What should we make of the fact that Leviticus (OT) demands the death penalty for homosexual sex, and Paul (NT) condemns homosexuality? Jesus, as we have seen, is silent on this issue.
In this context, it is helpful to look at other sexual practices (such as adultery, prostitution, concubinage, sexual slavery, etc.) and see what the Bible says about them. (Much of the following is taken from an excellent article by Walter Wink.)
The Bible and sexual behaviors: Penalties
The following, according to the Bible, are to be punished by death: adultery, homosexual sex, incest, brides who are not virgins. Sex with a menstruating woman is punished by expulsion from the community of believers (kareth). Those who witness a father’s (anyone’s?) nakedness is cursed to be slave.
Crime: Adultery. Penalty: Death.
10 ” ‘If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.”
Deut. 22: 22 “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die.”
Crime: homosexual sex. Penalty: Death.
Lev. 20: 13 ” ‘If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
Crime: sex with menstruating woman. Penalty: expulsion from the community of believers
Lev. 20: 18 ” ‘If a man lies with a woman during her monthly period and has sexual relations with her, he has exposed the source of her flow, and she has also uncovered it. Both of them must be cut off from their people.
Crime: Bride marries while not a virgin. Penalty: Death.
13 If a man takes a wife and, after lying with her, dislikes her 14 and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, “I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,” 20 If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl’s virginity can be found, 21 she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death.
The Bible and sexual crimes: no penalties
In another category, there are actions we would strongly disapprove of today—if not totally condemn—which are allowed by the Bible: polygamy/levirate marriage, sexual slavery, concubinage, prostitution.
Polygamy/ “levirate” marriage. A woman is obliged, after her husband’s death, to marry one of her husband’s brothers–if there were no children–in order to continue the line of the dead husband.
If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her.
Jesus mentions this custom without criticism (Mark 12:18-27).
Prostitution was considered natural and necessary as a safeguard of the virginity of the unmarried (Gen. 38:12-19; Josh. 2:1-7). Note, however, that while a man was not guilty of sin for visiting a prostitute, the prostitute herself was regarded as a sinner.
Paul attacks prostitution (1 Cor. 6:12-20); but he places it in a separate–and apparently lesser– category than adultery (vs. 9).
Slavery. The Old and New Testaments both regarded slavery as normal and nowhere categorically condemned it.
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, 8because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.
Sexual slavery. Likely flows from the justification of slavery in general, and which 2 Sam. 5:13 permitted. (American slave owners who raped their female slaves used this verse as justification.)
7 They fought against Midian, as the LORD commanded Moses, and killed every man. 11 They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals, 14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle. 15 “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.
When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners…
10 When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, 11suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, 12and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, 13discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house for a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14But if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money.
Concubinage (in general, the state of a woman in a quasi-matrimonial relationship with a man of higher social status. Involuntary, or servile, concubinage sometimes involves sexual slavery.) This is specifically allowed in 2 Sam. 5:13. Examples:
Abraham took a slave girl as a concubine (Genesis 16). King Solomon “had 700 official wives and 300 concubines….” (1 Kings 11:1-3). See also the story in Judges 19-21, in which a rape of a male guest is avoided in the following way:
23 Then the man, the owner of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my fellows, please do not act so wickedly; since this man has come into my house, do not commit this act of folly.
24 “Here is my virgin daughter and his concubine. Please let me bring them out that you may ravish them and do to them whatever you wish. But do not commit such an act of folly against this man.”
These cases are relevant to our attitude toward the authority of Scripture. They are not cultic prohibitions from the Holiness Code that are clearly superseded in Christianity, such as rules about eating shellfish or wearing clothes made of two different materials. They are rules concerning sexual behavior, and they fall among the moral commandments of Scripture. Clearly we regard certain rules, especially in the Old Testament, as no longer binding. Other things we regard as binding, including legislation in the Old Testament that is not mentioned at all in the New. What is our principle of selection here?
For example, virtually all modern readers would agree with the Bible in rejecting: incest, rape, adultery, and intercourse with animals. But we disagree with the Bible on most other sexual mores.
Surely no one today would recommend reviving the levirate marriage. So why do we appeal to proof texts in Scripture in the case of homosexuality alone, when we feel perfectly free to disagree with Scripture regarding most other sexual practices? Obviously many of our choices in these matters are arbitrary. Mormon polygamy was outlawed in this country, despite the constitutional protection of freedom of religion, because it violated the sensibilities of the dominant Christian culture. Yet no explicit biblical prohibition against polygamy exists.
If we insist on placing ourselves under the old law, as Paul reminds us, we are obligated to keep every commandment of the law (Gal. 5:3). But if Christ is the end of the law (Rom. 10:4), if we have been discharged from the law to serve, not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit (Rom. 7:6), then all of these biblical sexual mores come under the authority of the Spirit. We cannot then take even what Paul himself says as a new Law. Christians reserve the right to pick and choose which sexual mores they will observe, though they seldom admit to doing just that. And this is as true of evangelicals and fundamentalists as it is of liberals and mainliners.