Levitical Laws:  “Thou shalt not”. . . But why not?

Studies in Hermeneutics, Lesson 12

By Reta Halteman Finger

"Homosexual couple in love" photo by Kitja

Leviticus 18:22—You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

Leviticus 20:13—If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them (NRSV).

If you grew up Methodist or hung around with Methodists, you probably learned about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as a way to help Christians arrive at ethical conclusions. What are some things we need to consider in moral decision making?  Imagine a square, with each of the four sides representing one component of deliberation: Scripture (as revelation), Tradition, Reason, and Experience.  As Christians today debate LGBTQ issues, they weight these elements in different ways. Conservative believers rely more on Scripture and tradition, while progressives stress experience. (And too often reason flies out the window!)

Starting with one side of the Quadrilateral, Scripture, this lesson will examine the two legal references quoted above from the Hebrew Bible which refer to male-on-male sex. We’ll discuss the narrative material in Genesis 19:1-29 and Judges 19:22-24 next time.

Help from an expert

There is no better guide for helping us understand and interpret these texts in their historical contexts than Dr. Phyllis Bird, my former professor of Hebrew. Immersed in the languages and cultures of the Old Testament and the ancient Middle East, Dr. Bird also excels in feminist hermeneutics. I will be drawing on her essay, “The Bible in Christian Ethical Deliberation Concerning Homosexuality: Old Testament Contributions,” from her recent volume, Faith, Feminism, and the Forum of Scripture: Essays on Biblical Theology and Hermeneutics (Cascade Books, 2015, pp. 127-162).*

But although Bird focuses on the “scripture” side of the Quadrilateral, she does not separate it from tradition, reason, and experience. God’s revelation, she says, is not a divine oracle dropping out of the sky. It comes to us through the very human processes of tradition interacting with experience and reason!

No-brainer observations

Before we get to Bird’s analysis, here’s what can we learn just by reading these short lines in Leviticus. First, this Hebrew law clearly forbids male-on-male sex and calls it an “abomination”—which Dictionary.com defines as “a vile, shameful, or detestable action.” Second, both participants in the act shall be put to death in 20:13, but the text never explains why the severe punishment or why the act is so despicable. No allowances are made if the penetrated male is a child or rape victim. Third, the law in 18:22 is addressed to “you”—Hebrew men. Women are neither addressed nor mentioned, so lesbian sex is not an issue.

Putting texts in literary and historical contexts

These verses, says Bird, belong to the larger collection of biblical laws known as the Holiness Code (Leviticus chapters 17 through 26). This code was put in its final form during the Judean Exile in Babylon (589-530 BCE), although some laws go back to much earlier times. Leviticus 18 focuses entirely on forbidden sexual behavior and is set in Israel’s wilderness wanderings 600 years earlier. Moses warns the Israelites not to follow the practices of the Egyptians where they had lived, nor of the Canaanites occupying their new land (vv. 1-2, 24-30). Thus, by the time of the Exile in the 6th century BCE, much older customs were now being presented as divine law (Faith, pp. 134-35).

Ancient logic

But why is male-on-male sex (and many other sex acts in Leviticus 18) so abominable? Bird notes two ways in which ancient logic differs from the way we modern Americans reason today. First, the reason these sexual acts are forbidden relates to ritual purity rather than ethics. “They defile, and therefore endanger the community” (p. 135). Ritual purity may be more easily understood if we note that sex with a menstruating woman or offering one’s offspring to Molech (a foreign god) is prohibited in the same paragraph (18:19, 21 ). Don’t be like those pagan Canaanites! Or, in their new context as captives of the Babylonians, these Judean editors were saying, in essence, God punished us because we acted like the idolatrous nations living around us, and now we must not behave like the Babylonians!

The second way ancient logic differs from ours is that today we would not accept the process by which specific purity customs from former times become divine law. Rather, we live in a society where, if laws become obsolete or are deemed unjust, they can be changed to fit current circumstances. (Think, for example, of former U.S. laws against interracial marriage.)

Those yucky abominations!

The Hebrew word for “abomination” is tô ēbâ and means something is “taboo” or incompatible with the worship of Yahweh. It is used primarily in cultic (priestly) contexts. Rather than an ethical term, it denotes boundary marking. “In its basic sense of taboo,” comments Bird, “it describes a feeling of abhorrence or revulsion that requires or admits no rational explanation” (p 137). (Likewise, some people today are revolted by the newly-popular practice of eating fried insects.)

Incomplete ethics

The literary context of Leviticus 20:13 is slightly different. This male-on-male sexual prohibition in chapter 20 is part of verses 10-21 that deal with sexual offenses that have wider ethical implications than does the immediate context of Leviticus 18:22, where the emphasis is on defilement and ritual purity (don’t be like other peoples).  Chapter 20 goes further, Bird points out.  The male-on-male sexual prohibition there occurs in a section listing offenses that “violate a neighbor’s or kinsman’s honor” and are disruptive of a household and the wider community—and thus more connected to moral behavior. The historical context is a three-generation extended-family household. Any of these sexual behaviors would indeed disrupt the entire household (such as a man having sex with his daughter-in-law in 20:12).

But Bird notes how incomplete are the ethical aspects of these laws when we consider the penalties. In all cases in 20:10-21, both sexual partners are punished the same way, regardless of age or consent. Therefore, ritual purity remains a dominant reason for these prohibitions.

Finally, Bird never lets us forget that Hebrew society was thoroughly patriarchal. Its highest social value was male honor. For one man to engage another free man in a sex act with him as he would with a woman was to dishonor that man and thus threaten the hierarchical order of the whole community. A man initiated; a woman was the receptor, the acted upon. So long as the honor of free males was preserved, what women did with each other was not a threat to the household or community.

Questions for discussion or reflection

1. In your experience, have Leviticus 18:22 or 20:13 ever been used against LGBTQ persons? Can you now explain why they are not relevant to lesbians or gays in committed relationships in today’s world?

2. What problems would Christians with a strictly inerrant view of scripture (see Lesson 4) have with this lesson?

3. Do concerns about ritual purity exist today?

*This essay by Phyllis Bird was earlier published in Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture, edited by David Balch (Eerdmans, 2000), pp. 142-176.
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Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.


  1. So you know where I am coming from, I think a faithful believer can understand Scripture to say that some but not all homosexual acts are prohibited.

    I think there are more insights into these 2 passages that are possible, not sure if you are going to further elaborate on them or not. I am willing to discuss if you wish.

  2. Donald,
    Please feel free to present your insights. I don’t plan to say any more about these two verses.

  3. OK, here are some of my further thoughts.

    1. I see the teaching unit containing what we call Lev 18:22 to be all of Lev 18. This provides the immediate context for the text being discussed. This establishes that the reason for the prohibitions is that these are things the tribes in Canaan did and made the land unclean. It also states that all of these prohibitions are abominations (Lev 18:26). This is important for the next insight.

    2. Lev 18:6-18 are prohibitions against sex with close relations. But note that Jacob violated the marrying 2 sisters prohibition/abomination (Lev 18:18) and Abraham violated the marrying your own sister prohibition/abomination (Lev 18:9), yet we KNOW both of these are considered faithful as they are found in the Hebrews 11 Hall of Faith. So there needs to be some way to figure this out. The way I do it is to point out that both were in Abraham’s third covenant with God in Gen 17 with circumcision and that this status (circumcised but not in the Sinai covenant) is what is needed for a gentile sojourning with Israel to partake in the Passover lamb (Ex 12:48) (which is before the Sinai covenant is given starting in Ex 20.) But a simple point is there is some status where doing one of these prohibitions/abominations does not disqualify one from being in the Kingdom of God.

    3. For the remaining 5 Lev 18 prohibitions that do not deal with sex between close relations, the one with Molech (Moloch) (Lev 18:21) seems unusual. Why is that with the other prohibitions? Recall the entire context of the passage is about Canaanite practices that are forbidden. What is forbidden is giving zera/seed often interpreted as children to Molech. But zera is also the word for sperm. In either case, it would be a part of a pagan fertility rite. But this might set the context for the next verse or verses, that is, do not partake in a pagan fertility rite that involves a “god” or a male or an animal.

    4. For Lev 18:22 the verse in question, there are 2 ways to read it, based on how one understands zakar/male. Zakar/male might be a noun or it might be an adjective. see BDB Definition:
    1) male (of humans and animals) (noun masculine)
    2) male (of humans) (adjective)

    If it is read as an adjective, then the associated noun after it is elided (omitted) as being implied by the context and the context might be pagan worship, for example, a pagan priest/minister who partakes in a fertility rite by receiving seed from a man.


  4. Donald Johnson,

    I have not heard that explanation before–the idea that Leviticus 18:22 could relate to verse 21 about sacrificing children to Moloch. If so, how exactly would you translate verse 22, using zakar as an adjective?

    In either case, the act would be one of ritual impurity rather than one of immorality.

    How then do you see Lev 18:22 relating to 20:13? Do these two verses speak of two different kinds of acts?

  5. LITV Lev 18:21 And you shall not give your seed [literally, something from you, but translated in LXX as sperma/seed] to pass them through to Molech, nor shall you pollute the name of your God; I am Jehovah.

    If Lev 18:21 is understood as providing the immediate context for Lev 18:22, then I would read Lev 18:22 as “You shall not lie with a male [pagan priest (implied but elided)] as one lies with a woman [that is, give her your seed], it is toevah [an abomination, a disgusting thing].

    This idea continues in LITV Lev 18:23 And you shall not give your semen [lie in a sexual way] with any animal, for uncleanness with it. And a woman shall not stand before an animal to lie down with it; it is a shameful mixing.

    In other words, I see prohibition of pagan fertility rituals being the general context of Lev 18:21-23. An Israelite or sojourner with Israel should not do the items in Lev 18 as there is no reason to do them as God is the one that grants fertility or withholds it without use of any pagan fertility ritual.

    Once this meaning is established for Lev 18:22 then I think it carries over to Lev 20:13, which specifies penalties.

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