In the last post, I listed most of the passages in the Old Testament where something is is declared to’evah – an abomination.Various sexual behaviors were listed:
· cross-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5)
· remarrying a woman you divorced who has subsequently remarried and been divorced (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)
· adultery (Leviticus 18:20; Ezekiel 22:11, Ezekiel 33:26)
· incest (Leviticus 18:6-18)
· sex with a woman during her period (Leviticus 18:19)
· bestiality (Leviticus 18:23)
· male temple prostitution (1 Kings 14:24)
· male homosexual behavior (Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13)
It is safe to say that we do not consider all of these behaviors equally abominable. Is sex between a husband and wife during the woman's menstrual cycle equal to incest? Bestiality? If we do not consider all of the behaviors listed above as equally abominable, why not? Personal taste? Cultural conditioning? Our understanding of how to interpret scripture responsibly and faithfully?
The abomination of cross-dressing
A woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent [to’evah] to the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 22:5)
Is it an abomination when a woman dresses in jeans and a sweatshirt or a button-down flannel shirt? Why not? Nowhere in the New Testament is Deuteronomy 22:5 revised. If anything, in 1 Corinthians 11:3-15 Paul reinforces the idea and he appeals to nature to do so. Paul’s concern is about the length of women’s hair and that of men, but the concern to distinguish male from female is similar to that of Deuteronomy. Is it a sin for women to have short hair? Paul thinks so. and he thinks it is unnatural.
Should the Church insist that women wear skirts and dresses? When women first began to wear slacks, it was a scandal partly because it contravened Deuteronomy 22:5. Some Christians still argue that faithfulness to the Bible requires that women wear skirts (see here). Women cutting–"bobbing"–their hair short was not that long ago similarly a scandal and the topic of sermons and religious tracts (see here and here). Is our willingness to ignore these injunctions evidence that we have simply accommodated secular culture? What is the “rule” for interpreting scripture that allows us to understand this as no longer an abomination? Is it just the fact that it does not offend us any more? That it is inconvenient? There is nothing to indicate that this falls under the traditional distinction between ritual and ethical laws in the Old Testament. If we do not now take the plain meaning of Deuteronomy 22:5 (and, for that matter, 1 Corinthians 11:3–15) as being as applicable today as it was when it was written, it will be because we interpret that verse in light of cultural and historical analysis and in light of other parts of scripture that we consider more important.
Remarrying the wife you’ve divorced
Tom and Meg fell in love and married. Meg developed an alcohol problem. Tom tried for several years to help Meg get sober but she would not. Though he still loved her, Tom felt he had no choice but to divorce Meg. She subsequently married Jack – another alcoholic. Meg eventually got sober. But, her new husband would not. Unhappy with Meg’s new sobriety, Jack divorced her. Some time passed. Meg encountered Tom at a party and their love was rekindled. Tom and Meg decided to remarry. It would be a wonderful story. But, according to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, it would be an abomination:
Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent [to’evah] to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession.
It is not clear why God would forbid this in such strong terms. Why is it an abomination? Is it still today? Granted that most churches are prepared to allow divorced people to remarry ( (but, see Jesus on Marriage, Divorce, & Remarriage), should we allow a couple such as Tom and Meg to remarry, given that such a remarriage is declared to’evah – an abomination (or abhorrent or a detestable thing depending on the translation)? If we no longer find the idea abhorrent or an abomination is it just because it does not offend our own sensibilities? Is it because we have surrendered to the prevailing culture? Or is it because we interpret this passage differently in light of other scriptures and our understanding of the historical and cultural context?
Male homosexual behavior
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (Leviticus 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. (Leviticus 20:13)
These two verses make it clear that male homosexual behavior was forbidden under the Old Testament law. Here are some things to note, though:
1. There is nothing in the Old Testament prohibiting female homosexual behavior. Why is that? Would lesbian sexual encounters have been OK in ancient Israel?
2. Is the abomination in these two verses worse than other behaviors declared an abomination in the rest of the Old Testament which were listed in the last post? Given how much more of the Old Testament focuses on the sins of idolatry, economic injustice, cheating in business, arrogance, dishonesty, and violence; why is it that the abomination that is only listed in these two verses the one that seems to matter most to some Christians?
3. Given that food that was once an abomination is so no longer and we do not object to the abomination of women wearing men’s clothing or keeping their hair short, might there be room to reconsider whether male same-sex relationships are inherently and always an abomination?
4. All of this raises the question of how the law of the Old Covenant applies under the New Covenant.
There is one other place in the Old Testament where same-sex behavior is declared an abomination:
there were also male temple prostitutes in the land. They committed all the abominations of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. (1 Kings 14:24)
It seems plausible to conclude from this that a main reason for forbidding male homosexual behavior was its association with idolatry and pagan temple worship (as we saw in Romans 1). If it is no longer associated with idolatry, it becomes possible to engage the testimony of faithful gay and lesbian Christians differently and entertain the possibility that not all homosexual behavior is inherently and always to’evah. In the context of what we have seen in the rest of this series, I am suggesting that there is room to do just that. Doing so does not necessarily mean that everything else that is declared an abomination in the Old Testament is up for grabs.
While it is a main reason male homosexual sexual relations are forbidden in the Old Testament, idolatry is not likely the only reason. We will consider another in the next post.
See also: Leviticus, abomination and Jesus
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