This is one of my all-time favorites bits, originally posted in 2007. It addresses a very common argument used by atheists and those on the theological Left. The argument they use is wildly illogical but never seems to go away.
I just added another response at the end that I can’t believe I didn’t put in the first time: The claim that Christians are inconsistent if they say homosexual behavior is a sin if they don’t also avoid shellfish, mixed fibers, etc. would mean that they anyone claiming to be Christian who complained about bestiality, child sacrifice, adultery, gay-bashing, etc. would also be inconsistent if they didn’t obey the Jewish ceremonial laws. That is transparently false. You should use this counter-argument against “Christians” making the shellfish / mixed fiber / etc. claim: Unless you also follow the Jewish ceremonial laws, then you shouldn’t advocate for any of your [allegedly] biblical views about government, helping the poor, gays, abortion, etc.
Many liberal theologians, skeptics and pro-gay lobbyists use the “shellfish” argument to undermine and/or dismiss parts of the Bible they disagree with, often mocking about how they love shrimp and such. They use the same reasoning with other Old Testament restrictions such as not eating pork or mixing fibers in garments. This video by Jack Black is a recent example.
Their argument goes like this:
- Yes, Leviticus 18:22 says Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.
- But Leviticus 11:10 says, And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of all the living creatures that are in the waters, they are an abomination unto you
- Therefore, the Bible cannot be the word of God and homosexual behavior must be moral because the Bible is an undependable, contradictory book that equates shrimp eating with sexual immorality. And people who teach that homosexual behavior is a sin are bigoted hypocrites who only follow the parts of the Bible they like.
The above exercise proves that anti-gay fundamentalists selectively quote the Bible. They enthusiastically and openly embrace those parts of the Bible which affirm and justify their own personal, pre-existing prejudice against gay people, while declining to become as enthusiastic about verses like the ones listed above.
After all, how many times have you heard a fundamentalist say that eating shellfish was an abomination? But they sure don’t hesitate to say it about gay people, do they? What does that tell you?
Actually, I find those questions to be ironic, because I think the facts will show which side is most likely to pre-judge, selectively quote the Bible and take it too literally. I hope they take this analysis seriously and reconsider whether their premises and conclusions were sound.
On the one hand, their argument is effective because it is catchy and very few people know how to respond to it. Many people can’t even articulate the simple Gospel. When was the last time anyone read Leviticus?
On the other hand, their argument is ineffective because the facts do not support it. Also, it deliberately and unnecessarily undermines confidence in the word of God. I expect that from skeptics and non-believers, but I am always disappointed that those claiming to be Christians use it to attack the word of God.
The argument appeals to those who take passages literally when it suits them. Both passages say abomination (or detestable, depending on what translation you read), don’t they? And if eating shellfish is obviously a morally neutral act then homosexual behavior must be as well, right?
However, if you follow the basic principle of reading things in context and you attempt to understand the original languages better on difficult or controversial passages, then you’ll realize that the shellfish argument is not supported by the facts.
The short version: There were different Hebrew words translated as abomination. They were used differently in the individual verses and were used very differently in broader contexts. The associated sins had radically different consequences and had 100% different treatments in the New Testament.
The longer version
1. The words translated abomination in the original Hebrew are different. In Lev. 11:10, it means detestable thing or idol, an unclean thing, an abomination, detestation. This word is typically used in the Bible to describe unclean animals.
In Lev. 18:22 the Hebrew term תּוֹעֵבָה (to’evah, rendered “detestable act”) refers to the repugnant practices of foreigners. As noted below, the word is also used to describe bestiality, child sacrifice and incest.
Therefore, the whole “same word!” argument self-destructs immediately.
2. Even a plain reading of the passages shows that the homosexual behavior is considered detestable to God, whereas the shellfish are to be detestable to the Israelites because it made them ceremonially unclean. Those are key differences. Being detestable to God is quite a bit different than being detestable to a person.
The beginning and end of chapter 11 make it clear that this passage is about dietary rules just for the Israelites:
Leviticus 11:1-2 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Of all the animals that live on land, these are the ones you may eat:
Leviticus 11:46-47 These are the regulations concerning animals, birds, every living thing that moves in the water and every creature that moves about on the ground. You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten.
Now consider the beginning and end of chapter 18, where the Israelites are told not to be like the pagan Canaanites. God expected the Canaanites to follow these moral laws and was about to vomit them out of the land for failing to do so. Therefore, they obviously weren’t Jewish ceremonial laws.
Leviticus 18:1-3 The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.
Leviticus 18:30 Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them. I am the Lord your God.”
4. The punishments for eating shellfish and homosexual behavior were radically different. There were about 15 things in the Israelite theocracy that could result in capital punishment, and homosexual behavior was one of them (And no, I’m not suggesting that should be the punishment today. The punishments were for the Israelite theocracy, which is clear when you read the context of those passages.) But eating shellfish just made one ceremonially unclean for a period of time.
Again, note how the moral laws with their steep punishments are tied to offenses God held the pagans responsible for, yet the unclean animal passages were for the Israelites only and were brief (It could have been for health reasons and/or symbolic reasons. Animals on the ground were like the serpent and thus symbolized sin and pagan religions often sacrificed pigs).
Leviticus 20:13 “‘If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.
Leviticus 20:22-26 Keep all my decrees and laws and follow them, so that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them. But I said to you, “You will possess their land; I will give it to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey.” I am the Lord your God, who has set you apart from the nations.
‘You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds. Do not defile yourselves by any animal or bird or anything that moves along the ground—those which I have set apart as unclean for you. You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.
5. The ceremonial dietary laws were clearly and emphatically overturned in the New Testament, whereas the commands against homosexual behavior (and other sexual sins) were not. Also see Acts 15:28-29 (It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.)
6. The claim that Christians are inconsistent if they say homosexual behavior is a sin if they don’t also avoid shellfish, mixed fibers, etc. would mean that they anyone claiming to be Christian who complained about bestiality, child sacrifice, adultery, gay-bashing, etc. would also be inconsistent if they didn’t obey the Jewish ceremonial laws. That is transparently false. You should use this counter-argument against “Christians” making the shellfish / mixed fiber / etc. claim: Unless you also follow the Jewish ceremonial laws, then you shouldn’t advocate for any of your [allegedly] biblical views about government, helping the poor, gays, abortion, etc.
And if someone tries to play the “Leviticus is outdated” card, remind them of this verse and ask if it still counts: Leviticus 19:18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”
Remember, anyone calling themselves a Christian should be seeking to hold the same views as Jesus. And Jesus fully supported the Old Testament law — every last letter and mark.
Here’s another answer from Tektonics, a terrific apologetics website:
A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination – Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Aren’t there ‘degrees’ of abomination?
The point of this question – aside from the matter of not knowing what ritual purity is all about – is lost; if there is a sincere interest in knowing if there are “degrees” of abomination, just ask this simple question: Are there degrees to which things may be found “abominable”? Are the works of a robber baron not less abominable than those of a murderous dictator? In any event, if shellfish is a matter of ritual purity only, and homosexuality is a matter of higher morals as argued, then indeed, eating shellfish would have been a lesser abomination. (Indeed, the fact that the words used for “abomination” in both passages are different suggests that by itself. The word used for the shellfish is used only a few times in the OT, always of unclean animals, whereas the word used for homosexuality is used for things like bestiality, incest, and child sacrifice!)
So if anyone uses the shellfish argument with you, ask a few questions to see if they have really thought it through. Everyone I have ever seen use it was either unaware of these responses or deliberately ignoring them.