Homosexual activists both within and without the church are seeking to rewrite the Bible to push their agenda. They use many ploys to convince us that the Bible has no problem with homosexuality, and that traditional understandings are simply mistaken.
I have discussed some of these ploys elsewhere, but here I will address another one. This has to do with misunderstanding and misusing the purity and holiness laws found in the Old Testament. It is quite common for these revisionists to throw out the challenge that the laws forbidding homosexuality in the Old Testament also forbid things like eating animals which do not chew the cud, or fish without scales.
These critics who think they are quite clever argue, ‘if it is now OK to eat all foods, why forbid homosexuality?’ As but one example, I recently received this comment: “Bill, it’s not just the homosexual Christians we should be worried about. What about the cray-fish eating Christians, or indeed the mixed-fabric wearing Christians. Both these ‘Christian’ types distort God’s holy directions as laid out in His bible. What do you suggest we do, Bill?”
While this fellow thought he was being cute, all he did was reveal that secular homosexual activists know nothing about biblical theology or Old Testament legislation. Sadly of course, many believers do not know much more either, so it is worth looking at this whole issue in some detail.
To keep this discussion from blowing out, let me just interact with what we find in the book of Leviticus. In Lev. 11-15 we find laws concerning the clean and unclean. In Lev. 17-26 we find what is known as the “Holiness Code”. These are the main chapters dealing with holy and unholy, pure and impure, clean and unclean.
Admittedly, much has been written about these laws, and how they are to be understood today. Briefly, this legislation primarily had to do with the proviso found in Lev. 19:2: “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy”. Israel was to be a holy and clean people before the Lord.
It was also to be clearly distinguished from the surrounding cultures. That in part explains the various laws about distinction, division, and separation. Holiness always implies separation, being set apart from that which is unholy, and devoted to that which is holy.
As Bruce Waltke explains, “The Israelites were commanded not to mix seeds or crops and not to mix different types of cloth in sewing. Therefore, the theme of purity was worked into the everyday life of the Israelites and safeguarded them from mixing their human seed with pagans. These purity laws inculcated the notion of holiness so that Israel would learn that they were to be a pure people, set apart for God.”
Or as John Goldingay puts it, “Israel’s holiness lies in distinctively belonging to Yhwh. Distinguishing holy and ordinary, and also pure and taboo, then contributes to its manifesting its distinctiveness over against other people. . . . Israel’s observance of these distinctions is an expression of its accepting its position as a people that God has distinguished from the rest of the world.”
And one must bear in mind the differences between the realm of the clean/unclean, and the realm of the holy/profane. Ceremonial uncleanness was particularly associated with Israel in Old Testament times, while moral holiness is forever enjoined upon all peoples.
Thus while it is true that we are no longer under the ceremonial and civil laws of ancient Israel, the moral laws remain. As Allen Ross explains, “To be free from the regulations of the law is not a license to be free from obeying what the law revealed.”
He continues, “The New Testament makes this very clear: moral imperfections and impurities – that is, the sinful activities that rendered a person unclean in the Old Testament – are still sinful in the new covenant and still require repentance and confession and forgiveness in order to comply with God’s standard of holiness. It is folly – it is dishonest – to argue that because the purification regulations of Old Testament Israel were fulfilled by the death of Christ, the sins listed in Leviticus are no longer sins.”
Goldingay ties this all together concerning the issue of homosexuality: “Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 explicitly disallow homosexual acts. Yet it also disallows many other practices (such as sex with a woman during her period) on the basis of a concern with purity and taboo, and in general such prohibitions are withdrawn in Christ.
“It has also been argued that the Levitical ban on homosexual acts also ceases to apply once Christ has made all things clean. But the context of these regulations in Leviticus implies that they are not simply concerned with purity and taboo.”
And Ross reminds us of the differences between the ceremonial and moral when we consider the means of absolution: “Homosexuality was never merely part of the purity problem that sanctuary ritual covered; it was a major offense for which there was no ritual law – it required forgiveness because it violated the moral code.”
Leviticus and the Holiness Code
It is worth looking further at the Holiness Code of Leviticus. The revisionists claim that the same general passages which forbid homosexuality also forbid men from cutting the corner of their beards, (19:27) or warn of menstrual uncleanness (20:18), and so on. They say that we obviously no longer obey passages on beard trimming and the like, so why not ignore the ones on homosexuality as well.
Most evangelical scholars recognise that the passages in question (18:22; 20:13) are both prohibitive of homosexuality and normative for today. The Holiness Code, of which these passages are a part, was a clear reminder to Israel to maintain distinct ethical practices from the surrounding Canaanite nations.
As Gordon Wenham comments, “Seven times [in chapter 18] it is repeated that the Israelites are not to behave like the nations who inhabited Canaan before them (vv. 3 [2x], 24, 26, 27, 29, 30).” As such it contains numerous prohibitions, some of which are still normative for today, and some of which are not. The whole of Scripture offers the context in which we make such distinctions.
How do we decide which are still normative? James De Young is worth quoting at length here: “Although some instructions and prohibitions of chapters 18 and 20 are limited to Israel (distinguishing clean and unclean animals and having sexual relations with one’s wife during her menstrual period), most are not. The context itself distinguishes limited, cultic prohibitions from universal prohibitions. The reader is able to discern which laws are universal. In addition, the similarity of these chapters to the Ten Commandments and the New Testament’s applications of this section warrant consideration of most of these rules as valid. Prohibitions of homosexuality elsewhere in the Old Testament, ancient Judaism, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and in the New Testament also justify the interpretation that the prohibition is universal.”
Moreover, there are other interpretive clues. For God to assign the death penalty to homosexuality obviously means that he takes it very seriously indeed. However, there is no death penalty for a women’s monthly period. Instead, the woman was considered ceremonially unclean for a seven-day period (Lev. 15:19). Most of the other ceremonial purity laws also have much lighter penalties. As Stanley Grenz remarks, “under the Old Covenant the severity of the penalty was an indication of the importance of the precept.” Thus the penalties imposed tell us something of the nature of the various laws in the Holiness Code.
Of interest, it should be noted that bestiality is also condemned here (Lev. 20:15-16), and it also carries the death penalty. The same reasoning applies to bestiality as to homosexuality: In both cases God’s original intention for human sexuality is being violated. Says William Webb, “With bestiality, as with homosexuality, one is breaking the ‘boundaries’ of biological design and sexual order. Reproduction of species does not take place between an animal and a human; nor does it take place between humans of the same sex.”
Also, we must understand how the New Testament appropriates these portions of the Old Testament. Most Christians understand that the Old Testament laws can be divided into civil law (pertaining to the civic culture of ancient Israel), ceremonial law (ritual cleanness and dietary laws, for example), and moral law (timeless and universal moral truths). Civil laws, relating to Israel as a nation, are not applicable today, as the nation of Israel no longer exists as God’s sole covenant people. The ceremonial laws too have been rescinded in the New Testament. But transcultural moral laws remain in force.
Admittedly, confusion can arise at times when all three types of laws are found in the same passage. But again, the context often determines how to proceed. Scripture usually tells us what are timeless moral truths and what are cultural and temporal regulations. As Webb remarks, the “homosexual prohibition is not tied to mere ceremonial impurity. . . . The homosexuality laws are not part of ceremonial law, as can be seen from its severe penalty and the New Testament handling of homosexuality, in contrast to its treatment of ceremonial law.”
As to the specific passages, the revisionists want to argue that only certain types of homosexuality are being proscribed, such as cultic prostitution or idolatrous practices. But as Donald Wold summarises, after a detailed examination of the terms and the texts, “all same-gender sexual relations are categorically forbidden by the Hebrew terms. The biblical writer leaves no room for compromise. The language is emphatic. . . . The inference is clear: only heterosexual intercourse is normal and normative.”
Finally, God’s unchanging purposes for human sexuality have to be taken into account here. As Goldingay notes, “If we again consider how things were ‘at the beginning of creation,’ then Genesis 1-2 note that ‘God made them male and female’ (Mk 10:6) and envisage sexual relationships only between a man and a woman. It seems likely that the Torah’s ban on homosexual acts is based not just in rules about cleanness and taboo, but on the purpose of creation.”
Thus the objections raised by the revisionists have been tried and found wanting. In their attempt to overturn biblical morality, they will have to come up with something far better than that I am afraid.