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Monday, July 22nd, 2024
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 20

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

Verse 1


(1) And the Lord spake unto Moses.—It is difficult to account for the position of this chapter. Naturally we should expect it to follow Leviticus 18:0. If Leviticus 20:0 contains the penalties attached to the sins enumerated in Leviticus 18:0, we should expect it immediately to follow that chapter. It may, however, be that before enacting these severe punishments, the Lawgiver wanted to appeal to the high calling of the nation, to qualify them by the sublime precepts laid down in Leviticus 19:0 for obedience to the laws in Leviticus 18:0, and that in the chapter before us the civil punishments are set forth as an alternative for those who will not be guided by the spiritual sentiments enunciated in Leviticus 19:0.

Verse 2

(2) Again, thou shalt say.—Better, And thou shalt say.

Whosoever he be.—Better, What man soever there be, as the Authorised Version renders this phrase in Leviticus 17:3. (See Note on Leviticus 17:8.)

That giveth any of his seed unto Molech.—It will be seen that whilst in Leviticus 18:21 the law about Molech worship follows the laws of incest, the reverse is the case here, where it precedes those laws.

The people of the land.—That is, the whole community (see Leviticus 4:27), who have selected the judges, and in whose name sentence is passed by the judges, are bound to execute the sentence.

Shall stone him with stones.—Lapidation was the first and the severest mode of capital punishment among the Hebrews, the three others being burning, beheading, and strangling. The Jewish canonists have tabulated the following eighteen cases in which death by stoning was inflicted: (1) of a man who has commerce with his own mother (chap 20:11); (2) or with his father’s wife (Leviticus 20:12); (3) or with his daughter-in-law (Leviticus 20:12); (4) or with a betrothed maiden (Deuteronomy 22:23-24); (5) or with a male (Leviticus 20:13); (6) or with a beast (Leviticus 20:15); (7) of a woman who was guilty of lying with a beast (Leviticus 20:16); (8) the blasphemer (Leviticus 24:10-16); (9) the worshipper of idols (Deuteronomy 17:2-5); (10) the one who gives his seed to Molech (Leviticus 20:2); (11) the necromancer; (12) the wizard (Leviticus 20:27); (13) the false prophet (Deuteronomy 13:6); (14) the enticer to idolatry (Deuteronomy 13:11); (15) the witch (Leviticus 20:17); (16) the profaner of the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36); (17) he that curses his parent (Leviticus 20:9); and (18) the rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). As the Mosaic legislation only directs that the lapidation is to take place without the precincts of the city (Leviticus 24:14; Numbers 15:36), and that the witnesses upon whose evidence the criminal has been sentenced to death are to throw the first stone (Deuteronomy 17:7), the administrators of the law during the second Temple decreed the following mode of carrying out the sentence. On his way from the court of justice to the place of execution a herald preceded the criminal, exclaiming, “So-and-so is being led out to be stoned for this and this crime, and so-and-so are the witnesses; if any one has to say anything that might save him, let him come forward and say it.” Within ten yards of the place of execution he was publicly admonished to confess his sins, within four yards he was stripped naked except a slight covering about his loins. After his hands had been bound, he was led upon a scaffolding about twice the height of a man. Here wine mingled with myrrh was mercifully given him to dull the pain of execution, and from here one of the witnesses pushed him down with great violence so that he fell upon his back. If the fall did not kill him, the other witness dashed a great stone on his breast, and if this did not kill him, all the people that stood by covered him with stones. The corpse was then nailed to the cross, and afterwards burnt. Hereupon the relatives visited both the judges and the witnesses to show that they bore no hatred towards them, and that the sentence was just. Not unfrequently, however, the excited multitude resorted to lapidation when they wished to inflict summary justice. This description will explain why the Jews said to Christ that the woman had to be stoned, and why He replied to her accusers that he who is without sin should cast the first stone (John 8:5; John 8:7); why the Jews wanted to stone Christ when they thought He was blaspheming (John 10:31), and why they offered Him wine mingled with myrrh before his crucifixion (Matthew 27:34; Matthew 27:38; Mark 15:23).

Verse 3

(3) And I will set my face against that man.—That is, make him feel my anger. (See Leviticus 17:10.)

And will cut him off.—As the preceding verse describes the offender as having been stoned to death by the people, the declaration on the part of God that He will cut off the sinner has occasioned some difficulty. Hence some take it simply to express the same thing—that the judicial execution is God’s mode of cutting off the sinner from his people. According to the administrators of the law during the second Temple, however, the legislator supposes a case where the man has been actually guilty of the crime, and that there has not been a sufficient amount of evidence to convict him. In that case God himself would interpose and cut the offender off. This is more in accordance with what follows.

To defile my sanctuary.—By sinning, the Israelites contracted defilement, and they defiled the sanctuary which was in their midst. (See Leviticus 15:31; Leviticus 16:16.) These very people, moreover, when they had sacrificed their children to Molech, afterwards came to the sanctuary to worship God (Jeremiah 7:9-10; Ezekiel 23:37-39).

Profane my holy name.—See Leviticus 18:21.

Verse 4

(4) And if the people of the land . . . —In the former verse the Legislator treated of cases where there was insufficient evidence. Here he declares what God would do if the community itself, whose duty it is to execute the sentence, either from culpable indifference or criminal sympathy with the sin, connive at it.

Verse 5

(5) Then I will set my face.—In that case God himself will show His anger. (See Leviticus 20:3, and Leviticus 17:10.) He will interpose to execute just judgment.

And against his family.—Because they would naturally be privy to it, and aid and abet the father in this crime, they, as well as all those who joined in this idolatrous worship, will be cut off by God himself.

Verse 6

(6) And the soul that turneth after such as have familiar spirits.—The same punishment will be visited upon the man who consults necromancers. For the nature of this sin, see Leviticus 19:31, and for the execution of this sentence see 1 Chronicles 10:13-14. The soothsayers themselves were stoned to death by the community. (See Leviticus 20:27.)

Verses 7-8

(7, 8) Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy.—Rather, Ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy, as the same phrase is rendered in the Authorised Version in Leviticus 11:44. Though it is immaterial which of the two renderings is adopted, it is important that it should be the same in both passages, since the phrase is exactly the same in the original. It is only by keeping the Divine ordinances that the Israelites will attain to that state of holiness which will not only arm them to resist the abominable rites and idolatrous practices denounced in the foregoing verses, but which will enable them to reflect the holiness of their Lord.

Verse 9

(9) For every one that curseth his father.—Though the administrators of the Law during the second Temple have laid down the most minute regulation with regard to filial obedience (see Leviticus 19:3), and though nothing can exceed the tenderness with which they instilled into the hearts of children the Biblical precepts on this subject (Exodus 20:12), yet they enacted that the child only incurred the penalty of death when he used the ineffable name God when cursing his parent, who was either alive or dead, and that if he used an attribute of the Deity, such as Almighty, the Merciful, &c, he was simply to be beaten with stripes. This will account for the rendering of this passage in the ancient Chaldee Version, “who curseth his father or his mother by the inexpressible name,” i.e., Jehovah.

Verse 10

(10) Shall surely be put to death.—This is, by penalty for the sin forbidden in Leviticus 18:20. According to Jewish tradition whenever the phrase “shall surely be put to death” occurs by itself, it denotes death by strangling. This death was inflicted for six crimes—upon him who had commerce with another man’s wife; who smote his father or mother; (3) who stole an Israelite; (4) who being an elder rebelled against the decree of the senate (Deuteronomy 17:12); (5) who played the false prophet; and (6) who prophesied in the name of another god.

Verse 11

(11) His father’s wife.—Here the penalty is enacted for the sin prohibited in Leviticus 18:8.

Verse 12

(12) With his daughter in law.—See Notes on Leviticus 18:15.

Verse 13

(13) Mankind.—See Leviticus 18:22.

Verse 14

(14) A wife and her mother.—See Leviticus 18:17.

They shall be burnt with fire.—This, as we have seen, is the second of the four modes of capital punishment. (See Leviticus 20:2.) In the following ten cases those guilty of the sins specified suffered this punishment: (1) the unchaste high priest’s daughter (Leviticus 21:9); (2) he who had commerce with his daughter; (3)or with his daughter’s daughter; (4) or with his son’s daughter; (5) or with his wife’s daughter; (6) or with her daughter’s daughter; (7) or with her son’s daughter; (8) or with his mother-in-law; (9) or with the mother of his mother-in-law; and (10), or with the mother of his father-in-law. It will thus be seen that with the exception of the high priest’s daughter this death was only inflicted for incest. As the Bible nowhere states the precise mode in which this kind of death is to be carried out, the authorities during the second Temple maintained that it must be executed in such a manner as to leave the body externally un changed by the flames, because, when God himself inflicted this punishment, the dead bodies of Nadab and Abihu were in a perfect state of preservation. (See Leviticus 10:2.) To effect this the criminal was put into dung up to his knees, a soft cloth containing a hard one was then tied around his throat, while the two witnesses who had secured his sentence drew tighter by the two cords till the criminal opened his mouth, when molten lead was poured down his throat, thus burning him to death. Hence the ancient Chaldee Version renders it here, “they shall be burnt with fire, with melted lead in their mouth.”

Verses 15-16

(15, 16) with a beast.—See Leviticus 18:23.

Verse 17

(17) Take his sister.—See Leviticus 18:9.

Verse 18

(18) Having her sickness.—See Leviticus 15:24; Leviticus 18:19.

Verse 19

(19) Thy mother’s sister.—See Leviticus 18:12.

Verse 20

(20) His uncle’s wife.—See Leviticus 18:14.

Verse 21

(21) His brother’s wife.—See Leviticus 18:16.

Verse 22

(22) Ye shall therefore keep all my statutes.—Like the prohibitions (see Leviticus 18:26-30), the penalties here enacted for transgressing them conclude with an appeal to the Israelites to keep the Divine precepts, and not to be guilty of the crimes for which the former inhabitants of the land have been cast out.

That the land . . . spue you not out.—Better, lest the land . . . vomit you out, as in Leviticus 18:28. For this figure of speech see Leviticus 20:25 of the same chapter.

Verse 24

(24) But I have said unto you.—That is, promised to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and also to you, that he would expel the Canaanites, and give the land to the Israelites as an inheritance.

Verse 25

(25) Ye shall therefore put difference.—Better, Ye shall therefore separate. It is the same word which is used at the end of the preceding verse, and which is rendered “separate” in the Authorised Version. It is important that the word should be translated by the same expression, since it not only shows the intimate connection between the two verses, but brings out more forcibly the reason for the exhortation in the verse before us. Because the Lord has separated or distinguished the Israelites from all nations, and is about to give them the promised land, therefore the Israelites are to separate or to distinguish between the clean and unclean animals, as ordained in Leviticus 11:0. By strictly following out the dietary laws, the Israelites will always be able to keep separate from all other nations (Daniel 1:8).

Verse 26

(26) And ye shall be holy unto me.—Rather, And ye shall be my holy ones, in harmony with the remark in the last clause of this verse, where God says that He had separated them for the purpose that “ye should be mine” The phrase only occurs here, and is different from the one which has been used in Leviticus 11:44-45; Leviticus 20:17.

And have severed you from other people.—Better, and have separated you from other people, as the Authorised Version renders this phrase in Leviticus 20:24. That is, God has separated them from the rest of the nations to be His holy people, and to be an example to them. The spiritual guides during the second Temple have explained this separation of Israel as not implying the rejection of the other nations, but simply as the first installment. They maintained that it implies that all other nations are gradually to follow, and that the Divine choice is to go on from people to people, till “many nations shall be joined to the Lord . . . and shall be my people” (Zechariah 2:11), where the same phrase, “shall be mine,” is used as in the passage before us. The Divine plan of the redemption of mankind they set forth in the text before us as follows :—“If the Scripture had said, I have separated all the nations from you, there would be no future for the Gentiles; but since it is said, I have separated you from the nations, it is as one who first of all separates the best from the less good, and then goes on continually to separate the better ones. But he who separates the bad from the good, by this very process rejects the bad, and does not return to them.” The Mosaic doctrine of the separation of Israel, therefore, so far from tending to produce and harbour in the Jews contracted views of God’s mercy, and a contempt for all other nations, has taught them to look upon themselves as simply having gone first to the mountain of the Lord, and that all other nations are to follow, and to become with them children of God.

Verse 27

(27) A man also or woman.—Better, And a man or a woman. The departure from the literal translation of the conjunction in the Authorised version is both unnecessary and obscures the meaning of the sentence. It ought rather to be translated “but;” that is, but because the Israelites are God’s holy ones, therefore every man or woman who pretends to disclose future events by means of necromancy, thus usurping the functions of God, is to be stoned to death. The case of these necromancers is here repeated, because in Leviticus 19:31 the consulting them only is forbidden, and in the sixth verse of this chapter the penalty for consulting them is set forth, whilst in the passage before us the penalty is enacted which the persons themselves who are convicted of practising these secret arts are to suffer. The woman is here expressly added, both because this art seems to have been principally followed by women (Exodus 22:28; 1 Samuel 28:7; Acts 16:16), and because men would naturally be inclined to treat women more mercifully.

Their blood shall be upon them.—That is, they have brought it upon themselves to be killed. (See Leviticus 20:9.)

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Leviticus 20". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/leviticus-20.html. 1905.
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