The Bible speaks consistently throughout its pages in condemnation of same-sex relations. For example, God made clear His will on this matter when He handed down the Law of Moses to the Israelite nation. In a chapter dealing almost exclusively with sexual regulations, His words are explicit and unmistakable.
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination. Nor shall you mate with any beast, to defile yourself with it. Nor shall any woman stand before a beast to mate with it. It is perversion. Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you. For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants. You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations, either any of your own nation or any stranger who sojourns among you (for all these abominations the men of the land have done, who were before you, and thus the land is defiled), lest the land vomit you out also when you defile it, as it vomited out the nations that were before you. For whoever commits any of these abominations, the persons who commit them shall be cut off from among their people. Therefore you shall keep My ordinance, so that you do not commit any of these abominable customs which were committed before you, and that you do not defile yourselves by them: I am the Lord your God…. If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them (Leviticus 18:22-30; 20:13, NKJV, emp. added).
I suggest that a reader would need help to misunderstand these injunctions.
COMPARED TO FEMALE MENSTRUATION?
Nevertheless, attempts have been made to offset their seemingly unmistakable import. For example, it is argued that in the same chapter (i.e., Leviticus 20), five verses after the injunction against homosexuality, the death penalty was also required for a man and his wife for having sexual relations during her menstruation: “If a man lies with a woman during her sickness and uncovers her nakedness, he has exposed her flow, and she has uncovered the flow of her blood. Both of them shall be cut off from their people” (Leviticus 20:18). Thus the homosexual activist (who wishes to maintain some semblance of affiliation with the Bible) dismisses this text as ritualistic and limited to Israel’s peculiar concern for purity, thus having no universal significance. After all, the Israelites lived during an ignorant, primitive period of human history. Consider the following wording of this viewpoint:
Of course, many now live in quite different cultures. But that has not stopped some from selectively using regulations like Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 to support their condemnation of homosexual intimacy. Meanwhile, the Bible prohibits sex during menstruation in the very same chapters (Lev. 18:19; 20:18), but few Christian conservatives have mounted a campaign to expel people who violate that commandment (Carr, 2003).
This interpretation of the biblical position stands in conflict with several factors. First, are those who dismiss the condemnation of homosexuality, on the basis that the same context condemns sexual intimacy during a woman’s menses, also willing to dismiss the condemnations in the same context of child sacrifice (20:2-5), bestiality (20:15-16), incest (20:11-12), and bigamy (20:14)? What proves too much, proves nothing.
Second, a closer reading of the text reveals that while all the items alluded to are clustered together because they share a common concern for the principle of “separateness” (which constitutes the theme of Leviticus—e.g., 10:10; 11:44; 19:2; 20:7,26), nevertheless, a distinction may be made between those actions that were temporary and limited in their scope to the Israelites and those that are clearly permanent and universal in their application. For example, child sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5) has always been an abominable sin before God (cf. Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10; 2 Kings 17:17; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Psalm 106:37-38; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5; 32:35; Ezekiel 23:37,39). The same may be said of bestiality (Leviticus 18:23; 20:15-16), sorcery, witchcraft, astrology, and the like (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 19:26,31; 20:6,27; Deuteronomy 18:10-11; Isaiah 8:19; Acts 19:19), as well as various forms of incest (Leviticus 18:6-17; 20:11-12; 1 Corinthians 5:1). Homosexuality fits into this same category since it is condemned in every period of Bible history, and repeated in especially strong terms in the New Testament (Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10).
This distinction is reinforced by the variations given to the penalties associated with each infraction. Two expressions must be distinguished in the pericope of Leviticus (i.e., chapters 17-20, what Pfeiffer labeled “The Holiness Code”—1957, p. 46). The first is “cut off,” which, in the Pentateuch, includes being cut off “from his people,” “in the sight of their people,” “from among the congregation,” “from Israel,” “from the congregation of Israel,” and “from My presence.” Linguistic scholars agree that the Hebrew verb translated “cut off” (karat) has both a literal meaning and a metaphorical meaning, which in turn gives rise to “the extensive range of the root’s literal and extended semantic spheres of meaning” (Hasel, 1995, 7:343). The basic literal meaning of the verb is “to cut” (7:344-345), and so may be used to refer to everything from cutting down a tree to cutting off a piece of cloth. However,
In addition to the literal meaning of this root, “to cut off,”…there is the metaphorical meaning to root out, eliminate, remove, excommunicate or destroy by a violent act of man or nature. It is sometimes difficult in a given context to know whether the person(s) who is “cut off” is to be killed or only excommunicated (Harris, et al., 1980, 1:457, emp. added).
In this metaphorical sense, being “cut off” consists of “exclusion from the community” (Harris, et al., 1:457), “in the sense of being cut off from a center or circle in which the offender lives” (Hasel, 7:347).
The “cutting off” formula therefore does not appear to refer solely to human execution of the death penalty. In the majority of offenses, “cutting off” means a “cutting off” which leads to “banishment” or “excommunication” from the cultic community and the covenant people…from life in God’s presence through exclusion (7:348, emp. added).
Gesenius confirms this understanding of the term, recognizing that its figurative meaning is “to be cut off from one’s country, i.e., to be driven into exile, to be expelled” (1847, p. 417, emp. added). Though Gesenius listed Leviticus 20:18 under the literal meaning of “to be destroyed,” translator Tregelles rightfully added a note to the section: “In some of the passages it appears only to signify severed from the congregation of the Lord” (p. 417, emp. added).
The Scriptures themselves bear out this observation. For example, in a context addressing contact with the dead, the Israelites were told, “Whoever touches the body of anyone who has died, and does not purify himself, defiles the tabernacle of the Lord. That person shall be cut off from Israel. He shall be unclean, because the water of purification was not sprinkled on him; his uncleanness is still on him” (Numbers 19:13, emp. added; cf. vs. 20). It is evident, both from this verse and surrounding verses, that those who had been defiled by corpses were to be separated from the congregation for the appropriate period of purification—not executed.
This dual use of the expression is further confirmed by comparing it with a second one that is germane to the discussion: “put to death.” Both expressions are used in Exodus 31:14—“You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people” (emp. added). Observe that the phrase “cut off from among his people” is the broader expression. “Put to death” is the more narrow expression, and clarifies by what means the individual would be “cut off.” Thus, to be “cut off” from Israel could be accomplished in two distinct and separate ways: (1) through temporary isolation of the individual by physically removing him from the community, transporting him to a location away from the social/religious life of Israel (cf. “put out of the camp”—Numbers 5:2); or (2) through permanent removal of the individual from Israelite society by legal execution, i.e., the death penalty. Context must determine which meaning is intended.
Of the 12 occurrences of karat (“cut off”) in the Niphal conjugation of the Hebrew verb in Leviticus (see Wigram, 1890, p. 619), those outside of chapter 20 that refer to being merely quarantined for a period of time until correction/cleansing could be made, are 7:20,21,25,27; 17:4,9; 19:8; 22:3. A generic use is seen in 18:29 where it is found in a summary statement of offenses without further specification as to its meaning—since chapter 20 is intended to be the portion of the pericope that prescribes punishment for the offenses mentioned in chapter 18. The only instance in Leviticus where the expression apparently includes the death penalty is 23:29. However, even in this instance, that the death penalty is intended is derived from the verse before and the verse after, which indicate that “afflicted” (NKJV), “humble” (NASB), or “deny himself” (NIV) pertain to the defiant refusal to abstain from work on the Day of Atonement (which elsewhere was treated as a capital offense when done on a holy day—Numbers 15:33ff.), and the accompanying threat by God to “destroy” the culprit.
Additionally, when one examines the pericope with regard to prescribed penalties, those for the offenses listed in chapter 18 are not given until chapter 20 (with the exception of the generic formula, “cut off” [18:29]). Chapter 20 clarifies in what sense the offender was to be “cut off,” depending upon the offense committed. “Cut off” in the Hiphil conjugation of the Hebrew verb was the penalty for child sacrifice (20:2-5), clarified as “put to death” (vs. 2), as well as for the person who engaged in sorcery, i.e., turned to mediums and spiritists (20:6), which also is further pinpointed as “put to death” (vs. 27). For adultery (20:10), certain forms of incest (20:11-12), homosexuality (20:13), and bestiality (20:15-16), the penalty was “put to death.” Those who committed bigamy were to be “burned with fire” (20:14), i.e., put to death and their corpses cremated (cf. Joshua 7:15,25; Jamieson, et al., n.d., p. 88; although Clarke insisted that branding with a hot iron was meant—n.d., 1:578). For another form of incest, and relations during a woman’s menstruation, only the expression “cut off” is used (20:17-18), and three other forms of incest have only “they shall bear their guilt” (20:19), “they shall die childless” (20:20), and “they shall be childless” (20:21).
When one reads all three injunctions pertaining to menstruation given in Leviticus, their meaning and harmonization become apparent:
If a woman has a discharge, and the discharge from her body is blood, she shall be set apart seven days; and whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening. Everything that she lies on during her impurity shall be unclean; also everything that she sits on shall be unclean. Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until evening. And whoever touches anything that she sat on shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until evening. If anything is on her bed or on anything on which she sits, when he touches it, he shall be unclean until evening. And if any man lies with her at all, so that her impurity is on him, he shall be unclean seven days; and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean (Leviticus 15:19-24, emp. added).
Also you shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness as long as she is in her customary impurity (Leviticus 18:19).
If a man lies with a woman during her sickness and uncovers her nakedness, he has exposed her flow, and she has uncovered the flow of her blood. Both of them shall be cut off from their people (Leviticus 20:18, emp. added).
Comparing the three injunctions shows that a woman was to be set apart from the community during her monthly menstruation. If her husband were to have sexual relations with her during that time (the implication possibly being that her menstruation commenced during intercourse, catching both unawares—see Wenham, 1979, p. 220; Keil and Delitzsch, 1976, 1:394), then he, too, was ceremonially defiled and subject to the same separation. Hence, “set apart for seven days” (15:19), “unclean seven days” (15:24), and “cut off from their people” (20:18) are three ways to express the same proscription. “Cut off” did not mean execution in this case (cf. Harris, 1990, 2:600-601).
Based upon these observations, the regulation pertaining to refraining from sexual relations during a woman’s period of menstruation, when violated, did not involve the death penalty. The injunction was limited to the Israelites, and served to reinforce the concept of being a holy people. Blood, a term that is used 86 times in Leviticus, was a critical feature of this Old Testament teaching, especially in its relation to life and atonement (e.g., Leviticus 17:11). Beyond this central significance, the injunction could possibly have been intended to emphasize (1) the importance of being health conscious or (2) the importance of the husband being thoughtful and considerate toward his wife during a difficult time of the month.
Concerning the former, there is some debate in the medical community over whether or not intercourse during menstruation increases the risk for exposure to Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (see “Pelvic Inflammatory…,” 1998; “Causes of Pelvic…,” 2003; “PID,” 2004). Blood, of course, can be a significant medium for bacteria and infectious diseases. As one medical authority noted: “Intercourse during menses and frequent intercourse may offer more opportunities for the admission of pathogenic organisms to the inside of the uterus” (“Pelvic Inflammatory Disease,” 2001). Though great strides have been made in increasing medical understanding over the centuries, medical science has not provided all the answers to questions that still exist regarding the Bible’s inspired declarations concerning various matters of health and medicine.
Concerning the latter, some authorities point out that this law was a benevolent injunction designed to render compassionate assistance to women during a difficult time (Knight, 1981, p. 83; Harris, 1990, 2:586-587,600). Even today, women are vulnerable to the whims of thoughtless men. The Law of Moses manifested a comparable concern for women in other aspects of life, including pregnancy (Exodus 21:22ff.) and unfair divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). It is notable that Jesus manifested tender compassion for the poor woman who had been suffering from a hemorrhage for twelve years (Matthew 9:20ff.; Mark 5:25ff.; Luke 8:43ff.).
We are forced to conclude that some Israelite laws (like the prohibition of eating unclean foods) affected only Israel and, in most cases, were subject to penalties that simply required purification and cleansing procedures. Ulrich Falkenroth agreed: “Intercourse during menstruation…was not subject to a civil penalty but brought ritual uncleanness” (1978, 3:95). This was unquestionably the case for matters pertaining to a woman’s menses. [NOTE: Interestingly, in addition to ceremonial cleansing, both a sin and a burnt offering were required following childbirth (Leviticus 12) and a non-menses discharge (Leviticus 15:25-30), but not for normal monthly menstruation.] It is these very laws of ritualistic purification that are noted in the New Testament as having been confined to the Israelites prior to the cross of Christ, having no abiding relevance or application (e.g., Colossians 2:14-17; cf. Mark 7:19). On the other hand, these ceremonial laws were treated differently from the universal sins that repeatedly surface elsewhere in Scripture as having a broader application to all cultures in all times, i.e., lying, stealing, adultery, bestiality, child sacrifice, homosexuality, etc. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 were expressions of God’s will pertaining to same-sex relations that represent a continuing prohibition (Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10; cf. Flatt, et al., 1982, pp. 27-29).
Carr, David (2003), “Chapter and Verse,” [On-line], URL: http://www.pbs.org/pov/pov2003/familyfundamentals/special_chapter_3.html.
“Causes of Pelvic Inflammatory Disease” (2003), [On-line], URL: http://www.wrongdiagnosis.com/p/pelvic_inflammatory_disease/causes.htm.
Clarke, Adam (no date), Clarke’s Commentary: Genesis-Deuteronomy (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury).
Falkenroth, Ulrich (1978), “Punishment,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Gesenius, William (1847), Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), 1979 reprint.
Harris, R. Laird (1990), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Leviticus, ed. Frank Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Harris, R. Laird, Gleason Archer Jr., and Bruce Waltke, eds. (1980), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago, IL: Moody Press).
Hasel, G.F. (1995), “karat,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Jamieson, Robert, A.R. Fausset, and David Brown (no date), A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Keil, C.F. and F. Delitzsch (1976 reprint), Commentary on the Old Testament: The Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Knight, G.A.F. (1981), Leviticus (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press).
“Pelvic Inflammatory Disease” (1998), National Institutes of Health, [On-line], http://www.niaid.nih.gov/factsheets/stdpid.htm.
“Pelvic Inflammatory Disease” (2001), Joseph F. Smith Medical Library, [On-line], URL: http://www.chclibrary.org/micromed/00060140.html.
Pfeiffer, Charles (1957), The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
“PID” (2004), Health Communities, [On-line], URL:http://www.womenshealthchannel.com/pid/index.shtml.
Wenham, Gordon (1979), The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Wigram, George W. (1890), The Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980 reprint).
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