The Levitical Code contains some of the most demanding rules that have ever been laid upon anyone. Comprising most of the book of Leviticus, these 636 rules governed everything from public, private, and personal worship to personal finances and personal hygiene. It’s hard to imagine living under all these rules because they seem to impinge upon personal freedom – something we Americans hold dear. Imagine being required to forgive a huge debt – whether it’s been paid or not – just because a certain New Year has arrived!
Buried in the midst of English translations of these rules are two passages that seem to fuel intolerance of homosexuality.
Why were all these rules created? It was important to God that the children of Israel be different from the people who lived with and near them.
One of my fears in this part of our study is that I am going to come across as a petulant child. I’m going to sound like the little kid who doesn’t like having to go to bed at a certain time each night. “Mommy, why can’t I stay up later? This rule is stupid!”
It is going to sound that way at first, but please stick with me. There’s more…!
The priests who compiled the “Books of the Law” – the first five books of our Hebrew texts – made it seem as if all five books were written in rapid succession while on the journey from Egypt into the Promised Land. In fact, however, the 636 regulations contained in the Levitical Code were brought together much later in response to fears of being held in exile away from Jerusalem. Nevertheless, these rules had been in effect for centuries. Rather than being formulated all at one time, they, too, developed over centuries of practical experience in trying to live a Godly life.
The rules listed in this part of Leviticus are directed toward the Levites – the priestly clan of the Israelites. Priests were ordinary humans just like our present-day pastors are ordinary men and women. Because they were called to set an example for the people, they were given special rules. Many of those rules proscribed what it takes to be a “clean” priest.
“Clean” meant all kinds of things, but mainly, it meant being different from the native Canaanites who worshiped the native fertility god, “Baal,” and thus being worthy of approaching Yahweh.
Along with many of the Israelites who sneaked off to “play” in the temples of Baal, these verses were particularly directed toward those Levites who had begun to appease the native people and participate in the ancient fertility rites of the native Canaanite people. Even though God had commanded the children of Israel to remain faithful, some of the Israelite priests had begun to allow the Israelite people to visit these temples and give burnt offerings to Baal and Asherah. Once they participated in such activities, Levite and layperson alike were ritually “unclean.”
Of the Canaanites, the priests of Baal demanded drunken, frenzied, indiscriminate, and often forced sexual orgies involving men and women alike as a part of their religious ritual. Only some of that activity involved same-sex pairings. According to native belief, this was done in order to be sure that a shepherd’s fields would be healthy enough to bear vegetation so livestock could graze during the heat of the summer!
What was going on in these rituals of Baal worship was completely different from present-day loving same-sex relationships. It was idol worship and instant gratification.
We have different English words to indicate how intense our feelings are. “Bothered” may not be as intense as “furious.”
Look this list over and then rank these Feelings in order of how intense your corresponding anger usually would be.
Use 9 for most intense and 1 for least intense:
- Ticked off
When we are bothered, irritated, or annoyed about something, we have a Reaction to that Feeling. Different Abusive Acts give us different reactions. When you think of these feelings, how serious do you image the Abusive Act is that prompted the feeling?
Use 9 for most serious and 1 for least serious:
If you gave “abomination,” “loathsome,” “disgusting,” and “nauseating” (along with others) a nine, you are not alone. That is what most Christians have been taught to believe. In Hebrew, however, “abomination” is not that intense.
What does “abomination” really mean?
“An ‘abomination’ is that which God found detestable because it was unclean, disloyal, or unjust. Several Hebrew words were so translated, and the one found in Leviticus, to'eva, is usually associated with idolatry, as in Ezekiel, where it occurs numerous times. Given the strong association of to'eva with idolatry and the Canaanite religious practice of cult prostitution, the use of to'eva regarding … same-sex acts in Leviticus calls into question any conclusion that such condemnation also applies to loving, responsible homosexual relationships.”1
But contrary to what one of my pastors from earlier in life, who seemed to love to say the word with every bit of explosive bravado he could muster when he read these verses (“It’s an uuuh-BOMB-i-NAAA-SHUUMM!”), in Hebrew, to'eva is not a very severe word or intense feeling as expressed here. It actually has about the same ranking as words such as “dislikable,” “objectionable,” or “ugly” in the original Hebrew. Another Hebrew word, zimah, could have been used in these passages, but it was not. The word zimah can be translated “detestable, nauseating, or sickening.” That word carries a much more intense sense of being wrong.2
Former House of Representatives Republican Leader Tom DeLay of Texas called the indictments handed down against him “an abomination of justice.”
There were other behaviors that were considered to be an abomination:3
Look at Leviticus 11:1-12, where all unclean animals are forbidden as food, including rabbits, pigs, and shellfish, such as oysters, shrimp, lobsters, crabs, clams, and others that are called an “abomination.” Leviticus 20:25 demands that “you are to make a distinction between the clean and unclean animal and between the unclean and clean bird; and you shall not make yourself an abomination by animal or by bird or by anything that creeps on the ground, which I have separated for you as unclean.” You could eat some insects like locusts (grasshoppers), but not others.
Leviticus 12:1-8 declares that a woman is “unclean” for 33 days after giving birth to a boy and for 66 days after giving birth to a girl and goes on to demand that certain animals must be offered as a burnt offering for cleansing. If a woman is deemed unclean, that means no one can touch her, in other words, no sex. There is an additional penalty for producing a daughter rather than a son.
Nobody today who claims to be a Christian tries to keep these laws, and few people even know about them!
Why do you think that most people don’t know about them?
Read Leviticus 23 to see the detailed regulations concerning “complete rest” on the Sabbath day and demands of animal sacrifices to be carried out according to exact instructions. Leviticus 18:19 forbids a husband from having sex with his wife during her menstrual period. Leviticus 19:19 forbids mixed breeding of various kinds of cattle, sowing various kinds of seeds in your field, or wearing “a garment made from two kinds of material mixed together.” Leviticus 19:27 demands that “you shall not round off the side-growth of your heads, nor harm the edges of your beard.” The next verse forbids “tattoo marks on your body.” Most people do not even know that these laws are in the Bible and are demanded equally with all the others.
I’ve said this before, but I believe that many of the dietary restrictions arose because of a cookbook instruction penciled into the margin of a Jewish cookbook that was carried to the extreme. When people developed a strange disease and died after eating undercooked pork, somebody wrote “not good unless cooked well done” in the margin. But the people, being wanderers, were either lazy or rushed in their cooking and just couldn’t get it right, so the priests decided to forbid pork altogether.
If you want to make people behave as you say and they really don’t want to comply with voluntary restrictions, you could make any of their infractions “against the law” with varying penalties from fines to incarceration to capital punishment. If you still can’t get them to comply, what better way to make people behave than to tell them they will lose their eternal life as well? What better authority could there be for the rules you make other than saying the rule came directly from God? Keep in mind that the rules were good for the people even though they were unpopular.
While we don’t observe the ancient Levitical purity codes for food anymore, we do have our own set of dietary cleanliness standards. Just look at the Health Inspection Certificate posted in every restaurant.
I know this will come as a shock to some of my friends who are more fashion conscious, but I must confess that the shirt I’m wearing is not 100% cotton and my slacks are not 100% wool.
How have people misused the word “abomination” in your past? How did you feel when they did that?
But let’s get back to the Focus Verses.
The first Hebrew word, ish (which is translated as “man”), also means “husband,” and in several surrounding rules, it obviously refers to men who are in committed marriage relationships. The second word referring to maleness, zakar (which is translated as “mankind” in the King James Version), also means “youth” or “boy.” In Hebrew tradition, a boy becomes a man when he reaches puberty – traditionally at age 13 upon the celebration of his bar mitzvah.
The word zakar is used to indicate a boy who has not yet come of age – just like the boy prostitutes who were made to have sex with men and women in the temple of Baal. The phrase “lie with a woman” means “find sexual gratification.”
So, the verse, if we translate the Hebrew text literally, says that a husband, who would normally seek sexual gratification from his wife, and, instead, seeks sexual gratification from a young boy or girl prostitute in the temple of Baal (or anywhere else) under the age of 13, is committing an abomination.
Social norms back in ancient Hebrew days and even in Greek culture at the time of Jesus’ ministry were far different from our social expectations today. At the time, they believed that a 13-year-old was a fully-responsible adult.
Let me make this perfectly clear. In this case, the true meaning of the Hebrew word for “abomination” (which means “unclean”) is not strong enough. It is unacceptable to us today for an adult having sex with a child to be simply deemed “unclean.” It would be unconscionable for an active pedophile who preys on children to justify his or her actions by saying something like: “Well, in Hebrew, the Bible literally says that what I’m doing is merely ‘unclean.’” I cringe at the thought that someone might come away from this class saying that.
The whole point of this verse is that it is never acceptable for anyone to use or abuse another person as a toy or for purely selfish reasons – no matter how old that person is but especially the abuse of an underage boy or girl. We are commanded to love one another.
Finally, the part about being “put to death.” Being “put to death” can simply signify the end of a relationship. When trying to find an example, I remembered one of my favorite movie musicals, Fiddler on the Roof. Do you remember Tevye’s reaction to Chava, his third daughter in Fiddler on the Roof when her mother told him she had married a Russian non-Jew? Tevye’s line is: “We have other children still alive at home. Forget about her! She is dead to us.” Was there even a single moment when he wanted to kill her? No! It was against his tradition for his daughter to marry outside his faith, so he intensely mourned the loss of his relationship with her.
Could he have changed his mind and restored that loving relationship? It would have taken a lot of soul-searching, but, you bet! He could have brought his daughter “back to life,” just as God longs to restore the relationship God has with each of us when we wander away! And there is some indication in the Fiddler on the Roof that Tevye did just that before the end of the story. If he had had her executed, that would not have been possible. The Leviticus 20:13 “be put to death” is in the same sense.
Jesus and Jewish Law4
Many of the ancient Hebrew Laws have, in the past, lead me to feel that God must not love me. As I’ve said before, when I feel that way, I know that there must be something that I’m missing, and I turn to God to try to discover what that is. As I do so often, I turn to Jesus’ teachings.
We know that Jesus knew and understood the Law because he referred to it often. From what we know of his attitude toward it, we can see that Jesus was both a supporter of the Law and a harsh critic of it. Jesus was critical of the Law when he referred to the “traditions of the elders” – the oral law that had grown up around the written Law. That oral law is now recorded in the Hebrew Midrash, Mishnah, and Talmud. Jesus’ foes often accused him of violating the Law. Jesus was most critical of “keeping the letter of the Law” rather than the spirit in which it was created.
- Jesus set his own teachings against those of the elders. (Matthew 5:21-6:48)
- The Pharisees accused Jesus and the disciples of not following the Law with regard to “unclean” things. (Matthew 15:1-20)
- They accused him of eating with the hated tax collectors and sinners. (Matthew 9:11)
- The greatest conflict was over the Sabbath. Jesus refused to accept their interpretation of Sabbath Law and proclaimed that he was Lord over the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:8)
- Jesus taught that it was right to do good on the Sabbath. (Mark 3:4)
Jesus started a brand new idea. Jesus told the Jews that the Law would no longer be the guiding principle for His followers. (Luke 16:16) That said, Jesus insisted that He was not advocating the destruction of the Law. He wanted the Law to not matter anymore to his followers. Jesus just wanted us to love each other. (Matthew 5:17-20) Jesus wanted to move the understanding of the Law from its legalistic meaning to a spiritual one. For him, the outward, public observance of the Law became an internal motivation and intention. (Matthew 5:21-22 & 27-28) Jesus wanted to push us to observe the Law’s ultimate meaning – the spirit that had been intended by the Law from the very beginning.
Jesus never gave us any law that was new. He only explained what God had given us long ago. (Matthew 22:36-40) It is amazing that Jesus was able to sum up everything that had been written about the Law and all the teachings in just a few short, very simple sentences. The love that Jesus talked about cannot be portrayed by rules, but it has been around since long ago.
Paul and Jewish Law5
By contrast, Paul struggled to reconcile Jewish Law with Jesus’ teaching throughout his life. At times, he tried to make the relationship between them complex, but often he threw up his hands and came out with simplicity.
- At first, Paul spoke of a natural law which existed in human beings. (Romans 7:23 & 25) He referred to this when he said that our conduct should be determined by our faith in God. (Romans 3:27-28) He believed that the demands of the Law were not evil (Romans 7:7) and had been given for a good purpose. The Law was holy and just. (Romans 7:12 & 14, I Timothy 1:8) Because of our sinfulness, the law became a curse instead of a blessing. (Galatians 3:10-13)
- Then, even though Paul believed it had been given for a good purpose, he declared that it could not save a person. (Galatians 3:11 & Romans 3:20) He said that if someone wanted to become a child of God, it would be by means other than keeping the Law.
- Lastly, Paul proclaims that Christ freed us from the requirements of the Law by his death and resurrection. (Romans 8:3-4) Christ has become the end of the Law for Christians. (Romans 10:4). We serve our faith and not the Law. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Paul did not want us to view the Law legalistically but to use it to help understand our relationship with God.
The overwhelming turning point for me and my understanding of Jesus’ authority over the Law is an often overlooked story from Jesus’ life – the Transfiguration.
Re-read the story from Mark 9:2-8.
5-6Peter interrupted, “Rabbi, this is a great moment! Let's build three memorials – one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” He blurted this out without thinking, stunned as they all were by what they were seeing.
7Just then a light-radiant cloud enveloped them, and from deep in the cloud, a voice: “This is my Son, marked by my love. Listen to him.”8The next minute the disciples were looking around, rubbing their eyes, seeing nothing but Jesus, only Jesus.
Two of the three most influential people in Hebrew history were on the mountain with Jesus: Moses and Elijah.
Who and what did Moses represent to the Jews of Jesus’ day? Moses represented all of the tradition of laws that had been enacted since the founding of the covenant people of Israel. He also represented the complete delivery of the Jews from the bondage of Egypt.
Who and what did Elijah represent? Elijah’s job was to help the Jews return to their devotion and worship of God after having been put in captivity and lured away from the land of Canaan. Elijah wanted the people to keep the Law no matter where they were and return to the glory they knew during the reign of Kings David and Solomon.
Who was the third of the most influential people in Hebrew history – the one who was not there? David. David was the first king of the unified Hebrew people. He established the royal priesthood. King David secured the promised territory for the children of Abraham. Because of his foundation, the 40-year reign of his son, Solomon, was peaceful. I wonder why David was not up on the mountain with Moses, Elijah, and Jesus….
Exactly what was it that God said to Peter, James, and John? “This is my Son, marked by my love. Listen to Him!” Listen to Jesus. What did God NOT say? Did God say listen to Moses? Did God say listen to Elijah? No.
By saying, “Listen to Jesus,” God was not putting down Moses or Elijah. God was saying, “This thing that Jesus is telling you - love each other – is what you really need to learn!” God was saying, “If you’ve understood nothing else I’ve been trying to tell you, now is your chance! Listen to what Jesus is saying!”
Why was David not there? The peace and promise that David fulfilled was only temporary. Jesus’ promise will not run out. Jesus’ way of life will never fail you. The peace that Jesus’ brings to personal conflict is more satisfying than what any conquering king can provide.
The message to us is clear. Stop paying so much attention to keeping the letter of the Law. Quit worrying about what other people do or what might have been back when times were good. Give all your attention to loving and caring for one another. In Jesus’ Name!
Re-Languaging All of the Ten Commandments
In November of 2008, I wrote a brief meditation about the Ten Commandments. It was fueled by a sense that some Christians believe that the God of Love – the God of Jesus – is also a spiteful, vengeful, capricious God who just waits for us to mess up so “He” can squash us like a bug. It was entitled, “There’s Something that Bothers Me about God.”
You may find that meditation helpful. The editor of The Connection, St. John’s MCC’s weekly newsletter, included it in the November 28, 2008 edition. I have also included a link within this study.
The Ancient Law of Hospitality
No hint at sexual orientation or homosexuality as we understand it is even implied in Leviticus. Furthermore, the use of Leviticus to condemn and reject homosexuals is obviously a hypocritical, selective use of the Bible against gays and lesbians.
We just don’t hear preachers condemning folks for wearing blended, permanent-pressed fabrics. We just don’t hear preachers condemning men for shaving their faces. We just don’t hear preachers condemning the faithful for eating pork chops or shrimp. Those preachers have little reason to be afraid of such things.
Since they are afraid of homosexuality or of being homosexual themselves, they have ignored the Biblical evidence surrounding these verses to make sure that what they believe about it supports their fears and fuels their “shaming” of LGBTQQIA folk. They could choose to be delivered into peace and assurance.
That’s sad, because there is much to learn from what God asked the children of Israel to do!
Check out the following email message:
What good would a present-day Jewish rabbi be if she decided it was okay to make a burnt offering to … say … a modern-day god named J. C. Penney? It would be unthinkable! She would have completely sacrificed her integrity in order to satisfy popular demand. In Leviticus, the community of Israel was given a plan to help its people stay devoted to God. The rules helped those people focus.
Here are some interesting characteristics of the Israelite community:
- They were Jewish.
- They lived and worked among people who weren’t Jewish and often did not understand them.
- They wanted to be happy, healthy, and productive.
- While they wanted to maintain their integrity and be true to God, they also wanted to be liked.
- They often stayed to themselves, but when they mixed with their non-Hebrew neighbors, disaster was often the result.
- They worked in meager farm and herding jobs at first, but soon developed thriving businesses.
- They listened to advice their neighbors gave them about how to make their lives easier and better in this strange land. They were tempted into trying “magical” things that would make their crops grow better and other things that would make their lives more pleasurable.
Can you think of other characteristics these people had that we might relate to?
What is our Christian GLBTQQA community like?
- We are Christians and we are GLBTQQA.
- We live and work among people who are not Christians and are not GLBTQQA. These people often do not understand us.
- We want to be loved by our friends, neighbors, and by someone special.
- We want to be happy, healthy, and productive.
- Even though we are proud of being GLBTQQA, many of us don’t want to call attention to ourselves. We want to blend in.
- Our co-workers and “friends” often tell us that we must be brutal in our dealings with others in order to get ahead economically and socially.
- Our “friends” sometimes tell us about substances we can use – such as drugs, pornography, etc. – that might temporarily make our lives more pleasurable and fun. Sometimes we submit to that temptation.
- Sometimes we can be found in places and among people whose only purpose seems to be getting drunk, getting high, and having sex without love or commitment.
- If we are single, sometimes – in our search for someone to love – we allow non-Christians and others (who only share sexual interests) to have a tremendous influence over our lives.
But we still want to love God. We still want to be true to ourselves and the way God made us. We still want to love others.
There are many, many things we have in common with the ancient children of Israel!
Establishing Our Own Guidelines
Even though we are Christians who no longer live “under the Law,” we don’t want to completely throw out the rule book. We still need personal standards or guidelines by which we live our lives. The standard that Jesus set out for us is clear: “Love God and love others as we love ourselves.” That standard applies to everything we do and say.
The Levites gave the Israelites 636 rules to live by. We probably don’t need that many. But when it comes to our relationships with others, it’s a good idea to develop some personal guidelines that will help us make our choices.
Marie Fortune’s ethical guideline for making sexual or other relational ethical decisions is “doing least harm.” Those values are incorporated into the following guidelines:
What Are Your Guidelines?
What guidelines can you come up with for yourself to make sure you live a Christ-like life in our GLBTQQA community? Be sure that the guidelines you come up with honor God, Christ, and your own GLBTQQA self. You may want to incorporate some of Marie Fortune’s guidelines. Be sure you add some guidelines that empower you to be happy and have fun! Don’t limit yourself to restrictive guidelines.
Are these guidelines currently in force in your daily life or are they guidelines to which you aspire for the future?
What circumstances would make them flexible?
I encourage you to go on with your list, but let’s take some time to share some of the points on our personal guidelines lists with each other.
What are some of the ideas that others had that might be good to adopt for yourself?
Go back over your guidelines and answer each of these questions.
- Which ones of them might work for any Christian community?
- Which ones might work for anybody – even if they aren’t Christian?
- Which ones are specifically GLBTQQA-oriented?
- Which ones are exclusively Christian?
- Which ones parallel the ones the Levites gave to the children of Israel? When you get time, cite specific references.
- Which ones would you be happy to share with members of our study group and church?
- With non-GLBTQQA Christians?
- Which ones might you be ashamed of if some people found out?
When we establish guidelines for ourselves, it is important to run them by other Christians we trust. We can sometimes fool ourselves into adopting personal guidelines that aren’t really Christ-like. Just look at Pat Robertson, Dr. Laura Schlesinger, and Fred Phelps to see what I’m talking about.
1 From “Homosexuality: Not a Sin, Not a Sickness – What the Bible Does & Does Not Say,” by the Reverend Elder Donald Eastman, second vice moderator of the UFMCC Board of Elders. Copyright © 1990 by Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches.
2 From The Reverend Terri Steed’s Bible study “Leviticus 18:22 One of 636 Laws,” a study prepared for Sunday Morning Topics in 1997. Thank you Terri!
4 My authority for this section comes from D. Glenn Saul, late professor of Christian Ethics at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, California – a very conservative professor at a very conservative school. He wrote the “Law, Ten Commandments, Torah” article for the Holman Bible Dictionary, Holman Bible Publishers, Nashville, TN, copyright © 1991, pp. 866-867.
6 Adapted from Love Does No Harm: Sexual Ethics for the Rest of Us by Marie M. Fortune, Continuum, copyright © 1995 by Marie M. Fortune, pp. 38-39. Used by permission.