Leviticus 20:13 — The Error

There is a group of people on the fringe of Fundamentalist Christianity who are guilty of an error in doctrine.  Normally, I’d leave this alone; someone else’s religion is none of my business.  However, this is leading them to believe things, and to say things, and sometimes even to do things, that the rest of us quite rightly find hateful.  That makes it my business and yours.

I want to be clear here:  I’m not trying to preach to my readers; I’m not aiming to convert people with this.  My goal is simple:  If you’re a person who has been confused by this error, the following article will explain it to you.  If you know people who are making this mistake, this article is intended as a guide to help them understand.  And, if you have heard these hateful things spoken and thus hold Christianity in contempt, perhaps this will give you reason to reconsider.

The error springs from this verse:

Leviticus 20:13 — “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

So, from reading this one verse, people will quite logically conclude that God told Moses to kill homosexuals.  The error is that people tend to read only this one verse, and not the other ones around it.

It’ll take a little while to explain this; bear with me.  We’ll start with the very first part:  the name of the book.  Kids memorize these in Sunday School:  Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the first five books.  It begins with the creation story; hence the name: “Genesis”.  The next book, “Exodus”, tells about the Children of Israel escaping slavery in Egypt.  And then the story continues… in Joshua.  Which, if you’re counting, is book six.

This doesn’t mean we should skip over the other three books; they’re still valuable.  But they’re not the story; they have a purpose, and the purpose is explained in the name.  “Numbers”, for example, is the first census recording — the driest of dry government documents.  The plot isn’t exactly what I’d call compelling.  There’s valuable information in Numbers, mind, but as a story, it’s pretty hard reading.

The word “Deuteronomy” is taken from the Greek, and it literally means “the second law”.  It’s a document that contains the Ten Commandments and the civil code of the nation of Israel.  It explains the system of judges, makes kidnapping illegal, and lists which foods are good to eat and which are unsafe, or unclean.  Again, useful knowledge, good historical context — but not necessarily laws that we’re compelled to follow today.  They were written for another country and another time; a quick reading will demonstrate this.  Deuteronomy 23:13, for example, explains that everyone needs to carry around a wooden shovel, used to bury our excrement outside the encampment.  Bit of advice:  Don’t go wandering around in public with that wooden shovel these days.

And so we come to “Leviticus”.  The name means “the book of the Levites”; this is the code of conduct for use by the Jewish caste of priests.  Right there in the name we have a pretty clear hint that not everything said in this book is going to be directly applicable to modern life in the USA.

There are 19 chapters that come before Lev. 20:13, and most of them are descriptions of what to do and what not to do.  The first half of the book is about sacrifices, the Temple, and a death penalty for erring priests.  From that point on, there’s an awful lot of laws that, as a rule, don’t get preached from the pulpit.  (Come to think of it, I haven’t heard about the erring priest death penalty from a pulpit either.  But that’s another subject.)

I’m not here to tell you to rip the book out of your Bible, or even to ignore it.  But it’s important to remember:  This is a code of conduct written for a foreign country in the distant past.  It’s the laws not of a democracy but of a hagiocracy — a government composed of priests.  And there is no clear dividing line in Leviticus, no list of exceptions that tells me I can eat shellfish or bacon but not pass my seed through the fire unto Moloch — they’re all equally “abominations”.  When I’ve got a bloody nose or a weeping sore, it explains that the furniture must be washed; that’s fair enough, but again, it’s not something we hear about on Sunday mornings.

Let me be very clear:  If you want to impose this as civil law in your country, that’s your prerogative.  But you can’t impose just those parts of it you like and forget about all the inconvenient ones.  It’s either The Law of God or it’s not.

In Lev. 18:22, we’re told that man shall not lie with man, that it’s abomination.  It’s in the middle of a long list of other things that God doesn’t want us to do.  Two verses earlier, we’re strictly instructed not to lie with our neighbor’s wife — and yet, best I can tell, there’s as much carryings-on of that nature in church congregations as outside them. So much for being sanctified, set apart, made holy; Christians often are horrible examples to the rest of the world.  The punishment for adultery is the same: “For whosoever shall commit any of these abominations, even the souls that commit them shall be cut off from among their people.”

In Chapter 19, we’re commanded to not hybridize cattle, or sow different crops in one field; and when we reap, we must leave corners and anything we miss unharvested.  I see nothing that excludes a lawn from this; it is therefore The Law that your lawn can not be trimmed; you’ve got to leave the uneven patches.  It’s against The Law to wear two types of cloth mixed; if your jacket is a poly-cotton blend or has a silk lining, it’s unclean, and against The Law.  Again, all this is difficult to misread.  It’s in plain English, translated perfectly from Hebrew.  There is no way to misinterpret this text.

Here’s something else this nation particularly needs to be reminded of right now, in 19:33-4 — “And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”  It’s in the Bible, people; it’s The Law.

In Lev. 20:9, every one that curseth his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.
In verse 10, every adulterer shall be put to death.
And in verse 13, man that lies with man shall be put to death.
These are all “abominations”.

I see no reasonable division between the first ten books and the rest, to tell me to ignore the priests and the temple and the sacrifices.  I see no meaningful break in the text between bacon being forbidden and homosexuality.  They are equally “abominations”.

Now, I can’t speak to what’s in God’s mind.  I don’t know if pigs were forbidden because of trichinosis.  I don’t know if homosexuality was outlawed because they wanted to increase the population as much as possible in order to have a larger army.  They just made a big long list and said “Israelites, don’t do this.”  Nobody ever explained the reasons back then, so nobody can do more than speculate today.

But what I can say absolutely, without any doubt whatsoever, is this: that cursing your parents, committing adultery, and male homosexuality are all in the same small text.  They were written on the same scrolls; they were all specifically addressed to Moses to tell the Children of Israel, they are all called abominations, and they all carry death as a punishment.  It’s simple; there’s no room for misinterpretation.  Either they’re all The Law or they’re not.

I have yet to hear of obnoxious children, adulterers, and bacon-eaters treated with the same contempt as homosexuals.  And, more to the point, I haven’t yet run across many Fundamentalist Christians that call themselves the “Children of Israel”.

So what I’m going to conclude here, and I hope you’re all in agreement, is that modern Christians are, in fact, not the Children of Israel.  There existed a nation once that held these laws; that nation is not this one.  It’s not even modern Israel.  The country that had this legal code does not exist.

Unless you’re engaged in time travel, you don’t need to obey these laws.


If you’re a Fundamentalist Christian and you’re still not convinced, I’ve got a few more things for you to consider.

Matthew 22 — Jesus is being tested by the Jewish legal scholars.  “But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

The meaning of this may not be plain to you; there’s no shame in that.  Paul tells us some decades later that it was obscure to Peter, James, and John; that’s the whole point of the Letter to the Galatians.  I commend to your study Chapter 2 in particular, where Paul explains that Christians are not bound to follow the religious laws of the Israelites, to make sacrifices in the Temple, or to practice the rite of circumcision.  In other words, the Levitical law.

(Which was fortunate, because the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D.  Tough to make sacrifices in the Temple with no Temple.  Kinda makes you think God might have a plan going or something.)

After the coming of the Messiah, there’s a new covenant.  Again, it’s spelled out fairly simply in several places; the following verses — all literally accurate when considered in context — make it plain:

Romans 3:23 – “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.
Revelation 21:8 – “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.
Romans 6:23 – “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Romans 5:8,9 – “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.
Romans 5:1 – “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
Romans 8:1 – “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

The whole of the book of Romans, and indeed most of the New Testament, repeats over and over simple, well-reasoned arguments to the effect that the old Law is now no longer in force, that the system of punishments and offerings from the Old Testament is fulfilled.  The only thing you have to do to understand this is to read it.


Afterword

You know me; I write about politics.  On this page, we consider complex social issues from all sides and engage in fruitful debate.  Whenever discussion demonstrates that I’m in the wrong, I try to edit the articles to reflect the most complete, most accurate report of the facts as they stand.

So why have I diverged from this practice to write a short treatise on Christian religious doctrine?

In our present political arena, there are a lot of people who wish to impose their dogmatic beliefs on everyone else, to use government as a tool by which they can enforce their own private version of the truth.  I take issue with this only when there’s no room for discussion; frankly, our system of government in the United States was designed so that ideas held by the public can be turned into law.  My goal here is to promote reasoned, considered debate; I aim to present sides to issues that might otherwise be neglected.

If there were a single hallmark common to religious dogmatism, it would be a studied refusal to debate.  And yet, the core premise of Fundamentalist Christianity is that the text of the Bible is infallible.  If the Bible clearly says a preacher is in the wrong, they should accept it.

There are many who do.  I’m not the person who originated this doctrine; I’m not the first one to make this argument in detail.  I can tell you who was; that man was named Paul, and he did it two thousand years ago.  It’s plainly written in the Bible, and it’s been translated into simple English.  As such, I can only conclude that the few who do fall into this error are the exceptions.

And so correcting that mistake falls, roughly, into the realm of political discourse.

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