Many commentators over the centuries have tried to say Leviticus 15:16 is only describing a man having a nocturnal emission and not masturbation. But there is a glaring problem with this interpretation as Leviticus 15:16 makes no qualifications about this release of his seed happening at night as it does in Deuteronomy 23:10.
While I love the KJV translation of the Bible and use it in most cases to teach from, there are some passages of the Bible where the Old English obscures the meaning and some places where I believe some newer translations get the meaning more accurate. This is the case in this situation with the passage below from Leviticus 15:16-19. For this I will refer you to the NASB which is also a very literal translation, but with more modern English:
“16 ‘Now if a man has a seminal emission, he shall bathe all his body in water and be unclean until evening. 17 As for any garment or any leather on which there is a seminal emission, it shall be washed with water and be unclean until evening.
18 If a man sleeps with a woman so that there is a seminal emission, they shall both bathe in water and be unclean until evening.
19 ‘When a woman has a discharge, if her discharge in her body is blood, she shall continue in her menstrual impurity for seven days; and whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening.”
Also I want to refer you to one more passage before we discuss Leviticus 15:16, also from the NASB. It is found in Deuteronomy 23:10:
“If there is among you any man who is unclean because of a nocturnal emission, then he must go outside the camp; he may not reenter the camp.”
Leviticus 15:16-19 describes three distinct activities:
Verse 17 describes a man’s seed going out from him without having sex with a woman. Verse 18 describes a man’s seed going out from him as a result of sexual intercourse with his wife. Verse 19 describes a woman’s monthly period. It is interesting to note that while they were considered ceremonially unclean after each of these activities for a period of time, there were no sacrifices to be made for these activities.
Later in the chapter God prescribes sacrifices to be made for various discharges – but it was not about a man’s semen going out or a woman’s monthly period. And the reason I referenced Deuteronomy 23:10 is to distinguish a nocturnal emission (semen that emits from a man when he dreams) from other times it emits. Leviticus 15:16 could have referenced a nocturnal emission, but it does not.
So here is my point from these two passages above. Remember that ceremonial uncleanness often had to do just with good and healthy hygiene. As is the case of above with these three bodily activities. Verse 17 can include masturbation because it makes no qualifiers about this emission being only at night. It simply references a man’s seed going out from him by himself – not whether it was during the day or at night.
God does not condemn a man’s seed going out from him alone, anymore than he condemns a man’s seed for going out during intercourse with his wife or his wife having a period. These are all natural functions that God made us to have.
And now let’s go back to the subject of nocturnal emissions.
Think about what a nocturnal emission is. A man has a dream about sex with a woman, it might be his wife or it could be any other random woman who appears in his dream. As a result of his dream about sex, he has an orgasm in his sleep and ejaculates semen.
So what is the difference between a man having a nocturnal emission and him having thoughts about sex with a woman while he is awake and him masturbating and eventually ejaculating to those thoughts?
I submit to you that the answer is there is NO difference at all.