Homosexuality in the Old Testament

This is the first of two articles taken from “Homosexuality, Scripture, and the Church,” by Ekkehardt Mueller. Published by the Biblical Research Institute, the full release is available as a free download on the Resources page of this website.

Israel was surrounded by nations for which sexuality and fertility cults played an important role. Homosexuality was practiced among the Egyptians, the Babylonians, Assyrians, the Hittites, and the Canaanites1. Sacred prostitution, homosexuality between consenting partners, transvestite behavior, and bestiality can be found among Israel’s neighbors. Yet, the Old Testament opposes all these practices, challenges the other gods, and rejects homosexuality2. It contains texts with direct as well as indirect references to homosexuality3. Among the direct references, two passages occur in legal material, whereas the other references are found in historical narratives.

Old Testament Narratives

Genesis 1–24

Although the Creation account (Gen 1-2) does not talk about homosexuality, it sets the stage for all subsequent sexual relations. 5 God created the first man and the first woman, Adam and Eve, and joined them in marriage. With this institution of marriage, God clearly established the divine plan for sexual relations among humans. Authors supporting homosexual partnerships suggest that the male-female combination was chosen only because procreation was divinely commanded (Gen 1:28); it was necessary in the beginning. But since the situation has changed and overpopulation is rampant, it is claimed that homosexual partnerships are even more in tune with the needs of the world today than heterosexual relationships.6 Therefore, supposedly, Genesis 1 and 2 cannot be used to proscribe only one form of human sexuality.

The problem with this argument is that it restricts heterosexual relationships to the function of procreation. This restriction is not what Genesis 1 and 2 portray.7 The Creation account is interested in the concept of complementation. When Adam notices his lack of a companion, God creates for him the woman “suitable to him.” They complement each other. This complementation is holistic, because God is holistic. Its expression is found particularly in heterosexual marriage.

Genesis 19 and Judges 19

Whereas narratives that deal with homosexuality, such as the Sodom narrative (Gen 19:4-10) and the outrage in Gibeah (Judg 19:22-25), are sometimes interpreted in such a way as to avoid homosexual connotations, homosexuality is read into other passages, such as the stories of Ham’s sin,8 the friendship of David and Jonathan, and the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship between Ruth and Naomi. It has been suggested that the story dealing with Sodom is about a lack of hospitality9 rather than homosexuality and that the term “to know” means “to get acquainted” rather than “to have coitus with” (Gen 19:5).10

Although homosexuality was one of the sins of the inhabitants of Sodom, it was not the only one, and the city was destroyed because of its many grievous sins. Christian homosexuals today argue that the problem with Sodom was not homosexuality, per se, but a violent type of gang rape, which has nothing to do with covenant homosexuality. This argument is also applied to what happened in Gibeah.11 Yet, “the authors of Jude and 2 Peter undoubtedly understood a key offense of Sodom to be men desiring to have sex with males.”12

Alleged Homosexual Relationships


To interpret David’s relation to Jonathan or Ruth’s relation to her mother-in-law as a beautiful expression of homosexuality is farfetched.13 Men embracing and kissing each other and holding hands is common today even in the Near East. This custom has nothing to do with homosexuality.14 Nevertheless, Fritz Guy not only speculates about physical intimacy between David and Jonathan but also about the Roman military officer who asked Jesus to heal his boy, suggesting that this boy was a valuable slave and sexual partner of the officer. He also suggests that the Ethiopian eunuch was a potential homosexual.15 He adds, “These possible instances are, of course, highly conjectural. . . . None of the stories contains an explicit recognition, much less an endorsement, of same sex love.”16 But then his speculation becomes almost certitude: “Given what we know about human nature and same sex love, statistically it is highly probable that some of the figures in the scriptural narratives were participants in same-sex erotic relationships.”17 Such an approach has nothing to do with sound biblical interpretation.18

The Mosaic Laws

Leviticus 18 and 20

Leviticus contains two texts that are clearly dealing with homosexuality. Leviticus 18:22 reads: “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.” Leviticus 20:13 goes further by warning against the consequences of homosexual activities: “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their blood guiltiness is upon them.”

It has been suggested that “the Old Testament limits the prohibitions against same-gender sexual behavior in Leviticus 18 and 20 to the ritual or cult of Israel. . . . These passages have no impact on the New Testament/Christian moral code.”19 It has been argued that our challenge is not to maintain culturally conditioned law, but rather, with Jesus, to love God and love our neighbor(Matt. 22:3640). When these texts in Leviticus are taken out of their historical and cultural context and applied to faithful, God-worshiping Christians who are homosexual, it does violence to them.20

It has been proposed that the context deals with purity and holiness and that those cultic concerns are, supposedly, irrelevant to the New Testament church.21 Furthermore, homogenitality is forbidden because it is considered “unclean” and “not because it is wrong in itself. The Christian Scriptures insist that cleanness and uncleanness do not matter.”22

It is true that in the immediate or larger context we find terms referring to purity, holiness, and idolatry. Still, the question must be asked whether or not these references limit the warning against homosexuality to specific situations only. This restriction is clearly not the case. First, these two texts describe and condemn male homosexual activity.23 No exceptions are mentioned. Obviously they are opposed to any homosexual activity. However, it is very likely that they included lesbianism. It has been pointed out that

The Mosaic legislation in general is considered from a man’s (male’s) perspective. Even the Decalogue is addressed in the masculine singular, but this certainly does not mean that it applies only to the male gender. The masculine singular is the Hebrew way to express gender inclusive ideas…24

Second, although these passages are found in the context of holiness and purity, they have a moral quality as indicated in their usage in the New Testament. Kaiser states: “… there is a category of temporary ceremonial laws, but I do not agree that homosexuality is among them. Nothing in its proscription points to or anticipates Christ.” 25Roy Gane shows that there is a difference between ritual impurity, which can be removed by ritual purification, and moral impurity, which is not remediable. He concludes by stating that

the impurity of homosexual practice was not ceremonial, but moral… This is confirmed by the fact that in Acts 15, which releases Gentile Christians from circumcision, the ‘Holiness Code’ prohibitions against meat offered to idols, sexual immorality…, and meat from which the blood is not drained at the time of slaughter… remain in force for Gentiles.26

It is clear that “any attempt to draw hard distinctions between sin and impurity is doomed to failure. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the Holiness Code is that it incorporates ethics under the rubric of purity; that is, sin and impurity merge” (Lev 18:24-30; Eze 18:22, 26).27

man reading

Third, the passages deal with more than exploitive situations. The two persons involved in these acts of immorality are men. Both of them were to be punished because both of them are responsible for their acts by mutual consent.28 It was an abomination.29 Fourth, these laws extend beyond the Israelite community and were also applicable to the stranger (Lev 18:26). 30The lists of Leviticus 18 and 20, together with other vices and virtues,“31 reflect transcultural values.” They are also based on the Creation order and, therefore, are not limited to the people of Israel.32

Fifth, the text itself provides the reason for the prohibition: “lying with a male as though lying with a woman.” The reason appears to be that “male-male intercourse puts a male in the category of female so far as sexual intercourse is concerned. Because sexual intercourse is about sexual completion, it requires complementary sexual others.”33 Interestingly, “in the entire Pentateuch, the only forbidden sexual act to which the word tôēbâ [“abomination”] is specifically attached is homosexual intercourse.”34

Sixth, Webb provides a reason for the inclusion of child sacrifice in the list of seventeen sexual intercourse prohibitions mentioned in Leviticus 18. The first fifteen prohibitions preceding child sacrifice could result in offspring; the next two, homosexuality and bestiality, do not. The chapter is concerned with appropriate sexual boundaries between male and female. “Such a structural perspective speaks against any type of homosexuality today.”35

Seventh, the context of the law against homosexual activity in Leviticus 18 and 20 includes Leviticus 19 in which we find the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself (19:18). This commandment is not abolished, although others in the immediate context are or may be (Lev 19:21-25,27). Love is stressed again and again in the New Testament. Therefore, when a decision has to be made as to whether or not a specific regulation is still normative for Christians, it has to be made on an individual basis and by consulting the New Testament. Eighth, in Romans 1:26, 27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10, Paul alludes to Leviticus 18 and 20 and makes his own statement about homosexuality. The law was still valid in Paul’s time, and Paul did not indicate that it was to be abolished. Ninth, a specific case of fornication, namely incest, is related in 1 Corinthians 5. The act of having sexual intimacy with one’s stepmother is called porneia (“sexual immorality”). This act is clearly spelled out in Leviticus 18:8. So, Paul considered Lev 18 or at least parts of it as still valid for Christians. This validation should also apply to the case of incest and bestiality, as well as child sacrifice. In addition, the term porneia clearly stands for incestuous relations and may include all unlawful sexual activities spelled out in Leviticus 18.36 As incest is still to be shunned, so is homosexuality.

Tenth, the issue of fornication was discussed and decided upon at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25). As a result, Gentile Christians were ordered to abstain from fornication. Obviously, the Jerusalem Council did not discuss the validity of the Decalogue. They dealt with porneia, whereas the Ten Commandments use the verb moicheuō (LXX; “adultery”). The other three items from which the Gentile Christians had to abstain were things polluted by idols, what is strangled, and blood. All four restrictions remind us of similar prohibitions for Israelites and strangers in Leviticus 17:8-15 and 18:24-27.37 It seems quite certain that the delegates to this Council and especially James had in mind Leviticus 18.38 Porneia was referring to a broad range of sexual deviations, including incest, prostitution, and homosexuality.

Deuteronomy 23

None of the daughters of Israel shall be a cult prostitute, nor shall any of the sons of Israel be a cult prostitute. You shall not bring the hire of a harlot or the wages of a dog into the house of the LORD your God for any votive offering, for both of these are an abomination to the LORD your God. (Deut 23:17, 18).

Springett suggests that homosexuality may have been prohibited in this passage through the terms translated “cult prostitute” and “dog.”39 The term “dog” may, in contrast to the cult prostitute, describe non-cultic male prostitution. Davidson points out: it “is found in the section of Deuteronomy that elaborates upon the seventh commandment; this indicates that any homosexual activity is a violation of the Decalogue.”40


The Old Testament contains clear texts, especially in the legal material, rejecting any form of homosexual activity. These texts were referred to in the New Testament and considered binding. However, one should be careful not to read wishful thinking into Old Testament narratives and misuse texts that do not deal with homosexual activities in order to support a homosexual agenda. It is important to notice that “all the references to homosexual acts in the Old Testament are negative—whether in narrative (Gen 9:20-27; 19; Judg 19) or law (Lev 18; 20)—and carry heavy sanctions.”41

By Ekkehardt MuellerTh.D., Associate Director (Retired), Biblical Research InstituteSilver Spring, Maryland

For part 2, see “Homosexuality in the New Testament” by Ekkehardt Mueller.

  1. 1. See, e.g., Richard M. Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 134-142; Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 44-56; Ronald M. Springett, Homosexuality in History and the Scriptures (Silver Spring: Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference, 1988), 33-48; Donald J. Wold, Out of Order: Homosexuality in the Bible and the Ancient Near East (Grand Rapids: Baker Books Publishing Company, 1998), 43-61. ↩︎
  2. 2. Cf. William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 81. ↩︎
  3. 3. Cf. Springett, 69-88. ↩︎
  4. 4. We will be using the New American Standard Bible. ↩︎
  5. 5. Webb comments: “Obviously, this pattern does not sit well with homosexual relationships, whether the covenant or casual type” (131). ↩︎
  6. 6. Walter Wink, “Homosexuality and the Bible,” in Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches, edited by Walter Wink (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 4. ↩︎
  7. 7. Springett, 53. ↩︎
  8. 8. For a discussion of this incident, reported in Genesis 9:20-25, see Davidson, 142-145. Wold, 65-76. ↩︎
  9. 9. See Jack Rogers, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 67; Daniel A. Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality (New Mexico: Alamo Square Press, 2000), 43-50. ↩︎
  10. 10. The NASB translation “to have relations with them” (cf. Gen 4:1, 17, 25) seems to be the meaning required by the passage, especially by verse 8, based on the context dealing with various sexual problems and the intertextual connections with Judges 19 and Ezekiel 16 (see, Wold, 89). ↩︎
  11. 11. For a more detailed discussion of both passages, see Davidson, 145-149, 161, 162; James R. White and Jeffrey D. Niell, The Same Sex Controversy (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2002), 40-51, Andreas J. Köstenberger, God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation (Wheaton; Crossway Books, 2004), 204-208. Davidson concludes his passage on Sodom by saying, “That the opprobrium attached to the Sodomites’ intended activity involved not only rape but the inherent degradation of same-sex intercourse is confirmed by the intertextual linkages between Ezekiel and the sexual ‘abominations’ mentioned in Levitical legislation” (149). ↩︎
  12. 12. Dan O. Via and Robert A. J. Gagnon, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 59. ↩︎
  13. 13. See Davidson, 164-167. ↩︎
  14. 14. See also Springett, 73; Webb, 102. ↩︎
  15. 15. Fritz Guy, “Same-sex Love: Theological Considerations” in Christianity and Homosexuality, part 4 – 52, 53. ↩︎
  16. 16. Guy, part 4 – 54. ↩︎
  17. 17. Guy, part 4 – 54. ↩︎
  18. 18. Davidson, 165, speaks about speculation. ↩︎
  19. 19. James B. DeYoung, Homosexuality: Contemporary Claims Examined in the Light of the Bible and Other Ancient Literature and Law (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2000), 10. ↩︎
  20. 20. Rogers, Homosexuality, 69. In the context of Leviticus 18 and 20 and the discussion on homosexuality, Helminiak, 66, 67, calls people to break away from conventions and taboos because they are “unreasonable and oppressive” (67). ↩︎
  21. 21. See Rogers, Homosexuality, 69. ↩︎
  22. 22. Helminiak, 72. ↩︎
  23. 23. Cf. Springett, 63. ↩︎
  24. 24. Davidson, 150. ↩︎
  25. 25. Quoted in Mark F. Rooker, Leviticus (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2000), 247. Similarly Webb, 177. ↩︎
  26. 26. Roy E. Gane, “Same-sex Love in the Body of Christ?” in Christianity and Homosexuality, part 4 – 67, 68. ↩︎
  27. 27. Via and Gagnon, 66. Wold, 119, adds: “The sex crimes of Leviticus 18, with the possible exception of Molech worship, were not cultic in nature . . . the term tôcē-bâ [abomination] shows no distinction between intrinsic wrong and ritual impurity as suggested by Boswell.” ↩︎
  28. 28. See Davidson, 149. ↩︎
  29. 29. The Greek term bdelygma is discussed by Wold, 118. ↩︎
  30. 30. See Davidson, 154, 155; White and Niell, 68. ↩︎
  31. 31. Webb, 196. See also pages 192-196. ↩︎
  32. 32. See Wold, 130. ↩︎
  33. 33. Via and Gagnon, 64, 65. ↩︎
  34. 34. Davidson, 151. ↩︎
  35. 35. Webb, 200. See also pages 197-200. ↩︎
  36. 36. Oftentimes, the New Testament, when it alludes to or quotes an Old Testament text, not only refers to the specific text but also to the entire context. When, e.g., in Revelation 12:5 the male child is mentioned, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, the reference is not just Psalm 2:9 but the entire second Psalm. This principle may apply to 1 Corinthians 5:1 and its Old Testament source, Leviticus 18. ↩︎
  37. 37. Cf.C.K. Barrett, The Acts of the Apostles, vol. II, (London: T &T Clark International, 2006), 734; Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 506, 507; I. Howard Marshall, Acts (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 253. ↩︎
  38. 38. This, is, e.g., supported by the margin of Nestle-Aland’s Greek New Testament, as well as their list of Old Testament quotations and allusions. When discussing the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, Bruce refers back to Lev 18. F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), 315. ↩︎
  39. 39. Cf., Springett, 63-65. ↩︎
  40. 40. Davidson, 160. ↩︎
  41. 41. Wold, 162. ↩︎

Images: AI-generated

Related Articles