There are two passages in Scripture which seem to be clearer than any others in the Old or New Testament on whether or not homosexual relationships are condemned. Most of us who either are gay or know gay men often scratch their heads when they are confronted with these two verses, often dismissing them as archaic rules that just don’t mean anything to them.
For the Christian, we understand that Scriptures are divinely inspired. Wait… maybe we should go back to some basic definitions before we continue. We’ve already defined “Christian” and “gay” back in part 1 of this series, but I’d like to revisit the word “gay.” If you recall, a gay person is defined as “a person who is emotionally, physically, and sexually attracted to members of their same sex.”
Now, note what this little definition doesn’t include.
That’s right. It has nothing to do with the form of sex in which they engage. Put simply, a gay person isn’t defined by their sex life. In fact, many gays choose celibacy for the very reason that these two verses, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, are clear Biblical messages for them to never engage in sexual activity. Further, this helps to illustrate that within the gay Christian community there are two major factions that are split into “Blessed monogamous relationships” and “Celibacy” camps. I strongly recommend that the reader visit www.gaychristian.net and learn about these “Side A” and “Side B” views.
Now, let’s explore these two verses in-depth. For those few of us who aren’t familiar with them, I’ll post them in their NIV rendering:
18:22 – Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable. (NIV)
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. (NIV)
Yeowch! Not only is gay sex apparently “detestable” (an abomination in the KJV), but such people should be put to death! No wonder conservative evangelicals are so adamantly opposed to homosexuality. After all, this is pretty clear, isn’t it?
As we discovered with the Romans 1:26-26 passage, there’s a great deal to be learned from simply “putting our toys back where we found them.” That’s right. Context matters. The problem many people have with Scripture is that it’s assumed that each verse is its own saying and exists within a vacuum. However, when we put the verse back into their literary and historical context – and read what comes before and after the verse in question – all of the sudden things take on an entirely different meaning. Then there’s the little problem of the historical context.
One of the primary reasons we shouldn’t read the Bible with a chapter-and-verse mentality is because it wasn’t written that way. That’s right. If you’re ever fortunate enough to be able to explore some of the oldest manuscripts of the books of the Bible, you’ll notice a few things. First, they’re on scrolls. Second, there are no chapters or verses. The chapter and verse numbers weren’t even added until well into the age of the Celtic Christians during the latter part of the first millennium when Irish monks would copy the manuscripts and used the verse numbers to track their progress. So if you’ve noticed that I’ll sometimes remove the verse numbers of Bible passages I quote, now you know why.
For the purpose of this study, I’ve chosen to stick with exploring the Biblical context. When we allow Scripture to interpret Scripture (and not our own biases), then we’re able to come to a much better understanding of what is being said.
Now that we’ve talked about context, let’s put it into practice. First, let’s look back at the beginning of chapter 18 and see what the context is:
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. (Leviticus 18:3, NIV)
This should give us the first indicator as to what’s going on in this chapter of Leviticus. The entire chapter deals with “uncovering nakedness” or other implications toward sexual activity. However, it’s the verses immediately before and after verse 22 that are the most telling.
Verse 21 says to not allow your children to pass through the fire as a sacrifice to Molech and to not profane the name of God. Verse 23 says to not have sex with any beast. Let’s be clear on this: Leviticus chapter 18 addresses pagan worship rites, not relationships.
Part of the confusion on these Levitical passages is that the word “abomination” is thrown out like Gummi Bears in a dark movie theatre at the giant screen of life; they stick to it and make life hell for anyone else who wants to know what that annoying little speck is. The word ‘abomination’ in Leviticus was used for anything that was considered to be religiously unclean or associated with idol worship.
So what is an “abomination?” The Hebrew word most often translated to “abomination” is toevah. It’s the word that’s used in 18:22 as well. Let’s look at some other usages of this word:
- Leviticus 11:1-12 says all unclean animals are forbidden as food, including rabbits, pigs and shellfish, such as oysters, shrimp, lobsters, crabs, clams and others that are called “abominations.” That’s right. Eating at your favorite Lobster restaurant is an “abomination.”
- Leviticus 20:25 demands that you are to make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between the unclean and clean bird; and you shall not make yourself an abomination by animal or by bird or by anything that creeps on the ground. You can eat some locusts (grasshoppers), but not others.
- Leviticus 12:1-8 declares that a woman is unclean for 33 days after giving birth to a boy and for 66 days after giving birth to a girl and demands that certain animals must be offered as a burnt offering and a sin offering for cleansing.
From these passages, we start to see that toevah is used most often as a religious or ceremonial ‘abomination,’ not an ethical condemnation. Put simply, the word means “icky.” But while we’re in Leviticus, let’s see what else it says. Since our conservative friends demand that we live by these laws, it’s important to know what those laws are. You’ll notice that many of these laws would at the very least raise eyebrows today, if not outright ridicule:
- Leviticus 20:9 – Cursing one’s parents is punishable by death. Sorry, kids. Mom and Dad have to stone you if you use the word “no” during the terrible twos.
- Leviticus 20:10 – Adultery punishable by death. Try that today. I dare you.
- Leviticus 13:9-17 – Leprosy & Hansen’s Disease: This is simply wrong medical information.
- Leviticus chapter 23 – Sabbath day rules and animal sacrifice.
- Chapter 18:19 – no sex during the wife’s menstrual period. Sorry, guys.
- Chapter 19:19 – don’t mix various kinds of cattle. Sounds like a lot of bull, isn’t it?
- Leviticus 19:27 – don’t cut your beard. No more razors.
- Leviticus 19:28 – No tattoos. Not even for Navy guys.
The reality is that most Levitical laws aren’t followed or even known. Could it be that our conservative friends are “picking and choosing” the very Bible verses they hold dear? Could it, in fact, be selective application? Do they seriously expect us to ignore all of these very clear-cut laws that Jesus supposedly did not abolish in favor of the two single verses that apparently condemn homosexual activity?
Or is it possible that these two “clobber” verses are completely irrelevant to our modern understanding of homosexual relationships? Once again, there’s a great deal of opinion regarding gay and lesbian people throughout the Christian community. Unfortunately, Scripture has to be twisted to support those negative opinions; not the other way around.
What’s more, even Jesus quoted Leviticus. In Matthew 19:19 when He said to ‘love thy neighbor as yourself,’ he was actually quoting from Leviticus 19:18! That’s right. Jesus used Leviticus to show love, not hate. Perhaps it’s time we start doing the same thing.
Next time, we’ll explore 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.
Note: This is the introduction of a special series on The Bible and Homosexuality. The links below are other installments:
- Part 1: Can a person be gay and a Christian?
- Part 2: Exploring Romans 1:26-27
- Part 3: What was Sodom & Gomorrah all about?
- Part 4: All those abominations! Leviticus uncovered
- Part 5: 1 Corinthians 6:9-10…who inherits the Kingdom?
- Part 6: David & Jonathan
- Part 7: Other Biblical stories of note
- Part 8: How then shall we live?