Leviticus 18-20: Be Holy
February 22, 2020
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
These chapters obviously have some tricky elements to them, and it is worth reading them in a slightly unusual way in order to be able to unpack their meaning. Start with the end in mind! If you look at verses 22 to 26 of chapter 20, you will see God gives the explanatory grid that undergirds all these instructions—an explanation that is also interwoven throughout all the different laws, expressed in various ways in these chapters. God says,
“You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them. But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples” (Lev. 20:22-24).
The reason, then, for these laws is so that God’s people would not fall into the same trap as the peoples previously who had occupied the land. This tells us several things: it tells us that God is holy; it tells us that God does not play favorites (God’s people will in the end go into exile for doing the very things God commands them not to do); and it tells us that God is calling for himself a “distinct” or “separate” people. Not a people who are weird, out-of-date, or odd, but who are morally distinct from the chaos all around.
Similar reasoning is interspersed through these chapters, though it is developed in various places and in various ways. Don’t do as they did in Egypt, or as they did in Canaan (18:3). Don’t do as the nations who used to occupy the land did because that is why the land vomited them out (18:24-25). Don’t do these things because the LORD is God (18:30). Be holy because God is holy (19:1). Don’t turn to idols because the LORD is God (19:4). Love the stranger because you were yourselves strangers in Egypt (19:34). Be fair and just because God brought you up out of Egypt where (presumably) you remember that you yourself were not treated fairly (19:36). Keep God’s commands because God is the God sanctifies you (20:8). Be holy for God is holy (20:26).
That much is fairly clear. But there are some parts of these chapters that stick in the throat of modern man like a chainsaw with a broken chain stuck in giant redwood tree. Not so much the clear restrictions against “uncovering the nakedness” of relatives (18:6-18, 20:11-12, 17) (“uncovering the nakedness” being one among several polite euphemisms in this chapter for sexual relations), but the inclusion in this list of homosexual behavior (18:22, 20:13)—as well as animal sexual relations (18:23, 20:15-16)—which is declared as “abomination” and results in being “put to death” (20:13).
It is beyond the scope of this brief daily commentary to expound on the convoluted subject in contemporary society—College Church has preached and taught on the topic many times in recent years with sermons and other teaching materials—but a brief word cannot be avoided. While some parts of these chapters are (as we have seen in this pattern of joining together what we in a non-theocratic society keep separate) practical or medical or symbolic—like the rule against interbreeding cattle (19:19)—the moral laws are in a different category and receive a different order of punishment. Child sacrifice to “Molech” (20:2) meets a different punishment than interbreeding cattle and has a different significance to it. The moral law remains, the sacrifice is fulfilled in Christ, the political/military need is for a theocratic society in which we do not live. No, the more difficult question is why is homosexual behavior clearly included in the moral category. The only answer we can fairly give is that God considers sexual behavior a moral matter. And while obedience here is harder for some than others, that does not stop it from being a matter of obedience.
In fact, I think the most difficult part of this passage is something else again: why does sexual intimacy with a slave woman, while declared wrong, not receive the same level of punishment (19:20)? I think the only answer can be that it is assumed that given the woman’s slave state, while there was not actual coercion or rape, the power relation makes her less morally responsible than in a free situation, and therefore the sin that is committed is the man’s, and “she was not free” (19:20). Still the overall lesson for the follower of Jesus is clear: be holy as God is holy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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