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Leviticus 18:15, 2026; 20:68 comment (0)

April 18, 2013

By Scott McGinnis

Related Scripture: Leviticus 18:15, 2026; 20:68

Bible Studies for Life 
Associate Professor of Religion, Samford University

Living in Holiness

Leviticus 18:1–5, 20–26; 20:6–8
Although the cultural setting of Leviticus is distinct from our own, the book contains important themes echoed throughout Scripture, notably the affirmation of things leading to life, wholeness, and deeper communion with God and one another. 

Separate from Society’s Standards (18:1–5)
Leviticus required Israelites to distinguish themselves from the Egyptians they left behind and the Canaanites who inhabited the land they were to occupy (v. 3). This distinctiveness was manifested in their conception of God — Yahweh alone deserves worship — and their cultural practices. Thus, Israel should reject Canaanite laws in favor of those Yahweh revealed. By so doing, they “shall live” (v. 5). The direction to follow God’s laws over all others challenges modern believers who do not live in the kind of theocratic state imagined by Leviticus. What should a Christian do when she finds herself faced with civil laws she judges to be at odds with God’s instructions? For instance, if one opposes war on the basis of Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence (Matt. 5:39), should she reject paying taxes, a portion of which fund the military? How should she reconcile this with Jesus’ teaching on “rendering to Caesar” taxes due? (Matt. 22:17–21)

Striving to live in a way that connects us more deeply to God and one another requires careful discernment by every believer. 

Separate from Sinful Practices (18:20–26)
Chapter 18 is chiefly occupied with restrictions of various sexual unions. Verses 6–18 proscribe incestuous relationships, described from the male point of view: no relations were allowed with one’s mother, father’s wife (assuming polygamy), daughter, sister-in-law, wife’s sister, etc. All such relationships were deemed disruptive of familial harmony.

Verses 19–23 forbid five practices: (1) sexual intercourse with a woman during her monthly period; (2) sexual intercourse with a neighbor’s wife; (3) sacrifice of children to Molech; (4) sexual intercourse between men; and (5) sexual intercourse with animals, by both men and women. 

The grouping of these practices may be viewed in relation to themes of life and wholeness. Israelites associated both blood and seminal emissions with life. Loss of blood or wasting of semen was understood as a diminution of life, and contact with either rendered one ritually unclean (Gen. 9:4, Lev. 15). Therefore, sexual relations with a woman during her period (the least fertile time), between men, or between humans and animals all violated this principle since they do not lead to the creation of life. Sexual relations with a neighbor’s wife might produce children but violated familial harmony.

Sacrifice of children to “Molech” was known in Israel (2 Kings 16:3, Jer. 7:31). The word is a corruption of the Hebrew “melek,” or “king,” and scholars differ as to whether Molech worship involved sacrificing children to Yahweh as king or to a Canaanite deity. The former is perhaps more likely given the practice would “profane the name of your God” (v. 21). In either case, killing children to honor a god works as the deepest and most profane level against the principle of life.

Separate from False Spirituality (20:6–8)
Molech worship results in one being “cut off,” either a reference to expulsion from the community or a euphemism for the death penalty. Similarly, witchcraft or consulting mediums resulted in punishment for both seeker and practitioner (vv. 6, 27). 

The remainder of chapter 20 addresses other sins punishable by death or being “cut off,” including incest and all the sexual unions outlined above. Scholars find little evidence the death penalty was actually practiced in such cases then, and few would advocate for such punishment today, a fact that only heightens the interpretative questions for Christians who would read these passages in light of the gospel.

Then as now, holy living requires discernment and commitment, loving God with all our mind so that we may know how to love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27).

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