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Leviticus 18:1-30

For the first time in Leviticus we have before us something other than liturgical instruction. We turn now to ethics, to rules for living. But we should not think of these commandments as simply a list of “thou shalt nots.” What we have here is something more fundamental. What all of this legislation does is define the family. Incest is an assault on the nature of the family and since the family is the foundation of society – in every culture – “all systems of law show concern for its definition.” [Levine, xv] What we are about in our modern western culture nowadays is a fundamental re-definition of the family in order to justify various sexual practices. That isn’t the way it is typically presented. Usually the impression is that the family is as it has always been, we are simply adding new members to it. But what is actually happening is that the definition of a family is being changed profoundly. Historically in western civilization and elsewhere throughout the world, sexual practices were subjected to the absolute obligations of family. It was understood by virtually everyone that nothing was more important to a society than the preservation of family order and stability. We are now reversing that ancient order in the modern West. Sexual freedom is more important in our culture than family stability and the results have been predictable: as we have become more licentious our families have become more unstable.

I have been reading the fascinating autobiography of the Methodist theologian Thomas Oden, who began his professional life by repudiating the classic Christianity of his upbringing and substituting for it a left-leaning, Marxist oriented, Freudian inspired pursuit of social change along the lines of wealth redistribution, feminism, sexual freedom, abortion, and the insights of psychotherapy. Over time he came to think differently as he began to realize how empty the promises of these new theories actually had proved to be and how much harm they were doing to people and to the institutions upon which society depended. Long enamored of novelty and social change, he came to see that in an age devoted to radical change almost no one seemed to care about stability, permanence, and continuity. These recognitions led him over time back to the Christian faith as it had been understood from the era of the church fathers to our present day by those who actually believed the Bible. The acknowledgement that our pursuit of change in our sexual and marital ethics has led to catastrophe comes with special authority from someone who once advocated for those very changes but now has repented of his having done so.

Text Comment

v.2       The statement “I am the Lord your God” functions as an inclusio appearing also as the last sentence in the chapter.

v.6       The form of law we are reading in Leviticus 18 is commonly referred to as apodictic. That is, it is absolute and unqualified in form. “You shall do this…” or “You shall not do this.” It is different from the case law form that we will find in chapter 20. There we will read “If someone does this…this shall happen to him.” In fact we will see that there is considerable repetition of material in this chapter in chapter 20. For example, in 18:15 we read, “Do not have sexual relations with your daughter-in-law.” In 20:12 we read, “If a man has sexual relations with his daughter-in-law, both of them are to be put to death.”

Both forms of law are found frequently in the Bible and, indeed, are found together in the Law of Moses. The Ten Commandments are apodictic in form — “You shall not…” “You shall…” — but they are followed by several chapters in the case law form. The case law form helps us to understand the apodictic commandments and how to apply them to the thousand and one circumstances we face in life, as well as what is to be done when they are disobeyed.

Vv. 6-18 forbid sexual relationships within the family circle. The statement in v. 6 about a sexual relationship with a “close relative” is a title for what follows. “Uncover nakedness” is one of several Hebrew euphemisms for sexual intercourse.

v.7       The family relationships that follow are of both kinds: consanguinity and affinity. That is, both blood relationships and relationships created through marriage are regarded as “close relative” relationships.

v.8       The idea of the last phrase is that since one’s father has sexual relations with his wife, she is ipso facto off limits to anyone else. The “nakedness of your father” means the nakedness that belongs to your father, that is, your mother. [Levine, 120]

v.9       Both widowhood and divorce and remarriage create step-relationships that are also family relationships and so are an absolute barrier to a sexual relationship. In this case there is also a blood connection through one or the other of the parents.

v.11     A similar prohibition to that in v. 9 except there a blood relationship was in view; here there is none.

v.14     An uncle was considered an especially close relative as he would ordinarily be next in line to inherit upon the death of one’s father or the death of an older brother.

v.16     There was a law, as you know, already referred to in Genesis 38:8, called levirate marriage (so named after the Latin word for brother-in-law, levir) in which a brother was responsible to marry or, at least to provide an heir to his dead brother’s wife, who otherwise would be left in a precarious position, without husband or inheritance. Verse 16, like many laws, contemplates not every possible circumstance, but the most likely and common one. In this case the law concerns not his brother’s widow but his living brother’s wife.

v.17     The point here does not concern any woman and any woman’s daughters – that will be taken up in v.20 under the general prohibition against adultery – but a woman who lives under the man’s roof and protection.

v.18     The question here is whether this verse begins a new section prohibiting adultery in general. The answer hinges on technical questions of Hebrew grammar. Some take the verse to forbid the marriage of a wife’s sister while the wife is still living. Others take the sentence to read as a general prohibition against polygamy, an interpretation that is at least as old as the Dead Sea Scrolls. In either case it serves as an implicit argument against polygamy for it speaks negatively about a rival wife. That’s not the ordinary way you would positively describe two wives in the same home.

v.19     This circumstance was considered earlier in chapter 15.

v.20     This is again the most common case. To prohibit adultery per se – sleeping with another man’s wife — does not amount to condoning sleeping with an unmarried woman, what we typically refer to as fornication. Fornication is very clearly and explicitly forbidden in other texts in the Bible. Here this particular sin, the primary sin, stands for all others like it. [Sklar, 236]

v.21     Child sacrifice was also a terribly defiling sin and so is forbidden here after a long list of what were regarded as particularly egregious sins against nature and against God. There are several texts in the OT that indicate that the Canaanites practiced child-sacrifice and we know it became a temptation later in Israel. Think of it as the reductio ad absurdum of paganism. As western culture has become more pagan, it should be no surprise that we are once again killing our children, sacrificing them to the gods of materialism, personal convenience, self-fulfillment, and pleasure.

v.23     The juxtaposition of the prohibition of homosexual sex and bestiality has proved a serious impediment to those who wish to maintain that the Bible does not forbid homosexual sexual relationships in the modern sense. The principle that unites both cases is that of being unnatural, that is, contrary to the divine intention and to the nature, physical and spiritual, of men and women and of animals. God made men and women for one another as sexual partners; he did not make men for men or women for women  for that purpose.

I’m not going to consider this issue tonight, but let me offer this wisdom from C.S. Lewis.

            “To map out the boundaries within which all discussion must go on, I take it for certain that the physical satisfaction of homosexual desires is sin. This leaves the homosexual no worse off than any [other] person who is, for whatever reason prevented from marrying…. Like all other tribulations, it must be offered to God and his guidance how to use it must be sought.” [A Severe Mercy, 147-148]

I read the other day an NPR interview with a PCA pastor in Pennsylvania who struggles with same-sex attraction and has since high school. He is married because he knew that this was the right way to live, he loved the girl and she loved him and was willing to marry him knowing full well his struggle with same-sex attraction. They are expecting their first child. He put it this way to his interviewer:

“I think we all have parts of our desires that we choose not to act on… So for me, not choosing to use the identity language, that was a choice. I don’t personally find it helpful to use my experience of sexual attraction to define myself as a person, so I’m Allan. I’m Donna Mary’s son, I’m Leanne’s husband. I’m a follower of Jesus Christ. Those things are just more important to me, I guess, than the experience of same-sex attraction.


“…everybody has this experience of wanting something else or beyond what they have. Everyone struggles with discontentment.”

Bestiality was likewise practiced in Canaan. Hittite law codes, for example, forbade sex with cattle, sheep, pigs and dogs, but permitted it with horses or mules. [Sklar, 238] In every case, sex of this type also is a perversion of God’s intention for the life of man and so rebellion not simply against God his maker, but against his own very nature as a human being, male or female.

v.28     As Paul does in Romans 8, where he speaks of the creation groaning until now, here too the land is personified, as if it too were so disgusted by what was done in and upon it that it vomited out its inhabitants. [Levine, 123-124] The imagery heightens the sense of outrage and explains why the Lord has determined to punish the inhabitants of Canaan and to give it to his people. It also serves to warn them not to imitate the behavior of the Canaanites lest a similar fate befall them! Thus far the Word of God.

The various forms of incest mentioned in chapter 18 may or may not have been commonplace in Egypt or Canaan, but they were certainly found in both cultures. They were in Egypt from which Israel had just come and the Israelites would encounter them again in Canaan where they were about to go. A particular practice does not have to be commonplace in a culture to have a defining effect upon its ethical ethos. Homosexuality in the modern west is the way of life of a relatively few people, but the acceptance and now approval of homosexuality as a way of life has had an immense effect upon the ethical world of the modern west.

As we read in the opening verses of the chapter, the commandments that are enumerated in the chapter represented a repudiation of a way of life accepted in both Egypt and Canaan, the cultures and populations between which Israel was poised in the wilderness. It is always much more difficult to live in a way that distinguishes and separates you from most of the people around you. Human beings are generally instinctively conformist. It is always much easier to conform to the standards of your neighbors, particularly if they outnumber you. They will not understand why you live so differently and they will take offense at the implied criticism of their way of life. They will not like you for refusing to accept their way of life and we all want to be liked. Thomas Oden tells the highly interesting story of his gradual marginalization in the liberal seminary where he taught. As his viewpoint became more decidedly biblical his fellow faculty members became less and less accepting of his opinions and more and more suspicious of his motives. It is the way of the world! As the British would say, “He was sent to Coventry.”

What is more, rub shoulders often enough with people who live in even highly disordered ways and it will soon seem normal to you. You will make friends among those who find such behavior not only normal but liberating and beautiful, and it will become harder still to continue to believe that God considers perverse what everyone around you seems to find normal.

This is the simple reason why the church always – I mean always – finds its temptations, both theological and ethical, in the culture within which it lives. She does not invent temptations of her own that nobody has ever heard before and peculiar to her. She simply starts sagging toward the culture in which she finds herself. This has happened times without number. We wonder about the modern world and its impact on the church, about the church’s capitulation to modernity. The fact of the matter is there have been a thousand modern worlds before this one and the church has capitulated to modernity again and again and again. Gnosticism in the 2nd and 3rd centuries was a form of modern thinking to which part of the church attached itself; Manicheanism in the 4th century, even Arianism in the 3rd and 4th century were obvious efforts to adjust the Christian faith to contemporary currents in theology, philosophy, and ethics. We might say the same thing about the office of the Pope or the cult of Mary, and in very important ways the development of monasticism. The distinctive principles of these ideas and movements cannot be found in the Word of God or the ancient tradition of the biblical faith. They were ideas imported from the world around them. Monasticism would never have developed for the first time in our time — in fact it is dying in our time — but it fit neatly with ascetic ideas that were powerfully at work in the imperial world of the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

The Devil will ensure that there will always be impressive reasons to accommodate the biblical faith to the ideas popular in the surrounding culture. Take note here, for example, that it is not said, at least not explicitly or at any length, why these sexual relationships were forbidden. Why you could not have a sexual relationship with a relative? We can certainly understand the blessing and benefit of these laws for women, in particular. As so often in some societies still today, the Muslim Middle East for example, they are vulnerable to virtual sexual slavery in their own homes. All of this was absolutely forbidden in Israel and a culture of purity and of the dignity of women was put in its place. Don’t ever forget how utterly unusual this was then and remains still today in many cultures. Still the fact that these principles were not explained at any length has enabled modern thinkers in the church to argue that these laws needn’t apply to our life today. What is more, while these relationships were forbidden, in Israel marriage within the clan was encouraged, sometimes even required. So the distinction between within the family and outside of it can seem to be a fine one. [Levine, 117] There are always reasons that will be persuasive if one is looking for reasons.

So, for example, today biblical sexual ethics seem to be in conflict with what we have learned to think of as elementary considerations of fairness and justice and of what we think we know about mental health. All of this modern opinion may be deeply untrue, it mostly is, but it seems true to people who have endured for years on end a drumbeat of propaganda for the sexual revolution. Studies are showing that evangelical young people are increasingly unable to articulate a reason why homosexuals should be forbidden to marry. It just seems unfair to them; not because they have a biblical mind but because they have an American mind. Why should some be forbidden to do what everyone else is free to do?

But besides the most fundamental reason of God’s creative purpose and what is consistent with our nature as God made us, there is another reason we are given here why we must do as we are told come wind come weather. It is found in the 5th verse of chapter 18. There is, after all, a still higher reason why we must do as we are told here, come wind, come weather.

This statement, “If a person does them, he shall live by them…,” has often been misunderstood, perhaps in largest part because of Paul’s polemical use of it in Galatians 3:11-12. There, in contrasting the principle of faith with the principle of meritorious obedience or justification by works, Paul writes,

“Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.’”

This statement may confuse us precisely because we would have said and the Reformed faith has rung the changes on the principle that true obedience to the law must be by faith, can only be by faith. Why then should Paul say that the law is not of faith? Many have taken Paul to mean that in the OT, as least after Sinai, the law was offered as a means of securing righteousness before God, observance of the commandments was rewarded by life in the world to come. A pure form of justification by works; salvation by self-effort. That possibility eventually proved an illusion and by the appearance of Jesus Christ was recognized as such and so was replaced by justification by faith. A form of this view is held by a few of our own men. They don’t believe that the Bible ever taught it was possible to earn your way to heaven by obedience to God’s commandments, but they think Paul meant in Galatians 3 that a legalistic approach to justification was republished at Sinai as if it were possible to be saved by the works of the law for the purpose of disabusing God’s people of the possibility of doing so. This is a part of what Paul means, they think, by saying that the law leads us to Christ. In their view this legalistic theory of justification was laid as a veneer over the covenant of grace and these two different concepts of salvation lay side by side from Moses to Christ. Again, the rationale of this biblical “legalism” was to demonstrate forever that there was no hope of righteousness before God except through the work of Jesus Christ embraced by faith. Then, in the new epoch, the veneer was peeled away to leave only justification by faith in Christ, the only way it has ever been possible for sinners to be made right with God. This is the view that is nowadays known as “republication,” because it is the view that that the covenant of works – which they take to be a promise of “eternal life through obedience” — was republished alongside the covenant of grace at Sinai for educative effect. The primary proof text for this view is Paul’s use of Leviticus 18:5 in Galatians 3:12. In fact, a major work by some of these men devoted to supporting this interpretation and defending it was entitled “The Law is Not of Faith.”

Now, it will not surprise you to learn that I have no sympathy whatsoever with this account of the biblical teaching. I acknowledge that some English Puritans held this view and that some clever people have taught it recently, principally the Reformed theologian Meredith Kline. But, to be frank, I think it an interpretation so bizarre it is hard for me to believe that it has ever commanded support from anyone! Let me tell you why. Before I enumerate some of my reasons, let me first say that it should matter to us that the Bible never says anything like this. It is an inference built on another inference from certain remarks made in a polemical context by the Apostle Paul. The Bible never says that the covenant of works or the promise of justification by obedience was overlaid the proclamation of the gospel of salvation by grace at Sinai. I’d want something more than what is after all a highly controversial, and I would say highly doubtful, interpretation of Paul’s use of an OT text on which to base this enormously complex view of the history of revelation. But now to more specific reasons.

First, Leviticus 18:5, like so many other texts requiring obedience and promising reward in both the OT and the NT, is a statement embedded in a covenantal context. In Leviticus Israel is already the people of God; their redemption has already been accomplished. God’s grace has already found them out and delivered them from bondage. Leviticus is not about how Israel might be put right with God or become his people. It is about how Israel is to live as the people of God they already are. The law regulates the relationship; it does not create it. [Sklar, 229] This is a particularly important observation because we find the same requirement of obedience and the same promise of reward everywhere we look in the New Testament as well. Those many NT texts are precisely the ones Roman Catholics appeal to to prove that justification is by both faith and obedience. But we are right to maintain that when Jesus says that only those who do the will of his Father in heaven will enter the kingdom of heaven, or when we read in Hebrews that without holiness no one will see the Lord, or when Paul says that the doers of the law will be justified or when he says that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters but keeping the commandments of God, they are not setting aside the constant, emphatic, and perfectly clear teaching of the Bible that we are saved by grace through faith, that it is the gift of God and not our own doing, and that the works that we are commanded to perform, are the consequence of the grace of God we have already received, not the means of obtaining that grace in the first place. You have to keep the commandments of God, but do so, even to want to do so, you have to be a Christian first.

There is nothing anywhere in the Bible that remotely approaches the teaching of the rabbis of Jesus day who argued that Israel merited the exodus from Egypt and that God chose Israel as his people because they were the only ones deserving of the honor. We have left biblical ground entirely with such ideas. In the Bible from start to finish God’s gift is first, our response in obedience comes after. Lev. 18:5 is a classic example of this order and this relationship between divine grace and Christian obedience. What is more, the NT has many statements exactly like Lev. 18:5 in their meaning. The Lord promises to his disciples rich and prosperous life in the Sermon on the Mount and in Mark 10 if only they will do his will. Paul tells his readers that what matters in their lives is keeping the commandments of God and that they are going to want nothing so much, when their lives are done, than that they did the will of their Father in heaven!

Second, Paul’s use of the text in Galatians does not support the republication interpretation either. In this same passage Paul very clearly teaches that justification by faith has always been the only way for sinners to secure peace with God – even in Gal. 3:11 he makes that point by quoting the OT – and he also teaches, and in that same context, that the law never could give life and especially in Galatians 3:21, where he writes, “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.” If one wanted to infer a conclusion from Paul’s argument in Gal. 3, it would make much more sense to infer that he thinks the very idea of justification by obedience a bald faced lie. How could God have lied to his people? How could he have implied that they could achieve eternal life by their own efforts to obey God’s commandments? The very idea is abhorrent. According to this conception the Judaizers found their theology in the Bible! Paul would never imagine such a thing! His argument with the Judaizers is not, “Well that used to be true, but you’ve got to get with the new program.” His argument from beginning to end was always, “You don’t understand your own Bible. There has never been a way for sinners to be put right with God other than by faith in the grace of God.”

Paul’s use of Lev. 18:5 in Galatians 3:11-12 is, I would think quite obviously – and this is the view of some of the finest of commentators on Galatians and notably in the modern era of Herman Ridderbos, whose book on the theology of Paul is deservedly the standard — part of an argument e contrario; that is, he is using the statement as it was understood by his opponents, the Galatian Judaizers. By that time in Jewish history rabbis were appealing to Lev.18:5 in such a legalistic sense [Levine, 119], as proof that obedience to the commandments merits eternal life, and it is in that sense, on those premises, the way the Judaizers understood Lev. 18:5, that Paul cites the text to make his point. He is saying that on their own premises the Judaizers can offer no hope of salvation, for, as Paul had just said,

“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law and do them.”

The unspoken minor premise, the more powerful its impact for its remaining unspoken, is that no one does all that the Law requires, a point Paul makes explicitly later in his argument. The simple message of those verses in Galatians 3:11-12 is that, for the same reason that all men must be justified by faith in Christ, the legalist must as well: viz. no one can earn his way to heaven by obedience.

So what then does the statement mean? “If a person does them, he shall live by them.” Well it means very much what the Lord Jesus meant when he said that he had come that we might have life and have it abundantly. [John 10:10] He means what Paul means when he says that what the gospel offers is that which is truly life, or, as one translation had it, the life worthy to be called life. [1 Tim. 6:19]

Do you want a true and authentic human life? Do you want a fulfilling, satisfying, happy life? Do you want a truly good life – good in the deepest sense of the word? Do you want to enjoy God’s favor and see your life a blessing to others? Do you want a life that you are going to be glad to have lived, no matter the difficulties and troubles you had to face along the way? Well that life is defined by obedience to God’s commandments. You can find that life in the law of God. Lev. 18:5 is just a very short form of what you get at great length in Lev. 26 and Deut. 28, where we are given a long list of the blessings that will befall those who obey God’s law.

Let’s go back to the homosexual man or the lesbian woman. No one should underestimate the struggle and the sacrifice that sexual purity requires of anyone, heterosexual or homosexual. Powerful, extraordinarily powerful desires have to be controlled. Temptations must be resisted with might and main. But the reward for that faithfulness and that obedience is life! What does any person want? What does a homosexual want? He wants wholeness, he wants integrity, he wants satisfaction, he wants high purpose, he wants the favor of God and man, and he wants life, with a capital “L.” But he will not find those things; no one will find those things, by indulging his appetites. He will find some temporary pleasure, to be sure, but temporary and, as so many will tell us, ephemeral. And then he or she must give an account to God!

You don’t become a whole person, you don’t live a significant and fulfilling and satisfying life by giving in to the desires of your flesh. No one does. You become such a person by submitting those desires to higher, holier commitments. What commitments? Well, our great privilege as Christians is to know what those commitments are and to want to obey them. Those commandments define life as it was always meant to be lived; they are consistent with our nature as men and women made in the image of God; and they hold promise of making the very most of our time in this world. That is why the law of God is always in the Bible regarded as such a great gift. It is, as it were, the owner’s manual for a human life, written by the one who made that life and who will someday judge it.

How do we know that obedience to God’s commandments is the way to wholeness and fullness of life, to life with a capital “L?” Because vast multitudes of Christians before us have left behind their testimony to that fact. They have told us, with all the earnestness they could muster, that when their lives were ending everything that they remembered with satisfaction had something to do with obeying the commandments of God. And the only regrets they had and would take to their grave were the times when they did not obey!