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Leviticus 20:1-27

Chapter 19, which we considered last week, was a selection of laws based more or less on the Ten Commandments. Chapter 18 was a long list of laws, most of which dealt with whom it was permissible to have a sexual relationship, always in marriage of course. This chapter concerns the proper punishment for various crimes against God and man. The repetition of many of the laws found in chapter 18 serves to emphasize their importance. Idolatrous worship and sexual sin were principal forms of Israel’s later apostasy.

In the modern west, where the entire theory of retributive punishment has come into question, readers of the Bible can struggle to appreciate what they find in such a chapter as Leviticus 20. It can seem to the modern western reader horribly primitive, even barbaric. It will not sound so even today in many other cultures, but it does in ours. But we will do well to withhold our judgment until we have considered carefully what is taught in the chapter, compare it to what was common among other peoples of that time and place and to what we are doing today.

Text Comment

v.3       One thing we must not do, if we are to hear the Word of Lord from Lev. 20 is fail to take with full seriousness what we read. In a close-knit community, such as Israel would have been in the days of the wilderness and after, to stone another person to death would have been an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. It would be difficult enough to participate in a stoning even if the person to be so executed were a stranger and had committed a horrific crime. But to execute someone you knew, someone you might even be related to in the clan, must have been a terrible trial. These people had the same sensibilities that you and I have, a fact to which the entire Bible bears eloquent witness. They were more extended-family oriented than we are! Such punishment was hard to execute; hard to have a hand in. But so reprehensible was the crime of child sacrifice, the murder of a little boy or girl for the purpose of gaining some advantage from a so-called god, so utterly without excuse, and so vicious that the death penalty was the only adequate punishment. Pre-meditated murder, which this certainly was, always deserved capital punishment in the Bible and the Lord insisted that his people execute that punishment; that they be involved; that they know who had done what and why he was being put to death.

It should also be noted that “stoning” was the ordinary form of judicial execution in Israel. It was not the work of a mob but was under the control of the court that had pronounced sentence. Witnesses against the man were required to cast the first stones; another way of insuring that they would have told the truth in the trial. [Cf. Deut. 17:1-7; Levine, 136] But the community could not pass this responsibility to others. Punishment was both institutional and personal in Israel.

v.3       In other words, the punishment inflicted by the court was ipso facto the Lord’s punishment of the sinner. A small nation that absolutely depended upon the protection of the Lord could ill afford to offend him or drive him away.

v.5       And if the people refused to carry out the punishment required, they would be themselves conniving in the sin and so they too would suffer its just punishment. The Lord promised to see to it himself if they refused. If you remember, child sacrifice during the reign of the northern kings and especially during Manasseh’s reign was a principal cause of the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians and of Judah and Jerusalem by the Babylonians. A great many Jews would eventually lose their lives in punishment for conniving in these very sins.

v.6       Again, as we said last time, divination in all its forms — and these are forms of divination, an attempt to learn what the gods intended to do in the future so that you could adjust your plans accordingly — was regarded as a vicious crime against God’s covenant. Divination is a form of magic, another word for superstition. It is another particularly crude form of idolatry, as if there were other powers in the universe who had to be served beside Yahweh!

The death penalty for such a crime is not stipulated here, but it is later in v. 27. All of the sins mentioned in this part of the chapter are to be punished with death.

v.7       As in the previous chapters, these laws and their sanctions rest on the authority of the living God himself. “I am the Lord who sanctifies you,” in effect means that Yahweh called Israel into fellowship with himself precisely that they might be a people who lived a holy life. When they betrayed that calling it was a particularly egregious form of rebellion given the Lord’s grace and mercy to an undeserving people like Israel.

v.9       In the context of the whole Law of Moses, what is referred to here as “cursing” one’s parents, or better, “dishonoring” them, is not the ordinary disobedience of children that parents must reprove and correct, but the behavior of an adult who was both defying his parents’ wishes and interests — presumed here, of course, to be righteous and holy – and abusing them. In the parallel section in Deuteronomy, the person in view is also glutton and a drunk (21:20). What is in view then is the worst forms of rebellion, a profound and dangerous subverting of social order. The parallel text also reminds us that, as in all these cases, a court would hear the case, weigh evidence, and render a verdict. This was not a mob taking justice into its own hands.

The way the crime is described here reminds us that the crimes being listed in the chapter are typically the worst forms of a particular class of offenses.

v.10     In other words, the adultery was consensual. She is called an adulteress because she was a willing participant. Victims of rape in the Law of Moses were never regarded as guilty of illicit sex (Deut. 22:25-27), as they all too commonly are still today in some cultures.

v.11     Such behavior was both adultery and incest.

v.12     As perhaps you have already recognized, we are repeating a list of sexual sins that also violate the bonds of family from chapter 18. They represent a particularly perverse form of sexual sin.

v.14     The presumption is that the man is married to both a woman and her mother. “Burned with fire” could be a more severe form of execution reserved for particularly revolting sins; however, it may refer not to execution by burning but the burning of the body after stoning, of which we read elsewhere in the OT. [Sklar, 258; Levine, 138] There would be no burial, again a greater disgrace in those says than today.

v.17     It is not entirely clear to us why certain marital violations were not considered as serious as others, but marriage with a half-sister here, with an uncle’s wife (v. 19), and with a woman who had formerly been married to one’s brother (v. 21) were in this category of sins that did not deserve the death penalty. [Levine, 135]

Here the penalty was being “cut off” from the people. It isn’t easy to prove from the text what the term “cut off” means, but all in all it seems best to assume that it means to be exiled, banished, or excommunicated from the assembly. The guilty person would be forced to leave the community, which would mean, in the nature of the case, being cut off not only from Israel but from his or her family, an especially heavy burden in those days.

v.18     As we noted when considering this law in 15:24 and 18:19, we are not talking about the inadvertent discovery that the period had begun, but contempt for the requirement of maintaining ritual purity among the Lord’s people. Again the activity is presumed to be consensual. Both were flaunting God’s holiness.

v.19     “…they shall bear their iniquity” likely means that they will suffer the same punishment as in the previous case.

v.20     The penalty in this case is imposed by the Lord, not the court, perhaps because a paternal uncle’s wife was not considered quite as close a relative. Again, this would all make immediate sense to those to whom these laws were first addressed, though we may struggle from this distance to understand all the nuances.

v.23     Again, these were not theoretical temptations. The practices that were being forbidden so sternly were commonplace among Israel’s neighbors.

v.24     “Flowing with milk and honey,” familiar to us as a description of the fruitfulness of Canaan, suggests a land capable of supporting large herds and flocks producing milk and thick with fruit trees, especially the date palm from which most honey was produced. [Levine, 139]

v.26     In a new twist on the clean/unclean distinction the Lord here tells Israel that she has become a “clean” people, that he has divided them from the unclean world. Therefore, they should demonstrate this distinction by carefully observing the distinction between clean and unclean animals. In effect he is saying that the Canaanites lost Canaan because they were unclean, but that the same thing could happen to Israel if they took lightly their calling to be holy before God. In other words, the reference to clean and unclean animals, which seems alien to the theme of the chapter, is used here as an analogy. The moral distinction between clean and unclean should be uppermost in Israel’s mind. She was to remain clean before God; if she didn’t she would suffer the same fate as the Canaanites, which, alas, she eventually did.

v.27     The chapter, as others in Leviticus, is organized chiastically, which explains why we have another reference to mediums and necromancers here at the end of the chapter. Some emphasis is being put on this, obviously, in part because these forms of divination were so common to the rest of the ancient near east. But to turn to fortune tellers was virtually the same thing as turning to idols. It represented a repudiation of covenantal faith and life and a resort to magic. Magic, in its more serious sense – not magic as entertainment as we know it today, but magic as religious practice – is any practice thought to manipulate the forces of the world without regard to ethics, without regard to moral living. But in Yahweh’s world ethics is what matters, faith and righteousness are what he rewards, not some procedure imagined to manipulate the gods or the fates in some way.

Leviticus 20 continues the emphasis on Israel’s holiness of life that was begun in chapter 18. You will have noticed once again the connection that is assumed throughout between pagan religious practices and sexual degeneracy. We are observing that connection in our time. The loss of the biblical view of God has set loose every manner of sexual license and we have become in a remarkably short time as sexually corrupt a people as has ever existed on the face of the earth. Once again we come face to face with the loss of a perspective that long defined the moral stance of the Christian west, however imperfectly. It was agreed by almost everyone that there was a moral order, fixed in nature itself and in the nature of human beings in particular, a moral order to which all human beings were obliged to submit. This was reality itself and could not be ignored without moral fault on the one hand and without harm to the human family on the other. That conviction was itself built on the convictions that the living God had created the world, had imprinted his will on the conscience of mankind, had built a moral order into the world itself, and would not permit that order to be flaunted without consequence, indeed without horrific consequence. It was never thought a coincidence that promiscuity resulted in disease or that sexual sins of various kinds destabilized the family and were profoundly harmful to children. It was the nature of the world. It was the moral order built into that nature. In the same way, it was taken as a matter of course that both homosexuality and incest were unnatural; deviations from the divinely created order of human life.

As this view of God, of creation, and of the moral order has withered away to almost nothing in the West – interestingly, only in some ethical areas, sex supremely; the assumption seems to be that one can pick and choose which dimensions of this moral order can be eliminated while keeping the rest – I say, as this concept of a moral order has been lost to the Western mind, sexual license has flourished. Indeed, it is not too much to say that abortion – our modern form of Molech worship – and all forms of sex detached from marriage are the index of the sea change in the ruling moral philosophy of the modern West. Some important advocates of this revolution in moral philosophy have admitted as much. It was the desire for sexual freedom from the constraints of that presumed moral order that was the great motive of this revolution in thought and moral philosophy.

In a single generation we have become entirely used to millions of abortions, a culture of pornography, and a culture of promiscuity and the trivialization of sex as entertainment, as a form of recreation. It is a great experiment this: whether a society, any society, can survive, much less thrive, when built on such a foundation. The evidence accumulated so far is not encouraging. The increasing number of adults who are unmarried and likely to remain so, falling birthrates, the difficulty American adults are finding in creating stable relationships with the opposite sex, pornography as a new addiction of modern life, the growing instability of families, the ever increasing measures of psychological pain in the lives of both children and adults, these are omens of greater trouble ahead, not of some new world of personal liberation in which everyone finds true fulfillment in the satisfaction of whatever sexual desire might move him or her at the time. The world was not built to work that way and the truth of God’s law is nowhere more powerfully demonstrated than in the misery that eventuates when it is disobeyed. Judgment may not come overnight. It didn’t in Israel’s case. But come it will. It always has and the signs of coming doom are already visible everywhere one looks.

So perhaps we 21st Americans are not the ones to be carping at the punishments listed in Leviticus 20! There is a price to be paid by somebody – a terrible price in human woe and death – for allowing sins of these kinds not only to go unpunished, but actually in some cases to be celebrated. If you don’t think so, ask the Canaanites! Oh, you can’t; they don’t exist; haven’t for thousands of years.

If you young people are wondering, as you may be, what the big deal is about homosexual marriage, why it should be thought so wrong and so dangerous, begin here to think your way to the bottom of this question. The advocacy of homosexual marriage proceeds and must proceed on the assumption that there is no moral order built into human life, no moral reality to which all human beings are subject because of its rootedness, because of its foundation in the very nature of things. It cannot admit that there is such a thing as perversion or abomination because such a practice is contrary to nature. If it matters not that men and women were made for each other — that their sexual complementarity is a foundation of life — and if homosexuality is as perfectly natural as heterosexuality, it will be frankly impossible to argue that anything is intrinsically wrong. It will certainly be impossible to argue that bestiality is wrong or incest is wrong if someone wants to or chooses to practice it. If we deny that the relationship between a parent and a child is, by nature, of a morally unique kind, we can hardly argue that incest is forbidden. More than that, we have left the ground upon which we might raise an argument that the Muslim jihadists who wish to kill all Christians and Jews are doing something intrinsically wrong. He is quite sure he ought to do what he is doing. You don’t want him to, but you cannot argue that what he is doing is objectively and absolutely wrong. Not if you have already come to terms with abortion and euthanasia, not if you can no longer say that human life is sacred in its very nature, as utterly distinct from and superior to all other forms of life. All you can say, literally, all you can say is that murder may be acceptable in some cultures, but it is not so far in ours. You have detached ethical norms from any universal foundation. And if history shows us anything, once so detached, a society’s ethics will follow the path of least resistance downward. As the heroic German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoller, observed:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

They will not admit that this is what they have done, but it is the easiest thing to demonstrate in a discussion with an unbeliever that this is precisely what they have done. And all you have to do is raise the argument: why should we believe you and not the Muslim jihadist? When they seek to answer that question you are going to see with your own two eyes they have nothing to say, without denying the foundation on which they have built their practice of sexual freedom.

And we have not yet begun to consider what God himself might do when human beings rebel against his will and against the creation order he established in such flagrant and defiant ways. Name a culture in the history of mankind that has not suffered judgment when it has sought to build itself on a foundation of indifference to these fundamental laws of God that he has woven into the fabric of human existence. The family is the bedrock of any and every human society. When families break down the society itself will not be far behind. And what the modern sexual revolution has done is to break down the family: whether by making marriage unnecessary, or by producing immense numbers of children out of wedlock, or by the increasing incidence of divorce, or by identifying other relationships as family that are not rooted in the nature of a family as God made the family to be, and so profoundly redefining the family as something other than an artifact, a hard, inflexible reality of human nature as God created it; making it instead one of any number of social constructions, human inventions if you will, that we can tinker with as we please. No man invented the family. It was here at the very beginning as human history bears powerful witness.

The severe penalties prescribed for certain sins demonstrate how seriously the Lord takes those sins and how important it was to put Israel on guard against them because the consequence of them was the unraveling of Israel’s social life. Nothing is so likely to deter as the threat of severe punishment. That principle is often denied nowadays; its denial is perfectly predictable. When a society rebels against the law of nature it must assure itself that no consequences will ensue form its rebellion. It may be whistling in the dark, but one must whistle when one is afraid of what mayhem may be hiding there in the darkness. And so it is often asserted that punishment does not deter. But that is absurd; we all know that’s absurd. We know very well, we check our speedometers; we drop our foot off the accelerator when we see a police car ahead precisely because we do not want to get a ticket. When the police go on strike anywhere in the world, we can predict there will be looting. The punishment of children in every well-ordered family proceeds on the assumption that children who learn that punishment follows misbehavior will learn by that means not to misbehave. Most capital crimes are committed by people who expect somehow to remain undetected and unpunished. Of course, punishment doesn’t deter everyone. That is why such punishments are devised! But punishment justly and swiftly applied has a tremendous deterrent effect on the society as a whole. The Greeks have stopped paying their taxes. Why? Because they know no one will punish them for doing so! Punishment is essential to human life. It is essential to social order.

But what punishments? Well note these facts about punishment in the Law of Moses.

  1. First, punishment in Israel was different in some important ways from that prescribed in other ancient near eastern law codes. There is a human, even a humanitarian focus in the Law of Moses that is distinctive among ancient law codes. In Israel crimes against humanity were more serious than crimes against property. Crimes against property were never capital crimes in Israel though they often were in other ancient near eastern codes. Also there was in Israel no regard for social class or status. In Mesopotamian law, for example, an injury to a nobleman was punished more severely than an injury to a commoner. In Israel even aliens and immigrants were treated equally under the law. Finally, the Law of Moses did not permit substitutionary punishment as did other law codes. No one was ever punished for the crimes committed by someone else. [Sklar, 66-67]
  2. Second, there is a debate in biblical scholarship as to whether the punishments listed in chapter 20 were required in every case or whether they were the maximum penalties for that class of crime. It seems to me likely that idolatry and murder were always capital crimes in Israel, but as for the others, there is at least some evidence that what we have in some cases are the legally permissible maximum penalties and that mitigating factors may have reduced sentences, even significantly, in certain cases. [Sklar, 67-68]
  3. Third, the principal form of punishment in modern states for a wide variety of crimes is entirely absent from the Mosaic Law. Scripture mentions prisons in Egypt, Philistia, Assyria, and Babylon. Later evil kings of Israel cast their opponents into prison and we read of Jewish and Roman prisons in the New Testament as well. But the Law of Moses never provides for imprisonment as punishment for crime. Crimes punished by imprisonment today were punished by beating, by the requirement of restitution, by slavery, by banishment, and by capital punishment. The dismal failure of our prison system in the United States, the horrific recidivism rates (on average some 75% or more of American prisoners re-offend and return to prison) and the dehumanizing aspects of prison life have led many thoughtful observers to argue that imprisonment has proved a dismal failure and our reliance on it should be rethought.  Perhaps we are not as forward thinking or humane as we imagine ourselves to be. American prisons are moral sewers and training grounds in crime. They de-stable personalities rather than fix them. Nations that use public beatings as punishment for certain crimes have a much lower crime rate than we do. Similarly, restitution as a form of punishment – the requirement that the offender repay the victim for harm done — affirms the moral seriousness of human behavior, directly and positively addresses the harm that was done, and provides the offender with a much more hopeful way forward. [J. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 698-701]

We would not, of course, think it right for the modern state to enforce laws against idolatry or blasphemy. It shouldn’t be illegal for there to be a horoscope in your newspaper. The United States, for example, is not a nation in covenant with God. It would be incompetent to assess such behavior or define the crime. On the other hand, that is far from saying that the United States will not suffer divine judgment for the crimes it is committing against God and man these days. The laws of Leviticus 18 and 20 are laws for all mankind, not just Bible believers because they are the laws God not only published in his Word but woven into the fabric of human life.

The fact is the punishment for sin is built into the fabric of the universe. We Christians should be the last to deny this insofar as our redemption required the punishment of the Son of God himself. What was the cross but punishment for sin, borne on our behalf by the Lord Jesus? Nor can we deny that punishment very often has a salutary effect in human life, correcting the behavior of some and warning others away from doing what is wrong. It is the threat of punishment that solemnizes human. As C.S. Lewis famously observed:

“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains.” [Problem of Pain, 93]

What we are given in chapter 20, which may seem laborious reading to a modern American evangelical, is a window on the nature of the world and what is required to keep human wickedness in bounds. A dying civilization such as ours, should be the very last to imagine that it has found a better way, a more humane way, a more just way. Neither calling evil good nor boasting of its moral enlightenment will indemnify a society against the judgments of the Lord. It may refuse to punish but, as we read in v. 5, God will do what man will not.

The inconsistency and hypocrisy of the modern American position is, of course, that it wishes to excuse certain behaviors while, at the same time, expecting society to respect other moral imperatives and norms. But the law of nature, the law of God imprinted both on the world and on the conscience and heart of mankind, is a seamless robe. Pull out any thread and the entire garment must begin to unravel. If there is no authority lying behind our ethics, if there is no sanction, if our moral code comes to be thought of simply as a man-made device by which we manipulate public behavior, that code will prove no match for the lusts of the flesh. Why should I care about someone else’s mere opinion, especially when his opinion would limit my freedom to do as I please?

So many deeply troubling features of American sexual life are now impossible to talk about publicly precisely because we can no longer admit that sex is so much more than “an innocent, natural act for the sake of the mutual exchange of pleasure.” [R. Reno, First Things (Feb. 2015) 5] Sex is, on the contrary, an extraordinarily powerful, life-creating, soul-defining act that in its unique intimacy draws the entire personality into itself and so can be trivialized only to the great peril of the human soul and body. It is in its very nature a monumental human activity, full of wonderful potential and terrible risk. Human societies have understood this through the ages. For that reason they surrounded the sexual dimension of life with rigid protections and limitations, such as we find here in Lev. 20. The fact of the matter is that contemporary sexual practice and sexual expression is destroying vast multitudes of human lives in the modern west, denaturing them, and visiting upon them varieties of psychological and social distress and dysfunction. And the society knows it and is doing nothing about it because to do something, really to do something, would be to admit that there is in fact a moral order built into human life to which all human beings are subject.

So be it. But let’s have none of this silliness about our living in a more enlightened age. And, still more, we Christians should at least have the sense not to jump on this bandwagon just as it is sinking irretrievably into the quagmire. These ancient punishments tell us what God thinks about what we are doing in our culture today. If we believe in God, if we believe in the truth of his Word, if we believe that he judges the wicked and rewards the righteous, we will never accept as normal what he has taught us to regard as perverse, as an abomination, and as a disgrace.

Leviticus 20 is, to be sure, not one of the happiest chapters in the Bible, but the testimony it bears, the truth it conveys is absolutely fundamental to any honest view of the world and any possibility of a healthy human society, given the nature of the human heart. We are not, as Christians, only interested in our own salvation and that of others we know. We care about the world and the people of the world. Who knows better than the Creator of heaven and earth how human life ought to be lived!