New European Commentary


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Deeper Commentary

Lev 20:1 Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying-
The theme of this section appears to be of capital offences against God, which were to be punished by execution, or by God cutting the person off in His own way and time.

Lev 20:2 Moreover, you shall tell the children of Israel, ‘Anyone of the children of Israel, or of the strangers who live as foreigners in Israel, who gives any of his descendants to Molech; he shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones-
Despite this very clear statement, made right at the beginning of the wilderness journey (see on Lev. 1:1), the Israelites carried the tabernacle of Moloch through the wilderness (Am. 5:26; Acts 7:43). They heard these words, but refused to let them really take lodgment within them. And neither did the Levites, to whom they were originally addressed. We must ask ourselves whether we are really allowing God's words to truly register with us. "The people of the land" may refer to the Gentiles living in Israel; see on :4.

Lev 20:3 I also will set My face against that person, and will cut him off from among his people-
The Hebrew word translated ‘to cut a covenant’ is also translated ‘cut off’ in the sense of death (Gen. 9:11; Lev. 20:2,3; Is. 48:9; Prov. 2:21). Death and blood shedding are essential parts of covenant making, and in this sense the covenant was ended too by death / cutting off. This means that God would pay special attention to this individual, setting His face against them, and remove them from His covenant people- whether or not He slew them immediately.

Because he has given of his descendants to Molech, to defile My sanctuary, and to profane My holy name-
Our attitude to our children is our attitude to God’s Name. We need to ask ourselves how in our context we might be giving our children to Molech? ‘Giving’ children to Molech may not only have referred to child sacrifices but also dedicating children to the service of Molech. Our children are to be dedicated to God and nobody and nothing else.

Lev 20:4 If the people of the land all hide their eyes from that person, when he gives of his seed to Molech, and don’t put him to death-
Acting as if we didn’t notice something is a sin of omission just as bad as a sin of commission. "The  people of the land" is literally 'the people of the eretz', a phrase which usually refers to the non-Israelite peoples within the land promised to Abraham (Gen. 23:7; 42:6; Num. 13:18,28; 14:9; Dt. 28:10; Josh. 4:24; 1 Kings 8:43,53; 1 Chron. 5:25 etc.). This would be the likely understanding of the phrase here (and in Lev. 4:27).

Lev 20:5 then I will set My face against that man, and against his family, and will cut him off, and all who play the prostitute after him, to play the prostitute with Molech, from among their people-
Israel is so often set up as the bride of God (Is. 54:5; 61:10; 62:4,5; Jer. 2:2; 3:14; Hos. 2:19,20). This is why any infidelity to God is spoken of as adultery (Mal. 2:11; Lev. 17:7; 20:5,6; Dt. 31:16; Jud. 2:17; 8:27,33; Hos. 9:1). The language of Israel 'selling themselves to do iniquity' uses the image of prostitution. This is how God feels our even temporary and fleeting acts and thoughts of unfaithfulness. This is why God is jealous for us (Ex. 20:15; 34:14; Dt. 4:24; 5:9; 6:15)- because His undivided love for us is so exclusive. He expects us to be totally His. Just as Israel were not to be like the Egyptians they were leaving, nor like the Canaanites into whose land they were going (Lev. 18:1-5; 20:23,24). We are to be a people separated unto Him.

The seriousness of sin is partly in the influence it has upon others. To give children to Molech encouraged others to sin by the example set. The power of our example upon others is far greater than we realize. Verse 14 likewise teaches that sexual perversion in one case could easily lead to wickedness being practiced amongst the whole congregation. Israel were told to destroy any of their number who worshipped idols; but if they failed to do this, God said that He Himself would remove that man from the community. He doesn't say that the whole nation of Israel would become personally guilty by association and therefore the whole nation would be treated by Him as the one man who was idolatrous. 

Lev 20:6 The person that turns to those who are mediums, and to the wizards, to play the prostitute after them, I will even set My face against that person, and will cut him off from among his people-
Being "cut off from Israel" may not mean that the person must be slain. For then the phrase "cut off from the earth" would have been used (as in Prov. 2:22 and often). The idea is that the person who ate leaven (Ex. 12:15) or was not circumcised (Gen. 17:14) was excluded from the community of God's people because they had broken or despised the covenant which made them His people. But there is no record of Israel keeping a list of 'cut off from Israel' Israelites and excluding them from keeping the feasts. So we conclude this means that God would consider such persons as cut off from His people. He would do the cutting off, and not men. In His book, they were "cut off". But there was no legal nor practical mechanism provided to Israel to manage the 'cutting off from Israel' of those who despised the covenant. The cutting off was done in God's eyes, in Heaven's record, and the Israelites were intended to continue to fellowship with such persons at the feasts. This is a strong argument for an open table, and for not seeking to make church excommunication the equivalent of this cutting off of the disobedient from the people of Israel. This explains why being "cut off from Israel" is the punishment stated for doing things which man could not see and judge- secretly breaking the Sabbath (Ex. 31:14), eating peace offerings whilst being unclean (Lev. 7:20- for how were others to know whether someone had touched the unclean, or was experiencing an unclean bodily emission), eating meat with blood still in it (Lev. 17:10,14), not adequately humbling the soul (Lev. 23:29), not keeping Passover (Num. 9:13), being presumptuous (Num. 15:30,31- only God can judge that), not washing after touching a dead body (Num. 19:13,20). This is why Lev. 20:6 makes it explicit that "I [Yahweh personally] will set My face against that person, and will cut him off from among his people". It is Yahweh who does the cutting off and not men (also 1 Sam. 2:33).

Lev 20:7 Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am Yahweh your God-
The inclusiveness of Yahweh of His people, the nature of who His Name reveals Him to be, should of itself have led Israel to not discriminate against other races: “For I am Yahweh your God”. Because Yahweh is who He is, therefore we must be like Him; His very existence and being demands it of us (Lev. 20:7 cp. 19:2, 10). If we really know the characteristics implicit in His Name, we will put our trust in Him (Ps. 9:10; 124:8). If we see / know God in the experiential sense, we will do no evil (3 Jn. 11).

Lev 20:8 You shall keep My statutes, and do them. I am Yahweh who sanctifies you-
Note the logic of Lev. 20:8 and indeed the whole spirit of the Law given at Sinai: Because it is Yahweh who sanctifies / counts righteous His people, therefore, in thankful response, "you shall keep My statutes and do them". As they stood and sat before Yahweh and Moses, He sanctified them, or in Ezekiel's terms, picked up a sickly baby and turned her in His eyes into a beautiful woman. And their response to that imputed righteousness was to keep the laws they were given.

The word so often used for "diligently observing" Yahweh's commandments is from the word meaning a thorn hedge; the idea originally was to hedge in. Taking this too literally led Judaism to all their endless fences around the law, i.e. forbidding this or that because it might lead to doing that or this, which in turn would then lead to breaking an actual commandment. And those various fences become elevated to the level of commandments. But this is not the idea. We are indeed to hedge ourselves in ("take heed to yourself", Dt. 11:16; 12:13,19,30,32 s.w.), so that we may keep / hedge ourselves in to keep the commandments of God (Lev. 18:4,5,26,30; 19:19,37; 20:8,22; 22:9,31; 25:18; 26:3; Num. 28:2;   Dt. 7:11,12; 8:1,11 [s.w. "beware"]; 10:13; 11:1,8,22,32; 12:1; 13:4,18; ; 15:5,9 ["beware"];  17:19; 19:9; 23:9 ["keep yourself"]; 24:8; 26:16-18; 27:1; 28:1,9,13; 29:9; 30:10,16; 31:12; 32:46). And without falling into the legalism of Judaism, self discipline does require a degree of fencing ourselves in to the one way. Thus the man struggling with alcoholism avoids the supermarket where alcohol is pushed in front of the eyes of the shoppers; the married woman struggling with attraction to another man makes little laws for herself about avoiding his company. And if we do this, then the Lord will "keep" us, will hedge us in to keeping His way (s.w. Num. 6:24).

Lev 20:9 For everyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death: he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood shall be upon him’-
Note how blood is a symbol of both life and also death (Gen. 37:26; Num. 35:19,33; Lev. 20:9). Both the Lord's death and His life form a covenant / testament / will for us to obey- in both baptism and then in living out the death and life in our daily experience. We cannot be passive to it. Gal. 3:15; Heb. 9:16 and other passages liken the blood of Christ to a covenant; and yet the Greek word used means definitely the last will and testament of a dead man. His blood is therefore an imperative to us to do something; it is His will to us, which we must execute. Thus His death, His blood, which is also a symbol of His life, becomes the imperative to us for our lives and living in this world.

In the immediate context here, cursing parents may be equivalent to sleeping with them or sexually misusing them as part of Moloch worship (:2-5). In the very similar passage in Lev. 18, at this point there is the prohibition of sex with parents; here we read of not cursing them. The idea may be that sexual misbehaviour involves leading others into sin. If parents agreed to participate, then they would be cursed by God, and so effectively the child who tried to sleep with their parents as part of Moloch worship was cursing them, by bringing a Divine curse upon them.

Lev 20:10 ’The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, even he who commits adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death-
"Another man’s wife, even... his neighbour’s wife" is a definition which suggests that every man in the community was to be treated as one’s neighbour. Hence in the New Testament, loving our neighbour is interpreted as meaning loving all others within the community of God’s people (Gal. 5:13,14). We shouldn’t think that because someone is unknown to us or distant from us in whatever sense, that we can act differently to them than we would to the one living next door to us.

Lev 20:11 The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness: both of them shall surely be put to death: their blood shall be upon them-
In a polygamous society, this is not the same as "your mother". We learned in :2-5 that this kind of thing happened amongst the Gentile Moloch worshippers, but was not to happen amongst God's people. Paul makes some kind of allusion to this by complaining that this was happening in the church at Corinth, but it didn't happen amongst the Gentiles (1 Cor. 5:1). His idea may be that there had been some moral progression amongst the Gentiles in this area- but sadly not amongst God's people.

Lev 20:12 If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall surely be put to death: they have committed a perversion-
"Perversion" is AV "confusion", and is the word also used of God's condemnation of men in "confusion" unto destruction (Gen. 11:7,9). Again we see that sin is its own judgment; people condemn themselves by their behaviour, living out condemnation in their sins. Israel are condemned for having 'mixed themselves' amongst the Gentiles (s.w. Hos. 7:8). 

Their blood shall be upon them-
Blood being upon them seems a variation of "they shall bear their iniquity"; the guilt for their own blood or life was upon them. The Lord Jesus Christ knew from Isaiah 53 that He was to bear Israel's sins, that the judgments for their sins were to fall upon Him. Israel ‘bore their iniquities’ by being condemned for them (Num. 14:34,35; Lev. 5:17; 20:17); to be a sin bearer was therefore to be one condemned. To die in punishment for your sin was to bear you sin. There is a difference between sin, and sin being laid upon a person. Num. 12:11 brings this out: “Lay not the sin upon us… wherein we have sinned”. The idea of sin being laid upon a person therefore refers to condemnation for sin. Our sin being laid upon Jesus therefore means that He was treated as if He were a condemned sinner. He briefly endured within Him the torment of soul which the condemned will feel.

Lev 20:13 If a man lies with a male, as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them-
"Abomination" is a word distinctly and specifically associated with idol worship. The context of these commands is an appeal not to follow the ways of Moloch worshippers (:2-5). As was the case in Corinth centuries later, idol worshippers slept with both male and female prostitutes; and that is what is primarily in view here.

Lev 20:14 If a man takes a wife and her mother, it is wickedness: they shall be burned with fire, both he and they; that there may be no wickedness among you-
They shall be burnt with fire" makes this punishment appears different to that stipulated in the other legislation, where we read simply that the sinners "shall surely be put to death". However, the idea isn't that in this case of a man taking a wife and her mother, they were to be burnt to death. Rather does it mean that the corpses were to be burnt with fire. Achan likewise was stoned to death, and then his corpse burnt with fire (Josh. 7:25). The idea seems to be that the sin was so gross that there was to be a public lesson made out of it. We read of the smoke arising from the burning of Babylon and other enemies of the Lord's people (e.g. Rev. 18:9,18). The idea was that there was to be a warning to others from this; and that surely was the intention here in Lev. 20:14.

Lev 20:15 If a man lies with an animal, he shall surely be put to death; and you shall kill the animal-
Such was God's desire to teach that we are made in His image, and must not act as animals, bringing ourselves down to their level as if we are equal only to them. So the message for us is that we are to respect ourselves as made in God's image, and not act on a purely animal level.

Lev 20:16 If a woman approaches any animal, and lies down with it, you shall kill the woman, and the animal: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them-
See on :15. Such was God's desire to teach that we are made in His image, and must not act as animals, bringing ourselves down to their level as if we are equal only to them. So the message for us is that we are to respect ourselves as made in God's image, and not act on a purely animal level. "Their blood" requires an ellipsis to be read in- 'the guilt for their blood / loss of life'. This behaviour was likely in the context of idolatry, and was particularly an Egyptian religious rite which the people had taken with them.

Lev 20:17 If a man takes his sister, his father’s daughter, or his mother’s daughter, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness; it is a shameful thing; and they shall be cut off in the sight of the children of their people: he has uncovered his sister’s nakedness; he shall bear his iniquity-
It is no mere coincidence that so many of these forbidden relationships were seen in the patriarchal family. Abraham and Sarah were half brother and sister (Gen. 20:17). So we see that Israel were being reminded that their whole national basis was rooted in moral weakness from the start. They were God's people by grace alone.

Lev 20:18 If a man lies with a woman having her monthly period, and uncovers her nakedness; he has made naked her fountain, and she has uncovered the fountain of her blood: and both of them shall be cut off from among their people-
Lev. 20:18 says that if a man sleeps with a menstruating woman then they must both die. But Lev. 15:24 says that in this case the man must be unclean seven days. I suggest that the language of uncovering nakedness in Lev. 20:18 is talking about some form of illicit or perverted relationship, perhaps with a woman under the stroke of Divine judgment. But here we are reading of menstruation. Menstrual blood was a times drunk or used in various cultic rituals.

Lev 20:19 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister, nor of your father’s sister; for he has made naked his close relative: they shall bear their iniquity-
Uncovering nakedness alludes to the result of the first sin in Eden. The idea therefore is not that it is a sin to simply see a parent naked. Rather is it that such sins are sins because you are leading your sexual partner into sin and they will receive the same judgment as Adam and Eve- their nakedness will be uncovered. And so the Lord Jesus likewise reasons that the problem with sexual sin is that it leads other parties into sin (Mt. 5:32).

Lev 20:20 If a man lies with his uncle’s wife, he has uncovered his uncle’s nakedness: they shall bear their sin: they shall die childless-
The implication of dying childless is that they had slept with each other in order to have children- perhaps not specifically with each other, but because this was part of a fertility ritual. But it would not work- in fact the opposite. They would both be unable to have children. And perhaps dying childless could mean that their existing children would die before they died.

Lev 20:21 If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is an impurity: he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless-
See on :20 for 'dying childless'. "Impurity" is the Hebrew word for rejection, especially at the last day (2 Sam. 23:6; Job 18:18; Hos. 9:17). Sin is its own judgment; in this sense, man condemns himself rather than being condemned by God. We stand before His judgment in daily life; we make the answer now.

Lev 20:22 You shall therefore keep all My statutes, and all My ordinances, and do them; that the land, where I am bringing you to dwell, may not vomit you out-
The Hebrew mishpat, "ordinances", has a wide range of meaning. The idea is of judgment, as if God and His Angels gave these laws as their considered judgment after considering the human condition, and Israel were to abide by them. But the word also the idea of a right or privilege; and that is how we should see God's laws. They are only felt as a burden because of human hardness of neck towards God's ways. His laws are not of themselves burdensome, but rather a privilege and blessing. The law was indeed "holy, just and good" (Rom. 7:12), designed to inculcate a holy, just and good life (Tit. 1:8), a way in which a man should "walk" in daily life (Lev. 18:4), a culture of kindness and grace to others which reflected God's grace to man. If we dwell upon the idea of "rights" carried within the word mishpat, we note that the law begins in Ex. 21:1,2 (also Dt. 15:12-18) with the rights of a slave- those considered to have no rights in the society of that day. The "rights" to be afforded by us to others are the essence of God's rightness / justice. 

Lev 20:23 You shall not walk in the customs of the nation, which I am casting out before you: for they did all these things, and therefore I abhorred them-
I suggested on Lev. 1:1 that Leviticus was given at the beginning of the wilderness wanderings. At that point, God was casting out the nations from Canaan. Their refusal to enter the land was therefore a waste of so much potential. And a reflection of their disbelief in words like these which were spoken to them. Israel were eventually cast out of the land as the Canaanites were intended to be; and yet God's patience with them was remarkable. We note that God's plan was to cast out the nations before Israel so that they could enter the land immediately after leaving Egypt. But there is no evidence this happened- because the people chose not to enter the land. And when they did, they themselves didn't cast out the nations but rather coexisted with them in the land, and worshipped their gods. Again we see how so much potential was wasted; just as many have the path to entrance into the Kingdom made clear for them, but they reject it. 

The period for gathering iniquity was fulfilled, and so the land was intended to vomit out the Canaanites (Gen. 15:16). But we see here the flexibility and open ended nature of God's ways of working. For one thing, that period was extended by around 40 years; for Israel didn't enter the land when they were intended to, and so the local inhabitants remained there. And the vomiting out of the inhabitants was to be fulfilled through human agency, i.e. the Israelites were to cast them out with God's help. But they generally didn't do this, and chose to coexist with those inhabitants within the land, and to serve their gods.

Lev 20:24 But I have said to you, You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess it, a land flowing with milk and honey. I am Yahweh your God, Who has separated you from the peoples-
Israel came to describe the Egypt they had been called out from as the land flowing with milk and honey (Num. 16:12), and denied that the Kingdom was in fact like that. And so we have the same tendency to be deceived into thinking that the kingdoms of this world, the world around us, is effectively the Kingdom of God, the only thing worth striving after.

Lev 20:25 You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; and you shall not make yourselves abominable by animal, or by bird, or by anything with which the ground teems, which I have separated from you as unclean for you-
The fact God had separated His people from this world (:24) was the reason for the commandments about them making a distinction between clean and unclean. There is nothing unclean of itself, the commands were given as a mechanism for teaching and reminding Israel in their daily lives of their separation from uncleanness. Those animals designated by God as “unclean” were “unclean for you”- not that they were in themselves.

As Israel were to "detest" idols and idolatry as "abomination" (Dt. 7:26), so they were to "abhor" and treat as "abomination" unclean animals (Lev. 11:11,13,43), lest they "make yourselves abominable [s.w. "detestable"] with any creeping thing" (Lev. 20:25). I suggest this is the reason why God designated some animals as 'abominable'; because of their association with idol worship. The idols of Egypt were often in the form of animals, and sex with animals was part of the rites. Just as in primitive societies today. There is nothing unclean of itself (Rom. 14:14); no animal is morally more or less clean than another. The commandments about unclean animals were clearly intended just for Israel living within a culture of idolatry / abomination involving those kinds of animals.      

Lev 20:26 You shall be holy to me; for I, Yahweh, am holy-
Peter quotes these words to his Jewish converts (1 Pet. 1:15,16): "But like He who called you is holy, be you yourselves holy in all manner of living. Because it is written: You shall be holy, for I am holy". Orthodox Jews such as they once were would have been obsessed with holiness in the sense of ritual separation. But this was to be extended to "all manner of living". By being holy / separate over a few things, they were tempted to think that vast areas of life in other areas could be lived as they wished. This was and is the problem with legalistic obedience. Hence the focus on all manner of living.

These words are quoting from the Levitical code of conduct for priests (Lev. 11:44,45). But those same words were spoke to all the congregation (Lev. 19:2)- for it was God's intention that all Israel should develop into a nation of priests. And this very idea is applied by Peter to the entire church (1 Pet. 2:5,9). We likewise cannot assume that others shall take care of our spirituality; we are in fact called to be Levites for others. All of us have this calling.

And have set you apart from the peoples, that you should be Mine-
But in reality, Israel mixed with the peoples and were not set apart from them. Although God potentially enabled this. We are to live out in practice what we have been made in status by our gracious Father. The very fact He counts us as in Christ, as the spotless bride of His Son, must be both felt and lived up to by us. The way He counts us like this is a wonderful motivation to rise up to it all. Consider how God told Israel that if they kept His commandments, then they would be His “peculiar treasure” (Ex. 19:5). This conditional promise is then referred to by Moses as having been fulfilled- Israel became His “peculiar treasure” by status even though they did not keep His commandments (Dt. 7:6; 14:2 s.w.; Ps. 135:4). Moses concludes by saying that “the Lord hath avouched thee this day to be his peculiar people [s.w.]… that thou shouldest keep all his commandments” (Dt. 26:18). See what’s happening here. God said that if they were obedient, then they would be His special people. Yet He counted them as His special people even though they were not obedient. And He did this so that they would be so touched by this grace that they would be obedient.

Lev 20:27 A man or a woman that is a medium, or is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones; their blood shall be upon them’-
AV "a familiar spirit" is misleading, and many of the modern versions give something like "witch" or [ESV, GNB] "a medium". LXX has "a divining spirit". It doesn't mean she did actually have any such spirit; but that she was considered as having this. Such people were thought to be able to be possessed by the spirit of dead people, and to therefore speak in their name. But the Bible clearly teaches that the "spirit returns to God" (Ps. 146:4; Ecc. 12:7), and that death is unconsciousness. The spirit of dead persons don't enter other people. I would go so far as to say that the record of the witch at Endor, who supposedly had a "familiar spirit", is deconstructing this belief. For Samuel himself appears, and speaks directly to Saul, and not through the "medium". The woman therefore screamed in shock when Samuel actually appeared. He was resurrected, briefly, in order to give God's final message to Saul. The people claiming to have "familiar spirits" lay on the ground and mumbled hard to understand words in a voice seeking to imitate the dead person (Is. 29:4) but Samuel appeared in person and spoke clearly to Saul, directly. We also note that Samuel appeared to Saul standing upright, because Saul bowed before him: "Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and showed respect" (1 Sam. 28:14). This was quite different to how the mediums lay on the ground and mumbled words into the dust.