• You shall not lie with a man.

    January 30, 2012

    You’ve no doubt heard these verses in one translation or another (here I use the NIV, for no particular reason):

    “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable” (Leviticus 18:22).

    “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads” (Leviticus 20:13).

    Those verses sound clear enough, but it’s everything around those verses that makes knowing what to do with them confusing, to say the least. Leviticus 18 – 20 are three chapters of laws (and consequences for breaking them) that are intended to distinguish the Israelite people from the pagan nations they are displacing. “Do not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you” (Lev. 18:3), God tells Moses. The people in Canaan and surrounding areas were polytheistic, and in the pursuit of their religions, they did many things God found unacceptable.

    So we should just not do those things either, right? Surely what God finds abominable or detestable doesn’t change, right? After all, he doesn’t change. Except that we find throughout Scripture that many of his thoughts on apparently hard and fast rules do change. Violating the Sabbath could bring the death penalty in the Old Testament. But Jesus later defends his disciples’ Sabbath law-breaking by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Not so hard and fast after all. If the Law makes life worse, not better, maybe it’s okay to suspend it? Then there were all the food restrictions. Those were lifted in the book of Acts by divine revelation to Peter, who classically tried to argue with God in favor of keeping the laws. And who could blame him? The foods that appeared to Peter in the vision were supposedly detestable to God. Could an unchangeable God have such a sudden change of appetite?

    It doesn’t take long for the obvious question to arise: what Old Testament laws are we to keep as Christians, and which are we to set aside? This gets into a much larger discussion of what role the Law should play in the life of a Christian–a discussion we’ll have to table till another time. But most churches pick and choose what they’ll follow from the Old Testament, with seldom a consistent ethic guiding them. Occasionally you’ll come across a church that says, “The whole thing still applies. It’s God’s eternal word.” And occasionally you’ll hear of a church that sets the entire Law aside because Christ is the end of the Law for obtaining righteousness for those who believe in him (Romans 10:4). More often than not, though, you find churches holding to some of the laws, but dismissing others. Example: Some pastors preach against tattoos; other pastors are decorated with them.

    Some churches divide the Old Testament restrictions into two categories: moral and cultural. The cultural laws they set aside, the moral they keep. But how do they determine what is cultural and what is moral? The Bible offers no clues because such a division is a contemporary one. We do not know if the Israelites distinguished between the two. Maybe we should just keep all the sex laws, then, because those seem pretty important. I agree that sex is important, but one of the laws contained within Leviticus 18 – 20 is not having sex with a woman during her period, the penalty for which was excommunication from the community of Israel for both the man and woman involved. Should we continue kicking out people today for such an infraction of the Law? “Well,” you say, “that’s obviously cultural.” Why?

    And why not the laws concerning homosexuality? There is almost certainly a cultural component to them. Even Bible professor Robert Gagnon, one of homosexuality’s fiercest modern day critics, acknowledges that the Levitical prohibitions concerning gay sex probably were at least partially in response to pagan worship practices which involved male shrine prostitutes who had sex with men. Since that obviously isn’t happening in our culture today, do we set those laws aside as no longer binding? “Well, no!” Why not? “Because it’s homosexuality!” That seems to be the logic for many people. Obviously we keep Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 because it’s about gay sex, for crying out loud! But why do these same folks not also advocate the Old Testament penalty for gay sex, which is death? If we’re going to obey God’s word in the Old Testament Law, and if homosexuality is against that Law, shouldn’t we also invoke the Law-mandated death penalty for all gay offenders? Thankfully, few churches would argue so, but without (I think) a good explanation as to why not.

    Take a step back from all this random selection, and one quickly gets the sense that some churches are not so much defending and teaching God’s values as they are using God’s word to teach and defend their own. I would just simply say that if you want to make a convincing case from Leviticus for why modern day, monogamous, loving, gay relationships should be considered abominable to God, you’re going to have to present a consistent rule for determining which laws of the Old Testament to keep and which to set aside, for in the same chapters in question here, Leviticus 18 – 20, we find the following all forbidden: Sex with animals, tattoos, child sacrifice, poly/cotton blends (seriously, see Leviticus 19:19), sex with your mom, sowing two different kinds of seeds in the same field, and, of course, men having sex with men. Which do we keep, and which do we set aside? “Well, keep the ones where someone else is getting hurt by your actions.” Okay, men having sex with men? May not sound like a good time to you, but how is it hurting anyone?

    Some have suggested that if we see a command of the Old Testament reaffirmed in the New, we should keep it, so, we’ll be off to the New Testament soon. (Yes, we’ve exhausted the Old Testament’s instruction concerning homosexuality–all two verses of it.) But let’s not leave this subject of the Old Testament Law too quickly. Read through Leviticus 18 -20, and, recognizing that these were restrictions meant to draw a distinction between Israel and their pagan neighbors to keep them separate, and recognizing that the sex between men that is proscribed is likely male-male shrine prostitution, decide if and how you can make a case against modern gay relationships based on the Levitical verses alone.

    Posted in: The Gay Posts

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