LEVITICUS 18:22 AND 20:13
THE HOLINESS CODE
Let’s move on. What do the two verses sometimes cited from Leviticus say about God?
Leviticus 18:6 reads: “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female. It is an abomination.” A similar verse occurs two chapters later, in Leviticus 20:13: “A man who sleeps with another man is an abomination and should be executed.” On the surface, these words could leave you feeling rather uneasy, especially if you are gay. But just below the surface is the deeper truth about God — and it has nothing to do with sex.
Leviticus is a holiness code written 3,000 years ago. This code includes many of the outdated sexual laws we mentioned earlier, and a lot more. It also includes prohibitions against round haircuts, tattoos, working on the Sabbath, wearing garments of mixed fabrics, eating pork or shellfish, getting your fortune told, and even playing with the skin of a pig. (There goes football!)
So what’s a holiness code? It’s a list of behaviors that people of faith find offensive in a certain place and time. In this case, the code was written for priests only, and its primary intent was to set the priests of Israel over and against priests of other cultures.
At the age of 10, I signed a holiness code written by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union that said I would never taste beer, wine, or liquor. I thought signing it would please God and my grandmother. That’s a holiness code. When I was in high school we evangelical Christians had an unwritten holiness code that went like this: “I don’t drink, smoke, or chew, or go with girls who do.” Now I know what you’re thinking. That last part about “girls who do” proved especially easy for me. But the point is that I obeyed this evangelical holiness code because my parents said that breaking these rules didn’t please God, and I knew it didn’t please them.
We had another evangelical holiness code while I was in high school that prohibited dancing. I was student body president, yet I refused to go to the prom because I had promised not to dance. I did this to please God and my mother — whose mother had made her sign a holiness code that she wouldn’t go to dances either.
What about this word abomination that comes up in both passages? In Hebrew, “abominations” (TO’EBAH) are behaviors that people in a certain time and place consider tasteless or offensive. To the Jews an abomination was not a law, not something evil like rape or murder forbidden by the Ten Commandments. It was a common behavior by non-Jews that Jews thought was displeasing to God.
Jesus and Paul both said the holiness code in Leviticus does not pertain to Christian believers. Nevertheless, there are still people who pull the two verses about men sleeping together from this ancient holiness code to say that the Bible seems to condemn homosexuality.
But wait, before we go any further, let’s ask: What does this text say about God? Even if the old holiness codes no longer apply to us as Christians, it’s important to remember that in every age, people of faith are responsible for setting moral and ethical standards that honor God. But we people of faith must be very careful not to allow our own prejudices to determine what those standards should be.
Instead of selecting one item from an ancient Jewish holiness code and using it to condemn sexual or gender minorities, let’s talk together about setting sexual standards that please God — standards appropriate for heterosexuals and homosexuals alike, standards based on loving concern, health, and wholeness for ourselves and for others.
Now what do the Leviticus passages say about homosexuality?
I’m convinced those passages say nothing about homosexuality as we understand it today. Here’s why. Consider this single Bible passage that was used for centuries to condemn masturbation:
“He spilled his seed on the ground… And the thing which Onan did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also” (Genesis 38:9-10).
For Jewish writers of Scripture, a man sleeping with another man was an abomination. But it was also an abomination (and one worthy of death) to masturbate or even to interrupt coitus (to halt sex with your spouse before ejaculation as an act of birth control). Why were these sexual practices considered abominations by Scripture writers in these ancient times?
Because the Hebrew pre-scientific understanding was that the male semen contained the whole of life. With no knowledge of eggs and ovulation, it was assumed that the man’s sperm contained the whole child and that the woman provided only the incubating space. Therefore, the spilling of semen without possibility of having a child was considered murder.
The Jews were a small tribe struggling to populate a country. They were outnumbered by their enemy. You can see why these ancient people felt it was an abomination to risk “wasting” even a single child. But the passage says nothing about homosexuality as we understand it today.
We’ve talked about the passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that are used (or misused) by some people to condemn sexual minorities. Now let’s look at three verses from the letters of the apostle Paul in the Christian Scriptures that are used the same way. Remember: First, we’ll ask what the text says about God; second, we’ll consider what it may or may not say about sexual orientation.
NATURAL AND UNNATURAL
What does Romans 1:26-27 say about God?
For our discussion, this is the most controversial biblical passage of them all. In Romans 1:26-27 the apostle Paul describes non-Jewish women who exchange “natural use for unnatural” and non-Jewish men who “leave the natural use of women, working shame with each other.”
This verse appears to be clear: Paul sees women having sex with women and men having sex with men, and he condemns that practice. But let’s go back 2,000 years and try to understand why.
Paul is writing this letter to Rome after his missionary tour of the Mediterranean. On his journey Paul had seen great temples built to honor Aphrodite, Diana, and other fertility gods and goddesses of sex and passion instead of the one true God the apostle honors. Apparently, these priests and priestesses engaged in some odd sexual behaviors — including castrating themselves, carrying on drunken sexual orgies, and even having sex with young temple prostitutes (male and female) — all to honor the gods of sex and pleasure.
The Bible is clear that sexuality is a gift from God. Our Creator celebrates our passion. But the Bible is also clear that when passion gets control of our lives, we’re in deep trouble.
When we live for pleasure, when we forget that we are God’s children and that God has great dreams for our lives, we may end up serving the false gods of sex and passion, just as they did in Paul’s time. In our obsession with pleasure, we may even walk away from the God who created us — and in the process we may cause God to abandon all the great dreams God has for our lives.
Did these priests and priestesses get into these behaviors because they were lesbian or gay? I don’t think so. Did God abandon them because they were practicing homosexuals? No. Read the text again.
In our Soulforce video, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, the Rev. Dr. Louis B. Smedes, a distinguished Christian author and ethicist, describes exactly how the Bible says these promiscuous priests and priestesses got into this mess. Once again it has nothing to do with homosexuality:
SMEDES: “The people Paul had in mind refused to acknowledge and worship God, and for this reason were abandoned by God. And being abandoned by God, they sank into sexual depravity.”
SMEDES: “The homosexuals I know have not rejected God at all; they love God and they thank God for his grace and his gifts. How, then, could they have been abandoned to homosexuality as a punishment for refusing to acknowledge God?”
SMEDES: “Nor have the homosexuals that I know given up heterosexual passions for homosexual lusts. They have been homosexual from the moment of their earliest sexual stirrings. They did not change from one orientation to another; they just discovered that they were homosexual. It would be unnatural for most homosexuals to have heterosexual sex.”
SMEDES: “And the homosexual people I know do not lust after each other any more than heterosexual people do… their love for one another is likely to be just as spiritual and personal as any heterosexual love can be.”
Thank you, Dr. Smedes. (To get a copy of the video featuring Dr. Smedes, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, visit www.soulforce.org.)
Getting to know a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender person of faith will help you realize that it is unreasonable (and unjust) to compare our love for each other to the rituals of the priests and priestesses who pranced around the statues of Aphrodite and Diana. Once again, I feel certain this passage says a lot about God, but nothing about homosexuality as we understand it.
You’ll also note that Romans 2 begins with “Therefore, [referring to Romans 1], you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself…” Even after he describes the disturbing practices he has seen, Paul warns us that judging others is God’s business, not ours.