THESE SEVERE PENALTIES FOR COVENANT INFRACTIONS AND SEXUAL OFFENSES SHOULD HELP US TO TAKE SIN SERIOUSLY
Roy Gane: Holy living is not optional for those who wish to live as God’s people. So Leviticus 20 lays out terminal penalties for serious moral offenses, paralleling chapter 18 by prohibiting sexual practices and Molech worship.
Allen Ross: Leviticus 20 continues the emphasis on holiness with exhortation to avoid both pagan religious practices and violations of God’s created order. The material included here is similar to that in Lev. 18, except that here the penalties for disobedience are included. The nature of these penalties shows the seriousness of the sins and underscores that the moral principles of the covenant had to be safeguarded in a wicked world. . .
God warned Israel that various pagan religious and sexual practices received the death penalty in order that Israel might pursue a life of holiness and obedience to the LORD and avoid the judgment such abominations brought.
Sailhamer: This selection of laws consists of fourteen (7×2) laws, concluded by an extended appeal for holiness on the part of the nation when they take possession of the land of Canaan (vv. 22-26). After the conclusion, one of the laws, the prohibition of mediums and spiritists (v. 6), is restated (v. 27).
Mark Rooker: Although the content of Leviticus 18 and 20 is virtually identical, it is possible to make a distinction between the intended audiences of the chapters. Whereas Leviticus 18 addresses the would-be offender of a God-given decree, Leviticus 20 addresses the Israelite community, which was responsible for seeing that violations of Law receive their just reward.
Gordon Wenham: Structure
2b-6 Sins against Religion
7–8 Exhortation to Holiness
9–21 Sins against Family
22–26 Exhortation to Holiness
27 Sins against Religion
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
2 ‘You shall also say to the sons of Israel,’”
I. (:2b-8) SANCTUARY DEFILEMENT
A. (:2b-5) Worship of Molech Condemned
1. (:2b-3) Sacrificing a Child to Molech
a. (:2b) Execution by Stoning
“Any man from the sons of Israel or from the aliens sojourning in Israel, who gives any of his offspring to Molech, shall surely be put to death; the people of the land shall stone him with stones.”
Roy Gane: Though capital crimes have previously appeared, the Bible here introduces the punishment of stoning for the first time. The whole community participates and therefore symbolically makes a statement that it has removed the unclean from its midst.
Allen Ross: The worship of Molech seems to be linked with the cult of the dead, some sort of ancestral worship that involved crude rituals. While normal Canaanite religion posed a serious threat to the faith of Israel, this Molech cult was simply cruel and base. Perhaps it was singled out because everything associated with it—death, decay, degeneracy—was in direct conflict with the life that God had prepared for his people. It represented pagan religion in its most loathsome state (cf. 2 Kings 3:26–27).
b. (:3) God Opposes and Cuts Off
“I will also set My face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given some of his offspring to Molech, so as to defile My sanctuary and to profane My holy name.”
2. (:4-5) Failing to Execute the Offender
a. (:4-5a) God Opposes
“If the people of the land, however, should ever disregard that man when he gives any of his offspring to Molech, so as not to put him to death, 5 then I Myself will set My face against that man and against his family;”
Gordon Wenham: Prosecution was left to individual initiative, and it was always easiest to ignore an offense and let sleeping dogs lie. Indeed, those most likely to know about someone’s apostasy to Molech would be close neighbors and members of the family, who would naturally be most loath to prosecute. But loyalty to God must override ties of blood and friendship (cf. Deut. 13:7–12 [6–11]; Luke 14:26). If a man puts family loyalty before devotion to God, “I myself shall set my face against that man and his family” (v. 5).
R. K. Harrison: The punishment is severe because the offender has defiled the sanctuary and profaned God’s holy name. Those of the ‘am hā’ āreṣ who condone the atrocities of Molech worship are as guilty as the ones who commit the crime, being accessories to it. By overlooking the offence they imply a certain sympathy towards it, and such an attitude would demoralize the covenant community very quickly. Stern sanctions are therefore needed as reinforcement for the ideal of holiness.
b. (:5b) God Cuts Off
“and I will cut off from among their people both him and all those who play the harlot after him, by playing the harlot after Molech.”
Mark Rooker: The death penalty was also the punishment for consulting mediums and spiritists. By seeking mediums and spiritists the Israelites would be imitating a pagan lifestyle, which is described as “prostituting oneself” (20:5–6). The root meaning “commit fornication,” “prostitute oneself,” is z nâ, which is used in sexual contexts for marital infidelity but is used here and elsewhere in the Old Testament as a metaphor for the infidelity that results from the worship of other gods (see 19:9). The metaphor is particularly meaningful because the relationship of Israel to the Lord is one of a covenant relationship. The Hebrew word (“covenant”), which defines Israel’s relationship to God, is used in fact for the marriage relationship (Prov 2:17; Mal 2:14). The same imagery is used in the New Testament in reference to Christ’s relationship to the church (1 Cor 6:15–20; 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:22–23).
Peter Pett: It is interesting that at this stage Molech is seen as the great enemy they will face in the land. This may be because he was particularly objectionable, or because at this stage they were close to Moab and Ammon where his worship was prevalent.
B. (:6) Consulting the Occult Condemned
1. God Opposes
“As for the person who turns to mediums and to spiritists, to play the harlot after them, I will also set My face against that person”
2. God Cuts Off
“and will cut him off from among his people.”
C. (:7-8) Consecration and Obedience Commanded in Pursuit of Holiness
1. (:7) Consecration
“You shall consecrate yourselves therefore and be holy,
for I am the LORD your God.”
2. (:8) Obedience
“And you shall keep My statutes and practice them;
I am the LORD who sanctifies you.”
R. K. Harrison: The demand for personal and communal holiness is reiterated here. Individual consecration to the ideals of the covenant will establish a standard of holy living which will be specifically moral as well as ceremonial in character. Unswerving obedience to God’s commands is one indication of a sanctified life in both the Old and New Testaments.
II. (:9-21) SEXUAL PRACTICES CONSTITUTING CAPITAL CRIMES
A. (:9) Cursing Parents
“If there is anyone who curses his father or his mother, he shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his bloodguiltiness is upon him.”
Mark Rooker: The first commandment in this passage that required the death penalty, the cursing of parents, is repeated by Jesus in the New Testament in his interaction with the Pharisees (Matt 15:4; Mark 7:10). Under Roman law Israel could not carry out this punishment. Since it is part of Israel’s civil law, this punishment is no longer applicable for the Christian today. The moral principle and the respect one should have for one’s parents is not abrogated, however, and is reinforced by the Lord and by Paul (Eph 6:2). As moral laws the sexual offenses are still applicable during the age of the church, though like the crime of cursing of parents the capital punishments for these offenses were limited to the time when God’s people constituted a redeemed theocratic nation (John 8:1–11). Thus the capital punishments for these sexual offenses were not intended to be executed beyond Israel.
Perry Yoder: The word translated curse can have the connotation of treating with contempt (1 Sam 3:13) and is the opposite of honoring father and mother (Exod 20:12). This command may occur here because some of the sexual acts listed below would show contempt toward father and mother.
John Schultz: According to vs. 9, our relationship with our parents is an important factor in the process of our sanctification. It is also important for our emotional balance and our inner health. In God’s perfect plan of creation the relationship of a child to his father and mother is the natural channel through which he learns of the love of God. It is also through our parents that we can trace our existence back to God Himself. According to the Gospel of Luke, Adam was the son of God. Sin distorted and ruined much of this relationship. If we do not recognize the reality of our relationship and we if curse our parents, if we hate them instead of loving them, if we do not receive forgiveness and forgive, we forfeit our lives. God puts this kind of curse on the same level as murder.
B. (:10) Committing Adultery
“If there is a man who commits adultery with another man’s wife,
one who commits adultery with his friend’s wife,
the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”
C. (:11) Incest with Stepmother
“If there is a man who lies with his father’s wife, he has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death,
their bloodguiltiness is upon them.”
D. (:12) Incest with Daughter-in-law
“If there is a man who lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall surely be put to death; they have committed incest, their bloodguiltiness is upon them.”
E. (:13) Homosexuality
“If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman,
both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them.”
Peter Pett: For a man to have sexual relations with another man is an abomination. No other relationship is always described specifically as an abomination in this way, so it is clearly particularly hateful to God. And being in the midst of a passage dealing with sexual matters this refers to any practising homosexual relationship, not just to cultic practise. It is saying that there is no such thing as a Christian practising homosexual. This has nothing to do with whether a man has homosexual tendencies, it is speaking of a deliberate giving way to those tendencies. Those who do so shall ‘surely be put to death’. Again they have brought their blood on their own heads.
F. (:14) Incest with Mother-in-law
“If there is a man who marries a woman and her mother, it is immorality;
both he and they shall be burned with fire,
that there may be no immorality in your midst.”
David Guzik: Adam Clarke believed the phrase shall be burned with fire did not refer to execution. “It is very likely that the crime mentioned in this verse was not punished by burning alive, but by some kind of branding, by which they were ever after rendered infamous…. Branding with a hot iron would certainly accomplish every desirable end both for punishment and prevention.”
G. (:15) Bestiality by a Man
“If there is a man who lies with an animal, he shall surely be put to death;
you shall also kill the animal.”
H. (:16) Bestiality by a Woman
“If there is a woman who approaches any animal to mate with it,
you shall kill the woman and the animal; they shall surely be put to death.
Their bloodguiltiness is upon them.”
I. (:17) Incest with a Sister
“If there is a man who takes his sister, his father’s daughter or his mother’s daughter, so that he sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness,
it is a disgrace; and they shall be cut off in the sight of the sons of their people. He has uncovered his sister’s nakedness; he bears his guilt.”
J. (:18) Sex during Menstruation
“If there is a man who lies with a menstruous woman and uncovers her nakedness, he has laid bare her flow, and she has exposed the flow of her blood; thus both of them shall be cut off from among their people.”
K. (:19) Incest with Aunt
“You shall also not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister
or of your father’s sister, for such a one has made naked his blood relative;
they shall bear their guilt.”
L. (:20) Incest with Uncle’s Wife
“If there is a man who lies with his uncle’s wife he has uncovered his uncle’s nakedness; they shall bear their sin. They shall die childless.”
M. (:21) Incest with Sister-in-law
“If there is a man who takes his brother’s wife, it is abhorrent;
he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They shall be childless.”
Roy Gane: Each one of these prohibitions has its parallel in ch. 18. It remains to observe the significance of the duplication of these prohibitions in the heart of the Holiness Code. Clearly, they provide an insight into the value God places on holiness in sexual relations. They also remind the reader how sexuality lies at the heart of the divine covenant not only with Israel but with all humanity as well. As Genesis 1:26–28 contends, the fruitfulness, multiplication, and filling of the earth by humanity is part of the divine will and creation order. Sexuality is the key component to realizing this command. It is apparent from these verses that neither the incestuous use of sex, which threatens not only to inbreed genetic traits but also to upset the role of the family and home in maturing its young and preserving its elderly, nor any practice of sex outside of a committed heterosexual marriage, can guarantee the proper use of this most powerful force in humanity.
III. (:22-27) SEPARATION FROM PAGAN PRACTICES IN CONFORMITY WITH COVENANT RELATIONSHIP TO A HOLY GOD
A. (:22-24) Covenant Promise Regarding Possession of the Land
1. (:22) Prevention of being Expelled from the Land via Obedience
“You are therefore to keep all My statutes and all My ordinances and do them, so that the land to which I am bringing you to live will not spew you out.”
2. (:23) Pagan Practices Must be Rejected
“Moreover, you shall not follow the customs of the nation which I shall drive out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I have abhorred them.”
3. (:24) Promise of Possession of the Land
“Hence I have said to you, ‘You are to possess their land, and I Myself will give it to you to possess it, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples.”
Gordon Wenham: In this short paragraph Israel is reminded of the basis of her whole existence. It is through the divine promises (v. 24; cf. Gen. 15:7–8; 28:4) that she now stands poised to enter Canaan and to expel its inhabitants (v. 23). God has chosen Israel to be his holy people. He has separated them from the nations (vv. 24, 26); therefore they must distinguish between the clean and unclean animals, as set out in ch. 11. In distinguishing between the different kinds of creatures they are imitating God, who chose Israel from all the nations to be a people for his own possession (vv. 25–26).
Peter Pett: For God’s purpose for His people is that they might inherit the land and receive it as a gift from God, as their own possession. An inheritance is something freely given and undeserved. Thus He is giving it to them freely. It is a land flowing with milk and honey, having plenteous sustenance and sweetness. And He, Yahweh their God, has separated them from the peoples that they might be holy to Him and live in holiness in the land that He has cleansed. They are His and must reveal that they are His separated ones by the way that they live and the way they behave.
R. Laird Harris: The expression “flowing with mild and honey” is used fourteen times in the Pentateuch and five times in the rest of the OT. It is, of course, symbolic of the agricultural plenty of Palestine. Palestine today is far from attractive, agriculturally speaking; the rainfall is seasonal, and the summers are dry. It is probably that a similar climate obtained in Moses’ day, though the subject is debated. A little more rain would have made a great difference. At present Palestine is deforested and badly eroded. Even if the climate was similar in ancient days, a cover of trees would have better conserved the winter rains; and careful irrigation would have made the hills and western slopes of the mountains quite productive. The mention of honey is perhaps lost to modern ears. To us honey is a dispensable condiment. Then it was the only sweetner at hand.
B. (:25-26) Commitment to Holiness Requires Distinguishing between Clean and Unclean
1. (:25) Making Distinctions
“You are therefore to make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; and you shall not make yourselves detestable by animal or by bird or by anything that creeps on the ground, which I have separated for you as unclean.”
2. (:26) Maintaining Holiness
“Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy;
and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine.”
David Guzik: This demonstrates that God wants more than robotic obedience from His people. God wants relationship with His people, and their loyalty within that relationship (that you should be Mine). Both relationship and obedience are important, but God doesn’t want our obedience to Him apart from relationship.
C. (:27) Capital Punishment for Occultist
“Now a man or a woman who is a medium or a spiritist shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones, their bloodguiltiness is upon them.”
Roy Gane: With v.6, the prohibition against divination by mediums and spiritists begins and ends the major section of this chapter. In addition, v.27 adds the punishment of death by stoning for anyone who practices it. This prescribes the same punishment as those who worship Molech through child sacrifice. Thus the attempt to consult the dead equals the worst practices of idolatry in God’s eyes. Both require complete eradication from the community.