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.
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.
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.