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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 20

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter covers much of the same ground covered in Leviticus 18, with this difference, that the things understood as “sins” there are here regarded as “crimes” to be punished by the severest penalties. Full comment upon all of these sins was made in Leviticus 18, with the exception of “cursing” father or mother (Leviticus 20:9), and will not need to be repeated here. The sin/crime of passing infants through the fire to Molech is elaborated here.

Verses 1-5

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Moreover, thou shalt say to the children of Israel, Whosoever he be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that giveth of his seed unto Molech; he shall surely be put to death: the people of the land shall stone him with stones. I also will set my face against that man, and will cut him off from among his people; because he hath given of his seed unto Molech, to defile my sanctuary, and to profane my holy name. And if the people of the land do at all hide their eyes from that man, when he giveth of his seed unto Molech, and put him not to death; then I will set my face against that man, and against his family, and will cut him off, and all that play the harlot after him, to play the harlot with Molech, from among their people.”

Efforts of some critics to make something less reprehensible out of sacrifices to Molech than the wanton infanticide which it surely was have been completely frustrated by recent confirmations that the destruction of infants was widely practiced in the borders of Canaan during the times of Moses and Joshua. The true believer hardly needs any confirmation of this, because the O.T. makes it absolutely clear what was involved in giving “one’s seed to Molech.”

“They have caused their sons whom they bare unto me, to pass through the fire unto them to be devoured. Moreover, this they have done unto me: they have defiled my sanctuary in the same day, and have profaned my sabbaths. For when they had slain their children to their idols, then they came the same day into my sanctuary to profane it; and, lo, thus have they done in the midst of my house” (Ezekiel 23:37-39).

Thus, Ezekiel makes it clear what is meant above in Leviticus 20:3. Yes, it is true that Ezekiel was written long after the books of Moses, but there is no reason to believe that Ezekiel’s description is any different from the practice as it had been known for many centuries all over the Mediterranean world, especially in Carthage and in Canaan. Recent descriptions of the wholesale infanticide in Carthage have been highlighted by articles in Biblical Archaeology Review.

Leviticus 20:2… The requirement of death by stoning, “Emphasized the whole community’s repudiation of the sin committed and involved the people themselves in the execution of it.”(F1)

“Moreover” (Leviticus 20:2). “This word means simply and in Hebrew and shows the close connection with previous chapters.”(F2) It is the same word that begins each of the three books of Moses following Genesis.

Leviticus 20:4… The imputation of guilt to those who concealed crime is taught here, a principle which has found its way into the laws of all nations. Furthermore, God promised here that if the people did not slay the perpetrator of such crimes, God would take care of the punishment Himself.

McGee is not fully correct in his view that all of the Ten Commandments carried the death penalty for their violation. He pointed out that, “Only a few are given here as examples,”(F3) citing murder, one of the Ten Commandments not listed here, as also requiring the death penalty. However, the tenth Commandment which dealt with a subjective desire was incapable of being so enforced. Nevertheless, it must be allowed as certain that the death penalty was freely assigned to many violations of sacred law during the Mosaic period.

Verses 6-9

“And the soul that turneth unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto the wizards, to play the harlot after them, I will even set my face against that soul, and will cut him off from among his people. Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy; for I am Jehovah your God. And ye shall keep my statutes, and do them: I am Jehovah who sanctifieth you. For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall surely be put to death: he hath cursed his father or his mother; his blood shall be upon him.”

Leviticus 20:6… “To play the harlot” is equivalent to the same words in Leviticus 20:5, above. It is a mistake to read this merely as “spiritual adultery.” Of course, it was also that, but there was the grossest kind of immorality connected with all phases of pagan worship. Furthermore, the mention of harlotry in connection with the visitation of wizards, witches, etc., as connected with this vice gives a glimpse of the immorality often associated with such persons.

“Everyone that curseth his father or his mother shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20:9). “This is the only crime in this chapter that was not mentioned in Leviticus 18.”(F4) It is not here stated that the offender should be stoned, but Jamieson was of the opinion that, “When no specific form of execution was specified, stoning was implied.”(F5) Many have sought to refer the meaning of this offense to something more serious than merely cursing father or mother, but our view is that that crime was more serious than some might think. Orlinsky rendered it “insults” or “repudiates.”(F6) Wenham wrote that, “To curse means more than uttering the occasional angry word (2 Samuel 16 :ff; Job 3:1 ff). It is the very antithesis of honoring one’s father and mother.(F7)

Verses 10-16

“And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. And the man that lieth with his father’s wife hath uncovered his father’s nakedness: both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. And if a man lie with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall surely be put to death: they have wrought confusion; their blood shall be upon them. And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. And if a man take a wife and her mother, it is wickedness: they shall be burnt with fire, both he and they; that there be no wickedness among you. And if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast. And if a woman approach unto any beast, and lie down thereto, thou shalt kill the woman, and the beast: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”

The various penalties assigned to these various offenses are as follows:

They shall be put to death (Leviticus 20:10; Leviticus 20:12-13; Leviticus 20:15).

They shall be stoned with stones (Leviticus 20:2; Leviticus 20:27, and Leviticus 24:14).

They shall be burned with fire (Leviticus 20:14; Leviticus 21:9).

They shall be cut off (Leviticus 20:5; Leviticus 20:17-18).

They shall bear their iniquity (Leviticus 20:17; Leviticus 20:19).

They shall bear their sin (Leviticus 20:20).

They shall die childless (Leviticus 20:20).

They shall be childless (Leviticus 20:21).

The method of stoning probably varied from time to time, but either the leaders of the people, or in some cases the whole congregation, participated in the execution. The principal witness was commissioned to “throw the first stone.” (see John 8:7).

On being “burned with fire” (Leviticus 20:14), Meyrick was certain that, “This does not mean that those on whom it was inflicted were burned alive, but that their dead bodies were burnt after they had been stoned to death, as in the case of Achan (Joshua 7:25).”(F8)

Verses 17-21

“And if a man shall take his sister, his father’s daughter, or his mother’s daughter, and see her nakedness, and she see his nakedness; it is a shameful thing; and they shall be cut off in the sight of the children of their people: he hath uncovered his sister’s nakedness; he shall bear his iniquity. And if a man shall lie with a woman having her sickness, and shall uncover her nakedness; he hath made naked her fountain, and she hath uncovered the fountain of her blood: and both of them shall be cut off from among their people. And thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy mother’s sister, nor of thy father’s sister; for he hath made naked his near kin: they shall bear their iniquity. And if a man shall lie with his uncle’s wife, he hath uncovered his uncle’s nakedness: they shall bear their sin; they shall die childless. And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is impurity: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.”

Regarding the penalties of childlessness, or dying childless, although technically different (for example, one who had children, by surviving all of them, could die childless), probably refer to the same penalty, and what was likely meant is that any children born to such unions would be credited to the deceased brother or uncle in the genealogical rolls of the people, rather than to the natural father, after the manner of children born in Levirate marriages. “It cannot be supposed that a perpetual miracle was maintained through all the ages of history”(F9) merely to prevent the birth of any children to such marital unions.

Clements’ opinion that Leviticus 20:21 “precludes Levirate marriages”(F10) is inaccurate, because, we noted above, the very penalties assigned to such violations presuppose or anticipate Levirate marriages (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).

It is not absolutely clear that any of the sins mentioned in this paragraph incurred the death penalty, but, in any event, they were considered to be very serious violations of sacred law. The impression is justified that there was, for some reason, a lesser degree of guilt imputed in the crimes mentioned here.

Verses 22-26

“Ye shall therefore keep all my statutes, and all mine ordinances, and do them; that the land, whither I bring you to dwell therein, vomit you not out. And ye shall not walk in the customs of the nation, which I cast out before you: for they did all these things, and therefore I abhorred them. But I have said unto you, Ye shall inherit their land, and I will give it unto you to possess it, a land flowing with milk and honey: I am Jehovah your God, who hath separated you from the peoples. Ye shall therefore make a distinction between the clean beast and the unclean, between the unclean fowl and the clean: and ye shall not make your souls abominable by beast, or by bird, or by anything wherewith the ground teemeth, which I have separated from you as unclean. And ye shall be holy unto me: for I Jehovah am holy, and have set you apart from the peoples, that ye should be mine.”

Leviticus 20:22 is very significant because it promises Israel that in case they fell into the sinful customs and habits of Canaan, which they were about to enter, then the land would “vomit out” Israel no less than the kingdoms of Canaan were “vomited out” to allow Israel’s inheritance of the land. Sadly enough, Israel did exactly what was forbidden here. The prophet Hosea said of Israel, “he has become a trafficker, the balances of deceit are in his hand” (Hosea 12:7). “The word `trafficker’ in that passage actually means Canaanite.”(F11) Thus, Israel, in time, came to all that Canaan had been before it. Note also that Israel was indeed “vomited out” of Palestine exactly for the same reason that the ancient Canaanites were “vomited out.” Therefore, there is no more valid claim for the land of Palestine today on the part of Jews than there is for the peoples who were displaced before Israel ever received it. It would be helpful indeed if some of our authorities in Washington seemed to be aware of this.

Verse 27

“A man also or a woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones; their blood shall be upon them.”

It seems strange that this verse should appear here instead of being placed in Leviticus 20:6, and some critics affirm that it is displaced. This, of course, is not impossible, and we might add that it is valid Scripture no matter where it is placed in the text. We notice it here, where we find it. The sin of consulting practitioners of the occult arts is seen in their violation of the first commandment of the Decalogue. It was a turning away from God to the “black arts” of human history which have never flourished in an enlightened nation. The resurgence of this false “science” today is a mark of the DECLINE of our culture. The stars do not control human destiny, the stars were created for the glory of God and are beneficial to mankind, as the servants of men, and not as the arbiters of men’s destinies!

The prohibition here was a religious law, and it is appropriate enough that here where God’s plea for the “separateness” of His people was being emphasized, the chapter should close with a final warning against all false religion. After all, it was primarily the religion of Canaan that fueled their passions and engrossed the nations thereof in the debaucheries of paganism.


It is an accurate measure of the foolishness of mankind that states and nations seek to abolish the death penalty. Do such “do-gooders” among our statesmen fancy that they are better than God, or that they know better than God, how the savage criminals of mankind should be treated? What is so bad about the death penalty? It does not touch the life after resurrection, and the condemned always have the opportunity to turn to God and to seek and to find the forgiveness of their sins in the eternal sense, if they so desire. If the good of the criminal is sought, what better way is there to bring him to repentance? Besides that, none of the Divinely-imposed penalties in the Bible are set forth as being designed to help the criminal. On the other hand, they were designed to help SOCIETY and to protect the social order against the proliferation of the crimes thus penalized.

“God instituted the death penalty. God is just and righteous, and He applied the penalty with unsparing severity.”(F12) The apostle Paul approved and endorsed capital punishment by declaring that, “He that beareth the sword, beareth it not in vain,” (Romans 13:4), and also affirming his acceptance of it even for himself (in case it was deserved) (Acts 25:11). In our society, the officer’s carrying the sword (the gun) has been reduced almost to vanity by the super leniency of soft judges and misguided “do-gooders” who are trying to help the criminal rather than to PROTECT the society which criminals threaten.

Regarding murder, the capital penalty for that crime antedates the laws of Moses, God giving the death penalty for it, not as an option but as an order from heaven itself: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man SHALL HIS BLOOD BE SHED: for in the image of God made he man” (Genesis 9:6). Sure, states have imposed their own mild, silly, and unreasonable penalties instead, but with what result? The earth is now filled with murder. Does anyone get the idea that perhaps God knew what He was talking about, after all? Our own country tried abolishing the death penalty, but it soon became apparent that no organized society can survive without it. So, one by one, the states are reinstituting it. Societies must either dispose of their murderers, or their murderers will dispose of that society.

The very limit of arrogant snobbery and ignorance is seen in the efforts of the “sob-sisters” found in every society who would equate the legal execution of a vicious criminal with “murder” as condemned in the Bible. They should know that there are two different words in the Hebrew Bible which are rendered “kill,” the same being [~ratsach], meaning “to commit murder,” and the other [~harag], meaning “to slay,” “to put to death” (legally). The latter is NOT forbidden in the Word of God, but commanded! The first, “Thou shalt do no murder,” is, of course, forbidden in the sixth Commandment of the Decalogue. So, the same Scripture that says, “Do not kill” in regard to murder, also unequivocally orders the execution of condemned criminals.

“In California, a man raped a girl and murdered her escort, but a great crowd gathered at the governor’s mansion and paraded at the penitentiary protesting the execution of the death penalty! What about the girl? She is a totally irrational lunatic committed for life. The girl’s parents? They believe in capital punishment.”(F13) Oh, but the death penalty does not deter crime?! Ridiculous! Of course, it deters crime, and prevents crime. Many murderers, rapists, etc., are repeaters, and the death penalty would stop all repeaters from committing any more crimes at all. What is needed is not some silly sentimentalism about the condemned but, respect for the rights of SOCIETY to be PROTECTED from lawless and vicious men.

When unscrupulous gangsters and murderers overthrow a government and get in control, the first thing they always do is to invoke the firing squad, as Castro did in Cuba, and run it fourteen hours a day for years at a time! It is men like that who are coddled, glorified, protected, and sobbed about by the silly opponents of capital punishment. Capital punishment is of GOD, not of men; let it therefore be honored as the Divine precept which it surely is!

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Leviticus 20". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/leviticus-20.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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