In a previous post, I listed what I have found to be the five strongest arguments against seeing Leviticus 18 and 20 as prohibiting same-sex intercourse. In this post and the next, I’ll work through each of these

arguments and offer a counter argument. I’ll begin with the last argument first and work my way up.

5. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 don’t refer to all forms of same sex intercourse, but male-cult prostitution.

If this is true, then Leviticus does not speak to same sex attraction leading to consensual, monogamous sex. But I don’t find this argument convincing for two reasons.

First, there is little evidence that such cultic prostitution existed in the ancient world, let alone in Israel. In the past, scholars assumed that cultic prostitution was alive and well in the ancient world. But more recent scholars have shown that there is little evidence that it actually existed. There is no mention of it, for instance, in Babylonian, Ugarit, or Akkadian literature, and the Hebrew words (qadesh, qadeshah, qadeshim) often translated “[male] cult prostitute” (or “sodomite”) do not mean that. Translating these Hebrew words as “cult prostitute” or “male cult prostitute” assumes the existence of “male cult prostitution” in the ancient world, but there is little evidence that it did. There’s been a lot of scholarly literature written about this in the last 10-15 years, and most of it argues against the existence of male cult prostitution in the ancient world.

I could say much more about this, but we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. In any case, if you think Leviticus 18 and 20 refers to male cult prostitution, you need to first swim upstream and prove that there was such a thing in Israel.

Second, even if you did prove (against the opinion of most ancient near east scholars) that qadesh does mean “male cult prostitution,” Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 don’t use this word. When the Bible outlaws the qadashim in, say, Deut 23:18, it does so explicitly: “You shall not bring the wages of a qadesh into the house of the LORD.” But Leviticus 18 and 20 don’t mention the qadeshim. They prohibit a male having sex with another male. There is no evidence in the text or from history that this prohibition only had male cult prostitution in view.


4. The underlying logic of Leviticus 18 and 20 is that females are inferior to males.

Such is implied by the prohibition of lying with a male “as with a woman.” So, if we are to obey the prohibition do we also need to view women as inferior?

This is actually a good argument and needs to be carefully considered. However, I still think it reads too much into the text. After all, Leviticus says that men shouldn’t lie with men “as with a woman” but it doesn’t

explain why it’s wrong for a man to act like a woman. And I don’t think we can simply assume that it’s wrong because women were viewed as socially lower than men.

Here are a couple responses:

First, it could be wrong for men to act like women, not because women are inferior to men, but because men and women were created with divinely intended differences. Robert Gagnon (a scholar who defends the traditional view) says: “At issue was not so much status differentiation as sexual differentiation” (The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 142). In other words, same-sex intercourse violates the natural pairing of sexual differences; it doesn’t just demean male honor (i.e. acting like a woman). After all, the Hebrew Bible, though patriarchal to some extent, elevated the status of women much higher than in many surrounding cultures (see, e.g. Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?).

Second, in other ancient law codes, the only one who was shamed in the act of same-sex intercourse was the one who “played the female.” But—and this is key—Leviticus 20:13 gives the death penalty for both partners in male-male intercourse. If social status was a concern for Leviticus, then it would not have condemned the active and the passive partner.

The commands in Leviticus 18 and 20 are unqualified and absolute. That is, they don’t show the same concern for social status that other ancient laws about homosexual intercourse do. In contrast to other ancient laws, social status seems to be irrelevant for the prohibitions in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.


3. Homosexual sex is called “an abomination” in Leviticus 18 and 20 but so are a lot of practices that Christians have no problem engaging in.

For instance, dietary restrictions such as eating pork—so the argument goes—is also called an abomination.

This argument has been used by many recent interpreters who say that Bible doesn’t (clearly) prohibit same sex intercourse. Daniel Helminiak says that many things are outlawed as “an abomination” in Leviticus including eating unclean birds and fish (What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality). Justin Lee says something similar in his excellent book, Torn. I’m pretty sure both of these interpreters draw from the monumental work of John Boswell, who in 1980 said that the word “abomination” in Leviticus does not signify something that is “intrinsically evil” but is “used throughout the Old Testament

to designate those Jewish sins which involve ethnic contamination” such as eating pork or weaving together different fabrics (Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, Kindle loc. 2775).

This argument sounds devastating for conservative interpreters who love bacon and poly-cotton blends. But there’s one problem with the argument: It’s wrong.

Boswell and his later readers seem to be looking at the English word “abomination” and not the Hebrew word toevah. (Boswell looks at the Hebrew term, but misrepresents the evidence.) The word toevah is only used 6 times in Leviticus: 4 times in the plural, “abominations,” to refer broadly to all sins (mostly sexual) of Leviticus 18:6-29 (incest, bestiality, child sacrifice, and homosexual sex). But toevah only occurs 2 times in the singular—“an abomination”—in Leviticus: 18:22 and 20:13. In both occasions, it refers to (and only to) male-male sex.

Toevah is never used in Leviticus to refer to dietary laws.

In the rest of the Old Testament, it’s most often used to refer to acts that are intrinsically evil: murder (Jer 7:9), oppressing the poor (Ezek 18:7), robbery (Ezek 18:7-8), adultery (Ezek 22:11), among other sins. There may be instances where toevah is used in the way Boswell claims (e.g. Deut 14:3) but these are rare. And, most importantly, they are not used as such in Leviticus.

Same sex intercourse among males does not seem to belong in the same category as other dietary laws that are done away with in the New Testament. This feeds into the next and probably the most important argument against seeing Leviticus 18 and 20 as relevant. But let’s stop here to give you some time to digest.

Again, none of my thoughts here are written in stone, and I certainly don’t think I’ve understood all the complexities of homosexuality by doing a few word studies on Leviticus 18. But in order to faithfully and compassionately bring the Bible to bear on the current debate, I need to understand those debated passages that explicitly mention homosexual intercourse. If at any place you see that my interpretation or reasoning is wrong, or if you believe my argument is unclear, I genuinely invite you to critique me. I’ll do my best not to be offended, even if you respond offensively. After all, my goal is not to prove a certain presupposed view to be true, but to understand Scripture in order to bring its truth and love to bear on a broken world.

We’ll come back in the next post and cover the last two arguments.

Series Navigation<< Leviticus 18: A Text Dripping with BloodAre Leviticus 18 & 20 Still Relevant for Christians? >>


    • Hi Julie,

      I’ll talk about that in the next post. Interestingly, there’s no mention of lesbianism in any ANE legal text that I’m aware of, yet male-male sex is mentioned. So it’s not unusual that the OT doesn’t mention it.

  1. Hey Preston,
    I’m in complete agreement that these passages should not be interpreted within the context of male cult prostitution. On a side note, I’m interested to hear more about the whole qadesh/qadeshim thing (and also celev). I’ve always understood these Hebrew words to be male prostitutes, only because that is the traditional interpretation. Deut 23:17 seems to suggest that this is the correct translation: “No daughters of Israel shall be a qedeshah and no SONS of Israel shall be a qadesh.” Since qedeshah does indeed mean a prostitute/cult prostitute, how else should we understand the masculine form, qadesh? Thanks Preston!

    • Hey Adam!

      Good question! Actually, it’s not clear that qadesh means cult prostitute. The akkadian equivalent “qaditsu,” in fact, simply means “someone dedicated to the service of a deity” without implying any sexual acts in that service. The same is probably true of Deut 23 and other references to the qadashim.

      For a very thorough discussion, see (among many others) these two articles. Unfortunately, the first one is written in modern Hebrew. (Fortunately, I have a brother in law who’s fluent in Hebrew!)

      Gruber, Mayer, “The qadesh in the Book of Kings and Other Sources”, Tarbiz 52 (1983) 167–76. [Hebrew].
      –, “Hebrew qĕdēšāh and her Canaanite and Akkadian Cognates”, UF 18 (1986): 133–48.

      I can give you more bibliography if you want.

  2. Heya, Preston —

    Regarding the issue of homosexal intercourse and Leviticus, is the Leviticus text sufficiently dealt with by noting that recent scholarship argues against cultic prostitution existing in ANE culture? That is, could these verses be referencing cultic sex, rather than prostitution? As I understand it, there’s a significant distinction between “sacred sex” and “sacred prostitution.” So while the forbidden activities might not actually refer to male prostitutes, might they simply refer to homosexual cultic practices?

    On a wider tangent, is it unlikely, given the otherwise off-topic insertion of Lev. 18:21 (regarding Molech worship), that what follows is directly related to purported cultic practice? In other words, could the verses function as a polemic, even if the practices did not actually happen?

    • Hi Sam, thanks for dropping in! Very good questions. I appreciate the pushback.

      Regarding your first question, you’re right. Giving that one reason would NOT sufficiently deal with the argument. That’s why I gave two reasons 😉 I think the strength is more in the second reason. The prohibition against male-male intercourse is unqualified and absolute. It don’t specify any sort of cultic associations of homosexual intercourse, even though the Bible is replete with references to cultic practices. Why the silence here?

      One could say that it’s assumed in the larger context. Leviticus 18 and 20 are all about cultic practices, but this isn’t true. While some commands are (child sacrifice, perhaps bestiality), others such as the incest laws and sex during menstruation are not. Leviticus 18 and 20 are made up of a conglomeration of practices that are connected to the purity laws, practices connected to ANE cultic rituals, and practices that are inherently sinful (no matter the reason).

      Add to this the probability that Paul refers to Lev 18 and 20 in Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6 in order to prohibit same-sex intercourse, I find it unlikely, or at least unconvincing, that the prohibitions in Lev 18 and 20 were more narrowly confined to cultic practices.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts, though! What am I missing?

      • Good points, Preston. As I respond, I’ll be playing a -bit- on the Devil’s Advocate side just to flesh out the discussion so I apologize in advance if anything seems overly argumentative.

        Regarding the implications of cultic sex, I don’t dispute that the prohibition against homosexuality is unqualified, though I believe it’s tied, at least in principle, to the cultic sexual practices of paganism. Dr. Robert Gagnon, responding on ( to another author, cites his book:

        “I do not doubt that the circles out of which Leviticus 18:22 was produced had in view homosexual cult prostitution, at least partly. Homosexual cult prostitution appears to have been the primary form in which homosexual intercourse was practiced in Israel” [The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 130].

        Gagnon continues his article by citing the argument from that book that, while cultic prostitution was partially in mind, the prohibition against homosexuality was not confined to cult prostitutes.

        I certainly wouldn’t dispute anything in that argument. Where I think the distinction is important, however, is the link between paganism and homosexuality — implied in Leviticus but fully articulated by Paul in the Roman epistle. Apparently to the author(s) of Leviticus and certainly to Paul, homosexual behavior — indeed, homosexual passions — were caused by abandoning God for idols and intrinsically associated with paganism.

        I realize that you’ve got Paul’s condemnations in the queue for discussion and I don’t want to jump your thoughts too far ahead on the overall topic. In my mind, though, it’s important to keep the association with cultic paganism and homosexuality in place in order to fully understand why ancient Israel’s laws prohibited the practice and Paul’s reasoning for doing so. As you say, we’re dealing with a conglomeration of laws and when considering the sinful nature of the prohibited actions, it will be necessary to examine why those actions are to be considered sinful, apart from simply having a place in the Bible. In this case, I think we’re looking at an argument dealing with pagan practices and natural law . . . but I won’t try and get ahead of your blog here!

        Short version: I agree that homosexual intercourse in Leviticus isn’t restricted to cult prostitutes or even specifically ritualistic practices but I think Leviticus does closely associate homosexual intercourse with cultic sex and that such an association is important to keep in the forefront.

        Thanks for your response, your thoughts and your blog!

        • Hey Sam,

          I love playing devil’s advocate! Thanks for the pushback. You raise very good questions.

          I’d first point back to my second point above, which you (or the devil) has not refuted. Namely, the OT oftentimes refers to cultic sexual sins and uses specific language to do so; however, this language is not used in Lev 18/20.

          I would add that SOME things in the context are cultic (child sacrifice) but other things are not (sex during menstruation, incest). So it’s not accurate to say that Lev 18/20 deals with cultic sins and therefore its prohibition against male-male sex is prohibited on cultic grounds. The context is not so simple.

          Now, with Gagnon. Yes, I’m very familiar with his discussion in both the book and that blog. But I disagree with Gagnon here. Now, to be fair, his book was published in 2001 (which means he probably completed it in 1999-2000), and yet more recent ANE scholarship (the large majority, at least) has shown that male-cult prostitution (I think this would include cultic sex in general) did not exist in the ANE. At least, there is no evidence for it.

          Older ANE scholars assumed it did, and this seems to be what (or whom) Gagnon is drawing on.

          This is why it’s good read broadly and more recently. (For what it’s worth, I wasn’t aware of this shift in ANE scholarship, except my brother in law who did his PhD in the OT and interacted extensively with this issue, told me! So I hope I don’t sound prideful when I say that Gagnon has missed this shift in scholarly opinion. I would have missed it too!)

          Hope this helps!

          Oh, and I think the homosexuality/idolatry connection is way overplaying in Rom 1. But we’ll get to that anon…

  3. Hi Preston! I’ve heard it said that the passages in Leviticus taken in cultural context are anti male homosexual sex during that specific time period because of the need for the Israelites to reproduce and gain numbers for protection from neighboring enemies, etc. (Similar to the reason for which men must marry their dead brothers wives and reproduce with them, etc.) I’ve also heard that polygamy was also acceptable practice in that time for the protection of the women and children and ability to more effectively procreate. In short, hospitality and reproduction were very big deals back then because of the dangerous times and essential need to grow the israelite tribe etc. Could that also be why lesbian sex was never mentioned (it wasn’t a waste of anybody’s life creating sperm) and also why male same sex was prohibited so strongly? Thanks for studying into this! Interesting stuff.

    • Ya, I’ve heard that too and it’s a possibility, but the text just doesn’t give this clear reason for the prohibition. And this doesn’t explain why incest is outlawed in Lev 18:6ff, since they could totally reproduce like crazy if they did this. Also, I definitely would disagree with that last bit about “…gain numbers for protection from neighboring enemies, etc.” Throughout the OT, God consistently commands Israel to trust Him for protection, not their military might or vast infantry.

      You’re probably right about polygamy and the general point about procreation. Wasting sperm is not a good thing (which is why sex during menstruation was probably outlawed as well). That might be one reason why lesbian sex isn’t mentioned; however, I think the more fundamental issue is the confusion of God-give gender roles in sexual intercourse. Similar logic would apply to the incest laws: incest is sex with another who doesn’t possess the necessary “difference” (on a different level, of course).

      Still working through the details, though. Great thoughts!

  4. Just a correction: Deut. 23:18 does not mention a kadesh (or qadesh if your prefer). It refers to zonah, a common street prostitute. Deut. 23:17 refers to kadesh and k’deshah.

    I offered a better translation and understanding of the two Lev. verses in my post to your previous article. But I do find it curious that people reading the mistranslations automatically draw themselves a mental picture. I have found that anti-gay Christians often have an obsession with anal intercourse (far more than the average gay man, in my experience). If we look at the mistranslation, and for the sake of argument, assume it is correct, what does it mean? When a man lies with a woman, it is almost never for the purpose of anal sex. It’s for vaginal sex. So how can a man lie with a man as he does with a woman? Unless that man was born intersexed and has a vagina, it isn’t possible. When I read online posts from Evangelicals denouncing homosexuals (moreso than homosexuality), they seem inordinately focused on anal sex, an activity that many male couples do not practice, some straight couples do practice, and which lesbians almost never practice. And yet, to them, it is the be-all and end-all of homosexuality. I do applaud your efforts to help people see LGBT people as just that: people. They live the same lives everyone else does, fall in love, get hurt, etc. The ONLY difference is that they are sexually attracted to, and fall in love with, the same sex.

  5. There is another flaw with the “male prostitutes” claim that you didn’t mention.

    Both of the Leviticus passages refer to lying “with a male as with a woman”—but unless there is also a female prostitute cult that this is specifically referring to*, having sex with a male prostitute is NOT like sleeping with a woman. Such an interpretation immediately breaks the analogy.

    *This cannot be the case as (a) you have already discussed the absence of prostitution cults in Israel in general, and (b) the text would need to specify that clearly in order to distinguish it from regular sex with a woman, and therefore set up the analogy as dealing with male prostitution, which it does not.

    Thus, the only way to argue that this refers to make prostitutes is to ignore or remove the phrase “as with a woman”—otherwise, it is clear that that phrase establishes a comparison to the way a man has sex with his wife.

  6. Thanks for the correction! Yes, it’s vs. 17.

    You’re second paragraph isn’t all that relevant for my actual post. I’m not anti-gay, nor do I make an issue with the mental picture of anal sex. As for the phrase “as with a woman,” that’s just another way of saying “having sex,” not having sex with another man who also happens to have a vagina.

    • I certainly didn’t meant to suggest you were anti-gay, or that you had the mental image in question. I was simply stating that I encounter it quite frequently.
      To me, “as with a woman” does not just mean having sex. But either way, it’s a moot point, as neither of the Leviticus verses contains such a phrase in the Hebrew text. Sadly, pretty much everything I read concerning those verses (on either side of the discussion) tends to assume that the translations we use are correct. To be honest, I was one of those until I determined to read scripture in the original languages and encountered numerous mistranslations, many of which were clearly deliberate.

  7. Hey Preston, first I would like to say thank you for approaching this topic the way you have so far. It is imperative that we roll up our sleeves and start doing the heavy lifting and discerning exactly what the Bible teaches on this topic. So many Christians have just adopted poor theology and condemned so many gay people, even gay Christians and it’s breaking my heart. It also seems that every straight theologian writing books on homosexuality approaches it with an all-Bible, no love mentality. There’s no grace, no compassion and no love for the struggling gay Christian only hard “biblical” proofs that their sexuality is “wrong” and suggestions towards reparative therapy (good God). So thank you for your compassion. Lord knows it’s been MASSIVELY lacking in the Church lately.

    I did have something I wanted to suggest. In point #4 you had said that one of the reasons male-male sex was prohibited or to use OT language “an abomination” was that it took a man from his lofty position and forced him into the role of a lower status. You argued against that saying that in Lev. 20:13 both partners are punished and that [if social status wasn’t a concern then it would not have punished the active partner only the passive one] However, I would argue that there is reason to believe the active partner would be punished because is he not the one responsible for putting the passive partner in that role? Much like the 21 year-old who buys his 19 year old brother alcohol, he’s still breaking the law just like the 19 year-old. Without the 21 year old bootlegging then the 19 year old doesn’t break the law. It’s almost worse.

    Don’t get me wrong i’m not ready to start professing Women as inferior, but i just felt like the logic didn’t really hold up there.

    keep this blog coming, i hope it leads to a book. We need a book with air tight theology, abounding in compassion and grace for our brothers and sisters who struggle.

  8. Hi,

    Thank you very much on your exposition on this topic. Hope that I may impose on your patience to read through somethings I have come across in my research to this matter.

    Here is a list of occurrences of the term Toevah in OT.

    It is not entirely clear to me what you meant by “(e.g. Deut 14:3) but these are rare. And, most importantly, they are not used as such in Leviticus.” as the page above suggests the term appears throughout OT where cultural/racial purity is the main point of discussion. There may also be issues with how the author(s) of the books uses the word, but that also seems to open another can of worms.

    On prohibitions of lesbianism, I am not sure whether you are familiar with Louis Crompton’s book ” Homosexuality and Civilization ” where the less severe punishment for lesbian sex was mentioned. He also offered discussions on the reason why death penalty was prescribed in Lev. 20:13 and its connections to purging of male temple priests who may or may not have participated in ritual prostitution.

    I hope to I will have a chance to hear your thoughts on these and look forward to your take on Romans 1. I hope to say here that I think what Brooten says is not that we ignore Paul but rather that the nature of his writing of Romans and the purpose he wrote about homoerotic behaviors was such that his churches will not fall into the debate or ridicules of the general negative societal views of female homoerotic(and “likewise” male homoerotic) behaviors from contemporary moralists. Paul’s comments are more of a nature akin to those of his with hair style and dress code of his disciples and thus culturally bound.

    What I read from Crompton’s thoughts on Paul is:

    To Paul, it is likely that homoerotic behaviors are in general more of a “fetish” and the orientation is a result of minds confused/consumed by this fetish so as to claim such emotion as love. This is what Paul seems to write about, but is completely opposite to some Christians and Catholic same sex couples who live a committed life together and yet choose to abstain from physical intimacy. And I think the heart of the whole issue is whether God will bless or condemn ” love” between two same gendered persons, which appears to be capable of demonstrating all that we praise about “marriage” as testified by the lives of many such couples around us these days. (The caveat is of course that there may be some harm homosexuality brings to the spiritual lives that only God knows, but we may similarly also say that about women speaks publicly in churches ).

    A reference here along the line of queer theory on Romans

    Thanks very much again and I hope to read more on your discussions on Romans. Take care.

  9. Also q u sh mean holiness so your wrong on that leave. This means they had to be idolatry. Not only that but the whole passage are to be view together not seprated because the pervious verse states children but this is not a common word for children but ben. the use of the verse is Zera which is common for semen. Meaning Molech is what the lev18: 22 is talking about. Toevah also shows this. Look at the greek version meaning ritual impurity. Somdom is not talking about men but the town and the fact Jude has a similar story. Ek has the sin.

    “wicked,” ra’ in Hebrew, tells us nothing more than our English equivalent. The word translated as “sinners” ischatta’ and more accurately translated as “criminals.” In either case, these were bad people whose towns were populated by outlaws and gangsters.

    Thus far nothing in the text suggests the presence of homosexuality. People who use this account as a proof-text to condemn the homosexual orientation usually refer to “the men of Sodom” as if it were the males who were evil. One must ask however, what about the females of the towns? No one ever mentions them. Please note for now that it was the ‘enowsh or “mortals” of Sodom who were criminals or sinners; gender is not specified but we can correctly imagine a place of equal opportunity sin. In other words, the abominable actions of the people of the towns, not just the men but the women also, are being discussed. Enowsh includes men, women and even children. It is only logical then to try and understand what it was about these people was so sinful and how they came to be this way. This will be made clear shortly