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Types of sin, as defined by the Mosaic Code in
the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament)

Part 2: Why do things & deeds pollute? (Con't').
Is Leviticus 18:22 a special case?

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This is a continuation of an earlier essay.

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Why do things and deeds pollute? (Continued from Part 1):

bullet They detract from the condition of the body as "a perfect, unflawed, unblemished container:" Some examples are related to bodily discharges, childbirth, alteration to the body, or disability. They include:

bullet A bodily discharge, described as a "running issue" in the King James Version, ritually polluted the person. His bed, his saddle, and anything that he sat upon also becomes impure. He must wash his clothes and bathe repeatedly for seven days. Finally, he had to go to the temple and offer two turtledoves or young pigeons, one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering. Any person who touched him, his bed, or anything that he sat upon also automatically became impure. (Leviticus 15:2-15).

bullet A man who ejaculated, presumably due to masturbation, must wash himself and anything that his semen touched. Even then, he remained ritually impure until the evening. (Leviticus 15:16-17)

bullet A man and women who engaged in sexual intercourse must both wash their bodies. They remained ritually unclean until the evening. (Leviticus 15:18).

bullet A menstruating women was automatically polluted for at least seven days, as is anything that she sits or lies upon. Anyone who touches her bed or anything that she sat upon is also unclean. After her period, she had to take two suitable birds to the temple to have them ritually sacrificed. (Leviticus 15:19-30)

bullet A man who engaged in sexual intercourse with a woman who is menstruating was considered unclean for seven days. His bed was also polluted. (Leviticus 15:24)

bullet Shaving or getting a hair cut caused ritual impurity. (Leviticus 19:27)

bullet Getting a tattoo or other skin marking had the same effect. (Leviticus 19:28),

bullet Rules for priests were considerably more stringent than for the common people. A priest must not shave their head, trim their beard, or cut their bodies. (Leviticus 21:5). A priest cannot have a significant disability: No man who was blind or lame; who had a disfigured hand or foot; who was hunchbacked or a little person, who had an eye defect, damaged testicles, etc. could be a priest. (Leviticus 21:16-23).

bullet Holiness required that an individual conforms "completely to the class to which they belong." 1 The Hebrews were instructed to differentiate "...between the unclean and the clean [animals], and between the beast that may be eaten and the beast that may not be eaten." (Leviticus 11:47) Examples include:
bullet Only those land animals who have a completely divided split hoof and who chew their cud were considered of a class suitable for human consumption. Camels, rock badgers, rabbits, and pigs were thus examples of unclean animals that humans must not eat, or even touch their carcasses. (Leviticus 11: 1-8)

bullet Sea creatures were a class of living things which should have both fins and scales. Shrimp, lobsters, and any other fish without fins or scales were considered unclean animals. (Leviticus 11:9-12)

bullet Other strict rules related to birds, flying insects, animals that move about on the ground, many of which are unclean. (Leviticus 11:9-46)

bullet Sowing a field with mixed seeds was not allowed. (Leviticus 19:19)

bullet Wearing clothing made from two types of textiles was forbidden. (Leviticus 19:19)

bullet Holiness also required that a person not engage in more than one fundamental role:
bullet There is an extensive list of prohibited incestuous relationships in Leviticus 18:6-18:
bullet A person cannot be both a sexual partner and a sibling of the same person. For example, a man cannot have sex with his sister. The King James Version describes sexual intercourse as "uncovering their nakedness."

bullet A person cannot be a sexual partner and a child of the same person. e.g. a woman cannot have sex with her father; a man cannot have sex with his mother.

bullet A man cannot engage in sexual intercourse with both a woman and her daughter.

bullet A man must not have sex with his neighbor's wife, apparently because the woman would be, at least temporarily, the property of two men. It is unclear how close a person's house has to be before the wife becomes a neighbor.

bullet Sexual activity between species is forbidden:
bullet Cross-breeding livestock was forbidden. (Leviticus 19:19)

bullet Bestiality -- a human having sex with an animal of another species was forbidden. (Leviticus 18:23)

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Is Leviticus 18:22 a special case?

Leviticus 18:22 appears just before the anti-bestiality passage cited above. It, and a parallel verse in Leviticus 20:13, are two of the most commonly used verses in the Bible to oppose homosexual behavior. The King James Version of the Bible translates this as:

"Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination."

This has been interpreted in many ways. Some are:

bullet Forbidding anal intercourse between two men.

bullet Prohibiting all sexual activities between two men.

bullet Forbidding sex acts between either two men or two women, irrespective of the nature of their relationship.

bullet Prohibiting sex between two men as part of a ritual in a Pagan temple.

bullet Forbidding two men from having sex together if they do it in a woman's bed.

bullet Forbidding two Hebrew men from performing anal intercourse; the law had no impact on Gentiles.

bullet Forbidding anal sex because it could not result in a pregnancy. This prohibition is needed because a high birth rate was was badly needed in a nation that was constantly being attacked by foreigners. This is not hardly applicable today when overpopulation of the world is a problem.

Perhaps of even greater importance is that no consensus exists concerning of what type this forbidden behavior was:

bullet Whether it is a moral sin. Some theologians, particularly from the conservative wing of Christianity and Judaism firmly take this position.

bullet Whether it is a ritually impure act. Others, particularly religious liberals, consider this verse as part of the preceding Holiness Code. That is, it teaches that sex between two males makes both of them ritually impure because one partner is leaving "the class to which they belong." 1 One man is being penetrated instead of doing the penetrating; they are adopting the role of a woman.

One key to the proper interpretation may be the Hebrew word "to'ebah," translated as "abomination" in the King James Version and "detestable" in the New International Version. Both English words seem to imply moral sin. However, this word was translated in the Septuagint -- the Bible used by Jesus' disciples and the early Christians -- into the Greek word "bdelygma," which meant ritual impurity. If the writer(s) of Leviticus wished to refer to a moral violation, he/they probably would have used the Hebrew word "zimah."

Another key to the puzzle is put forth by many religious conservatives. These two verses in Leviticus are merely two out of many Bible passages which mention homosexuality. They believe that the others clearly condemn homosexual acts as immoral sins. Thus, it would be more consistent to assume that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 also describe moral failings.

However, many religious liberals and secularists take the opposite position. They interpret the other six or so references to same-gender sexual behavior as not being sins for persons with a homosexual or bisexual orientation. Thus they might conclude that Leviticus 18:22 would be consistent to the other biblical passages if it does not condemn such behavior as a moral sin.

The difference between these alternatives is enormous.

bullet If sex between two males is a moral sin, then a good case can be made that it is still immoral today, even if performed by a married same-sex couple.

bullet If it is merely an impure act, then it might have the status as other polluting activities, such as getting a tattoo, planting a grass seed mixture in one's front lawn, wearing a cotton-polyester shirt, eating shellfish, munching on some barbequed pork ribs, or eating supper with a person who follows another religion. That is, Leviticus 18:22 may be an old prohibition that simply does not apply today.

We can safely reach one conclusion: the Bible passage of Leviticus 18:22 is ambiguous. Sincere, thoughtful, intelligent theologian read the passage in the original Hebrew or in English translations, and reach very different conclusions about its meanings.

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Reference used:

The following information source was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.

  1. D.O. Via & R. A.J. Gagnon, "Homosexuality and the Bible: Two views," Fortress Press, (2003), Page 5. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

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Copyright © 2003 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-DEC-12
Latest update: 2014-MAR-06
Author: B.A. Robinson

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