This entry is part [part not set] of 20 in the series Homosexuality in the Bible

In my last post, I answered 3 of my 5 “devil’s advocate” arguments against the so-called traditional view of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13—the only two Old Testament texts that explicitly forbid male-male intercourse. We’ll carry on our discussion in this post by addressing the last 2 of those 5 arguments.

2. Prohibitions against male-male sex in Lev 18:22 and 20:13 are time-bound and culture-bound purity laws that were intended to keep Israel separate from the surrounding nations.

Hebrew BibleThe implication of this of course is that they are no longer binding on believers. We can eat catfish, sand lizards, mole rats, and have sex with people of the same gender—so goes the argument. Prohibitions of these in the OT belong to the purity laws that kept Israel distinct from their Canaanite and Egyptian neighbors. To cite Daniel Helminiak again:

…the Leviticus code is irrelevant for deciding whether gay sex is right or wrong. Though the Hebrew Testament certainly did forbid penetrative male-male sex, its reason for forbidding it have no bearing on today’s discussion of homosexuality (Helminiak, 56).

I think this is the strongest argument against seeing Leviticus 18 and 20 as relevant for Christians. But I still see three problems with such reasoning.

First, male-male sex is called “an abomination” (Lev 18:22; 20:13). And as stated in the previous post, Leviticus never refers to purity laws, such as not frying up sea gulls, as an abomination.

Second, most people would consider all the other practices prohibited in Leviticus 18 as still relevant. For instance, Leviticus 18 condemns incest (18:6-18), adultery (18:20), child sacrifice (18:21), bestiality (18:23), and male-male intercourse (18:22). The only one that may be classified as an out-dated “purity” law is the prohibition of having sex during menstruation (18:19). This last one often throws interpreters a curve ball, but I wonder: are we sure this law shouldn’t be upheld by Christians? I’ll let Rachel Held Evans address that one. She’s good at the nitty-gritty.

Even if sex during menstruation is a purity law that’s no longer valid, it does not receive the same severe punishment as male-male sex. For instance, if a man has sex with a woman during menstruation, he is unclean for 7 days but does not receive the death penalty (or expulsion; Lev 15:24). But homosexual intercourse does incur the death penalty (20:13).

Third, I’m not sure if it’s that easy to distinguish purity laws from moral laws. “The Old Testament…makes no systematic distinction between ritual law and moral law,” writes Richard Hays (Moral Vision, 382). The best way to see if an OT law is still relevant for believers is, of course, to look to the New Testament. When we look at the New Testament—and this the most important counterargument—not only does the New Testament still prohibit same-sex intercourse, but it draws upon Leviticus 18 and 20 to do so.

Romans 1:18-32 is probably the most important text in the debate, with its well-known reference to gay and lesbian sex in 1:25-27. It probably has at least two allusions to Leviticus 18 and 20. First, Romans 1:32 says that these sins are revealed in God’s law and are “worthy of death,” which probably refers to Lev 20:13 where the death penalty is prescribed for same-sex intercourse. Second, the word translated “shameless acts” (asxemosunen) is used throughout Leviticus 18:6-19 and 20:11, 17-21 (“you shall not uncover the nakedness of…”). In fact, more than half of the OT uses of this Greek word occur in Leviticus 18 and 20 to refer to sexual sins. It’s very likely that Paul has Leviticus 18 and 20 in mind when he says that same-sex intercourse is a sin in Romans 1.

Paul refers to homosexual sex again in 1 Cor 6:9 when he coins the word arsenokoitai—literally “lying with a male.” Paul invents this word by combining two Hebrew words mishkav zakur (“lying with a male”), which are the same Hebrew words used in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Again, not only does Paul see same sex intercourse as sin, but he draws on Leviticus 18 and 20 to do so.

The prohibition of male-male sex in Leviticus 18 and 20 appears to remain relevant for new covenant believers.


1. The Old Testament never mentions lesbian sex and therefore such acts are not condemned.

This is sort of true. Nowhere is lesbian sex mentioned; Leviticus 18 and 20 only talk about male-male intercourse. In fact, lesbian sex is nowhere mentioned in legal material in the ancient world. Did it exist? Or did such women just kept in secret? Or did the male lawgivers only focus on making rules that involved men? We just don’t know. My best guess about why lesbian sex is not mention in Leviticus is that it wasn’t a (known) practice that needed to be addressed. What we do know is that when it is mentioned by later Greek and Romans writers, it is considered more appalling than male-male sex, which is often considered a supreme form of love.

In short, while it is true that lesbian sex is nowhere mentioned in the Old Testament, I don’t think this should be taken to mean that it was therefore okay for female Israelites or sojourners to engage in it. In any case, Paul does mention lesbian sex in Romans 1 and, from what I can tell, he condemns it.



I know that the name Robert Gagnon produces shrills from the LGBT community, but I can’t help but see his interpretive observations on Leviticus 18 and 20 as compelling. (Though I’m not convinced by his reading of Genesis 9 or 19). Gagnon points out that the laws in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 “are unqualified and absolute…They neither penalize only oppressive forms of homosexuality nor excuse either party to the act” (Homosexual Practice, 115). That’s because the Leviticus laws view the act as confusing God given gender roles. “For a man to have sexual intercourse with another male as though the latter were not a male but a female violates God’s design for the created order” (ibid., 157).

Let me end with the same caveat I gave in the previous post: If at any place you see that my interpretation or reasoning is wrong, or if you believe my argument is unclear, I genuinely invite you to critique me. I’ll do my best not to be offended, even if you respond offensively. After all, my goal is not to prove a certain presupposed view to be true, but to understand Scripture in order to bring its truth and love to bear on a broken world.

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  1. You mentioned Paul’s words in Romans 1 a couple times in this post. I hope in your future post dealing specifically with Romans 1 you interact with the (always evolving) interpretation of Douglas Campbell in his massive Deliverance of God and elsewhere. Thanks!

    • Hey David! Man, I’m currently wading through tons of stuff on Romans 1 and haven’t got to Campbell’s view. I sort of stopped following his stuff since it’s becoming increasingly ambiguous and unconvincing. But I’ll try to check it out. Thanks for the heads up!

      • That’s fair. He does note the significance of his argument for the question of homosexuality in the NT specifically, which is why I mention him. Perhaps instead of wading through all 800 pages or so, you could look through the index for references to homosexuality specifically.

  2. Hey Preston,

    I’ve enjoyed reading this series. Thanks for stirring us up to explore this issue with objectivity. I think the last point about the created order is key and how Paul uses a Hebrew phrase in Greek. Great stuff.
    Regarding any points I would critique, I would say that the abomination argument isn’t very convincing. Although it does sound strong, when I look at Deut 14:3, it clearly refers to unkosher food as an abomination. Therefore, regardless of what Leviticus says, the Torah calls both male-male sex and unkosher food “toevah”. Also, one could argue that your second point that many would consider the laws in Lev 18 still valid isn’t a strong case, because most people could simply be wrong. Again, just trying to think critically. From my perspective, I think there are some other weighty arguments out there that could be used to support the traditional view of Lev 18 as still binding. Thanks for letting me chime in!

  3. I want to go back and read the rest of the series, but just wanted to wade into the discussion with one comment/question for now…

    Are you sure you’ve thoroughly addressed the prohibition against sex during the woman’s period? If this law is still binding, I think you’d need to demonstrate why it’s morally necessary today. If it’s not binding, that would seem to weaken your overall argument concerning Leviticus 18…unless, of course, you argue (as you do) that sex during menstruation was a less severe crime under the levitical law.

    On its own, Leviticus 15:24 seems to support this view. But what about Leviticus 20:18 (which comes just five verses after the passage prescribing death for male-male sex)?

    “‘If a man has sexual relations with a woman during her monthly period, he has exposed the source of her flow, and she has also uncovered it. Both of them are to be cut off from their people.”

    Even if “cut off” simply means expulsion (the word appears to have stronger connotations as well), I think it’s hard to argue convincingly that in ancient Israel’s context, this was a substantially lighter penalty than being killed.

    • Hey Ben,

      Man, you raise a REALLY good point! The sex during menstruation is a big argument against my view and I admittedly haven’t dealt with it sufficiently. One Jewish scholar, though, said (and I paraphrase) that maybe the problem isn’t that homosexual sex isn’t that bad, since sex during menstruation parallels it, but that sex during menstruation was much worse than we think. (M. Greenburg). Or something like that.

      Anyway, I’m still working through this, so thanks for bringing it to my attention.

      Either way, the allusions to Lev 18 and 20 in Rom 1 and (esp.) 1 Cor 6 are key, I think.

  4. asxemosunen is used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word ervah. The most common definition of this word, often translated as nakedness, is genitalia. It is a somewhat crude word. As the word is used in asxemosunen is used in Greek, it suggests shame, as in the shame of being naked, something that ought to be covered, and like ervat, can mean genitalia. But the word does not have to have a negative meaning. It just implies something that should be covered up in order to be decent.

    It is a common error to associate arsenokoitai with the wording of Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 in the Septuagint. Here is the relevant part of Lev. 18:22 και μετα αρσενος ου κοιμεθηση κοιτην γυναικος. Kai meta arsenos ou koimethese koiten gynaikos.

    To someone unfamiliar with Greek grammar, it would be easy to assume a connection with arsenokoitai. After all, we have the word arsenos and the word koiten. But the error is in understanding the “koit” in arsenokoitai. More than once, I have had people try to tell me that it’s the Greek word for bed, and so arsenokoitai means those who go to bed with males. But the “koit” in arsenokoitai is not a noun, and is not the same word as the koiten in Leviticus. Koiten is indeed a noun, meaning bed. But the “koit” in arsenokoitai is a verbal form, derived from the verb κειμαι, which means “lie down.” In fact, this “koit” is more closely related to another word in Leviticus, that is, koimethese. Both are forms of the verb κειμαι. So arsenokoitai means “those who lie with males.” (That the word is referring to men lying with males as opposed to women lying with males has not been determined. As early as the second century, writers used the word to refer to women having sex with men out of financial need.)
    Leviticus in the Septuagint agrees with the Hebrew text (but not the English translations thereof). “And with a male thou shalt not lie down (in) bed of a woman.”

    As for the Law itself, while Christians often try to divide up the Torah into moral, civil, ceremonial, etc. portions, scripture itself does not. It treats the Law as a whole. And a person who puts himself into debt to any portion of it is a debtor to all of it, according to Paul. Jesus summed up all the Law and the Prophets in two commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. If you truly love God as Jesus described, do you need another law telling you not to worship false gods? No, because your love for God precludes you doing something like that. If you truly love your neighbor, do you need laws that say ‘thou shalt not kill?’ No, it’s included in loving. Pretty much any part of the Law that would need to be kept today is part of loving God and loving your neighbor. Even abstract things like adultery and fornication and incest can be seen as being inconsistent with loving your neighbor. So I submit that what Leviticus does or does not say is relevant only for Jews. And in my experience, I have rarely found Jewish people use Leviticus the way Christians do. More often than not, opposition to homosexuality, now found pretty much only among Orthodox and Chassidic (and even in those communities there is change), has been based on the command to be fruitful and multiply, which they took as a command to all mankind. The rarity of references to Leviticus probably has to do with honesty: If they read the verses honestly and with an open-mind, they cannot be construed as a blanket condemnation of male homosexuality, but at the most, a restriction on where it can take place.

  5. Clarify a couple things for me, if you will, regarding the Greek and Hebrew points you made.

    “Second, the word translated “shameless acts” (asxemosunen) is used throughout Leviticus 18:6-19 and 20:11, 17-21 (“you shall not uncover the nakedness of…”). In fact, more than half of the OT uses of this Greek word occur in Leviticus 18 and 20 to refer to sexual sins. It’s very likely that Paul has Leviticus 18 and 20 in mind when he says that same-sex intercourse is a sin in Romans 1.”

    I must be missing something, because this really puzzles me. Why and how would the Old Testament use a Greek word, at all? The inverse makes sense, as the authors of the New Testament were drawing on the Old, and yet doing so in a different language, so the idea that they might pull Hebrew words to use in the New Testament—or some similar tactic, such as transliterating a Hebrew word, etc.—makes sense. But why, and how, would the Old Testament use Greek words? Specifically, how would the book of Leviticus, written long before Israel had contact with the Greeks (as far as I know), use a Greek word?

    Are you referring to the word that the Septuagint uses in those verses? Or are you saying that the word used in Romans (asxemosunen) is the one that is generally used to translate the Hebrew word in Leviticus 18 & 20, which are then both translated as “shameless acts” in English?

    “Paul refers to homosexual sex again in 1 Cor 6:9 when he coins the word arsenokoitai—literally “lying with a male.” Paul invents this word by combining two Hebrew words mishkav zakur (“lying with a male”), which are the same Hebrew words used in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Again, not only does Paul see same sex intercourse as sin, but he draws on Leviticus 18 and 20 to do so.”

    Can you speak more about arsenokoitai, and how we know what it means? Can you be more specific about how mishkav zakur gives us the word arsenokoitai? I’ve heard those making the case that the Bible does not condemn committed, monogamous homosexual relationships make the case that this word is used exactly twice in the New Testament, by Paul, which is also the first place it is recorded in Greek writing (which is consistent with you saying that Paul coined the term himself)—and that all other uses (and there aren’t many) are in categorically grouped lists of vices, grouped not with sexual sins but economic ones. The conclusion is that we don’t have any clear indication of where the word came from, so at best we don’t know what it means, but it doesn’t appear to be sexual in nature. (See here, for example.)

    Is this understanding of the word arsenokoitai, and how it came to be, incorrect? Is it possible to clearly and definitively, without any doubt, trace its exact meaning?

    • Ya, bro, Septuagint. Since this is a blog for real people not scholars, I try to use simple language, assuming that the more scholarly minded will know what I mean. So ya, I’m referring to Paul’s Bible: the Greek OT, the one he nearly always quotes from.

      I’ll cover arsenokoitai in more detail when I get to 1 Cor 6:9. There are a pile of scholarly articles (and chapters in books) written on the meaning of this word. Rev. Carey’s explanation below is one view but certainly not the only view. There’s a lot more to it. I’d begin with a rather lengthy article by David F. Wright (forgot the name of the article but if you Google around you could find it).

  6. Preston, I am thrilled that you are undertaking this endeavor. It is matching a very similar study I have done (and am doing),though our conclusions are, admittedly, landing in different places.

    I’d like to push back a little bit on how you’re handling “toevah.”

    I think more weight needs to be given to the “cultural” aspect of this word. In other words, for things to be “toevah” seems to have much more to do with actions that were taboo for that given culture. Moses, for instance, tells pharaoh that their sacrifices to YHWH would be considered “toevot” (abominations) to the Egyptians. And I don’t think we are prepared to suggest that the Israelite worship of YHWH was inherently evil.

    In my findings, toevah has less to do with universal ethics, and more to do with “don’t do these things, because the nations around you do them, and I want you to be different… set apart… holy… etc”, which the beginning and ending of Lev 18 really emphasize.

    Lev 18 certainly is a big list of toevah practices (and although they’re not specifically called “abominations” through the use of “toevah,” I don’t think it would be TOO big a stretch to suggest that the continued list in chapter 19 ALSO fits within the category of “your neighbors do these things… but YOU, Israel? Please, don’t.” But I’m sure we disagree on that.)

    In your previous post you stated that most other instances of “toevah” are in reference to intrinsically evil stuff, but then it felt like you sort of shrugged off the other uses of it. You can find in Deuteronomy that eating forbidden foods, maimed sacrifices, remarrying a divorcee who has been married to someone else, and cheating in business are all considered abominable actions (toevot). Though you may not find it compelling, I think it’s enough that we should pause before we equate too quickly “toevah” with things that are universally and intrinsically evil things, never to be done then OR now.

    Thanks again!

    • Bro, super helpful! I’m honestly not trying to promote some preconceived view (I have too many gay friends to do that), but to honestly represent the textual evidence. So you’re pushback is very welcomed!

      Honestly, I need to look closer at the use of toevah in the OT and, perhaps classify how many uses are “intrisically evil” (which may beg the question, of course: by whose standard?), and those of which are cultural taboos. From what I remember (it’s been a few weeks now), it still seemed that the majority of uses would be considered “evil” by most standards (lying, fornication, stealing, etc.) while there are some references (e.g. in Deut and elsewhere) where taboo stuff is labelled as toevah.

      But I still think that the use of toevah in Leviticus in particular should take pride of place. That is, it’s a basic point of hermeneutics that the use of a word in a particular book takes precedence over the broader use of a word in multiple books.

      Would you agree with this?

      If so, then toevah in the singular is only used of same sex intercourse in Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13) while the plural is used of all the sexual sins in Lev 18:6ff. To me, this takes pride of place over its use in Deut.

      And personally, given the close ethical connections between Ezekiel and Leviticus (this was a sub-section in my PhD dissertation, so it’s still very fresh!), is also significant, and Ezekiel seems to use toevah in similiar fashion: to refer to sins that most cultures would consider intrinsically evil.

      But ya, certainly, there are exceptions. This is why I would not want to bank on the use of toevah ALONE in Leviticus 18 and 20. Other arguments are necessary.

      Seriously, bro. Thanks for dropping in and offering super helpful comments!

  7. Hi,
    The practices of Leviticus 18 are forbidden because they lower birth rates which militates against God’s command to Abraham to multiply and fill the earth. Conversely, liberal ideology’s intellectual attack on the Levitical prohibitions lowers birth rates. Liberal ideology hastens the redemption. You’ve got to empty the earth of others before you can fill it with your own.