Talk about an Awkward Term
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Lev. 18:22)
“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them” (Lev. 20:13).
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are some of the most offensive texts in Scripture. Even for Christians who love the Bible, these verses are very awkward. But perhaps we can learn something important from the term abomination. Maybe our avoidance of awkwardness is one of the problems when it comes to the way we talk about sex. We would rather discuss issues that are more familiar and manageable. We argue about the law, health, each side’s rhetoric, and every possible category touching on human sexuality that does not touch that one, awkward term from Leviticus.
Abomination does not fit into our manageable categories because it concerns holiness, which itself concerns questions of ultimate importance. What are we willing to live for? To die for? What is a good human life? How can I live such a life? To truly answer these questions, we need to understand holiness. And that means things might get awkward.
Holiness can lurk in strange places. Just ask Moses. Managing sheep in the wilderness, he stumbled across a humble bush — and a flame that burned without fuel. The uncreated Creator spoke with a humble creature. This was not an easy encounter for Moses: shoes off, life changed, power granted, mission undertaken. Moses found God’s holiness uncomfortable. At the same time, it was life-giving.
Sex is another strange place to find holiness. Yet we do find it there, along with this word “abomination,” which simply means a violation of something holy or sacred. Idolatry is an abomination because it destroys true and holy worship (e.g. Deut. 7:25). Idolatry also leads to other evils, such as child sacrifice, which God likewise considers an abomination (Deut. 12:31).
Some have suggested that the biblical authors only considered homosexual activities abominable because they were connected with idolatry. The implication is that homosexuality is not forbidden to us today, so long as we avoid the idolatry part. But the details of the text do not support this view. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, where homosexual practices are called abominations, are both descriptions of various forms of sexual sin. Idolatry is not the issue in these passages.
What's more, by restricting the term “abomination” entirely to the issue of idolatry, we miss the amazing message of this text: your body is holy! This is a profound truth, and a major reason to pursue sexual holiness. As Paul said: “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19). Sexual immorality is not just a breach of the rules, but a violation of holy space. In other words, it’s an abomination.
When discussing the holiness of the human bodies, it’s crucial that we understand this holiness in the context of sexual differentiation. Your body is not simply holy; it is holy as male or as female. Scripture shows that this aspect is especially important for the holiness of our bodies. In Genesis 2:21, we are told that God formed Eve out of Adam’s “side.” The word here is not a normal term for part of a human body (perhaps a “rib”). Rather, it is a term for part of a holy building. Except for one place where it describes a “hillside” (2 Samuel 16:13), all other appearances of the word are in the tabernacle (16 times in Exodus 25-40), Solomon’s temple (7 times in 1 Kings), and the temple of Ezekiel’s vision (7 times in Ezekiel 41). And this term of sacred architecture is used for the very spot where God first differentiated between man and woman.
From this, we can see that God calls homosexual practices an abomination for two reasons. First, all sexual immorality violates the holiness of a human body. Second, homosexual practices violate that holiness even more specifically by overturning an especially significant part of human bodies, namely our sexual differences.
If there is anything that we can all learn from this discussion, it’s that we should not approach the subject of sex with a casual or glib attitude, as if it is all no big deal. This is God’s house, and what you do with it matters. Standing on holy ground is not easy, but it is life-giving. And God promises to help us:
“Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1).
Calvin Goligher is the pastor of First OPC in Sunnyvale, California. He and his wife Joanne have five young children.
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Image: "David Garrick as Richard III" by William Hogarth.