Gibberish or Shirebbig? Reading the Ban on Male Intercourse in Leviticus

Gibberish or Shirebbig? Reading the Ban on Male Intercourse in Leviticus

We love shortcuts in our fast paced society. After all, who needs to learn Hebrew to get a Hebrew tattoo? Why bother with cultural and literary contexts when we can read scripture and understand its “obvious” meaning? In concise terms, shortcuts can be dangerous. We may end up with Hebrew gibberish tattooed on our neck. Or worse, shortcuts can lead us to grossly misunderstand and misapply scripture. But let’s face it, taking the long way around isn’t easy: it may seem totally irrelevant to notice all that’s happening within in and around the text—a total waste of time. And such work promises all the excitement of a poorly prepared two-hour sermon.

So naturally, I continue to lead us on the long path toward reading Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. I wish we could have two hours together in a classroom. But since that’s impossible, before we ask questions or draw conclusions allow me to lay more information on the table. Only after I deal all my ‘cards’ (adding to “Tattoos, Gibberish, and Homosexuality”) will we be ready to ask good questions and handle the texts responsibly.[1] I promise to deal from the top of the deck, working from the big to the small: ‘big picture’ observations to precise individual issues.

  1. Leviticus responds to the crisis created by the Lord’s presence among sinful people (see Exod. 33:1-5). How can this relationship work? The instructions in Leviticus are God’s gift to Israel, providing a way to live together (it’s called grace). In brief, God provides five links for an on-going relationship:

    • Sacrifice to cleanse the tabernacle from the sins and impurity of the people (so the Lord can live there) and sacrifice to bring Israel and the Lord together in times of celebration (Lev. 1-7).

    • Provisions for priests to tend to the Lord’s tabernacle and instruct the people (Lev. 8-9).

    • Instructions for how to deal with the impurity of the people so it does not pollute the tabernacle. Israel lived within a world of culturally defined notions of clean and unclean, pure and impure. The Lord deals with Israel within her own world—as she is, not “above culture” (Lev. 10-15).

    • Instructions for how to cleanse the Lord’s throne room (the holy of holies) so that the Lord can continue living with Israel (Lev. 16).

    • Provision of a Holiness Code—see below (Lev. 17-26). Chapter 27 is an appendix to this section.

  2. The Holiness Code, in which our texts appear (18:22 and 20:13), is:

    • A guide for Israelite life in the Promised Land: to enter and live in the land with God (18:24-30; 20:22-26).

    • A guide for becoming like their God—to become holy, just as their God (the Lord) is holy; in other words, to be holy = looking and living like their God (see 20:7-8).

    • The Holiness Code includes all aspects of life, from worship to social and sexual behavior. It makes no distinction between these domains, rather it interlacesethics and worship (for example, see 19:1-12).

    • Though God calls Israel to holiness (11:44), ultimately it is the Lord who sanctifies or makes Israel holy (20:8; 21:8, 15, 23; 22:9, 16, 32).

  3. Chapters 18-20 in the Holiness Code:

    • Follow an introductory chapter about handling blood and why blood is significant (ch. 17).

    • Are arranged into an A/B/A pattern:

      • [A] Forbidden marital/sexual relationships (ch. 18).

      • [B] Expressions of holiness in relationships and daily life (ch. 19).

      • [A] A code of punishment for the laws in ch. 18 (ch. 20).

    • The prologue (vv. 1-5) of Leviticus 18 emphasizes:

      • The Lord (alone) is Israel’s God (18:2, 4e; see also 19:3e, 4e, 10e, 12e, 14e, 16e, 18e, 31e, 34e, 36b, 37e; 20:7e, 24b).

      • Israel is to be different from the people in Egypt and in Canaan because Israel has a different God. A person’s g/God determines their behavior (18:3-5; see also 19:2, 36-37; 20:7-8, 22-26). When we describe what our God is like, we are describing what we are called to become.

  4. 18:22 and 20:13. Hold onto your hat as we dive head first into the shallow end of the swimming pool.

    • Both texts appear in close proximity to prohibitions against serving other gods.

      • 18:22 follows the ban against sacrificing children to the god Molech (18:21) and an earlier warning against following foreign gods (18:2-5).

      • 20:13 also follows a ban against sacrificing to Molech (20:2-5) and against inquiring of mediums and wizards (associated with gods; 20:6-8).

    • 18:22 and 20:13 calls lying with a male as with a woman “an abomination” (Hebrew: to’ebah)—often a ‘trigger word’ that is used in hateful and harmful ways when discussing these texts.

      • “Abomination” (to’ebah) means something abominable, detestable, or offensive; or in verbal form (ta’ab) it means to loathe, abhor, or act abominably. That I think watching of Rudolph and the “Abominable Snowman” dates my age.

      • “Abomination” (to’ebah) occurs six times in Leviticus.

        1. Male-to-male intercourse is to’ebah—an abomination (18:22)

        2. Sex with an animal is to’ebah—an abomination(18:26)

        3. The Canaanites committed “all of these” to’ebahand polluted the land(18:27).

        4. Anyone who commits these to’ebah shall be exiled from the people (18:29).

        5. Do not commit any of these to’ebahand pollute yourselves (18:30)

        6. Male-to-male intercourse is to’ebah—an abomination: both of them shall be put to death (20:13).

      • Elsewhere in the Pentateuch:

        1. to’ebah most often denotes the worship of other gods: Deut. 7:25-26; 13:15; 17:4, 7; 18:9-12; 20:18; 23:18; 27:25; 32:16. (See also “What Not to Wear”).

        2. to’ebah sometimes describes cultural conditions: it is an abomination for Egyptians to eat or live with Hebrews (Gen 43:32; 46:34).

        3. Other abominations (to’ebah) in the Pentateuch include:

          • Dishonesty in business (Deut. 25:16).

          • Eating unclean food (Deut. 14:3).

          • Men wearing women’s clothing (Deut. 22:5). See “What Not to Wear”)

          • Remarrying a wife that you divorced after she married someone else (Deut. 24:4).[2]

      • The Hebrew words to’ebah and sheqets are synonyms (similar but not exactly the same in meaning or usage). As a noun or adjective sheqets also means something detestable or an abomination. In its verbal form, shiqats means to detest, abhor, or make oneself detestable. Consider the eleven times these two forms occur in Leviticus:

        1. It’s sheqets (detestable or an abomination) to eat anything from the water that doesn’t have fins and scales (e.g., lobster, clams, crawfish; 11:10-12).

        2. A number of birds are also sheqets (detestable or an abomination; 11:13).

        3. Winged insects that walk are sheqets (11:20, 23).

        4. All swarming creatures (moving close to or under the ground) and whatever moves on its belly (e.g., a snake) are sheqets (11:41-43).

        5. Make a distinction between clean and unclean animals so that you do not bring sheqets (abomination) on yourselves (20:25).[3]

If you’ve made it this far I congratulate you for diligence beyond any normal expectation. I also promise that we are ready to begin asking essential questions such as: is there a logical connection between the prohibitions in 18:19-23 and if so, what is it? And what are your “hole” cards, the cards only you can see?…all in our next installment, “Texas Hold’em and the Homosexual Ban of Leviticus.” Until then, I leave you to ponder all that we have observed in this and my preceding post. I admit there are a lot of details to think about, but it’s worth the time—especially when the stakes are high.

[1] By no means is the information presented comprehensive. It would take a book to summarize and work through all the research on these texts.

[2] Oddly, some strongly anti-gay Christians advocate that those who are divorced should leave their second spouse and remarry their first spouse: what Deuteronomy calls “an abomination.”

[3] sheqets also occurs in Deut. 7:26; Ps. 22:25; Isa. 66:17; and Ezek. 8:10

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