Some people use 2 verses in the Biblical book of Leviticus (Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13) to say that homosexuality is sinful and homosexuals are bad.
But the verses do not say or imply this. They do not refer to homosexuality as an orientation, or to homosexuals, or to any sex between men except for penetration. In fact, each verse only says that a man must not have sex with a male as a woman would, i.e. he must not allow himself to be anally penetrated.
However, this prohibition on male-male penetration does not apply to straight, bisexual and gay men today because: (a) it was a cultural prohibition of that time, and (b) no harm is done if the persons act with love and care.
How do we know that Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 prohibit only penetrative (anal) intercourse between males and not all male-male sex?
The main reason that the Leviticus verses refer only to men penetrating men has been fully set out in papers* by Saul Olyan and Jerome Walsh. In brief, the verses only prohibit a male having sex (lying) with another male when the sex is (literally) the lyings of a woman.
The phrase the lyings of a woman is the opposite of the lying of a male, which in the Old Testament (e.g. Numbers 31:17–18, 35, and Judges 21:11–12) means a male doing vaginal penetration. The opposite of this is female vaginal receptivity – the meaning of the lyings of a woman. The male equivalent of vaginal receptivity is anal receptivity. Therefore the Leviticus verses prohibit a male from being anally penetrated by another male.
The death penalty for contravening the prohibition implies that the intercourse is anal penetration. It is unlikely that the death penalty would have been prescribed for anything less than penetration.
Note that the use of lying refers to the act of lying down on a couch, bier, or bed for sexual contact. This horizontal position would imply penetrative contact more than non-penetrative contact.
The references are to sex between males. There is no similar reference to sex between females. This implies that the type of sexual intercourse is one which can be done by males but not by females (unless the females use an instrument). That is, penetration is implied.
Also note the context. All the other sexual offences (incest, adultery and bestiality) in Leviticus 18 and 20 involve full penetrative intercourse. To be consistent, male-male intercourse would also involve full penetrative intercourse.
The restriction of these verses to anal intercourse is the traditional Jewish Talmud interpretation. Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 54a refers to a man lying with a male as with a woman and there being only one kind of (sexual) connection between males. The Talmud rabbis said that sexual practices between males, other than anal intercourse, were not prohibited by the Torah (Leviticus, etc) and only came under the category of masturbation, whether solo or involving more than one man.**
Traditional Christian and Jewish belief is that God dictated Leviticus to Moses with every word being included for a reason. It can therefore be argued that had God wanted to prohibit all sex between men, the verses would have simply stated that a man shall not lie (have sex) with a male. Instead, the addition of the words as a woman would lie with a man restricts the prohibited form of sex to the male equivalent (anal intercourse) of how a woman usually has sex with a man (vaginal intercourse).
These Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 verses forbid only male-male penetration. One cannot assume that other forms of male-male sexual activity are also forbidden.
* Olyan, Saul M “'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," in Que(e)rying Religion: A Critical Anthology, ed. G. D. Comstock and S. E. Henking, 398-414, 513- 24. Walsh, Jerome T. “Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13: Who Is Doing What To Whom?” Journal of Biblical Literature 120/2 (2001), 201–209. Can also see the article here (pdf)
** Daniel Boyarin “Are there any Jews in ‘The History of Sexuality’?”, Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol 5 no. 3 (1995) 339.
What were the reasons for this prohibition on male-male penetrative sex?
The only certain reason for this prohibition on one man sexually penetrating another man (anal sex) is given in Leviticus 18:3 and 24, where God tells the Israelites that they must not follow the practices (presumably bad) of the people of Egypt or Canaan and are not to defile themselves in any of the ways referred to in the Chapter, which would include one man sexually penetrating another man. It would appear that complying with the prohibition would help maintain a pure, holy and stable community, separate from its neighbors.
Other reasons which have been speculated for this prohibition are:
In Mediterranean countries in Old Testament times, the male sexual role was seen as that of active penetrator and the female role was seen as that of passively being penetrated. Therefore one man sexually penetrating another man was thought to reduce the penetrated man from the high status of a man (penetrator) to the lower status of a woman (penetrated). This brought shame, humiliation and dishonor on the penetrated man.
One man sexually penetrating another man was believed to be an abomination because it violated the God–given order of things in society and confused or ignored the boundaries of clearly assigned male and female sexual roles. The man being penetrated was thought to be crossing from the God-given category of male (and how a male should act) to the God-given category of female (and how a female should act) thus confusing the categories and he no longer being seen as wholly male. In other words, his masculine identity was undermined. The penetrator was also acting wrongly by helping the penetrated man to cross the gender (sex role) boundaries.
A similar gender differentiation argument stresses that males and females (and their sexual organs) were created to complement each other. (These God-given categories are part of the Creation story but note that Leviticus 18 and 20 do not directly refer to the Creation). A good explanation of mixing and purity and male honor is given in this article.
The placing of the prohibition on one man sexually penetrating another man (verse 22) between the prohibition on offering one’s seed (children or semen) to Molech (verse 21) and the prohibition on bestiality (verse 23) indicates that the compiler of these laws, and probably the Israelite community generally, saw sex between men as a non- standard way of sexual intercourse. The standard way was sex between a man and a woman as explained in Genesis 1:28 and 2: 24.
Men penetrating men reminded people of the practice of strong or unruly men sometimes raping weaker men, by forced anal sex, to show their power and to degrade, shame or humiliate the weaker men as it was treating them like women. This was attempted at Sodom (Genesis 19: 4–9) and Gibeah (Judges 19:22–25).
One man sexually penetrating another man was wasting semen instead of its being used in its divinely intended purpose of procreation in marriage. It was important that the Israelite tribes increase their population in order to survive. However Leviticus contains no prohibition on male masturbation, coitus interruptus, male- female anal intercourse or other non-vaginal ejaculatory sexual acts. So wasting semen was apparently not a major concern.
One man sexually penetrating another man would result in the mixing of defiling emissions (excrement and semen) in the receptive body, thus violating the Israelite purity code. However it seems unlikely that this was considered as a major reason because there would be the same type of mixing in male-female anal intercourse, which was not prohibited.
One man sexually penetrating another man was an improper use of semen. In fact all sexual acts prohibited in Chapters 18 and 20 involve an improper use of semen. This explains why female-female sex is not prohibited, why giving one’s seed (semen) to Molech is prohibited and why instances of sexual crime are ignored where no improper use of semen is made, e.g. seduction. For further details of this point see Martin Cohen, "The Biblical Prohibition of Homosexual Intercourse," Journal of Homosexuality, 1990, Vol 19(4), p 3-20.
The Leviticus prohibition on one man sexually penetrating another man covered both men. This was a wider prohibition than in nearby cultures, where usually only being penetrated was prohibited or despised. Doing the penetrating was okay in these cultures. This difference was one of the ways in which the ancient Israelites tried to keep themselves separate from other peoples.
Literal translations of Leviticus 18:22 and 20: 13
(Leviticus 18:22) And .. male .. no lie down with .. lyings of woman .. abomination it. or And .. with a male .. do not lie down .. the lyings of a woman .. abomination it.
(Leviticus 20:13) And .. man .. who lies down with .. male .. lyings of woman .. abomination .. committed .. both of two .. put to death .. guilt .. exists. or And a man who lies down .. the lyings of a woman .. with a male .. abomination .. both of them .. have done .. put to death .. their blood on them.
Stages in the translation of Leviticus 18:22
And .. male .. no lie down with .. lyings of woman .. abhorrent it. And .. with male .. no lie down lyings of woman .. abhorrent it. And .. with male no lie down as woman lies .. abhorrent it. And .. with male have no sex as woman has sex (i. e. by being penetrated) .. disgusting it. And with a male you (a male) must not have passive anal sex– it is disgusting. And don’t let a man penetrate you (a male) – it is disgusting.
Notes on Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13
The above interpretation of the prohibition (a man should not let another man penetrate him) varies slightly from the traditional interpretation (a man should not have sex with a man as one does with a woman). The first interpretation directs the prohibition at the man who might be penetrated. The traditional interpretation directs the prohibition at the man who might do the penetrating. However even if one sticks with the traditional interpretation, the basic conclusion is still the same, i.e. men should not have penetrative sex with men.
As expressed in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, the prohibition only applied to penetrative (anal) sex between males – straight, bisexual or gay. It did not apply to any other forms of male sex, e.g. oral sex, mutual masturbation, foreplay, intercrural sex (between the thighs), deep kissing, fondling or sexual touching.
Also, the prohibition did not apply to sex between females.
Note that Leviticus 20:13 implies that both men willingly contravene the prohibition.
The death penalty for male-male penetration in Leviticus 20:13 also applied to 8 other offences in that chapter, including cursing one’s parents. However the Bible has no record of the death penalty being applied for male-male penetration. In fact, the Bible records no instances of male-male penetration even occurring.
False views or misconceptions about this prohibition on male-male penetrative sex
Most of the following views (in italics) are those of people who wish to minimize the significance of this prohibition on male-male penetrative sex.
Leviticus 18 and 20 only prohibit sex between men as part of idol worshipping ceremonies. (this is false)
There is a widespread view that Leviticus 18 and 20 prohibit male-male sex only when used during idol worshipping ceremonies (ritual prostitution). The main arguments supporting this view are:
The word abomination is mostly used in the early books of the Bible to describe worship of idols. Therefore Leviticus 18:22 calling sex between men abomination means that it is restricted to sex between men and sacred male prostitutes during pagan idol worship.
The prohibition on sex between men in chapter 18 comes immediately after the prohibition on parents dedicating their children to the pagan god Molech. Such dedication would involve the children becoming sacred male prostitutes who would have male-male sex. This ties in with the subsequent prohibition on sex between men.
Many of the death penalty offences in Leviticus 20 are repeated in Deuteronomy. The offence of sex between men is repeated in the form of a command that no Israelite man or woman is to become a sacred prostitute. Sacred male prostitutes would have male-male sex.
Why this view is mistaken:
The prohibition on sex between men is not explicitly stated as applying only in idol worshipping ceremonies. Therefore it applies whether or not idolatry is involved. Also, the expanded version of the prohibition in Leviticus 20:13 is placed in the middle of the sex laws, well away from the prohibition in that chapter on parents dedicating their children to the god Molech.
The prohibition in Leviticus 18 is on men not letting themselves be anally penetrated by other men. This rules out the prohibition meaning that men customers are not to anally penetrate sacred male prostitutes. While it could apply to sacred male prostitutes being penetrated while taking the female goddess or priestess role, the prohibition would also apply outside these ceremonies.
Abomination (very disgusting, horrible) is used to describe penetrative sex between men because the ancient Israelites thought it disgusting that the penetrated man was acting sexually like a woman (by being penetrated) instead of like a man. It was disgusting because, in their culture, a man was thought superior to a woman and the penetrated man was lowering his status or rejecting his manhood.* This reason for the use of abomination makes it unnecessary to invent another reason involving sex between men and sacred male prostitutes during pagan idol worship.
* Another example of prohibiting a man from acting like a woman is in Deuteronomy 22:5, which states it is an abomination for a man to wear woman's clothing (and vice-versa).
People should either comply with all the laws in Leviticus (including the prohibitions on male- male penetrative sex, the eating of certain foods and wearing blended fabrics) or comply with none of the laws. Alternatively, these laws have to be kept only by the Israelites to whom they were given. (this is false)
The “comply with all laws or comply with no laws” option and the “Israelites only” option were ruled out by the early church in about 50 CE. That church decided that non-Jews who became Christians would have to follow some, but not all, of the Old Testament (Jewish) laws. They could not eat food offered to idols or food from strangled animals or containing blood and they should not be sexually immoral. This last requirement meant that they should follow the Old Testament laws on sexual conduct. See Acts 15: 13-30
Leviticus 18 and 20 only prohibit a heterosexual man from penetrating another man for pleasure. (this is false)
There is nothing in these chapters to support this view.
Leviticus 18 and 20 are unfair because they condemn a man who is forced to take part in penetrative sex, i.e he is raped. (this is false)
Such a man is not condemned because the prohibition in Chapter 18 says you must not let another man penetrate you (literally, with male no lie down as woman lies). Similarly the prohibition in Chapter 20 literally starts a man who lies down as woman lies .. with a male .. . In both cases the command is given to the passive man and it is implied that he is able to consent to be penetrated. Mutual consent is implied by the words their blood on them or their blood is on their own heads i.e. they did it while knowing the consequences of their actions. Therefore if a man does not consent to be penetrated, he is not condemned.
Leviticus 18 and 20 condemn sex between men only when the men are close relatives. (this is false)
The prohibition on sex between men is not explicitly stated as applying only when the men are close relatives. Therefore it applies to all men.
Leviticus 18 and 20 are a general condemnation of homosexuality and all homosexual sex acts and desires (this is false)
As shown above, these verses prohibit only penetrative sex between males and not all male- male sex. The verses do not refer to homosexual orientation or desires. Therefore the prohibition is not a general condemnation of homosexuality or homosexual orientation or affection. It is also not a condemnation of other forms of sex between males, or of sex between females. This totally contrasts to other cases in the Bible where desires lead to sin, such as coveting of your neighbour’s possessions can lead to theft and lusting after your neighbour’s wife can lead to adultery.