Leviticus and the Law

The notorious passages of the so-called Holiness Code in Chapters 18 and 20 of Leviticus have traditionally been used to justify the ill treatment of sexual minorities. On first reading, the text appears to be unequivocal in its condemnation of physical relations between members of the same sex, and the prescribed penalty for such behavior is death. Such an extreme reaction merits close attention to context. This stricture, said to be given directly to Moses by Yahweh in the tent of meeting, is only one among a comprehensive listing of all of the many ways people can and do transgress the Law.

We are well aware today of the urgent need for procreation to a fledgling race of Exodus survivors, and can understand the attempt to codify restrictions on non-reproductive sexual activity. Certainly it may help to place this prohibition in the context of the society from which it arose. In Genesis 17, God promised Abraham that he would be the ancestor of many nations, and again in Chapter 22 Yahweh declared that Abraham’s offspring would be as numerous as the stars of heaven; in fact, throughout the Pentateuch we find an emphasis on children, offspring and fertility as signs of God’s favor. If reproduction is to be equated with prosperity, then those portions of the holiness code which prohibit intercourse that doesn’t lead to pregnancy are put into a more proper perspective. It is well to remember that what we call homosexuality is not singled out for censure; sex during menstruation and sex with animals are considered equally improper, as is infant sacrifice in the very same passage. Clearly children were a precious and much-desired resource to the framers of these laws, and any activity that interfered with the maximization of this resource was to be discouraged as strongly as possible.

In the same manner, other parts of the code can shed light upon this apparently draconian statute. According to Chapter one of Genesis, God assigned certain creatures to each of three domains when he created the universe. Thus fish are to swim in the water, birds are to fly in the air and at the same time the earth brought forth three distinct categories of animals at God’s command: cattle, creeping things and wild animals. These are the classifications of creatures that were organized into separate groupings at God’s command on the fifth and sixth days of existence, and anything that deviates from this scheme is considered unclean. Now some of the mysterious proscriptions in chapter eleven of Leviticus become more intelligible. It has been argued that God created male and female in the same way, and for men to lie with men is crossing the same kind of divine boundary and therefore goes against God. Yet the text is far from clear on this point, for verse 27 of Leviticus 18 states that `the inhabitants of the land, who were before you, committed all of these abominations.’ This at least suggests that such behavior was not unknown and indeed was common enough among the indigenous population to warrant specific mention.

Finally it remains to be observed in this context that very few of these laws are actually practiced today. It is difficult for us to judge to what extent they were followed even at the time, but our understanding of dermatology has certainly changed. The weird fascination with bodily discharges must strike the modern reader as bizarre at best. It is safe to say that very few children are being sacrificed to Molech these days; augury and witchcraft have not been regarded as major social problems since the time of Cotton Mather, and a wide variety of styles in hair and beards is generally tolerated, except among the most extreme orthodox groups. On balance it must be admitted that certain parts of the Bible are simply not as relevant as they once were, and that the guidance we seek from it today can be of a different order.