This post continues a series (first three posts are here, here, and here) on biblical teachings that shed light on God’s perspective on same-gender sexual activity. The purpose of the series is provide clarity on the meaning of words and passages that often surface in discussions about this issue. It is always worth remembering that the Bible addresses the issue of same-sex practice, and not the attractions that are experienced. All Christians find their identity in Christ and his gracious work and accept one another on that basis – “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7). As Christians, we all struggle with sin, and as the late Rich Mullins sung, “We are not as strong as we think we are.” Yet, we never want to become content with any sin, and we want to remind each other of God’s perfect wisdom for living, which is taught to us in the Bible and is for our good. Jesus proclaimed “blessed are the poor in spirit” (those who recognize their brokenness) alongside “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:3-10).
Overview of Leviticus 18-20
In Leviticus 19:2, the LORD tells Moses to tell the people of Israel, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (see also Leviticus 11:44-45; 20:26; 21:8). This helps frame the broader aim of the commands in the book of Leviticus: “Israelites are expected to mirror the divine likeness to the world; more specifically, to be holy as he is holy and so to function as priestly mediators of God” (Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible, 108-109). The laws against same-sex relations are provided in this context.
The specific injunctions against same-gender sexual activity are found in the following two verses:
Leviticus 18:22 – “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.”
Leviticus 20:13 – “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
Abomination (ESV)/ detestable (NIV) – toevah (LXX – βδἐλυγμα). HALOT, 1703 – toevah – “abomination, abhorrence.”
This word occurs throughout the Old Testament, but here is an examination of its use in legal contexts, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
It occurs six times in Leviticus:
- 18:22 – same-sex relations among males
- 18:26 – sexual practices of Canaanites (and Egyptians) in general
- 18:27 – sexual practices of the Canaanites in general
- 18:29 – sexual practices of the Canaanites in general
- 18:30 – sexual practices of the Canaanites in general
- 20:13 – same-sex relations among males
Note that contrary to what is suggested in Vines, 85, there is not a direct connection between “abomination” and sex with a menstruating woman (Lev 18:19). “Abomination” describes the practices in Leviticus 18 as a whole, and same-sex relations among males in particular, but not sex with a menstruating woman (that prohibition is simply stated, without a qualifying descriptor on the act itself).
- 7:25, 26 (2x) – worship of other gods
- 12:31 – worship of other gods, with child sacrifice
- 13:14 – worship of other gods
- 14:3 – unclean animals
- 17:1 – flawed sacrifices
- 17:4 – worship of other gods
- 18:9, 12 (3x) – worship of other gods and practices related to that
- 20:18 – worship of other gods
- 22:5 – cross-dressing
- 23:18 – using prostitute money for gift offerings
- 24:4 – taking back a former wife who married someone else
- 25:16 – dishonest business practices
- 27:15 – idolatry
- 32:16 – worship of other gods
Additional note: as seen in the previous post, Ezekiel 16:50 uses “abomination” to refer to the practices of Sodom.
Here are some parallel terms to toevah in Leviticus 18 and 20:
- Perversion – tebel – (18:23, 20:12) – HALOT, 1683 – “confusion, disgracefulness.”
- Wickedness (NIV)/depravity (ESV) – zimmah (18:17, 20:14) – HALOT, 272 – “infamy, shameful behavior.” ESV often translates it as “lewdness” elsewhere, and it is often paired with “abomination” (toevah) in Ezekiel.
The highly negative descriptors (toevah, tebel, zimmah) are tied to some condemned sexual practices in Leviticus 18 but not others, suggesting some gradation in the degree of severity. Though Leviticus 18:3 and 18:30 relates the practices to the activities of the godless Egyptians and Canaanites, this does not suggest that the practices are wrong simply because of idolatrous Canaanite associations. The descriptors (toevah, tebel, zimmah) are used directly with the actions themselves to portray the inherent incompatibility between the aberrant sexual practices and life as God’s people.
Similarly, God’s prohibitions against same-gender sexual activity cannot be written off as solely arising from cultural norms in ancient near eastern societies (as Vines seems to argue). According to Leviticus 18:1 and 20:1, the laws were revealed by God to Moses (“the LORD spoke to Moses, saying . . .”) and were part of his plan for them to “be holy as I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).
Death penalty for serious breaches of the Old Testament law:
Under the old covenant between God and the Israelites, the death penalty is prescribed for certain behaviors. Punishments such as the death penalty are not part of the new covenant in Christ (the new covenant people of God are not one centralized nation and thus do not enact civil penalties in the same way Israel was called to do so). Still, we know that the Mosaic Law reflected God’s holy character, so we can gain some insight from the laws that God put in place over the people of Israel.
Maintaining order within the community does not stand out as a primary reason for the death penalty, especially in Leviticus 20 (contra Vines, 86). In Leviticus 20:13, the reason for the death penalty is given: same-sex relations between males was an abomination (toevah) that brought blood-guilt on the offending parties (rather than something that was a breach of community order).
Elsewhere in Leviticus 20, God says he himself “sets his face against” those for whom the death penalty is prescribed (20:5, 6), and God connects offenses to the purity of his sanctuary and the holiness of his name (20:3). Elsewhere in the chapter there is mention of blood-guilt, perversion (tebel), and wickedness (zimmah) in connection with the reasons for the death penalty.
Not all sexual violations in Leviticus 20 bring the death penalty. Having sex with a menstruating woman and some varieties of incest carry lesser penalties. Once again, this may indicate that some sins were considered more serious than others within the context of God’s relationship with the Israelites.
- Note: Vines is misleading when he says that “in Ezekiel 18:13, the death penalty was applied to anyone who charged interest on a loan” (86). Ezekiel 18:11-13 assigns a death penalty for a morally corrupt, idolatrous, and oppressive man, whose crimes include charging interest on a loan (punishment is not for this last vice, independent from the others).
Theological context – does the Old Testament Law still apply?
Some laws are clearly annulled in the New Testament (all foods became clean, Gentile converts do not have to be circumcised, and observance of special religious calendars is no longer required). Is it legitimate to differentiate between ceremonial laws, which were abolished, and moral laws, which are still binding? Even though the specific penalties for violating moral laws are no longer in force (church discipline, or the purposeful exclusion of unrepentant sinners from Christian fellowship, is the practice instead – see Matthew 18:15-18 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13), there is evidence that the moral standards from the Old Testament are still consistent with God’s moral will today, especially in sexual matters.
Jesus himself distinguishes between ceremonial uncleanness and moral impurity, releasing people from ceremonial requirements while still condemning moral impurity. Mark 7:14-23 (see also Matthew 15:1-20) differentiates between two types of behaviors:
|Things going into a person||Things coming out of a person|
|Things from outside a person||Things from within, from the heart|
|These do not defile a person before God||These defile a person before God|
Jesus lists the things that defile a person: “evil thoughts, sexual immorality (porneia), theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” The presence of these moral vices (both attitudes and behaviors) makes a person defiled before God.
- To “defile” (κοινόω) means “to make common or impure, defile in the cultic sense” (BDAG, 552). Jesus is saying that true defilement (of the heart) is tied to immorality that touches the heart and is incompatible with being in God’s presence (see Revelation 21:27). Sin from the heart strikes against God’s holiness in ways that mere ritual non-observance does not. Jesus includes sexual departure from the norm (porneia) among the morally defiling practices and not among the ritually non-binding matters.
Note that at least two of these vices are related to sexual behavior (and “sensuality” likely has sexual connotations too):
- “Sexual immorality” is from the Greek πορνεία, which is a general term describing all sorts of sexually immoral behavior. It includes any “unlawful sexual intercourse” (BDAG, 854). The term appears in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:32 – “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for porneia, makes her the victim of adultery . . .” and again in Matthew 19:9, where Jesus says likewise: “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for porneia, and marries another woman commits adultery” (see also Deuteronomy 24:1, which is referred to in Matthew 19:7). So porneia is used as a general term to describe sexual behavior that is “out of bounds” for someone already in a marriage. But notice the wider application of the term porneia to sexual sin before being married in 1 Corinthians 7:2. And in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 porneia is related to the general sexual practices of godless Gentiles. And adultery is a separate sin in Jesus’ list in this passage (Mark 7:22). Porneia functions as a handy catch-all term for sexual sin – any sexual activity outside of a marriage between a man and a woman (Jesus’ assumed standard according to Mark 10:5-12 and Matthew 19:4-9).
- “Adultery” is from μοιχεία, which means having sex with someone who is not your spouse.
Jesus thus includes sexual behavior under the category of moral vice rather than ritual impurity. Jesus’ words imply that God’s moral will endures but that standards of ritual purity are no longer binding.
This also means that the Gentiles’ freedom from circumcision was a paradigm shift that cannot be extended to OT commands that are purely moral from God’s perspective. In Acts 15, the Spirit led the apostles to exempt Gentile believers in Christ from circumcision, but the apostles still required the Gentiles to abstain from sexual immorality.
There is broader evidence that New Testament authors still upheld a “third use of the Law” for Christians (the use of the Old Testament Law as an ongoing moral norm for Christian behavior). For instance, both Jesus and Paul uphold the abiding moral authority of the Old Testament law that children must obey their parents (Matthew 15:4-6; Ephesians 6:1-2).
In Leviticus 18 and 20 same -sex practices are treated as serious sins that God would not tolerate in his covenant relationship with Israel. Jesus upholds God’s moral standards (but not the penalties) governing sexual behavior by treating them as different from ritual observances. Jesus does not specify that homosexual sexual activity makes one defiled, but his general list of morally defiling behaviors reflect the moral laws given to the Israelites, which included restrictions against same-gender sexual behavior.