Leviticus 18:21-23 and 20:13

Leviticus (The holiness code)

The book of Leviticus includes a collection of laws known as the Holiness Code, so named because the dominant idea in Leviticus is God’s command: “2 You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” Leviticus 19:2

Leviticus means “about the Levites”. The Levites were God’s priests, descendants of Levi, one of the twelve sons of Jacob. Aaron and his family were chosen from this tribe to serve as priests and to offer sacrifices. God appointed the rest of the Levites to the service of the tabernacle, to assist the priests in the worship in the sanctuary.

Key Scriptures:  Leviticus 18:21-23, Leviticus 20:13

Key Words: Levite,  Apis, Abomination, Qadesh, Asherah, Holy, Molech (Moloch), Qadash, Ishtar

21 “Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord. 22 “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable. 23“Do not have sexual relations with an animal and defile yourself with it. A woman must not present herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it; that is a perversion.”                               Leviticus 18:21-23 NIV                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

13 ‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

                                                                                                                              Leviticus 20:13 NIV


Traditional interpretation

The two key verses for our discussion on the book of Leviticus are frequently used to condemn homosexuality. They are probably the most commonly known verses out of all the so-called clobber passages and the most misunderstood as well when read literally but applied to today’s culture and way of thinking.

The book seems quite strange to modern readers. The sacrificial worship it describes is so far removed from today’s believers that its very unfamiliarity prevents some from reading Leviticus at all. Those who do can easily misconstrue what the verses are saying. We see this very clearly in the way some have interpreted these verses and used their misinterpretation to condemn homosexuality.  Yet Leviticus plays an essential role in God’s Word and makes a vital contribution to our understanding of God’s relationship with humankind. We need to understand the book in order to bring proper understanding about what the scriptures are and are not saying about homosexuality.

Historical background

The Book of Leviticus is the third book of Moses and one of the five books of the law known as the Pentateuch. Leviticus to some degree causes a break in the flow of events in the story of God’s people. From Genesis through Exodus we hear of this great story about God creating a nation and a people who would represent him to the rest of the world. But before they make the move from Mount Sinai to the edge of the Promise Land God needs to emphasize the personal, priestly, and national holiness that was a necessary part of their story and identity.

The book is broken out into four segments

  1. The Offerings (1:1-7:38)
  2. The Priesthood (8:1-10:20)

III. Cleanness and Uncleanness (11:1-16:34)

  1. The Holiness Code (17:1-27:34)

The opening sections of the book deal with right forms of worship inside the tabernacle. The second section deals with the conditions for the representative priesthood followed by acceptability of the worshipers, in other words what is considered clean and unclean. The rest of the book (where we will focus our attention) was called the holiness code and was devoted to right living, with becoming holy and staying holy.  Where Exodus emphasized where to worship God, Leviticus deals with the why and the how to worship God.

In Leviticus 20:26 we again read the main purpose for the holiness code.

26 You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.”

The holiness code illustrates God’s requirement for them to follow him alone and to stand out as the holyrepresentatives of a relational God.

The word holy here is the Hebew word qadosh (Strong’s 6918) and means holy, singled out, consecrated for.

Holiness was a point of differentiation, so much so that the word holy with its derivatives occurs eighty-five times within these eleven chapters of the holiness code. The difference between God’s holiness and Israel’s holiness is that God’s is intrinsic, while theirs is derived from their relationship with God. Our God is relational and a good parent to his children. God is showing his children how they will stand out in the land that they will soon inherit as their own.

The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt; they had wandered in the desert, they had been subject to attacks from other tribes, starvation, and infectious diseases. They needed cohesiveness, cleanliness, and order in every aspect of their lives. They wanted to keep pure their manner of worshiping God, who had brought them to this land. They were struggling for their own identity. Failure to form a tight knit community could threaten their long-term survival. They needed a code for living.

This is why God said to them in Leviticus 18:1-4

1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God. 3 You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. 4 You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the Lord your God.”

Israel’s neighbours among the ancient Near Eastern nations practiced sacrificial worship and like the Israelites these sacrifices were designed to appease the gods and to ensure continuance of divine favour. But there were certain differences that existed between the Israelite’s system and those of the ancient Near East. One minor difference was a lack of burning sacrifices by fire in Mesopotamia as the Israelites did. A more significant difference was that the Mesopotamians commonly used the sacrificial animal as a means of clairvoyance, in order to discern the future actions of the gods. Secondly the most distinctive aspect of the Israelite sacrificial system is the way it was linked to the covenantal relationship with God which we know is a shadow of what Jesus would become for us as the Lamb of God, the ultimate once for all sacrifice. The sacrifices make up a major ingredient of the covenant bond between Israel and God, the other nations had nothing comparable. A third feature of Israel’s use of the sacrifices is her concept of holiness. Israel’s notion of the term “holy” was based on the greater moral and ethical nature of God.

The Israelites have a covenant relationship with God and now the Lord sends Moses with instructions for proper worship. The Israelites were not to worship like their neighbours, and they were not to worship other gods. These behaviours were idolatrous and dangerous to their survival as a nation.

Unlawful sexual relations (in context)

One of the gods of Egypt where they had come out of captivity was the god, Apis.  Apis was a fertility god, and the idol representing Apis was in the shape of a bull. As part of their worship, people would go and have sex with the priests and priestesses who served Apis. They believed that this encounter would cause fruitfulness with their land, crops and childbearing.

Exodus 32:17-25 gives us a glimpse of how easily the people were enticed into pagan worship practices by the people around them.

Moses was on the mountain receiving the 10 Commandants and he comes down to find idol worship in the camp. This is what God is addressing before they enter the promise land.

17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, “There is the sound of war in the camp.” 18 Moses replied: “It is not the sound of victory, it is not the sound of defeat; it is the sound of singing that I hear.” 19 When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. 20 And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it. 21 He said to Aaron, “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?” 22 “Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ 24 So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” 25 Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies.”

Now; in Leviticus, we see another god, Molek and a prohibition to not sacrifice to Molek and thus dishonour God. This leads us to our first passage used to condemn homosexuality in the book of Leviticus.

4.3.1 Leviticus 18:21-23

 “21 “Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord. 22 “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable. 23“Do not have sexual relations with an animal and defile yourself with it. A woman must not present herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it; that is a perversion.”                           Leviticus 18:21-23 NIV


“21 And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to ||Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord. 22 Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. 23 Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith: neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion.”                                                                          Leviticus 18:21-23 KJV

In the passage  we see Gods command to not live like the Canaanites. Reference is made here about a god named Molek (also referred to as Moloch) who was worshiped in the Middle East and in both Egypt and Canaan.  According to the Jewish tradition, the cult idol Molek was made of brass, hollow, and with hands positioned so that something laid in the hands of the idol would fall into the fire below. This practice of laying a child across the hands and committing the child to the fire was termed ‘pass through the fire of Molek’. In addition to children there were products of soil, fruits, a calf or sheep and even a cat or a dog.

When the signal was given the priests of Moloch marched into the temple and around the figure to pay homage to the god. Young men would sell their bodies to the adorers of their god, depositing on the altar of the idol the money earned. Within the temple, too there were dogs trained for the same purpose and the coins received from the rental or sale of these animals, called the ‘price of a dog’ went to the priests of Moloch (Goldberg, 1930).

Point to Ponder: Do we believe that verse 21 and 22 are connected? If so what is God condemning, a loving same sex relationship or idol worship?

This leads us to the second passage that is similar. The difference here is that Leviticus 20:13 also describes a punishment for what is being condemned, that of death.

4.3.2 Leviticus 20:13

13 ‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

                                                                                                                     Leviticus 20:13 NIV

“13 If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”

                                                                                                                    Leviticus 20:13 KJV

Here again we see this prohibition against a man lying with mankind as with a woman. And like Leviticus 18:22 we see the word abomination used. This word and an understanding of the surrounding culture hold the key for us in understanding that what God is dealing with in both passages is the issue of idolatry.  

For us in the 21st century it seems strange to be talking about people worshiping false gods in sexual ways and by offering human sacrifices. Yet this was the case and still is in some parts of the world where these pagan gods are worshiped.

Terms to consider


When we examine both passages in the KJV we see the appearance of the word abomination. This is the word most of us are familiar with when used to condemn homosexuality in the book of Leviticus, but what does the word actually mean?

According to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible the word used in these passages is Strong’s 8441.

תּוֹעֵבַה tôwʿêbâh, to-ay-baw´; or

תֹּעֵבַה tôʿêbâh, to-ay-baw´; fem. act. part. of 8581; prop. something disgusting (mor.), i.e. (as noun) an abhorrence; espec. idolatry or (concr.) an idol:—abominable (custom, thing), abomination (Strong, 2009).

This Hebrew word has a primary meaning of an association with idolatry or concretely of an idol itself. What we see thus far from the context is a prohibition against idolatry.

Every time the Hebrew word tôʿêbâh is used in the Old Testament, it is always referring to an idol or to idolatry. Here are few examples.

                                                                                                                             Deuteronomy 7:25-26

“25 The graven images of their gods shall ye burn with fire: thou shalt not desire the silver or gold that is on them, nor take it unto thee, lest thou be snared therein: for it is an abomination to the Lord thy God. 26 Neither shalt thou bring an abomination into thine house, lest thou be a cursed thing like it: but thou shalt utterly detest it, and thou shalt utterly abhor it; for it is a cursed thing. (The Holy Bible: King James Version, 2009)

                                                                                                                            Jeremiah 2:7 and 11

“7 And I brought you into ta plentiful country, to eat the fruit thereof and the goodness thereof; but when ye entered, ye defiled my land, and made mine heritage an abomination (The Holy Bible: King James Version, 2009).

“11 Hath a nation changed their gods, which are yet no gods? but my people have changed their glory for that which doth not profit  (The Holy Bible: King James Version, 2009).

                                                                                                                            Malachi 2:11

“11  Judah hath dealt treacherously, and an abomination is committed in Israel and in

Jerusalem; for Judah hath profaned the holiness of the Lord which he loved, and hath

married the daughter of a strange god (The Holy Bible: King James Version, 2009).

In each of these cases when the word abomination is used we see the same word in Hebrew tôʿêbâh. The issue of idolatry is being addressed. All through the scriptures we see it written where God says, I will be their God and they will be my people or I am holy, therefore you be holy. We know that on this side of the cross Jesus provides our means of holiness and we will be known by our fruit. But in the Old Testament we see a priesthood representing God and outlining how the people of God would maintain holiness and not become defiled by the nations around them.

Another important reason for the strict adherence in worship is because these other nations had priests as well that served these false Gods. The differences however are stark and give us additional insight into the passages in question.

Qadash v Qadesh

There were two different names for Priests in the Old Testament


Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible #6942

קָדַשׁ qâdâsh, kaw-dash´; a prim. root; to be (causat. make, pronounce or observe as) clean (ceremonially or morally):—appoint, bid, consecrate, dedicate, defile, hallow, (be, keep) holy (-er, place), keep, prepare, proclaim, purify, sanctify (-ied one, self), × wholly (Strong, 2009).


Strong’s Exhausstive Concordance of the Bible #6945

קָדֵשׁ qâdêsh, kaw-dashe´; from 6942; a (quasi) sacred person, i.e. (techn.) a (male) devotee (by prostitution) to licentious idolatry:—sodomite, unclean (Strong, 2009).

The Bible distinguishes the activities of these pagan priests involved in cultic worship practices from the priests who were called to be holy and to serve Yahweh God. The following verses help us to see how much God disliked the qadeshim.

                                                                                                                           Deuteronomy 23:17-19 (KJV)

17 There shall be no whore (#6948 Qadeshah) of the daughter of Israel, or a sodomite (#6945 Qadesh) of the sons of Israel. 18 Thou shall not bring the hire of a whore or the price of a dog, into the house of the Lord thy God for any vow: for even both these are abominations (#8441 to ‘ebah) unto the Lord thy Go

“As a woman”

Relationships that are prohibited in Leviticus 18 and 20 are considered wickedness but only in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 do we see a particular relationship that is considered idolatrous.

The prohibitions of Leviticus 18 and 20 are directed to Hebrew males and let them know with whom they are not to have sexual relationships. All of these type of illicit sexual relationships would have taken place in these cultic worship experiences. However, God considered only one of them, the lying with a man as woman as particularly idolatrous. Why?

A male priest or qadesh would oftentimes wear female attire; so would the male prostitutes involved in these pagan cults. In Babylonian and Assyrian culture their male temple priests associated with the goddess Ishtar. The goddess Ishtar was also worshipped by the Canaanites as Asherah.  These cultic priests would become “as a woman”.  They would adopt female attire and some would become eunuchs as part of their service to the pagan deity. Mixing gender roles was not a matter of personal preference or orientation but rather a cultural signifier and a uniting of oneself with a pagan deity.

Other scholars believe that this “as a woman”refers to the dominate role played by men during this time period. Woman were considered property and of lower status, as well as being sexually dominated and controlled. So to lie with a man as with a woman would have been reducing the man to property and in effect defiling the image of God. This is however exactly how men would have treated the male temple prostitutes – in a controlling and abusive manner, and also is how individuals would have been treated in the sacred sexual orgies with which Baal was worshipped. They would have lied with other men “as with a woman” (Waskow, 2008).


First off let us be thankful on this side of the cross because:

23 Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.”

                                                                                                            Galatians 3:23-25 NIV

 “3 Again I declare to every man [or woman] who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love”.

                                                                                                            Galatians 5:3-6 NIV

As New Testament Christians we are no longer obligated to follow the Old Testament laws. This is because Jesus Christ came to fulfil the law and usher in a season of love and grace.

While we are no longer under the law and no longer need to struggle to figure out what we can and cannot do it is important to understand the Old Testament scriptures, particularly where these scriptures are used to condemn loving same sex relationships.

We can see from these passages a beautiful picture of a loving, holy God establishing a means of covenant, protection and worship with his people. We see this covenant threatened by the worshipping and sexual acts with false gods as they prepare to enter their promised land. A land where God promised they would be a blessing to the surrounding nations.

It is clear that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are prohibitions for God’s people to not participate in pagan religions, nor to participate in their sexual practices as a means of worship. In light of this, you can see it is dishonest to interpret these passages as condemnations of homosexuality or any sexuality for that matter.