Summary of this page


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

However, this prohibition on male-male
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-
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
, 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

  • 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)

    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:

  • 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

Literal translations of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:

(Leviticus 18:22)
And ..  male ..  no lie down with .. lyings of woman
..  abomination it.
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.
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

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

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

  • 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

  • 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:

While the early church prohibited male-male
penetrative sex, this prohibition
does not apply

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

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 lie
s).  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

The prohibition on sex between men is not
explicitly stated as applying only when the men
are close relatives.  Therefore it applies to all

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

Other interpretations

The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
give excellent
background accounts and
various interpretations
of Leviticus 18:22 and
Leviticus 20:13.

Author: Colin Smith