Leviticus 18:22 - What does the Bible say about homosexuality?

by Sam

The one Bible verse that is bound to turn up when discussing homosexuality with Christians is Leviticus 18:22 so let's have a closer look at this one.

The one Bible verse that is bound to turn up when discussing homosexuality with Christians is Leviticus 18:22 so let's have a closer look at this one. The NIV (New International Version) translates this verse from its original Hebrew as "Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable." and the King James Bible translates it as "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination."

That is normally the point when the person you are discussing this with closes his or her Bible and says with utmost conviction: "You see, the Bible says Homosexuality is a sin!" This is also the moment I normally start to hum the tune 'It ain't necessarily so..." And then the real fun starts ...


No matter what you want to prove, you will always find a Bible verse to support your view! That is if you rip it out of its context and neglect its historical and cultural background. Therefore I want to invite you to look at this specific Bible verse, Leviticus 18:22, from different angles, theologically, linguistically, historically and culturally and then you can make up your own mind and decide for yourself what you believe Leviticus 18:22 is all about.

Before we get to this, have a look at the video on the right. It is a scene from the TV Series "West Wing" and shows brilliantly what I mean with ripping Bible verses out of context. The quotes the President uses in that scene are all taken from the Bible and by patching them together, out of context and relating them to 20th century problems, it becomes clear that interpreting the Bible is not as easy as just taking words written thousands of years ago and trying to apply them letter by letter to our world and lives ...

West Wing - The video about shows a scene from this season

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The West Wing: The Complete Second Season

The Historical Context

Leviticus is named after the Levites, those tribe of Israel that provided the priests, not after a person called Leviticus. It is the third of the 5 books of the Torah or Pentateuch and can be found at the beginning of the Old Testament. It contains instructions regarding worship, as well as lining out duties and rights for both the priests and the laity. It is based on various, older, sources, both oral traditions and written documents, and most scholars agree that it got it's final form between the 6th and 4th century before our time, making it around 2,500 years old.

The Bible is, amongst other things, also a history book. Perhaps not in the sense how we understand this term today, but nevertheless, the writers of the Bible documented the history of Israel (Old Testament) and Jesus and the early Church (New Testament) in the words and with the concepts of their time. Historically the events of Leviticus are located after the tribes of Israel escaped slavery in Egypt and Moses received the Ten Commandments (and other laws and commandments) on Mount Sinai from God, but before the tribes of Israel entered the Holy Land. These events took place around the 12th century before our time, a time frame most academic scholars agree upon.

So, between the events described and the 'publishing of the final version' of Leviticus lay at least 600 or 800 years ;-) Welcome to the fascinating world of Bible study ;-)

Learn more about how the Bible developed with these books.

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The Story of the Bible: The Fascinati...How the Bible Came to BeThe Canon of Scripture

The Biblical Context

With "biblical context" I mean where a certain verse or chapter is located in the Bible. In the case of Leviticus 18:22 that means in the Old Testament and, surprise, surprise, in a book called Leviticus ;-) The bit with the Old Testament is important as there are many, many laws and commandments in it, that Christians, for various reasons, happily and rightfully ignore today. The best known one perhaps being the prohibition to eat pork. Not eating pork was a very, very good idea at that time and a commandment that made perfectly sense if you remember that we are speaking of a time before refrigerators and of a region with a hot climate...

Others, like the Ten Commandments, are rules that Christians still strive to live by today. So, why do some Christians think that also the rules about and prohibition of homosexual acts belong into the second category and not in the first? Bear with me, all will be clearer at the end.

Lets look at the location of said verse inside the book. Leviticus 18:22 is part of a large section of laws, commandments and explanations called the Holiness Code.

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For The Bible Tells Me So Movie

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For The Bible Tells Me So

The movie at the left (official trailer above) has a look at the story of five Christian American families who happen to have a gay or lesbian child and how they reacted to it. Includes the story of Bishop Gene, the first openly gay bishop in the USA. Plus it answers questions like 'Homosexuality - Choice or not?'

My favorite documentary for this topic

Highly recommended!

Understanding The Holiness Code

The 'Holiness Code' is the name Jewish scholars gave to the chapters 17 to 26 of the book Leviticus. The word 'Holy' had at that time an additional meaning to how we would use it today. Holy meant 'set apart' and especially to be set apart from their neighbors, both in behavior and worship. Whilst the tribes, that later would become Israel, worshiped only one God, its neighbors were polytheistic, worshiping many deities. And some of them even included Shrine (Temple) or Sacred Prostitution into their worship, see Deuteronomy 23:17 "No Israelite man or woman is to become a shrine prostitute."

The other need for these type of holiness stemmed also from the need of preserving one distinctive cultural identity as 'The Chosen People of God' amongst the many and varied neighboring tribes. So, the Holiness Code, at that time, helped people to:

  • Be ritually clean in order to be able worship God in the right way.
  • Be different from their neighbors in order to preserve their cultural identity.
  • Be healthy by following dietary laws important for that time and climate.
  • And, with regard to Leviticus 18:22, to procreate and increase in numbers.

Regarding the last point, it is important to note that at that time people believed that procreation was achieved when a man 'planted his seed' in the womb of a woman, the role of the woman was merely that of 'incubator' for his seed. This might explain why most Bible verses concerning homosexual acts were only concerned about those between two men, and not about those between two women. Procreation was incredibly important at that time as the Jewish tribes were outnumbered by powerful neighbors and one way to overcome this disadvantage was to grow the tribe. And the union of two men, or of two women, wouldn't have had any offspring.

Jews followed the Holiness Code until the year 70 of our time completely, but with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans, their main sanctuary, many of its laws and commandments regarding temple worship and sacrifice couldn't be followed anymore. Most Jews today will indeed still follow the dietary laws and all the others that don't relate directly to temple and sacrifice. Some Christians will make a kind of 'pick and choose' decision and will follow only a handful of these laws and commandments, normally ignoring all the dietary laws, but insisting that all the rules for sexual behavior laid out in the Holiness Code have to be followed.

On the other hand there are small groups of Christians that do follow the Jewish dietary laws still today and some Churches that don't teach that Homosexuality is a sin, but instead see it as a normal variation of human sexuality and even bless same-sex couples. The best known example for this is perhaps the Episcopal Church in America which ordained the first openly gay and partnered bishop in modern history, +Gene Robinson, Diocese of New Hampshire.

So, what is right? Whose interpretation is the correct one? What decides which laws we should still follow and which not? For this we have to delve deeper into the text.

Words do change their meanings over time ...

The Linguistic Context

The Problem with Translations

Anybody that speaks more than one language knows that translating is an extremely difficult art. Conveying in one language the exact meaning a word has in another is the big challenge. Add to this the difficulty of translating from a language into another that doesn't belong to the same group of languages, meaning doesn't share the same roots and concepts behind the language and add a few thousand years of difference between the two languages and you see what a difficult job Bible translators really have. If you don't speak another language than English, here an example just for you:

The word 'gay' meant until roughly the 20th century mainly 'happy' or 'joyful'. If you listen to the video above this paragraph, you'll hear the famous song "A Bachelor Gay" describing how the "gay bachelor" falls in love with several --- woman ;-)

If the meaning of one word has changed so much in less then 100 years, what do you think how complicated it is to match the meaning of a translated word with both our vocabulary today and the original meaning of the word 2,500 years or more ago and still rendering a text that is both easy to read and faithful to the original meaning?

So, short of learning ancient Hebrew, what else can you do to understand the meaning of a particular word in the Old Testament? Have a look at the right side. That is a concordance, the same one that I use. Concordances list all the Bible verses where the same word is used in the original language, independent from how it is translated into another language. In the case of Leviticus 18:22 the decisive word in the sentence is that which is normally translated as 'abomination / detestable / grave sin / loathsome'. In the original Hebrew the word used is, transcribed into our alphabet to'ebah, tōʻēḇā or to'e'va (noun) or ta'ev (verb).

A concordance is a valuable tool for discovering how words are used in different contexts and to determine more exactly their original meaning. It is an invaluable tool for everybody that takes studying the Bible seriously.

to'ebah, tōʻēḇā, to'e'va (noun) and ta'ev (verb)

The meaning of the word 'to'ebah' (also transcribed as tōʻēḇā or to'e'va (noun) or ta'ev (verb) ) is similar to 'taboo', a thing or act that renders the offender ritually unclean. We find many things and acts in the Old Testament that are taboo in the sense of 'to'ebah', here two examples.

  • The Israelites themselves, whilst in Egypt, were 'to'ebah' to the Egyptians, Egyptians wouldn't eat or drink with them. See Genesis 43:32 "They served him by himself, the brothers by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews, for that is detestable ('to'ebah') to Egyptians."
  • Many things that Christians eat today were and are 'tōʻēḇā' to observant Jews, such as pork, rabbit, shrimps and lobster. (see Deuteronomy 14 for the full list)

Other things that are considered to'ebah are

  • Idols, like figurines or statues of other deities.
  • Sexual relationships between near relatives.
  • Using incorrect measures in order to sell things for an inflated price.
  • Having intercourse with your own wife during her monthly period.
  • For more, have a look at the Jewish Encyclopedia here: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/352-abomination

The Bible doesn't have a concept of 'homosexuality'.

Before I start to pack all these information together, here something else to bear in mind:

The Bible has no concept of homosexuality as a variation of human sexuality,

only of homosexual acts!

At first sight that might seem irrelevant, but it isn't. Homosexuality was first described as a variation of human sexuality in the 19th century, over 2,000 years after the first 'publication' of Leviticus 18:22 and similar. Therefore we must bear in mind that the Bible doesn't make any statements about homosexuality as such, only about certain, homosexual acts.

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Conclusion - Is Leviticus 18:22 still relevant today.

Leviticus 18.22 and similar verses of the Old Testament are part of the Holiness Code written 2,500 years ago. At that time these commandments were important for those tribes that later would become Israel as they made sure that the population grew at the maximum rate possible.

However, this reason can not be applied today as we Christians don't rely on 'outnumbering' our neighbors anymore. Regarding committed, homosexual relationships today therefore Leviticus 18.22 and similar should go the same way as the prohibition to eat pork or shrimps.Something what a variety of Churches like the Episcopal Church in the USA, the United Church of Christ and others have already recognized.

As a Christian I believe that

a) Gods commandments always make sense and

b) if circumstances change in a way so that they don't make sense anymore we have to adapt our interpretation of them to this and not the other way round.

In the end, I know a lot of 'good Christians' that eat shrimps, enjoy a rabbit stew and do many other things that were originally prohibited in the Old Testament ;-) So, why do they insist that some of the rules about sexual behavior haven't changed in a similar fashion? Amongst my friends are several gay people that live in a deeply committed, faithful partnership since many years, some of them are with the same person since over 40 years! And I don't believe that God disapproves of them. In the end, why should he? There is no reason anymore ...

All Bible quotes in this article were taken from the NIV translation unless otherwise stated.

Updated: 11/17/2012, Sam
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Sam on 07/01/2013

Thanks for your thoughtful comment Cazort! Yes, things are changing slowly. A big and great news lately was that Exodus International, a Christian organization that believed to be able to change sexual orientation, apologized to the LGBTQ community and recognized that they were on the wrong path, see http://exodusinternational.org/2013/0... . I truly dream of the day that sexual orientation has the same importance like left/right handedness or the fact that somebody wears glasses --- or not. We will get there one day - with the help of {insert personal deity here} SY

cazort on 06/22/2013

This has always made sense to me. There are many passages in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, but many in the New Testament too, that few or no Christians take literally. Although people use scripture to defend their views on homosexuality, I think these views are ultimately cultural views that are to a degree independent of scripture.

I've seen people slowly change their views on this issue over time. I think it's important to look at things like how people's actions affect others, and also what the scientific and psychological literature has to say. I think that there is substantial evidence that most people have an innate sexual orientation that they can't change, and I also think the evidence is strong that same-sex relationships are just as healthy as hetero relationships.

I do think though that it's important to respect people who have a wide range of views on the issue. Sometimes I hear people attacking, demonizing, or labelling as "bigots" or "homophobes" people who believe that homosexuality or homosexual acts go contrary to their religious beliefs. I think it's important to respect people regardless of what their views are--even if, like me, we see those views themselves to be problematic.

Sam on 03/29/2013

And it is quite likely that both of them would have made good priests! Celibacy in general is another item the Roman-Catholic Church has to address. The reasons for it are more financial and historical (inheritance) than theological. Obligatory celibacy is "quite" young in the Roman-Catholic Church as it was "only" written into law for all priests in the 12th century at the First Lateran Council (1123).

frankbeswick on 03/29/2013

Well, Sam, you have made me cast my mind back to my time in theological college in 1968.[I dropped out] Being a Catholic college celibacy was the rule [it was not why left.] We had two men who fell in love and were asked to leave. Celibacy was the rule, so that was that. But what always saddened me was that these two were among the most pleasant people in the college [nicer by far than certain others who remained.]

Sam on 03/29/2013

You are right Frankbeswick that I missed out the reasoning the Roman-Catholic Church typically uses and concentrated more on that what we all have in common - scripture. As for Genesis 1:27 that would be a whole new article. For the moment just this thought "many Chrisians believe that this indicates that the union of man and woman is part of God's plan for humanity." Correct, but that doesn't have to mean that God's plan is exclusive to other partnerships.

frankbeswick on 03/29/2013

A point of information. The argument that you have given works most strongly in the context of Protestant theology, as Protestants base their views entirely on Scripture, whereas Catholics believe that the Bible is the product of the spirit living and expressing itself in the church. Hence church tradition runs alongside the Bible and the Bible is interpreted through the teaching authority of the church.Hence the overall view of the church would have to be taken into account in any Catholic thought on homosexuality.

However, there is another Scripture that the article forgot. In Genesis 1:27 it states that God made man and woman in his own image and likeness, so many Chrisians believe that this indicates that the union of man and woman is part of God's plan for humanity.

Having said all this,homosexuals exist and have emotional needs as strong as those of heterosexuals.

Sam on 03/29/2013

Thanks Todd for your very kind words. Please feel free to share the information in this article with others that might still struggle. Times are changing, thanks God, and even people like Stephen Chalke are reconsidering the facts and changing their attitude, see http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/...

Todd R. on 03/29/2013

Sam, I wish to thank you from the bottom of my heart. I had heard of an explanation of this type that people I have known talk about but, you put things in such an understandable context. As a gay man, and a Christian it gives me great comfort to know that I was not a hated or flawed person in God's eyes. I have to say that I really have believed it all along but, putting the dots together as you have is so wonderful. Thanks for the comfort and understanding that you have brought to many gay christians.

Adam on 01/30/2013

You may want to do a word study of oikonomia or "dispensation/administration," as well as a study of the Hebrew idiom of permission. It is very enlightening on the ways in which God's Word remains coherent from Old Testament to New. Most people have a very difficult reconciling the vengeful God of the Old Testament with the love-centered grace-fueled God of the New Testament.

I feel compelled to bring this up having read some of the comments below... I am a devout Christian and I can honestly say that I do not hate homosexuals. If I do not share the same beliefs as a Muslim individual, or someone who is Hindi, do I automatically hate those people? I choose to love unconditionally (agape also makes for a great word study), desiring for those who do not believe to believe. It is not out of arrogance, but because I have seen physical, mental and spiritual abundance in my own life by practicing the principles in the word (as well as the pitfalls of failing to obey) and I desire for "all men to be saved and come unto a knowledge of the truth." I believe it is possible to disagree, but I believe the love of God reaches beyond any of the boundaries we can imagine. People are not evil, but sincerity is no guarantee for truth, or for truthful living.

Having said that mouthful, I respect the time and effort you have put in. It's good to know that this is something you are passionate enough about to look it up for yourself. It's farther than most Christians get.

JeanBakula on 01/16/2013

What an interesting and thought provoking piece! I did not have much religious instruction growing up, and about 10 yrs. ago embarked upon an Bible study with an acquaintance. I looked at it as sort of a history lesson, and was very surprised about what I read. As you say, a concordance is very helpful to get things in proportion. Many of the laws and rules have reasons we do not think of today. The Jews introduced basic rules of sanitation by making sure sick people were apart from the well ones. You pick up all kinds of gems like that when you read it all. I did not commit to Christianity after my study, being a Pagan at heart. But I learned so much and am glad I did!

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