The Book of Leviticus, the third book of Moses, is a book filled with rules and regulations, particularly pertaining to worship. The book is filled with many interesting features. It is here in chapter 19 that “love thy neighbor” appears for the first time: “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (19:18). Also,with all the talk about sacrifices and the shedding of blood there is the brief clarification of its holiness: “And whatever man of the children of Israel, or of the resident aliens dwelling among you, eats any blood, I will set My face against that soul who eats blood and will utterly destroy him from among his people. For the life of all flesh is in its blood, and I give it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for its blood makes atonement for the soul.” (17:10-11).
The following chapter deals with another matter altogether – sexual immorality. Or, as Fr. Reardon in his Daily Reflections suggests (here), the two are quite related:
The consideration of blood, which is the symbol and bearer of life, is appropriately followed by regulations concerning sex, the sole means appointed by God for the transmission of life. The biblical laws governing sex are mainly negative and apodictic (as in “Thou shalt not . . .”)
The core material embracing the twin concerns in this chapter (listed below) is contained by an introduction (verses 1-5) and a conclusion (verses 24-30). Since the introduction and conclusion lay the foundation for the chapter’s core material, we will discuss these first.
The introduction (verses 1-5) establishes the serious tone of the chapter. It is stated, as a first principle, that Israel’s sexual behavior is to resemble neither that of Egypt nor that of Canaan, the place that Israel was leaving and the place where Israel was going. The Lord’s “judgments and ordinances,” it should be noted here, do not mean that Israel is suddenly faced with “rules” about sex, whereas Egypt and Canaan had no such rules. On the contrary, both Egypt and Canaan had their own sexual ordinances. No nation or culture is without rules and ordinances governing sex, in the sense of social expectations. The important thing, however, is that such expectations be correct and proper, and this is the tone in which Israel is to receive the ordinances of God on this subject. (Our own modern American culture certainly has its rules, or social expectations, on the matter of sex. Alas, they are almost all wrong!)
The conclusion of the chapter takes up once again the theme established in the introduction—namely, Israel’s separation from the sexual deviations of the Canaanites, among whom the Israelites will soon be living (verses 24-26). Just as those Canaanites were dispossessed of the Holy Land by reason of committing these abominations, so Israel runs the identical threat (verses 27-28). The teaching of this passage is the same as that of Israel’s prophets, who later traced Israel’s exile back Israel’s copying the behavior of the Canaanites.
Thus framed, the central core of the chapter contains the specific laws governing sex for God’s Holy People. These laws do address concrete social questions of two kinds.
First, in a culture where normally all the members belong to the same tribe, it is not surprising to find prohibitions of marriage within identified degrees of consanguinity and affinity (verses 6-18). Questions concerning these matters were bound to arise, and it was imperative to have clear, non-negotiable norms by which to address them.
The various prohibitions regarding consanguinity and affinity govern the household and family, where members of both sexes live in greater proximity than with other people. They are also bound by affections that are not shared outside of the family. Hence, the relationships established within the household are to be regulated with intentional severity, and on this severe code depends the stability of the whole society. A society that does not abhor incest has no future (verses 6-18). If relationships within the family are not closely and strictly governed, society collapses in one generation.
Second, because the experience of sex is so closely related to the imagination, it is inevitable that a society must eventually cope with more “imaginative” expressions of the sexual experience. Hence, there are rules to govern the proper judgment of such matters (verses 19-23). The Sacred Text is understandably severe about sex outside the family, such as adultery (verse 20), homosexuality (verse 22), and bestiality (verse 23).
It is instructive that in the midst of these references there is a prohibition of child sacrifice (verse 21). We gain some sense that sexual offenses and child sacrifice go together, a sense confirming our suspicions that a society that encourages promiscuity will be permissive with respect to the murder of children.