Leviticus 20:9-21

The first thing to do in interpreting the passage at hand, Leviticus 20:9-21, would be to put it in its historical context.  There are a variety of perspectives when considering authorship.  Traditional views credit Moses as its author,[1] dating the content to the latter half of the second millennium BC.[2]  On the other end, others suggest that the P and H source are responsible for Leviticus giving it a date anywhere from the 7th century BC to the 4th Century BC.[3]  There are positions all along this spectrum. 

I’m sympathetic to the position that gives primary, if not all, authorship to the P source, but gives the P source a much earlier date than the 7th and 6th century.[4]  This position recognizes that much of the laws are consistent with a wilderness environment, aren’t anachronistic, and parallel ritual practices of surrounding cultures.[5]  However, we don’t have to affirm Mosaic authorship as an earlier date puts our authors closer to Moses himself, providing better preservation of what Moses spoke on Sinai as suggested by Lev. 27:34. 

A traveling people in the wilderness would be highly concerned about survival.  This probably had much influence on the sexual deviancy laws in Leviticus 18 and 20. It also was a highly patriarchal society where women were seen as quasi-property.[6]  Thus, the laws focused on how these acts affected the men and framed the woman in some relation to a man. It also could suggest that the intended audience isn’t all of Israel necessarily, but primarily the men, and even only the free land-owning men at that.  This male centric focus could be part of the reason some comparable laws aren’t mentioned, like acts of lesbianism. 

We also need to consider the nature of the relationship between Israel and God.  Throughout the OT, God frequently refers to his relationship with Israel as a marriage.  Given the very strict monotheism we find in Leviticus, it could be the case that the sexual deviancy laws came from the Israelites understanding of their relationship with God.  In the same way that the Israelites were to be solely devoted to God with no “religious promiscuity” with any other beings, marriage also should be strict devotion between the husband and the wife.  Just as any religious activity that is done that is not directed towards God desecrates Israel’s relationship with God, any sexual activity that happens outside the confines of marriage desecrates marriage.

It’s now time to consider the literary context of Leviticus.  Even though Leviticus is largely God dictating laws to Moses, this is happening within the context of the Exodus narrative.[7]  The laws are to add to the story of the narrative and show Israel how to be holy like Yahweh, who is making them into his people after rescuing them from Egypt.[8]  Leviticus is given within the context of the Sinai Covenant which takes the form of a suzerain vassal treaty.  As such, even though it may have resemblance to law codes, it should be seen more as part of a treaty document than a law code.[9]  The Sinai Covenant is foundational to their relationship with Yahweh and their call to be holy like God. 

Breaking of this law is a breaking of the covenant and severs their relationship with Yahweh.  This need to be holy to maintain their relationship with Yahweh could explain why Leviticus also has affinities with utopian literature.[10]  Lastly, it’s important to see that the Levitical laws aren’t comprehensive,[11] as seen in our passage, but more resembles case law rather than legislation.[12]  Considering this, the laws given are meant to be reflected upon to obtain wisdom and principles to be used for other situations that may arise.

Leviticus can be divided many ways, but a common observation is the division between ritual regulations (chapters 1-16) and the so called “holiness code” (chapters 17-27).[13]  Our passage is found in the holiness code, which are moral or ethical laws.  Chapters 18 and 20 mirror each other heavily, and draw attention to chapter 19. The repetition in chapter 18 and 20 is not a mistake or just merely a way of framing chapter 19.  In using these two chapters to highlight chapter 19, the author is emphasizing that these laws (those in chapters 18 and 20) are dire to being God’s holy people.

Turning now to the passage at hand, it can be shown that Leviticus 20 is arranged chiastically with three main sections; verses 2-6, 9-16, 17-21.[14]  This structure calls us back to the Decalogue when we see three main commands here; serving other gods, honoring one’s parents, and adultery being expanded on in this chapter.[15]  Verse 8 and v. 22, both contain the same charge from God to keep his decrees and follow them.  This signals that the contained verses 9-21, are related and can be handled as a unit. 

Heading this unit with v. 9 suggests that the remainder of the unit is to be seen in light of how it dishonors or curses parents.  This means that sexual offenses are seen against the backdrop of the family.[16]  As we move into v. 10, repetition of the verb for adultery in this verse emphasizes this act and suggests that what follows will be related to this act.[17]  The following sexual offenses aren’t the explicit cases of adultery itself, but can be seen as a form of adultery,[18] as they contort the concept of marriage founded in Genesis.  Thus, the thought of the passage is as follows: do not curse your parents (v.9), adultery is a way to curse your parents (v.10), here are some but not all the ways to commit a form of adultery (vv. 11-21). 

There are multiple reasons for why these may be classified as forms of adultery as one reason may not fit for all.  It’s likely the sexual prohibitions are proscribed because they ‘misuse’ semen since they don’t lead to legitimate progeny.[19]  Given the wilderness context, the continuing of progeny would certainly be a concern and so in some ways may speak to v. 13, 15, 16, and 18.  Verse 18 may be motivated more by the taboo of blood though.[20]  The parallel laws in chapter 18 are prefaced in v. 6 that no one is to approach a close relative.  This protects against inbreeding which threatens progeny (v.17, 19).[21]  Although the culture allowed polygamy, the family relation between a mother and daughter would make them close relatives and bar a person from having sexual relations with both as in v. 14.

When we look at v. 13, 15, and 16, we see the laws address an apparent ‘confusion of class’ in relation to sexual activity, marking them as a form of adultery.  Male on male intercourse is a confusion of gender classes and boundaries.[22]  Sexual intercourse with an animal then is a confusion of class within creation, between human and beast.  Verse 16 may incorporate an understanding of multiple confusion of classes.  The woman confuses classes of creation as well as gender classes in acting like a male in initiating the sexual act.[23]  

The remaining verses 11, 12, 20, and 21 are motivated by the idea of legitimate progeny in relation to power.  Having sex with someone’s wife can be seen as a way to usurp their estate and position, even after they are deceased.[24]  These laws being against sexual relations with non-blood related females might indicate that the other male has deceased or divorced the woman.  For if they were together the act would be a case of flat out adultery. Considering the law in Deut. 25:5-6, these laws may be here to protect the family line of the deceased or divorced male,[25] as this was of utmost importance in this culture.  It also protects women from being passed around between family members.[26]  Trying to usurp power from a family member would dishonor the family, and doing it sexually makes it a form of adultery.  Also, sexual relations as these ‘uncovers the nakedness’ of the male relative, which shames the male.[27]  Not only do they cross the taboo of approaching a close female relative, but also infringe upon a male relative’s ‘nakedness’.

We also should take a brief look at the punishments.  The punishment of “cutting-off” is a divine punishment from God that suggest premature death[28] and complete destruction of one’s lineage.[29]  It also carries the possibility of being torn away from one’s kin in the afterlife.  The punishment that “his blood is upon him” may suggest that this act is worthy of the death penalty as one’s guilt brings upon the inevitability on one’s execution.  It may be influenced by the act of a physical murder, where the murderer has the murdered person’s blood on them, showing their guilt.[30]  The last punishment we will look at requires the perpetrator to “carry his guilt.” This is probably an allusion to the ritual goat in Lev. 16 that carries the sins of the community away. This suggests that in some way, some aspects of these acts can’t be atoned for by the ritual goat, and thus the violator must bear those consequences.[31]

A couple of my own assumptions have been exposed by this passage.  One is my understanding of how laws get enforced.  As an American, the government is to enforce the law and bring about the punishments for a crime.  For Israelites though, they were still developing as a nation living in communities similar to villages.  It’s likely that it was on the people to pursue a case and enforce most punishments.[32]  This onus may have decreased the realization of these punishments.  Also, I tend to view the punishment for crime as a minimum with a potential for further severity.  Given that Leviticus is hyper concerned with holiness and resembles utopian literature, it may be that generally speaking, these laws represent maximums and not minimums.[33]  If that is the case, this drastically softens the rigidness and brutality of Levitical laws.  This greatly reduces the imagined required stonings, burnings, and expulsions in ancient Israel for sexual deviance.

For an average reader, I would expect assumptions that Leviticus is just a list of rules, the OT doesn’t apply to Christians today, sex outside marriage between a male and female is sin, bestiality and incest are wrong.  These assumptions may make laws against adultery, incest, and bestiality redundant and silly since these are already known ‘facts’.  Assuming Leviticus is just ‘rules’ that don’t even apply to us today since Christ freed us from this legalistic lifestyle makes it a pointless book and boring to interact with.  This creates shallow and harmful interpretations of the text.  Rural and secluded communities with few choices of sexual partners may see the value of these sexual prohibitions.  Also, those viewing life through the lens of the LGBTQ community have amassed a wealth of interpretive insights that challenge the traditional view that homosexuality is condemned in this passage, let alone in the bible.

The author(s) of Leviticus 20:10-21 want to convey that sexual deviancy is an affront against the family, and shows a cursing or dishonoring of one’s parents.  Although no Christians today are under the Sinai Covenant as we are in Christ’s Covenant, this isn’t a negation of the covenant at Sinai.  The principles that were established are still relevant as Christ came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17).  Looking at history and the nature of humanity, sexual deviancy will always be a concern Christians will need to address. 

Given our context, I will look at this passage in relation to current debates on homosexuality.  My desire in doing this is not to try to condemn anyone or to pretend as though I’m speaking conclusively on this topic.  I do not have the space nor the expertise to try to do something like that.  For I am still personally wrestling through this and praying that God will reveal truth and that God will give me the courage and strength to follow that truth, wherever it may lead.  Also, I will only give a brief look at a few arguments that challenge the traditional understanding of Leviticus 20:13 and give quick responses on why I’m not fully convinced by them.

 Verse 13 and it’s parallel 18:22, have been scrutinized by modern scholars.  More precise translations render the verse something like, “and a man who lies down with a male lyings down of a woman.”[34]  While Saul Olyan was imperative in providing this translation and showing the ambiguity in what it really was prohibiting, he contends that it is directed at the insertive party,[35] while Walsh works to show that it actually was directed at the penetrated party.[36] 

Many will argue that the problem is that for ancient Israelites, a man having intercourse with another man, caused one or even both men to not be truly acting like a man.  By being the penetrated party, the man is not acting like a man because he is being penetrated.  Being penetrated is what a woman does, men are supposed to penetrate.  By being the penetrating party, you are partaking in an act that makes another man not act like a man and you confuse the sexual class of male and female, thus not acting like a man.

In many scholar’s minds, this restricts the prohibition to only anal intercourse between two males.  Although some may concede that the assumption by most OT writers would be that homosexual activity is evil in it of itself,[37] this needs to be constrained to culture.  The argument is that Israelites understood homosexuality fundamentally differently than us, potentially only as abusive and manipulative.  Thus, this prohibition doesn’t address a loving and consenting sexual partnership of same sex couples as we understand.[38]  So the penetrating and penetrated parties aren’t confused about the sexes and are not “not acting like men” because they are fully consenting to the activity. 

It’s also suggested that these laws found in Leviticus 20:9-21 actually addresses cultic sexual activity.[39]  This would mean that the verse in this unit actually is addressing cultic practices of male homosexual activity, and not homosexuality itself.  Since acts of homosexual activity were either only or primarily observed during cultic during cultic worship, this prohibition is really aimed at diminishing any potential cultic worship, and not necessarily same sex sexual activity between two consenting men.  Similar logic as these arguments discussed above are used in discounting the verses in the NT that seem to speak against homosexual activity. 

I myself remain unconvinced fully by these arguments, although they continue to bring insight and challenge many preconceived notions.  Against the cultic argument, suggesting that the same sex prohibitions are only focused on cultic performances also suggests that if the other cultic acts were committed outside of cultic ritual, they would be acceptable.   I would doubt that many would condone the other sexual acts condemned in this passage if they were done outside of a cultic framework. 

I would challenge the claim that biblical writers, OT or NT, never encountered or couldn’t have considered the reality of a loving, unabusive, or non-power laden same sex relationship; as not all cultures condemned non-abusive man on man intercourse.[40]  The reality of homosexuality has been seen in all human cultures throughout history.  Including the cultures that predate Israelite society and those that were contemporaneous with it. 

It is also argued that since these cultures didn’t have a word for homosexuality, it shows that they didn’t fully understand human sexuality and definitely didn’t understand with our level of sophistication.  I do think there is some insight in this observation since language and words can be a way to understand what a culture understands and thinks is important.  However, I want to make sure we realize the limits of this way of thinking.  Just because a language doesn’t have a word for a particular concept doesn’t mean that they don’t or can’t understand that particular concept.  There is no equivalent in English for the Hebrew word hesed, but this doesn’t mean that English speakers can’t or don’t understand the concept of hesed.

Just because ancient Israelites didn’t have a word for homosexuality, it doesn’t mean they were ignorant of the reality that sometimes people have same sex attraction and pursue non-abusive homosexual sexual relationships. Also, I think shifting consideration from sexual activity to sexuality, as in sexual orientation, isn’t a profitable move as the biblical text is focused on sexual acts, not the sexuality of the individual (although I get the point is to suggest that the biblical authors had no concept of distinguishing between the two).  Lastly, along with these other grievances, I must point out that I have not discovered any biblical texts that actually affirm and support same sex marriage or sexual activity, while the bible seems to speak in one voice against it.

A sermon preaching on this passage would need to be done delicately and lovingly, yet still with conviction.  The main point of the sermon should be to show that sexual deviancy is related to the context of the family and in a real way is a way of dishonoring one’s parents.  For Christians today, western individualism connected with obsession with autonomy and rights language harbors great challenge to addressing sexual deviancy.  The idea that one’s permitted sexual activity is seen against the background of how it honors one’s parents is highly contentious today, as this gives someone else power and control over one’s body.  It would also address concerns about same sex sexual activity in a way that doesn’t condemn the sexual orientation or the person, but the sexual acts.  Lastly, it would bring out the concern in the text about people using sex to usurp and gain power over other people.

[1] Anders, Max E., Glen Martin, Trent C. Butler, Kenneth O. Gangel, and Steven J. Lawson. Holman Old Testament Commentary. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2001.

[2] Dennis, Lane T., and Wayne Grudem. The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Good News Publishers, 2008. 211.

[3] Coogan, Michael David, and Cynthia R. Chapman. A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in Its Context. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.  127.

[4] Wenham, Gordon J. The Book of Leviticus. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009.

[5] Hartley, John E. Leviticus. Vol. 4. World Biblical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015.

[6] Coogan, Michael. A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament. 130.

[7] Rooker, Mark F. Leviticus. Vol. 3A. The New American Commentary. Nashville Ten.: Broadman & Holman, 2000.

[8] Dennis, Lane T. and Wayne Grudem. The ESV Study Bible. 212.

[9] Walton, John, and Craig Keener. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016. 183.

[10] Dennis, Lane T., and Wayne Grudem. The ESV Study Bible. 214.

[11] Burnside, Jonathan P. 2006. “Strange Flesh: Sex, Semiotics and the Construction of Deviancy in Biblical Law.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 30 (4): 387–420. 407.

[12] Walton, John, and Craig Keener. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. 183.

[13] Dennis, Lane T., and Wayne Grudem. The ESV Study Bible. 212.

[14] Burnside, Jonathan. Strange Flesh. 388

[15] Ibid. 393.

[16] Hartley, John. World Biblical Commentary

[17] Burnside, Jonathan. Strange Flesh. 395

[18] Ibid. 396.

[19] Gane, Roy. The NIV Application Commentary. Leviticus, Numbers: From Biblical Text … to Contemporary Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004.  318.

[20] Hartley, John. World Biblical Commentary

[21] Gane, Roy. The NIV Application Commentary. 331.

[22] Walsh, Jerome T. 2001. “Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13: Who Is Doing What to Whom?” Journal of Biblical Literature 120 (2): 201–9. 207.

[23] Burnside, Jonathan. Strange Flesh. 415.

[24] Ibid. 402.

[25] Wenham, Gordon J. The New International Commentary

[26] Gane, Roy. The NIV Application Commentary. 331.

[27] Ibid. 318.

[28] Wenham, Gordon J. The New International Commentary

[29] Melcher, Sarah J. 2010. “CONSEQUENCE AND INTENTIONALITY: CONCEPTUAL METAPHORS OF THE BODY IN LEVITICUS 20.” Classical Bulletin 86 (1): 18-36. 28.


[31] Ibid. 32.

[32] Wenham, Gordon J. The New International Commentary

[33] Ibid.

[34] Hollenback, George M. 2017. “Who Is Doing What to Whom Revisited: Another Look at Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.” Journal of Biblical Literature136 (3): 529–37. 530.

[35] Olyan, Saul M. “”And with a Male You Shall Not Lie the Lying down of a Woman”: On the Meaning and Significance of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 5, no. 2 (1994): 179-206. 186.

[36] Walsh, Jerome T. “Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13: Who Is Doing What to Whom?” 207.

[37] Gnuse, Robert K. “Seven Gay Texts: Biblical Passages Used to Condemn Homosexuality.” Biblical Theology Bulletin: Journal of Bible and Culture 45, no. 2 (2015): 68-87. 78.

[38] Douglas, Mary. 1999. “Justice as the Cornerstone: An Interpretation of Leviticus 18-20.” Interpretation 53 (4): 341–50. 347.

[39] Stahlberg, Lesleigh Cushing. 2008. “Modern Day Moabites: The Bible and the Debate About Same-Sex Marriage.” Biblical Interpretation 16 (5): 442–75. 459.

[40] Burnside, Jonathan. Strange Flesh. 410.

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