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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 18

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-5

The statement "I am the Lord" reminded the people of their covenant relationship with and responsibility to Yahweh. [Note: Cf. Walther Zimmerli, I Am Yahweh, pp. 2-5.] It was because He is who He is that they were to be who He wanted them to be. It was a constant reminder to the Israelites of who they were and whom they served.

"Fundamentally God is holy because He is unique and incomparable. Those whom He calls to servanthood must therefore understand their holiness not primarily as some king [sic] of ’spirituality’ but as their uniqueness and separateness as the elect and called of God. But holiness must also find expression in life by adhering to ethical principles and practices that demonstrate godlikeness. This is the underlying meaning of being the ’image of God.’" [Note: Merrill, p. 58.]

The promises of life for obedience (Leviticus 18:5) held out a positive motivation for what follows.

"No, Leviticus 18:5 does not teach salvation by works. It teaches that the OT believers who trusted God and obeyed him from the heart received life abundant both here and hereafter. Actually, Paul was saying, ’The Pharisees and the Judaizers teach that the law offers salvation by works, but that is a misuse of the law that cannot contradict the promise of grace’ (cf. Galatians 3:12; Galatians 3:17)." [Note: Harris, p. 598.]

Verses 1-30

2. Holiness of the marriage relationship ch. 18

Emphasis shifts in this chapter from ceremonial defilement (ch. 17) to moral impurity. The Lord wanted His people to be holy in their behavior and character as well as in less important ritual observances (cf. Matthew 23:28; Romans 2:28-29). The order of the laws in chapters 18-20 may be significant. They set out foundational principles of social morality. Marriage is the cornerstone of all human society.

This chapter reflects the basic structure of a suzerainty treaty with some omissions. It begins with a warning concerning the vile practices of the Egyptians and Canaanites as well as an exhortation to obey God (Leviticus 18:1-5). It concludes by alluding to consequences that would overtake the Israelites if they disobeyed Him (Leviticus 18:24-30).

"There is a strong polemical thrust in these laws. Seven times it is repeated that the Israelites are not to behave like the nations who inhabited Canaan before them (Leviticus 18:3 [2x], 24, 26, 27, 29, 30). Six times the phrase ’I am the Lord (your God)’ is repeated (Leviticus 18:2; Leviticus 18:4-6; Leviticus 18:21; Leviticus 18:30)." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 250.]

The phrase "I am the Lord" becomes a characteristic refrain in Leviticus at this point. It also appears frequently in Exodus and Numbers.

Verses 6-18

"To uncover nakedness" means to have sexual intercourse (cf. Genesis 20:12).

"The phrase covers intercourse within marriage and outside it." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 253.]

"In the unfallen world, nakedness was a symbol of integrity and sinlessness (Genesis 2:25), but in the fallen world, it became a sign of exploitation, captivity, abuse, and shame (Leviticus 3:7; Leviticus 3:11)." [Note: Ross, p. 345.]

Note the parallels between this legislation and the story of Ham looking on his father Noah’s nakedness (Genesis 9:20-27). Both acts resulted in a curse (Leviticus 18:24-28; Genesis 9:24-27). Both acts also connect with drinking wine (Leviticus 10:9; Genesis 9:21). God was guarding His people from falling into the same type of sin and its consequences that Ham experienced. One writer suggested that God designed the legislation in chapters 18-20 to guard the Israelites from what humankind did at Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). [Note: Sailhamer, p. 346.]

God prohibited intercourse with married or unmarried individuals outside marriage. In Israel, engaged couples were considered as good as married, though they had not yet consummated their marriage with intercourse. Moses mentioned twelve different situations in these verses.

"Marriage as a social institution is regarded throughout Scripture as the cornerstone of all other structures, and hence its purity and integrity must be protected at all times." [Note: Harrison, p. 186. Cf. Hertz, p. 172.]

"After the death of her husband a woman may not marry her brother-in-law [Leviticus 18:16]. Deuteronomy 25:5 ff. states an exception to this principle. Should a woman be widowed before she has borne a son, her brother-in-law has a duty to marry her ’to perpetuate his brother’s name’ (Leviticus 18:7). This custom of Levirate, attested elsewhere in Scripture and the ancient Orient, illustrates the paramount importance of having children in ancient times. Heirs prevented the alienation of family property and ensured the parents’ support in their old age, in times when pensions and other welfare services were unknown." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 257.]

Translators have made a fairly strong case from philological, literary, and historical considerations for translating Leviticus 18:18 as follows. "And you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to another. . . ." The Qumran community translated it this way. If this translation is correct, the verse explicitly prohibits polygamy and implicitly prohibits divorce. [Note: See Angelo Tosato, "The Law of Leviticus 18:18: A Reexamination," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 46 (April 1984]):199-214; Gleason L. Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, p. 259; and Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics, p. 189. John Murray also preferred this interpretation in Appendix B of Principles of Conduct, pp. 250-56.] Thus the Mosaic Law forbade some things that the patriarchs practiced: marrying one’s sister (Leviticus 18:11; cf. Genesis 20:12) and marrying two sisters (Leviticus 18:18; cf. Genesis 29:30).

"What has troubled biblical scholars for some time are the two major omissions from the list: father-daughter incest and brother-sister incest. Economic reasons might have made these two violations rare in the ancient Israelite world. A virgin daughter brought a good bride-price. If a father violated her, he lost that. A corrupt father more likely turned his attentions elsewhere than to his daughter. This might also apply to a brother, as seen in the case of Laban, the brother of Rebekah, who actually became the head of the family and negotiator for marriage in the place of his father." [Note: Ross, p. 345. Cf. Hartley, p. 287.]

Verses 19-23

God also condemned other kinds of unacceptable sexual behavior including adultery (Leviticus 18:20), homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22; cf. Leviticus 20:13), and bestiality (Leviticus 18:23). [Note: See Sherwood A. Cole, "Biology, Homosexuality, and Moral Culpability," Bibliotheca Sacra 154:615 (July-September 1997):355-66.] All of these were fairly common practices in the ancient Near East. The Mesopotamians and Hittites generally condemned incest and bestiality, with some exceptions, but not homosexuality. [Note: See Harry A. Hoffner, "Incest, Sodomy and Bestiality in the Ancient Near East," in Orient and Occident. Essays Presented to Cyrus H. Gordon on the Occasion of His Sixty-fifth Birthday, pp. 81-90.]

Molech (Moloch, Leviticus 18:21) was a Canaanite god often represented by a bronze image with a bull’s head and outstretched arms. The idol was usually hollow, and devotees kindled a fire in it making it very hot. The Canaanites then passed children through the fire (cf. 2 Kings 23:10) or placed them on the hot outstretched arms of the idol as sacrifices (Ezekiel 16:20). [Note: Some Velikovskians have identified Molech with Saturn. See Dwardu Cardona, "The Rites of Molech," Kronos 9:3 (Summer 1984):20-39.] The Talmud and some modern commentators prefer a translation of Leviticus 18:21 that prohibits parents from giving their children for training as temple prostitutes. [Note: E.g., Norman Snaith, "The Cult of Molech," Vetus Testamentum 16 (1966), pp. 123-24; and Geza Vermes, "Leviticus 18:21 in Ancient Jewish Bible Exegesis," in Studies in Aggadah, Targum, and Jewish Liturgy in Memory of Joseph Heinemann, pp. 108-124.]

"To ’profane’ means to make something unholy. The object of the verb is always something holy, e.g., God’s sanctuary, Leviticus 21:12; Leviticus 21:23; the holy foods (Leviticus 22:15); the sabbath, Isaiah 56:2; Isaiah 56:6; Ezekiel 20:13; Ezekiel 20:16, etc. Profaning God’s name occurs when his name is misused in a false oath (Leviticus 19:12), but more usually it is done indirectly, by doing something that God disapproves of (e.g., by idolatry, Ezekiel 20:39; by breaking the covenant, Jeremiah 34:16; by disfiguring oneself, Leviticus 21:6). By these actions Israel profanes God’s name; that is, they give him a bad reputation among the Gentiles (Ezekiel 36:20-21). This is why they must shun Molech worship." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 259.]

"Homosexual acts [Leviticus 18:22] are clearly denounced here as hateful to God. [An "abomination" (Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 18:26-27; Leviticus 18:29-30) is something that God hates and detests (cf. Proverbs 6:16; Proverbs 11:1).] The penalty given at Leviticus 20:13 is capital punishment. They are denounced also in Romans 1:26-27. . . . It is hard to understand how ’gay churches,’ where homosexuality is rampant, can exist. Clearly it is possible only where people have cast off biblical authority and teaching." [Note: Harris, p. 601.]

"The biblical injunctions against homosexuality are clear and repeatedly declared. It must be remembered that AIDS is a virus, which is not limited to or caused by homosexuality or drug abuse, since 12 percent of people with AIDS have not practiced these acts. However, the statistics indicate that these disorders are significantly contributing to the epidemic.

"Psychiatrists are not supposed to call homosexuality a ’disorder.’ In 1979 the American Psychiatric Association, to which most psychiatrists in the United States belong, voted by a simple majority that homosexuality is no longer a perversion. This vote was prompted by a powerful gay lobby within the association, thought to consist of at least 10 percent of its members. Homosexuals have subsequently used this APA revision to claim that ’even psychiatrists feel that homosexuality is normal.’ . . .

"Homosexual activity is anatomically inappropriate. The sadomasochistic nature of anal intercourse leads to tears in the anal and rectal linings, thereby giving infected semen a direct route into the recipient’s blood supply. In a similar manner a prostitute is more likely to contract AIDS due to tears in her vaginal wall because of repeated intercourse from numerous sexual partners, frequently within the same day. . . .

"Otis R. Bowen, MD, the former Secretary of Health and Human Services on President Reagan’s Cabinet, stated, ’Abstinence, monogamy, and avoidance of drugs are no longer just good morals. Now, they are good medical science.’ [Note: Otis R. Bowen, "Safer Behavior against AIDS Reiterated for Minorities," American Medical News, December 11, 1987, p. 59.] His statement is consistent with the biblical theme of preventive medicine, which emphasizes prohibitions that can curtail the epidemic, rather than stressing the directed treatment of the illness." [Note: Fawver and Overstreet, pp. 283, 284.]

Verses 24-30

Sexual immorality defiled the land as well as the people who practiced it (Leviticus 18:25; Leviticus 18:27). The punishment for these abominations was death (Leviticus 18:29). This section closes with a reminder that the basis for these laws was the character of Israel’s God (Leviticus 18:30).

The sexual sins to which Moses referred break down the structure of society by breaking down the family. Moreover they evidence a lack of respect for the life and rights of others. Furthermore they cause diseases. By prohibiting them God was guarding His people from things that would destroy them. Destruction and death are always the consequences of sin (Romans 6:23).

The New Testament writers restated the laws on incest (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1-5), adultery (cf. Romans 13:9), idolatry (cf 1 Corinthians 10:7-11; Revelation 2:14), and homosexuality (cf. Romans 1:27; 1 Corinthians 6:9). They are binding on us who live under the New Covenant. [Note: J. Daniel Hays, "Applying the Old Testament Law Today," Bibliotheca Sacra 158:629 (January-March 2001):21-35, explained and advocated "principlizing" as a method of application in this helpful article.]

"The people of God must remain loyal to their covenant God and not become involved in the abominable practices of the world that God will judge." [Note: Ross, p. 348.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Leviticus 18". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/leviticus-18.html. 2012.
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