Sex and Culture: What Scripture and a Freudian Sociologist Have to Say To Modern America

people gathered near building holding flag at daytime

“Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.

— Leviticus 18:24–28 —

A few weeks ago, our church restarted its Tuesday discipleship night, which means we have begun again our study of Leviticus. And this week, we looked at Leviticus 18 and its detailed prohibitions against sexual sin. While many parts of Leviticus are foreign to modern readers, this chapter is not. Sadly, sexual sin continues to overrun our world, ransack our families, and invite the judgment of God. And in Leviticus 18, we find a long list of prohibitions that outline ways that men and women deviate from God’s design and invite God’s destruction. And as we will see, that destruction is not just personal, it is also national. Therefore, Leviticus 18 has much to say to us today and the judgment of God that comes upon nations that celebrate and promulgate sexual immorality.

Yet, we cannot make an immediate jump from Leviticus 18 to ourselves, not without seeing how this passage fits in Law of Moses and the rest of the Bible. While initial impressions of this text make it easy to connect God’s judgment on Canaan to the widespread sexual immorality of our day, superficial connections often misapply God’s Word. Moreover, we need to step back and understand how God can bring a judgment on Canaan, or any other nation, when in fact Israel is the only geopolitical nation who has ever been in covenant relation with God. To put it differently, we need to see how Leviticus 18 fits into the larger plans of God’s creation. For this in turn will help us make sense of the way Leviticus 18 finds fulfillment in a passage like Romans 1 and in our world today.

So, in what follows I will (1) set Leviticus 18 in the context of creation, (2) explain from the text what vomiting from the land means, (3) make connections to Romans 1 and God’s ongoing judgment on sexual sin, and (4) illustrate how the Bible finds confirmation in the historical research of a British sociologist, J. D. Unwin. (N.B. We start with Scripture and illustrate with social sciences, not the reverse.)

Leviticus 18 and the Created Order

Leviticus 18 is unique in that it lists judgments on the nations for sins they have committed against God. The uniqueness of this fact is that Leviticus is written for the priestly sons of Aaron and God’s kingdom of priests (Israel). Because Israel is the only nation with whom God has made a covenant, it is striking that these verses (vv. 24–28) address the sins of people who live in the land to which God is bringing Israel.

This address of the nations is certainly not the only place in the Law of Moses where God speaks about the nations and their sins. He identifies the timing of Israel’s entrance into the promised land as corresponding to the time when the sins of the Amorites are complete (Gen. 15:16). And he explains that Israel’s salvation from Egypt is based upon Pharaoh’s sin (Exodus 4:23). But certainly, in a Law written for Israel alone (cf. Ps. 147:19–20), it is unique to see God’s Law addressing the sins of another nation.

Yet, with this uniqueness comes insight into the way God’s deals with the nations, i.e., the peoples he created when he divided the world by languages (Genesis 10–11). And in particular, what Leviticus 18:24–28 teaches us is that sexual immorality is a sin against God that is not tied to the Law of Israel. Rather, it is tied to the creation of mankind in God’s image and the blessing of marriage which he defined and instituted in the beginning.

Indeed, because all nations are created by God, and because all creation stands in covenantal relationship with God (i.e., the Noahic Covenant), and because that creation covenant establishes the command to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 9:1), it is clear that mankind is morally culpable for what they do with their nakedness. More comprehensive than sexuality, “nakedness” is the refrain that runs through Leviticus 18. Importantly, what one does with their nakedness goes back to Adam and Eve, as well as Noah and his son Ham, who sinned against his father and God when he mistreated Noah’s nakedness.

Long story short, Leviticus 18 does more than speak a word of holiness to Israel, it reveals what God expects of all people in all places. And more, it reveals that when a people refuses to conduct themselves according to God’s created norms, then creation itself revolts and “vomits” the sexually immoral from the land. This is the refrain of Leviticus 18:24–28 and it is the warning that God gives Israel.

It is presumable that every act of sexual deviation mentioned in Leviticus 18:6–23 occurred in Canaan (the land God was giving Israel) and it is explicit that God expects his covenant people to refrain from such sexual immorality (see Lev. 18:1–6). If they don’t, the land will vomit them out too. In fact, Israel’s exile from the land occurred in two stages. The Northern tribes were ejected in 722 and and the Southern tribes followed suit in 586 BC. As the Prophets make clear (see e.g., Ezekiel 16), the land vomited Israel because of their sexual sins. Which is to say, they lost their place in the land because they violated Leviticus 18.

In this way, God did to Israel what he did with every nation that engaged in rampant sexual sin: he cast them out. Or to use the language of Leviticus 18, the land vomited them out. But this brings us to the next question: What does it mean that the land vomited them out?

The Land Vomits the Sexually Immoral

In the beginning, God made Adam from the Adamah. In Hebrew, man and earth or ground have the same root, and their inherent relationship can be seen in Genesis 2:7. “Then the Lord God formed the man [adam] of dust from the ground [adamah].” Accordingly, when God sentenced Adam to death because of sin, he declared that in death, he would be returned to the ground, “for out of it you were taken” (Gen. 3:19).

Accordingly, the story of humanity is one where people and place are inextricably linked. This is visible in the fact that God’s blessings to Abraham involve land and seed (Gen. 12:1-3), and it is also visible in the fact that God’s curse on mankind is the source of creation groaning (see Rom. 8:19–23). In this people-place connection, it is possible to see how God has created a world where the ground feeds man (Gen. 3:19), but swallows man too. Sheol is pictured as a place where the dead are swallowed up (Prov. 1:12), and so is God’s judgment upon Korah (Num. 16:32–33). In short, just as God blesses and curses mankind from the heavens with with sun and rain (Matt. 5:45) or fire and brimstone (Gen. 19:24), respectively, so he also blesses or curses mankind with the earth. And in Leviticus 18:24-28, we find the latter. When the sins of the people increase, the land becomes unclean until the point of no return. And in that moment, the land is forced to eject its unclean inhabitants.

In keeping with the way God has ordered his universe, God’s judgment on unrepentant, corporate sexual immorality, the Lord does take direct action. Instead, as Leviticus 18:25 says, God punished sexual sins with the agency of the land. Indeed, throughout Scripture God has established secondary agents to accomplish his purposes. In Genesis 1, he assigned the sun to govern the day and the moon to govern the night. In Isaiah 10, God employed Assyria to punish Israel’s wickedness. And here, God has ordained the land to vomit out its inhabitants when they refuse to keep God’s covenant of marriage.

In other words, because God established marriage between one man and one woman in covenantal union, marriage as God designed it is a creational ordinance and trans-cultural norm. The definition of marriage was determined in creation, not in Israel’s law. Hence, any deviation from God’s design for marriage will result in creation opposing sexual perversion. And what this opposition looks like is the natural result of ongoing sexual sin, but what does that look like? To answer that question, we need to look at Romans 1.

God Handing People Over to Their Sin

In Romans 1, we find that God’s judgment is not simply the active punishment of evil-doers (cf. Matt. 25:46; 2 Cor. 5:10), it is also the passive permission from God for sinners to do what they want to do. And interestingly, in language that harkens back to creation, Paul declares that God’s wrath is seen in the way he hands over people to their sins. In verses 18–20, Paul states that God’s wrath has been revealed and in verses 21–32 he explains what this looks like. In particular, he says that because mankind traded the glory of God for the glory of created things (vv. 21–23), God handed them over to deeper sin. Beginning in verse 24, he explains what this looks like

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. (vv. 24–27)

God’s judgment on sexual sin is seen in the way God gave up idolaters to pursue the lusts of their impure hearts (v. 24). Following this, God gave them over to dishonoring their bodies (v. 25). Finally, even the ordering of their sexual desires is distorted as women pursued sexual relations with women and men sought sexual relations with men (vv. 26­–27). In both instances, the complementary nature of human anatomy, designed for blessed fruitfulness in marriage is cut off. In the place of God’s purposes for sex is a series of downward falls from grace that result in men and women experiencing the judgment of God in their bodies because of their sexual sin.

Such is the way Paul takes the instructions of Leviticus 18 and applies them to them to the modern world. Like Moses, Paul reinforces the point that God is not indifferent about what people do with their nakedness. Instead, great are the judgments that fall on the individuals who engage in sexual sin. Wonderfully, the rest of Paul’s letter explains how individuals can be redeemed from their sins and made right with God (see esp., Rom. 3:23–26; 4:1–5; 5:8–10). This is the point of Romans and the development of Leviticus 18 in Romans 1 does not lead to condemnation but to the promise of salvation for all who believe in Christ (see Rom. 10:9).

That said, the corporate impact of sexual sin remains (see Rom. 1:28–32). For nations who celebrate sexual sin and make laws protecting and promulgating sexual sin, Romans 1 recalls the lesson of Leviticus 18: The land will be made unclean and the land will spit you out. Still, it is instructive to consider how this happens. Is there any evidence that Leviticus 18 still happens today? Does creation continue to bring judgment on sexual sin, and do nations fall when they embrace sexual immorality?

The Overwhelming Evidence of J. D. Unwin

To the question about God’s judgment on sexual sin and its relationship to civilization, we have strong evidence that nations rise and fall depending upon their sexual morality or immorality. And one of the most convincing illustrations of its universal truth, is also one of the most surprising. It comes from the world of sociology and the massive historical research project of J. D. Unwin. Introducing Unwin’s work, Daniel Heimbach writes,

In the early twentieth century, the British social scientist J. D. Unwin conducted a massive study of six major civilizations and eighty lesser societies covering five thousand years of history in order to understand how sexual behavior affects the rise and fall of social groups. Unwin’s study included every social group on which he could find reliable information. He set out expecting to find evidence supporting Sigmund Freud’s theory that civilizations are essentially neurotic and destroy themselves by restricting sex too much. But to Unwin’s surprise, all the evidence he discovered pointed exactly the other way. (True Sexual Morality, 345)

Incredibly, this Freudian sociologist was led by empirical evidence to conclude that all civilizations which promote marriage patterns matching God’s design flourish, whereas civilizations that promote sexual license degenerate after the first generation. Here are some of Unwin’s findings, outlined from citations found in Heimbach’s, True Sexual Morality (pp. 346–48).

  • Sex and culture are connected. There is a “strong evidence linking ‘the cultural condition of any society in any geographical environment’ with ‘its past and present methods of regulating the relations between the sexes’ (Sex and Culture, 340). But rather than being injured by restricting sex to marriage [as Freud thought], Unwin found in every case that the ‘expansive energy’ of a social group comes from restricting sex to marriage, and sexual license is always ‘the immediate cause of cultural decline’” (Sex and Culture, 326). (True Sexual Morality, 346–47).
  • Sex without restraint drains culture; sex within the bounds of marriage energizes culture. “Unwin found, without exception, that if a social group limited sex to marriage, and especially to lifelong monogamous marriage, it would always prosper. There was ‘no recorded case of a society adopting absolute monogamy without displaying expansive energy.’ He found that, when sexual standards were high, ‘men began to explore new lands . . . commerce expanded; foreign settlements [were] established, colonies [were] founded’” (Sex and Culture, 431). (True Sexual Morality, 347)
  • The degradation of culture follows the same pattern: unrestrained sexual license. Unwin writes, “In the beginning, each society had the same ideas in regard to sexual regulations. Then the same strengths took place; the same sentiments were expressed; the same changes were made; the same results ensued. Each society reduced its sexual opportunity to a minimum and, displaying great social energy, flourished greatly. Then it extended its sexual opportunity [lowered standards]; its energy decreased, and faded away. The one outstanding feature of the whole story is its unrelieved monotony.” (Sex and Culture, 381) (True Sexual Morality, 347)
  • Good culture depends upon good sex. Unwin writes, “Any human society is free to choose either to display great energy or to enjoy sexual freedom; [but] the evidence is that it cannot do both for more than one generation” (Sex and Culture, 412). (True Sexual Morality, 347–48)

In the end, J. D. Unwin’s massive study on civilization confirms what Scripture teaches. Those societies which follow God’s design for sex and marriage will be blessed, but those who societies which reject God’s design will be cursed. As Daniel Heimbach summarizes Unwin’s research, “restricting sex to marriage makes societies strong, and easing sexual standards is what causes them to weaken and collapse” (True Sexual Morality, 348).

Putting All The Pieces Together

In my estimation, the causal relationship between sexual sin and societal collapse is not simply the result of chance, but a result of the way God has made the world. Woven into the universe is a moral order for sex and marriage. This order begins with the command to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28), is instituted in God’s covenant of marriage (Gen 2:18–25), and is now continued under the Noahic covenant (Genesis 9).

Today, as long as we live under God’s rainbow (Gen. 9:13, 14, 16), the connection between sex and society will continue. And as Leviticus 18 indicates, any people, city, or nation who refuses to live according to God’s design for sex, marriage, and civilization will not only hurt themselves. As Leviticus 18 frames it, they will invite God’s judgment and jeopardize their place in the land. And taking out cues from Scripture, we can see how this happens.

In the days of Joshua, God physically removed the Canaanites through the swords of Israel. In the days of Assyria, the same thing occurred with Israel. God is no respecter of persons and the same judgment that fell on nations in the days of the Bible has continued over time. Unwin’s work verifies this point empirically, but does not explain the reason why. Leviticus 18 explains why, and for nations like ours, nations that glamourize sexual immorality, legislate so-called same-sex marriage, and defend the sacrifice of children (i.e., abortion) with religious fervor (see Lev. 18:21), there is only one future for us, and it is not good.

Thankfully, the Christian’s future is not tied to any earthly nation or geographic place. But so long as we live in this world, we do well to preach the gospel of grace, walk in the power of the Holy Spirit, and proclaim the blessing of living life according to God’s designs. God is not silent on what he expects of the people made in his image. And as Leviticus 18 declares, what we do with our nakedness, and the nakedness of others, is of the utmost importance.

God will not be mocked, and our country is long past the point where we deserve his judgment. So let us pray for God to help us walk in holiness (1 Thess. 3:11–13) and let us also pray that he would grant repentance to the sexually immoral before it is too late. Wonderfully, the kingdom of God will be filled with those who were once enslaved to sexual sin (1 Cor. 6:9–11), but only as they and we repent of sin and walk in obedient faith.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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