Sex in Leviticus
Editor's note: This article appeared as a sidebar to Wright's "Learning to Love Leviticus," part of CT's July-August cover story on Grappling with the God of Two Testaments.
The law in Leviticus prohibiting sexual intercourse between men (18:22) comes in the same book that contains laws prohibiting foods that Israelites were to consider unclean (chapter 11). We eat shellfish today without any moral problems, so why should we treat this sex law as morally binding? Haven't we outgrown all of that Levitical law anyway? Christians who insist on the sexual laws of the Bible are being inconsistent in not keeping all the other laws too. So goes one line of argument in modern debates about homosexuality. To this, three things must be said.
First, as I note in "Learning to Love Leviticus," we no longer keep the food laws because the separation they symbolized (between Israelites and Gentiles in the Old Testament) is no longer relevant in Christ. But the ethical principles embodied in Old Testament laws on sexual relations (positive and negative) remain constant and are reaffirmed by Jesus and Paul in the New Testament.
Second, the argument would reduce the Bible to absurdity. The Ten Commandments come in the same book that commanded Israel not to climb the mountain. If we are told that we cannot with consistency disapprove of same-sex activity unless we also stop eating shellfish, then we should not condemn theft and murder unless we also ban mountaineering.
Third, and most important, the biblical discussion of homosexual behaviour begins not in Leviticus, as if the whole argument depends on how we interpret a single Old Testament law. When Jesus was asked about divorce, he would not let the argument get stuck around the interpretation of the law. Instead he took the issue back to Genesis. That is where we find the foundational biblical teaching about God's purpose in creating human sexual complementarity—and it is very rich. It reflects God—male and female together being made in God's image—and it provides the necessary togetherness and equality in the task of procreating and ruling the earth. This God-given complementarity is so important that God explains how it is to be joyfully celebrated and exercised—the union of marriage that is heterosexual, monogamous, nonincestuous, socially visible and affirmed, physical, and permanent (Gen. 2:24, endorsed by Jesus).
On that foundation, the rest of the Bible—in the laws and narratives, in the prophets and wisdom literature, in the Gospels and Epistles—consistently teaches that any other kind of sexual intercourse falls short of God's best will and plan for human flourishing. (And we should note that the Bible has far more to say about all forms of disordered heterosexual sexual activity, including nonmarital and extramarital, than its prohibition of same-sex intercourse).
The law in Leviticus, then, must not be isolated, stuck alongside shellfish, and mocked into irrelevance. It is one small piece of a much larger and consistent pattern of whole-Bible teaching about the gift and joy and purpose and disciplines of our sexuality.