Leviticus 18: When Is Sex Not Just About Sex? All the Time

garden boschIt’s Easier to De-Sex the World than to De-God It

After reading yet another diatribe about the evil and harm that religion has done to humanity I decided to write (and not publish) a ranty blog post about how human sexuality has brought far more harm and suffering to humanity than religion, and unlike religion we actually know how to medically remove testosterone from the equation. Plenty of science fiction has imagined a more “rational” means of managing reproduction than the current method.

How much chaos could we eliminate from humanity by de-sexing the species? No rape, no molestation, no lust, no pornography, no body-image issues, no romantic jealousy and probably a huge decline in domestic violence. Take our biological drive for sex out of the equation it would seem would get us far closer to John Lennon’s “Imagine” world than “no god and no religion too”. Wasn’t it John’s wanting Yoko that killed the Beatles?

While no one seems interested in de-sexing the species, last week’s New York Times had a “Room for Debate” piece on de-gendering it.   5 of the 6 seemed at least at some level in favor of it. While no one seems interested in de-sexing the world, a seemingly large group of Westerners not only believe but promote the idea that to de-gender society would be an improvement. Including the Episcopal Church of Connecticut apparently.

Christians as Destructive Prudes

At least in the West Christianity has been case in this narrative as the bastion of patriarchy, purity culture and both gender and sexual regressivism. Many have suggested to the church that if it would only lay off about talking about sex, then everyone would be cool with her. (Church is usually a “her” BTW in the traditional Christian narrative because she is the bride of Christ who is a “him” from the book of Revelation.)

The Roman Catholic church, one of the most global church structures and famously conservative just hosted a major Synod do discuss its traditional practices concerning “the family“. Protestant churches are known for being far quicker to respond to local cultural trends and so have been predictably all over the map on these issues from complete accommodation to the most vocal and angrily reactive.

Rob Bell is so 7 Years Ago

Rob Bell in the evangelical camp is known for being sufficiently “spiritual” and “progressive” to go from Grand Rapids mega-church pastor to having his own show on the Oprah Winfrey Network. A number of years ago wrote a book entitled Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections between Sexuality and Spirituality.  In it Rob Bell does his best to present the God of the Bible as winsome, pro-sex, pro-everyone, and pro-pleasure. According to this blogger his attempts to reframe old patriarchy are insufficient.

And then he goes off the rails. He starts talking about the ways we fall short of the mutual submission and writes a whole seven pages which begged, screamed, shouted the question: “Why is this gendered?”

A common misstep we see in discussions about sex is the unnecessary gendering of things which have no business being gendered. And often, we see that gendering falling along patriarchal lines, with women’s actions singled out and discussed, while men fade into the background. In this case, Bell tangents off into a lecture (this is the only word that describes it) about how women are “worth dying for” and they need to “know their worth” and stop “giving [themselves] away.” Bell uses a pointed “you” here, and it’s clear he’s trying to be motivating and inspiring toward the women in his audience. However, the “you” focusing solely on women has the effect of condescension, of explaining to women as though they don’t know anything about their own motivations and worth, of telling women how to behave so that they may motivate a man to step up because they are “worth dying for.”

He couches it in nicer terms, but the end result is the same old purity culture bullshit women have been dealing with for so long. We are “worth waiting for,” our virginity is a “gift,” and if we “give ourselves away,” we’ve demeaned our own worth and our own pricelessness. Bell might as well have used the crumpled rose analogy for all the good this section did.

And where are the men in this section? They are “challenged to be men of God,” ostensibly by unsullied, untouched women. There’s nothing about how men give themselves away, about how they don’t know their own worth because they choose to have sex. Bell is silent on this double standard, and indeed perpetuates it throughout his wording.

Your Moral Clock is Ticking

One person commented that perhaps Rob shouldn’t be held to these statements because they were written 7 years ago. If Rob Bell, the one validated and promoted by Oprah can’t keep himself updated on gender correctness, what hope do the rest of us old farts have?

If our morality gets stale and offensive in 7 years, the book of Leviticus is the gold standard for putrid moral decomposition. Leviticus seems to have more than its share of patriarchal gender bigotry trying to control the sex of just about everyone. One of the chapters most in the cross hairs is chapter 18 with its long list of sexual prohibitions from family members to same-gender persons to animals. If Rob Bell can’t keep up, the book of Leviticus is toast.

Sex is One of the LEAST Offensive Things Leviticus Talks About

We we’ve seen in this series Leviticus puzzles and/or offends us regularly and often with its dietary laws, rules about disease and defilement and the killing of Aaron’s sons. Most of the commands of Leviticus chapter 18 have in fact been the most enduring commands in Western civilization finding expression in civil laws in Christian countries well into the 20th century and most of the commands in 18 would continue to be affirmed by most Americans who consider themselves to be “liberal” or “progressive”. While many taboos have gone out of fashion in the West most find the idea of having sexual relations with close family members immoral and repugnant.

We should be weary, however, of falling into the trap that is common when it comes to the book of Leviticus. If you cite 18:22 where it is prohibited for “a man to lie with another man as with a woman” as evidence for God’s prohibition against gay sex you will quickly face the rejoiner that Christians happily eat shell fish, allow menstruating women to go out in public and eat cotton polyester blends.

Chapter 18, like every other chapter of the book has to be understood in the context of the book. We should be equally suspicious of the two errors of reading the book as a flat set of moral propositions to be taken at face value as we would be of picking and choosing what we want to embrace and what we want to reject based on our own set of biases. The book has to stand or fall together. Conservative theologian GJ Wenham asserts the same point.

wenham lev 18

Framing the Sex Laws

If you’re jumping into Leviticus 18 to either prove someone is an abomination or prove that the Bible is hopelessly patriarchal or regressive you might want to read the whole chapter before condemning the book and the chapter. The reason why is because the context of a prohibition is at least as important as the prohibition itself. If someone tells you to “stop eating lobster” who that person is and the context they are telling it to you determines a lot about what they are saying:

  • Your mother: stop eating lobster because you are allergic to shell fish
  • Your Rabbi: stop eating lobster because it isn’t kosher
  • Your environmentalist: stop eating lobster because the fishery is endangered
  • Your accountant: stop eating lobster because you’re too deep in debt

If we want to understand these commands in the book of Leviticus we’d better understand something about the book of Leviticus.

The first five verses of the chapter don’t say anything about sex at all, as don’t the last six verses of the chapter. The frame of the chapter is vital if we want to understand what’s inside of the frame.

Leviticus 18:1–5 (NET)

1 The Lord spoke to Moses: 2 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘I am the Lord your God! 3 You must not do as they do in the land of Egypt where you have been living, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan into which I am about to bring you; you must not walk in their statutes. 4 You must observe my regulations and you must be sure to walk in my statutes. I am the Lord your God. 5 So you must keep my statutes and my regulations; anyone who does so will live by keeping them. I am the Lord.

Leviticus 18:24–30 (NET)

24 “ ‘Do not defile yourselves with any of these things, for the nations which I am about to drive out before you have been defiled with all these things. 25 Therefore the land has become unclean and I have brought the punishment for its iniquity upon it, so that the land has vomited out its inhabitants. 26 You yourselves must obey my statutes and my regulations and must not do any of these abominations, both the native citizen and the resident foreigner in your midst,27 for the people who were in the land before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become unclean. 28 So do not make the land vomit you out because you defile it just as it has vomited out the nations that were before you. 29 For if anyone does any of these abominations, the persons who do them will be cut off from the midst of their people.30 You must obey my charge to not practice any of the abominable statutes that have been done before you, so that you do not defile yourselves by them. I am the Lord your God.’ ”

This is a little different from “Hey Moses, your people have genitals just in case you haven’t noticed, these are the ways you shouldn’t use them, even if it feels good…”

This list is given for a reason, and the reason is given. Israel is to be different from Egypt, the land she left, and we assume the behaviors and morals they have taken with them, and they should be different from the land they are going into with its current population, which will influence them moving forward.

Given the history of Christendom and the influence of Christian ideas in Western sexual norms, most people read this as “power move” on the part of God, Israel, and by extension the church. We should probably remember that what we are seeing here are prohibitions given to a people who will, except for a brief period during the rule of David and Solomon, be perpetually trying to resist the dominant powers in the world around them (Egypt, Mesopotamia) and the constant pressures of the indigenous people in the land and the minor powers around them, specifically in this case Moab. In a bit we’ll see why Moab sacrificial practices get brought up in a list of sex rules.

Just for Men

For all the gender awareness of our current context most critical readers of the book of Leviticus often fail to observe what might be the most offensive thing about chapter 18, and much of the rest of the Pentateuch, including the 10 Commandments, they were pretty obviously rules given specifically to men.

When I point this out I usually also offend traditional literalists. When I tell them “you know, God really, literally, addressed the 10 Commandments to MEN” they get upset that somehow the women found a loophole. Traditionalist women also fail to find joy in this. Go figure.

All of the commands in verses 6-23  only make sense if they are given to men.

Strange Omissions 

Scholars have also noted some interesting items that are NOT mentioned in the list.

  • there is no prohibition against having sex with daughters (or sons)
  • there is no prohibition against lesbian sexual activity
  • the prohibition against sex a full sister (or brother) is debatable

The most glaring omission of this passage, or any other in any Biblical sex code is in fact the most dominant prohibition in our own culture, age. The Bible doesn’t give an age of consent or even talk much about consent at all.

If someone today were writing a list of moral rules about sex and even legislation the big items would be

  • Don’t procreate with people too close to your blood line (siblings) for fear of birth defects
  • Don’t have sex with minors
  • Don’t have sex without consent

Scholars have also noted that many of the rules here were broken by the patriarchs

  • Abram married his half-sister Sarai
  • Rueben slept with his father’s concubine
  • Jacob married two sisters as “rival wives”

Lot having procreative drunken sex with his daughters again strangely gets a pass in this list. This of course makes Lot offering his virginal daughters to the angry crowd of Sodom that demanded to have sex with the male visitors all the stranger.

So if you say “Leviticus 18 is my guide to godly sex” you’re not going to make anyone happy, and you’ll probably wind up in jail.

What this does is inform us a bit about the list, its intention and how we should interpret it.

Identity, Status, Money, Power and Marriage

In the ancient world, as in the modern world, sex is never simple.

  • Sex is about power
  • Sex is about pleasure
  • Sex is about procreation
  • Sex is about money
  • Sex is about marriage
  • Sex is about intimacy

What the text demands is that Hebrew men in their households need to be different from the Egyptians, Canaanites and the rest of the world.

Identity From Sex is A Modern Thing

Today we think we’re all innovative and creative when it comes to sex. We think we’re all about “pushing boundaries” when it comes to sex. We think this because most people don’t read history, especially ancient history. Let me tell you, the modern world has nothing on the ancient world when it comes to sexual exploration and exploitation.

Some contemporary people will complain that the Bible puts people in boxes and demands things of them. This is true, but what many of them fail to realize is that we have our own boxes today. Facebook famously has 58 Gender options.

Ancients would roll their eyes at us. Even our short-list categories of straight, gay, lesbian, bi don’t make much sense in the ancient world. The ancient world understood sexuality to be enormously fluid and had everything to do with culture, power, access and ambition. Sex and marriage weren’t as tied as they are today even in our post-Christian culture. In most of the world if you had status, power and money sex was available to you in innumerable places and ways, especially if you were a man.

Perhaps the best way for us to appreciate that in our own context is sex in prison. Are all those who are “gay for the stay” gay or bi or is sex happening for reasons other than simple sexual appetite? Being someone’s bitch has nothing to do with your sex.

You might have noticed in famous verse 22 that what is literally prohibited is one side of a same sex encounter. The man is prohibited from laying with another man using her as a woman. It doesn’t talk about a man being the “woman” in the same sex paring. Why not? In the ancient world through the Roman period, the part you played in the pairing said a lot about status. To play the part of the man was to be THE man in the context of the act and the relationship. To play the other part expressed your status with respect to the other.

The Romans had an absolute abhorrence for the violation of freeborn boys; the body of the Roman man was impenetrable, and there was no twilight of indeterminacy between boyhood and manhood. This prohibition was backed by the fearsome power of public law.

Slaves, already in Greek culture, were subjected to untrammeled sexual abuse.

The laws deflected lust away from the freeborn body, and slaves provided a ready outlet. In Roman pederasty, elaborate courtship before the act was replaced by the master’s authority, and intentional obscurity about the nature of the act gave way to a coarse simplicity about the physical mechanics of pleasure.

Harper, Kyle (2013-06-01). From Shame to Sin (Revealing Antiquity) (p. 25). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

This doesn’t address the context of ancient Israel, its clear from other sources that sex and status with respect to same sex behaviors were understood and subject to legislation.

A Mesopotamian omen (concerned with results rather than morality) prognosticates: “If a man has anal sex with a man of equal status—that man will be foremost among his brothers and colleagues.” However, the Middle Assyrian laws have a different attitude, which is closer to that of Leviticus: “If a man sodomizes his comrade and they prove the charges against him and find him guilty, they shall sodomize him and they shall turn him into a eunuch.” In harmony with this negative assessment, a confession of righteousness in the Egyptian Book of the Dead affirms: “I have not copulated with a boy.”

Walton, J. H. (2009). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Vol. 1, p. 311). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

The labeling of this practice in verse 22 is also highlighted: “detestable” a term that is used to describe the feeling of the Egyptians at eating with Hebrews (Genesis) and most often with respect to the idols of the surrounding nations.

The bestiality references connect sexual practice with the part human, part animal deities of Egypt and the other peoples around Israel. If shellfish are a violation of categories, bestiality certainly is the preeminent expression of obscene confusion.

Rules about having sex with older female relatives are easily understood as well. Trying to marry or have sex with a mother or an aunt or even a grandmother was usually about status and power claims. David’s sons make claims to the throne by getting his concubines in bed.

Today we read Leviticus 18 to be simply about sex, no ancient would have been so naive about the text.

Are People For Your Sexual Use and Ambition? 

So what is the passage about?

You might be offended that the text exclusively addresses men, but don’t forget that even though Christians believe the Bible is written FOR us, it wasn’t written TO us. The passage addresses the men of the Hebrew households who held the power and had access to weaker, vulnerable member of the household, who could not refuse or resist them. Hebrew men may not prey on the weaker vessels (male or female) out of fear of the LORD and the law.

Even though marriage in Hebrew society would continue to be about economics and status, as it would be through the rest of the world for most of human history (we are the partial exception) the prohibitions against marrying close family members resisted the common practices of Egypt, the patriarchs, and the neighboring civilizations.

Israel was to be different. The sexual desires or dynastic ambitions of the alpha males in the household would be curbed by the law in Israel.

Why the Molech reference? Because as awful as it sounds evil use of your children for your own purposes doesn’t just stop at sex. While the passage is about sex, it is at heart about power, use and love. Your children belong to God but are given to you as stewards. They are not fodder for sacrifice nor available for your sexual needs.

The Myth of Progress

Most people on both sides of the “culture war” have embraced a narrative of either corruption or liberation when it comes to sexual norms in our culture. The data set that is highlighted by both sides is usually biased and selective in order to achieve the narrative.

  • Prostitution and abortion were common and available in the US in the 19th century
  • Slaves were sexual subjects to the end of slavery in the 19th century.
  • Sexual slavery has again become a term for practices today

Christians themselves had had a variety of practices that look strange to us today. The Puritans, of all people practiced “bundling” encouraging some strange “plausible deniability”.

These issues have been struggled with by the church for the history of the church.

But it may be more complicated than this. How were such sermons (against homosexuality) heard? Here I am less convinced than Harper that the effects of so much public hectoring were as instant and as chilling as the speakers might have wished. We study the messages that went out over the megaphone. Volume after volume, the collected sermons of the Fathers of the Church line the shelves of our libraries. But we know next to nothing of the earphones through which average Christians listened to these messages. It is quite possible that the good Christian mothers and fathers of Antioch and Constantinople left the basilica unpersuaded, or that they scrambled the message to fit their own views.

They were like the good bourgeois of fifteenth-century Siena, who would listen for hours to San Bernardino of Siena as he preached against homosexuals (with even more vehemence and circumstantiality than did Chrysostom) but remained convinced that, whatever the preacher said, it was still better for their boys to chase boys than to mess with the virginity of girls of their own class. Chrysostom was a man of great humanity when it came to preaching on the care of the poor and the reception of repentant sinners. Perhaps he had to shout so loud on sexual issues in order to be heard at all.

Rome: Sex & Freedom

We think our society is so unique. Some imagine that we are rising to the heights with our votes and courts showing the world how sex fits into the good life. The Romans thought so too.

Others are wringing their hands imagining that the corruption of present day American is the most vile things have ever been. While I would agree that we’ve lost ground on some achievements won by previous generations we might be aware that the protection of women and children from predatory sex is probably as great as its ever been.

Sexual Libertarians

Those in favor of the ongoing sexual revolution might imagine that this progress is in the shape of libertarian freedom. It is now that we are free from the oppression of irrational religion and archaic laws consenting adults are now free to pursue wherever their sexual compass points without interference from church or government.

I wonder, however, whether ancients would imagine we are as free and authentic as we imagine. I imagine they would have found our laws about sexual harassment as strange and invasive as we read their laws.

It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.

Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.

Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.

I’m not saying these laws are bad, quite the contrary. One might in fact see these laws as an extension of the spirit of Leviticus 18 in protecting the weak from the intrusion of unwanted sexual advance by the powerful, except that power today takes different forms than it did in the ancient world.

An ancient would likely also believe that our notions of “age of consent” are equally religious. What magic happens at one’s 18th birthday that suddenly means someone has a different status in society? How strange to believe a cake and some candles can change everything?

While I am absolutely in support of this modern assertion I fear that the corrosive solution of the libertarian wave might eat at this bulwark as it has at other stops. Damon Linker connects the dots between same sex marriage (which he is in favor of) and incestuous marriage and asks “where will it end?”

In a recent major piece on sexting in the Atlantic  notes our magic lines seem arbitrary to them.

A handful of senior girls became indignant during the course of the interview. “This is my life and my body and I can do whatever I want with it,” or, “I don’t see any problem with it. I’m proud of my body,”

Adults want to say “you’ll think differently when you know better” but such responses have stopped little in the progressive tides of recent years.

Another piece in Wired that examines those who moderate social networks shows just where our hearts can go and just how modern tools can be used.

OK Cupid’s dating website reveals that modern people are not as under control with respect to racism or shallow sexism as we pretend to be in public.

  • Everyone’s a little bit racist
  • Men of every age prefer young women while women prefer men of their own age
  • #1 phrase from Asian men is “tall for an Asian”
  • Men always message the visibly most attractive woman
  • 54% of their users have sex on their first date

We imagine ourselves so enlightened, liberated and egalitarian but the biological, social, political, economic matrices are not going away.

Christians With Their High Standards, Unmet

What stands out, however, is that amid the diversity of expressions over the history of the church Christianity has asserted a high standard for its people to follow. Again and again, often famously, often commonly, those who profess to be Christians fail to meet it.

CS Lewis famously wrestles with this in Mere Christianity

We must now consider Christian morality as regards sex, what Christians call the virtue of chastity. The Christian rule of chastity must not be confused with the social rule of ‘modesty’ (in one sense of that word); i.e. propriety, or decency. The social rule of propriety lays down how much of the human body should be displayed and what subjects can be referred to, and in what words, according to the customs of a given social circle. Thus, while the rule of chastity is the same for all Christians at all times, the rule of propriety changes. A girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally ‘modest’, proper, or decent, according to the standards of their own societies: and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or equally unchaste).

Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues. There is no getting away from it; the Christian rule is, ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’ Now this is so difficult and so contrary to our instincts, that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct, as it now is, has gone wrong. One or the other. Of course, being a Christian, I think it is the instinct which has gone wrong.

Lewis, C. S. (2009-05-28). Mere Christianity (p. 95). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

More recent biographies of Lewis sometimes note his failures in this area. Lewis is not alone in struggling with sexual norms. Augustine wrestled with it as did many of the characters of the Bible.

The long standing practice of the church has been “keep the standards high yet work gently with people who fail them or struggle with them.”

Embracing this is confusing for those who desire authenticity in the moment. Those of us who have lived through many moments understand that moments come and go and its the long run that usually matters most.

The Bible and Sexual Sinners

The helpful insight the angry, patriarchal crowd makes today is to show the reality of what Leviticus 18 strongly condemned, that power and sex usually go together and when they do people get hurt. If you were to look at famous sinners in the New Testament the pattern would be clear.

  • The woman caught in adultery in John 8 was there alone. The man had power to evade capture, shame and threat. Jesus stays her execution.
  • The sinful woman of Luke 7 is condemned by the Pharisees but Jesus illuminates her love for him which counts for more.
  • The Samaritan woman of John 4 who has had 5 husband and lives with yet another man is turned from shame and isolation into a herald for Jesus’ in her community.
  • Herod is condemned by John the Baptist for marrying his brother’s wife, who was the daughter of the cousin of both of them, and John was killed for it.

The contrast is clear. Those in power were able to do what they wanted. Those without power were easily condemned. Leviticus 18 stands against that, and Jesus stands with the condemned.

This isn’t to say that Jesus had low standards. In fact, no one in the Bible, not Leviticus, not Moses, had higher standards than Jesus. Jesus had both high standards on lust and divorce and yet reached out in mercy for those who failed to meet them, especially when they became the victims of those interchanges.


We all begin where everyone else begins. The shape of the ancient world was “natural” and “authentic”. Sex, status, power, money, were all tied up together and in most cases the strong took the weak and would use even the law to enshrine their power and abuse those who were beneath them.

In Leviticus 18 Israel is commanded to be a people apart. To not practice what their neighbors did. To be a place where sex and marriage wouldn’t simply be tools of the powerful to advantage themselves at the expense of the weak and to use others for their own advancement.

Whether it is standards about sex or power or status we continue to fail them. Jesus elevating the standards even higher made the disciples gasp in disbelief (Matthew 19).

We all fail. Is the answer to lower or eliminate laws or standards or norms?

We may think we are, but we really don’t even do that. The law of power and self-interested bias continues to rule. We want to hold our neighbors to high, predictable standards so that we can control or predict their behavior, but the places that we are weak or vulnerable in we wish to adjust expectations so that we can hold ourselves in high esteem. In this way we are all alike and all fail.


The gospel is not a reward for the strong but is good news for the weak. Jesus died to redeem those who fail his high standards, for those who are both abused and abusers, for those who by virtue of their action or condition struggle or fail to hit the mark. There is mercy and forgiveness for all who seek him and call out to him.


After receiving his grace how shall we live?

    • Do we seek the purity of heart, body and life he loves?
    • Do we strive for it out of love and gratitude to him?
    • Are we more in love with him than with our needs and appetites?
    • Do we seek to express the mercy he did?

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Leviticus 18: When Is Sex Not Just About Sex? All the Time

  1. Pingback: The Happy Threat of Jubilee | Leadingchurch.com

  2. Pingback: Levitical Blessings and Curses in a Skeptical Age | Leadingchurch.com

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