We’re in that part of the book of Leviticus which stretches from chapter 17 to chapter 26 and which contains what are known as the Laws of Holiness: all these rules and regulations about how the Israelites must live holy lives. He set them apart from the other nations and had chosen them to be his own special people; he was leading them to the Promised Land; and here he outlines for them how he wanted them to live. And today we come to chapter 20 which repeats many of the laws which we’ve encountered before in previous chapters. However, what’s different about this chapter is that the Lord now informs his people of the penalty which they could expect to receive if they do any of these forbidden things.
And the chapter can be divided up into several sections. After the introduction in verse 1 where the Lord once again commanded Moses to say these things to the Israelites, there’s a list of sins related to religion in verses 2 to 6. And then, in verses 9 to 21, there’s a list of sins related to the family. And then, in the final verse of the chapter, there’s one more sin related to religion.
And what about verses 7 and 8 and verses 22 to 26? Well, in those verses, the Lord once again exhorted the people to holiness. So, let’s look at the text together.
Verses 2 to 6
As I said, verse 1 is the introduction and in verses 2 to 6 there’s a list of sins related to religion. So, the people are forbidden from giving any of their children to Molech. Molech was an idol, a false god; and when the text forbids the people from giving their children to Molech, it probably means they were forbidden from offering their children to Molech as a sacrifice. Child sacrifices were forbidden by the Lord and anyone who committed this particular sin in Israel must be put to death. The people of the community, we read in verse 2, are to stone the person who does this thing. So, instead of leaving this to the elders to the judges, the people of the community, or — more literally — the people of the land, the ordinary people, were to stone the offender.
And then the Lord added in verses 3 to 5 that if the people close their eyes to this, or if they turned a blind eye to this practice, and fail to take action against the man who has done this terrible thing, then the Lord himself will set his face against the offender. That is, he will set his face against him to punish him. And the Lord will cut him off from his people. I’ve said before that it’s not always clear what the phrase ‘cut off from the people’ means. It may refer to ex-communication, but in these verses it certainly seems to suggest that the Lord will bring about the man’s death and the death of anyone else in his family who have followed him in his sin. And the reason the Lord demands the death penalty on such a person is — according to verse 3 — because he has defiled God’s sanctuary and has profaned God’s holy name.
And then, in verse 6, the Lord threatened to set his face against the person who turns to mediums and spiritists and he will cut the offender off from his people. Consulting mediums and spiritists was forbidden in verse 31 of the previous chapter; but now the Lord makes clear what the punishment will be for this sin.
Verses 7 and 8
So, the Lord warned the people of the punishment they can expect to receive if they turned away from him and if they offered their children to false gods or if they consulted mediums and spiritists. And in verses 7 and 8 he exhorted his people to consecrate themselves and be holy. In other words, keep yourself holy; set yourself apart from all that is unholy and sinful. That what’s ‘consecration’ means. Keep my decrees and follow them, the Lord says. And then he adds:
I am the Lord, who makes you holy. Do you see? He not only commands his people to be holy, but he himself makes them holy. He made the Israelites holy by setting them apart from all the other nations to belong to him. And he gave them his laws and commandments to show them how to live holy lives. And so, having set them apart to belong to him, and having given them his laws to guide them, he said to them:
Keep my decrees and follow them.
Verses 9 to 21
We come now to verses 9 to 21 which contains a list of sins related to the family and the punishment that the people can expect to receive for doing any of these forbidden things. So, whoever curses his parents — which means whoever treats his parents with contempt — must be put to death; that’s how serious this particular sin is in the sight of the Lord.
Many of the next sins are sexual in nature and have been mentioned before in previous chapters, but are once again repeated here. And so, once again adultery with your neighbour’s wife was forbidden; as is sleeping with close relatives; and homosexuality and bestiality. All of the things were forbidden and the punishment in many cases was death. In one case — when a man marries a woman and her mother — the punishment was specifically death by fire. The sins in verses 17 and 18 were punished by being cut off, which may refer to ex-communication or it could refer to death. And in verses 19 to 21, the punishment inflicted on the offender was childlessness. Having children was considered a sign of God’s blessing; so childlessness would have been regarded as a sign of God’s curse.
Verses 22 to 26
The Lord warned the people of the punishment they can expect to receive if they sinned in relation to the family: if children treated their parents with contempt; and if the people engaged in unlawful sexual relations. Holiness to the Lord meant honouring your parents and honouring the marriage bed.
And in verses 22 to 26 the Lord once again exhorted his people to holiness. ‘Keep all my decrees and laws and follow them’, he said. Keep all of them, he said, and not just some of them. We like to think that this law or that law does not apply to me, but the Lord’s people are to keep all his decrees.
‘Keep them’, the Lord said to the Israelites, ‘so that the you will not be vomited out of the land.’ Isn’t that an arresting image? The Lord was leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land where they could enjoy peace and prosperity and the presence of the Lord; but only, but only if they were careful to keep themselves holy and to do his will. If they sinned against him, the land would become sick of them and would vomit them out. In other words, they would be sent away into exile.
Just as Adam and Eve were sent out of the Garden of Eden because they disobeyed the Lord, so the Israelites would be sent out of the Promised Land of Canaan if they disobeyed him. And the Lord warned the Israelites in verse 23 that the reason he abhorred the Canaanites and drove them out of the Promised Land was because of their sin. Because they had done evil, the Lord drove them out of the land; and he will do the same to the Israelites if they too sin against the Lord.
And look at verse 25: the Lord commanded them to make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and clean and unclean birds. We’ve read about that distinction before, but here the Lord links it to the way that he has set them apart from the other nations. Do you see that in verse 26?
I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.
They’re to make a distinction between one animal and another because the Lord had made a distinction between them and the other nations. By setting aside an unclean animal and taking a clean animal instead, they would reflect the way the Lord set aside the other nations as unclean and he took the Israelites to make them holy, a people set apart from the rest to belong to him. In other words, those laws about clean and unclean animals and birds where designed to remind the people of God’s grace and mercy to them, because he had graciously chosen them from among all the nations to belong to him. And because he chose them like this, they should now live holy lives.
And the chapter ends with one final sin related to religion: mediums and spiritists must be put to death. I wonder why this law is placed here? Is it to remind them that instead of consulting the dead for guidance, they’re to consult the living Lord and his written word?
What are we to make of this chapter and all the punishments it contains? First of all, we need to remember that these particular laws where for the nation of Israel at that time, which was both a church and a state and where every sin was also a crime; and where the leaders of the nations had the right to use force to punish lawbreakers. In our day, the church and the state are separate; and while God has given the civil authorities the power of the sword to punish those who break the law of the land, he does not give the power of the sword to the church. The elders have no power from God to use physical force to punish those who break God’s law.
However, this chapter reminds us that the wages of sin is death. Every sin brings guilt upon the sinner so that we’re brought under the wrath of God and the curse of his law and we become subject to all miseries in this life and the next. Whoever sins against the Lord deserves to be punished by the Lord — which is why sinners need to confess their sins before God, and turn from their wicked ways, and ask the Lord to pardon them for the sake of Christ the Lord, the only Saviour of the world, who bore our sins on the cross and who suffered in our place the punishment we deserve so that we might be forgiven.
And, of course, since believers — who have been justified by God through faith in his Son — continue to sin against the Lord throughout their lives, they must continue to confess their sins before him, and ask for his forgiveness, lest they fall under his fatherly displeasure because of their sins. Since we continue to sin, we must continue to confess our sins and to ask our loving Heavenly Father to forgive us.
And finally, under the terms of the Old Covenant, God made his people holy by setting them apart from the nations and giving them his laws to show them how to live holy lives. And he has done the same for us, because he’s called us through the gospel to belong to his church so that we’re set apart from an unbelieving world to belong to the Lord. And he’s given us his word to guide us and to show us how to live a holy life. But, under the terms of his New Covenant — which was inaugurated by Christ — the Lord also gives his people today a new heart to love him and his Spirit to help us to walk in his ways and to live a holy life.
The Lord calls his people to be holy; and he gives us his Spirit to enable us to become more and more holy, more and more willing and able to do his will, so that we might honour him in all we do and say. He gives us his Spirit to help us to live a heavenly life, so that our life here on earth reflects the glory and the holiness of heaven, where we will one day come. And so, relying always on the help of the Holy Spirit, we’re to strive each day to live a holy and obedient life.