to which things may be found "abominable"? Are the works of a robber baron not less abominable than those of a murderous dictator?

    In any event, if shellfish is a matter of ritual purity only, and homosexuality is a matter of higher morals as argued, then indeed, eating shellfish would have been a lesser abomination.

    Indeed, the fact that the words used for "abomination" in both passages are different suggests that by itself. The word used for the shellfish is used only a few times in the OT, always of unclean animals, whereas the word used for homosexuality is used for things like bestiality, incest, and child sacrifice.

    6. Lev.21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?

    None at all. As for the matter of that sort of law, see here.

    7. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

    Scholars today recognize that Lev. 19:27 was written against specific cultic practices of the pagan world around Israel, which honored the pagan gods with ritual cutting of hair. Thus this reflects a culturally-applied universally (as opposed to a strict universal, as it is argued homosexuality is).

    8. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

    See above on ritual purity; no more needs be said (save that most footballs today are made of cowhide, not pigskin).

    9. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16. Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev 20:14) I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I am confident you can help.

    We may of course savor the irony of the praise given my one who obviously hasn't studied the matter one lick. The planting of crops and the wearing of threads is likewise a matter of ritual purity; as for the rest, it is again a matter of the role of moral law today. In all of this we have yet to see anything resembling an objective argument for (or against) homosexuality as moral or not... and it is doubtful we ever will, since reasoned discourse tends to lack the emotional impact needed to convince the average voter to vote your way.


    Addendum: "Homosexuality And The Natural Law", by Nick P.

    In the Dr. Laura letter that is going around the internet, there is a huge displacement going on between the moral law and the civil and ceremonial law. Most of our skeptics and liberal Christians today consider these laws to either be gone in Christ, simply wrong, or just the malevolent ideas of an ignorant nomadic tribe.

    It is not my purpose in this to answer the question of if homosexuality is innate or not, which I believe while it isn't, is actually irrelevant to the discussion. It is also not my purpose to give the scientific information or the psychological information on homosexuality. I intend to only deal with Leviticus 18 and 20 and deal with these from the perspective of Natural Law thinking.

    The Natural Law is the idea that men and women universally know what is right and what is wrong. It does not deny, of course, that men and women can sear their consciences, (for lack of a better term) so that they can lose the knowledge in some areas of what is right and wrong. It does say that there are some things, however, that cannot be forgotten to be right or wrong and honestly, if someone doesn't see that something like rape is intrinsically wrong, they don't need a good argument. Instead, they need a good psychiatrist.

    The Natural Law also says that this is an eternal and unchanging principle for all people in all times in all places. Note it does have a hierarchy to it. (It is proper to tell a lie to save the lives of the Jews hidden in the basement when the nazis come around) There are some commands that are more important than others. The reason actions are moral though is because they reflect the life of God in the Trinity and the reason actions are immoral is they go against that life.

    The question to ask is, according to the Bible, does the command against homosexuality belong in Natural Law or in the other laws that were fulfilled in Christ? Note I am not even at this point arguing that the Bible is right or wrong in what it says. (Although I believe it is right, of course.) I just want to look and make sure that we are clear on what it really does teach.

    In Leviticus 18 and 20, we find the sexual laws listed that include the command against homosexuality. What is often forgotten though is how each of those chapters end. Let's look at Leviticus 18 first:

    24 " 'Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. 25 Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. 26 But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the aliens living among you must not do any of these detestable things,27 for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. 28 And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.

    And now chapter 20:

    22 " '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. 23 You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them. 24 But I said to you, "You will possess their land; I will give it to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey." I am the LORD your God, who has set you apart from the nations.

    While the wording is different, the content is the same. The reason Israel is getting the land is not because of the righteousness of Israel, but the unrighteousness of Canaan. Why are these other nations being punished? It is because they did not do what they were supposed to do. The text can be understood as saying "They should have known better!" They weren't punished for eating shellfish or working on the Sabbath or having mixed fabrics on clothing. The exhortations of the prophets to the surrounding nations were about the moral law. They were never under the Law of Israel.

    This also includes homosexuality. Why were the Canaanites being expelled from the land? The text tells us that part of the reason was homosexuality. It was not the only reason, but it was certainly part of it. Israel was given the same warning that if they do the same practices, they will also be dispelled.

    It is important to note that those of us who are gentiles were never under the law of Moses. Yet one will object, "Then why are you against homosexual practice and what about the Ten Commandments? Are you going to say it is okay to murder now?"

    With this, I wish to raise a fine distinction. Something is not moral because the Bible says it is moral. The Bible says it is moral, because it is moral. Morality exists outside the Bible, which is even what Paul would agree to based on Romans 2:15. When the Bible teaches on moral issues, it teaches correctly, but it is simply affirming what we all already know.

    So is the command to not murder binding on me? Yes. It's not because Moses said it though, but because it's part of the Natural Law. The same applies to theft and adultery which would include rape. Which category does homosexuality belong in? It belongs in the Natural Law category based on the above argument and it doesn't need to be explicitly stated in the Ten Commandments for that to be known.

    Too often, Christians have been dismissed for believing homosexuality is immoral simply because the Bible says it is. In our day and age, we need to affirm the Bible, but we also need to have it be known that we believe this to be immoral even if the Bible said nothing about it. Let it also be known to liberals who wish to downplay the Scriptures that it could be the Bible is wrong in what it says, but we can be sure we are not getting what it says wrong.