This is Part 2 of a series on posts about the Old Testament passages related to same-sex intercourse. If you’re wondering why on earth we wouldn’t just take the super-clear, plain understanding of the laws in Leviticus, check out Torah Part 1.

For so long, I thought that affirming the sexuality of LGBT people like myself was at odds with the Bible, but I never understood why. People who affirmed LGBT people seemed to be doing what Jesus would do. But for those of us who take a high view of scripture, it isn’t enough to feel that something is more loving, we need to understand how that love is biblical love.

It wasn’t until I took a much closer look at the Bible that I realized how much better it’s teachings are than I could imagine. I want to share with you some things I learned about the texts of Leviticus and Genesis.

In my conservative and traditionalist seminary, I took a class on interpreting and applying the Old Testament Law. One of the principles I was taught is that the narratives of the Torah explain the laws of the Torah. That’s why I think it best to take the three Old Testament passages related to same-sex intercourse together along with the one additional passage that’s ambiguous. They help us to understand what is meant by the prohibitions in Leviticus.

The Leviticus verses, both 18:22 and 20:13 say, “A man shall not lie with a man as with a woman.” So we need to look at the stories that depict just such an act or an attempt at such an act.

The Sin of Ham

A strange story appears in Genesis 9. After the flood, Noah and his three sons were starting their new lives. Noah promptly planted a vineyard, made wine, got drunk, and lie naked in his tent. Ham went in and saw him, but not only that, the original language gives the idea that his eyes lingered on his father’s nakedness. In another seminary class, I remember the teacher describing how Ham was a homosexual and was disgustingly turned on by his father’s naked body. He then went out and told his brothers about Noah’s nakedness. The brothers walked backwards with a blanket to cover his nakedness.

No one is really sure what happened here. Uncovering someone’s nakedness is a euphamism for sex, but Noah uncovered his own nakedness and that’s not really the same. There is something less than rape and more than nothing going on here. There is a definite sexual tone. In verse 24 Noah sobers up and realizes what Ham “had done to him.”

One thing we do know, whatever happened Ham’s brothers reacted very differently than Ham did. They wanted to show their father respect, while Ham wanted to spread knowledge of their father’s disgrace.

The sexual overtone of this verse doesn’t seem to be about lust. If it was, he wouldn’t be bragging to his brothers. Yet he would speak so brazenly to his brothers if his goal was to humiliate his father. The indication is that same-sex eroticism here is about humiliating Noah.

The Sin of Sodom

This passage is where the word sodomy comes from. The story is found in Genesis chapter 19, but it really starts in chapter 18. I suggest a quick read. The basic story goes like this:

  • Angel’s show up at Abraham’s tent. He doesn’t know they are angels. He invites them in, gives them the best food, is all-around an awesome host.

  • They tell Abraham who they are and that they’ve come to destroy Sodom. Abraham pleads with them and they agree that if they find even five good people there they will spare the city.

  • The angels show up in Sodom. No one knows they are angels. No one helps them out. So they decide to sleep on the street. Lot realizes this is a terrible idea and invites them in.

  • Every single man in the city, young and old, gathers outside Lot’s home demanding the men to gang rape them.

  • Lot asks them to take his daughters instead, and they refuse then begin to push into the house.

  • The angels rescue lot and blind the men of Sodom who still try to get at the men but can’t.

  • The next day Lot and his family get out of there and the angels destroy the city.


Long before I had affirming theology, back when I was still trying desperately to be straight, I remember a line from a sermon describing the men of Sodom as “a group of gay men.”


Even when we live in this world of globalization, where queer people often pick-up and move to cities that are more gay-friendly, the most I’ve ever heard of is a city of 50% queer people (Palm Springs, CA, correct me in the comments if you know of a gayer city). So the idea that every single man in this city is gay is preposterous.


Besides, the idea that gay men are into gang rape is disgusting. I often see this type of reasoning in non-affirming works of theology, the assumption that queer people are different in more than just the gender we are attracted to. I’ve read that gay men would be into being temple prostitutes, that they would welcome castration, and in the Sodom story that they would be into gang rape. I know some great gay men; they wouldn’t hurt a fly.


A plausible explanation that scholars and commentators confirm is that these men were not motivated by sexual desire. They were engaging in a practice that has sadly always existed and still does today, men raping men to humiliate them and remove any threat.


Sodom was a city that had been attacked before (Genesis 13-14). While Abraham showed himself to be an exceptional host, Sodom showed itself to be bloodthirsty and violent to strangers. They craved a reputation that would strike terror in their enemies. Unlike the “gay men” explanation, this explanation takes the whole of the text into consideration.

Implications for Leviticus

So could the passages in Leviticus be referring to situations of power, humiliation, control, and violence?

If we arrive at the answer to that question not by falling back on our own personal prejudices, but by comparing scripture with scripture and relying on the narratives of the Torah itself, that is exactly what these verses are about.

There are still more reasons to see them this way.

In Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 the command is phrased differently than the other sexual prohibitions. The normal phrasing for sexual intercourse is that “you shall not uncover the nakedness.” Yet these verses say “you shall not lie with a man as with a woman.” Why the difference?

A sad reality of the Ancient Near East is that men had more intrinsic value than women. That’s consistent with the men in Sodom scoffing at Lot’s offer of his daughters. They wanted to inflict maximum pain, that meant harming those who had the most status and value.

In the Old Testament law, decisions are made by men, even women who aren’t slaves are bought and sold, and the vows a woman makes to the Lord can be retracted by her husband or father. Women had more agency in Israel than in surrounding nations, but much less than men.

So to lie with a man as with a woman isn’t described as a sexual intimate act of “uncovering his nakedness,” it’s an aggressive act of “lying with a man like a woman.” This is by nature an act of humiliation.

It’s not hard to arrive at that conclusion looking only at the Biblical text. It’s only confirmed by any book on Ancient Near Eastern same-sex eroticism. Male-to-male intercourse was viewed as a one-way act of domination of one man by another. The man who was dominated was treated as a woman and humiliated.

This understanding matches the narratives. It matches the laws. But it’s also a good interpretation for one more crucial reason: It’s a compassionate interpretation.

Interpreting this verse in the least nuanced, most literalistic way possible results in harm to LGBT people like myself. When applied to people who are in committed relationships of love and self-sacrifice, there is no harmony with the primary command in the Bible: Love God and our neighbor. How does limiting loving relationships promote love?

On the other hand, interpreting these prohibitions as I have suggested is in complete harmony with the most important principles of scripture. This command protects the vulnerable. It affirms biblical sexuality of love and respect. It brings judgement on aggressors and rids Israel of a disgusting practice that brought harm and pain.

It is also in harmony with the approach to Torah that Jesus himself took. Part 3 is coming for a detailed discussion of how Jesus interprets in Torah in Matthew 6-7.

In a sense, those of us who affirm same-sex marriage as biblical will always have an uphill battle because we are arguing against the plain meaning of scripture in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 which at face value is a simple prohibition against male same-sex intercourse.

Whenever there is confusion, and particularly when emotions are high, arguments that are simple are appealing. The argument that these verses are the plain word of God offers a very simple, clear, and straight forward answer. But the very simplicity that makes it compelling is also a liability. Interpreting the Bible is not always simple. Sometimes it takes effort, and there is nothing wrong with that.

This is the first in a series of three blogs what will address the verses about same-sex sexual behaviors in the Torah. Part 2 is available now, part 3 is coming soon. There are also three verses in the New Testament that will be addressed in future blogs. The Torah is the first five books of the Bible, and there are three places where same-sex sexual behaviors are mentioned (Genesis 19; Leviticus 18:22; 20:13), and possibly a fourth in Genesis 9 where it is implied.

In this first blog, the subject is the levitical laws, the second blog will address the narratives, primarily the story of Sodom, and how it informs the levitical law. The third blog will examine the implications of Jesus’ own approach to interpreting and applying the Torah.

The Plain Word of Scripture

The first question to address is why we would ever go against a plain command ofGod. Let’s begin by looking at the first of the two texts in question:

Leviticus 18:22 (ESV) says, “A man shall not lie with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination.”

Notice the specificity and economy of words in this text. There is no mention of mediating circumstances, and no excuse offered for those who would look for exceptions. The plain meaning is that sex between two men is wrong. Period. End of Story.

However, there is a follow-up question that needs to be asked. If this is the hermeneutic (meaning the method of interpretation) you have chosen, the hermeneutic that the clarity of the statement and the plain reading is the right one, are you willing to apply this method to all the verses in Leviticus? Or at least all of the texts where you can’t sight a clear reason not to, such as commands related to the temple service which was abolished by Christ?

The only way it makes sense to take a strong literalistic stance on this verse is if you do so with other verses as well. Otherwise you aren’t following scripture, you’re following your own inclination.

Leviticus, Literally

So let’s look at some other verses…

Leviticus 19:20-21 (ESV) says, “If a man lies sexually with a woman who is a slave, assigned to another man and not yet ransomed or given her freedom, a distinction shall be made. They shall not be put to death, because she was not free; but he shall bring his compensation to the Lord, to the entrance of the tent of meeting, a ram for a guilt offering.”

This verse makes room for men to own women and to have sex with them without their consent (known today as rape). The only problem with a man owning a woman and having sex with her is if she has been promised to someone else. Female sexuality is bought and sold. That’s the plain meaning of this text.

Leviticus 21:9 (ESV) says, “And the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by whoring, profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.”

We all know PKs (Priest’s Kids?) can be a real problem. Pastors, if your daughter gets out of control, your reputation might suffer. That’s an age old problem for which Leviticus has an answer. Burn her at the stake. That’s the plain meaning of this text.

Leviticus 24:19-20 (ESV) says, “If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.”

In this verse a specific action is shown in the clearest of language. There are no excuses or mediating circumstances. If you harm someone, intentional or not, you must receive the same bodily injury. Period. End of Story. That’s the plain meaning of the text.

Leviticus 25:44-46 (ESV) says, “As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and females slaves from among the nations that are around you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever.”

Its clear yet again. Slavery is okay. Nothing wrong with it. There it is in the Bible clear as day. The plain meaning couldn’t be more plain.

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

That one sounds familiar. It’s essentially a restatement of 18:22, but this time with a command to kill them both, and a promise that their blood is upon them and you are not culpable for their deaths. Plain meaning of scripture. Who am I to apply one half of a text literally and ignore the last half?

When Literal Is Immoral

These are just a few verses from Leviticus, there are many more verses in the Old Testament whose literal meaning is questionable. When we hear the verses on slavery and the devaluation of women, we automatically start thinking about reasons why they might not apply to us.

But why do we do that? The answer is simple, because we believe slavery is harmful and therefore immoral, and because we believe women should be valued equally to men. We are looking for ways out of the literal understanding of these verses, and there are ways out of the literal meaning of these verses, and they are legitimate.

We also don’t believe anymore in the retributive justice of the Old Testament, the eye for an eye, because Jesus showed us a better way (Matthew 5:38-42). Shouldn’t we be interpreting these verses the way Jesus did? If the possibility exists that this interpretation is harming people, shouldn’t compassion for those people at least cause us to reexamine our viewpoint?

As a woman who has a longing in myself to for a committed romance with another woman, and as someone familiar with the history and trials of LGBT people, I can tell you that there is good reason to believe that the plain meaning of these verses hurts people. Anyone who is paying attention and listening to the lives and stories of LGBT people knows this.

Beyond Literal

Does that mean we should just throw them out and never worry about them again? Absolutely not. I disagree with many of the LGBT affirming theologians who show a lot of verses from Leviticus we don’t follow anymore then just throw the whole thing out. I don’t dismiss these verses just because they appear in Leviticus.

I believe every verse of scripture has something to teach us. No word is without value and meaning. Yet I do not believe we should always seize on the meaning that first strikes us.

We shouldn’t decide the present-day application of a text before we have questioned and done our homework, and certainly not before we have considered the real lives of people impacted by that verse. When compassion gives us reason to question the plain meaning, we should look again at our interpretation.

When understood in their context, the laws about slavery, the treatment of women, and retributive justice did make people’s lives better. If you had to be a woman in the Ancient Near East, Israel was the best place to be. Women had more rights, more protection, and more agency there than anywhere else. Same thing if you had to be a slave. There were limits placed on slave owners. And the eye-for-an-eye law was much better than laws in other nations where a rich man’s eye was worth a poor man’s life.

All of scripture is seeking the redemption of humanity. Taking the plain meaning of scripture is sometimes just an excuse for laziness. We need to look again.

The next step is to compare scripture with scripture so we can better understand the levitical verses on male same-sex intercourse. We take that up in Part 2.