Sexual Purity in Leviticus by Lee M. Jefferson

The Bible is often referred to as the “Holy Bible.” But what does it mean for a person rather than a book to “be holy”? Is it an action or a state of mind? The book of Leviticus offers some insight into what being holy entails, explaining that it requires consistent action on the part of Israel.

Scholars call Lev 17-26 the Holiness Code, a detailed set of ethical and ritual laws including rules on sexual purity that every Israelite must follow to be regarded as “clean” and “holy.” The purpose of sexual purity laws was to create a distinct identity for the Israelites through ritual. As the people uniformly perform the same ritual actions, an understanding of bodily purity develops and binds the community together.

The Israelites were living in a context where they might encounter Egyptians or Canaanites who engaged in what the authors of Leviticus considered “ungodly” practices, including idolatry and immoral sexual behavior. Leviticus therefore requires the Israelites to adopt standards of behavior to separate themselves from their neighbors and maintain the purity of the land given to them by the God of Israel. The ultimate goal of the sexual purity laws, and the Holiness Code in general, was to motivate the Israelites to be holy, like God—what later commentators call imitatio Dei, “imitating God” (see Lev 19:2). To be holy is to be separate from polytheistic neighbors and to be separate to God.

In Lev 18, the Israelites are told to perform actions that “set apart” the clean from the unclean; by doing so the Israelites will maintain a degree of purity and thus be “holy.” “Clean” and “holy” are related but not necessarily the same. To be “clean” refers not to physical cleanliness but to a state achieved through ritual that dictates fitness for worship and inclusion, namely, “holiness.” And so begins the recitation of sexual purity laws, regimenting the behavior of the Israelites (and also revealing prurient ongoing practices of their foreign neighbors).

The sexual purity laws begin by listing sexual prohibitions involving family members. The laws also include two prohibitions against sex between two men (Lev 18:22, Lev 20:13) that have cast a long shadow of discrimination. A cursory reading of these verses out of context might lead a reader to conclude that the Hebrew Bible opposes same-sex intercourse generally. But the prohibition is against male practice, not female, a fact that has led commentators to argue that the (likely male) authors were fixated on male nonprocreative intercourse (compare the “spilling of seed” by Onan in Gen 38:9-10).

It is also worth considering the broader scriptural context. Lev 19:18 states that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and Lev 19:34 offers an even broader proclamation: “you shall love the alien [that is, the non-Israelite] as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

The placement of such sexual purity laws alongside a more universal ethic of love might seem puzzling. But despite the superficial incongruity, the Levitical laws were meant to coexist with each other, just as the Israelites must coexist with non-Israelites. The command to “love” the neighbor and the alien advocates not passive emotion but action. It is understood that holiness is not exclusive but involves accepting and coexisting with non-Israelites. Ultimately, the rules of Leviticus define how to be a person of the God of Israel; they create a community, an identity for the Israelites as they move into the promised land.

Lee M. Jefferson, "Sexual Purity in Leviticus", n.p. [cited 30 Nov 2022]. Online:


Lee M. Jefferson

Lee M. Jefferson
Assistant Professor, Centre College

Lee M. Jefferson is assistant professor of religion at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. He has published several articles on aspects of early Christianity in the journals Religion and the Arts, Studia Patristica, Religion Compass, and Sewanee Theological Review and has contributed to the Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception (De Gruyter, 2007) and is the author of Christ the Miracle Worker in Early Christian Art (Fortress Press, 2014).


A state of being that, in the Bible, combined ritual and moral purity. Certain actions, like touching a corpse, made a person unclean.

A set or system of moral principles.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

separate from the ordinary or profane.

Leviticus 17-26, which scholars believe had a textual origin different from the surrounding Priestly writings, due to its distinctive vocabulary and theology.

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

Worship of a diety or cultural value not associated with the one, true, God.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

A rule commanding someone not to do something.

The land that Yahweh promised to Abraham in Genesis, also called Canaan.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

A state of being ritually unacceptable and therefore excluded from proximity to holy objects or use in religious observance. According to the book of Levticus, some unclean things can be purified and become clean, whereas other are permanently unclean.

Lev 17-26

The Slaughtering of Animals
1The Lord spoke to Moses:2Speak to Aaron and his sons and to all the people of Israel and say to them: This is what the Lord has com ... View more

Lev 19:2

2Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Lev 18:22

22You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

Lev 20:13

13If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.

Gen 38:9-10

9But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother's wife, so that he would not giv ... View more

Lev 19:18

18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Lev 19:34

34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am ... View more

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