Leviticus and Homosexuality

By | June 17, 2012

Gay Pride Parade 2011

Quoted from “Leviticus” by Gary North

“The New York Times is the most prestigious newspaper in the United States. It is sometimes referred to as America’s newspaper of record. This identification is accurate. It is a thick, politically liberal, rhetorically bland, well-indexed newspaper. Its published index may be its primary strength, even more important than its widespread availability on microfilm. Historians become dependent on indexes, and the Times has always provided the best index of any American newspaper. Therefore, historians quote the Times. Therefore, it has become the nation’s newspaper of record. On the page opposite the editorial page – the famous Op-Ed page – appear essays by famous and not so famous people, usually liberals. On August 17, 1992, an article by Peter J. Gomes appeared: “Homophobic? Re-Read Your Bible.” Gomes is an ordained Baptist minister and a professor of Christian morals at Harvard University, the most prestigious university in the Western hemisphere. He is also minister of the university’s Memorial Church. Within a year of the appearance of his Op-Ed essay, the publishing firm of William Morrow/Avon paid Rev. Gomes a $350,000 advance on royalties to write a book on conservative Christianity’s distortions of the Bible. Nine of the largest publishers in the U.S. had bid in a competitive auction for the rights to acquire this as-yet unwritten book. Consider the economics of such a payment. If the book sells for $20, and if Gomes received the standard author’s contract of 10 percent of the book’s retail price, the publisher will have to sell 175,000 copies – an unheard of number of copies for an unheard-of academic theologian – just to get back its advance on royalties, not counting forfeited interest income. To achieve this many sales – best-seller status – the publisher will probably have to spend far more on advertising than the author’s advance, and even then the book is unlikely to sell 175,000 copies unless the media deliberately subsidize it by giving the author free television time and laudatory book reviews in prominent journals. Either Morrow/Avon was rewarding Rev. Gomes for his opinions or else, like the other publishing houses, the firm expected substantial support from those inside the media who share Rev. Gomes’ view of homosexuality, the Bible, and conservative Christianity. Professor Gomes refers in his essay to various anti-homosexual initiatives on state ballots in 1992. He says that such initiatives are defended by Christians, who appeal to the supposedly clear texts of the Bible that condemn homosexuality. But these Christians have moral blind spots, he implies. “They do not, however, necessarily see quite as clear a meaning in biblical passages on economic conduct, the burdens of wealth and the sin of greed.” An intelligent reader knows by now what is coming, and it does. Gomes says that four biblical passages are customarily cited: Deuteronomy 23:17, I Kings 14:24, I Kings 22:46, and II Kings 23:7. He says that these passages refer to prostitution, not homosexuality. Quite true; this is why these passages are not customarily cited, contrary to Professor Gomes. The passages that are customarily cited are these: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination” (Lev. 18:22). “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them” (Lev. 20:13).

These two passages present a problem for Professor Gomes. He refers to them in his next paragraph. But he has an answer: they are both in Leviticus, and you know what Ph.D.-holding Harvard theologians think about Leviticus! These two passages “are part of what biblical scholars call the Holiness Code. The code explicitly bans homosexual acts. But it also prohibits eating raw meat, planting two different kinds of seed in the same field and wearing garments with two different kinds of yarn. Tattoos, adultery and sexual intercourse during a woman’s menstrual period are similarly outlawed.” End of argument. He then goes to the New Testament. Such is the state of theological scholarship today in America’s most honored university, founded in 1636 by Calvinist Puritans. The holiness code is not taken seriously by Professor Gomes as a guide to modern behavior. I think it is safe to say that it is not taken seriously by Harvard University. What is very likely true is that it is not taken seriously by well over nine-tenths of the evangelical Christian community. This is the problem that this commentary seeks to overcome.

Chapters 18 to 20 of Leviticus present the most detailed list of laws in the book. This section forbids sexual contacts between close relatives (18:6-20). Are these laws annulled today? Leviticus prohibits child sacrifice: passing through Molech’s fire (18:21). Has this law been annulled because Molech is no longer worshipped? Leviticus prohibits theft and lying (19: 11), defrauding a neighbor (19: 13), and rendering unjust judgment (19: 15). Are these laws also annulled? It prohibits making a prostitute of one’s daughter (19:29). It prohibits the mistreatment of resident aliens (19:33-34). It prohibits false weights and measures (19:35-36). It prohibits children from cursing parents (20:9). It prohibits bestiality (20: 15-16). Are these, too, merely “holiness code” artifacts? On what biblical basis can a Christian speak of legitimate civil sanctions against homosexuality if the Book of Leviticus is automatically dismissed? Natural law? But the ancient Greeks accepted the legitimacy of homosexuality with only a few restrictions, yet they (the Hellenistic-era Stoics) invented natural law theory.

So, the Christian world has a problem. The average evangelical suspects – though he is really not quite sure – that the Bible authorizes civil sanctions against homosexuality. The sanction required by Leviticus is public execution. Already, the evangelical is growing nervous. But if he repudiates the civil sanction established by Leviticus, on what biblical basis can he assert that some other civil penalty should be imposed? By what other standard? If he can lawfully play “pick and choose” from the texts of Leviticus, not to mention the whole of the Mosaic law, then why should he be upset with Professor Gomes? But he is.

Antinomianism: Liberal and Pietist

The evangelical knows there is something wrong with Gomes’ arguments. He recognizes Gomes’ rhetoric as theologically liberal: “To recover a liberating and inclusive Christ is to be freed from the semantic bondage that makes us curators of a dead culture rather than creatures of a new creation.” He knows that he and his beliefs are Gomes’ target: “Religious fundamentalism is dangerous because it cannot accept ambiguity and diversity and is therefore inherently intolerant.” Such intolerance is “dangerous” and “anti-democratic.” Anti-democratic? This begins to sound bad. The evangelical begins to shift in his chair nervously. His discomfort increases when he reads: “The same Bible that the advocates of slavery used to protect their wicked self-interests is the Bible that inspired slaves to revolt and their liberators to action.” This is a true statement regarding the history of slavery. How can a Bible-believing Christian explain what seems to be the Mosaic law’s moral blind spot on the question of slavery (Lev. 25:44-46)? Yet he knows there is something wrong with this statement:
And the same Bible that on the basis of an archaic social code of ancient Israel and a tortured reading of Paul is used to condemn all homosexuals and homosexual behavior includes metaphors of redemption, renewal, inclusion and love – principles that invite homosexuals to accept their freedom and responsibility in Christ and demands that their fellow Christians accept them as well.

What can the typical evangelical say in response? He, too, believes that Leviticus promoted “an archaic social code.” It also established laws that seem to have been annulled, such as the laws of separating seeds in the same field or avoiding clothing made of both wool and linen. Is the social code of Leviticus inextricably tied to such laws of separation? If so, how can this social code be honored today? If not, how can we separate the still-valid social code from the annulled laws? Gomes puts it well: “The questions are, By what principle of interpretation do we proceed, and by what means do we reconcile ‘what it meant then’ to ‘what it means now?'” Here he is on target. These are the two absolutely fundamental questions of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) that I have sought to answer in this commentary and in my previous commentaries. These are the two questions that deliberately have been left unanswered by Protestant commentators on the Old Testament ever since the Reformation. It is time to begin answering both of them. Let me remind my Bible-affirming readers that these two questions are not intellectual curiosities proposed by academic theologians. If Christians cannot find answers to both of them, then they had better learn to live with (and perhaps die with) AIDS and the new killer strains of drug-resistant tuberculosis that AIDS-carriers also carry.

Michener vs. Moses

On March 30, 1993, best-selling American novelist James Michener followed up on Gomes’ essay with a similar one: “God Is Not a Homophobe,” which also appeared on the Op-Ed page. This article was published two months after newly inaugurated President Bill Clinton announced his intention, as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, to remove all restrictions against homosexuals serving in the military.

Michener, like Gomes, cited Leviticus 20: 13. He, too, dismissed this law as no longer relevant. He invoked the same line of reasoning: changing times. The Hebrews “lived in a rude, brutal, almost uncivilized place where abominations abounded. To read the list of the things the Jews were enjoined to stop doing is to realize that God had to be unusually strict with such an undisciplined mob.” Their society was in “deplorable disarray.” He continued: “As order was installed, the extreme penalties advocated in Leviticus were relaxed in the civilized nations that followed. . . . Western society, reacting in its own way, has advanced far beyond the primitive days of Leviticus.” Pity the primitive Israelites!

It was the residents of the city-states of Canaan who practiced such abominations, just as the Athenian Greeks would in Plato’s era over a millennium later. It was not because Israel was “primitive” that God declared His law and its morally appropriate civil sanction; Israel was not primitive. Israel was God’s agent to establish a new civilization in Canaan. God announced this law because He despises homosexuality and homosexuals. He hates the sin and the unrepentant sinner. He does not hate the sin and love the sinner. He hates the sin and hates the sinner. This is why there is a hell: God hates unrepentant sinners. God is indeed a homophobe. He hates the practice and those who practice it, which is why He destroyed Sodom. God warned Israel: practice such an abomination, and the land will vomit you out, just as it vomited out its former inhabitants (Lev. 18:24-29). But modern God-haters pay no attention to the written text of God’s revelation, except to ridicule it or reinterpret it to confirm their immoral ways. God’s revealed law is irrelevant in modern times, they insist. But they have an escalating problem: AIDS is not irrelevant.

Michener goes on: “So when zealots remind us that the Bible says male homosexuals should be put to death rather than be admitted to the armed forces, it is proper to reply: ‘You are correct that Leviticus says that. But it also has an enormous number of edicts, which have had to be modified as we became civilized.'” Here we see cultural relativism applied to ethics: a form of social evolutionism. But is Michener’s line of reasoning different in principle from the arguments of Christian antinomians who dismiss the laws of Leviticus with an almost equally intense hatred? Is his hermeneutic fundamentally different from theirs? More to the point, is his hermeneutic fundamentally different from yours?

Dispensationalism’s Dilemma: Bahnsen or Gomes?

Dispensational scholars John and Paul Feinberg have issued a hermeneutical challenge: “The evangelical must decide which rules as stated in Scripture apply to our own day, and he must know how to decide which apply.” They are correct; the evangelical is morally bound to do this. He will resist doing this as long as he can, however. Evangelicals sense where such questions lead: toward self-conscious antinomianism, or self-conscious compromise with humanism, or self-conscious theonomy. The more socially relevant they want to be, the more the first choice is closed to them. They do not want to join dispensational author Dave Hunt in a spiritual and intellectual camp-ground for Protestant pietists and mystics.

As dispensationalists, the Feinbergs deny any mandatory judicial continuity between the Old Testament’s civil law and today, since New Testament life “is not life under a theocracy.” This is the most important statement for social ethics that any anti-theonomic Christian can assert. But until it is proven exegetically, it remains only an assertion. I ask: Would any Christian assert the same anti-theocratic thesis with respect to the family covenant under God and the church covenant under God? If not, then on what judicial basis is such a statement correct regarding the civil covenant under God? An appeal to Western history since, say, 1788 (U.S.) or 1789 (France), begs the judicial question. What must be proven is their assertion that the New Testament “assumes that believers will be under the political rule of non-believing rulers….” That the New Testament makes provision for such a calamity there can be no doubt; but what is the evidence that Jesus and the New Testament authors assumed that this is an eschatologically permanent condition throughout history? Where is it implied in Scripture that Nero’s Rome – or Julian the Apostate’s – is inevitable eschatologically and therefore binding judicially (or vice versa), whereas Constantine’s Rome – or Theodosius’ – is a departure from New Testament judicial standards? Why should Calvin’s Geneva be dismissed as a covenantal deviation in civil government? Is Stalin’s Russia to be accepted on principle as having conformed far closer than Calvin’s Geneva to the covenantally binding New Testament standard with respect to its official source of civil law? These are not merely rhetorical questions. They deserve straightforward answers, but I do not think I will see such answers in the books and journals of Christian political pluralists.

The Feinbergs argue: “It is inconsistent to say the Church is governed by the New Covenant when it comes to salvation, but by the Mosaic Code (and Covenant) when it comes to law. This is quite true – as true as it is irrelevant to the theological point they are trying to make. I ask: What Christian theologian, theonomist or otherwise, has ever argued that the Old Covenant had a way of salvation different from the New Covenant? Paul cites Habakkuk 2:4: “The just shall live by faith” (Gal. 3:11b). Lutheran scholar and theologian Robert G. Hoerber has put the issue well: “… there is no evidence in the Old Testament or in Judaism that Jews believed that good works merit salvation…. The Jews observed the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament in order to belong to God’s people, not to earn salvation.” The Feinbergs do not acknowledge this view of Old Covenant Judaism. They continue: “A discontinuity position avoids this problem” – a non-existent, utterly bizarre theological problem of their own invention – “by claiming that the Church is governed by the New Covenant as to salvation and by the Law of Christ as to law.”

Judicial Content

The three-fold ethical problem that a “discontinuity theologian” has to answer (and steadfastly refuses to) is this: 1) show exegetically why, where, and how “the Law of Christ” is different in content from the law of Moses; 2) discuss the biblically binding judicial content of this new law-order; 3) do this without abandoning the very concept of a unique biblical ethics, i.e., without surrendering civil law to covenant-breakers. The Christian world has been waiting patiently since 1830 for a dispensational theologian to write a book on New Testament social ethics – a book based exclusively on “the Law of Christ.” This is a long time to wait. Frankly, I do not think the book is ever going to appear. There is a reason for this: dispensationalism’s hermeneutic implicitly denies the possibility of developing an explicitly biblical social theory prior to Jesus’ earthly millennial kingdom. Dispensational theologians implicitly recognize that without Mosaic law, there can be no explicitly biblical social ethic. But they view Mosaic law as defunct until Jesus returns to set up His earthly kingdom during the future millennium. The Feinbergs understand their problem: identifying the biblical source of judicial content. Is it in the Old Testament, the New Testament, or both? They assert: “Where the content of the Mosaic Law, for example, and the Law of Christ overlap, appeal to the OT is proper.” This appeal to overlapping content is judicially and theologically irrelevant on dispensational terms. There is no reason, given their view of the law, to appeal to Moses if Christ has affirmed a particular law. The Mosaic law is superfluous, dispensationally speaking. It is either annulled or else merely supplemental and non-binding. I ask: Exactly where are these New Testament principles of civil law affirmed and developed in detail comparable to the Mosaic case laws? The Feinbergs know: nowhere. They repeatedly try to escape this embarrassing problem. For example, they try to identify a New Testament passage that forthrightly affirms capital punishment. They appeal to Romans 13:1-7 (which does not mention capital punishment) and also appeal back to Noah (Gen. 9:5-6). But what, on their pre-supposition, has Moses got to do with either? Dispensational theologians House and Ice have rejected all appeals to the Mosaic law in search of capital crimes; they appeal solely to the Noachic Covenant. The nations are (they use the present tense) under the Noachic Covenant, not the Mosaic. But the only crime mentioned to Noah was the shedding of human blood. Try to build a civilization on just one civil law. It cannot be done.