13. The Boundaries of Godly Sexuality (Leviticus 18:6-29)Related Media
Structure of the Text100
Leviticus 18:6-29 has a very simple structure and message. Its intent is to define the boundaries of godly human sexual relationships. There are three of them, which I call the inner, middle, and outer boundaries of godly sexuality. Verses 6 through 18 define the “inner boundary,” prohibiting sexual relationships with close relatives. Verses 19 and 20 define the “middle boundary,” which limits sexual relations within marriage and prohibits them outside marriage. Verses 21 through 23 define the “outer boundary” of unnatural sexual relations. Verses 24 through 29 tell us about God’s judgment upon a nation that crosses these boundaries. They clearly tell us that God’s judgment for sexual sin applies to all nations, not just the covenant nation of Israel.
When I started my study of this chapter, I read it not as an ancient Israelite, but as a man whose sight is distorted by the sexual revolution. Our nation, and perhaps the world, implicitly separates sexual intercourse from marriage. Diverse cultural voices tell us that sex is a drive similar to hunger and that it is almost impossible to control. The cultural message penetrates our lives in subtle ways and affects our view of life and the Scriptures. Take the movie, “Spies Like Us,” for example. At the end of the movie, the two heroes, two attractive Russian women, an older Russian man and woman, and two other Russian men have inadvertently launched a missile that will start World War III and end the world. Knowing their imminent doom, each hero enters a tent with one of the two attractive women, the older man and woman go to another tent, and the two men go to a third. This scene asserts an answer to the question, “What is the most important thing you can do when the world is about to end?”
We can better understand Leviticus 18 by understanding what the ancient Israelite view of sexual intercourse was under Torah.
First, in ancient Israel, sexual intercourse was marriage. Exodus 22:16, 17 reads: “If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins.”
This verse implicitly tells us that ancient Israel had no concept of pre-marital sex. Having sexual intercourse with a virgin was an act of marriage, unless her father intervened. In other words, sexual intercourse was marriage. Another example is Genesis 24, which tells about the day Isaac’s bride, Rebekah, came to him. Genesis 24:67 reads: “Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”
In an uncomplicated way, Isaac married Rebekah by publicly entering a tent to have intercourse with her. This points out once more that in ancient Israel sexual intercourse was marriage. Furthermore, notice that Isaac had no knowledge of what Rebekah looked like or what kind of person she was prior to this event. Obviously, ancient Israel had no concept of making sure that two people were compatible. Rather, they understood that compatibility was something two people made for themselves.
Second, men in Israel practiced, and the Torah regulated, polygamy and concubinage (female slaves with whom the master will have sexual intercourse). This meant that family make-up could be very complex. Leviticus 18 contains the laws that define the most liberal position society may maintain regarding sexuality and remain an intact society.
From the beginning, sexual intercourse meant becoming “one flesh.” “One flesh” is not an emotional attachment between a man and woman. It is an unavoidable consequence of a man and woman joining physically. The Law and the New Testament affirm this. That “one flesh” has no special eternal significance is clear from the answer that Jesus gave to a question posed by the Sadducees about seven brothers who eventually shared the same wife. In heaven, there is no marriage or sex.101
So, if “one flesh” is not an emotional bonding and has no significance to our life in heaven, what does it mean in this life right now? The answer is simple. The Lord makes no distinction between sexual intercourse and a relationship for life. Look at three key texts concerning this.
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).
Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh” (1 Corinthians 6:16).
Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is acting as a witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth. “I hate divorce,” says the Lord God of Israel, “and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,” says the Lord Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith (Malachi 2:13-16).
The first passage is a prohibition of divorce based on the “one flesh” principle.
The second passage affirms that the sexual union produces “one flesh” no matter who or why. If you think “one flesh” only happens at the consummation of a marriage, this passage shows that the act of a man and woman joining physically causes the Lord to recognize that union as “one flesh.” “One flesh” is an obligation before God to be joined for life, commencing with sexual intercourse. The obligation is there whether we fulfill it or not, whether we are able to fulfill it or not, whether we are fulfilled by it or not.
The third passage tells us that God made a man and a woman “one flesh” because he “was seeking godly offspring.” As I shall show, when society denies the principle of “one flesh,” children are no longer safe.
The Inner Boundary of Godly Sexuality
By understanding the close association between sexual intercourse and marriage, the diverse and complex family make-ups, and the principle of “one flesh,” we can better understand Leviticus 18. The first section prohibits sexual intercourse with “close relatives.” The modern word for this is incest. The second section warns the Israelites of the consequences of disobeying these prohibitions.
A question that one might ask is whether the first section discusses incest in the modern secretive oppressive sense, or does it tell an Israelite who they cannot marry? I believe the answer is both. I am going to defer discussing abusive forms of incest until later and discuss the question of marriage. Given the liberal marriage relationships in ancient Israel, if your father dies or divorces your mother and she is alone, can you, her son, marry her? If you have received her into your home for support and protection, are sexual relations with her appropriate as with your wives and concubines? Given the broad scope of sexual relationships within the family in Israel, this is not an unnatural question for an Israelite to ask. In fact, different ancient cultures gave different answers to questions like these. The Persians, for example, encouraged unions with mothers, daughters, and sisters as having special merit in the eyes of the gods.102 The answer for Israel, however, was “No!”
What follows is a table that I created to help you understand the relationships the Lord makes off limits to family members. It includes the verse, a modern wording for the relationship described in Leviticus, and the penalty for violating the command, as found later in Leviticus 20.
Mother and son
Step-mother and son
Brother and sister
Cut off, 20:17
Father and granddaughter
Brother and paternal half-sister
Cut off, 20:17
Nephew and aunt (father’s sister)
Nephew and aunt (mother’s sister)
Nephew and aunt (wife of father’s brother)
Father and daughter-in-law
Brother and sister-in-law
Father and step-daughter
Husband and sister-in-law
Compare the first prohibition, verse 7 (mother and son), with the last prohibition, verse 18 (husband and sister-in-law). A mother and son relationship is much closer emotionally and physically than a husband and sister-in-law. There was no closer verifiable blood relationship in the ancient world than a mother and the children she bore. In the context of “close relative,” mother and son have the closest possible relationship; a husband and his wife’s sister have the least. Notice, then, that as you go down the list, the relationships become less and less close.
Why is this list different from similar lists in other ancient cultures? I submit to you that this list of prohibitions is a logical extension of becoming “one flesh” through sexual intercourse. For example, verse 18 prohibits a man from marrying his sister-in-law. There is no genetic reason for this (I am assuming a culture permitting multiple wives). But if Fred is “one flesh” with Amy, Ava is as good as a blood sister. Here then is how the “one flesh” principle applies through the list of prohibitions:
(1) Verse 7 says you cannot marry your own mother. This restriction continues to be obvious even in our own day.
(2) Verse 8 says you cannot marry your father’s wife. For this verse to say anything different than verse 7, it must mean a wife other than your mother. It is worth asking, “Since, there is no genetic closeness between a stepmother and stepson, why is this relationship second only to a natural mother and her son?” It is because your father is one flesh with your mother and his other wives, and you are to honor him by honoring them.
(3) Verse 9 says you cannot marry your own sister or half-sister born to your mother. To discriminate between verse 9, “father’s daughter or mother’s daughter,” and verse 11, “daughter of your father’s wife, born to your father,” means verse 9 applies to sisters related to you through your mother, and verse 11 applies to sisters related to you only through your father. I would suggest that this is so because of the certainty of blood relatedness through the mother. With the father, this is not always the case.
(4) Verse 10 says you cannot marry your granddaughter. This question could legitimately arise if your son and his wife were killed and you began caring for their children.
(5) Verses 12 through 14 deal with the three ways a woman can be your aunt. The principle of “one flesh” applies to verse 14, which refers to an aunt who becomes “one flesh” with your father’s brother.
(6) Verse 15 deals with a father and daughter-in-law. This is the inverse of verse 8 which prohibits the son from marrying his stepmother. It is not as serious in terms of “close relative” because the commandment to honor your father and mother does not apply, but clearly the notion of “one flesh” applies. Until the son marries a girl, it would be possible for the father to marry her. Once the son has married her, the two are one flesh.
(7) Verse 16 also stems from the principle of one flesh—you cannot marry your brother’s wife. There is an important exception to this stated in Deuteronomy 25:5, 6: “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry the name of the dead brother so that his name shall not be blotted out from Israel.” This is called Levirate marriage and was an important institution.
(8) Verse 17 says you cannot marry a girl and her mother. If you marry a woman who has children by a previous marriage, you may not marry her daughter or her granddaughter. By becoming “one flesh” with your wife her children and children’s children become your own.
(9) Verse 18 says you cannot marry your wife’s sister while your wife is still alive. This “close relative” relationship is at the fringe of the inner boundary and has more to do with the feelings of the two sisters who must compete for the attention of the same husband. The kind of distress that can occur is illustrated by the competition between Leah and Rachel, who were sisters married to the patriarch Jacob.
I want to pause here before continuing on, in order to present some other observations and some reflections. First, the “close relative” laws here are the most detailed and severely punished of all similar laws in ancient times. This is significant because, a nation’s laws will protect what its people consider important. The law of the Lord tells us, by its exactness and severity, what He considers most important, and from this section we must conclude that the Lord values the family and the “one flesh” principle very highly.
Second, nowhere in the Bible is compatibility ever a criterion for a relationship. This is somewhat off the main subject of the text, but it is illustrated by the fact, mentioned earlier, that Israel had no such thing as premarital sex. Once you had sexual relations with someone, he or she became your spouse. In the illustration of Isaac and Rebekah, Abraham sent his servant off to find a wife for Isaac. Isaac had no choice in the matter. He was expected to marry Rebekah and live with her and love her. The brother who must marry his dead brother’s wife and the wife who must marry her dead husband’s brother also illustrate it. This was an obligation that they were to fulfill whether they liked each other or not. The Lord expects us to get along with each other, and to compensate in love for differences and conflicts.
Third, I have emphasized how these laws relate to the question, “Who can I marry?” in order to show how the “one flesh” principle applies. I have already mentioned that these laws also pertain to more secretive violations, but I will defer this once more until later.
The Middle Boundary of Godly Sexuality
Verses 19 and 20 limit when you may have sexual intercourse with your wife, and they also prohibit adultery. I refer to these laws as the “Middle Boundary of Godly Sexuality.”
Verse 19 prohibits having intercourse with your wife during the uncleanness of her monthly period. All discharges from the body are considered ceremonially unclean, and the woman’s monthly flow is no exception. Obedience to this law relates specifically to holy living within the Mosaic covenant. There are two ways a man can violate this: one is accidentally in which case he is unclean for seven days as is the woman, and the other is the deliberate act of sexual intercourse during her period, and this is to be punished by death. The issue here is fundamentally one of holiness. The Lord has said the woman is ceremonially unclean and to purposely come in contact with an unclean woman was to violate the holiness of God. Therefore, it was strictly forbidden.
Verse 20 prohibits having intercourse with your neighbor’s wife and is an important transitional verse, because a change in a person’s concept of sexuality must occur before he can imagine and commit adultery. The change is this: adultery denies the concept of “one flesh.” It is failing to recognize that the person you are committing adultery with is “one flesh” with another person. Adultery divorces sexual intercourse from marriage and elevates it to an independent status. It focuses on sexual fulfillment as a goal rather than a byproduct of a relationship. It is important to also note that children, produced by an adulterous union, are quite frankly a grievous nuisance.
Verse 20 is transitional. If a society has established the inner, middle, and outer boundaries of godly sexuality, it is this portion of the middle boundary that collapses first in society. Once the middle boundary has collapsed, the outer and inner boundaries collapse soon afterward. I bring this up now before I discuss the outer boundary, because the outer boundary is best understood from the viewpoint of the collapse of the middle boundary and its effect on society and the land.
The Outer Boundary of Godly Sexuality
At one point in our nation’s history the three boundaries of godly sexuality were firmly established from a cultural viewpoint. I understand, of course, that individuals within that culture may have disregarded them, but both our laws and popular consensus supported them. This included a family based on the Judeo/Christian affirmation of one husband, one wife. This was even higher than the Jewish marriage because it included one wife. The ancient practice of polygamy was abandoned through the teaching of Jesus and the effective ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of men.
Towards the beginning of the century our nation, following the lead of Europe, adopted the doctrines of higher criticism that began to tear away at the Bible. Science embraced the theory of evolution and turned away from God. The church, caught by surprise, retreated and disconnected itself from our culture. It was no longer an active force. People were set free from God, and shortly thereafter, sexual intercourse was set free from marriage. Sex became autonomous and recreational. Somewhere, someone got the idea that romantic attraction was the proper foundation for a lasting relationship and sold it to us. The movie entertainers and artists, the purveyors of this message, were the first to suffer a string of divorces and remarriages, but we ignored the evidence, and we accepted the lie. The middle boundary began to collapse.
The sexual revolution of the 1960s marked the near total destruction of the middle boundary of godly sexuality. Sex became completely autonomous. People began to live together without long-term commitment. Masters and Johnson studied human sexual response using the real thing as well as some artificial machines to let them observe what otherwise could not be observed. Marriages began to fail by the score. Unwed teenagers became pregnant. Children became a nuisance. Then The Joy of Sex appeared in the bookstores. Sex became so explicit, so open, such a good seller of merchandise, that society maintained a constant low-level state of sexual arousal. The outer and inner boundaries began to fall.
As the middle boundary crumbled, grandfathers, fathers, uncles, and brothers sexually molested family members. I do not know a single person who is not personally aware of an incident. Putting a stop to this, however, is very difficult. Once sex is set autonomous, the wheels begin to move and it’s hard to stop the wheel.
Outer Boundary Stage 1—The killing of unwanted children
“Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 18:21).
In the middle of Leviticus 18 is a verse that is seemingly out of place. What could this possibly have to do in the context of unlawful sexual unions? I think this is the first phase of the destruction of the outer boundary of godly sexuality. It means that children are no longer safe when the middle boundary falls.
In 1973, the Supreme Court handed down its Roe v. Wade decision. It is the modern equivalent of ancient child sacrifice, but don’t take my word for it. Hear it, instead, from someone who views it from a pro-abortion position. The following is a quote from a 1984 science magazine article entitled, “Infanticide” by Barbara Burke,
Among some animals, then, infant killing appears to be a natural practice. Could it be natural for humans, too—a trait inherited from our primate ancestors? When we hear that some mother has killed her own baby, we are horrified and assume she must be deranged. Some killers, of course, are sick. … But human infanticide is too widespread historically and geographically to be explained away just as a pathology or the peculiarity of some aberrant culture. Charles Darwin noted in The Descent of Man that infanticide has been “probably the most important of all” checks on population growth throughout most of human history.
… This may seem a cruel and inefficient method of family planning, but in cultures without effective contraceptives, where childbirth is safer than primitive abortions, it may appear to parents to be the only way to keep family size in line with family resources.103
I do not believe there is much difference between offering children to Molech and offering them up to abortion. For different reasons and different conclusions, Barbara Burke does not believe there is much difference either.
Outer Boundary Stage 2—Homosexuality
“Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable” (Leviticus 18:22).
Following the book The Joy of Sex came The Joy of Gay Sex and The Joy of Lesbian Sex. As the outer boundary began to crumble with the destruction of children, as sex became autonomous, sexual experience between members of the same sex was an unavoidable next step. Here is why: if your sexual goal is pleasure independent of marriage, and your sexual freedom comes from denying its wrongness, there is no foundation left to judge an alternate practice. Consequently, many homosexuals are begging for us to be compassionate and accepting. What follows is an extended quote from Dr. Edward W. Bauman, a prominent Methodist television minister,
I was prepared for trouble, but the intensity of the storm took me completely by surprise. The whole thing started when I presented a television program and preached a sermon on “The Gay Life” as part of a series on Love and Marriage. I must confess to some negative feelings about homosexuality and it wasn’t difficult to find excuses for turning my attention to other things. As the time for the TV taping approached, however, I began to prepare, working hard to make up for lost time. The preparation included covering the books on a long reading list and talking with numerous individuals—straights and gays, medical doctors and psychiatrists, ministers and members of their congregation, men and women, young and old, Christians and Jews. A lot of time was spent getting “into” the Biblical passages on this subject. I prayed and meditated, and began to share some of my ideas with other members of the Christian community. Then I presented the TV program and preached the sermon, suggesting among other things that we need to express compassion and acceptance toward the homosexuals among us.
The intensity of the anger I encountered almost swept me off my feet! The deep primal feelings many of us have on the subject have been so repressed that when we are confronted with them, they break out like a pent up storm.104
The “deep primal feelings” Dr. Bauman is talking about is part of the outer boundary. We must remember that once upon a time our culture had deep primal feelings concerning adultery, premarital sex, divorce, and abortion too. One by one we have gotten rid of them, but I believe it’s time to get our “deep primal feelings” back.105
Outer Boundary Stage 3—Bestiality
“Do not have sexual relations with an animal and defile yourself with it. A woman must not present herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it; that is a perversion” (Leviticus 18:23).
This verse marks the current line in our culture today. We are not there yet in a widespread way, although bestiality occurs frequently in pornographic books. If our nation accepts homosexuality as it has accepted adultery and abortion, bestiality will be next. Perhaps it will have mythic overtones, such as Zeus in the form of a bull.
God’s Coming Judgment
“Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled;106 so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Leviticus 18:24-29).
This should be sobering to a lust-filled society. This is not Israel violating its covenant with God. This is God looking at Gentile Canaan, seeing how it has defiled the land and is casting Gentile Canaan out. This is a universal principle, not a covenant principle. God judges all nations alike.
Acts 15:23-29 contains the text of the letter from the Church in Jerusalem to the Gentile believers accepting them into the church without binding them to Jewish Law. Verse 29 reads: “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” God is against sexual immorality, and His condemnation is universal.
As we read Romans 1:18f. think of the progression we have seen in Leviticus 18 from the crumbling of the middle boundary of godly sexuality, through the crumbling of the inner and outer walls.
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.107
26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.108
28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; 32 and, although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.
May God have mercy on us. This passage in Romans follows the same course as the passage in Leviticus does—line by line practically. Once homosexuality is accepted, it seems all kinds of wickedness can be expected to break out. Quite frankly, I believe the Lord has given us as a nation over to our sinful desires.
The Christian and the Church’s Response
The spread of adultery, pre-marital and casual sex, abortion and homosexuality is the result of our nation turning from the Lord. He has given us as a nation over to the sinful desires of our hearts. It is very hard for us as individuals and as a church to remain pure in such a society, as the problems in the Corinthian church demonstrate. It is hard, but not impossible. I do not know if we can turn our country around or not. I know many who are working on many fronts to do just that, and we are beginning to see some battles won in the areas of pornography and parent’s rights.
We must examine our own attitudes toward sexuality. How closely do we associate sexual union with becoming “one flesh?” Is it to the degree that we have seen in Israel? If not, can we change?
We are confronted by spiritual warfare on three fronts in the area of sexuality. First, there is our flesh, which is all too willing to have autonomous sex that is released from association with marriage. When a hedonistic philosophy comes around our flesh begins to leap up and say, “go for it!” Second, there is Satan, who through humanism and other philosophies promotes an intellectual system antagonistic to God’s righteousness. Humanism tells us that autonomous sex is okay. It tells us that homosexual sex is okay. It tells us that killing our children is okay. This is the work of Satan through humanist leaders in our country. Third, there is the world, which is the alliance of Satan and corporate flesh which either ignores or directly confronts the church to maintain societies’ perversions.
If you are losing the battle with your flesh, whether it craves heterosexual or homosexual experiences outside the three boundaries of godly sexuality, you can overcome through living by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16). This section of Galatians contains much more for you to meditate upon and ponder. You are not promised liberation from the flesh’s desire, but you are promised that the Spirit will provide you with self-control. Another key aspect of living by the Spirit is love for the brethren, the kind of love that considers all others more important than one’s self.
Against Satan, we have the truth of the Scriptures and the gospel. If we are faithful and true to our message, we will be heard. The message must be presented in all forms: books, music, painting, dance, and the performing arts. Let us instill godliness in our children and encourage their interests in journalism, politics, the arts, and science. By participating in the full spectrum of culture, we can push back the hold humanism has on it.
Against the world, we need a pure and obedient church. We must build strong families based on the principle of “one flesh.” We must learn to have strong marriages regardless of who the partners are, or who they have become over the years. People may be compatible when they first marry, but over the years, they change. Our need to obey the Lord does not change. Our requirement to learn to be compatible with anybody doesn’t change because this is what it fundamentally gets down to. We can learn to be compatible with a person.
I hear about the peer pressure our children are under. Is it wise for us to put our children in circumstances where we ourselves could not stand? We will neither purify ourselves, or the church, or the nation without cost. It will cost us time, money, inconvenience, effort, pain, or worse, but a pure church will stand up before a perverted world. I guarantee it.
Given the fact that the boundaries have crumbled in our culture, it is likely that this message has deeply disturbed some of you. Many of you have past experiences. To you I say this: Look at the love with which Jesus favored the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). Look at how He dealt with the woman caught in adultery (John 8). Remember how He turned His back to the dinner host and his guests to affirm a prostitute who honored Him by anointing His feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair (Luke 7). Let your past be past. Receive His love and His words, “Go and sin no more.” But also, through Him and His grace and love, let your sense of shame fall away. You are clean and pure, because He has cleansed you.
100 This message was preached by Don Curtis, an excellent student of the Scriptures, teacher, and good friend. Don graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1974 with a degree in Philosophy. He has since become a Senior Computer Programmer with the IBM Corporation. For a number of years, Don and his family attended Community Bible Chapel in Richardson, Texas, until his job took him to Atlanta, Georgia. Partly from Bob Deffinbaugh’s influence, biblical studies and teaching have become a passion in his Christian life. Don is currently an elder and teacher at Cobb Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Kennesaw, GA.
101 I discussed this issue with a person who valued sexual encounters so highly that (s)he found it inconceivable to imagine heaven without sex, especially if we are clothed in a resurrection “body.”
102 R. K. Harrison, Tyndale Commentary: Leviticus, 1980 Intervarsity Press, p. 194.
103 Barbara Burke, “Infanticide,” Science 84, May 1984, pp. 29, 30.
104 Dr. Edward W. Bauman, Reflections on the Gay Life, 1977, 1979 United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
105 It is interesting to see how Barbara Burke, on the one hand, uses evolution to excuse parent’s violent behavior against their children. Dr. Bauman, on the other hand, sees “deep primal feelings” as something we must obviously overcome. It seems to me that “deep primal feelings” would also be an evolutionary left over. Such dichotomies are typical of humanistic thinking in “evolutionary” terms; evolution is always adapted to justify a preconceived moral position.
106 As I typed this I remembered the blood of Abel crying from the ground. Is our country defiled from the millions of aborted babies?
107 This marks the fall of the middle boundary.
108 This marks the fall of the outer boundary.
We are going to study the life of Jacob today, and I find his story particularly intriguing because we get to see his whole family and how they interact. In modern language Jacob came from a real dysfunctional family, and we will see the influence bad parents can have on their children.
Just so you will know where we are headed in our study, it is my premise that Jacob’s messed up family life helped shape him into being a manipulative person. Jacob’s style of relating was one of manipulating others. He tried to control life and depended on himself, not God. God had to break Jacob of this bad pattern of relating. So, we are going to study what is revealed to us about the life of Jacob and his family and see how it is that God finally got through to him.
It is significant that the author of Genesis spends ten whole chapters on Jacob. He only spent 11 chapters describing the period from creation to the flood to the tower of Babel. He spends 14 chapters on Abraham (12-25) in which we see the establishment of God’s covenant with His people, the Jews. After a brief mention of the descendents of Ishmael (Abraham’s mistake, at least from a human perspective), we begin the saga of Jacob. It also significant that following the extended treatment of Jacob (the independent man), we have an extended section dealing with Joseph who was the epitome of faithfulness and dependence on God.
Before we deal directly with Jacob, we will look at the rest of the family.
His Father - Isaac
What about Isaac? If you read Genesis and look for all the things Isaac did. You’ll find that not much space is devoted to him and he really didn’t do anything significant.
I was making a chart of Genesis and plotting the main characters or patriarchs to show what their main contribution and character were, and all I could come up with to describe Isaac was “Passive Acceptance.” He accepted his father’s near sacrifice of him, which is good, but the main point of that event is Abraham’s faith. Isaac did nothing else of significance in the entire book.
Isaac didn’t go out to find his own wife. I’ve been told, that it is a literary device in ancient Hebrew literature to have men first meet their wives at some well or spring. What happens at the well is indicative of the relationship. For instance, Moses met his wife at the well. He delivered her from the bandits. What he did there was a foreshadowing of his deliverance of Israel. Jacob met his wife at a spring. He had difficulty removing the stone so he could drink. That was a foreshadowing of the fact that Rachel’s womb would be closed and they would have difficulty having children. But Isaac didn’t even go to the well. His father’s servant went and found a wife (at the well) for him and brought her back home. I think this gives the reader an early clue as to his passive nature.
We will see other clues as we read through the narrative.
His Mother - Rebekah
All this weakness in Isaac let Rebekah take over. It was her natural tendency. I say that because it is every woman’s tendency is to want to take over when the man does not lead. In Gen 3:16, when it says the woman’s desire will be for her husband, it means that the woman’s desire will be to rule over her husband, because the next phrase is, “but he will rule over you.”
Isaac’s natural tendency was to be passive, so she took over the family and Jacob’s life.
Rebekkah had problems. When her twins are born, she shows partiality to Jacob, the non-hairy weaker looking one. Gen 25:27 says Jacob spent most of his time at home. So Rebekah takes over his life and arranges everything for him. She teaches him how to cook. She arranges for him to get the blessing, she arranges for his deliverance from Esau by sending him to her brother Laban, telling him everything will work out fine.
I think if we go to Gen 24:15 we might see one reason that Rebekah was like this. Notice that the marriage arrangements made by Abraham’s servant for Isaac and Rebekah are all made with Laban. Why? Their father is not dead. Rebekah’s father, Bethuel, is only mentioned in vs 15 as being the father and in verse 50 where he just acquiesses and gives permission for Abraham’s servant to take Rebekah. All the negotiations were made with Laban. I don’t think it is reading too much into the text to conclude that Bethuel was an uninvolved father. We can see the results in Rebekah. She had no advocate, so she took over and became a controlling woman. When she got married, she took over her family.
His Brother - Esau
The first thing that we learn about Esau is that he was a skillful hunter. I’m not sure this is such a great compliment though. Henry Morris points out that hunting was unnecessary because with the large heard of sheep, there was plenty to eat. This may mean that Esau was always away hunting as opposed to being at home helping with the chores and the sheep. We might conclude that he was irresponsible.
We do know that Esau was impulsive. He didn’t take his birthright seriously. He lived for the moment and didn’t care about God’s laws concerning marrying foreign women. Esau later married a daughter of Ishmael to try to please his father (not God). But it was too late and, even this is a paradox, because it shows that Esau cannot escape being out of the chosen line. His new wife is not of the chosen line either.
So I think we can see that Jacob came from a fairly typical family. His mother had a tendency to want to take control. The father let her. His brother was just a natural man concerned with the things of this world. This is the kind of family that Hollywood models for us. For example, The Cosby Show.
So how did all this affect Jacob? We’ve already seen some of it as we talked about the rest of the family, but let’s work through the ten chapters and see what we can learn.
In verse 28 we see that Isaac favored Esau because he “had a taste for game.” Esau was the strong hunter. He was everything that Isaac was not, and perhaps Isaac, a weak man, was trying to re-live his life through his son’s life. Whatever the reason, it was an illegitimate one because it is never good to play favorites. I’m sure this had its ill effects on Jacob. He probably had to manipulate his father to get attention.
I’m not so sure this is as great an indictment against Jacob as it is against Esau. The author of Genesis only has comments about Esau and says, “Thus Esau despised his birthright” (vs 34).
I do think we can assume that Jacob knew that he was supposed to end up with the birthright eventually. I’m sure his mother told him what the Lord had told her. What this event shows us is that Jacob was not willing to wait on the Lord.
In chapter 26 we do see something significant. It is not what Isaac did, though. It is what God did for Isaac. Chapter 26 gives us examples of how God blessed Isaac. When the famine hit, God said He would be with Isaac and bless him—because of His promise to Abraham. Consequently, Isaac prospered in everything. Even though he lied to Abimelech about his wife being his sister, God looked out for him (10). His crops produced a hundredfold (12). He became rich (13). When the Philistines filled in his wells, he had no trouble digging and finding water (18-19). The significance of this chapter is that it demonstrates that the blessing which Isaac was to pass on in chapter 27 was something worth having. It wasn’t just a double portion of a sizable inheritance. It was the very blessing of God.
Chapter 26 sets the stage for what happens in chapter 27.
It is very interesting to take chapter 27 as a play and separate it into scenes. Notice the interchange between characters. Who deals with whom throughout the play? Fokkelman points out the following:
Isaac sends Esau to get game Rebekah tells Jacob to prepare food for Isaac Isaac blesses Jacob
Esau returns but is not blessed Rebekah warns of Esau’s anger Rebekah tells Isaac to send Jacob away Isaac Rebekah Isaac Isaac Rebekah Isaac Esau Jacob Jacob Esau Jacob Rebekah
Act One - (27:1-4) - Isaac tells Esau to go get game
- Isaac is about to disregard God’s word.
- Esau is not going to honor his agreement with Jacob when he sold his birthright.
- Rebekah overhears the conversation - Eavesdropping perhaps?
- We don’t have this directly stated, but Fokkelman points out that when the author represents “Rebekah as an eavesdropper behind the scenes [that] is more pregnant than dwelling upon her plans and intentions.” And of course, it is her idea to deceive Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing.
Act Two - (27:5-17) - Rebekah tells Jacob to deceive Isaac
This is a perfect example of how she manipulated events to achieve what she thought was best. She knew God had said that Esau would serve Jacob. She knew Isaac knew it too. When Isaac decided to ignore God’s word, it was not Rebekah’s duty to go around Isaac and trick him. We know that because of the results that were achieved, namely, a torn up family. If she had had any type of relationship with Isaac, then she should have been able to talk to him, but they obviously did not.
I think this also illustrates how Rebekah has denied her husband and her marriage. Her priority should be to become one with and to support her husband. But we see that her child is more important to her than her husband.
Act Three -- (27:18-29) - Isaac blesses Jacob
Isaac is fooled by the smell of the clothing and the hairy arms and blesses Jacob.
Act Four - (27:30-41) - Esau is cursed
Esau had not forgotten his promise to Jacob. He mentions it in vs 36.
Act Five - (27:42-45) - Rebekah warns Jacob
Rebekah tells Jacob that Esau is going to kill him and that he must leave.
Act Six - (27:46) - Rebekah convinces Isaac to send Jacob away.
Another prime example of her manipulative style is seen in 27:46. When Rebekah fears for Jacob’s life, she goes to Isaac, and by using a logical reason that Jacob needed a wife, she manipulates Isaac into sending Jacob away. Her real goal was to protect him, not to find him a wife.
Rebekah never saw Jacob again. That was her reward for her meddling.
This is not a close knit family. There are definite problems in the relationships.
- Notice that Esau and Jacob do not interact.
- Notice that Esau and Rebekah do not interact.
- It looks like we have Isaac and Jacob interacting, but remember that Isaac thinks it’s Esau.
- And finally and perhaps most importantly, Isaac and Rebekah do not interact until the whole thing is over and she wants Isaac to send Jacob away.
So chapter 27 shows us again that Jacob could not wait on God to fulfill His promise to Rebekah.
It is ironic but Jacob is now leaving the promised land which was part of his blessing. It ought to be obvious to Jacob that there is something wrong with this picture. It ought to indicate that the way Jacob got the blessing was not what God would have planned.
However, we see that in spite of Jacob’s deceitful way of obtaining the blessing, God is going to honor it. I think in vss 20-21 we see that Jacob is still being a manipulator and he is trying to manipulate God. “If God will do ________, then He will be my God.” God has just promised that He will bless Jacob, but Jacob doesn’t really believe Him. He is trying to cut a deal.
We can also see by Jacob’s bargain that he is focused on physical blessings. He is a very horizontal man.
Jacob finally met his match. He finally meets someone who is as deceitful as he is. Laban had the same upbringing as Rebekah and he was a manipulator too. Perhaps the point is this: “There is always someone out there or some situation that you can’t handle.”
Chapters 29-31: tell how Jacob worked seven years for Rachel and then on his wedding night, Laban sent Leah into the tent instead of Rachel. He then worked seven more years for Rachel. Then he worked another six or seven years to build a flock of his own to provide for his family. There was much deception going on between Laban and Jacob as each tried to make his flocks grow larger, but in the end God blessed Jacob and he became very prosperous. He finally decides to sneak away to get away from Laban.
- The father (Isaac) who goes against the oracle, ends up fulfilling it in the end with his own blessing.
- Jacob’s own efforts to become lord of his own family only lead him into slavery to Laban.
- Jacob, the younger brother, supplants the older brother. Laban says, “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the first-born.” (29:26) You know that has to remind him of his own deception.
In Genesis 32: we have the account of the wrestling match with God. Jacob is coming back to meet Esau and is wondering how his brother is going to react. When he left the land Esau was trying to kill him. He has sent his servants ahead (vs 3-5), bearing gifts to bribe Esau. He had resources he could use to save himself.
In verse 6 the messengers come back and say that Esau is coming to meet them with 400 men. It looks like Esau is bringing warriors to destroy them.
In verses 7-8 we see that Jacob devises another plan to save himself. He decides to divide his family putting Leah and her children and servants in one group and Rachel and her children and servants in another group. That way he can cut his losses if one group is destroyed.
Verses 9-12 show Jacob praying to God for deliverance. It looks like Jacob is going to finally give up and depend on God, but verses 13-23 show that he was really still trying to control the situation and save himself.
So I went back and re-studied his prayer in verses 9-12. It may be my imagination, but I think Jacob is trying to manipulate God in his prayer. In verse 9 he is claiming God’s promise that He would bless Jacob. In verse 10 he gives God the credit for his prosperity and then he again claims God’s promise to bless him in verses 11-12. It seems to me that Jacob was almost saying to God, “Come through for me God. You promised me. You owe me!”
So I don’t think his prayer was one of total dependence on God. Verse 13 proves it when we see he is going to continue with his plan to bribe Esau and to divide his family into two groups. The next few verses (13-23) lay out the elaborate scheme he had devised to protect himself.
But that night God, who is still trying to get through to Jacob, meets with Jacob. Verse 24 says, “Jacob was left alone.” It is such a little phrase, but I think it is very, very important. He had run out of resources. Jacob has finally been broken. Jacob is at the end of his rope. His life is a mess. He is all alone, he has exhausted his own resources and has to face Esau alone. I think Jacob is finally broken to the point where he will now trust in God.
What did God do to Jacob when He wanted to get hold of Jacob’s life? He revealed Himself to him.
As soon as we see that Jacob is alone, it says that “a man wrestled with him.” That man is God. We know that because Jacob is given a new name, “Israel” which means “he fights with God.”
Why does God say “let me go” in vs 26? Because daybreak would have revealed His face to Jacob and Jacob would have died. But Jacob wouldn’t let go. He says, “I won’t let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob has finally come to the point where he would rather die than live without God’s blessing.
Notice also that Jacob’s name was changed to Israel when he finally began to trust in God. Israel was God’s covenant name for the new nation. The name “Jacob” represents independence from God and “Israel” represents dependence on God. It is not a hard and fast rule, but it seems to me that there are certain places in the OT where God calls the nation, “Jacob,” instead of, “Israel,” and it is because they are acting independent.
Incidentally, after he meets with God, we turn to Gen 33:3 and see that although he left the people divided into two groups, instead of hiding behind them, he now goes out in front of them to face Esau alone. He now is depending on God and not his own resources. Esau receives him openly and it seems that there are no hard feelings. God has paved the way for Jacob to return to the promised land.
The story doesn’t end with the words, “And he lived happily ever after.” I’m sure Jacob continued to struggle with his tendency toward manipulation. But I think he had learned his lesson. What we’ve studied this morning gives us a good picture of possible circumstances and problems and the process involved in depending on God.
We’ve looked at Jacob’s family and Jacob himself this morning. So we need to ask the “So what” questions.
What about Jacob’s family? I think we can conclude that he was raised in a less than desirable family. His mother dominated and manipulated. His father was passive and did not follow God’s will. His brother was very worldly. He had no good role models to follow. So he developed a wrong style of relating to people.
Does this give Jacob an excuse? No! That is something we really need to emphasize because of the way our society thinks. We are not helpless victims. We either react wrongly to our environment or we act correctly I spite of our environment. Jacob reacted wrongly to his upbringing.
What was Jacob’s problem? He wanted to control his life, so he manipulated people. Jacob’s problem was he thought he could make it on his own without God.
We are just like Jacob because we try to handle life on our own without God.
- Maybe we are looking for a best friend who is going to be there when we need them.
- Maybe we are looking for that perfect job which is going to offer us security through a regular paycheck or give us enough money to buy the things we want.
- Maybe we manipulate our spouses or other people to get the things we want.
But all this doesn’t work. I continually go back to Hosea 2:5-6 which says
5 Their mother has been unfaithful and has conceived them in disgrace. She said, ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my food and my water, my wool and my linen, my oil and my drink.’ 6 Therefore I will block her path with thornbushes; I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way. 7 She will chase after her lovers but not catch them; she will look for them but not find them. Then she will say, ‘I will go back to my husband as at first, for then I was better off than now.’
Jacob did this. And we do this. We think we can find happiness apart from God. We think we are in control of our lives. But God will not allow us to succeed without him. He will block our efforts to satisfy ourselves and lead us back to Him. I think we can see how he did this with Jacob. And if we reflect on our own lives a little, I think we can see how He does this to us.
14. How to Spell 'Holy' (Leviticus 19:1-37)
Leviticus chapter 19 provides us with an exposition on the practice of holiness. The holiness of God is thus revealed in relationship to the redemption of Israel out of Egypt. Consequently, it is not until after the exodus that God calls upon His people to live holy lives. The Mosaic Covenant is established so that Israel would be a holy nation (Exod. 19:6). While there are hints at how holiness is to be practiced by the people of God earlier in the Pentateuch, it is in the 19th chapter of the Book of Leviticus that holiness is defined in great detail.
Leviticus 19 is a crucial chapter for Christians (as well as the ancient Israelites) for a variety of reasons. First, it is important because of the distorted perceptions of holiness. Holiness is a term which is used more than it is understood. It is one thing for holiness not to be understood; it is even worse that it is misunderstood. There are many misconceptions in Christian circles as to what holiness really is. In the King James Version of the Bible, the terms “holy” and “holiness” do not occur until the Book of Exodus.
Second, Leviticus 19 is vitally important because of the desperate need for the practice of holiness. As badly as holiness is misunderstood by Christians, it is practiced even more pathetically. Holy living is something which is not characteristic of the last days (cf. 2 Tim. 3), and it surely is not characteristic of Christianity in our own days as well.
Third, many sincere Christians have gone astray seeking an unholy holiness. Many Christians who have been sidetracked into one of the cults have pursued a false conception of holiness. People generally do not join a cult in order to forsake holiness, but to attain it.
Fourth, Leviticus 19 is important to us because of the prominence of its teaching in the New Testament. Both our Lord (Matt. 5:43; 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31, 33; Luke 10:27) and the apostles (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8; 1 Pet. 1:16) make a great deal of the two great commandments which are given here: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2b). “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18b).
We must approach this chapter with these things in mind, because there are several factors which might incline us to hastily conclude that this chapter is irrelevant to 20th century Christians. In the first place there are some commands given here which are difficult to understand, even as they relate to the Israelite. Secondly, there are some commands which are clearly inapplicable to New Testament saints. Thirdly, this chapter appears not to have any real structure, and thus to deal with a wide variety of areas of the Israelites’ lives in a kind of miscellaneous category.109
The chapter does, however, have a clear structure, which is indicated by the recurring phrase (in one form or another), “I am the LORD.” Wenham110 outlines the structure in this way:
Honor parents and sabbath
Sacrifices and food
Justice in court
Love your neighbor
No mixed breeding
No pagan practices
No sacred prostitution
Respect the old
Love the alien
Our approach to this chapter will be to briefly overview the entire chapter, noting the characteristics of the commands contained here. Then we will concentrate on the two primary commands of the chapter, which are both reiterated and reinforced in the New Testament (19:2, 18). Finally, we will consider some of the distortions and abuses of holiness in ancient Israel, in Israel in New Testament times, and in the subsequent history of church.
Characteristics of the Commandments
We do not have the time to consider the commandments of chapter 19 in detail, but we do need to pause long enough to get a sense of some of the characteristics of these commands.
(1) First, the chapter contains commands which are old and those which are new. The ten commandments, which have been previously laid down by God, are reiterated here.111 In verses 3 and 4, for example, the commandments to honor mother and father, to keep the sabbath, and to keep from idols are a repetition of some of the ten commandments. In verses 5-8 of Leviticus 19, we have a repetition of the ceremonial law pertaining to the peace offering, as prescribed earlier in the Book of Leviticus. There is also the “new” revelation pertaining to not harvesting the corners of the fields (19:9-11). This is appropriate here because the Israelites are now looking forward to entrance into the promised land.
The principle of progressive revelation can thus be seen to be at work in Leviticus chapter 19. Previous commands are repeated, but often in a way that gives a deeper insight into their application. New commands are also given in the light of changing circumstances.
(2) Second, the chapter contains commandments which vary in their relevance and application to New Testament Christians. Some of the commandments contained in this chapter appear112 to have no relevance to the contemporary Christian at all. For example, since we do not have slavery, the commandment pertaining to the punishment of a man who sleeps with a slave girl seems not to apply to contemporary American Christians. So, too with the command prohibiting the eating of the fruit of trees which the Israelites plant, until the fifth year (vv. 23-25). Again, the prohibition of mixing cattle, crops, or kinds of material (v. 19) do not seem to apply.
On the other hand, there are many commandments contained in chapter 19 which directly apply to the contemporary Christian. The commands to reverence mother and father (v. 3), to avoid idols (v. 4), and not to steal, deal falsely, or lie (v. 11) are all applicable to us.
Finally, there are commands which may not directly apply, but the principle can be applied in a slightly different practice that is prescribed. While we do not farm, and thus the command not to harvest the corners of the field does not apply directly, there is the underlying principle of showing compassion for the poor, and of making provision for their needs. Thus, many churches (ours included) will offer work (for pay) to those in need and who are willing to work. Keeping just weights and balances doesn’t directly apply, but we should apply the principle of a fair price for a fair product. Thus, we should not attempt to sell a car or a product for more than it is worth.
Observing that the commands of chapter 19 have different levels of applicability to the contemporary Christian is of great benefit to the student of the Old Testament scriptures, for it suggests a vitally important principle of interpretations when dealing with the Old Testament: WHEN INTERPRETING THE OLD TESTAMENT, DOES THE NEW TESTAMENT ACCEPT, REJECT, OR REVISE THE TEACHING OF THE OLD TESTAMENT TEXT?
Years ago, one of my Old Testament teachers in seminary suggested this guideline, and it has been of great value. In Leviticus chapter 19 we find commands which fit into each of these categories. Some are carried directly over into the New Testament; others are modified in practice, but based upon the same principle; and others seem to be totally unnecessary. It is by a careful comparison of the Old Testament texts to the teaching of the New Testament that these decisions can be reached.
The Two Primary Commands
Our passage contains two primary commands (Lev. 19:2, 18), both of which are taken up in the New Testament. It is essential that we understand these commands if we are to fathom the force of this text. We can do this by focusing our attention on two matters: (1) the necessity of holiness, and (2) the nature of holiness.
The Necessity of Holiness
The necessity of holiness is found in the first primary commandment: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). Note the following factors relative to this command.
(1) The necessity of holiness is seen by the fact that the entire nation of Israelites is commanded to be holy. Thus, holiness is not an option, but an imperative.
(2) The command also provides a motivation for holiness. Certainly, the fact that God commands His people to be holy should serve to motivate them, but this is not my point here. In the King James Version of the Bible the terms “holy” and “holiness” do not occur until the Book of Exodus. The holiness of God is manifested in the deliverance of His people from Egypt, and by the manifestation of His glory from Mt. Sinai. Thus, the people should have been motivated to live a life of holiness, based on their gratitude for the redemption God had accomplished.
(3) There is also a provision for the holiness which God required of His people. The law which was given as a part of the Mosaic Covenant was God’s standard of holiness, and obedience to this law was the means to holiness. God did not command His people to be holy without telling them how to be holy.
(4) Finally, God Himself provided the pattern for holiness. God is holy, which is the basis for Israel’s holiness. The holiness of God is thus the pattern for Israel’s holiness. Israel was not only to be holy because God is holy; they were to be holy as (like) God is holy. The actions which God required were those which He had already performed on behalf of His people.
The Nature of Holiness
We have seen that holiness is a necessity for the people of God, but it remains for us to discern the nature of this holiness. Just what was the holiness, which God required, to be like?
(1) Holiness involved obedience to the commandments of God. God did not leave His people in the dark as to what holiness consisted of. The bottom line was that holiness consisted of obedience to the laws of God, obedience to His commandments.
(2) Holiness involved sacrifice, in that it is costly. Holiness entails sacrifice. Of course, holiness required sacrifices—those outlined in the early chapters of Leviticus. But more than this, every act of obedience to the commandments of God was a sacrificial act. Obedience to God’s commandments was costly. Not cutting the corners of one’s fields cut into one’s “profit margin,” as did selling with honest weights and measures. Abstaining from eating the fruit from one’s trees for five years and observing the sabbath days was also costly. Holiness was a sacrifice.
(3) Holiness was more than a matter of observing religious rituals—it was intensely practical piety, involving a wide variety of actions as a part of one’s everyday life. True, holiness involved those special ceremonies and special holy days and going to that special place, the tabernacle, where rites were performed by a special priestly class. But chapter 19 describes a very practical, everyday, kind of holiness, of honoring parents, of honesty and kindness and compassion and justice.
(4) Holiness is the imitation of God. In the ultimate sense, living a holy life is the imitation of God, who alone is holy. Thus, when our Lord came to the earth and lived “under the law,” fully keeping the law, He manifested the holiness of God to men.
(5) Holiness was here to be revealed positively, rather than negatively. If you and I were honest, I believe that we would have to admit that we think of the holiness of God in rather negative terms. God’s holiness, for example, is thought of in terms of His hatred of sin and of His judgment of sinners. This, of course, is one dimension of God’s holiness, but it is not the dimension in focus in Leviticus 19. God’s holiness was manifested by His compassion on the Israelites when they were afflicted in Egypt, and when He delivered them from their bondage. So, too, holiness is to be manifested by the people of God by their kindness, grace, and compassion on others, especially the needy and the afflicted.
If the negative aspects of God’s holiness were in view here we should be reading of God’s command to slay all of the Canaanites, including their children, but this is not the focus of the holiness which is here required.
The positive and negative dimensions of God’s holiness can be seen in the two comings of Christ. In His first coming (His incarnation, ministry on earth, death, burial, and resurrection), our Lord did not come to judge men, but to grant them forgiveness (cf. John 3:17). Thus, He could tell the woman caught in the act of adultery to go and sin no more (John 8:11). In His second (and still future) coming our Lord will overthrow His enemies and judge the wicked. It will be a bloody occasion from the reports in the Book of Revelation. Yet in both comings the holiness of God is revealed in the person and work of Christ. Thus, holiness has both negative and positive manifestations. We, unfortunately, have focused more on the former than the latter.
(6) Finally (and, most emphatically in Leviticus 19), holiness is practiced by loving one’s neighbor as one’s self (v. 18). There are, as I have suggested, two primary commands in chapter 19: (1) the command to be holy, and (2) to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. There is a direct relationship between these two commands as I understand the chapter. The holiness of God is demonstrated by His people as they love their neighbor. The term “neighbor,” as others have pointed out,113 has a wide range of meaning in this chapter:
- One’s neighbor is one’s fellow-countryman (v. 11, 17)
- One’s neighbor is alien, foreigner (v. 10, 32-33, 34)
- One’s neighbor is those who are weak and vulnerable (v. 10, 14)
- One’s neighbor is one’s enemy (v. 17-18)
It is not that holiness is manifested only by one’s loving one’s neighbor, but it is here emphasized that holiness must include an active love for one’s neighbor. Thus, just as God’s holiness is seen in His love for Israel in the Old Testament, and for the world in its weakness and need in the New, so God’s people must demonstrate God’s holiness as they show love for their neighbors, especially those in need.
Holiness in the New Testament
As I pointed out at the beginning of this message, the New Testament takes up both commands found in Leviticus 19. Our Lord, referring to the command of Leviticus 19:2, said, “Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). While the term “perfect” is exchanged for the word “holy,” the text He is referring to is obviously our text. Incidentally, the term “perfect” is not a bad definition of “holy,” either.
Other commands from Leviticus 19 are also taken up by our Lord as well. The second primary command of Leviticus 19 required that God’s people love their neighbor as themselves. In the context of chapter 19 it becomes clear that the Israelites’ enemies were included in the broad category of “neighbor.” So, too, loving one’s enemy is taught by our Lord in Matthew 5:48: “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).
In Leviticus 19:17 the people of God were taught: “You shall not hate your fellow-countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him.” So also, in the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 5:21-26 and 18:15-17 the individual who has been wronged must seek to bring reconciliation (and thus to restore love and harmony) with his neighbor.
The Lord Jesus taught that the command to love one’s neighbor as himself summarized half of the law (cf. Matt. 22:39-40). With this Paul agreed (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14). The apostle Peter also referred to Leviticus 19:2 as the foundation for his call to holy living: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance,114 but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Pet. 1:14-16).
Perversions of Holiness
It should stand to reason that Satan would want to deceive men with regard to the true nature of holiness. The scriptures, along with the history of the church, have recorded a number of ways in which holiness has been distorted. Consider the following misconceptions and distortions.
(1) Stained Glass Holiness. Stained glass holiness is the view that restricts holiness to the realm of the ceremonial. It is “Sunday go to meeting holiness.” Ceremonial holiness thinks of holiness only in terms of special days, of special “holy” places, and of special “holy” activities. It tends to divorce righteousness in everyday living from religious activities and ceremonies.
This error occurred very early in the history of Israel, and has persisted through the centuries. It is condemned by the prophets of Israel. For example, the prophet Amos wrote,
“Therefore, because you impose heavy rent on the poor And exact a tribute of grain from them, Though you have built houses of well-hewn stone, Yet you will not live in them; You have planted pleasant vineyards, yet you will not drink their wine. For I know your transgressions are many and your sins are great, You who distress the righteous and accept bribes, And turn aside the poor in the gate. … I hate, I reject your festivals, Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:11-12, 21-24).
The scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day fell into the same error. They were meticulous about ceremonial holiness, and yet they did not love their neighbors. They did not preserve justice and they did not protect the widows and orphans. They had the appearance of ceremonial righteousness, but they lacked practical holiness: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, even while for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you shall receive greater condemnation” (Matt. 23:14).
A classic illustration of the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees can be seen in the events surrounding the cross of Christ. The scribes and Pharisees rejected the Holy One of Israel as one who was unholy, deserving of death. They instigated His death and pressured the Roman authorities to crucify Him. And yet they were meticulous to preserve holiness in the ceremonial details: “The Jews therefore, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away” (John 19:31).
It is little wonder that our Lord said to the people concerning the holiness of these “ceremonial saints”: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). We, too, need to beware of this false holiness, which is meticulous about religious rituals—public prayers, teaching, worship—but do little or nothing in the realm of a practical demonstration of loving our neighbors.
(2) Positional Holiness. Positional holiness is that holiness which is supposed to accompany a certain office or position. For example, the Jews of Jesus’ day would have assumed that a priest (and especially the high priest) was holy. Today, some people assume that because a person is an elder, or a preacher, or a priest, he is holy. This is not necessarily the case at all. In fact, we should be reminded that such positions are strategic targets for Satan’s agents:
But what I am doing, I will continue to do, that I may cut off opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the matter about which they are boasting. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of sight. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their deeds (2 Cor. 11:12-15; cf. also 2 Pet. 2).
The scribes and Pharisees did not even recognize the “Holy One of Israel,” but rather rejected and crucified Him. They assumed, though, that they had to be holy, because of their positions. It is obvious that positions of power and prestige were utmost in the minds of these unholy men:
Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things, and do not do them. And they tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries, and lengthen the tassels of their garments. And they love the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, Rabbi” (Matt. 23:1-7).
In spite of the fact that these men held positions of power and honor, they did not do the things of which the Law spoke. Jesus thus affirmed the teaching of Leviticus, that the practice of holiness involved loving one’s neighbor and doing what the Law commanded. The scribes and Pharisees sat in “the chair of Moses” but they did not do the deeds of the Law. They were not holy.
The disciples of our Lord fell into the trap of equating position and office with piety (holiness). I think this is one of the reasons why they were so concerned with who would be the greatest in the kingdom (Mark 9:33-35). It also helps to explain why the mother of James and John wanted her sons to sit on the right and left hand of the Lord (Matt. 20:20-21).
Before we begin to feel a bit too smug on this point, why is it that contemporary Christianity thinks that it is more spiritual for a person to be in “full-time Christian service” than to be “merely a layman”? The same false perception of holiness underlies the inordinate desire for professional ministry, in many cases. Holiness has nothing to do with one’s occupation (unless, of course, it is intrinsically an immoral task), but rather with one’s obedience to the commands of God in daily living.
By both His teaching and His example, Jesus dealt a death blow to this false conception of holiness. He taught His disciples that status was not the goal of the Christian, but rather service: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matt. 20:25-27).
His own example speaks louder than anything else. He who had all the position and status and power, He who had all of the visible glory of heaven, set it aside, and took upon Himself human flesh, so that He could suffer and die to save His creatures (Phil. 2:5-8). This act was symbolized by the washing of the disciples’ feet (John 13), and was to be an example they were to follow.
(3) Equating Holiness With the Miraculous. Here is one of the most subtle and dangerous errors of all—assuming that wherever miracles are performed, God must be present and the person must be holy. There are two tests of a true prophet laid down in the Old Testament, which ought not to be forgotten by the New Testament saint. The first is that of an evidence of divine power:
“‘But the prophet who shall speak a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he shall speak in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ And you may say in your heart, ‘How shall we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?’ When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him” (Deut. 18:20-22).
Contrary to popular opinion, this text does not teach what some have assumed. It does not teach us that any prophet whose words come true is a true prophet. It teaches that any prophet whose words do not come true is a false prophet. The absence of the miraculous element is proof of a false prophet, but the presence of the miraculous is not necessarily proof of being a true prophet. This is clearly seen in an earlier text:
“If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you to find out if you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall follow the LORD your God and fear Him; and you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him” (Deut. 13:1-4).
Here it is recognized that false prophets will manifest miraculous power. The “acid test” of a true prophet is not the presence of miracles, but his adherence to the Word of God.
The Lord’s words in the New Testament seem to go even farther:
“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits … So then, you will know them by their fruits. Not every one who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ Therefore every one who hears these words of Mine and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock” (Matt. 7:15-16a, 20-24).
False prophets will be known by their fruits. Their fruits do not include miracles, which they may well perform (prophesy, exorcisms, miracles), but are the keeping of our Lord’s words, which in the context of the Sermon on the Mount are the heart of the Old Testament Law. These “miracle-workers” are said to practice lawlessness. Those who are wise, Jesus taught, will, unlike the false prophets, hear His words and act on them.
Here is one of the great dangers of all time. Some Christians are remarkably gullible, and will eagerly follow any person who appears to be holy, as demonstrated (they think) by having miraculous power. The fruits by which we are to determine one’s holiness are the fruits of keeping our Lord’s commands, not those of signs and wonders, which Satan is also able to produce (cf. Rev. 13:13). Power is not synonymous with piety. Even Christians, who have miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, may exercise these from carnal motives and for carnal purposes. In his first epistle to the Corinthians the apostle Paul tries to show that the manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s power through gifted people is not proof of their piety. Those who seemed to have the most spectacular gifts (and thus the largest following) were not the most spiritual.
(4) Isolational Holiness. Over the centuries, men have tended to equate holiness with separation. One’s holiness could be measured in terms of the distance between the “saint” and the “sinner.” No wonder the “holy” scribes and Pharisees were shocked by the fact that Jesus spent time with “sinners” rather than with them: “And when the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax-gatherers, they began saying to His disciples, ‘Why is He eating and drinking with tax-gatherers and sinners?’” (Mark 2:16). Jesus answer was that He came to save sinners. He who was holy was not defiled by being in the presence of sinners. It was His intrinsic holiness and the holiness of His actions which proved Him to be the Holy One of Israel.
Christians down through the centuries have been tempted to be sanctified by physical separation from “sinners,” forgetting that the “world” is only one source of corruption, while the “flesh” and the devil are also sources of contamination and temptation. Thus there have been the cave dwellers, the hermits, and the monks, who have sought spirituality (holiness) by separation. Jesus, however, taught that holiness needed to be manifested and multiplied by penetration, not isolation:
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing any more, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:13-17).
Jesus taught the principle of penetration, which is precisely what He practiced. Holiness was incarnated in Christ, and was evidenced by His fulfillment of the Law. So it must be in His followers. There is a kind of “separation” being practiced by Christians today which has a form of godliness, but which denies God’s power to sanctify in the presence of sinners, who will not see the holiness of God or be saved apart from a demonstration of it in their world.
(5) Holiness by Redefinition. The scribes and Pharisees were ingenious at getting around the Word of God. Thus, they re-defined the Law to conform to their own sinfulness. If holiness was manifested by loving one’s neighbor, they re-defined “neighbor” to be their friends and fellow-countrymen.
When a pagan asked for a statement of Israel’s law in its shortest form, Hillel, the contemporary of Jesus, expressed this as ‘whatever is hateful to you, do not do this unto your countryman,’ and he added that ‘this is the whole law; all else is merely interpretation. There remains an enormous difference between this saying of Hillel and God’s demand, however. Furthermore, in Jesus’ requirement a person’s neighbor is not limited to members of his own people (Luke 10:29-37), and pre-Christian Judaism was never able to ascend to this thought. 115
The hypocrisy of Judaism is seen in Luke chapter 10, where our Lord has summarized the teaching of the Old Testament law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). To this, the Israelite lawyer sought to defend himself by responding, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).
Here was the rub. To the scribes and Pharisees, their neighbor was their friend, their fellow-Israelite. Our Lord’s response to this, the story of the Good Samaritan, showed that one’s neighbor included those in need, even those of another nation. This interpretation precisely conforms to the teaching of Leviticus 19.
In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord exposed this error, very early (it would seem) in His ministry:
“You have heard that it was said,116 ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax-gatherers do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:43-48).
It seems to me that we have tended to this same error, in a variety of ways. One is that we seem to be placing more emphasis on “fellowship” than we are on evangelism. We are spending more time with other Christians in church than we are “in the streets” with the lost. We are spending more money on church buildings, staff, and programs than we are on helping the poor. In essence, our spirituality is more self-centered (self in the sense of Christian-oriented) than sinner-oriented.
There is an even more deadly evil in our age, however, one that has been the dubious distinction of our generation to contrive. While the Jews redefined but one term, “neighbor,” we have redefined the entire command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I say this to our great shame.
Our age is extremely self-centered. Rather than having a heart for others—our “neighbors,” we have become preoccupied with ourselves, with our “self-image.” The new evil of our day is having a “poor self-concept.” This has been cited as the cause for nearly every sin. Thus, we are being told (even from the pulpit), “We cannot love God, nor can we love men, until we first love ourselves.” This concept fits perfectly into the sinful, selfish, self-oriented spirit of our age. It sanctifies many evils. It directly ignores biblical theology and our Lord’s teaching. It flies in the face of the teaching of Leviticus 19. It comes from the pit of hell. God spare us from this kind of redefinition. God enable us to lay down our lives for others, to place the interests of others above ourselves (Phil. 2).
Herein is true holiness, obeying the commands of God by loving our neighbor as ourselves. May God grant us to do this.
109 “However manifold the commandments, which are grouped together rather according to a loose association of ideas than according to any logical arrangement, they are all linked together by the common purpose expressed in ver. 2 in the words, ‘Ye shall be holy, for I am holy, Jehovah your God.’” C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. by James Martin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968 [reprint]), II, p. 418.
“This chapter covers such a variety of topics that the modern reader finds difficulty in seeing any rhyme or reason in its organization. But once it is recognized that ‘I am the Lord (your God)’ marks the end of a paragraph, its structure becomes much clearer.” Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. 263.
110 Wenham, pp. 263-264.
111 In a footnote, Wenham lists the repetitions of the Decalogue: “Verse 4, cf. Exod. 20:3-6; v. 12, cf. Exod. 20:7; vv. 3, 30, cf. Exod. 20:8-12; v. 16, cf. Exod. 20:13; vv. 20-22, 29, cf. Exod. 20:14; vv. 11, 13, cf. Exod. 20:15; vv. 15-16, cf. Exod. 20:16; vv. 17-18, cf. Exod. 20:17.” Wenham, p. 264, fn. 1.
112 I must express a note of caution here because there is always the danger of calling a commandment “irrelevant” which, in the light of further study and reflection, may prove to be otherwise. For example, I would have been inclined to think that the command, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing” (Deut. 25:4), irrelevant, except for the fact that Paul applies the underlying principle of this command to the payment of those who preach (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1-14).
113 Wenham writes, “Different words for ‘neighbor’ are used within this section, so that v. 18 forms a literary as well as a theological climax to the whole passage. (1) Fellow citizen—I am the Lord (vv. 11-12); (2) neighbor—I am the Lord (vv. 13-14); (3) Fellow citizen, people, neighbor (vv. 15-16); (4) Brother, fellow citizen, people neighbor—I am the Lord (vv. 17-18). Wenham, p. 267.
114 Notice the similarity of this exhortation from the pen of Peter to that of God in the first five verses of Leviticus chapter 19. Indeed, I am increasingly impressed with the degree to which Peter has borrowed from the terminology and theology of Leviticus in his epistle. Thus, Peter buttressed his call to holy living on the fact that his readers, like the Israelites of old, had been called to be a “holy priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:5). There are many parallels between Peter’s exhortations in his epistle and God’s commands in Leviticus.
115 A. Noordtzij, Leviticus, trans. by Raymond Togtman, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), pp. 199-200.
116 I have pointed this out elsewhere, but I must reiterate that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus proclaimed and defended the teaching of the Old Testament Law. He did not give another Law, as some suggest. The expression, “You have heard that it was said,” refers to the interpretation of the scribes and Pharisees, not to the actual teaching of the Old Testament. Jesus sought to restore the true teaching of the Old Testament, not to throw it out and replace it. He came, as He said, not to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it.
15. Capital Crimes (Leviticus 20)
One sure way to start an argument is to introduce a very controversial topic into the conversation. One such topic is that of capital punishment. Since capital punishment is the central theme of Leviticus chapter 20, it may appear that we are approaching a very sensitive subject. Actually, I do not believe that our text has very much to say regarding the contemporary debate over capital punishment. In fact, I want to settle this issue before we even begin to study our text. I do not think that Leviticus chapter 20 was recorded to convince 20th century Christians of the need for capital punishment any more than I believe that the primary purpose of Genesis 1 and 2 is to refute the relatively recent theory of evolution.
It should be clear at the outset that the Old Testament in general, and our text in particular, requires capital punishment in a number of instances. The issue, however, is whether or not the capital punishment of Leviticus can be viewed as timeless and universal, so that what God commanded Israel to observe is also binding on those who lived in later dispensations. Some would dogmatically maintain that Old Testament texts such as ours do make capital punishment a mandate. Let us beware in being too dogmatic on the basis of our text, however, since it “proves” far more than we would wish. Are we willing to insist on capital punishment for every offense which is listed here? We may insist that God’s word requires the life of the murderer, but do we also insist that the one who has sexual relations with his wife during her monthly period also has to die for such a sin?
The New Testament does seem to suggest that even heathen governments have the right to execute criminals. In John 19:11 our Lord implied that Pilate had the legal right to take human life in the form of capital punishment. So, too, the apostle Paul seems to say that government may “bear the sword” so as to be able to pronounce and execute the death sentence (Rom. 13:4). Following the three-fold question which I raised last week (Does the New Testament accept, reject, or revise a particular teaching or command of the Old Testament?), I would say that the New Testament “modifies” the teaching which we find in texts such as Leviticus chapter 20.
The principle issue addressed by Leviticus 20 is not whether or not governments should execute men for their crimes, but whether or not God does so. And if He does, as both the Old and New Testaments demonstrate, then we had best devote our attention to discovering the reasons why He does so. We should identify those reasons so that we can avoid committing any of these “capital crimes.” This will be the principle aim of our study.
The Approach of This Message
Our approach in this lesson will be to begin by making some general, overall observations about chapter 20. Then I will attempt to surface some of the “tensions of the text” which present the contemporary Christian (and the Old Testament saint as well) with some difficulties, but also point the way to the interpretation of the passage. Next I will seek to resolve these tensions or problems by finding an explanation for them in the Old Testament. Finally, looking through the filter of the revelation of the New Testament, we will seek to discover how the principles underlying God’s determination of what constitutes a capital crime apply to your life and mine.
The Context of Leviticus 20
Chapter 20 falls into the broader context of chapters 18-20, which stress the practical outworkings of holiness in the everyday life of the Israelite. Chapter 18 has focused primarily on the family . Chapter 19 approaches holiness from the standpoint of one’s neighbor, and here God requires that His holiness be reflected by His people loving their neighbor. Chapter 20 follows up the teaching of the previous two chapters by prescribing the punishment for the capital crimes forbidden which have been outlined there. The serious nature of the punishment of these crimes serves to strongly underscore the importance of obeying the commands found in these chapters.
Structure of Chapter 20
The structure of the chapter can be seen as outlined below:
- Prohibition: Molech and Mediums (vv. 1-6)
- Exhortation to be holy: Obey God’s Statutes (vv. 7-8)
- Prohibition: Sins against the Family (vv. 9-21)
- Exhortation to holiness: Keep God’s Ordinances (vv. 22-26)
- Prohibition of Mediums: Must be executed (v. 27)
Observations of Leviticus 20
The general tone of the chapter, along with some of the “tensions,” becomes evident in the following observations:
(2) There is a co-participation between God and His people Israel in condemning and executing those who are guilty of these capital crimes. Men must cooperate with God in judging the wicked or they become accessories to the crime (vv. 4-5).
(3) Not all capital crimes are listed here, but only selected capital crimes. In particular, those capital crimes are listed which have been forbidden in the immediately preceding context.
(4) The capital crimes mentioned here are not those which we would have expected, those which governments generally condemn, such as “murder,” “kidnapping,” and “rape.”
(5) The capital crimes of this chapter are not those which are universal, applicable in all dispensations, and would thus be directly applicable to or binding upon the 20th Century Christian.
(6) Quite frankly, some of these capital crimes are offenses which we might doubt as worthy of the death penalty. For example, one finds it difficult to conceive of a man having sexual relations with his wife during her monthly period as being a crime on a par with murder, adultery, or incest.
The ‘Tensions of the Text’
These general observations present the thoughtful reader with some perplexing questions, which I call the “tensions of the text.” These are troubling questions which occur to the reader as a result of grasping what is being said in the text. Such tensions are critical to good study and interpretation of the Bible, for I believe they are the means of finding the heart of the issue being taught, or what I call the “punch of the passage.” Let us consider the tensions which the above observations pose for the reader.
(1) Why is it that some seemingly minor offenses are considered capital crimes in Leviticus 20? Why, for example, should one be executed for having sexual relations with his wife, during her monthly period? Today, this is viewed as simply a matter of personal preference and nothing more. Having sex with another man’s wife we can more readily accept as a capital crime, but having sex with one’s own wife at a certain time of the month seems excessively severe.
(2) Why are the capital crimes listed in Leviticus 20 “odd-ball” capital crimes? The offenses listed here are those which, at least to the 20th century reader, seem off-beat and unusual. We would have expected this list of capital crimes to be quite different. Murder, kidnapping, and rape are the kinds of sins which nearly every government condemns and severely punishes. But the sins listed in chapter 20 are not of this type.
(3) The bottom line is this: why does what God calls worthy of death differ from our expectations of what He should have listed?
The solution to our dilemma, to these “tensions in our text,” is to discern those principles on which these particular capital crimes are selected, rather than others. We must, in other words, discern the divine reasoning and rational behind the crimes which are called capital. Here is the key to the correct interpretation of our passage, and the key to understanding its relevance to us.
The ‘Punch of the Passage’
Before attempting to answer the questions raised by our text, we must begin by establishing a fundamental premise: CAPITAL CRIMES REFLECT A GIVEN SYSTEM OF VALUES.
Acts which are called capital crimes are those which are considered most evil, and thus reflect the value system of the one (or ones) making the laws. Since capital punishment is the most serious penalty men can execute, those crimes which are capital crimes are those acts which are viewed as the ultimate evil.
Let me illustrate. In our country, it is possible, even likely, that a man might spend more time in prison for stealing than for murder or rape. This suggests that our society has become materialistic, and that those who take away our goods will be severely punished because we value things so highly.
This can be illustrated in another way. Think of the “crimes” for which our society is willing to put a person to death. While capital punishment for crimes such as murder and kidnapping is widely opposed by many, we will put the elderly to death for the crime of becoming a burden on us, for being a nuisance. The child that is born with a serious defect may be starved to death or have surgery which is necessary to preserve its life withheld so that the parents won’t be burdened with an “inferior” child. And, to cap it all off, we pronounce an infant in the womb worthy of death (and thus let the abortionist kill it) because it interferes with the freedom and pleasure of the parents. Our society has surely turned God’s values upside-down. The innocent are put to death because they violate our autonomy, our freedom, our pleasure. Our values become evident by those whom we sentence to death.
The only conclusion which we can reach from these illustrations is that our society worships money, freedom, and pleasure. These are the gods of 20th century America.
So, too, the capital crimes of Leviticus chapter 20 reflect God’s system of values. If it happens that we are troubled by what God has condemned as worthy of death, then we must recognize that our value system must be “out of sync” with God’s. What, then, are God’s values, which are the basis for His choice of capital crimes?
God’s Values, as Seen in Leviticus 20
There are several principles evident in our text which explain why the crimes listed are capital offenses, worthy of death. Let us consider these principles very carefully.
The first tension raised by our text was the fact that capital punishment seems to be prescribed for offenses which are not all that serious. The solution to this dilemma is to be found in our first principle. PRINCIPLE ONE: GOD VIEWS EVERY SIN AS A CAPITAL CRIME, WORTHY OF DEATH.
Let’s face it, you and I would not have deemed a man worthy of death for having sex with his wife during her monthly period. Our society views this totally as a matter of preference. This offense, which is but a misdemeanor in our minds, was a felony to God, a capital crime, deserving the death penalty. Our problem is solved when we come to view sin as a horrid crime against a holy God. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, does this seem such a heinous crime that it necessitated not only the death of these two persons, but also the death of all their offspring?
In the midst of our consternation that God would condemn a person to death for what we would call a minor offense, let us not forget that the Bible portrays every sin as worthy of death. The wages of sin, we are told, is death (Rom. 6:23). There is no such thing as a small sin in God’s sight.
Society finds it necessary to categorize evils, and rightly so. It classifies crimes in relation to the harm which is done to society. Stealing a piece of fruit from a grocery store is therefore not viewed as being as socially destructive as killing the grocer would be. Thus, society categorizes sins as felonies and misdemeanors, as being in the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd degree. It fines men for the commission of certain crimes, imprisons men for others, and executes some for still others.
God views sin differently. God looks upon sin not only in terms of the action and its consequences, but also in terms of the attitude which is evidenced. At the bottom line, sin is an act of rebellion against God. It matters little what form our rebellion takes, for any act of rebellion against the sovereign God is worthy of death. Why should we be surprised, then, when God prescribes the death penalty for any sin, even one which we view as minimal? We ought rather to ponder the grace of God in not striking every one of us dead for our endless succession of acts of rebellion against Him.
The fact that all sins are capital crimes has a number of significant implications. Let us consider some of them.
(1) Since all sins are capital sins, worthy of death, all men desperately need to experience God’s provision for sinners—forgiveness through the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross, bearing the (capital) punishment which we deserve.
We may deceive ourselves into thinking that God will accept us into His heaven because we are less sinful than others, but God views any sin as worthy of the death penalty. Thus, regardless of how society stratifies the sins we commit, God hates all sin and must, in His holiness, punish them. Some seem to find comfort in the fact that Jesus refused to condemn men in His first coming, even refusing to take part in the execution of the woman caught in the very act of adultery (John 8). This is because His first coming was not to condemn men, but to save them: “For God did not send the son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:17-18).
Let us not be lulled into a false sense of security, however, for while Christ’s first coming was not to pronounce God’s sentence on men, His second coming is. A reading of the 19th chapter of the Book of Revelation makes this painfully and dramatically clear. Let us be warned that all sin is worthy of death, that Jesus Christ has borne the death penalty in our place, but all those who reject Him now as Savior will face Him later as judge and executioner. If the ultimate penalty is eternal death—hell—then the ultimate crime is to reject Christ, who came to bear the penalty of sin and to break the power of death. Let us not reject Him who alone saves.
(2) The fact that all sins are capital crimes means that no sinner should feel more righteous than another. There is no room for self-righteousness if God views all sins as capital offenses. The scribes and Pharisees looked down their noses at the “sinners,” who were guilty of those offenses which the religious leaders had considered greater than their own. If we are not guilty of one form of sin, we are surely guilty of another, and seen from God’s point of view, the kind of sin of which we are guilty matters little. Thus, no sinner should feel more righteous than another. As James has put the matter, to be found guilty of offense at one point is to fall short in all points (cf. James 2:1-13, esp. v. 10).
Our second tension of this text concerned the fact that the capital offenses listed in Leviticus were not those commonly defined by society. In other words, the capital crimes of Leviticus were “oddball” crimes, rather than the typical crimes which governments almost universally condemn. This tension is solved by PRINCIPLE TWO: GOD’S LAW REFUSED TO DISTINGUISHES BETWEEN SINS AND CRIMES.
As a rule, governments do not concern themselves with moral matters, sins, but rather with social evils, crimes. As a friend of mine once put it: “There are a lot of crimes which aren’t sins, and there are a lot of sins which aren’t crimes.”
Those acts which God identified as capital crimes in Leviticus chapter 20 could also be called sins, for in the Law of Moses and in the Old Testament order sins were crimes. This is not universally true among nations however. Usually governments distinguish between crimes and sins. Governments don’t bother themselves with sins (that is, those acts which are against God) but with crimes (offenses against men).
The capital crimes listed in Leviticus 20 are those sins which the Canaanites would not have considered crimes at all. Thus, the Israelites would have been especially tempted to do the things penalized by death in our text.
The issue here is the difference between legality, or between crime (that which men declare to be a punishable social evil) and sin (that which God declares to be evil, and thus worthy of death). God is especially emphasizing the punishment for those sins (acts contrary to His law, as given at Mt. Sinai) which were not crimes (according to Egyptian or Canaanite law). God’s people are especially vulnerable to sins which are not crimes, for two reasons. First, the sins which are not crimes are acts which our culture will encourage us to commit. Secondly, the sins which are not crimes do not seem to have immediate (and dire) consequences. And so we are more naturally inclined to follow the speed limit than we are to shun covetousness.
In 1973 the Supreme Court overruled a law which declared abortion to be a crime. Before 1973, some women had abortions anyway, and became guilty of both a sin and a crime. After 1973 however, countless more women have had an abortion, largely because what was once both a sin and a crime is now no longer a crime. When God made certain sins crimes as well, the Israelites were strongly motivated to obey God’s laws and to avoid sin.
This lifestyle which is distinct from that of the surrounding nations is emphasized in chapters 18 and 20:
- Don’t do as Egyptians did or Canaanites do (18:1-5)
- Defilement will lead to expulsion from land (18:24-30)
- General encouragement to obey (20:7-8)
- More specific encouragement, with reference to evils of the land and to being expelled from land for sin (20:22-26)
Usually sins and crimes are not always synonymous. This was not true in Israel’s theocracy, but it is generally true, especially when that government is essentially godless and pagan. In such cases, government too often declares the practice of righteousness to be a crime, as when Darius was deceived into declaring prayer to be unlawful (Daniel 6) or when the Jews declared witnessing in the name of Jesus to be against the law (Acts 5). In such cases, God’s people must be righteous even when it is illegal to do so.
Recognizing the difference between sins and crimes is vital to godly living in America. In past years, America’s laws reflected Christian morality, thus homosexuality was a crime and divorce was not easily obtained. Now, however, we live in a post-Christian day. The fact that professing Christians are now getting divorced almost as often as unbelievers is not to be credited so much to a declining morality as to a changing legality. I am not convinced that Christians of a bygone day stayed together out of obedience to God so much as out of respect for the law.
Today, Christians must wake up to the fact that living a godly life requires much more than being a law-abiding citizen. If the Christian is to be distinct as one who belongs to God—as the Old and New Testaments both require (cf. Matt. 5:43-48; 1 Peter 2, 4), then we must live according to a much higher standard than the laws of our land. At times, we must even violate them, if obedience to God requires it. The American way of life is not a high enough standard for Christians. Let us live higher than the law demands, for avoiding sin requires this. The law can define what is crime, but God defines what is sin.
Our third tension in the text of Leviticus chapter 20 had to do with God’s basis for identifying certain acts as capital crimes. This tension is resolved by PRINCIPLE THREE: THE CAPITAL CRIMES OF LEVITICUS 20 ARE VIOLATIONS OF GOD’S COVENANT WITH ISRAEL.
The crimes in Leviticus for which death is prescribed are all crimes against God’s covenant given Israel from Mt. Sinai. The purpose of the covenant, God continually emphasized, was to set Israel apart from the surrounding nations, to distinguish them by means of holiness, as His people (cf. Exod. 19:5-6). The Mosaic Covenant was the definition of the holiness which God required in order for Him to dwell among this people and for them to be His holy nation. Thus, to violate that covenant was to seek to thwart the purposes of God for His people. The crimes which God punished by death were those against His covenant.
No wonder the sins which God defined as capital crimes were not declared crimes by the Canaanites. These were the very things which the Canaanites practiced and promoted, and for doing so they were thrust out of the land (cf. Lev. 18:1-5, 24-30; 20:22-26).
The crimes which are declared worthy of death in Leviticus 20 are those acts which God called sin previously, and which His covenant clearly prohibited. The reason why any violation of His covenant was a capital offense was that this was God’s expressed will, the basis for His blessing or discipline, the standard for holiness. Whether or not the act appeared to have great social significance, it had great spiritual significance: it would defile the land and God’s sanctuary, thus either causing Him to depart or to drive the nation Israel from the land.
Capital Punishment in the New Testament
Our study of capital punishment in Leviticus inevitably leads us to the New Testament, from which we derive our fourth principle. In the New Testament God is seen to exercise capital punishment on those who disregard His new covenant.
This same principles which we have found in Leviticus chapter 20 are found demonstrated in the New Testament, where God is shown to exercise capital punishment in several instances. When I speak of “capital punishment” here I am referring to direct interventions of God which resulted in the death of individuals. In this sense, God “cut off” these offenders.
Ananias and Sapphira were “cut off” for lying to the Holy Spirit regarding their gift (Acts 5:1-11). The Galatian legalists who perverted the gospel were pronounced “accursed” by the apostle Paul (Gal. 1:6-9). While they were not put to death, they were pronounced worthy of death. The saints in Corinth who inappropriately observed the Lord’s Table suffered sickness and death for their disregard (1 Cor. 11:17-34). So, too, the one who would willfully disregard rebuke and persist in his sin was turned over to Satan, which, apart from repentance, would have led to his death (1 Cor. 5:1-5). In addition, note how strongly Paul reacted to the conduct of Peter when he fell in with the separatism of the Judaizers, based upon the inconsistency of this act with the gospel (Gal. 2).
I contend, therefore, that God looks upon disregard for the New Covenant as an even more serious offense than disregard for the Old. This is precisely the point of the writer to the Hebrews:
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:26-31).
If it is a most serious offense—can I say a capital offense—to disregard and disdain the covenant of God, whether the Mosaic or the New Covenant, then what are some of the ways which men are in danger of doing so? Let me conclude by suggesting some very practical dangers.
Twentieth Century Dangers
(1) The danger of rejecting Christ, through whose shed blood the New Covenant has been established. There is one danger which is common to all men, and it is by far the most dangerous. It is the danger of rejecting Christ, who is the means and the mediator of the New Covenant. He died, bearing the penalty of death which we should have borne. If we reject Christ, we have committed the ultimate sin, for which the ultimate penalty—eternal death—is justly appropriate. Do not reject Christ and thus disdain the New Covenant which God has made with men through Him.
(2) Christians disdain and disregard the New Covenant when they persist in sin. This is precisely what the writer to the Hebrews is warning his readers about. Cheap grace sees the shed blood of Christ as a license to sin. Christ died so that men may cease from sin. To persist in sin is, in the words of the biblical text, to “trample underfoot the Son of God,” and to regard “as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified” (Heb. 10:29). The punishment for such disregard is rightly most severe.
(3) Christians disdain and disobey the New Covenant when they refuse to initiate or participate in the discipline of a wayward saint. As I understand the matter, church discipline is the New Testament counterpart to Old Testament capital punishment. In this case, the Christian initiates discipline by rebuking the guilty party. If, after carrying out the entire process of rebuke (cf. Matt. 18; Gal. 6; 1 Cor. 5) the sinning saint refuses to repent, then the church must “cut off” fellowship. Unless repentance results, the process may well end in the death of the individual, in Paul’s words, “the destruction of his flesh” (1 Cor. 5:5). The sinning saint does not lose his salvation (“that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus,” (1 Cor. 5:5), but he may well lose his life. Just as the Old Testament Israelite disregarded God’s covenant by failing to take action against the sinner (Lev. 20:4-5), so the New Testament saint does likewise when he or she refuses to exercise church discipline.
(4) We disregard God’s covenant when we disdain or disregard the New Testament “sign of the covenant”—the Lord’s Table (cf. Luke 22:14-23; 1 Cor. 11:23-26). The sign of the Old Covenant was the keeping of the Sabbath. The violation of this observance was penalized by death. I am amazed at how easily Christians find it acceptable to fail to observe the Lord’s Table, the sign of the New Covenant. How can we honor the covenant without observing the sign of the covenant? How can a man love his wife and have no desire to enter into sexual union (the sign of his covenant) with her? We disregard the New Covenant by abstaining from a remembrance of the Lord’s Table. The immediately preceding context of Hebrews chapter 10 exhorts the Christian not to “forsake our own assembling together” (Heb. 10:25).
Furthermore, we disregard the New Covenant when we observe the Lord’s Table in an “unworthy manner.” The 11th chapter of 1 Corinthians tells us that some were sick and some died because of the drunken and disorderly conduct of those who did observe the Lord’s Table, but in an inappropriate way.
(5) We disregard the New Covenant when we pervert the terms of the covenant—when we distort the gospel. The legalists on the one hand (cf. Gal. 1:6-8) and the libertines on the other (cf. Rom. 6:1; 1 Cor. 8-10; 1 Pet. 2:16; 2 Pet. 2), distort the gospel, thus disdaining the covenant as God has established it. Such are those who are in great danger of divine judgment.
(6) We disregard the New Covenant when we fail to live a life on a higher standard than that of our society. Repeatedly in the Scriptures we find that God expects the Christian to live according to a higher standard than those around them (cf. Lev. 18:1-5, 24-30; 20:22-26; Matt. 5:43-48; 1 Pet. 2:11-25; 4). We must live distinct lives to be “salt” and “light” in our world, and may very well suffer persecution for so doing (Matt. 5:10-16; cf. 1 Pet. 4).
We disregard the New Covenant when we refuse to mortify (“put to death”) the flesh. God has, in Christ, condemned sin in the flesh. We are to mortify our members, to put sin to death in our lives. This is the outcome of the work of Christ, and of walking in His Spirit (cf. Rom. 6-8). To fail to mortify the flesh is to chose to follow Satan and to pursue sin to its logical and ultimate outcome—death (cf. Rom. 8:5-8).
Let us learn to shun those things which God has proclaimed worthy of death, and live in obedience to Him, honoring His covenant with us.
117 It is not universally agreed that every crime listed in chapter 20 is a capital offense. Some, for example, tend to take the expression ‘to cut off’ (e.g. Lev. 20:5) to mean excommunication or expulsion. Wenham mentions this as a possibility, but nevertheless leans toward the view that it means an early, untimely, death, at the hand of God:
“The law refers a number of times to God cutting off an offender, or the guilty person being cut off from among his people (e.g., Exod. 12:15, 19; Lev. 7:20-21, 25, 27; 17:4, 9, 14; 18:29; 19:8; 20:3, 5-6, 17-18; Numb. 15:30-31). It is a punishment generally reserved for religious and sexual offenses. Since some of these offenses may also attract the death penalty, ‘cutting off’ could conceivably be an alternative way of describing capital punishment (e.g., Lev. 20:6 and 27). However, since cutting off is contrasted with judicial execution in Lev. 20:2ff. (the man who escapes stoning must still face the possibility of being cut off), something different must be meant. For one case of incest Babylonian law demands expulsion from the community, where as biblical law speaks of the guilty man being ‘cut off’ (LH 154; cf. Lev. 20:17-18). It could be argued that ‘cutting off’ means excommunication from the covenant community. But this treatment is reserved for the unclean rather than for criminals (Lev. 13:45-46; Num. 5:1-4). It seems best, therefore, to retain the traditional interpretation of ‘cutting off’: it is a threat of direct punishment by God usually in the form of premature death. Insofar as many of the offenses punishable by ‘cutting off’ would easily escape human detection, a threat of divine judgment would have been the main deterrent to committing them.” Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), pp. 285-286
It might be argued that the expressions “they shall bear their guilt” (Lev. 20:19) and “they shall be childless” (20:21) may refer to something less than the death penalty. The context militates against this. For example, it is clearly stated that a man who marries a woman and her mother are to be “burned with fire” (v. 14), so the man who commits adultery and uncovers his brother’s nakedness by taking his brother’s wife surely must die also, even though the text says “they shall be childless” (v. 21). From verse 20, it is made clear that to be childless is to die childless.
118 “Most of the subjects dealt with in this chapter have already been discussed earlier in chs. 18 and 19 (cf. 20:2-5//18:21; 20:6,27//19:31; 20:9//19:3; 20:10-21//18:6-20, 22-23). The exhortations to holiness (vv. 7-8, 22-26) are similar to those found in 11:44-45; 18:2-5, 24-30; 19:36-37.” Wenham, p. 277.
16. Holiness: The False and the True (Leviticus 21 and 22)
I have a confession to make. I almost skipped over Leviticus 21 and 22, thinking that there wasn’t much of importance to the 20th century Christian. Was I ever wrong!
It would be easy to come to the hasty conclusion that these two chapters are irrelevant and hardly worth our time. After all, this is the Old Testament, and we are New Testament saints. This is the Book of Leviticus, and these chapters pertain to the Aaronic priesthood. Furthermore, these chapters deal with ceremonial defilements, which do not carry over into the New Testament. Now if the defilements were sins such as murder, lying, idolatry, that might be another matter … And so our text may seem about as relevant as a speed limit for a horse and buggy on Central Expressway.
There are three compelling reasons for the relevance of these two chapters and for our study of them in this lesson. First, an understanding of Leviticus 21 and 22 will greatly enhance our understanding of the New Testament.
As a public school teacher, and now as one who teaches seminars in prisons, I have found that I can better understand the particular individual I am working with by learning something of his or her background. Attitudes and behavior which are beyond my comprehension often “fit” when I discover the kind of childhood the individual has had and some of the experiences and turning points which have shaped the person’s outlook.
The same can be said for the scribes and Pharisees in the New Testament. From the moment our Lord began His public ministry, He was adamantly opposed by a very powerful, hostile group of Jewish religious leaders—the scribes and Pharisees. Among their number were the priests. Indeed, the priests were instrumental in the crucifixion of our Lord: “Now when morning had come, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put Him to death; and they bound Him, and led Him away, and delivered Him up to Pilate the governor” (Matt. 27:1-2).
The fundamental difference which quickly arose between our Lord and the scribes and Pharisees was the definition of holiness. The scribes and Pharisees had a distorted perception of the Old Testament definition of holiness, which to them was attained by human effort, by avoiding external ceremonial defilement and by observing the prescribed rituals of the Law of Moses. Thus, they concluded that Jesus, who mingled with sinners, who touched lepers, and who challenged their interpretation of the Law, could only be a sinner, operating in the power of Beelzebub. Ultimately, playing their version of holiness and their interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures to their ultimate conclusion, they found Him worthy of death.
This opposition to our Lord did not end with His death, burial, and resurrection. It persisted on, attacking the church, both from without and from within. The Book of Acts records a number of these attacks. The epistles, such as the Book of Galatians, show that the problem was a persistent one, one which the apostles took most seriously.
We will not understand the scribes and Pharisees and their thinking and actions apart from getting a grasp of their background. Much of this background, in my opinion, is to be found in Leviticus 21 and 22. I have to admit I have never really had any empathy for the legalistic scribes and Pharisees until now. I could never really understand where their legalism originated. It was not until I had to personally struggle with the meaning and application of Leviticus 21 and 22 that I gained an appreciation for the trap into which the scribes and Pharisees had fallen, one which could easily happen in one’s study of this passage. I now believe that their error, as seen in the New Testament, originates in our very text, as much or more than any other Old Testament passage.
If we are to understand the opposition of Judaism to our Lord and to His church we must understand how and why the Jewish religious leaders failed to interpret and apply our text correctly. In our study of Leviticus 21 and 22 we shall seek to find the roots of the error of Jesus’ opponents, the scribes and Pharisees.
Second, our study will provide us with instruction concerning the proper interpretation and application of the Old Testament. The New Testament provides us with a clear picture of the erroneous interpretation and application of the Old Testament Law by the scribes and Pharisees.
This morning, when I first came to the church, I went into the men’s room to wash my hands. I discovered to my dismay (after my hands were dripping wet) that the hand towel dispenser was not working properly, so I opened it and placed a new roll of paper in it. On the inside of the cover were two pictures. One was a picture of the “right” way to load the dispenser. Along side was another picture, of the “wrong” way to load it. By viewing the right way alongside the wrong, one could learn how paper should be loaded.
So, too, the New Testament gives us two clear pictures of the interpretation and application of the Old Testament Law—the “wrong” way of the scribes and Pharisees, and the “right” way of our Lord and His apostles. Thus, by comparing and contrasting the false with the true interpretation of the Old Testament Law, we learn a valuable lesson in hermeneutics, the science of biblical interpretation. This is especially helpful when dealing with Old Testament passages, such as our text in Leviticus, which are some of the most difficult texts to interpret and apply for the New Testament Christian.
And so it is that our study will greatly enhance our understanding of the New Testament, as well as to provide us with a model for Old Testament study. But there is yet another benefit of our study in this lesson.
Third, our study of Leviticus 21 and 22 exposes an error which is just as prevalent in the church today as it was in our Lord’s day. The error of the scribes and Pharisees has been perpetuated and even refined over the period of the church’s history from our Lord’s day until the present. Essentially this error has to do with a false perception of holiness. Countless Christians have been led astray into various cults, all of which promise a higher level of holiness than the saint had previously experienced.
The titles of some of the best works on perversions of the spiritual life are evidence of this fact. Dr. Ironside’s excellent little book, Holiness, the False and the True,119 is one example. I am greatly indebted to Dr. Ironside, not only for the title of this lesson, but also for his insight into the perverted versions of holiness offered by the cults. Bussell’s excellent recent book, Unholy Devotion: Why Cults Lure Christians,120 is another example. Both these books warn the reader that the cults offer the unsuspecting saint a counterfeit holiness, a “holiness” which can often greatly resemble that of the scribes and Pharisees.
And so our study of these two chapters in Leviticus can be of great value to us, in enriching our understanding the New Testament, in providing a model for Old Testament interpretation, and in exposing error which is prevalent in our day. Let us listen well to God’s words in these two chapters.
Our approach in this lesson will be somewhat different from the norm. We will begin by viewing the text in Leviticus through the blinded eyes of the “priests” of Jesus’ day, and then by discerning from our Lord’s teaching what the error of His opponents was. Next, we shall seek to determine how they arrived at their erroneous view from Leviticus 21 and 22. We shall then attempt to see how they went wrong in their interpretation and application of the Law, and finally what Leviticus actually was intended to teach. In conclusion, we shall seek to apply what we have learned to our own lives.
The Structure of Leviticus 21 and 22
Chapters 21 and 22 divide into six sections, with each chapter having three sections. Each section is marked off by the statement, in slightly modified forms, “I am the LORD, who sanctifies you” (21:8, 15, 23; 22:9, 16, 32). This expression occurs elsewhere only in Leviticus 20:8. The sections and their major topics are as follows:
- How the priests are to avoid being profaned (21:1-9)
- How the high priest avoids being profaned (21:10-15)
- Physical imperfections that profane priests (21:16-24)
- Defilement and the eating of priest’s food (22:1-9)
- Those who are entitled to eat the priest’s food (22:10-16)
- Acceptable offerings (22:17-33)
Observation of Leviticus 21 and 22
While we cannot and will not be able to delve into these two chapters in detail, we must make several overall observations, which are essential to understanding both the correct and the incorrect interpretations of these chapters.
(1) These chapters are addressed to the Aaronic priests (cf. 21:1; 22:1-2) and to the high priest (21:10-15). Chapters 17-20 were addressed to the Israelites in general (including the priests as well, cf. 17:2), defining how holiness was to be practiced in the everyday activities of life. Chapters 21 and 22 return to the priests in particular. Chapters 23 and following will once again be more general.
Since this text was addressed to the priests of Israel, the priests of Jesus’ day would have understood its teaching to apply directly to them. It was their misunderstanding of this text, and their misapplication of it which resulted in their immediate and intense opposition to our Lord, His teaching, and His practice. If the scribes and Pharisees viewed any Old Testament text as “theirs” it was the passage we are studying, for God clearly indicates that it is written to and for the sons of Aaron, the priests of Israel.
(2) These chapters require a higher standard of separation from defilement for the priests. If there is a high standard for the priests (21:1-9), there is an even higher standard for the high priest (21:10-15). The higher the office, the higher the standard. This can be seen in several areas, but let us focus on two examples.
God established a higher standard of separation from defilement for the priests pertaining to death. All Israelites were forbidden to make any baldness on their heads or to shave off the edges of their beards, or to cut their flesh as a sign of mourning (cp. Lev. 19:27; 21:1-5, 10-12; Deut. 14:1). Normally, it would be a near relative who would bury one who died. Naturally, in making physical contact with the dead body, the Israelite would be ceremonially defiled and would have to go through a cleansing process. The priests, however, could only bury their near blood relatives (21:1-4). The high priest could not even leave the tabernacle to participate in mourning, nor was he allowed to have a part in burying even his near relatives (21:10-12).
God also established a higher standard for the priests in the matter of marriage. An ordinary Israelite had greater freedom in his choice of a wife than the priests, who could marry a widow, but not a divorcee (21:7). The high priest could marry only a virgin of his own people (21:13-15).
(3) The nature of the defilement is not that of immoral behavior or of specific sin, but of external ceremonial defilement. The defilement which must be avoided by the priests is not what we would have expected: lying, stealing, idolatry, or murder. Rather, the defilement involves such things as contact with the dead, other forms of ceremonial uncleanness, contamination by marriage, and having some physical defect—all matters which are not what we would call sin. Ceremonial defilement is allowed for the priests, under certain circumstances (cf. 21:2-3), but in every case of forbidden defilement, it is not a matter of sin, but of ceremonial contamination. This fact is a significant element in the error of the scribes and Pharisees.
The Error of the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ Day
I am going to isolate three forms of error of which the scribes and Pharisees are guilty, as exposed by our Lord in the gospel accounts of the New Testament. Let us briefly consider each of these.
Error 1: Elitism
The scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day had a distinctly “holier than thou” attitude. The viewed themselves as a spiritual elite, and they looked down upon the masses as inferior. This is particularly evident in two passages:
And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get’” (Luke 18:9-11).
And some of them wanted to seize Him, but no one laid hands on Him. The officers therefore came to the chief priests and Pharisees, and they said to them, “Why did you not bring Him?” The officers answered, “Never did a man speak the way this man speaks.” The Pharisees therefore answered them, “You have not also been led astray, have you? No one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him, has he? But this multitude which does not know the Law is accursed” (John 7:44-49).
While our Lord was amazingly gentle to those who knew and admitted that they were sinners (such as the “woman at the well” in John 4 and the “woman taken in adultery” in John 8), He was vehement in His attack upon the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees. The attack began openly with the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). At the outset of the sermon, Jesus pronounced those to be blessed were the opposite of the scribes and Pharisees—the poor, the meek, those who hungered and thirsted for righteousness (Matt. 5:3-9). He also warned the people that their righteousness would have to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees if they would enter into the kingdom of heaven (5:20). And then He set out to show that the interpretation of the Old Testament Law of the scribes and Pharisees was wrong (“You have heard … but I say,” 5:21ff.). When Jesus finished this sermon, the people got the idea. They recognized that “… He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt. 7:29).
Thus, the Sermon on the Mount stripped the scribes and Pharisees of their authority in the eyes of the people. It is no wonder that they persistently challenged our Lord’s authority to do and teach as He did (cf. Matt. 21:23).
When Jesus differed in His interpretation from the traditional view held by the scribes and Pharisees, He would respond in a way that highlighted their ignorance. “Have you not read …?” He would ask (cf. Matt. 19:4), suggesting that a simple reading of the Old Testament (on which they thought themselves to be experts) would have shown them to be wrong. And then, He added that the kingdom of God belonged to little children, rather than to the wise (Matt. 19:4, cf. 11:25). His final confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees was so scathing that it precipitated (not by accident) His betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion (Matt. 23).
Where did the scribes and Pharisees go wrong in their interpretation of the Old Testament, which led them to look upon themselves as a spiritual elite? I believe that their error stems from a wrong interpretation of Leviticus 21 and 22. They correctly saw these two chapters were addressed to the priests, not the people. They were also correct in concluding that there was a higher standard of separation required of them. And from this they concluded that they were therefore holier than the laity, the spiritual elite of Israel.
The premises were correct, but the conclusion was wrong. Paul would have characteristically have responded, “God forbid” (cf. Rom. 6:2, 15). Higher standards do not necessarily assure “holier” people. To assume, as these religious leaders did, that one’s position proves his piety is false. Satan delights to place his servants in places of religious position and prominence (cf. Matt. 7:15; 2 Cor. 11:13-14). Look at Judas, or the high priests of the day, who rejected God’s Messiah and had Him put to death as a criminal.
What, then, was Leviticus 21 and 22 intended to teach, if it did not teach that the priests were to be holier than the laymen? I believe that it taught that greater position and privilege brings higher responsibility. In the teaching of our Lord, “To whom much is given, much is required” (cf. Luke 12:48). A greater degree of separation from ceremonial defilement does not make the person holier, however. Note the words of the apostle Paul in reference to this same issue:
If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Col. 2:20-23).
There was no basis for a descendant of Aaron to assume that his position as a priest proved him to be holier than others, although it did require him to be more careful not to become ceremonially defiled. God has sovereignly chosen Aaron to be Israel’s high priest, and his descendants to be priests. A look at Aaron’s life and ministry quickly shows that neither he (remember he led in the worship of the golden calf, Exod. 32), nor his sons (remember the death of Nadab and Abihu, Lev. 10), were more holy.
To measure personal holiness in terms of ceremonial and ritual purity is a mistake. The holiness of God is to be manifested through obedience to God’s commands and by loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Remember, too, that even though a priest was ceremonially pure, he still could only approach God by means of the shed blood of an innocent and perfect sacrificial animal.
The priests were those who offered the sacrifices of the people, and thus a higher standard of conduct was essential to assure that the offerings which they sacrificed were acceptable to God (Lev. 21:6). In addition, the priests were also leaders in Israel. It is my observation that leaders, in the Old Testament and the New (cf. 1 Tim. 3), are required to live according to a higher standard, and for good reason. Leaders are to exemplify God’s ideals for character and conduct, not the minimum standard. To allow leaders to live according to the lowest standard, rather than according to the ideal, would be to encourage the people to live the same way, rather than to challenge them to the highest level of conduct.
The scribes and Pharisees were wrong to view themselves as the spiritual elite. If anything, the higher standards God requires for leaders should cause one to be even more sensitive to impurity and contamination in his or her life, and thus to be humbled by a position of leadership. Humility, not pride, is the mark of God’s leaders. Leviticus was written to assure a greater sensitivity toward corruption on the part of the priests, not to create a sense of pride, as though they were better because God required more of them.
Error 2: Externalism (Ceremonialism)
We noted previously that the things which contaminated the priests and thus which were to be avoided, were not flaws of character, or even of conduct (sins, such as lying, idolatry, murder, stealing), but were ceremonial defilements, such as contact with the dead, marriage to one who was not a virgin, or having some physical defect. In other words, it would be easy to falsely equate piety (holiness) with ritual cleanness.
This connection should not have been made so simplistically by the scribes and Pharisees, but the gospel accounts inform us that this is what happened. The scribes and Pharisees thought that holiness was primarily a matter of external, ceremonial cleanness. Thus, for the scribes and Pharisees holiness was largely a matter of keeping one’s distance from defilement, and especially from “sinners.” These sinners just happened to be those whom they loathed anyway, so it was an easy thing to be “pure.”
Ceremonial washings were a fetish to the scribes and Pharisees, and they could not fathom how Jesus and His disciples could eat with “unwashed hands” (cf. Mark 7:1ff.). Worse yet, they were repulsed by the fact that Jesus ate with sinners (Mark 2:15-16). When Jesus healed those who were “defiled” by leprosy, He touched them (cf. Matt. 8:1-3), an incomprehensible act to the meticulous scribes and Pharisees.
Jesus finally had to confront the issue directly. He did so by teaching that defilement does not come from without (the external), but from within (the heart):
“Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man … That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts and fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, sensuality, envy, slander, price and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man” (Mark 7:14b-15, 20-23).
Jesus persistently held to this view of defilement. He taught this, not as a new revelation, something distinct and different from the Law of Moses, but as being taught by the Law. So, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pressed beyond the external evil condemned by the Law to the inner evil, the evil attitudes which led to the evil actions. Murder, He taught, was caused by hate, and thus the Law required that men deal with hatred (Matt. 5:21ff.). Adultery was caused by lust, and thus the Law taught that men must deal (drastically, cf. Mark 9:43ff.) with the sin at its roots, at its source. Again and again the inner is emphasized as primary and the outer as secondary (cf. Matt. 15:16-20; 23:25-28). Both must be attended to (Matt. 23:23), but inner impurity is always presented as the cause of outer defilement (the effect).
But does our Lord’s teaching square with the instructions given to the priests in Leviticus 21 and 22? Our Lord taught that the emphasis should be inward and not outward, and that this was the teaching of the Law as well, but does our text in Leviticus teach this truth? I believe that it does, although this is not immediately apparent. Let me explain how and why this is so.
We must begin by recognizing that we are able to grasp abstract truths only in terms of the concrete. Thus, we make models of the atom, so that people can grasp what an atom is like. We describe the moon as being round, and rough on the outside, like an orange. Paul referred to the Old Testament Law as a schoolmaster, which prepared us for the New Covenant and the coming of Christ (Gal. 3:24). Elsewhere the Law is described in terms of “elementary principles,” to which Christ died (cf. Col. 2:20). There is no question that Leviticus focuses on the external, ceremonial defilements. This was done so that the people of God could first understand defilement concretely, and then begin to grasp the more abstract concept of sin.
The problem with the interpretation and application of Leviticus (and the whole Law) by the scribes and Pharisees was that they did not go far enough with what was taught. They wrongly concluded that the essence of holiness was the avoidance of ceremonial defilement, rather than to see that it began with it.
We must be reminded again of the concept of progressive revelation, and how it relates to the interpretation of Leviticus. Leviticus begins by defining defilement in very concrete terms, but as the Old Testament revelation unfolds, the prophets emphatically teach that God is not nearly as interested in the external ceremonial acts of men as He is in the attitudes of their hearts and the resulting righteousness that should produce love for one’s neighbor, especially the oppressed and the weak:
For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings (Hos. 6:6).
“I hate, I reject your festivals, Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).
The psalmists understood the need to see beyond the ceremonial and the external in the Law. Thus we read, “Oh how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97). Seeing beyond the ceremonial and the external required the Spirit’s illumination, and thus the psalmist prayed, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Thy law” (Ps. 119:18).
Thus, finding God’s wisdom in the Law required much more than a casual or cursory reading, it required diligent study: “If you seek her as silver, And search for her as hidden treasures; Then you will discern the fear of the LORD, And discover the knowledge of God” (Prov. 2:4-5).
Paul’s use of the Old Testament Law further illustrates how one should go from the concrete, literal, words of the text to the spiritual principles which are taught. In seeking to demonstrate that those who labor in the gospel should be financially supported, Paul turned to this text from the Book of Deuteronomy: “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing” (Deut. 25:4, as cited in 1 Cor. 9:9). Taken literally this command pertains only to farmers and their oxen. But Paul correctly understood this command to teach a principle, which extended beyond the Old Testament dispensation into the New, and beyond farmers and oxen to people and preachers (actually apostles). Thus, Paul wrote, “God is not concerned about oxen, is He?” (1 Cor. 9:9) God does care about oxen, but Paul’s question (which presupposes a negative response) indicates that the primary reason for this command is not for the benefit of oxen, but for the benefit of people.
And so we see that we must search for meaning in the Old Testament Law which goes beyond the ceremonial, beyond the external and the literal to the heart of the matter. This is precisely where the scribes and Pharisees went wrong. They did not take the Law far enough. They stopped at the level of what was concrete, and did not press on to the abstract. They stopped at the external, without exploring the internal—the issues of the heart. God wrote the Law to deal with men on both levels, but primarily on the internal, rather than on the external. The scribes and Pharisees strained the “gnats” (the external outworkings of the Law), but they swallowed the “camels” (the internal implications of the Law), for which our Lord rebuked them. Neither “gnats” nor “camels” should be neglected (Matt. 23:23-24).
Error 3: Legalism (Works Righteousness)
One might conclude, as the scribes and Pharisees did, that if one was able to avoid the defilements defined in chapters 21 and 22 that he would be holy. Having come to this false conclusion, one would then be able to reason, as the scribes and Pharisees, that it was his works that made him righteous. It is this attitude which our Lord said characterized His opponents, the scribes and Pharisees. Consider these words once again:
And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get’” (Luke 18:9-11, emphasis mine).
This parable was spoken by our Lord to condemn those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous. The scribes and Pharisees were wrong on two counts. First, they were wrong in thinking that they were righteous (cp. Matt. 5:20; 7:15). Secondly, they were wrong in attributing righteousness to their own efforts. It is self-righteousness that leads to pride, and the scribes and Pharisees had a double portion of both.
Where did they justify their conclusion on the basis of Leviticus 21 and 22? By thinking that since avoiding defilement (their own works) they made themselves holy. Thus, their righteousness was the results of their obedience to these commands in Leviticus.
How did they go wrong here? What did God intend to teach the priests by giving them the commandments pertaining to outward corruption and defilement in chapters 21 and 22? Now is the time to note the phrase which is the key to the entire passage, both structurally and interpretively: “I am the LORD, who sanctifies you.”
Who is it that sanctifies the priests, who makes them holy? God said six times that He did. He set Israel apart from the nations, and He set the priests apart from the people. The Israelites did not sanctify themselves by leaving Egypt, God released them while they, at best, stood by passively, and, at worst, drug their feet, rebelling and complaining.
God commanded the priests to avoid outward defilement because they were already holy, by God’s sanctification. They were to avoid the things prohibited because these things would make them unclean, not because avoiding them would make them clean. There is a world of difference between avoiding something to keep yourself from defilement and avoiding something to make yourself holy.
Here is a key to the error of the scribes and Pharisees. They confused the cause with the effect. The cause is the holiness, the sanctification, which God has already accomplished (which is primarily inner—a matter of the heart). The effect is separation of the priests from that which defiles, so as not to contaminate and defile that which God has sanctified. This explains why our Lord persisted, in His earthly teaching, to carefully distinguish between cause and effect. Salvation—making men clean—is our Lord’s work alone. Keeping ourselves pure is our duty (enabled by the Holy Spirit), so that we do not defile what God has cleansed. We ought to keep ourselves clean, but we can never make ourselves clean. We seek to stay clean (effect) because God has made us clean (cause). The priests should avoid defilement (effect) because God had already set them apart (cause).
This is no new revelation, something never made known in the Old Testament. It is precisely that which was taught by the prophet Haggai:
On the twenty-fourth of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to Haggai the prophet saying, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Ask now the priests for a ruling: If a man carries holy meat in the fold of his garment, and touches bread with this fold, or cooked food, wine, oil, or any other food, will it become holy?’” And the priests answered and said, “No.” Then Haggai said, “If one who is unclean from a corpse touches any of these, will the latter become unclean?” And the priests answered and said, “It will become unclean” (Haggai 2:10-13).
The point which is made here is that holiness is not contagious, it cannot be transmitted by contact with holy things. Defilement, however, is contagious, it can be transmitted by contact with what is unholy.
The scribes and Pharisees seemed to think that they “caught” holiness by their official duties, which put them in contact with “holy” things. Defilement can be caught, and thus God warned the priests about coming into contact with the unholy. Holiness, however, only comes from God.
What is it, then, that God wanted to teach the priests in these two chapters? First, He wanted them to know that He is the One who makes men holy, who sets them apart. It was not that the sons of Aaron were better or more worthy than the other Israelites, or that they “tried harder.” It was simply that God sovereignly chose to set them apart from others, to perform a special task. Second, He wanted them to know that in order to perform their task they had to remain undefiled, and thus they had to avoid those defilements which others might have been free to contact. God did have a higher standard for His priests, because they had a sacred task—that of making offerings for the people, because they had a higher privilege, and with it came a higher responsibility.
Where did the scribes and Pharisees go wrong? I think they erred in several critical areas. First and foremost, the scribes and Pharisees did not handle (interpret and apply) the Scriptures properly. They did not carry them far enough. They stopped at the apparent, but did not press on to the intended meaning and practice. They interpreted the Scriptures in terms of what they wanted to believe and in terms of the way they wished to live. They did not conform their lives to the Word of God, but conformed the Word of God to their lives. They turned the sacred text into a pretext. They interpreted the Scriptures in such a way as to always “fulfill” them, to live by their demands, rather than to be persistently reminded of their own sinfulness, and their need for a sacrifice. Rather than seeing holiness as God’s work, they saw it as man’s work, and thus they became proud and independent, rather than humble and dependent upon God. They did not feel that they needed, nor did they seek, mercy, but they felt they deserved God’s blessings. Rather than viewing their position as a privilege, they saw it as a right. Rather than seeing their ministry as a service, they saw it as a right to have status.
These errors are not confined to ancient Israel, or to the first century, they are just as prevalent and popular today. We, like the scribes and Pharisees, are not inclined to take the Scriptures as far as God intended us to. We wish to stop at the point of studying them for information, for the formulation or proof-texting of theological systems. We want to feel holy, without acknowledging that holiness comes only from God. We want to avoid those defilements which we find distasteful anyway. We want to keep the Scriptures carefully compartmentalized, rather than to allow them to convict us in every corner of our lives. We want to use the Scriptures to elevate ourselves above our peers. May God grant us to understand and to apply the principles of Leviticus and the Law as our Lord taught us to do, for His sake.
And for those who may never have been “made holy” by a personal experience of salvation, let me remind you of several important truths from our text. First, just as our text has required both the priests and the sacrifices to be perfect (and the high priest especially so), our Lord Jesus Christ was both the perfect high priest and the perfect sacrifice. His priestly offering of Himself has, once for all, made holy all those who trust in His work on their behalf. The Book of Hebrews strongly emphasizes this truth.
Second, just as only those who are members of the priest’s family can partake of the benefits of his priestly ministry (22:10-16), so only those who are members of the family of God can partake of the blessings of Christ’s priestly ministry. If you have not become a member of His family, do so today. Acknowledge your sin, and your unrighteousness. Trust in His shed blood for the payment for your sins. And then you may enjoy the fruits of His ministry—forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and fellowship with Him for all eternity.
119 H. A. Ironside, Holiness: The False and the True (Neptune, New Jersey: Loizeaux Brothers, 1912). This book is in its 24th printing.
120 Harold Bussell, Unholy Devotion: Why Cults Lure Christians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983).
17. The Lord’s Appointed Times (Leviticus 23)
“Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘The Lord’s appointed times which you shall proclaim as holy convocations—My appointed times are these:’” (Leviticus 23:2).
The Lord’s appointed times are festivals and holy days that commemorate significant times and events in Israel’s history. I had the unique privilege of attending Beth Hallel, a Messianic Jewish congregation, from 1988 through 1994. During these six years I joined with my Messianic Jewish friends in celebrating these holidays. They were a rich experience. In the fall of 1992, I was teaching through the Book of Revelation. As I heard the shofars blowing in the synagogue, I began thinking of the seven trumpet judgments. I asked myself what the association might be between these shofars and the trumpets in Revelation. This paper, in part, is what I discovered.
How do you learn best? Do you prefer to hear a lecture or read a book? Do you get more out of a documentary movie or studying the printed page? Can you learn about something abstractly, or do you need hands-on experience? As with many other things, the Lord has given each of us different learning styles. Therefore, it should not surprise us that the Lord communicates His truth in diverse ways. This is, at its core, what Leviticus 23 and related scriptures have to tell us. We not only have His written word, but we have commemorative holy days to transmit truth to the young and the old, the literate and the illiterate alike. The holy days tell and show the great truths of God’s salvation, His love, and His plans. They contain things to hear, see, taste, build, and do, and they appeal to everybody. They are “holy days,” but that really means that they are holidays.
The celebrations are fun, mostly, but they also teach us about eternal things. From a New Testament perspective, these holidays take on a meaning much richer than the Old Testament saints could have dreamed of. As Paul wrote to the Colossian church:
Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:16-17).
These holidays look back, in time, to miracles that God performed for the world and for the Israelites. They also look forward, in time, to the work of Jesus Christ. Occurring during the spring and fall harvests, they speak of God’s continuous provisions. Together they promise God’s eternal care for His people.
This paper tells the story of these events on three levels. The first level discusses how the holidays have been celebrated through the centuries. The second level discusses the sensory elements and how they teach the truth in non-verbal ways. The third level discusses how Jesus Christ fulfilled or will fulfill the substance of each celebration.
The Jewish Calendar
Having invited you to the fun, I must ask you to pause to consider the calendar through which these celebrations flow. This is because the Jewish Calendar is very different from ours. There is no January or February to be found. Instead, the Bible refers to “the first month,” “the seventh month,” or names like Abib and Ethanim. There is no quick way to say that, for a particular year, the 15th of Abib occurs on the 6th of April. Also, most of you know that October is in the fall, but do you know what season Ethanim occupies? Do you know that the Bible has another name for the month of Abib? I hope that you find this section useful for this and other studies that you do.
As I have already stated, the Lord’s “appointed times” occur through the year. The Jews, because they celebrate them every year, can and do anticipate each one in its season. They are a part of their culture. A Jew knows that the Feast of Tabernacles occurs in the fall as readily as we know that Easter occurs in the spring. The placement of these festivals through the year has prophetic significance. To be specific, Jesus’ death and resurrection are the substance of the spring holidays. His return and the establishment of His kingdom are the substance of the fall holidays. In between, there is the summer season of church history.
Our calendar, known officially as the Gregorian Calendar, is based on the relative motion of the sun through the heavens. For this reason, it is sometimes called a solar calendar. It takes 365.2524 days to complete the year. To keep the start of spring from shifting into February and then January, we insert a leap day every four years. This keeps the calendar and the seasons together. Consequently, the vernal and autumnal equinoxes always occur in March and September respectively.122
The Jewish Calendar, however, is based on the relative motion of both the moon and the sun. It is, therefore, called a luni-solar calendar. Since it is based on the moon, the first of every month coincides with a new moon and the fifteenth of every month coincides with a full moon. In other words, each month is defined by the phases of the moon. The Jewish Calendar keeps the months and their respective seasons together by the insertion of leap months. This means that most years have twelve months, but some have thirteen. The whole system has a nineteen-year cycle. It is more accurate than our solar calendar, but it’s more difficult to follow. The Jewish calendar does not mark the first day of spring, summer, fall, or winter. The primary markers in the Jewish Calendar are the holidays.
The modern Jewish Calendar has its secular and religious forms. The secular calendar begins with the month of Ethanim. The religious calendar begins with the month of Abib. The Bible consistently uses the religious form; i.e., the first month is always Abib. Ethanim and Abib are ancient Canaanite names for the first and seventh months respectively. However, beginning with the Babylonian exile, the Jews began using the Babylonian names for the months. Consequently, the post-exilic Biblical authors, Nehemiah and the author of Esther, used the Babylonian names. Today’s Jewish Calendar also uses the Babylonian names.
The following table presents these essential ideas:
Leviticus 23 Holiday
March or April
Passover; Feast of Unleavened Bread; Wave Offering of First Fruits
April or May
May or June
June or July
July or August
August or September
September or October
Trumpets; Day of Atonement; Feast of Tabernacles
October or November
November or December
December or January
January or February
February or March
This is the leap month
Although these technical details may sound dry, they have important implications in certain passages of scripture. For example, Passover begins on the fourteenth day of the month of Abib. Since the months, in the Jewish Calendar, follow the phases of the moon, we know that this must be a full moon. The darkness that fell over the earth when Jesus was crucified could not, therefore, have been an eclipse of the sun. It had to be, therefore, of supernatural origin.
The important thing for us to note for this study of Leviticus 23 is that the first month, Abib, occurs sometime during March or April and the seventh month, Ethanim, occurs sometime during September or October. To get back to the study at hand, Leviticus 23 tells us first about a weekly celebration, the Sabbath. It then describes several spring celebrations (Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Wave Offering of First Fruits, and Pentecost). It then moves on to describe several fall celebrations (Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles).
The Weekly Holy Day
“For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a Sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation. You shall not do any work; it is a Sabbath to the Lord in all your dwellings” (Leviticus 23:3).
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made (Genesis 2:1-3).
Sabbath means “rest.” The Sabbath celebration, spoken of in Leviticus 23, has its roots in the very creation of the world. God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it. That is, he separated it from the others in kind and character. He made it holy. Because He rested after six days of labor, He enjoins His people to do likewise. Thus, the Sabbath becomes a weekly reminder that God is the creator of all things. Whenever I read of God resting on the seventh day, I imagine Him reflecting on and enjoying the work that He had done. Obviously, this is an anthropomorphic sentiment, but it helps me understand the intended purpose of this day. As it was for God, so it can be for our children and for us. It is a day of rest from the fast pace of the week. It is a day to reflect on God and His creation. It is a day to reflect on the week’s activities. It is a day to worship and express thanks. It is a day to do good to our neighbors.
The Jewish Sabbath liturgy invokes images of not only the creation, but also the moment by moment sustaining of it by God’s almighty hand. As Colossians says, “in Him all things hold together.”
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who at your word brings on the evening twilight, with wisdom opens the gates of the heavens, and with understanding changes time and varies the seasons, and arranges the stars in their watches in the sky, according to your will. You create day and night; you roll away the light from before the darkness, and the darkness from before the light; you make the day to pass and the night to approach, and divide the day from the night. The Lord of hosts is your name; a God living and enduring continually. May you reign over us for ever and ever. Blessed are you, O Lord, who brings on the evening twilight.125
Common Christian culture, until recent times, observed Sunday as a special day. It, too, was to be different from other days. Given the Sabbath’s roots in the creation rather than the Law, this seems appropriate. The day of rest was always intended to bless mankind, and, according to Isaiah, the Sabbath will continue, for all mankind, into the New Heavens and the New Earth:
Isaiah 66:22-23 “For just as the new heavens and the new earth which I make will endure before Me,” declares the Lord, “So your offspring and your name will endure. And it shall be from new moon to new moon and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all mankind will come to bow down before Me,” says the Lord.
For Christians, the Sabbath also speaks of our future rest in the Lord:
Hebrews 4:9-11 So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.
What continues to wreck the concept of Sabbath is legalism. Time and again it infiltrates the practice of a weekly rest and turns it into dull affair. God set aside a day for us to rest, to enjoy Him and His creation, and to do good deeds to others. Without such an appointed time, we would work seven days a week 365 days a year. If we did not set aside the time, we could let our relationship with God slip away. Unfortunately, the legalists cannot be comfortable until “work” is defined in detail. By the time they are done, the blessing and joy are gone. The day starts to speak of the sternness of God, rather than His loving-kindness. It loses sight of its roots in creation, rest, and fellowship with God. Instead, it becomes one more illustration of His awesome commands and our responsibility to obey them at all costs. It was true in Jesus’ day and it has often been true in Church practice. I am reminded of the story told by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her series Little House on the Prairie.
When Grandpa was a little boy, Laura, Sunday did not begin on Sunday morning, as it does now. It began at sundown on Saturday night.126 Then everyone stopped every kind of work or play.
Supper was solemn. After supper, Grandpa’s father read aloud a chapter of the Bible, while everyone sat straight and still in his chair. Then they all knelt down, and their father said a long prayer. When he said, ‘Amen.’ They got up from their knees and each took a candle and went to bed. They must go straight to bed, with no playing, laughing or even talking.
Sunday morning they ate a cold breakfast, because nothing could be cooked on Sunday. Then they all dressed in their best clothes and walked to church. They walked, because hitching up the horses was work, and no work could be done on Sunday.
They must walk slowly and solemnly looking straight ahead. They must not joke or laugh, or even smile. Grandpa and his two brothers walked ahead, and their father and mother walked behind them.
In church, Grandpa and his brothers must sit perfectly still for two long hours and listen to the sermon. They dared not fidget on the hard bench. They dared not swing their feet. They dared not even turn their heads to look at the windows or the walls or the ceiling of the church. They must sit perfectly motionless and never for one instant take their eyes from the preacher.
When church was over, they walked slowly home. They might talk on the way, but they must not talk loudly and they must never laugh or smile. At home they ate a cold dinner, which had been cooked the day before. Then all the long afternoon they must sit in a row on a bench and study their catechism, until at last the sun went down and Sunday was over.127
This same attitude was present in Jesus’ day. A distorted view of the Sabbath, held firmly by the Jewish leadership, inhibited them from recognizing Him as the Messiah. Sabbath controversies occupy all four of the gospels. In each, the controversy hinges on Jesus’ practice of healing on the Sabbath. To the Jewish leadership, healing was work and should not take place on the Sabbath. Besides, the joy expressed by those Jesus healed “disrupted” the sanctity of the Sabbath. Then, as in Laura’s day, the observance of the Sabbath was strictly constrained by tradition. Jesus’ comments about the Sabbath speak more of blessing and service than cold soup.
“But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT A SACRIFICE,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:6-8).
“How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep! So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12).
Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).
But the synagogue official, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, began saying to the crowd in response, “There are six days in which work should be done; so come during them and get healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites, does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the stall and lead him away to water him? And this woman, a daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:14-16).
So, it is okay to show compassion on the Sabbath rather than rest. It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. Even those who accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath attended to the comfort of their own animals on that day. They just could not extend the concept to people. At creation, God rested and enjoyed the work of His hands. He gave mankind a day for rest and fellowship. He gave mankind a day when it was possible to do good deeds, because during the rest of the week finding the time to do such things is harder. It should reflect love and joy. It should take on the characteristics of a holiday.
To close this section, I want to relate the story of someone whose life showed a balanced concept of the Sabbath for the Christian. That man was Eric Liddel. The movie, Chariots of Fire, told the story about his giving up an Olympic medal opportunity, because a qualifying heat, for his race, was to be run on Sunday. At that time, Eric Liddel rightly chose God’s glory over his own. Less known is an incident that occurred shortly before he died, of a brain tumor, in a Japanese internment camp during WWII. The camp conditions were crowded and the young children were constantly at loose ends. There simply was nothing to do. Eric Liddel organized soccer games for the young people. Guess what? They played on Sunday! Perhaps he had a change of theology, but I think that he found the balance between two scriptures. The first, Isaiah 58:13, tells us to “turn your foot from doing your own pleasure on My holy day.” The second, Matthew 12:12, says, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
The Spring Holy Days
“In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight is the Lord’s Passover” (Leviticus 23:5).
Now the Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you. Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying, ‘On the tenth of this month they are each one to take a lamb for themselves, according to their fathers’ households, a lamb for each household. Now if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his neighbor nearest to his house are to take one according to the number of persons in them; according to what each man should eat, you are to divide the lamb. Your lamb shall be an unblemished male a year old; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month, then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel is to kill it at twilight. Moreover, they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that same night, roasted with fire, and they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled at all with water, but rather roasted with fire, both its head and its legs along with its entrails. And you shall not leave any of it over until morning, but whatever is left of it until morning, you shall burn with fire. Now you shall eat it in this manner: with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste—it is the Lord’s Passover. For I will go through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments—I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live; and when I see the blood I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. Now this day will be a memorial to you, and you shall celebrate it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations you are to celebrate it as a permanent ordinance’” (Exodus 12:1-14).
The first month is Abib. In Hebrew, “abib” means green. It suggests the singular expression of spring: the re-greening, or re-birth, of the earth. For Israel, Passover means their birth as a nation. For this reason, although Leviticus gives only a few words to this holy day, Passover is the king of them all. It is by reason of Passover that Abib marks the beginning of the sacred Jewish Calendar. As the Lord told Moses, “This month … is to be the first month of the year to you.” This is fitting, because Passover marks the beginning of the nation of Israel. When Moses commanded the congregation of Israel concerning this first Passover, they were still the slaves of the Egyptians. The day following this Passover meal, they were free.
The story’s elements are familiar: The Lord’s call to Moses from out of the burning bush; Moses before Pharaoh crying, “Let my people go”; the ten plagues; and the parting of the sea. Passover is the holiday for remembering these things. The Jewish celebration combines sights, words, songs, and tastes to communicate the story. The telling of the story surrounds a festive meal and contains these basic elements:
Four Cups of Wine
Although not mentioned in Exodus 12, the Passover in modern times and the time of Jesus included drinking four cups of wine. These cups stand for the four-fold deliverance spoken by God in Exodus.
“Say, therefore, to the sons of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians’” (Exodus 6:6, 7).
The first cup speaks of our “being brought out.” The second speaks of our “deliverance from bondage.” The third speaks of our “redemption.” The fourth speaks of our “belonging.” The Gospel of Luke records the use of the first and third cups during the Last Supper:
And He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He said, “Take this and share it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes.” And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood (Luke 22:15-20).
I understand this as meaning that Jesus did not inaugurate something new when He established communion, but rather identified and extended an existing tradition to communicate truth about Himself. The cup immediately after the meal was the “cup of redemption.” To Jesus and to us, it symbolizes the new covenant and our redemption, by His blood, from slavery to sin.
In the Exodus story, there was no time to let the bread rise before the Israelites had to leave Egypt. Unleavened bread represents the speed of their salvation. It also speaks of sinlessness. I will have more to say about this in the next section, which is about the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
One interesting practice during the Passover celebration is the breaking of one of three pieces of unleavened bread. The first half is used immediately, but the second is wrapped in a cloth and hidden until after the meal. This is the bread that Jesus broke during the Last Supper. It speaks of His sinless perfection. The second piece wrapped, hidden, and resurrected speaks of Jesus death, burial, and resurrection.
Tasting the bitter herbs, i.e. horseradish, is an experience to bring tears to the eyes and a dramatic reminder of the bitterness of slavery. It was eaten on the broken unleavened bread, so it can also speak of the bitter tears of Jesus in Gethsemane and the bitterness of His coming death for mankind’s sin.
Since the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 AD, the Jews do not eat roasted lamb during Passover. Instead they commemorate the lamb with the roasted shank-bone of a lamb. The lamb represents protection against the last plague that befell the Egyptians. It seems that the Angel of Death would also have slain the first born of the Israelites, were it not for the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts. On seeing the blood, the Angel of Death passed over the house. From this the celebration gets its name.
There are other elements in the Passover celebration. There is a mixture of apples, wine, nuts, and honey called “Charoseth.” The apples are grated and left exposed to turn brown. Consequently the mixture looks a little bit like the mud the Israelites used to make bricks.
There is some green vegetable like parsley or celery to speak of spring and hope. There is salt water to represent tears. There are 10 drops of wine dripped from the second cup to represent the 10 plagues on the Egyptians. The 10 drops lower the volume of wine in the cups and indicate that the suffering of the Egyptians reduces our joy.
Sweet, bitter, and salty tastes for the mouth; dripped wine; broken bread; and so forth are devices to teach the deliverance of God in a unique way. As I said before, it appeals to all ages.
Jesus and Passover
During the Last Supper, Jesus appropriated elements of the Jewish Passover. That is, He endowed them with new meaning, and that meaning was tied to Himself. Instead of having meaning restricted to God’s past redemption, these elements now symbolize the redemption of Jesus Christ as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” by His death at Calvary. At Passover, the Old and New Covenants meet. He is the lamb without defect. He is the broken bread. He is the cup of Redemption. As He said in Luke, He will not partake of Passover again, until He can share it with us in the coming Kingdom. The hand of God delivered from slavery in the past. On the cross, He delivered us from slavery to sin.
The early church clearly identified Jesus with Passover. Paul says,
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).
Leaven represents sin. Allowing sin in our lives and the church has a corrupting influence. But we are unleavened, because Christ our Passover has been sacrificed. Thus we see that Jesus completes the promise of Passover.
Note the suggestion in Paul’s words, “Let us celebrate the feast.” This implies that the early Christians celebrated Passover for some time. Some would argue that Paul is simply referring to Communion. That ignores Paul’s Jewish upbringing. Does not Exodus 12:14 call Passover “a feast?” Why would Paul use the term “feast” and intend an ambiguous reading of it? Along these lines note also Acts 20:6, “We sailed from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread.” The least that can be said is that the early church marked a Jewish Calendar. In any case, the observance of Passover is today growing among the churches. This is a good thing. It is a celebration of the salvation of God from slavery in Egypt and slavery to sin. To the young ones in our families, it provides an opportunity to present the gospel to our children at a very early age.
Feast of Unleavened Bread
“Then on the fifteenth day of the same month there is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not do any laborious work. But for seven days you shall present an offering by fire to the Lord. On the seventh day is a holy convocation; you shall not do any laborious work” (Leviticus 23:6-8).
“Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses; for whoever eats anything leavened from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. On the first day you shall have a holy assembly, and another holy assembly on the seventh day; no work at all shall be done on them, except what must be eaten by every person, that alone may be prepared by you. You shall also observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt; therefore you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a permanent ordinance. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. Seven days there shall be no leaven found in your houses; for whoever eats what is leavened, that person shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is an alien or a native of the land. You shall not eat anything leavened; in all your dwellings you shall eat unleavened bread” (Exodus 12:15-20).
“You shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ And it shall serve as a sign to you on your hand, and as a reminder on your forehead, that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth; for with a powerful hand the Lord brought you out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8, 9).
The Feast of Unleavened Bread is an extension of Passover. The celebration is simple. Before it begins, you pass through your entire house to clear out all leavening agents and foods made with leaven. Leavening agents are things like yeast, baking powder, baking soda, and sour dough. Leaven makes bread and rolls rise and become soft and fluffy.
For centuries the Jews have made a special event in the evening of this day. Crumbs of bread and other things are planted throughout the house. In the evening, the father leads the children through the house with a feather and dish to search for the last traces of leaven. When they find them, the father swishes them into the dish with the feather. After all remaining traces are swept away, they are taken outside and burned.
For the next seven days, all food is unleavened, but the recipes are incredibly creative. Whipped egg whites can add sponginess to cake recipes. Unleavened flour is made into “matzo balls” and used in soups. Nevertheless, for seven days the diet reminds the household and the children that God delivered the Israelites from slavery.
Unleavened bread relates two aspects of God’s deliverance. The first is the simple fact that the Israelites left Egypt in such a hurry that they did not have time to let their bread rise. The second is that the first several days saw them hurrying away, so that there still was not enough time to let bread rise. There would be no safety until there was enough distance between them and those who would come after them. Then they came to the Red Sea. In this sense the Feast of Unleavened Bread marks the very first stage of the journey. It was a time of hurry and danger, and then the trap.
We know, of course, that the Lord parted the Red Sea so that the Israelites could cross over. When Pharaoh’s armies followed, the sea came together again and destroyed them. This celebration is an effective reminder of God’s faithfulness. Exodus 13:8 says, “You shall tell you son on that day …” The Bible anticipates that children will ask what the change of diet is about. When they do, you can tell them the whole story. Besides, young children get to pretend what it must have been like, at least as far as food goes, to live during those first days after leaving Egypt.
Given that leaven also symbolizes sin, this feast is an object lesson in righteousness. As the family cleans the house and searches for all leaven, they play out the process of sanctification. It is a reminder of God’s righteousness. For those of us who are Christians, this Feast of Unleavened Bread reminds us of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit as He searches out and frees us from the sin that inhabits our house. As Psalm 139 says,
Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way (Psalm 139:23-24).
Wave Offering of First Fruits
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you enter the land which I am going to give to you and reap its harvest, then you shall bring in the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest. He shall wave the sheaf before the Lord for you to be accepted; on the day after the sabbath the priest shall wave it. Now on the day when you wave the sheaf, you shall offer a male lamb one year old without defect for a burnt offering to the Lord. Its grain offering shall then be two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, an offering by fire to the Lord for a soothing aroma, with its drink offering, a fourth of a hin of wine. Until this same day, until you have brought in the offering of your God, you shall eat neither bread nor roasted grain nor new growth. It is to be a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places’” (Leviticus 23:9-14).
One of the days during the Feast of Unleavened Bread will be a Sabbath. The day following this Sabbath is the celebration of First Fruits128. On this day, the first sheaf of harvested barley is brought to the Lord and waved before Him. The grain is then left for the priest and for the poor. This is an act of thanksgiving for the Lord’s provision and bounty. No one is to eat from the new harvest until the wave offering is made.
There is no direct Jewish Celebration of this today. However, given its placement between Passover and Pentecost and its emphasis on the Lord’s provision, I see it as a reminder of the manna in the desert, which began shortly after the crossing of the Red Sea.
In terms of Christianity, it is worth noting that the resurrection of Jesus Christ occurred the day following the Sabbath. His resurrection corresponds to this wave offering. He is, Himself, a first fruits offering. As Paul says,
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death (1 Corinthians 15:20-26).
Jesus’ resurrection is the assurance of our resurrection. It is the promise that we will not see eternal death, but share in eternal life. When He rose from the dead, we became able to share in the new harvest, which I believe is the Holy Spirit.
First Fruits is such a simple holiday, and, yet, it has such significant meaning to us in the Church. Passover is our redemption, Unleavened Bread is our sanctification, First Fruits is our promise of eternal life and resurrection.
I have a personal First Fruits story to tell. I have for years looked upon the Old Testament as containing principles of righteousness living. This is not to be confused with legalism. It should rather be viewed as an attempt to view the Law as Paul did (see 1 Corinthians 9:9, 1 Timothy 5:18, and 1 Timothy 1:8). Anyway, I began meditating about the First Fruits offering and how someone who is not a farmer might participate. In my heart, I committed to a special practice to celebrate the event whenever I got a raise. The gross net increase of the first paycheck containing the raise would be a First Fruits offering to the Lord. This was not to gain approval or special status. It was simply to say thanks and acknowledge that He provides for me every day.
Following this heart commitment, not a month went by before my manager at IBM came to me and said, “I am giving you a raise. It is early and out of grid.” The translation of these words are, “IBM policy says it’s too early to give you a raise, but I am giving you one anyway. IBM says that your next raise should not be more than such-and-such, but I am giving you more than that.” At the time this occurred, my wife and I had custody of my three nieces. IBM benefits did not cover them. My manager had worked out the raise to help our situation.
‘You shall also count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day when you brought in the sheaf of the wave offering; there shall be seven complete Sabbaths129. You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall present a new grain offering to the Lord. You shall bring in from your dwelling places two loaves of bread for a wave offering made of two-tenths of an ephah; they shall be of a fine flour, baked with leaven as first fruits to the Lord. Along with the bread you shall present seven one year old male lambs without defect, and a bull of the herd and two rams; they are to be a burnt offering to the Lord, with their grain offering and their drink offerings, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the Lord. You shall also offer one male goat for a sin offering and two male lambs one-year-old for a sacrifice of peace offerings. The priest shall then wave them with the bread of the first fruits for a wave offering with two lambs before the Lord; they are to be holy to the Lord for the priest. On this same day you shall make a proclamation as well; you are to have a holy convocation. You shall do no laborious work. It is to be a perpetual statute in all your dwelling places throughout your generations. When you reap the harvest of your land, moreover, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field nor gather the gleaning of your harvest; you are to leave them for the needy and the alien. I am the Lord your God’ (Leviticus 23:15-22).
In the third month after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. When they set out from Rephidim, they came to the wilderness of Sinai and camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped in front of the mountain (Exodus 19:1, 2).
Pentecost gets its name from the counting of fifty days from the Sabbath following Passover. This places the holiday in the third month (Sivan) of the Jewish Calendar. It coincides with the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, which is what the holiday celebrates. The most unique aspect of this celebration in the temple was the waving of two leavened loaves of bread before the Lord. This was the only leavened offering made in the temple! These loaves, like the earlier wave offering, are also declared to be a First Fruits offering. Perhaps the loaves were to look like the two tablets of the Law.
The Jewish celebration of Pentecost often begins by staying up all night to read Torah. They emphasize the Ten Commandments. In this way they remember the events that took place at Mount Sinai. Also, because of its association with the spring harvest, the Jews will read the Book of Ruth. And because Mount Sinai also looks forward to the time when Israel would enter the “land flowing with milk and honey,” the foods of Pentecost are rich with milk, cream, and honey. This is the season for the cheese blintzes and apples dipped in honey. I should add that the honey also speaks of the sweetness of God’s word.
Pentecost completes the Exodus story. Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread tell of the escape from Egypt. The First Fruits speaks of manna and God’s provision in the desert. Pentecost speaks of the giving of the Law, which is some respects became the Constitution for Israel, the nation.
In Christianity, Pentecost marks the giving of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1). Perhaps Paul was even thinking of the wave offering of the two loaves when he wrote,
For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body (Romans 8:19-23).
Today’s Messianic Jews130 have an interesting view of the two leavened loaves of bread offered in the temple during Pentecost. Since leaven is a symbol for sin, why is this offering different from all other grain offerings by specifying the inclusion of leaven? It is this: Because of the atonement brought about by Jesus, the Holy Spirit can indwell us and we are able to “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace.” Though we still contain leaven, we can get help in time of need. They see in the loaves the Jewish and Gentile believers offered before the Lord as first fruits of what is to come. The Church is not complete without the Jews and the Gentiles. I find the argument compelling. To me, it is just one more example of the prophetic core in the appointed times. In this light, the practice of reading Ruth also foreshadowed the unity of the Jewish and Gentile believers.
Jesus and the Spring Holy Days
The flow of Passover, Unleavened Bread, First Fruits, and Pentecost mark the timings of two stories of real history. The first story is that of deliverance from slavery in Egypt and the giving of Law. The second story is that of deliverance from slavery to sin and the giving of the Holy Spirit. Two stories with different emphasis and meanings. It should be noted, however, that there is no hint that the older meanings were either discarded or demeaned. In fact, the older meanings are essential to the new meanings. In any case, the following table succinctly shows the relationships:
Moses the mediator
Jesus the mediator
Feast of Unleavened Bread
Wave Offering of First Fruits
Waving of the sheaf
Fire on the mountain
Fire on the believers
The Fall Holy Days
Feast of Trumpets (Yom Teruah; Rosh Hashannah)
Again the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘In the seventh month on the first of the month you shall have a rest, a reminder by blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation. You shall not do any laborious work, but you shall present an offering by fire to the Lord’” (Leviticus 23:23-25).
Leviticus 23:23 begins with the words “Again the Lord spoke to Moses …” and, therefore, indicates the start of a new section. Following this verse are the commands concerning the holidays of the fall season.
The first of these occurs on the first day of the seventh month of the religious calendar. To the ancient Hebrew authors this was the month of Ethanim. In the modern calendar, the month is called Tishri. The holy day is designated as “a rest, a reminder by blowing of trumpets.” The phrase “blowing of trumpets” translates the Hebrew word “teruah.” The word is loosely like the English word “fanfare.” Like “fanfare,” “teruah” has an association with the sound of a trumpet, but really means those things for which we might sound a trumpet: to alert, to call to battle, to announce the arrival of a king, etc. In the case of this holiday, the trumpets announce the coming of the holidays to follow. The holidays that follow, therefore, are incredibly important. Perhaps, it is better to say that you did not want to be found unprepared when their day arrived. As the Boy Scouts say, “Be prepared!”
The Jews begin blowing ram’s horns (shofars) in their synagogues in the sixth month (Elul) and continue up to the Day of Atonement. The trumpets remind the people that the Day of Atonement is approaching. It is a time to reflect on the year and the state of your character and your relationship to God. Then, on the first day of the seventh month (Rosh Hashanah), there is a special service that features an elaborate ceremony of trumpet blowing.
The trumpets remind the Jews of at least eight things131:
1. To prepare for the coming Day of Atonement by examining the life you have lived this past year.
2. To celebrate the creation with God as its King. This is because, according to Jewish tradition, creation began on the first day of the seventh month.
3. To remember that the Lord descended upon Mount Sinai with the loud blast of a shofar (Exodus 19:16-19).
4. To imagine the sound of the heavenly shepherd recalling those who have strayed from Israel’s fold.
5. To rejoice in freedom from slavery. In the past, slaves were freed at the blast of a shofar.
6. To rejoice in restoration. Property was returned at the blast of the shofar at the Jubilee Year (Leviticus 25:9).
7. To remember Abraham’s obedience when he offered his son Isaac. When Abraham sacrificed Isaac, a ram was caught in the thicket by its horns.
8. To look forward to the coming of Messiah’s kingdom, which the blast of the shofar will bring in.
As the spring holy days spoke of the first coming of Messiah, so we can begin to see that the fall holidays speak of His return. This is seen by the consistent imagery of trumpets in the New Testament.
And He will send forth His angels with A GREAT TRUMPET and THEY WILL GATHER TOGETHER His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other (Matthew 24:31).
… in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed (1 Corinthians 15:52).
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound them (Revelation 8:6).
The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, so as not to worship demons, and the idols of gold and of silver and of brass and of stone and of wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk; and they did not repent of their murders nor of their sorceries nor of their immorality nor of their thefts (Revelation 9:20, 21).
The first three verses above have direct correspondence to the final trumpet sounded on the eve of the Day of Atonement. The next two (Revelation 8:6 and 9:20, 21) have clear association with the trumpets announcing the coming of the Day. Like the trumpets that announce the Lord as King over His creation, so trumpets announce the coming of Messiah as King. Like the trumpets that announce the Jubilee Year and freedom to slaves, so trumpets announce the translation of our corruptible flesh into incorruptible new bodies. As the trumpets sounded before the Day of Atonement call the Jews to repentance, so these trumpets call all of mankind to repent before the terrible Day of the Lord. The seven trumpets in Revelation, like the shofars that sound in the synagogues, are a call to the earth to repent. Consequently, we have the significance of Revelation 9:20, 21: The trumpets have sounded and the world has not repented. The Bowl Judgments, containing the Wrath of God, may now be poured on the earth.
In short, the trumpets announce the coming of the King. As such, they call for the people of God to prepare their hearts for His coming. As Jesus has said, He wants to come and find us at our posts. For the lost, the trumpets call for repentance. Failing repentance, the trumpets announce the coming Judgment of God. Consequently, the next holy day will be, for each person, either a Day of Atonement or the Day of Judgment.
Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the Lord. You shall not do any work on this same day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the Lord your God. If there is any person who will not humble himself on this same day, he shall be cut off from his people. As for any person who does any work on this same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no work at all. It is to be a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. It is to be a Sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall humble your souls; on the ninth of the month at evening, from evening until evening you shall keep your Sabbath” (Leviticus 23:26-32).
“He shall take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the doorway of the tent of meeting. Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat. Then Aaron shall offer the goat on which the lot for the Lord fell, and make it a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot for the scapegoat fell shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, to send it into the wilderness as the scapegoat. … for it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you will be clean from all your sins before the Lord. It is to be a Sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent statute. So the priest who is anointed and ordained to serve as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement: he shall thus put on the linen garments, the holy garments, and make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar. He shall also make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. Now you shall have this as a permanent statute, to make atonement for the sons of Israel for all their sins once every year.” And just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so he did (Leviticus 16:7-10; 30-34).
The Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, represents the day when the priest puts on special clothes and makes offerings to atone, or cleanse, the holy sanctuary, the temple, and the altar. He then makes atonement for the priests and the people. The day is solemn and serious. It is a day of complete rest and fasting with a goal of humbling the soul. As a holy day, it serves to remind us of the gravity and offense of sin. The eve of the Day of Atonement begins with the blast of a shofar. Afterwards, the shofars are silent until next year.
Yom Kippur begins in the evening of the ninth day of the seventh month. In modern Judaism there is an important liturgical chant sung on this evening. It is called Kol Nidre, which in Hebrew means “All Vows.” It is a rescinding of vows: a cleansing of vows that were made, but remain unfulfilled and un-fulfillable. Kol Nidre originated in seventh century Spain, where Jews were tortured or burned unless they bound themselves, by oath, to cease from Jewish religious expression. Those Jews, whose constitutions could not rise to suffering an excruciating and fearful death, renounced their Judaism. When better days came along, the Kol Nidre was created to absolve them of their rash vows and re-open full fellowship in the community. To me it catches the spirit of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. It is the full expression of forgiveness to one who forsook the community, but later came to his senses.
If Kol Nidre is the open door to renewed fellowship for the repentant apostate, those who treat the day lightly stand in the path of destruction. As the Lord says, “As for any person who does any work on this same day, that person I will destroy from among his people.” Those who would work on the day when sin is to be confronted, fail to understand the seriousness of sin. It is to say, by my actions, that sin is not a problem for me.
Before the destruction of the temple, the atonement of the people involved two goats. By casting lots the priest chose between the goats. One was chosen for the Lord (hwhyl, l’yhvw) the other was chosen for Azazel (lzazul, l’azazel) (usually translated as scapegoat). The priest transferred the sins of the people onto the scapegoat and then it was driven into the wilderness. The first goat paid the penalty of the people’s sin, the second took the sin away. The ancient Jews considered the two goats to be two halves of a single sacrifice. Therefore, they would select two goats that very closely resembled each other.
The reference to Azazel only appears in Leviticus 16. It appears no where else in the scriptures. Although it is typically translated as “scapegoat,” the actual language suggests a being for which this goat is chosen. As one goat is chosen “for (to) the Lord,” so the other is chosen “for (to) Azazel.” Who or what is Azazel?
There is only one extra-biblical reference to him: the Book of Enoch. It identifies him as one of the angels (as hinted by Genesis 6) who corrupted the earth. An intriguing connection to the Day of Atonement occurs in Enoch chapter 10.
“And again the Lord said to Raphael: ‘Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into the darkness: and make an opening in the desert, which is in Dudael, and cast him therein. And place upon him rough and jagged rocks, and cover him with darkness, and let him abide there forever, and cover his face that he may not see light. And on the day of the great judgment he shall be cast into the fire.’”
How reliable might this reference be? This is a hard question. The Book of Enoch does not have the antiquity it claims, but it is still thousands of years closer to the meaning of Azazel than we have anywhere else. The fact that Jude quotes from it (Jude 14, 15), at least, attests to its cultural pertinence. On the other hand, the Septuagint translation of Azazel, avpopompaiw| (“a carrying away”), is closer to the spirit of a “scapegoat.”
Nevertheless, the Enoch picture is intriguing. The goat “for (to) Azazel” is sent to the domain of Azazel in the wilderness. We have a picture of Israel’s sins taken away and cast into the abyss to await the final judgment.
Although the Day of Atonement is about the payment and removal of the sins of the nation for a year, it also looks forward to the day of Israel’s salvation. Note the thematic connections in the following verses.
BEHOLD, HE IS COMING WITH THE CLOUDS, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him. So it is to be. Amen (Revelation 1:7).
“I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10).
“I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, That all the peoples, nations and men of every language Might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion Which will not pass away; And His kingdom is one Which will not be destroyed (Daniel 7:13, 14).
And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF THE SKY with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with A GREAT TRUMPET and THEY WILL GATHER TOGETHER His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other (Matthew 24:30, 31).
For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “THE DELIVERER WILL COME FROM ZION, HE WILL REMOVE UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB. THIS IS MY COVENANT WITH THEM, WHEN I TAKE AWAY THEIR SINS” (Romans 11:25-27).
First, Revelation 1:7 links two Old Testament Messianic prophecies: Zechariah 12:10 and Daniel 7:13, 14. That is, the day the Lord returns is the day that Israel receives “the Spirit of grace and supplication” and finds national salvation. Second, Matthew links these events to the blowing of a great trumpet (or shofar) that begins the Day of Atonement. Third, it is the day to which Paul, in Romans 11:25-27, looked ahead. As the goat chosen for Azazel takes away the sin from Israel, so according to Paul the coming of the Lord will take away the sins of Israel. The meaning of all this is that the future fulfillment of the Day of Atonement is the second coming of Jesus Christ on the earth and the salvation of Israel.
Feast of Tabernacles (Succoth)
Again the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘On the fifteenth of this seventh month is the Feast of Booths for seven days to the Lord. On the first day is a holy convocation; you shall do no laborious work of any kind. For seven days you shall present an offering by fire to the Lord. On the eighth day you shall have a holy convocation and present an offering by fire to the Lord; it is an assembly. You shall do no laborious work. These are the appointed times of the Lord which you shall proclaim as holy convocations, to present offerings by fire to the Lord—burnt offerings and grain offerings, sacrifices and drink offerings, each day’s matter on its own day—besides those of the Sabbaths of the Lord, and besides your gifts and besides all your vows and freewill offerings, which you give to the Lord. On exactly the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the crops of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the Lord for seven days, with a rest on the first day and a rest on the eighth day. Now on the first day you shall take for yourselves the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. You shall thus celebrate it as a feast to the Lord for seven days in the year. It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall live in booths for seven days; all the native-born in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God’” (Leviticus 23:33-43).
Five days after the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles) begins. The principle element of this celebration is “living in booths” for a week. The actual practice among the Jews consists of building a “hut” in the backyard or on the porch. They make the hut by tying branches together, because it is not to be nailed or constructed in any way that suggests permanence. In fact, the properly made hut will leak. This virtue permits the occupants to see the stars. Although the Jews do not actually live in these things, they will share meals in them and sometimes spend at least one night camping out. I know of a Jewish family that sometimes takes a backpacking trip during this time.
I like to call the Feast of Tabernacles, “The holiday of the manifest presence of God.” Here is why. Leviticus says, “Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that the sons of Israel lived in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt.” The hut lets children pretend to be Israelites in the wilderness. So, what was it like in those days? The twelve tribes had their camps on the north, south, east, and west. In the center stood the tabernacle. Over the tabernacle appeared the manifested presence of the Lord.
The Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people spurn Me? And how long will they not believe in Me, despite all the signs which I have performed in their midst? I will smite them with pestilence and dispossess them, and I will make you into a nation greater and mightier than they.
But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for by Your strength You brought up this people from their midst, and they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that You, O Lord, are in the midst of this people, for You, O Lord, are seen eye to eye, while Your cloud stands over them; and You go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if You slay this people as one man, then the nations who have heard of Your fame will say, ‘Because the Lord could not bring this people into the land which He promised them by oath, therefore He slaughtered them in the wilderness.’ But now, I pray, let the power of the Lord be great, just as You have declared, ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations.’ Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness, just as You also have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.”
So the Lord said, “I have pardoned them according to your word; but indeed, as I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord” (Numbers 14:11-21).
What an incredible sight to see everyday. “They have heard that You, O Lord, are in the midst of this people, for You, O Lord, are seen eye to eye, while Your cloud stands over them; and You go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night.” When the Lord wanted them to move, the pillars moved. When the Lord wanted them to stay, the pillars stayed. This is the tale parents can tell their children during the dinner meal in the hut. When the sky gets dark and you can gaze at the stars, the parents can tell their children how the universe manifests the presence of God. It is a good time to read Psalm 19.
The Feast of Tabernacles also looks ahead to the Messianic Kingdom. It looks ahead to the time when the presence of God, through the reign of His son, is as manifest on the earth as it was in the days of the wilderness travels. In fact, according to Zechariah, the Feast of Tabernacles will be an international celebration during the Kingdom.
And the Lord will be king over all the earth; in that day the Lord will be the only one, and His name the only one. … Then it will come about that any who are left of all the nations that went against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Booths. And it will be that whichever of the families of the earth does not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, there will be no rain on them. If the family of Egypt does not go up or enter, then no rain will fall on them; it will be the plague with which the Lord smites the nations who do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Booths. This will be the punishment of Egypt, and the punishment of all the nations who do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Booths (Zechariah 14:9, 16-19).
It should be clear, by now, how the fall holidays of Leviticus track the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The blowing of trumpets speak of the warnings and shaking on the earth to call all mankind to repent. The Day of Atonement speaks of the day that Jesus will physically return and the day that Israel as a nation will find salvation. The Feast of Tabernacles speaks of the Millennial Kingdom.
Blowing of Trumpets
Trumpets announce the coming Day of Atonement.
A series of plagues announce the coming Day of the Lord.
Day of Atonement
Annual atonement and removal of sin from Israel.
The return of Jesus Christ and the salvation of Israel.
Feast of Tabernacles
Remembering the wilderness travels with the presence of God in the camp.
The reign of Jesus Christ over the Kingdom of Israel.
Should the Church of Jesus Christ celebrate these things? Four times in Leviticus 23 we are told, “It is to be a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places.” Of course, the command is addressed to the Jews. On the other hand, these appointed times testify over and over again about the past and future work of our Lord. Should we not make room for the principal ones like Passover, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles? These speak of three major doctrines of our faith: the Death of Jesus for our sins, His return, and His coming Kingdom. Think how clearly these holidays speak of these truths, because they are free from the secular clamor that surrounds Christmas and Easter. Besides, as I said above, the Feast of Tabernacles appears to be the big international holiday of the Millennial Kingdom.
Then it will come about that any who are left of all the nations that went against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Booths (Zechariah 14:16).
We can share the Passover meal with family and friends and celebrate Jesus Christ as our Passover Lamb. We can fast for the Day of Atonement to humble ourselves before God and reflect on His return, and pray that we be found at our posts. We can build our huts during the Feast of Tabernacles and look ahead to the coming Kingdom. In this way, our children can begin learning important truths at very early ages, free from the confusing signals of secular culture.
With the tastes of Passover, the waving of the sheaf during First Fruits, the waving of two leaven loaves on Pentecost, the sound of trumpets, the fasting on the Day of Atonement, and the huts of the Feast of Tabernacles, the story of God’s deliverance and salvation is told without words. The events stimulate the questions of the very young and provide mental pictures of sublime concepts. These days speak of past and future deliverance. They are historical and prophetical at the same time. How great is our God who can so engineer time and history to use the same holidays twice!
121 This message was preached by Don Curtis ( email) an excellent student of the Scriptures, teacher, and good friend. Don graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1974 with a degree in Philosophy. He has since become a Senior Computer Programmer with the IBM Corporation. For a number of years, Don and his family attended Community Bible Chapel in Richardson, Texas, until his job took him to Atlanta, Georgia. Partly from Bob Deffinbaugh’s influence, biblical studies and teaching have become a passion in his Christian life. Don is currently an elder and teacher at Cobb Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Kennesaw, GA.
122 Our calendar is known as the Gregorian Calendar because of the reforms Pope Gregory instituted. In particular, he mandated a 10 day correction in 1582 AD, which meant that October 4th was followed by October 15th that year. Since then, the century years, like 1600, 1700, etc., are not leap years unless they are evenly divisible by 400. Thus 1900 is not a leap year, but 2000 is.
123 The Jewish Calendar has preserved the Babylonian names for the months. The Bible records four of the Canaanite names, the other eight Canaanite names are lost. Of the Babylonian names, the Bible only refers to Nisan.
124 The title for each section includes the Christian and (Jewish) name for the holiday.
125 Hertz, Joseph The Authorized Daily Prayer Book (Revised Edition), Copyright 1948, 1975 Ruth Hecht, Bloch Publishing Company, p. 365.
126 This is an interesting historical note that shows the degree to which Christianity, in the past, understood the Biblical notion of time. As Genesis says, “there was evening and there was morning, one day.” The Jews still reckon the days in their calendar as beginning at sundown. This was why, when Jesus was crucified, that it was so important to have the executed criminals dead and off their crosses before sundown.
127 Wilder, Laura Ingalls Little House in the Big Woods, Harper Trophy (1971 edition) pp. 87-89
128 Although the text in Leviticus 23 does not make this timing explicitly clear, it can be determined implicitly from the calculation for the date of Pentecost in Leviticus 23:15, 16.
129 Several Greek manuscripts of Luke 6:1 contain the phrase “sabbatw| deuteroprwtw|” or “second first sabbath.” Most translations, including the NASB and NET bypass the strange phrasing and simply say “a certain Sabbath” or simply “a Sabbath.” From the perspective of Leviticus 23, it would be better to translate Luke 6:1 as “On the Sabbath following the second Passover of Jesus ministry …” To put this another way, the Jews counted Sabbaths following Passover leading to Pentecost. First Sabbath is the first following Passover; Second Sabbath is the second following Passover; and so forth up to the Seventh Sabbath. By saying “second first Sabbath,” Luke, being closer to the Jewish roots of Christianity, is pinpointing the start of the second year of Jesus’ ministry.
130 For those who may not be aware of this contemporary move of God, Messianic Jews are Jews who believe that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. They fully affirm salvation by faith alone. What makes them distinct is that they maintain their Jewish identity. Texts that point to the legitimacy of what they are doing include Romans 1:16, Romans 9–11, Acts 21:17-25.
131 A fuller description can be found in The Authorized Daily Prayer Book by Joseph H. Hertz Copyright 1948, 1975 Ruth Hecht pp. 864, 865
18. The Lamp, the Loaves, and the Loudmouth (Leviticus 24)
Several years ago, I was taking our children to school when I saw a policeman pull a mother over right beside the school. Even though I had seen what she had done, I couldn’t figure out what she had done wrong. I was, however, about to find out, for the officer obliged my curiosity for pulling me over right behind her. I learned I was charged with the same offense—making an illegal U-turn. I was distressed because I could not figure out how my left hand turn could be considered an illegal U-turn. To satisfy my sense of fair play, I sat at that same spot the next day, only to discover that many of the drivers did exactly the same thing the lady and I had done, and obviously not in any way knowing that they were breaking the law.
That was enough. I was going to fight this injustice in court. To my advantage, before my court hearing a “No Left Turn” sign was placed along with the “No U-turn” sign (wrongly placed in the intersection). When my time came in court I protested that the offense was wrongly defined and that the sign was misplaced. The judge listened to my objections and then asked if there were any others in court with the same charge against them. I learned that I was not alone in my indignation. At least ten other people raised their hands. The judge threw all of their tickets out of court. I had won. No, we had won.
My case was not monumental, but it was important. First, it demonstrated that we are very likely to disobey laws which we don’t understand, and which appear not to relate to us and our situation. The others and myself who made this “left hand turn” did not think of it as a U-turn, and thus did not think we were breaking the law. Second, the decision which the judge rendered had a much wider application than just my case, for his ruling found everyone else who was charged with the same offense not guilty as well. One court decision can have very broad ramifications.
The lessons which I learned in my brief encounter with the law can also be learned from the Law of Moses, as it is clarified in the 24th chapter of the Book of Leviticus. Here, we find the case of a man who had blasphemed, using the name of the God of Israel. The Israelites were not quite sure how God’s law against blasphemy applied to this man, and so they asked for a ruling, which God gave through Moses. In clarifying the law as it applied to this man’s offense, Israel was taught how the law applied to them personally. In addition, God’s people were taught some important principles which applied to a much wider range of offenses.
The Tension of the Text
I will not tell you (again) that this chapter is so critical that it is the key to understanding the entire New Testament. But I will tell you that the chapter is both important and relevant to New Testament saints. It is so because the principles which underlie this chapter are those which apply to New Testament Christians.
The structure of our chapter is almost immediately apparent. There are three distinct sections:
- The lampstand (vv. 1-4)
- The showbread (vv. 5-9)
- The blasphemer (vv. 10-23)
I have chosen a title for this message which summarizes these three sections. The title is The Lamp, the Loaves, and the Loudmouth.
If the structure of this chapter is clear, the logic of it is not. The scholars struggle to explain what relationship these three sections of chapter 24 have to each other, and also how chapter 24 fits into the larger section of chapters 23-25.
“It is unclear to me what considerations could have induced the compiler to insert this material between the regulations for the annual feast (cf. 23) and those for the sabbatical year and Year of Jubilee (ch. 25).”132 “Commentators have been unable to discern any obvious connection between the material in this chapter and what precedes and follows it.”133
Our goal will be to find the common denominator, the textual glue which binds these three paragraphs together. I assure you, there is one, and I feel that our study of the text will make this clear. The principle is one which has a number of applications to contemporary Christianity, so bear with me as we work our way up to exposing the central thrust of our text.
Our approach in this lesson will be to look at each of the three segments of chapter 24 individually. I am going to deal first with the lamp (vv. 1-4) and then the loaves (vv. 5-9). Since these two sections are related, I will pause at the end of verse 9 to make some preliminary observations. Then I will press on to verses 10-23, which deal with the blasphemer. After making some observations about this portion of the text, I will seek to show the connection between all three segments of the chapter. We will then trace the common principle of our passage through the New Testament, and then seek to explore its implications and applications to our own lives.
“Give Me Oil in My Lamp”
The golden lampstand has already appeared in the Pentateuch several times (Exod. 25:31-40; 27:20-21; 37:17-24; 40:25-26), and it will occur again (cf. Num. 8:1-4; 1 Sam. 3:3). It was placed in the holy place to provide light in the darkness of the tabernacle. Even in the daytime, the many layered covering of the tent would keep out light, so that the light of this lamp was required. The emphasis of these verses in Leviticus 24 is that the light must be kept burning at all times. Something like the flame burning at President Kennedy’s graveside, the flames in this lamp must never go out. The key term in verses 1-4 is “continually,” found three times (vv. 2, 3, 4).
Virtually the entire nation played a role in this task of keeping the golden lamp burning. (Thus, I have used the heading, “Give Me Oil in My Lamp,” probably the only biblical support for the popular camp chorus.) The Israelites were to provide a constant supply of beaten olive oil, which was to be brought to Moses (v. 2). Aaron was given the task of keeping the lamp(s)134 burning, especially during the night hours (“from evening till morning,” v. 3). This was to be done perpetually, and thus this task would be inherited by the sons of Aaron (vv. 3-4).
The reason for the continual, careful, tending of this lamp can be found by thinking of the role which this lamp played inside the tabernacle. It supplied virtually all the light within the tabernacle. Without this light, Aaron and the priests could not see sufficiently to carry out their tasks. Worse yet, they might make some mistake in the darkness (for example, stumble into the holy of holies!) which could prove fatal. Such a small thing as this lamp was vital to the tremendously important sacrificial process, some of which took place inside the tabernacle.
Israel’s Weekly Bread
In the royal palace in London (so I am told) there is a ceremony known as the “changing of the guard.” This ceremony is one which attracts a great deal of attention, especially among the tourists. In ancient Israel, there was a weekly ceremony of the “changing of the loaves.” It took place once a week on the Sabbath. Twelve large loaves135 (each loaf took about 6 1/2 pounds of flour) were baked, and on the Sabbath these were exchanged, replacing the old loaves with the new, which were arranged136 on the golden table.137 This “week old” bread was part of the “holy food” eaten by the priests. While the term “continually” occurs only once (v. 8), it is clear that this exchange of loaves is to happen regularly, consistently, and without any interruption. It, like the tending of the lamp, is a matter of meticulous care.
There are at least two reasons why the continual changing of the loaves was important. First, these loaves were a part of the sacrificial offerings. Only a part of the loaves was offered, and this portion, which would be offered up by fire, would be accompanied by frankincense (v. 7). To fail to provide these loaves would hinder the sacrificial process, which was symbolic of an “everlasting covenant” (v. 8). Thus, these loaves were vitally important because of what they symbolized. Secondly, these loaves (or, more accurately, what remained of them) were a part of the food which sustained and nourished the priests (v. 9). To fail to provide for the priesthood would be to hinder the priestly process. Thus, the loaves were always to be on hand.
A Lesson From the Lamp and the Loaves
These first two paragraphs have several things in common. Both deal with matters pertaining to the tabernacle and the priestly ministry related to it. Both the lampstand and the table are made of gold. Both were placed in the holy place inside the tabernacle. Both were matters of regular maintenance, one was daily (the lamp), the other weekly (the loaves). In both cases, the entire congregation are involved in one way or another. The people had to provide both oil for the lamp and flour for the loaves.
The importance of maintaining the light in the lamp and the loaves on the table underscores a very important principle, one which is found in both the Old and the New Testaments: SPIRITUAL MINISTRY REQUIRES PHYSICAL SUPPORT.
I may as well begin by confessing that we have a management area (overseen by one of our elders) which is labeled “physical support.” Thus, the precise terminology which I have employed here may differ somewhat from that which you can relate to. Regardless of the terminology, spiritual ministry and physical ministry are very much inter-twined. Some people look down on ministry which is “merely physical,” thinking that this is a kind of “second class service.” Our text shows such thinking to be false. You cannot separate physical ministry and spiritual ministry. In the Old and New Testaments spiritual ministry involved physical ministry. After all, our Lord’s spiritual ministry involved not only teaching, but healing the sick, raising the dead, and feeding the hungry.
The “spiritual” ministry of sacrifice which took place outside and inside the tabernacle required many “physical” facilities. There was the brazen altar, where the sacrifices were offered up in fire. There was the tabernacle, along with the golden table and lampstand. There was the ark and the veil. Apart from the construction and maintenance of these physical facilities, God could not have dwelt in the midst of His people, and the sins of the people could not have been atoned for by the sacrifices which were offered. The maintenance of the lamp and the loaves was so vital that it necessitated the involvement of both Moses, Aaron, and his sons.
Spiritual ministry requires physical support. Spiritual ministry is not divorced from the physical realm, but is, in some ways, dependent upon it. If this building is not properly heated or cooled, our ministry is greatly hindered. Several years ago, we had a problem with our gas line, and thus we had no heat, in the coldest part of the winter. We learned that it is very difficult to worship while your teeth are chattering. If there is no electricity, the PA system fails, and there is too little light to see very well. If the roof leaks and the floor is wet, someone could easily slip and fall.
Our church has a bulletin which must be put together and printed every week. We have tape recordings which are made weekly as well, and passed out to those Sunday School teachers who are not able to sit in on the teaching service. We have a wonderful library, containing both books and video tapes. Worship today, while it may differ from Israel’s worship, still requires certain physical facilities, and these, I believe should be meticulously maintained, with the recognition that spiritual ministry requires physical facilities, and suffers when these facilities are not properly maintained.
When we come to the third, and by far largest, section of chapter 24, we find a very different situation. It is this difference which causes many to question the continuity of the segments which make up this chapter. The first two paragraphs had to do with the tabernacle, and the maintenance of two physical elements pertaining to priestly ministry and Israel’s worship. Here, we are dealing with an individual who blasphemes, using the name of God, which ultimately results in action being taken “outside the camp,” with the execution of a blasphemer.
A young man, whose father was an Egyptian and whose mother was an Israelite, became involved in a disagreement which led to blows. We are not told who started the fight, nor who won. Sometime during the exchange of blows the young half-Israelite uttered the name of God as a curse138 against his foe. There is an obvious note of disdain for this half-breed boy. His father’s name is not given, nor is his lineage given. The mother’s name is given, however, along with the information about her lineage. Since Israel was to remain racially pure, and not to intermarry with the heathen, the product of this mixed marriage is not presented in a favorable light.
There is no question about the fact that blasphemy was already forbidden. The prohibitions which the Israelites have already been given are:
“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Exod. 20:7).
“And he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death” (Exod. 21:17).
“You shall not curse God, nor curse a ruler of your people” (Exod. 22:28).
It appears as though this was the first violation of the law prohibiting blasphemy. Thus, there would be some questions about this case which would not be raised later. The first is this: what is the penalty for blasphemy, and how is it to be carried out? Although blasphemy was prohibited by the law, it was not clear who (it seems as though God had indicated He would punish the one who blasphemed in Exod. 20:7) would carry out the sentence, what the punishment would be, and how it would be carried out (there were several ways to execute a person, none of which have yet been specified). Secondly, since the guilty party was not a full-blooded Israelite, did the law apply to him in the same way it did to an Israelite? Blasphemy was not surprising from the lips of a heathen, and the Israelites may have been more inclined to view this young man as a heathen than as an Israelite (could this have contributed to the fight?).
The exceptional nature of this crime required a word of clarification, as it did in these other cases:
- What about those not able to observe Passover? (Num. 9:6-14)
- What about the man caught gathering wood on the Sabbath? (Num. 15:32-36)
- What about daughters and the inheritance of their father? (Num. 27:1-11)
The situation in each of these cases is not all that different from what happens in law enforcement today. When a law is passed, a judicial ruling is required to clarify the interpretation and application of that law. When Congress passes a law, the courts, by means of specific decisions, spell out the interpretation and application of that law. Whether or not we agree with the Supreme Court’s decision in the infamous case of Roe versus Wade this decision rendered many state laws prohibiting abortions unconstitutional and invalid, thus legalizing the millions of abortions which have resulted since that decision. Judicial decisions clarify the meaning and application of the law. The decision from God given here clarified the law pertaining to blasphemy.
God gave a specific answer to these questions, and then followed up with some principles of punishment which apply much more generally. The specific answer was that this young man must be stoned to death. All of the witnesses—those who overheard the blasphemy—were to lay their hands on the head of the one who was to be put to death.139 In this act I understand the witnesses to be identifying themselves in a special way with his death (cf. Deut. 13:9; 17:7). After all, it was their action and their testimony which led to the execution. The stoning of this blasphemer was to be carried out by every Israelite. How easy it would be in our time to hire a few gravel trucks to come and bury the sinner in several hundred yards of rock. Every Israelite had to take up a stone and cast it at the guilty party, or at least on the rock pile under which he was buried. If there were 2 million Israelites, then I would imagine that there were 2 million stones on that first stone heap. Thus, every Israelite identified with God and His law in the execution of the blasphemer.
Principles of Justice
In addition to the specific revelation concerning the fate of the blasphemer, God laid down two general principles of punishment, which were evident in this case, but which also were to govern punishment in a much broader class of offenses:140
(1) The punishment shall be equal to the crime. Punishment should always be meted out in proportion to the seriousness of the crime. This, incidentally, is one of the primary senses of the word justice. The standard, “an eye for an eye,” expresses this principle. In the ancient Near East, such was not always the case.
Throughout the ancient Orient the death penalty was imposed for a wider variety of crimes than currently in western society. This applies to the OT as much as the Mesopotamian systems, but whereas the laws of Hammurabi regard property offenses and similar crimes as capital, the OT does not. In its eyes, sins against the family and religion are the most serious, and hence often attract the death penalty, whereas economic matters are treated more lightly.141
Inequity in the punishment of offenders can be found later in the history of mankind, as well as in our own day:
“In the 1800s England had one hundred sixty crimes punishable by hanging, including ones as trivial as stealing a loaf of bread.”142 “I thought of this when I was reading in the Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn of the lengthy prison sentences that Soviet children received for stealing when they were hungry.”143
(2) Punishment shall be equally administered, regardless of the race, social, or economic status of the person. A part of the problem with this specific instance of blasphemy was the fact that the offense was committed by a man who was only part Israelite. The question which needed to be answered was this: “Does the law apply differently to a native Israelite than to an alien?” The answer is clearly stated: “No!” In verses 15, 16, and 22 it is clearly stated that whether the guilty party was an alien or an Israelite, the penalty was the same.
The principle of equality in punishment was consistently taught in the Old Testament.144 In Deuteronomy 17:2 and 7 the principle of equality in punishment was applied to men and women. It is most clearly taught in the Book of Numbers:
‘All who are native shall do these things in this manner, in presenting an offering by fire, as a soothing aroma to the LORD. And if an alien sojourns with you, or one who may be among you throughout your generations, and he wishes to make an offering by fire, as a soothing aroma to the LORD, just as you do, so he shall do. As for the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the alien who sojourns with you, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; as you are, so shall the alien be before the LORD. There is to be one law and one ordinance for you and for the alien who sojourns with you’ (Numbers 15:13-16; cf. also Deut. 29:10-13; 31:11-12).
The reason for Israel’s hesitation and for their question pertaining to equality in punishment was rooted in the fact that some of the surrounding nations did apply penalties in accordance with racial and social distinctions.
The unjust administration of “justice” is just as much a problem today as it was in ancient Israel:
Just as the poor and minorities are over-represented among victims, so our prisons are disproportionately filled with them. One author wrote about this inequity in a book with a title which summarizes the problem: The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison.145
And while there have been important reforms in sentencing procedures, evidence remains that the death penalty still is applied in a racially discriminatory way. A recent study found that the death sentence is most often imposed when a black person kills a white person. Whites who kill whites are sentenced to death one-third less often, and only a small fraction of people (black or white) who kill blacks are given the death sentence.146
It is my opinion that our government would do a much better job of dealing with crime if it were to take these two simple principles of justice more seriously, to the point of implementing them practically and consistently.
There is no government on the face of the earth which does “justice” to these two principles. Interestingly enough, however, the New Testament applies these Old Testament principles to the practice of church discipline. Just as the witnessing parties in Israel were to initiate and carry through the process of justice (even to laying their hands on the head of the victim and then casting the first stone), so the person who sees a brother “overtaken in a fault” is to take the initiative, even to the point of carrying through with the process (cf. Matt. 18:15-20; Gal. 6:1-2). If the guilty party refuses to repent, then the entire church is to “put the offender out,” in a way not unlike the Israelites took the offender “outside the camp” (cf. Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5). As I understand the Scriptures, if the New Testament rebel refuses to repent, the death penalty may be executed by God, perhaps using Satan as an instrument of punishment (cf. 1 Cor. 5:5; 11:30; 1 Tim. 1:20; James 5:14-16).
The Peril of Profanity
If our text teaches us anything, it teaches us the peril of profanity. Blasphemy is taken most seriously in the Bible. If the punishment is to be equal to the crime, then blasphemy is a most serious offense. There are two questions which we must ask ourselves. The first is this: What is blasphemy? In brief, we can say, blasphemy is, by word or deed, the defamation of God’s character and glory.
The second question follows: How is it that men can blaspheme God? The Bible informs us that there are a number of ways in which we can blaspheme. Among these are:
- Willful disobedience—Num. 15:30
- Rejecting God’s Word—2 Ki. 18:17-25 (cf. Isa. 37:1-7, 23)
- Acting treacherously against God—Ezek. 20:27; cf. 36:20-32
- Failing to give God the glory He deserves—Rom. 1:18ff.; Rev. 16:9, 11
- Rejection of the gospel—Acts 13:45; 1 Tim. 1:13
Blasphemy is defaming God’s name, and God’s character and reputation are reflected by His name(s). God’s restoration of Israel (Ezek. 36:20-32), as well as His salvation of the Gentiles (Eph. 1, cf. vv. 6, 12, 14) is for the praise of His glory, for the honoring of His name. Thus, to defame God’s name is to rebel against His character and His purposes.
Those who blaspheme the name of God today minimize the seriousness of their words by sheepish excuses or apologies like, “Excuse my French.” Perhaps the most awesome reality for those who blaspheme is this statement by the apostle Paul, who himself was once a blasphemer (1 Tim. 1:13):
Therefore God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:9-11).
Those who take the name of the Lord in vain, who blaspheme His name, will someday have to kneel before Him and, as it were, eat their words, acknowledging His lordship, His holiness, His majesty. What an awful thing for one to do who has not received Him as Savior and Lord. For those who have trusted in Him, the name of God is the object of our praise, which will be our eternal occupation in heaven (cf. Rev. 4 and 5).
The Cohesive Principle of This Passage
In the introduction to this message I said that I would attempt to identify the “common denominator” of this chapter, that truth or principle which underlies its unity and central thrust. It is time for us to determine what this principle is.
We must begin by looking at the book as a whole and specifically at the larger segment of which chapter 24 is a part. The larger segment is chapters 23-25, which deal with religious rituals of various kinds. One can easily see that the book as a whole is dealing with religious rituals, in which the levitical priests play a key role. Thus, chapter 24 must have something to do with religious ritual.
In verses 1-4 of chapter 24 the central thrust is summarized by the word “continually” (vv. 2, 3, 4). The flame of the lamp(s) must be kept burning continually. In verses 5-9, it is the bread which must be continually kept on the golden table, freshly baked and changed every week. This, too, was to be continually (v. 8) done. We can say that the first 9 verses were concerned with the ritual of maintaining the lamp and the loaves. They were both to be tended regularly, ritually, without interruption.
Justice, too, was to become a matter of ritual, which is the underlying point of verses 10-33. I mean by this that the decision which God gave, along with the governing principles, was given to the Israelites so that justice would be carried out consistently, the same way each time, without variation, without deviation, without cessation.
In all three sections of chapter 24 the element of continuity, of rigorous ritual is present. I would like to suggest that in the Old Testament, righteousness was to be viewed (not entirely, but importantly) in terms of rituals. The sacrifices were religious rituals, to be carried out at specified times, and in very precisely defined ways. Deviation from these rituals has already (chapter 10) resulted in the death of Nadab and Abihu. Defilement was ritually pronounced and ritually cleansed. Now, the lamp and the loaves are to be ritually replenished. Justice is to be so uniformly administered that it is, in a sense, a ritual.
Admittedly, ritual can become meaningless activity, activity carried on apart from a right heart or mind: “The Lord said, ‘Because this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote’” (Isa. 29:13).
Nevertheless, there are righteous rituals and unrighteous rituals. By “ritual” I mean that kind of activity which is habitual, which is consistent, which has a certain predictability. For example, Daniel had a daily ritual of prayer, so that even his enemies know when he would be at prayer in his room (cf. Dan. 6:5-11). The Book of Proverbs is based upon the fact that people’s actions can be predicted on the basis of their character. The wise will act in a certain way, while the sluggard will act in another (predictable) way. Our character results in certain habits or rituals and these rituals reveal our character. Thus, the “way” of an individual is, to some degree, his ritual behavior.
While the Lord rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for their ritualism (cf. Matt. 23), it is apparent that He Himself had certain characteristic patterns of behavior: “And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read” (Luke 4:16). Going to the synagogue on the Sabbath was a ritual with Jesus, as was teaching (Mark 10:1), and prayer (Luke 22:39). Paul had his rituals, too (Acts 17:2).
Godly rituals are merely habits of righteous conduct, a pattern of piety. It is amazing to me that Christians could question the value of righteous rituals. We adamantly resist the theory of evolution because it maintains that all of creation is the product of time and chance, insisting that what we see is the result of a divine plan and of the creative process of God. Why, then, do we think that godliness will somehow evolve, by chance, rather than by design and by a process and a routine?
It is my contention that much of what is involved in our sanctification has to do with putting off the rituals, the habit patterns of the flesh, and putting on the rituals of righteousness. Almost every evil entails a ritual. As I learned from my diet program (I call it my “fat class”), there is a ritual to overeating. There is also a ritual to alcoholism, to drug abuse, and to violence (e.g. child and wife beatings).
Just as there are rituals involved in sin, so there are rituals involved in righteousness. Thus, we must seek to develop habits, consistent patterns of godly conduct which become a way of life. Righteous is not something which should happen but once in a while, a kind of “freak of our spiritual nature,” but rather should be striven for as a regular course of life. While this will not be an unbroken pattern, it should be one which reflects some degree of regularity.
I have observed those who are skilled at what they do and every such person has some kind of ritual associated with his skill. The finish carpenter has a certain way of doing his work which is consistent. The surgeon, likewise, follows certain procedures meticulously. Every skilled worker I know of employs rituals in the way he or she does their work. Why should we who name the name of Christ think that God’s work needs to be done thoughtlessly, spontaneously, and with no consistency?
The rituals which we should strive to develop should surely be in the area of Bible study, prayer, giving, and ministry. The exceptions to our rituals should be few and far between. This, I believe, is the evidence of the work of God’s Spirit, who produces discipline in our lives rather than disorder.
Gordon MacDonald, in his excellent book, Ordering Your Private World, has much to say about personal discipline, but this one story will serve to illustrate his point, and that of our text:
I carry with me the memory of a time when my missiology professor at Seminary, Dr. Raymond Buker, approached me at the end of a special convocation where I had read a paper on some moral issue that was burning in the hearts of the student generation of that day. I had cut two of his classes that day to prepare the paper, and it had not gone unnoticed.
“Gordon,” he said, “the paper you read tonight was a good one, but it wasn’t a great one. Would you like to know why?”
I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know because I anticipated a bit of humiliation coming my way, but I swallowed hard and told Dr. Buker that I would like to hear his analysis.
“The paper wasn’t a great one,” he said as he thumped his finger on my chest, “because you sacrificed the routine to write it.”
In pain I learned one of the most important lessons I ever needed to learn. Because my time as a Christian leader is generally my own to use as I please, it would be very easy to avoid routine, unspectacular duties, and give myself only to the exciting things that come along. But most of life is lived in the routine, and Buker was right: the man or woman who learns to make peace with routine responsibilities and obligations will make the greatest contributions in the long run.147
May God give you and me the grace to develop righteous rituals in our lives, to develop and maintain routines which become habits of holiness, so that we may more faithfully serve Him.
132 A. Noordtzij, Leviticus, trans. by Raymond Togtman (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), p. 242.
133 Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. 308.
134 The change in the text from “lamp” (v. 2) and “lamps” (v. 4) can be explained by the fact that the one lampstand had 7 lamps. It was a lamp made up of seven lamps: “As the relief on the triumphal arch of Emperor Titus in Rome indicates, the lampstand with its seven arms gave the impression of a stylized almond tree with seven branches, and it has now become a symbol of Judaism.” Noordtzij, p. 242.
135 Whereas the golden table for the bread of the Presence is described in Exodus 25:23-30 (see also Exod. 37:10-16), the present passage deals with the bread itself. The Hebrew expression for this bread literally means “bread of the face” (viz. of the Lord). The Chronicler refers to this as “layer-bread” (ma` reket, NIV, “bread set out on the table,” 1 Chron. 9:32; 23:29; Neh. 10:33 [MT 10:34], Numbers 4:7 designates it tamid bread” (cf. KJV; RSV; NIV; “bread that is continually there”), and in 1 Samuel 21:6 it is called “consecrated bread.” Noordtzij, p. 243.
136 “The bread was placed on a fairly small low table covered in gold plate (see Exod. 25:23-30//37:10-16). Along with the bread, various small dishes had to be placed on the table. Josephus says the loaves of bread were piled up (Antiquities 3:6:6). Despite the usual English translation, this seems the only way that twelve huge loaves could have been arranged on a table of this size (3’ x 1’6” = 90 x 45 cm).” Wenham, p. 310.
137 For texts which deal with the golden table and the loaves placed on it, cf. Exod. 25:30; 1 Sam. 21:4-7 (cf. also Mark 2:26); 1 Chron. 9:32; 23:29; Neh. 10:33.
138 Noordtzij comments, “Actually, the word blaspheme does not accurately represent the meaning of the Hebrew text. The author here uses two verbs, the first (naqab), which the NIV translates as ‘blaspheme,’ literally meaning ‘to pierce,’ with the intent of debilitating a person. The second term, rendered as ‘curse (cf. KJV, RV; NIV has ‘with a curse’), actually means to declare someone to be ‘contentless’ or without significance, and thus to deny that he has any power. In this connection, it is necessary to remember that, for the ancient Near Eastern mind, there existed a close connection between a nation (and each of its members) and its god. The strength of a nation derived from its god, and the attempt to weaken the god by the pronouncement of specific magical formulas resulted in the simultaneous weakening of the people (cf. Balaam’s oracles concerning Israel). The transgressor spoken of in these verses attempts to take such action against his adversary. He ‘pierces’ the Lord’s name and declares Him to be without content or significance, thereby intended to render the Israelite man powerless. It should be noted here that to the ancient Near Eastern mind (this same idea also appears elsewhere), the spoken word, and to an even greater degree the magical formula, were effective in and of themselves provided they were uttered in the correct manner. The guilty person here therefore did not pronounce a curse in our sense of the word, but rather attacked the Lord’s holy nature and declared this to be without content or significance.” Noordtzij, p. 245.
He further comments: “As a final observation, it may be noted that this pericope provoked a peculiar reaction on the part of the Jews. On the one hand, this incident induced them to forbid the utterance of the name of the Lord (Yahweh) and to declare it taboo, and they thus replaced it with ‘Lord’ or ‘God’ when Scripture was read in the synagogue (see discussion on 1:1).
“On the other hand, they interpreted verses 15-16 to mean (Sanhedrin 56) that although it was in general forbidden to pronounce one of the Lord’s names (e.g., ‘Lord’ or ‘God’) in a curse, the death penalty was to be enacted only when a person used the name ‘Yahweh’ in this manner. The rabbis punished the maledictory utterance of such descriptive names with scourging or banishment, but similar use of the name ‘Yahweh’ was subject to the death sentence. For Judaism, ‘Yahweh’ was nothing less than the Name (hassem, or in its Aramaic form, sema’), and because of this, the original reading in verse 11, sem yhwh (“the name of the LORD”), was altered to hassem (‘the Name’) in transcription, while in verse 16b the proper name yhwh was merely dropped after sem. It would seem proper to me to restore the original text in both instances.” Noordtzij, p. 247.
139 Noordtzij has a strange explanation of the meaning of the act of the witnesses who lay their hands on the head of the one who is to be stoned: “All who had heard the blasphemous utterance were first to place their hands on the head of the condemned man (v. 13), and in accordance with the instruction given in Deuteronomy 17:7, these witnesses were then to begin the stoning. The laying on of hands here is usually regarded as a pronouncement of guilt, but this view seems to me incorrect. Through their hearing of the curse, the witnesses had been infected by the potent magical words, and they had thus in a certain sense come to share the guilt. The imposition of hands then served to transfer their guilt to the blasphemer, just as the sinner transferred his guilt to the sacrificial animal by means of the s’mika(h) (see discussion of 1:4) and Aaron transferred the sins of the people to the goat for Azazel (16:21-22).” Noordtzij, p. 245.
140 “This incident of blasphemy provided an occasion to spell out some of the cardinal principles of biblical law in a short digression, vv. 16-22. These verses are carefully arranged in a concentric pattern called a palistrophe.
A resident alien and native Israelite (v. 16)
B take a man’s life (v. 17)
C take an animal’s life (v. 18)
D whatever he did, must be done to him (v. 19)
D’ whatever …, must be done to him (v. 20)
C’ kill an animal (v. 21a)
B’ kill a man (v. 21b)
A’ resident alien and Israelite (v. 22)
The symmetry and balance of this structure reinforces the points made explicitly in the text, namely, that in these cases the same penalty must be applied to both resident alien and native Israelite (vv. 16, 22) and that in all cases the punishment must match the offense: If a man injures his fellow citizen, whatever he did must be done to him (v. 19).” Wenham, pp. 311, 312.
141 Ibid., p. 311. Wenham further writes, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth (v. 20)—this is one of three passages in the OT setting out the so-called lex talionis (cf. Exod. 21:23-25; Deut. 19:21), a fundamental principle of biblical and Near Eastern law, namely, that punishment must be proportionate to the offense. Retribution is a principal goal of the penal system in the Bible.
“It seems likely that this phrase eye for eye, etc. was just a formula. In most cases in Israel it was not applied literally. It meant that compensation appropriate to the loss incurred must be paid out. Thus if a slave lost an eye, he was given his freedom (Exod. 21:26). The man who killed an ox had to pay its owner enough for him to buy another (Lev. 24:18). Only in the case of premeditated murder was such compensation forbidden (Num. 35:16ff.). Then the principle of life for life must be literally enforced, because man is made in the image of God (Gen. 9:5-6).” Wenham, p. 312.
142 Daniel W. Van Ness, Crime and Its Victims (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p. 91.
143 Ibid., p. 156. Van Ness goes on to spell out the negative impact the inequity between the crime and its punishment has upon the offender: “The extent to which prisoners feel that they themselves are victims is remarkable. They believe that the criminal justice system did not work for them the way it is supposed to, that the things they experience in prison are far worse than they deserve for breaking the law. And most of all, they are acutely aware that the punishment they are being given has nothing to do with the crime they committed. They know that being in prison does not address the harm caused their victims.
“Their prison experience is not forcing them to accept responsibility for what they have done. Instead, it is motivating them to fight the system that they believe is treating them unjustly. Chief Justice Warren Burger has described it this way: ‘So we see a paradox, even while we struggle toward correction, education and rehabilitation of the offender, our system encourages prisoners to continue warfare with society. The result is that whatever may have been the defendant’s hostility toward the police, the witnesses, the prosecutors, the judge and jurors, and the public defender who failed to win his case, those hostilities are kept alive. How much chance do you think there is of changing or rehabilitating a person who is encouraged to keep up years of constant warfare with society?’” Van Ness, p. 57.
144 Consider the following passages, which require that the law be applied to the Israelite and the alien in exactly the same way: Exod. 12:19-20, 49; 20:10; 22:21; 23:12; Lev. 16:29; 17:12, 15; 18:26; 19:33-34; 25:35; Num. 9:14; 15:14, 29, 30; 19:10; 22:10-12; 23:22; Deut. 1:16; 5:14; 16:11, 14; 26:11. In very few places is the treatment of the stranger or alien distinguished from that of the native Israelite (cf. Exod. 12:43, 48; Deut. 14:21, 29; 17:15; 23:20).
145 Van Ness, p. 43.
146 Ibid., p. 189.
147 Gordon MacDonald, Ordering Your Private World (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984), pp. 115-116.
19. Super-Sabbath: Israel's Land and Its Lord (Leviticus 25:1-34)
When we began our study of the Book of Leviticus (which we never thought would be so extensive), I referred to the book as a “liver and onions” book, one that was good for you, but wasn’t very enjoyable. Well, I’ve changed my mind. This book is “steak and ale,” a real feast. Through the weeks of my study I have grown to love this book. Far from being dull and irrelevant, it is a book which conveys the character and the heart of God. The 25th chapter of Leviticus especially reveals the grace of God and His compassion for the poor and the oppressed. The Sabbath year and the Super-Sabbath, the year of Jubilee, are one of God’s gracious provisions for His people, especially the poor.
It is not just the “spirit” of the chapter which is relevant to the 20th century Christian. The content of the chapter deals with one of the most pressing problems our world is facing—that of the equitable distribution of property among the population of the world. Communism is dead wrong in its theology (atheism—religion is the opiate of the people), in its solutions and methodology (revolution), but it has certainly grasped the fact that the dispossessed peoples of the earth have a great desire to own a portion of land. The peoples of the world care little for the philosophy of communism, but they are very much attracted by its offer of property for those who have none.
It is not just communism, per se, which addresses this problem of the possession of the land. A more religious revolutionary approach is to be found in the “liberation theology”148 of our day. Indeed, such “theologians” capitalize on biblical books like Exodus and Leviticus to validate their erroneous views.
Furthermore, our study of God’s laws and God’s land will enable us to understand why the Jews feels so strongly about the possession of Palestine. The centuries old struggle between the Arabs and the Jews is essentially one over the possession of the holy land. Some of the reasons for this struggle will become evident in our study.
Finally, the year of Jubilee is one of the beautiful prototypes of the redemption which will be achieved in the person of Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah. This great event is described and defined almost entirely in Leviticus chapter 25, with only incidental references being found in Leviticus 27 and Numbers 36:4. If we would understand the concept of Jubilee, we must learn it here.
Overview of the Chapter
The entire chapter deals with the sabbath year and the super-sabbath, the year of Jubilee, which comes every 50th year. The two events are very much inter-related, and are thus both dealt with at the same time. The sabbath year has already been dealt with previously, but from a different perspective.149 The observance of the sabbath and the super-sabbath as defined here focuses primarily on the land and on the people. Verses 1-34 lay down God’s law pertaining to the land, while verses 35-55 prescribe the application of the sabbath to the people.
The Approach of This Lesson
In this lesson we will direct our attention to the first matter, the laws and the land of God. We will begin by reviewing what has already been written in the Pentateuch, in preparation for the instruction of this chapter. Then we will briefly survey what practices were a part of the observance of the sabbath and the super-sabbath. We will next turn to the application of the legislation of this chapter in the history of Israel. Turning to the New Testament, we will consider the impact of our Lord’s teaching pertaining to Himself and to the land of promise. Finally, we will consider the application of the “laws of the land” by the New Testament church, which includes the 20th Christian as well.
Pentateuchal Preparations for the Laws of the Land
It is my contention that the land of Canaan, the promised land of Israel, was consistently viewed in the Old Testament as the place of God’s presence and of His blessing. This begins at the very outset of divine revelation in the Book of Genesis, chapters 2 and 3. The Garden of Eden was, as it were, a kind of farm—at least an orchard. God placed Adam and Eve there, to keep the garden, and to enjoy its blessings. These blessings included fellowship with God, who came to walk with them in the garden (3:8), and the blessing of everlasting life, the result of eating from the fruit of the tree of life (3:22). To enjoy these blessings, all this couple had to do was to keep one commandment, to refrain from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:16-17). When they disobeyed and ate of this fruit, they were expelled from the garden (in general), and kept from eating of the tree of life (in particular, 3:22-24). The parallels between the Garden of Eden and the promised land of Canaan, the land of “milk and honey,” are not difficult to grasp. For now, let us simply observe that the earth was created with a special place for man, where God’s presence and His blessings were available. To enjoy these blessings, man had to obey God’s commands. To be expelled from this place was to be deprived of these blessings.
Abraham came to grasp the fact that the promised land was the place of God’s special blessing too. God called Abram to leave his land and to go to the place He would show him. The Abrahamic Covenant consisted of three particular promises: a land, a seed, and a blessing (cf. Gen. 12:1-3). These three promises were rightly understood to be somehow bound together, inseparable. During Abraham’s life, he built altars and called on the name of the Lord only in the land of promise. At his death, Abraham’s last two recorded acts had to do with the land. In chapter 23, Abraham purchased a family burial site in the land of promise. In chapter 24, Abraham gave solemn instructions to his servant concerning how he was to procure a wife for his son, Isaac. His most stern warning to his servant was that not under any circumstance was he to take Isaac out of the land (24:5-8). Abraham had learned that the blessings of the covenant God had made with him were inseparable from dwelling in the land. Even though his descendants might be removed from this land for a number of years, God would bring them back to it to experience the fulfillment of His promises (cf. 15:13-16).
Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, learned that this land of promise was a very special place, the place of God’s presence and blessing. Because of his deception and deceit, Jacob was forced to flee from the promised land, to live in the very place which Abraham warned his servant not to take Isaac. Nevertheless, God appeared to Jacob before he had left the land of promise:
And he had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it (Gen. 28:12).
In this vision, God reiterated His covenant, which He had made with Abraham and Isaac. He promised to be with Jacob wherever he went, and to bring him, once again, to this land, where He would bless him. Jacob’s response to this dream is very significant: “Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.’ And he was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’” (Gen. 28:16-17).
Jacob’s dream convinced him that this land was special. It was the dwelling place of God, the place of God’s special blessing. And, more than this, it was the “gate of heaven.” No wonder the land of promise was so important to the Israelite! And no wonder that Joseph, Jacob’s son, would instruct his sons to bury his bones in that promised land, rather than in Egypt (Gen. 50:24-25).
In the Book of Exodus we see this same emphasis being revealed to Moses and the people of Israel. When God called Moses to deliver the Israelites from Egypt He promised, “Certainly I will be with you, and this shall be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain” (Exod. 3:12).
In Leviticus chapter 26, God promises to bless His people in their land. He will give rains in their season and crops in abundance if they obey His commandments. If they disobey, He will drive them out of their land, and they will experience cursing, not blessing. Being in the land is essential, for it is the place of God’s special blessing.
Later, in the Book of Deuteronomy, the land of promise is referred to as the place of rest:
“You shall not do at all what we are doing here today, every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes; for you have not as yet come to the resting place and the inheritance which the LORD your God is giving you. When you cross the Jordan and live in the land which the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, and He gives you rest from all your enemies around you so that you live in security, then it shall come about that the place in which the LORD your God shall choose for His name to dwell, there you shall bring all that I command you …” (Deut. 12:8-11a).
However, since the people will not obey God, God’s words of warning (cursing) in the last part of Deuteronomy speak of the judgment of God in terms of having no rest, outside of the land of promise:
“Moreover, the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, which you or your fathers have not known. And among those nations you shall find no rest, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot; but there the LORD will give you a trembling heart, failing of eyes, and despair of soul. So your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall be in dread night and day, and shall have no assurance of your life” (Deut. 28:64-66).150
The story of Ruth is especially interesting in relationship to finding “rest” or God’s blessings in the land of promise. Naomi encouraged both of her daughters-in-law to return to their own land and to their homes (her mother’s house), where they might find “rest” (1:8-9). Ruth declined however, determining to find her rest with Naomi, in her land, and by the hand of her God (1:16-18). This Moabite woman looked for God’s blessing only in the land of promise, with His people.
The Practical Outworkings
of the Sabbath Year and the Super-Sabbath
According to the instructions God gave in Leviticus 25 the observance of the Sabbath year involved several things. First, the land must lie fallow and given its rest (v. 2). The seventh year, crops could not be planted, and those crops which were permanent (e.g. grapes, olive trees) were not to be pruned or cared for as they were the other six years (v. 3). The annual crops would re-seed themselves and thus there would be grain, and the perennial plants would continue to bear fruit. No harvests were allowed during the sabbath year (v. 5). By this, I understand that the crops were not to be harvested for sale. This did not prohibit the people from eating the crops, however. In fact, all the people, especially the poor (and even the animals) could eat in the fields (vv. 6-7). Rather than having the corners of the fields in which to glean, the poor could eat from any portion of the field.
Elsewhere the Israelites were instructed to forgive debts which were owed them and unpaid by their Israelite brethren (Deut. 15:1ff.). Also in Deuteronomy 31 we learn that the sabbath year was to begin at the Feast of Booths (31:10) and that the law was read at this time as well (31:13).
There was a great deal of faith required of the Israelites to follow these commandments pertaining to the sabbath year. After all, letting the fields lie fallow for a whole year seemed like a waste, and put the Israelite in the position of having to trust God for his daily bread. In verses 18-22 of Leviticus 25 God assumed that some would have their doubts about the sabbath year observance, and thus He assured the Israelites of His provision. In addition, let it be kept in mind that in Exodus chapter 16 God instituted the sabbath day observance with regard to the gathering of the manna. For some time, then, the people had been experiencing God’s faithfulness in this matter. God gave the people a small test of faith before He gave a larger one. Israel was thus prepared for what God commanded here.
The super-sabbath was similar to, but not identical with, the sabbath year. The year of Jubilee commenced with the sounding of the ram’s horn on the annual day of atonement151 (on the tenth day of the seventh month). It would seem that the land had to lie fallow for 2 years since the year of Jubilee was the 50th year, following on the heels of the 7th (49th) year. Some have questioned this, suggesting that the sabbath year and the Jubilee were observed simultaneously152. These discussions are hypothetical and conjectural. The bottom line is that God is able to provide for a one or a two year period.
On the sabbath year the all debts were canceled, but in the year of Jubilee the Israelite who has sold himself to another is released, and the land which has been leased (since it cannot be sold, v. 23) to another is restored to its original owner. Only houses which were in walled cities were exempt, and after a redemption period of one year, it became the permanent possession of its purchaser.
Parenthetically, one can imagine that the aggressive promoter types would have been inclined to buy such houses (in walled cities) since they were one of the few properties which could be accumulated permanently. I think that the “widows houses” which the scribes and Pharisees were accused of devouring (Matt. 23:14), were those houses in walled cities. Where would a widow wish to live out her last days, if not in the security of a walled city? And who would an unscrupulous Pharisee find an easier prey than a helpless widow? The letter of the law was meticulously observed, but the spirit was greatly violated, and thus the stern rebuke of our Lord.
There is an interesting and very obvious contrast between loans which were made to a needy Israelite and the lease of an Israelite’s land, until the year of Jubilee. Loans were to be made without any consideration of how many years were left to repay the loan (Deut. 15:7-11). Leases, however, must be made by calculating the number of years remaining until the Jubilee (Lev. 25:14-16; cf. 26-28). The difference is not so much that between the sabbath year and the year of Jubilee, but between a loan and a lease. One is an act of generosity, which is considered more as a gift than a loan, while the other is a business arrangement, which is therefore very carefully governed so that a fair deal is struck. This is important since people are often taken advantage of in times of dire financial need.
The Purpose of the Sabbath and Super-Sabbath
Several purposes are evident in the commandments given here regarding the observance of the sabbath and super-sabbath.
(1) The sabbath and super-sabbath were a reminder of the fact that God owned the land. There is a folk song that goes something like this, “This land is my land, this land is your land …” This is a song which the Israelite could not sing. God clearly stated that the land was His, and that the Israelites were His tenants (v. 23). The Israelites would need a very practical and pointed demonstration of this from time to time, and the sabbath regulations did this beautifully. Let’s face it, the things we own we attempt to maintain, and we attempt to restrict their use. If the Israelite really owned the land, he would feel obliged to maintain his fields, and he would be inclined to post “No Trespassing” signs, keeping out others, especially strangers. God’s regulations forcefully underscored the fact that the Israelites did not own the land because they were prohibited from maintaining the land for one year out of every seven, and they were also instructed to allow their neighbors to come onto their land and to partake of their crops. The poor and the aliens were included here (cf. vv. 5-6). Those who own something feel free to use it when and how they like. The land could not be used other than in the ways God prescribed. Thus, the sabbath and Jubilee regulations proved the land was God’s.
(2) It made it possible for the people of Israel to become the recipients of divine blessing. Remember that a large part of the blessings which God promised His people consisted of the rain and the crops which God would give His people. To be a recipient of God’s blessing, one must have his own land by which means he will be benefited.
(3) The commands related to the observance of the sabbath and Jubilee years were tests of the Israelite’s faith and obedience, and the basis for God’s blessings or discipline.
(4) The regulations regarding the use of the land were a provision for the poor, providing them with food in times of need and with the possibility of a new beginning.
(5) The “laws of the land” were designed to hinder materialism and to keep in check those who would try to accumulate vast land holdings, at the expense of others. If these land laws were followed, there would be little incentive for one to lease the land of another, since the land would ultimately be returned to its owner, and since the price of the lease was directly tied to the value of its crops. There were no speculation land deals in that day, not if God’s laws were obeyed.
The Practice of the
Sabbath and Super-Sabbath Years in Israel
There are two very different incidents recorded in the Old Testament which show us how these “laws of the land” were either ignored or implemented by God’s people. First we turn to the account of Ahab’s “acquisition” of the vineyard belonging to Naboth, recorded in 1 Kings chapter 21. Ahab was Israel’s king, who had plenty of his own land, but there was this nice little vineyard, very near his palace … When approached by Ahab, Naboth refused to sell, not merely out of stubbornness or possessiveness, but knowing that God had intended the land to remain in the hands of those families and tribes to which it was first given: “The Lord forbid me that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers” (1 Ki. 21:3).
In obedience to the intent and stated purposes of the “laws of the land,” Naboth could not sell his land without disobeying God. What Naboth knew well, Ahab was either ignorant of or it didn’t matter. Ahab was nevertheless ready to give up, but was depressed over his frustrated efforts. Jezebel handled the matter for him in a way that grossly violated the “laws of the land,” but in the pretext of keeping the Mosaic laws. The one way that the king could keep the property of an Israelite was to find him guilty of a capital offense, like blasphemy (which, you will recall, is dealt with in Leviticus chapter 24). A banquet is arranged, Naboth is invited, and two false witnesses are employed to bring the charge of blasphemy against Naboth, who is executed with a hypocritical sense of indignation and divine duty. God was not mocked, however, for Ahab “bought the farm” in more than one sense. His sin cost him his dynasty (cf. 1 Ki. 21:20-22; 22).
The contrast between Ahab and Boaz is a beautiful one. Ahab and Jezebel abused the law, using it as a pretext for doing good (punishing a blasphemer) when it was an instrument for doing evil (taking a man’s property and his children’s inheritance). Naomi was the widow of an Israelite who, due to a famine, had to sell (lease) his property and to move outside the land (Ruth 1:1-5). When Naomi returned to her land, Ruth went with her, seeking rest in Israel from Naomi’s God (1:15-18). Ruth quickly learned about the rights of the poor and went to the fields to glean (2:1ff.). In the providence of God, she happened upon the farm of Boaz, and also providentially God brought Ruth to his attention. Boaz went far beyond the requirement of the “laws of the land” and fed Ruth at his table, looking after her protection and welfare, and providing her with more of his produce than the bare minimum requirements (cf. 2:8-9, 14-16). Here is the law at its best, not viewed as a standard too high to strive for, but as a minimum to be surpassed. The kindly intent of God in giving the “laws of the land” is seen in the practice of this godly man, Boaz.
Beyond these two accounts we have little information concerning the observance of the sabbath and super-sabbath. Roland de Vaux writes, “The sabbatical year is therefore an ancient institution, but it is hard to say how faithfully the Israelites observed it. Positive evidence is rare and late, and comes from periods of national and religious fervour.”153
Of the year of Jubilee, de Vaux writes,
There is no evidence that the law was ever in fact applied. … The Law of Jubilee thus appears to set out an ideal of justice and social equality which was never realized. It is difficult to say when it was thought out. … But we must note that nowhere outside the Bible is the fiftieth year marked by a redistribution of the land or a remission of debts and of persons taken as sureties; nor is there any evidence whatever of such a general liberation, at any time whatever.154
We do now have evidences that, in general, God’s commandments were not kept, thus bringing about the expulsion of God’s people from His promised land and from His blessings. A disregard for the sabbath is seen in the Book of Amos, which is the basis for the divine judgment of God:
Hear this, you who trample the needy, to do away with the humble of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over, So that we may buy grain, And the sabbath, that we may open the wheat market, To make the bushel smaller and the shekel bigger, And to cheat with dishonest scales, So as to buy the helpless for money And the needy for a pair of sandals, And that we may sell the refuse of the wheat?” (Amos 8:4-6, cf. vv. 7ff.).
Isaiah, too, condemned Israel’s failure to care for the poor, which was a central purpose for the giving of the “laws of the land.” Isaiah spoke of Israel’s obedience to these laws as the basis for restoration and blessing:
“Is this not the fast which I chose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free, And break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will speedily spring forth; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you remove the yoke from your midst, The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, If you give yourself to the hungry, And satisfy the desire of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness, And your gloom will become like midday. And the LORD will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail. And those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; You will raise up the age-old foundations; And you will be called the repairer of the breach, The restorer of the streets in which to dwell” (Isa. 58:6-12).
Because Israel failed to obey God’s laws of the land, Israel and Judah were sent into captivity:
And those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept sabbath until seventy years were complete (2 Chron. 36:20-21).
The prophets spoke much of Israel’s restoration. Through Jeremiah God promised restoration, based upon Israel’s keeping of the sabbath day (Jer. 17:24-27). But even when the captives were loosed and God’s people returned to the land of promise, observance of God’s “laws of the land” was imperfect (cf. Neh. 5). The later prophets thus speak of a great and future day of restoration, which will be fulfilled only in the coming of the Messiah and the establishment of His kingdom. The “laws of the land” are very much in view in these promises. Ezekiel, for example, speaks of the restoration of Israel and its implications:
‘Thus says the Lord God, “If the prince gives a gift out of his inheritance to many of his sons, it shall belong to his sons; it is their possession by inheritance. But if he gives a gift from his inheritance to one of his servants, it shall be his until the year of liberty; then it shall return to the prince. His inheritance shall be only his sons’; it shall belong to them. And the prince shall not take from the people’s inheritance, thrusting them out of their possession; he shall give his sons inheritance from his own possession so that My people shall not be scattered, anyone from his possession”’ (Ezek. 46:16-18).
“So you shall divide this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. And it will come about that you shall divide it by lot for an inheritance among yourselves and among the aliens who stay in your midst, who bring forth sons in your midst. And they shall be to you as the native-born among the sons of Israel; they shall be allotted an inheritance with you among the tribes of Israel” (Ezek. 47:21-22).
This latter prophecy is significant in that it foresees and foretells of the inclusion of the Gentiles (aliens) in the coming kingdom, which Messiah will establish.
Likewise, Micah foretold the day of Israel’s restoration in the land:
And each of them will sit under his vine And under his fig tree, With no one to make them afraid, For the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken. … “In that day,” declares the LORD, “I will assemble the lame, And gather the outcasts, Even those whom I have afflicted. I will make the lame a remnant, And the outcasts a strong nation, And the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion From now on and forever” (Micah 4:4, 6-7).
One of the most significant prophecies of Israel’s restoration, couched in Jubilee terminology, is found in the Book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, Because the LORD has anointed me To bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to captives, And freedom to prisoners; To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD” (Isa. 61:1-2a).
It will be this text which our Lord reads in the synagogue of His home town, Nazareth, as recorded in the 4th chapter of Luke’s gospel. Before we turn to the teaching of our Lord and the land of Israel, let us take a moment to pause and reflect on the meaning of the land to the Israelite of old.
The land of Israel was, to the Jew, the place of God’s presence and of His blessing. To be in the land was to be in the place of blessing, and to be outside of the land was to be apart from the place of blessing.
It would be wrong, however, to conclude that the godly Jew saw some magical power inherent and active in the land of promise. Ultimately it was God who was the source of blessing. Thus, we read in the Psalms that God is the saint’s dwelling place, the place of security, safety, and blessing:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High Will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress, My God, in whom I trust!’ (Ps. 91:1-2).
Preserve me, O God, for I take refuge in Thee. I said to the LORD, “Thou art my LORD; I have no good besides Thee. … The LORD is the portion of my inheritance and my cup; Thou dost support my lot” (Ps. 16:1-2, 5).
“I love Thee, O LORD, my strength.” The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold (Ps. 18:1-2; cf. Ps. 27, 31).
Asaph summed up the fact that God is the saint’s true reward, who is always present, and who is one’s true good, even when he is afflicted and the wicked momentarily prosper:
Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. … But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, That I may tell of all Thy works (Ps. 73:25-26, 28).
The writer of the Book of Hebrews sums up the view of the godly Old Testament saint with regard to the land, and its relationship to their faith:
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them (Heb. 11:13-16).
And so it was that the godly Israelites of the Old Testament dispensation were eagerly waiting for the coming of Messiah, in whom their hope rested. The heavenly country was that which He would bring to pass. The Messiah’s arrival and message was not welcomed by all, however.
The “Laws of the Land” and the Messiah
The year of Jubilee, to a large degree, was an ideal, one not realized by the nation Israel in the Old Testament dispensation. This does not mean that these laws, found in Leviticus 25 (and elsewhere) were of no value, however. In the first place, these laws revealed the compassionate heart of God toward the poor and the downtrodden. In the second place, it revealed how far short the nation Israel fell from living up to the standards which God had set. Thirdly, the ideals established by the “laws of the land” prepared the way for the Messiah who was to come, and through whom both men and the land would be brought to full restoration (cf. Rom. 8:18-25).
It is not surprising, then, that when our Lord appeared as Israel’s Messiah, He spoke of Himself and His ministry in “jubilee” terms and imagery. In the fourth chapter of Luke’s gospel our Lord read from Isaiah 61:1-2a in the synagogue and said that these words had been fulfilled in the hearing of His audience (Luke 4:21). I believe that our Lord was claiming to be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, as well as to being the antitype of the year of jubilee. Wenham agrees when he writes,
In Isa. 61:1, from which Jesus was quoting, the word used for “release” … is the same as that found in Lev. 25:10. It seems quite likely, therefore, that the prophetic description of the “acceptable year of the Lord’ was partly inspired by the idea of the jubilee year. The messianic age brings liberty to the oppressed and release to the captives.
This age was inaugurated with Christ’s first coming (Luke 4:21). It will be completed by his second coming (Jas. 5:1-8; cf. Luke 16:19-31). The jubilee, then, not only looks back to God’s first redemption of his people from Egypt (Lev. 25:38, 55), but forward to the “restitution of all things,” “for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (Acts 3:31; 2 Pet. 3:13).155
This is but the beginning, however. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus’ beatitudes, such as “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” convey the concept of jubilee. Who were more blessed than the poor and oppressed, for whom jubilee was to provide deliverance and a new beginning.
It is striking to observe that in the gospels Jesus used much of the symbolism and terminology which was related to the land, as viewed by the Old Testament, to refer to Himself and to the blessings which He had come to bring. The text in Genesis 28, where Jacob’s ladder was described, seems to be referred to when Jesus said to Nathaniel, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51).
If Jesus was claiming to be “Jacob’s ladder,” as I believe He was, then He is saying that while the land of Israel was once the special place of God’s presence, and the mediating point between heaven and earth (in Jacob’s words, “the gate of heaven,” Gen. 28:17), then Jesus has now assumed this role. He is the place where God abides in a special way, and He is the gate to heaven. To put the matter in words which our Lord Himself spoke,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep … I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture” (John 10:7, 9).
“I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6).
If the Lord Jesus was Jacob’s ladder, He was also the “water of life.” In the Old Testament, God promised water for the land of promise:
The afflicted and needy are seeking water, but there is none, And their tongue is parched with thirst; I, the LORD, will answer them Myself, As the God of Israel I will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights, And springs in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, And the dry land fountains of water (Isa. 41:17-18; cf. Lev. 26:4; Deut. 11:10-12).
Later on, God Himself was spoken of in terms of water:
As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for Thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; When shall I come and appear before God? (Ps. 42:1-2; cf. Ps. 63:1).
“For the people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, The fountain of living waters, To hew for themselves cisterns, Broken cisterns, That can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13).
When our Lord speaks of Himself in terms of water, I believe that He is referring to Himself in terms of those blessings (in the land) with which the godly Israelite was most familiar. Think of these words in this light:
“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (John 4:10).
Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38).
How shocking it must have been to an Israelite, one who would scarcely consider giving up his farm, to hear these words of Jesus, which pronounce a blessing on those who give up farms: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, shall receive many times as much, and shall inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:29).
Farms were the means by which God’s blessing was poured out on His people in the Old Testament. Farms were not to be given up, but were to be kept as in inheritance. Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who do give up farms, and speaks of one’s inheritance as “eternal life.” What has changed here? Why has the Old Testament emphasis on the land been so radically reversed?
The reason is that the Lord Jesus Christ has come; Israel’s Messiah has come. The special place of God’s dwelling is now Christ Himself, not a land, not a temple, not a tabernacle (although the terms tabernacle and temple are referred to by our Lord, cf. John 1:14; 2:19). The evidence, in my opinion, is more than abundant proof of this.
In the Old Testament, especially in the Book of Deuteronomy, Israel’s blessings were spoken of as “rest,” while her cursings were spoken of in terms of “no rest.” Rest was to be given in the land, while no rest was to be experienced outside the land. In the light of the relationship of “rest” to the “land,” think of the claim which our Lord was making when He said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). The Jews were in the land of promise, but they did not have rest. Jesus offered them rest, in Himself, not in the land. Rest is now something which is found in Christ, not in a physical location.
So, too, worship is something which is no longer to be limited to a certain place, to the land of Israel, to designated places of worship in the promised land, to the tabernacle or the temple. When Jesus was talking to the “woman at the well” in John chapter 4, she raised a very tender point of dispute between the Jews and the Samaritans, a dispute over which mountain was the place where God was to be worshipped (cf. John 4:20). Jesus’ answer to this woman was that worship is no longer a matter of place, but of a person. The worship of the Father is to be done through, by means of, the Son.
It is therefore not the place—the holy land of Israel—which is so important in the New Testament, but the person of Christ.156 God dwells in Him, and it is in Him that we are saved, secure, and blessed. Thus, men can forsake their farms and follow Him without losing God’s blessing. In fact, not to follow Christ is to lose one’s blessing. That is why we find in the newly founded church, as described in the early chapters of the Book of Acts, that when a believer was in need, people sold their possessions (including their property) to meet these needs. Barnabas was just one notable example of this kind of generosity:
For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, and lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each, as any had need. And Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means, Son of Encouragement), and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:34-37).
If the Old Testament saint looked on the land of Canaan as the special place of God’s presence and His blessing, the New Testament teaches emphatically that the dwelling place of God and the place of security, peace, and prosperity is none other than Jesus Christ. If the Old Testament saint delighted to be in the land, the New Testament saint delights in being “in Christ.”
The great dangers of which the New Testament saint is warned are those which tend to draw him away from the centrality of being in Christ. The early chapters of Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, all focus on the centrality of Christ.
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me (Gal. 2:20).
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (Eph. 1:3).
But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broken down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:13-22).
For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21).
For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fulness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven (Col. 1:19-20).
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. For in Him all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead (Col. 2:8-12).
The great danger of the Christian life is to be drawn away from Christ, from seeing in Him all the fullness, the sufficiency, the power and blessings of God. It is for this very reason that our Lord spoke to His disciples about the importance of abiding in Him: “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).
Abiding in Christ is to abide in God and to experience the peace and prosperity (fruit) which God gives through Him. The results of abiding in Christ are remarkably similar to those of trusting in God in the Old Testament, as outlined by our Lord in John 15: keeping His commandments (15:10) and loving one another (15:12). Loving God and loving men, is both an Old and a New Testament obligation.
I wish to make three points of application as I conclude. First, let me remind you of the great continuity between the Old Testament revelation and the New. Those of us who are dispensationalists (I still include myself in this camp)157 sometimes tend to look at the New Testament only in terms of its contrasts and “newness,” without acknowledging sufficiently its continuity, its “sameness.” Let us be careful to look for the continuity of teaching and application between the two testaments.
Let me attempt to illustrate my point by talking about one of my favorite subjects for a moment—computers. I happen to have had one of the first IBM personal computers. Since the purchase of this first computer, IBM has come out with several later versions, which are faster and more powerful. Naturally, I look at these with eager interest, even desire. But my point is that while the heart of the computer, the microprocessor (an Intel 8088), has changed (I like the 80386!), essentially the design of these different processors is so similar that the same software can be run on all machines. The Old Testament revelation is like that. It is definitely surpassed by the New, but there is still a compatibility, a sameness. Sometimes in our efforts to stress the “betterness” of the New, we imply a “badness” about the Old. This is not true, and it inclines us to miss much of the blessing which could be gained from a study and meditation of the Old Testament.
Second, if the place of God’s blessing is now a person, and this person is Jesus Christ, then you will only be blessed in Him. In other words, you have little right to ask God for His blessings if you are not in His Son. The message of the gospel is that forgiveness of sins and eternal life are the result of being “in Christ,” that is by receiving Him as your Savior, your sin-bearer, your righteousness, and your eternal life. If you are not “in Him,” I urge you to trust in Him today, to be “born again” (cf. John chapter 3).
Finally, for Christians, we should be reminded that our source of blessing and security is Christ and Christ alone. Satan would like nothing more than to distract and divert you from who and what you are “in Him” to virtually anything else. If you do not sense the nearness of God and His blessings, it may be because you have been seduced by someone or something other than Christ. The words of our Lord are clear, blessing and fruitfulness come from abiding in Him, the One in whom the presence of God has been manifested, the One in whom all blessings are found.
148 Kaiser writes, “The tragic near-sightedness of ‘liberation theology,’ which loves to focus on the Exodus and laws like Leviticus 25, is that it overlooks the redemptive themes of the Lamb’s blood, the atonement, and the conditions of the covenant and thus it is left with merely a humanistic leftover from the passage.” Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1983), p. 219.
149 Cf. Noordtzij observes, “There was more than one side to the sabbatical year. In Exodus 23:10-11 it is regarded from a social and humanitarian perspective, since the sabbath rest of the land here formed the occasion for poor persons, and also animals, to freely partake of its produce. Leviticus 25:1-7 in contrast, although it does not disregard social and humanitarian concerns (vv. 6-7), draws attention primarily to the land’s right to have a ‘sabbath of rest’ (v. 4) every seventh year, a rest which, like that of the Sabbath day (23:3, 38), was dedicated to the Lord. The land is therefore in a certain sense personified here; it had been granted its own rights by its divine owner, and the Israelites were required to respect these. The previously held view that it was economic considerations that induced the lawgiver to direct that the land be left fallow every seventh year is therefore incorrect. Unlike elsewhere in the ancient Near Eastern world, the primary concern here is not the simple fact that the land was left fallow, but rather the inclusion of this agricultural practice within the overall framework of the sabbath idea. This notion of a sabbath rest for everyone and everything is a religious conception that is met with only in Israel. The verses under discussion therefore expressly direct that, although a person could farm his land for six successive years in order to satisfy his needs, he was to grant it a ‘sabbath of rest’ (or ‘time of complete rest,’ v. 6; the same expression, sabbath sabbaton, is used in 23:3, 32) in the seventh year and content himself with whatever grew of itself in his fields and vineyards. The produce of that year is referred to literally as the ‘sabbath of the land’ (v. 6; see KJV and RSV), and everyone, from the owner to the animals, was allowed to partake of this freely. No one could make any special claim to what grew during this sabbath year. For this reason, there is also no mention of harvest, it being merely stated that the produce of the land could be eaten (v. 7). The fact that Exodus 23:10-11 explicitly mentions the rights of the needy, while Leviticus 25:6-7 does not, may not be taken to indicate any essential difference between these two passages, for if the latter takes note even of the needs of animals, it could not deny those of the poor.” A. Noordtzij, Leviticus, trans. by Raymond Togtman (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), pp. 249-250.
150 Cf. also Dt. 3:20; 25:19; Josh. 1:13, 15.
151 “The blowing of trumpets, or blast of the far-sounding horn (shophar, see at chap. xxiii. 24), was the signal of the descent of the Lord upon Sinai, to raise Israel to be His people, to receive them into His covenant, to unite them to Himself, and bless them through His covenant of grace (Ex. xix. 13,16,19, xx. 18). Just as the people were to come up to the mountain at the sounding of … the shopar, to commemorate its union with the Lord, so at the expiration of the seventh sabbatical year the trumpet-blast was to announce to the covenant nation the gracious presence of its God, and the coming of the year which was to bring “liberty throughout the land to all that dwelt therein” (ver. 10),—deliverance from bondage (vers. 40 sqq.), return to their property and family (vers. 10,13), and release from the bitter labour of cultivating the land (vers. 11,12). This year of grace was proclaimed and began with the day of atonement of every seventh sabbatical year, to show that it was only with the full forgiveness of sins that the blessed liberty of the children of God could possibly commence.” C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. by James Martin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968 [reprint]), II, p. 458.
152 “It is generally thought that this is the year following the seventh sabbath year, i.e., the fiftieth year by our figures. This would mean, however, that the end of every seventh sabbath of years, Israel would have two successive years of a special character—the sabbatical year, and then the Year of Jubilee—and it is highly unlikely that this could have been the case. Such a position overlooks the fact that verse 8, unlike 23:15, does not state that the counting was to begin after a particular date. In 23:15, the counting began “from the day after the Sabbath,” whereas 25:8 only commanded Israel to “count off seven sabbaths of years.” This therefore means that the sabbatical year on which the counting began was the first of the fifty years spoken of (vv. 10-11), and the seventh sabbatical year would then be the fiftieth year counted. In conformity to this, verses 11-12 clearly describe the Year of Jubilee as a sabbath year.” Noordtzij, p. 251.
Keil and Delitzsch challenge this view, however: “It is quite evident from vers. 21 and 22, according to which the sixth year was to produce enough for three years, and the sowing for the ninth was to take place in the eighth, that not only the year of jubilee, but the sabbatical year also, commenced in the autumn, when they first began to sow for the coming year; so that the sowing was suspended from the autumn of the sixth year till the autumn of the seventh, and even till the autumn of the eighth, whenever the jubilee year came round, in which case both sowing and reaping were omitted for two years in succession, and consequently the produce of the sixth year, which was harvested in the seventh month of that year, must have sufficed for three years, not merely till the sowing in the autumn of the eighth or fiftieth year, but till the harvest of the ninth or fifty-first year, as the Talmud and Rabbins of every age have understood the law.” Keil and Delitzsch, II, pp. 460-461.
153 Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 2 vols. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1965), vol. 1, p. 175.
154 Ibid., pp. 175-176.
155 Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. 324.
156 Christ took the place of land, as the place and means of divine presence and blessing. He also took the place of the people, who were unable to earn or obtain the blessings. Israel must identify with Christ as the True Israel. Thus, the one who is in Christ is the true Israelite. Cf. Rom. 9:6; Gal. 3:9, 27-29; 6:16; Phil. 3:3.
157 For any who may be wondering if I have taken a kind of Amillennial position here, I have not. I believe that God is still going to literally fulfill His promises to Israel and to give this land to His people. At this point in time, however, I do not think that the issue of the land is the crucial one for Israel, but rather it is the person of Christ, who is Israel’s Messiah, and in whom every true Israelite is found.
20. Taking Interest in Your Neighbor (Leviticus 25:35-55)
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, precipitating war with the United States, a group of foreigners was stranded in China, which was under Japanese control. Eventually, the Japanese interned these foreigners “for their safety and comfort” in the badly run down remains of a Presbyterian mission station in the northern Chinese province of Shantung. At this encampment there were 1450 persons, of various nationalities and of virtually every age and social level. Two hundred of the interned residents were Americans.
As time went on, shortages grew worse and rations diminished. The result was a great concern for the future. Also, winters were bitterly cold and as clothing wore out there was concern about warm clothing as well. On a bitterly cold January day, the gates to the camp opened and let in donkey carts, loaded with care packages from the American Red Cross. Each package was about three feet long, a foot wide, and 18 inches high. The parcels included, among other things, cigarettes, butter, Spam or Prem, cheese, chocolate, sugar, coffee and dried fruit.
Eventually it was learned that there were 1550 of these packages. Since there were 1450 residents, this would seem to have meant that each person would receive at least one parcel. So it would seem. The problem was that a few Americans protested that since these parcels had come from the American Red Cross, only the Americans should get the packages, something over seven parcels each. The author of the book, Shantung Compound, Langdon Gilkey, tells us that he and others were certain that the protest was held only by a small minority. Further inquiry proved otherwise. For the most lofty sounding reasons, most Americans felt that the packages belonged to them, and not to the rest of the camp. As you could expect, this proved to be the cause of much dissention and strife in the camp.
Gilkey found this incident to be explained only by the biblical doctrine of “the fall of man” and of “original sin.” He concludes that this incident reveals the very general tendency of Americans not to share their wealth with the impoverished people of the world. He writes,
Had this food simply been used for the good of the whole community, it would have been an unmitigated blessing in the life of every one of us. But the moment it threatened to become the hoarded property of a select few, it became at once destructive rather than creative, dividing us from one another and destroying every vestige of communal unity and morale.
I realized that this was no mere matter of angry words and irate looks. It was just the kind of issue which men were willing to fight over. Seeing the guards now patrolling the streets, I was glad they were there. Had there been no Japanese guns guaranteeing order in the camp, we might easily have faced real civil strife. Thus might our community have destroyed itself over this issue.
I suddenly saw, as never so clearly before, the really dynamic factors in social conflict: how wealth compounded with greed and injustice leads inevitably to strife, and how such strife can threaten to kill the social organism. Correspondingly, it became evident that the only answer was not less wealth or material goods, but the development of moral character that might lead to sharing and so provide the sole foundation for social peace. It is the moral and immoral use of wealth, not its mere accumulation, it seemed to me, that determines whether it will play a creative or destructive role in any society.158
In our culture, selfishness has become a way of life. The needs and weaknesses of others is viewed as an opportunity for the strong to get stronger, at the expense of the weak. Criminals prey upon the weak. It is the elderly whose social security checks are stolen, because they are too weak to fight back, and too frightened to inform the police. It is the runaway children or the illegal aliens who are victimized, because they either cannot or will not cry for help. The con artist takes advantage of the gullibility of the naive.
It is not just the criminal who takes advantage of the weak, however. Capitalism can easily be corrupted to “capitalize” on the weaknesses of others. Ideally, capitalism causes everyone to benefit when money and man hours are invested in such a way as to produce something. At its worst, capitalism can be abused so that the rich use their power to gain further wealth at the expense of the poor. The poor are those who are charged usurious interest. The businesses which are failing and the economic disaster which many individuals are facing causes some to “lick their lips” as they use “vulture funds” to gain at the expense of another. The difference between this and crime is that one activity is legal and the other is not; both prey upon the weak.
On a personal level, we are often tempted and fail in the same way. Let’s face it, most of us like to get a good deal, and the best deals seem to come up when we find ourselves in a position of advantage, while at the same time the other party is at a disadvantage. The advertisements which get our attention are those which hint that the seller is in distress. “Fire sale,” “lost our lease,” “going out of business,” and “getting a divorce” are just a few of the captions which quickly get our attention. The distress of another is not seen as a chance to serve, and certainly not as a chance to give, but rather as our “golden opportunity” to get ahead.
If you are honest enough to admit that you are especially attracted to opportunities arising from the distress of others, than you are ready to listen to the Word of God as it addresses this issue. Leviticus chapter 25 deals with the poverty of God’s people, the Israelites, and with the responsibility of fellow-Israelites to come to the aid of the distressed. While this is an Old Testament text, the principles which we will find here are relevant to the 20th century Christian. They are principles which we can see being taught and practiced in the New Testament. Let us listen carefully to what God has to tell us about “taking interest in our neighbor.”
An Overview of the Text
There are three levels of poverty which are dealt with in the last half of Leviticus chapter 25. The three sections of this passage deal with each level of poverty, prescribe certain obligations with regard to the poor, inform the reader of God’s purpose for requiring these obligations, and give a reason which should motivate the Israelite to obey. We can summarize the last part of chapter 25 in this way:
Cash flow shortage
Slave of Israelite
Slave of Stranger
No interest to be charged
No harsh treatment
A day laborer
Right of Redemption
Not deal harshly
So he can dwell in the land
So he can dwell in the land
So he can dwell in the land (implied)
God’s deliverance from Egypt
They are God’s servants
They are God’s servants
We will begin by making some observations about each of the three types of poverty, and the duties of God’s people with regard to each. Then we will make some overall observations about the text as a whole. We will take note of later revelation given in the Book of Deuteronomy, and then consider the application of God’s commands by His people throughout the history of Israel. After this, we will look at the teaching and practice of the New Testament, and then seek to discern the eternal principles and their application to 20th century Christianity.
Temporary Poverty and Its Obligations
The first type of poverty, addressed in verses 35-38, is a temporary and less serious one. Today we would call this a “cash flow problem.” In farming terms, it would be the result of a bad year, or at least of a bad crop. The Israelite is short of funds and may not have the means to provide for his family, to “tide them over” until the next crop can be harvested. Also, he may not have the means to purchase seed so that he can sow his fields. A pound of prevention will enable this farmer to handle his short-term problem, as well as to become prosperous again in the future.
What is needed, then, is enough food and provisions to get by until the next crop or the next season, and perhaps the capital to plant the next season’s crop. God’s solution is a “no-interest loan.” This solves the present shortfall, provides for future income, and does so in a way that does not penalize the individual.
An interest bearing loan is considerably undesirable, and for good reason. First, it is not good for the recipient of the loan. To charge him interest159 in his hour of need is to further handicap him. It tends to create a greater gap between the needy and the affluent, between the poor and the rich. Interest, in such a case, tends to promote and perpetuate poverty, not solve it. Secondly, loaning money at interest is not good for the lender, either. Loaning money to a brother in distress is not showing him compassion, but is taking advantage of his weakness and vulnerability. It is not an act of charity, but a business activity. And, the lender does not manifest the grace of God, of which he is the recipient. For these reasons, interest cannot be charged on a loan made to a brother in distress.
There are other factors which assure that this no-interest loan is an act of charity, rather than a business loan. Elsewhere (cf. Deut. 15:1-2), God instructed the Israelites that they must cancel all unpaid debts on the seventh year. Further, when loaning a brother money, no consideration was to be made as to how soon the cancellation year was (Deut. 15:9-10). Thus, not only was the generous Israelite not able to make money on the loan, he was not even assured that he would be paid back. This kind of loan was an act of charity, not a business venture.
For these reasons, the temporarily distressed Israelite brother should be aided toward recovery and the possession of his land by being given a no-interest loan, which enables him to get back on his feet, and avoids placing him in greater bondage.
On Being Your Brother’s (Slave) Keeper
The next two categories of poverty are much more serious and long-term. Rather than the temporary “cash flow” problem of the first category, this is a matter of real financial disaster. To put the matter in farming terms, if the first category is the result of a bad crop, the second two categories are the result of several disastrous years. The result was that the debtor would be forced to sell himself, either to a fellow-Israelite (vv. 39-46) or to a stranger (vv. 47-55).
We see a few instances in the Old Testament where this kind of slavery occurred or was threatened. One is found in the Book of 2 Kings, where we read, “Now a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets cried out to Elisha, ‘Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the LORD; and the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves’” (2 Ki. 4:1). This sad story ends well, for Elisha had the woman and her sons gather vessels, into which he had her pour from her little jar of oil. These filled containers of oil paid her debt and provided means for income(cf. vv. 2-7).
In verses 39-46, God gave instructions to the Israelites as to how they should deal with an Israelite brother who became their slave due to dire poverty. It would seem that this man had no relatives who were willing to redeem him, since redemption by a family member is not mentioned. After all, if his family would have come to his rescue, his slavery would not have been necessary.
God’s instruction to the Israelite who would have attained such a “slave” was that his brother should not be treated as a slave. The assumption is that a slave would be dealt with more severely than a hired employee. Other texts bear this out. For example, we read: “A slave will not be instructed by words alone; For though he understands, there will be no response” (Prov. 29:19). The Israelites of Moses’ day did not need to be told how a slave was (mis)treated, they had ample experience at the hand of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, who were harsh taskmasters (cf. Exod. 1:8-14).
Instead, the Hebrew “slave” was to be treated with the dignity and respect of a “hired man,” who could have left his employment if he were not treated with dignity and fairness. Other biblical texts make it clear that this included being paid at the end of each day (Deut. 24:15). That kindness was to be genuine, full-measured, and continual is evidenced by the fact that provisions were made for the slave to continue as such for his lifetime (Exod. 21:5-6; Deut. 15:16-17).
When the year of Jubilee arrived (or, more commonly, the sabbath year, cf. Exod. 21:2-4), the slave was to be released, so that he could return to the property of his forefathers (Lev. 25:41). The reason for this is that the Israelites (including the distressed one who became the slave of his brother) became God’s servants (slaves) at the exodus, and no slave160 can have two masters. Revering God required obedience to this command (Lev. 25:43).
To further clarify the commandment of verses 39-43, God indicated that this did not prohibit slavery altogether (vv. 44-46). An Israelite could not be made a slave since he already was God’s slave (vv. 39-43), but since non-Israelites were not God’s slaves, they could become the possession of the Israelites. Later on, in Deuteronomy, God will specifically say that even non-Israelite slaves cannot be harshly161 treated (Deut. 24:14-15).
Treatment of Israelite Slaves by Strangers
These are interesting verses because they assume that a foreigner who is sojourning among them could prosper, just as they assume that an Israelite living in the land can become impoverished. This certainly informs us that the sojourner was given considerable freedom and opportunity in the land of Israel. For those of us who live in the United States this may not seem so unusual, but in other parts of the world and in other periods of history it is far from the norm. How many Israelites prospered in Egypt, for example, after the time of Joseph?
To my knowledge, this is the only place where the possibility of an Israelite becoming the slave of a sojourner is mentioned. While a fellow Israelite did not redeem this slave, the nation is responsible to see to it that their brother is dealt with as God’s servant. He is not to be dealt with harshly (v. 53), and in the year of Jubilee he is to be released (v. 54). Beyond this, he has the guarantee of the right of redemption at any time, either by a relative or by himself (vv. 47-52). The basis for this command is the same as it was in the previous circumstance (vv. 42-43): the sons of Israel became God’s servants, and thus they cannot become the slave of any man (v. 55).
When we look at this section as a whole we note several observations. First, we find that there is great continuity in the teaching of Leviticus and that of Exodus and Deuteronomy. All three books (of Moses) deal with the subject of the Israelite overtaken by poverty. There is further development and clarification, just as we would expect, consistent with the concept of progressive revelation.
Second, Israel is to show compassion to the poor and the oppressed in order to imitate God. The instructions given to the Israelites concerning the poor among them is to assure that God’s people imitate Him, both in attitude and action. God had mercy on His people, who were impoverished, enslaved, and not living in the land which was promised them. The Israelites were thus to show mercy on their brethren, seek to deliver them from their bondage and poverty, and to bring them back to their own land. Each instance of mercy shown to an impoverished Israelite was a reenactment, on a small scale, of the exodus.
It is interesting to note that the basis for obedience shifts somewhat. In Exodus and Leviticus, the strongest incentive for obeying God’s instructions concerning the poor is the kindness and grace of God in delivering His oppressed people, who were slaves of Pharaoh (cf. Lev. 25:38, 42, 55). In Deuteronomy, the emphasis shifts, and (especially to be noted in Deut. 15) the basis for obedience is the blessing of God in the land (cf. Dt. 15:4, 6, 10, 14). Both “because” God has blessed His people and “in order to be blessed” in the future, Israel should show kindness to their poor brethren. I believe that we can safely say that God always seeks to motivate His people on the basis of their own experience of His grace, not just that of their predecessors.
Third, the poor who are primarily in view here are Israelites. The law of Moses contains provisions for the poor in general, including the alien and the sojourner (cf. Lev. 25:6), but the Israelite is primarily in view in our text. The Israelites have a primary obligation to their brethren, who are distressed by poverty.
Fourth, the poverty of a fellow Israelite is presented as something which is to be expected, even though God had promised to prosper His people. No legislation is needed concerning the treatment of the poor unless it is certain that there will be poor. Leviticus 25 implies that there will be those with short-term and longer-term poverty, which will result in Israelites borrowing from their neighbors, and in selling themselves as servants, both to fellow-Israelites and to strangers.
This becomes very clear in Deuteronomy chapter 15. This statement may initially seem to indicate otherwise:
“However, there shall be no poor among you, since the LORD will surely bless you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, if only you listen obediently to the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all this commandment which I am commanding you today. For the LORD your God shall bless you as He has promised you, and you will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow; and you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you” (Deut. 15:4-6, emphasis mine).
We must not jump to any hasty conclusions before we read the entire text, in which we find the following statements:
“If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the LORD you God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks” (Deut. 15:7-8).
“You shall generously give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings. For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying. ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land’” (Deut. 15:10-11, emphasis mine).
From the entire text of Deuteronomy chapter 15 we can draw the following conclusions:
- There will always be poor among God’s people in the land (v. 11).
- God blesses His people so that they can help the poor (v. 10).
- Verse 4 is a command to care for the poor, not a promise that there will be no poor. There are to “be no poor” in the sense that the Israelites refuse to allow their impoverished brethren to live in poverty.
Fifth, while sin and sluggardliness is elsewhere identified as one cause of poverty, this is not viewed as the cause of poverty here. Nowhere in Exodus, Leviticus, or Deuteronomy is a brother Israelite’s poverty viewed as the result of his sin or laziness. Certainly this was a factor, which is plainly dealt with in the Old Testament (cf. Prov. 24:30-34), but it is not stated here. I emphasize this point because sin and laziness is often the first thing we think of when we hear of the distress of a fellow believer. This provides us with a ready excuse for not helping the needy, while feeling smug for doing so. “After all,” we reason, “if a man won’t work, neither should he eat.” This, of course, is true, but it is not the case here. The law gives the Israelite the benefit of the doubt.
Sixth, grace is both the motive and the manifestation when it comes to the care of the poor in the Pentateuch. I must stress this because some wrongly view grace as a New Covenant principle, and think of the Old Testament law as being opposed to grace. The grace of God in delivering the Israelites from bondage and in blessing them in the land of Canaan is the basis for the grace which the Israelites show to the poor.
Seventh, one of the reasons why the poor must be generously helped is to enable him to be able to dwell with his fellow-Israelites. It is certainly viewed as important that each Israelite dwell in the land of promise, on his own inheritance (cf. Lev. 25:41), yet it is emphasized that the Israelite should dwell “with you” (Lev. 25:35, 36).
Care of the Poor in Israel’s History
The care of the poor as required by God in the Pentateuch is unfortunately a high, but unrealized, ideal in Israel’s history. The story of Boaz and Ruth is by far the exception, giving a glimmer of hope, but mostly serving as a prototype of the coming Messiah. It is apparent that the biblical ideal was seldom practiced. It was the exception rather than the rule.
Standards of house-building have led archeologists to conclude that early Israel was a relatively egalitarian society, but that by the later monarchy period the gap between rich and poor had widened. “The rich houses are bigger and better built and in a different quarter from that where the poor houses are huddled together.”162
Thus, the prophets are frequently found condemning the way in which the Israelites not only failed to help the poor, but actually took advantage of their poverty to gain at the expense of the poor:
‘At the end of seven years each of you shall set free his Hebrew brother, who has been sold to you and has served you six years, you shall send him out free from you; but your forefathers did not obey Me, or incline their ear to Me. Although recently you had turned and done what is right in My sight, each man proclaiming release to his neighbor, and you had made a covenant before Me in the house which is called by My name. Yet you turned and profaned My name, and each man took back his male servant and each man his female servant, whom you had set free according to their desire, and you brought them into subjection to be your male servants and female servants.’ Therefore thus says the LORD, ‘You have not obeyed Me in proclaiming release each man to his brother, and each man to his neighbor. Behold, I am proclaiming a release to you,’ declares the LORD, ‘to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine; and I will make you a terror to all the kingdoms of the earth’ (Jer. 34:14-17).
“In you they have taken bribes to shed blood; you have taken interest and profits, and you have injured your neighbors for gain by oppression, and you have forgotten Me,” declares the Lord GOD. “Behold, then, I smite My hand at your dishonest gain which you have acquired and at the bloodshed which is among you” (Ezek. 22:12-13).
Even after returning to the land of promise after their captivity the people of God failed miserably to live up to the standards of the law concerning the compassion which was to be shown to them in their distress.
Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. For there were those who said, “We, our sons and our daughters, are many; therefore let us get grain that we may eat and live.” And there were others who said, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses that we might get grain because of the famine.” Also there were those who said, “We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. And now our flesh is like the flesh of our brothers, our children like their children. Yet behold, we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters are forced into bondage already, and we are helpless because our fields and vineyards belong to others” (Neh. 5:1-5).
Only after a strong rebuke and exhortation from Nehemiah did the nobles and the rulers of the Israelites, who were the offenders, agree to live according to the requirements laid down by the law (Neh. 5:6-14).
Throughout Israel’s history, by ignoring God’s law, the rich became richer and the poor, poorer. It was the Messiah, the “Good Shepherd,” who was coming who would live up to the law and would deliver the poor.
Then the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to those shepherds, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and severity you have dominated them.”’” … For thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down in good grazing ground, and they will feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord GOD. “I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken, and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment” (Ezek. 34:1-4, 11-16).
The Messiah and the Deliverance of the Poor
How significant it must have been to the Israelites of Jesus’ day when He presented Himself to the nation as the “Good Shepherd” as recorded in the 10th chapter of John’s gospel. In the context of the prophecy of Ezekiel chapter 34, the “Good Shepherd” was opposed to the “shepherds of Israel,” who oppressed the poor, who dominated and slaughtered the flock, rather than to look after them, especially the weak and the afflicted. When Jesus introduced Himself by reading from Isaiah chapter 61 (Luke 4:16-21), He was using the terminology of the year of jubilee. No wonder He could also say to the people, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).
While the scribes and Pharisees “devour widows’ houses” (Matt. 23:14), oppressing the poor, Jesus came with the good news that He had come to deliver the poor, to usher in the kingdom of God. Little wonder that it was the poor who gladly received the Lord Jesus, while the rich and influential were mainly jealous of Him. The ideal of the Old Testament law was finally and fully realized in the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.
When the Lord Jesus sat at the table with “tax-gatherers and sinners,” the Pharisees were deeply offended. They asked His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with the tax-gatherers and sinners?” (Matt. 9:11). Jesus’ response was not surprising, in the light of the Old Testament law and the prophets: “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are ill. But go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12b-13).
This same response is found again in Matthew’s gospel, and I think that it provides us with great insight into the heart of the law. This time the Pharisees are offended by the fact that our Lord’s disciples have picked heads of grain to eat on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1). The Pharisees objected. This, to them, was a violation of the Sabbath law.
We know that in reality it only violated their interpretation of the law, but Jesus did not quibble over interpretation, per se. Jesus first responded by reminding His critics that David and his men partook of the showbread, and then reminded them that the priests in the temple technically break the law by working. Then, in verse 7 Jesus refers once again to Hosea’s words, “I desire compassion, and not sacrifice.” It is my contention that Jesus is telling His critics that God’s principle concern is mercy and compassion, and that whenever technically complying with the letter of the law prohibits showing compassion, the letter of the law must be overruled by the primary purpose of the law, and that is to promote mercy and compassion.
Thus we see that mercy and compassion are a very high priority to God. In fact, we can see that it was the mercy and compassion of God which sent the Savior to the earth in human flesh, to die in the sinner’s place, so that a redemption far greater than that of Israel from Egyptian bondage might be achieved. The coming of the Christ can largely be summed up by these two terms, mercy and compassion. That which God required of the Old Testament saint toward their brethren, Jesus Christ accomplished, once for all, for His brethren. “Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17).
The Christian Interpretation
and Contemporary Application of Leviticus 25
When we seek to interpret and apply the 25th chapter of Leviticus to 20th century Christianity, we must reckon with the many differences between the Israelite of Moses’ day and the contemporary Christian. Think, for a moment, of some of the differences:
(1) Israel was a theocracy, where God ruled over His people, either directly or through a king. We live in a day when government is that of men, very often unbelieving men (cf. Rom. 13:1ff.).
(2) The Israelite lived under the Old Covenant, we live under the New Covenant.
(3) The Israelites lived, by and large, in the land of promise, and their economy was primarily an agricultural one. In our day, few are farmers, and we live in an urban, industrial environment. By helping a needy Israelite to stay on his land or to return to it, he was able to work the land and to prosper. Helping an individual to recover from a condition of need to one of prosperity is not so easily accomplished today.
(4) Israel’s society was a stable one; ours is high mobile. An Israelite knew his neighbors, and thus was able to respond quickly and knowledgeably to his needs. In our society, people drive into the church parking lot and ask for help whom we have never seen before, and who we will likely not see again. It is very difficult to determine genuine needs from the many “sob stories” which are a way of life for the slothful, who live off of the sentimentality of Christians.
We must therefore be careful not to attempt to practice in a wholesale fashion these commands which are given to the Israelite. On the other hand, there are striking similarities in the principles which underlie the Old Testament commands and those which we find taught and practiced in the New Testament. Let me conclude this message by highlighting some of the most critical timeless principles which underlie both the law and the New Testament teachings and practices.
(1) The duty of God’s people is to imitate God, so as to manifest His character to men by our actions. One of the principle motives given for the care of the poor in our text (and elsewhere) is that showing mercy to an Israelite brother who is poor imitates God, who had compassion on the Israelites in their distress while in Egypt as the slaves of Pharaoh.
Our Lord, as we have already seen above, showed mercy toward the poor. Christians are to be imitators of our Lord, and thus we, too, must have compassion on the poor. We are to begin with the attitude of our Lord Himself, the attitude of a servant, which places the interest of others above self-interest:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:3-8).
In encouraging the Macedonian Christians to fulfill that which they had committed to do, Paul used our Lord’s example as a motivation for giving to the poor:
I am not speaking this as a command, but as proving through the earnestness of others the sincerity of your love also. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:8-9).
The practice of the early church and the precepts laid down by our Lord’s apostles make this abundantly clear:
For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, and lay them at the apostles’ feet … (Acts 4:34-35a; cf. 6:1-7).
And one of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius. And in proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren, living in Judea (Acts 11:28-29).
“In every thing I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35).
… contributing to the needs of the saints … (Rom. 12:13a).
And recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we might go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. They only asked us to remember the poor—the very thing we were eager to do (Gal. 2:9-10).
Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need (Eph. 4:28).
Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed (1 Tim. 6:17-19).
And do not neglect doing good and sharing; for with such sacrifices God is pleased (Heb. 13:16).
Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called? If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law, according to the Scripture, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF,” you are doing well … If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? (James 2:5-8, 15-16).
We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth (1 John 3:16-18).
It is readily apparent that the collection which was taken in the early church was not primarily for the pastor’s salary, nor for the physical facilities of the church, nor for the program of the church, but for the care of the poor. Also, the poor “brethren” included those of another race and culture, and of another country. Today, on the other hand, we find it hard to help the poor among us, whom we can see, and we hardly think of helping our brothers and sisters in the third world who are “dirt poor.” We have much improvement to make in the care of the poor.
The New Testament does not restrict our obligation to merely the sharing of money or material goods. Those who are “strong” are repeatedly instructed to help the “weak”:
Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.” (Rom. 15:1-3).
And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men (1 Thes. 5:14).
In addition to viewing “giving” as the imitation of Christ, we should, I believe, include as well the matter of “forgiving,” which I think is often more difficult. Old Testament charity often involved the forgiving of debts, but charity (especially, but not exclusively in the New Testament) includes forgiving other “debts,” which are referred to in our Lord’s prayer, “‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’” (Matt. 6:12).
One can hardly avoid the obligation which we have to imitate God by caring for the poor and helping the weak. Nevertheless, what is so clear in principle is very rare in practice. Satan has devised a number of hindrances, which greatly reduce our desire and our ability to help the weak. First, most of us, who are incredibly wealthy by the standards of the third world, are so indebted that we have little or no cash with which we can minister to others. Installment buying and credit has virtually paralyzed most Christians so far as helping the poor is concerned.
Second, many Christians have concerned themselves with “having their own needs met” that they have little or no time to minister to others. Before many Christians feel ready and able to minister to the needs of others, they feel that all of their emotional, physical, and spiritual needs must be met. I believe that we are to minister to others, and in so doing find that our own needs are met. You remember, for example, the story of the widow whose oil and flour were almost gone. She was to first serve Elijah, and then she found sufficient food for herself and her son as well (1 Ki. 17:8-16).
(2) The duty of the Christian is to love his neighbor as himself, and thus to minister to him in time of need. Not only are we instructed to meet the needs of the weak because in so doing we are imitating God and obeying His commandments; we are also to help our poor brethren because they are our brothers. In Old Testament terms, we are our brother’s keeper. In the New Testament, the word “fellowship” (and its related terms) sums up the obligation which the saints have toward one another.163
(3) The key to obeying our obligation to God and to our neighbor by ministering out of our strength to the weakness of others is to be properly motivated. Proper motivation is probably the most important single factor in our obedience to God. It is my experience that those who sincerely desire to obey God and to help others in need will find a way of doing so. Look, for example, at the Macedonians, who gave out of their poverty, not out of wealth (cf. 2 Cor. 8:1-5). On the other hand, those who are selfish will find a way not to share, even though they have an abundance.
Returning for a moment to the book, Shantung Province, Langdon Gilkey came to the painful conclusion that selfish people will contrive compelling reasons for seeking to promote their self-interest, even at the expense of others:
My ideas as to what people were like and as to what motivated their actions were undergoing a radical revision. People generally—and I knew I could not exclude myself—seemed to be much less rational and much more selfish than I had ever guessed, not at all the ‘nice fold’ I had always thought them to be. They did not decide to do things because it would be reasonable and moral to act in that way; but because that course of action suited their self-interest. Afterward, they would find rational and moral reasons for what they had already determined to do.164
No wonder our Lord speaks so often about our motivation.
There are several critical elements which should create and facilitate a motivation to minister to the needs of others. The first element is that of gratitude to God for His great mercy and compassion on us. If we have experienced the saving grace of God we have much to be grateful for, and gratitude begets generosity. Secondly, we need the attitude of a servant, the attitude of Christ, which puts the needs of others ahead of our own. It enables us to serve others, rather than to take advantage of them. Finally, we must be motivated by faith. Obedience to God required faith of the Israelite. From a business point of view, the Israelite was foolish to loan to the poor with no interest and with no assurance of being fully repaid. The Israelite’s obedience rested squarely on his faith in God, who promised to prosper him for his obedience, and also to enable him to give to those in need. These same elements of motivation must be ours if we are to obey God in fulfilling our obligation to the weak.
May I ask you, my friend, how is your heart with regard to the poor and to the weak? Do you see such people as a stepping stone, as a ready opportunity to get ahead, or as an opportunity to serve and to obey? These matters about which Leviticus 25 speaks are pertinent and they are contrary to our instincts and inclinations. May God enable us to obey them.
(4) Finally, redemption is the goal of charity. Ministering to the needs of the poor Israelite was seeking the best interest of the individual in need. In a physical sense, it was redemptive, it delivered him from bondage and got him back on his feet. It was intended to free him from debt, from slavery, and to return him to possess his property and to prosper on it.
This is, of course, a prototype of the redemption which was to be achieved by Messiah, Jesus Christ, who came to fulfill the year of Jubilee. It is, in the final analysis, our ultimate goal as well. While we must be concerned with the poverty of our brother, we must be even more intent upon the spiritual deliverance of men and women from their debt of sin and from their bondage to Satan. The goal of New Testament ministry is redemptive, just as was the goal of helping the poor in the Old Testament.
158 Langdon Gilkey, Shantung Compound (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), pp. 105-106. I highly recommend reading this book. Chapters 5 (“A Place of One’s Own”) and 6 (“A Mixed Blessing”) are especially pertinent to our study in the Book of Leviticus.
159 Walter Kaiser informs us that according to some scholars one of the two Hebrew terms used for interest seems to be related to a word meaning “bite”: “Hence, scholars … urgue that … refers to those loans that had the interest ‘bitten off’ or deducted before the loan was made, thus a debtor might get only 80 shekels on a 100 shekel loan as parallels in Alalakh or Nuzi tablets show.” After pointing out some of the problems with such views, he concludes, “For our purposes, it is only significant to note that both words are dealing with some type of compensation for a loan, and that neither word can be shown to mean an exorbitant or excessive increase beyond some commonly received fixed rate.” Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1983), pp. 214-215.
160 “Verse 42 states the reason for these requirements with unmistakable clarity. Every Israelite was the Lord’s ebed and could therefore never become the ebed of a fellow Israelite, since the latter was himself an ebed of the Lord. In this verse, the first occurrence of ebed is translated as “servant” and the second as “slave” (but cf. NEB), but this is done only because the notion of being the Lord’s “slave” is somewhat offensive to our way of thinking. For us, God is “our Father,” whereas for Israel He was “the Lord” (adon). Since the Israelite was a slave only in name, he could not be treated as a slave and ruled over “ruthlessly” (vv. 43, 46) as the Egyptians had done (Exod. 1:13-14). The fear of God at all times had to restrain a master from dealing with his Israelite servant in this fashion.” A. Noordtzij, Leviticus, trans. by Raymond Togtman (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), p. 259.
161 “These laws are designed to make the slavery as humane as possible. Do not boss him around harshly (vv. 43, 46, 53). Boss around (lit. “rule”; see Ps. 72:8) sometimes has a bad sense (e.g. Neh. 9:28). Harshness characterized slavery in Egypt (Exod. 1:13-14).” Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. 322.
162 Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 2 vols. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1965), vol. 1, p. 71, as quoted by Wenham, p. 317.
163 Wright deals with the matter of fellowship and its relationship to Leviticus most extensively: “Now this oneness of believers in Christ and their shared experience of Christ through the Holy Spirit is no mere abstract ‘spiritual’ concept. On the contrary, it has far-reaching practical implications in both the social and economic realms. Both realms are included in the New Testament understanding and practice of ‘fellowship,’ and both have deep roots in the soil of Old Testament land ethics.
“Fellowship is the usual translation of the Greek koinonia, which is itself part of a rich complex of words. A study of the root koinon in the New Testament reveals that a substantial number of the occurrences of words formed or compounded from it either signify, or are in contexts which relate to, actual social and economic relationships between Christians. They denote a practical, often costly, sharing, which is a far cry from that watery ‘togetherness’ which commonly passes as ‘fellowship.’
“Some examples will make the point. The first consequences of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost was a new community who, in ‘devoting themselves to … the fellowship’ (te koinonia), shared everything in common (Acts 2:42, 44) and ensured that nobody was in need (Acts 4:34). In Romans 12:13, believers are urged to share hospitality with the saints (koinonountes). In 1 Timothy 6:18, the rich are to be commanded to be ‘generous’ (koinonikous). The same duty is laid on all Christians in Hebrews 13:16. Paul refers to his financial collection among the Greek churches for the aid of the Judaean Christians as ‘an act of fellowship’ (koinonian tina, Rom. 15:26), which he justifies on the grounds that if the Gentiles have shared (ekoinonesan) spiritual blessings from the Jews, they owe it to them to share material blessings (v. 27). The same reciprocal principle applies in the relationship between the teacher and the taught in Galatians 6:6 (koinoneito). Indeed, in commending the Corinthians for their eagerness to share in the financial koinonia collection (2 Cor. 8:4; 9:13), Paul describes it as proof of their obedience to the gospel, implying that such concrete economic evidence of fellowship was of the essence of a genuine Christian profession.
“…The extent of this kind of language in the New Testament understanding of fellowship leads me to the view that it has deep roots in the socio-economic ethics of the Old Testament. There are so many similarities which show that the experience of fellowship, in its full, rich, ‘concrete,’ New Testament sense, fulfils analogous theological and ethical functions for the Christian as the possession of land did for Old Testament Israelites. Both must be seen as part of the purpose and pattern of redemption, not just as accidental or incidental to it. The explicit purpose of the exodus was the enjoyment of the rich blessing of God in his ‘good land’; the goal of redemption through Christ is ‘sincere love for your brothers’ (1 Pet. 1:22), with all its practical implications. Both are linked to the status of sonship and the related themes of inheritance and promise. Both thereby constitute a proof of an authentic relationship with God as part of his redeemed community. For fellowship, like the land, has its limits; so that the person who departs permanently from it or refuses to accept it shows that he has no real part in God’s people (cf. Mt. 18:15-17; 1 Jn. 2:19).
“Above all, both are shared experiences: the land, by the nature of the Israelite economic system as we have outlined it; fellowship, by very definition of the word koinonia. This gives to both that deeply practical mutual responsibility that pervades both Old and New Testament ethics. There is the same concern for the poor and needy (cf. 1 Jn. 3:17), the same ideal of equality among God’s people, both economically (cf. 2 Cor. 8:13-15 with its Old Testament allusion) and socially (cf. Jas. 2:1-7). There is even the same prophetic indignation at those whose sin deprives or defrauds fellow members of God’s people of their rightful share in what God has given for the enjoyment of all his people. The Old Testament prophets condemned the unjust oppressors who drove fellow Israelites off their land; compare with that Jesus’ strictures on those who refuse to forgive a brother (Mt. 18:21-35), Paul’s horror at the factionalism and lack of love at Corinth and the priority he gives in his various lists of sins to those that harm the fellowship (e.g., Eph. 4:25ff.; Phil. 2:1-4, 14; Col. 3:8ff.), and John’s refusal to accept the man who hates his brother as a child of God at all (1 Jn. 2:9-11; 4:7ff.).” Christopher J. H. Wright, An Eye for An Eye: The Place of Old Testament Ethics Today (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1983), pp. 97-99.
164 Gilkey, pp. 89-90; cf. also pp. 108-109. Gilkey’s chapters, “A Place of One’s Own,” and “A Mixed Blessing,” provide great insight into the selfishness and fallenness of men, and illustrate that self-interest can always fabricate compelling logical, moral, and even biblical reasons for getting ahead at the expense of others.
21. A Welcome Warning (Leviticus 26)
We are constantly being warned. We have yellow flashing lights to warn us that we are in a school zone, and buzzing radar detectors, to tell us that a radar trap is nearby. A yellow light warns us that a red light is soon to follow. As a rule, yellow lights warn us about what is soon to happen, while red lights tell us it has happened. The flashing red lights on the dash of our cars inform us of an engine malfunction, or that an emergency vehicle is nearby, or that we are about to be cited by a policeman for violating the law.
And then there are the verbal and non-verbal warnings. Various forms of body language serve as a warning. A stern look on the face of the school teacher warns us that we had better not press our luck any further. Many warnings are spoken. Some are amusing; others pathetic and even disgusting. A frustrated mother “warns” her child that any more fussing and whining will result in a spanking. The child knows it is only a threat, so long as it doesn’t precipitate an explosion by making mom mad, or by embarrassing her too much at a time.
We are so accustomed to warnings, and so used to them proving to be groundless, that we have learned to take them in our stride—indeed, to ignore them. Leviticus 26 is one of the clearest words of warning in the Pentateuch. It is reiterated more emphatically later on in the 28th chapter of Deuteronomy. The Israelites did not heed this warning and they paid a severe penalty for doing so.
We may think that the warning found here is one that we can easily ignore. After all, we are not Israel; we do not live in the land of Canaan; and we don’t live under the Mosaic Covenant, but under the New Covenant. So then, why not simply pass by this passage, tipping our mental hats, if need be, but not getting too serious about it?
There are several reasons why this passage is vital to New Testament Christians. Quite frankly, I have agonized about a different way of saying something that you have gotten too used to hearing over the past few weeks: “This text is absolutely crucial to us …” Nevertheless, it is true. The warnings of the 26th chapter of Leviticus are vital to the New Testament Christian, just as they were to the Israelite of Moses’ day. Consider the following reasons for the importance and relevance of our text.
First, this text is the key to understanding the history of Israel. The warnings of Leviticus are an outline of Israel’s history. The consequences for sin of which our text warns are precisely those which the nation Israel experienced for her disregard of the covenant which she made with God on Mt. Sinai.
Second, Leviticus 26 is also the key to understanding the message of the prophets of Israel. The outline of the prophets of Israel seems to be taken from our text. Also, the promises of Israel’s future deliverance and restoration are rooted in the blessings and cursings of the Pentateuch.
Third, the principle underlying the promises of blessing and cursing is just as valid in our dispensation as it was in the days of Moses.
Fourth, the passage we are studying contains a great deal of instruction for parents, and for all who are required to discipline others. The principles underlying this passage, which have to do with divine discipline and human obedience, are both relevant and practical.
Fifth, this chapter does not just contain words of warning, but also some of the greatest words of hope found in the Bible. Thus, this is a text which positively encourages and motivates obedience. The more I read this chapter, the more I fall in love with it, and the deeper my sense of the hope and love which permeate it.165
There are a number of passages which are parallel to our text, in form and substance. Exodus 23:22-33 is the first instance of the promise of blessings and cursings, based upon Israel’s obedience to the Mosaic Covenant. Later, in Deuteronomy chapter 28, the blessings and cursings are repeated, in even greater detail, for that second generation of Israelites, who were about to possess the land of Canaan. Joshua 24:20 is a very brief summation of the warnings of our chapter, and the writings of the prophets reveal some direct dependence on our text (cf. Isa. 49:1ff.; Ezek. 34:25-30; 37:21-28).
These Warnings and the Culture of That Day
In form, and to some degree in content, this list of “blessings and cursings” is similar to those found at the end of other covenants of Moses’ day, made between the king (the suzerain) and his subjects (vassals).166 There are, however, some significant differences.167 I believe that it is in the unique aspects of these “blessings and cursings” that we will find the most insight and relevance for our lives.
The Structure of Our Text168
Overall, one can quickly see that Leviticus 26 has three major divisions: (1) a description of the blessings which God will pour out on His people for keeping His covenant (vv. 1-13); and (2) a description of the dire consequences—cursings—which will accompany Israel’s disobedience of the Mosaic covenant (vv. 14-39). Finally there is the concluding section (vv. 40-45), in which God reassures His people of His unfailing love. Here, there is the assurance of Israel’s ultimate restoration and blessing, based upon God’s faithfulness to His covenant with Abraham and upon Israel’s repentance.
The expression, “I am the Lord (your God),” is the structural key, which marks out each section at its conclusion (cf. vv. 13, 44, 45). The blessings are introduced by the expression, “If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments …” The cursings are initially introduced by the statement, “But if you do not obey Me … ,” and are then followed up by a statement concerning Israel’s failure or refusal to repent when God’s discipline is imposed (vv. 18, 21, 23, 27), with the added warning of being punished “seven times”169 for her disobedience (vv. 18, 24, 28).
The chapter may thus be outlined as follows:
- Preface—Summary of the Mosaic Covenant (vv. 1-2)
- Promised blessings for keeping the Mosaic Covenant (vv. 3-13)
- Promised penalties for disobeying the Mosaic Covenant (vv. 14-39)
- Promised fulfillment of Abrahamic Covenant (vv. 40-45)
- Conclusion—Summary (v. 46)
Our Approach in This Lesson
Once again, we will not be able to analyze each verse in detail. We will begin with an overview of the three major sections of the chapter, identifying the major features of each. We will then seek to identify the principles which underlie the passage, along with their abiding application to saints through the ages. Finally, we will focus on the principle thrust of the text for saints in this age, along with some of the perversions of its teachings.
Divine Blessing: Its Causes and Characteristics
The divine blessings outlined in verses 4-13 are the result of keeping the conditions set down in verses 1-3. In its broadest definition, God’s blessings on Israel are conditioned by Israel’s keeping of the Mosaic Covenant: “If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments so as to carry them out, then I shall give you …” (Lev. 26:3-4a).
Verses 1 and 2 speak of this obedience as manifesting itself in both positive and negative ways. Negatively, the Israelites must keep themselves from the idols and the idolatry of their heathen predecessors: “‘You shall not make for yourselves idols, nor shall you set up for yourselves an image or a sacred pillar, nor shall you place a figured stone in your land to bow down to it; for I am the LORD your God’” (Lev. 26:1).
Such idols would lead to false worship, worship directed to false deities, rather than toward the God who had saved them from bondage in Egypt.
Positively stated, the Israelites should give heed to God’s sabbaths and His sanctuary: ‘“You shall keep My sabbaths and reverence My sanctuary; I am the LORD’” (Lev. 26:2). God’s people must not only abstain from making and worshipping idols, they must actively observe God’s sabbaths and revere His sanctuary. We know, of course, that other actions are required of God’s people, but this is the heart of the covenant, and is thus emphasized.170
The blessings which God promised Israel are directly related to her possession of the land of Canaan. They are largely, but not altogether, physical and material. They can be summed up in three categories: (1) PEACE; (2) PROSPERITY; (3) THE PRESENCE OF GOD.
Peace can be seen in several areas. First, there is peace from Israel’s enemies. It does not mean that there won’t be any war,171 but rather that God will grant Israel victory over her foes, and that they will not live in constant fear of attack or of defeat. There will also be peace with respect to the wild animals which could endanger the Israelites. There is a deep sense of security promised for those who keep God’s covenant.
Prosperity is principally material. Agriculturally, the Israelites will prosper because God will give them the needed rains, at the proper time, which will make their harvests bountiful.172 Also, God will give great fertility to the Israelites and to their cattle, which will cause them to prosper greatly. It should be recalled, at this point, that the religions of Canaan and the ancient Near East had fertility as a central focus. Many of the pagan gods were fertility gods. God promised prosperity and fertility, but it would come when Israel worshipped Him and avoided idolatry and heathen worship. Implied by its removal in the cursing section (v. 16) is the prosperity of good health, which enables one to enjoy the “good life.”
Finally, Israel was blessed by the presence of God in their midst. Israel was His people, and He had promised to dwell in their midst: “‘Moreover, I will make My dwelling among you, and My soul will not reject you. I will also walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people’” (Lev. 26:11-12).
One of the great issues at stake as an aftermath of Israel’s “fall” in the worship of the golden calf (Exod. 32) was whether or not God would be present with His people (cf. Exod. 33:3, 14-16; 34:9). God’s covenant with Israel promised His presence, but only of His people kept His statutes and ordinances (cf. Exod. 34:10ff.). The tabernacle and the sacrificial system was one of the prerequisites for God’s presence, and thus it is easy to see why the Israelites must “reverence His sanctuary” (Lev. 26:2).
It is my opinion that this last category of blessing, the presence of God, is the ultimate blessing, and that it is also the basis for the other blessings. God’s presence assures Israel of prosperity and peace, as His absence will bring poverty and peril. The ultimate joy of heaven is the presence of God (1 Thes. 5:17; John 14:3), just as hell is banishment from God’s presence (2 Thes. 1:9). Thus, one can truly feel blessed, even in the midst of tribulation and persecution, knowing that God is with them in their distress (cf. Ps. 73:21-28; Matt. 28:20; Heb. 13:5, 6). In God’s “absence” or removal, man brings many of the evils which Leviticus 26 describes on himself, as is the case in the progressive judgment of Romans chapter 1.
These three categories of blessing are promised to God’s people, if they but obey His commandments and keep His covenant: peace, prosperity, and God’s presence. We shall also see that these are the areas in which God’s discipline will come as a result of Israel’s disobedience and disregard for His covenant. Let us look, then, to the “cursings” of our text, which outline the consequences of disobedience.
The Consequences of Israel’s Disobedience
The “cursings” of this chapter are virtually a reversal of the promised blessings. While the cursings are presented differently, we can summarize them in terms of these same three categories:
(1) FROM PROSPERITY TO POVERTY
(2) FROM PEACE TO PERIL;
(3) FROM GOD’S PRESENCE TO HIS ABSENCE173
Instead of prosperity, disobedience will bring poverty. Initially, Israel’s crops will be consumed by raiding enemies (26:16). If Israel’s disobedience persists, as it surely will, the rains will cease, Israel’s crops will fail, and thus a famine will result (26:26). It is not stated but is likely implied that fertility will also cease.174 Not only will new life be limited by infertility, but men will be killed by hostile animals (26:22). Pestilence will kill many (26:21, 25), and eventually this people will turn against one another, resorting to cannibalism (26:29).
Instead of peace and security, disobedience will bring about insecurity, peril, and fear. Initially, Israel will suffer from the raiding attacks of some of their neighbors, who will steal their crops (26:16). Then, Israel will be defeated by her enemies and delivered into their hands, so that they are ruled by them (26:17, 25). Finally, the Israelites will be driven from the land and will live, dispersed and scattered, in the land of their conquerors (26:31-32, 36, 38). The remnant who remain in the land will suffer as much as those who are taken away (26:39). The peace and security which they could have known is traded for insecurity, fear, and constant apprehension (26:36-37).
In place of the presence of God in the midst of His people, Israel will experience a growing separation from Him. He will first set His face against His people (v. 17). Then, because His people have been hostile against Him (26:21, 23), He will become their enemy (26:24, 28). He will drive them from His sanctuary (which they have not reverenced) to the land of their enemies, far from His (perceived) presence. In their absence, the land will enjoy the sabbaths which the Israelites never observed (26:34-35).
Characteristics of the Chapter
This text provides us with a pattern and principles for discipline. Note the following characteristics of the promises of blessing and cursing which can be identified from a study of Leviticus chapter 26.
(1) The rules which God has laid down for Israel, as well as the results of obedience or disobedience, are clearly defined. The law has not only been clearly stated, it has been reiterated, illustrated, and expanded. No one could ever consider excusing their disobedience by the claim that they didn’t know what was expected of them, or that they were ignorant of the consequences of their actions.
(2) God’s standards for Israel’s conduct and the consequences for obedience or disobedience are given well in advance of punishment or blessing. As parents, it is easy to react to wrong doing, rather than to seek to prevent it. The 26th chapter of Leviticus is primarily preventative. In a different way, the Book of Proverbs attempts to accomplish the same end—the avoidance of evil by giving ample warning in advance, as well as to spell out the incentives for obeying the commandments of God. Thus, the “father” warns his “son” of the evils which lie just down the path of life, and gives his words of wisdom as to how the wise son should respond to the tests and temptations of life.
(3) The motivation of Leviticus 26 is both negative and positive. While the warnings are more emphatic and extensive than the promises of God’s blessing,175 both rewards and punishments are spelled out in this text. Israel has good reason to obey (the blessings of verses 1-13), further motivated by the painful consequences of disobedience (the cursings of verses 14-39). The purpose of this chapter is to motivate Israel to keep God’s covenant, and the best motivation, as is illustrated here, is both positive (blessings/rewards) and negative (cursings/discipline).
(4) The purpose is always positive, as is the motivation of the God who prescribes these blessings and cursings. Throughout this chapter, as gruesome as some of the warnings are, the benevolence of God is underscored. First, God’s response to Israel’s sins is to discipline176 His people, to bring them to repentance. At every stage of increasing penalty, it is due to the fact that the Israelites have not repented and turned from their disobedience (cf. vv. 18, 21, 23, 27). And, in the final outcome, God assures Israel that He will restore them, not based on their obedience to the Mosaic Covenant, but on the basis of His faithfulness to His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (vv. 40-45). Israel is always assured of God’s love and of His good intentions and purposes for His people.
(5) The consequences of Israel’s disobedience are sequentially and more progressively painful. This progression of painfulness can be seen in two ways in this chapter. First, it can be seen in the sequence of penalties outlined:
- First stage (vv. 14-17)
- Second stage (vv. 18-20)
- Third stage (vv. 21-22)
- Fourth stage (vv. 23-26)
- Fifth stage (vv. 27-33)
- Results of this last stage (vv. 34-39)
- Land gets sabbaths (vv. 34-35)
- People fear, flee, perish (vv. 36-39)
Also, when one considers the three areas of blessing and cursing, peace, prosperity, and the presence of God, the punishment for Israel’s disobedience and rebellion gets progressively worse. The repeated expression, “seven times” (vv. 18, 21, 24, 28) further emphasizes this progression. Note the intensification of divine discipline in the three areas of blessing or cursing:
- Crops stolen
- No rain, crops fail, famine
- Cattle die by wild beasts
- Health progressively fails, finally death for many (cannibalism)
- Israel first attacked, raided by enemies
- Then ruled by enemies
- Then scattered to live in enemy’s land
- Presence of God:
- God with them
- God sets face against them
- God “abandons” them—expels from His land, His dwelling place
(6) Finally, God dealt with Israel’s sin and with her repentance at its roots, at the level of motivation. Israel’s disobedience is seen to be the result of her abhorrence of God’s laws (v. 15). God reaffirms His love for Israel, which is intended to encourage and stimulate Israel’s love for Him. God assures Israel of her ultimate hope, which encourages repentance and obedience. It is not mere mechanical compliance which God desires of His people, but obedience, rooted in love.
Principles of Discipline
Before pressing on, let me pause to suggest how the characteristics of this chapter apply to the problems of parenting (as well as to teachers and others who are responsible for the discipline of others). Consider the following guidelines for discipline, based upon the blessings and cursings of Leviticus 26.
(1) Make sure that rules and their consequences are clearly communicated. Before one can require a certain kind of conduct, the rules must be clearly communicated. In order to motivate men to observe this standard, the rewards for obedience and the penalties for disobedience must also be clearly stated. This must be done well in advance of the time when obedience or disobedience is dealt with. Many of us who are parents do not declare the rules until unsatisfactory conduct has occurred. Individuals can only be held accountable for what they know, and thus the Israelites were completely accountable. God’s rules were clearly spelled out, repeated, restated, clarified, and illustrated. Truly the Israelites were “without excuse.” We would be well advised to be as clear in our expectations.
(2) Don’t make threats, but promises. Don’t promise consequences which you cannot (or won’t) produce. Once we have prescribed the standards for conduct which we require and our response to obedience or disobedience to these requirements, we are obligated to follow through, to keep our word regarding our requirements. Just as the Mosaic Covenant stipulated a certain conduct on the part of the Israelites, it promised a certain conduct on God’s part. There was never any doubt about how God would respond to Israel’s actions, only a question of timing. The rules are no better than the consistency with which they are enforced. If we can’t be counted on to punish misconduct, how can we be counted on to reward right conduct?
(3) Have a sequence of dire consequences, which get progressively worse, and which come at specified points of disobedience. The problem with most of us (parents) is that we threaten our children with the worst possible punishment (spanking?) for any number of offenses, from spilling their milk (normally a childish mistake) to rebellion. We must save our biggest “stick” for the worst offense, and must think of a sequence of unpleasant consequences for the progression of offenses which fall short of the worst. As a school teacher, I learned that I needed a large bag of “tricks” (punishments), which would be appropriate for a wide range of offenses, and also for a wide range of personalities. The cursings and blessings reflect such a broad range of penalties.
(4) Make sure that your rules include both positive and negative consequences, to that the child is doubly motivated to obey. Most of our children feel that we as parents only say “no” and that there are few rewards to obedience (other than the absence of punishment). Good discipline gives positive incentives (rewards) along with negative ones (punishment). I believe that the Bible does this, in the New Testament as well as in the Old. The Christian looks for rewards for obedience, even as he does penalties for disobedience.
(5) Whenever you are involved in the process of discipline (from the giving of the rules to the enforcement of them), always assure of your love, encourage repentance, and give hope for restoration. Some children lose heart, feeling that there is no chance of pleasing their parents. They feel that the rules are an expression of hostility toward them, rather than of love. When such an attitude is caught (whether intended or not), the child has little or no motivation for obedience or repentance. No matter what the child does, let them know there is hope, and that you will continue to be faithful to love them and to stand by the rules (both the promise of blessing and of discipline).
Blessings and Cursings in the History of Israel
The blessings and cursings of Leviticus 26 (as well as Deuteronomy 28) play a significant role in the history of Israel, as recorded in the Old Testament. First and foremost, the historical books of Joshua and Judges dramatically testify to the fact that God does keep His promises. While the Book of Joshua does record some failures on Israel’s part (e.g. Achan, Joshua 7), the book as a whole describes God’s faithfulness in blessing His people as they obey His commandments (both those of the Law and those given by Joshua). The Book of Judges, on the other hand, forcefully conveys the fact that God disciplines His people when they disregard and disobey His commandments. The many “cycles” of obedience, blessing, victory, apathy, disobedience, defeat, reiterate the absolute accuracy of God’s promises and warnings in Leviticus 26.
In Asaph’s recounting of the history of Israel in Psalm 78 (especially verses 54-64), the disobedience of Israel led to the consequences, the cursings of Leviticus 26. So, too, in the psalms, the psalmists’ prayers for deliverance from their enemies revealed an intimate knowledge of the blessings and cursings attached to the Law, and thus shaped their prayers (cf. Psalms 71 and 72 for example).
The prophets explained the defeat and disasters of Israel’s history as the fulfillment of God’s warnings concerning disobedience to His commandments. They also promised a future deliverance, which was virtually a reversal of the cursings of our text. Note the parallels of this prophecy of Ezekiel to the blessings and cursings of our text:
“And I will make a covenant of peace with them and eliminate harmful beasts from the land, so that they may live securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. And I will make them and the places around My hill a blessing. And I will cause showers to come down in their season; they will be showers of blessing. Also the tree of the field will yield its fruit, and the earth will yield its increase, and they will be secure on their land. Then they will know that I am the LORD, when I have broken the bars of their yoke and have delivered them from the hand of those who enslaved them. And they will no longer be a prey to the nations, and the beasts of the earth will not devour them; but they will live securely, and no one will make them afraid. And I will establish for them a renowned planting place, and they will not again be victims of famine in the land, and they will not endure the insults of the nations any more. Then they will know that I, the LORD their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are My people,” declares the Lord GOD (Ezek. 34:25-30; cf. also 37:22-38).
It was recognized in the Old Testament that no Israelite could keep God’s commandments perfectly, and that the future deliverance of Israel would be the work of God Himself through the coming of His Messiah. Thus, Isaiah spoke of the Deliverer, whom God had appointed to save His people:
Listen to Me, O islands, And pay attention, you people from afar. The LORD called Me from the womb; From the body of My mother He named Me. And He has made My mouth like a sharp sword; In the shadow of His hand He has concealed Me, And He has also made Me a select arrow; He has hidden Me in His quiver. And He said to Me, “You are My Servant, Israel, In Whom I will show My glory.” … He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” … Thus says the LORD, “In a favorable time I have answered You, And in a day of salvation I have helped You; And I will keep You and give You for a covenant of the people, To restore the land, to make them inherit the desolate heritages; Saying to those who are bound, ‘Go forth,’ To those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’ Along the roads they will feed, And their pasture will be on all bare heights. They will not hunger or thirst, Neither will the scorching heat or sun strike them down; For He who has compassion on them will lead them, And will guide them to springs of water. And I will make all My mountains a road, And My highways will be raised up” (Isa. 49:1-3, 6, 8-11).
It is wholly consistent with the Old Testament, then, that John the Baptist should introduce the Messiah, the Lord Jesus, in Old Testament terms that were employed in reference to Israel’s Deliverer. It is also to be expected that our Lord would introduce Himself as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies about Israel’s Deliverer:
And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book, and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are donwtrodden, To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” And He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-21).
As the verses immediately following in the text of Isaiah (61, vv. 4ff.) indicate, this prophecy is one pertaining to Israel’s restoration, from the deliverance from her cursing to the experience of her blessing. This, our Lord announced, was to be fulfilled in His person and work. Jesus was not accepted as God’s Messiah by Israel’s religious leaders, and thus He was crucified as a criminal, thus bearing the sins of men, and thus also fulfilling other prophecies concerning His (first) coming, prophecies such as those found in Isaiah 52:13–53:12.
Knowing of His rejection and crucifixion, Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24 and 25 were once again warnings of future judgment, along the same lines as that given in Leviticus 26. It will not be until the ultimate and final judgment of Israel, as is graphically described in the Book of Revelation, that Israel would be saved.
But of this salvation, there was no doubt. Just as God assured Israel of her ultimate repentance and deliverance, so the apostle Paul assured his readers of the restoration of blessings to His people, Israel:
For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in; and thus all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.” “This is My covenant with them, When I take away their sins.” From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you once were disobedient to God but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, in order that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all (Rom. 11:25-32).
The promises of cursing, but also of ultimate restoration and blessing which we have been studying in Leviticus 26, are the basis for Israel’s future hope, and for Paul’s teaching in Romans 9-11. Israel has a great future. The Great Tribulation, which is described most fully in the Book of Revelation, will be required to turn Israel from her sins, but she will turn and repent, and she will be restored.
Thus, Leviticus 26 was intended to be a word of warning and of hope to the Israelites of old, and it will continue to be this until Israel is restored. But there are also very important applications of this text to contemporary Christians. It is the apostle Paul who points his readers to the undergirding principles of this passage and applies it to Christians. And he does this in the Book of Galatians, a book written to correct the errors of legalism, based upon an inaccurate interpretation and application of the Law of Moses. Paul writes,
Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed … What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise. Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed should come to whom the promise had been made (Gal. 3:15-19).
Paul corrects those Judaizers who taught that justification and sanctification were produced by works, by men’s efforts to keep the Law. He shows that the Abrahamic Covenant is the primary covenant, that covenant which is not dependent upon men’s obedience, but only on God’s faithfulness to His word. The Mosaic Covenant, Paul taught, was secondary, a temporary, provisional arrangement, which in no way set aside the Abrahamic Covenant. Thus, the Judaizers, who placed their emphasis on man’s obedience to the Mosaic Covenant, were wrong. Salvation and sanctification is the work of God, based upon His covenant with Abraham.
While Paul does not directly refer to Leviticus chapter 26, I believe that this text clearly teaches this same principle (of the priority of the Abrahamic Covenant over the Mosaic Covenant), and that Paul based his teaching upon it. Leviticus 26 promised blessing for keeping the Mosaic Covenant, and cursing for disobedience. The very fact that the cursing section is much more detailed than the blessing section suggests that Israel will not keep the covenant. The progressive disciplinary sequence in the chapter indicates that Israel will persist in her disobedience and rebellion. The concluding paragraph, that which assures Israel of her future restoration, is based upon God’s faithfulness to His covenant with Abraham, not Israel’s faithfulness to her covenant with God, the Mosaic Covenant. Paul simply underscores a truth which was taught in the Law itself, a truth taught in Leviticus 26.
Second, Paul taught that there was a principle underlying Leviticus 26 which is just as applicable to Christians as it was to the Israelites of old:
Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith (Gal. 6:7-10).
Leviticus 26 promised blessing for the keeping of God’s Law, and cursing for disobedience. The underlying principle is that our actions have consequences. Our obedience to God’s commands bring blessing, and our disobedience brings discipline. Paul spoke of this as “sowing” and “reaping” and he stressed that sowing evil results in discipline, while sowing righteousness brings blessing. Our actions are either the sowing of evil or the sowing of righteousness, and thus they will produce either blessing or cursing. It does matter what we do or do not do.
Let me focus on the application of this principle in the most important act we will ever make, that of responding to God’s offer of forgiveness and salvation in the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ. History has made it painfully clear that men will never be able to attain God’s blessings by means of law-keeping. The apostle Paul put it this way:
Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith (Rom. 3:19-25a).
The Law could only prove all men to be sinners, worthy of divine punishment. The Law proved that all men are sinners and need to be saved, but cannot do so themselves. The Law prepares men for Christ, who came to save sinners. He perfectly fulfilled the Law, keeping its every command. He also died to the Law, bearing the sins of the world, and meeting the demand of the Law that the one who sins must die.
God has thus made provision for man’s salvation and blessing through the coming, life, death, burial, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. The benefits, the blessings of Christ’s death, are available to every sinner, and yet God has required that those who will be restored must do so by repentance, by acknowledging their sin and by accepting God’s provision for forgiveness. Salvation is for all who will repent and believe. Salvation is for all who will “call on the name of the Lord.” There is nothing more important than your response to God’s offer of salvation in the person of His Son. To receive Him is to receive forgiveness, eternal life and the blessings of God. To reject Him is to remain in your sins and to bear the consequence of eternal separation from Him and from His blessings.
If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; for the witness of God is this, that He has borne witness concerning His Son. The one who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the witness that God has borne concerning His Son. And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life (1 John 5:9-12).
How will you respond to God’s offer of salvation. To repent, to acknowledge your sin, and to look to Jesus Christ for salvation, for forgiveness, and for eternal life, is to receive the eternal blessings of God. To refrain from doing so is to continue to experience divine condemnation. If the Old Testament teaches us anything from its account of the history of Israel it is this: that God keeps His promises, as outlined in Leviticus 26. Those who obey are blessed, and those who rebel are cursed. May you be among the blessed, because you have turned to the Son of God and trusted Him for forgiveness, restoration, and blessing.
For those who are Christians, those who have already trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation, I remind you of Paul’s words that we sow what we reap. Our obedience brings blessing and our rebellion brings discipline. Let us seek, by His grace, to obey.
Perversions of This Passage
As I conclude, let me simply mention some of the ways in which this passage has been perverted, misinterpreted and misapplied, by some in our own day. I will not describe these positions in detail, nor will I refute them, but simply name them, so that the reader can ponder them in relationship to our text and our teaching.
(1) The legalists, who still teach that God blesses or curses the Christian, on the basis of his keeping (perfectly) the Law of Moses. Milton Green is but one who does so in our time and in our city. He says that if we fail to “keep the covenant” God will curse us, usually by some kind of demonic attack or possession. On the other hand, he says, if we perfectly keep the covenant, God will enable us to perform all the miracles and wonders which our Lord did, and more.
The errors here are many, but the worst is the failure to distinguish between the Abrahamic Covenant and the Mosaic, and between salvation and sanctification achieved by our Lord alone, and that which is allegedly achieved by men keeping the Law.
(2) The prosperity themes of our day. The “gospel of the good life” looks upon a text like ours and says, “If we but do the right things, we will prosper.” There is, of course, an element of truth here, but they generally see prosperity in material terms, and they see it happening immediately, rather than having any delays. They also equate human suffering, trials and testings with disobedience. If you’re not prospering, you must be sinning. Thus we have Job’s friends revisited.
There is also the view that the prosperity which the United States has experienced is due to the piety of its people. The flip side is for us to look down upon impoverished nations, such as India, and to feel that their poverty is the direct result of wrong belief and impiety. We give ourselves too much credit if we think this way.
One error is in equating the Christian with the Israelite. We do not live under the Mosaic Covenant, nor do we possess the land of Canaan. Thus, our blessings are going to differ somewhat from those of the Israelite. Our blessings may not be immediate. As a matter of fact, neither were the blessings of the faithful Israelite. Hebrews 11 focuses on the faith of these saints and on the fact that they died without having received the promises of God. These saints also suffered greatly for their faith, experiencing deprivation, denial, and death for their faith in God. Psalm 73 is but one illustration of the fact that the righteous may not immediately prosper, while the wicked may. The gospel of the good life has to be very selective about its Old Testament texts, for this version of Christianity is very selective in what it chooses to believe. Incidentally, God often delays His judgment, as well as His blessings. This is longsuffering, intended to encourage repentance (cf. 2 Pet. 2, 3).
(3) The positive mental attitude school of Christian thought. This school of thought, which has its origins in pagan thinking, would have us believe that thinking only positive thoughts, thoughts of success and prosperity, will assure us of experiencing success and prosperity. Moses must have been mistaken, then, to have introduced such “negative” thinking into the Old Testament. The Bible has much to say which falls into the negative category of warning, and yet this is intended to play a very positive role in the life of the saint, warning him to abstain from evil.
(4) The view that the grace which is manifested in the New Covenant sets aside all judgment, and thus the need to be concerned about avoiding sin. The underlying assumption is that the goodness and grace of God results only in blessing, and never in discipline. The goodness and grace of God are constantly emphasized in our text and in the Old Testament, and yet His goodness requires God to discipline His wayward children. Christian liberty and the grace of God are never to be used as a pretext, an occasion for sin (cf. Rom. 6:1ff.; 1 Pet. 2:16).
Blessings and Cursings in Leviticus 26
God Confirms Covenant (9)
God’s Vengeance For Covenant (25)
God turns toward His people (9)
God set’s His face against them (17)
God will dwell among them (11)
God sends them into captivity (38-39)
God walks among them (12)
God becomes their adversary (33)
Soul pines away/sudden terror (16)
Peace of mind (6)
Terror, fear, panic (36-37)
Beasts won’t harm them (6)
Beasts destroy and decimate (22)
Prevail over their enemies (7-8)
Attacked by enemies—raids (16)
God gives rains in season (4)
God withholds the rains (19)
Crops will grow abundantly (4-5)
Crops don’t grow (20)
Israelites fruitful and increase (9)
Consumption, fever, waste away (16)
Physical, emotional anguish
DROUGHT & POOR HARVESTS
Isa. 2:11-17; 5:15-16;
WILD ANIMALS ATTACK
People and cattle
Ezek. 5:17; 14:15, 21; 1 Ki. 13:24; 20:36; Jer. 5:6*;
RAVAGES OF WAR
Isa. 11:14; 13:1-22;
WAR AND EXILE
2 Ki. 6:26-30; Lam. 2:20;
RESULTS OF EXILE
Land has sabbaths
165 I like Wenham’s title for this chapter: “Exhortation to Obey the Law: Blessing and Cursing.” Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. 324.
Noordtzij seems to share my enthusiasm and appreciation for this chapter. He writes: “Leviticus 26 is one of the most moving chapters, not only in the Book of Leviticus and the Pentateuch as a whole, but in the entire Old Testament revelation. In looking toward the future, the Lord laments the fact that He soon might be compelled to chastise His people. If they, in utter ungratefulness, should sinfully reject the love that He had shown to them, He would have no choice but to cause them to feel the destructive weight of His divine indignation, even as this love continued to reach out to them. As a single, poignant lament of divine love, the chapter also contains a warning and a prayer that the Israelites would not have to undergo such punishment.” A. Noordtzij, Leviticus, trans. by Raymond Togtman (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), p. 262.
166 Wenham writes, “Lists of blessings and cursings were a common practice in the ancient Near East in the suzeranty-vassel treaties.” Wenham, p. 327.
167 “There is nevertheless an important and significant difference in outlook. Whereas the biblical texts are straightforward promises about how God will respond to his people’s behavior, in blessings on the obedient and judgment on the careless, the nonbiblical texts are prayers to the gods to act.” Ibid., p. 327.
168 “Internally, the chapter is quite clearly structured. Phrases that were keys to the division of the material in previous chapters reappear in this one, ‘I am the Lord (your God)’ (vv. 1, 2, 13, 44, 45). As in ch. 19 we have a double formula at the beginning and end of the chapter. … The curses are further divided into six subsections by the introductory clauses, ‘If you will not listen to me (vv. 14, 18, 21, 23, 27), I shall punish you (seven times for your sins)’ (vv. 16, 18, 21, 24, 28). Verse 40 states the converse and offers a promise of restoration when the people repent.” Ibid., pp. 327-328.
“Using the last criterion as our guide the blessings fall into three groups each beginning with ‘I shall give’ … The blessings are then divided as follows: 4-5 the gift of rain and good harvests; 6-10 the gift of peace, no wild animals, defeats, or famine; 11-13 the gift of God’s presence. Though the blessings do not exactly match the curses in length or number, the subject matter of both is similar and there are a number of clear echoes of the blessings in the curses.” Ibid., p. 328.
169 Wenham writes, “Seven seems to be a round number for repeated punishments (cf. Ps. 79:12; Prov. 24:16; Isa. 4:1). It is an appropriate and evocative number in view of the importance of the seventh in Israelite religion, and it serves as a reminder that these punishments are for breach of the heart of this religion, the covenant (cf. v. 25). The book of Revelation portrays a series of sevenfold judgments overtaking the world in the last days (Rev. 5-16).” Wenham, p. 331.
“This ‘seven’ is not to be understood in an arithmetic sense, for as the Semitic number of totality (cf. Deut. 28:7, 25; Ps. 79:12), it rather indicates punishment in full measure.” Noordtzij, p. 267.
170 Wenham cites Bonar, who has written, “‘All declension and decay may be said to be begun wherever we see these two ordinances despised—the sabbath and the sanctuary. They are the outward fence around the inward love commanded by v. 1.’” Bonar, p. 473, as cited by Wenham, p. 329.
171 “Although Canaan was constantly coveted by the inhabitants of the desert, since its rich agricultural land provided what they could not obtain in the steppe (e.g., Judges 6), and it sometimes became the battlefield of nations—the armies of Egypt and Mesopotamia met there more than once—the promise is given that there would be no enemies in the land.” Noordtzij, p. 265.
172 “Gentle early rains would fall in October and November and make the land ready for plowing and sowing; strong winter storms would come from mid-December to mid-March in order to saturate the ground, filling the wells and making the springs overflow; and the later rains of April would cause the ears of grain and the fruit to swell and enable the fields to endure the heat of summer. The granting of the necessary rain at the proper time would allow the land to produce to its fullest capacity and yield an abundant harvest (Deut. 11:14; Jer. 5:24; Hos. 6:3), whereas a failure of the rains meant famine and misery. If Israel obeyed the Lord’s commands, the grain would be so plentiful (cf. Amos 9:13) that the threshing and harvest of April and May, the proverbial time of rejoicing (e.g., Ps. 4:7; Isa. 9:3), would continue until the grape harvest in August and September, when the joyful Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated (Deut. 16:13-14; Judg. 21:19-21; 1 Kings 8:2; 12:32); and the grape harvest would likewise continue until the time of planting that began after the early rains. The people would then also live in the land ‘in safety’ (literally, ‘in confidence,’ cf. 25:19), without anxiety about the satisfaction of their daily needs.” Ibid., p. 264.
173 The brief chart in Addendum A helps to see how the blessings of verses 1-13 are reversed to cursings in verses 14-39. The chart in Addendum B plays out the cursings in Israel’s history, from their realization to their removal.
174 The matter of fertility is clearly addressed in the parallel passage in Deuteronomy 28. In verse 4, fertility is promised, while in verse 18 it is taken away.
175 I have a theory about the difference between the length of the blessing section, as compared with the cursings. First, the cursings are more certain than the blessings. That is, Israel’s experience will be more that of cursing than of blessing. Second, we tend to ponder, visualize, and meditate more upon blessings than upon cursings. Thus, the Israelites could be counted on to “fill in the blanks” of what wasn’t said of God’s blessings, but God made certain that He “filled in the blanks” of the cursings, in graphic detail. Finally, the righteous would not look at the chapter in terms of its warnings as much as its blessings. As the Scriptures teach, “to the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15). One can see this in the Psalmist’s attitude toward God’s law. While it warns him (Ps. 19:11), much more is made of its blessings (cf. vv. 7-10).
176 “These judgments are described as discipline. Throughout the Bible divine discipline is referred to: God punishes his people not merely because they deserve it, but because he loves them and wants to correct their foolish ways (Deut. 8:5; Jer. 30:11; 31:18; Ps. 38:2 [Eng. 1]; 94:12; Prov. 3:11-12; Heb. 12:5-11). Amos laments that, despite judgments of famine and drought, disease and defeat, ‘yet you did not return to me’ (Amos 4:6, 8, 9, 10, 11).” Wenham, pp. 330-331.