The end of Leviticus is in sight. Only thing is, Numbers is next…
Of all 165 verses in today’s chapters, one stands out, because of its current relevance to major church debates – 20:13. Also, though, it looms large for me because it touches on one of the issues which I said I had in mind when I started on this year-long project. That’s the question of the moral and spiritual status of long-term, same sex relationships, and now of equal marriage.
My starting point on ethical issues tends to be to stay with the traditional view until persuaded otherwise, but that doesn’t always leave me comfortable with what I believe. On this one I can’t help but be aware that many of the writers and speakers with whom I feel most in sympathy have spoken for a more open acceptance of equal marriage – but that I’m unsure exactly where I stand.
This verse is in the middle of a passage which covers various kinds of adultery, incest, bestiality and so on – as well as intercourse during periods, which I can’t help but think is in a different category. And as with many of those other wrong sexual relations, the penalty is death. I know that there’s debate over what exactly it means to say ‘if a man lies with a male as with a woman’, and certainly none of the other categories listed could be said to be long-term committed relationships. I think I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s so hard to read this verse without all the assumptions we read into it that it’s not actually helping me much.
There are two other things that make me feel that way here. The first is that this isn’t a developed bit of moral theology. As I said in the title, it’s one short verse among 165 I read today, in one themed section of a long book of laws. And I’m a bit frustrated that it’s so absorbed my thoughts about the passage that I’ve skipped over the longer bits about justice for the poor, fair dealing in trade and so on. I can’t help a slight concern that the church may find it easier to argue over sexual issues than the harder ones of justice which seem in general to get a lot more space in the Bible. We do tend to get this out of perspective – but as it’s such a big issue at the moment I still feel that I need to deal with it.
There’s another reason which comes back to the whole place of the Old Testament Law. I wrote yesterday about the way that I’ve come over the last few days to value more deeply the freedom Jesus has given me to worship and come into God’s presence without all the ceremonial, cleanliness laws and so on. These chapters are given a heading in the NRSV edition I’m reading as ‘Ritual and Moral holiness.’ That reflects an old distinction between the ‘ritual law’ which no longer applies to Christians and the ‘moral law’ which does. That makes instinctive sense – we don’t want to lose the importance of the laws in here on fair dealing, care for the poor and so on. The Ten Commandments still matter, surely. But I can’t see within the text here a real distinction between the two. Where the language is of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ then there’s a different, non-moral character. But beyond that, are we on safe ground in dividing the Laws so clearly? I’m not sure that Moses would have done so. The world of thought of the Old Testament is a very different one from ours, and I’m not sure that the distinctions of ritual and moral which seem so clear to us would have made the same sense in that world.
That doesn’t mean that we can ignore any bit of the Old Testament. After all, the ceremonial and sacrificial commands I’ve recently read help to fill in the picture of the holiness of the God we worship. Laws about diet and sabbath point us to the fact that God is concerned with every part of life, not just the ‘sacred’ bits. At the very least, the commands about justice and care of the poor help us to fill in the blanks of the command to love our neighbour. But I think we need to be careful about choosing a few Laws to stand forever in more detail than the others, just because they ‘feel right’.
So I’m not sure I’m any further forward than I was on this one. It’s probably a good thing that there’s a lot of the Bible still to come.