Study Guide

Leviticus Sex

Sex

He washed the entrails and the legs and, with the burnt offering, turned them into smoke on the altar. (NKJV 9:14)

And he did wash the inwards and the legs, and burnt them upon the burnt offering on the altar. (KJV 9:14)

As anthropologist Mary Douglas notes, in the Bible, the word "legs" is often a safe-for-work way of saying genitals (source). The upshot here is that when you make a ritual offering, you are giving life and fertility back to their source. In contemporary rituals commemorating the reproductive process or givers of life, it's probably safer to go with flowers and chocolate.

If a man has an emission of semen, he shall bathe his whole body in water, and be unclean until the evening. Everything made of cloth or of skin on which the semen falls shall be washed with water, and be unclean until the evening. If a man lies with a woman and has an emission of semen, both of them shall bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening. (NRSV 15:16-18)

And if any man's seed of copulation go out from him, then he shall wash all his flesh in water, and be unclean until the even. And every garment, and every skin, whereon is the seed of copulation, shall be washed with water, and be unclean until the even. The woman also with whom man shall lie with seed of copulation, they shall both bathe themselves in water, and be unclean until the even. (KJV 15:16-18)

Masturbation, nocturnal emissions, and sex make a man unclean in the same way that menstruation makes a woman unclean. And what's the best way to correct for a leaky faucet and the outflow of life? That's right: a sin offering and a burnt offering, not to mention a steady supply of tissues.

None of you shall approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness: I am the Lord. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's wife; it is the nakedness of your father. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father's daughter or your mother's daughter, whether born at home or born abroad. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your son's daughter or of your daughter's daughter, for their nakedness is your own nakedness. (NSV 18:6-10)

None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness: I am the Lord. The nakedness of thy father, or the nakedness of thy mother, shalt thou not uncover: she is thy mother; thou shalt not uncover her nakedness. The nakedness of thy father's wife shalt thou not uncover: it is thy father's nakedness. The nakedness of thy sister, the daughter of thy father, or daughter of thy mother, whether she be born at home, or born abroad, even their nakedness thou shalt not uncover. The nakedness of thy son's daughter, or of thy daughter's daughter, even their nakedness thou shalt not uncover: for theirs is thine own nakedness. (KJV 18:6-10)

Leviticus has a lot to say about incest, although what it means isn't completely obvious. For example, Jewish legal scholar David Daube points out that while a man cannot sleep with his granddaughters, the law does not expressly forbid him from sleeping with his daughters. The apparent reason: a daughter is his father's property to do with as he pleases. If blood ties aren't enough to provide a basis for a rule against incest, what is really going on in these laws?

You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter, and you shall not take her son's daughter or her daughter's daughter to uncover her nakedness; they are your flesh; it is depravity. And you shall not take a woman as a rival to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive. (NRSV 18:17-18)

Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter, neither shalt thou take her son's daughter, or her daughter's daughter, to uncover her nakedness; for they are her near kinswomen: it is wickedness. Neither shalt thou take a wife to her sister, to vex her, to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her life time. (KJV 18:17-18)

One possible explanation for the incest laws is that they're the ancient world's answer to the bro code. Except in Israel, the concern isn't causing a riff with your besties. Instead, Leviticus explains that some rules against a guy's sexual relationships are designed to keep the women from ticked off with each other. Having sex with a woman and her daughter (from another man) sets up a rivalry between parent and child. Sex with your son's and daughter's grandchildren creates sibling conflict. Likewise, having flings with one of your wives and her sister is guaranteed to lead to bad feelings.

If a man has sexual relations with a woman who is a slave, designated for another man but not ransomed or given her freedom, an inquiry shall be held. They shall not be put to death, since she has not been freed; but he shall bring a guilt offering for himself to the Lord, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, a ram as guilt offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of guilt offering before the Lord for his sin that he committed; and the sin he committed shall be forgiven him. (NRSV 19:20-22)

And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman, that is a bondmaid, betrothed to an husband, and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; she shall be scourged; they shall not be put to death, because she was not free. And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the Lord, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, even a ram for a trespass offering. And the priest shall make an atonement for him with the ram of the trespass offering before the Lord for his sin which he hath done: and the sin which he hath done shall be forgiven him. (KJV 19:20-22)

Having sex with a female slave is normally not a problem (!) unless she's set to marry someone else. The usual penalty for sleeping with someone else's fiancée is death, but hey, she's a slave so it's not really adultery. In this case, the law is merciful: she gets whipped while he gets to offer a sacrifice, pay a penalty to her owner, and be forgiven by God.

As for any deeper spiritual meaning to this most curious law, what sayest thou, faithful Shmooper?

Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, that the land not become prostituted and full of depravity. (NRSV 19:29)

Do not prostitute thy daughter, to cause her to be a whore; lest the land fall to whoredom, and the land become full of wickedness. (KJV 19:29)

Isn't it enough to say that pimping out your daughter is a bad idea because she's, you know, your daughter? In the context of the times, not really. A daughter is a father's productive asset, just like his cattle and land. Normally he could make money by arranging an advantageous marriage, but it could also be easier just to sell her body for sex. Leviticus forbids this on the grounds of its broader social consequences—just as personal sins pollute the Tabernacle, they can also mess up the whole community.

If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. The man who lies with his father's wife has uncovered his father's nakedness; both of them shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. (NRSV 20:9-10)

And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. (KJV 20:9-10)

In biblical law, there's just one essential ingredient for adultery: a woman who is married or engaged to another man. Sleep with her and you're toast. Sex with a woman who is wholly unattached—no problem, at least for the guy.

Once again, it's not just about sex. Having sex with another man's wife is a form of theft that can also tear the social fabric. Just like Israel had a contract with God, marriage was a contract with substantial economic consequences. Not only could adultery interfere directly with the husband's property interest, but it could also lead to him giving cash and an inheritance to a child not his own.

All in all, not cool.

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. If a man takes a wife and her mother also, it is depravity; they shall be burned to death, both he and they, that there may be no depravity among you. (NRSV 20:13-14)

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. And if a man take a wife and her mother, it is wickedness: they shall be burnt with fire, both he and they; that there be no wickedness among you. (KJV 20:13-14)

Lying with a man as with a woman—whatever that means—is punishable by death. The same goes for having sex with a wife and her mom. If the death penalty in Leviticus 20:13 is a biblical basis for making gay sex illegal in America today, is the same true for other sex acts with the death penalty in this chapter?

If a man lies with a woman having her sickness and uncovers her nakedness, he has laid bare her flow and she has laid bare her flow of blood; both of them shall be cut off from their people. (NRSV 20:18)

And if a man shall lie with a woman having her sickness, and shall uncover her nakedness; he hath discovered her fountain, and she hath uncovered the fountain of her blood: and both of them shall be cut off from among their people. (KJV 20:18)

This verse says that a man and woman who have sex while she's having her period shall be cut off from the community. Leviticus 15:24 states that this makes the man unclean for seven days, while the woman remains unclean until the eighth day after her blood has stopped flowing. Either way, they shouldn't expect to be invited to any neighborhood parties.

They shall not marry a prostitute or a woman who has been defiled; neither shall they marry a woman divorced from her husband. For they are holy to their God, and you shall treat them as holy, since they offer the food of your God; they shall be holy to you, for I the Lord, I who sanctify you, am holy. When the daughter of a priest profanes herself through prostitution, she profanes her father; she shall be burned to death. (NRSV 21:7-9)

They shall not take a wife that is a whore, or profane; neither shall they take a woman put away from her husband: for he is holy unto his God. Thou shalt sanctify him therefore; for he offereth the bread of thy God: he shall be holy unto thee: for I the Lord, which sanctify you, am holy. And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire. (KJV 21:7-9)

Priests are supposed to reflect a degree of holiness beyond that of ordinary Israelites. This not only narrows a priest's potential matches on the ancient JDate scrolls—it also means that his daughters get barbecued if they join a sugar daddy site.

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