On her radio show, Dr. Laura Schlesinger, an Orthodox Jew, said that homosexuality is an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22, and cannot be condoned under any circumstance. The following response is an open letter to Dr. Laura, which was posted on the Internet. It creates a great opportunity to talk about how we interpret the Bible (especially the Old Testament). We need to have good answers—better than Dr. Laura would have—to the frequent criticism that if we’re going to follow Leviticus on one thing (like the vileness of homosexuality), we have to take the rest (such as stoning homosexuals and rebellious children—not to mention, the ban on pork, etc., and holy war in defense of a holy nation).

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination …. End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Laws and how to follow them.

  • 1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?
  • 2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
  • 3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of Menstrual uncleanliness – Lev15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
  • 4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
  • 5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?
  • 6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination, Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?
  • 7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?
  • 8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?
  • 9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
  • 10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I’m confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.

Your adoring fan
(It would be a damn shame if we couldn’t own a Canadian)

Although the responses aren’t usually this clever, the “Do you really want to go to Leviticus?” argument packs a punch in contemporary debates. Often, the critic assumes that every biblical command is a timeless and universal law. They really can’t bear the blame by themselves for this misunderstanding, since it’s common to a lot of Christian preaching through the ages. Medieval popes invoked these “holy war” passages for the crusades and appealed to Leviticus for prohibiting the charging of interest on loans to Christians.

In fact, John Calvin took aim at medieval canon law on just these very points, explaining that while the moral law is indeed universally binding for all time and places, the civil and ceremonial laws attached to it in the Old Testament covenant code were given uniquely to the only nation that has ever been chosen and separated as holy to the Lord. Anticipated by John the Baptist’s fiery announcement of a judgment in God’s house, Jesus pronounced his covenant curses on the religious leaders and in word and deed replaced the Temple. The only holy land after Jesus’ resurrection is his body, those who are united to him through faith, “from every tribe, kindred, tongue, people, and nation” (Rev 5:9). Already in Hebrews 8:13, the old covenant could be called “obsolete.”

The commands in the old covenant law (viz., Leviticus and Deuteronomy) are specific to that remarkable geo-political theocracy that foreshadowed the universal kingdom of Christ. The deliverance of Israel in the exodus anticipates a far greater exodus through the waters of death and hell in Christ. The holy wars pale in comparison with the judgment of the nations that Christ will execute at the end of the age. Even if Israel had been faithful to this covenant, Canaan would have only been a type or small-scale model of the extensiveness and intensiveness of God’s reign at the end of the age. Moses could not give God’s people rest in the land of everlasting Sabbath. As the prophets proclaim, this would only come when one greater than Moses would rescue his people and lead them victoriously into the perfect peace, love, and joy that he would win for his co-heirs.

Sure, we learn from Leviticus 18:22 that God considers homosexuality an abomination. Yet our critics (at least the clever ones) will point out that the same code threatens excommunication for eating any meat with blood in it (Lev 17:10) and eating animals that chew the cud or part the hoof (like pigs) is strictly forbidden as “unclean” (Lev 11). The responder above points to many other examples.

Few of these commands can be explained in terms of general wisdom for hygiene, sanitation, and gastronomic health. They focus attention on God’s act of separating Israel (“clean”) from the unclean nations. Each set of prohibitions is a facet in the diamond of an old covenant system that sparkled with anticipation of the coming Messiah. It takes a good knowledge of the covenantal context and import of these commands for Israel to recognize their unique significance in this history of redemption. It also requires that we interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, allowing the fulfillment to guide our understanding of the typological promise.

A good place to start in digging deeper is M. G. Kline’s Kingdom Prologue, especially where he talks about “Intrusion Ethics”: that is, the suspension of ordinary providence in favor of miracle, ordinary wisdom in favor of God’s direct word through the prophets, just war among common nations in favor of holy war on behalf of God’s holy land and nation. Homosexuality is still a violation of God’s moral law for all times and places, but the sanction for it under the old covenant (death by stoning) was theocracy-specific.

Living in an era that foreshadowed the last judgment, the Psalmist properly offered imprecatory prayers calling for God’s judgment on the ungodly. Nevertheless, in Jesus’ ministry this identification of heaven with a geo-political nation was declared no longer in effect. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus quotes some of these passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy: “You have heard it said, ‘…..’ But I say,….” These old covenant commands were not wrong; they had their place in the theocratic government that God exercised directly over his people. However, Jesus rebukes James and John when they seek to call fire down on the Samaritan village that rejected the gospel. I offer a summary of this argument in The Christian Faith (chapter 29).

In the moral law that runs not only through the whole Bible but throughout the codes of so many civilizations across the ages, God reveals his righteous character. In the specific legislation that God attaches to this moral law for Israel alone, however, God’s moral will is in service to his saving will in Jesus Christ. These Israel-specific laws are not intended to regulate the constitutions of common nations, but ultimately to play their part in a theocratic system that leads us ultimately to Christ and his everlasting kingdom. So you can’t invoke the old covenant passages for common nations in this era in which Christ’s kingdom is not identified with any geo-political nation. It’s an era of forgiveness, a stay of execution before the dreadful day of judgment. In this in-between time, the kingdom of Christ (regardless of what the secular kingdoms of this age determine) announces God’s righteous judgment and gracious salvation. It calls all people everywhere—gay, straight, gossips, and the pious grandmother who trusts in her own righteousness—to repent and embrace God’s only Son.