Leviticus and the Holiness Code

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The book of Leviticus was written for the people of Israel. It was a law book for them. It was also known as the Holiness Code. Leviticus was not only the book that recorded the law for the people of Israel. There were also Deuteronomy and Exodus that contained part of the law that the Children of Israel were to follow.

In Leviticus there are two passages that people like to use against Homosexuality. The first is found in Leviticus 18:22: Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.

The second is found at Leviticus 20:13 (NIV): If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

The Galatian believers were Gentiles. The first Century Judaizers came along and said, “You are not Christian if you don’t follow Jewish rituals and laws of Moses. Recorded at Galatians 3:1-3: You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?

What Paul is saying is, how did you receive the Holy Spirit? Was it by following the law? Was it by good deeds? By receiving the Holy Spirit and having faith, where they going to be perfect by going back to ancient traditions, laws, and rituals? Jesus Christ came therefore we are no longer under or forced to follow the Law of Moses. The book of James teaches us more.

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. — James 2:10

James says that if you keep all of the law and if you break one, you break all of it. All books mentioned above. So if a person is condemned because he/she is gay and has sex with the same gender, we should not judge. When James and numerous passages say that if we break one, we break all of them. The gospel comes along and declares no one ever loved by the law; no one ever could, except Jesus. That is why we need a savior. The law showed us that we needed a savior and we got him!

Humanity has always tried through good works to get into God’s grace. Different religious groups have created and followed religious systems of laws to follow. They make us think that we are good persons on our own. Therefore they feel they don’t need God or Jesus Christ at Calvary. God’s Word says we are to follow his decree or we do not have eternal life.

The Apostle Paul wrote:

Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant–not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. — 2 Corinthians 3:5-6

We have to look at the New Testament to understand the law. For the law is dead, but through the spirit we have Eternal Life!

A religious consideration

Leviticus was called “The Holiness Code” because it listed out punishments and spelled out requirements for Israel to remain holy. The Israelites were God’s “chosen people.” God had a covenant with them. It required Israel not to take part in the religious practices of the Canaanites. They had to remain separate from the Gentiles, to be like their God and not like other people. They were to be holy — set apart, different, chosen people of God, God-like. So a main concern of the Holiness Code was to keep Israel different from the Gentiles [or “aliens”].

The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘I am the LORD your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them. I am the LORD. — Leviticus 18:1-5 NIV

What were the practices of the Land of Canaanites as well as other lands surrounding them? Religious practices included fertility rites involving sexual rituals that were thought to bring blessing on the cycle of the seasons, the production of crops, the birth of livestock. Even whole families and group of families all had sex with one another.

When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the LORD your God. — Deut. 18:9-13 NIV

They are told time after time that these things are desirable to the Lord, their God. As we continue to see what the Israelites continued to follow after the surrounding cities, we come to Judges 2:6-23:

After Joshua had dismissed the Israelites, they went to take possession of the land, each to their own inheritance. 7 The people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel.

8 Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of a hundred and ten. 9 And they buried him in the land of his inheritance, at Timnath Heres in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash.

10 After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. 11 Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. 12 They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger 13 because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. 14 In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. 15 Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress.

16 Then the Lord raised up judges [leaders], who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. 17 Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned from the ways of their ancestors, who had been obedient to the Lord’s commands. 18 Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them. 19 But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.

20 Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and said, “Because this nation has violated the covenant I ordained for their ancestors and has not listened to me, 21 I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations Joshua left when he died. 22 I will use them to test Israel and see whether they will keep the way of the Lord and walk in it as their ancestors did.” 23 The Lord had allowed those nations to remain; he did not drive them out at once by giving them into the hands of Joshua. — Judges 2:6-23 NIV

The Israelites continued to Serve other gods and be unfaithful. Here 1 Kings 14:22-24 says: Judah did evil in the eyes of the LORD. By the sins they committed they stirred up his jealous anger more than their fathers had done. They also set up for themselves high places, sacred stones and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree. There were even male shrine prostitutes in the land; the people engaged in all the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites.

Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem sixteen years. Unlike David his father, he did not do what was right in the eyes of the LORD his God. He walked in the ways of the kings of Israel and even sacrificed his son in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites. He offered sacrifices and burned incense at the high places, on the hilltops and under every spreading tree. — 2 Kings 16:1-4 NIV

Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the LORD Almighty, and all who come to sacrifice will take some of the pots and cook in them. And on that day there will no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the LORD Almighty. — Zechariah 14:21

Having sex with a menstruating woman (i.e., while she is on her period) and offering child-sacrifice to the Canaanite god Moloch are other alleged Canaanite practice listed in the section of Holiness Code, which prohibits all those acts. It calls them all “abominations” and prescribes that everyone who does any of these detestable things — such persons must be cut off from their people. (Leviticus 18:29)

This same section of the Holiness Code includes the prohibition of male homogenital acts because of religious considerations, not because of sexual ones. But the concern is to keep Israel from taking part in Gentile practices. Homosexual sex is forbidden because it is associated with pagan activities, idolatry, and an identification with the Gentiles.

Arguments in Leviticus are religious, not ethical or moral. No thought is given to whether the sex in itself is right or wrong. All concern is for keeping Jewish identity strong!

Some things for us today we would consider unclean. Take for example the Roman Catholic church. Lent is very important to its followers, many of whom eschew meat on Friday. There are probably some who believe violating this practice condemns one to hell. But now it’s increasingly considered okay, not unclean. Or what about a Satanic ritual that included sexual acts? Jews and Christians would object to such sex. They would object even if the sex involved a husband and wife, because it is worshipping Satan.

What is an abomination?

“An abomination is something that makes God want to vomit,” said a pastor one time. But we have to ask ourselves this question: “What does it mean to the ancient Hebrew mind?” Leviticus 20:25-26 says: You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds. Do not defile yourselves by any animal or bird or anything that moves along the ground — those which I have set apart as unclean for you. You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.

But first before we read that Scripture and understand it, what do these words mean, to be “clean” or “unclean”? “Abominable” means unclean, abomination is a violation of purity rules that governed Israelite society and kept the Israelites different from the other people. (To recapture the meanings of “clean” and “unclean” is to understand the meanings of “pure” and “impure” in ancient Israel.

Purity rules were principles of sanitation, in which certain things were forbidden because they were health hazards. A person with certain skin diseases was considered leprous — not in today’s technical sense of the term — and was declared unclean.

If the disease breaks out all over his skin and, so far as the priest can see, it covers all the skin of the infected person from head to foot, the priest is to examine him, and if the disease has covered his whole body, he shall pronounce that person clean. Since it has all turned white, he is clean. — Leviticus 13:12-13

But if a person(s) skin has turned all white he is pronounced clean.

Some examples of unclean (or “gross”) for us today:

  • Playing in the potty (bathroom)
  • Throwing food (playing with food)
  • Picking your nose
  • Eating snot (from your nose)

As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.

All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”

“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”

“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”

“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. — Romans 3:10-23

If someone wants to judge someone else based on the law, then they are accountable to the law as well. If they miss something in the law they are guilty. So if they quote passages in Leviticus, then they are to follow the law as well. I can’t express it any more clearly than that. Paul speaks about “no one being righteous in his sight by observing the law!” By the law we become conscious of sin.

Reading verses 21-23 it talks about “righteousness from God, apart from law and the prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” What does it say? “To all who believe.” It does not say for straight people only. It continues to say, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

You can’t pull a passage from Leviticus 18 or 20 and say, “See right here. God hates homosexuals.” To use the law, you have to follow it yourself. Let’s talk about the law and some demands the law required.

In the table below, hover over the verse citation to read the text.

Scriptural Comparison/Contrast

Deuteronomy 23:20 KJVDeuteronomy 23:20 NIV
Deuteronomy 24:5 KJVDeuteronomy 24:5 NIV
Leviticus 19:4 KJVLeviticus 19:4 NIV
Leviticus 19:17 KJVLeviticus 19:17 NIV
Leviticus 19:19 KJVLeviticus 19:19 NIV
Leviticus 19:27 KJVLeviticus 19:27 NIV
Leviticus 19:32 KJVLeviticus 19:32 NIV
Deuteronomy 23:1 KJVDeuteronomy 23:1 NIV
Deuteronomy 23:2 KJVDeuteronomy 23:2 NIV
Leviticus 20:9 KJVLeviticus 20:9 NIV
Leviticus 20:10 KJVLeviticus 20:10 NIV
Leviticus 21:17 KJVLeviticus 21:17 NIV
Leviticus 21:18 KJVLeviticus 21:18 NIV
Leviticus 21:19 KJVLeviticus 21:19 NIV
Leviticus 21:20 KJVLeviticus 21:20 NIV
Leviticus 21:21 KJVLeviticus 21:21 NIV
Leviticus 15:19 KJVLeviticus 15:19 NIV
Leviticus 15:20 KJVLeviticus 15:20 NIV
Leviticus 15:28 KJVLeviticus 15:28 NIV
Leviticus 15:29 KJVLeviticus 15:29 NIV
Leviticus 15:30 KJVLeviticus 15:30 NIV
Deuteronomy 22:5 KJVDeuteronomy 22:5 NIV


Some of the laws in the above chart show what the children of Israel were to follow in the law. If we are to follow the law(s), we must then follow all 613 of them. The following are some examples for us today if we were to follow these laws, or written code.

Deuteronomy 24:5 says If a man has recently married, he must not be sent to war or have any other duty laid on him. For one year he is to be free to stay at home and bring happiness to the wife he has married. If we were to apply that to us, people would laugh at us. If you just got married and are not staying home, then you are guilty of breaking that law. So much for drafting people into the army.

Leviticus 19:19 says not to mate different kinds of animals. If you are mating different kinds of animals, you are breaking the law. Do not plant your fields with two kinds of seeds. This is a good one! If you are planting roses with lilies you are breaking the law. Better yet, do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material. If you are wearing cotton and polyester, you are breaking the law and are guilty of breaking all of them.

Leviticus 19:27 says Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off edges of your beard. Didn’t think this one was in the law? Sure is! Break this law and you don’t get into the Promised Land.

Deuteronomy 23:1 says No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord. Is someone going to stand at the church door and ask them to strip before they enter church to make sure that they have all their body parts in working order?

Deuteronomy 22:5 says A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the LORD your God detests anyone who does this. So all of us that wear each other’s clothing are breaking the law. Have I made my point yet?

Leviticus 21:18-20 says of entering the assembly: No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. Again, is someone going to stand at the door to check for these defects, of which we all have one or another? So if you wear glasses, contacts, a fake leg or arm or have missing fingers, you cannot enter into God’s house. And if you do, you are breaking the law.

Woman Caught in Adultery

We come to a passage were someone is caught in adultery. Looking at the passage we read:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” — John 8:3-7

The teachers of that day were going by the Law of Moses. When the woman was caught, they wanted to stone her. They wanted to trap Jesus and trick him. They wanted to see what his response was. To which he said, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” With the law it all came down to stoning any person who broke the law. Whereas Jesus said, “If you are without sin, cast the first stone.” They couldn’t do it because they had sin in their lives and they knew it. Through Jesus we are no longer bound under the old covenant, but that of the new.

Women in the Church

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head — it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.” — 1 Corinthians 11:4-6

The only dress code mentioned in the New Testament is when the Apostle Paul was talking to the Corinthian Church, as found in the above passage. This was mentioned so that the conduct and dress to the church was not dishonored. His point was that their local society customs should not be ignored when doing so implied a lack of morals on their part. This could bring disgrace to the entire Christian witness in Corinth.

Leviticus passages in question

If we were to take these passages at face value [i.e., reading them with a historical lens], then they would be correct. But remember that this is the 21st century, and it has a different meaning to use them today. We need to look at all Scripture and how it was applied in ancient Israel, and their customs; how the early church applied it, and how it applies to us today. We need to further look at the Hebrew meaning of the words used.

The English translations of the Old Testament have historically used two words for this concept of “forbidden”: “abomination” and “detestable.” If we took these words as they are meant in the English then, we would take it literally. But we have to look at the meaning in Hebrew.

The Hebrew word they’re translating is two’ebah, which Strong’s Concordance at #8441 depicts as: “feminine active participle of ta’ab; properly, something disgusting (morally), i.e. (as noun) an abhorrence; especially idolatry or (concretely) an idol — abominable (custom, thing), abomination.”

In Leviticus 18:22 (KJV) we read, Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. The word used here means idolatry. It says they have committed an abomination. This was concerning worship of idols from other lands. For the Law of Moses states:

Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the aliens living among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things [idolatrous] were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. — Leviticus 18:24-27

If we look at the passages in Chapter 18 of Leviticus that deal with a man lying with zakar, we see something else when it’s placed in its context with the verses before it.

And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord. Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. — Leviticus 18:21-22 KJV

Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord. Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable. — Leviticus 18:21-22 NIV

God’s laws were very clear to Israel. But they did these things anyway. They practiced and participated in acts of worship God did not accept. Therefore the statement here, the semen should not pass on to Molech, can also mean that you should not have sex with the priest/priestess of Molech as part of an idol worship ceremony.

The thinking behind having ritual sex with the priest/priestess of the fertility god being that the semen passed right on through the priest to the god itself. It all comes down to idolatry!

The word #2l45 in Strong’s Concordance, zakar, in Hebrew, is a very specific word. It is not the generic word for man, meaning any man, but this word means “to he remembered.” This is someone special, and you need to remember who he is. Its root word is translated as a “remembrance”. God remembers us, or God remembers our situation and shows His mercy. God remembered Abraham, etc. Many times it is translated as a remembrance because it is an important thing. In other words, you’re not to lie with this person (someone to be remembered, somebody very important), the way that you would lie with a common harlot or prostitute. There is a difference in the way one could lie with a prostitute, and the way someone would lay with someone very important, and you better remember who they are.

Someone important, like a president or a king of a nation, would not be treated the way you would lie with any woman, a common harlot, or anyone you do not need to know anything about. You cannot treat this high ranking official this way because it is two’ebah (idolatry).

In these well-documented sexually idolatrous worship encounters, you don’t care who the priest is personally, or what their name is. All you care about is that your fertility is guaranteed for whatever you want to be fertile (crops, family, livestock). All that matters is that the religious ritual is satisfied, to please the fertility god(s/dess/es). You don’t need to know the name of the priest/priestess, you don’t care who their family is, and you don’t need their phone number so you can call them up again sometime. This sexual encounter is not to build a loving relationship between the people involved. It is a religious business transaction.

All the things condemned in Leviticus 18 and 20 were what the idolatrous nations where doing. They did treat zakar, “to he remembered,” as if he were a common prostitute, and did it in the name of idolatrous religion.

God’s Word also states, You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them. (Leviticus 20:23) God’s covenant people, and God’s Law, are dealing with God’s covenant people. Israel was to be holy, undefiled. But they did it anyway: They practiced idol worship and God detested it. Israel was to be separated from other nations, just as God has called us to be separate from the world as Christ followers.

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

I want to show the above passage with the Strong Concordance citations for the Hebrew words:

If a man [#376] also lie [#7901] with mankind [#2145], as he lieth [#4904] with a woman [#802], both of them have committed an abomination [#8441, idolatry]: they shall be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

If this passage were talking about homosexuality it would have said, man with man or woman with woman. It does not make a case regarding homosexuality. Looking at Strong’s Concordance we get a better understanding of what the Hebrew words mean.

The word used here for “woman” (#802) translates to “a woman committing adultery.” The word two’ebah in the Hebrew means “feminine active participle of ta’ab; properly, something disgusting (morally), i.e. (as noun) an abhorrence; especially idolatry or (concretely) an idol — abominable (custom, thing), abomination.” So we see that it is something God detests. As we look at the history of Israel and other lands, these others participated in cultic worship and worshipped and served other gods.

Saul and the Philistines

Now the Philistines fought against Israel; the Israelites fled before them, and many fell dead on Mount Gilboa. The Philistines were in hot pursuit of Saul and his sons, and they killed his sons Jonathan, Abinadab and Malki-Shua. The fighting grew fierce around Saul, and when the archers overtook him, they wounded him critically.

Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.”

But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him. So Saul and his three sons and his armor-bearer and all his men died together that same day.

When the Israelites along the valley and those across the Jordan saw that the Israelite army had fled and that Saul and his sons had died, they abandoned their towns and fled. And the Philistines came and occupied them.

The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the dead, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. They cut off his head and stripped off his armor, and they sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to proclaim the news in the temple of their idols and among their people. They put his armor in the temple of the Ashtoreths and fastened his body to the wall of Beth Shan. — 1 Samuel 31:1-10

The Philistines had no intention of taking someone to be remembered and treating them with dignity. They had no intention of burying his headless corpse. They went as far as going temple to temple in town after town to show their god what they were bringing as sacrifice.

These were fertility gods, and sex and temple prostitution was part of their worship. King Saul knew that, and he pleaded with his armbearers to kill him before the Philistines had a chance to abuse him. Since armbearers could not kill the wounded king, Saul committed suicide rather than rape at the head of this idol-worshipping nation.

It may be noted that in Judges 19:25 we read, But the men would not listen to him. So the man took [#2388] his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused [#5953] her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go.

The word for “took” in the Hebrew is chazaq which means “a primitive root; to fasten upon; hence to seize, be strong.” It can also mean “taken by force.” The Hebrew word for abuse is alal which means “abuse, pain, defile.” They raped her. It was not that they were homosexuals as some may say that this passage refers to homosexuality. It does not. In the case of Saul, they wanted to rape him as well. He knew this, and that is why he killed himself.


Leviticus does not say that for a man to lie with a man is wrong, or a sin; but Leviticus says it is a ritual violation, an uncleanness, it is something that was “dirty” to the Israelites back then. But today it has a different meaning. Please continue to read these short studies. Next time I will be doing a study on the New Testament and what Paul wrote about it, since it seems that people more condemn homosexuality from the New Testament.

Reference works cited

  • Openly Gay, Openly Christian: How the Bible Really is Gay Friendly by Samuel Kader
  • New International Version (NIV)
  • King James Version (KJV)

Copyright Steve Payne, all rights reserved. No part of this may be photocopied or reproduced by any means without written permission from the author. 

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