Every society has sexual taboos to regulate what they deem to be moral and immoral sexual practices. The perspective of the ancient Israelites was that certain sexual practices defiled the participants, interfering with personal holiness, because such practices were contrary to the character of God (Lev. 18.2, where God’s name represents his character that stands behind his instructions). Most of this chapter pertains to situations of incest, a practice considered abhorrent in most societies (Egypt allowed it in the royal family; Persia allowed it.). Most societies also had rules about adultery. Often in Israel there were concerns about bloodlines pertaining to land inheritance, and many of the sex rules pertain to that, but an additional concern in Israelite sexual relationships was how it reflected the revealed nature of God. It was expected that their whole lives, not just their sexual lives, demonstrate the character of God. Their morality was to represent God’s holiness, and these laws address the defiling nature of illicit sex, the need to control sexual impulses, and situations where sexual relations compromise one’s holiness.
But why do certain sex practices fall under the category of “abomination”? When it comes right down to it, sex is a biological function and behavior, so what’s wrong with bedding your sister, or your mother, or your brother, or the neighbor? What makes it wrong? Lev. 18.8 says the sleeping with your mother “dishonor[s] your father.” Verse 10 also talks about incest as dishonor, in this case, oneself. So also 14 and 16. It seems that such sex relations dishonor the commitment of marriage to belong in a one-flesh relationship based on shared life and experience, which is the image of God in Gn. 1 & 2. So also, sex with a sibling before marriage defiles her before she even has a chance to experience that same marriage commitment. The permanent one-flesh union in a male-female married couple reflects the nature of God in their faithfulness, connectedness, care, and provision. We “die” to our selfish ways and our self-centered identity, filling the void with love and faithfulness in union with another. Marriage is a vision of the divine life, showing forth God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.
All of these incestuous and adulterous relationships, then, are dishonoring to both the perpetrators and the “victims,” even if the relationship is consensual.
In the middle of all this comes a verse (21) about child sacrifice. This action doesn’t just dishonor people, it profanes the character of God. The sacrificial system was designed to exemplify life and atone for sin, but the killing of children in the name of God, God says, was an obscenity and a profanity, not an act of worship. It did not reflect the nature of God, but instead denied his true character.
Then comes the verse about male homosexuality. Though common in the ancient Near East, and accepted in most societies, its practice was always condemned, at every level and in every form of expression, in Israel. While other societies had situational rules for when homosexuality was lawful and when not, the Bible allows for no exceptions; all acts of sodomy are prohibited, whether performed by royalty or peasant, citizen or alien. The absolute ban on anal intercourse is unique in the entire ancient Near Eastern and classical world. Here in Leviticus 18 it is addressed with non-nuanced words such as abomination, personal defilement, and defilement of the land, like a stomach virus that caused the land to vomit out its infected inhabitants, as well as excommunication. The biblical commands against homosexual behavior are concerned not only for the private morality of individuals, but also the wholeness, well-being, and purity of the community itself. To undermine the family and the community was to undermine the covenant itself.
Homosexuality in the world of the ancient Near East was not totality pederastic, though that may have been a majority of it. We also see that it, along with heterosexual prostitution, was part of their pagan religious system, as it was in the days of the NT as well (notably, but not exclusively, Corinth). A third expression of homosexuality seems to have been homosexuality relationships between consenting adults by choice. According to the research, the end was not a marriage relationship, or even an enduring one, but merely another way to express one’s affections.
It is in this cultural context that Leviticus was written. In Leviticus, God is defining his own holiness and making an appeal to the holiness of those who claim his name (Lev. 11.44-45). Chapters 18-22 are written to show that because of God’s holy nature, there are many behaviors that break fellowship with Him. Homosexual behavior is one of them. It is “detestable”. Why? There is no immediate explanation, but the tenor and teachings of the Pentateuch gives us clues. The lives of God’s people are supposed to imitate and reflect the character and nature of God. If Leviticus teaches us nothing else, it teaches us that we must always be attentive to holiness, whether physical, ritual, or moral. The world, the Bible teaches, is depraved, evil, and separated from God by sin, and God’s people are to maintain distinctions between ourselves, as “holy” (separated unto God), and the sin that is in us by nature and around us by environment (2 Cor. 6.14-18).
Many attempts have been made to read deeply into the text to construe the teachings as not applying to homosexuality in today’s world. My study of the text and such arguments convinces me that the arguments are specious. I find, in my own heart, mind, and study, that there is no reasonable, biblical way to dismiss that in the Bible homosexual practice is a sin.