Okay, let's just get right to it. We're going to lay out a few possibilities for interpreting Leviticus when it comes to gay rights:
- Many religious conservatives argue that Leviticus is proof that God hates same-sex sex. Making gay marriage legal would violate God's law and the law of nature. Translation? So much for America. Just like Israel in Leviticus 26, we're toast.
- Others, however, believe that conservatives are reading Leviticus wrong. They say that the books limits the ban on same-sex sex to a particular time and place: Leviticus is meant just for Jews, not anyone else; or the New Testament made the laws in Leviticus obsolete.
- Another approach limits the scope of the ban to a particular kind of same-sex sex. For instance, some believe that the law against men lying with men like with women is just referring to a specific pagan temple ritual. Others read the ban on men lying with men as a reference to male rape, a direct follow-up to the incest laws that keep men from using sex to dominate other family members.
- Of course, conspiracy-minded Shmoopers might say that all this textual interpretation stuff is a smokescreen for the real truth: a race of evil ancient aliens who use sex laws to enslave humanity for their own nefarious purposes (source).
We're not going to call out any one interpretation as right or wrong—even the seemingly goofy ancient aliens theory is a callback to Gnosticism, which sees God as a being who uses law to keep people from achieving the spirit's true potential (source). While we won't take any sides, we will do what we do best: literary analysis.
Taking a Closer Look
There are a few things to keep in mind when trying to figure out what's going on here—and everywhere else in Leviticus, for that matter. First, as playwright Harold Pinter writes, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." Or as the old saying goes, presuming that it's easy to understand things written 2,500 years ago can make a Pres out of U and Ming… whatever that means.
So without any presuming, here are a few details to consider (and agree with or toss out with the bathwater) about the language of Leviticus:
- The law against men lying with men might not necessarily condemn both parties; it might only prohibit the person doing the, um, penetrating.
- Leviticus makes no direct mention of a woman lying with a woman, while the law against bestiality expressly states that it applies to both men and women.
- It also makes no direct mention of other man-with-man expressions of affection, such as kissing and, well, you know. Likewise, it makes no direct mention of love, chaste relationships or, for that matter, marriage.
- Another principle to consider is that definition can make a difference. Words such as "abomination" and "unclean" don't necessarily mean disgusting and immoral. Their meaning at the time might actually be closer to "something to avoid" or "ritually impure." The significance of certain actions may not be as obvious as it seems.
- With regard to claims that certain practices are banned because they were common practices in pagan religions, it's always a good idea to double check. Was gay sex really a temple ritual? Were babies really sacrificed to Molech?
- Finally, bad sex in the Torah isn't always just about bad sex. It can also be about taking another person's property, interfering with a contract, causing women to fight with each other, disrespecting one's elders, mixing or leaking certain bodily fluids, committing an act of violence, exploiting the weak, or setting up a scene for an episode of Girls.
Whatever you believe, we think your argument will be much stronger if you back it up with textual evidence. We know that means actually reading Leviticus, but we bet you'll enjoy it more than you think.
Discrimination is all over the place in Leviticus. Heck, even the burnt offerings discriminate: they can only be made with a male animal, while a peace offering can be made with either a male or a female animal.
Okay, so the burnt offering situation may not seem all that problematic to female animals. But there are a few other discriminatory rules that don't involve saving someone from the knife.
- Priests are men—only men.
- Women are supposed to have babies, but periods and birth each make women unclean.
- Using female slaves for sex is no big deal, even if the slave is going to marry another man.
- There's no mention of any problem with a priest's son pimping himself out, but a priest's daughter best not sleep around.
- People with any kind of visible medical issue, from skin problems and size differences to paralysis and crushed testicles, can't approach the altar.
- When setting the prices for buying back someone who has been dedicated to the service of God, Leviticus 27 sets the value of a woman or girl substantially lower than of a man or boy.
Does all of this mean that God is a cosmic Don Draper, cool to folks in the past but an offensive relic in the modern workplace? Are these rules just a spiritual metaphor for the importance of being holy? Or are they still applicable today?
Whatever your point of view, it's probably a good idea not to be too smug about our modern superiority. In U.S. law, it continues to be legal for certain religious groups to discriminate. Workplace discrimination rules carve out exceptions for religious organizations, which means that churches, synagogues, and mosques don't have to hire women, gay men, the disabled. or humanities majors.
The Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice Debate
Leviticus loves it some life. Obey God and he will give his covenant people life in abundance. Disobey and watch things die. The same goes for sacrifice and purity laws. In a weird way, the rules governing sacrifices and blood are both designed to promote a profound respect for the value of life.
What does this mean for contemporary debates on abortion and contraception? Is the concept of life in Leviticus the same thing as the concept of life championed by those who want to ban abortion? Are the washing and sacrifice rituals triggered by leaking penises and the ejaculation of semen signs that God hates any form of sexual activity outside of procreation?
Or is something else going on here?
Reading Leviticus can feel like watching a National Geographic special about previously uncontacted tribes. The sacrificial rituals seem archaic and irrationally violent. The laws for daily life seems totally out of place. The idea that some things are taboo seems completely out of touch with modern science, let alone modern life. (A woman with her period out in public? The horror!)
But are these ideas as primitive as they seem?
While Leviticus is a relic of an ancient people with a far different cultural vocabulary from our own, there are aspects of its culture that are fundamentally human. And, thanks in part to the role that the Bible has played in shaping America's law and social norms, peculiarly American.
To understand how, consider a few examples of American laws and behavior that reflect principles similar to those at work in Leviticus.
- We have our own taboos about food that is an abomination to eat. Don't believe it? Try going to a restaurant and asking for cat sushi, dog steak, or horse burgers.
- Organic foods are a way to avoid the perceived pollution of foods with preservatives and other unnatural modifications. At the same time, putting wax coatings on fruit and coloring meat and fish are ways that people try to separate food from the impurity of decay.
- Today's vegetarians and vegans exhibit a respect for life in animals that is similar to the reason for sacrifices in Leviticus.
- Drug laws demonize a different kind of natural abomination. America is in the midst of a generation shift, in which many young voters don't see any sense in drug laws, especially when the drugs aren't proven to be seriously harmful. What they're sensing is how in the U.S., drug laws reflect a sense of impurity or defectiveness.
- Consider the notorious commercial in which an actor compares your brain on drugs to a cracked egg frying in a pan. What made this image so powerful was the way it made drugs seem like something that took the brain from whole and pure (that's the white shell) to broken and fried in a dark pan.
- A number of countries don't have a minimum drinking age, and for most, it's well under 21 (source). The U.S., though, has a long history of viewing alcohol as a contagion that threatens the community and corrupts youth. Nadab and Abihu now would be underage drinkers in America.
- Like the laws in Leviticus, dress codes promote group unity and teach order by imposing rules that draw lines between school (or office or wherever the code is in place) and the rest of life. The different clothes worn by teachers and administrators reinforce their authority. It's a lot like how the priests were ceremonial robes mixing linen, wool, and golden thread, but the regular Israelites can't mix fibers.
- The same goes for style trends, where wearing the wrong thing can make a student a ritually unclean outcast.
- At the opposite end of the clothing spectrum are nudity taboos. Not every Western country thinks that toplessness is inappropriate, especially with respect to beaches, TV game shows, and daily newspapers.
Whew. And these are just a few examples of a desire to separate American society from such things as (alleged) defectiveness, cliquishness, disorder, and violence. Regardless of whether you agree with the rules, there's no denying it: American ain't so different from Leviticus-day Israel, after all.
Concentration of Wealth and Power
"Proclaim liberty unto all the land, and unto all the inhabitants thereof."
In the hokey 1950s Ten Commandments movie, producer/director Cecil B. DeMille makes Leviticus 25:10 the official slogan of American free enterprise. But is Leviticus really God's Capitalist Manifesto?
In context, Leviticus 25:10 is about the Jubilee, the holiday where, every fifty years, property goes back to its original owner and slaves get released to go home. In other words, God requires Israel to dissolve private contracts in order to keep individuals and families from using business to acquire excess wealth and power.
Does this make God the charter member of Occupy Israel? Do the core principles of the Jubilee provide a workable basis for progressive legal reform today, such as Bono's campaign for an international debt relief? We'll have the answer to these and other hot button political questions… never.
Sorry, but this is one to Shmoop amongst yourselves.