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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 20

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary


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 20 Punishment On The Transgressors.

Having been faced with the covenant requirements of Yahweh thought is now given to the punishment for disobedience to His demands. In this chapter various regulations from previous chapters are listed and the judgment to come on them is now emphasised. The principle is that in the end all sin will bring us into judgment.

Verse 1

Leviticus 20:1

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying,’

It is again stressed that these are God’s word, given to Moses. They possibly indicate another separate revelation.

Verses 2-6

Child Sacrifice To Molech And Involvement In The Occult Is Forbidden To All In The Land (Leviticus 20:2-6 ).

Leviticus 20:2-3

“Moreover, you shall say to the children of Israel, Whoever he be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel, who gives of his seed to Molech, he shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones. I also will set my face against that man, and will cut him off from among his people; because he has given of his seed to Molech, to defile my sanctuary, and to profane my holy name.”

The horror of what Molech was comes out in the constant mention of him. He was the god of Ammon, but he demanded child sacrifice, and was clearly fairly widely worshipped in Canaan in a day when it was considered that the greater the sacrifice the greater the benefit received. His name was probably Melech (King) but the writers changed the vowels to the vowels used on bosheth (shame) in order to indicate their view of him.

Anyone, whether Israelite or resident alien, who encouraged the worship of Molech or gave to him their ‘seed’ was to be put to death without question. The ‘people of the land’ were to stone such a person with stones (see Deuteronomy 13:10; Deuteronomy 21:21). He had defiled ‘the land’. It was to be a people’s execution for the removal of evil from among them. The thought is probably that the execution should be carried out immediately on one who was an isolated case, and discovered in the act. The worship of Molech was to be allowed nowhere in the land by anyone. Stoning with stones was later especially the punishment for blasphemy, carried out by the people (Leviticus 20:27; Leviticus 24:23; Numbers 14:10; Numbers 15:35-36; Deuteronomy 8:9; Deuteronomy 13:10; Deuteronomy 17:5; Deuteronomy 21:21; Deuteronomy 22:21; Deuteronomy 22:24; Joshua 7:25; 1 Kings 12:18), and could be carried out immediately (compare Stephen - Acts 7:0).

Moreover God Himself would set His face against that man and cut him off from among his people, for by giving his seed to Molech he had defiled Yahweh’s Sanctuary, and profaned His holy name. So the people had to act to maintain the purity of the land, God Himself would act to maintain the purity of the Sanctuary.

The ‘people of the land’. Some see this as a technical description of a group of property owning aristocrats (compare 2 Kings 25:19), others as signifying the whole people acting as one (compare Genesis 42:6). In Genesis it means the indigenous population (Genesis 23:7; Genesis 23:12-13), but not so here. In Exodus 5:5 it refers to a section of the common people in a particular place, which may well be its meaning here.

Leviticus 20:4-5

“And if the people of the land do at all hide their eyes from that man, when he gives of his seed to Molech, and do not put him to death, then I will set my face against that man, and against his family, and will cut him off, and all that play the harlot after him, to play the harlot with Molech, from among their people.”

But if the people of the land deliberately ‘hide their eyes’ and refrain from doing their duty and the worship becomes more prevalent, then this case is so bad that God Himself will step in to intervene. He will set His face against the man, his family, who will undoubtedly be involved with him in it, and with all others involved in the worship. They will all be cut off. This is because they are ‘playing the harlot’. They are looking to Molech rather than to their ‘husband’ Yahweh.

It is interesting that at this stage Molech is seen as the great enemy they will face in the land. This may be because he was particularly objectionable, or because at this stage they were close to Moab and Ammon where his worship was prevalent.

Leviticus 20:6

“And the person who turns to those who have familiar spirits, and to the wizards, to play the harlot after them, I will even set my face against that person, and will cut him off from among his people.”

And the same is to apply to the occult. Those who look to familiar spirits or to seekers after the dead, which is again described as ‘playing the harlot’ and being unfaithful to Yahweh, will discover that Yahweh sets His face against them and cuts them off from among the people. They will no longer be His. But we also have here again the contrast between life and death, what was ‘clean’ and what was ‘unclean’.

This too would have had special significance if it came at the time when Balaam had been called on to ‘fight’ against Israel (Numbers 22-24).

Verses 7-8

Israel Are To Be Sanctified And Obedient (Leviticus 20:7-8 ).

Israel are to sanctify themselves to being holy (Leviticus 20:7) and must be obedient because Yahweh is santifying them (Leviticus 20:8).

Leviticus 20:7

“Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be you holy; for I am Yahweh your God.”

So they are rather to set themselves apart totally to Yahweh, and be holy (set apart in what they were as uniquely like Him) as He is holy, by walking in His revealed ways. For He is Yahweh their covenant God. They are to look to none other but Him, and to serve Him only.

Leviticus 20:8

“And you shall keep my statutes, and do them: I am Yahweh who sanctifies you.”

And because He is the One Who is continually sanctifying them as His people, making them holy, caring for them, watching over them, shepherding them, they are to keep in their hearts, and do, His statutes, all that He has laid down for them to do. We also may treasure His word, but the question is, do we ‘do’ it? See Matthew 21:30. To hear is good, but to obey is what is demanded. Some of those statutes are now outlined.

Verses 9-18

Crimes Which Deserve The Death Penalty (Leviticus 20:9-18 ).

Leviticus 20:9

“For every one who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother. His blood shall be on him.”

The first such crime is that of a man cursing his father or mother. This does not mean that he just swears about something they have done, or at them because they have annoyed or frustrated him. It refers rather to a man who seeks to put his father and mother under a specific curse. He calls on Yahweh to do the very opposite of what Yahweh has declared He will do. The man is not only dishonouring them, he is seeking to do them real harm, and dishonouring Yahweh.

The use of curses was widespread. A multitude of examples have been found in Egypt, and many could be bought and sold. The purpose of a curse was to use ‘occult’ means to do someone harm. It would especially appeal to the weak who had no other means of vengeance.

In a patriarchal society where the father figure was the supreme authority this would have been a deliberate attempt to undermine tribal authority, and even to take over power for himself. It was a blow at the family structure, and if successful could have undermined the society in which he lived. The one who attempts something like this must be put to death. Such a person with such aims to carry out in such an evil way cannot be allowed to live, because of the harm he will do in destabilising society. And he has brought his blood on his own head. There will be no guilt on any who put him to death. The guilt will be on him.

Leviticus 20:10

“And the man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, even he who commits adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”

The next crime is adultery, where a man takes his neighbour’s wife. In this case both he and the adulteress were to be put to death. Again it was a blow at the family which was the very basis of society.

Leviticus 20:11

“And the man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness. Both of them shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be on them.”

The third such crime was when a man lay with his father’s wife, that is, had sexual relations with her. Both he and she were to be put to death. For it would be as if he has publicly stripped his father naked. A man’s wife is one flesh with him (Genesis 2:24). To make her naked would be to make her husband naked. They have brought their blood on their own heads. Anyone who executes them is guiltless.

Leviticus 20:12

“And if a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall surely be put to death. They have wrought confusion. Their blood shall be on them.”

The same principle applied between a man and his daughter-in-law. If they had sexual relations, both were to be put to death. They would have mixed up the generations, causing ‘confusion’, (for the son could become brother to his wife’s son), and the man would have exposed his son to shame and ridicule. Again those who put them to death will bear no guilt. The guilt is on their own heads. In all these examples the destruction of family relationships is central.

Leviticus 20:13

“And if a man lies with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be on them.”

For a man to have sexual relations with another man is an abomination. No other relationship is always described specifically as an abomination in this way, so it is clearly particularly hateful to God. And being in the midst of a passage dealing with sexual matters this refers to any practising homosexual relationship, not just to cultic practise. It is saying that there is no such thing as a Christian practising homosexual. This has nothing to do with whether a man has homosexual tendencies, it is speaking of a deliberate giving way to those tendencies. Those who do so shall ‘surely be put to death’. Again they have brought their blood on their own heads.

Leviticus 20:14

“And if a man take a wife and her mother, it is sexual wickedness. They shall be burned with fire, both he and they, that there be no wickedness among you.”

Equally guilty would be a man who had sexual relations with both his wife and her mother. This would be sexual wickedness. They are all three to be burned with fire. The burning may indicate a death of particular shame as devoted to destruction (as Achan was - Joshua 7:0). Or perhaps the thought is that they deserve the same thing as happened to worshippers of Molech. They have shown themselves worthy only of Molech.

Leviticus 20:15

“And if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death, and you shall slay the beast.”

The same principle applies to a man who has sexual relations with a dumb animal. Both he and the beast must be put to death. But it is not quite as abhorrent as a man who beds mother and daughter for the punishment is less horrific.

Leviticus 20:16

“And if a woman approach any beast, and lie down with it, you shall kill the woman, and the beast. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be on them.”

A woman is no different. If she allows a beast to have sexual relations with her, both she and the beast must die. They shall surely be put to death. Their actions have brought their blood on themselves. There will be no bloodguilt for those who slay them. (The beast, if previously a clean one, is clearly not to be offered as a sacrifice).

Leviticus 20:17

“And if a man shall take his sister, his father’s daughter, or his mother’s daughter, and see her nakedness, and she see his nakedness, it is a shameful thing. And they shall be cut off in the sight of the children of their people. He has uncovered his sister’s nakedness. He shall bear his iniquity.”

No man shall have sexual relations with a sister or half-sister by blood. It is a shameful thing and means that they must be cut off ‘in the sight of the children of Israel’, presumably this indicates stoning. He must take the punishment for the evil he has done.

Leviticus 20:18

“And if a man shall lie with a woman having her sickness, and shall uncover her nakedness, he has made naked her fountain, and she has uncovered the fountain of her blood, and both of them shall be cut off from among their people.”

The one who deliberately lies with a woman during menstruation, while the blood is on her, shall be cut off from among the people, as shall also the woman, he because he has exposed her bleeding, she because she has uncovered her bleeding. Her bleeding is an uncleanness and related to death. It speaks of sin and death. It should be hidden and not exposed. To expose it is to deserve the death of which it speaks.

It is, however, possible that this does not refer to husband and wife, but to where a man forces a woman who is not his wife during her menstruation. By shaming her like this it is as if he had committed adultery.

These then (from Leviticus 20:2-18) are the major crimes which in God’s eyes are worthy of death. They are so evil that they override the concept of the sacredness of life. Those who do them have forfeited the right to life.

Verses 19-21

Lesser Penalties (Leviticus 20:19-21 ).

Three examples are now given of slightly lesser crimes, still forbidden but not punishable with death.

Leviticus 20:19

“And you shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister, nor of your father’s sister, for he has made naked his near kin. They shall bear their iniquity.”

Men must not have sexual relations with aunts or uncles of the blood whether in marriage or out of marriage. That will be to make naked their near kin, and that is displeasing to God. In that case they must receive whatever punishment the courts or God decide.

Leviticus 20:20

“And if a man shall lie with his uncle’s wife, he has uncovered his uncle’s nakedness. They shall bear their sin. They shall die childless.”

For a man to have sexual relations with his uncle’s wife is unseemly, for she is one flesh with his uncle. They are not to marry. This too may be judged by the courts, but they are also warned that they will go childless.

Leviticus 20:21

“And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is impurity. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They shall be childless.”

For a man to take his brother’s wife is impurity. It is unseemly. He will have uncovered his brother’s nakedness and exposed his brother to shame. The punishment will be childlessness. But this was not to stop him from raising up seed to his brother under a levirate marriage. That would be a different matter. The consummation was then probably more discreetly arranged.

Verses 22-27

Israel Are Inheriting A Land Flowing With Milk And Honey And Must Not Defile It But Must Be Holy To Yahweh (Leviticus 20:22-27 ).

Leviticus 20:22

“You shall therefore keep all my statutes, and all my ordinances, and do them; that the land, to which I bring you for you to dwell in it, does not vomit you out.”

So they must be careful to keep all God’s statutes and all His ordinances, and do them, obeying all regulations and all commands. Then once they have arrived in the land they will not be vomited out, as the nations in the land are about to be vomited out. Rather will they continue to dwell in it and prosper, which is God’s real purpose for them.

Leviticus 20:23

“And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation, which I cast out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I abhorred them.”

They are to be careful not to behave like the nations who are already there, whom God will drive out before them. They in fact did all these things that he has forbidden to Israel. That is why God hated them, that is, had an aversion towards them because of their sinfulness.

Leviticus 20:24

“But I have said to you, You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess it, a land flowing with milk and honey. I am Yahweh your God, who has separated you from the peoples.”

For God’s purpose for His people is that they might inherit the land and receive it as a gift from God, as their own possession. An inheritance is something freely given and undeserved. Thus He is giving it to them freely. It is a land flowing with milk and honey, having plenteous sustenance and sweetness. And He, Yahweh their God, has separated them from the peoples that they might be holy to Him and live in holiness in the land that He has cleansed. They are His and must reveal that they are His separated ones by the way that they live and the way they behave.

Leviticus 20:25

“You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean beast and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean, and you shall not make yourselves abominable by beast, or by bird, or by anything with which the ground teems, which I have separated from you as unclean.”

And one clear way in which they will do this is by only eating what is clean, as described in Leviticus 11:0. They may eat all that is clean and must avoid all that is unclean, especially that which lives in the ground. They must especially avoid all abominable things.

Leviticus 20:26

“And you shall be holy to me, for I, Yahweh, am holy, and have set you apart from the peoples, that you should be mine.”

So He re-emphasises, they must be holy because Yahweh, their God is holy. He has set them apart from all peoples, in order that they might be His, and live as he has directed both ritually and morally, and that they reveal Him in their lives. Then they will be His own separated off possession.

“Set you apart.” The verb is strong. ‘Severed.’ He has used His mighty arm to separate them from Egypt and from all who have come against them, and will also sever them from the Canaanites.

Leviticus 20:27

“A man also or a woman who has a familiar spirit, or who is a wizard, shall surely be put to death. They shall stone them with stones. Their blood shall be on them.”

And especially they must avoid anyone who has anything to do with the occult or with the dead. If they find among them any indulging in contact with familiar spirits or with the dead they are to stone them with stones. Their blood will be on their own heads. There will be no guilt on Israel. This constant stress on avoiding the occult must be seen as a strong condemnation of such practises as much today as then.

So does God stress the seriousness of those things concerning which He has charged His people, and warn us that we must take His commandments seriously.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Leviticus 20". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/leviticus-20.html. 2013.
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