Bible study 108 – Leviticus 18

Sexual morality rules! The Israelites are prohibited from living as the Egyptians and Caananites do, in the following ways:

First, they are to refrain from incest. A long list of prohibited relationships follows. It covers most bases, but has some notable exceptions, such as incest between a father and his daughter.

Next, they are to avoid sexual intercourse with women who are menstruating (all the commands of this chapter are directed at men). This kind of contradicts chapter 15, which implied that sleeping with menstruating women was OK (you just became unclean for a week). The reason is probably that chapter 17-26 likely were written at a different time by different authors than chapter 1-16. In fact, the rest of Leviticus is largely a rehash of rules we have already seen.

Next, don’t sacrifice your children to Molech/Moloch. (Not really a sexual morality rule, but pretty important nonetheless.)

Finally, don’t have male homosexual intercourse, and don’t have sex with animals. These prohibitions are unambiguous, although they don’t mention female homosexual intercourse.

I used to think that Christianity’s preoccupation with sexual morality (absolute prohibitions on homosexuality, premarital sex, sodomy and masturbation) was because Jewish culture had abnormally strict rules for sexuality, compared with other cultures. I still think that’s true in one sense, but I notice the almost complete lack of sexual rules in the Bible until this very chapter. There were some passages in Genesis that suggest certain sexual actions are wrong: getting your father drunk and raping him in turn with your sister; disobeying God’s order to get a child with your wife; and prostituting yourself if you are a widow, unless it’s with your dead husband’s father. But these are just stories, not moral codes; and God never says explicitly that the sexual actions themselves are wrong, or exactly what is wrong with them. The one exception is the prohibition against adultery in the first set of ten commandments, but this is also the only commandment which deals with sexuality, and it can also be taken to be more of a social rule than a sexual one. Earlier passages in Leviticus also talk about uncleanness connected with sexuality, but they don’t really imply that any kind of sexual actions are inherently wrong; on the contrary, the Israelites are explicitly told to multiply.

Then suddenly, in Leviticus 18, there is a long list of very specific sexual rules that God himself says are definitely wrong, and that will get you cut off from the Israelites. And scholars say that this chapter is written by different authors from, and probably later than, Leviticus 1-17, and I doubt that this is a coincidence. So it seems to me that traditional Jewish culture may not have been so preoccupied with sexual rules after all. The Jews who wrote down Leviticus 17-26 definitely were, but this may have been an innovation. Either way, this eventually lead to all of Judaism, and therefore Christianity and Islam, and therefore the entire Western and Arab world, and by consequence many cultures conquered or influenced by these, to be completely convinced that homosexual intercourse, premarital sex, sodomy and masturbation were absolutely evil and wrong.

Leviticus 18:22
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

Since the NRSV translation of the Bible is publicly available, from now on I will include a link to the full text of the verse at the bottom of my posts.

Full text.

One Comment on “Bible study 108 – Leviticus 18”

  1. […] husband with a cohabiting brother dies, the brother must marry the dead husband’s wife (and break Leviticus’ incest laws in the […]

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