Gay Marriage and the Haircut Argument

   Posted by: Rob Bowman   in Biblical studies, ethics, Old Testament

In my previous entry critiquing Lisa Miller’s Newsweek article defending gay marriage, I briefly addressed what I called the “Leviticus? You can’t be serious” argument. This is the argument that prohibitions against homosexual activity in the Bible may be safely ignored as morally irrelevant because some of those prohibitions appear in Leviticus, which also contains other material we think morally irrelevant. I pointed out that the two texts in Leviticus that specifically condemn same-sex acts are sandwiched in specific passages focused on what even Newsweek editors would (hopefully) consider highly immoral, socially deviant behaviors. Leviticus 18 and 20 condemn not only homosexual conduct (18:22; 20:13) but also incest, adultery, child sacrifice, and bestiality. Leviticus 19, the intervening chapter, instructs Israelites to love their neighbors (including foreigners), honor their parents and the elderly, show charity to the poor, use honest weights and measures, and to avoid defrauding, deceiving, oppressing, slandering, or even bearing grudges against one another.

There is a specific element in Leviticus 19, however, that Lisa Miller cited as evidence that the book’s condemnations of same-sex unions have no moral force: its rules concerning what she calls “haircuts”:

Most of us no longer heed Leviticus on haircuts or blood sacrifices; our modern understanding of the world has surpassed its prescriptions.

Jon Meacham, the senior editor at Newsweek, seems to think this is an especially potent objection. Referring to the biblical passages that condemn same-sex unions, Meacham asserts that

the passages in question are part and parcel of texts that, with equal ferocity, forbid particular haircuts.

My guess is that Meacham did not look up the passage in Leviticus himself, but is dependent on Miller—who also does not give a specific reference—and simply assumed that Leviticus forbids these haircuts “with equal ferocity” as it does same-sex unions. But this turns out not to be correct. Indeed, to characterize the text as forbidding “certain haircuts” is highly misleading. The reference in question reads as follows:

“Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.” (Lev. 19:27 KJV)

Most scholars agree that the four prohibitions in verses 27-28 all “deal with mourning rites.”[1] The hair-cutting of verse 27 is probably associated with the skin-cutting in verse 28, and both were related to specific pagan rituals having to do with the dead. The description of the cuts made on the body “for the dead” in verse 28 offers explicit support for this interpretation. Jacob Milgrom agrees that “these prohibitions ban idolatrous rites.”[2] The IVP Bible Background Commentary notes, “The law’s placement here immediately after the prohibition against divination suggests that the restriction on cutting the hair is based on the Canaanite practice of making an offering of hair to propitiate the spirits of the dead.”[3]

The point here is not merely that certain haircuts were taboo then because of their association with pagan rituals. The cutting involved actually disfigured the man. As Gordon Wenham points out, what the text forbids is “physical disfigurement” as part of mourning rituals. “Man is not to disfigure the divine likeness implanted in him by scarring his body.”[3] Unfortunately (if understandably), most contemporary readers interpret the specific prohibition concerning hair in light of the Jewish rabbinical traditions preserved today in the Orthodox Jewish community, which eschews ordinary trimming of sideburns. Milgrom, a leading Jewish scholar specializing in the Levitical law, correctly understands the instruction to ban a ritual act of shaving part of the head bald.[4] Clyde Woods and Justin Rogers may be correct when they explain that because the Hebrew word naqaph means “to go around,” Leviticus 19:27 is describing a ritual in which “the hair is shaved on the sides so as to maintain a ‘circle’ of hair on the top.”[5] This is a reference to the so-called “bowl cut,” in which the head was shaved bald except for a round area on top. Many but not all interpreters favor this specific description of the rite. In any case, the prohibition is not a regulation about culturally acceptable haircuts; it is a serious injunction forbidding men to disfigure their bodies in idolatrous mourning rituals.

Two other brief points, and the matter can be put to rest. First, whatever the precise significance of the prohibition in Leviticus 19:27, the fact remains that the prohibitions against same-sex acts appear in the specific context of socially deviant and even morally reprehensible behaviors (again, these are incest, adultery, child sacrifice, and bestiality). Thus, the immediate context of the same-sex prohibitions demonstrates that they are not merely cultural “taboos” but are moral judgments.

Second, Leviticus 19:27 does not (contrary to Meacham) forbid the disfigurement of the head “with equal ferocity” as the Levitical condemnations of same-sex acts. Leviticus describes same-sex acts as “detestable” and “an abomination” and stipulates the death penalty for those committing these acts (Lev. 18:22; 20:13). Leviticus 19:27 does not attach any condemnatory language to the forbidden act, nor does it stipulate any penalty for those who commit that act. The text simply says, don’t do it. The prohibition is apparently treated as an unenforceable regulation, since no civil penalty is attached to it, akin to most of the other laws and commands in Leviticus 19. The contrast between this simple instruction and the strong language used to denounce same-sex acts in the same book could not be more pronounced.

Advocates of same-sex marriage (and of social acceptance of homosexuality in general) often use this “haircut argument” to slough off any citation of the Bible against same-sex unions. (Again, as I stressed in my previous entry, the arguments used in Miller’s article are not original or new. They are stock pro-homosexual arguments.) Of course, the Bible also condemns homosexual conduct in other passages, including in the New Testament, where the cutting of hair is not an issue at all. But it turns out that the objection has no force even with regard to Leviticus. Christians who respect the Bible as a source of moral authority need not and should not be embarrassed by Leviticus. It is a powerful book that advanced human ethics far beyond its time. It is the sexual permissiveness of the last fifty years that drives contemporary hostility to the ethical teaching of Leviticus.



[1] Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Leviticus, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1996), 276.

[2] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics (Fortress Press), 241.

[3] John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 134.

[4] Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 272.

[5] Milgrom, Leviticus, ibid.

[6] Clyde M. Woods and Justin M. Rogers, Leviticus—Numbers, College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: College Press, 2006), 124.

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4 comments so far


Your arguments are constructed well for a person who operates within the framework of Christianity, however I would like to ask what you think of policy?

Why can’t we just say:
Marriage is a binary contract, between two previously unrelated individuals, for the purpose of creating a relation between them.

Extend rights to support and help EVERYONE in your family, regardless of actual relation as long as it’s within 2(as in, I can buy insurance for my sister and her child since I support them and I can claim them as dependents, and could even adopt his nephew and claim legal rights to him if my sister agrees) which would help everyone get what they needed out of marriage.

This provides for the common good, as in one person who needs to support someone else they love(or are obligated to) extends currently only to spouses and children/grandchildren.

The only reason you shouldn’t be allowed then, to marry your sister, is because a relationship already exists.

The reason I say this is because someone who is going to have gay sex, participate in incest, live a polygamous lifestyle, so on, is going to do it REGARDLESS of legal status, whether they are married to that person or not. Allowing anyone to form a relationship with anyone will remove any possible barriers to people creating legally recognized relationships with people, and does not necessarily mean there is a sexual relationship. For instance I could marry a friend of mine in order to help her get insurance for her child or to take care of her if she had a long-term illness where she was not fully coherent, and did not want her parents to enforce their wishes(like, keeping her on/off life support against her wishes), or to jointly own property between us.

The fact is that these days there are more relationships that need to be legally recognized and enforced and taken into account in court than just “parent and child” and “husband and wife”.

Now you will argue that marriage should be between a man and a woman in legality what it is in the bible, a spiritual relationship for the purpose of childbearing, and that taking that away removes the specialness of it, so on.
While it would be great if only people who were truly in love and people only got married to have kids and everyone had one mommy and one daddy, we live in the real world.
In the real world, we have 55 hour marriages, we have seniors getting married who are infertile, we have shotgun weddings of 16 year olds who then divorce at 19 and fight for the rest of their lives over the illegitimate children. We have spousal abuse, adultery, battered wife syndrome, golddiggers, people who get married because they are terrified of dying alone, and spousal murder to get out of a messy, costly divorce.

What would me amenable to everyone, regardless of beliefs(as again, we live in the real world where not everyone is Christian and we can’t force them to become so) is if the word “Marriage” was reserved for something recognized by the CHURCH, and civil unions were available to everyone legally recognized as a sentient being, anyone who holds rights can establish a relationship with anyone they don’t already have one with for the purpose of supporting and sharing resources.

December 18th, 2008 at 12:35 pm

Sorry for the terrible spelling, its hard to spot in this tiny box.

December 18th, 2008 at 12:40 pm


The debate over gay marriage is not just about sex. It is about whether we as a society will agree to abandon the belief that the institution of a one-woman, one-man permanent union (called marriage) is a foundational institution for society. Redefining marriage to mean any newly created relationship between two persons is about as arbitrary a redefinition as I can imagine.

Most of your examples of “the real world” are viewed by most people, including most Christians, as also immoral. Bringing up such things as golddiggers and spousal murderers is totally irrelevant to the state’s role in sanctioning marriage. The state can legitimately deny persons the right to marry someone of the same gender, or multiple persons of the opposite gender, etc., even though it cannot prevent people from getting married for less than honorable reasons.

Your example of infertile seniors getting married is also irrelevant. I have not claimed, nor would I, that persons cannot marry unless they have the potential and intention of producing offspring.

December 18th, 2008 at 2:55 pm

But we arbitrarily redefine marriage, amoung other things, all the time!

Women: Not property
Interracial marriage: OK
Divorce for a good reason: OK
Divorce for no good reason: Also ok

And that’s just marriage.

But my point is that your argument is faith based. While this is PERFECTLY FINE for your own morals, what you teach your children and to talk about on Sunday or here on your own blog(not really here to change your mind, just challenge it) it’s not really sound for policy.

I’m not sure what the foundational institution for society is, because there are several important words you have to intricately define before you claim what it’s foundations are.
What society? Western society? If so, what kind? Capitalist?
For sake of argument, since we live in here in America and are talking about such, we’ll use our present set of circumstances.

There are plenty of people for whom marriage is not an option, nor is it a desired one. I’m not talking about people who can’t seem to stick to one partner, but people who pursue their careers(not just for money, but doctors and politicians), love to travel too much(ever met an old biker?) or are simply celibate. Catholic priests, for instance are never to be married, at least not to a woman(Married to God I hear quite a bit from them) as are nuns. Are these people just as responsible for destroying society?
Yes, there are not as many of them as there are gays or other people who might wish to marry someone other than a person of the opposite sex for whatever reason, but the number of these people when compared to the population at large is also insignificant(the word insignificant used mathematically in this case).

But here is a case that I think would satisfy your needs.

Government should abolish marriage altogether, as there are no benefits a infertle one man one woman marriage can provide that a gay union can’t(we’re going to go by current research done by independent researchers here) and thusly the benefits should be nullified.
Civil Unions should be the only recognized form(the ‘arbitrary’ definition used earlier for marriage will do) of legal union that can artificially create a legal relationship between two humans.
Marriage, as it originated in the Church, should be controlled by the Church. Anyone wishing to have a marriage in the eyes of God can do so using their own faith community, and it can be settled there, between the couple and God.

This eliminates the need for secularists to complain about the separation of church and state, eliminates the protest of unfairness by exclusion by homosexuals, and puts full control back in local, community churches where pastors can counsel couples to make sure they are ready, and it can be a family event, bringing back the sanctity and morality of marriage without the need to make accommodations for people who are not part of whichever community performing the ceremony.

This is the primary reason behind the separation of church and state. The state should form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, secure the blessings of liberty for all citizens of the United States Of America. It doesn’t NEED to be an extension of the church, the church itself can take care of that. People who aren’t going to follow it weren’t going to in the first place, let them go their own way.

December 18th, 2008 at 3:40 pm

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