Leviticus in The New York Times: What’s the Real Story Here?

  • Albert Mohler President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
  • Published Jul 24, 2018
Leviticus in The New York Times: What’s the Real Story Here?

Even in this secular age, the conscience of Western civilization continues to be haunted and shaped by the Bible. The inherited moral tradition of the West was explicitly formed by the Bible — both the Old and New Testaments — and the moral power of the Bible continues as the main source of the principles, intuitions, impulses, and vocabulary of modern times.

But if European and American cultures have been morally shaped by the Bible, these same cultures are now haunted by the Bible. The Bible haunts all the modern efforts to push a vast revolution in morality — specifically sexual morality. The main restraint on the sexual revolution has been the abiding power of Judeo-Christian moral instincts drawn from Scripture. The intellectual elites declare themselves liberated from the Bible, and express frustration at the millions of their fellow citizens who remain under the Bible’s explicit or implicit sway.

And yet, those same elites are not so distant from the Bible as they may insist. From time to time, they provide their own evidence of how the Bible haunts their supposedly secular worldview and conscience.

Consider this past Sunday’s edition of The New York Times. The most influential newspaper in the world, secular to its core and situated in the Gotham of secular New York, ran a opinion essay in its weekly “Review” section entitled “The Secret History of Leviticus.” Leviticus . . . in Sunday’s edition of The New York Times? Indeed.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, was absolutely right when he identified Leviticus, among all the Mosaic books, as “the one most out of step with contemporary culture.” Leviticus is that great book of law right at the center of the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. As Rabbi Sacks noted, Leviticus is the “axis” on which the other books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) turn.

In Leviticus, Israel’s priesthood is given its roles, responsibilities, and regulations that set the nation and its priests apart from all other nations. Israel is to be God’s personal possession [Exodus 19:6], set apart as a holy nation: “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” [Leviticus 20:26]. As God’s holy nation, a nation of priests, Israel is to have a priestly role among the nations, revealing holiness in a world of sin.

Just about every verse of Leviticus is offensive to the modern secular mind. Leviticus reveals a God who is both omnipotent and holy, a God who chooses Israel as his particular and personal covenant people, a God who drives out other nations in order to fulfill his promises to Israel, and a God who lays down commands about every dimension of human life, including human sexuality. Especially human sexuality.

As you might expect, sexuality was the issue at stake in the essay on Leviticus that appeared in Sunday’s edition of the Times.

Idan Dershowitz, identified as “a biblical scholar and junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows,” began by stating: “No text has had a greater influence on attitudes toward gay people than the biblical book of Leviticus, which prohibits sex between men.”

Indeed, Leviticus 18:22 is about as clear a prohibition of male homosexuality as can be imagined: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”

An abomination is an object or act that God detests. It is the strongest word of divine judgment found in the Bible.

The prohibition of sex between men is found in a series of commands related to sexuality and marriage given by God to Israel. The list of prohibitions includes various forms of incest, bestiality, and other sexual acts that God said were common to Egypt and among the Canaanites:

“I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes.” [Leviticus 20:3]

But Idan Dershowitz now argues–in The New York Times, no less–that the prohibition of men having sex with men is all based on the fact that a later editor (or redactor) changed the text of the Bible here. By the time Dershowitz has finished his argument, Leviticus 18:22 is explained away as being a deliberate effort by a redactor to change what had been permission for sex between men into a prohibition.

All this, he assures the Times’ readers, is possible “with a little detective work.”

What Dershowitz means by “a little detective work” is just the next step in liberal biblical scholarship. By the nineteenth century, liberal scholars, first in Germany, began to take apart the Old Testament. Partly, this was due to the European embarrassment of the character of God and divine laws revealed in the Old Testament in general. At the center of the liberal offense was the Pentateuch, the Torah, the five Books of Moses.

Liberal scholars began to argue that the Bible is merely a human book, written and edited and edited again, its various documents edited by the human beings (“redactors”) with clear theological agendas. The divine inspiration and Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch were simply set aside as supernatural claims beneath the dignity of modern scholarship.

By 1878, Julius Wellhausen of The University of Greifswald in Germany would publish his Prolegomena to the History of Israel, in which he would argue that the five Books of Moses were actually authored by at least four different sources (he identified them as J,E,P, and D), with much of the material written centuries after Moses was dead. The effect in the scholarly world was massive. The Bible could now be treated as mere “ancient Near-Eastern literature.” Wellhausen, by the way, would resign his teaching position in theology within five years, admitting that he was only interested in “the scientific treatment of the Bible,” and not in theology or teaching future pastors. He later became a professor of philology.

Idan Dershowitz just picks up on the story. He told readers of the Times: “Like many ancient texts, Leviticus was created gradually over a long period and includes the words of more than one writer. Many scholars believe that the section in which Leviticus 18 appears was added by a comparatively late editor, perhaps one that worked more than a century after the oldest material in the book was composed. And earlier version of Leviticus, then, may have been silent on the matter of sex between men.”

But Dershowitz is far from finished. He pushes the argument further:

“But I think a stronger claim is warranted. As I argue in an article published in the latest issue of the journal Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel, there is good evidence that an earlier version of the laws in Leviticus 18 permitted sex between men. In addition to having the prohibition against same-sex relations added to it, the earlier text, I believe, was revised in an attempt to obscure any implication that same-sex relations had once been permissible.”

Don’t miss what he is claiming here. He argues that, in his view, the original text of Leviticus, written long after the death of Moses, was revised even later by yet another editor in order to turn what had been permission for males having sex with males into a prohibition.

All this, he says, by “a little detective work.” What kind of detective work?

In the academic article he mentions, Dershowitz lays out his case in far greater detail, but with an interesting twist. In the academic version, he argues that the older version of Leviticus 18 “reflected acceptance” of males having sex with males as was typical of some ancient cultures.

It is interesting that the website for the Harvard Society of Fellows states simply that Dershowitz is “currently researching redactional errors in the Bible.” In another academic essay, Dershowitz argues that Noah was never originally associated with the account of the flood, and that the original tragedy of divine judgment was drought and famine, later associated with Noah and changed into a flood. Get the pattern?

An Associated Press article from 2011 reported that Idan Dershowitz, then at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was at work with a team that included his father, Nachum Dershowitz of Tel Aviv University, that was trying to apply artificial intelligence to reveal hidden patterns of authorship and editing in the biblical text.

The use of this new technology known as “authorship attribution” was, as the AP reported, “giving intriguing new hints about what researchers believe to be the multiple hands that wrote the Bible.”

In the academic article behind the Times essay, Dershowitz argues that the later redactor (‘H”) was likely influenced by the Videvdad, “a collection of diverse Zoroastrian material,” and that his insertion of a prohibition of males having sex with males in Leviticus 18:22 turned the text into “the principle prooftext for homophobia and its antecedents.”

The conclusion of his essay in the Times is even more revealing: “One can only imagine how different the history of civilization might have been had the earlier version of Leviticus 18’s laws entered the biblical canon.”

Indeed, one can only imagine. Of course, Dershowitz’s entire argument is imagination disguised as scholarship.

As New Testament scholar Robert Gagnon said of similar efforts: “Only in our day, removed as we are from ancient Near Eastern conventions, are these kinds of specious connections made by people desperate to find the slightest shred of support for homosexual practice in the Bible.”

Every single text in the Bible that speaks of same-sex sexual desire and same-sex sexual behaviors condemns them. In Leviticus 18:22, the condemnation extends to the use of the word abomination. Dershowitz argues that Leviticus 18:22 is “the principal prooftext” against homosexuality, and that is true for the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Paul takes the argument far beyond Leviticus. Trained as a rabbi and a teacher of the Scriptures, in Romans 1:18-32 Paul goes beyond a condemnation of males having sex with males. He also condemns women who have sex with women, exchanging “natural relations for those that are contrary to nature,” even as in male homosexuality the natural use of the woman is exchanged for “shameless acts with men.” Paul also makes clear that same-sex passion and desire is also sinful, contrary to both nature and divine command. For Christians, the most significant realization is that the crucial moral teachings of the Old Testament Holiness Code that are binding upon us are repeated, and often amplified, in the New Testament. Christians may eat shrimp without sin, for example, but are fully bound by laws against any sexual activity outside of marriage, the covenant union of one man and one woman.

There is no real question about what the Bible teaches about human sexuality and gender. There is also no question about the influence of the Bible on Western civilization. Even now, the Bible exerts a powerful hold on the modern conscience, even when it is not acknowledged. That is extremely frustrating to the moral revolutionaries.

It is interesting to remember that the older Protestant liberals wanted to deny the inspiration and authority of the Bible and yet, at the same time, retain a Christian morality. But their project of undermining the Bible also undermined Christian morality. The theological grandchildren of the early Protestant liberals are as embarrassed by the moral teachings of their grandparents as their grandparents were embarrassed by the moral teachings of the Old Testament.

It is also interesting to note that the moral revolutionaries, horrified as they are by Leviticus, still insist that they want to retain some of the prohibitions of Leviticus 18 — prohibitions against incest and bestiality, for example. But, for how long? The modern secular reduction of moral concern to “consent” would indicate that these prohibitions cannot last for long.

For Christians, all of this just points back to the question of the inspiration and authority of the Bible. As B. B. Warfield rightly insisted, the “Church Doctrine of Scripture” comes down to the formula, when the Scripture speaks, God speaks.

Leviticus 18 has indeed exerted a massive influence on Western society. We can only imagine, as Idan Dershowitz argues, “how different the history of civilization might have been” without it.

The really stunning thing is that The New York Times ran this article on Leviticus 18 — Leviticus — in the year 2018!

Perhaps that makes you think of Isaiah 40:8. “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”


For more information, see my book, We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking Truth to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage, and the Very Meaning of Right and Wrong (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015. See especially chapter 8, “What Does the Bible Really Have to Say About Sex?”

Idan Dershowitz, “The Secret History of Leviticus,” The New York Times, Sunday July 22, 2018. http://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/21/opinion/sunday/bible-prohibit-gay-sex.html

Idan Dershowitz, “Revealing Nakedness and Concealing Homosexual Intercourse: Legal and Lexical Evolution in Leviticus 18,” Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel, 6:510-527 (2017).

Idan Dershowitz, “Man of the Land: Unearthing the Original Noah,” Zeitschrift fur die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft (September 2016).

Jonathan Sacks, Leviticus: The Book of Holiness, “Covenant and Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible,” (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2015).

Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001). Quote from pages 248-249. This book remains the most important single source for understanding debates over the crucial biblical texts.

Publication Date: July 24, 2018
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