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
Little Good Harbor sits on the southeastern coast of Georgetown Island. It is a charming place with an equally charming name. It is a small harbor, but contrary to what one might expect from the name, it is not very good. It is too shallow and has too many rocks. Though it looks inviting, it is almost useless. So it is of “Little Good.”
The Priestly Code of Leviticus is in many ways the Little Good Harbor of biblical wisdom. It is not as shallow as Little Good Harbor, but there are lots of rocks. In the storms of life it does not provide safe haven. The idea of a guide for living that sets God’s people apart, is a good one, but the actual code is deeply flawed.
This is the second in a series of three comments on the seven biblical passages typically cited to “prove” that the Bible condemns homosexuality. The first commentary was on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Our focus now is on two almost identical passages in Leviticus. The first passage, verse 22 of chapter 18, says simply, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” The second passage, printed above, adds the penalty of death, and notes that those who commit such acts are responsible for their fate; “their death is upon them.”
The condemnation is clear and unmistakable.
Here, as in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, we see reflections of a patriarchal and misogynistic culture. To lie “with a male as with a woman” was to treat the male as if he were female. This was the ultimate humiliation. Judaism and Christianity have moved toward gender equality, but the subjugation of women remains deeply imbedded in Middle Eastern culture. The condemnation of male homosexuality is a reflection of the patriarchal devaluation of women.
“Abomination” is a strong word. And it is not used often. In the Priestly Code of Leviticus, it is an abomination to eat an eagle, an osprey, or a vulture. It is an abomination to eat a burnt offering after the second day. And it is an abomination to eat anything unclean. Eating such things may be unappetizing, but it hardly seems “an abomination.”
The death penalty is serious. In Leviticus, it is mandated for murder, for adultery, for blasphemy, for cursing one’s mother or father, and for “wizards and mediums.” In Exodus and Deuteronomy, the death penalty is invoked for breaking Sabbath, as well as for outsiders who come near the Tabernacle. Looking back across the millennia, that seems a little harsh.
We know from historical research that the death penalty was seldom used for these crimes. At this point, the Torah uses the language of death, not literally as a legal sentence, but metaphorically, to indicate the seriousness of the offense. Just as in our less enlightened moments we might say, “anyone who does that ought to be shot!”
When we read that it is an abomination and that it calls for the death penalty, we read it as a very strong condemnation. But that reading is at least somewhat tempered by the recognition that many of the other offenses that are described with that same harsh language do not seem as “abominable” to twenty-first century readers.
Leviticus is tough going. More than one well-intentioned and sincere Christian setting out to read the whole Bible from cover to cover has struggled through the long narratives of Genesis and Exodus, only to come to a grinding halt when confronted with the strange list of arcane laws that make up the Priestly Code of Leviticus. In order to understand it, we need to avoid getting lost in the details.
If we set out to construct a sexual ethic on the foundation of the two condemning verses in Leviticus, then we need to explain why we are picking and choosing those verses and not also including the admonitions about the ritual purification of women after menstruation and many other similar laws. And we need to explain our use of a code which is patriarchal and misogynistic. Its purpose is to set the people apart from the surrounding pagan culture, yet in its attitudes toward women is generally reflects that culture.
The premise of the Holiness Code is that God’s people should be holy as God is holy; that in our daily living we should remind ourselves of who we and whose we are. When the rabbis read these laws, they read them with that end in mind. The details are flawed, the product of a primitive world view and a pre-scientific understanding. But if we can focus beyond that, on the vision behind the details, then we can find light for our journey.
Paul told the church in Corinth that the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. When it comes to the study of Torah, Rabbi Paul echoes the ancient rabbinic insight that God is found in the white spaces. Leviticus is about a people set apart and called to be different. The details may confound us, but the greater vision is of a life shaped by the calling of God.