Texas Hold’em and the Homosexual Ban of Leviticus

{Finally the server is back… here’s the post from Tuesday} Over the past two weeks, I’ve dealt several ‘information cards’ regarding Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. As a reminder, these texts read:

  • You must not have sexual intercourse with a man as you would with a woman; it is a detestable [to’ebah]practice.(18:22, CEV; or “an abomination” NRSV)
  • If a man has sexual intercourse with a man as he would with a woman, the two of them have done something detestable [to’ebah].They must be executed; their blood is on their own heads.(20:13, CEV; or “committed an abomination” NRSV)

Today it’s time to play the game—to begin wrestling with the evidence (with endnotes for reference to earlier blogs, new sources, and details many may want to skip). Unfortunately, it’s not possible to finish the game in one or even two posts; sorting through the proposals and our “hole cards” is going to take some time and patience. The question is what did these texts communicate in their cultural and literary contexts? Today we examine one response (a second response will be posted on next Tuesday).

Possibility One: The prohibition of Leviticus 18:22 and punishment in 20:13 have to do with idolatry or the worship of other gods, not homosexuality in general. Four ‘evidence cards’ support this conclusion.

Card #1: Leviticus 18 begins with a reminder that the Lord (Yahweh) is Israel’s God. Thus, Israel must no longer follow the gods of their old home (Egypt) or learn the practices of their new home (Canaan). Israel belongs exclusively to the Lord (Lev. 18:1-5).

Card #2: The prohibition (18:22) is sandwiched between two texts that forbid activities associated with the worship of other gods: child sacrifice to Molech (in Canaan, 18:22) and bestiality (in Canaan and Egypt, 18:23). In Canaan, sex with an animal (bestiality) appears to have been part of the annual reenactment of the Baal myth: signifying the dry season (death) followed by rain and renewed fertility (new life). Each year prior to his death Baal (represented as a bull) desires and has sexual intercourse with a heifer.[i] As for Egypt, Herodotus reports that they held goats sacred and adds:

In the Egyptian language Mendes is the name both for the he-goat and for Pan. In my lifetime a monstrous thing happened in this province, a woman having open intercourse with a he-goat. This came to be publicly known.” (Book II 46, Loeb Classical Library; or in a more recent translation by David Grene: This was done in the nature of a public exhibition).[ii]

It is striking that only a chapter earlier Leviticus 17 established laws so that the Israelites would no longer offer sacrifices to goat-demons in the open fields (17:5-7). Douglas also observes that incest was part of the Pharaoh’s religion and menstrual blood was also associated demons.[iii] If true, then the entire paragraph of Leviticus 18:19-23 is about idolatrous practices (and perhaps all of chapter 18). In addition, each infraction calling for the death penalty in 20:10-16 relates to worship practices of another god.[iv] For the writer, the primary principle at stake in Leviticus 18 and 20 is single-minded allegiance to the Lord; the specific actions are cultural clothing.

Card #3: The term “abomination” (to’ebahin 18:22 and 20:13) most often refers to the worship of other gods (e.g., Deut. 7:25-26; 13:15; 17:4, 7).[v] Leviticus appears to continue this usage, reserving this term for male-to-male intercourse (18:22; 20:13), sex with an animal (18:26), and those who commit “all of these” things (18:27-30).

Card #4: Later evidence reveals that Israel practiced male (and female) prostitution at the temple (I Kgs. 14:23-24; 15:12; II Kgs. 23:7; see also Deut. 23:17-18). In surrounding cultures, male prostitutes were sexual partners for men (not women).

Summary: When ancient Israel first heard these texts they instinctively knew that the real issue was the worship of other gods because they recognized the clues in the text and the presence of these practices in Egyptian and Canaanite religions. Mary Douglas best articulates the conclusion for this proposal:

The anathemas [18:22; 20:13] are not laws about everyday affairs… the context is inescapably cultic [religious/worship]…. [They] refer to defilement of the land, a grave situation which results from idolatry…[vi]


I have not presented a comprehensive case for the first proposal. I’ve just tried to play the cards in a way that makes sense to me—in a format that fits this space. Now, before I sign-off, fairness dictates that the weaknesses or counter-claims to these ‘cards’ be equally played.

Response to Cards #1-2: Although 18:22 may appear in a general context that emphasizes single-minded allegiance to the Lord, it does not explicitly mention another god or explicitly describe male-to-male intercourse as an idolatrous practice. The text simply speaks of male-to-male intercourse. In addition, Herodotus sometimes exaggerates or is loose with the truth (some call him, “The Father of History and Lies”). Evidence that associates male-to-male intercourse with the worship of other gods may not be as strong as claimed and in some cases it describes later eras.

Response to Card #3: The term “abomination” (to’ebah) does not always refer to the worship of other gods. Elsewhere it describes how Egyptians feel about shepherds and how God feels about dishonest business practices, unclean food,[vii] and men wearing women’s clothing.[viii]

Response to Card #4: While Israel had male and female temple prostitutes (both in the service of men), neither Leviticus 18:22 nor 20:13 makes an explicit connection between male-to-male intercourse and temple prostitution.


Again, I do not claim this counter-analysis is comprehensive; it merely suggests the primary points of contention. So, for now, I take my leave and allow you the time to think through the evidence and how the cards are playedfor this first proposal. Please remember that we are not finished; we will play a second hand (proposal) on Tuesday (April 24).


[i] He [Baal] desires a cow-calf in Dubr, A heifer in Shihlmemat-field; Lies with her time seventy-seven,… times eighty-eight. She conceives and gives birth to Math. (Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 139).

[ii] Mary Douglas (Leviticus as Literature, 237) states that copulation with a stallion was a public Vedic rite (1500-500 BC), the religion of Indo-European speaking people who entered India ~1500 BC.

[iii] Douglas, Leviticus as Literature, 236-237.

[iv] Punishments for violations of instructions in Leviticus 18 are ordered according to severity in Leviticus 20.Violations meriting the death penalty include:the worship of Molech through child sacrifice (vv. 2-5), consulting mediums or wizards (other gods, v. 6), those who curse father or mother (v. 9), adultery (v. 10), sex/marriage to “father’s wife” or “daughter-in-law” (vv. 11-12), male-to-male intercourse (v. 13), marriage to a woman and her mother (v. 14), sex with an animal (vv. 15-16). Lesser violations meritbeing “cut off” from their people (exiled; vv. 17-18), or being “subject to punishment” (vv. 19-20), or dying “childless” (vv. 20-21).

[v] See our earlier work in “Tattoos, Gibberish, and Homosexuality” and “Gibberish or Shirebbig?

[vi] Douglas, Leviticus as Literature, 236.

[vii] See “Gibberish or Shirebbig?

[viii] See “What Not to Wear

Glenn Pemberton is a minister turned professor turned writer. After serving churches in Texas and Colorado, Glenn completed a Ph.D. (Old Testament). He then taught at Oklahoma Christian University before coming to Abilene Christian University in 2005, retiring as professor emeritus in 2017 due to a severe chronic pain. Glenn now spends his time writing for the church. Along with short essays he has published four books, including The God who Saves: An Introduction to the Message of the Old Testament (2015), and Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (2012). Glenn and his wife Dana continue to live in Abilene, Texas.

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Author:  Publish Date: April 19, 2018

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