Sex and the Land (Leviticus 18 and 20)

Leviticus 18:24-28 Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sins, and the land vomited out its inhabitants… And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations before you.

These are the chapters of Leviticus (18 and 20) that caught my attention as a teenager, because, of course, they were all about sex. Both chapters contain approximately the same laws with some variances, but chapter 20 prescribes punishments for violations, either being put to death or cut off from the people. The first thing I will point out is that the vast majority of these injunctions were for men. In chapter 20 they are explicitly addressed to men, except for 20:16 which is the same as the previous verse except that it is addressed to women. In chapter 18 the ambiguous “you” is used, but it is clear that these injunctions are meant primarily for the men. My theory and assumption is that these prohibitions are primarily about asymmetrical power relationships in a highly patriarchal social structure.

The reason given for these laws is “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes” (Lev 18:3) So, the people are between the land of Egypt where they experienced the foundational event of their existence in the Exodus and the Promised Land of Canaan. Coming out of Egypt defined them as a people and during the time in the wilderness they had to overcome their desire to return to where they “sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full” (Ex 16:3). They were formed through that experience of liberation and wandering in the wilderness as a peculiar, pilgrim people. They were promised a land where they would be able to make a home as a people. “But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples” (Lev 20:24). The people will have to once again define themselves in terms of their relationship to their God and the people whose land they are going to be inhabiting.

Once again prohibitions are not given as hypotheticals lest God spark the sinful imagination of human beings. Rather these things were practiced and therefore needed a prohibition against them. The prohibitions have primarily the other nations in their sights, “for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean” (Lev 18:27), but it’s certainly feasible that the Israelites had already adopted some of these practices. Some would argue simply that Leviticus was probably written by the priestly class after the Babylonian Exile and has in view the practices that they adopted during that period. Regardless of when Leviticus was written, it seems that the purpose is clear: to distinguish the Israelites from non-Israelites by abstaining from sexual practices and child sacrifice in which the nations around them engaged. While a secondary reading of the prohibitions as unacceptable because of the biological and social problems associated with the sexual practices is certainly accurate, my reading of the text is that what is inappropriate about these relationships is primarily the abuse of power inherent in them particularly as they are almost exclusively addressed to men.

Caring for Creation is Sexy
What is then most fascinating for our purposes here is that an explicit connection is made between these sexual practices and their relationship to the land. These practices not only defiled the people and their relationships, but also the land itself. The land is not a neutral entity forced to accept whatever human beings happen to do to it. The land is depicted as a character with its own autonomy and the ability to vomit out the inhabitants. The Israelites are not immune to this connection to the land and the consequences of the practices that have been forbidden

Wendell Berry has pointed out this connection between sex and the land in numerous places. Somewhere he said that when you’re willing to exploit your fellow human beings’ sexuality you are more likely to be willing to exploit the earth and vice versa. They involve the same mentality that objectifies other people and nature. This way of thinking and acting disconnects from each other and nature by dehumanizing other people and pretending that we are separate from nature. In an article he wrote entitled “Feminism, the body, and the machine” Berry expounds further on this theme.

It is odd that simply because of its “sexual freedom” our time should be considered extraordinarily physical. In fact, our “sexual revolution” is mostly an industrial phenomenon, in which the body is used as an idea of pleasure or a pleasure machine with the aim of “freeing” natural pleasure from natural consequence. Like any other industrial enterprise, industrial sexuality seeks to conquer nature by exploiting it and ignoring the consequences, by denying any connection between nature and spirit or body and soul, and by evading social responsibility. The spiritual, physical, and economic costs of this “freedom” are immense, and are characteristically belittled or ignored. The diseases of sexual irresponsibility are regarded as a technological problem and an affront to liberty. Industrial sex, characteristically, establishes its freeness and goodness by an industrial accounting, dutifully toting up numbers of “sexual partners,” orgasms, and so on, with the inevitable industrial implication that the body is somehow a limit on the idea of sex, which will be a great deal more abundant as soon as it can be done by robots. (accessed at

So, according to Berry the basic problem is not the particular behaviors or acts prohibited here, but the way of relating to the earth and other human beings that they embody. As I said before, there is a basic problem of asymmetrical power relationships here in which the ability to dominate other human beings and the earth is taken as permission to do as we please. Privileges embedded in cultural norms and mores are sometimes hard to unmask. They are often subtle and assumed, and therefore go unnoticed for the most part, particularly by the dominant class that benefits from the privileges bestowed on them through the social order. Perhaps by pointing the finger at Egypt, Canaan and the other nations, this was a more subtle way of pointing the finger at Israel itself. By proclaiming loudly that Israel should not be like “those people”, the text clearly judges any resemblance that Israel had to those nations past, present or future.

This way of relating, dehumanizing, dominating and objectifying people and nature violates the basic principles embedded in ecology and I would argue in the biblical narrative and biblical assumptions about our relationship to the land and each other. This is what lies at the root of these chapters, not some sort of puritanical notions about sexuality or arbitrary rules solely intended to make Israel different, but a radical reminder about who we are as creatures and how we are to reflect the image of God embedded in us in our relationships.

P.S. I want to blog more about these connections just so the traffic on my blog will increase by using the word “sex” a lot. If I can somehow combine it with words like “hot” without sounding lewd, then the traffic might increase even more. Though I’m not sure those readers will stick around to read what I write.

One thought on “Sex and the Land (Leviticus 18 and 20)

  1. Martin_Lack

    Like you, Lucas, I found Leviticus 18 highly amusing as a teenager and, I must confess, still find Ben Stiller films like There’s Something About Mary very funny too (I hope you can forgive me). However, I want to thank you for highlighting this connection with the land, which I was unaware of (or had forgotten).

    One of the many things I have learnt in the last 12 months is the way in which Enlightenment ideas and the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries are often blamed for the dominance of anthropocentric thinking in Western countries today. Prior to this, humans did tend to see themselves as part of nature (i.e. part of God’s creation); whereas, after this, humans saw themselves as separate from (i.e. better than) nature. Unfortunately (for nature), it often seems that ecocentric thinking has since been hijacked by New Age (i.e. pantheistic and animistic) ideology, from which I believe we need to reclaim it.

    For a long time, James Lovelock was reviled by the scientific community for his Gaia hypothesis but, I believe fortunately, the truth of his hypothesis is now enshrined in mainstream Earth Systems science. This branch of science now affirms that the Earth is a self-regulating system in which feedback mechanisms (both positive and negative) have maintained relative climatic stability over geological time; ensuring that the planet remained capable of supporting life over the long-term. I can vividly remember being deeply hostile to this thinking as a teenager, but now I see it as an obvious and integral part of the problems we face: Humans have created a problem (i.e. upset this natural balance) because they foolishly believed they could do what they wanted with and to the environment with complete impunity.

    I am aware of the fact that, in the US at least, a battle rages on between evangelical Christians who believe we should be good stewards of the environment and those that believe we can trash it (because Jesus is coming back soon). Therefore, just as I hope that reason will prevail over conspiracy theory in the secular fight to get people to take the threat of climate change seriously, I hope that, within the Church, a Good Stewardship mentality overcomes that of the Last Days. If not, then, people should be careful what they wish for…


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