Leviticus: Particular Laws for a Particular Time

"Leviticus_Faggot" – Meshell Ndegeocello   (Click the link to play the song)

Leviticus is a series of cultic and ritual prescriptions for the fledgling kingdom of Israel, which had just escaped from bondage in Egypt.  Large portions of Leviticus were most likely written by Priestly authors during the Jewish exile in Babylon, centuries afterward.  The goal of the Priestly writers was to assemble sacred Jewish law in written form.  The law (in the opinion of W. Brueggeman) presumes that Judea will eventually be released from bondage in Babylon and will reclaim the Land.  In order to hold on to the land, the Judeans must obey the law or God will take it from them again (Ft. 1).

So Leviticus was written for an audience that had just undergone titanic physical and emotional trauma.  Their country had been captured by a foreign nation, with foreign gods, and the upper classes had been carted off to exile in Babylon (the lower classes were left to starve).  The Priestly author was speaking to people who had lost their land and their sense of identity.  Consequently, defining what was Jewish and what was not – under law – was critical to giving the people a sense of who they were so that they could function and move into the future.

The book of Leviticus (Priestly) contains many, many chapters worth of prohibitions and commandments.  including:

  • Prohibition against eating blood (17:10);
  • Declaration as ritually unclean any man who has had a discharge of semen and any woman with a menstrual discharge (Ch.15);
  • Purification of lepers and leprous houses (Ch.14); and
  • Division of foods into clean, unclean, and “abominations” (the last category includes eagles, vultures, osprey, buzzards, kites, ravens, ostriches, etc.) (11:13-18).

The passages pertaining to homosexuality are:

  • “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (18:22) and
  • “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.” (20:13)

To return to the main intent of Leviticus: it was to give a sense of religious identity to a group of people at a specific point in time, who had completely lost theirs.  If the rules of Leviticus were to be implemented word-for-word today, our society would look very strange.  We would have to change our national symbol (since eagles are abominations).  We would have women offering two turtledoves or pigeons as sacrifices after every menstrual period to render themselves ritually clean again.  Priests would regularly examine and diagnose people for leprosy. 

So, yes, there is a blanket condemnation of men who sleep with men as with a woman (i.e., who practice sexual penetration).  Then again, there are blanket condemnations and commands in Leviticus about a great number of things that make no sense in a modern society.  Even if one were to take the condemnation of homosexuality literally, it still raises a number of questions:

  • Is it OK for a man to sleep with a man if he does not practice penetration (i.e., oral sex or mutual masturbation)?
  • There is no mention of women sleeping with other women – so is Lesbianism perfectly permissible?

The idea of Leviticus is that it was a particular set of laws for a particular set of people at a particular time.  It should be interpreted in the much broader context of religious/national identity: how do we maintain our religious/national identities?  Are religious identities still relevant for all people?  How does the way we define who/what is “in” and who/what is “out” affect the people around us? 

Now, I need to take a break.  I will go on to the New Testament (St. Paul) tomorrow …

1.  Brueggeman, Walter.  1982.  “The Kerygma of the Priestly Writers.”  In The Vitality of Old Testament Traditions.  W. Breuggeman and H.W. Wolff, eds.  2nd Edition.  Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press.

3 thoughts on “Leviticus: Particular Laws for a Particular Time

  1. i am really enjoying reading your posts about this topic. i was the one who asked for this discussion and i’m not disappointed. i find it very interesting that we rarely hear condemnation against Lot for offering up his virgin daughters. the angels were, after all, angels, and could fend for themselves if need be. the daughters would’ve been helpless. of course, Lot seems to get a free pass on a multitude of wrong-doings (such as drunken incest) just because he followed God’s command to get the hell out of Dodge and not look back.

    i find it very annoying and off-putting how religious leaders tend to cull out one or two Thou Shalt Not’s out of a huge list of No-No’s, just because most of them are too absurd to be considered. IMO, The gay thing is still alive and well because people have such sexual stigmas built into themselves. For instance, many folks of the older generation probably never engaged in Oral Sex because that seemed gross or bizarre to them. Many people feel that masturbation is a sin. We are so wound up about sex that we are willing to listen to ideas that make no sense, just because they give us something to hang our own phobic hat on.

    I will be eager to read your next post. Thanks for tackling this issue. S!

  2. Hi Sienna – Thanks for supporting the blog! Glad you’re getting a lot out of it. I will definitely be “beefing up” the site with extras soon, like: a news feed of “Today in Religion” articles, a page with (thinking) religious links, and maybe also a page with a bibliography. Let me know of anything else that would be helpful to you, and keep coming back!

  3. Pingback: My Big, Gay Sermon « Under the Rose

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