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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Leviticus 17

 

 

Introduction

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)

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), 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), the sexual relationships which can defile (Leviticus 18), 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 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 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). 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 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, 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 - ‘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).

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.

THE HOLINESS CODE.

The first emphasis on the holiness that Yahweh required of His people comes out in His requirements concerning the sacredness of life, and the shedding of blood.

Chapter 17. The Sacredness of Life and The Shedding of Blood.

With the emphasis that God has placed on the need for the careful regulation of the shedding of blood which represented God-given life (Genesis 9:2-6), it was necessary at some stage that Israel be carefully instructed in how to deal with situations where such questions arose. God wanted them to recognise that life was sacred, and that all life belonged to Him. And this is now the basis of what we find in this chapter, combined with definitions as to the significance of the blood which are of importance to us all.

But there is more to it than that. It will have already been noted that pivotal to this Book is the idea of sacrifice. The first seven chapter centralised on it. The priests were anointed in order to be able to perform it. Severe uncleanness required it. The Day of Atonement focused on it. And now this chapter introduces the remainder of the Book, stressing that underlying the whole covenant lies the idea of sacrifice. Without the shedding of blood there could be no forgiveness of sin, no atonement, no covenant. All is based on sacrifice. For the shedding of the blood in offerings and sacrifice of all clean, sacrificeable animals lies at the root of atonement in the Old Testament. Their lives are God’s great requirement for the sins of His people. And yet the very offerings themselves revealed that they were not enough. More and more were required, and were still insufficient. They merely pointed ahead to the one great sacrifice for sin that one day He Himself would make Who would alone be sufficient for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).


Verse 1

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying,’

Again it is stressed that we have here God’s word to Moses.


Verse 2

“Speak to Aaron, and to his sons, and to all the children of Israel, and say to them, This is the thing which Yahweh has commanded, saying,”

This brings out that, while Aaron and his sons were responsible for the priestly ministry, the details of the Law were still the province of Moses. It was he who had to convey to Aaron and his sons and the children of Israel the whole word of God. The priests’ task would then be to apply that Law as it had been given to them by Moses.

In a sense this verse looks forward to the remainder of the book. It is ‘to Aaron, to his sons, to all the children of Israel’ (only here, and in Leviticus 22:18 where it forms a transition from words to the priests to words to the people). This overall phrase covers both groups to whom Moses will speak in this last part of the book.


Verses 3-10

The Law Concerning the Slaying of Clean Domestic Beasts (Leviticus 17:3-10).

Leviticus 17:3-4

“Whatever man there is of the house of Israel, who kills an ox, or lamb, or goat, in the camp, or who kills it outside the camp, and has not brought it to the door of the tent of meeting, to offer it as an oblation to Yahweh before the tabernacle of Yahweh, blood shall be imputed to that man. He has shed blood. And that man shall be cut off from among his people.”

He begins by declaring that any clean (eatable) domestic animal that was slain, whether in the camp or outside, had to be brought to the door of the tent of meeting to be offered as a gift to Yahweh. If it was not the person involved would be seen as guilty of ‘shedding blood’ without acknowledgement to Yahweh, and would therefore have to pay the penalty. He would be bloodguilty and would be cut off from among the people. ‘Cutting off’ probably signifies being put to death, although some have seen it as being cast permanently out of the camp. Thus every clean domestic animal that was slain was acknowledged as belonging to Yahweh, and as His gift to His people, and as being in its death part of the great atonement for them.

Apart from the daily and seasonal offerings this slaughter would not be such a regular an occurrence as we might at first imagine. We must remember that, while in the wilderness, the children of Israel would be seeking to preserve their herds and flocks, so that such optional slaughtering would not necessarily be very common. They saw their domestic animals as there to provide milk and wool, and to act as beasts of burden. They lived mainly on the manna provided by God, supplemented by hunting, by fishing, on bird’s eggs and on any other food that they were able to gather, and on the milk with its by-products provided by the domestic animals. They would not want to eat the animals themselves except on special occasions.

Once settled at the oases in Kadesh and its surrounds they would sow such crops as might grow. They would have been keen to preserve and build up their herds and flocks ready for when they reached Canaan. Thus this provision ensured that when they did partake of meat it would also ensure that a peace offering was made to Yahweh, so as to maintain peace with Him, and that they acknowledged their debt to him for His goodness towards them. Every deliberate death of such an animal contributed to atonement, acknowledged that life belonged to God, and confirmed their recognition that all that they had came from His hand (Psalms 50:10), that they were His covenant people.

Leviticus 17:5

“To the end that the children of Israel may bring their sacrifices (cattle they have slaughtered), which they sacrifice (slaughter) in the countryside, even that they may bring them to Yahweh, to the door of the tent of meeting, to the priest, and sacrifice them for sacrifices of peace-offerings to Yahweh.”

The reason for this provision was so that any clean domestic animal which was slaughtered was brought as a peace sacrifice to the door of the tent of meeting to be offered up by the priests. This would then ensure that the blood was properly dealt with, that the fat was offered to Yahweh, and that the life was offered back to God, and from this it would be made quite clear to them that they had received its benefits from Him. They could then themselves partake of its meat, once the priest had had his portion, the fat and vital parts having been offered to God. Every animal slaughtered for meat thus also became a sacrifice of peace offering, confirming peace and wellbeing before Yahweh.

Leviticus 17:6

“And the priest shall sprinkle the blood on the altar of Yahweh at the door of the tent of meeting, and burn the fat for a pleasing odour to Yahweh,”

The priest would deal with it as usual (as described earlier in chapters 1-7) by sprinkling the blood on the altar, and burning the fat, which would arise as a pleasing odour, well pleasing to Yahweh. Continually atonement had to be made. This summary of such sacrifices indicates that the detail must have been given previously. This legislation could not stand on its own.

Leviticus 17:7

“And they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to the he-goats (or ‘demons’), after which they play the harlot. This shall be a statute for ever to them throughout their generations.”

An apparent further reason for this requirement, apart from the fact that it was an acknowledgement that life was sacred, and that all their cattle essentially belonged to God, was in order to counter pagan practises that had clearly sprung up, or may even have continued among some of them since they left Egypt. It is indicated here that some of the people had been slaughtering sacrifices ‘to the he-goats’ which they were falsely and indecently worshipping (‘playing the harlot’ with them). There may be a reference here to the goat worship practised in Lower Egypt which involved among other things women worshippers copulating with the goats. Such abominations would now be prevented by ensuring that all such animals were offered to Yahweh before the tent of meeting, which would make the other almost impossible, except by gross breach of the covenant.

Leviticus 17:8-9

“And you shall say to them, Whatever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn among them, who offers a whole burnt offering or sacrifice, and does not bring it to the door of the tent of meeting, to sacrifice it to Yahweh, that man shall be cut off from his people.”

The principle was now firmly laid down, and the whole burnt offering and all other sacrifices were also now included in the provision, that all offerings and sacrifices of any kind were to be brought to the door of the tent of meeting to be offered or sacrificed, whether it be by Israelites themselves, or by aliens who had settled among them. Any who did not do so would be cut off from among the people. Later the principle would be altered to take into account the fact that, once they were in the land, the site where the tabernacle was situated might be too far for people to come regularly for such a purpose (Deuteronomy 12:20-28). Then the blood had rather to be poured out on the earth like water, to ensure that it was not eaten or drunk.

Note the continued stress on resident aliens. They were not to be free to outwardly practise their own religion or worship as they pleased. If they wished to do so they must go elsewhere. While they lived in Israel, or in the camp, there must be no danger of their leading Israel astray. While they lived in Yahweh’s land they must worship and make offering to Yahweh alone.

For us the lesson comes over quite clearly from this that we must give proper thanks to God for all meat of which we partake. It is His provision for us, it is part of His creation, it has cost a life that belongs to Him, and it provides us with a specific opportunity for worship and thanksgiving. And it is above all a reminder of Him Who was offered as a peace offering for us, of Whom we may continually partake by faith.

Leviticus 17:10

“And whatever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn among them, who eats any manner of blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people.”

Furthermore, God stressed, no one in Israel must partake of the blood of an animal, whether it was those within the covenant or the alien who settled down among them. It was absolutely forbidden. God would set His face against anyone who ate blood. Rather than receiving life from it they would be cut off from among the people.


Verse 11-12

The Reason Why Abstaining From Blood Is So Vital (Leviticus 17:11-12).

Leviticus 17:11

“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your persons. For it is the blood that makes atonement by reason of the life.”

And the reason for this provision, which was permanent and binding, and permitted of no exception, was because ‘the life of the flesh is in the blood’, the blood uniquely represents the life. It was the life principle of the animal, and no human being should seek to partake of an animal’s life principle. It belonged solely to God.

But God had in His goodness provided that that life principle might be laid out in death on the altar in order to make atonement for the people. The life of that part of creation that God had provided as food for men, and as suitable for sacrifice, was offered in lieu of the lives of the sons of men. For the blood atones precisely because it represents the life laid out in death. Such continual sacrifice resulted in continual substitution for, and atonement for, sin, as the death of others provided by God was in this way constantly used to purify the sin of Israel and atone for it.

Leviticus 17:12

“Therefore I said to the children of Israel, No one of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood.”

That is why no permanent resident of Israel, whether homeborn or sojourner (permanent alien resident) would be permitted to partake of blood. The blood was the life of the animals, could only be given to God in death, was laid out in death for man’s sins, and was the sacred symbol of God’s atoning work. It was thus not available for man’s use.

So constantly the people of God had the reminder of their own sin, and of the death which was the consequence of sin, and of the atonement that God had made available for them, in each domestic animal that was slain. So too must we daily and continually remind ourselves of the One Who was slain for us, that we might be forgiven and find reconciliation with God, and live out our lives to please Him.


Verse 13-14

The Law Concerning The Eating of Hunted Down Wild Beasts And Birds (Leviticus 17:13-14).

Leviticus 17:13

“And whatever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn among them, who takes in hunting any beast or bird which may be eaten, he shall pour out its blood, and cover it with dust.”

When a beast or bird ‘which may be eaten’ (compare Leviticus 11) is taken in hunting, and the main stress here is on the hunting of clean beasts and birds, their blood must be poured out on the ground and covered in dust. On no account must the blood be eaten. Again this applied to both Israelite and resident alien. All life belonged to God and He had the sole right to its disposal. The flesh of such animals could be eaten, but not their blood.

Leviticus 17:14

“For as to the life of all flesh, its blood is all one with its life. Therefore I said to the children of Israel, You shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off.”

For the blood represents the life of the animal or bird. It is its life principle And no one was to seek to partake of an animal’s life principle. Men and women were made in the image of God, and were of a different nature to wild beasts. To seek to imbibe an animal’s life principle was therefore to seek to alter one’s nature, and to turn oneself into a beast (which indeed was what they saw as one of its purposes, to give them the ferocity and/or strength of the beast). It was an example of what would later be described as ‘confusion’ (Leviticus 18:23; Leviticus 20:12).

This teaching concerning the blood brings home the fact that we too can find life through blood shed, the blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). It is through His life given in death that we can find forgiveness and new life. Jesus even spoke of ‘drinking His blood’ (John 6:53-56), but the thought there also was of putting Him to death and benefiting by it (compare Isaiah 49:26; Zechariah 9:15 LXX Matthew 23:30; 2 Samuel 23:17). Men ‘drank His blood’ when they killed Him as they had the prophets (Matthew 23:30). We ‘drink His blood’ when we claim and participate in the benefits of His death.


Verse 15-16

The Law Concerning The Eating Of What Is Not Slain Or Hunted Down But Dies of Itself Or Through Other Wild Beasts (Leviticus 17:15-16).

Leviticus 17:15

“And every person who eats what dies of itself, or what is torn of beasts, whether he be home-born or a sojourner, he shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. Then shall he be clean.”

With regard to beasts’ carcases, where the death had occurred naturally, or as a result of one beast killing another, so that some of the blood would have drained out, then to eat of them was to render the eater unclean. The blood had not been properly dealt with. But still the blood and the fat must not be consciously eaten of, although the problem now arose as to how to remove the blood. Nevertheless the blood and fat were sacred to Yahweh. In fact elsewhere the Israelite was discouraged to eat of such animals at all (compare Leviticus 11:39-40; Leviticus 22:8 of priests) because as the people of God they were ‘holy’ (Deuteronomy 14:21). If they did eat of them they became unclean, although, once they had washed their clothes and washed themselves thoroughly, their uncleanness only lasted until the evening. Once the evening came they would be clean again.

(It will be apparent to all that the total removal of all blood was not practical even with sacrificially slain animals. It was the principle that was important, the avoidance of the deliberate imbibing of blood).

Leviticus 17:16

“But if he wash them not, nor bathe his flesh, then he shall bear his iniquity.”

But if they became unclean in this way and did not wash their clothes or themselves, then they must bear any punishment that God sees fit to mete out to them. There seems to be an indication here that unpleasant results can follow such eating, especially if they do not wash fairly soon afterwards. In view of the fact that the animal would either be diseased or possibly infected by other animals and birds who had torn at it with tooth and claw, there was a good likelihood of their picking up infections, and those who followed God’s instructions not to eat at all made the most sensible choice. The hygienic reasons for this are quite clear.

One great lesson that comes from this chapter is the wonder of life. God gave all life, and it is His. It is never something to be taken or treated lightly. It is holy to Him.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Leviticus 17:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/leviticus-17.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, October 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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