A CAREFUL VIEW OF SCRIPTURE with Regard to LGBT Questions
Leviticus 18 and 20
Leviticus is in the Old Testament. It is one of the five books in what is called The Torah. It is part of the law given to Moses.
Many of the laws of Leviticus have been superseded by the New Testament … (new covenant). Exactly which laws have been superseded is an ongoing discussion that began for the church back in Acts 15 … continued in the letter to Galatians and is still being discussed to this day depending on which denomination you are in. In the first church meeting on questions about the law recorded in Acts 15 their conclusive letter of instruction was to avoid meat that was strangled and to avoid sexual immorality. The letter to the Galatians called out dietary restrictions, circumcision, and celebrating of certain feast days and Sabbaths as unnecessary for the gospel You can practice these things if you wish … they are just not required to be part of God’s kingdom. When they were preached or taught as requirements Paul called it a different gospel. (ref)
So how does one determine what parts of the Old Testament law and practice are valid for today? Several answers have been offered. Some seems to believe that the entire Old Testament is no longer valid. The problem with that is that the Ten Commandments are in the Old Testament, Jesus often quoted the Old Testament, and the Apostles all utilized the Old Testament in their teaching and preaching. They had no other scripture in that time frame. Other groups or individuals seem to quote the Old Testament when its convenient. I personally had a face to face discussion with a pastor in which he quoted the death penalty of Leviticus 20 in reference to homosexuality when discussing the United Nations attempts to provide universal rights for lgbt folks. When I reminded him that the same death penalty applied to adultery and to disobedient children he backed away from that position a bit. His position is not totally unique and unheard of for there are some (relatively small) groups that support codifying parts of the Old Testament into law in the United States.
We look at the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament. However, how we look through that lens is subject to error as church history shows. For example … the slavery instruction/affirmation of the Old Testament carried over into the New Testament and into the first 1800 years or so of church history. The restriction for the Israelites to not intermarry with outside people groups was misunderstood as a prohibition against interracial marriage up until the 1960's. And certain dress codes from the Old Testament are still practiced in some denominations today. The position of women in society and their ability to control property carried well over into the 1800's in the United States with other issues such as the ability to vote taking even longer (the 1900's). Women in ministry (something that seemed to have only happened once in the Old Testament in the story of Deborah (REF) is still objected to by many churches. My own holiness denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, had, in its pre-Nazarene roots, the ordination of women long before the women's liberation movements took hold in the 1900's. REF . But other churches still follow what they believe to be biblical instruction from the Old and New Testaments to not ordain women. On the other hand ... most church denominations today allow for remarriage after divorce ... something that the Old Testament allowed but Jesus over ruled in the New Testament in Matthew 19 and elsewhere. Paul also took up this position in I Corinthians 7 and Romans 7. I cover this more fully on different pages on my website. (here and here) We affirm / allow divorce and remarraige ... something Jesus does not seem to affirm at all but instead calls adultery. We condemn slavery ... something that both the Old and New Testament seem to affirm. I bring all of this up (and particularly the slavery and divorce remarriage issues) to show that a look at the church's historical positions on various moral issues is not always consistent with a literal read.
Since our focus is on gay marriage and what the bible says about that let us first look at ..
Old Testament marriage practices for heterosexual couples.
1. Marriage was an arranged contract. No romance seems to be evident.
2. The virginity of the woman was paramount with several tests to determine it (ref)
3. The virginity of the man was not something that was addressed.
4. The father 'sold' his daughter into marriage. She was like property to him.
5. If a women was raped her rapist was required to marry her.
6. If a women's husband died ... his brother was required to marry her to allow continuation of the (dead) brother's family line. (Note that the question to Jesus in the New Testament seems to indicate that this practice was still in place during Christ's time ref)
7. There was no prescribed officiant to the wedding although Jewish people had/have a marriage custom along with a Ketubah contract that was signed. This is oral tradition ... it is not covered in scripture.
8. There is no prescribed marriage certificate.
9. There is no prescribed ceremony
10. Men could choose to have more than one wife ... and even have concubines (Genesis 25:1-6) (other refs)
None of the above applies to marriages today ... yes we are concerned with the sexual purity of both parties .. but there is no litmus test for it where-in a groom could reject his newlywed wife because she was not a virgin.
This is a brief introduction to the issue at hand …The one thing that still carries into the New Testament per the letter of Acts in chapter 15 is the prohibition against sexual immorality. This prohibition against sexual immorality is also mentioned in other places in the New Testament (REF).
So the question is: What is included under sexual immorality?
As we already mentioned what makes this question a bit messy is that the Old Testament heroes of the faith often practiced what we would consider sexual immorality. They did this through having multiple wives and concubines and having sex with prostitutes. This is something that seems to have ended in the New Testament yet we have no specific scripture that commands this to end with the exception of sex with prostitutes which Paul addresses in II Cor REF. And the New Testament writers seemed to gloss over this when mentioning the heroes of the faith of the old covenant. And again, it seems that virginity in the Old Testament was something that was expected of the women but not practiced by the men. The idea of sexual purity for both men and women does not find its expression until the New Testament.
About the word abomination…
I cover the word abomination on a separate page here (REF). It is used throughout the Old Testament to describe actions that we still would consider wrong today as well as actions that we would no longer consider wrong today. So it is not an absolute word that is applied universally in the same way. Whatever conclusion we might reach on homosexuality, IMHO the manner in which I have heard this word used against gay folks seems to have some added contempt at times and/or self-righteousness that we need to be cautious against. Even if you read it without that contempt there are those who have gone before you who have soured the milk (so to speak) so it is quite difficult to use this word without an lgbt person hearing it in a bad way. To use a word that brings up images of judgementalism and contempt is not helpful when communicating with others. For this reason I avoid using this word. Additionally, when we look to its usage in Proverbs (ref) we see that some in the church have committed abomination against the very people they disagree with. Again … see my page on abomination for more (link)
On to the Leviticus passages in question
With all of this in mind we now turn to the study of a small portion of Leviticus … the passages in Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20 which basically read …”A man shall not lie with a man as he does a woman …it is an abomination. Those that do so shall be put to death.”
When we look at the context surrounding this prohibition we find prohibitions against idolatry (sacrificing children to idols), adultery, incest, bestiality, and sex with a woman during her period. Here is where things get a bit messy from a variety of perspectives which I will list below..
1. While we would certainly agree with the prohibitions against beastiality, incest, adultery and the like… we would not agree that sex with a woman during her period was worthy of excommunication.
2. While we would certainly agree with the prohibitions against beastiality, incest, adultery and the like we would not agree with the death penalty for these.
3. A prohibition against father daughter sexual relations is clearly missing from these passages though every other form of incest is clearly and specifically mentioned.
4. It is impossible to dismiss parts of this as holiness code or ritual purity instructions as some have done since it is evident that prohibitions against adultery, incest and the like would apply regardless of whether this was holiness code/ritual purity instructions or not.
5.Arguments of silence contrasting this with what Jesus said and did not say don’t really work either since Jesus does not mention incest, bestiality and the like and I doubt he would be approving of them.
Looking at the broader context. … Along with the commands mentioned above, when we zoom out on these passages we find other commands which seem a bit off.
1. Commands about not wearing two kinds of thread in a garment.
2.Commands about not planting two kinds of seed in a field.
3.Commands about how to trim ones beard and sideburns.
4.Commands about hems on garments.
None of the above makes much sense in our modern context. But what is our basis for rejecting them? From what I can tell the above four are more about an object lesson to not mix the worship of Jehovah with worship of the gods of the surrounding cultures. But … again there is no place where these are repealed.
A further zoom out reveals commands concerning…
1. Prohibitions against mildew in a tent
2.Prohibitions regarding tattoos.
I have not heard the mildew one brought forward for today. But there is a general reaction against tattoos (though it seems to be fading with this generation).
Some things that are evident…
1.This instruction was for men only … there is no comparison instruction for woman. (In fact some conservative resources site Romans 1 as the only place in scripture where women are addressed with regard to same sex relationships. One might say that what applies to men applies to women … but the reality is that different denominations don’t all agree on this with regards to … women in leadership … a women’s place in the home … women being allowed to vote on issues in the church and some other issues as well. The equality for women expressed by churches is selective. This may appear to be a trivial point but it is a bit tilted to claim arbitrarily that some issues apply both to women and men and others don’t. Your church or denomination may have a different custom but ... going back to my main page definition of church .. we are all part of one body .... we can't just lop off any part we disagree with. )
2.When looked at in the context of the entire book it is evident that we are at least doing some picking and choosing with regards to what carries over into the New Testament. As mentioned earlier ... most all of the marriage practices of the Old Testament do not carry over into the new.
3. It would take considerable work to go through all the customs of the Old Testament and find proofs inscriputre for why we do not practice them today. IMHO no one on either side has done a very good job of this. In fact ...much of what we hold to today is more related to ongoing revelation (which can vary ... take the Catholic view of birth control for example) and not hard facts of scripture
Interpretation Leviticus authored by Samuel E. Ballantine, Russel T. Cherry Professor of Old Testament studies at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond gives an alternative explanation for this passage. His main points are summarized here (see page 159 for full text)...
The ban in Leviticus 18 and 20 on same sex acts is one of more than a dozen behaviors that are proscribed there. Most of these bans have had a minimal impact on faith communities.... re: We do not typically measure obedience to God by killing children who curse their parents(Lev 20:9) or killing men who commit adultery (Lev 20:10).
All the prohibitions in chapters 19 and 20 are patriarchal ... they primarily address men ... not women. As such there is no prohibition against lesbianism.
The phrase "lie with a man as with a woman" addresses heterosexuals performing homosexual acts (He references Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, p.1786 and Douglas, Leviticus as Literature, p.238; Levine, p. 123) He also notes that the text does not address all acts of male homosexuality.
How ever we interpret these passages they do not endorse discrimination and abuse that destroys people by labeling them enemies of God.
I include the above reference as but one example of the many that are out there that an individual may encounter. These are ... from what I can tell... scholarly references from people who appear to have more knowledge than I do. I cannot attest to its accuracy as I lack the qualifications to do so. Note again that the above is from a Baptist Old Testament Professor ... hardly a place one would accuse of being liberal. Conclusion:
There is no slam dunk here.
Folks who are against gay marriage have some explaining to do as to why we have let go of much of what is in the Old Testament (I am talking beyond the dietary restrictions, celebration of certain spiritual holidays, and the sacrificial system ... all of which are clearly over-ridden in the New Testament). These folks would also need to rethink how they describe the bible as being consistent on marriage since most of the marriage customs of the Old Testament are no longer embraced today and some would be vehemently opposed ... such as a woman marrying her rapist ... a woman needing to marry her dead husband's brother, and/or a man having multiple wives and concubines and even a prostitute on the side .
Folks who support gay marriage will have difficulty proving that this passage is only about same sex rape especially without more context and with no positive support of gay marriage ... gay families ... and gay relationships in the Old Testament (or New Testament for that matter). I know there are some questions raised in some circles on the nature of Ruth and Naomi's relationship along with David and Jonathon's relationship. But even if there were some same sex romance possibilities here it would not necessarily tell us anything since there are many heterosexual relationships in the Old Testament that we would not consider moral today.
It should be noted that the one thing that is left to this question has to do with the interpretive authority of the church which, in the past, has over-ridden the bible's affirmation of slavery and also has over-ridden Jesus's condemnation of divorce and subsequent remarriage. This typically requires applying the principles of the over-arching truths of scripture to the situation and/or collective church wisdom.
Add this in somewhere...
The problem of assuming this is only about not being like other cultures ..
While it is true that several times in the book of Leviticus (Lev 18:27; Lev 20:23) and elsewhere (Deut 12:31; Deut 18:12; Deut 20:13) the Lord says they should not do what the surrounding cultures did .. it is also clear that he drove out those people because of what they did. The prohibition is not just about being different .. it is about not doing things that God had judged others on. Additionally the passages we are questioning sit right next to passages that we do not question .. prohibitions against adultery .. incest and so forth. It is also worth noting the Jesus was also silent about incest, sacrificing children to idols and other things mentioned here but that does not mean He approves of those things.
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