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the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 17

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

Verse 1


(1) And the Lord spake unto Moses.—The Day of Atonement was instituted to purge, in an especial manner, the whole community from all their sins, and present them a holy nation before the Lord once a year. Hence it is now followed by regulations concerning every-day life, the observance of which is to foster the holiness secured on that particular day.

Verse 2

(2) And unto all the children of Israel.—To understand the import of this phrase, and its bearing upon the injunction in question, it is necessary to notice that the words “and unto all the children of Israel” are here used for the first time. Hitherto the Divine communications were made to (1) Moses alone, without his being ordered to speak to any one else (Leviticus 5:14, Leviticus 6:12, Leviticus 8:1, (Leviticus 14:1); (2) to Moses, with the command to speak to Aaron (Leviticus 16:1); (3) to Moses, with the command to speak to Aaron and his sons (Leviticus 6:1; Leviticus 6:17); (4) to Moses, with a command to speak to the children of Israel (Leviticus 1:1; Leviticus 4:1; Leviticus 7:28; Leviticus 12:1); (5) to Moses and Aaron conjointly, without being ordered to speak to the children of Israel (Leviticus 13:1; Leviticus 14:33); (6) to Moses and Aaron conjointly, who are ordered to speak to the children of Israel (Leviticus 11:1; Leviticus 15:1); and (7) Aaron alone is addressed (Leviticus 10:8). In the chapter before us, however, the communication is made to Moses alone, and he is commanded not only to impart its contents to Aaron and his sons—i.e., the priesthood—but “unto all the children of Israel,” or their representatives, at the same time. The pontiff and the priests are thus put on a level with the ordinary Israelite or the laity, as far as this regulation is concerned. There are only two other occasions on which this phrase is used again, viz., Leviticus 21:24; Leviticus 22:18.

This is the thing which the Lord hath commanded.—To emphasize the importance of the following law Moses is ordered by God to use this additional formula; whilst in other instances where it is used, when important statutes are enacted, Moses uses it of his own accord. (Comp. Exodus 16:16; Exodus 35:4; Leviticus 8:5; Leviticus 9:6; Numbers 30:2; Numbers 36:6.)

Verse 3

(3) That killeth an ox, or lamb, or goat.—The law which is thus solemnly laid down is that when one of the three kinds of the sacrificial quadrupeds (see Leviticus 7:23) are intended for private use, they must not be slaughtered within or outside the camp. That the injunction here refers to the domestic animals in question, and not to the ordinary sacrifices, is not only evident from the expression “killeth,” instead of “sacrificeth,” but more especially from a comparison of Leviticus 17:3-4 with Leviticus 17:8-9.

Verse 4

(4) And bringeth it not unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.—Better, and bringeth it not to the entrance of the tent of meeting; that is, if he does not bring it to the place where the sacrifices are killed, and offer it first as a peace offering to Jehovah, he is to be regarded as wantonly shedding blood, and will be visited with the penalty of excision.

Verse 5

(5) To the end that the children of Israel may bring.—The reason why these three kinds of animals, when intended for private food, are to be brought to the precincts of the sanctuary, and are there to be offered first as a peace offering to the Lord, is to prevent the Israelites sacrificing them to the demons in the open fields.

Which they offer in the open field.—The first part of this verse is better rendered, In order that the children of Israel may bring in [i.e., within the precincts of the sanctuary] their sacrifices which they are sacrificing on the face of the field; that is, which they have heretofore been in the habit of offering in the open fields to heathen deities, and which, in future, they might be inclined to do again. The phrase “open field “denotes the space outside the encampment, in contradistinction to the enclosed place where the Israelites sojourned. (See Leviticus 14:7; Leviticus 14:53, &c.)

Even that they may bring them . . . unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.—Better, and bring them . . . to the entrance of the tent of meeting.

Verse 6

(6) And the priest shall sprinkle.—After the animals in question had been duly slaughtered by those who brought them, the officiating priest who caught the blood in a bowl is to throw it upon the walls of the altar of burnt offering. (See Leviticus 1:5.)

At the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.—Better, at the entrance of the tent of meeting.

And burn the fat.—See Leviticus 3:3; Leviticus 3:5.

Verse 7

(7) And they shall no more offer their sacrifices unto devils.—The word (sçirim) here translated “devils,” literally denotes hairy or shaggy goats, and then goat-like deities, or demons. The Egyptians, and other nations of antiquity, worshipped goats as gods. Not only was there a celebrated temple in Thmuis, the capital of the Mendesian Nomos in Lower Egypt, dedicated to the goat-image Pan, whom they called Mendes, and worshipped as the oracle, and as the fertilising principle in nature, but they erected statues of him everywhere. Hence the Pan, Silenus, satyrs, fauns, and the woodland gods among the Greeks and Romans; and hence, too, the goat-like form of the devil, with a tail, horns, and cloven feet, which obtain in medieval Christianity, and which may still be seen in some European cities. The terror which the devil, appearing in this Pan-like form, created among those who were thought to have seen him, has given rise to our expression panic. This is the form of idolatrous worship which the Jews brought with them from Egypt, and to which reference is continually made. (See Joshua 24:14; Ezekiel 20:7; Ezekiel 23:3, &c.; and especially 2 Chronicles 11:15.) The expression “and they shall no more offer” shows that the Israelites were hitherto in the habit of first dedicating their ordinary food to these deities; whilst the words “gone a whoring” indicate the orgies connected with this form of idol worship, It has been urged that the demand to offer up, in so confined a space as the entrance of the sanctuary, the domestic animals intended for the daily consumption of more than 600,000 people, imposed a task upon the people which it was impossible for them to carry out. Hence it has been urged that the injunction here (Leviticus 17:2-7) must refer to sacrifices. But this difficulty arises from importing our modern notions into the ancient mode of living. The ancient Israelites, like the modem Orientals, especially the nomadic tribes, ate very little flesh meat apart from the seasons of sacrifice, which were the occasions of feasting. Besides, those who urge this difficulty ignore the fact that the injunction before us is restricted to the three kinds of animals; that none of the wild clean quadrupeds, as stags, roes, &c, nor any of the feathered tribes, as pigeons, turtle doves, &c, which formed an essential part of the daily diet, is here included; and that even the three kinds of sacrificial quadrupeds only come within this restriction when they are qualified by age, which was within two years, and by physical condition, which demanded that it should have no external defect, as blindness of one eye, lameness of one foot, &c., to be offered first to the Lord. Moreover, the injunction was only intended to operate temporarily, whilst the Jews sojourned and wandered about in the wilderness, where, besides the propensity to sacrifice these animals to idols, they would have been in danger of extirpating their most useful animals. The law was repealed when the Israelites entered the promised land. (Comp. Deuteronomy 12:13-15.)

Verses 8-9

(8, 9) Whatsoever man there be.—Better, what man soever there be, as it is in the Authorised Version in Leviticus 17:3. Here again we have an instance of the same legislative phrase used four times in one short section (Leviticus 17:3; Leviticus 17:8; Leviticus 17:10; Leviticus 17:13), being translated differently in the Authorised Version. The law enacted in these two verses requires that all legitimate sacrifices should henceforth be presented in the appointed sanctuary, which was the centre of national unity, thus abolishing the liberty which, in accordance with patriarchal practice, had hitherto existed, that every head of a family could be his own priest, and offer up sacrifices wherever and whenever he liked. The commonwealth of Israel were now to acknowledge one altar, one high priest, and one sanctuary. This law was binding not only upon the Israelite by race, but upon strangers who took up their abode in and joined the Jewish community. For wilfully violating this law the offender incurred the penalty of excision.

Verse 10

(10) And whatsoever man.—Better, and what man soever. (See Leviticus 17:8.)

Eateth any manner of blood.—This prohibition, which has already been mentioned twice in Leviticus, is in both instances joined to the prohibition of fat. (See Leviticus 3:17; Leviticus 7:26-27.) Owing to its great importance, however, the law is enacted here separately, where it naturally follows the order that the blood of all animals sacrificed in the sanctuary is to be offered to the Lord upon the altar. According to the canons which obtained during the second Temple, the blood of clean fishes, of locusts, and of permissible creeping things is exempted.

I will even set my face against that soul.—That is, make him feel my anger. Though this phrase only occurs twice more in this book, and only once in connection with legal enactments (see Leviticus 20:3; Leviticus 20:6; Leviticus 26:17), yet from its usages in other passages it is clear that the expression “face” denotes anger, which shows itself in the countenance. Thus the phrase, which is translated in the Authorised Version, “I will appease him” (Genesis 30:20), is in the original, “I will appease his face,” where it manifestly stands for anger. Hence Lamentations 4:16, which is in the original, “the face of the Lord hath divided them,” is properly rendered in the Authorised Version in the text by “the anger of the Lord.” (Comp. also 1 Peter 3:12.)

Verse 11

(11) For the life of the flesh is in the blood.—Better, for the soul of the flesh is in the blood. The word here rendered “life” in the Authorised Version occurs twice more in this very verse, and is in both instances properly translated soul. Though it is immaterial whether the word in question is translated life or soul, it is essential that it should be rendered uniformly throughout the passage. By translating it differently in the first clause, the Authorised Version has unnecessarily increased the difficulty of the verse. This clause assigns the reason why blood must not be eaten. It is the principle of vitality, it constitutes the soul of animal life. Hence blood and life are used interchangeably in the Scriptures. Thus, when the Psalmist exclaims, “what profit is there in my blood” (Psalms 30:9), he uses it for life.

I have given it to you upon the altar.—For the sake of emphasis, the words in the original denoting “upon the altar” are placed first in the Hebrew, and the Authorised Version follows this order. It is however better to translate this clause, For I have ordained it upon the altar to make atonement for your souls. Because it is the principle of life, therefore God has ordained it to be offered upon the altar as an expiation for the offerer’s life.

For it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.—Better, for it is the blood that maketh atonement by means of the soul. As the blood of the victim is identical with its life, and represents the soul of the animal, hence God has appointed it as a substitute for the sinner’s life. Thus the life of the sacrifice atones for the life of the offerer. Hence the remark of the Apostle, “without shedding of blood there is no remission” (Hebrews 9:22).

Verse 12

(12) Therefore I said . . . —Because it is the vehicle of life, and has been ordained by God to atone for life, the children of Israel are here forbidden to eat it. The strangers are also prohibited eating blood, because they have submitted to the law of the land, and because their eating it would not only infringe the law which they have voluntarily adopted, but would lessen the horror with which such indulgence was regarded by the Jews. Hence the enforcement of this prohibition by the Apostle (Acts 15:20; Acts 15:29; Acts 21:25).

Verse 13

(13) And whatsoever man.—Better, what man soever (see Leviticus 17:3). Hitherto the law mainly discussed the blood of sacrificial animals, or those quadrupeds which were slaughtered at home. In this and the following verses the statute is extended to all other creatures which, though wild, are legally clean and used as food.

Which hunteth and catcheth.—Hunting, which was an amusement with other nations of antiquity, was with the serious Hebrew a matter of necessity. It was resorted to as a matter of necessity to exterminate dangerous beasts (Exodus 23:29), but more especially to procure food (Genesis 25:27; Proverbs 12:27). Besides the numerous pitfalls, snares, traps, &c, which are so frequently mentioned in the Bible, the Hebrews also employed arms in catching game (Genesis 27:3). When wounded, or when the game had to be killed to facilitate its being carried home, the hunters were liable to become careless about the blood, as is evident from the practice which obtained among some of the ancients. Thus we are told that the Zabians, when they slew a beast, put the blood into a vessel or into a hole which they dug in the ground, and then sat round and feasted on it. It is to prevent such outrages on the sacred blood, which the hunters were especially liable to commit when hungry, that the law is here enacted. An instance of the hungry army flying upon the spoil, killing the cattle in the field, and eating the flesh with the blood, is recorded in 1 Samuel 14:32-34. (Comp. also Ezekiel 33:25.)

Any beast or fowl that may be eaten.—That is, those wild beasts or fowl which, according to the dietary law, were usually eaten. During the second Temple this was interpreted strictly to apply to the clean wild beasts, but not to those not permitted to be eaten.

He shall even pour out the blood.—The earth, from which all animals came forth at their creation (Genesis 1:24), is to receive back again the principle of their life. They proceeded from the womb of the earth, and their life-blood is to return to it. With such scrupulous care was this law observed during the second Temple, that the following Benediction was ordered to be recited when the blood was covered up: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hath sanctified us by His precepts, and hath commanded us to cover up the blood.”

Verse 14

(14) For it is the life of all flesh . . . —Better, for the soul of all flesh is its blood, in, or through, its soul, that is, the sacredness of the blood arises from the fact that it contains the vital principle of all animal life. Or this clause may be rendered, for the life of all flesh is its blood in, or during, its life, that is, the life of all creatures consists in its blood; but only as long as the blood contains this life, for when it is dried up, or coagulated, the life has passed away from it.

For the life of all flesh.—Better, for the soul of all flesh (see Leviticus 17:11), that is, even of those wild animals which, in contradistinction to the sacrificial quadrupeds, must not be offered upon the altar, the blood constitutes the vital principle.

Verse 15

(15) That which died of itself.—The law enacted here is a natural sequel to the one immediately preceding, since it is still based upon the sacredness of blood. As the body of the animal which either died a natural death, or has been torn by a wild beast, retains a great portion of its blood, it is forbidden to be eaten. The carcases, in which the blood has thus been coagulated in the veins and arteries, were given to the dogs (Exodus 22:31). The rigour with which this law was enforced may be seen from 1 Samuel 14:32-35; Ezekiel 4:14, Ezek. 46:36. According to the canonical law which obtained during the second Temple, the carcase was forbidden when the animal died a natural death, or met with an accident, or was strangled to death, or was torn by a wild beast. This explains the apostolic decision, in the council at Jerusalem, about “things strangled” (Acts 15:20).

Whether it be one of your own country.—The law was not only binding upon the native Israelite, but upon the proselyte. The mere stranger, in the strict sense of the word, who had not joined the Jewish community, was allowed to eat such carcases. (See Deuteronomy 14:21.)

He shall both wash his clothes.—If he ate any of it unwittingly, he had not only to wash his garments, but immerse his whole body in water, and be excluded from the sanctuary till sundown. The sin offering prescribed in Leviticus 5:2 was not for inadvertently touching the carcase, but for neglecting the prescribed purification. (See Leviticus 5:2.)

Verse 16

(16) Then he shall bear his iniquity.—If he neglects these acts of purification, and enters the sanctuary in a defiled state, or partakes of the sacrificial meal, he is to incur the penalty of excision for the former act, and to be beaten with stripes for the latter, according to the interpretation given to this law in the time of Christ.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Leviticus 17". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/leviticus-17.html. 1905.
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