Clobbering back with the Clobber texts:
Taking the Bible Seriously - Are There Clobber Texts in the Bible?
Rev. Dr. Thomas Hanks
Safer Sex before condoms: Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13
Bibliography - Leviticus 12:22 and 20:13
SAFER SEX BEFORE CONDOMS: LEVITICUS 18:22 and 20:13
These two verses from Leviticus well illustrate the difficulty of using even ancient legal texts to
construct "ethical absolutes" for the modern world. First, we need to ask who is addressed
(historical context) and precisely what is prohibited (or commanded); second, we must ask why
(the meaning of the law and the code in which it occurs); third, we must consider how the text
relates to the total context and message of the Scriptures; and finally, we must face up to the
cultural and/or scientific limitations of the text and inquire about its possible
relevance/applicability for the modern world (where conditions often are radically different from
the ancient context). The first supposed clobber text in Leviticus says: "You (masculine
singular) shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is abomination" (18:22).
Electronic preachers who exploit this verse for fund-raising (their best shot, now that no one is
worried about saving us from the "communist menace") can count on listeners to keep their
TVs turned on, their minds turned off, and their Bibles closed. Any listener bothering to read
the entire chapter (or the whole book), probably will be shocked -- without even layng a hand
on the TV set for miraculous healing!
As usual, the Bible here uses euphemistic language ("lie with") to indicate what we would call a
"sexual act." Even traditionalists never take the language literally to prohibit two men sharing
the same bed. (Such bed-sharing by "bedfellows" was quite common until homophobia
sprouted new horns in the 19th century and is even recommended by the author of
Ecclesiastes (4:11; probably gay -- see 1:15; 7:13,28, etc.).
Another obvious difficulty with a literal interpretation is that, since a male has no vagina, it is
quite impossible to "lie" (have sex) with a man precisely as with a woman. The best
interpretation, then, starts by understanding the text as prohibiting one male from submitting
another to unprotected anal penetration (Brooten 1996:61,292; Olyan 1994:179-206). In
ancient patriarchal societies such an act constituted a grave assault on masculine dignity -- to
be treated like an "inferior" and despised woman. (condoms to make anal sex safer were
hardly on the horizon.) In a patriarchal context, where male superiority is taken for granted, to
submit another male to anal penetration is to degrade, humiliate and oppress him -- often with
violence; for a male to voluntarily submit to anal penetration is to trash himself and degrade
his supposedly unique male glory. Even today in many cultures (African American, Latin
American and Arabic, for instance), only the male who submits to anal penetration is despised
as homosexual -- the active partner may be admired as quite "macho."
Leviticus 18:22 does seem to go beyond the critique of gang rape (of angels) in the Sodom
story. However, does the euphemism "lie with" also intend to prohibit such things as oral sex
and mutual masturbation? Would ancient Greek and Roman readers have read Leviticus as
prohibiting intercruel sex (between the thighs, commonly depicted on ancient Greek vases as
performed while sitting or standing)? Traditionalists commonly insist on the broadest possible
interpretation, but then we must ask: is masturbation to be permitted when practiced in solitary
splendor? Even traditionalists now usually admit that they can find no prooftext in the Bible
that condemns masturbation. They commonly approve of it as "God's good gift". But if the
Bible says nothing against "masturbation" (the term is modern, but hardly the practice), how
can we be so sure that Leviticus 18:22 intended to prohibit mutual masturbation? One may
interpret the euphemism "lie with" to rule out mutual male masturbation, but obviously this is
an exceedingly dubious interpretation. The text does not condemn something mutual, but
something imposed by the penetrator. Remarkably, while in many ancient and modern
cultures, the male penetrator is respected and the penetrated male condemned and ridiculed
for being inferior, affeminate, Leviticus 18:22 condemns only the male penetrator for what was
probably viewed as violence to the dignity of the other male.
However, the writer of Leviticus 18:22 cannot be required to provide answers to modern
questions that probably never even occurred to him. And what about contemporary health
workers who encourage HIV-positive gay men to practice mutual masturbation standing up in a
gay sauna or "jack-off party"? Can you escape becoming some-one's favorite "abomination"
simply by not "lying down" to have sex? Would traditionalists really prefer that health care
workersclose down the gay saunas and bars, burn all the literature on safer sex, and chase all
the HIV positive gay males out on the streets to further the spread of AIDS in the "general
The briar patch of thorny questions impaling us in any literalistic-legalistic approach are best
avoided by concentrating on the more basic question: why are all the items in Leviticus 18 and
The factor most directly indicated in the context would appear to be the association of
forbidden items with idolatrous pagan cults in Egypt and Canaan (18:1-3, 24-30). The verse
immediately preceding 18:22 prohibits sacrificing children to the Canaanite god Moloch. The
male same-sex act prohibited in 18:22 may be viewed as similar to Paul's prohibition of eating
meat in an idolatrous pagan cultic banquet (Romans 14-15:6; 1 Corinthians 6:12-14; 10:23-
33). The objectionable feature, then, is neither the meat nor the "sex" but the idolatrous
pagan cultic context. The Hebrew word translated "abomination" often signified idolatrous
cultic practices that were not permitted as part of Israel's distinctive life and worship (Milgrom
A less obvious, but possibly more significant, factor behind the prohibitions in Leviticus 18 and
20 may be the desire to maximize the birth rate and increase the population. Traditionalists
believe that Leviticus was written by Moses (ca. 1400/1300 B.C.) when the population
explosion was a major human factor in the struggle for liberation and the conquest of Canaan.
Modern scholars commonly hold that Leviticus 18 and 20 are part of the Holiness Code
(Leviticus 17-26) in the priestly source, incorporated to provide the framework for the
Pentateuch, around the time of the Exile (586-539 B.C.). Significantly, God's clear command
to "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28) also comes from the same exilic priestly source. But
whether with Moses in the wilderness, or in the Exile and decimated, Israel was a people
threatened with extinction and desperate to maximize population growth. Strength to survive
and live (18:5) could only come by maximizing fertility. And in fact, much of Leviticus 18 reads
like a kind of prescientific "how-to-do-it" manual for promoting a population explosion (see
Everyone should stop killing babies in sacrifices to pagan gods (Leviticus 18:21); males
should avoid sex with a menstruating woman (18:19) and never humiliate other males by anal
penetration (18:19); no sex with animals (18:23). With such guidelines, God's clear creation
command to "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28) would get the kind of maximum fulfillment
needed in that historical context.
However, if the basic meaning and intent of Leviticus 18 and 20 is to avoid idolatry and
preserve a decimated nation from extinction, what sense does it make to apply it literally in the
20th century when we face the opposite threat of a population explosion? In an age when
sexual abstinence threatened to become the required "sexual ethic" for all Christians, St.
Augustine managed to carve out a legitimate place and purpose for sex: only within marriage
and for the purpose of procreation (total abstinence always being preferable). Augustine's
dogma (not the Bible) has remained the fundamental sexual ideology of the Church for more
than 1500 years. However, by accepting birth control and approving of masturbation,
traditionalists have tossed out Augustine's classic sexual ideology. What basis (other than
bigotry) can be found for seizing Leviticus 18:20 and 20:13 and trying to make them "ethical
absolutes" in a world where population explosion is a threat and not a help?
A third common explanation of Leviticus 18:20 and 20:13 is that these prohibitions are related
to others in the context which are intended to prevent improper intermingling (Hebrew: tebel,
"mixing") in order to "keep the categories of `male' and `female' intact" (Tikva Frymer-Kensky,
"Sex and Sexuality" in The Anchor Bible Dictionary V:145-146; New York: Doubleday, 1992;
seman and excrement; Olyan 1994:202-6). Such a prohibition against improper "mixing" also
is applied to sex with animals and ncest with a daughter-in-law. However, the Bible never
applies this category (tebel) to same-sex genital acts. Heterosexual relations, mixing male and
female, might more logically be condemned as improper mixing! Even more important, many
texts, especially in the New Testament, stress that God is now at work in history to promote
precisely that kind of "improper mixing" (between Jew and Gentile) that Leviticus sought to
prohibit. In Romans 11 God even does something shockingly "against nature" by engrafting
Gentile wild olive branches into the olive tree that represents Israel. James E. Miller comments:
"For the non-incest laws the basis of the laws is not idolatry, or 'mixing' but inappropriate
placement/contact of semen. Semen was a controlled body fluid, and appears several times in
these laws" (personal communication; cf. Miller 1997b).
In the second text from Leviticus we find the earlier prohibition ("You shall not...."; 18:20)
expressed s a "case law" formulation: "If a man lies with a man, as he lies with a woman, BOTH
of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be
upon them" (Lev. 20:13).
The idolatrous cultic context is even more emphatic in Leviticus 20, where the prohibition of
child sacrifice to Molech has been advanced to introduce the chapter and considerably
expanded (Leviticus 20:1-5; see 18:21).
Patriarchal focus on the male is less severe, with women now appearing as possible
perpetrators of bestiality--and subject to the same death penalty (Leviticus 20:16). However,
the possibility of lesbian sex remains totally absent (as in the entire Bible, with the possible
exception of Romans 1:26). The silence about lesbian sex is the most obvious factor that
makes it impossible to speak of Leviticus as condemning "homosexuals/
homosexuality." We are dealing with prescientific, patriarchal texts -- trying to make them
sound like enlightened modern scientific discourse on "homosexuality" only obscures their true
meaning and is blatantly anachronistic. As in the case of Leviticus 18:20, the text probably
prohibits only (unprotected) male-male anal sex.
Contemporary legalistic-literalistic approaches, however, commonly skirt around another major
feature of Leviticus 20:13 --the death penalty is rigorously applied for even a single offense,
and to both partners (the penetrator and the penetrated). For more than 40 years, beginning
with the Kinsey report, scientific studies make it clear that a literal application of Leviticus 20:
13 would involve imposing the death penalty on about half the male population in most
countries. That, in fact, was the official position of church and state in many places until the
19th century -- and remains the law in Iran (hardly a nation exemplifying Christian piety!). In
the USA one might think that a proposal to impose the death penalty on half the male
population must represent some kind of KGB plot at the height of the Cold War--but it actually
comes from a few academic legalists (determined to be "consistent").
The vast majority of traditionalists, however, (manifesting neither coherence nor courage)
content themselves with worldly conformity: they support "anti-sodomy" laws (in 23 states in
the USA) with prison sentences, but no death penalty. So let us not be deceived: Leviticus
says nothing about "sodomy" -- and demands the death penalty for both partners for a single
offense. "The victim of homosexual rape and the child victim of pederasty face execution along
with their perpetrators....Age and consent do not occur as relevant categories in this
material....While many people today oppose lesbian and gay rights and support sodomy
satutes, few would argue that a boy raped by an adult male should be punished [killed]
together with the adult" (Brooten 1996:290-92). Even an animal raped by a human was
subject to a death penalty (Lev. 20:15-16). So anyone today who advocates only prison terms
and seeks to punish lesbians as well as gay men can make no pretense of getting his/her
sexual ideology from Leviticus. Arbitrary personal bigotry masquerading as Biblical piety
should be unmasked for what it is.
Actually, most of Leviticus 18 and 20 focuses on prohibiting some 15 types of relations
involving what we would call "incest" (another word that never occurs in the Bible). Today
police statistics in some areas indicate that up to 98% of sexual abuse of minors is done by
heterosexuals, with fathers abusing daughters being the most common type. However, despite
all the detail in this area in Leviticus 18 and 20, father-daughter incest is the one kind that is
never explicitly prohibited! This may reflect the patriarchal cultural context of Leviticus and
shows how dangerous it can be to pretend to draw our modern "sexual ethics" directly from
the Bible. When virgin daughters were married off, the patriarch reaped financial benefit, so to
rape his own daughter would be like burning down his own barn. Lot's offer of his daughters to
be abused by the men of Sodom (in place of his angel visitors) reveals how blatantly
patriarchal Biblical texts can be -- and how careful we must be in utilizing them to help answer
our modern sexual questions. James E. Miller, however, concludes that the prohibition on
having sex with a woman and her daughter (18:17 and a woman and her mother (20:14)
effectively prohibit father-daughter incest, as well as step-daughter incest (personal
communication; cp. Miller 1997b). The diversity evident in much Biblical teaching that we
would call "sexual" is further illustrated by the fact that the patriarchs in the Genesis stories
consistently promoted marriages that Leviticus condemns--even Moses (whom traditionalists
still view as the author of Leviticus) was the offspring of an "incestuous" relation condemned in
Leviticus 18 and 20! And despite the shocking police statistics about heterosexual parental
child abuse, no one has yet promoted a law to prohibit heterosexual parents from teaching in
the public schools, as was attempted against homosexuals in recent years, even in a place
A final and decisive consideration for the Leviticus texts is that most of the book is considered
literally irrelevant even by orthodox Jews (who no longer have priestly descendants of Aaron
performing animal sacrifices in the Temple, as Leviticus 1-10 requires). A prominent Jewish
scholar, Jacob Milgrom (1993) concludes that Levititus 18:20 and 20:13, however interpreted,
apply only to Jews and to those gentiles who live within the boundaries of Israel, and should
not be applied to gentiles. Christians have always rejected more than 90% of the book as not
literally applicable for the church age. However, while perhaps no other book in the Hebrew
Scriptures is so extensively ignored, Jesus--and later Paul--seized on one key text as of
For Jesus, Leviticus here gives us one of the two great commands that provides us with the
key both for living according to God's will and for proper interpretation of Scripture (Matthew
22:39). Paul (in this case even more radical than Jesus) makes no mention of the command to
love God (Matthew 22:37-8; Deuteronomy 6:5). Paul summarizes the entire Torah with the
command to love our neighbor. Paul then anticipates much modern philosophical "ethics" by
explaining what the Ten Commandments really sought to achieve:
According to Paul, not only minutiae in Leviticus but even the Ten Commandments are to be
interpreted according to the fundamental norms of love and not harming the neighbor!
Philosophical ethicists like to cite the war experience of a woman who "committed adultery" by
allowing a prison guard to have sex with her, so as to get his help in escaping and be united
with her husband and children. Probably Moses himself would have approved -- certainly Paul
would have (according to his interpretation of the Ten Commandments in Romans 13:8-10).
That lands the ball squarely on the legalistic-literalistic court: if you want to use the Bible (and
especially Paul) to build a modern case against "homosexuality," you have to demonstrate
how it harms the neighbor. Traditionalists' occasional flights of rhetoric over this strange
territory inevitably document the ignorance/bigotry involved (and prove quite entertaining to
anyone with minimum scientific knowledge about homosexuality). However, despite the
entertainment value (like TV reruns), it really begins to get tiring to remind arrogant advocates
of male superiority and patriarchy that women also exist and that lesbians too are
"homosexuals" (and that AIDS, for instance, is not transmitted through lesbian sexual
practices). Sexual acts that express love and do no harm to our neighbor are not prohibited by
Leviticus when that book is interpreted according to its own most fundamental insight,
expounded in the teaching of Jesus and of Paul.
Precisely in Romans the Apostle Paul gives us a second example of the kind of careful,
thoughtful, "critical" use of Leviticus that Christians and modern Jews must exemplify when
they use the book. In Romans 10:5 Paul quotes Leviticus 18:5 as indicating (at least in a
common misinterpretation of his day) that doing the law was the way to earn God's favor and
live --but then in Romans 10:6-8 Paul quotes Deuteronomy 30:12-14 to prove that justification
is by faith alone, not by doing works of the law. Literally, Paul quotes the "Moses" of
Deuteronomy in order to refute the "Moses" of Leviticus! Traditionalist commentaries on
Romans and Leviticus sleepily muddle through these texts without a blink, much less waking
up to what Paul's critical use of Leviticus does to their efforts to condemn "homosexuality" by
treating texts in Leviticus 18 and 20 as ethical absolutes.
The proper modern use of Leviticus is best exemplified by Jesus' reference to the Year of
Jubilee (Leviticus 25) in his programmatic statement in Luke 4:18-19 -- as well as the
inscription of a text on this Jubilee Year in Boston's "Liberty Bell" commemorating the
American Revolution. The Jubilee Year (characterized by the freeing of oppressed slaves,
redistribution of land, and the cancelling of all debts) reminds us that all the laws in Leviticus
must be interpreted in the light of the Exodus paradigm of liberation from oppression. In recent
years, the God of the Exodus liberation, proclaimed by Moses and incarnate in Jesus of
Nazareth, continues to work liberation for all the oppressed (Psalm 103:6-7): slaves, racial
minorities, women and--most recently -- sexual minorities. The use of texts from Leviticus to
assault the dignity of women and to promote violence against sexual minorities is contrary to
the teaching of Moses, Paul and Jesus about freedom, justice, human dignity and love.
The common contemporary recourse to Leviticus to rationalize and justify homophobia is a
prime example of the treatment of the Bible as an icon, suitable for the taking of judicial oaths
and prooftexting of our cultural and ideological prejudices, but unknown and unread as a
collection of books (Peter Gomes, 1996). Anyone who takes a few minutes to read the entire
chapters (Leviticus 18 and 22) or better yet the entire book, marking anything they think
should be made normative for human behavior or binding law today will find they have marked
much less than 10% of the book. Literalistic prooftexting brings the Bible into disrepute and
discredits the wisdom it offers to serious seekers. Fundamentalists who take this approach to
their Holy Books (be they Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Marxist, Mormon or Jehovah's Witnesses)
simply produce more of what they pretend to combat: a secularized "humanism" that consigns
all relgion and religious holy books to the category of obscurantism and bigotry.
NOTE: Although the Hebrew word qadesh means "holy, consecrated, set apart for God," the
masculine noun is used six times in the Hebrew Scriptures to refer to a male (cult?) prostitute:
Deuteronomy 23:17-18; 1 Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:46; 2 Kings 23:7; Job 36:14. This led the
older translations (such as the King James, or Authorized Version) to translate qadesh as
"Sodomite"! Those who relied exclusively on these older translations thus easily assumed that
the Hebrew Scriptures contained six additional condemnations of "homosexuality," even
though the original Hebrew indicated nothing of the kind.
The Hebrew Scriptures contain numerous warnings about recourse to female prostitutes
(Proverbs specially), but no one would dream of reading into those passages a divine
condemnation of "heterosexuality," but this was precisely what many did with the texts that
refer to male prostitutes (mistranslated "sodomites"). Modern translations unanimously make
clear that the texts speak specifically of prostitutes, not of "sodomites," "homosexuals," or
"heterosexuals"! Thus (see NIV and NRSV):
"None of the daughters of Israel shall be a temple pros- titute; none of the sons of Israel shall
be a temple prostitute. You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute or the wages of a male
prostitute (Hebrew: "dog") into the house of Yahweh your God in payment for any vow, for
both of these are an abomination to Yahweh your God" (Deuteronomy 23:17-18).
The texts do not indicate whether these prostitutes serviced male or female clients (or both);
increasingly, modern studies question whether they were actually "cult" prostitutes or common
Bibliography on prostitution: For good surveys, see the articles "Prostitution" and "Cultic
Prostitution" in The Anchor Bible Dictionary V:505-513; New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Blessed: On Being Lesbian, Gay and Jewish, ed. Christie Balka and Andy Rose, 61-70.
Boyarin, Daniel (1995). "Are There Any Jews in 'The History of Sexuality'?" Journal of the
History of Sexuality 5/3:333-355.
Brooten, Bernadette J. (1996). Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female
Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Comstock, Gary David (1993). Gay Theology Without Apology. Cleveland: Pilgrim. (See Ch. 4,
"Lessons from Leviticus: Learning about the Misuse of Power", pp. 61-78).
Gerstenberger, Erhard S. (1993). Das 3. Buch Mose: Leviticus. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck &
Hartley, John E. (1992). Leviticus. In Word Biblical Commentary 4. Dallas: Word.
Kahn, (Rabbi) Yoel H. (1989). "Judaism and Homosexuality: The Traditionalist/ Progressive
Debate." In Homosexuality and Religion, ed. Richard Hasbany. New York: Harrington Park.
Knight, G.A.F. (1987/81). "Levítico." In Antiguo Testamento Comentado. Buenos Aires: La
Levine, B.A. (1989) Leviticus. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
Milgrom, (Rabbi) Jacob. (1991/93). "Leviticus." The Anchor Bible, vol. 3, New York: Doubleday.
-------------- (1992). "Priestly ("P") Source." In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel
Freedman, 5:454-461. New York: Doubleday. See also "Leviticus" (Baruch A. Levine) and
"Holiness Code" (Henry T. C. Sun) in ABD.
---------- (1993). "Does the Bible Prohibit Homosexuality?", Bible Review. December, p. 8.
Miller, James E. (1997). Appendix, "Romans 1 Revisited." In Homosexuality and Christianity:
Yet Another Book (publication pending).
Olyan, Saul M. (1994/97). "'And with a Male You Shall Not Lie the Lying Down of A Woman':
On the Meaning and Significance of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13." Journal of the History of
(Also in Que(e)rying Religion: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gary David Comstock and Susan E.
Henking, 398-414. New York: Continuum.)
Rendtorff, R. (1985-93). Leviticus. In BKAT 3. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener.
Thurston, Thomas M. (1990). "Leviticus 18:22 and the Prohibition of Homosexual Acts." In
Homophobia and the Judaeo- Christian Tradition, ed. Michael L. Stemmeler and J. Michael
Clark, 7-23. Dallas: Monument.
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