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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Leviticus 17

 

 

Verses 1-16

HOLINESS IN EATING

Leviticus 17:1-16

WITH this chapter begins another subdivision of the law. Hitherto we have had before us only sacrificial worship and matters of merely ceremonial law. The law of holy living contained in the following chapters (17-22), on the other hand, has to do for the most part with matters rather ethical than ceremonial, and consists chiefly of precepts designed to regulate morally the ordinary engagements and relationships of everyday life. The fundamental thought of the four chapters is that which is expressed, e.g., in Leviticus 18:3 : Israel, redeemed by Jehovah, is called to be a holy people; and this holiness is to be manifested in a total separation from the ways of the heathen. This principle is enforced by various specific commands and prohibitions, which naturally have particular regard to the special conditions under which Israel was placed, as a holy nation consecrated to Jehovah, the one, true God, but living in the midst of nations of idolaters.

The whole of chapter 17, with the exception of Leviticus 16:8-9, has to do with the application of this law of holy living to the use even of lawful food. At first thought, the injunctions of the chapter might seem to belong rather to ceremonial than to moral law; but closer observation will show that all the injunctions here given have direct reference to the avoidance of idolatry, especially as connected with the preparation and use of food.

It was not enough that the true Israelite should abstain from food prohibited by God, as in chapter 12; he must also use that which was permitted in a way well pleasing to God, carefully shunning even the appearance of any complicity with surrounding idolatry, or fellowship with the heathen in their unholy fashions and customs. Even so for the Christian: it is not enough that he abstain from what is expressly forbidden; even in his use of lawful food, he must so use it that it shall be to him a means of grace, in helping him to maintain an uninterrupted walk with God.

In Leviticus 17:1-7 is given the law to regulate the use of such clean animals for food as could be offered to God in sacrifice; in Leviticus 17:10-16, of such as, although permitted for food, were not allowed for sacrifice.

The directions regarding the first class may be summed up in this: all such animals were to be treated as peace offerings. No private person in Israel was to slaughter any such animal anywhere in the camp or out of it, except at the door of the tent of meeting. Thither they were to be brought "unto the priest," and offered for peace offerings (Leviticus 17:5); the blood must be sprinkled on the altar of burnt offering; the fat parts burnt "for a sweet savour unto the Lord" (Leviticus 17:6); and then only the priest having first taken his appointed portions, the remainder might now be eaten by the Israelite, as given back to him by God, in peaceful fellowship with Him.

The law could not have been burdensome, as some might hastily imagine. Even when obtainable, meat was probably not used as food by them so freely as with us; and in the wilderness the lack of flesh, it will be remembered, was so great as to have occasioned at one time a rebellion among the people, who fretfully complained: {Numbers 11:4} "Who shall give us flesh to eat?"

Even the uncritical reader must be able to see how manifest is the Mosaic date of this part of Leviticus. The terms of this law suppose a camp life; indeed, the camp is explicitly named (Leviticus 17:3). That which was enjoined was quite practicable under the conditions of life in the wilderness, when, at the best, flesh was scarce, and the people dwelt compactly together; but would have been utterly inapplicable and impracticable at a later date, after they were settled throughout the land of Canaan, when to have slaughtered all beasts used for food at the central sanctuary would have been impossible. Hence we find that, as we should expect, the modified law of Deuteronomy, {Deuteronomy 12:15-16; Deuteronomy 12:20-24} assuming the previous existence of this earlier law, explicitly repeals it. To suppose that forgers of a later day, as, for instance, of the time of Josiah, or after the Babylonian exile, should have needlessly invented a law of this kind, is a hypothesis which is rightly characterised by Dillmann as "simply absurd."

This regulation for the wilderness days is said (Leviticus 17:5, Leviticus 17:7) to have been made "to the end that the children of Israel may bring their sacrifices, which they sacrifice in the open field unto the Lord, and sacrifice them for sacrifices of peace offerings unto the Lord And they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices unto the he-goats, after whom they go a whoring,"

There can be no doubt that in the last sentence, "he-goats," as in the Revised Version, instead of "devils," as in the Authorised, is the right rendering. The worship referred to was still in existence in the days of the monarchy; for it is included in the charges against "Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin," {2 Chronicles 11:15} that "he appointed him priests; for the he-goats, and for the calves which he had made." Nor can here we agree with Dillmann that in this worship of he-goats here referred to, there is "no occasion to think of the goat worship of Egypt." For inasmuch as we know that the worship of the sacred bull and that of the he-goat prevailed in Egypt in those days, and inasmuch as in Ezekiel 20:6-7; Ezekiel 20:15-18, repeated reference is made to Israel’s having worshipped "the idols of Egypt," one can hardly avoid combining these two facts, and thus connecting the goat worship to which allusion is here made, with that which prevailed at Mendes, in Lower Egypt. This cult at that place was accompanied with nameless revolting rites, such as give special significance to the description of this worship (Leviticus 17:7) as "a whoring" after the goats; and abundantly explain and justify the severity of the penalty attached to the violation of this law (Leviticus 17:4) in cutting off the offender from this people; all the more when we observe the fearful persistency of this horrible goat worship in Israel, breaking out anew, as just remarked, some five hundred years later, in the reign of Jeroboam.

The words imply that the ordinary slaughter of animals for food was often connected with some idolatrous ceremony related to this goat worship. What precisely it may have been, we know not; but of such customs, connecting the preparation of the daily food with idolatry, we have abundant illustration in the usages of the ancient Persians, the Hindoos, and the heathen Arabs of the days before Mohammed. The law was thus intended to cut out this everyday idolatry by the root. With these "field devils," as Luther renders the word, the holy people of the Lord were to have nothing to do.

Very naturally, the requirement to present all slaughtered animals as peace offerings to Jehovah gives occasion to turn aside for a little from the matter of food, which is the chief subject of the chapter, in order to extend this principle beyond animals slaughtered for food, and insist particularly that all burnt offerings and sacrifices of every kind should be sacrificed at the door of the tent of meeting, and nowhere else. This law, we are told (Leviticus 17:8), was to be applied, not only to the Israelites themselves, but also to "strangers" among them; such as, e.g., were the Gibeonites. No idolatry, nor anything likely to be associated with it, was to be tolerated from anyone in the holy camp.

The principle which underlies this stringent law, as also the reason which is given for it, is of constant application in modern life. There was nothing wrong in itself in slaying an animal in one place more than another. It was abstractly possible-as, likely enough, many an Israelite may have said to himself-that a man could just as really "eat unto the Lord" if he slaughtered and ate his animal in the field, as anywhere else. Nevertheless this was forbidden under the heaviest penalties. It teaches us that he who will be holy must not only abstain from that which is in itself always wrong, but must carefully keep himself from doing even lawful or necessary things in such a way, or under such associations and circumstances, as may outwardly compromise his Christian standing, or which may be proved by experience to have an almost unavoidable tendency toward sin. The laxity in such matters which prevails in the so-called "Christian world" argues little for the tone of spiritual life in our day in those who indulge in it, or allow it, or apologise for it. It may be true enough, in a sense, that as many say, there is no harm in this or that. Perhaps not; but what if experience have shown that, though in itself not sinful, a certain association or amusement almost always tends to worldliness, which is a form of idolatry? Or-to use the apostle’s illustration-what if one be seen, though with no intention of wrong, "sitting at meat in an idol’s temple," and he whose conscience is weak be thereby emboldened to do what to him is sin? There is only one safe principle, now as in the days of Moses: everything must be brought "before the Lord"; used as from Him and for Him, and therefore used under such limitations and restrictions as His wise and holy law imposes. Only so shall we be safe; only so abide in living fellowship with God.

Very beautiful and instructive, again, was the direction that the Israelite, in the cases specified, should make his daily food a peace offering. This involved a dedication of the daily food to the Lord; and in his receiving it back again then from the hand of God, the truth was visibly represented that our daily food is from God; while also, in the sacrificial acts which preceded the eating, the Israelite was continually reminded that it was upon the ground of an accepted atonement that even these everyday mercies were received. Such also should be, in spirit, the often neglected prayer before each of our daily meals. It should be ever offered with the remembrance of the precious blood which has purchased for us even the most common mercies; and should thus sincerely recognise what, in the confusing complexity of the second causes through which we receive our daily food, we so easily forget: that the Lord’s prayer is not a mere form of words when we say, "Give us this day our daily bread"; but that working behind, and in, and with, all these second causes, is the kindly Providence of God, who, opening His hand, supplies the want of every living thing.

And so, eating in grateful, loving fellowship with our Heavenly Father that which His bounty gives us, to His glory, every meal shall become, as it were, a sacramental remembrance of the Lord. We may have wondered at what we have read of the world wide custom of the Mohammedan, who, whenever the knife of slaughter is lifted against a beast for food, utters his "Bism allah," "In the name of the most merciful God"; and not otherwise will regard his food as being made halal, or "lawful"; and, no doubt, in all this, as in many a Christian’s prayer, there may often be little heart. But the thought in this ceremony is even this of Leviticus, and we do well to make it our own, eating even our daily food "in the name of the most merciful God," and with uplifting of the heart in thankful worship toward Him.

But there were many beasts which, although they might not be offered to the Lord in sacrifice, were yet "clean," and permitted to the Israelites as food. Such, in particular, were clean animals that are taken in the hunt or chase. In Leviticus 17:10-16 the law is given for the use of these. It is prefaced by a very full and explicit prohibition of the eating of blood; for while, as regards the animals to be offered to the Lord, provision was made with respect to the blood, that it was to be sprinkled around the altar, there was the danger that in other cases, where this was not permissible, the blood might be used for food. Hence the prohibition against eating "any manner of blood," on a twofold ground: first (Leviticus 17:11, Leviticus 17:14), that the life of the flesh is the blood; and second (Leviticus 17:11), that, for this reason, God had chosen the blood to be the symbol of life substituted for the life of the guilty in atoning sacrifice: "I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls." Hence, in order that this relation of the blood to the forgiveness of sins might be constantly kept before the mind, it was ordained that never should the Israelite eat of flesh except the blood should first have been carefully drained out. And it was to be treated with reverence, as having thus a certain sanctity; when the beast was taken in hunting, the Israelite must (Leviticus 17:13) "pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust";-an act by which the blood, the life, was symbolically returned to Him who in the beginning said, {Genesis 1:24} "Let the earth bring forth the living creature after its kind." And because, in the case of "that which dieth of itself," or is "torn of beasts," the blood would not be thus carefully drained off, all such animals (Leviticus 17:15) are prohibited as food.

It is profoundly instructive to observe that here, again, we come upon declarations and a command, the deep truth and fitness of which is only becoming clear now after three thousand years. For, as the result of our modern discoveries with regard to the constitution of the blood, and the exact nature of its functions, we in this day are able to say that it is not far from a scientific statement of the facts, when we read (Leviticus 17:14), "As to the life of all flesh, the blood thereof is all one with the life thereof." For it is in just this respect that the blood is most distinct from all other parts of the body; that, whereas it conveys and mediates nourishment to all, it is itself nourished by none; but by its myriad cells brought immediately in contact with the digested food, directly and immediately assimilates it to itself. We are compelled to say that as regards the physical life of man-which alone is signified by the original term here-it is certainly true of the blood, as of no other part of the organism, that "the life of all flesh is the blood thereof."

And while it is true that, according to the text, a spiritual and moral reason is given for the prohibition of the use of blood as food, yet it is well worth noting that, as has been already remarked in another connection, the prohibition, as we are now beginning to see, had also a hygienic reason. For Dr. de Mussy, in his paper before the French Academy of Medicine already referred to, calls attention to the fact that, not only did the Mosaic laws exclude from the Hebrew dietary animals "particularly liable to parasites"; but also that "it is in the blood," so rigidly prohibited by Moses as food, "that the germs or spores of infections disease circulate." Surely no one need fear, with some expositors, lest this recognition of a sanitary intent in these laws shall hinder the recognition of their moral and spiritual purport, which in this chapter is so expressly taught. Rather should this cause us the more to wonder and admire the unity which thus appears between the demands and necessities of the physical and the moral and spiritual life; and, in the discovery of the marvellous adaptation of these ancient laws to the needs of both, to find a new confirmation of our faith in God and in His revealed Word. For thus do they appear to be laws so far beyond the wisdom of that time, and so surely beneficent in their working, that in view of this it should be easy to believe that it must indeed have been the Lord God, the Maker and Preserver of all flesh, who spake all these laws unto His servant Moses.

The moral and spiritual purpose of this law concerning the use of blood was apparently twofold. In the first place, it was intended to educate the people to a reverence for life, and purify them from that tendency to bloodthirstiness which has so often distinguished heathen nations, and especially those with whom Israel was to be brought in closest contact. But secondly, and chiefly, it was intended, as in the former part of the chapter, everywhere and always to keep before the mind the sacredness of the blood as being the appointed means for the expiation of sin; given by God upon the altar to make atonement for the soul of the sinner, "by reason of the life" or soul with which it stood in such immediate relation. Not only were they therefore to abstain from the blood of such animals as could be offered on the altar, but even from that of those which could not be offered. Thus the blood was to remind them, every time that they ate flesh, of the very solemn truth that without shedding of blood there was no remission of sin. The Israelite must never forget this; even in the heat and excitement of the chase, he must pause and carefully drain the blood from the creature he had slain, and reverently cover it with dust; -a symbolic act which should ever put him in mind of the Divine ordinance that the blood, the life, of a guiltless victim must be given, in order to the forgiveness of sin.

A lesson lies here for us regarding the sacredness of all that is associated with sacred things. All that is connected with God, and with His worship, especially all that is connected with His revelation of Himself for our salvation, is to be treated with the most profound reverence. Even though the blood of the deer killed in the chase could not be used in sacrifice, yet, because it was blood, was in its essential nature like unto that which was so used, therefore it must be treated with a certain respect, and be always covered with earth. It is the fashion of our age-and one which is increasing in an alarming degree-to speak lightly of things which are closely connected with the revelation and worship of the holy God. Against everything of this kind the spirit of this law warns us. Nothing which is associated in any way with what is sacred is to be spoken of or treated irreverently, lest we thus come to think lightly of the sacred things themselves. This irreverent treatment of holy things is a crying evil in many parts of the English-speaking world, as also in continental Christendom. We need to beware of it. After irreverence, too often, by no obscure law, comes open denial of the Holy One and of His Holy Son, our Lord and Saviour. The blood of Christ, which represented that holy life which was given on the cross for our sins, is holy-an infinitely holy thing! And what is God’s estimate of its sanctity we may perhaps learn-looking through the symbol to that which was symbolised-from this law; which required that all blood, because outwardly resembling the holy blood of sacrifice, and, like it, the seat and vehicle of life, should be treated with most careful reverence. And it is safe to say that just those most need the lesson taught by this command who find it the hardest to appreciate it, and to whom its injunctions still seem regulations puerile and unworthy, according to their fancy, of the dignity and majesty of God.


Verses 10-16

THE PROHIBITION OF FAT AND BLOOD

Leviticus 3:16-17; Leviticus 7:22-27; Leviticus 17:10-16

And the priest shall burn them upon the altar: it is the food of the offering made by fire, for a sweet savour: all the fat is the Lord’s. It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwellings, that ye shall eat neither fat nor blood. And the Lord spake unto Moses, saving, Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, Ye shall eat no fat, of ox, or sheep, or goat. And the fat of that which dieth of itself, and the fat of that which is torn of beasts, may be used for any other service; but ye shall in no wise eat of it. For whosoever eateth the fat of the beast, of which men offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord, even the soul that eateth it shall be cut off from his people. And ye shall eat no man net of blood, whether it be of fowl or of beast, in any of your dwellings. Whosoever it be that eateth any blood, that soul shall be cut off from his people And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that eateth any manner of blood; I will set My face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life. Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood. And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, which taketh in hunting any beast or fowl that may be eaten; he shall pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust. For as to the life of all flesh, the blood thereof is all one with the life thereof: therefore I said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh: for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof: whosoever eateth it shall be cut off. And every soul that eateth that which dieth of itself, or that which is torn of beasts, whether he be homeborn or a stranger, he shall, wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even: then shall he be clean. But if he wash them not, nor bathe his flesh, then "he shall bear his iniquity."

The chapter concerning the peace offering ends (Leviticus 3:16-17) with these words: "All the fat is the Lord’s. It shall be a perpetual statute for you throughout your generations, that ye shall eat neither fat nor blood."

To this prohibition so much importance was attached that in the supplemental "law of the peace offering" {Leviticus 7:22-27} it is repeated with added explanation and solemn warning, thus: "And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, saying. Ye shall eat no manner of fat, of ox, or of sheep, or of goat. And the fat of the beast that dieth of itself, and the fat of that which is torn with beasts, may be used for any other service: but ye shall in no wise eat of it. For whosoever eateth the fat of the beast, of which men offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord, even the soul that eateth it shall be cut off from his people. And ye shall eat no manner of blood, whether it be of fowl or of beast, in any of your dwellings. Whosoever it be that eateth any blood, that soul shall be cut off from his people."

From which it appears that this prohibition of the eating of fat referred only to the fat of such beasts as were used for sacrifice. With these, however, the law was absolute, whether the animal was presented for sacrifice, or only slain for food. It held good with regard to these animals, even when, because of the manner of their death, they could not be used for sacrifice. In such cases, though the fat might be used for other purposes, still it must not be used for food.

The prohibition of the blood as food appears from Leviticus 17:10 to have been absolutely universal; it is said, "Whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that eateth any manner of blood, I will set My face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people."

The reason for the prohibition of the eating of blood, whether in the case of the sacrificial feasts of the peace offerings or on other occasions, is given, {Leviticus 17:11-12} in these words: "For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life. Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood."

And the prohibition is then extended to include not only the blood of animals which were used upon the altar, but also such as were taken in hunting, thus (Leviticus 17:13): "And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, which taketh in hunting any beast or fowl that may be eaten, he shall pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust," as something of peculiar sanctity; and then the reason previously given is repeated with emphasis (Leviticus 17:14): "For as to the life of all flesh, the blood thereof is all one with the life thereof: therefore I said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh: for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof; whosoever eateth it shall be cut off."

And since, when an animal died from natural causes, or through being torn of a beast, the blood would be drawn from the flesh either not at all or but imperfectly, as further guarding against the possibility of eating blood, it is ordered (Leviticus 17:15-16) that he who does this shall be held unclean: "Every soul that eateth that which dieth of itself, or that which is torn of beasts, whether he be home born or a stranger, he shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even. But if he wash them not nor bathe his flesh, then he shall bear his iniquity."

These passages explicitly state the reason for the prohibition by God of the use of blood for food to be the fact that, as the vehicle of the life, it has been appointed by Him as the means of expiation for sin upon the altar. And the reason for the prohibition of the fat is similar; namely, its appropriation for God upon the altar, as in the peace offerings, the sin offerings, and the guilt offerings; "all the fat is the Lord’s."

Thus the Israelite, by these two prohibitions, was to be continually reminded, so often as he partook of his daily food, of two things: by the one, of atonement by the blood as the only ground of acceptance; and by the other, of God’s claim on the man redeemed by the blood, for the consecration of his best. Not only so, but by the frequent repetition, and still more by the heavy penalty attached to the violation of these laws, he was reminded of the exceeding importance that these two things had in the mind of God. If he eat the blood of any animal claimed by God for the altar, he should be cut off from his people; that is, outlawed, and cut off from all covenant privilege as a citizen of the kingdom of God in Israel. And even though the blood were that of the beast taken in the chase, still ceremonial purification was required as the condition of resuming his covenant position.

Nothing, doubtless, seems to most Christians of our day more remote from practical religion than these regulations touching the fat and the blood which are brought before us with such fulness in the law of the peace offering and elsewhere. And yet nothing is of more present day importance in this law than the principles which underlie these regulations. For as with type, so with antitype. No less essential to the admission of the sinful man into that blessed fellowship with a reconciled God, which the peace offering typified, is the recognition of the supreme sanctity of the precious sacrificial blood of the Lamb of God; no less essential to the life of happy communion with God, is the ready consecration of the best fruit of our life to Him.

Surely, both of these, and especially the first, are truths for our time. For no observing man can fail to recognise the very ominous fact that a constantly increasing number, even of professed preachers of the Gospel, in so many words refuse to recognise the place which propitiatory blood has in the Gospel of Christ, and to admit its preeminent sanctity as consisting in this, that it was given on the altar to make atonement for our souls. Nor has the present generation outgrown the need of the other reminder touching the consecration of the best to the Lord. How many there are, comfortable, easy-going Christians, whose principle-if one might speak in the idiom of the Mosaic law-would rather seem to be, ever to give the lean to God, and keep the fat, the best fruit of their life and activity, for themselves! Such need to be most urgently and solemnly reminded that in spirit the warning against the eating of the blood and the fat is in full force. It was written of such as should break this law, "that soul shall be cut off from his people." And so in the Epistle to the Hebrews {Hebrews 10:26-29} we find one of its most solemn warnings directed to those who "count this blood of the covenant," the blood of Christ, "an unholy (i.e., common) thing"; as exposed by this, their undervaluation of the sanctity of the blood, to a "sorer punishment" than overtook him that "set at naught Moses’ law," even the retribution of Him who said, "Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, saith the Lord."

And so in this law of the peace offerings, which ordains the conditions of the holy feast of fellowship with a reconciled God, we find these two things made fundamental in the symbolism: full recognition of the sanctity of the blood as that which atones for the soul; and the full consecration of the redeemed and pardoned soul to the Lord. So was it in the symbol; and so shall it be when the sacrificial feast shall at last receive its most complete fulfilment in the communion of the redeemed with Christ in glory. There will be no differences of opinion then and there, either as to the transcendent value of that precious blood which made atonement, or as to the full consecration which such a redemption requires from the redeemed.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Leviticus 17:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/leviticus-17.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, August 25th, 2019
the Week of Proper 16 / Ordinary 21
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