[Portions of the following were shared in an earlier post. However since some have expressed interest in this particular passage, it is now expanded and reposted with a more easily identifiable title.]
In light of all the commotion over homosexuality, one would think the Bible has a lot to say on the subject. It does not. There are only five or six verses in the entire Bible that have been interpreted as addressing or condemning homosexuality. These verses, often referred to as the “clobber passages”, because they are frequently used to clobber or censure gay men and women today, are verses taken out of their contexts to proof-text the Bible’s alleged anti-homosexual stance. One of them is Leviticus 18:22:
“You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.”
The passage is repeated in Leviticus 20:13
“If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
I am continually reminded that one never arrives at truth by asking of the Bible, “What does it mean?” The reason is that’s the wrong starting point. You’re really asking, what does it mean to us today, individually?” And that’s why we end up with thousands of different answers. Exegesis always asks, “What DID it mean?” There’s a vast difference in those questions as a starting points. Unless we have some idea of what the text meant THEN, we’re left to only guess at what it might mean for us NOW.
Exegesis requires that if we wish to interpret the Bible responsibly, we must seek to draw out FROM the text what it originally meant to the author and to the original intended audience, without reading INTO it the many traditional interpretations that may have grown up around it. The reader today must somehow try to enter the world of the biblical writer and seek to understand what the writer was saying. In contrast to this, what far too many do instead is what some theologians refer to as “frontloading”, that is to say, they read their own personal, political and prejudicial beliefs back into the Bible, instead of reading out from the Bible what the original writers were saying. This process of reading one’s own ideas into interpretation of the Bible is called “eisegesis”. Exegesis and eisegesis are conflicting approaches to interpreting the Bible. Exegesis is about reading out from the Bible what the original writers were saying. Eisegesis is about reading one’s own ideas or prejudices back into the Bible. But exegesis does not allow us to tear a passage from its context to replace it in another age for convenience.
ARCHEOLOGY CAN HELP
As a result of the many archeological discoveries of the 20th century, our ability to do sound exegesis has increased exponentially. In fact, today we know more about the Bible than any previous time in history, including even in later biblical times. Case in point: Up until the early 20th century, we knew little about the Canaanites. We knew little about their religion, their culture or their way of life. For the most part, our only witness to the Canaanites was the texts of the Old Testament. But in 1929, all of that that changed substantially with the discovery of what is called the “Ras Shamra” texts. (Ras Shamra is a place on the northern coast of Syria, where the remains of the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit have been unearthed.) From 1929 to the present, literally thousands of texts and materials have been found. The real treasure was not the buildings or jewelry, but large quantities of writings showing how ancient Canaanite city-life worked and revealing a wealth of information that has been invaluable in our understanding of Canaanite religion and culture. The discovery of these texts is considered by many second only to the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls and they’ve had a profound effect on biblical studies. How do these discoveries help us to interpret the biblical texts?
PAGANISM AND IDOLATRY
One of the most prominent and pervasive themes weaving its way through virtually every book of the Bible is that of paganism and the constant call to turn from it. We find a continuous call to turn from the worshiping of the false or pagan gods of the day and to turn instead to the one true living God, Yahweh. In connection with the call to turn from worshiping pagan gods is the admonition to turn from participating in a myriad of pagan rituals or practices. Both the Old and New Testaments spend page after page condemning these pagan cult practices. But most of us have no idea what these practices were. They’re now extinct and therefore totally foreign to our contemporary thinking. As a result, statements like those found, for example, in Leviticus 18:22, may appear clear on the surface, but their application and context are not.
Chapter 17 through 26 of Leviticus is referred to as “The Holiness Code”. It is designed to provide a standard of behavior and way of living that will distinguish the Israelites from the Canaanites whose land they have now been given by God. It is for this reason that Leviticus chapter 18 begins with a strict caution to avoid retaining the idolatries of Egypt (from where the Israelites had come), and of receiving the idolatries of Canaan (to where they were now going). This statement, according to the Matthew Henry Commentary, sums up the whole chapter of Leviticus 18.
But what were these idolatries of Egypt and Canaan that the Isarelites were to avoid retaining? What strange practices or rituals did they include? Well, for starters we discover in the Old Testament that the Canaanites burned their children alive in honor to their pagan gods, they practiced snake worship, they performed sexual intercourse with animals, and a host of other gross and detestable practices.
FERTILITY CULT PROSTITUTION
Why did they do such bizarre things? What was the motivation behind them? FERTILITY! Fertility was highly prized in Ancient times in ways that are completely foreign to our modern thinking. Fact is in many ways their lives literally depended on it. As a result of the great value placed on fertility, Canaanite religion was replete with practices believed to appease the fertility gods of the day and thereby win them the blessing of fertility: fertility of the land in the form of rains to ensure and boost crop production, fertility in the way of life through pregnancy and birth, fertility for the reproduction of their livestock, and so on. Israel’s survival hinged on fertility and Baal was a god of fertility. This meant that Baal was the power behind the rain and the dew. And with rainfall levels unreliable, famine was always a real possibility.
As Bible commentaries reveal, Canaanite culture also depended on pagan cult prostitution as a way of promoting fertility. Says the IVP Bible Background Commentary:
“The Canaanite culture utilized cult prostitution as a way of promoting fertility. Devotees … would visit the shrine and use the services of the [male and female] cult prostitutes prior to planting their fields or during other important seasons … In this way they gave honor to the gods … in an attempt to ensure fertility and prosperity for their fields and herds.”
In the New International Biblical Commentary: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, to cite another example, authors Harris, Brown and Moore, state the following:
“… in order to ensure fertility of people, animals and crops, a person would engage in sexual intercourse with a cult prostitute, male or female, at the local Baal shrine. The purpose was to inspire [the Canaanite god] Baal to act likewise on the person’s behalf and thus to ensure fertility in all areas of life.”
As you can hopefully begin to see, sometimes we encounter things in the Bible that require some background and clarification in order to understand the text. If you read your Bible long enough and attentively enough, questions are going to arise that notes on the bottom of the page don’t satisfy. But now equipped with a bit of background on the text, let’s go back look at the Leviticus passage again, but this time in context:
21 Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.
22 Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.
23 Do not have sexual relations with an animal and defile yourself with it. A woman must not present herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it; that is a perversion.
If we look at the passage in context, considering both what comes immediately before and after the passage, we notice the prohibition here in Leviticus 18:22, against engaging in sex with a cult prostitute, is sandwiched right between two other forbidden pagan cult rituals: one in verse 21 against child sacrifice to the Canaanite god Molech, and another in verse 23 against women having sexual relations with animals. Both rituals as illustrated were practiced by the Canaanites and Egyptians in their fertility worship. Why did women have sex with animals? This too was believed to increase their fertility. In the New Bible Commentary, scholar Christopher Wright says the following with reference to Leviticus 18:
“Genital-anal intercourse between men, and both male and female intercourse with animals, are all known to have been part of pagan worship in Egypt, Canaan and elsewhere.”
So if we refrain from ripping the passage from its context and instead read the passage in context, we begin to see that the Holiness Code of Leviticus prohibits these acts for RELIGIOUS reasons, not MORAL ones. The concern is to keep Israel distinct from their idolatrous neighbors. God’s covenant with his people required that the Israelites serve no other god but Yahweh. If Israel is thought to be bound to God in an exclusive covenant relationship, then Israel can be said to commit adultery (or “play the harlot”) whenever they look to powers other than Yahweh for sustenance, comfort or protection. “Playing the harlot”, as the English translations tend to put it, became a common idiom for the Israelites worshipping of other gods. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, we find time and again that Israel frequented places of idol worship. “On every high hill and under every green tree you sprawled and played the harlot,” says God through the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 2:20). Over and over, we see that the Israelites did not only borrow from the Canaanite pagan ways of worshipping idols and false pagan gods, but constantly relapsed into them.
If we don’t catch the fact that male-to-male pagan rite prostitution was a common practice in Bible times for the purpose of promoting and ensuring fertility, we will completely miss the point of the biblical condemnation and misconstrue verses like Leviticus 18:22 to forbid any and all same-sex behavior. As F.F. Bruce, biblical scholar and one of the founders of the modern evangelical understanding of the Bible, aptly put it:
“It is not enough to say, ‘the Bible says’ without at the same time considering to whom the Bible says it, and in what circumstances.”
As to the claim that homosexuality is an abomination it should be noted that the term “abomination” is abominably misunderstood. The Hebrew word “toevah” (translated in the English as “abomination”) functions in a very precise way in priestly literature. It generally, if not always, means a practice that is unacceptable because it is one of the cult practices of the pagan religions surrounding God’s people. The thing may be innocuous in itself, but in order for Israel’s faithful to be safeguarded, even otherwise innocent practices were forbidden. It may also be something that is intrinsically evil. But the key is that it is part and parcel of the cult practice of the pagan religions. Remember that the next time someone tells you that this or that is an abomination to God. An “abomination” (toevah) is a pagan cult practice often utilized to seek fertility.
Clearly, a simple blog post does not afford a thorough discussion of this or the few other passages that have been interpreted as addressing or condemning homosexuality. But I hope I’ve offered enough to chew on. As G.K. Chesterton fittingly said, “The purpose of an open mind is the same as that of an open mouth, to close it again on something solid.”
See also the following related posts on this blog:
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