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    Misinterpreting the Holiness Code
                                     (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13)
     

    Today, it is safe to say that Christians generally do not follow any of the rules and rituals described in Leviticus, believing that the Law (the first five books in the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers) is fulfilled in the saving grace, redeeming power, freedom and love found in Jesus Christ.  However, many continue quoting two specific verses from Leviticus in order to condemn homosexuals while ignoring what the remainder of Leviticus may say about their own situation.  Sadly, presumptive and, quite frankly, ignorant interpretation of Scripture results only in the distortion of the richness of Old Testament meaning, a complete denial of the New Testament message, and the consequent prevention – at least in human terms - of many men and women discovering the wonder and joy of a God who made them in His image and loves them for who they are and as they are.  Thankfully, as God says of Himself and humankind’s presumptions, “My thoughts are not your thoughts and your ways are not my ways” (Isaiah 55:8)

     

    The verses from Leviticus state, “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.”  These seemingly startling words occur solely in the Holiness Code of Leviticus, which is, in effect, a manual for Israel’s priests listing rules and rituals to ensure religious purity for the Hebrew people; a people called by God to be ‘holy’ for Him, that is, ‘set apart’ from all other people.  The meaning of the words can therefore only be fully appreciated within the historical and cultural context of the Hebrew people.  So let’s look at that first. 

     

    Ancient Near Eastern history and the Old Testament recount how pagan religions were predominant and people worshipped multiple gods.  Israel, as God’s chosen people, were unique in their worshipping and following one God; standing in contention with the widespread religion of the surrounding Canaanites who worshipped the multiple gods of fertility cults.  Being fertility-focused, Canaanite idol worship frequently entailed both female and male temple prostitution, as noted in Deuteronomy (Deut 23:17), repeatedly testing (and often compromising) Israel’s loyalty to God. 

     

    During the time of the judges, (the era preceding Israel’s having kings) the Jews adopted many of the immoral and cruel practices of the fertility cults (Judges 8:33), including child sacrifice, as referred to and condemned in Leviticus (Lev. 18:21) and later by the prophets Ezekiel (16:20-22; 23:37) and Isaiah (57:5); at one point the entire Hebrew half tribe of Manasseh had accepted the religion of cult prostitution (1 Chronicles 5:23-25).  Under King Rehoboam there were male temple prostitutes associated with the hill shrines (1 Kings 14:23-24) and King Ahab, also called Manasseh, similarly established Baal worship, which included prostitution (2 Chronicles 33:3).  Not everyone participated in the worship of pagan fertility gods, but everyone would have been aware of its significant presence (1 Kings 15:9-14; 22:46; 2 Kings 23:4-15; Ezekiel 16:5-58).  Fertility-focused worship and its associated practices remained common in the known world up to the time of Christ and Paul.

     

    The Hebrew word for male temple prostitutes, ‘qadeshim’ is (horrendously) mistranslated “sodomite” in some versions of the Bible.  The qadeshim were, quite literally, ‘the holy ones’ or ‘the sacred ones’ - but holy and sacred to the fertility gods, not to the God of Israel and so their rituals and rites were not pleasing to Yahweh.  If a farmer wanted a better yield from his crops, or to increase his flocks or cattle stock, or if a wife wanted children, they could appeal to the fertility gods.  For this, they could engage in sexual intercourse with a temple prostitute, sometimes female though predominantly male.  However strange or however much outside our worldview this may seem to us today, the practice formed part of ordinary communal life and was widespread, enduring throughout Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Babylonian cultures and into Greek and Roman religion - frequently being assimilated into the worship of Yahweh.  Religious prostitutes were encountered very early on in Israel’s history (eg. Numbers 25:1-3) and the people of God were continuously plagued by cult prostitution even though the law strictly prohibited it (Deuteronomy 23:17-18), regarding it as an ‘abomination.’

     

    So, what is an abomination?

     

    Biblically, an abomination is whatever God pronounced as being religiously taboo, detestable or off-limits because it was unjust or idolatrous where worshipping Him was concerned.  That’s the sum of it, full stop.  Several Hebrew words are actually translated ‘abomination’ and the one most frequently used is ‘toevah’, which refers directly to idolatry, as in Ezekiel where it is used numerous times.  This is the word used in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, strongly associating ‘toevah’ with idolatry and the Canaanite religious practise of cult prostitution.  Consequently, such specific use of toevah regarding same-sex acts in Leviticus throws doubt on any conclusion drawn that the same condemnation also applies to loving, responsible homosexual relationships.

     

    In addition to this, Christians should remember that the Levitical rules and rituals were given by God for the purpose of preserving the distinctive characteristics of Israel’s religion and culture. Consequently they are no longer bound by these Jewish laws, as Paul points out in Galatians 3:22-25; we live by faith in Jesus Christ, not in Leviticus.  It may be said that ethical and moral concerns have applied to all cultures and all peoples in every age and were ultimately commented on by Jesus, who said nothing negative about homosexuality, but a great deal about love, justice, inclusivity, mercy and faith.

     

    On a final note about Leviticus, how is it decided by certain Christian churches and groups (mainly conservative, right-wing, evangelicals) that these two Levitical verses, taken completely out of context, remain relevant today when the many surrounding verses are ignored?  Verses regarding, for example, the eating of shellfish, wearing mixed fibres, planting two different crops in the same field, or failing to build a parapet around the roof of one’s house (all terribly displeasing to God, some being regarded as abomination, others calling for the death penalty).  When precisely did God ordain certain people with the divine insight to keep one or two verses in Leviticus and dismiss all the others?  The simple truth is, of course, He didn’t.  If Christians really want to be consistent with the Levitical holiness manual for priests, they should probably put most of their friends and family to death!  At the very least, if they insist on literal, face-value validity for these two particular verses they also need to question why, if this is a condemnation of all homosexuals, why does it only mention men?

     

    More appropriately, all Christians need to look honestly at the facts of culture, history, context and language, the reality of Leviticus as a whole and its fulfilment in Jesus Christ in accordance with New Testament teaching.  In short, stop distorting the Old Testament meaning and stop denying the New Testament message.

                                                                                                                     Elaine Ambrose, M.Th
                                                                                                                                                                                           April, 2010