The holiness code
Leviticus 18:22 states:
Thou shall not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination.
The term abomination (to’ebah) is a religious term, usually reserved for use against idolatry; it does not mean a moral evil. The verse seems to refer to temple prostitution, which was a common practice in the rest of the Middle East at that time. The term qadesh referred to male religious prostitutes. (See the discussion of Deuteronomy.)
Leviticus 20:13 states:
If a man also lie with mankind as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they should surely be put to death…
The passage is surrounded by prohibitions against incest, bestiality, adultery and intercourse during a woman’s period. But this verse is the only one in the series which uses the religious term abomination; it seems also to be directed against temple prostitution.
The complete Holiness Code
These passages are part of the Jewish Holiness Code, which also:
- permits polygamy
- prohibits sexual intercourse when a woman has her period
- bans tattoos
- prohibits eating rare meat
- bans wearing clothes that are made from a blend of textiles
- prohibits cross-breeding livestock
- bans sowing a field with mixed seed
- prohibits eating pigs, rabbits, or some forms of seafood
- requires Saturday to be reserved as the Sabbath
Churches have abandoned the Holiness Code; it is no longer binding on modern-day Christians. They can wear tattoos, eat shrimp, wear polyester-cotton blends and engage in temple prostitution without violating this particular section of the Bible. Although this code is obsolete for Christians, many clergy still focus on those passages which deal with homosexuality.
Likely sources of the prohibition
It is likely that the prohibition “thou shall not lie with a male as with a woman” came about for one of the following reasons:
- Only sexual acts which could lead to procreation were valued, as the tribes needed to grow in numbers in order to survive.
- Male homosexual sex may have been connected in the Hebrew mind with idolatry. Notice that Leviticus 18:2 deals with idolatry. In fact many of the prohibitions in the Holiness Code were probably connected with idolatrous practices, see 19:26-29.
- Women were second-class citizens in the Hebrew culture and were generally treated as property.
If a man was penetrated in sexual intercourse, he was being treated like a woman and so was degraded in the Hebrew mind. The offense was not that this was a homosexual act, the offense was that a man was treated like a woman. If this line of thinking is correct, it would serve to explain why there is no prohibition against female homosexual acts in the Old Testament. Women could not be degraded by such an act, as they were already not held in high esteem.
There is a theory that the Hebrew people believed in a perfect order of creation, and anything that violated that order was considered unclean or an abomination. A probable example would be that fish were considered the perfect sea animal, hence anything in the sea that did not have scales and fins was unclean (Leviticus 11:9-10). Cattle were the perfect cud-chewing animal, hence anything that chewed cud but didn’t have hooves was unclean (Leviticus 11:6).
If this theory is correct, then the prohibition against male sex acts would be violating the role of the perfect ideal human: Man. It would seem to mix the sex role of the imperfect woman with the ideal role of the man.
Even if the reader disagrees with the theories stated above, they should take note that these verses are a part of the Hebrew scriptures often called the “Holiness Code.” This “code” is no longer followed by the Christian church.
Other prohibitions not followed today
In Leviticus 18:19 (which is just a few verses before the prohibition “thou shall not lie with a man as with a woman”), having sexual relations with a woman during her period is forbidden, yet this is not proclaimed as a binding rule for today.
Also, Leviticus 18:8 and 18:18 show that this code allows for polygamy, yet this is now considered immoral.
Leviticus 19:28 prohibits tattoos, yet they are not proclaimed as sinful by the Christian church.
Leviticus 19:19 forbids crossbreeding of livestock, yet the church allows farmers who do this very thing to worship in church.
Leviticus 19:19 forbids sowing a field with mixed feed, yet farmers are not condemned who plant hay and alfalfa.
Leviticus 11:7 forbids the eating of pigs, yet people unashamedly have a side of bacon with their eggs!
Leviticus 11:6 forbids the eating of rabbits (hares) because they don’t have cloven hooves but they chew cud, yet some Christians love to eat rabbit.
Leviticus 11:9-10 forbids the eating of any seafood that doesn’t have fins and scales, yet shrimp and lobster lovers are not told to repent by Christians, nor is Red Lobster picketed!
Leviticus 23:3 instructs that the seventh day of the week is to be the Sabbath, not Sunday, yet the Christian church disregards this.
Deuteronomy 22 states that a woman is not telling the truth if she says she was raped but no one heard her scream.
Leviticus 18:22 prohibitions irrelevant today
It is clear that the Christian church does not abide by the Holiness Code. It was a set of regulations which governed the Hebrew tribes but is not considered binding on the Christian church because there is now a new covenant in Jesus Christ! The following verses talk about this New Covenant:
Therefore let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17)
For on the one hand there is an annulling of the former commandment because of its weakness and unprofitableness, for the law made nothing perfect. (Hebrews 8:18)
In that Christ says “a new covenant,” Christ has made the first obsolete. (Hebrews 8:13)
[The Old Covenant] was symbolic… concerned only with foods and drink, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation. (Hebrews 9:9-10)
The New Covenant is complete
There are those who recognize that Christians are under a New Covenant and yet state that the Old Covenant was divided into three parts — civil, ceremonial and moral. They then insist that the moral part of the Old Covenant remain in force. This distinction can nowhere be found in the Old Covenant itself. In fact, many guidelines clearly have both a civil/ceremonial use and a moral one (see Leviticus 19:13). Who, then, has the authority to decide “this is morality, but this is civil procedure, and this is ceremonial…”?
Since the Christian church does not follow the Holiness Code it has no right to arbitrarily pick Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13-14 as still binding just because it seems to support a particular prejudice.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.