Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson again hits the pages of the “On Faith” column at the Washington Post, today taking on Leviticus 18:22 (“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination”) and 20:13 (“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them”). He begins this way:

The context of these two passages are the holiness and purity codes set down for the people of Israel – rules set forth both to define what was clean and unclean before God, as well as what set the Hebrew people apart from their heathen neighbors who worshiped gods other than the one true God. In a memorable speech on homosexuality at Trinity College in 1992, The Rev. Dr. Frank G. Kirkpatrick put the biblical code in context: This “purity code assumes a ‘normal’ or natural state for things, any deviance from which is abnormal, deviant, and therefore unclean, impure, and polluting. Menstruation is not ‘normal’ for women (since it occurs less frequently than periods of non-menstruation): therefore when women are menstruating they are regarded as unclean. Blemishes [including blindness and lameness] are abnormal, therefore unclean.”

The expression “holiness and purity code” as used by Robinson is an anagram for “outdated passages we can now safely ignore.” It is true that Leviticus 17-26 seems to form a unit within the Torah, and part of that purpose is to define cleanliness and secure Israel’s separation from its neighbors. Saying that, however, says nothing about the moral content of these chapters. There are dozens of commands that are framed in terms of holiness or purity that no one in his right mind would suggest refers to practices that would otherwise be morally acceptable. For instance, the verse preceding 18:22 tells Israelites, “You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.” Somehow I doubt that Robinson would argue that because this prohibition against child sacrifice is in the context of pagan worship, therefore it would be OK as long as it was Christians sacrificing children to Yahweh!

His appeal to Kirkpatrick also achieves nothing. Kirkpatrick’s claim that the holiness code is prohibiting what isn’t “normal,” which is simply ridiculous. For instance, the making of idols (19:4) was perfectly normal for every people in the Middle East at the time; prohibiting idols was a call to Israel to be abnormal. Again, the call to allow gleaning of fields by the poor (19:9) was contrary to accepted practice of the time, and certainly runs counter to our instinct to look out for ourselves first. Circumcision was hardly normal for the times, but was rather a special practice of Israel. And certainly the command regarding the sojourner (19:33-34) was anything but normal, and had nothing to do with cleanliness or distinguishing Israel from its neighbors; rather, it was a command regarding what was right, a kind of Golden Rule instruction based on Israel’s own history of mistreatment when sojourning in Egypt. So talking about standards of “normal” when talking about the commands in Leviticus 17-26 is not only silly, but simply incorrect.

Oh, and there’s a theological problem with all this in any case, which is that it presumes that the holiness code was simply a human invention reflecting limited human knowledge and human prejudices. Clearly, anyone who believes in the inspiration of the Old Testament would reject assumption.

Kirkpatrick further explained: “Men who act like women are abnormal, therefore unclean. Now the assumption here is that to be a man is to desire women. Anything else is acting against one’s nature. Thus when a man lies with another man he is acting contrary to his own nature. It was inconceivable in this context that a man could be genetically or biologically predisposed to desire other men. To be engaged in homosexual activity therefore was to do what one was literally not inclined or predisposed to do. Thus it was acting against one’s own conscience and predispositions. This is what made it unnatural and therefore a violation of nature.”

The fact that ancient Israel knew nothing about modern notions of sexual orientation (duh) cuts both ways. Because they didn’t think in terms of orientation, they also couldn’t and didn’t condemn homosexual orientation. They thought in terms of acts, and it was those that are condemned. What’s more, if we hold to the inspiration of Leviticus, given that God would have known about modern notions of sexual orientation and yet still condemned, not orientation but acts, we can conclude that these two verses reflect His mind, and not just that of the writer.

This is an important point, difficult for the modern day mind to grasp: homosexuality as a sexual orientation was unknown to the ancient mind. Same gender, intimate physical contact was not unknown, of course, but everyone was presumed to be heterosexual. In his book Embodiment, An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology, James B. Nelson wrote, “It is crucial to remember this, for in all probability the biblical writers in each instance were speaking of homosexual acts undertaken by person whom the authors presumed to be heterosexually constituted.” Therefore, any man who lay with another man as with a woman was considered to be a heterosexual man acting against his true nature.

There are a couple of problems here. First, notice how the notion of sexual orientation slides back in under the radar: “everyone was presumed to be heterosexual.” That speaks to orientation, a notion that Robinson claimed in the previous sentence was “unknown to the ancient mind.” The fact is that advocates of accepting homosexual behavior have a tendency to bounce back and forth on this question depending upon what is most advantageous at any particular moment. Those who oppose it have no such problem: we agree that the idea of sexual orientation, as formulated in late modernity, was unknown in biblical times, meaning it was acts that were problematic, not orientation. Keep in mind that the Old Testament, in a passage that Robinson apparently won’t deal with, lays a foundation for sexual ethics in Genesis, which says nothing about what we would call sexual orientation, but makes clear that there is a divine pattern for sexuality and marriage that we are not free to ignore. All of the commands in the holiness code that have to do with sexual behavior are built in one way or another on that foundation.

Second, notice that the quote from Nelson contains a weasel: “in all probability.” Robinson would like for us to jump from that “probability” to certainty, which even scholars who agree with him won’t do, at least not when they are being careful and honest.

In practice, we modern day Christians have regarded most of the injunctions in the Holiness Codes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy as culturally bound to the ancient times of the Hebrews–but not binding on us. These same purity codes forbid eating shellfish, planting a field with two different kinds of seed or wearing simultaneously two kinds of cloth. They would prohibit us from ordaining to the priesthood any handicapped person – not to mention women. We cannot, then, isolate these passages about homosexual acts and impute to them the kind of enduring authority which we ascribe to nothing before or after these passages. One has to wonder why the biblical literalists who cite this passage against homosexuality don’t seem to go all the way and advocate for death as the punishment for homosexual behavior! We cannot have it both ways.

Let’s start with a couple of basics:

1) Within the Torah, there are three kinds of law. One is the ceremonial law, and it has to do with worship regulations and ritual cleanliness, neither of which have to do with the prohibition on homosexual behavior. The second is the national law of Israel, which has to do primarily with the penalties that the nation was commanded to impose for a violation of the Mosaic law. The third is the moral law, which has to do with what God has revealed as right and wrong behavior.

2) The Old Testament law cannot be isolated by Christians from the New Testament. It must be seen in light of the new covenant instituted by Christ and authoritatively explained by the apostles.

These two basics are why no one except those seeking to score points rather than make serious arguments use what is sometimes referred to as the “shellfish argument.” By feigning a simple-minded literalism, it asks the question, “why homosexuality and not kosher laws?” The reason, of course, is that these are two different kinds of law that are treated very differently in the New Testament. Because of what Christ has done in His death and resurrection, the ceremonial law–shellfish, anyone?–has been set aside. Paul makes that explicit in his letters, as does Acts in the vision of Peter in chapter 10. (The fact that the kosher law is so specifically dealt with in Acts makes the invocation of it in the context of the debate over a moral issue all the more absurd.) The national law is set aside because the church is not a nation-state, and has no penalty at its disposal save those that involved moral and spiritual suasion. The moral law, on the other hand, still applies to Christians, as Paul makes crystal clear in every one of his epistles.

Please note the weasel in the paragraph: “we modern day Christians have regarded most of the injunctions…” Of course–many of the commands in Leviticus 17-26 have to do with matters such as the calendar of festivals, regulation of priests, offerings, Sabbath, and the like, and other have to do with stuff like redemption of lands and the Jubilee that was specific to the circumstances of ancient Israel. But the use of that word “most” is Robinson’s concession that there are moral commands in the holiness code that we may not blow off (the prohibition on child sacrifice mentioned above would be one, prohibitions on incest and mistreatment of sojourners would be others). He simply refuses to believe that the prohibitions on homosexual behavior could be one of them.

Robinson then goes on to look at what he terms the holiness code’s “bias against women” and “‘science’ of conception,” but to tell the truth I’m really not sure what these have to do with the discussion at hand, other than as an effort to reinforce the “ancientness” and irrelevance of the code to modern Christians. He comes to this conclusion:

Oddly enough, we have relaxed these “rules” against a man “spilling his seed” through masturbation and birth control, yet we hold onto “a man shall not lie with another man as with a woman” as if it were eternally binding on believers. Such an inconsistency simply does not make sense.

Once again, there’s a real myopia here, as he seems unwilling to recognize that there are lots of Christians, maybe most, who would disagree with his dismissal of the prohibitions on masturbation and birth control, much less homosexual behavior. Be that as it may, please note that Robinson himself is guilty of this “inconsistency,” inasmuch as he concedes (that weaselly “most” again) that there are moral commands in the holiness code that continue to be binding on Christians. That fact that there are commands in the code that are not proves nothing.

Given these changes in our modern understandings and contexts, it is no longer appropriate for us to condemn men who have intimate sexual relationships with other men based on this proscription in the Leviticus Holiness Code. Either all of these proscriptions must be tossed out as binding on us, or they all must be adhered to. Biblical “literalists” cannot have it both ways, picking and choosing which proscriptions are still appropriate.

But of course the prohibition on homosexual behavior is not “based on this proscription” in Leviticus. The basis for it is far broader than just this, and includes the Genesis account of the divine plan for sexuality and the New Testament teaching as well. And given that Robinson is unable to say that every injunction in the holiness code is culturally bound and not binding on Christians, the either/or that he sets up in this conclusion is itself invalid, undermined elsewhere in his presentation, in the New Testament treatment of the commands, and even in the exercise of reason.