Does Leviticus Say Gays are Detestable and Must be Killed?

As a child, I knew the Bible said, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus chapter 22 – KJV). Yet we knew where some witches lived; it was less than a mile from our house. We were afraid of them and avoided them, and I wondered why no one killed them as we were supposed to.

We might ask the same thing about Leviticus chapter 20:

If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

What is your answer?


Leviticus 18 and Cultural Preservation

We already examined the the story of Sodom, and I concluded that it was all about violence and rape; it had nothing to do with same-sex attraction.

But, at first, Leviticus chapter 20 seems pretty clear that sex between two men is detestable and must be punished by death. But it is not so clear as one might think. We have to consider the context for this drastic command.

The book of Leviticus is a collection of rules about sacrificial ritual, ceremonial uncleanness, and Israelite culture. The major goal of those rules was to avoid assimilation into the cultures around them by having distinctive cultural practices.

Leviticus chapter 18 is a long list of sexual prohibitions with specific reference that these things were practiced among the Egyptians and the Canaanites. One of those prohibitions states:

Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.

Chapters 18 and 20 both use this word ‘detestable’. To us ‘detestable’, and the King James equivalent ‘abomination’, sounds like something so morally revolting that we can hardly imagine it. But the summary to chapter 18 tells us why these things are detestable:

Everyone who does any of these detestable things—such persons must be cut off from their people.

Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them. I am the Lord your God.

These rules were not moral directives; they were prohibitions against Israel adopting practices of surrounding cultures. These practices were detestable because they represented foreign culture.

Some of the rules seem quite arbitrary. The next chapter includes:

Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material…Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.

Israel was to be culturally separate from their neighbors.

Leviticus 20 and the Punishments

Leviticus chapter 20 provides appropriate punishments for infraction of these rules. Among the punishments we find:

If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

In addition we find:

    • Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death. (Do we advocate this?)
    • If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death. (Do we advocate this?)
    • If a man marries both a woman and her mother, it is wicked. Both he and they must be burned in the fire. (Polygamy is okay, but not with both a mother and her daughter. Do we advocate this?)

The summary to chapter 20 explains the reason for these rules and punishments:

You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them…I am the Lord your God, who has set you apart from the nations.

You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds…You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.

These rules were to set the Israelites apart from the other nations. It was a matter of cultural preservation—a matter of identity. As believers, we do not feel compelled to observe them.

There is little interest among us in rules like distinguishing between clean and unclean animals, but for some reason the passages on same-sex relationships are singled out as ammunition for absolute rejection of gays.

Gays vs. Temple Prostitutes

The word used for ‘man‘ as a sexual partner is not the normal word for man. It likely means religious prostitute, so that both the word ‘man’ and the word ‘detestable’ are associated with pagan religion. Having sex with a male temple prostitute, as other nations did, was prohibited.

Deuteronomy chapter 23 makes a similar point:

No Israelite man or woman is to become a shrine prostitute…because the Lord your God detests them both.

So it seems that prohibitions against Israelites having sex with another man specifically relate to the male temple prostitution practiced by surrounding cultures. It has nothing to do with gay partners in relationship.

Next time we will talk about the remaining Old Testament passage used to condemn gays—have you heard of Adam and Steve?

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Have a great day! ~Tim
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23 Responses to Does Leviticus Say Gays are Detestable and Must be Killed?

  1. Pingback: Homosexuality: The Case of Sodom | Jesus Without Baggage

  2. Lynda says:

    Hi Tim, I really enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for taking the time to do this.

    Please don’t read this question as being argumentative but as a question from someone who is trying to figure out what I believe and why I believe it. It seems that you have gone through this line of questioning that I’m in the middle of trying to figure out.

    The examples you gave from the Old Testament verses are not punished by death any more, but they’re still considered wrong. God said He abhors them so the people who belong to God should not do them. So if the examples you gave are sinful and a Christian should repent so they can be forgiven for their actions, why is it ok for a man (or woman) to be in a same sex relationship? Wouldn’t that be bringing the practice of a foreign culture into the practices of the people who belong to God? I must be missing something.


    • Marc says:

      Lynda, You ask a very important question and I hope that Tim will answer it. I am also awaiting Tim’s answer to some questions I posted regarding one of his recent posts.

      I think there is a very slippery slope to follow if Christians do not recognize that God has given His people limits to sexual expression. Although the Church is not subject to the laws given to Moses, there remains guidance as to what actions will draw us close to God and what actions will separate us from God.


      • Marc, recently I have been overloaded and pushed to the limit. I apologize for not responding to your comments more promptly.

        I recognize that even believers who do not think it proper to reject gays outright disagree on the appropriate response; I doubt all believers will ever agree on the proper response. This is because thinking people never come to precise agreement on everything.

        See my answer to Lynda’s comment for more detail.


        • Marc says:

          No problem Tim. I believe you have addressed the question I raised before in your response to Lynda. I think in relation to the four ways for a Christian to think about same sex attraction, I am leaning toward number 4 with more definition.

          Sexual intimacy account for a very small amount of the time that couples spend together, yet it is spiritually problematic for all couples by degree. For married heterosexual couples sexual intimacy should not include practices that are not anatomically natural. For unmarried heterosexuals and homosexual couples, sexual intimacy should be refrained of it they wish to grow in their relationship with God.


      • Chas says:

        Marc, the actions that draw us close to God are to show love and tolerance; the actions that push us away from God are to show hatred and intolerance.


        • Marc says:

          I fully agree with you Chas. Co-suffering and sacrificial love are the fullest manifestations of this. Putting the physical and spiritual needs of others ahead of our own desires and needs is the way to draw closer to God.


    • Hi Lynda, I don’t think you are being argumentative. In fact you raise an important question. Among Christians, there are four ways to think about gays.

      1. Gays are evil and should not be tolerated or accommodated in any way.
      2. Gays are sinful, but we should not deny their civil rights.
      3. Same-sex attraction is not a sin, but gay Christians must not act on their attraction.
      4. Same-sex relationships are not sinful, so gay Christians in relationship are not sinning.

      I have held all four positions at different times. I now believe position #1 is terribly wrong and Christians should not hold that position. The other three positions are appropriate for Christians who take seriously Jesus’ attitudes expressed in the gospels.

      Christian gays, themselves, are split between positions #3 (called Side B) and position #4 (called side A). However, both side A and side B advocates agree that same-sex attraction is not sinful and is not a reason to reject those with same-sex attraction in the church.

      I hold to position #4, but I celebrate believers who hold to positions #2 and #3. I think we can agree against position #1 even though we do not agree on the other positions.

      I plan to elaborate on this question in a future post, but the important thing to me is that position #1 is untenable, destructive, and inconsistent with the love of Jesus.

      I hope this answer is helpful.


      • Chas says:

        Tim. This post brings to mind another subject that you might like to tackle on some future occasion. It seems to me that we are responsible to God for the way in which we respond to things, so that would include the way in which we respond to/react against people who are gay. In the context of my post above, if we respond in a positive way, it would bring us closer to God, but if we react in a negative way, it would take us further from God.


  3. michaeleeast says:

    Well said. The foreign practice of temple prostitution
    is what is proscribed not homosexual relationships.
    The homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan
    seems never to be mentioned. 1 Samuel 18 approximates
    gay marriage between the two men. It seems to me that this
    episode is conveniently overlooked by most fundamentalists.
    And it is considerably more substantial than the Old Testament texts
    which are used to persecute and punish gays.


    • Marc says:

      Having reread 1 Samuel 18 and the chapters before and after, I am at a loss to see how the covenant between David and Jonathan indicates a same sex marriage. Both of these men had heterosexual marriages that produced offspring.


    • Thanks Michael. This story of David and Jonathan is indeed and interesting one.

      Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself…And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt.

      It does appear that they might have had a same-sex attraction, and I have certainly considered this possibility. But I can’t tell for sure.

      In my life time, I have close male friendships that could be described like David’s and Jonathan’s, but there was absolutely no sexual attraction involved, and I did not take off my robe and tunic. One the other hand, I have also had close friendships with females without any sexual attraction.

      I do not discard the ideal of same-sex attraction between David and Jonathan, and I think it is very much worth considering. It is as strong an argument as most scriptural arguments in condemnation of same-sex attraction.

      Thanks for sharing it with the readers. It is considerable value.


      • Chas says:

        Here we need the viewpoint of people who have endured combat conditions side by side. The reported experiences from both WW1 and WW2 are that the comradeship which can be experienced under the shadow of death is a special one, but usually not a sexual one.


        • Marc says:

          Good point Chas. This comradeship can take on a commitment very similar to family bonds.


          • Chas says:

            Marc, on running through this series of posts again, the thing that came to mind was that of commitment, and your use of the word here provides an ideal opportunity to mention it. A very important factor in all relationships, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is that of commitment. In many heterosexual relationships nowadays people seem to be unwilling to make a true binding commitment to their partners, i.e. they are unwilling to marry them. It has been shown in several studies, in UK and elsewhere, that children do better in school and in life if their parents are married, but in this age of political correctness those people who have some ax to grind try to shout down anyone who points out this truth. It seems to me that God would approve of commitment to a partner, whether the relationship was one of hetero- or homo-sexuality.


  4. Good take on a very tough subject.


  5. Lynda says:

    Thank you so much. This has been very helpful.


  6. Pingback: Does Leviticus Say Gays are Detestable and Must be Killed? | Jesus Without Baggage - Contemplative Theology : Contemplative Theology

  7. Interesting. Sad that we don’t hear this taught among Christians today.


  8. Kevin says:

    Thank you for bringing further clarity took this point. I read a piece by a Jewish commentator some years ago about this issue in Leviticus. He made an interesting point that all the laws and rulings in Leviticus had an equivalent or reiteration in Deuteronomy, except this one about men having sex with other men. The point being this was a religious ruling for a religious case in point and should not be applied to the general population.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Thanks Kevin. This IS an interesting point, and one of which I was unaware. Quite interesting. Thanks for sharing it with us.


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