Texas Hold'em and the Same-Sex Ban of Leviticus

Texas Hold'em and the Same-Sex Ban of Leviticus

For the record, this is the fourth entry on the texts in Leviticus 18 & 20 (see Tattoos, Gibberish, and Texas Hold’em) with two more yet to come. Last week we began examining the cards dealt face up on the table for all to see. More specifically, we wrestled with the literary and cultural evidence from the ancient Near East in order to understand the conclusion that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 have to do with the worship of other gods or idolatry, not homosexuality in general. Today, we conduct Wrestle Mania II as we reexamine these cards, continue wrestling with the evidence, and seek to understand a second possible conclusion.

Possibility Two: Leviticus 18:22 prohibits indiscriminate sexual intercourse between males. Some variations of this conclusion would also include or prohibit intimacy in committed same-sex relationships. As before, I will try to explain the evidence/arguments used to support this conclusion one card at a time. Then, in fairness I will provide brief counter-arguments (with endnotes for details many may wish to skip).

Card #1: Leviticus 18:22 does not explicitly limit the circumstances in which male-to-male intercourse is prohibited. In other words, the prohibition is all-inclusive—whether religious in nature, indiscriminate sex, or in committed relationships.

Card #2: Genesis asserts a "biblical pattern" for understanding marriage as a relationship between a male and a female (Gen. 2:21-24). This idea is often reduced to the unfortunate billboard slogan: God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. [i] God blesses the new relationship between male and female and encourages them to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (1:28). Male-to-male intercourse violates God’s pattern for marriage and sexual intimacy, and frustrates God’s hope for reproduction.

Card #3: In Leviticus, the Holiness Code (chs. 17-26), like the Purity Code (chs. 10-15), upholds God’s created order (as culturally understood by Israel) for life at its best. In creation God established three primary environments for life: in the sky, under water, and on land. Though the purity laws are complex and strange to us, in general terms, clean animals live in only one environment and move according to the standards of that environment. [ii] The Holiness Code also recognizes the boundaries God established in creation and teaches what it means to be a pure or holy human—a person God has called into covenant (an Israelite). Thus, male-to-male intercourse is wrong because it fails to respect the boundaries and orderliness of a holy life, and ultimately is not best for human life.

Card #4: When a person plays this hand (for this conclusion) he or she often appeals to the “clear teaching” of the New Testament: Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and Jude 6. As a result, most read Leviticus 18:22 through the lens of these later texts and conclude that it also clearly banned homosexual behavior. After all, despite changes in culture, Scripture testifies to the unified teaching of one God.

Summary: Leviticus 18:22 prohibits male-to-male sexual intercourse. Such sexual intimacy is wrong because:

  • Leviticus makes an unconditional statement without exceptions.

  • It disrupts God’s pattern of marriage and procreation.

  • It confuses what is holy and best for human life.

  • It violates the teaching of the New Testament.

Consequently, it doesn’t matter if male intercourse is in a religious setting (to worship another god) or in everyday life, whether it is practiced within a committed relationship (e.g., marriage), or it is indiscriminate sexual behavior. Male-to-male intercourse is wrong.


Card #1: Leviticus 18 may not have stated explicit circumstances because the original readers would have automatically known the cultural context. Knowing the unstated cultural context is essential to understanding Scripture (e.g., instruction about head coverings and long hair in 1 Cor. 11).

Card #2: Did Genesis 1-2 intend to set a pattern for all cultures and all time? If so, which parts of chapters 1-2 are part of the pattern? We appear to be selective and inconsistent in this matter. For example, the pattern includes a man leaving “his father and mother” {his father’s household} and “clinging” to his wife (Gen. 2:24), but God’s directions in the remaining chapters of Genesis seem unaware of such a pattern. [iii] And as for consistency, would the pattern disallow sons from ever living back at home (with his parents) with their wives? Or what about the blessing for procreation: “be fruitful and multiply” (1:28)? If this is part of the pattern, may couples decide not to have children? May they delay starting a family? May they use birth control at all? The argument for a pattern sounds good when it convicts someone else, but not so good when it challenges our own assumptions and behavior.

Card #3: The sense of order established in Leviticus was specific to Israel’s culture and based on her understanding of the world and her identity as God’s chosen people. Jesus proclaimed that the laws that defined clean and unclean food—and clean (Jew) and unclean (Gentile) people were no longer relevant for the kingdom of God (Matt. 15:10-20; Mk. 7:1-23). [iv] God whacked Peter over the head with a sheet full of unclean animals to make the same point in Acts 10. In other words, if Leviticus 18:22 spoke against homosexuality because it disregarded proper cultural boundaries for holiness, ancient Israel’s cultural way of organizing the world is no longer relevant. Besides, I like to eat lobster and barbecue pork sausage.

Card #4: I’m not a New Testament scholar, but those I know assert that the texts are not as simple or clear as they may appear to be in English translations. Like the Old Testament texts, on closer examination the texts are ambiguous and difficult to understand. In addition, the earliest readers of Leviticus did not have access to the New Testament; instead, they read and understood their Bible (the “O.T.”) for hundreds of years before the New Testament came along. Our project is to read and let the Old Testament stand on its own two feet. [v] (I do appeal to those with adequate training to help us work through the N.T. texts.)


By no means have I presented a comprehensive case for reading Leviticus as a ban on all types of homosexual behavior. Nor have I presented a complete counter-analysis. As the Carpenters once sang, “We’ve Only Just Begun.” And even though we’ve almost come to the end of this series, I still urge you not to jump to any conclusions. We still lack two important blog posts on our topic: “The Cards in Your Pocket—Not up Your Sleeve” (next week) and “Ten Reflections or Fire, Aim, Ready” (the week after next).


[i] I say “unfortunate” because, while the billboard affirms the belief of those who agree, it antagonizes and alienates those who disagree. This is not the path to understanding one another.

[ii] Thus, clean animals with wings fly in the sky, clean fish move under water with fins and scales, and clean land animals live on the land, walk or run with legs, and have split hooves and chew the cud (the ideal land animal from a shepherd’s perspective). Any animal that somehow confuses or crosses over these divisions is unclean: a lobster lives in the water but moves like a land animal (lacking fins and scales), a snake lives on land but moves by slithering (it also lives under the land), and an ostrich has wings but runs (unclean birds are especially difficult to understand). Any animal that doesn’t fit the ideal type for its environment (again, from a shepherd’s perspective) is unclean.

[iii] Noah’s sons and their wives stay with him (6:9-10; 7:13), Rebekah goes to Isaac and his family (24:52-67), Jacob goes to his mother’s family to take wives and stay, but later takes them away (28:2; 31:3,13), and his sons take wives who leave their parents to live with them and their patrilineal clan.

[iv] After Jesus said this, he went to Tyre and Sidon, encountering a Canaanite woman along the way (Matt. 15:21-28; Mk. 7:24-30 see also vv. 31-35). Once Peter understood all food was clean, he realized he should call no person (Gentile) unclean (see Acts 10:28) and spoke to Gentiles.

[v] In addition, reading the O.T. through the lens of the N.T. is like wearing amber-tinted sunglasses indoors. They may distort our vision, making a white dish look darker, more amber in color than pure white. The ways in which the N.T. uses and reads the O.T. is an extremely complicated issue. In most instances, we would be uncomfortable with a person using the same methods today.

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