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Tuesday, June 18th, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 18

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary



All nations which reject God, the fountain of spiritual joy, turn with eagerness to the fetid pools of sensual pleasures to satisfy their thirsty souls. The sexual nature, one of the chief sources of such pleasures, is stimulated to the highest degree, and often to an activity unnatural and bestial. This is the striking feature of paganism, however advanced in civilization, as in Egypt. The era of the greatest intellectual splendour in Greece, when Athens sat queen of the arts and Corinth queen of commerce, was the period of the most widespread licentiousness. See Romans 1:24-32. The Hebrews, chosen as they were to be the people of the holy God, needed special safeguards against this degrading form of sin. This chapter prohibits the vices of Egypt and Canaan, (1-5,) incestuous marriages, (6-18,) and unlawful lusts. Leviticus 18:19-30.

Verse 2


2. I am the Lord In giving commandments, the authority of the Lawgiver is made prominent. See Leviticus 11:44, note.

Verse 3

3. After the doings of… Egypt The Israelites appear during the oppression, for the most part, to have adopted the religion of their masters, (Joshua 24:14; Ezekiel 20:7-8,) and, of course, were morally defiled. Ashtoreth, the oriental Venus, was worshipped in Memphis with all the pollutions attendant upon such a cultus, as is shown by a tablet recently discovered. The sculptures and paintings of the tombs give a very full insight into the domestic life of the ancient Egyptians, as exhibited by Sir G. Wilkinson. Licentious and naked festal dances are conspicuous in the stony record, exactly corroborating Exodus 32:25. Concubines, or trains of inferior wives, also appear on the tablets. The gross and unnatural vices of the Egyptians are hinted at in this chapter.

After the doings of… Canaan Outside of the Old Testament we have no clew to the manners or customs of this people; but within, the sacred annals are abundant proofs of the moral abominations by which the land was defiled. Leviticus 20:23; Deuteronomy 12:30-31.

Whither I bring you These words point to the sojourn in the wilderness prior to the occupation of Canaan; and they are an insuperable objection to the theory that the Levitical legislation was an invention of crafty men centuries after Moses died.

Ordinances The extent and pervasiveness of Canaanitish depravity may be inferred from the fact that their very laws, in which moral purity lingers longest, had been changed from guardians of virtue to patrons of vice.

Verse 4

4. Judgments Judicial utterances or legal precepts.

Verse 5

5. If a man do, he shall live This important sentence contains the whole doctrine of justification by works. It is rendered more correctly and more emphatically in Ezekiel 20:11; Ezekiel 20:13; Ezekiel 20:21, “he shall even live.” “The precepts of the law,” says Aquinas, “are not concerning things to be believed, but concerning things to be done.” Nevertheless, acceptable doing implies faith, while evangelical believing includes the subsequent doing of the will of God as the fruit of faith. As regards the life here promised, the Jewish interpreters themselves included in it more than mere earthly felicity in Canaan, (Deuteronomy 30:20,) and extended their view to a better life hereafter. The Palestine Targum renders it, “he shall live in them in the life of eternity;” that of Onkelos, “an everlasting life.” Says Tholuck, “ Life seems to be a general promise, and length of days a particular species of felicity. In the New Testament this idea (of life) is always exalted into that of life blessed and eternal. See Matthew 7:14; Matthew 18:8-9; Luke 10:28.” Hence this is a plain intimation of the doctrine of a future life in the Pentateuch, which is denied by some superficial readers. St. Paul found “to be unto death” “the commandment which was ordained to life,” just as the murderer on the scaffold finds that the law against murder, designed to protect life, when transgressed, is “unto death.” The design and normal tendency of the law is life; but through man’s imperfection and disobedience the actual result is death. See Galatians 3:21, note, and John 11:25, note.

In them He shall live in the strength of, or by means of, these laws, in the faithful keeping of which is his fountain of life. But “he is a debtor to do the whole law.” Failure to do this renders “all the world guilty before God.”

Verse 6

6. Near of kin Hebrew, the flesh of his flesh, or his blood kindred. In Leviticus 25:49, the same words are equivalent to “family,” and they are applicable to marriage relationship, since in Leviticus 18:17-18 they include the near blood relations of the wife.

Uncover… nakedness This is the customary expression in the Pentateuch for the cohabitation of persons married or unmarried, though the former are chiefly referred to. This prohibition is addressed to males; the exceptions in Leviticus 18:7; Leviticus 18:14 are only apparent, not real.

Verses 6-18


These fall into three classes: 1.) blood-relationships proper, 7-13; 2.) the wives of blood-relations, 14-16; 3.) the blood relations of the wife. This prohibition is not grounded on the eternal principles of absolute morality, since the command to “multiply and replenish the earth” must have involved the marriage of brothers and sisters in the family of Adam, and since, also, Abraham married his half sister, Jacob two sisters at a time, Amram his aunt Jochebed, and Judah married Tamar, the widow of his own son, with no indication of the divine disapproval; and by the commandment of the Levitical law the brother must marry the wife of his deceased childless brother. Still it must be confessed that the horror naturalis, or revulsion of feeling at the thought of marrying one’s mother or daughter is very closely allied to the abhorrence of the violation of the seventh commandment.

Verse 7

7. Nakedness of thy father Here the “father” is grammatically the possessor. It is the wife’s nakedness, as the Hebrew properly rendered shows, where the “or” is rendered “even;” thus “the nakedness of thy father, even the nakedness of thy mother.” Since the husband and wife are one flesh, what is predicated of the wife may be predicated of him. The last clause of the verse implies that the command is directed only to a son, and refers only to his mother.

Verse 8

8. Father’s wife His stepmother is especially intended.

Verse 9

9. Thy sister The half-sister is here described; born at home, or born abroad This has generally been understood as equivalent to “in or out of wedlock,” that is, the daughter of the father’s former wife or concubine; or it may amplify the preceding words, and signify one born to either parent in a former marriage. The Athenians were allowed to marry half-sisters by the father’s side; the Spartans married half-sisters by the same mother.

Verse 11

11. Father’s wife’s daughter Knobel finds this distinction between this and Leviticus 18:9, namely, that the words “father’s wife” include the mother as well as the stepmother, and thus specifically state the full sister. Others find no prohibition of the marriage of a full sister, as there is none of the marriage of a daughter, simply because such unions, like parricide, were regarded as crimes so unnatural that they never could occur. But the Assyrians, and especially the Egyptians, against whose customs Israel was warned in Leviticus 18:3, married full sisters. This fact sustains Knobel.

Verse 16

16. Brother’s wife This is supposed to refer either to a brother’s widow who has children, or to a woman put away from the brother by divorce, whose bill of divorcement permitted her to “go and be another man’s wife.” Deuteronomy 24:1-2. Keil advocates the first, and Haley the second theory.

Verse 17

17. A woman and her daughter This verse prohibits the successive marriage of a man with a woman and her daughter or granddaughter on account of their near blood relationship.

Wickedness This word zimmah is elsewhere generally translated lewdness, and signifies a gross violation of decency or principle.

Verse 18

18. A wife to her sister This is a much disputed verse in the debate about marriage with a deceased wife’s sister. Our English version is supported by a whole chain of authorities of the first rank. Some contend for the marginal translation, “one wife to another,” and argue that this prohibition is directed against polygamy. The Seventy render it γυναικα επ ’ αδελφη , αυτης , a wife in addition to her sister; and the Vulgate, sororem uxoris tuae, a sister of thy wife. But it is objected that the same Hebrew expression in seven other places can have only the translation “one to another.” See Exodus 26:3; Exodus 26:5-6; Exodus 26:17; Ezekiel 1:9; Ezekiel 1:23; Ezekiel 3:13. The fact that all these have a preceding noun in the plural, which is lacking in this verse, is fatal to the marginal rendering, as well as the violent change in the meaning of “wife” and “sister” from their meaning in the previous verses. The Targums sustain our English version. Moreover, polygamy was recognised, though not expressly approved, by the Mosaic law, (Exodus 21:10; Deuteronomy 21:15,) and therefore cannot be forbidden in this passage, especially in view of the fact that in Leviticus 18:29 the death penalty is denounced against the abominations specified in this chapter. If polygamy is prohibited in this passage, we have the following legislative contradiction and absurdity: 1.) Polygamy is pronounced an abomination which must be punished by death; and 2.) A law is enacted conserving the rights of the first wife after the marriage of the second, and another statute entitling the children of the hated wife to inherit with those of the favourite. Thus the second law supposes that the man put to death under the first law has begotten a family of children, and in advanced age is sitting down to make his will. As there can be no such collision of laws emanating from the same legislator, we are constrained to reject the marginal rendering which makes this verse a prohibition of polygamy, and to say that it forbids the simultaneous marriage of two sisters. The jealousies and rivalries incident to the polygamous household arising between sisters tenderly bound by the ties of blood when thus thrown into an unnatural and hostile attitude toward each other, turning the gentle amenities of domestic life into fiendish hate, the merciful lawgiver would prevent by this law.

To vex her This little word vex R.V., “to be a rival to” speaks volumes concerning the bickering broils and heart burnings of polygamy, especially when intensified by the soured sweetness of sisterhood. No hate is so bitter as that of angered love. In 1 Samuel 1:6, Peninnah is called “the adversary,” or vexer, of devout Hannah, provoking her” year by year;” therefore she wept and did not eat. The households of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob exhibit the same bellum domesticum, the brand of the divine disapproval of the attempt to improve the paradisaical perfection of monogamic marriage.

In her life This means as long as she lives. The inference that marriage with a sister after the death of the first wife is legal would seem to be conclusive, as the Talmudists taught. But the Karaites and others denounced it as an abomination. “It is directly against the scope of all these laws,” says Selden, “which prohibit men to marry at all with such persons as are here mentioned, either in their wives’ lifetime or after. And there being a prohibition (Leviticus 18:16) to marry a brother’s wife, it is unreasonable to think Moses gave them leave to marry their wife’s sister. These words, therefore, ‘in her life,’ are to be referred, not to the first words, ‘neither shalt thou take,’ but to the next, ‘to vex her,’ as long as she lives.” On the contrary, it is stoutly alleged that this prohibition refers expressly only to the time when the wife is living, as in the case of Jacob, and that all the arguments brought to prove that marriage with the sister of a dead wife is, according to Mosaism, a sin, and the analogies on which this conclusion is based, are quite worthless. In the year 1882 Lord Dalhousie asked the opinions of the professors of Hebrew and of Greek in all the universities of Europe, their attention being specially directed to the Levitical law and to Ephesians 5:31. Those of one hundred professors were received. One, a professor of Greek, declines to express an opinion on what he regards as a question of Hebrew, and another is ambiguous, while the late Dr. Pusey alone states that the marriage of a man with the sister of his deceased wife is forbidden by Leviticus chap. 18. All the other professors declare either that such a marriage is not forbidden by the portions of the Bible referred to, or that there is no prohibition of it either in the Old or the New Testament. See Concluding Note.

Verse 19


19. Thou shalt not approach This verse forbids contracting the ceremonial impurity specified in Leviticus 15:19; Leviticus 15:25. See notes. In Leviticus 20:18, the penalty of death is denounced against both parties to the offence. See note.

Verse 20

20. Thy neighbour’s wife This is a repetition of the seventh commandment, in another form, for the purpose of emphasis and of completing the enumeration of abominations prevalent in Egypt and Canaan. This verse prohibits not only adultery proper, or double adultery, as some laws define this crime, in two married persons, (see Exodus 20:14, note,) but also one species of single adultery.

Defile thyself This is moral and ceremonial pollution.

Verse 21

21. Seed pass through the fire Those Semitic nations that burned their children upon the funeral pyre, when they would spare their lives let them pass through the fire. The word fire is supplied from Deuteronomy 18:10. This prohibits the burning of children in honour of Molech, or Moloch, the fire-god, called in Deuteronomy 12:31, simply elohim, gods. He was a Canaanitish god, easily identified by the philologist with Melkarth, Malcham, Baal-melech, and other such names as appear in Carthagenian and Phenician mythology. He was propitiated by the sacrifice of children. The service of this fire-god had spread in the lands bounding Egypt on the east. We infer from this rigid prohibition that this cultus had even at this time penetrated into the camp of Israel. Since idolatry is regarded as whoredom, it is appropriately mentioned in this connexion. See chap. xvii, note. Properly speaking, this worship symbolized the purification of the soul after destroying its earthly dross, and consequently its immortality. To sustain this horrid and unnatural practice the idolatrous Hebrews quoted Numbers 31:23. The children were first slain (Ezekiel 16:20-21) and then burned on a mound, built up in the valley of Hinnom, called, in Jeremiah 19:5, “the high places of Baal,” with whom Moloch is once identified. He is commonly identified with the Moabitish Chemosh. The name Moloch, written without the points, is the same as Melek, king, and is translated by the Seventy as a common noun, αρχων . This confusion of terms is supposed to cover up a widespread worship of this grim divinity. Thus Isaiah 30:33 may be read, “For Tophet is ordained of old, yea, for Moloch it is prepared.” Most of the Jewish interpreters have endeavoured to soften this worship by saying that the children were not burned, but made to pass between two burning pyres, as a purifying rite. But the slaughter of the innocents is evident from 2 Chronicles 28:3; Psalms 106:37-38; Jeremiah 7:31. Kimchi describes the image of Moloch as set within seven chapels, the outer ones being opened to those who brought annual sacrifices, but the inner one, enshrining the idol, was opened only to him who offered his son. This may explain the tabernacle of Moloch in Acts 7:43. According to Diodorus Siculus the hands of the image of the Carthagenian Kronos stretched forth like a man about to receive something of his neighbour. When it was heated with fire the priests took the babe and put it into the hands of their Moloch, and the babe gave up the ghost, while the priests drowned its screams by beating drums. The Israelite who became a votary of Moloch was to be stoned. Leviticus 20:3.

Neither… profane the name of thy God This forbids the irreverent use of the divine name. The Hebrews understood it as prohibiting the pronunciation of Jehovah, the sacred tetragrammaton, יהוה , the correct pronunciation of which was lost in consequence. See Leviticus 24:10-14, notes.

Verse 22

22. Lie with mankind, as with womankind The whole heathen world, according to St. Paul, (Romans 1:27, note,) corroborated by the ancient historians and all modern travellers, was more or less addicted to the disgusting vice of paederastia, or boy love, a crime against nature, “male on male performing the unseemliness,” which Christianity has banished. To this loathsome form of sensuality Roman poets once unblushingly sung praises. Read Virgil’s Second Eclogue.

Abomination The Hebrew word occurs one hundred and sixteen times, and always expresses the loathsome and disgusting aspects of crimes and criminals.

Verse 23

23. With any beast Let him who denies the inherent depravity of man study this prohibition. This prohibition implies the sacredness and dignity of human nature, inasmuch as the abomination was punished by death. In Egypt women publicly submitted themselves to goats. Nor has unregenerate nature entirely outgrown its dreadful downward tendency. In modern Egypt men lie even with female crocodiles. ( Sonnini, R. 11, p. 330.) The heathen generally have no moral abhorrence for this crime. The Revised Statutes of Massachusetts, a foremost Christian State, contains this law: “Whoever commits the abominable and detestable crime against nature, either with mankind or with any beast, shall be punished in the State prison not exceeding twenty years.”

Confusion Hebrew tebhel, pollution or profanation.

Verse 25

25. The land itself Canaan.

Vomiteth By a striking personification the very ground on which these abominations are enacted, like the stomach of a sick man, figuratively ejects the perpetrators of these filthy deeds.

Verse 26

26. The stranger in all his moral conduct must be coerced into obedience. In his speculative religious beliefs he was left free. This was three thousand years before Roger Williams. In Deuteronomy 14:21 the alien was left more at liberty in eating, and the Hebrew in selling to him the flesh of the animal that died of itself.

Verse 28

28. Spew not you out also The impartial justice of the moral government of Jehovah here flashes out in prophetic warning to the nation called to be the peculiar people of God. Like sins will be invariably followed by like punishments. See Joshua 6:21, note. The fact that this passage assumes the occupation of the land of Canaan by Israel does not argue that it is a supplementary remark of a writer after that event, as the “higher criticism” avers, for the words are the words of Jehovah directing Moses what he is to say to the children of Israel.


(1.) That portion of the Levitical law which prohibits incestuous marriages is either still in force or we have no divine legislation on this important subject. All Christian nations, by incorporating into their laws this prohibitory code, declare that it has never been repealed. The inference that it is now a law demanding universal obedience is strongly confirmed by that moral, if not instinctive, abhorrence of incest widely prevalent in the pagan world. See 1 Corinthians 5:1, and Sophocles’s OEdipus, Rex. This harmonizes with Luther’s method of eliminating the local and transient precepts of the Mosaic law. He says: “Moses is dead. He lived for the Jewish people, and his laws do not bind us unless they are approved by our laws, both natural and statutory.”

(2.) There are two schools of interpreters of this code, 1.) the restrictive or exclusive, which limits the prohibitions to the classes specified, and 2.) the broad or inclusive interpreters, who extend the prohibition to all within the same degree with those specifically forbidden, as the positive exclusion of a man’s aunt from marriage with him implies the exclusion of his niece, since she is in the same degree of consanguinity.

The degree is always found by reckoning through the common progenitor.

Parent and child are in the first degree. Brothers are in the second degree. Cousins are in the fourth degree. Second cousins are in the sixth degree.

The highest prohibited class is in the third degree. Since the restrictive interpretation must admit the marriage of an uncle and his niece and a father and his daughter, we prefer the inclusive interpretation.

Relationship by affinity or marriage is reckoned in the same way as blood relationship, since a man and his wife are one flesh. Hence a brother’s wife and a wife’s sister are in the second degree of affinity, and an uncle’s wife is in the third degree of affinity, because he is in the third degree of consanguinity. The following table contains the kindred forbidden to any man in marriage, either expressly or by implication, with their punishments. Of course, the corresponding male relations are forbidden to a woman:

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[ * Kindred forbidden by implication are in italics.] [ ‡ Punished with death.] [ ° Punished with childlessness.] [ ¶ Shall bear their iniquity.] [ † Except a childless widow.] [ § Forbidden by the canon law of England. In 1835 past marriages of such were legalized and future marriages were prohibited by an act of Parliament. Legal elsewhere in Christendom, except that the Roman Church requires a permit from the pope, which is never refused.] [ || Permitted by some Christian States, as Massachusetts.] [ ¶ Pronounced accursed in Deuteronomy 27:23.] We have italicised the wife’s sister because the express prohibition in Leviticus 18:18 is disputed. The argument derived from the nearness of affinity would lead us to the conclusion that marriage in this case is unlawful on the principle of interpretation which extends the prohibition to all within the same degree with any who are forbidden. But in the case of relationship by affinity merely, it must be confessed that marriage with a sister of the deceased wife is just as lawful as it is with a wife’s sister-in-law, or for two brothers to marry sisters, or for the father and son to marry mother and daughter, or for the child of a widow to marry the child of a widower after the intermarriage of their widowed parents, or for a marriage required by the Levirate law, that of a brother to the childless widow of his brother.

The state of opinion among English scholars and divines may be inferred from the fact that the House of Commons voted to legalize this kind of marriage in 1850, 1855, 1858, 1859, 1870, 1871, 1873, and in 1883 by large but diminishing majorities. The House of Lords rejected the bill against the vote of several bishops, under the lead of Archbishop Tait. But in 1861, 1862, 1866, and 1875 the bill was defeated by the Commons. The following authorities are quoted in favour of such marriages: John Wesley, Adam Clarke, Joseph Parker, C.H. Spurgeon, Drs. Chalmers, N. MacLeod, and Moffatt, Dr. Adler, the chief rabbi of England, Archbishop Whately, Cardinal Cullen, and the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, as well as the whole Roman Catholic hierarchy of Dublin and London. According to the civil law of every Christian State in the world, except certain parts of the British Empire, marriage with the sister of the deceased wife is legal. Until the fourth century the prohibition of it had never been heard of in the Christian Church. The same Council which first prohibited marriage with the sister of a deceased wife also prohibited the marriage of the clergy. The marriage of cousins was about the same time prohibited under pain of death by fire.

(3.) The ground of this prohibition of wedlock within the fourth degree exclusive is not arbitrary, but a beneficent regard for the well-being of mankind. 1.) Maladies both physical and mental, such as insanity and idiocy, arise from consanguineous marriages. 2.) If marriage between near kindred were lawful, it would be a great restraint upon that social freedom in which blood kindred can now indulge without peril or suspicion. There is, moreover, a difference in kind between the love of blood kindred and the love uniting husband and wife. The amalgamation of these affections cannot take place without a serious detriment to one or the other; hence the desirableness of drawing a distinct line between them by stating definitely where the matrimonial affection may legitimately take root. 3.) The prohibition tends to break up the intense clannishness to which men are prone, and to link all mankind together in the bonds of brotherhood. 4.) In the purpose of Jehovah to make Israel a peculiar people, the laws in this chapter constitute a striking difference between them and all the heathen nations. (4.) After the captivity of Israel in Babylon, the scribes added to the fifteen proscribed relatives enumerated in the Levitical law twenty other prohibitions, called secondary, four of which were infinite, including an endless series, such as the mother’s mother’s mother, back to the wife of our father Jacob, and the son’s son’s son’s wife, descending to the end of the world.

(5.) The rabbinic law adds seven prohibitions relating to the marriage of a divorced woman to a man with whom she has committed adultery; of a widow to a man who attests the death of her former husband; of a widow who has lost two husbands; of a young girl to an old man, and vice versa; together with several limitations of time within which widows, widowers, and divorced women may not marry.

(6.) The marriage of an uncle to his niece, which is strictly forbidden by the English law, and inferentially so by the Levitical law, has been considered by the Jews from time immemorial as something specially meritorious. The Talmud says that the promise given in Isaiah 58:9-10, refers especially to him “who loves his neighbours, befriends his relations, marries his brother’s daughter, and lends his money to the poor in the hour of need.”

(7.) Much ingenuity has been exercised in harmonizing the apparent sanction of human sacrifices with the stringent prohibitions in this chapter and in chapter 22. It is evident that God’s design in the command to Abraham to offer up Isaac was not to secure that outward act, but to develop the spirit of obedience through entire consecration; “the principle,” says Dr. Thomas Arnold, “which has been applied to every age.” Hengstenberg shows “that satisfaction was rendered to the Lord’s command when the spiritual sacrifice was completed.” Thus Bush, Lange, Keil, Kurtz, Murphy, and many others. The burning of Achan’s children was probably the burning of their corpses to render their punishment more impressive. See Joshua 7:24-25, notes. There is no proof that Jephthah ever executed his vow by actually making a holocaust of his daughter. The authorities for holding that she was devoted to perpetual virginity are Auberlen, Bush, Cassel, Delitzsch, Grotius, Hengstenberg, Houbigant, Keil, the Kimchis, Lange, LeClerk, and many others. See Judges 11:30-40, extended notes. The seven descendants of Saul were not delivered to the Gibeonites as a religious sacrifice, but as a demand of justice, so considered. See 2 Samuel 21:0, notes.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Leviticus 18". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/leviticus-18.html. 1874-1909.
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