Sex in Leviticus

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 23, 2015

The Book of Leviticus is a tough read, filled with both ritual and moral prescriptions. The two are closely connected, but it is not always obvious where ritual holiness ends and moral holiness begins. For example, the rule outlawing those who “kill” or “slaughter” an animal without bringing it to the door of the tent of meeting and offering it before the tabernacle of the Lord (Lv 17:1-7) is directed against the sacrifice of animals to false gods. Intrinsically, apart from that connection, the prescription makes little sense.

What are we to think, then, when we find in chapter 18 an enumeration of sins involving sexual relations? After prohibiting the degrees of incest in considerable detail, the Lord instructs Moses concerning several other sins:

“You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness. And you shall not lie carnally with your neighbor’s wife, and defile yourself with her. You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Molech, and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord. You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. And you shall not lie with any beast and defile yourself with it, neither shall any woman give herself to a beast to lie with it: it is a perversion.” [Lv 18:19-23; “uncovering nakedness” is an idiom for having sexual relations]

Here we have a condemnation of sexual relations during menstruation, of adultery, of child sacrifice, of homosexual relations, and of bestiality. Yet, if we classify abortion as a form of child sacrifice, the only one of these regarded as wrong by the moral consensus of the modern West is (for the moment, at least) bestiality. The Old Testament context confuses even some Christians, who suggest that all sexual prohibitions are like the first in the list—of temporary ritualistic importance, perhaps, but otherwise morally irrelevant.

To figure out things like this, a good Jew would advert to the understanding of the community which received the text as Revelation, including later teaching and commentary, since no written document can purport to answer every question that could be asked. A Christian, of course, can take account of the New Covenant, which completes, perfects and clarifies the Old, and of the teachings of the New Covenant community, that is, the Church.

St. Paul is the best New Testament source here, for a significant part of his purpose in proclaiming the Gospel was to distinguish mere ritualistic norms, which have no salvific power, from a whole-hearted incorporation into Christ. In his own prohibitions, then, intrinsic morality always comes to the fore:

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral [literally, “fornicators”], nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals [in the Greek, “nor the effeminate nor sodomites”], nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. [1 Cor 6:9-10, RSV-CE, 2nd ed. Cf. Rm 1:26-27, 1 Tim 1:9-10]

Then, too, we have the consistent witness of the Christian community, which has been crystallized by the Magisterium of the Church repeatedly over a period of 2,000 years, up to and including the current Catechism.

As I have mentioned previously, reading even the most “boring” books of the Old Testament can have this effect, from time to time. It can suddenly awaken us not just to law and ritual, but to what it means to be ourselves—that is, to live as persons brought into existence by, and for, and in the very image of God.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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