Leviticus 18:22; 20:13
Leviticus contains two of the most oft-quoted passages dealing with homosexuality. Their language is clear, their prescribed penalty severe, making them the perfect weapon to use in establishing homosexuality as one of, if not the most horrible sin one can commit against God. But, rather than make assumptions about the text, we’ll determine the proper interpretation and application of these two well-known, yet often misunderstood verses. We’re examining them together in one study because they are so similar in content, as well as context. Indeed, they’re practically a repetitive emphasis of the self-same command.
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” – Leviticus 18:22
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” – Leviticus 20:13
In relatively recent years, the common interpretation of these two passages has been brought into question. The Hebrew word-arrangement in the verses is quite weird (for lack of a better term), leading to multiple alternative translations.
of 18:22: Ve’et zachar lo tishkav mishkevey ishah to’evah hi.
Literal Translation: And with a male you shall not lay lyings of a woman. It is an abomination (detestable).
As this literal translation demonstrates, the language of the text is anything but absolutely clear. While it may seem obvious to some on the surface, it can be interpreted in a few substantially different ways. For example:
Possible Interpretation #1: And with a male you shall not lay as the lyings of a woman, which can indicate that what’s being condemned is male-male penetrative sex (a male having sex with another man as he would with a woman).
Possible Interpretation #2: And with a male you shall not lay as the lyings of a woman, which can also indicate that what’s being condemned is heterosexual males engaging in male-male penetrative sex (a male having sex with another man as he would normally have sex with a woman).
Possible Interpretation #3: And with a male you shall not lay in the lyings of a woman, indicating that what’s being condemned is male-male sex within a woman’s bed.
What is obvious is that these two passages are condemning male-male sexual intercourse in some way. What is not so obvious is whether all male-male sexual intercourse is being condemned, or simply that which is committed in a certain way (e.g. by a heterosexual male, or in a woman’s bed).
Unfortunately, there is no way to derive the proper translation based on the Hebrew words alone. We’re going to have to yield to a logical review of the text in order to discern which translation makes the most sense within the cultural and textual context.
Beginning at verse 6 and continuing to verse 20, a veritable laundry list of sexual acts are prohibited. In the parallel passage in chapter 20, the context also includes various sexual proscriptions. I don’t think that any sincere inquisitor subscribes to the notion that these various and sundry proscriptions are anything but universal in their intent. For example, no reasonable student of Scripture would conclude that incest is only being condemned within a limited context or scope.
Given the universal condemnation of other sexual activity in the previous verses, the rule of interpretational consistency leads me to believe that this verse is saying exactly what it appears to be saying—that under any and all circumstances, male-male penetrative sex is to be condemned.
Why Is Male-Male Sex Condemned?
Although we now have an understanding of what these two verses are saying, it’s exceedingly important that we do not stop there. A grand mistake Christians make in interpreting a particular verse is in failing to realize that interpretation is only half of the task. When we fail to seek out why a particular command of Scripture is given, we run the risk of obeying or applying the command in a manner that is inconsistent with its original intent.
Consider the example of hair lengths. In 1Co. 11:14-15, the apostle Paul states that it’s shameful for a man to have long hair. He also implies in verse 15 that it’s inappropriate for a woman to have short hair. Those who fail to understand why these things are said regarding hair lengths would mistakenly apply these proscriptions to modern Christians, despite the fact that they are wholly obsolete!
You see, hair lengths meant something to the world/culture Paul lived in and addressed that it doesn’t mean to us today. Long hair on a man symbolized culturally undesirable feminine qualities in a way that it no longer does. In addition, we no longer view women as property or subservient people who need a “covering” (a symbolic representation of her submission to patriarchal authority). As the world changed, so did the application of these proscriptions, which, although not obvious from the verse itself, contain a socio-religious worldview—applicable in its own place and time, but not in ours.
This potential to misapply properly translated and properly interpreted passages is why it’s so important to ponder what we read—to consider not only what it says, but also why it says it. It’s essential that we apply this rule to our examination of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.
The key to getting a fuller picture of the intent of a passage is to consider the cultural and textual context within which it is written. These verses in Leviticus were recorded during a time when the children of Israel were in grave danger of falling into idolatry. Not only had they mischievously exported idolatrous beliefs and practices after their deliverance from enslavement in Egypt (remember the golden calf they made while camped at the foot of Mount Sinai—Ex. 32), but they were also in danger of adopting the idolatrous beliefs of the Canaanite people, where God was bringing them to.
God expressed this concern at the beginning of each respective chapter where these proscriptions are found.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,  Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, I am the LORD your God.  After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do: neither shall ye walk in their ordinances.  Ye shall do my judgments, and keep mine ordinances, to walk therein: I am the LORD your God.  Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the LORD.” – Leviticus 18:1-5
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,  Again, thou shalt say to the children of Israel, Whosoever he be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that giveth any of his seed unto Molech; he shall surely be put to death: the people of the land shall stone him with stones.  And I will set my face against that man, and will cut him off from among his people; because he hath given of his seed unto Molech, to defile my sanctuary, and to profane my holy name.  And if the people of the land do any ways hide their eyes from the man, when he giveth of his seed unto Molech, and kill him not:  Then I will set my face against that man, and against his family, and will cut him off, and all that go a whoring after him, to commit whoredom with Molech, from among their people.  And the soul that turneth after such as have familiar spirits, and after wizards, to go a whoring after them, I will even set my face against that soul, and will cut him off from among his people.  Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy: for I am the LORD your God.  And ye shall keep my statutes, and do them: I am the LORD which sanctify you.” – Leviticus 20:1-8
[all emphases mine]
In both of the relevant chapters, God expressly laid out His reasons for the proscriptions that would follow; and in both chapters, those reasons are ultimately identical. He desired for His people to be culturally and religiously separated from the world around them. He didn’t want them exporting Egyptian idolatry, or assimilating into the socio-religious culture of the Canaanites. They were His people, and the best way for that to be demonstrated was for them to maintain complete separation from the world/cultures around them.
This explains why only male-male sex was condemned, not female-female sex. Homosexuality (or more precisely, same-sex sexual intercourse) was not being condemned in these passages. What was being condemned was activity that was taking place within the idolatrous cultures of Egypt and/or Canaan. Within the idolatrous worship beliefs and practices of these cultures, men would have sexual intercourse with the male priests of the idol temples (who were often eunuchs) as an act of worship, for the intercourse symbolized the coming together of the idol fertility goddes, Astarte, and the fire god, Molech, who was the male counterpart of Astarte. The sexual intercourse was done for the agricultural blessing of the coming years’ harvest—if Molech, the part played by the male worshiper, planted his seed (semen) within the fertility goddess, Astarte, it would promise a good harvest of crops that year.
Since women did not play a part within this particular cultic worship practice, it perfectly explains why they were not mentioned in these particular passages. Keep in mind that women were mentioned alongside men in the verses preceding and succeeding the verses in question. But, when it came to these specific proscriptions, they were nowhere to be found. This is the only logical interpretation of the text, which corresponds perfectly to the overall context of God’s intention to keep the Israelites sanctified (separated from the idolatrous beliefs and practices around them).
Cultic Worship, Not Homosexuality? Are You Sure?
How sure can we be that the proscriptions contained in these two verses (18:22 and 20:13), both of which include proscriptions of male-male sex, are referencing cultic worship rites and not all same-sex sexual activity? Well, first of all, one would have to explain why only male-male sex was condemned, if all same-sex sexual activity was supposedly ungodly in the eyes of God.
To claim that the textual intent was to imply condemnation of both sexes engaging in same-sex activity is to stretch the text beyond its expressly stated scope. Remember, women were specifically mentioned in proscriptions prior to and after these specific verses. If the intent was to condemn homosexuality in general, we would expect to see both sexes condemned within these particular verses.
Second, we must remember that God specifically laid out the reasons for these proscriptions in the first few verses of each respective chapter. If we ignore this expressly stated intent, and apply His words more broadly then He originally intended, we will be purposefully twisting Scripture in order to validate our traditional beliefs. I’m not willing to do that. Are you?
Third, not only did God lay out the intent of the text in the first few verses of each chapter, but the worship of idol gods is clearly within the mind of the author (and Author) within these contexts—for in chapter 18, right in the midst of this list of proscribed sexual acts, child sacrifice unto Molech is also condemned. In fact, the text breaks from a listing of proscribed sexual acts, talks about a specific act of Molech worship, and then condemns male-male sex in the very next verse. Remembering that Scripture was not originally written in verses, it’s clear that this is a flowing thought. It flows from the first verses down through the condemnations of male-male sex, including specific mentions of Molech worship in both chapters (18:21,
20:2-5). Clearly, idol worship is in the mind of the writer.
So, male-male sexual activity was representative of idolatrous peoples. As such, they served as symbols of cultural similitude that God was trying to avoid in keeping the Israelites sanctified from the world around them. That is why the acts were condemned within this Leviticus context. To maintain the intent of the text is not to twist or disobey Scripture. In fact, it’s the highest means of ensuring that God’s holy word is not abused or misused.
Does This Mean That All of the Activity Proscribed Here Is Okay Today?
This is a very legitimate question, and I think that the answer is helpful in ensuring that we continue to apply God’s word in a manner consistent with its intent. Here’s the deal. If I condemn activity within a specific context, it should only be viewed as condemnable within that context. That would mean that none of the condemnations within these contexts should be applied outside of the context of idolatrous socio-religious practices. Where such practices are not culturally steeped in idolatry, it would be inconsistent to apply the proscriptions, including those related to incest and other sexual sins listed in these verses.
But, that doesn’t automatically mean that the activities proscribed are perfectly okay today. It only means that we must look elsewhere in Scripture to see if the activity should be condemned universally, because these particular verses clearly and only apply to activity engaged in within the socio-religious cultures of idolatrous people.
As an example, consider racial hate crimes. Now, a law may exist within hate crimes legislation that the murder of an individual for racial reasons is unlawful. Would this mean that murdering someone for non-racial reasons is okay? Of course not! However, we would be forced to look outside of the hate crimes legislation to find legal backing for our case, for those particular provisions are only applicable within a framework of race-based crimes. No court of law would apply the Levitical proscriptions to a modern population, in which idolatrous cultural worship practices are now wholly obsolete (culturally speaking). To do such would be to apply the laws within contexts that they simply do not apply. Secular judges would see this, but studied Bible scholars, pastors, and teachers of Scripture seem to only remember it when the subject isn’t homosexuality!
How Does This Apply To Modern Christians?
We’ve already dealt with the fact that these verses do not apply outside of the context of cultures deeply intertwined with idolatrous activity. However, the reasons behind the inapplicability of these passages do not end there. We also need to consider an important biblical principle that applies to the entire Mosaic Law, and to all the laws contained therein.
In the apostle Paul’s epistle to the Galatian church, he makes as good a case as can be made regarding a Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic Law. I strongly encourage you to read the entire epistle; but the point of Paul’s teaching was that the Law served a purpose during a specific place and time, and for a specific people. When Christ came and died on the cross, the era of the Law was brought to a conclusion. Every single provision of the Law is now, therefore, null and void, just as much as ancient Egyptian law is null and void in 21st century America.
The Law was right and good during the time that it was in force; but for a believer in Christ to live under any provision of it is to, by implication, reject the death of Christ—the horrible price He paid in order to free us from bondage to the Law and deliver us into the liberty of the sons of God. Christians who turn to the books of the Law to determine the code by which we should live are guilty of one of the most egregious errors a Christian can commit. In fact, God considers it spiritual adultery for a person to submit to any portion of the obsolete Law.
“Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth?  For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband.  So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.  Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God.” – Romans 7:1-4
What makes this error even more treasonous is that the majority of Christians who turn to the Law to prove that homosexuality is a sin are well aware of the fact that we are no longer under the Law (Ro. 6:14). Yet, they ignore this reality in an attempt to validate their beliefs. Such a blatant and purposeful abuse of Scripture is antithetical to what it means to be a follower of Christ, who is, Himself, the living Word. I pray that God calls this error to their attention, so that they can repent of enforcing a Law that Christ died to fulfill and bring to a conclusion.