By David Gushee
Follow David: @dpgushee
Not long ago I received a communication from a person identifying himself as John Calvin, quoting Leviticus 20:13 to me, suggesting that this text resolves the LGBT issue. Dr. Calvin’s concern was already on my agenda for this series. But it is good to know that he is alive and well and active on social media.
Here is Leviticus 20:13 (NRSV), part of what scholars call the Holiness Code of Leviticus 17-26:
“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”
And here is Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
Variations of the Hebrew term toevah (usually translated detestable as an adjective or abomination as a noun) are used 117 times in the Old Testament, led especially by Deuteronomy, Ezekiel and Proverbs. The term refers to practices abhorred by God, God’s law or God’s prophets.
In Leviticus 18 and 20, all kinds of sexual acts are banned and collectively called abominations, including sex with blood relatives and within a broader family circle, and sex with a menstruating woman.
Food is often connected with the concept: Deuteronomy names eating pork, rabbit, shellfish and animals that are already dead as abominations (14:3-21).
For Ezekiel, abomination is a central term to describe all of the various offenses of Israel that have incurred the fierce judgment of the Lord:
• Ezekiel 18:10-13 names violence, eating upon the mountains (probably idol worship), adultery, oppressing the poor and needy, robbery, not restoring one’s pledge, lifting up eyes to idols and charging interest on loans as abominations worthy of death.
• Ezekiel 22:6-12 adds contemptuous treatment of parents, extortion of aliens, mistreatment of orphans and widows, profaning of Sabbaths, slandering and taking bribery to shed blood and various sexual sins (though not naming same-sex relations) as abominations.
• Ezekiel 44:5-7 describes as abominations admitting foreigners to the temple, and profaning the temple when offering sacrifices of fat and blood.
Proverbs names the following as abominations: the perverse (3:32), haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, one who sows discord in a family (6:15-17), untruthful speech (8:7), crooked minds (11:20), false balances and scales used in business (11:1, 20:10, 20:23), lying lips (12:22), the sacrifice of the wicked (15:8, 21:27), evil plans (15:26), arrogance (16:5), kings doing evil (16:12), justifying the wicked/condemning the righteous (17:15), the scoffer (24:9), not listening to the law (28:9) and the unjust (29:27).
It is relevant to note that never again outside of Leviticus are same-sex acts mentioned in Old Testament law, leaving at least 111 of the 117 uses of the term “abomination” describing other issues. It is interesting how few of those other acts or character qualities are ever described as “abominations” by Christians today.
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A critical question directly relevant to our topic is what exactly it was about male same-sex intercourse that triggered the abomination charge found in these two verses. There is no scholarly agreement.
Some, such as Gordon Wenham, have noted its placement in Leviticus 18 after an introduction calling Israel to be set apart from the practices of its Canaanite and Egyptian neighbors. The issue may then be preserving Israel’s clear differentiation from its pagan neighbors. Old Testament scholar Phyllis Bird goes further to argue that toevah “is not an ethical term, but a term of boundary marking.” That may be a bit too strong, but it does point to the fact that cultural practices, especially related to bodily matters, and often grounded in religious tradition, set peoples apart from one another and frequently evoke mutual disgust when differences are encountered at close range.
Jewish biblical scholar and Conservative rabbi Jacob Milgrom notes the lack of any reference to female same-sex relations in Leviticus 18/20. He suggests that it was the male “spilling of the seed” (cf. Gen. 38), thus the symbolic loss or waste of life, that was the primary motivation for this law. He also notes that Leviticus 18 is addressed only to Israelites residing in the Holy Land.
In her famous work Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas suggested that the categories of holy/unholy and clean/unclean in Leviticus are rooted in understandings of wholeness, completeness and right order. The sexual morality injunctions of Leviticus 18/20, then, have to do with “keeping distinct the categories of creation.” This fascinating claim will be considered in later essays in tandem with other creation-based claims about same-sex relations.
Biblical scholars Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky have zeroed in on the gender dimension, suggesting that “such intercourse would necessarily denigrate the passive partner and violate his equal status under God’s law.” Which means: the penetrated recipient allows himself to be treated like a woman, which is itself the abomination because of its profound violation of hierarchical, male-dominant gender roles. But if this is the reason for the ban, it raises questions for any Christian who does not share beliefs in the lesser worth and dignity of women.
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Leviticus 20:13 commands the death penalty. If Old Testament laws enjoining the death penalty are to be taken as authoritative today for Christians, it seems appropriate to list here other passages that demand death for various wrongs:
• Offenses punishable by the death penalty in the Holiness Code of Leviticus: child sacrifice (20:2), cursing parents (20:9), various sexual acts, primarily incestuous or within the family circle (20:11-15), being a medium or wizard (20:27), blaspheming the name of the Lord (24:17) and murder (24:21). Also, persons placed under the ban (devoted to destruction in holy war) must be killed, never ransomed (27:29).
• Other offenses punishable by death in Old Testament law: touching Mount Sinai while God is giving the law (Ex. 21:12), striking a person mortally (Ex. 21:15), striking father or mother (Ex. 21:16), kidnapping (Ex. 21:17), cursing a parent (Ex. 21:29), failure to restrain a violent animal (Ex. 22:19), bestiality (Ex. 31:14), Sabbath breaking (Ex. 31:15, 35:2; cf. Num. 15:35), anyone other than a Levite coming near the tabernacle (Num. 3:10), anyone other than Moses, Aaron or Aaron’s sons camping in front of the tabernacle to the east (Num. 3:38), an outsider coming near the altar area (Num. 18:7); and striking another with an object so that the other dies (Num. 35:16-21), in which case only the “avenger of blood” shall execute the sentence (Num. 35:21, 30-34, cf. Deut. 19:11-13). Deuteronomy adds the death penalty for divining by dreams to lead Israel to idolatry (13:1-5), and enticement to idol worship, even by a family member (13:6-11); a town that goes astray to worship idols is to be destroyed utterly, including its livestock (13:12-18), as in other “holy war” situations (Deut. 7, Josh 2,8,10, etc.). Children who disobeyed their parents were also to be executed (Deut. 21:18-21).
• Various ritual offenses by the priests described as incurring guilt and bringing death: failure to wear the properly designed priestly robes, turban and undergarments into and out of the holy place (Ex. 28:31-43), failure to wash hands and feet before entering the tabernacle or the altar (Ex. 30:17-21), failure to stay the full seven days of the priestly consecration rite (Lev. 8:33-35), drinking wine or strong drink when entering the tabernacle (Lev. 10:8-9), failure to make proper ritual cleansing after sexual emissions and discharges of blood (Lev. 15), failure to prepare properly before entering the tabernacle on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16) and violations of bodily cleanness regulations by a priest entering the tabernacle (Lev. 22:1-9).
Do Christians quoting Leviticus 20:13 support the death penalty for those committing same-sex acts? If not, why not? If so, do they support the death penalty for all of the offenses listed in the previous three paragraphs?
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I review these Old Testament legal materials in order to ask Christians who quote selectively from such materials to describe and defend their principle of selection, interpretation and application. In other words, unless one accepts every Old Testament legal text as authoritative for Christians today in the exact manner in which it is written, what alternative hermeneutical principle is to be employed?
The issue is actually quite complex, and has challenged serious readers of the Bible for all of Christian history.
• It is not as simple as saying that Christians accept the laws offered in the Old Testament, just not the death penalty statutes that go with them — because very, very few if any Christians accept all the laws themselves, such as those requiring genocidal violence against idolatrous towns or the adherence to kosher food regulations, or the priestly sacrifice rules.
• It is also not as simple as saying that Christians accept the moral laws offered in the Old Testament, just not the ceremonial, cultic, dietary or civil laws — because, as Old Testament scholar Martin Noth wrote, “Here in the Old Testament … there is no question of different categories of commandment, but only of the Will of God binding on Israel, revealed in a great variety of concrete requirements.” Any differentiation of authority in terms of categories of Old Testament legal materials is foreign to the materials themselves.
• It is also not as simple as saying Christians may not accept all the laws offered in the Old Testament, but we do seek to practice the principles behind them, as Gordon Wenham, among others, has suggested. While this move sometimes is compelling, other times the principles are not clear, and still other times they are clear but we cannot accept them as Christians. Consider the principle of collective responsibility and therefore collective punishment of the entire population of a town for its prevailing religious practices, or the principle that the “unclean” (like menstruating women) should be excluded from community.
• If we say that Christians may not accept all the laws or the principles offered in the Old Testament, but we are committed to belief in the core character of God as revealed there, such as the idea that God is holy and demands holiness, this is better. But this does not resolve the question of whether all same-sex relationships violate the character of a holy God.
• Nor does it settle the question of whether divine holiness — at least the kind of holiness emphasized in Leviticus — fits with the character of God as taught and embodied by Jesus Christ. It is impossible to treat any question related to the applicability of an Old Testament legal text for Christians without considering the person and work of Jesus Christ, as well as the way he handled Old Testament law. Here it is relevant to say that terms related to toevah/abomination are very rare in the New Testament, used only in a few passages, two of them in Revelation (Lk. 16:15, Rev. 17:4-5, 21:27; cf. Matt. 24:15). This widely attested Old Testament term played little role in Jesus’ vocabulary, and it is easy to argue that his ministry challenged this way of understanding God’s character.
• On the other extreme, it is too simple to just say that the entirely of Old Testament law has been set aside for Christians. It is certainly the case that Old Testament law goes through a considerable sifting process in the hands of Jesus and his followers. The Apostle Paul was the most famous sifter of them all, as is evidenced by constant references in his letters. He was aided by a pretty key assist from Peter (Acts 10). Acts 15 offers a famous account of one particular compromise solution. The entire book of Hebrews constitutes a highly complex reflection on the matter of how Jewish law and Jesus Christ relate to each other, using an old/new, worse/better paradigm with problematic implications for 2,000 years of Jewish-Christian relations.
It is a fair summary to say that once Jesus comes along, and the church is founded, neither 2,000 years ago nor today has it been as simple as just quoting a passage from Leviticus to settle a matter of Christian morality.
It should be noted that the Jewish tradition itself has never simply read Hebrew Bible texts on their face, but instead considered them through a highly sophisticated mediating body of rabbinic tradition, questioning and argumentation. It is scandalous how Christians extract ancient texts of the Hebrew Bible, call it our Old Testament, and then interpret them without any reference to the way Jewish biblical interpretation itself has proceeded for over two millennia.
So: the two sentences in Leviticus (18:22/20:13) are duly noted. They rightly figure in the church’s moral deliberation. But they do not resolve the LGBT issue.