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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 17

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes



The second major division of Leviticus deals with how the Israelites were to express their worship of Yahweh in their private lives. These exhortations to holiness show that every aspect of the life of God’s people must be consecrated to God.

"The first sixteen chapters of Leviticus are concerned primarily with establishment and maintainance [sic] of the relationship between Israel and God. . .

"In chapter 17, the emphasis shifts to the affairs of the everyday life of the Israelites as God’s holy people." [Note: Schultz, p. 91.]

In critical circles, scholars are fond of referring to chapters 17-26 as the Holiness Code. [Note: E.g., Martin Noth, Leviticus: A Commentary, pp. 127-28.]

"Leviticus 17-26 has been called the Holiness Code because of the frequency of the occurrence of the phrase, attributed to Yahweh: ’You shall be holy because I am holy,’ which corresponds to the theological theme of the other priestly laws but here receives a special emphasis. One other phrase is characteristic of these chapters: ’I am Yahweh’ (sometimes ’I am Yahweh your God’)." [Note: R. Norman Whybray, Introduction to the Pentateuch, p. 130.]

"The section is not as distinctive as some scholars imagine; but it is characterized by moral and ethical instruction (with one chapter on the annual feasts), and it does base moral obligation in the nature of God. This last point is not unique, however. The Ten Commandments are prefaced by the statement ’I am the Lord your God’ (Exodus 20:2), and a typical ’Holiness Code’ phrase has already been pointed out in Leviticus 11:44." [Note: Harris, p. 592.]

"The unique feature of the Holiness Code is the fact that in its introduction and throughout its laws, the audience it addresses is not the priests as such but the whole of the congregation. It calls the entire people of God to holiness. As has long been observed, the Holiness Code is not attached directly to the Priestly Code [Exodus 35 -Leviticus 16]. Between these two legal codes lies a striking account of Israel’s offering sacrifices to ’goat idols’ (Leviticus 17:1-9). Though brief and somewhat enigmatic, this short fragment of narrative, usually taken to be the work of the final composer, portrays the Israelites forsaking the tabernacle and sacrificing ’outside the camp.’ The content of the narrative is similar to the incident of the golden calf: the people forsook the Lord and his provisions for worship and followed after other gods-in this case, the ’goat idols.’ Unlike the narrative of the golden calf, however, which places the blame on the priesthood, this narrative of the goat idols makes the people, not the priests, responsible for the idolatry. Thus within the logic of the text, the incident of the people’s sacrificing to the goat idols plays a similar role to that of the priests’ involvement in the golden calf. Just as the narrative of the golden calf marked a transition in the nature of the covenant and its laws, so here also the incident of the goat idols marks the transition from the Code of the Priests to the additional laws of the Holiness Code." [Note: Sailhamer, pp. 49-50.]

Note how the three major law collections in the Pentateuch fit into the Sinai narrative. [Note: The following chart was adapted from ibid., p. 50.]

"The placement of the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26) at this point in the narrative, then, plays an important role in the author’s strategy. It aptly shows that God gave further laws designed specifically for the ordinary people. These laws are represented in the Holiness Code. Thus, as is characteristic of the Holiness Code, its laws pertain to specific situations in the everyday life of the people." [Note: Ibid., p. 59.]

A. Holiness of conduct on the Israelites’ part chs. 17-20

All the commandments contained in chapters 17-20 relate to the holiness of the life of every Israelite. Yahweh had brought the Israelites into covenant fellowship with Himself through atonement. Consequently they were to live as holy people different from all other peoples, especially the Canaanites.

Verses 1-2

These directions pertained to both the priests and the people. Those laws in chapters 18-20 governed the lives of the common people only (cf. Leviticus 18:2; Leviticus 19:2; Leviticus 20:2). Other laws specifically for the priests are in chapters 21-22.

Verses 1-16

1. Holiness of food ch. 17

We move from public regulations in chapter 16 to intimate regulations in chapter 18 with chapter 17 providing the transition. In contrast to the first sixteen chapters, chapter 17 says very little about the role of the priests. The emphasis is rather on mistakes that the ordinary Israelite could make that would affect his or her relationship to God. Food and sacrificial meals were a prominent part of heathen worship. Therefore what the Israelites ate and how they ate it demonstrated their consecration to Yahweh.

"The laws in this chapter deal with various problems connected with sacrifice and eating meat. These matters have already been discussed in chs. 1-7 and 11 (cf. Leviticus 7:26-27 with Leviticus 17:10 ff. and Leviticus 11:39-40 with Leviticus 17:15-16). This chapter draws together themes that run through the previous sixteen: in particular it explains the special significance of blood in the sacrifices (Leviticus 17:11 ff.)." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 240.]

Verses 3-7

God did not permit the Israelites to slaughter sacrificial animals (Leviticus 17:5) anywhere except before the altar of burnt offerings. This may seem to us to have created logistical problems. How could the priests handle all those sacrifices? However most of the Israelites and other ancient Near Eastern people rarely slaughtered animals. They did not eat as much meat as we do.

"Meat was eaten only occasionally, except perhaps for the rich, who may have had it regularly." [Note: The New Bible Dictionary, 1962 ed., s.v. "Food," by R. P. Martin.]

The Israelites in the wilderness lived primarily on manna (cf. Numbers 11:6). They kept animals for producing milk, wool, bearing burdens, and doing hard work. Any Israelite who slaughtered an animal for sacrifice except before the altar would die (Leviticus 17:4; cf. Leviticus 17:9-10; Leviticus 17:14).

"It appears . . . that this phrase ["cut off"] may not only refer to premature death at the hand of God, but hint at judgment in the life to come." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 242]

Similarly the Christian who commits a "sin unto death" (1 John 5:16; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:30) dies prematurely at God’s hand. The reasons for so severe a penalty were two. First, each slaughter was to be an offering to God, an act of worship (Leviticus 17:5). God owned the animal since He had given it life. Second, killing animals was commonly part of a pagan ritual connected with worship of the "goat demon" (Leviticus 17:7).

The goat demon was a god that the Egyptians and other ancient Near Easterners worshipped. It was supposedly responsible for the fertility of the people, their herds, and their crops. They believed it inhabited the deserts. A goat represented this demon (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:20), and part of its abhorrent rituals involved goats copulating with women votaries. [Note: Harrison, p. 180.] The Israelites were at this time committing idolatry with this Egyptian god (Leviticus 17:7). They continued to worship Egyptian deities for many generations (cf. Joshua 24:14) in spite of commandments like this one that should have ended this practice. Even today the goat is a demonic symbol in Satan worship. [Note: See Merrill F. Unger, Biblical Demonology, p. 60; and idem, Demons in the World Today.]

"Just as the narrative about the incident of the golden calf revealed the imminent danger of Israel’s falling into idolatry, so the present narrative demonstrates the ongoing threat. These two narratives play an important role in the composition of this part of the Pentateuch.

"The two narratives showing the threat of idolatry bracket the detailed legislation dealing with the office of the priest-legislation primarily directed toward preventing further idolatry. The narratives provide the priestly legislation with two vivid examples of Israel’s falling away after ’other gods.’" [Note: Sailhamer, p. 343.]

Verses 8-9

Leviticus 17:8-16 contain three laws that relate to each other and were binding on both the Israelites and the foreigners who lived among them. Apparently God permitted resident aliens to preserve some of their traditional customs.

The same prohibition against slaughtering sacrificial animals applied to the offering of burnt offerings and peace offerings. The Israelites were to offer these sacrifices only at the brazen altar for the reasons already explained.

Verses 10-14

God also prohibited the ingesting of blood (Leviticus 17:11; cf. Leviticus 3:17; Leviticus 7:26-27; Leviticus 19:26; Genesis 9:4; Deuteronomy 12:15-16; Deuteronomy 12:23-24; Deuteronomy 15:23). From this law the Jews developed methods of draining or washing the blood out of meat that resulted in kosher (meaning fit or proper) meat. [Note: Harrison, p. 181.] The incidence of blood disease among livestock was much higher in ancient times than it is today. [Note: Fawver and Overstreet, p. 275.] Careful observance of this law would have resulted in healthier Israelites as well as obedient Israelites.

Blood is the life-sustaining fluid of the body (Leviticus 17:11; Leviticus 17:14). It is inherently necessary to maintain animal life, thus the close connection between blood and life. Life poured out in bloodshed made atonement for sin. Consequently the eating or drinking of blood was inappropriate since blood had expiatory value and represented life.

"By refraining from eating flesh with blood in it, man is honoring life. To eat blood is to despise life. This idea emerges most clearly in Genesis 9:4 ff., where the sanctity of human life is associated with not eating blood. Thus one purpose of this law is the inculcation of respect for all life." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 245. Cf. Hertz, p. 168.]

The animals in view here seem to be those slain in hunting; they were not sacrificial animals (Leviticus 17:13; cf. Deuteronomy 12:15). However the restriction about eating blood applied to all animals that the Israelites ate. Since God forbade eating blood before the Mosaic Law (Genesis 9:4), which Christ terminated, people today should also refrain from eating it. What is in view is not simply eating "rare" meat (pink or red meat with a little blood in it) but larger quantities of blood either separately or as a kind of side dish. Eating raw, uncooked meat was also inappropriate.

Verses 15-16

God extended the sacredness of life in this third prohibition by forbidding the eating of clean animals that had died without slaughter. He did so because the blood remained in them. The penalty for the offending Israelite was not as great because the life had departed from the animal. Nevertheless His people were to respect the symbol of life.

"The faithful worshiper of the living God must preserve the sanctity of sacrificial blood, recognizing that life (signified by blood) belongs to God." [Note: Ross, p. 336.]

In an interesting irony, Jesus taught that His blood gives eternal life and commanded His disciples to drink it (symbolically; cf. John 6:54). Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to receive blood transfusions because of the commands about blood in this chapter. [Note: E. S. Gerstenberger, Leviticus, pp. 243-44.]

Chapter 17 introduces the laws that follow in chapters 18-26. Yet chapter 17 is also important in the larger context of the Pentateuch. It presents the Israelite people committing idolatry with the goat idol as the Israelite priests had earlier committed idolatry with the calf idol (Exodus 32). In the golden calf incident the priests led the people in idolatry, but here they opposed the idolatry of the people. The priests had evidently learned from their error and the legislation that God gave following that failure. Additional legislation designed to regulate the priests’ behavior followed the priests’ failure with the golden calf (i.e., the priestly code, Exodus 35 -Leviticus 16). Now additional legislation designed to regulate the people’s behavior followed the people’s failure with the goat idol (i.e., the holiness code, Leviticus 17:10 to Leviticus 25:55). [Note: See Sailhamer, pp. 343-45, for further development of these parallels.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Leviticus 17". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/leviticus-17.html. 2012.
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