Old Testament Law and New Testament Ethics – 4: Abominations

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4 – Abominations

We are now to the fourth installment in this serious on the relationship of Old Testament law and New Testament ethics. We’ve moved from  some Prefatory Playfulness, to Love  and Leviticus, to some instructive analogies regarding Practices and Priorities. I realize we haven’t come very far just yet. Frankly, this is going to take some time.

Since we are scheduled to discuss the subject of abominations in our weekly Bible study this evening, I thought I should post some (though not all) thoughts on the subject. The biblical teaching regarding abominations draws both interest and ridicule, depending on where you’re standing. And when you say the term, abominations, it should be pronounced with some sort of deep, gravelly voice, almost as if either divine or downright villainous — which can be confused, depending on where you’re standing. You can follow it with a bwahahaha, if you feel you need to. 


In a recent BBC documentary, “Sex and the Church,” Diarmaid MacCulloch (of Oxford University) puts forth a robust series of calculated mockeries, premeditated cherry pickings, and patently tendentious assertions in the attempt to persuade (or is it deceive) viewers of his revisionist readings of history and the Bible. Why else be a scholar? Even so, the words of MacCulloch will do nicely as a test case in profound (and sometimes seemingly intentional) misconstruals and misunderstandings of Leviticus.

At about nine minutes into the first of three episodes, MacCulloch is attempting to show that not even the Bible provides suitable grounds to disapprove of homosexual activity. As he does, he avoids all manner of foolishness currently on offer and instead proffers his own flavor. He doesn’t attempt the move of saying that the prohibited acts are those between men and boys, or acts coupled with idolatry, or acts between men who actually were not born homosexuals. MacCulloch is more clever than that. What he does is simply note that Leviticus’s prohibition of same-sex activity is presented alongside prohibitions of tattoos, of mixing fibers in clothing, and of trimming one’s beard.

Says MacCulloch (and you really have to hear this with a snide, sneering tone that nearly only can be offered by an overly self-loving Oxford academic):

Let’s see what it says in the books of the Law in the Old Testament. Leviticus [18:22] says, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”

Well, “game set and match,” you might say. And that’s what Christian moral watchdogs did say, for centuries. But lets read on a bit. You’ll find that equal abominations include trimming your beard, getting a tattoo, or mixing fabrics in clothing.

Watch out barbers, tattoo artists, or anyone who wears clothing.

So, Jewish attitudes to sex were a mixed bag. Sex in marriage was wonderful; anything else, an abomination.

As for the Christian approach to Levitical laws, MacCulloch soon thereafter says:

The early Christians would pick and choose what they decided were abominations.

And here you can listen to MacCulloch for yourself.


Well now, game set and match for MacCulloch, our mighty moral minstrel, one might say. But that ejaculation would be premature, given that further reading in the passage might just bring enlightenment on the subject.

Now, one might be forgiven for supposing that MacCulloch is hoping to generate, even exacerbate strong cultural prejudices against the Christian church and Christian morality in general. Even so, his snide remarks and condescending sneers are no surrogates for careful scholarship (as he surely knows, bless his heart). Neither his highly awarded status nor his highly regarded scholarly productions are effective camouflage for his ideological inclinations. Despite his brand of nonsense, we still need to figure out what actually is happening in Leviticus and how it might then have a bearing on our discussion of the relationship of Old Testament law to New Testament ethics.

Open Your Bibles

Let us look at the text and some missteps. But it would be best if you had your Bible open. You do have a Bible, right? Well, turn to Leviticus 18 and read it all the way through. All the way through. I’ll wait.

I’m still waiting.

You’re going to read it through, aren’t you?

Come on, this is important. It’ll take some time, but I’m not willing to do all the heavy lifting here. We’re discussing a text that seldom is read, more often disregarded, and most often simply slandered. It is important to read the passage first. Even if you aren’t going to read it through (for shame), we simply must move on. This post is a bit long already.


So, one might suppose, with MacCulloch, that Leviticus 18 morally equates male same-sex relations with metrosexual hair styles, inky skin, and modern textiles. It certainly is true that the text discourages a failure to practice certain instituted social markers (such as certain kinds of sideburns and mono-filament clothing, though verification of this latter might require very close inspection indeed). It also disapproves of acquiring markers that identified with the surrounding gentile nations and their idolatrous traditions (such as tattoos relating to their deities). And it is the case that the passage ends with a grouped description of the preceding acts as “abominations,” thus presumably (but only presumably) including tattoos and mixed fibers and alternative grooming. However, further considerations are in order.

Just on the face of it, it would seem a suspiciously strange misstep to suppose that the passage, by associating such things as incest, rape, homosexual acts, tattoos, mixed fibers, and such, that its intention was to equate them, that it is advancing the moral equivalence of all these actions. Who would do that? Who would do that? Who would do that? Who would do that? (Just wanted to have certain emphases covered.) And does the passage actually do that? Probably not, at least not obviously, as I’ll explain below.

Worser and worser still would be to suppose that since in our contemporary culture most disregard prohibitions on tattoos, mixed-fiber clothing, and the modern grooming styles, that we are justified in disregarding the disapproval of same-sex relations, as well as the wide variety of incestuous relationships, as well as sexual aggression and even rape. See how that sort of maneuver can backfire? And no one seems to be arguing for that, thank our lucky stars!  But if not, why not?

Seriously, if you are going to attribute to the text a presumed moral equivalence for all these items, and then dismiss the passage as simply absurd, and that particularly to gain amnesty for same-sex relations (and perhaps tattoos and deep-fried jumbo shrimp), then why not also dismiss its disapproval of having sex with your mother, your aunt, and your cocker spaniel, all at the same time?

So, perhaps our intuitions are attuned to the inherently risky and powerful nature of sexual activities, particularly as they may be found among certain species of relations, such as with immediate and very near family members. However, to suppose that the passage is so obtuse as to morally equate all these matters mentioned in the passage surely says more about the reader than about the writer of the text. There is no compelling reason to suppose that the moral posture of the passage finds equally reprehensible both 50-50 fiber blends and sex with your shih tzu.

The Difference

Leviticus does not speak of all the stated prohibitions similarly. One might first notice that male same-sex relations are singled out for an additional note of “abomination” (v. 22; which is translated “detestable” in the NIV). Not only that, but the broader material in Leviticus does not treat all these proscriptions equally. It simply doesn’t. After all, what was the punishment for eating deep fat fried jumbo shrimp? Eh?! Do ya know? No?

Lets see how this works. Consider the prohibition of sexual intercourse with your menstruating wife (v. 19). (Sorry, but we’ll have to consider this for a moment.) Yes, while it is proscribed (that means “prohibited”), and while the naughty culprits are “to be cut off from the people” (according to Leviticus 20:18), the meaning of this punishment is not quite specified in the passage, leaving it perhaps as something God would address in his own way. But it sure sounds scary: to be cut off from the people (properly pronounced in a low pitch with ample echo and perhaps some dark, flashing lights).

However, back in Leviticus 15 we read about what a woman was to do during her monthly menstruation (15:19ff). There we also read about what a man was to do if he indeed did have intercourse with his menstruating wife (which can happen, even inadvertently, so I am told). He will be cut off. No, just kidding. The text says, “he will be unclean for seven days; any bed he lies on will be unclean” (v. 24). How abominable! Unclean for a week? Seven days? And the beds too. The beds had no choice in the matter.

Now, presumably this man would go through some of the washings prescribed for the woman as well. How terribly abominable is that! So, in this case, to be “cut off from the people” likely meant something more like being distinguished from the people in terms of social avoidance. But it was temporary. And, of course, it isn’t as though there were village inspectors who would go around with flashlights and magnifying glasses to find any residual clues for such nefarious infractions. No, some things in the law were known only to the individual or individuals in question. If they didn’t admit it (or perhaps hadn’t even realized it), well, nobody else was likely to find out.

But do note: Menstruation itself was never said to be sinful. It was not a moral impurity, no more than was the emission of semen, no more than was tending to the corpse of your grandpa who passed away in the night.

Whew! I bet you’re thankful about the whole corpse thing.

Flipping Lids 

Now, when we consider just what sorts of punishments were prescribed for various violations of such laws, we find that not all infractions were treated equally. Nor were they all equally verifiable. We should point up that while Leviticus 18 presents a list for our consideration, there are other relevant passages as well. We already pointed to Leviticus 15. We also could point to Leviticus 20. There we find various sexual sins groups in order of significance, with the punishments lessening as the passage progresses. So, these moral transgressions were not all treated alike.

Do notice that Leviticus 20 is just two chapters later, with chapter 20 coming just after chapter 19, the one with verse 18 and the whole “love your neighbor as yourself” stuff. So, if you are going to morally equate everything (as the text does not), and then dismiss it in order to justifying participating in this or that favored abomination (as so many today desire to do), then perhaps we also could dismiss the command to love our neighbors. I mean, why not? It is no more significant than rape or shellfish chowder or tattooing images of shrimp on your auntie’s toy poodle. Whatever flips your lid, as they say. (Whoever they are.)

Imputing Nonsense

Well, I’ve gone on quite long enough for this post. Yes, it probably could be way more concise. I’m just not inclined to go back and spend hours shortening it. We’ll return to Leviticus and the issues in question soon enough. For now, I simply think it is important to know that some contemporary approaches and proposals really are dismissible. They impute nonsense to the text in order to dismiss it all as nonsense. Isn’t that nice? Sure it is, but it isn’t a very honorable approach, unless, of course, you need to be honorable in order to gain amnesty for your personal preferences and inclinations.

Oh, and if you dismiss my regular notes regarding bestiality as just so weird and non-existent and irrelevant and imaginary, do note that it is all the rage in certain quarters of sophisticated Europe. Good luck, PETA.

Until next time.


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