Queering the Bible, Pt3 – Exploring Leviticus

The 3rd part of a series on queer issues in the Bible.

The Holiness Code of Leviticus is one of the most often quoted passages to criticise male homosexuality. Firstly, let’s look at the historical context of the Holiness Code.
The Holiness Code concerns itself with recording the laws and culture of Israel. To be a Jew at that time meant belonging to a distinct group of people, being separate from other nations at that time. Leviticus draws a line in the sand, makes a distinction between the Israeli culture and the culture of other nations. Any behaviour of other cultures that is not overtly present in its own culture, Leviticus views negatively, a consequence of viewing the world though the lens of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
When the Jews had been enslaved by Egypt, keeping a sense of national identity was not a problem. It is unlikely that Israeli-Egyptian unions would have taken place, and a shared sense of being oppressed heightened the sense of being separate from other nations. After the exile from Egypt, the Jews would have come in contact on a daily basis with other nationalities, so there was a need to maintain a strong national identity in order for the Jewish culture and nationality to survive. The need for a distinction between Israeli and Gentile nations is apparent in Leviticus 18:3-5 and in Leviticus 20:22-24

Within the Torah, there is only one instance of the forbidding of homosexual acts outside the Holiness Code, found in Deuteronomy 23:18 – “You must not bring the earnings of a female prostitute or of a male prostitute into the house of the LORD your God to pay any vow, because the LORD your God detests them both”. Both male and female prostitution is banned from the temple. This is seen to be a result of Gentile nations in contact with the Israeli’s having male and female prostitutes operating from their pagan temples. The prohibition of homosexual acts in Leviticus 18:22 – ‘Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable’ and Leviticus 20:1315 were an attempt to make a greater distinction between the practices of Gentiles and Israeli’s. It is arguably not about homo-erotic behaviour in itself, but about abstaining from behaviours that appear to mirror Canaanite rituals to their pagan gods, and not to the G-d of Israel. Leviticus does not condemn homosexuality in the modern understanding as an orientation, just anal sex by specific people at a specific time. Leviticus does not say anything about other homoerotic acts, such as oral sex or mutual masturbation. In terms of purity, it is more likely that Leviticus condemns unprotected anal sex (leaving both participants ‘unclean’). In a practical sense, the use of a condom stops bodily fluids mixing, and thus keeps the participants ‘clean’.

It is interesting to note that Paul later in Romans 14:14, and to a lesser extent, Romans 14.20 discounts what the Torah says about cleanliness and purity, where true uncleanliness is a representation of oppression and exploitation.

You may find this article on homosexuality and Leviticus, concerning issues of purity, useful.

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