Possibly the best known and most controversial passage in Scripture concerning homosexuality and the LGBTQ community is Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Whenever this subject comes up, this verse is the first stop for many Christians.
I believe we have not reflected carefully enough on the context of this verse and its parallel in Lev. 20:13. I believe this is true of both those who disagree with homosexual activity and those who see no conflict between it and
The Structure of Leviticus
In order to get a handle on Leviticus 18 (and 20) we have to start by seeing where they fit in the overall structure of the book of Leviticus. The book of Leviticus is designed to lay out religious life in the Promised Land, to show Israel what God has done to allow them to remain in His good standing.
The book is structured in this way:
1. Leviticus 1-7
These chapters describe the five different sacrifices and what they were for. Thus, they are Tabernacle-centric.
2. Leviticus 8-16
Scholar James Jordan has seen a recapitulation of Genesis 2 in Leviticus 8-10. “Aaron is set up as another ‘new Adam’ in the completed Garden, and we find the sequence reeated. If the Tabernacle is a Garden-sanctuary for God, then the High Priest is a new Adam,” thus allowing us to “read Leviticus 8 as a re-creation passage,” (Jordan, Covenant Sequence, 26, 27). Chapters 11-16 concern defilement of the Tabernacle and how God has provided a means of restoration to fellowship and a return of access to His presence in the Tabernacle, climaxing with the Day of Atonement. The worship of Israel is still in view.
3. Leviticus 17-22
This section also concerns the worship of Israel, beginning with sacrifices and ending with the duties of the priests, and between them covering various sins that would result in the loss of covenant privilege and result in God refusing Israel access to His presence in the Tabernacle.
4. Leviticus 23
This single chapter makes up its own section of the book, covering Israel’s festivals and feast days, their liturgical calendar for the year, and therefore is also concerned with worship issues.
5. Leviticus 24-27
This final section is also dealing with Tabernacle-sanctuary issues, from the showbread and lampstand in the Tabernacle and blasphemy (ch. 24) to idolatry, sabbath-keeping, and the connection of the land to the Tabernacle (ch. 26-27). Between is the liberation of Jubilee (ch. 25), which prevented injustice from overtaking the people.
The point of this brief glance at the structure of Leviticus is to point out that it is dealing entirely with Israel as the priestly people, focused on their worship and how their whole society revolved around the Tabernacle, which was its center. This is an unfamiliar idea to us, but to Israel the Torah laws were entirely religious in nature and intent, and were entirely caught up in the structures, life, and worship of God in the Tabernacle.
I draw our attention to this because so many Christians blithely ignore this fact when they try to apply the laws found in Leviticus to modern society, not realizing that the intent behind the law was Israel’s worship in that time and place, and that this must be taken into account to contextualize them. Everything in the land was regulated by the Tabernacle, even the value of your house, people, or animals (Lev. 27). This is most important in examining when it comes to Leviticus 18 and LGBTQ issues.
The Context of Leviticus 18
As we have seen, the main theme of Leviticus is “right worship,” and the section of chapters 17-22 is concerned with this very thing. Chapter 17 concerns Israel’s refusal to “sacrifice their sacrifice to goat demons, after whom they whore,” (Lev. 17:7). The importance of this declaration cannot be overstated, and is made clear by the special designation following it: “This shall be a statute forever for them throughout their generations.”
This theme of worship is continued in Leviticus 18, where Yahweh declares, “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,” (v. 3). Thus, what God is principally addressing in what follows is the behavior of the pagan nations around Israel. What follows is a lengthy passage against incest (vv. 6-20), which probably refers primarily to the worship rites of Baal and Ashtaroth and Moloch, which involved a variety of sexual practices, including cult prostitution.
The religious context is reinforced immediately following, when Yahweh declares that “You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Moloch and so profane the name of your God: I am Yahweh,” (v. 21). Immediately following this reference to the pagan worship practices of Israel’s neighbors comes the condemnation of male homosexuality: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman,” (v. 22). The next verse concerns bestiality (v. 23), which was also involved in the worship practice of many pagan nations of the time period.
I have seen many opponents to the LGBTQ community make much of the fact that the focus is on ejection from the land in the latter portion of the chapter, rather than expulsion from the Tabernacle (vv. 24-30), as though this proved they were universal in scope rather than focused on the worship practices of the nations around Israel and were simply the expression of idolatry at the time. But it is important not to drive to hard a wedge between the Tabernacle, the land, and the people, as all symbolized one another. All Israelites were priests (Ex. 19:6), after all, and the whole Promised Land is a new Garden-Sanctuary, like the Garden of Eden (Joel 2:3).
Most importantly, it should be noted that all of the practices referred to in Leviticus 18 would make Israel “unclean” (tame), a word that refers to ceremonial or religious uncleanness (v. 30). That is, such activity results in ritual defilement, essentially banning the practitioner from worship in the Tabernacle, unable to “draw near” to God in worship, and is a technical word in Leviticus for ritual defilement (Lev. 5:2-3; 7:19-21; 10:10), used to describe unauthorized worship or things that would cause an Israelite to become unauthorized to remain withing the priestly people, such as the unclean animals (ch. 11), leprosy (ch. 13-14), and human discharges (ch. 15).
Leviticus 20 is parallel to Leviticus 18, but simply includes penalties for the actions described in chapter 18. It also begins with a warning against worship of Moloch: “Any one of the people of Israel of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Moloch shall surely be put to death,” which will “make my sanctuary unclean (tame) and to profane My holy Name,” (Lev. 20:2, 3). Thus, we see the inherent and organic connection between the Tabernacle and the land – such false worship makes both unclean (Lev. 18:27-28; 20:3). The focus is on sanctuary access and how idolatry blocks access to God and to proper worship. Verse 7 tells Israel, in contrast to uncleanness, that they are to “consecrate yourselves (qadash), therefore, and be holy (qadosh), for I am Yahweh your God.” The Hebrew qadash and qadosh are closely connected, and refer to ceremonial cleanness and purity, a person or object set apart for holy work, ordination to an office, etc. That is, we are still dealing with religious work and worship.
This is the context in which Leviticus 18 addresses this issue. “If a man lies with a male as a woman, both of them have committed an abomination.” The context is clearly a reference to temple prostitution, as an act of idolatry. The chapter concludes by referring to the clean/unclean rites (v. 25) and repeats the call to be holy and consecrated for God’s work and for access to the Tabernacle (v. 26).
This reading is reinforced by the prevailing question that not all same-sex activity is prohibited. Both Leviticus 18 and 20 refer only to male same-sex activity in worship. No prohibition of female-female sexual activity exists in the Old Testament. If God were issuing a universal decree that was to span all ages and times and periods and cultures, he would have prohibited all same-sex activity rather than only half of it. Opponents of the LGBTQ community have happily ignored the Bible in this regard, and issue sweeping condemnations of lesbians despite their having never been condemned by Scripture. Seeing these passages as references to cult prostitution, on the other hand, makes better sense of the laws in their original context.
A further question. Deuteronomy repeats the laws of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers on the eve of the conquest of Canaan, so why does it not repeat the law against male homosexuality? It repeats and transforms the Torah, but does not repeat this particular law. Why? On the traditional reading, this would make no sense. But Deuteronomy does include a prohibition against cult prostitution. “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). If Leviticus 18 and 20 refer to cult prostitution, as I have argued, then Deuteronomy does offer a parallel to the passages in Leviticus.
So what is the upshot to all of this? Simply that we have been reading Leviticus 18 and 20 very sloppily, ignoring the central context that grounds our reading of the passage. God is not offering an absolute prohibition on same-sex activity, but instead is making an absolute prohibition against idolatry, using the common activities of pagan ritual worship in the Ancient Near East. He is neither prohibiting a same-sex orientation nor same-sex activity, but cult prostitution. These passages, therefore, have no application to those with same-sex attractions, except to say that they should not engage in ancient pagan worship rites (which would apply equally to those with other-sex attraction too).