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Misinterpreting Scripture: David Runcorn on Leviticus 18.22 and the Need to Read Scripture in Literary Context

Possibly most misinterpretation of Scripture is simply the result of not reading a text in its own literary context.  This is the sort of thing warned against in primary school.  Take, for example, one of the arguments regarding Leviticus 18.22:

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

David Runcorn argues in the Pilling Report of the Church of England on human sexuality that this text is not about men in homosexual relationships.[1]  His interpretation appeals to what he thinks is the cultural context for this verse, and he uses that line of reasoning to try to limit the way the text otherwise seems to read.  (After all, are not laws written for broad application unless otherwise limited?)  The suggested cultural context by Runcorn is a male dominated society in which men are being told not to behave like women in passive sexual acts (i.e., penetrated by another male).  In this way, the text is dismissed from any relevance to homosexuality: it becomes an archaic text speaking to an inferior culture to our own in that it affirms male dominance.  Amazingly, Runcorn moves from an unproven thesis to its acceptance without any argument, and he concludes:

What is at stake here is not a supposed divine plan of heterosexuality, but a supposed divine plan for male dominance.

With that, the report moves to another text for consideration.

So many things are wrong with this sort of approach to interpretation that it is difficult to focus on the main point I wish to make: read texts in their own literary contexts.  For one thing, Runcorn might have explored whether any ancient Jewish or Christian interpreter ever read Lev. 18.22 as support for male dominance.  (Had he done so, he would have found that no author ever even thought of reading the passage this way until recent decades, let alone in antiquity.)  Christians would also want to ask whether the Church has ever interpreted the text this way.  Teachers and priests in the Church have an obligation to explain and defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints—or at the very least engage what the Church has taught. It should also be noted that Runcorn references only a single secondary source for his reading of Leviticus 18 rather than engage various scholarly discussions of the text.[2]

One need not know anything about the practices of homosexuality in the Ancient Near East, however, to see that Runcorn’s view is impossible.  Consider the literary context of Lev. 18.22.  First, a variety of sexual acts are condemned in Leviticus 18 that cannot be subsumed under the simple category of dominance/submission.  In fact, none of them can.  Many of the forbidden sexual acts (uncovering the nakedness of someone) have to do with which kinship relationships are not permitted.  Also, the command in Lev. 18.21 is against child sacrifice to the god Molech, and Lev. 18.23 forbids sexual relationships with animals.  The idea of dominance/submission has been snuck into the reading of v. 22; it is not part of the immediate literary context.

Furthermore, the laws against forbidden sexual relationships in Leviticus 18 are repeated in part in chapter 20.  Texts not only need to be read in light of the surrounding verses but also in light of the surrounding chapters.  The reason for repeating laws just two chapters later is that ch. 20 includes punishments for specific sins.  Lev. 18.22 is repeated in Lev. 20.13, which reads:

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.

Note that the text calls for both persons—whether active or passive—to be put to death, not just the person playing a passive role in a homosexual act.  Thus, Runcorn’s imagined reason for Lev. 18.22—that it is about men behaving like women—cannot be the intention of the text.  This is a simple example of eisegesis, reading an idea into the text.

Interestingly, Paul makes use of Lev. 20.13 when citing the 5th – 9th of the Ten Commandments in 1 Timothy 1.8-10, since he uses the passage to interpret the commandment not to commit adultery (Exodus 20.14; Deuteronomy 5.18).  We know this because Paul creates a compound word out of two words in Lev. 20.13 for what we today call ‘homosexuals’.  The two words are arsenos—male—and koitÄ“s—bed (a euphemism for sex).  No other literature in antiquity prior to Paul uses this compound form of the word, arsenokoitai, suggesting that it is his creation.  Yet the word’s meaning is clear, and it comes from a text that has this meaning: males performing same-sex acts.  Indeed, the words are side-by-side in Lev. 20.13, and no spaces would have been used in the Greek text of the passage that Paul would have read in the first place as spaces between words were added much later in ancient Greek texts.  Paul interprets the 7th Commandment to mean sexual sin in general, not just adultery per se, and, in 1 Timothy 1.10, Paul interprets this commandment to proscribe ‘sexual immorality’ in general (pornoi) and aresenokoitai (homosexuals).  Thus, Paul uses Lev. 20.13 to interpret Ex. 20.14 and/or Deut. 5.18.  (Interpretation of the 7th Commandment more broadly and in light of Leviticus 18 and 20 was also followed by Philo, a Jewish scholar of the 1st and 2nd century AD, in his Special Laws 3).  Paul has no interest in the issue of dominance/submission.  He is not limiting the meaning of the 7th Commandment but broadening its meaning, and, like Philo a few decades later, he understands it to refer to any form of sexual immorality, including homosexuality (both active and passive participant).

Thus, reading in context can help an interpreter not make basic mistakes in interpretation.  Had Runcorn read Lev. 18.22 in its immediate literary context in the same chapter, or read it in light of the larger literary context of ch. 20, or read Leviticus in light of Paul’s use of the texts in 1 Timothy 1.10, he could never have ventured so far off the path of plausible interpretations of the text when appealing to an interpretation based on a cultural context of male domination.

[1] The Pilling Report was published as a Report of the House of Bishops: Working Group on Human Sexuality (Nov. 2013); online (accessed 22 December, 2016).  David Runcorn’s comments are in Appendix 4: ‘Evangelicals, Scripture and Same Sex Relationships—an ‘Including Evangelical’ Perspective,’ pp. 176-195; see pp. 185-186.
[2] The reference given is to Gareth Moore, A Question of Truth, Continuum (2003), p. 80.