Leviticus 18: Ceremonial or Moral?

Leviticus 18_Ceremonial or Moral

William Perkins,
Christian Oeconomie:
The Right Manner of Erecting and Ordering a Family, pp. 52-54.

It is alleged that the prohibitions mentioned in that chapter [Leviticus 18], are merely Mosaical, that is, Ceremonial, and therefore do not bind us now in the New Testament.

Answer. It is a flat untruth; as shall appear by these reasons:

1. Gentiles not bound by Ceremonial Law. Yet they were bound by these.

First, the Canaanites—long before these laws were given by Moses to the Israelites—were grievously afflicted for the breach and contempt of the same, as may be gathered by that which is written in the same chapter. “According to the works of the land of Canaan, ye shall not do, neither walk in their ordinances” (Lev. 18:3). “You shall not defile yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled, which I will cast out before you. And the land is defiled; therefore I will visit the wickedness thereof upon it, and the land shall vomit out her inhabitants” (vv. 24-25).

2. The Prophets considered these laws to be moral.

Secondly, the Prophets themselves after Moses, are wont to account these prohibitions not Ceremonial, but Mo­ral. “In thee, have they discovered their fathers shame; in thee have they vexed her, that was polluted in her flowers” (Ezekiel 22:10). “A man and his father will go in to a maid, to profane the name of my holiness” (Amos 2:7).

3. Some are repeated in the New Testament.

Thirdly, the same laws are also urged in the New Testament, wherein Le­gal Ceremonies were determined, and had their end. John said to Herod, “It is not lawful for thee to have thy brothers wife” (Mark 6:18). “It is heard cer­tainly, that there is Fornication among you, and such Fornication, as is not once named among the Gentiles, that one should have his fathers wife” (1 Cor. 5:1).

4. They are contrary to Nature.

Fourthly, Nature itself by proper instinct abhorreth such kind of conjunctions, and the prohibitions of them have sufficient ground even from its principles. For to this purpose it is that not only the laws of the Roman em­perors, but also the civil canons and constitutions of men, very skillful in that kind, have in all ages expressly been made against such persons as have of­fended in those societies forbidden by the law of Moses.

5. Many of these sins required civil punishments.

Fifthly, The Lord himself hath de­nounced many and great punishments to be inflicted upon the breach of the same laws. “The man that lieth with his father’s wife, because he hath uncovered his father’s shame, they shall both die; their blood shall be upon them. The man that lieth with his daughter in law, they both shall die the death; they have wrought abomination; their blood shall be upon them…. He that takes a wife and her mother, committeth wickedness; they shall burn him and them with fire…. The man that taketh his sister, his father’s daughter, or his mother’s daughter, and seeth her shame, and she seeth his shame; it is villainy: therefore they shall be cut off in the sight of their people…. The man that lieth with his father’s brother’s wife, and uncovereth his uncle’s shame, they shall bear their iniquity, and shall die childless.” (Lev. 20:11-12, 14, 16, 20). “A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord, even to his tenth generation” (Deut. 23:2). “Cursed be he that lieth with his father’s wife” (Deut. 27:20).


While Perkins here is speaking about Leviticus 18 as a whole, in context this section is an aside after specifically addressing consanguinity and affinity regarding valid marriage partners. Hence, some might doubt whether these arguments apply to every law in Leviticus 18. Perhaps the most perplexing of these would be Leviticus 18:19, “Also thou shalt not approach unto a woman to uncover her nakedness, as long as she is put apart for her uncleanness.” First, while Perkins does not explicitly address this verse here, he does in ch. 10 when discussing the “holy manner” in which God requires man and wife to be intimate (see below). Secondly, we should be able to admit that Perkins’ arguments apply to this as a moral law as well:

1. Leviticus 18:3 and verses 24-25 certainly encompass verse 19.

2. Just as with many other laws, Ezekiel treats this as a moral law: “But if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right, and hath not…come near to a menstruous woman… (Ezekiel 18:5-6). As Perkins says in ch. 10, “abstinence from this secret society [i.e. marital intercourse] must be used…while the woman is in her flowers (Lev. 18:19). And it is made one of the properties of a good man, not to lie with a menstruous woman (Ezek. 18:6).

3. This prohibition does not appear to be expressly repeated in the New Testament.

4. Intercourse during menstruation seems to be contrary to the nature and purpose of marital intimacy. It does not facilitate true marital unity between husband and wife, but rather is a selfish act of inordinate lust and a lack self-control and self-sacrificial love of one’s spouse. Perkins says in ch. 10, that moderation in marital intimacy is required by God’s law and that “even in wedlock excess in lusts is no better than plain adultery before God,” and that it “is the judgment of the ancient church, that intemperance, that is, immoderate desire even between man and wife, is fornication.” Secondly, it is unhealthy, not only for obvious uncleanliness, but also physicians say that it increases the possibility of infection, causes more severe bleeding, can cause veins to rupture, and can cause endometriosis. See here, here, and here. Third, the fact that generally people are naturally repulsed by the thought of intercourse during menstruation is an indication that God designed us that way because it is wrong. Calvin (in loc. cit.) says that this condition of the woman “restrains the brutes themselves” but not degenerate men who break this precept. Lastly, from the light of nature, “the civil canons and constitutions of men” have generally been opposed to this act, see here.

5. A punishment for the breach of this law: “And if a man shall lie with a woman having her sickness, and shall uncover her nakedness; he hath discovered her fountain, and she hath uncovered the fountain of her blood: and both of them shall be cut off from among their people” (Leviticus 20:18). Calvin comments:

“The enormity of the crime is seen by the severity of the punishment; and surely, when a man and woman abandon themselves to so disgraceful an act, it is plain that there are no remains of modesty in them. God, therefore, does not only regard the offense itself, but the brutal impulse of lust, whereby men are so carried away as to degenerate from the very feelings of nature. For what wickedness would he abstain from who yields to such impurity, that he breaks through an obstacle in his fury which restrains the brutes themselves? Let us not wonder, then, that God is a severe avenger of such obscenity.”

To this we can add that, given that the whole of Leviticus 18 is otherwise thoroughly enumerated with moral laws, any supposition that verse 19 is ceremonial rather than moral has a tremendous burden of proof. Ceremonial adjuncts around the prohibition (e.g. Lev. 15:19-24) do not constitute sufficient proof that the principle itself is ceremonial any more than ceremonial adjuncts added onto other moral laws would (e.g. the land promise attached to the command to “honour thy father and thy mother” (Ex. 20:12), or the positive adjunct specifying the 7th day added to the inherently moral Sabbath creation ordinance (cf. WCF 21.7), etc.).

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