Want to understand sexual morality? Read—and grasp—Leviticus.
Leviticus is a Biblical book which only the Mother of God could love, or so it seems at first glance. This book provides the details of the Israelites’ ritual law, the manner of ordinations, the prescribed methods of celebrating the major feasts, distinctions between clean and unclean animals, the circumstances under which persons are considered unclean, and what they must do to be considered clean again, details of sacrifices and other offerings, and punishments for disobedience. In particular, it delineates the most deadly sins, such as murder and sexual license.
It also explains the Jubilee Year, which apparently lies at the heart of God’s idea of a just social order, a point I will stress on another day. Here I wish to sound a note of praise for Levitical culture for something our own culture has almost entirely lost. I am referring to the sense of the sacred, which profoundly changes everything we may think is unappealing about this book. For the moral life begins to reveal itself with self-evident clarity when we grasp a sense of the sacred.
I am the LORD
Throughout Leviticus, God emphasizes the sacred vitality of His commandments by concluding, “I am the LORD.” This is true not only for specific commands but for the Law as a whole:
And the LORD said to Moses, “Say to the sons of Israel, I am the LORD your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt…[nor] as they do in the land of Canaan…. You shall do my ordinances and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the LORD your God. You shall therefore keep my statutes and my ordinances, by doing which a man shall live: I am the LORD. [Lev 18:1-5]
Immediately after this universal injunction come the laws governing sexual relations: “None of you shall approach any one near of kin to him to uncover nakedness. I am the LORD” (Lev 18:6). For men, this includes one’s mother, one’s father’s wife (“it is your father’s nakedness”), sisters, granddaughters (“for their nakedness is your own nakedness”), aunts, sisters-in-law, and daughters-in-law. Nor shall a man “uncover the nakedness” of both a woman and her daughter or her granddaughter, nor take his wife’s sister as a rival to his wife (Lev 18:6-18).
Moreover, the Israelites were forbidden to “lie carnally with your neighbor’s wife, and defile yourself with her” and to have sexual relations with a woman during “menstrual uncleanness” (Lev 18:20). The reason for the latter is telling (as we learn two chapters later), for by this sin: “[H]e has made naked her fountain, and she has uncovered the fountain of her blood” (Lev 20:18). Finally, the LORD commands: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. And you shall not lie with any beast and defile yourself with it, neither shall any woman give herself to a beast to lie with it: it is perversion” (Lev 18:19-23).
Chapter 18 concludes:
Do not defile yourselves by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am casting out before you defiled themselves; and the land became defiled, so I punished its iniquity and the land vomited out its inhabitants…. So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs which were practiced before you, and never to defile yourselves by them: I am the LORD your God. [Lev 18: 24-30]
Interestingly, there is one other stipulation in this section: “You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD” (Lev 18:21). Again, this is treated in the same section as sexual sins. Throughout Scripture, following other gods is referred to as harlotry. Both this and sexual sins are treated in Leviticus as particularly intimate betrayals of what it means to be human.
Finally, in Chapter 20, we learn the penalties for these transgressions. For dedicating children to Molech, for consulting mediums and wizards, for sodomy and bestiality, and for sexual relations involving mothers and sisters, the penalty is death. For other sexual offenses, the penalty is exile. The conclusion summarizes the whole point: “You shall be holy to me; for I the LORD am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Lev 20:26)
What does all this mean?
To us this may seem very harsh or even, by modern standards, both intolerant and incredibly stupid. In our day, we are far more likely to condemn the Law rather than its violations, especially in sexual matters. But this is because we have lost all sense of what it means for us when God insists that He is holy. We have lost all sense of the sacredness of what we might call the original gift, and the original blessing.
God is the author of life, and not only life, but life to the full in union with Himself. He alone is life—and so the ineffable source of life. In God, life and love (authentic love) are inseparable; therefore, life and holiness are inseparable; for what is holiness but the perfection of love? God has made us in His own image and likeness, giving us, first, the gift of life and, second, the foundational blessing of our existence: “God blessed them, and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth’” (Gen 1:28).
At the time of Leviticus, when the human understanding of God’s plan was still in its infancy, these foundational blessings were taught by setting apart a particular people and giving them the clear and basic rules of holiness, of fidelity to their Creator, for as God said, “I am the LORD.” But from the first, it is clear that the life God shares with man is ordered to the extension of life and love through the family. What began through the formation of a strict legal culture would be brought to perfection through grace. In the New Covenant, God reveals Himself as an infinitely fruitful family. What the Israelites were given to understand through the delineation of crime and punishment, the new Israel has been given to understand through redemption in Jesus Christ, the proclamation of the Gospel, and sanctification through the sacraments of His Church.
Our Lord said: “I am…the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (Jn 14:6). St. Peter spelled out the implications:
Therefore gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” [1 Pet 1:13-16]
The original gift of life we received is to be fulfilled in eternal life in union with God: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). If we realized what we have been given, what we truly are, and what we are to become, we would understand that our lives are not only a great gift but a sacred gift; and not only a great and sacred gift but a gift which permits us to participate in giving life to others as well. Then we would see ourselves as temples of the Holy Spirit for all eternity, as sacred creatures whose sexual faculties are also sacred, because they are ordered to the gift of life—which is the gift of holiness, the gift of participation in the life of God forever.
When our culture begins again to understand this fundamental reality of our existence—when our culture begins again to grasp the meaning of Leviticus—we will recoil in horror from those perversions of our faculties which so dominate the world today. We do not recoil now for the simple reason that we do not understand our original gift and blessing. We do not understand who we are. But all of this means exactly what Leviticus and St. Peter say it means: “You shall be holy to me; for I the LORD am holy.” This, and only this, is what it means to live.