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04. Pagans, Purity, and Property: Leviticus

"You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination." ~ Leviticus 18:22

"If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them." ~ Leviticus 20:13

Within the very nature of any group of individuals is the necessity to define itself in a way that describes those who belong while separating itself from those who don't belong. Boundaries of distinction are used to separate the "us" from "them" and more often than not this boundary language describes the other in negative terms, negative terms that are most often exaggerated or completely false to the actual reality of the other. In ancient Israel, to be a Jew meant to belong to a particular people and while the same could be said of other nations at the time Israel stood out among them in the degree to which it separated itself from other nations through it's distinctive traditions and avoidance of the traditions and behaviors of foreign nations.

The Scriptures recorded Israel's distinctive faith and culture, and no where is this more true than in the books that dealt with the law, including Leviticus. These basic laws and prohibitions governed not only their religious life but their daily lives in the family and in community, and in all areas of life Israel had three major concerns, all of which potentially contributed to the prohibition of homo-erotic sex:


When Israel had been slaves in Egypt, keeping their unique identity hadn't been an issue. They were slaves. The boundaries between the people of Israel and the people of Egypt had been clearly drawn. Following the exile this all changed, and as the people moved out into foreign lands among other nations and began to deal on a daily basis with Gentiles keeping a strong identity mattered for the sake of their survival as a nation. Separation and distinctiveness in matters of religion were all the more vital and the opening and closing words of Leviticus 18 and the closing words of Leviticus 20 suggests that at least some of the prohibitions in these sections are prohibited for the very reason that they were being practiced by the Gentile nations.

While there's no condemnation of homosexual acts in the Torah outside the Holiness Code; Deuteronomy forbids Israel from giving it's children, male and female to serve as cult prostitutes (23:18-19). In all probability there were both male and female cult prostitutes which would explain the prohibition of homosexual acts in Leviticus 18 - 20, and therefore were a male to lie with a man as with a woman the lines of distinction between the practices of the Gentile nations and the nation of Israel would be blurred. The issue wasn't about homo-erotic behavior in and of itself in this regard but about abstaining from anything that could appear to mirror Canaanite rituals dedicated to gods other than the God of Israel.


The laws in Leviticus are concerned with how to maintain purity, or more specifically how to avoid impurity. Impurity equates to being dirty and according to the cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas "dirt is essentially disorder or matter out of place" (Dirt, Greed and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today, by William Countryman). Countryman illustrates the difference between purity (cleanliness) and impurity (uncleanness) through the example that

"The coffee in a cup is clean, but the pair of pants I spill the coffee on is dirty. The coffee in the cup and the coffee spilled on the pants is the same coffee and yet when the coffee is where it's suppose to be it's clean and when it's out of place it's dirty." (Dirt, Greed and Sex, page 13).

Even as small children we learn that food spilled on your clothes is no longer food but has been somehow transformed into dirt, something that's unclean because it's out of place. When your shirt was covered with peanut butter you'd hear "Change your shirt Honey. It's dirty." So uncleanness is disorder, things out of place, things not as they're suppose to be or usually are.

Purity also means to be whole or complete. In antiquity there was an ideal for every species in creation. When a member of a species met the ideal it was considered pure or whole. The ideal for land animals was that they have cloven hoofs and this meant that while ox, sheep and goats were clean, pigs and camels were considered unclean. A blemish on an animal prevented it from being offered as a sacrifice because the blemish rendered the animal outside of the ideal since all members of that species didn't have a blemish. Equally, there was an ideal of what constituted cleanliness or uncleanness in humanity and a fascinating example of this is in Leviticus 13:12-13 that deals with leprosy. If a priest suffered from leprosy so that only portions of his skin were affected then he was unclean but if the leprosy covered all his body, he was pronounced clean. What sounds illogical to us makes sense with an ancient worldview where cleanliness was determined by wholeness. With all the skin turned the same color by the leprosy, the person with the leprosy was rendered whole but if there were only blotches there was incompleteness and so he was unclean.

Purity is wholeness which, according to Mary Douglas demands two things:

"first, that every individual should be a complete and self-contained specimen of its kind, and second, that there should be no mixing of kinds."

This would explain many of the prohibitions of Leviticus and other passages referring to the purity laws.

* A menstruating woman was unclean, not because of hygienic considerations but because she was losing something that belonged to her wholeness. The same was true for a hemorrhaging woman or a woman in childbirth. Something from their wholeness was being lost and therefore they were less whole or impure.

* Mixing two kinds of fabric, planting two seeds in the same field, and mixing species of animals for breeding (Leviticus 19:19) was the blending of two wholes that were complete in themselves. This mixing brought about confusion and disorder and was therefore unclean and prohibited.

* Bestiality is prohibited because of the confusion that results in trying to mix two complete but unrelated kinds together.

* Crossing-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5) whether by a woman wearing that which pertained to a man or a man wearing that which pertained to a woman was perceived as the mixing of two wholes which created disorder.

* A man will not lie with a man "as with a woman" again is prohibited expressly because in antiquity sex was always understood as being between a naturally dominant partner (male) and a naturally passive partner (female). As in similar prohibitions, one man was seen as assuming the role of the passive partner and in doing so was mixing male and female within himself creating confusion and disorder.

* A relationship between equals had no place in antiquity so for a man to have sex with a man required that one take on the role of the woman and in doing so one of the men was making himself a combination of kinds (male and female) and was therefore unclean. The other man was unclean for coming in contact with what was unclean.

The prohibition of male homo-erotic behavior wasn't exclusively concerned with preventing a man from mixing two wholes (male and female) within himself, but he was also viewed as degrading his God-given status as a male. Israel's hierarchy considered the male gender as being made in the image of God and therefore a superior being, while the female gender was intrinsically inferior to men and more prone to impurity. As evidence, a mother who gave birth to a girl was considered impure 3 to 4 times longer than had she given birth to a boy. It was therefore considered a slap in God's face for a man to give up his position as man to assume the role of a woman. He was degrading both God and himself, and his partner was equally guilty in that he was participating in the degrading of another superior male. This is why both, rather than just the one assuming the female role, were to be put to death.


In ancient Israel, a man owned everything and everyone within his household. He owned the barn, the house, the livestock, the wife, the children, and the slaves. The wife and children were viewed as his property and this is painfully evidenced in Leviticus 18 in a long list of sexual prohibitions.

* Do not have sexual relationship with your father's wife; that would dishonor your father (v.8). The prohibition doesn't concern itself with the fact that the man would be having sex with his mother but emphasizing that in doing so he would be dishonoring his father because she is his property.

* Do not have sexual relations with the daughter of your father's wife, born to your father; she is your sister (v.11). The prohibition doesn't focus on a brother violating his sister but on a father being dishonored by having sexual relations with his daughter.

* Do not dishonor your father's brother by approaching his wife to have sexual relations; she is your aunt (v. 14) and again, having sex with the aunt would violate the uncle.

The list of prohibitions reads on, "do not have sexual relationship with your father's sister, with your son's wife, with your brother's wife, with her son's daughter, your neighbor's wife". Though the list seems exhaustive at the end, only one combination for a sexual relation is missing (outside of that of husband and wife) and that is between a daughter and father. There is no prohibition against a father having sexual relations with his daughter because again, the concern in this portion of the law is concerned with property laws as they pertained to sexual relations.

The importance this all has to understanding the prohibition concerning male homo-erotic acts is that it highlights the degraded status of women to the extent that they were viewed not as their own persons but as the property of the man of the household which helps to clarify how detestable it would have been in the ancient worldview for a man to willing assume the role of a woman in a sexual encounter with another man.

In conclusion, it should be noted that in both Leviticus passages that prohibit male homo-erotic behavior sin language is absent. Instead male-male sexual relations are referred to it as a disgusting thing (abomination) that render the action and the individuals involved in the action unclean. In the Leviticus 20 passage they're to be put to death, not because they're guilty of a "sin" worthy of death but because individuals judged unclean had to be utterly removed from the people or the entire nation would be rendered unclean.

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©2010 Anita Cadonau-Huseby. All rights reserved.
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