Last week we studied chapter 26 which contains the promise of rewards for obedience and the threat of punishment for disobedience. If the Lord’s people followed his decrees and if they were careful to obey his commands, they could expect blessings from the Lord. But if they did not follow his decrees and if they were not careful to obey his commands, then they could expect trouble from the Lord.
And chapter 26 would have made a fitting end to the book of Leviticus; it would have been fitting to end this book with a reminder to the Lord’s people that they should be careful to do his will, because the Lord — who is holy — had chosen to live among his people; and he called on them to be holy like him and to walk in his ways and to keep themselves from evil. It would have been fitting to end the book on that note.
And yet, chapter 26 is not the end of Leviticus; chapter 27 is. And it’s a bit puzzling why the book should end with this chapter, because it’s a chapter about vows and about how to redeem what someone has vowed to give to the Lord. So, someone has made a vow to the Lord; he’s promised to serve the Lord or to bring before him an offering. But for whatever reason, the worshipper has changed his mind. However, he can’t ignore the vow or disregard it; the vow cannot be revoked; but he can redeem what he has vowed and give something else in its place. That’s what this chapter is about. But why is it here?
One suggestion is that it comes here, after chapter 26, because chapter 26 contains blessing and curses which are, in a sense, God’s vows to the people. He was saying to the people:
If you do this for me, then I promise to do this for you.
And in chapter 27, we have the vows of the people to God:
If you do this for me, then I promise to do this for you.
Another suggestion is that, since one of the ways to redeem what you had vowed was by paying a price, then this was a way for the Israelites to give financial support to the work in the tabernacle. So, right at the end of this book — a book which was all about the tabernacle and the priesthood and how the people should worship the Lord — comes a chapter about how to fund the tabernacle.
Or another suggestion is that since chapter 26 was about the punishments they would suffer for their disobedience, and since people are more likely to make vows in times of stress, then this chapter was a warning to them not to make rash vows, because any vow which they make cannot be revoked and the price to redeem a vow was high.
It’s not clear why this chapter is placed here, at the end of the book. But those are at least some of the suggestions which Bible scholars have put forward. Let’s now turn to the text to see what it says.
Verses 1 to 13
And verses 1 to 8 are about vows involving people while verses 9 to 13 are about vows involving both clean and unclean animals. So, people first of all.
According to verse 2 someone might make a special vow to dedicate persons to the Lord. We find an example of this kind of thing in 2 Samuel 15, where David’s son Absalom made a vow that if the Lord brought him back to Jerusalem, he promised to worship [or serve] the Lord. However, only the priests and Levites were permitted to serve the Lord in the tabernacle, and so instead of serving the Lord in person, the worshipper would pay an amount of money. And in the following verses, there are different rates depending on whether it’s a man or woman and depending on their age. It’s possible these rates were based on the value of slaves at the time.
So, a man might make a vow involving himself and his 20 year old son. If so, he had to pay 50 shekels for himself and 20 for his son. Since the average wage for a worker was one shekel a month, then the price for redemption was very high. And so, the Israelites would have to think seriously before making such a vow to the Lord. However, according to verse 8, provision was made for those who could not afford the normal amount.
According to verse 9, if someone made a vow involving a clean animal, that animal could not be substituted. So, we can imagine someone making a rash vow to give the Lord a certain animal. Later, he regrets the vow. But since it’s a clean animal, it cannot be exchanged for another. If he tries to exchange it, then both animals become holy and must be offered to the Lord.
According to verse 11, it was possible for someone to make a vow involving an unclean animal. Since it could not be offered as a sacrifice, presumably the priest could sell it and keep the proceeds from the sale for himself. However, if the worshipper wished to redeem the animal, the priest would value the animal and the worshipper then had to pay that amount plus an additional 20 per cent.
Vows could not be revoked and to redeem what was once vowed was costly. It was clear therefore that vows should not be undertaken lightly.
Verses 14 to 24
Verses 14 to 24 deal with vows involving houses and land. So, according to verse 14, a man might dedicate a house to the Lord. In such cases, the priest would take ownership of the house and would presumably sell it and keep the proceeds. If the worshipper wished to redeem the house, the priest would value it and the worshipper must pay that amount plus an additional 20 per cent.
According to verse 16, a man might dedicate some land to the Lord. The value of the land was to be set by the priest and was based on the amount of seed required for the land. But in determining the value of the land, the priest had to take into account how many years it was until the next Year of Jubilee when all land was meant to be returned. If the worshipper wished to redeem the land, he had to pay the price plus an additional 20 per cent. If he did not redeem the land before the Year of Jubilee, the land became the property of the priests.
Verses 22 to 24 are about land which someone has bought and then dedicated to the Lord. In the Year of Jubilee, ownership of that land will revert to the original owner in accordance with the laws for the Jubilee.
Having to add 20 per cent to the value of any house or land meant that the price to redeem what was vowed was high. It was therefore clear that vows should not be undertaken lightly.
Verses 25 to 34
Verses 25 to 34 contain a number of different regulations. Verse 25 sets down the standard of payment, which was the sanctuary shekel. Verses 26 and 27 make clear that no one may dedicate to the Lord a firstborn animal, because it automatically belonged to the Lord. However, unclean firstborn animals could be redeemed. Verses 28 and 29 are about things which were devoted to the Lord. You’ll see the little footnote in the NIV beside the word ‘devote’, because this was a technical term meaning something was irrevocably given over to the Lord. In other words, whatever was devoted to the Lord cannot ever be redeemed.
In some cases, it meant that whatever was devoted to the Lord was destroyed or killed. And verses 30 to 33 are about tithes: a tithe of everything from the land belonged to the Lord. However, if the worshipper wished to redeem the tithe, he could do so by adding an additional 20 per cent to the value. If the worshipper tried to substitute an animal that should be tithed with another, inferior animal, then both animals became holy and must be offered to the Lord.
It should be noted that while we often talk about tithing today, the tithe was part of the Old Testament laws about ceremonies and worship which came to an end with the coming of Christ and the inauguration of the new covenant in the blood of the Lord Jesus. The tithe was connected to Old Testament worship and to supporting the work of the Levites and priests who worked in the tabernacle and temple; but we no longer have Levites and priests and we no longer worship God at the tabernacle or temple. The New Testament does not command believers to tithe, but instead it commands us to give generously according to our means to help those in need, remembering that the Lord loves a cheerful giver; and it commands believers to share what they have with those who teach them God’s word, who are entitled to receive their living from the gospel.
In Acts 18:18 and 21:23 we read how Paul and other believers made vows which they were careful to keep. However the New Testament does not say much about vows. It does, however, teach us to keep our word; and the Lord taught us that our ‘yes’ should mean ‘yes’ and our ‘no’ should mean ‘no’. Christians should be people whose word can be trusted and we should not break any promises we have made.
Finally, whenever we read about redemption in the Bible, and how costly it was for the Israelites to redeem what they owed to God, we’re reminded of the great price our Saviour paid to redeem us. The price he paid to redeem us — from the debt we owe to God for our disobedience — was his life which he gave up for us on the cross. All of us were in debt to God, because we have not given him the obedience he deserves. And so, all of us were under God’s wrath and curse.
But just as the Israelites were able to pay a ransom price to pay what they owed to God, so Christ our Saviour gave up his life as the ransom price to redeem us and to free us from the debt of our sin so that instead of being condemned, we’re pardoned. And as pardoned sinners, filled with the Holy Spirit, we’re to live our lives, no longer for ourselves, but for him who loved us and gave himself for us. And it’s because of Christ and his work for us that God’s sinful but chosen people may come into his presence to worship him; and we can look forward to coming into the heavenly sanctuary to be with him for ever and ever.