The Bible and Same Sex Relationships, Part 6: Leviticus: The Holiness Code, Ancient Sex Ethics and Abominations


  • The Laws of the Old Testament don’t apply to us today, but even if they did they say nothing about homosexuality as we know it today.
  • The laws that talk of same-gender male sexual activity in the Old Testament are embedded in the context of idolatry and male shrine prostitution.
  • The “abomination” that God detests is idolatry.
  • Leviticus 18-20 are still valuable today, as a reminder that we should not allow our worship of God to be sullied by idolatry. Paul is going to pick this theme up in Romans 1.

  • In the previous post in this series, I showed that Christians should not look to the Old Testament Law to make moral judgements today. That does not mean the Old Testament Law should be ignored. Jesus and the Apostles relied on it to show the character of God, the nature of sin and as a symbol that pointed to Christ. So, although it is not binding on us today, we should nevertheless still study and understand it.

    We therefore turn to Leviticus 18 and 20, and the two verses that talk about male same-gender sexual activity (Lev. 18:22 and 20:13). Lev. 18 – 20 form a unit, with various prohibitions laid out in Lev. 18 and 19, and then a selection of these repeated in Lev. 20 with specific punishments prescribed.

    Progressive Christians have explained why these verses do not apply to homosexuality today in a number of ways. I don’t agree with all of these, but they are worth considering briefly to show you that the interpretation is not quite as straightforward as our English translations suggest:

    • We ignore other laws in Leviticus and the Old Testament, so on what basis do we apply these laws on homosexuality? This was dealt with in depth in the previous section. Note that it is really just the laws about tattoos, having sex with a women during menstruation, cross breeding animals, planting different seeds in a field and wearing a garment made of different materials that are relevant for this discussion, as they appear in the same chapters of Leviticus. They do cause problems for the traditional interpretation, as does the death penalty punishment for homosexuality. We shouldn’t be allowed to pick and choose which parts of the Bible we apply and which we don’t without very clear principles.
    • In the NIV translation, the law says: “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman. That is detestable.” The actual translation of the Hebrew however says: “With a male you shall not lie lyings of a woman; it is taboo.” This was a strange phraseology, even in ancient Hebrew, and indicates that the author had something specific in mind. There are two additional translation problems here: the Hebrew language does not actually have a word for ‘homosexual’, and the translation of ‘abomination’ (KJV) or ‘detestable’ in many Bible versions is an incredibly bad translation of the original Hebrew word. We’ll look at these in detail below.
    • Though there are many laws in Leviticus that limit female sexual behaviour, female same-sex activity is never mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. This seems a significant oversight if indeed the intention is to prohibit homosexuality and lesbianism in general. These verses must therefore be about some specific form of homosexual activity.
    • Jewish scholar and rabbi, Jacob Milgrom adds that the lack of female-female references could also be that the issue was the male “spilling of the seed” (see the sexual ethics section below) that was the primary motivation for this law. Uneasiness about non-procreative sexuality was a factor in Old Testament – and perhaps also the New Testament – treatments of homosexuality.
    • The prohibition in both Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 talks of not having sex with a man as one does with a woman. This extra phrase would seem to be redundant. Surely the law – written to men – could just have been “don’t have sex with a man”? “As one does with woman” adds a qualifier, which can be understood only in the context of the treatment and status of women in ancient culture. Women were property of men, and subservient to them. They had to do what the men commanded them to, and this included sexual activity. This is the reason why there is no corresponding law prohibiting women from having lesbian sex with other women – the thought that women would have sex for their own pleasure was inconceivable. These verses might therefore better be translated: “You shall not sexually use a man as property, nor may you sexually subjugate another man as you would do a woman”. This would then be a restriction on a particular form of same-gender sexuality, and not a prohibition against homosexuality in general.
    • Matthew Vines, in “God and the Gay Christian” argues that the the moral logic for the homosexual prohibitions in Lev 18:22 and 20:13 is because of a cultural, assumed male hierarchy. That is, men were valued above women, and when men have sex with other men they treat the passive partner as a mere woman, and this is unacceptable. Although this was undoubtedly true culturally, I don’t think this is a good way to interpret the meaning of these verses.
    • These prohibitions against male same-gender sexual activity have to do with temple prostitution, and not homosexuality in general. This is the most compelling view for me, and we’ll look at it in detail below.
    • These verses are only prohibiting anal sex. Homosexuals who engage in other sexual activities or who remain celibate would be free to be in lifelong, covenantal relationships.
    • Most scholars argue that some laws in the Old Testament were specifically for Israel and others were for everyone everywhere. This is obviously true of the civil laws applying to Israel’s nationhood and of dietary laws, which were for Israel only. It’s argued that since Leviticus 18:2 (the heading for this section of laws) starts with, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God'”, that the laws that follow applied only to Israel back then, and not today.

    From the above brief comments, it should be immediately obvious that “the simple reading” of the verses is not quite what they might seem. At very least, there are significant question marks over what the verses might mean and how we could apply them today, and we should therefore be very careful of building a theology which sentences homosexuals to hell on the basis of these verses.

    How to Interpret Leviticus 18 – 20

    With those options laid out, let me focus in on what most scholars (including, by the way, most of the conservative scholars who hold traditional views) believe is the best interpretation. Robert Gagnon, for example, one of the foremost Bible scholars to argue for the traditional view (that gay sex is always a sin) writes in “The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics“: “I do not doubt that the circles out of which Leviticus 18:22 was produced had in view homosexual cult prostitution, at least partly. Homosexual cult prostitution appears to have been the primary form in which homosexual intercourse was practiced in Israel.”

    There are three key issues for us to consider in this regard: the nature of the Holiness Code laws, the sexual ethics of Ancient Israel, and what an abomination actually is.

    The Holiness Code

    Leviticus 18 – 20 starts and ends with instructions about not following the religious practices of the surrounding nations:

      “You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.” (Lev 18:3) (NIV).
      “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.” (Lev 18:24 and 20:23) (NIV).

    These laws are part of the section of The Law in Lev. 17-26 often referred to as The Holiness Code, or the cultic laws. Lev. 17 begins with “This is what the Lord has commanded…”, and Leviticus 26 strongly resembles the conclusion of a law code. Lev. 26:46 says, “These are the decrees, the laws and the regulations that the Lord established at Mount Sinai between himself and the Israelites through Moses.” This is not the conclusion of Levitical laws, but it is clearly the end of a discreet section. Whether or not you believe in textual criticism, or that this Holiness Code was a later addition (known as “H”), it’s clear that this section is a discreet unit within the book.

    The Holiness Code is essentially about how Israel must distinguish itself from the surrounding nations, and lists and prohibits temple rituals of the pagan cults that were in the land that Israel took over. Most of these cults were fertility cults, especially those associated with the god Molech, and involved a variety of public sexual activities designed to win the deity’s favour. There were a variety of other rituals including cutting one’s body, ritualised tattoos and the eating of raw meat. All of these were forbidden for Israel, with the specific intent of reminding Israel of their holiness to God. “Holiness” is not so much about purity as it is about being set apart for a specific purpose – in this case, set apart to worship YHWH alone, and being seen to be different from the other nations around them. This was the basis of the first two of the Ten Commandments to Israel.

    In the context of our study, it’s significant to note that there was an issue with male shrine prostitutes in these fertility cults (see especially 1 Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:46 for examples). The KJV translates this concept as “sodomites”, but as we’ve discussed previously, this was a technical term for any form of sexual immorality, and not specifically homosexual. The male shrine prostitutes would have “serviced” both men and women. This is the context in which Leviticus issues prohibitions against homosexual activity.

    Of course, there are laws in The Holiness Code that we do still apply today. These include prohibitions against child sacrifice, and a list of prohibitions regarding having sex with family members or animals. However, the reason that most (not all) of these laws are still enforced, by civil law and by the church, is because they involve some form of manipulation or misuse of a close relationship, or non-consensual sex. This type of abuse can never be condoned (neither heterosexually, nor homosexually). So, our Christian sexual ethic, such as it is, is derived from Jesus’ teachings, and not from these Levitical laws. In other words, if the laws of Leviticus did not exist, we would still have these prohibitions based on what we know of God’s desires for human relationships in general, and the specific rules given to us in the New Testament. We do no damage to our current moral milieu by saying that Leviticus is not relevant – as law – to the Christian, and we do not need to rely on these passages for any of the current laws (e.g. incest, bestiality) that we wish to continue to enforce.

    So much for the general context. The specific literary context is also very interesting. I am indebted to John Lein (“Gay Marriage and the Bible“) for the following insight. One of the most popular literary techniques of ancient literature is called a chiasmus. Think of it visually as an hourglass. An author takes the most important point and puts it at the middle of the piece he/she is writing. Then they build up to that point, and away from it afterwards. In poetry it would be reflected as ABCBA, where C is the central point, and A and B are matching or parallel thoughts. It was as popular then as rhyming is today for poets. This structure appears everywhere in the Bible, from narratives to poems, from laws to prophecies (there are some good Biblical examples of these here, here and especially here).

    Here’s one of my favourites from Joshua 1:5-9

    A    As I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will never leave you nor forsake you  (5b)
    B    Be strong and courageous … be strong and very courageous  (6,7a)
    C    Be careful to obey all the law … that you may be successful  (7b)
    D    Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth  (8a)
    D′ Mediate on it day and night  (8b)
    C′ Be careful to do everything written in it … you may be prosperous and successful  (8c)
    B′ Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged  (9a)
    A′ for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.  (9b)

    The key to understanding a chiasmus is that the main focus, and the key to understanding each line is the central item. This is the point of the chiasmus, with every other aspect of it supporting this point. In the example above, it is that Joshua must rely totally on the Scriptures in order to be successful as Moses’ replacement leader.

    Leviticus 18:6-18 has a list of familial sexual prohibitions. Lev. 18:24ff brings this section to a close. The verses in between seem like a random list, but maybe they’re not. There is a possible chiasmus form:

    A    Don’t have sex with a menstruating woman.
    B    Don’t have sex with your neighbour’s wife.
    C    Don’t give your offspring to Molech – profaning the name of God.
    B′ Don’t lie with a man as you do a woman.
    A′ Neither men nor women are to have sex with animals.

    Verse 21 is at the centre of this chiasmus. The word used for “offspring” (which many translations render as “children”) does not come from the typical Hebrew root for child, “ben”, but rather is from the root word “zera” (?????). This word can be used for children, but has many other meanings, especially used to describe seeds for farming, descendants, offspring and semen. This is how it is used, for example, in Genesis 13:15 (Abraham’s “offspring”) and in Leviticus 15:16-18 (“semen”), and, importantly it is the same root word that is used in the previous verse in Leviticus about having sex with your neighbour’s wife (for extra credit, you can see the Hebrew, transliteration with roots, and translation at this excellent Hebrew Scripture website). Verse 21 may very well be about either masturbation or pedastry (sex with young boys), rather than child sacrifice. Whatever the actual action involved, the focus is on the Molech cult, and a variety of sexual rituals associated with it. The restrictions of each of these verses are in relation to these temple rituals, and not general restrictions for all time.

    Whether this chiasmus structure is the best translation option or not, the context of the chapter and the Holiness Code make it abundantly clear that all of these verses are about rituals related to the fertility cults of the surrounding nations. In the Jewish consciousness, there is no doubt that same gender sexual activity was linked to idolatry (see also Deut 23:17). And it is in this context that Leviticus restricts male same-gender sexual activity. In other words, the issue here is not homosexuality in general, but specifically having sex with a male shrine prostitute as part of a fertility cult. As such, these verses in Leviticus have nothing to contribute to our discussion about same sex, covenantal relationships.

    Sexual Ethics of Ancient Israel

    One of the reasons that sexual cults were so concerning to the Israelites is related to their sexual ethic. They believed that everything required for making new life was found entirely in semen. The woman simply provided an “incubator” in her womb, but contributed nothing to the new life of the baby. It is for this reason that Onan is judged so harshly when he ejaculates outside of a woman in Genesis 38. The story of Onan in Genesis 38 also illustrates a point we’ll come back to later about the “levirate marriage” (if a man dies without a male heir, his brother is to have sex with his wife until she bears a son to carry on his name). Onan deliberately sabotages these attempts, and God puts him to death as punishment.

    It is probably for this reason that Leviticus 18:21-23 are grouped together. Spilling your seed (masturbation) as part of the Molech cult, sex with men and sex with animals would all constitute something akin to murder, as it is wasting potential life.

    It’s difficult to know whether loving homosexual relationships as we know them today were known in ancient Israel – it’s unlikely. If they were, then Israelites would certainly have had a problem with “spilling the seed”.

    We obviously know better than this today with our understanding of genetics and pregnancy, and we will look later in this series at how we construct a Biblical sexual ethic that also takes account of modern scientific understanding of sexuality. Regardless of which sexual ethic we use, though, these verses in Leviticus have very little to say to LGBT people wanting to enter lifelong, monogamous, covenantal relationships. At most, they would require LGBT partners to remain celibate while still enjoying all the other benefits of a covenantal relationship. We’ll also deal with this issue later in this series.

    One further proof that these verses are not meant to be a blanket condemnation of homosexuality is that we do not find these prohibitions anywhere else in the Old Testament. Outside of this Holiness Code, we find many of these prohibitions mentioned in the context of moral laws. For example, child sacrifice is mentioned in Deuteronomy 18:10, 2 Kings 21:6, and bestiality is prohibited in Exodus 22:19 and Deuteronomy 27:21. But homosexuality is never mentioned. It is because they were seen as a specific sin: a sin against religious rituals, not something inherently evil in itself. For example, some Satanic rituals require a man and woman to have sex as part of the ritual. Even if the man and woman were married, we would still condemn their sex act – not because there was anything wrong with it in itself, but because of it being part of a cultic ritual. This leads us to our third issue.


    Our final consideration is about the designation of same-sex male sexual activity as an “abomination” or “detestable” to God in both Lev. 18:22 and 20:13.

    The Hebrew word is “to’ba” (or toebah, ?????????) and is a technical term, most often referring to a serious breach of ritual law. This is how it is used throughout The Law (Torah). It does sometimes refer to moral or ethical purity, but this is only outside of The Torah (mainly in the Proverbs, where a multitude of actions are label “to’ba”). The Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures translates this word into Greek as “bdelygma” (????????), which refers to ritual impurity. If the author of Leviticus had wished to refer to a moral violation, he would have more likely used the Hebrew word “zimah” to indicate this. A better translation of the “to’ba” in Leviticus might therefore be “taboo” or “forbidden”.

    John Lein has done an exhaustive study of every Biblical reference (there are 117 of them) and offers an excellent summary in the form of a spreadsheet, available here. His conclusion is that, especially in The Law, an abomination relates to cultic practices and rituals. This makes sense of what we have seen above: the author of Leviticus does not have homosexuality in general in mind, but rather particular same-gender sexual activity related to cultic rituals. This is what is forbidden. While we’ve already established that these laws do not apply to us today, even if they did, they would not have any bearing on LGBT people seeking to enter into lifelong, loving relationships or to those wishing to have sexual intercourse within the bounds of those covenantal relationships. The issue in Lev. 18 and 20 is ritual temple prostitution. God is against this, and deems it taboo. That would be true today as well.

    As we saw above, it is an interesting aside that outside of Leviticus, same-sex acts are not mentioned again in Old Testament law, leaving at least 111 of the 117 uses of the term “abomination” to describe other issues. Only a few of these other acts or character qualities are ever described as abominations by Christians today. It seems strange that we might so fixate on just the homosexuality references. The abomination of same-gender sexual activity in Leviticus is the fact that it was part of a cultic ritual and shrine prostitution. God hated that then. He hates it now. So should we.

    Sodomites in The Law

    There is one other Old Testament passage often cited in this debate about homosexuality:

      “There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel. Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog, into the house of the Lord thy God for any vow: for even both these are abomination unto the Lord thy God.” (Deut. 23:17-18) (KJV).

    These verses have sometimes been linked to homosexuality, mainly because of the use of the phrase “sodomite” in the KJV. we dealt with this previously, but for completeness here, let’s remind ourselves that the KJV authors did not have homosexuality in mind when using this term, and neither did the original authors. The NIV translates verse 17: “No Israelite man or woman is to become a shrine prostitute.” The underlying Hebrew word also appears in Gen 38:13-24, where it refers specifically to prostitution and Hosea 4:14 links it to cultic temple prostitution. See also 1 Kings 14:24, 15:12, 22:46 and 2 Kings 23:7. These prostitutes were often young boys, and so the issue could also be related to the offence of pederasty, or sex with minors. Even if male temple prostitutes were committing homosexual acts, this injunction is clearly aimed at the cultic nature of the prostitution, and cannot be taken as a general indictment of homosexuality.

    This is certainly how early church commentators viewed these verses. Philo, for example, when discussing the Leviticus texts, introduces the topic with the following sentence: “Much graver than the above [marriages with barren women] is another evil, which is rampant its way into the cities, namely pederasty.” (Special Laws III. 37) Similarly, when referring to the passage in Deuteronomy, Philo says, “If you were guilty of pederasty, or adultery or rape of a young person, even of a female, for I need not mention the case of a male, similarly if you prostitute yourself or allow all purpose or intend any action which your age makes indecent, the penalty is death.” (Special Laws III. 51) It is clear that this early church commentator did not have homosexuality, let alone loving homosexual relations, in mind as he read these passages.

    Finally, if this verse in Deut. is seen as an indictment of homosexuality, then the logic applied would indicate that the reference to female temple prostitutes is an indictment of heterosexuality. This makes no sense. The issue in this verse, as in Leviticus 18 and 20, has absolutely nothing to do with monogamous, lifelong homosexual – or lesbian – relationships.

    The Old Testament Does Not Forbid LGBT relationships

    Let me give the last word to John McNeill: “In the Old Testament, every text dealing with homosexual activity also refers to aggravating circumstances such as idolatry, sacred prostitution, promiscuity, violent rape, seduction of children, and violation of guests’ rights. As a result one can never be sure to what extent the condemnation is of homosexual activities as such or only of homosexual activities under these circumstances.” (In “The Church and the Homosexual“).

    I think it is very clear that the references to homosexuality in The Law of The Old Testament are restrictions on male shrine prostitutes, rather than a blanket restriction on sexual relations within a monogamous, lifelong relationship. This is going to be an important point when we look at Romans 1, so don’t forget this issue of idolatry.

    Now, we need to move on to the New Testament. We’ll start by looking at the prevailing culture of the time.

    Previous article in this series: Consistency, Punishments and the New Covenant

    Next article in this series: Graeco-Roman culture and homosexuality

    Click here to see the index of the full series of blog posts on the issue of Christians, the Bible and homosexuality.

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    9 thoughts on “The Bible and Same Sex Relationships, Part 6: Leviticus: The Holiness Code, Ancient Sex Ethics and Abominations”

    1. Your point on Leviticus 18:21 being related to forbidden temple rituals might stand up to scrutiny in the context of the simultaneous mentioning of Molek. Leviticus 20:13 however is set in a family (mostly incestious) context without the reference to Molek. Molek is mentioned seperately in that chapter and not even necessarily in a sexual context. Molek is also connected to children sacrifices through fire. The mentioning of same-sex relations in Leviticus 20:13 thus has more to do with the breaking down of family values than prostitution as such. However, I am just pointing this out because it interests me to be exact in terms of the exegesis. As you rightly point out, the meaning of arsenokoites in Timothy and Corinthians have to do with the background that Leviticus gives, and in the context of Leviticus it isn’t just about prostitution (Lev. 18), but also about normal family and community sexual relations (Lev. 20). Be that also as it may, what we do with those exegetical facts hermeneutically is still a whole seperate issue.

    2. Chris, I don’t understand how you can say Leviticus 20 has no reference to Molek. Let me simply let the Bible speak for itself and everyone can make up their own minds:

      Here is the start of the chapter, the heading to this section if you like:

      Lev. 20:1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any foreigner residing in Israel who sacrifices any of his children to Molek is to be put to death. The members of the community are to stone him. 3 I myself will set my face against him and will cut him off from his people; for by sacrificing his children to Molek, he has defiled my sanctuary and profaned my holy name. 4 If the members of the community close their eyes when that man sacrifices one of his children to Molek and if they fail to put him to death, 5 I myself will set my face against him and his family and will cut them off from their people together with all who follow him in prostituting themselves to Molek. 6 “‘I will set my face against anyone who turns to mediums and spiritists to prostitute themselves by following them, and I will cut them off from their people.

      7 “‘Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the Lord your God. 8 Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the Lord, who makes you holy.

      The rest of chapter 20 is pretty much a repeat of chapter 18, but with the penalties (death or expulsion) added in. They are not two separate things. And they both relate entirely and irrefutably to temple worship and cultic practices of the surrounding nations.

    3. It has all to do with context. You cannot make one comment on Molek govern the whole chapter. It is a faulty argument. You could then potentially take any other verse in the chapter and make that the governing principle, which would be silly. There is no inclusion here as you argued correctly in Lev. 18, that could sustain your agument.

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