Leviticus 19-20
(Crimes and Punishments)
February 3rd

Produced by The Listening for God Ministry
Copyright 2016

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Please refer to one or more Bible versions of your choice to read this section. We recommend that you read at least two versions for added understanding. For your convenience, we have provided six links below, each of which takes you directly to today's chapters in a specific version:

Key Verses

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:

Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

- Leviticus 19:1-2 (NRSV)

Summary of Chapters

Leviticus chapters 19 and 20 continue the topic of laws that began in chapter 17 and continue up through chapter 25. Chapter 19 is an expansion of the Ten Commandments, which have been re-ordered somewhat and grouped into three topics:

    Religious obligations (verses 2-10): Centered around the first, second, fourth and fifth commandments

    Fair treatment of others (versus 11-18): An extrapolation of the other commandments, and includes the command to “love your neighbor as yourself (19:18)"

    Various other regulations (versus 19-37): Includes laws related to agriculture, personal grooming, witchcraft, and fair treatment of foreigners, as noted in verse 34:

    “"When a foreigner lives with you in your land, don't take advantage of him. Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love him like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in Egypt. I am God, your God (19:34-35 - MSG).”

Chapter 20 defines the capital punishment and other sentences for breaking specific types of rules, mostly having to do with pagan worship and sexual relations. The chapter begins with the consequence for those who participate in child sacrifice and for those who pretend not to notice what is happening. There is significance to placing this crime first, because of the value of human life, particularly the innocent and helpless children who represent the future of Israel. The community is supposed to protect and nurture these children, not offer them up to some pagan god.

The end of the chapter points to the overarching curse for all of the crimes: If the people do not follow God’s laws faithfully, then they will be expelled (vomited) from the land, just as the other tribes of peoples will be expelled in advance of them. But if the people obey, then they will avoid self-destruction and will be led to the land of “Milk and Honey.”

Reflection and Application

How well did the Israelites follow these commands from Leviticus? It's probably fair to say they had a mixed record, but we will encounter good role models in the book of Ruth. One of the central figures in this narrative is a landowner named Boaz who is very explicit in instructing his workers to uphold Leviticus 19:9:

    “When you harvest your fields, do not cut the corn at the edges of the fields, and do not go back to cut the ears of corn that were left. 10Do not go back through your vineyard to gather the grapes that were missed or to pick up the grapes that have fallen; leave them for poor people and foreigners. I am the LORD your God."

    - Leviticus 19:9 (GNB)

This obedience is an important element of the story of Ruth, as it leads to her relationship with Boaz. The story of Ruth and Boaz is an important part of the greater narrative of God's story, as their grandson becomes King David of Israel and forefather to Jesus' earthly family.

How can we reconcile these definitions of crimes and punishments from Leviticus with our understanding of Christianity? Let’s look at a few examples from the Gospels:

John the Baptist rebuked King Herod for violating Leviticus 20:21, which says not to marry one’s brother’s wife (while he is alive).

    For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him.

    -Mark 6:17-19 (NKJV)

What about Jesus? Jesus re-iterated these rules in many situations. When asked which commandment is the most important, he summarized the precepts from the beginning of the chapter and quoted Leviticus 19:18

    “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

    - Mark 12:29-31 (NIV)

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus actually raises the standard for Christian living to a higher level, for example:

    “You're familiar with the command to the ancients, 'Do not murder.' I'm telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother 'idiot!' and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell 'stupid!' at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill."

    - Matthew 5:21-22 (MSG)

And what does Jesus say about the appropriate punishment? He showed great mercy on many occasions, to the astonishment of the people who claimed to adhere to the laws. For example, he forgave Zacchaeus, the tax collector who had stolen money from the people (Luke 19:1-9), he forgave the “sinful” woman who anointed his feet at a Pharisee's home (Luke 7:36-50), and he forgave the woman who committed adultery and was about to be stoned in accordance with Leviticus 20:10 (John 8:1:11).

The commonality among all three cases was that the sinner was ready to reform him or herself. Zacchaeus offered to make restitution according to Levitical law (all of the stolen money plus a punitive amount), the woman at the Pharisee’s table expressed her love for Jesus through her act of worship and anointing, and the adulterer agreed to sin no more.

We can seek the strength of the Holy Spirit to help us do all the good we can and avoid committing the crimes listed in these chapters, but also can know that Jesus forgives those who truly repent in their hearts, and we can offer this same forgiveness to others. Continuing the theme of holiness, we invite you to listen to a performance of a song called "God of Wonders" that celebrates God's power and holiness. Click below to hear the song and see beautiful images of God's creation:

"God of Wonders," performed by Third Day

Questions and Prayers for Further Reflection

    Related Questions
    1. What occasions can you think of where you were punished for speaking the truth?
    2. Who are some examples of innocent and helpless children in our world who have been sacrificed for the gain of some other person or group?
    3. How do we know when to forgive and when to apply an appropriate punishment?
    Recommended Prayer
    Father, please help us to be the voice and the shield for the children in this world, particularly those who are most unable to speak up or protect themselves

    Suggested Prayer Concerns
    Children in danger

    Looking Ahead

    Tomorrow's reading: Leviticus 21-23 (Holiness for Priests and Feasts)

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