Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 18.5)
There’s no way we who lived through HIV/AIDS’ early years can adequately convey how helpless we felt. The virus emerged from nowhere, yet stayed under cover for nearly a year. Experts could only confirm formerly rare sightings of Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis pneumonia were surfacing in urban gay males with alarming frequency. Although everything pointed to deficient immunity, what triggered it wasn’t clear. Hearing it was unlike anything ever seen intensified anxiety as cases mounted. The longer it took to identify the cause of what was rapidly becoming a public health crisis the more it seemed like we’d entered a sci-fi nightmare, a real-life “Twilight Zone.” While most of the world watched from a presumably safe remove, panic overtook the gay community. We couldn’t combat our silent stalker until we knew exactly what it was, whence it came, its method of attack, and how it proliferated. Then the mystery grew more perplexing with outbreaks among Haitians, hemophiliacs, and IV drug users.
As researchers raced to find the deadly pathogen, public health officials rushed to solve the transmission puzzle. They had four distinct patient types and lots of dots connecting two or three, but never all of them. Even though the highest concentration of targets continued to be gay, the virus’s leap into predominately straight groups changed its name from GRID (gay-related immunodeficiency diseases) to AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). It also changed how AIDS was perceived. Its expanding range of victims raised fears we’d gravely underestimated it. We left “The Twilight Zone” to step into a looming apocalypse.
The four-year wait while investigators narrowed transmission down to bodily fluids left no time to wait for bureaucrats to craft and approve a cohesive public policy. The gay community launched its own campaign to disarm the virus and end its long night of grief. Driven by will to survive—fueled in large part by deep-seated anger at preachers and propagandists heralding AIDS as Heaven-sent justice—the community set a course that intuitively subscribed to biblical methodology for containing disease. Leaders and activists poured all their energy into altering behavior. Their unvarnished message was crystal-clear: practice safe sex or die. With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, they pounded two hallmarks of gay defiance—reckless sex and rampant promiscuity—into cultural taboos. And though it’s doubtful they caught the irony, their motive and message were identical to those in Leviticus’s infamous health and hygiene regulations.
But the irony gets sweeter. Leviticus 18, whose ban on same-gender sex (v22) is routinely misappropriated to condemn same-sex orientation, serves as the Bible’s safe-sex manual. As with other passages forbidding dietary and hygienic practices that germinate and spread infectious diseases among nomadic tribes, chapter 18 is not to be read as doctrinal edict. It’s a public health measure to alter behaviors endangering community survival. Yet, as AIDS prevention strategists recognized and Leviticus plainly acknowledges, when asked to choose between private pleasure and public safety, pleasure wins. Thus we note how strenuously the text marries unsafe sex with personal danger and converts previously acceptable acts into taboos. Like the AIDS safe-sex campaign, Leviticus 18 raises specters that won’t vanish when the lights go out.
What God’s Talking About
Pursuing a faithful (and faith-full) relationship with Scripture is a two-step process. First, we access God’s word through Scripture as the sacred medium by which God authoritatively speaks. Second, we hear God’s voice in Scripture. That’s why context is crucial. Scripture is a conversation, not a compendium of sound bites, loose facts, and freestanding ideas. To hear God accurately, we consider each verse, sentence, and phrase in light of the topic at hand. This is true for all Scripture, regardless of literary form (history, poetry, prophecy, gospel, or letter) or author, each of whom is divinely inspired to convey messages God wants us to hear. “Above all,” 2 Peter 1.20-21 says, “you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
As it was recorded so it must be read—without imposition of human will, following the Holy Spirit’s guidance, acknowledging Scripture is prophetic in that it not only speaks to its time, but also to all times. Therein lies the mystery of God’s Word, as well as the reason for our struggles to hear God correctly. Without being sure what God’s talking about, how can we be certain we hear what God is actually saying to us today? Freezing Scripture in time is a far different thing than freeing it from time in order to receive what God wants us to hear now. Insisting God’s message to the ancients is immune to human progress and social change is to denigrate Scripture as an antiquated response to primitive problems. In order to free the text from time and apply Scripture’s current relevance to our lives, it’s essential we listen closely to the whole conversation, identify the topic at hand—doing the historical and linguistic homework to understand the original situation and its nuances as best as we can—and then prayerfully allow the Holy Spirit to “carry us along.” (I love that!)
Preparing the People
So what is God talking about in Leviticus 18? Let’s listen attentively to how the conversation begins. Through Moses God tells the Israelites: “I am the LORD your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.” This word comes to Israel when it’s neither far enough from Egypt to forget the dominant culture and customs it left nor close enough to Canaan to fathom what’s ahead. At present, Israel as a nation and society doesn’t exist. Once it reaches the Land of Promise and overthrows the Canaanites, its primary duty will be establishing legal and cultural guidelines that promote social stability and welfare. Like similar talks about dietary and hygiene policy, this conversation is all about preparing the people for statehood.
God says, “I am the LORD”—all-caps, i.e. the One True God, all-powerful and all-wise, Whose word cannot be questioned. The premise for everything that follows, then, is to instruct the Israelites to follow God’s direction in founding their nation. It must not borrow from the Egyptians, nor adapt to Canaan’s current environment. [As the conversation ends (v24-25), God states, “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.” Note the national emphasis and allusions to disease: “defile” (tame in Hebrew: “to be or become unclean; to contaminate”): “drive out” (meshalleach; “to send away,” in this case, “to isolate or quarantine”); “vomit” (qo; “to regurgitate”).] Then, just before prohibiting a long list of imaginative—in most cases, seriously warped—sex practices, God reasserts supreme authority. “You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees,” God says. “I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the LORD.” (v4-5)
Rules for Living
What read like redundancies in English (“decrees” and “laws,” “obey” and “follow,” “obeys them” and “live by them”) are anything but redundant in the original Hebrew. Decrees (mishpat; “case, custom, decision, practice, etc.”) are verdicts rendered case-by-case to set or overturn precedent. Hence, God explicitly retains right to modify opinions, redefine terms, and reverse decisions as needed. Laws (choq; fixed patterns; ordinances) are statutes—constitutional edicts that undergird divine principles. Now things get really interesting, because Old Testament “obedience” comes in four flavors: to keep or protect; to listen closely and intelligently; to do or perform; and to consent or be willing. The first three are contractual, suggesting mutual agreement and honored trust. Only the last term approximates our concept of obedience as voluntary compliance to prescribed standards. Yet even that misses the term’s meaning. It employs a negative (“to refuse”) to indicate consensual action—a willingness to refrain, if you will. Leviticus 18 uses the three contractual verbs, but not the fourth, which would be the obvious choice if God were laying down commands. The chosen verbs leave no doubt Leviticus 18 provides rules for living that shouldn’t be misread as divine edicts. They’re verdicts, not statutes, and as such, are subject to modification, redefinition, and reversal at God’s discretion.
God invites Israel to agree to these guidelines. “The person who obeys [asah; does or performs] them will live by them.” While the phrase, “live by them” (va-chai) isn’t related to obedience at all, it flags the chapter. Va-chai (from the root chayay) means “saving life”! Given what God’s talking about and the topic at hand, both of which are plainly stated in English and even clearer in the original Hebrew, why we would dare suggest—let alone believe—Leviticus 18 is anything other than a roster of safe-sex practices to protect Israel’s public health, ensure its people’s longevity, and thereby preserve its stability as a nation?
The Original Audience
Since space is tight and the exercise isn’t especially instructive, we’ll skip enumerating the 17 sexual variations Leviticus 18 lists. Still, I advise anyone who’s been clobbered by Leviticus 18.22 (or concerned about those are) to review them here: Leviticus 18. When read in the correct context, a pattern emerges and an overall message comes to light. Interspersed through the guidelines we find several “shameful” phrases: “dishonor your father” (v8); “dishonor you” (v10); “dishonor your brother” (v18); “wickedness” (v17); “detestable” (v22); and “perversion” (v23). Both the list and the reproaches make a number of things patently clear. These activities are sufficiently prevalent in ancient culture to merit mention. Either their persistence or adoption will escalate the spread of infectious disease, wasting life instead of saving it. Since Leviticus 18 presents verdicts, not statutes, adhering to them is a personal choice, one unlikely to be made if the activities are acceptable. (One trembles to imagine living in an era where incest, child sacrifice, and bestiality are accepted; yet such were the times.) The reproaches convert health-endangering practices into cultural taboos. If God pronounces them dishonorable, wicked, detestable, and perverted, who would argue the verdict?
Hang on. Have we not just validated 18.22 as a trustworthy prohibition of same-sex orientation? It would seem so—until we check this reading against the context. Now that we know what God’s talking about, it’s equally important to establish whom God is speaking to. Who comprises the original audience? When we include the guideline against child sacrifice (v21), it’s apparent the chapter targets husbands and fathers, i.e., heterosexual men—with the understanding ancient cultures don’t categorize sexual behavior as straight or gay. Thus, the issue is traditional male responsibility for the community’s wellbeing. (Which is why men who knowingly put their community at risk are expunged from the populace per Leviticus 20’s death penalties.) To misappropriate 18.22 as a statute forbidding same-sex orientation, when it’s actually a verdict on same-gender sex, indicates one neither understands the enormous difference between identity and activity nor accounts for the text’s stated intention to save lives. The error of those who abuse this text to clobber homosexuals surpasses unlearned handling of Scripture. It represents flagrant disregard for Scripture’s statutory commands to love God and one another. Anyone so audacious and/or confused to break God’s Law in the name of righteousness and justice is in dire need of our compassion and prayers.
Leviticus 18 is a conversation between God and Israel in which God presents the community with safe-sex standards to promote its stability and wellbeing. Its prohibitions are not to be confused with divine edicts.