According to God’s Design
Why Old Testament teaching on homosexuality still applies
Following last week’s tragic school shooting in Colorado, there has been some discussion of the alleged shooters’ sexual self-identification and “hatred” for Christians. CBN News reports that one of the alleged shooters, who identifies as gay, posted about this on social media:
“You know what I hate?” he said. “All these Christians who hate gays, yet in the Bible, it says in Deuteronomy 17:12-13, if someone doesn’t do what their priest tells them to do, they are supposed to die,” he said in his post. “It has plenty of crazy stuff like that. But all they get out of it is ‘ewwwwww gays’.”
Difficulties in understanding Old Testament teachings about homosexuality, especially in light of other teachings found within the Mosaic Law that Christians today do not observe, have vexed not just this young man but many other people both outside and inside the Church. Setting aside the political and cultural discussions following this terrible event, we wanted to offer a Catholic perspective on those teachings, excerpted from Mary Healy’s excellent booklet, Scripture, Mercy, and Homosexuality.
The Laws of Leviticus
There are two Old Testament texts that straightforwardly prohibit homosexual acts. They are in Leviticus, in a section of laws that scholars call the Holiness Code (Lev. 17–26) because it contains detailed instructions for how to live as God’s holy people.
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination (18:22).
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them (20:13).
The first important fact to observe about these passages is that they appear in lists of sexual offenses including adultery, bestiality, various forms of incest, and child sacrifice. Homosexual sex is not singled out as the only sexual act that is gravely sinful. Rather, all these acts are an abuse of sexuality, departing from God’s intention for marriage as revealed in Genesis 1–2 and instead pursuing erotic pleasure for its own sake. All are deeply damaging to the human person and to the family. All are described as characteristic of the Canaanites and the reason that they are being expelled from the land. God warns Israel, “Do not defile yourselves by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am casting out before you defiled themselves; and the land became defiled, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Lev. 18:24–25).
One item on the list, child sacrifice, may appear to be unrelated to the others since it is not a sexual act. But in the biblical mindset it is in fact closely related. To offer one’s child, the fruit of sexual union, in sacrifice to a false god—which in the ancient world was done for the sake of agricultural prosperity or military success—is not only an act of idolatry but a rebellion against the Creator’s plan for sexual union.
Leviticus 18 simply prohibits the acts; Leviticus 20 specifies the punishment for each. In most cases it is death, underscoring the seriousness of the offense. To our minds the penalty is appallingly cruel and primitive. It is important to recognize that, as the Catechism notes, the Old Testament books “contain matters imperfect and provisional” (CCC 122). They contain God’s temporary provision for a society that as yet had little understanding of the dignity of the person and no infrastructure for maintaining justice and good order in the family and community. Already by the time of Christ, many of these penalties were no longer carried out. Jesus himself refused to invoke the death penalty in a case where the Law of Moses called for it (John 8:3–11). Christian tradition has always held that the judicial penalties belong to that part of the Law of Moses that has been abrogated by Christ.
Leviticus calls the sexual offenses “abominations” (18:27, 29), and speaks of homosexual acts as “an abomination” in the singular (18:22; 20:13). The Hebrew word (toevah) means “that which is abhorrent” and is therefore incompatible with the holiness required of God’s people. In the Old Testament it is used for egregious sins such as idolatry, sexual immorality, and social injustice.
But here we come to another objection. Scripture also uses “abomination” for various forms of ritual impurity, including unclean animals (Deut. 14:3), sacrificing a blemished animal (Deut. 17:1), and intercourse with a menstruating woman (Lev. 18:19, 29). Doesn’t it seem, then, that the laws on sexual conduct belong to the category of ritual purity rather than morality? These purity laws, it is argued, are based on pre-rational, culturally conditioned taboos that we now recognize as obsolete. Moreover, the New Testament affirms that the ritual purity laws have been rescinded by Christ (Mark 7:18–19; Acts 10:15; 15:19–21).
The problem with this argument, however, is that it would have to be equally applied to the laws against adultery, incest, bestiality, and child sacrifice. Yet few would want to argue that these are based on obsolete, culturally conditioned taboos. Rather, all of these prohibitions, as applying to free human acts, belong to the moral law that orders sexual conduct according to God’s design. The fact that Leviticus mentions them alongside ritual purity laws, in a code that does not sharply differentiate between the ritual and the moral, cannot mean that they are obsolete.
There is one law on sexual conduct in Leviticus that relates to ritual purity: the prohibition of intercourse with a menstruating woman (18:19; 20:18). But this rule too has a moral foundation. It embodies the principle that “no husband has sovereignty over his wife or her body, but that ultimately all is owed to God.” Even within marriage, sexual desire is not given free reign but is subject to limits. The self-restraint required during this period helped ensure that sexual union was ordered to God’s intention for lifegiving spousal union. Although the literal sense of this law is no longer binding, the principle is still binding.
There are other lines of argument that seek to explain away these moral laws. Some authors argue that for the ancient Israelites, the problem with homosexual acts was that they undermined the superior status of men by treating a man as if he were a woman. However, there is no evidence that that concern plays a role in the Law of Moses. The Old Testament is indeed written within a patriarchal social context, but it contains no laws to safeguard male superiority. In fact, it does quite the opposite, affirming that men and women are equally created in the image of God and together given rule over creation (Gen. 1:26–28). The husband’s “rule” over his wife is explained as a tragic consequence of the fall rather than God’s original order (Gen. 3:16).
Still others argue that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 refer only to male prostitution, pederasty, or other exploitative forms of same-sex behavior. However, the prohibitions are absolute, penalizing both parties. There is no exception for mutual consent. They apply equally to Israelites and to resident aliens (Lev. 18:26). Nor are there any grounds for limiting the laws to male cult prostitutes, since Leviticus simply uses the Hebrew term for “male,” not “male cult prostitute,” nor “boy, youth.”
The Mercy of God
From what has been said about the Law of Moses, one might get the impression that God is severe and demanding, harshly punishing the slightest violation of his stringent moral code. So it is essential to take a step back and consider these passages within the wider context of the whole Old Testament (and ultimately, the New).
Throughout Leviticus, one line appears again and again, like a refrain: “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (19:2). That God is holy means he is set apart from all that is profane or earthly; his goodness and purity are infinitely beyond anything in the created realm. Yet God’s transcendence does not mean his absence. He intensely desires to be in relationship with his people, and he gives them the amazing privilege and call to share in his own holiness. Much of the history of Israel is an educational process in which Israel has to learn how to live in the presence of the holy God and act according to his holy will. They have to learn how destructive sin is to themselves and to their relationship with God.
Time and again they fail, but time and again God shows them that he is merciful and forgiving. Even after Israel commits its most grievous sin, the idolatry of the golden calf (Exod. 32), God reveals the depths of his mercy: “the Lord passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, continuing his steadfast love for a thousand generations’” (Exod. 34:6–7, author’s translation). God’s tender love for his people is infinitely greater than their sin.
God goes on to say that he “will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exod. 34:7). That is, sin still has real consequences that affect not only the sinner but also his children. Hurtful and dysfunctional patterns can be passed down through the generations.
Yet if sin has a ripple effect, all the more does God’s mercy, which endures to a thousand generations. Through the prophets, God reveals that his judgment on sin is always with the aim of bringing the sinner back to himself. God longs for his people as a father yearns for his son (Jer. 31:20); his goal is restoration. So Isaiah urges, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isa. 55:7).
God’s mercy thus does not mean the compromising of his holiness. Through the prophet Hosea, God finally reveals the inmost secret of his holiness: it is an infinitely intense, blazing fire of love.
How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I treat you as Admah,
or make you like Zeboiim?
My heart is overwhelmed,
my compassion is kindled.
I will not give vent to my blazing anger,
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not man,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come to destroy
(Hos. 11:8–9, author’s translation).
Admah and Zeboiim were towns near Sodom and Gomorrah, which were destroyed along with them (Deut. 29:22). God is declaring that despite his people’s continuous rebellion, he cannot allow them to fall into such utter destruction. His mercy triumphs over sin, even sins as serious as of those cities. So the sinner who turns back to the Lord can have unbounded confidence: “He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Mic. 7:19).
Although the Old Testament thus reveals the inconceivable tenderness and mercy of God, it does not provide a full answer to the problem of sin. God’s people Israel, and the human race in general, remain estranged from him and inclined toward all manner of evil. God’s ultimate answer to the predicament of the human race will come only in the New Testament.