Moral Purity Laws (Leviticus 18-20)

Part five of the overview of Leviticus with commentary. This time we go through the Moral purity laws of chapters 18-20.

Leviticus Chapter 18:
God gave Moses rules and regulations to keep the Israelites out of trouble. He said that they are to avoid following the customs of the Egyptians and Canaanites.

They can’t have sex with close relatives like parents, grandparents, step-parents, children, grandchildren, step-children, in-laws (parents, siblings, and children), siblings, half-siblings, and aunts (Lev 18:1-18). In the case of polygamy (only polygyny is recognized), men shouldn’t marry a mother-and-daughter pair, or a pair of sisters because they will be rivals (like Jacob’s wives Rachel and Leah). Men can’t marry their male relative’s ex-wives. Couples can’t have intentional menstruation sex, (although the enforcement of this by the community has its limitations). Sex with another person’s spouse, aka adultery, is forbidden (this is from the 10 commandments). Same-sex intercourse and Beastiality are forbidden.

Furthermore, no one should sacrifice to false gods like Molech, especially their own children. God reminds them that the practices of the Canaanites are detestable which is why he is punishing them through the Israelites. The Israelites are to purify the land with their conduct and not repeat the sins of the Canaanites. Anyone who engages in these practices is breaking God’s commands and they will be cut off.

Comment: The Bible doesn’t limit incest to sex with blood relatives, in fact, a man is in sin if a man has sex with his non-blood-related stepmother (father’s wife or even ex-wife) because she is his father’s wife or ex-wife (Gen 35:22 & Gen 49:4, Lev 18:8, Lev 20:11, Deut 22:30, & 1 Cor 5:1). This indicates that those rules about incest are not explicitly about genetics but about relationships. In the Genesis era, it only would have been a sin to have a vertical sexual relationship (parents/grandparents having sex with their children/grandchildren). For example, Lot’s daughters get him drunk and have sex with him after escaping Sodom to the wilderness, because they are afraid they are not going to find husbands. However, horizontal relationships (siblings, half-siblings, and cousins), and diagonal relationships (aunts/nieces and uncles/nephews) are not explicitly labeled as sin and are done themselves by the pre-Moses patriarchs. Abraham and Sarah are half-siblings with the same father (Gen 20:12), Abraham’s brother, Nahor marries his other brother Haran’s daughter Milcah, making them uncle and niece (Gen 11:29), and Moses’ own parents (Amram and Jochebed) are nephew and aunt (Ex 6:20). Although Leviticus doesn’t ban niece-to-uncle marriages so Nahor isn’t a conflict with the Mosiac Law.

We don’t see tight restrictions on these things in the bible until the time of Moses. These are God’s terms and conditions for the Sinaitic covenant mediated by Moses. The Sinaitic covenant is primarily for the nation of Israel, though it does include moral laws that were sin to break before Moses like murder, adultery, and others, which apply to all nations. In Leviticus is where we see more marriage restrictions on both blood and non-blood relatives like siblings & half-siblings (Lev 18:9, Lev 20:17), step-siblings (Lev 18:11), and aunts (Lev 18:12-13, Lev 20:19). Uncles to niece and cousin relations are allowed however aunt to nephew relations are off-limits even though they should categorically be the same. This could be because of the male/female hierarchy as well as the limits on polygamous marriages to women that are related to each other. A grandfather giving his daughter away to his grandson would be improper because it is crossing genealogy lines. Males give away female relatives in marriage when their fathers are deceased, so it would be improper for a man to give his sister away in marriage to his son. For example, Ishmael had been dead for 14 years when Esau married his daughter Mahalath in Gen 28:8-9, so she was given away by Nebaioth the firstborn son of Ishmael who is mentioned in verse 9. Marrying an aunt on the mother’s side may be more about their sisterly relationship being disrupted by them becoming a mother and daughter-in-law/wife pair, even though they are sisters, this could be connected to the ban on polygamous marriages to sister pairs and mother-daughter pairs. Essentially the rule was that women could marry men in the same or a higher generation, but not lower, and men could marry women in the same or lower generation but not higher. Moses’ own parents violate these laws, because his mother is his father’s aunt, yet it doesn’t count against them because it was not given yet. These are just some of the most obvious verses about sex with relatives. These sex practices along with others were even banned in some other world cultures as well (1 Cor 5:1). God warns the Israelites that the Canaanites are doing these things, and he doesn’t want them to copy these same habits when they get to the land.

Leviticus Chapter 19:
God told Moses to inform the people that they are required to live holy because God is holy. Therefore they are expected to have good conduct and keep the 10 commandments. For example, everyone is expected to honor their parents, keep the sabbath days, and forsake idol worship because YHWH is their God alone.

Peace offerings will only be accepted when done correctly. They must be eaten on the day they are sacrificed. If it is voluntary or for a vow then it can be eaten on the second day (Lev 11:16). However, if any of it remains until the 3rd day it is to be burned because it is contaminated and the person eating it will be cut off from the community.

When harvesting, instead of collecting every single grain and grape, leave some behind, and if any fall on the ground leaves those as well. Let these crops be gleaned by the poor and foreigners.

God requires obedience to these laws: Don’t lie, cheat, oppress, slander, or steal from anyone, and don’t withhold the wages of a hired worker overnight. Don’t swear falsely in God’s name. Don’t bully the deaf or the blind. In all matters of judgment show fairness to both the poor and the powerful. Don’t spread gossip. Don’t stand idle when a neighbor is in danger. It is sinful to secretly hate a neighbor, confront people directly and resolve disputes. They must not seek vengeance, but instead, love their neighbors as themselves.

They should not mate two different kinds of animals, plant two different kinds of seed on their fields, or wear clothing woven from two different kinds of thread. Blood drinking, divination, and fortune telling are forbidden and no one should be consulting with mediums and sorcerers because this will defile the land.

They can’t shave the hair on their temples or trim their beards. They shouldn’t cut themselves or mark themselves when someone dies. They should never sell their daughters as prostitutes, this would bring shame to the land. They must show reverence by standing when a person with gray hair enters their presence. They must not mistreat foreigners and must love them as they love their fellow Israelites, because they were once foreigners in Egypt. They must not use unjust scales and be honest about their measurements.

If a man has sex with another man’s slave then it is not adultery because she was a slave and not a wife. That man must sacrifice a guilt offering for his fornication. However, she doesn’t need to become his wife because she was not a free woman. When the Israelites enter the promised land and they plant fruit trees, their fruits are untouchable for three years, then in the fourth year, they are given to God as an offering. Afterward in the fifth year, they may eat the fruits of the trees they planted.

Comment: Notice the prohibition on mixing of seeds in the vineyard, cross-breeding animals, and the mixing of fabrics in Lev 19:19. These things may be prohibited because of a possibly connected to Canaanite pagan rituals where they mix animals, plants, and fabrics as an act of worship towards their fertility gods. This is according to the book, “Think Christianly: Looking at the Intersection of Faith and Culture” by Jonathan Morrow. These specific prohibitions are of things that are irrational and impractical to do. Since cotton keeps one cool in the summer and wool is for keeping one warm in the winter, this would be uncomfortable to wear and cause health problems. In Ezekiel 44:17-18, the priests are forbidden from wearing wool while serving in the temple because it will cause them to sweat which can lead to more mishaps. Plant incompatibility has practical issues, as some crops can cause harm to others when planted together by attracting the wrong insects, competing for water in the soil, etc. Cross-breeding animals doesn’t produce new animals and is a waste of time since they could be making new livestock instead, which is financial gain. No rational person would do any of these things, so if God prohibits irrational things that no one would need to do, then there must be some kind of superstition attached to them. Considering Lev 19 is sandwiched between chapters 18 and 20 which both warn the Israelites not to copy the Canaanites, it makes sense that this was a pagan religious practice of the Canaanites. The verse after Lev 19:19 deals with witchcraft and divination, so categorically they seem to be bundled together. Check out more on the Think Christians explanation for restrictions on Mixing Fabrics here.

With the slave wife fornication mentioned in verses 20-22, this rule is basically saying that even if a slave woman is engaged it won’t count as adultery because the woman’s status as a slave supersedes her status of being engaged. However, he must sacrifice a guilt offering for his sin. Once her term is over it would count as adultery because she is engaged and they both would be put to death (Deut 22:22). Of course, if he raped her then only he would be punished (Deut 22:23-27). In the case of a non-engaged slave woman, it is treated like fornication with a free woman except the man has to pay her debt in order to marry her. In the case of a free woman the father must permit, however, it’s unclear if her father has a say when she is a slave. The master has the right to marry her to another slave or his own son Ex 21:4 & 9, but since she is in a slave contract with him only then these may be the only people the master can marry her off to since his son is his heir and the male slave is also in a debt contract with the master. There is a restriction on him selling her to foreigners but not other free Israelite men (Ex 21:8). However, that restriction also implies that he can only give her back to her father when her term is up if she is not going to marry him or his son because again the debt contract was only with him.

Leviticus Chapter 20:
God gives Moses instructions on punishing sins and dealing with moral impurity.

Anyone (both Israelite and foreigner) who sacrifices their children to Molech will be put to death. If the community turns a blind eye to child sacrifice then those people and their families will be punished and cut off for condoning idolatry with Molech. God will turn against and punish those that seek out mediums and soothsayers because it is spiritual prostitution. The Israelites must consecrate themselves and be holy before God.

These sins are punished by death (typically by stoning but sometimes burning): cursing one’s parents, adultery with a neighbor, adultery with a step-parent, same-sex intercourse, beastiality (the animal must die as well), polygamy with a mother and daughter pair, and those who practice divination or sorcery.

These sins are punished by having the perpetrators cut off publicly and in some cases being childless: incestuous sex between siblings (half and step included), aunt and nephew sexual relationships, menstruation sex, sex with in-laws or marriage with the ex-in-laws of siblings and relatives.

The Israelites must follow these regulations and should not practice the customs of the Canaanites after taking over the land otherwise they will be vomited (exiled) out of the land just like the former inhabitants. However, God has set the Israelites apart to be holy and represent him in return for being given this land of milk and honey. That holiness requires them to keep God’s dietary restrictions and avoid eating unclean animals and touching their carcasses. God is holy so his people must also be holy.

Comment: For Lev 20:17-21 any adulterous relationship in this section would be put to death like the previous one if the perpetrators are caught in the act (Deut 22:22) since death requires two or three witnesses (Deut 17:6). However if they are not caught in the act, but discovered later than the punishment is public shame and bareness (Num 5:11-31). In other words, the punishment for being caught in an adulterous takes precedence over whether or not the perpetrators are related or not, however, if it is just fornication and they are related (or a married couple is caught having menstruation sex) they are punished with being cut off from the community. This is what should have happened in the situation with Amnon for raping his half-sister Tamar in 2 Samuel 13.

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