If we want to find out what the Bible is saying to us today, we have to read it in context. There are actually 2 contexts we need to be aware of. The first is an awareness of the people and cultures it was first written for. Secondly, we need to see the verses we are reading in the context of the surrounding passage and indeed Scripture as a whole.
This is especially true of controversial issues such as the verses on homosexual sex.
The first prohibition is found in Leviticus 18:22. Among a number of sexual no-no's, it says ...
22 ‘Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.' (NIV)
This might seem clear enough, but there are 2 issues which make it far from an 'open and shut case' The first comes as we look at what else is described as “detestable” in Leviticus.
Leviticus 11 is a good example:
“12Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be detestable to you.
So apparently, prawns, shrimps and crab are detestable and although my wife may agree with that (she hates any shell fish!) that doesn't make it an eternal law.
There are also other things which are forbidden in Leviticus which, if they applied today, would mean that many of us are living in sin Eg. Leviticus 19:27 commands, "‘Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard." This is set alongside another command that prohibits eating steak cooked 'rare' (vs 26). And yet these commands which are hard to get our heads around today, are alongside others which we would endorse wholeheartedly like "Do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute"! (vs 29)
There is more to reading this part of the Bible than simply extracting single verses, if we are to understand which rules apply today and which do not - and indeed what the rules do, and do not, prohibit. They were written in a very different culture with its own taboos and concerns, and some of the commands in Leviticus reflect that culture, while others reflect the eternal will of God. The challenge is to discern which are which.
The second issue with Leviticus 18 is the word which the NIV Bible translates as 'detestable'. We sometimes forget that the Bible was not written in English! What we have is a translation, and the constant challenge in any work of translation is discerning how to best convey the fullest meaning of the words we translate. This is not an easy task - as evidenced by the large number of translations out there.
The Hebrew word in this case is תעב 'to-ebah'. The King James version translates it as 'abomination'. In the list of sexual no-no's in Leviticus 18, 'lying with a man as with a woman' is singled out in the list as 'to-ebah'. So what does this word mean? And what picture would it have evoked in the Hebrews who first heard it?
The word 'to-ebah' occurs many times in the Old Testament, and is primarily associated with the worship of idols.
In Deuteronomy, there are 15 verses which use the word, and 12 of them either refer to idolatry.
One example is Dt 27:15
5Cursed be the man that maketh any graven or molten image, an abomination unto the LORD, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and putteth it in a secret place.
Another, (Dt 23:18) links 'to-ebah' to money which came from male temple prostitutes.
In the books of Kings and Chronicles, 'to-ebah' is used 10 times, almost all of them referring specifically to the worship of idols and again there is a link in 1 Kings 14:24 with male temple prostitutes.
23For they also built them high places, and images, and groves, on every high hill, and under every green tree. 24there were also male temple prostitutes in the land. They committed all the abominations of the nations that the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.
So there would have been a clear and specific link in the minds of the people of Israel between 'to-ebah' and idolatry, and between homosexual sex and religious male prostitution.
The link between 'to-ebah' and idolatry is also present in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The only book of the Bible where this does not apply is the book of Proverbs which uses the word 'to-ebah' in a bewildering variety of contexts. But then the book of Proverbs is poetry, written in a different style and with different aims. The Old Testament scholar, RN Whybray, in his commentary on Proverbs says "It cannot be too strongly emphasised that Proverbs is an entirely different kind of book from the other OT books; indeed it is unique. It served an entirely different purpose ... Proverbs has one unifying characteristic: it is written entirely in poetry ... Suffice to say that in general poetry makes up in allusiveness what it lacks in precision."
If we set aside this poetic use of the word in Proverbs, we find that in up to 80% of the times 'to-ebah' is used, it refers to false worship or the worship of idols, and in some of those references there is a clear link made with male temple prostitution.
So why do we assume that it applies to same-sex relationships? Looking at the evidence, it is much more likely that when Leviticus condemns 'men lying with men as with a woman', it has homosexual temple prostitution to idols in mind, which is a world away from a self-giving loving committed relationship between 2 people of the same sex today.
The most frustrating thing about "Computer says No" (the Little Britain comedy sketch which started this series) is the fact that no explanation is given, no discussion takes place - there no analysis of why the answer is 'no'. Both the Scriptures and LGBT people deserve so much more than that.
Next time - 1 Corinthians 6...