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The Law of Holiness (Leviticus 17-27).
The main section of the Book of Leviticus is constructed on a definite pattern. It commences with a description of the offerings and sacrifices of Israel (chapters 1-7), and ends with a description of the times and seasons as they are required of Israel (chapters 23-25). It continues with the establishment of the priesthood (chapters 8-10), which is balanced by the section on the maintenance of the holiness of the priesthood (chapters 21-22). This is then followed by the laws of uncleanness (chapters 11-15) which are balanced by the laws of holiness (chapters 17-20). And central to the whole is the Day of Atonement (chapter 16).
This second part of the book has been spoken of as ‘The Holiness Code’. We may balance this by calling chapters 1-15 ‘The Priestly Code’. The first part certainly has a priestly emphasis, for the priests control the offerings and sacrifices (chapters 1-7) and administer the laws of cleanness and uncleanness (chapters 11-15), and the second part a holiness emphasis. But this must not be over-emphasised. The whole book is mainly addressed to the people, it is for their benefit as God’s covenant people, and the maintenance of the holiness of the priests is just as important in the second half. It is to be seen as a whole.
We may thus analyse it as follows (note the chiasm):
1). THE PRIESTLY CODE (chapters 1-15).
a) Offerings and Sacrifices (chapters 1-7) b) Establishment of the Priesthood (chapters 8-10) c) The Laws of Cleanness and Uncleanness (chapters 11-15)
2) THE DAY OF ATONEMENT (Leviticus 16:0)
3) THE HOLINESS CODE (chapters 17-25)
c) The Laws of Holiness (chapters 17-19) b) Maintenance of the Holiness of the Priesthood (chapters 20-22) a) Times and Seasons (chapters 23-25).
As will be seen the Day of Atonement is central and pivotal, with the laws of cleanness and uncleanness and the laws of holiness on each side. This central section is then sandwiched between the establishment of the priesthood (chapters 10-12) and the maintenance of the holiness of the priesthood (chapters 20-22). And outside these are the requirements concerning offerings and sacrifices (chapters 1-7) and the requirements concerning times and seasons (chapters 23-25).
So the Holiness Code may be seen as a suitable description of this second half of the book as long as we do not assume by that that it was once a separate book. The description in fact most suitably applies to chapters 19-22. It describes what Israel is to be, as made holy to Yahweh.
It was as much a necessary part of the record as what has gone before. The Book would have been incomplete without it. The Book of Leviticus is, as it claims, the record of a whole collection of revelations made to Moses at various times, brought together in one book, and carefully constructed around the central pivot of the Day of Atonement. There is no good reason for doubting this, and there are possible indications of colophons to various original records which help to substantiate it. It was the necessary basis for the establishment of the religion of Yahweh for a conglomerate people.
So having in what we know of as the first sixteen chapters of the Book laid down the basis of offerings and sacrifices (chapters 1-7), the establishment of the Priesthood (chapters 8-10), the laws of cleanness and uncleanness (chapters 11-15), and the requirements of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:0), the whole would have been greatly lacking had Moses not added some further detail of the holiness that God required of His people and of His priests.
The former is contained in Leviticus 17:1 to Leviticus 20:27. In this section Moses deals with the sacredness of all life (Leviticus 17:0), the sexual relationships which can defile (Leviticus 18:0), and the positive requirements for holiness in the covenant (Leviticus 19-20).
It is then followed by the further section dealing with the maintenance of the holiness of the priesthood (Leviticus 21:1 to Leviticus 22:16), with Leviticus 22:17-33 forming a transition from speaking to the priests to speaking to the people.
Chapters 23-25 then deal with sacred times and seasons, including the seven day Sabbath (Leviticus 23:1-3), the set feasts of Israel (Leviticus 23:4-44), the daily trimming of the lamps and the weekly offering of showbread (Leviticus 24:1-9), the Sabbatical year (Leviticus 25:1-7), and the year of Yubile (Leviticus 25:8-55). Included in this is a practical example of blasphemy against the Name (Leviticus 24:10-23), which parallels the practical example of priestly blasphemy in Leviticus 10:1-7. Thus practical examples of the blasphemy of both priests and people are included as warnings.
Leviticus 26:0 seals the book with the promises of blessings and cursings regular in covenants of this period, and closes with the words ‘these are the statutes and judgments and laws which Yahweh made between him and the children of Israel in Mount Sinai by the hand of Moses’ (Leviticus 26:46). Leviticus 27:0 is then a postscript on vows and how they can lawfully be withdrawn from, and closes with a reference to tithing, the sanctifying of a tenth of all their increase to Yahweh.
Chapters 11-15 dealt with the uncleannesses of Israel, leading up to the Day when all uncleannesses were atoned for (Leviticus 16:0). But the Day of Atonement covered far more than those. It covered every way in which the covenant had been broken. It also covers the direct transgressions of Israel. Leviticus 17:0 onwards therefore deals further with the basis of the covenant against which they ‘transgressed’ and for which they also needed atonement. Chapters 11-15 dealt with practical matters considering what was ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ as they faced daily life, these chapters from 17 onwards now deal with the basis on which they should live their lives as Yahweh’s holy people, and the attitudes that they should have. They deal with prospective sin and disobedience. The former were more within the cultic section up to Leviticus 16:0, but the latter are firmly directed at the people’s moral response, so that their responsibilities under the covenant might be made clear directly to them. The distinction must not be overpressed. They are all still, of course, cultic, but the latter from a less direct viewpoint. They do not have so much to do with priestly oversight. They come more under the jurisdiction of the elders.
There is, however, no change of direction in overall thought. The whole of Leviticus emphasises holiness from start to finish. There is not a change of emphasis only a change of presentation because God is now directly involving the people.
It must, however, be firmly asserted that, as we shall see in the commentary, there is nothing in what follows that requires a date after the time of Moses. Having been given by God control of a conglomerate people (Exodus 12:38), with a nucleus made up of descendants from the family and family servants of the patriarchs (Exodus 1:0 - ‘households’), he had to fashion them into a covenant keeping nation under Yahweh and provide the basis on which they could be one nation and kept in full relationship with their Overlord. It was precisely because the disparate peoples believed that his words came from God that they were willing mainly to turn their backs on their past usages and customs and become one nation under Yahweh, culminating in them all being circumcised into the covenant when they entered the land (Joshua 5:0).
And with such a conglomeration of people with their differing religious ideas, customs and traditions, it is clear that this could only have been successfully achieved by putting together a complete religious system which was a revelation from Yahweh, which would both keep them together as one people and would ensure that when they reached Canaan they would have no excuse for taking part in the Canaanite religious practises such as he knew of from his time of administration in Egypt and from his time with the Priest of Midian. Had they arrived in Canaan without a single binding system, they would soon have fallen prey (as they almost did anyway) to the attractions of Canaanite religion. It was only the firm foundation that Moses had laid (combined with God’s own powerful activities) that finally resulted in their rising above their backslidings, and in their constantly turning back to Yahwism, because Moses had rooted it so deeply within them. And this finally enabled the establishing of the nation under Samuel and David after times of great turmoil.
This system did not come all at once. He had to begin instructing them soon after the crossing of the Reed Sea (Exodus 15:26), and a system gradually grew up (Exodus 17:13-16) as they went along, based as we learn later on a tent of meeting set outside the camp (Exodus 33:7-11), until at Sinai the book of the covenant (Exodus 20:1 to Exodus 23:33) was written down as a result of God’s words to the people and to Moses. Then in his time in the Mount this was expanded on. But it would continue to be expanded on in the days to come, until the time came when Moses knew that he had to accumulate in one record all the regulations concerning sacrifices, priesthood and the multitude of requirements that went along with them. By this time he had much material to draw on.
For leaders from different groups had no doubt been constantly coming to him for direction and leadership (Exodus 16:22), and especially for those who were not firmly established in the customs of Israel he no doubt had to deal with a wide number of diversified queries, and seek God’s will about them. This explains why sometimes the collections may not always seem as having been put together in as logical order as they might have been. They partly depended on what questions he had been asked, and what particular problems had arisen, and what particular issues were important at the time. But it was on the basis of all this activity that we have the Book of Leviticus as a part of the wider Pentateuch.
Chapter 18. God’s Covenant Is Concerned With Right Sexual Relations.
In this chapter, having laid the basis in sacrifice, God now commands His people to walk in His ways and in accordance with all that He has shown them. And here He especially declares to them what relationships with women they are to avoid. So as in Leviticus 11-12 the pattern is maintained. First the treatment of domestic and other animals (compare Leviticus 11:0), then the treatment of sexual relations with their results in the bearing of life (Leviticus 12, 15).
The chapter is in twelfth century BC treaty form. It begins with the declaration of the overlord, ‘I am Yahweh your God’, goes on with the preamble about their required behaviour, followed by the promised blessing that those who did His commands would live in them, details the further requirements, and finishes up with the final warnings for disobedience. Note how ‘I am Yahweh’ is repeated (Leviticus 18:2; Leviticus 18:4-6; Leviticus 18:21; Leviticus 18:30), stressing the connection with the covenant.
This Is The Word Of God (Leviticus 18:1 ).
‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying,’
Once more we have the emphasis on the fact that these are God’s words to Moses. The ideas are not to be seen as Moses’ ideas, but as God’s.
The Command To Obey Yahweh Their God Whose Commands Bring Life (Leviticus 18:2-5 ).
“Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, I am Yahweh your God.”
What follows very much has the covenant in mind. God stresses constantly, as He did at the giving of the covenant (Leviticus 20:2), that He is Yahweh their God, and that He therefore expects their response. Note that these words are directed solely at the people. This continues from now until Leviticus 20:27, and then from Leviticus 23:0 onwards.
“You shall not do after the doings of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelt, and you shall not do after the doings of the land of Canaan, to which I will bring you, nor shall you walk in their statutes.”
Because He is Yahweh their God, and because they are His, they are not to live as others live and do as others do. They are not to follow the doings of the land of Egypt. They are not to follow the doings of the land of Canaan. Nor when he has brought them there are they to walk in their statutes, their behavioural rules that were recorded and required of men. They are rather to do as He requires.
Particularly are they not to follow their attitudes towards sexual relationships. Both the Egyptians and the Canaanites allowed sexual relationships and marriage within some of the degrees described below, and the Canaanites especially were free with their sexual favours, but Israel was not to be so.
This was particularly important in view of the conglomerate nature of ‘the children of Israel’. All among them were used to living in accordance with differing long established and varying customs picked up in Egypt, and previously in Canaan and other places. They were a total mixture of customs. But now they were to put all those behind them and begin to follow Yahweh’s statutes and ordinances. The new beginning established at Sinai had to be seen as pre-eminent. The past must be put behind them.
“My ordinances shall you do, and my statutes shall you keep, to walk in them. I am Yahweh your God.”
Rather are they to do the ordinances and judgments that He has required of them, given them in judgments, or caused to be written as their guide (see Exodus 17:14; Exodus 24:4; Exodus 34:27; Numbers 33:1-2; Deuteronomy 31:9), and to follow His demands and declarations, and walk in His ways. And they are to do this because He is Yahweh their God, their Great Deliverer.
We are reminded by this that we too when we become Christians have become a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). We too have to put aside the old ways and walk as new men and women (Ephesians 4:22-32; Colossians 3:5-11; Galatians 2:20).
“You shall therefore keep my statutes, and my ordinances, which if a man do, he shall live in them. I am Yahweh.”
For it is in keeping those statutes and ordinances that they will find life. First of all they will avoid the danger of dying because of sin (compare Exodus 28:35; Exodus 28:43; Exodus 30:20-21; Leviticus 8:35; Leviticus 10:6-7; Leviticus 10:9; Leviticus 15:31; Leviticus 16:2; Leviticus 16:13). Secondly they will live in prosperity and blessing, for in Deuteronomy the idea of life and prosperity go very much together (Deuteronomy 30:15-16). The blessings of Deuteronomy 28:1-14 were to be for those who ‘lived’. And thirdly elsewhere in Leviticus it is stressed that they would enjoy the abundant blessings of God. ‘If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments and do them, then I shall give you rains in their season, and the land will yield its abundant produce and the trees of the field will bear their fruit. And your threshing will last for you until grape gathering, and grape gathering will last until sowing time, and you will eat your food to the full and live securely in your land’ (Leviticus 26:3-5).
So fullness of life, He tells us, results from knowing God and walking in His ways. This was also the essential message of the writer of Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26; Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 5:18-19; Ecclesiastes 11:9) as he sought to understand the meaning of life. He pointed to the free and happy life under God available to those who trusted in Him. And that was the life that the Law was intended to give, as the people responded to God in love and worship and sought eagerly to do what pleased Him and to enjoy the good things in life that He gave them.
This was not saying that the Law could ‘give life’ as we might understand it. It very much could not. It could only show the life that should be lived. It could show what life was. It was the God of the covenant Who could give life, Who could renew His spirit within them (Psalms 51:10; Psalms 139:7; Psalms 143:10 compare Numbers 11:25), Who could give them clean hearts if they sought them (Psalms 51:10; Ezekiel 18:31). For the purpose of the ordinances was that they should constantly be returned to cleanness, and to a sense of a right relationship with God. The one who had raised up Abraham, Who had raised up Jacob, could also constantly raise them up. This is the message that the prophets would remind them of again and again. But it was true from the beginning. And through this they could live according to His covenant and enjoy His fullness of blessing. They would ‘live in them’.
Relationships Which Are Forbidden.
But central to this fullness of life were satisfactory family relationships. If they wished to enjoy ‘life’ these were vital. Living in a patriarchal society where the wider family lived in close relationships with each other, and where authority was vested in the wider family and very much determined by status in the household, there was the greatest possible danger among such families, knowing the propensities of men, that the closeness of their relationships in their living together could produce sexual problems, and that those could then produce situations that struck at the very roots of the family and of authority. Men’s lusts would be able to destroy families and especially womenfolk. They could also make life very difficult for everybody in a constant changing of relationships. They could in effect destroy ‘life’.
This was especially true because men who were in positions of authority in the family could, without these regulations, have enforced their will sexually and caused untold hurt within their own family circles. Without regulation children especially would clearly be vulnerable to those whom they loved and who were responsible for their protection. It was therefore necessary to have strict rules to control these relationships, to prevent them getting out of hand, and to so legislate that such aberrations should not even be thought of.
Practically speaking there were a number of good reasons why the relationships that follow were to be carefully regulated and any stepping across the boundary avoided, even if the assumption is that marriage, albeit often ‘forced’ marriage, was mainly in view by the perpetrators. They could produce complications in status and in inheritance, cause deep rows, division and distress within families, result in huge tensions, destroy inter-relationships, foster discrimination and jealousies between blood relations, produce insecurity and uncertainty in family life, encourage constant distrust and fear, leave young children very vulnerable, and cause much bad blood and hurt which might affect a number of generations. They could destroy the stability, trust and love of the family. Such practises could also have been carried out deliberately in order to concentrate wealth and power within a few families to the general harm of the nation (compare the inter-marriage policy of Abraham’s family in order to maintain status).
In most cases they were also totally unseemly anyway, denoting total lack of what was decent and natural (like boiling a kid in its mother’s milk was to be unthinkable because it went against nature), and underlying them were also no doubt a recognition by God of the genetic problems that could arise. But above all they are a reminder that we are not just to be free to follow ‘love’ (or lust) but must first do what is seemly and considerate for all. There are things that come before ‘love’. The family unity must not be destroyed for the selfish gratification of the few. That is why rigid barriers were and are necessary.
Where Christian standards of marriage and life, based on these words, have held sway, these relationships described have not outwardly seemed much of a problem. They have simply not been openly breached (although much has gone on under cover which we would be ashamed to talk about if we knew of it). But now that in many countries sex has become a free for all once again they have again begun to raise their heads, and many families are being affected, and many people hurt, by uncouth sexual behaviour in lands once thought of as ‘Christian’.
The problem of incestuous relationships was acknowledged elsewhere in the ancient world, but in a wide variety of ways and with varying penalties, many not very severe. It was, therefore, often not treated too seriously and never dealt with in detail in quite this way. This is thus a rare attempt to formalise in depth how such relationships should be viewed.
Relationships Within Families (Leviticus 18:6-18 ).
“None of you shall approach to any who are near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness: I am Yahweh.”
Firstly the initial principle was laid down that there should be no sexual approaches among those who were of near kin, no approaches of the kind which were with a view to marriage and sexual relations. This was because Yahweh was Yahweh and disapproved of anything that could destroy family relationships, and knew what great dangers there were of sexual relationships doing this, and what tragedy they could bring about. This principle is now expanded in detail. For He wanted it known that His people were simply not expected to behave like that because they accepted Who and What He is.
That ‘marriage’ is probably mainly in mind throughout, in that the person would seek to justify their behaviour by that means, comes out in that without legal marriage such behaviour should automatically have resulted in the death penalty anyway. Thus to have legitimacy they would have to marry the person involved. For when two had sexual relations they became one flesh. So it had to be made clear that in relation to those who are of near kin marriage is as bad as fornication and adultery.
On the other hand it might be argued that illicit sex within the family would be so hushed up, and so never revealed, that it had to be legislated against anyway, which explains the strong statements against it within close family relationships. Each man must be made to recognise that God would know and would punish what he did even if men could not. The point is being made that these activities are in fact forbidden under any circumstances, whether within marriage or not, and the emphasis is not so much on marriage as on the evil of sexual relations between such related people. They were wrong under any circumstance, and a professed marriage did not excuse them. To ‘uncover nakedness’ refers to sexual intercourse.
From this point until Leviticus 18:23 the commands are all in the singular, stressing their application to each individual. He then again returns to the plural.
“The nakedness of your father, even the nakedness of your mother, you shall not uncover. She is your mother. You shall not uncover her nakedness.”
The first forbidden relationship for a man was with his own mother. To marry and/or have relations with his own mother, to uncover her nakedness, was clearly totally unseemly. To do so would be to utterly shame his father’s name, with whom his mother was one flesh, and indeed his mother herself as made one with his father. He would be exposing his father’s nakedness as Ham had done long before (Genesis 9:22). It would be totally unnatural and could not even be considered. Here God was enforcing the fact by statute.
Among other things such a relationship would dishonour the father with whom his wife had been one flesh, so that the revealing of her nakedness was the revealing of his; would distort positions of authority as the son, as the husband of the mother, would gain a status contrary to and in apposition to that of the firstborn son; and it could be seen as against nature. It also carried with it genetic dangers.
The sin of Lot’s two daughters, which resulted in the birth of Ammon (Ben-ammi) and Moab (Genesis 19:30-38), can be compared to this although they literally uncovered their father’s nakedness.
“The nakedness of your father’s wife you shall not uncover. It is your father’s nakedness.”
The next forbidden relationship was with any other wife or ex-wife of a man’s father. This was forbidden because she and his father were one. Therefore to marry her and/or have sexual relations with her would be shaming his father. It is as if he had had sex with his father. He must not seek to take his father’s place in this way. Furthermore it would again undermine authority.
And on top of that lust for a beautiful relative, if not absolutely forbidden, could cause all kinds of evil behaviour through the centuries, including convenient murder of the father. Without these laws forbidding it, any father with a very beautiful wife (like Sarah) might always be in danger of being murdered by his sons so that they could have her for themselves. But if legally they could not marry acceptably, much of the danger was removed. In Israel God was seeking to scotch that from the beginning by indicating that marriage to her would be out of the question. In this case the penalty for failure was to be death (Leviticus 20:11).
In fact a man lying with his father’s wife was accursed by the law (Deuteronomy 27:23). He stood cursed before God. Such an incestuous relationship was engaged in by Reuben with Bilhah (Genesis 35:22), and by Absalom with his father's concubines or secondary wives (2 Samuel 16:22). The one lost his pre-eminence as the firstborn, the other his life. It was the sin that especially shocked Paul among the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 5:1), one not even thought of among the Gentiles.
“The nakedness of your sister, the daughter of your father, or the daughter of your mother, whether born at home, or born abroad, even their nakedness you shall not uncover.”
Marriage and/or sexual relations with a blood sister or half-blood sister were also forbidden, even if she had been born elsewhere. It is quite clear how impossible family life would have been if men could pressurise their own sisters. Family unity would have been impossible and no beautiful woman would have been safe to pursue an ordinary life (see 2 Samuel 13:12-32). But the regulations produced a mind set in Israel which helped to prevent all but the worst of men even thinking in this way. Those who did this were to be ‘cut off in the sight of the people’ (Leviticus 20:17). They were cursed (Deuteronomy 27:22).
“Born abroad” may indicate an illegitimate daughter, but there may have been cases where a man had two families living separately.
When man was first in the world it is clear that such relationships did occur, but that was another matter, for then there was no alternative. All Adam’s sons married their sisters, including Cain. It had to be so then, and genetic make-ups were simpler. But this was now forbidden.
“The nakedness of your son’s daughter, or of your daughter’s daughter, even their nakedness you shall not uncover: for theirs is your own nakedness.”
Marrying and having sexual relationships with grandchildren was also forbidden. Again families could have been destroyed by it, and the future of young children regularly blighted. It was vital that those who had responsibility for such children should honour them and not take advantage of them. They were intended to be their protectors! They should be able to trust their grandfathers absolutely, to watch over them and look after their best interests, not to be themselves pursuing them for sexual gratification. After all, they were a part of himself. How could he seek sexual relations with himself?
It would also distort lines of authority. If a child resulted a man could thereby find himself under the ‘authority’ of his own daughter, which would make a mockery of authority.
“The nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, begotten of your father, she is your sister, you shall not uncover her nakedness.”
This confirms Leviticus 18:9, especially in the case of a half sister. Abraham seemingly went contrary to this rule, which had not, of course, then been laid out. Such intermarriage seems in his day to have been approved of in order to maintain the family aristocracy. Here it is forbidden. In Leviticus 20:17 the punishment is to be cut off in the sight of the people
“You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister. She is your father’s near kinswoman. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister, for she is your mother’s near kinswoman.”
Here aunts are forbidden as objects of lust, marriage and sexual relations. Again the protection of family unity, and lines of authority, and the necessity to ensure that those who should be protecting relatives left without protection did so with no ulterior motive, is in mind. This was especially so when they were children. A woman should be able to have confidence that her affectionate response to, and reliance on, her relatives did not result in unfortunate situations or coercion. She must be able to trust them. In this case the matter would be brought up for judgment and a suitable penalty be decided on, ‘they shall bear their iniquity’ (Leviticus 20:19). It was thus not seen as quite such a serious offence. In fact Amram, Moses’ father/ancestor, married his father’s sister (Exodus 6:20).
“You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother, you shall not approach his wife. She is your aunt.”
The prohibition also includes aunts through marriage. Marrying and having sexual relations with an uncle’s wife would be a shaming of one’s uncle, whether alive or dead. This also would be judged by the courts, but in this case, additionally, God would punish it directly by making them childless (Leviticus 20:20).
“You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter-in-law. She is your son’s wife. You shall not uncover her nakedness.”
A daughter-in-law, a son’s wife, is forbidden for marriage and sexual relations to a father. The daughter-in-law is one flesh with his son. Thus the father must honour what is his son’s, and not shame his son. Among other things the inheritance problems and the resulting hatreds and rivalries could have been horrendous. The point was that a son should be able to trust his father in such matters absolutely and be confident that he would not complicate or take advantage of his family if he died or divorced, but would act only in their best interests. The punishment in this case is death because it has ‘wrought confusion’ (Leviticus 20:12). It is intermixing two generations.
“You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife. It is your brother’s nakedness.”
Nor shall one brother marry and have sexual relations with his brother’s wife, with a view to her becoming his wife and bearing children to him, whether his brother is dead or divorced, for to do so would be to shame his brother, with whom his wife was ‘one’, and destroy family relationships. This was the sin for which John the Baptiser rebuked Herod Antipas. This is not forbidding levirate marriage. In that case the brother was dead and the aim was to honour his brother, and raise up children in his name. In that case also the children were seen as the brother’s. That was not a case of family conflict, but of family cooperation. The penalty for not fulfilling the levirate law but taking the wife for himself would be that the marriage went childless (Leviticus 20:21).
It may well be that in levirate ‘marriage’ the sexual relations were deliberately carried out more discreetly.
“You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter, you shall not take her son’s daughter, or her daughter’s daughter, to uncover her nakedness. They are near kinswomen. It is wickedness (prostitution).”
To marry and have sexual relations with both a mother and her daughter, or with a mother and her granddaughter, was forbidden. They were near kinswomen. The tensions that would arise and the pain that could be caused are not to be contemplated, and no man should so take advantage of his position. He should be aware of the great harm and misery that could result. It was to treat them like prostitutes just available for his lust, have no regard for their deeper feelings and play havoc with relationships. And once again lines of authority and inheritance would be blurred. This was another case where death was the penalty for both (Leviticus 20:14). For a man to lie with his mother-in-law was to be cursed (Deuteronomy 27:23).
“And you shall not take a wife to her sister, to be a rival to her, to uncover her nakedness, besides the other in her lifetime.”
Nor should a man marry one sister after another while they were both alive. In a polygamous marriage wives were rivals, and this would be to make two sisters rivals and possibly antagonistic to each other, and would be to destroy the natural love between them. This was not to be contemplated. Family love was important to God, the Supreme Father. This was, of course, what Jacob did and it caused great grief of heart.
In all these prohibitions we see God’s concern that non-sexual, loving relationships and responsibilities within families were of prime importance, that lines of authority should be clearly maintained, that inheritance questions must not be complicated unduly, and that these things must come before all others, so that lust especially must not be in a position to destroy them. They reveal a deep sense of the current and counter-currents that sexual feelings could cause within close family units, and provided the standards by which they should be assessed and dealt with.
However, they also served another purpose. The inter-marriage of relatives who are in too close a relation to each other can also be the cause of an increase in birth defects and, if continued in through the generations, can result in a lack of vitality and vigour in the strain. That also is therefore not something to be advised.
Other Forbidden Sexual Relations (Leviticus 18:19-23 ).
“And you shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness, as long as she is impure by her uncleanness.”
Sexual relations are forbidden with a woman while she is menstruating. This is put in for completeness here so that all aspects of sexual relations are covered, but it has been dealt with previously (Leviticus 15:24; compare Leviticus 20:18).
To lie with a woman so that her blood comes on him renders a man unclean for seven days (Leviticus 15:24). But this would seem to refer to a situation which is ‘unwitting’, for 20:18 makes a deliberate lying with a menstruous woman a ground for being ‘cut off’, and Ezekiel lists it as a sin parallel to idolatry and adultery (Ezekiel 18:6; Ezekiel 22:10). This would make this an absolute prohibition, on a par with the previous ones.
Whether this should apply in a modern medically hygienic situation is often questioned. The purpose of this in those days was partly because the blood was seen as ‘unclean’ because of what it indicated and probably partly because of medical dangers and dangers of infection. To lie with her in her blood was to treat ‘life’ and ‘death’, and the woman herself, casually, and to deliberately come in contact with the ‘unclean’ (see on Leviticus 15:0). With modern knowledge we do not see things in that way and should possibly rather be aware of any hygiene dangers. But whether it is seemly is certainly something that we should consider carefully.
“And you shall not lie carnally with your neighbour’s wife, to defile yourself with her.”
Adultery is once more specifically forbidden. This again is in order to have a complete picture of sexual relations that are totally forbidden. To lie with a neighbour’s wife is to be defiled, and as we know from elsewhere, deserving of death.
“And you shall not give any of your seed to make them pass through the fire to Molech, neither shall you profane the name of your God. I am Yahweh.”
This at first seems out of place. It describes the sacrificing of a child to the Ammonite god Molech by ‘passing it through the fire’, which seems to have nothing to do with sexual relations. But this might suggest that in fact such a sacrifice was seen as some kind of ‘marriage’ by which the child (or the sacrificer) was being given to Molech so that he could satisfy his infernal lust, being seen as ‘having sexual relations’ with the sacrificed child for the good of the sacrificer. If so, by doing this with their children they profaned the name of Yahweh. For they were giving to Molech what belonged to Him as the husband of His people (Isaiah 54:5; Hosea 2:7). This would add a new dimension to the thought of idolatry as ‘going a whoring’ or ‘playing the harlot’ (Exodus 34:15-16; Deuteronomy 31:16).
“You shall not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”
For men to have sexual relations with another man is immediately declared to be an abomination. Compare Leviticus 20:13 where both parties are to be put to death. Compare 1 Kings 14:24. The use of the term abomination demonstrates the strength of God’s feeling against it. It ranked with the creatures in the dirt (Leviticus 11:20) and those who engaged in the occult (Deuteronomy 18:12), but see also Leviticus 18:26 below. It should be noted that to the Old Testament writers and to God there was no such thing as a ‘homosexual’. Men were men. It was their deeds which were judged. This is not a question of whether ‘God loves homosexuals’. This is a question of what actions are wrong. The fact that this was still God’s attitude in the New Testament is confirmed by Paul in Romans 1:26-27. Practising homosexuality and practising adultery were both seen as equally abominable in the sight of God, however ‘natural’ they may be, and both were deserving of death. The paeodophile (who has been in mind above in relation to family relationships) could also claim that his feelings were ‘natural’.
The context of this command is to be noted. It is that of sexual expression. Thus the idea is that practising homosexuality itself is wrong, not that it has anything to do with idolatry. It is true that homosexuality was practised by the Canaanites in connection with their religion, but so were all the other ‘abominations’ described above, and it is the practise of these things in general which is condemned. There is no suggestion that the condemnation was limited to cult male and female prostitutes (Deuteronomy 23:17; 1 Kings 14:24), although they were equally condemned.
“And you shall not lie with any beast to defile yourself with them, neither shall any woman stand before a beast, to lie down with it. It is confusion.”
For a man or woman to have sexual relations with an animal is defiling. This is because it breaks down the barrier between man and beast. It is ‘confusion’ (compare Leviticus 20:12). It is punishable by death. Leviticus 20:15-16 indicates that the man or woman, along with the animal, must be put to death compare Exodus 22:19.
Bestiality was practised at various times among the Canaanites, the Egyptians, the Hittites and the Babylonians, among others. It illustrates why the nations were seen as wild beasts.
Summary Warning Of The Consequences Of Disobedience (Leviticus 18:24-30 ).
“Do not defile yourselves in any of these things, for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out from before you, and the land is defiled. That is why I am visiting its iniquity on it, and the land is vomiting (about to vomit) out her inhabitants.”
All that has been described is defiling. They are therefore to avoid doing such things. They should remember that it was this kind of behaviour that has caused God’s anger to come against the Canaanites in order to drive them from the land. The land is vomiting the Canaanites out because it has been made sick because of their behaviour. And it is because of that that God is now visiting His judgment on them for it. Their iniquity has now peaked (compare Genesis 15:16). His purpose is to cleanse the land of them.
“You therefore shall keep my statutes and my ordinances, and shall not do any of these abominations; neither the home-born, nor the stranger who sojourns among you, (for all these abominations have the men of the land done, who were before you, and the land is defiled); that the land vomit not you out also, when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.”
So Israel must now ‘keep’ (take note of, observe and carry out) His statutes and His ordinances, His laws and His cultic requirements. Neither they nor those whom they allow to dwell among them must engage in such abominations. They are replacing the Canaanites in Yahweh’s land in order to purify the land. If they do such things they too will be vomited out because they have defiled themselves and the land. For it is because of such abominations that the Canaanites are to be driven out in order to cleanse the land ready for their occupation.
We are reminded here how the Laodicean church made God vomit (Revelation 3:16). We should beware lest we too make God vomit through our disobedience and cold-heartedness.
“For whoever shall do any of these abominations, even the people that do them shall be cut off from among their people.”
Therefore any who behave in any of these ways are to be cut off from among the people. The point is that they must be removed from among God’s covenant people and from the land. It may be that God allowed the people to do the ‘cutting off’ in whatever way they wished, by death or exile (as the Canaanites could be either killed or driven out), or that He intended to do it Himself.
“Therefore shall you keep my charge, that you do not practise any of these abominable customs, which were practised before you, and that you do not defile yourselves in them. I am Yahweh your God.”
So they are to keep God’s charge, obey His will, and are not to practise any of the abominable things practised by the Canaanites. Such things are defiling, and they must remember with Whom they have to do. He is Yahweh, the Holy One, their God Who has spoken all these things and is there to ensure that they fulfil them (Yahweh - ‘the One Who is there’).
It need hardly be said that it is also incumbent on us to ensure that we too avoid such ‘abominations’.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Leviticus 18". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany