A LIFE OF HOLINESS Leviticus 18–22
“Keep My decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them. I am the Lord” (Lev. 18:5).Worship is honoring God. We honor the Lord by praising Him. But we also honor the Lord by keeping His decrees and laws, and choosing to live holy lives.
Definition of Key Terms
Decree. The Hebrew word translated “decree” in these chapters means “to engrave.” It suggests rules chiseled in stone, and thus unchangeable. Law, statute. The Hebrew word is mishpat. It indicates a judicial decision, made by a competent authority, which thus serves as a precedent set to guide future judges. The laws given in this section do not cover every possible violation of the principles found in the Ten Commandments. They serve as examples to guide Israel as future generations face new situations.
God expects His people to lead moral lives. Now Israel was taught that holiness calls for sexual purity (18:1–30), social responsibility (19:1–18), and rejection of pagan practices (vv. 19–37). Violation of moral laws requires punishment (20:1–27). An even higher standard of moral and ceremonial purity was set for Israel’s priests (21:1–22:33).
Understanding the Text
“Sexual relations” Lev. 18:1–18. All societies studied by anthropologists have rules against incest. Most speculate that the rules are rooted in genetics: close relatives tend to produce a high percentage of defective children. But this passage extends incest beyond blood relationships to, for instance, the wife of one’s father’s brother. The more likely reason why incest is destructive as well as wrong is that it creates destructive emotions that warp the very structure of the family, which is the basic unit in society. When the family is threatened, the whole nation is in danger. These laws remind us of an important truth. God’s laws define right and wrong. But they are not arbitrary. Those who obey find that God’s laws lead us to healthy, happy lives. Those who violate God’s laws find that disobedience leads to disaster. “Do not defile yourselves” Lev. 18:19–30. The passage identifies several practices as “detestable” and defiling. Chief among them are homosexuality and bestiality—having sex with animals. It’s impossible for one who takes Scripture seriously to dismiss contemporary homosexuality as merely an “alternative lifestyle.” Homosexual acts are sin. God’s decrees remain firmly engraved on the moral fabric of our universe. “Children . . . sacrificed to Molech” Lev. 18:21. The topic is picked up again in 20:1–5, which condemns the practice in the strongest terms. Why? Hebrew scholars believe the root mlk should be translated “sacrificed as a votive offering” rather than as the proper name, Molech. Near the ruins of ancient Carthage a person can go today to a garden where the remains of thousands of children are buried. Most are infants, but their ages range to four years old. Each was burned alive as a votive offering to the goddess Tanat. There was something the parents wanted, and to obtain that favor from the goddess they offered her their child. It reminds me of a friend, a Christian, who has had two abortions. She can’t see anything wrong with what she did. “It’s like drowning puppies,” she says. But the reason she did not have the children was, simply, that it wasn’t convenient. There was something else she wanted, and so she sacrificed her unborn children. I suppose there are cases where, if the mother’s life is endangered, abortions are justified. But to have an abortion just because giving birth is inconvenient is an act too similar to that of those parents of long ago, who traded the lives of their children to a pagan god or goddess in hopes of improved health, a better job, or wealth. In God’s eyes, there is nothing that equals the value of a human life. “Do not” Lev. 19:1–18. What is implied in the Ten Commandments? They are restated here, some with implications spelled out. Here are verses to compare with each.
“Different kinds” Lev. 19:19–37. Many of the rulings in this passage, such as not to mate different kinds of animals, or wear clothing woven of two kinds of material, reflect the principle of separation. Many practices in Israel were simply intended to remind God’s people of their difference from others. “Love him as yourself” Lev. 19:33–34. Israel had experienced mistreatment in Egypt. God encourages His people to remember how they felt there, and “when an alien lives with you,” to treat him as one of their own. Some people respond to mistreatment by becoming bitter and hostile to others. Any mistreatment you and I receive should make us more sensitive. Remembering how we have been hurt, we are to take special care not to hurt others. “Put him to death” Lev. 20:1–27. Other ancient law codes frequently impose the death penalty for crimes against property. In contrast, Old Testament Law reserves capital punishment for crimes against persons and against public welfare. In a holy community certain standards must be enforced. Each of the crimes listed here is more serious than it might appear. For instance, to “curse” a mother or father was not simply to swear at them. “Curse” here implies an attempt to harm by the use of magic. In Israel recourse to any supernatural power other than God was forbidden (cf. v. 27). An attempt to use such powers against one’s parents was an especially heinous crime. “To the priests” Lev. 21:1–22:33. The whole community of Israel was holy and was to live by the moral and ritual standards God had ordained. But the priests were set apart to the Lord from within this holy community. Thus the standards by which they lived were even higher. As believer-priests, Christians are called to live by the highest standards of holiness. Only by relying on God’s Holy Spirit can we meet and surpass the righteous requirements of Old Testament Law (Rom. 8:4).
The Nature of Holiness (Lev. 19:1–18)
Moses introduced this passage by quoting God: “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” For most Christians, “holiness” is a rather mystical and somewhat puzzling term. We’re willing to be holy, but we don’t quite know what holiness is. We know that God is holy. We realize that we are to be holy, as He is. But how are we to be like Him? The laws in Leviticus 19 are an expression of God’s holy character. If we want an insight into the nature of holiness, all we need to do is to meditate on some of these verses, and consider what they tell us about God. For instance: * “Do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. . . . Leave them for the poor” (vv. 9–10). * “Do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (v. 15). * “Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life” (v. 16). * “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 18). What do we learn? Perhaps the surprising fact that holiness and love are identical twins! The truest expression of holiness is showing love for others in simple, practical ways. Caring for the poor. Being fair to well-to-do and needy alike. Doing nothing that might harm another. Loving others as ourselves. It is this kind of life God calls us to live daily. And this, the simple and practical living out of love, is holiness.
Using the criteria established in this passage, who is the “holiest” person you know?