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the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 18

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-30


Leviticus 18:1-30

CHAPTERS 18, 19, and 20, by a formal introduction {Leviticus 18:1-5} and a formal closing, {; Leviticus 20:22-26} are indicated as a distinct section, very commonly known by the name, "the Law of Holiness." As this phrase indicates, these chapters-unlike chapter 17, which as to its contents has a character intermediate between the ceremonial and moral law-consist substantially of moral prohibitions and commandments throughout. Of the three, the first two contain the prohibitions and precepts of the law; the third (chapter 20), the penal sanctions by which many of these were to be enforced.

The section opens (Leviticus 18:1-2) with Jehovah’s assertion of His absolute supremacy, and a reminder to Israel of the fact that He bad entered into covenant relations with them: "I am the Lord your God." With solemn emphasis the words are again repeated, Leviticus 18:4; and yet again in Leviticus 18:5: "I am the Lord." They would naturally call to mind the scene at Sinai, with its august and appalling grandeur, attesting amid earthquake and fire and tempest at once the being, power, and unapproachable holiness of Him who then and there, with those stupendous solemnities, in inexplicable condescension, took Israel into covenant with Himself, to be to Himself "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." There could be no question as to the right of the God thus revealed to impose law; no question as to the peculiar obligation upon Israel to keep His law; no question as to His intolerance of sin, and full power and determination, as the Holy One, to enforce whatever He commanded. All these thoughts-thoughts of eternal moment-would be called up in the mind of every devout Israelite, as he heard or read this preface to the law of holiness.

The prohibitions which we find in chapter 18 are not given as an exhaustive code of laws upon the subjects traversed, but rather deal with certain gross offences against the law of chastity, which, as we know from other sources, were horribly common at that time among the surrounding nations. To indulgence in these crimes, Israel, as the later history sadly shows, would be especially liable; so contagious are evil example and corrupt associations! Hence the general scope of the chapter is announced in this form (Leviticus 18:3): "After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do: neither shall ye walk in their statutes."

Instead of this, they were (Leviticus 18:4) to do God’s judgments, and keep His statutes, to walk in them, bearing in mind whose they were. And as a further motive it is added (Leviticus 18:5): "which if a man do, he shall live in them"; that is, as the Chaldee paraphrast, Onkelos, rightly interprets in the Targum, "with the life of eternity." Which far-reaching promise is sealed by the repetition, for the third time, of the words, "I am the Lord." That is enough; for what Jehovah promises, that shall certainly be!

The law begins (Leviticus 18:6) with a general statement of the principle which underlies all particular prohibitions of incest: "None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness"; and then, for the fourth time, are iterated the words, "I am the Lord." The prohibitions which follow require little special explanation. As just remarked, they are directed in particular to those breaches of the law of chastity which were most common with the Egyptians, from the midst of whom Israel had come; and with the Canaanites, to whose land they were going. This explains, for instance, the fulness of detail in the prohibition of incestuous union with a sister or half-sister (Leviticus 18:9, Leviticus 18:11), -an iniquity very common in Egypt, having the sanction of royal custom from the days of the Pharaohs down to the time of the Ptolemies. The unnatural alliance of a man with his mother prohibited in Leviticus 18:8, of which Paul declared {; 1 Corinthians 5:1} that in his day it did not exist among the Gentiles, was yet the distinguishing infamy of the Medes and Persians for many centuries. Union with an aunt, by blood or by marriage, prohibited in Leviticus 18:12-14, -a connection less gross, and less severely to be punished than the preceding, - seems to have been permitted even among the Israelites themselves while in Egypt, as is plain from the case of Amram and Jochebed. {; Exodus 6:20} To the law forbidding connection with a brother’s wife (Leviticus 18:16), the later Deuteronomic law, {; Deuteronomy 25:5-10} made an exception, permitting that a man might marry the widow of his deceased brother, when the latter had died without children, and "raise up seed unto his brother." In this, however, the law but sanctioned a custom which-as we learn from the case of Onan {Genesis 38:1-30} -had been observed long before the days of Moses, both by the Hebrews and other ancient nations, and, indeed, even limited and restricted its application; with good reason providing for exemption of the surviving brother from this duty, in cases where for any reason it might be repugnant or impracticable.

The case of a connection with both a woman and her daughter or granddaughter is next mentioned (Leviticus 18:17); and, with special emphasis, is declared to be "wickedness," or "enormity."

The prohibition (Leviticus 18:18) of marriage with a sister-in-law, as is well known, has been, and still is, the occasion of much controversy, into which it is not necessary here to enter at length. But, whatever may be thought for other reasons as to the lawfulness of such a union, it truly seems quite singular that this verse should ever have been cited as prohibiting such an alliance. No words could well be more explicit than those which we have here, in limiting the application of the prohibition to the lifetime of the wife: "Thou shalt not take a woman to her sister, to be a rival to her, to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her lifetime" (R.V). The law therefore does not touch the question for which it is so often cited, but was evidently only intended as a restriction on prevalent polygamy. Polygamy is ever likely to produce jealousies and heart burnings; but it is plain that this phase of the evil would reach its most extreme and odious expression when the new and rival wife was a sister to the one already married; when it would practically annul sisterly love, and give rise to such painful and peculiarly humiliating dissensions as we read of between the sisters Leah and Rachel. The sense of the passage is so plain, that we are told that this interpretation "stood its ground unchallenged from the third century B.C. to the middle of the sixteenth century A.D." Whatever opinion any may hold therefore as to the expediency, upon other grounds, of this much debated alliance, this passage, certainly, cannot be fairly cited as forbidding it; but is far more naturally understood as by natural implication permitting the union, after the decease of the first wife. The laws concerning incest therefore terminate with Leviticus 18:17; and Leviticus 18:18, according to this interpretation, must be regarded as a restriction upon polygamous connections, as Leviticus 18:19 is upon the rights of marriage.

It seems somewhat surprising that the question should have been raised, even theoretically, whether the Mosaic law, as regards the degrees of affinity prohibited in marriage, is of permanent authority. The reasons for these prohibitions, wherever given, are as valid now as then; for the simple reason that they are grounded fundamentally in a matter of fact, -namely, the nature of the relation between husband and wife, whereby they become "one flesh," implied in such phraseology as we find in Leviticus 18:16; and also the relation of blood between members of the same family, as in Leviticus 18:10, etc. Happily, however, whatever theory any may have held, the Church in all ages has practically recognised every one of these prohibitions, as binding on all persons; and has rather been inclined to err, if at all, by extending, through inference and analogy, the prohibited degrees even beyond the Mosaic code. So much, however, by way of guarding against excess in such inferential extensions of the law, we must certainly say: according to the law itself, as further applied in Leviticus 21:1-4, and limited in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, relationship by marriage is not to be regarded as precisely equivalent in degree of affinity to relationship by blood. We cannot, for instance, conceive that, under any circumstances, the prohibition of the marriage of brothers and sisters should have had any exception; and yet, as we have seen, the marriage between brother and sister-in-law is explicitly authorised, in the case of the levirate marriage, and by implication allowed in other cases, by the language of Leviticus 18:18 of this chapter.

But in these days, when there is such a manifest inclination in Christendom, as especially in the United States and in France, to ignore the law of God in regard to marriage and divorce, and regulate these instead by a majority vote, it assuredly becomes peculiarly imperative that, as Christians, we exercise a holy jealousy for the honour of God and the sanctity of the family, and ever refuse to allow a majority vote any authority in these matters, where it contravenes the law of God. While we must observe caution that in these things we lay no burden on the conscience of any, which God has not first placed there, we must insist-all the more strenuously because of the universal tendency to license-upon the strict observance of all that is either explicitly taught or by necessary implication involved in the teachings of God’s Word upon this question. Nothing more fundamentally concerns the well being of society than the relation of the man and the woman in the constitution of the family; and while, unfortunately, in our modern democratic communities, the Church may not be able always to control and determine the civil law in these matters, she can at least utterly refuse any compromise where the civil law ignores what God has spoken; and with unwavering firmness deny her sanction, in any way, to any connection between a man and a woman which is not according, to the revealed will of God, as set before us in this most holy, good, and beneficent law.

The chapter before us casts a light upon the moral condition of the most cultivated heathen peoples in those days, among whom many of the grossest of these incestuous connections, as already remarked, were quite common, even among those of the highest station. There are many in our day more or less affected with the present fashion of admiration for the ancient (and modern) heathenisms, who would do well to heed this light, that their blind enthusiasm might thereby be somewhat tempered.

On the other hand, these laws show us, in a very striking contrast, the estimate which God puts upon the maintenance of holiness, purity, and chastity between man and woman; and His very jealous regard for the sanctity of the family in all its various relations. Even in the Old Testament we have hints of a reason for this, deeper than mere expediency, -hints which receive a definite form in the clearer teaching of the New Testament, which tells us that in the Divine plan it is ordained that in these earthly relations man shall be the shadow and image of God. If, as the Apostle tells, {Ephesians 3:15, R.V} "every family in heaven and on earth" is named from the Father; and if, as he again teaches, {; Ephesians 5:29-32} the relation of husband and wife is intended to be an earthly type and symbol of the relation between the Lord Jesus Christ and His Church, which is His Bride, -then we cannot wonder at the exceedingly strong emphasis which marks these prohibitions. Everything must be excluded which would be incompatible with this holy ideal of God for man; that not only in the constitution of his person, but in these sacred relations which belong to his very nature, as created male and female, he should be the image of the invisible God.

Thus, he who is a father is ever to bear in mind that in his fatherhood he is appointed to shadow forth the ineffable mystery of the eternal relation of the only-begotten and most holy Son to this everlasting Father. As husband, the man is to remember that since he who is joined to his wife becomes with her "one flesh," therefore this union becomes, in the Divine ordination, a type and pattern of the yet more mysterious union of life between the Son of God and the Church, which is His Bride. As brothers and sisters, again, the children of God are to remember that brotherly love, in its purity and unselfish devotion, is intended of God to be a living illustration of the love of Him who has been made of God to be "the firstborn among many brethren". {Romans 8:29} And thus, with the family life pervaded through and through by these ideas, will license and impurity be made impossible, and, as happily now in many a Christian home, it will appear that the family, no less truly than the Church, is appointed of God to be a sanctuary of purity in a world impure and corrupt by wicked works, and, no less really than the Church, to be an effective means of Divine grace, and of preparation for the eternal life of the heavenly kingdom, when all of God’s "many sons" shall have been brought to glory, the "many brethren" of the First Begotten, to abide with Him in the Father’s house forever and ever.

After the prohibition of adultery in Leviticus 18:20, we have what at first seems like a very abrupt introduction of a totally different subject; for Leviticus 18:21 refers, not to the seventh, but to the second, and, therewith also, to the sixth commandment. It reads: "Thou shalt not give any of thy seed to make them pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God."

But the connection of thought is found in the historical relation of the licentious practices prohibited in the preceding verses to idolatry, of which this Molech worship is named as one of the most hideous manifestations. Some, indeed, have supposed that this frequently recurring phrase does not designate an actual sacrifice of the children, but only their consecration to Molech by some kind of fire baptism. But certainly such passages as 2 Kings 17:31 Jeremiah 7:31; Jeremiah 19:5, distinctly require us to understand an actual offering of the children as "burnt offerings." They were not indeed burnt alive, as a late and untrustworthy tradition has it, but were first slain, as in the case of all burnt sacrifices, and then burnt. The unnatural cruelty of the sacrifice, even as thus made, was such, that both here and in Leviticus 20:3 it is described as in a special sense a "profaning" of God’s holy name, -a profanation, in that it represented Him, the Lord of love and fatherly mercy, as requiring such a cruel and unnatural sacrifice of parental love, in the immolation of innocent children.

The inconceivably unnatural crimes prohibited in Leviticus 18:22-23 were in like manner essentially connected with idolatrous worship: the former with the worship of Astarte or Ashtoreth; the latter with the worship of the he-goat at Mendes in Egypt, as the symbol of the generative power in nature. What a hideous perversion of the moral sense was involved in these crimes, as thus connected with idolatrous worship, is illustrated strikingly by the fact that men and women, thus prostituted to the service of false gods, were designated by the terms qadesh and qadeshah, " sacred," "holy"! No wonder that the sacred writer brands these horrible crimes as, in a peculiar and almost solitary sense, "abomination," "confusion."

In these days of ours, when it has become the fashion among a certain class of cultured writers-who would still, in many instances, apparently desire to be called Christian-to act as the apologist of idolatrous, and, according to Holy Scripture, false religions, the mention of these crimes in this connection may well remind the reader of what such seem to forget, as they certainly ignore; namely, that in all ages, in the modern heathenism no less than in the ancient, idolatry and gross licentiousness ever go hand in hand. Still, today, even in Her Majesty’s Indian Empire, is the most horrible licentiousness practised as an office of religious worship. Nor are such revolting perversions of the moral sense confined to the "Maharajas" of the temples in Western India, who figured in certain trials in Bombay a few years ago; for even the modern "reformed" Hindooism, from which some hope so much, has not always been able to shake itself free from the pollution of these things, as witness the argument conducted in recent numbers of the Arya Patrika of Lahore, to justify the infamous custom known as Niyoga, practised to this day in India, e.g., by the Panday Brahmans of Allahabad; -a practice which is sufficiently described as being adultery arranged for, under certain conditions, by a wife or husband, the one for the other. One would fain charitably hope, if possible, that our modern apologists for Oriental idolatries are unaccountably ignorant of what all history should have taught them as to the inseparable connection between idolatry and licentiousness. Both Egypt and Canaan, in the olden time, -as this chapter with all contemporaneous history teaches, -and also India in modern times, read us a very awful lesson on this subject. Not only have these idolatries led too often to gross licentiousness of life, but in their full development they have, again and again, in audacious and blasphemous profanation of the most holy God, and defiance even of the natural conscience, given to the most horrible excesses of unbridled lust the supreme sanction of declaring them to be religious obligations. Assuredly, in God’s sight, it cannot be a trifling thing for any man, even through ignorance, to extol, or even apologise for, religions with which such enormities are both logically and historically connected. And so, in these stern prohibitions, and their heavy penal sanctions, we may find a profitable lesson for even the cultivated intellect of the nineteenth century!

The chapter closes with reiterated charges against indulgence in any of these abominations. Israel is told (Leviticus 18:25, Leviticus 18:28) that it was because the Canaanites practised these enormities that God was about to scourge them out of their land; -a judicial reason which, one would think, should have some weight with those whose sympathies are so drawn out with commiseration for the Canaanites, that they find it impossible to believe that it can be true, as we are told in the Pentateuch, that God ordered their extermination. Rather, in the light of the facts, would we raise the opposite question: whether, if God indeed be a holy and righteous Governor among the nations, He could do anything else either in justice toward the Canaanites, or in mercy toward those whom their horrible example would certainly in like manner corrupt, than, in one way or another, effect the extermination of such a people?

Israel is then solemnly warned (Leviticus 18:28) that if they, notwithstanding, shall practise these crimes, God will not spare them any more than He spared the Canaanites. No covenant of His with them shall hinder the land from spueing them out in like manner. And though the nation, as a whole, give not itself to these things, each individual is warned (Leviticus 18:29), "Whosoever shall commit any of these abominations, even the souls that do them shall be cut off from among their people"; that is, shall be outlawed and shut out from all participation in covenant mercies. And therewith this part of the law of holiness closes, with those pregnant words, repeated now in this chapter for the fifth time: "I am the Lord (Heb. Jehovah) your God!"

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Leviticus 18". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/leviticus-18.html.
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