Lectionary Calendar
Monday, July 22nd, 2024
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 18

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


There are four divisions in this chapter:

(1) a warning for Israel not to fall into the customs of the Egyptians and the Canaanites (Leviticus 18:1-5);

(2) marriages between persons of close kinship forbidden (Leviticus 18:6-18);

(3) the prohibition of sexual deviations like those of the Canaanites (Leviticus 18:19-23);

(4) and God’s warning of the consequences of failure to observe these rules (Leviticus 18:24-30).

Significantly, this chapter has a pertinence to our own times that is quite different from many of the previous chapters which dealt with the forms, ceremonies, and sacrifices to remove ceremonial defilement. Most of this chapter is just as binding upon our own generation as it was upon the first generation that received it, because Jesus Christ and the apostles incorporated nearly all of it into the New Covenant. Incest (1 Corinthians 5:1), adultery (Romans 13:9), and homosexuality (Romans 1:27; 1 Corinthians 6:9) are just as sinful today as they were when Leviticus was written. In fact, the law of Jesus Christ regarding adultery is even more strict than the regulations of this chapter (Matthew 5:27-28; Matthew 19:3-12). Paul even went so far as to say that homosexuality, not merely the practice of it, but the advocacy of it as a “life-style,” is “worthy of death” (Romans 1:32).

It is not surprising that, along with the ties of consanguinity as a basis for forbidding marriages between those of close kinship, there appears also in this chapter the inclusion of the ties of propinquity (nearness in time, place or by marriage), thus forbidding marriage to certain in-laws. Surely, this is one of the most interesting chapters in Leviticus, and many of its teachings are still incorporated into the laws of nations all over the world.

There are a number of characteristics of this chapter that identify it with “the covenant-treaty form”(F1) similar to that found in Exodus 20 and parallel passages in Deuteronomy. It begins and ends with, “I am Jehovah your God” (Leviticus 18:2; Leviticus 18:30). It has: (1) a preamble (Leviticus 18:2); (2) a glance at past history (Leviticus 18:3); (3) the basic condition, “Do my laws” (Leviticus 18:4); (4) the promised blessing, “enjoy life” (Leviticus 18:5); (5) the spelling out of details (Leviticus 18:16-23); and (6) the invocation of curses (Leviticus 18:24-30). The significance of this is that it identifies the passage with the times of the Hittite treaties “of the second millennium B.C.,”(F2) thus linking the Book of Leviticus and the whole Pentateuch with the times of Moses (due to the manifest unity of this chapter with the entire Pentateuch). The cumulative weight of such evidence as this, which we have frequently noted in this series, is enormous and affords strong presumptive proof, not merely of the antiquity of the Pentateuch, but also of its Mosaic authorship as well!

Verses 1-5

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, I am Jehovah your God. After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do; neither shall ye walk in their statutes. Mine ordinances shah ye do, and my statutes shall ye keep, to walk therein: I am Jehovah your God. Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and mine ordinances; which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am Jehovah.”

“I am Jehovah your God” This preamble also closes the section (Leviticus 18:30), indicating the covenant nature of the instructions. It occurs frequently in Leviticus and also in Numbers and Deuteronomy. Almost exactly the same words occur in Exodus 20:2 and Deuteronomy 5:6.

“After the doings of the land of Egypt… of the land of Canaan” The gross sexual wickedness of both Egypt and the land of Canaan were extensively documented, not only in the Bible, but also in non-Biblical literature. The usual retrospective glance at history which characterizes this type of treaty-covenant is here slightly altered to include a glance forward toward the land of Canaan Israel was about to enter. The extreme wickedness of the people of the land whence they came and also that of the land to which they were going demonstrates the isolation and threat inherent in the position of Israel at that time.

“Neither shall ye walk in their statutes” The last words of this clause were rendered, “You must not follow their rules,” by Wenham.(F3) The word “rule” comes from a Hebrew word [~chuq] and denotes “something inscribed by God.”(F4) This indicates that other parts of the Pentateuch in addition to the Decalogue might also have been given to Moses in the form of writing by the finger of God Himself. Whether or not that was the case, the oft-repeated clause stating that God commanded Moses to, “Say unto the people” thus and so, serves the same utility of attesting the source of all these regulations as being God himself. Christians must not conform to the customs and value-judgments of the world where they live. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” is in the Devil’s bible, but not in the Holy Scriptures. God’s people in all generations are to be different.

Continued favor in the eyes of God, in those days, was contingent upon the people’s adherence to God’s laws and upon their fidelity in obeying them. It must also be received that the same thing is true now. Even the colossal truth that we are saved, not by our own righteousness, but by the righteousness of Jesus Christ does not alter this. Only an OBEDIENT faith can enable a Christian to continue in a saved condition (Romans 1:5; Romans 16:26). All of these things “are written for our admonition” (1 Corinthians 10:11); and the big thing that is written about Israel in the O.T. is simply this, that their failure to OBEY God resulted in their final rejection and expulsion from the land of promise. It is to be sincerely hoped that Christians will take such a fact to heart.

“If a man do, he shall live” True to the pattern of fifteenth century B.C. covenant-treaties, this promises a blessing upon them that receive and adhere by their conduct to the terms of it. “Life is here promised. However, the ancient Jew probably understood this as applicable primarily to the health and prosperity of the present earthly life. Nevertheless, even in the O.T. there are here-and-there substantial hints that something infinitely more wonderful was included, even a glorious life after death. See Psalms 73:17; Daniel 12:1-3; Psalms 16:10, and Job 19:25-29. Despite such O.T. intimations of the glorious after-life, it remained for Jesus Christ to bring life and immortality to to light through the gospel (2 Timothy 1:10). See John 5:28-29; John 6:54; John 8:51; John 11:25 f; John 14:1-3.

Leviticus 18:6-23 spell out in detail the particular stipulations of God’s agreement here with Israel. These are the terms of the holy treaty.

Verses 6-18

“None of you shall approach to any that are near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness: I am Jehovah. The nakedness of thy father, even the nakedness of thy mother, shalt thou not uncover: she is thy mother; thou shalt not uncover her nakedness. The nakedness of thy father’s wife shalt thou not uncover; it is thy father’s nakedness. The nakedness of thy sister, the daughter of thy father, or the daughter of thy mother, whether born at home, or born abroad, even their nakedness thou shalt not uncover. The nakedness of thy son’s daughter, or of thy daughter’s daughter, even their nakedness thou shalt not uncover: for theirs is thine own nakedness. The nakedness of thy father’s wife’s daughter, begotten of thy father, she is thy sister, thou shalt not uncover her nakedness. Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of they father’s sister: she is thy father’s near kinswoman. Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy mother’s sister: for she is thy mother’s near kinswoman. Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy father’s brother, thou shalt not approach to his wife: she is thine aunt. Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy daughter-in-law: she is thy son’s wife; thou shalt not uncover her nakedness. Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife: it is thy brother’s nakedness. Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter; thou shalt not take her son’s daughter, or her daughter’s daughter, to uncover her nakedness; they are near kinswomen: it is wickedness. And thou shalt not take a wife to her sister, to be a rival to her, to uncover her nakedness, besides the other in her life-time.”

With minor exceptions, the stipulations here are clear enough and hardly need any comment.

“Uncover the nakedness of” This, as used here, simply means “to marry.”(F5) However, in the extended meaning, it has reference to sexual intercourse, which by implication is also included in the prohibitions here.

Here is a list of the prohibited marriages:

The all-embracing injunction was simply this: that all marriages of close of kin, whether by blood or by marriage, were strictly forbidden.

The specific examples of it were then spelled out as follows. Marriage was forbidden with:

(a) One’s mother (Leviticus 18:7).

(b) A step-mother (Leviticus 18:8).

(c) A sister, a half-sister, or a step-sister (Leviticus 18:9).

(d) A granddaughter, whether by a son or a daughter (Leviticus 18:10).

(e) A half-sister (Leviticus 18:11).

(f) A paternal aunt (Leviticus 18:12).

(g) A maternal aunt (Leviticus 18:13).

(h) An aunt by marriage (Leviticus 18:14).

(i) A daughter-in-law (Leviticus 18:15).

(j) A sister-in-law (Leviticus 18:16).

(k) A granddaughter by marriage, whether by a son or a daughter (Leviticus 18:17).

(l) A marriage to the sister of one’s wife during the wife’s life-time (Leviticus 18:18).

This is the only prohibition that lies in uncertainty.

There is little that is hard to understand about this list. Any near kins-person, whether by blood or by marriage, is forbidden as a spouse. Of course, only the men are mentioned here as “taking to wife,” but the same prohibition also existed with regard to any woman consenting to such illegal marriages. In those days, only the men were empowered to contract marriages, hence, the one-sided reference here.

“Thou shalt not take a wife to her sister, to be a rival to her… in her life-time” There is a problem with understanding this. (1) It could be a downright prohibition of polygamy; (2) or a law against marrying sisters in a polygamous situation; or (3) a prohibition against marrying a wife’s sister during the life-time of the wife, whether or not the wife had been divorced. Scholars differ rather dogmatically about the exact meaning, but it is safest to construe the passage as an outright condemnation of having a plurality of wives. Certainly the case of Jacob afforded tragic evidence enough of the tension and heartbreak that always came of such unions. Strangely enough, a number of the Hebrew patriarchs were in violation of God’s rules announced here. Abraham married a half-sister, Sarah; Judah “uncovered the nakedness” of Tamar, a daughter-in-law; and Jacob had a polygamous family, also being married to sisters (because of the deception of Laban). Of course, subsequent to the entry of Israel into Canaan and the establishment of the monarchy, there followed the grossest kind of violation of these laws. David took his neighbor’s wife and then had her husband murdered in a vain effort to cover up his sin. He also supported a royal harem. Solomon, with three hundred wives and seven hundred concubines, exhibited a life that was the public scandal of forty generations!

Some have considered it strange that marrying a daughter is not included in the list here, but, of course, that was covered in the blanket prohibition standing at the head of the list.

Civilized nations, in general, reflect the universal acceptance of these laws by including practically all of them in the civil statutes. In our own country, most states forbid marriage of first cousins, thus extending the restrictions here even more rigidly than they stand in this text.

The terminology of this chapter, by implication, teaches that all of the illegal marriages forbidden here were freely practiced in the pagan civilizations of Egypt and of Canaan. Ancient literature abounds with illustrations of this. “Among the Egyptians, marriage of sisters, and half-sisters was common, being practiced by the royal family, and encouraged by their pagan religion.”(F6) Among the Persians, Medes, Indians, Ethiopians, and Assyrians, marriages with mothers and daughters were allowed.(F7)

Meyrick also favored us with this bit of history:

“The Roman code of forbidden marriages was nearly identical with the Mosaic code. It was different only by its inclusion of the grandmother and the niece with the prohibitions, and by omitting the brother’s wife. The Emperor Claudius changed the law to allow him to marry a brother’s daughter, Agrippina. Constantius vetoed that change and made the marriage of a niece a capital crime (355 A.D.). The marriage of first cousins was a disputed question, allowed at first by Roman law, condemned and outlawed by Theodosius (384 A.D.), but again allowed by Arcadius (404 A.D.). The historical Church accepted the position of Theodosius and forbade them, thus going beyond the Biblical prohibitions. The laws of many states are still in harmony with the Church’s position.”(F8)

The prohibition in Leviticus 18:16 against marrying a brother’s wife was not a contradiction of the Levirate law requiring it under certain circumstances. If one’s brother died childless, the Levirate instruction required that he marry his deceased brother’s wife and rear children to his brother’s name and inheritance. The reason, perhaps, for that Divine exception to the rule here was based upon the principle of hereditary ownership of the land of Canaan by the various families of the Israelites, and was the keystone of their economy. With the coming of the monarchy, the greed and avarice of the kings of Israel succeeded ultimately in frustrating the Divine plan (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).

With regard to the penalties by which these regulations were enforced, the enigmatic statement in Leviticus 18:29, that, “Even the souls that do them shall be cut off from among their people,” is disputed as to the exact meaning. In view of the dogmatic statement of Josephus that, “To those who were guilty of such insolent behavior, he (Moses) ordained death for their punishment,”(F9) coupled with the death penalty invoked by Theodosius and others of antiquity, we are most likely justified in the conclusion that violation of these laws was indeed a capital offense.

Verses 19-23

“And thou shalt not approach unto a woman to uncover her nakedness, as long as she is impure by her uncleanness. And thou shalt not lie carnally with thy neighbor’s wife, to defile thyself with her. And thou shalt not give any of thy seed to make them pass through the fire to Molech; neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am Jehovah. Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. And thou shalt not lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith; neither shall any woman stand before a beast, to lie down thereto: it is confusion.”

These verses form the conclusion of the stipulations that God required of Israel in the treaty-covenant enacted here.

“Uncover her nakedness” Since the persons in view here were already married, this expression in context means simply “to have sexual intercourse.” During the bloodiness of the woman’s menstrual period, all such relationships were forbidden. The prohibition also applied for a period of time following childbirth.

“To defile thyself” (Leviticus 18:20; Leviticus 18:23). This refers to the moral guilt incurred by violators of these restrictions.

“Thou shalt not give any of thy seed” (Leviticus 18:21). This refers to children.

“To make them pass through the fire to Molech” It is somewhat distressing to read commentaries that would soften the nature of such a crime as this, making this refer to some kind of ceremony in which the children were not actually burned in the bronze, furnace-heated arms of the pagan god, Molech. “It is now fairly certain that it involved child sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:31; Deuteronomy 18:10).”(F10) As a matter of fact, the charred bones of children have been found in a temple of Amman, in the country of the Ammonites, whose God was Molech (1 Kings 11:7). These are dated at the time of the Conquest, very near the times of Moses, thus affording “evidence of child sacrifice.”(F11) This is most significant because it nullifies the biased, critical argument that child sacrifices were unknown until the seventh century B.C., a false argument designed to “prove” that Leviticus was written in the seventh century instead of in the fifteenth century B.C.

Something else: The actual sacrifice of children was the principal feature of the worship of Molech, and there can be little doubt that the children thus offered were cast alive into the burning idol’s arms, their pitiful cries being drowned out by the loud blasts of mechanical music and the incessant beating of drums. In fact, one of the ancient Carthaginian documents mentioned by DeVaux seems to imply this, despite the affirmations also uncovered that suggest the children were first killed and then sacrificed.(F12)

It seems nearly incredible that Israel actually fell into repeated and arrogant violations of this ordinance of God.

Solomon, under the influence of idolatrous wives built a high place for Molech in Jerusalem (1 Kings 11:31-33). Both Ahaz and Manasseh, kings of Israel, made their sons “pass through the fire to Molech” (2 Kings 16:3; 2 Kings 21:6). And with the head of state openly worshipping such a pagan deity, the extent of popular acceptance of it must have been widespread. “Ezekiel speaking to the exiles in Babylon, refers to the practice of causing children to pass through the fire to heathen divinities as long established, and proclaims the wrath of God against it (Ezekiel 16:20 f; Ezekiel 20:26; Ezekiel 20:31 and Ezekiel 23:37).”(F13)

The deduction from the placement of this prohibition of worship of Molech (in a list of sexual deviations) links it with gross and repulsive sexual orgies, and, to us, this appears reasonable enough. In fact, the mention of “profaning” the name of God in the same breath seems consistent with this.

“Shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind” (Leviticus 18:22) is a reference to the shameful vice today called homosexuality. It was an “abomination” in the eyes of God when Leviticus was written, and so it still remains today. Sodom and Gomorrah were overthrown for this evil, and it may be received as certain that the judgment of God will surely fall upon those who practice it, and eventually upon any society that apologizes for it, allows it, and consents to it. Indeed, in the sudden appearance of a brand new disease, called AIDS, (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) which arose out of the homosexual community and most frequently occurs among practicing homosexuals, and for which no cure is known, leading almost inevitably to death, there may be the cutting edge of just such a heavenly judgment as that which moved Sodom and Gomorrah into oblivion. Very learned physicians have repeatedly warned the whole nation of the potential threat of this home-born killer. Churches which accept the conduct mentioned here as an “acceptable life-style” have absolutely forsaken their trust as custodians of the Gospel of Christ! God condemned this departure into wickedness, and He still condemns it, no matter what churchmen or churches pretending to be “Christian” may say to the contrary.

“Thou shalt not lie with any beast” This commandment is somewhat different from the rest of the chapter in that it is specifically applied to women also. To those who are naive enough to think that such a vice as this was known solely in ancient times, may we suggest that they confer with the police of any great city in America today. Although the word “abomination” was used of homosexuality and the word “confusion” was applied to this vice, both words apply to both deviations. This is as shameful and disgusting as any sin that men commit. That cohabitation with beasts was a widespread disorder in the ancient pagan world is evidenced even by their mythology which represented various deities as the hybrid offspring from the union of gods with animals, Pan being an example of this.

Verses 24-30

“Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out from before you; and the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land vomiteth out her inhabitants. Ye therefore shall keep my statutes and mine ordinances, and shall not do any of these abominations; neither the home-born, nor the stranger that sojourneth among you. (for all these abominations have the men of the land done, that were before you, and the land is defiled;) that the land vomit not you out also, when ye defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. For whosoever shall do any of these abominations, even the souls that do them shall be cut off from among their people. Therefore shall ye keep my charge, that ye practice not any of these abominable customs, which were practiced before you, and that ye defile not yourselves therein: I am Jehovah your God.”

Note the recurrence of the word “abominations” in Leviticus 18:26-27 and Leviticus 18:29, also “abominable customs” in Leviticus 18:30. The utter abhorrence of God against such wickedness is inherent in the repeated usage of such terminology.

Here is also an excellent place to find the answer as to why God exterminated the peoples of Canaan. It was simply because they deserved it. Here also is a warning for wicked societies which today are slipping into those old, discarded, outlawed, and depraved customs. One sometimes hears about the “New Morality!” Indeed, indeed! What is NEW about such conduct as that which surfaces in these verses? What is being peddled today under the label of A NEW MORALITY is nothing but THE OLD, GOD-CONDEMNED, VICIOUS, AND REPROBATE MORALITY of ancient times, trying to get back in style. How blind are the duped and deceived people who think of this as something NEW! The truth is, that if one of the citizens of ancient Babylon, Carthage, or Canaan could be resurrected and brought back to one of our great wicked American cities and given a tour of all its dens of licentious shame and debauchery, he would be bored to death! He would stifle a colossal yawn about 2:00 a.m., and exclaim, “Why we did all that, only better, thousands of years ago!”

Some of the self-appointed “do-gooders” who like to shudder about God’s consignment of ancient Canaan to the torch and the sword should consider what is written here. There was a reason why God ordered their destruction. They had become a depraved, wicked, rebellious people, opposed to God and to all righteousness. They murdered their children in the bronze arms of Molech. Wives and husbands were replaced with animals. Men were marrying their own mothers, sisters, and daughters. What is God supposed to do about a situation like that? These verses tell us what He should have done and what He did. Furthermore, a similar thing will happen to us in America unless the encroachment of such diabolical sins can be contained and hurled back into hell from which they came!

“We are living in a day when the moral foundations have been broken up and removed. Who makes the rules? And, what is right and wrong? the skeptics ask.”(F14) And in our world today, there are plenty of people trying to seize the authority of God Himself, and make the rules by which men should live. We shall close with this additional quotation from an old book:

“If you can create a whole universe - and you will need a whole planetary system with sun, moon, and stars - then you can make your own commandments. But as long as you are living in God’s world, breathing His air, using His sunshine, drinking His water, walking on His earth, and not even paying rent for it, you had better obey His commands. He tells us that if we disobey His commands, we will pay for it! You may not be arrested by the local police, but you will stand before GOD some day!”(F15)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Leviticus 18". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/leviticus-18.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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