In the first installment of this review (for part 1 click here) I noted that Brown’s book is one of the best articulated presentations of the traditional Christian prohibition of homosexuality that I’ve come across. Brown is familiar with gay culture and pro-gay Christian writing. And he seeks to meld pastoral sensitivity with a direct and uncompromising ethical stance. I especially appreciated his careful and forceful critique of the pro-gay exegesis of various biblical texts. For that reason alone, those interested in the topic will find the book well worth the price.
At the same time, Brown’s argument has certain weaknesses which are worth highlighting. Indeed, for some readers they might be seen as sufficient to undermine the force of his cumulative argument. In this installment I’m going to focus on one of those problems. For that we turn to chapter 5, “Levitical Laws and the Meaning of To’evah (Abomination)”. In this chapter Brown focuses on the two Levitical passages prohibiting male gay intercourse (lesbianism is never addressed):
Leviticus 18:22:”Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.”
Leviticus 20:13: “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
Brown notes that these prohibitions both occur in chapters enumerating lists of practices that are considered to’evah. But what does “to’evah” mean? Brown ably critiques pro-gay attempts to interpret to’evah as mere ritual (and thus culturally-bounded) prohibitions (i.e. taboos). Instead, he states that the acts listed in these chapters are proscribed as abominations on moral grounds.
Here’s the problem. While the contemporary reader can appreciate how most of the described acts are morally wrong (e.g. adultery, incest, and bestiality are all prohibited in these chapters), the same is not true of the act of married couples having intercourse during the woman’s menstrual period. And yet, the act of menstrual coition is also prohibited in these chapters (see 18:19 and 20:18).
So here’s the problem. At least one act that is proscribed as to’evah in Leviticus 18 and 20 (i.e. menstrual coition) appears to be ritually wrong rather than morally wrong. Could it be then that there are other acts that are likewise prohibited on ritual rather than moral grounds?
Brown is aware of this problem. He first acknowledges it on page 116 and then on page 123 he turns to address it directly:
“What about Leviticus 18:19 and 20:18, which speak against a man having sex with his wife during her monthly period? Well, this act was not considered worthy of the death penalty, so it is viewed with less severity than homosexual acts, and it is not mentioned in any lists of sins in the New Testament. Still, the Old Testament is clear that God is not pleased with this because of the sacredness of the blood. (See also Ezekiel 18:6.) Many Christians have come to this same conclusion even without the witness of Scripture. So yes, I believe it is wrong for a married couple to have sexual intercourse during the wife’s menstrual period, but it is clearly not to be regarded as being as fundamentally wrong and offensive in God’s eyes as homosexual practice.” (123)
With this response, Brown is trying to walk a fine line, acknowledging that menstrual coition is a moral abomination while adding that it is not as much of an abomination as other prohibited acts like homosexual intercourse.
But why would it be a moral abomination for married couples to engage in acts of menstrual coition? When it comes to reasoning ethically, people depend heavily upon basic moral intuitions. When it comes to having sexual relations with animals or immediate family, properly functioning people don’t need any supporting moral argumentation. We immediately perceive the wrongness of these acts based on our moral intuitions.
However, menstrual coition is clearly not like those prohibited acts. Given that Brown cannot appeal to common moral intuitions in support of his moral prohibition, he is forced to defend it through ethical argument. So what ethical reasoning can he provide to believe that menstrual coition is always wrong?
The only reasoning Brown provides in the passage cited above is the observation that the Old Testament regards blood as sacred. There are at least three problems with this appeal. First, this belief in the sacredness of blood was contingent upon an ancient near eastern biology. As Timothy Willis observes: “Blood carries life, and because life is sacred, humans must treat blood with the utmost respect.” (Leviticus, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries, 156) With this in mind, it seems very plausible to analyze the situation like this: The prohibitions of menstrual coition affirm the transcultural commitment to the sacredness of life under the aegis of a culturally relative ANE understanding that blood conveyed life.
Second, even if we assume that the ancient Hebrews were correct to believe that blood is sacred, that doesn’t in itself explain the prohibition on menstrual coition. Brown still needs to provide an argument to explain why menstrual coition would violate this sacredness.
Finally, there are good reasons to believe that the prohibition of menstrual coition is in fact ritual in nature. To quote Willis again, “the sacredness of blood is not inherent to blood, but derives from the ‘life’ that is in it. Blood defiles once it is devoid of ‘life,’ becoming like other substances that the body expels.” (Ibid.) With this in mind, it would seem reasonable to interpret the prohibition of menstrual coition as reflecting a desire to avoid the ritual impurity that arises from contact with unclean (rather than sacred) bodily discharges. In that case, these two prohibitions of menstrual coition would be ritual rather than moral in nature. And if to’evah can signal ritual impurity in these instances, we’re again left to wonder if there are other cases where to’evah signals ritual impurity.