What DOES Leviticus 18 Say?
Have you ever noticed that the most common argument against the same gender loving community is “Well, the Bible says…”? When faced with intelligence and well placed facts, the typical Bible fundamentalist will only have “what the Bible says” as their only means of defense. They can’t tell you why they believe what they believe. They don’t really know what the scriptures mean or where they came from. All they know is “the Bible said it”.
Two of the most commonly used scriptures is Leviticus 18.22 which says “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination,” and Leviticus 20.13 says “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.” On the surface, it’s a closed case. With a literalist interpretation of this scripture, the act of same-gender sex is wrong, and in the eyes of God is punishable by death. We will delve deeper into this issue and look closer at this scripture. Hopefully, those who read will be enlightened and liberated from church imposed guilt and shame. So, let’s begin…
When looking at the “Levitical Holiness Code”, we must understand that it was a code of conduct that was part of a covenant that required the children of Israel to not participate in the religious rituals of the Canaanites once they entered the land God promised to them. They were to remain separate in every way. They were not to eat with the Canaanites, intermarry, worship with/or like them. They were to remain “holy” or set apart. In obeying this covenant, they would prove themselves to be God’s chosen people. They would be instantly identifiable as the people of covenant. This same code also prohibits the eating of certain foods, wearing certain types of clothes, and also discriminates against people with disabilities as it relates to worship and the priesthood.
We must also remember that it was always in the forefront of the minds of the people of Israel the covenant made with their patriarch Abraham. God promised Abraham that he would make of him a mighty nation. A nation whose number would be like that of the stars in the sky or the sand of the sea. He would be the Father of many people….a great nation (Genesis 17.5). So when making laws, or instituting a code of conduct that would govern their actions they had to keep in mind that God’s covenant with the father of their faith was to make them a great nation. They could not participate in anything they thought would hinder or keep them from fulfilling that covenant.
In taking a closer look at these two verses, we will look at the transliteration from Hebrew to English. In taking each character of Hebrew into English, Leviticus 18.22 looks like this…
“V’et zachar lo tishkav mishk’vei ishah to’evah hu”…when translated into English reads “And with a male thou shalt not lie down in beds of a woman; it is an abomination.”
Leviticus 20.13 looks likes this…
“V’ish asher yishkav et zachar mishk’vei ishah to’evah asu shneihem mot yumatu d’meihem bam” when translated into English reads “And a man who will lie down with a male in beds of a woman, both of them have made an abomination; dying they will die. Their blood is on them.”
We are going to look at the words “mishk’vei” and “to’evah” and it will give us a better understanding of what these verses are trying to say. First, the word “mishk’vei” is a noun. The main form of it is “mishkav, and the root letters of the noun, sh-k-v are the same letters of the verb root in the verse (lie down). Mishk’vei is in the plural construct state, meaning “beds of”, and the noun “ishah” means woman. To’evah is translated “abomination” in English. Yet the definition is key to the interpretation of the verse. Most define this word as “disgusting” or “detestable”. Others simply define it as “improper” or “unclean”, as if to say “good Jews just don’t do that”.
With what we know now, the verse says a man cannot, or should not lie down with a man in the bed of a woman. During this time period, a woman was considered property. And since women were considered unclean during certain times of month, they had beds of their own. Other than the woman herself, nobody was permitted to sleep in her bed but her husband. Husbands often didn’t sleep in the same bed with their wives unless they were there for the express purpose of having sex with them. And there were rules which said when he could do that. So this verse is more about WHERE same-gender sex could occur, and not about the sex itself.
Now just why would the author even bring this up? Well, the Canaanites’ religious rituals or worship included sex acts. They worshipped fertility gods who were thought to bring blessings on their crops, livestock, children, etc. During these rituals, everyone participated. Even relatives would have sex with one another. They would also burn babies as sacrifice at the altars built to these fertility gods. And since incest, human sacrifice, and having sex anywhere was part of the worship, the Israelites were not permitted to perform these acts if they were going to be different and separated unto a Holy God.
The sex acts were prohibited because of religious reasons, more specifically idol worship. This law was not a blanket prohibition of sexuality. The entire code was meant to keep Israel from engaging in the religious practices of the Canaanite people. The argument here is religious, not moral or ethical. If the Jews of this time period were to maintain a strong identity, and build a large nation, they could not be like the people around them in any way or form….including their worship.
One thing you need to also recognize about the use of Leviticus to bash the LGBT/SGL community is, those who use it ONLY use these two verses. They forget about everything else the book of Leviticus calls an abomination. When you point this out, they will tell you “well now we are under grace, and not under the law”. So why was EVERY law fulfilled by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross EXCEPT this one? They can’t tell you… neither can I.