Monday, November 9, 2009

LGBT Persons and the Bible (Pt.4): Leviticus

This post will wrap up the Old Testament passages that are used to clobber the GLBT community. While the two passages in Leviticus that I will briefly discuss here are rarely used in a serious scholarly debate to defend a traditionalist view on homosexuality, biblically uninformed people regularly throw these passages into a conversation to defend a traditional view of homosexuality. In context, the passages are just not persuasive.

Here are the passages under consideration:

1)"You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination" (Leviticus 18:22)
2)"If a man lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them." (Leviticus 20:13)

Let's see what else Israel is held to under Levitical law: no sexual intercourse during the seven days of the menstrual period (Lev. 18:19; 15:19-24) - anyone in violation of this was to be "cut off from their people" ('kareth;, Lev. 18:29, a term referring either to execution by stoning, burning, or strangling, or else to flogging or perhaps expulsion). The penalty for cursing your parents or adultery is also death.  "Round" haircuts are not allowed, neither are cattle inbreeding, wearing garments made of two different kinds of materials, the sowing of fields with two kinds of seed, and on and on.

The reasons for these covenant laws are complex and will not be explored in detail here, but the context is generally threefold: cultural identity, protection of the group, and procreation. The Hebrews are to be distinguished from the Canaanites, whose land they are moving in to inhabit, and this required a strict moral/purity code.  The purpose of this code, then, is to create and preserve a uniquely called people from being absorbed into Canaanite culture and religion. The goal was to facilitate the building of the nation of Israel on Canaanite soil. Within the story of the Old Testament, if this plan were to be thwarted, it would spell disaster for God's covenantal relationship with Israel to carry out the divine purposes. God's chosen people must have land and peculiar identity.

I also want to consider two possibly competing views of these passages. Which one is the best explanation, I do not know. Either way, the point is clear - Levitical law cannot be used as our ethical norm for today. The first perspective of some scholars is that the word 'abomination' actually does not describe something intrinsically evil but is about ritual impurity. I tend to think the matter is more complex than this explanation. Walter Wink comments on the second scholarly perspective in "Homosexuality and the Christian Faith":

"The Hebrew prescientific understanding was that male semen contained the whole of nascent life. With no knowledge of eggs and ovulation, it was assumed that the woman provided only the incubating space. Hence the spilling of semen for any non-procreative purpose - in coitus interruptus (Gen. 38:1-11), male homosexual acts, or male masturbation - was considered tantamount to abortion or murder. (Female homosexual acts were consequently not so seriously regarded, and are not mentioned at all in the Old Testament (but see Rom. 1:26). One can appreciate how a tribe struggling to populate a country in which its people were outnumbered would value procreation highly, but such values are rendered questionable in a world facing uncontrolled overpopulation.

In addition, when a man acted like a woman sexually, male dignity was compromised. It was a degradation, not only in regard to himself, but for every other male. The patriarchy of Hebrew culture shows its hand in the very formulation of the commandment, since no similar structure was formulated to forbid homosexual acts between females. And the repugnance felt toward homosexuality was not just that it was deemed unnatural but also that it was considered un-Jewish, representing yet one more incursion of pagan civilization into Jewish life. On top of that is the more universal repugnance heterosexuals tend to feel for acts and orientations foreign to them (left-handedness has evoked something of the same response in many cultures)."

I agree with Wink's view here, largely because it is also what I have encountered in my academic studies multiple times by other Hebrew Bible scholars. As far as I am concerned, I see no way to responsibly read the Leviticus passages as condemning homosexuality, especially as we understand it today. Not only do most of us no longer view the status of women in the Levitical way anymore, but nobody understands biology in such an ancient fashion, we are not a nation struggling to survive like the ancient Israelites, and no genuine Christian who follows the way of Jesus would ever argue for the death penalty for gay persons (and yes, I know that there are some truly insane 'Christians' who do hold this view, even today.)