Leviticus contains two of the most oft-quoted passages dealing with homosexuality. Their language is clear, their prescribed penalty severe, making them the perfect weapon to use in establishing homosexuality as one of, if not the most horrible sin one can commit against God. But, rather than make assumptions about the text, we’ll determine the proper interpretation and application of these two well-known, yet often misunderstood verses. We’re examining them together in one study because they are so similar in content, as well as context. Indeed, they’re practically a repetitive emphasis of the self-same command.
You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.
If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them.
In relatively recent years, the common interpretation of these two passages has been brought into question. The Hebrew word-arrangement in the verses is quite weird (for lack of a better term), leading to multiple alternative translations.
Hebrew Transliteration of 18:22: Ve’et zachar lo tishkav mishkevey ishah to’evah hi.
Literal Translation: And with a male you shall not lay lyings of a woman. It is an abomination (detestable).
As this literal translation demonstrates, the language of the text is not quite clear. While it may seem obvious to some on the surface, it can be interpreted in a few substantially different ways. For example:
Possible Interpretation #1: And with a male you shall not lay as the lyings of a woman, which can indicate that what’s being condemned is male-male penetrative sex (a male having sex with another man as he would with a woman).
Possible Interpretation #2: And with a male you shall not lay as the lyings of a woman, which can also indicate that what’s being condemned is heterosexual males engaging in male-male penetrative sex (a male having sex with another man as he would normally have sex with a woman).
Possible Interpretation #3: And with a male you shall not lay in the lyings of a woman, indicating that what’s being condemned is male-male sex within a woman’s bed.
What is obvious is that these two passages are condemning male-male sexual intercourse in some way. What is not so obvious is whether all male-male sexual intercourse is being condemned, or simply that which is committed in a certain way (e.g. by a heterosexual male, or in a woman’s bed).
Unfortunately, there is no way to derive the proper translation based on the Hebrew words alone. We’re going to have to yield to a logical review of the text in order to discern which translation makes the most sense within the cultural and textual context.
Beginning at verse 6 and continuing to verse 20, a veritable laundry list of sexual acts are prohibited. In the parallel passage in chapter 20, the context also includes various sexual proscriptions. I don’t think that any sincere inquisitor subscribes to the notion that these various and sundry proscriptions are anything but universal in their intent. For example, no reasonable student of Scripture would conclude that incest is only being condemned within a limited context or scope.
Given the universal condemnation of other sexual activity in the previous verses, the rule of interpretational consistency leads me to believe that this verse is saying exactly what it appears to be saying—that under any and all circumstances, male-male penetrative sex is to be condemned.
Why Is Male-Male Sex Condemned?
Although we now have an understanding of what these two verses are saying, it’s exceedingly important that we do not stop there. A grand mistake Christians make in interpreting a particular verse is in failing to realize that interpretation is only half of the task. When we fail to seek out why a particular command of Scripture is given, we run the risk of obeying or applying the command in a manner that is inconsistent with its original intent.
Consider the example of hair lengths. In 1Co. 11:14-15, the apostle Paul states that it’s shameful for a man to have long hair. He also implies in verse 15 that it’s inappropriate for a woman to have short hair. Those who fail to understand why these things are said regarding hair lengths would mistakenly apply these proscriptions to modern Christians, despite the fact that they are now wholly obsolete!
You see, hair lengths meant something to the world/culture Paul lived in and addressed that it doesn’t mean to us today. Long hair on a man symbolized culturally undesirable feminine qualities in a way that it no longer does. In addition, we no longer view women as property or subservient people who need a “covering” (a symbolic representation of her submission to patriarchal authority). As the world changed, so did the application of these restrictions, which, although not obvious from the verse itself, contain a culturally subjective worldview—applicable in its own place and time, but not in ours.
This potential to misapply Scripture is why it’s so important to ponder what we read—to consider not only what it says, but also why it says it. It’s essential that we apply this rule to our examination of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.
The first thing that sticks out to me in reading these verses is that only male-male sex was condemned. When reading the rest of the chapters, it’s obvious that Moses took great pains to be as specific as humanly possible with the various acts he was condemning. So, I can hardly buy the idea that failing to mention female-female sex was either an oversight, or was simply implied in the condemnation of male-male sex. You must take note of the fact that women were mentioned alongside men in the verses preceding and following the verses about male-male sex. In fact, in 18:23, both male and female forms of bestiality are expressly forbidden. Why would the female form of bestiality be explicitly mentioned, but only implied in reference to same-sex intercourse? It makes no sense.
Obviously, Moses didn’t mention female-female sex because he was not intending to proscribe/outlaw it. But this begs the question: Why not? If homosexuality is sinful, why not condemn it in general? Why only condemn one specific expression of it?
The key to answering this question (as well as to properly interpreting and applying any passage of Scripture) getting a fuller picture of the intent of a passage is to consider the cultural and textual context within which it was written. These verses in Leviticus were recorded during a time when the children of Israel were in grave danger of falling into idolatry. Not only had they mischievously exported idolatrous beliefs and practices after their deliverance from enslavement in Egypt (remember the golden calf they made while camped at the foot of Mount Sinai—Ex. 32), but they were also in danger of adopting the idolatrous beliefs of the Canaanite people in the land that God was taking them to.
God expressed this concern at the beginning of each respective chapter where these proscriptions are found.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,  “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘I am the LORD your God.  ‘You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes.  ‘You are to perform My judgments and keep My statutes, to live in accord with them; I am the LORD your God.  ‘So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them; I am the LORD.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,  “You shall also say to the sons of Israel: ‘Any man from the sons of Israel or from the aliens sojourning in Israel who gives any of his offspring to Molech, shall surely be put to death; the people of the land shall stone him with stones.  ‘I will also set My face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given some of his offspring to Molech, so as to defile My sanctuary and to profane My holy name.  ‘If the people of the land, however, should ever disregard that man when he gives any of his offspring to Molech, so as not to put him to death,  then I Myself will set My face against that man and against his family, and I will cut off from among their people both him and all those who play the harlot after him, by playing the harlot after Molech.  ‘As for the person who turns to mediums and to spiritists, to play the harlot after them, I will also set My face against that person and will cut him off from among his people.  ‘You shall consecrate yourselves therefore and be holy, for I am the LORD your God.  ‘You shall keep My statutes and practice them; I am the LORD who sanctifies you.
[all emphases mine]
In both of these chapters, God expressly laid out His reasons for the proscriptions that followed; and in both chapters, those reasons are ultimately identical. He desired for His people to be culturally and religiously separated (sanctified, consecrated, set apart) from the world around them. He didn’t want them exporting Egyptian idolatry, or assimilating into the socio-religious culture of the Canaanites. They were His people, and the best way for that to be demonstrated was for them to maintain complete separation from the world/cultures around them.
This explains why only male-male sex was condemned, not female-female sex. Homosexuality (or more precisely, same-sex sexual intercourse in general) was not being condemned in these passages. What was being condemned was specific activity that was taking place within the idolatrous cultures of Egypt and/or Canaan. Within the idolatrous worship beliefs and practices of these cultures, men would have sexual intercourse with the male eunuchs of the idol temples as part of a pagan fertility rite. It was done to bless the agricultural yield in the coming years.
Since women did not play a part within this particular cultic rite, it perfectly explains why they were not mentioned in these verses. This is the only logical interpretation of the text, which corresponds perfectly with the overall context of God’s intention to keep the Israelites sanctified (consecrated, separated from the idolatrous beliefs and practices around them).
Cultic Worship, Not Homosexuality? Are You Sure?
How sure can we be that the proscriptions contained in these two verses, both of which include proscriptions of male-male sex, are referencing cultic worship rites and not all same-sex sexual activity? Well, first of all, one would have to explain why only male-male sex was condemned, if all same-sex sexual activity was supposedly ungodly in the eyes of God. It’s one thing if Moses just forgot to bring up homosexuality at all. But to bring up the male variety and not mention the female, there has to be more to it than traditionalists would have us believe.
We must remember that God specifically laid out the reasons for these proscriptions in the first few verses of each respective chapter. We can’t ignore these chapters’ own explanations, and start making up our own, purposefully twisting Scripture in order to validate our traditional beliefs. I’m not willing to do that. Are you?
Now, not only did God lay out the intent of the text in the first few verses of each chapter, but the worship of idol gods is clearly within the mind of the writer (and Author) within these contexts. Consider that in chapter 18, right in the middle of this list of proscribed sexual acts, child sacrifice unto Molech is condemned. In fact, the text breaks from a listing of proscribed sexual acts, talks about a specific act of Molech worship, and then condemns male-male sex in the very next verse.
Remember that Scripture was not originally written in verses. It’s clear that this is a single flowing thought, not just a laundry list of unrelated sinful acts. It flows from the first verse down through the condemnation of male-male sex, including mentions of Molech worship in both chapters (18:21, 20:2-5). Apparently, idol worship is at the center of what’s being condemned here.
So, male-male sexual activity was representative of these idolatrous cultures and practices. As such, they served as symbols of cultural similitude that God was trying to avoid in keeping the Israelites set apart from the world around them. That is why the acts were condemned within this Levitical context. To maintain the intent of the text is not to twist or disobey Scripture. In fact, it’s the highest means of ensuring that God’s holy Scriptures are not abused or misused.
Does This Mean That All of the Activity Proscribed Here Is Okay Today?
This is a very legitimate question, and I think that the answer is helpful in ensuring that we continue to apply Scripture in a manner consistent with its intent. Here’s the deal. If I condemn activity within a specific context, it should only be viewed as condemnable within that context. That would mean that none of the condemnations within these contexts should be applied outside of the context of idolatrous socio-religious practices. Where such practices are not culturally steeped in idolatry, it would be inconsistent to apply the proscriptions, including those related to incest and other sexual sins listed in these verses.
But, that doesn’t automatically mean that the activities proscribed are perfectly okay today! It only means that we must look elsewhere in Scripture to see if the activity should be condemned universally, because these particular verses only apply to activity engaged in within the socio-religious cultures of idolatrous people—the Egyptians and Canaanites, specifically.
As an example, consider racial hate crimes. A law may exist within hate crimes legislation that the murder of an individual for racial reasons is unlawful. Would this mean that murdering someone for non-racial reasons is okay? Of course not! However, we would be forced to look outside of the hate crimes legislation to find legal backing for our case, for those particular provisions are only applicable within a framework of race-based crimes. No court of law would apply the Levitical proscriptions to a modern population, in which idolatrous cultural worship practices are now wholly obsolete (culturally speaking). To do such would be to apply these laws within contexts that they simply do not apply. Secular judges would see this, but studied Bible scholars, pastors, and teachers of Scripture seem to only remember it when the subject isn’t homosexuality!
How Does This Apply To Modern Christians?
We’ve already dealt with the fact that these verses do not apply outside of the context of cultures deeply intertwined with idolatrous activity. However, the reasons why we shouldn’t apply these passages do not end there. We also need to consider an important biblical principle that applies to the entire Mosaic Law, and to all the laws contained therein.
In the apostle Paul’s epistle to the Galatian church, he makes as good a case as can be made regarding a Christian’s relationship to the Law of Moses. I strongly encourage you to read the entire epistle; but the point of Paul’s teaching was that the Law served a purpose during a specific place and time, and for a specific people. When Christ came and died on the cross, the era of the Law was brought to a conclusion. Every single provision of the Law is now, therefore, null and void, just as much as British law is now null and void in 21st century America.
The Law was right and good during the time that it was in force; but for a believer in Christ to live under any provision of it is to, by implication, reject the death of Christ—the horrible price He paid in order to free us from bondage to the Law and deliver us into the liberty of children of God (Gal. 5:1). Christians who turn to the books of the Law to determine the code by which we should live are guilty of one of the most egregious errors a Christian can commit. In fact, doing so puts our own salvation in grave jeopardy (Gal. 5:1-4), and God considers it spiritual adultery.
Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives?  For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband.  So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man.  Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.
What makes this error even more treasonous is that the majority of Christians who turn to the Law to prove that homosexuality is a sin are well aware of the fact that we are no longer under the Law (Ro. 6:14). Yet, they ignore this reality in an attempt to validate their beliefs. Such a blatant and purposeful abuse of Scripture is antithetical to what it means to be a follower of Christ, who is, Himself, the living Word. I pray that God calls this error to their attention, so that they can repent of enforcing a Law that Christ died to fulfill and bring to a conclusion.
For a more comprehensive analysis of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, as well as a more detailed examination of a Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic Law, I encourage you to order your copy of Homosexianity. Lives are being touched by the truths revealed therein. Add your name to the list!