Monday, May 31, 2010

Further comment re Leviticus 18

Following up a comment below, that Leviticus 18:19 might be the key to interpreting the whole chapter, I offer these thoughts (but recognise, as usual here) that many other thoughts could be shared!

My sense (reflecting on previous internet discussions going back a few years now) is that Leviticus 18:19 is highlighted because a presumption is made that this is one proscription in a chapter of proscriptions which is uniformly not obeyed (or, at least, widely disobeyed) by that community of Christians who otherwise argue that Leviticus 18:22 (and, of course, a number of less or non-controversial commandments in the chapter*) should be obeyed.

Some questions arise:

(1) Suppose all the disobeyers of Leviticus 18:19 got their act together, repented and obeyed this proscription. Would that mean that all the disobeyers of Leviticus 18:22 would also repent? (My hunch, of course, being that a different line of hermeneutical consideration of 18:22 would then be pursued!)

(2) Whether or not the connections via the Greek version of Leviticus 18:22 and New Testament passages holds good (as referred to by me in a post below), I think it unarguable that, to the extent that the NT says something about same sex sexual relationships, the NT takes a 'dim view' of such relationships, in line with Leviticus 18:22 (and, yes, mostly with male-male same sex sexual relationships in mind). This of course is unexceptional as an observation inasmuch as virtually all the NT says about ethics of human social behaviour is in line with OT commandments. Does the NT 'reinforce' or 'underline' the ongoing application of Leviticus 18:22 for the Christian community? If so, is this reinforcing or underlining of Leviticus 18:22 a dimension we need to consider as a binding of the commandment for the Christian community in a way in which Leviticus 18:19 is not (because not further attended to in the NT)?

(3) Suppose we agreed that Leviticus 18:19 (i) no longer applies to Christian readers of Scripture (ii) the lack of continuing application raises the possibility that other proscriptions in Leviticus 18 no longer apply? [Logically this must be the case!] Does it thereby follow that any of the other proscriptions are thereby remitted? I suggest the answer is "No." We would not suddenly be freed to sacrifice children to Molech or to sleep with our neighbour's wife. We would, of course, be in a situation where the mere statement of a proscription in Leviticus 18 was not sufficient in itself to yield the definitive, everlasting conclusion, "Do not do X applies to Christians." Other considerations would need to be brought to bear on the discussion. In the particular case of 18:22, that, I suggest would include consideration of (2) above.

In short: I think there is an important hermeneutical discussion to be had about 18:22 in the respect of the whole of Leviticus 18: the questions posed here are questions, but, at least on an initial response to the comment made about 18:19, I am not convinced that 18:19 is the 'pivot' on which the discussion turns.

*None of us know any sane person who argues for bestiality or child sacrifice to Molech!!


  1. In regard to question 1, rather than ask a hypothetical question about a possible reaction to a mass conversion to follow the law laid out in Lev 18:19, a better question might be:

    What process of thinking has led the vast bulk of Christians no longer to feel obliged to abide by Lev 18:19 -- including its explicit reversal in the approval given the "Natural" method of contraception -- and are these processes applicable to other Levitical regulations?

    That, it seems to me, deals with the reality, rather than the hypothetical (and unlikely) scenario envisioned in Q1.

    Now, I must run, as I am preparing to lead a two day workshop on hermeneutics for the clergy of West Virginia.

  2. Hi Tobias
    I agree, that is a great question!
    Like you, am a little busy right now, but will reflect upon a possible answer.

  3. Hi Tobias
    My presumption re Leviticus 18:19 is that at least one of two human concerns are captured by it. One, in one word, is 'hygienic' (also, or alternatively, 'holiness'); the other concerns fertility: pushing intercourse away from the infertile period of the month increased the chances of Israel growing a substantial population.

    I presume that (e.g.) a reversal of that concern in the Natural method of contraception reflects a new understanding of hygiene, and of holiness (post-Jesus), and, obviously, represents a concern not to over populate one's own family/the world.

    Questions then arise about other proscriptions in Leviticus 18: are they concerned with any or all of hygiene? holiness? 'growing Israel'? Are there other 'moral' concerns involved in any of the proscriptions. Bestiality, for instance, seems to remain a matter of moral concern in many (every?) society today.

    I think it rational to think that if the sole ancient concerns expressed in Leviticus 18:22 were to do with hygiene or holiness-in-respect-of-temple/tabernacle-worship or fostering the population growth of Israel, then we might expect the NT to take a different approach than the one we find it taking. It was not as though the Hellenistic and Roman societies into which the gospel spread did not invite a different approach, commensurate with concerns of 'local culture'.

  4. Back from WV.

    I'm not sure your suppositions about hygiene will stand close examination; and it is important to note that this prohibition is given significance in the prophetic literature, may be part of the "blood" referred to in the decision in Acts (it is hard to tell, but it may have been included under "blood" along with the eating thereof), but was also an important point of focus through the patristic era. I don't think hygiene is the significant factor -- at least the Father's don't deal with it in their elaborations. (The actual medical knowledge of the realities of human reproduction, and hygiene, are relatively recent, after all!)

    As to holiness you may be on to something -- and the use of "toevah hi" in 18:22 points to a cultic or idolatrous connection -- as, clearly, does Romans 1. But what of such an act apart from idolatry or the cult? We might look at the differences between eating meat offered to idols and meat not so offered as a possible source of guidance. It is not actus purus in that case, but the context and intention.

    Not sure what you mean about the Hellenistic or Roman cultures: both were rather on the negative towards what we would call "same-sex marriage" (particularly horrified at the idea of a man perceived as acting like a woman -- which is, of course, the thinking in Lev 18 too -- though they were tolerant of the use of slaves, and of course, in the Hellenistic culture, pederasty. Not that I think Paul would have approved of an "equalist" same-sex marriage, either; but it likely never would have occurred to him anyone would consider it.

    And, of course, Lev doesn't mention lesbians, so one has to wonder if in fact there is something divine or more cultural at work, as I note, that particular horror at the notion of a man acting as a woman, or treating another man as a woman.

  5. A couple of things:

    As far as I know the "Natural" method of contraception doesn't require couples to have intercourse during menstruation so I can't see that it explicitly reverses Lev 18:19.

    Second, I can't help wondering if people who discuss these things ever ask women what they think about Lev 18:19. Considering that menstruation is a more or less unpleasant aspect of a woman's life (libido at its lowest level, cramps, headaches up to and including menstrual migraine, mess, chafing, bad mood), can you imagine that most, if not all, women would not wholeheartedly welcome sex at this time? If a woman would prefer to be left alone at this time but her husband asserts his rights over her body because he wants to and he can, then what aspect of holiness is he ignoring? What is the idolatrous connection? Mightn't it be idolatry of sex? Isn't that a major problem in Western culture now?

  6. Thanks Janice for very helpful clarification re natural contraception; and a good challenge re idolatry!

  7. The point about the "Natural" method is that it allows what had formerly been forbidden. You will not likely find any reference to the biblical prohibition in the manuals or courses that promote the method.

    As to the second point, strictly anecdotal, I know of at least one woman whose gynecologist prescribed sex during the period as a therapy to help relieve some of the symptoms, esp. cramping. This may have been very unusual.

    Obviously I agree about the inappropriateness of a man forcing himself on his wife -- at this or any other time. But I take your point; though I'd suggest perhaps reference to the sabbath might be more relevant than reference to idolatry (toevah is not used explicitly of this offense) -- in the sense that this was a time which God intended women to be free from the "attentions" of their husbands, who otherwise had "rights." So this may well have been a law intended to provide some respite to women. One problem with that view is that the penalty -- excision (being cast off from the Holy People) -- is not only very serious but falls on both the man and the woman.

  8. You will not likely find any reference to the biblical prohibition in the manuals or courses that promote the method.

    I'm sure you're right. But then the market for "natural" everything includes more than Christians. Also, those who are offering instruction in "natural" family planning have to deal with people whose values have been formed within a culture that idolises sex. By not mentioning the biblical prohibition, assuming they know it exists, the instructors could be pursuing a harm minimisation strategy.

    I know of at least one woman whose gynecologist prescribed sex during the period as a therapy to help relieve some of the symptoms, esp. cramping.

    There is reported to be evidence that orgasm, because it causes uterine contractions, may relieve the severity of menstrual cramping. I've never seen a paper on the subject so can't judge how reliable the purported evidence may be. But note that, especially for women, it is one thing to have sex and quite another to have an orgasm. If it were not so, that scene in "When Harry Met Sally" in which Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm while having a meal with a friend in a crowded restaurant would not be nearly so funny.

    So this may well have been a law intended to provide some respite to women. One problem with that view is that the penalty -- excision (being cast off from the Holy People) -- is not only very serious but falls on both the man and the woman.

    If we can we assume that women would have known about this law then a woman who failed to refuse her husband's advances must have loved something else more than God. Economic security? Her husband's affections? Sex itself? Whatever it might be, it's still idolatry.

  9. Dumb question: all translations I have looked at translate this passage as "a woman" rather than "your wife". Is this significant, or just a careless translation?

  10. There Hebrew for "wife" and "woman" is the same. One has to go by the context. With a possessive (his woman) it is usually understood as wife, as "my man" is understood to mean "husband."

    Where the Hebrew for "male" or "female" are used it would not indicate a marital relationship.

    This distinction figures in the Lev 18 regulation: "with a male do not lie down the lyings-down of a woman; she (it) is toevah." The precise _meaning_ of this distinction is a topic of much discussion, as is the plural of "lyings-down" -- including the suggestion raised in contemporary rabbinic circles that the prohibition is aimed only at the same kinds of incestuous relationships (the "lyings-down" described as "uncoverings of nakedness") detailed in the preceding section.

  11. I found this blog when searching for clarity round Leviticus 18 verse 22. I recently heard a clergyman declare that this verse was to be comprehended in terms of the practice of "hospitality" as it existed during the historical period Moses lived. The speaker assured me his view was sound and based on some eight years of scriptural study. I am not an academic biblical scholar and not in a position to debate his assertion, and I am assuming this blog is contributed to by those who possess academic scholarship. I write asking if someone can verify the view given to me and also the author and name of the work that gives this explanation. I'd quite like this question to be opened to others to make comment if that is permissible. Thank you, Robert

  12. Hi Robert
    Scholars have put time and effort into saying it is best explained by this (hospitality?) and that (holiness?) but the chapter includes standards observed by most cultures through most times (no bestiality, no incest, no adultery). I sugges the chapter is best read as the ordinary standards of sexual behaviour for the ordinary people of Israel.
    Peter Carrell