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Leviticus: Is It Obviously Out of Date?

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Leviticus: Is It Obviously Out of Date?

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

Leviticus is one of the most pilloried books of the Bible in modern times. The book of Leviticus contains lengthy instructions concerning sacrifices, laws about clean and unclean animals and other matters of ritual cleanness, the religious feasts or festivals to be observed in Israel, and teaching on matters of sexual activity and other social issues of morality. It is what Leviticus says about sexual ethics, and in particular what it says about same-sex unions, that causes many modern people consternation. Any citation of the prohibitions of homosexual acts in Leviticus (18:22; 20:13) is met with withering scorn. The objection to Leviticus, which one finds stated over and over again, may be terms the “Leviticus? You can’t be serious” argument. Here is a typical example, from a 2008 article in Newsweek magazine:

Twice Leviticus refers to sex between men as “an abomination” (King James version), but these are throwaway lines in a peculiar text given over to codes for living in the ancient Jewish world, a text that devotes verse after verse to treatments for leprosy, cleanliness rituals for menstruating women and the correct way to sacrifice a goat—or a lamb or a turtle dove. Most of us no longer heed Leviticus on haircuts or blood sacrifices; our modern understanding of the world has surpassed its prescriptions. Why would we regard its condemnation of homosexuality with more seriousness than we regard its advice, which is far lengthier, on the best price to pay for a slave?1

In this brief article, I will not be discussing or defending the two verses in Leviticus that concern homosexual activity.2 Instead, I will consider the broader question of the relevance or value of Leviticus for contemporary readers.

If we are going to toss out Leviticus because it gives so much attention to matters of ritual, we are going to be tossing out a lot of instruction with which most modern people, at least for now, actually agree. For example, in the very chapters condemning homosexual acts (in 18:22 and 20:13), Leviticus also condemns incest (18:6-18; 20:11-12, 14, 17, 19-21), adultery (18:20; 20:10), child-sacrifice (18:21; 20:2-5), and bestiality (18:23; 20:15-16). The texts condemning homosexual acts are sandwiched immediately between texts condemning child-sacrifice and bestiality in chapter 18 (18:21-23) and between texts condemning different types of incest in chapter 20 (20:12-14).

In the intervening chapter, Leviticus contains what used to be its most famous injunction: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). This command was quoted by Jesus as the second of the two greatest commandments (Matt. 22:39; Mark 12:31, 33; cf. Luke 10:27). Leviticus 19 also commands the Israelites to respect their parents (19:3) and leave something in their fields for the poor to eat (19:9-10). They are not to steal, deceive, or lie to one another (19:11), oppress their neighbors (19:13), mistreat those with physical impairments (19:14), show partiality in judgment to the rich (19:15), spread slander or put other people’s lives in jeopardy (19:16), hate their brothers, or take revenge or bear grudges against others (19:17-18). The Israelites are not to degrade their daughters by making them prostitutes (19:29). They are to show honor to the elderly (19:32) and love foreigners like kin (19:33-34). They are to use honest weights and measures to avoid defrauding others (19:35-36).

Granted that most contemporary readers will find a few of the injunctions in Leviticus 18-20 strange or inapplicable today, it hardly follows that we are justified in throwing out the lot. It would be fair to say that most people today would admit that at least most of those injunctions express moral values of relevance in our own society. Furthermore, in most instances, the supposedly “strange” statutes and instructions in Leviticus are strange to modern readers only because we do not understand them in their ancient historical context. This is the case, for example, with the claim that Leviticus forbids men’s haircuts.3

The problem with the stock objection to the statements in Leviticus about homosexual conduct is not that it pays attention to their context but that it does not pay sufficient, close attention to their context. The argument is about as bad as reasoning that since the Gospel of Luke contains several parables, which are obviously fictitious stories (quite true), it follows that we should not regard anything in Luke as historical (quite nonsensical). The objection depends on a vague assessment of Leviticus as “peculiar” and “ancient” and therefore of no relevance to our enlightened and technologically advanced age, buttressed with selective references to elements in the book that may or may not have any direct connection to the statements about homosexuality.

In short, while modern people may have difficulty with what Leviticus says about such issues as same-sex unions, it would be a grave error to reject what it says by a wholesale rejection of the book.

1. Lisa Miller, “Gay Marriage: Our Mutual Joy,” Newsweek, Dec. 5, 2008 (print issue Dec. 15). On the cover of the print edition, the article was entitled “What the Bible Says: The religious case for gay marriage.”

2. On the interpretation and application of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, see Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr., An Unchanging Faith in a Changing World: Understanding and Responding to Critical Issues that Christians Face Today (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 313-25.

3. See Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Does Leviticus 19:27 Prohibit Haircuts?” (Grand Rapids: Institute for Religious Research, 2015).