A Christian expresses their belief in a traditional biblical sexual ethic. Their friends are quick to pounce: “You’re being inconsistent! Leviticus prohibits all sorts of things that you accept! What about bacon (Lev 11:7), rare steaks (Lev 19:26), and washing your car on Saturday (Lev 23:3)?”.

It’s a well rehearsed rhetorical move. In season two episode three of The West Wing, President Bartlet takes conservative talk show host Jenna Jacobs to task for calling homosexuality an abomination based on Leviticus 18:22. He fires a full magazine of rhetorical questions back at her:

My Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police? … Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side?
(“The Midterms”, October 2000)

West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin can’t claim full credit for this rant — it was adapted from a letter written by Kent Ashcraft earlier that year to Jewish radio personality Laura Schlessinger, who had criticised homosexuality using the Bible. The letter became widely circulated as the “Dear Laura” chain email (remember the simple days before social media?)

Craig Reucassel ambushed a bespectacled Archbishop of Sydney, accusing him of hypocrisy for opposing gay marriage whilst approaching the Lord with a vision impairment … comedians throw easy punches at Israel Folau, who opposes homosexuality whilst wearing conspicuous tattoos

Comedians and commentators have gotten mileage out of it ever since. You may recall the Chaser’s Craig Reucassel ambushing a bespectacled Archbishop of Sydney in 2010, accusing him of hypocrisy for opposing gay marriage whilst himself approaching the Lord with a vision impairment (see Leviticus 21:18-20). This year I’ve heard many of my favourite comedians throwing easy punches on Israel Folau, who opposes homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22) whilst wearing some conspicuous tattoos (Leviticus 19:28).

So what’s the deal with Christians and Leviticus?

The fact that Christians file Leviticus under “Old Testament” in their Bibles should be a clue that our relationship with Leviticus is not quite as straightforward as the pundits on either side imagine. 

Here are four approaches Christians take.

1. Do everything Leviticus says

The most obvious approach, that Christians should consider everything Moses said to Israel as a command from God to them today, is sometimes called “Theonomism” or “Christian Reconstructionism.”

It is also one of the rarest views on offer. Why? Well because Christians tend to (try to) follow Jesus’ teaching.

It’s true Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets but fulfil them (Matt 5:17). At the same time, fulfilling the law and prophets meant, for Jesus, bringing in the new covenant which the law and prophets anticipate. The new way Jesus taught his disciples to live was a radical break with how Moses taught Israel at the foot of Mt Sinai. The law of Moses prohibited pork (Lev 11:7); Jesus said what comes out of your mouth is more important than what goes in (Matt 15:11). The early Christians were conspicuous in synagogue because they did things which, under the law, made them “unclean”. (That’s why, in fairness, even Christian Reconstructionists consider some of the commands in Leviticus no longer relevant, even if they technically still are on the books). Again, it’s called the Old Testament for a reason.

On top of that, many Christians are non-Israelites. Leviticus begins with “speak to the Israelites and tell them …” (Leviticus 1:2). As a non-Israelite, even if I had been around in Moses’ day, he would not have expected me to obey everything in Leviticus. In all of Leviticus only four commands are explicitly addressed to non-Israelites: regarding unauthorised sacrifices (17:8-9), sexual immorality (18:26), child sacrifice (20:2) and blasphemy (24:16). Leviticus is part of a specific covenant—a kind of marriage vow between God and the Israelites. No matter how much I admire the happy couple’s vows, as a spectator I’m not really invited to take part in them.

That’s just as well actually, because keeping the entire law would be impossible today. Not just hard. Impossible. Where precisely am I meant to bring my unblemished lamb for sacrifice (Lev 6:5)? Leviticus 17:8-9 makes it very clear that sacrifices must only be brought to the tabernacle on pain of banishment. But that’s been impossible since AD 69 when the temple was destroyed (as Jesus himself predicted in Matthew 24). If you’re trying to keep the law of Leviticus in 2019, tattoos and cotton-polyester blends are the least of your worries.

2. Ignore Leviticus entirely

“Simple, then. Leviticus doesn’t apply to us anymore.” Some Christians have taken the cold turkey approach and decided not to pay any attention to the Old Testament laws. This approach instantly raises Bible reading-plan completion rates. It also fully embraces Paul’s words in Galatians 5:18 that “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”

The problem for this approach is, well, Jesus (again).

Think of the most famous of Jesus’ moral teachings: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” This, the second of Jesus’ great commandments, is actually taken directly from Leviticus 19:18. Indeed, it’s hard to find any substantial piece of New Testament ethical teaching that is not built on an Old Testament foundation. Ignoring Leviticus entirely is not a particularly viable Christian approach to take.

3. Keep some bits and not others

Perhaps we need to be selective? Christians have come up with various different ways of sorting the bits we should keep from the bits we can safely ignore.

We could, for example, keep only the bits of Leviticus that the New Testament explicitly repeats. Problem is that Jesus didn’t go through the whole Law one by one and address every possible bit. The New Testament never prohibits bestiality (Lev 18:23), necromancy (Lev 20:6), child sacrifice (Lev 20:1), or taking the name of the Lord in vain (Exod 20:7)—but I’m pretty sure they’re still off limits for Christians.

We could do it the other way around, then, and keep everything in the law except things that Jesus explicitly repealed. But Jesus never explicitly overturned the rule about not farming the land in the seventh year (Lev 25:4), the restrictions on the sale of agricultural land (Lev 25:34) or the laws about the rights of slaves (Lev 25).

We could decide just to keep the ten commandments. However, that’s not how the Law of Moses was meant to be used (the stories, commands and case law are all meant to work together). Also, in that case the Sabbath should still be binding, despite the fact that Jesus was more relaxed about it (Matt 12:8) and Christians have been celebrating it on the wrong day of the week (Sunday) since the resurrection.

Finally, we could divide up the law into moral, ceremonial and civil laws (and only keep the moral part). Christians have been doing this since Origen, and it is not a bad rule of thumb. The problem is, though, the Bible unhelpfully jumbles all three together, so working out which laws are which is half the battle anyway. The prohibition on adultery is obviously a moral law about fidelity, but it is also a ceremonial law (adultery makes the man unclean, Lev 18:20), and a civil law (the punishment for adultery is death, Lev 20:10).

It’s perfectly sensible to distinguish between different types of laws. But even if a ceremonial or civil law can’t apply in the same way to us today, it might absolutely still be relevant to our lives as Christians: like when Paul applies an ancient law about farm animals to the way we treat our ministers (1Cor 9:9; 1Tim 5:18).

So we’re left with …

4. Take the whole of Leviticus as revelation not regulation

Christians aren’t being selective; we aren’t bound by anything in Leviticus.

The law against adultery (Lev 20:10), for example, doesn’t apply to me. That doesn’t mean—I hasten to reassure my wife—that I think I’m free to commit adultery. It means the reason why I avoid sexual immorality is not because of Leviticus, but because of Jesus.

Jesus overturned the death penalty—that is part of the law against adultery (John 8:11)—and at the same time expanded the principle in the law to prohibit even thinking about being unfaithful (Matt 5:28). Jesus upholds the principle, reflected in Leviticus but baked into creation at the beginning, that saying “I do” is not undoable (Gen 2:23-34) and so what we do with our bodies matters. As his followers, we should avoid sexual immorality and instead seek to live in a way that reflects the creator’s design (Matt 5:28, 5:32, 15:19, 19:6, 19:18; Mark 10:11; John 8:11).

Jesus upholds the principle, reflected in Leviticus but baked into creation: what we do with our bodies matters; we should avoid sexual immorality and instead seek to live in a way that reflects the creator’s design

What does “sexual immorality” mean in the New Testament? Lots of the clues are in Leviticus. John the Baptist raises Leviticus 18:16 when discussing Herod’s love life (Matt 14). Paul blasts the Corinthians based on Leviticus 18:8 and 20:10-11 (1 Cor 5:1, 6:9). The word Paul uses for men who have sex with other men (1 Tim 1:10 and 1 Cor 6:9) is two words mashed together from the Greek version of Leviticus 20:13. The New Testament sexual ethic is anchored Leviticus.

Far from being irrelevant, Leviticus provides precious revelation about what God is like, and how life works best for us as human beings. Many of its commands reveal principles that are urgently relevant for thinking through how to love God and love our neighbour today: the importance of respect (19:3) especially towards those who are disabled (19:14); the need for a legal system that isn’t rigged against the poor (19:15) and the foreigner (19:34).

So about the tattoos…?

To think seriously (and Christianly) about the ethics of tattoos means seeing the revelation of Leviticus within a bigger picture. We need to consider our creation—man and woman as image bearers of God—and the indelible dignity that that gives our bodies (Genesis 1:27). We need to consider our redemption—the new reality in Christ that our bodies are temples of the holy Spirit—and the ethical call to honour God with our bodies (1 Cor 6:20).

We can then consider what God’s specific instruction to Israel about tattoos reveals to us in our own context. This verse is tricky, because the Hebrew word for “tattoo” doesn’t appear anywhere else, and so it’s hard to be totally sure of the principle behind the prohibition given to those particular people at that particular time. Some think it refers to painting or marking the body as part of a pagan burial ceremony. Perhaps the markings are designed to warn off the dead, or maybe it’s talking about the Egyptian practice of branding priests’ bodies with the names of their gods. Others think the markings are slave owner brandings, and that this verse outlaws the ownership of human beings as slaves. I don’t think people get tattoos for any of these reasons today. But whatever exactly it means, the verse taps into a deep seam of biblical teaching: that our bodies are precious, and whatever we do with them must honour God.