I would just as soon go on from Leviticus 18 without talking about this. But I don’t suppose I can. People will want to know about 18:22. “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is a detestable act.”
So Milgrom asks, “does the Bible prohibit homosexuality?”
“Of course it does (18:22, 20:13), but the prohibition is severely limited. First, it is addressed only to Israel, not to other nations. Second, compliance with this law is a condition for residing in the Holy Land, but is irrelevant outside it. . . Third, it is limited to men; lesbianism is not prohibited. Thus, it is incorrect to apply this prohibition on a universal scale.”
He goes on to say that “to lie with a male as with a woman” is not as clear in Hebrew as it seems. It may mean only that homoerotic activity is forbidden if that behavior is also forbidden to straight people. In other words, if the behavior is incestuous or otherwise unlawful between a man and a woman, then gay behavior of that kind is also forbidden.
He admits this argument is based on too little to be conclusive. Although, it made me think of the story about King Asa. This story in 1 Kings 15:12 says that Asa got rid of the male sacred prostitutes. What about the female sacred prostitutes? Perhaps he tolerated these, but was particularly offended by male prostitutes. Most would read it that way. All sacred prostitution is bad according to the Bible. So what if female prostitution had already suffered a crackdown and Asa simply made it also apply to men?
Also, in the story of the attempted rape of Lot’s guests (Genesis 19), it is the rape and violation of hospitality more than the same-sex nature of the crime that cries out for justice. It would have been a crime regardless of the victim’s sex.
Anyway, I find Milgrom’s argument dissatisfying in two ways. First, he says the Bible prohibits homosexuality. However, the idea that there are gay people and straight people does not seem to occur in the Bible. What the Bible speaks to is homoerotic behavior. I know that does not help much if you have an innate attraction to the same-sex, but it is worth saying that the Bible does not say that gay people are an abomination. It does not prohibit homosexuality in the sense that it prohibits gay people.
Second, I think he too easily transfers the idea that this command was given to Israel to the idea that it applies only to Jewish men. What he gets from the text, though, is that it only applies within the Holy Land. But it obviously applies to all males there if the Canaanites had been “vomited” (18:25) from the land for these and other practices.
Christians have the added problem that entirely outside the Holy Land, Romans and Ephesians call upon Christians to reject Hellenistic/Roman sexual standards, which included an acceptance of homoeroticism. Most people are familiar with Romans 1:26-27. But I, who think someone other than Paul wrote Ephesians, note that Ephesians 4:17 ff. seems to be based on Romans 1 (it uses some key phrases, like “the futility of their thinking” from Paul). And Ephesians seems to apply a Leviticus-like concept of holiness to the church.
I do not have an answer to this problem. What is essential, it seems to me, is to understand that sexual boundaries in Leviticus have nothing to do with the kinds of sexual boundaries that most of us draw today. There is no law, for instance, in Leviticus 18 or 20 about sex with under-age persons. That is one of our most important boundaries, because sexual ethics for us is all about consent. We have boundaries about sex with clients, or colleagues, or people who are too drunk because power dynamics or lowered inhibitions call consent into question. Even discussions about bestiality bring up animal rights.
Israel had laws against rape, but consent has nothing to do with the prohibitions in Leviticus 18 and 20. They have to do with spilling semen in inappropriate ways, which detracted from the holiness of the Holy Land. Blood and semen were sacred, life-bearing substances. They were fenced about with regulations and taboos. This was a symbolic world that may have something important to say to us. But it is not the world we live in anymore.
Sexual ethics today revolve around personal relations rather than sacred substances. The problem, it seems to me, is how to keep a world-view that retains the sacred and honors it within a person-centered, rather than a substance-centered, way of thinking. But that is a subject for greater minds than mine. Pope John Paul II, for one, devoted a great intellectual effort to it.
An interesting historical note is that, according to Milgrom, we have evidence in Babylonian omen texts that lesbianism flourished in ancient Babylon.