In this chapter, we get a little list of all the prohibited sexual relationships. The list is introduced by forbidding sexual relations with “anyone near of kin” (Lev. 18:6), and then following that up with specifics:

  1. Your mother
  2. Your father’s wife
  3. Your sister or half-sister (on either your mother’s or father’s side), whether she “was born at home or abroad” (v.9)
  4. Your granddaughter (whether through your son or your daughter)
  5. Your father’s wife’s daughter, if she was “begotten by your father” (v.11)
  6. Your aunt by blood (whether through your father or your mother)
  7. Your aunt by marriage (only on your father’s side)
  8. Your brother’s wife (though I assume that this excludes the Levirate Marriage)
  9. A woman and her daughter, or a woman and her granddaughter (or, presumably, all three)
  10. Your wife’s sister, so long as your wife is still living
  11. A menstruating woman
  12. Your neighbour’s wife
  13. A man
  14. An animal (this is the only prohibition that is given to women as well)

My translation uses the euphemism “uncover the nakedness of” rather than “have sexual relations with,” which I’m definitely glad of. Should I ever be a grandmother, I will site “you shall not uncover the nakedness of your son’s daughter” (v.10) to get out of diaper duty. It’s in the Bible, okay? I’d love to help change diapers, but God forbids it!

The Flight of Moloch by William Blake

The Flight of Moloch by William Blake

A few of the rules come with justification, and the implications of ownership are interesting. For example, the list begins with: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother” (v.7). This is not a prohibition against sleeping with your father (which, I suppose, would be covered by “you shall not lie with a male as with a woman” in v.22). Rather, it’s saying that you shouldn’t sleep with your mother because your mother’s nether regions belong to your father. Or, looking at a different translation, because it would “dishonor” (New International Version), “violate” (New Living Translation), or “shame” (Holman Christian Standard Bible) your father.

Again and again, we are reminded that a woman’s sexual act is a reflection of her patriarch, or that a violation of a woman is actually a violation of her patriarch. Having sex with your granddaughter, for example, is bad because “their nakedness is your own nakedness” (v.10), so you would be shaming yourself not because such a relationship would be inherently predatory, but because it would devalue your granddaughter and, thereby, devalue yourself.

On last note that I feel needs to be made is that there is no explicit prohibition against a man having sex with his daughter. It’s implied under the rule that he should not sleep with both a woman and her daughter, which does in practice cover his own daughters, but it’s not explicit. Given how inherently predatory such a sexual relationship would be, the omission is problematic. It makes it clear that the reasons for these laws have to do with cultic purity and not with the health or wellbeing of individuals.

Homosexuality

Leviticus 18:22, along with Leviticus 20, make up the only two explicit condemnations of homosexuality in the Old Testament. Which isn’t particularly impressive given how much air time homosexuality gets among conservatives, especially since both are mere one-liners while the prohibition on the consumption of blood gets a whole chapter (and multiple references).

Perhaps I’m being unfair, but it seems to me that people might dislike homosexuality for personal reasons and are using the Bible as justification, rather than actually coming to the conclusion that homosexuality is worthy of the attention it’s getting after having read the Bible. Or, rather, the prohibition on homosexuality has been hyper-inflated in the cultural tradition, just like the story of Lucifer the fallen angel. Rather ironic given the sola scriptura basis for Protestantism (and, by extension, the very evangelical culture that is so quick to make a special case of homosexuality – singling it out among such a wide and varied field of abominations).

According to Collins, “the biblical prohibition of male homosexual intercourse is unique in the ancient world” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.80), but, as he points out, Leviticus doesn’t provide us with any reason for the prohibition.

Also notable is the absent of a corollary for women. Though some might argue that these sexual prohibitions are clearly written for a male audience so that the female corollary must be implied, Collins rightly points out that “the following verses carefully indicates that the prohibition of sex with animals applies to women as well as to men,” so it’s absence in the face of lesbian sex is conspicuous. As a possible explanation for the omission, Collins suggests that “sex between women did not concern the Priestly legislators because there was no loss of semen involved.”

Craig Smith, over at BLT, adds that:

Men who allowed themselves to be penetrated by another man were felt to have made themselves like women – who were, of course, not valued in patriarchal cultures. The absence of a similar injunction against “a woman lying with a woman as with a man” indicates that this passage does not refer to homosexuality at all, but to the “dishonor” that one’s maleness would suffer through being penetrated.

[…]

Female homosexuality poses little threat to patriarchal cultures primarily due to the low status of women within the culture.

There also seems to be a clear acceptance of polygamy. While not directly addressed, it does say that “you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister’s yet alive” (v.18). This could be a translation issue, but it seems to be negotiating respect against a backdrop of assumed polygamy.

Child sacrifice

Right in the middle of all these rules about who is off-limits to your penis, we get this rather jarring tangent: “You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Molech” (v.21).

That escalated quickly

I’m assuming that this was just sloppy editing work by someone trying to weave together multiple traditions, but there’s been some really interesting speculation about what the digression might mean.

For example, commenter Brian Hitt over at The King and I paraphrases Leviticus 18 as follows:

Yahweh: Please guys, don’t have sex with other men, animals, or close kin. . . but IF you DO. . . and someone gets pregnant and has kids (well, probably not the men or beasts). . . please don’t burn them to Molech, he’s a real jerk!

Strangers who sojourn among you

Leviticus 18 opens with the following preamble:

You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. (v.3)

Apparently, the Egyptians and Canaanites really know how to party.

As in Leviticus 17, these rules apply to everyone in Israel, not just to the Jews: “But you shall keep my statues and my ordinances and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you” (v.26). As I wrote in the post about Leviticus 17, the idea of requiring that people who do not belong to your religious community obey your religious laws does not sit well with me. It’s a bit less of an issue when we’re talking about incest rather than eating meat that hasn’t been slaughtered in sacrifice to a particular god, but it’s still an issue.

As an incentive to following these rules, God adds that: “you shall therefore keep my statues and my ordinances, by doing which a man shall live” (v.5). Now, presumably, the Egyptians and the Canaanites – who are held up as examples of people who do not follow these specific ordinances – are living (or were living, you get my point). So the promise is not that following God’s rules will be rewarded with life, but rather that doing so will avoid the punishment of death, and that’s an important distinction.

So when it comes to the relationship between God and his Chosen People, cui bono – who benefits? The implication in this chapter is that God is the one who benefits, not the Israelites.

As when God hardened Pharaoh’s heart – resulting in the deaths of far more people and animals than would have had God merely allowed Pharaoh to relent the first time it was his inclination to do so – the concern here is not with presenting God as good or just, but merely powerful. The rules must be followed not because they are good or reasonable, but because God has the power to enforce them. It’s nothing more nor less than ‘might makes right.’

To reinforce his threat, God tells Moses that the Israelites are getting the land “before you” because they are, so far, in his good books. The Canaanites, however, not so much. The Canaanites are painted harshly – “for by all these [the sexual ordinances] the nations I am casting out before you defile themselves” (v.24), so that “the land vomited out its inhabitants” (v.25).

This is a rather convenient excuse for a conquering people. In our own, more recent history, we saw the same rhetoric used in reference to the First Nations / Native American peoples.