On October 18, 2000, The West Wing featured a scene many hailed as one of the great tongue-lashings of all time. The President of the United States (played by Martin Sheen) was hosting media guests at the White House, among them a conservative talk-show host, Dr. Jenna Jacobs (played by Claire Yarlette).
In the ensuing dialogue, Sheen’s character asked setup questions that helped him castigate Dr. Jacobs for her views on homosexuality. In rapid-fire succession, Sheen rattled off multiple passages from the Bible, particularly Leviticus, using them as examples of how utterly ridiculous it is to subscribe to such teachings. In doing so, he essentially called into question any reliance on the Old Testament.
The question regarding the role of the Old Testament in the life of a Christian has occasioned multiple books, blog posts, and sermons. And overall, believers historically have landed on solid ground. But ask the average church member if the book of Leviticus offers any teaching applicable for today, and the response may surprise you.
Perhaps one of the most discarded chapters in the Bible is Leviticus 18. While there are likely several reasons for this, one of the most significant is the effort to marginalize a passage that forbids multiple forms of sexual immorality, including homosexual activity (cf. Lev. 18:22).
Attempts to Erase Leviticus
Some have questioned the language used within this chapter, maintaining that some words translated as “homosexual” (within Leviticus and elsewhere) are examples of an anti-gay agenda being inserted into the Bible during the mid-20th century.
Ask the average church member if the book of Leviticus offers any teaching applicable for today and the response may surprise you.
Still others, such as The West Wing’s writers, seek to confuse the matter by introducing random verses (Lev. 11:7; 18:22; Ex. 21:7; 35:2) with no consideration for context. By slicing literary soundbites from the biblical text, their effort has proven effective. How are we to understand such soundbites in a biblical book that seems to have been largely set aside by the new covenant?
Leviticus 18 in Context
Scholars divide Leviticus into two main sections: chapters 1–16 (cultic elements) and 17–26 (the Holiness Code), with one chapter remaining that contains various vows. In other words, the first 16 chapters address how the ancient Hebrews were to carry out sacrifices and offerings, while the remaining chapters focus on how they were to live together in community.
As the book transitions from discussing elements of the cult (Lev. 1–16) to addressing how the people should live together (Lev. 17–26), it begins the next section by explaining why and how blood was to be shed (Lev. 17). From there, one final preparatory warning remains (Lev. 18), before instruction for how to live with one another.
It’s important to note that several elements of the Holiness Code (Lev. 17–26) were unique to Israel’s status as a theocracy. Many times, those are the elements identified as obscure, outdated, or just plain odd (Lev. 19:19, 28). They’re the very kinds of elements listed by Martin Sheen’s character in his castigation of Dr. Jacobs that—without a context—seem unreasonable, if not ludicrous.
Moral Laws Not Just for Israel
But these peculiar Hebrew elements are not the substance of Leviticus 18. Rather, this chapter addresses moral issues that—at least from the biblical author’s perspective—were, or should have been, understood by the former inhabitants of the land.
Note how the chapter begins and ends. The first five verses (Lev. 18:1–5) address the sinful actions of two groups: the Egyptians and the Canaanites. The final verses of the chapter (Lev. 18:24–30) speak again about the actions of the nations that had occupied the land before the Hebrew people. This literary structure serves as a framing device to draw attention to those details discussed within the intervening verses (Lev. 18:6–23).
Those items are not obscure or unclear, nor are they peculiar to the Hebrew people—because they’re identified as the very things that led to the expulsion of other, non-Hebrew peoples. And the message of the passage is very clear: if the Hebrews do what the Canaanites did, they will suffer as the Canaanites did.
Leviticus 18’s Enduring Relevance
So what are we to make of Leviticus 18 today? There are several items within the Leviticus 18:6–23 section that are often ignored to the reader’s detriment. This isn’t merely a chapter on homosexuality. It’s a caution regarding every kind of sexual immorality, from pornography to incest to bestiality. Paul incorporates the same idea from Leviticus 18:8 when he writes that such sins are not even practiced among the pagans (1 Cor. 5:1).
The message of the passage is very clear: if the Hebrews do what the Canaanites did, they will suffer as the Canaanites did.
Even the concept of sexual intercourse during menstruation in verse 19 is seen as a morally reprehensible act due to the presence of blood. As Leviticus 17:13–16 and Genesis 9:4 indicate, life is in the blood and it is sacred. It’s not to be mishandled or consumed. Again, this matter is understood to be universal in its application, not restricted to the Hebrew people in the time of this covenant.
The result for the ancient Hebrew people was expulsion from the land and withdrawal of Yahweh’s presence. While we don’t live at the sacred space God had set apart for the construction of Solomon’s temple, we are the temple of God, both corporately and individually (1 Cor. 3:16–17; 6:19). And this has moral implications for how we use our bodies (1 Cor. 6:20).
Because we did not obtain our righteousness or secure our salvation, we have no fear of losing his presence from our lives. As the people of God, however, we cannot be any less aware or concerned by actions that historically carried such weight (1 Cor. 10:8; Jude 7). To do so proves we are no different than the Egyptians or the Canaanites, who didn’t know the God of the Bible.