Leviticus on sex: it might just matter today

Christopher Ash, December 2003

Gene Robinson was consecrated as the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church during ceremonies in Durham, New Hampshire on 2 November 2003 [REUTERS/Brian Snyder]

At the consecration of ‘the gay bishop’ Gene Robinson, protesters held up placards quoting from Leviticus 18 and 20. How does the average newspaper reader respond? With a scornful curl of the lip or a disdainful shrug of the shoulders. ‘How absurd to quote an obscure verse from a backwater of Old Testament (OT) law! How sad that twenty-first-century people should be so out of touch with the contemporary world!’

My guess is that when most people hear Leviticus quoted in the debate it confirms their hunch that the gay lobby has been right all along. Condemning what people cannot help, the traditionalists are no more than a bunch of ignorant fundamentalist homophobes, out of touch and dangerously intolerant.

So why does a quote from Leviticus feel like an own-goal in contemporary apologetics?

Our obsession with novelty

It is a disadvantage in our neophiliac culture simply that Leviticus is old. We are unimpressed by appeal to old authorities. In the early centuries of the Christian era it was the other way around. One of the defences the early Christians had to make against non-Christian Jewish opponents was to prove that the Christian faith was not a newfangled religion, the new kid on the religious block. Today it is the reverse. As one young person said about Christianity in an interview recently, ‘The story behind it all just doesn’t interest me at all, it’s just what I believe about here and now [that matters].’ It counts against Leviticus in our culture that it comes from a bygone age. Whereas wisdom was once perceived to be like a good wine, maturing with age, now it is like perishable goods, to be binned when it passes its sell-by date.

This attitude is arrogant. It claims that we in our age have at last understood the world, and not least human sexuality; that we should look with pity upon the poor wretches from bygone eras who struggled in the darkness of ignorance; that to be old is to be old-fashioned or fuddy-duddy when once it was to be wise, respected and honoured. These proud attitudes form barriers to understanding Leviticus, the OT and indeed the whole Bible.

We are impatient

There is a further problem. Questions of OT law cannot be answered in soundbites. Our society is unwilling to listen when an argument takes longer than a headline. But the arguments of Christian people about the applicability of OT law today are not trivial and they cannot be summarised in a phrase. If they could, then the Jubilee Centre would probably not need to exist.

OT laws that apply to all people

The early Christian churches in gentile cities had to ask themselves two questions. First, how may someone enter the people of God? Answer: by obedient faith in Jesus Christ alone . So the Jewish identity markers of male circumcision, Sabbath observance and kosher food laws were understood to have been foreshadowings, now redundant with the coming of Christ. [1]

But then there was a second – and no less pressing – question: how should the believer in Christ live and behave? What lifestyle, what ethics, what morality, what great ‘oughts’ apply to the believer? To this question the teaching of Jesus was of only limited help. For Jesus did not come primarily to give ethical teaching; and where he did it was not to introduce novelty, but rather to press home to his hearers the true meaning and enduring relevance of what they had already been taught in what we call OT law. The great ‘oughts’ of the godly life had not changed, because God had not changed. Indeed the ethical principles behind the law of Moses were rooted in the created order itself.

Actually the Jewish rabbis in the synagogues of the Greco-Roman world were grappling with a very similar question: how ought a gentile to behave? For although there is no reason why a gentile ought to be circumcised or keep the food laws or observe the Sabbaths and festivals of Judaism, they argued that there are certain moral obligations incumbent on all humanity.

What are these timeless obligations? When teasing this out the rabbis suggested three useful criteria for determining whether or not an OT law was universally applicable:

Genesis 1–11 Ethical instructions (explicit or implicit) in Genesis 1–11 probably applied to all humankind, since the people of God did not take shape until the call of Abraham in Genesis 12.

Resident aliens If a law applied not only to the Israelite but also to the ‘resident alien’ (the non-Israelite living with the Israelites in the land), then the principle behind this law probably applied to all humankind.

Foreign nations If a foreign nation was condemned by a prophet for a certain kind of behaviour, then this behaviour was probably always wrong, since the foreign nation (who had no written law from God) ought to have known better. Amos 1 and 2 is the classic example of this.

The arguments and debates were not simple, but their study of OT law on the basis of these criteria brought the rabbis back again and again to a universal ethical core with three ingredients:

Idolatry No human being ought to worship idols. Idolatry is always and everywhere wrong, for all human beings ought to know that there is one true God alone.

Violence No human being ought to do unwarranted violence to another human being. The shedding of blood is a very serious matter, for human beings are made in the image of God.

Sexual immorality No human being ought to commit sexual immorality, which means any form of sexual intimacy outside the marriage of a man and a woman.

Although the apostolic early Christian churches wrestled with the extent and nature of the applicability of OT law – our struggles are nothing new – a strong case can be made that they agreed with the rabbis in these essentials.

A careful analysis of the conclusions reached by the ‘Council at Jerusalem’ (see Acts 15:19–21) reveals that Gentiles were accepted into full fellowship with Jewish believers on the basis that they accepted essentially the same ethical boundaries that had guided the gentile ‘God-fearer’ on the fringes of the synagogue – namely a rejection of idolatry, violence and sexual immorality. [2] Indeed, the New Testament writers consistently regard OT sexual ethics as universally binding. Attitudinally, then, the life that pleases God is, and has always been, a life of faith; but in terms of its moral shape it is a life lived in harmony with created order as revealed in the OT and restored and redeemed in Christ.

So what about Leviticus 18?

Of the three criteria noted above, both the second and third (applicability both to resident aliens and to foreign nations) apply to the catalogue of sexual offences condemned in Leviticus 18. [3] Both Israelites and, importantly, resident aliens were not to do any of the   things listed there. ‘The native-born and the aliens living among you must not do any of these detestable things.’ (v.26) These prohibitions were not merely boundary markers for Israel , but moral necessities for all. And – and this is very significant – at the end of the chapter we are told in no uncertain terms that the flouting of these laws caused the land of Canaan to ‘vomit out’ the pre-Israelite inhabitants. The Canaanites had no written law from God, but – according to Leviticus 18 – they ought to have known that their culture of sexual greed and indiscipline was abhorrent to God. Male homosexual practice is mentioned as just one of a long catalogue of sexual malpractice, most of the others being incestuous.

For these reasons Christian people have concluded with the apostolic church that the sexual behaviours of Leviticus 18 were not just abhorrent then, but remain displeasing to God. They may be old laws formulated for ancient Israel , but they bear witness to enduring principles. Applying these principles today needs both clarity and pastoral sensitivity. Above all, they must be imbued with a spirit of love for all people whatever their behaviour.

Christopher Ash’s book, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God (IVP £14.99) includes more detailed consideration of these and other arguments in chapters 5 and 15. He is currently Rector of Little Shelford, near Cambridge. In September 2004 he joins David Jackman as Principal of the Cornhill Training Course in London.

[1] e.g. Mark 7:19; Gal. 6:15; Col. 2:16f.

[2] see Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, IVP, 2003, pp.93-99.

[3] Leviticus 20 includes civil penalties for such behaviour. I would argue that such penalties do not to apply today, although they do give significant indications about the relative seriousness of different offences.

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Category: News and Reviews

December, 2003

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  1. John Bradley says:

    A Brilliant article. Vey helpful.

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