March 14, 2007

Leviticus 16-18: All about sex!

Today's reading is Leviticus 16-18 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers regulations about the Day of Atonement rituals; a few regulations about sacrifice; a proscription against eating blood; and lots of regulations about sexual relations.

Looking at the above list, guess which one we're going to talk about. (Bonus points to the people who can do it without referring to the subject header of this post.)

Lev. 18 has gotten quite a bit of coverage throughout the centuries. This coverage has not diminished in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Many people still use Lev. 18:22 ("Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination," KJV) as a justification for banning gay marriage. But there is so much more in this – ahem – suggestive chapter.

The first thing we learn in Lev. 18 is that the Egyptians and Canaanites were doing all the practices enumerated later in the chapter. (Lev. 18:3) Given the strangeness of some of the prohibitions listed, we can only imagine what life was like in the Egyptian or Canaanite households of the ancient middle east. This might just be a case of fear-mongering by God to keep the Israelites in line, but if it wasn't, the ancient world was probably a lot more interesting than we give it credit for.

By far the longest portion of the chapter (Lev. 18:6-18) explains that you cannot have sexual relations with any of your close kinsmen (or, specifically, kinswomen). The text elaborates in great detail who was on the "no contact" list: mother (verse 7), sister (9), granddaughter (10), half-sister (11), paternal aunt (12), and maternal aunt (13). This is, after all, fairly straightforward even for meta-texual reasons: too much interbreeding leads to problems.

But the text also bans sex with family members who are not blood relatives: your father's wife, even if she isn't your mother (8); your paternal brother's wife, ie: your aunt (14); your daughter-in-law (15), and your brother's wife (16).

There are a few more special scenarios the text tells us we must avoid: sex with a woman and her own daughter or granddaughter (17); a wife and her sister (18); your neighbour's wife (20); or any "unclean" woman (19). Recall that Lev. 15 talked extensively about when a woman was unclean, mostly focusing on the time she is menstruating.

These proscriptions all seem straightforward today. It is generally only social deviants who want to have sex with their own family, or with two females of the same family at the same time. On the other hand, the situations do come up, especially for those who are frequent talk-show viewers.

When asked why we shouldn't have sex with our kin, especially those who aren't related to us by blood, the best most of us can answer is something about family relations and impropriety. The Bible has something more to say on the subject. For most of the women mentioned above, we read that her nakedness is also the nakedness of the closest man to her, generally her husband. So, for example, your mother's nakedness is also your father's (Lev. 18:7). In fact, the text notes that you shouldn't have sex with your granddaughter, because she is in fact your own nakedness (Lev. 18:10). No one wants to feel cuckolded, least of all by themselves.

The text also notes that you cannot have sex with men as with women (Lev. 18:22), nor should men or women have sex with animals (Lev. 18:23).

There! You see! Homosexuality is wrong and evil and all homosexual must be burned at the stake!

Oops, sorry. A fundamentalist apparently usurped my keyboard while I wasn't looking. But let's look at the statement, regardless. According to the text, it is indeed true that men are forbidden from having sexual relations with other men. (Please note that there is no Biblical proscription against lesbian sex, which is apparently fine.) In so far as it goes, the Biblical literalists are right on track with their reasoning. However, a mere two chapters before, the text also gives explicit instructions that no one may work on the tenth day of the seventh month, as it is the day of atonement (Lev. 16:29). My guess would be that most "homosexuality is outlawed in the Bible and therefore evil" people don't even know when the tenth day of the seventh month is, let alone honour the Biblical commandment not to work. In fact, this is a reference to Yom Kippur, the holiday that Jews celebrate in the autumn.

Furthermore, the very next chapter, Lev. 19, contains the commandment not to wear any item of clothing woven of two different kinds of material (Lev. 19:19). It also commands not to cut your sideburns or the sides of your beard (Lev. 19:27). These commands have as much space devoted to them as the anti-homosexuality laws. If we're going to obey one, we must obey all, right? So if your accuser is clean-shaven man wearing a poly-cotton shirt, he deserves whatever rebuke is coming to him for being a hypocrite.

But wait! Does this mean I'm picking and choosing from the Biblical commandments? Does this mean that we should obey some laws and not others? Frankly, yes. Today most of us (and all my readers, I suspect) live in secular societies that are not governed by Biblical laws. We can chose which Biblical laws make sense to us and apply those, while disregarding the ones that seem foolish.

So, that said, I'd keep the laws against sleeping with kin. It leads to inbreeding for blood-relations and bad family dynamics for those who merely married in. The law against homosexual encounters, however, can probably be safely disposed of, along with the laws against poly-cotton shirts and clean-shaven sideburns.

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