Boswell revealed a blatant moral relativism in his struggle with the presence of adultery and incest in Leviticus 18 and 20. He wrote,
“Although both chapters also contain prohibitions [e.g., against incest and adultery] which would seem to stem from moral absolutes, their function in the context of Leviticus 18 and 20 seems to be as symbols of Jewish distinctiveness.”
Boswell must categorize these prohibitions as “symbols of Jewish distinctiveness” (forcing them to fit into his cubbyhole of ritual impurity) or else his entire argument fails. To admit that incest or adultery in this context is “inherently” or “intrinsically evil” would be to admit the presence of non-ritual uncleanness, which is described as toevah.
A simple study of the word toevah reveals an insurmountable obstacle for Boswell interpretation. Numerous times in the Hebrew Bible we find that the word toevah refers to the sins that were committed by the pagan nations surrounding Israel. Now, if toevah is to be restricted to Jewish (ceremonial, ritual) uncleanness, and if it exhibited some type of “Jewish distinctiveness,” then the word should not be able to be applied to those outside of Israel; such a usage would not make any sense.
The revisionists tell us that the sins described as toevah refer to those things that are exclusively Jewish: the dietary laws, the regulations against the mixing of cattle, seed, and fabrics, etc.
Scripture is clear, though, that the nations surrounding Israel were never required to practice these things; it was not toevah for them to disregard such rules; however, the Bible does refer to the sins of the surrounding nations as toevah. A few examples should suffice:
When you enter the land which the LORD your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things (toevah) of those nations. (Deuteronomy 18:9)
… in order that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things (toevah) which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 20:18) But he walked in the way of the kings of Israel, and even made his son pass through the fire, according to the abominations (toevah) of the nations whom the LORD had driven out from before the sons of Israel. (2 Kings 16:3) And he did evil in the sight of the LORD, according to the abominations (toevah) of the nations whom the LORD dispossessed before the sons of Israel. (2 Kings 21:2)
Furthermore, all the officials of the priests and the people were very unfaithful following all the abominations (toevah) of the nations; and they defiled the house of the LORD which He had sanctified in Jerusalem. (2 Chronicles 36:14)
These verses illustrate the very same facts that we noticed in our consideration of Leviticus 18. The nations that dwelled in the land prior to the Hebrews were judged, driven from the land due to the abominations (toevah) that they had committed (see Leviticus 18:24–30).
The suggestion that toevah refers exclusively to ceremonial or ritual impurity is simply not biblical, since the nations surrounding Israel did not have the ceremonies and rituals to disobey.
Boswell writes that adultery and incest “seem to stem from moral absolutes.” They “seem to” because they do. Adultery and incest are sinful because God declares them sinful.
Furthermore, they are sinful for all nations, not just the Hebrews. Adultery is referred to as toevah elsewhere in the Bible, outside of the Leviticus context. Boswell and similar revisionist interpreters of the book of Leviticus are sold on their idea that the entire context of Leviticus is religious and ritual, so let us take a look at toevah outside of Leviticus. Consider Jeremiah 7:9–10:
Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal, and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, “We are delivered!”—that you may do all these abominations?
Stealing, murder, adultery, swearing falsely, idolatry, and hypocrisy are all described as toevah (abominations). Should these references be reduced to mere social indiscretions or to something improper only for the Jews? Surely not. These practices are sinful, and they are abominations.
They are not considered sinful because of the people or the place; they were sinful and abominable then and now. The context of the sin is irrelevant. It does not matter if the arena of such sinful practices is religious or secular; if it is morally evil, it remains morally evil. Clearly, the attempted revision of the word toevah to refer to something ceremonial or ritual, thus rendering it exclusively an ancient Jewish matter, fails miserably.
While toevah clearly refers to moral evil, the word certainly can refer also to that which is ceremonially unacceptable; however, as we have seen, the fact that the word can have this application does not mean it is the exclusive application. People can and should accurately understand that ceremonial or ritual violations of God’s law are described by portions of Scripture as toevah because the rejection of them—disobedience by the covenant people of the Lord—is tantamount to a rejection of the people’s identity as those who belong to the Lord and the obligations they have been given by Him.
As well as pointing to the coming Messiah, the ceremonies also identified the people of the Lord; their practices were the practices of those who belong to Jehovah. Rejecting, disregarding, or violating the ceremonies was a way of rejecting the Lord and the worship of Him, and such rebellion declared the people’s desire to be like the other nations. Toevah is accurately applied to such sins, because the word cannot be restricted to ritual, Jewish uncleanness, and does refer to the sins of the nations that surrounded Israel.
White, J. R., & Niell, J. D. (2002). The Same Sex Controversy: Defending and Clarifying the Bible’s Message about Homosexuality (pp. 238–242). Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers.
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