Leviticus 18:22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.
Leviticus 20: 13 If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.Both of these verses seem like straightforward condemnations against any homosexual behavior. However, we need to consider what was happening in the world of the Israelites at the time these rules were issued. The book of Leviticus is a series of rules for the Israelite priesthood and laity to ensure ritual purity. Elsewhere in this book we find listings of ‘unclean’ foods, requirements for priestly vestments (no blended fibers), and requirements for males to cleanse oneself after incidental contact with women who are having their menstrual period. No one makes the argument that these laws have any application today; in fact, the arguments for rejecting these laws are often based on their historical and religious context.
In the case of the verses quoted above, let’s look at the historical and religious contexts. The laws presented in chapters 18 and 20 are meant to prevent the Israelites from doing what the Egyptians and the Canaanites did.
What did the Canaanites do?
According to Miner and Connoley, in their book, The Children are Free: Reexamining the Biblical Evidience on Same-Sex Relationships:
Biblical historians tell us the Canaanite religions surrounding the Israelites at the time of Leviticus often included fertility rites consisting of sexual rituals. These rituals were thought to bring the blessing of the god or goddess on crop and livestock production. During the rituals, whole families, including husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, cousins, aunts and uncles would sometimes have sex. Also included was sex with temple prostitutes. In short, every kind of sexual practice imaginable was performed at these rituals, including homosexual sex.
Consider one specific example. Historians tell us that many Canaanites and Egyptians worshipped a goddess of love and fertility called Astarte or Ishtar. Within her temples were special priests called assinu, who were deemed to have special powers. Physical contact with the assinu was believed to ward off evil and promote good luck. These priests were, in effect, living good luck charms, and worshipers would often ritually touch them as part of their worship practices. Sexual intercourse was considered especially effective for gaining the goddess’s favor, because the male worshiper was offering his greatest possession, semen (which was thought to be the essence of life), to the goddess through her priests. Depositing semen in the body of a priest of the goddess was believed to guarantee one’s immortality. Similar cultic sexual practices flourished in connection with many other ancient pagan deities.There were also male temple priests who offered themselves and their services similarly. If one ignores the context, these verses do seem to condemn ALL sex with men, but these laws were not drafted in a vacuum. Context informs meaning. If a woman says, “don’t touch me”, the context demonstrates whether she meant, “don’t ever touch me again” or “not right now, I don’t feel well.” Likewise, these verses were written specifically to address specific pagan religious practices. The model proposed earlier—a loving, committed relationship between two people of the same sex—was not known in Canaanite culture. It is unreasonable to assume that rules governing sex with a temple prostitute has any significant bearing on relationships of any sort today.