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Liberalizing Leviticus — or — Overcoming the Bipolarity of the Sexes

I recently picked up another volume in “The Old Testament Library” series of biblical commentaries. Leviticus: A Commentary was written by Erhard S. Gerstenberger, professor of Old Testament at Philipps-Universitat, Marburg, Germany. Translated into English by Douglas W. Stott, the volume offers over 400 pages of commentary on the text of Leviticus [see also the German edition]. I was interested to see how Professor Gerstenberger would deal with specific passages from Leviticus. His treatment of texts dealing with human sexuality is more interesting than most persons would expect.

When dealing with Leviticus 15 and the issues of sexual purity, Gerstenberger advises: “It is too easy for us, given our way of thinking and our values, to misunderstand this priestly mistrust of all that is sexual. It definitely has nothing to do with enmity toward the body or with moralistic prudery.” Well, I guess that all depends upon what one means by “moralistic prudery.”

In antiquity, he asserts, “sexuality possessed an element of the uncanny and the fascinating, something both divine and human that made it an extraordinarily important sphere of human life as far as the piety and theology of the time were concerned.” Let’s all be thankful that sex no longer has an element of the uncanny and the fascinating. No, we moderns have obviously lost all fascination with sex.

Now, get this: To this was added the fact that the world could function only in bipolar spheres for the people of the preindustrial period. Procreation and the maintenance of life required two sexual beings, just as it did sexually determined, complementary life spheres and roles. Today this holds true almost only in a biological sense; idealogically, the separate spheres have been unified. Each individual exists in and of itself alone.

So, in the preindustrial period (when people dwelled in deep ignorance concerning sex), persons had to think of themselves as male or female — and this was also important because these backward folks somehow figured out that it took a male and a female to procreate. Now, in our postindustrial age of sexual enlightenment, we have overcome this binary misconception (except for that nagging issue of biology) and we now know that each individual (a sexual being, to be sure) “exists in and of itself alone.” Ah, the gift of sexual enlightenment.

Treating Leviticus as an object of merely historical interest, Gerstenberger is puzzled by the text’s clear condemnation of homosexual behavior. “Just where the real roots of this brutal rejection of homosexuality lie cannot be determined,” he suggests. “As with many taboo prescriptions, fear of demons presumably played a role.”

His conclusion on homosexuality: “One suspects that in Israel the codification of this disdain and proscription of homosexuality — in a fashion similar to other ethical norms — was influenced by certain socio-historical and cultural circumstances, and in no way represents an unalterable law inherent in human nature.” How convenient for modern people striving to overcome residual bipolarity.

Bestiality also comes under a new analysis: According to the predominant legal understanding today, dealings with pets and domestic animals belong to the private sphere and need no legal regulation except for the purpose of protecting the animals themselves from mistreatment.” In other words, in the modern age we have discarded all those old ideas about sex between humans and animals being wrong, sinful, and against nature. All that remains is concern for the well being of the animals.

This is what happens when the Church finds itself embarrassed by the Bible. Those churches, institutions, and denominations that have embraced the postmodern theories of sexuality that now reign in the academy (and in popular culture, for that matter) can only look at a book like Leviticus with great embarrassment and chagrin. Oh yes, they have to admit, people once thought like that — and they also thought that God had handed down moral codes that were binding and authoritative.

But don’t worry, they urge, for we have overcome all those misunderstandings and we can put those awful and intrusive (not to mention bipolar) rules safely away. Do virtually anything you want, but just don’t hurt the animals.

Biblical commentaries weren’t quite this interesting when I was a seminary student.