Saturday, February 18, 2012

sexuality and the covenant

In holiness and sexuality, David Peterson writes on Sexuality and the covenant in the Book of Leviticus:

Leviticus 1-16

The first sixteen chapters of Leviticus deal with laws of sacrifice, the institution of the priesthood, and various regulations about uncleanness and its treatment. By preserving Israel’s purity, these cultic provisions would enable her ‘to remain in contact with God and witness to his presence in the world.’[Cf. G. J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 5. Note Wenham’s examination of holiness and purity in Leviticus (pp. 18-25).] The New Testament points to the fulfilment and replacement of this tabernacle or temple cult in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ (e.g. Heb. 9:1 – 10:18). Under the New Covenant, definitive cleansing and sanctification is available for Jews and Gentiles alike through the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2, 30; 6:11). Continual access to God ‘with a true heart in full assurance of faith’ is possible because of the high-priestly ministry of Jesus the exalted Messiah (Heb. 10:19-22).

Leviticus 18 and practical holiness

Leviticus 17-27 offers various prescriptions for practical holiness, covering every area of Israelite life. Chapter 17 gives basic principles about food and sacrifice, chapter 18 deals specifically with sexual behaviour, and chapter 19 articulates what it means to be a good neighbour, including the famous injunction to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (v. 18). The list of capital and other grave crimes in Leviticus 20 includes religious and sexual behaviour, showing again how family and sexual matters were central to the Old Testament view of holiness.

Seven times in Leviticus 18 the Israelites are warned not to behave like the nations who occupied Canaan before them (vv. 3 [twice], 24, 26, 27, 29, 30). The fundamental reason is simply stated: ‘I am the Lord (your God)’ (vv. 2, 4, 5, 6, 21, 30). This phrase recalls the revelation of the name of God to Israel, associated with the promise of redemption from Egypt and settlement in the promised land (Ex. 3:13-17; 6:2-9; Lev. 19:34, 36; 23:43; 25:38, 55; 26:13, 45; cf. Nu. 15:41). In Leviticus it is regularly linked with the general command to be holy, because the Lord himself is holy (Lev. 11:44-5; 19:2; 20:7-8, 24). The phrase is also linked with specific instructions to indicate that ‘the people of God were expected to keep the law, not merely as a formal duty but as a loving response to God’s grace in redemption.’[Wenham, Leviticus, p. 251]

Negatively, therefore, there is a continuing challenge in Leviticus 18 to turn away from the practices of the nations, including incestuous relationships (vv. 6-18), adultery (v. 20), offering children in sacrifice (v. 21), homosexual behaviour (v. 22), and bestiality (v. 23). Positively, there is the continuing challenge to be different because of who God is (vv. 2-4) and because his rules offer true life (v. 5, cf. 26:3-13), rather than uncleanness, which leads to judgement (vv. 24-30).

Homosexuality in this context

Homosexuality is described as ‘an abomination’ (18:22, cf. 20:13; Heb. tô‘ēbâ), meaning something abhorred or hated. The implication is that certain practices are hated by God and should therefore be hated by his people. In 18:26, 27, 29, 30, the term is employed to describe everything prohibited in the chapter. In biblical usage, it does not simply speak of idolatry, as some have argued, nor does it limit the prohibition against homosexuality to cult prostitution.[The noun tô‘ēbâ (‘abomination’) is related to the verb t‘b (‘abhor, detest’). In the OT, ‘pagan worship practices, deceit and insubordination within the covenant nation, and superficial worship of Yahweh constitute three major realms of abhorrent activities.’ (M. A. Grisanti, NIDOTTE 4: 315)]

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 both use the general term ‘male’ (Heb. zākār, as in Gen. 1:27), thus forbidding every kind of male-male intercourse. Both partners are equally condemned in 20:13. Furthermore, both texts use the term ‘lie with’ (Heb. škb with a preposition), rather than a verb which may suggest rape or any kind of forced relationship.[W. C. Williams NIDOTTE 4:102 overstates the case when he concludes that, ‘when used to denote sexual relations, the idiom “lie with” and its derivatives denote sexual relations that are illicit.’ Exceptions such as Gen. 30:15-16; 2 Sam. 11:11; 12:24 show that the expression can be used of legitimate sexual relation.] The phrase ‘as with a woman’ indicates that what is condemned is sexual activity in which a male puts another male in the position of a female. In short, these texts condemn homosexual intercourse where both parties consent, whether it is practised privately or in connection with pagan worship.

Gordon Wenham explains the distinctiveness of these prohibitions in the light of what can be known about attitudes towards homosexuality amongst Israel’s neighbours:

‘The ancient Near East was a world in which the practice of homosexuality was well known. It was an integral part of temple life at least in parts of Mesopotamia, and no blame appears to have attached to its practice outside of worship. Those who regularly played the passive role in intercourse were despised for being effeminate, and certain relationships such as father-son or pederasty were regarded as wrong, but otherwise it was regarded as quite respectable.’[Wenham, ‘Homosexuality’, p. 361]

Set against this background, the Old Testament laws are very striking. They ban every type of homosexual activity, not just forcible intercourse as the Assyrians did, or sex with youths as the Egyptians did.

Reflecting the perspectives of Genesis

This distinctiveness cannot simply be explained in terms of Israel’s aversion to the customs of her neighbours. Many of the most fundamental principles of Old Testament theology are expressed in the opening chapters of Genesis. The biblical view of creation is that God created the different plants and animals to reproduce according to their own particular type. ‘Hence the law forbids any mixed breeding or acts that might encourage it (Lev. 19:19; Dt. 22:5, 9-11).’[Wenham, ‘Homosexuality’, p. 363] Genesis speaks of the creation of mankind in two sexes, in order to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (1:28), but also so that male and female might relate together in total intimacy and become ‘one flesh’ (2:18-24). Wenham concludes:

‘It therefore seems most likely that Israel’s repudiation of homosexual intercourse arises out of its doctrine of creation . . . To allow the legitimacy of homosexual acts would frustrate the divine purpose and deny the perfection of God’s provision of two sexes to support and complement one another.’[Wenham, ‘Homosexuality’, p. 363. Leviticus refers to incest as literally sex with your ‘own flesh’ (18:16-17; 20:19). Homosexuality is similarly rejected because it involves intercourse between beings that are too much alike. By contrast, bestiality is condemned because it is sex between beings that are too much unlike.]

More generally, Mary Douglas makes the same point. Holiness means keeping distinct the categories of creation:

‘It therefore involves correct definition, discrimination and order. Under this head all the rules of sexual morality exemplify the holy. Incest and adultery (Lev. 18:6-20) are against holiness, in the simple sense of right order. Morality does not conflict with holiness, but holiness is more a matter of separating that which should be separated than of protecting the rights of husbands and brothers.’[M. Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966), p. 54. Note that bestiality is condemned in Lev. 18:23 because it is literally ‘a confusion’ (Heb. tebel from bālal, ‘to mix’). EVV translate ‘perversion’. Cf. 20:12, where the same word is used in connection with a man having intercourse with his daughter-in-law.]

The apostle Paul seems to reflect this view of creation when he describes homosexual behaviour as ‘contrary to nature’ (Gk. para physin, Rom. 1:26). I deal with this issue more fully in an article entitled Same-sex unions and Romans 1. Sanctification under old and new covenants involves God’s enabling to live according to the ‘right order’ that he has established for relationships (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

No comments: