Session 5 of Homosexuality & Transgender Identity: A Bible Study
Abomination in the Bible
Begin by asking for one or two people to review, in a few sentences, what we have seen so far in our look at the Bible’s treatment of homosexuality.
Explain: Today we are going to be looking at some of the most controversial texts that deal with sexuality in the Bible – descriptions of particular forms of same-sex contact found in what is known as the “Holiness Code” of the Old Testament. In particular, we are going to look at Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13.
As we prepare to read these verses, remember the questions we’ve mentioned needing to ask when reading Old Testament texts: What does this verse really say and what does it not say? Is this a text whose command applies to all people in all time, or one which is not binding in the same way now, because it is fulfilled in Christ? What is the historical and cultural background of the text? How do these verses fit into the larger story of the books of the Bible surrounding them? How do they fit into the story of the Bible? Into the history of God’s work in the world? What does our reason and experience tell us? And most importantly, what light do Jesus’ life and teachings shed on these verses?
Have folks read these two verses:
Don’t have sex with a man as one does with a woman. That is abhorrent.
If a man has sex with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is abhorrent. They must be put to death; they are responsible for their own deaths.
Ask: First of all, keeping comments down to a few sentences, how have you heard this verse explained by religious people? What have they said it says about homosexual behavior or orientation?
Well, touching on the questions I told you to keep in mind, what are some things you notice that the verse does say and that it doesn’t say?
Well, here are a few facts about these verses that are often omitted by religious conservatives:
- This verse says nothing about women being sexual toward other women. This is interesting, isn’t it? If this verse was intended to be a universal indictment against homosexual activity, why are lesbians omitted from these verses? And why do religious conservatives fail to notice Leviticus doesn’t condemn lesbian intimacy? There is some debate about what particular sexual acts this verse condemns, but whatever it condemns, it does not condemn sex between two women.
- This verse calls for capital punishment for whatever act it describes. Whatever it is condemning, it is something that was viewed as very destructive either to God or the Jewish community who kept this law. Also, very few who quote this verse actually believe they should organize a gang to perform capital punishment, neither do they believe capital punishment should be performed for other acts that Leviticus calls for capital punishment about – children disobeying parents, men sleeping with their wives during their period. So this shows there is some real inconsistency with people who quote this verse as being in force today.
- Though this verse is said to call homosexuality a sin, this verse doesn’t even describe whatever same-sex act is described as a sin, but as a “detestable” or “abhorrent” act, or an “abomination” .
Ask: Can anyone think of what the difference might be between an “abominable act” and a sin?
Pass out copies of The Mosaic Code & the Hebrew word To’ebah and/or What the Bible Says About Homosexuality: Abomination. Explain that these resources are compilations from several resources that go through the meaning of the word translated “abomination,” “abhorrent” or “detestable.” Ask people to read parts of this page. Then ask: What significance do these resources’ content have in explaining what Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 are saying?
Explain that this means that Leviticus does not say that a man to lie with man is wrong or a sin. Rather, it is a ritual violation, an uncleanness ; it is something dirty ritualistically, just as was eating shellfish, mixing fibers, and similar laws which Christians no longer consider binding on them.
Two things were to’ebah to the Jewish people: First, acts that went against the cultural norms in a way that one was considered ritually unclean or imperfect, and thus unable to go to the temple and worship God, were to’ebah. The idea is that you only take to God a perfect gift and, if you are somehow imperfect, you can’t go to worship until you’ve “cleaned up.” That’s why someone who had touched a woman during her period couldn’t go to the temple without getting stoned – in their culture, that was believed to make someone imperfect.
Another list of things called to’ebah were practices that were connected with religions around Israel that had gone wrong in their worship of God – practices like sacrificing children on the altar, practices like giving your children to be prostitutes in the temple as an act of worship. Stuff like that.
Some feel that this verse refers to male-to-male intimacy as merely unclean, like eating pork made someone unclean in Jewish religion. This would be then connected with the way Jewish people of the day understood sex. They viewed semen as having a life-giving property. Not understanding about eggs, they believed all semen needed to become a baby was a woman’s womb. So, men who masturbated were unclean, because semen that could have become a baby if put in a woman was wasted and fell on the ground. Likewise, men who had wet dreams were unclean and we are told in Leviticus that a man who had a wet dream had to go through a time of ritual purification before entering the temple. They had to bathe and wait a day before they could come to worship. This is also why women weren’t allowed in the temple during their period – that was the blood of pregnancy, which could some day produce a child, which was spilling out of them. This made them imperfect.
If this was the case, then this verse is condemning male-to-male intimacy because of this pre-scientific understanding of semen. It is a concession to a cultural notion we don’t share any more: Semen is getting wasted that could be used for making babies! How bad! Under this logic, since women don’t produce semen, it is okay for women to have sex with each other. After all, no baby-making fluid is wasted. Only during their periods are they unclean.
Ask: Any thoughts about this understanding of this verse? Do you think this is persuasive?
As we’ll see, these verses don’t condemn all male-to-male sexual intimacy. Likewise, they probably don’t merely condemn what they do condemn as ritual uncleanness or an imperfection that has to be “washed away” to go to worship. Instead, whatever they describe is connected with the horrible practices of the religions in Canaan that had really lost their way and were thus more serious. Evidence of this is that no one was stoned for mere acts of ritual uncleanness like eating pork or touching dead bodies or having a period or ejaculation. The sex acts described in Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 had the death penalty. This shows how serious they were in Bible times.
The “story surrounding the story” helps us understand what is being condemned, as does the original Hebrew words used in this text.
Ask: How do you think they fit into the story as a whole?
Well, first we have the context in the Bible these verses fit into. They are in the book of Leviticus, a book where God outlines rules for how the Jewish people are to worship God, how their priests are to perform sacrifices, and the like.
And, these two commands are a part of a list of prohibitions connected with how Israel worships God. In the beginning and ending of chapters 18 and 20 a rationale for these command is given.
Have someone read Leviticus 18:1-5? Leviticus 20:22-24:
God spoke to Moses: “Speak to the People of Israel. Tell them, I am God, your God. Don’t live like the people of Egypt where you used to live, and don’t live like the people of Canaan where I’m bringing you. Don’t do what they do. Obey my laws and live by my decrees. I am your God. Keep my decrees and laws: The person who obeys them lives by them. I am God.
“Do what I tell you, all my decrees and laws; live by them so that the land where I’m bringing you won’t vomit you out. You simply must not live like the nations I’m driving out before you. They did all these things and I hated every minute of it.
“I’ve told you, remember, that you will possess their land that I’m giving to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey. I am God, your God, who has distinguished you from the nations. So live like it: Distinguish between ritually clean and unclean animals and birds. Don’t pollute yourselves with any animal or bird or crawling thing which I have marked out as unclean for you. Live holy lives before me because I, God, am holy. I have distinguished you from the nations to be my very own.”
After these are read, ask: Why is it God condemns the acts God lists in Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13?
Explain that God is trying to keep the Jewish people from engaging in religious practices that the peoples around them engage in. That may sound weird to us in our day, when we try to stay open-minded to the beliefs and practices of other religions, but if you understand what these religious practices and views were like, God’s words make more sense.
One of the messages God gives again and again throughout the Bible is that, you can’t worship God any old way or believe any old thing about God. This doesn’t mean that there is only one way to worship God or all other religions but ours (whichever ours is) are wrong. That’s not the point.
In the Christian religion, for instance, there are branches of Christianity that in the name of God do horrible things. I have distant relatives who are part of white supremacist groups, that say that all people who are not white are inferior to white people. After all, God is white, Jesus is white, and so white people are more godlike than black people, Hispanics, Asians, or Jews. So they feel the right to beat up, harass, and persecute those not like them because of their understanding of God. So, when they see races mixing, they burn crosses, put on masks, and form lynch mobs, in the name of God.
Theirs is a type of religion, a way of being a Christian, but one that, seen through the eyes of Christ, has lost its way, one that is evil and led more by negative spiritual forces than by the loving God and Parent of Jesus Christ.
Something like that had gone on in much of the religions of the people around the Jewish people God was working with in Leviticus. The nations around them conceived of the Divine as several small-minded, petty tyrants much like the warlords and blood-thirsty tyrants of their own lands. These were selfish, sex-crazed, hungry, egotistical beings, who had to be entertained and appeased by any means necessary. In their mind, the Divine was like a much more selfish, thoughtless, powerful version of themselves, and as such, didn’t have respect for human life and choice.
So they built up practices to appease these gods. The gods were hungry all the time – for blood. Human blood was the prime rib of the gods, so the nations around Israel sacrificed animals, slaves, and their own children on altars, so that their blood would keep the gods from hurting them.
They believed that the gods sent rain when the gods were happy and horny. So, to make them this way, they took small children and slaves and enslaved them, teaching them to be prostitutes in the their temples. When it didn’t rain, people would gather at the temple and have all kinds of sex – men with their sisters and mothers, with children, even heterosexual men with men and little boys, as a way of getting the gods aroused so that they would send rain.
(For further information, you may wish to print out copies of Fertility Cults of Canaan, which gives detailed info on Canaanite fertility religion)
Many scholars agree acts God is condemning in Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 are not acts of love between consenting adults, as we see in, say, same-gender marriages, for instance, but sexual acts connected with the temple prostitution and temple orgies of the nations around Israel. Included in these lists are also laws against sacrificing human beings and babies on altars.
This is further demonstrated, not just by this historical context, but the language used in these verses. Two different words are used for man in these verses – ish and and zakar: “a man (ish) shall not lie with a male (zakar) as with a woman.” Ish is the general word used for man in the sense of a male human being. Zakar is a technical term meaning literally “holy one,” a man or male animal specifically dedicated to a deity for some sacred purpose. This technical term is used elsewhere in the Old Testament to describe male temple prostitutes of the type I’ve already described. (Taken from a series of articles on this passage at http://www.epistle.us/)
What God is doing is condemning a set of religions that have gone wrong. God is trying to say to the Israelite people: You were in slavery and I didn’t rape you, I didn’t kill you, I didn’t prostitute you, I didn’t ask the Egyptians to sacrifice you. No, I set you free, I gave you land and room in which to grow, I taught you how to stand on your own two feet. So, don’t imitate these religions around you that enslave others, rape others, prostitute others, kill their children and neighbors. Let your religion be one that sets other free and grants life to others, one that loves your neighbor, one that frees your slaves every seven years, and so on. That is what God is saying.
Ask: Is having sex with small children and slaves who have been made into prostitutes as a part of worshiping idols the sort of sex most same-gender-loving people are engaged in, when they are intimate with each other? If not, is this a fair verse to throw at LGBTQ+ people to condemn their relationships?
Finally, ask: Do you see any implications of this in understanding Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13? Are there any positive lessons we can gain from it?
The purpose of these verses isn’t to limit same-sex intimacy between two committed and loving partners, but to limit practices that are exploitative and abusive, particularly temple prostitution, in which men and young boys were exploited sexually as a way of appeasing the Divine, in ways God never intended or approved.