I love Leviticus. I really do. I think it is one of the most important books in the Old Testament for elucidating the New Testament. How can you understand what it means to say Jesus is the “once for all sacrifice” if you don’t understand the Old Testament sacrificial system which is described in Leviticus 1-7? How can you claim Jesus is your high priest if you’ve never read the role of the high priest in Leviticus 16? How can you quote the “greatest commandment” if you don’t know that it comes from Deut: 6:4-9 and Lev. 19:18? How can you understand Passover or Tabernacles (the “Great Feast”) or Pentecost (Shavuot) if you’ve never read about the festivals in Leviticus 23? How can you appreciate Jesus’ healing of lepers or the woman with the twelve-year flow of blood if you’ve never read the laws of clean and unclean in Leviticus 12-15? You can’t. You are missing the foundation of those stories if you’ve never read Leviticus.
But, Leviticus is a book that most Christians simply don’t read—won’t read. They find it tedious and difficult to understand. They say it’s “Old Covenant” so they don’t have to observe any of its strange laws (especially the dietary ones). “Jesus freed us from all that,” they say, happily. They see no real use for it, and say that it has no relevance to them. They ignore it, and the pages of Leviticus still stick together in their Bibles, the gold embossed edges unmarred.
Leviticus is the ugly step-daughter of the Old Testament—easily forgotten, overlooked, and untouched like an unclean woman.
Except when Leviticus is useful.
It’s useful when you want to pluck a few convenient verses out of context from the book to condemn and humiliate and justify hatred. Or when a parent wants to keep his/her child from getting a tattoo.
Such “uses” of Leviticus are defilement. When you use a biblical book only to condemn but ignore it otherwise, that’s bibliolatry. You are defiling God’s word by using it wrongly and selectively. When you ignore a book filled with important (but difficult) theology only to appeal to it when it’s convenient, you are abusing it. This is biblical pornography—putting selected verses on display in a way that defiles them and uses them for your own perverted purposes .
“God hates fags!” (Lev. 18:22; Lev. 20:13). That is Leviticus defiled. Does Leviticus really say God hates fags? No. Do people who use such verses have any other purpose than to promote hatred? No. Have these people ever read Leviticus in its entirety? Likely, no. And have they ever bothered to read these verses in context? No.
So, let’s take a look at the prooftexted verses of Leviticus and see what they really say in context.
Leviticus 18 and 20 forbid all sorts of sexual activity as well as foreign cult practices. In both, the purpose of the laws is clearly stated in the context of avoiding the practices of other nations. Lev. 18:3: “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you” (NRSV). Lev. 20:23: “You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them” (NRSV). Thus, the first thing we should notice is that the laws of Leviticus 18 and 20 are about avoiding the practices of other nations—nations which worshiped other gods.
Leviticus 18 and 20 differ in the order and in some of the practices they list. Leviticus 18 simply cites the practices and sometimes labels them as abominations or other such things. Leviticus 20 tends to cite the practices and also commends punishments for each one. Often the penalty is death.
Both Leviticus 18 and 20 emphasize avoiding the worship of Molech, a foreign deity, especially in regard to child sacrifice (Lev. 18:21; Lev. 20:2-5). This is another clue that these laws revolve around avoiding the practices of other nations. Interestingly, the law forbidding sacrificing children to Molech appears immediately prior to the oft-prooftexted 18:22, usually understood to forbid homosexuality.
Most of the laws of Leviticus 18 forbid sexual relations amongst family members (Lev. 18:6-18). One verse warns against having sex with a menstruant (Lev. 18:19; cf. Lev. 20:18 which states that both the man and woman will be cut off from their people!). One verse forbids adultery (Lev. 18:20). And the next forbids sacrificing children to Molech (Lev. 18:21). Next comes our prooftexted verse (Lev. 18:22), followed by a verse forbidding bestiality (Lev. 18:23). The remaining verses emphasize that such practices are forbidden because the “defiled” nations practice them (18:24-30).
The laws of Leviticus 20 are more diverse. The chapter begins with the laws forbidding worship of Molech (Lev. 20:1-5). This is followed by forbidding the use of necromancers (Lev. 20:6), admonitions to remain holy (Lev. 20:7-8), and a warning against cursing one’s father or mother lest one be put to death (Lev. 20:9). The laws that follow focus on forbidden sexual relations, including our other prooftexted verse (v. 13) (Lev. 20:10-21). The chapter concludes with a restatement of the importance of making a distinction between Israel and the other nations (Lev. 20:22-26) and a final verse forbidding the consultation of necromancers (Lev. 20:27).
Now to the prooftexted verses. Generally speaking, this is how most modern translations translate the verses in question.
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (NRSV). See also NIV, NASB, NET, KJV, ESV, etc. which all have something very close with slight variations, i.e. using “detestable” rather than “abomination,” and “sexual relations” rather than “lie with.”
“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.” See also NIV, NASB, NET, KJV, ESV, etc. which all have something very close with slight variations, such as “blood guilt” or “blood guiltiness” rather than just “blood” and “sexual relations” instead of “lie with.”
The problem with all these translations is they don’t reflect what the Hebrew actually says. Here are my literal translations of both verses:
“And with a male you will not lay (on) the couches/beds of a woman; it is an abomination.”
“And a man who lays with a male (on) the couches/beds of a woman, the two of them have made an abomination, and dying they will die; their blood is upon them.”
Neither verse actually says “Do not lie with a male as with a woman.” Instead, both say you should not lay with a male on the couches or beds of a woman. The New American Standard Bible has a footnote that says, “Lit. “those who lie” taking the word “couches” as a participle. But it is not a participle. It is a plural noun. So what does this mean?
Well, first it means that translators have taken great liberties in smoothing out these verses. Second, it means that maybe these verses aren’t talking about homosexuality at all, especially in light of the context of Molech worship. An interesting parallel appears in Isaiah:
“Upon a high and lofty mountain you have set your bed, and there you went up to offer sacrifice. Behind the door and the doorpost you have set up your symbol; for in deserting me, you have uncovered your bed, you have gone up to it, you have made it wide; and you have made a bargain for yourself with them, you have loved their bed, you have gazed on their nakedness. You journeyed to Molech with oil, and multiplied your perfumes; you sent your envoys far away, and sent down even to Sheol.” (Isa. 57:7-9 NRSV [italics mine]).
Clearly, in this text, setting up your bed is a symbol for worship of Molech. Perhaps the same is true in Leviticus. And since both Levitical verses speak of lying with a male on the beds of a woman, perhaps the issue is sacred prostitution, not homosexuality.
Regardless, the sacred-cow prooftexts against homosexuality aren’t all that clear, are they? And if we keep the context in mind (and I realize people who use Leviticus to bash other people don’t care about context), these verses, like all the other verses, have to do with avoiding the practices of other Ancient Near Eastern religions.
Out of all the verses in Leviticus that could be singled out, people filled with hate have chosen two obscure verses and ignored their context. They don’t care about the fact that Leviticus 20 also forbids sleeping with your wife if she is menstruating, and if you curse your parents you should be put to death. They don’t care that Leviticus forbids wearing garments of mixed materials. They don’t care that Leviticus contains an entire dietary code that was obviously quite important. They don’t care about this book as God’s Word. They only care about perverting two verses.
Isn’t it interesting, that when Jesus quoted Leviticus, he quoted a verse about love (Lev. 19:18)? Maybe, if we’re going to pick one verse out of Leviticus to plaster on signs, that’s the one we should choose.
I’ve consulted both the Brown-Driver-Briggs and the Kohler-Baumgartner lexicons to check into the use of miskab (the noun that means “bed”) to see if it can refer to the act of sex done on a bed. In other words, does “beds of a woman” refer to the act of sex done on womens’ beds thus allowing for the translation “as with a woman” in Lev. 18:22 and 20:13?
What I found is interesting. The word “bed” can refer to the act of sex, but when it does the Hebrew word yadah (know) is always used. For example, in Num. 31:17 Moses speaks of killing “every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him” (NRSV). A literal rendering of the Hebrew is “and every woman who knows a man to/upon/by a bed (miskab) (of a) male you will kill.” So, you could smooth this out by rendering it “every woman who has had sex with a man by bedding him, you will kill.” The same is true in Num. 31:35 and Judg. 21:11-12. BUT, these verses are describing women who are no longer virgins AND these verses ALL include the word yadah (to know) which, in these contexts means “to know sexually.”
Although BDB lumps Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 with the above texts, the Leviticus texts are different in that neither uses the word yadah (to know sexually) with the noun mishkebey (beds of). KB lists one meaning for the noun mishkab to be “a bed for cultic rituals” (citing Isaiah 57). Thus, it seems to me that the use of the phrase “beds of a woman” more closely resembles the use in Isaiah (bed for cultic ritual) than it does “the act of sex” in Numbers and Judges. The syntax and context of Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 match the syntax and context of Isaiah 57 not the syntax and context of Numbers 31 or Judges 21.
 See Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2006), 22, who discusses the pornography of God—God as object instead of subject. The Bible is often treated similarly, as an object to be used and devoured for despicable purposes.