Sodomy in Leviticus

An Essay by Robert Brow   (web site -

This essay was originally posted by Robert Brow on the CETA-L discussion list, June 29, 1996. It was written in response to the article entitled "AMOR VINCIT OMNIA--or does it? OUTLOOK: Homosexuality and Scripture," by Wolfhart Pannenberg which appeared in the Church Times [London] 21 June 1996, p. 8.

I am brash enough to tangle with Pannenberg's essay on "Homosexuality and Scripture", which was just posted on the CETA list. His essay is flawed by using the vague term "homosexual" which is not a word used in the OT Hebrew or the NT Greek text. That the Bible finds some forms of same sex behaviour abhorrent is obvious, but Pannenberg fails to define what exactly is being condemned.

 Leviticus 20:13 condemns a certain kind of sexual intercourse between males. It is part of a section that is obviously intended for judges in a criminal court. They are required to assign the death penalty for seven very precise categories of sexual behaviour. These are listed as adultery with another man's wife (20:10), a man's sexual intercourse with his father's wife, or daughter-in-law, or mother-in-law (20:11, 12, 14), male sexual intercourse with an animal (20:15), and a woman having sexual intercourse with animal (20:16). In the middle of these comes the death penalty for a man who "lies with a male as with a woman" (20:13).

 Since the death penalty was a very serious matter, a judge would need an exact definition of what constituted "sexual intercourse" in each situation. In the case of a man who "lies with a male as with a woman," would two men who shared a bed be executed? What if they hugged each other? Was it a matter of being found touching each other's genitals? Or was it what we now call buggery, which involved penetration of the anus?

 In our day we know that sexual penetration of the anus can not only cause serious damage to the rectum but it is also a major transmitter of AIDS and other venereal diseases. Evidently some of the Levitical prohibitions had health concerns in mind, and we should at least consider the possibility of what is now called buggery being viewed as criminal act for this reason.

 In each of the other six kinds of behaviour that required a judge to assign the death penalty in Leviticus 20:10-16 it is sexual penetration that defines the criminal act. In Leviticus 20:15 bestiality involved a male penetrating a domestic animal, which is still commonly practised in some countries. In Leviticus 20:16 it seems that a woman allows herself to be mounted by a household pet. That suggests that the criminal act in Leviticus 20:13 when "a man lies with a male as with a woman" was also defined by penetration. Buggery occurs when the anus of another male is used for the same purpose as vaginal penetration.

 Whether in the OT or in our modern situation it would be ridiculous to suggest that "sexual relations with an animal" should be defined by the petting and hugging of household pets. And it is equally nonsense to assign the death penalty for hand holding, kissing, touching, and hugging which are all very common among men and among women all over the Middle East. In Leviticus there is certainly no prohibition of intimate expressions of affection between women.

 Having clarified the language game for the criminal act in the Old Testament it seems certain the sin of Sodom in Genesis 19:1-8 was the humiliation of a stranger in the city by sodomy. We can also deduce that buggery is precisely what the malakoi allow to be done to them and the arsenokoitai do to other males in 1 Cor. 6:9-11 and 1 Tim. 1:8-11.

 In the light of Leviticus 20:13-16 what seems to horrify Paul in Romans 1:24-32 is that the very sexual acts which were viewed as deserving the death penalty by Jewish law are now approved in the Greek world. Incest, bestiality and buggery are ravaging family life. And the next steps down into the final degradation of Greek civilization is inevitable (Romans 1:28-32).

 Sodomy, especially where minors are used, must remain a criminal act with the severest consequences in Canada. But there is no evidence that civilization is destroyed when married women express love and affection with their women friends. And say we did find out that two men or two women share a home, and on occasion their intimacy was more that we might have approved, do we lobby to get the death penalty for them? Or do we send them to jail for ten years, as in the case of those who abuse, rape, and kill minors? Do we put such persons out of our church?

 By failing to analyse the models at work in Leviticus and Paul's writings Pannenberg has not faced the important questions, and so has failed to advance the discussion.

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