This has been a topic that has turned over in my mind for a while. Allow me some background. In our current social climate, Lev. 18:22 “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination” has gotten a lot of attention. Social conservatives tend to lean on it as a basis for opposition to the LGBT lobby; social progressives tend to dismiss it as a single verse in a long list of outdated religious commands. However, my impression is that they’re both wrong.
A note here for the reader: A Jewish peer of mine writing on the Torah helped me with a few passages and details. Out of respect for him, I have written "G_d" instead of spelling it out.
Here’s why: in the Bible, a single verse rarely stands there on its own. Actually, this is generally true in life. In a larger passage of work, a single sentence rarely stands on its own. Understanding that, I looked at the passage as a whole (and then, the entire book of Leviticus, and then the entirety of the first five books as they are indeed all part of that greater work). Though the social debate has moved on from this particular battleground, I still find it worth looking at this – actually as a believing Christian I know it’s wise to return to the Bible frequently. Society may have moved on, but the Word remains the same.
The first thing I noted in this passage is that there’s a large number of sexual issues the book discusses. Homosexuality is not singled out. However it is verse 21 that stands out here,
“You shall not give any of your offspring to offer them to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your G_d; I am the Lord.”
So in the midst of discussing sexual relation, the Lord felt the need to tell the Israelites not to sacrifice children or profane the name of their G_d. At first glance, this seems odd. Of course, understanding scripture, we should know that that command was placed within that greater passage for good reason. We are supposed to understand that there is a relation here. The best way to understand is to start at the beginning…
18 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘I am the Lord your G_d. 3 You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes. 4 You are to perform My judgments and keep My statutes, to live in accord with them; I am the Lord your G_d. 5 So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them; I am the Lord.
The Lord begins this with book ends that call back to the first commandment: “I am the Lord.” That alone is worth a study, but we won’t go into too much detail at this point. However, it’s important enough to note that this means what He has to say here is of particular importance. He begins by separating Israel from their past in the Egypt, and from a possible future within Canaan. There are similar customs in both these territories that are too be avoided. Instead they are exhorted to follow His instruction, twice mentioning His judgments and statues, in order that one might live (another important concept we’ll get back to later). What sort of practices are we to avoid?
6 ‘None of you shall approach any blood relative of his to uncover nakedness; I am the Lord.
Huh. Well. That seems easy. Don’t have relations with my close relations – siblings, parents, descendants, , etc. Yeah, makes sense. No problem, right? Well, we say that because this, in the relative history of the world, is a fairly new concept. We’re used to the idea that marrying/having sexual relations with our nuclear family is taboo. That’s because Western Civilization for some time embraced Judeo-Christian values that had these taboos. When G_d is handing out this command to the Israelites, it’s a new concept. Remember back in Genesis, Abram’s nephew Lot slept with both his daughters after the destruction of Sodom. That was even pushing the limits then, sure, but expressly forbidding it is new. Still, we’re off to a solid start, right?
Note that close cousins are not included in this mix. Aunts and Uncles, yes, but not cousins. So take heart, Shelbyville. You can indeed marry your cousins who are so darned attractive according to the Law.
Side note: We’re going to take a few givens here because Leviticus assumes them. First, men and women are distinct. Sorry, Transgender progressives and anti-gender binary activists, but we’re not getting to this issue at this time. It’s the way we’re built and the Bible assumes this as given “Male and female he created them.” With that in mind, the familial structure is generally assumed, that is father, mother, and children. Sorry SSM-proponents, although we’ll get more discussion on this point, fear not. Let’s move on for now …
7 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, that is, the nakedness of your mother. She is your mother; you are not to uncover her nakedness. 8 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness. 9 The nakedness of your sister, either your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether born at home or born outside, their nakedness you shall not uncover. 10 The nakedness of your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter, their nakedness you shall not uncover; for their nakedness is yours. 11 The nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, born to your father, she is your sister, you shall not uncover her nakedness. 12 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is your father’s blood relative. 13 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister, for she is your mother’s blood relative. 14 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother; you shall not approach his wife, she is your aunt. 15 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter-in-law; she is your son’s wife, you shall not uncover her nakedness. 16 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness. 17 You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and of her daughter, nor shall you take her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter, to uncover her nakedness; they are blood relatives. It is lewdness.
Whew! What a list! Now at first glance one would assume this is all covered in the previous verse, but it’s spelled out for good reasons. One, we’re going from general concept to more specific. In an oral culture, repetition is important. Frequently in scripture we find the general concept stated, and then reiterated in increasing detail. In part, 7 through 17 is going into the details of 6. But it’s more than that too. Note verse 9:
The nakedness of your sister, either your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether born at home or born outside, their nakedness you shall not uncover.
These apply to step-brothers and step-sisters. Though they are not born into your family, they are now family. In fact, this is key to understand these details. The familial structure is to be preserved. Your step-sister is technically not a blood relation, but now that your two parents have married, she is for all intents and purposes your sister. Note how the Bible frequently brings it back to the nuclear family unit “Father’s wife, son’s daughter, daughter’s daughter, mother’s sister.” These are all considered blood relations now. The familial structure is to be preserved. We don’t have sexual relations with family, even if they weren’t originally related by blood we are to consider them blood relatives now. Note that in I Corinthians it’s not homosexuality that Paul is scolding the church there for, it’s for violating this principle. Understanding it helps us read the following.
18 You shall not marry a woman in addition to her sister as a rival while she is alive, to uncover her nakedness. 19 Also you shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness during her menstrual impurity. 20 You shall not have intercourse with your neighbor’s wife, to be defiled with her.
18 we saw demonstrated in detail in Genesis as well. Jacob marries Leah and Rachel, and there is tension within the household. There were consequences which rippled down to their sons. 20 expands our look outward. We are to respect our familial bonds, we are to respect the familial bonds of others. We are not to disrupt the family. Then we get back to 21 …
You shall not give any of your offspring to offer them to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your G_d; I am the Lord.
What is this doing here? Remember the concept we discussed? The family is to be preserved. Life is to be affirmed. We are not to disrupt the family structure. If we fail to preserve this structure, we might as well be sacrificing our children to a hungry idol. We profane the Lord who affirms life. Disrupting the family is damaging to our children. We are destroying them for our own sexual interests.
Interestingly, when Israel initial turns from the Lord, they turn to fertility deities – they worship sex personified. But near the end, when G_d sends his prophets to declare the end of their nation, they indeed are sacrificing their very children to idols. Is it any surprise that abortion followed our pursuit of sexual “freedom?” That it is jealously guarded by the progressives today?
We get back to the verse that brought us here in the first place:
22 You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination. 23 Also you shall not have intercourse with any animal to be defiled with it, nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it; it is a perversion.
These are non-starters in this passage. There is no way in Leviticus that a man can have a family with another man (remember that gender is objective in scripture). There is no life to be had in this union. Nowadays we can bypass this somewhat, but Biblically speaking it’s not the same. Life cannot start with this union. Today’s modern work-arounds simulate the family, but even then we do so with disregard to the children of pairings like this. This isn’t new. Recall in the mid-late twentieth century when divorce was more common that it was assumed “children were resilient” only to find out decades later that many children were still affected by their parents’ split-up.
Family has a great purpose: to raise children to become adults. Biologically speaking, amongst mammals only humans take so long to mature. Nurturing our children to adulthood takes more time and effort than nurturing a puppy or a foal.
Verse 23 ends with something which seems almost as obvious as 6. Again, it’s a non-starter. You’re not even in the same species, buddy. You can’t even relate to an animal. Going that far is a dead end. (Side note: I’ve had progressive friends and family state that homosexuality isn’t that important as it’s mentioned so rarely in the Bible. Note that this is the only time I know G_d mentions bestiality. Not a good criteria people). Of course, it’s mentioned because yes, this was a thing that could and would happen back then and yes, there’s people who do this today. Ew, people. Just … ew.
G_d wraps things up, ending with where we started by contrasting Israel with other nations.
24 ‘Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. 25 For the land has become defiled, therefore I have brought its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants. 26 But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you 27 (for the men of the land who have been before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become defiled); 28 so that the land will not spew you out, should you defile it, as it has spewed out the nation which has been before you. 29 For whoever does any of these abominations, those persons who do so shall be cut off from among their people. 30 Thus you are to keep My charge, that you do not practice any of the abominable customs which have been practiced before you, so as not to defile yourselves with them; I am the Lord your G_d.’”
Don’t behave like the Canaanites. G_d is sending Israel into Canaan (belatedly thanks to a few choices by the Israelites). Canaan’s practices has signed its own death warrant. In fact, G_d says the land has spewed them out. It’s rejected them. They are a dying race because of their actions. Emulating Canaan will result in the same thing. The Lord says he is giving them this land, but they must not act as Canaan or the same thing will happen. They will be rejected violently. That’s the way of death. They just left Egypt who practiced these things (recall the first part of this passage) – Egypt where G_d slew the firstborn son (a symbol of strength amongst ancient cultures, thus symbolizing the objective end of Egypt’s strength) and crushed their military might. Their practices led to their death. Don’t be like them!
This is so important that G_d commands that the Israelites are not even to tolerate this amongst visitors. Yes, there are commands that they are to be kind to strangers in their country just as they were strangers in Egypt, but this shows that goes so far. The Israelites are not to tolerate this behavior in anyone. Note that this ties in later in Acts 15, when the church is discussing just what is required of Gentile converts. One faction wants them to convert to full Judaism, Paul’s faction notes, “That’s tough for us, we can’t make them be Jews.” The compromise: don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols (idolatry), don’t engage in sexual immorality. This way, Jews and Gentiles can share a table with no conflicts.
The concept of life and death follows through these books. I believe all this and more is summed up in the conclusion of Deuteronomy:
19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, 20 by loving the Lord your G_d, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.
We have a choice between blessing and curse, life and death. G_d is not looking to punish for falling out of line. He knows how this world works. The family was created to foster life. We are urged to preserve the family in its natural form so that we might live, so our children will know life and not death.