Nothing seems to be dividing the church (at least in the relatively wealthy West) quite like the matter of sex. Particularly homosexuality, and whether or not gays and lesbians can be included in the community of those called to follow Jesus.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni put it starkly in a recent column when he wrote that church teachings stating homosexuality is a sin is a “choice” that “prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since — as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing.”
Bruni looks to science and modernity, and what it has taught us about sexual orientation, to help change the attitudes of the faithful, noting that many Christians — and many Christian confessions — already have.
Then there’s the 2014 book “God and the Gay Christian,” by Matthew Vines, who has garnered significant attention and drawn large audiences for his eloquent take on what the New Testament — which is what evangelicals draw on and point to — really communicates.
Evaluating its sparse invocations of homosexuality, he notes that there wasn’t any awareness back then that same-sex attraction could be a fundamental part of a person’s identity, or that same-sex intimacy could be an expression of love within the context of a nurturing relationship.
Quoting Vines, Bruni writes, “that the New Testament, like the Old Testament, outlines bad and good behaviors that almost everyone deems archaic and irrelevant today. Why deem the descriptions of homosexual behavior any differently?”
I’ve avoided wading into this swamp before today for a couple of reasons. First, I am deeply ambivalent about the issue. I understand it motivates and energizes many, but it doesn’t do much for me. And second, because my views on this fall somewhere outside. I am neither conservative nor liberal on this.
I do have a view. And it is complex, because it takes all that material in scripture — what Bruni dismisses as “archaic and irrelevant today” — seriously.
So, this is what passes for my reasoning on this. And this representative of how I read scripture.
The material that matters on sex and sexual behavior is for the most part contained in Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20, with some restating in Deuteronomy 22 and Deuteronomy 27.
The Leviticus teaching is part of a larger teaching spanning Exodus and Leviticus, beginning with the gathering of the people at the foot of Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19 and ending with God speaking blessings and curses and rules on a vow to Israel at the end of Leviticus. The Deuteronomy teaching is self contained, spanning the entire book, and ending with blessings and curses to Israel, a renewal of the covenant, and the final blessing of Moses to Israel as the people begin their conquest of Canaan.
The important part of this is that both teachings end with a series of promises — blessings and curses — from God to God’s people. In Leviticus, it begins with a warning against idolatry,
1 “You shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the Lord your God. 2 You shall keep my Sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 26:1-2 ESV)
God then continues, “If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.” (Lev 26:3-4) God promises Israel safety, security, bountiful harvests, victory over its enemies, many children, and
11 I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. 12 And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people. 13 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves. And I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect. (Leviticus 26:11-13 ESV)
However, if Israel fails to adhere to the teaching, God promises fear, disease, defeat, failed harvests, hunger, war, destruction, conquest, and death (Lev 26:14-37). However, God also promises that a remnant will remain, and there will be hope for that remnant,
34 “Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies ‘land; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbaths. 35 As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest, the rest that it did not have on your Sabbaths when you were dwelling in it. 36 And as for those of you who are left, I will send faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues. 37 They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though none pursues. And you shall have no power to stand before your enemies. 38 And you shall perish among the nations, and the land of your enemies shall eat you up. 39 And those of you who are left shall rot away in your enemies’ lands because of their iniquity, and also because of the iniquities of their fathers they shall rot away like them.
40 “But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, 41 so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies—if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, 42 then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. (Leviticus 26:38-42 ESV)
So, while God is promising blessings and curses as a response to Israel’s faithfulness or lack thereof, in the faithlessness there is a promise of redemption. God will remember God’s promises to God’s people, and gift of the land to God’s people, “that I might be their God: I am the Lord.” (Lev 26:45) While the faithlessness of Israel will result in horrific consequences, God will not abandon his people completely. God promises restoration. It is dependent on repentance, but it is also the promise of God.
This compares with Deuteronomy 28, which outlines many of the same blessings and curses, though in far greater detail. Especially the curses. God begins by telling Israel
1 “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. 2 And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 28:1-2 ESV)
The blessings are many. The curses are more, such as this: “And as the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you, so the Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you. And you shall be plucked off the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” (Deuteronomy 28:63 ESV) Exile and slavery are promised,
68 And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer. (Deuteronomy 28:68 ESV)
The chapter comes to an end there, and it seems quite bleak. But in Deuteronomy 30, God promises a restoration:
1 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. 4 If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. (Deuteronomy 30:1-4 ESV)
Now, note what it says here. Not if all these things come upon you, but when. And not blessings or curses, but blessings and curses. Both are promised. And there is a restoration. Again, it is conditional on Israel’s repentance. But a restoration is promised.
This is Israel’s history, outlined and forecast. The story that follows, from Joshua through to the end of 2 Kings (or both books of Chronicles), is this history of blessings and curses. So, this is not an “If, Then… Else, then” theoretical statement. It is about what actually happens. This is less about Israel’s behavior than the nature of the promises of God in Israel’s history. Even when you fail and have paid the horrific price for that failure, God says, I am still your God, and you can return to me.
Because in this teaching, and in the history, it is God’s faithfulness, and not ours, that matters. We do not stop being the people of God merely because we cannot follow the teaching God has given us, and we cannot avoid the curses because … well, because God said we can’t.
And because of that, we cannot look at the teaching, or any bit of that teaching, any individual commandment, outside the entire covenant and the entire story.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at four very distinct teachings from Leviticus 18 and one from Leviticus 20. I deal with these five individual commands because they are actually dealt with in the context of the Biblical narrative.
Who You Cannot Have Sex With
The teachings on sex in Leviticus 18 are given for a fairly simple reason:
1 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the Lord your God. 3 You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. 4 You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 18:1-4 ESV)
These are God’s teachings for God’s people, and they outline a list of female relatives men may not “uncover the nakedness” of (have sex with). They are all fairly close relatives, and a similar list is revealed in Qur’an 4:23. Whether this actually made the Israelites different from the Egyptians and Canaanites I do not know. (A wise anthropologist once told me central to tribal thinking are stories that say that people who are not like us cannot tell their sisters from their cousins.) What God does promise, at the end of Leviticus 18, is that if Israel fails to follow these rules — makes itself “unclean” — then then the land will “vomit you out” just as “it vomited out the nation that was before you.” (Lev 18:28)
In this portion of Leviticus, all of these practices are declared wrong. But unlike Leviticus 20, no human punishment is specified. The land itself will punish the entire people by expelling and exiling them. Which, in one way of reading the history, is exactly what the land did.
And so, the teachings.
9 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether brought up in the family or in another home. (Leviticus 18:9 ESV)
17 If a man takes his sister, a daughter of his father or a daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace, and they shall be cut off in the sight of the children of their people. He has uncovered his sister’s nakedness, and he shall bear his iniquity. (Leviticus 20:17 ESV)
The first third of Genesis is taken up with the story of Abraham and Sarah, and their wandering around rather aimlessly. Or seemingly aimlessly.
One of Abraham’s odd habits is passing his wife Sarah off as his sister in the presence of powerful kings. He does this is Egypt with Pharaoh (Gen 12:10-20), and reaps many rewards for it until “great plagues” befall Pharaoh and his house and eventually the potentate of Egypt gets wise, hands Sarah back, and sends Abraham on his way.
Abraham does the same thing later on (Gen 20:1-18) when Abraham is out in the wilderness staying with Abimelech. Fearing Abimelech will kill him because Sarah is so desirable, Abraham pawns her off as his sister. Before Abimelech can fulfill his desires, God comes in a dream and warns him off. Abimelech is at least curious, and probably very angry, when he confronts Abraham the following morning:
11 Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, ‘There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. ’ 12 Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife. (Genesis 20:11-12 ESV)
And again, Abraham profits handsomely from the arrangement (he and Sarah both come off a little like grifters in this whole thing). But the point of the story is verse 12 — “she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother.”
Abraham has violated the law. And the scripture has related it.
18 And you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive. (Leviticus 18:18 ESV)
This has no parallel in Leviticus 20.
In Genesis 29, Jacob — the youngest son of Isaac and Rebekkah — wanders away on a journey to flee his older brother Esau. He ends up on the lands of Laban, a distant kinsman, and he waters Laban’s flocks. He agrees to work for Laban for seven years in exchange for the hand of Laban’s younger daughter Rachel in marriage, having become smitten with her at the well.
However, on the night of their nuptials, Jacob is deceived — Laban has given him the older daughter, Leah. And he did not know until the sun rose in the morning. (That must have been awkward…) Laban cites custom: “It is not done in our country, to give the younger before the first born.” (Gen 20:26) If Jacob will work another seven years, he can have Rachel too. And so he does.
Jacob — who will later become Israel after wrestling with the mysterious stranger (aka God) at the Jabbok — has married two sisters and taken them (and their handmaidens, by the way) as his wives. Granted, he was tricked into doing this, but he keeps them. And the scripture, again, relates this.
15 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter-in-law; she is your son’s wife, you shall not uncover her nakedness. (Leviticus 18:15 ESV)
12 If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall surely be put to death; they have committed perversion; their blood is upon them. (Leviticus 20:12 ESV)
Genesis 38 tells the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah is the most important of Jacob’s sons (only four of Israel’s 12 tribes really matter in scripture: Judah, Benjamin, Levi, and Ephraim), and so getting him to have descendants is very important.
Judah marries a Canaanite (this is itself a matter of interest), and they have two sons — Er and Onan. And then he finds a wife for Er named Tamar. But both sons were “wicked in the sight of the Lord” and God puts both Er and Onan to death. Judah has one more son, too young to do his duty to his dead brothers’ wife, so he tells he to wait.
At which point, his Canaanite wife dies. Tamar then takes matters into her own hands, disguises herself as a prostitute, has sex with Judah (keeping something to prove later who he had sex with), and when she’s clearly pregnant, Judah prepares to put her to death for the deed. (This, and John 8, are the closest we get in scripture to anyone paying a penalty for a “unlawful” sex.) However, when she proves who she had sex with — Judah — and did so in order to secure a child, Judah proclaims Tamar is “more righteous than I.”
Now, from Tamar and Judah comes Perez, who is a direct descendant of David. Again, the teaching is violated here and scripture relates it fully.
Your Father’s Sister
12 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is your father’s relative. (Leviticus 18:12 ESV)
19 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister or of your father’s sister, for that is to make naked one’s relative; they shall bear their iniquity. (Leviticus 20:19 ESV)
The birth story of Moses is Exodus 2 is a beautiful and touching story of a mother’s desire to protect her child from the murderous depredations of the Egyptian state. (It also suggests that Moses may not, in fact, fully be an Israelite. And I will have to deal with that claim later.) His genealogy is shoved in later, almost as an afterthought. And it reveals this very interesting fact about his parentage:
18 The sons of Kohath: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel, the years of the life of Kohath being 133 years. 19 The sons of Merari:Mahli and Mushi. These are the clans of the Levites according to their generations. 20 Amram took as his wife Jochebed his father’s sister, and she bore him Aaron and Moses, the years of the life of Amram being 137 years. (Exodus 6:18-20 ESV)
Now, Moses didn’t actually do anything here. Moses’ father, Amram, did. He took his father’s sister (who have have actually been younger than him) as his wife. And through this marriage — which is against the teaching of Leviticus — we have Moses and Aaron, who were God’s agents to confront Pharaoh and lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt.
And the Bible seems to go out of its way to relate this fact.
One response to all this is to say, “Yes, well, that’s all very good, but all of that happened before the teaching in the Torah was given. We’re expected to behave better now.”
And yes, that is a possible response. It might even be a legitimate one, though I don’t think so. As I said, the Bible seems to go out of its way to relate these facts. They are snippets, tiny details absolutely unessential to the stories they are in (with the exception of Judah and Tamar) and had the ethics of the teaching been first and foremost in the minds of authors and editors, they could have easily been edited out. (This is a theory of mine, that nothing is in scripture by accident. I admit I could very well be wrong about this.)
This is why there’s one more teaching we need to deal with.
20 And you shall not lie sexually with your neighbor’s wife and so make yourself unclean with her. (Leviticus 18:20 ESV)
10 “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10 ESV)
At the beginning of Judges 19, we have the story of a Levite and his concubine (פּילֶגֶשׁ literally “young woman”). She was unfaithful to him, and then went to live with her father. Now, while she is not his wife (the word for wife in Hebrew generally is the word woman with a possessive pronoun), he is called husband, and she does have illicit sex with another man and the unnamed Levite is probably just as entitled as Judah was (if not more so, since he is a Levite) to punish her for both betraying him and having illicit sex.
But instead, the Levite does this:
3 Then her husband arose and went after her, to speak kindly to her and bring her back. He had with him his servant and a couple of donkeys. And she brought him into her father’s house. And when the girl’s father saw him, he came with joy to meet him. (Judges 19:3 ESV)
“To speak kindly to her and bring her back.” He shows mercy. Now, if you read the rest of the story in Judges 19-21, that mercy has horrific consequences (war and genocide), and it could be that one moral you get from that story is: “put your girlfriend to death if she’s unfaithful, because you don’t know what could result.”
It’s not a perfect parallel, as the Levitical laws say nothing about concubines/girlfriends/paramours. But he shows mercy when he does not have to. Or rather, when the teaching broadly interpreted says not to. There are consequences — genocidal war, remember? — but he shows mercy.
Again, So What?
How do we approach the teaching? What are to do with the teaching?
The fact that the teaching is given, and yet clear examples that the teaching was violated are also given (and I’m not even going to deal with King David, who seems to violate most of these without trying) suggests the teaching is supposed to sit in tension with the entire story.
Consider. Abraham marries his half-sister, and without that marriage, there would be no Isaac, no child of promise. Jacob marries two sisters, and without that, no tribes of Israel. Judah “goes into” his daughter-in-law (granted, her husband is dead, but she is likely still kin) and without that, no Perez, no Boaz, no David. And no Joseph, “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.” (Matthew 1:16) Without Amram marrying his aunt, there would have been no Moses. And no Aaron. No rescue of Israel from Egypt. No giving of the law.
The story sits with the teaching and says: yes, God knows what is best for us. The teaching is important. But we would also not exist had the teaching been followed to the letter. Had everyone who ever violated it been burned or stoned or hung on a tree, there would be no us. Because there would be no one to be God’s people. God has used sinful human acts to do God’s work. And so we are to approach the whole matter with humility. Because nothing we do, or fail to do, thwarts or promotes the work of God.
We are simply carried along. Like leaves in the wind.
So, when Paul writes to the church at Cornith about his concern “that there is sexual immorality among you” because “a man has his father’s wife,” (1 Cor 5:1), he isn’t wrong to warn and condemn. It is clearly something forbidden in Leviticus 18:6 (and 20:11). And at the end of chapter 6, when he warns:
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ESV)
And Paul is not wrong. (Though in his subsequent lesson about not taking prostitutes, he could stand to spend some quality time with Hosea.) He is not wrong in issuing any of these warnings. This is the teaching.
But remember, we are not God’s people because of our faithfulness, but because of God’s. We do not know how the church at Corinth reacted to Paul’s letter. How do we as God’s people’e respond to the teaching? We want to expel or to shun (few reasonable people are calling for executions), and that’s what Paul calls on the Corinthians to do. Simply exclude the sinners and stay away from them. But that’s not as clear a response as it seems. And nowhere do we have any examples of anyone in scripture being put to death for sexual immorality. (The only time anyone in scripture is put to death for a purposeful violation of the law is Numbers 15:32-36, when some poor sap caught collecting sticks on the sabbath is stoned to death.) This suggests, again, the law and the teaching must simply sit in tension with each other.
And this means we need to remember two things when God says in Leviticus that men lying with each other as as a man might lie with with a woman (whatever that may mean), as God does in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. First, it is a sinful act. Second, it is no more sinful than lying with your sister, or your daughter-in-law, or someone else’s wife. There is nothing special about this sin. Which suggests that it, too, can be a sin through which God can call and form a people.
Getting back to Bruni’s essay, the toughest thing he says is the teaching of the church itself needs to change. I’m not entirely sure it should. Or rather, I am not comfortable with Bruni’s desire that the morality of modernity — and the findings of science — undo the revelation of God. But scripture suggests a way the teaching of the church actually can change.
We do want to follow Paul’s example, and exclude those who have no share in the kingdom of God. That is what this is really all about it. For example, Deuteronomy 23 outlines who may not join the assembly, the people of Israel.
1 “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.
2 “No one born of a forbidden union may enter the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of his descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord.
3 “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the Lord forever, 4 because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. 5 But the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam; instead the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loved you. 6 You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days forever.
7 “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a sojourner in his land. 8 Children born to them in the third generation may enter the assembly of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 23:1-8 ESV)
These few verses are almost absurd inclusions. This whole essay — indeed, the whole story of Genesis — counters the prohibition of the second verse. Without forbidden unions, we as a people would not exist. (See also Judges 11 and King Solomon.) The first verse is countered by Acts 8:26-40, where the Apostle Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch and baptizes him, thus letting a maimed man into the assembly. (Actually, Jesus speaks of eunuchs “for the sake of the kingdom” in Matthew 19, so this happens even before Philip meets the Ethiopian.)
And if we took the absolute prohibition against Moabites and their descendants entering the assembly literally and seriously, David would not be king (nor would Solomon), as he is only four generations removed from Ruth, the clever Moabite girl who married Boaz.
So an act of God — calling someone into our midst, or their simple presence — can undo the teaching.
The tension is going to be hard to resolve. Because we don’t want tension. We want resolution. We want clear teaching. We want right and wrong. We want to know who is in and who is out. Who is a sinner and who is a saint. Who is saved and who is damned. But scripture does’t give that to us, not on marriage, not on sex, not on much of anything. The story itself suggests we are not entitled to actually do anything, even as it commands us to act.
I realize this will do nothing for those seeking solace in Natural Law and other church teachings derived from scripture but not actually grounded in the story of God’s people Israel. I do not know what to tell you. Except that you are God’s people.
And that’s the most important thing the story of scripture tells us. Not right and wrong, but who we are — the people of God, called and gathered, redeemed sinners all of us, and made God’s people not through our doing but God’s doing. Not our faithfulness, but God’s faithfulness.
It also command us to love — to love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves. And that is the only teaching that matters.