by Sebastian Faust
“You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.” – Leviticus 18:22
In my last podcast interview with Professor Baruch Levine on the text of Leviticus, I lamented that the prohibition on homosexuality is perhaps the text’s best-known passage within popular Christianity. For a book that otherwise receives so little attention among modern Christians, this verse (and its twin in Leviticus 20) looms grotesquely large, skewing our reading and leaving it disfigured, malformed.
While this shouldn’t be the only passage from Leviticus to which we give attention, I also don’t wish to sidestep the verse simply because it has become the battleground for such great struggles. Therefore, let us consider the ways in which we might approach it.
Obviously, some relish this law and have set it to memory, chapter and verse. They can recite it whenever the need arises and take great joy in the way the word ‘abomination’ rolls off the tongue; it has such a pleasantly sinister sound. Say it aloud with me: Abomination. Taste the sweet venom that drips from it, the feeling of power that courses through your blood. Abomination. Use it as a weapon against those whose behavior fills you with disgust. Use it as a shield against any who would decry you as a bigot. It’s ever so useful a verse.
But I say to you, whoever wishes to use scripture as a weapon must take pause. When Paul speaks of scripture as a sword, he writes explicitly that the struggle is most emphatically not with flesh and blood. And the author of Hebrews doesn’t allow you to wield this sword at all. Instead, it hangs balanced above us, slices into us, cutting joints from marrow, laying us bare to the bone, a vivisection of our very heart. No, if you relish the cruelty with which you can wield a verse such as this, if you take up this sword, you are to die by this sword.
Others come to this text with neither malice nor viciousness. They understand scripture as a map of moral terrain and this verse as a boundary stone, part of a cartographic line dividing territories. These things are endorsed within the realm; those things are restricted. They struggle with questions of genetic determinism and God’s proscription, yet feel that, if this is indeed the proper framing of the question, their only choice is to side with God. As difficult as the word is to say, as harsh and acrid as it feels upon the tongue, this must be, they say, an abomination in the eyes of God.
But when they explain where they’ve come out on the question, and why they are unable to reconcile same sex marriage within the church with this passage from Leviticus, they’re met with quips about shellfish. Or polyester.*
*Which, by the way? Unhelpful. And it’s a poor reading of the law code (though it’s a reading that, until recently, plagued even many scholars of the text). There’s a distinction that exists in the Law between ritual impurity (things like death and bodily discharges, and most similar to things like mixing crops and the dietary restrictions) and moral impurity (things like sexual sin, idolatry, murder, greed). This difference underlies discussions of the Law in certain sayings of Jesus and the writings of Paul. To fail to make this distinction is to offer an apple as refutation of an orange; it’s just a poor response. So, shellfish people? Stop it.
As unhelpful as such quips may be, they do point to selective way we handle the moral laws in Leviticus. So if you’d like to make use of one and dismiss your opponents out of hand, don’t bother with, “Sure it says homosexuality is wrong, but don’t you eat bacon?” Instead, choose the law about children calling down curses on their parents and its requisite death penalty. That will fit the bill nicely; you’re back to making proper equivalencies between moral purity laws, and if you deal with it less flippantly, you’ll actually be moving the conversation into a bit of terrain we need to traverse.
Because when we look at it, we immediately face a problem. Taken as it stands, the issue of parent-cursing doesn’t fit neatly into our culture. It’s not often you hear a child calling on the gods to smite their parents with boils, or to send them, still living, down into the darkness of Sheol. And so, we’re forced to engage in a bit of triangulation if we still wish to use it for moral instruction. We can redefine cursing as backtalk, or disobedience, or angry quarrels, but if we don’t make some adjustment, it is certainly nothing more than an obsolete verse, speaking so specifically to a distinct culture that it doesn’t quite apply to anything that exists among us today.
And therefore, others decide that the cultural differences are simply so vast that Leviticus 18 should be treated as nothing but the vestigial remains of an antiquated worldview. It is true that homosexuality, as it is now understood, bears only a vague resemblance to the subject of this prohibition, and that demands to be explored. But let us also say at the outset that we shouldn’t cling to the cultural distinctions simply as a way to side-step a difficult text and dismiss it. We needn’t employ a game of apologetics and pretend the Bible cannot say things we find objectionable; it certainly can.
Within Leviticus, this verse serves to name one of the practices of Israel’s neighbors that she is to avoid, practices that are said to have defiled the land and led to those neighbors being driven out. The chapter begins with the injunction, “You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt . . . nor what is done in the land of Canaan.”
Within this context, we find that homosexuality carried certain connotations – first, it was a part of the cultic worship of certain deities, in whose temples and shrines one joined with the sacred by means of sexual union with temple priests. Second, it also carried the strong overtone of sexual assault; the violence of Sodom, the disturbing story of Judges 19, and likely, the act Ham perpetrated against Noah all speak of male-on-male sexual violence intended to degrade others and assert dominance.
That said, none of this fully matches the issues at play in this verse. Though some argue it’s entirely about cult prostitution, its context is larger than that. Likewise, it’s not addressed simply to male-on-male rape, or even a response to behaviors that might threaten progeny. Were we somehow to strip all those connections from the ancient Israelite mind, the fact remains likely that they would still view homosexuality as defiling.
Thus, we must also consider the connotations the concept did not carry with it. In the world in which this law came to be, nothing even remotely approximating a loving, monogamous homosexual relationship existed on Israel’s radar. It wasn’t experienced; it was essentially impossible to conceive of. This does not expunge Leviticus of this prohibition, but it must stop us short before we read the verse as though it’s speaking to our culture in some sort of a one-to-one correlation. It’s not.
We find ourselves in a blind alley when we begin thinking that way. We crash against our dependence on words like inerrant and infallible on one side and dismissing it outright on the other, and find ourselves bounded off by a false horizon of our own making. If the Bible teaches us anything, one of its great lessons is that there is room for new understanding.
There are many voices in the text, voices that ask, not to be flattened out, but to be heard and attended to, allowed to speak to one another and to us as well. There is room for dialogue, and room even for disagreement. The Bible is woven from a multitude of voices, presenting different sides of many debates; it is the record of discussion and of disagreement. And the remarkable thing about it is that those who came to power, who eventually held the capacity to quell the voices of those who disagreed with them, chose not to. They allowed them to stand; they preserved them for all who came after.
They allow to stand the pro-divorce rhetoric of Ezra alongside the anti-divorce prophet Malachi. They retain God’s statement that he holds the sins of one generation against its progeny, as well as his assertion that he does not. They place psalms of praise beside psalms that call God an oath-breaker. They repeatedly and consistently make room for differing views, for new understanding.
And the room they make is not an easy space. It is a chamber where we must stand before them all; it is the sharpened sword that pierces to the heart. To enter into the chambers of the difficult texts is to undertake a sacred struggle. We lay aside the garments of haughtiness and certainty, and we dare not take them up again when we come out limping on the other side. To enter in is to be marked by the struggle, and to come out changed.
What, then, to make of Leviticus 18:22? Though I know where I wind up and why, I still must be willing to say that there is room for a multitude of voices, even those that disagree with me. As with the voices of scripture, there are some that are not taken up into the conversation: the brutal rhetoric of those who use scripture as a weapon; the hollow testimony of those who refused to truly enter into vulnerability before the text.
But for all of those who have entered and faced the text, there is room to come out changed in different ways. There is room for those who see the prohibition as God’s moral decree for time universal, but who still will give their lives, even to those with whom they disagree, in humility and love. And there is room for those, like me, who see this text as one of the dividing walls between humanity that has been broken down by God in Christ. The lesson of the canon is this: you and I may disagree, and nevertheless, we may still dwell together humbly in the land.
Faust makes no claims to the throne and has no designs on small,
undefended countries. He takes life by the reins, bulls by the horns,
tigers by the tail, and lives a life rather ordinary in Nashville,
Tennessee. He currently holds the position of Dauphin at On Pop
Theology. You can’t follow Sebastian on Twitter because he doesn’t
understand technology, but he appreciates hand-written notes sent by
post or well-mannered carrier pigeon.
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