As we come to this passage of scripture, let us consider what the Bible teaches about God speaking to His people. After all, Lev 20:1 opens with the familiar phrase "The LORD spoke to Moses , saying". Eze 37:1-8 is important in helping us understand Lev 20:1. These verses in Ezekiel show us that humans, apart from the work of God, are spiritually dead people. Left on our own, we are dead in our sins, more concerned with our own glory than God's glory, preoccupied with our vision for our life and not God's. God intervenes in our lives. Without God's words, we are dead.
This is important for us to establish before we look at these verses on child sacrifice in Lev 20. When God speaks, He is not giving us more information. When God speaks and gives His laws, He is not speaking to neutral parties, but rebellious, idolatrous sinners. God speaks to give us life, and as our study in Leviticus has been teaching us, God has a design and vision for life in a community that is revealed through these laws. God did not give these laws to restrict our happiness. It's not about leading a boring and moral life. God is trying to keep us alive, and give us life.
With this in mind, we'll take a look at these 9 verses that appear seemingly irrelevant to our modern lives today. These verses actually refute 3 myths that we often believe about idolatry.
(A) Myth: Idolatry is harmless. Truth: Idolatry corrupts the heart and everything. (Lev 20:1-2)
As we've read, these verses are given by God through Moses (Lev 20:1). He gives the command in Lev 20:2. The people were commanded not to give any of their children to Molech as part of the worship of this god and this applied not only to the Israelites, but also to all the sojourners that lived in Israel. Simply, the people were commanded not to turn to a false god and this command applied to everyone who lives in Israel, regardless of ethnicity or nationality. Remember also that the people of God were in the wilderness at this point, so this demarcation was also not bound by geography. Instead, idol worship was forbidden anywhere the people of God moved to, because God was with them.
The consequence for this worship was also given (Lev 20:2b). The individual caught giving his children to Molech will surely be put to death and the "people of the land shall stone him with stones". Molech is the god of the Ammonites (c.f. 2 Kings 23:10), and children are sacrificed in the worship of this god. Later on, in the life of Solomon, he actually worships Molech by building a high place for it (c.f. 1 Kings 11:7). Even the wisest man in the world could turn from worship of God to worship of an idol.
We read these verses in Leviticus and it's easy for us to be offended by Molech because child sacrifice is offensive and reprehensible. The innocence of children, and the betrayal of the parent-child trust strikes a chord with us, and we react so viscerally to child sacrifice because it pushes against our instinctive standards for the help that should be rendered to the helpless and innocent. These are true, but these are still considerations at the horizontal level, in man-to-man relationships. At this point, as modern people, we will affirm these laws in Leviticus, and are tempted to move on to the next chapter because we don't sacrifice our children in pagan worship today! But child sacrifice, and more importantly, idol worship, is prohibited because at a deeper, more important level, it says something of our relationship with God. It's about our vertical relationship.
Lev 20:1-9, when read together with other passages in the Bible, helps us see again and again why idol worship is wrong. In Isa 31:1-3, we read of how God's people made Egypt their idol and God. Idolatry is trusting something else apart from God. This continues in the New Testament in Paul's epistles in Col 3:5, where we see that anything that we worship apart from God -- even the impulse of our hearts -- is considered idolatry. Idolatry does not necessarily mean an outright adoption of another religion, as in the case in Leviticus. Running and seeking refuge and strength something apart from God is idolatry. God is not just an egomaniacal deity who gets upset when people do not worship Him. Idol worship is wrong because it spits in the face of a kind, loving and good Creator, and to whom all worship is due. Let us pause and consider again: is this the reason why you are affected by child sacrifice? We all live within the constraints of our culture, and have a set of moral standards but the primary evil of idolatry is directed at God, and is an outright rejection of Him.
Just like the Israelites in the past, we too are susceptible to different forms of idolatry. Calvin says that our hearts are idol-making factories. Tim Keller, in his book Counterfeit Gods, has a helpful definition and diagnostic for us:
“What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”
If we are honest with ourselves, we live this out in many ways. One example is how our culture celebrates freedom and the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness as we deem it to be. Broadly speaking, we live in a culture where marriage and having children are being decoupled, and also, the role and purpose of marriage has also undergone changes in our society. Developed countries around the world including Singapore report declining birth rates. It is not unfair to say that this could be our way of living for ourselves. This is a simplification, and this trend is certainly a result of other societal changes, but at the root of it, it's our way of "worshipping Molech", sacrificing the children that we ought to or don't even plan on having. Idolatry has touched our lives in every way, including what we think about marriage and childbearing. As Christians, are we any different from the rest of the world? Do we believe Rom 14:8 and see how God and his rule also extends to what we think about these issues?
(B) Myth: I’m not responsible for other people’s idolatry. Truth: God’s holy people belong to one another. (Lev 20:3-5)
God emphasises his command against child sacrifice in Lev 20:3. He says that He will set his face against the one who practices such idol worship. It is a poetic way of saying that He is resolutely opposed to this serious matter. Hear in these words God's resolve against any form of idolatry. Idolatry is serious, both then and now.
The latter part of verse 3 gives us the reason for such a severe view. Child sacrifice and idol worship make His sanctuary unclean and profane his holy name. God's sanctuary is a symbol of His presence, and this holy God cannot tolerate idolatry. It is a defilement of His holiness.
God gives a secondary command in Lev 20:5-6. Not only does God not tolerate idolatry, the same serious punishment is also meted out against the community who tolerates such "whoring after Molech". These are certainly strong words against someone else's idolatry! What does God mean here?
We see here tht God is concerned not only with the individual's holiness, but also the holiness and purity of His people as a whole. God's people are always seen together and don't live lives individually. He has always worked with communities, not just individual lone rangers -- Adam and Eve were a pair and called to carry out the mandate of multiplying, Abraham was called to be a nation, Moses was called to bring a people out of Egypt, and the list goes on. In the last book of the Bible, in Revelation, God used visions of a multitude to encourage John who was stranded alone on the island of Patmos. Even at the end of all things, we are to dwell with Him with other saints! From the first to the last page of Scripture, God has always been concerned with His community.
These verses in Lev 20:1-8 pose a challenge to our individualistic culture today, where we often worship at the altars of individuality and personal freedom. We are more comfortable by ourselves, and we certainly don't feel like we have much of an authority to tell others how they ought to live. This translates to our relationship with other Christians in the church. But in these strong words in Lev 20:5-6, we realise that it is not good enough for us to live "good lives" alone, if that is even possible. God's people are also responsible for each other. "Jesus loves me", that is true. But more accurately, God loves His covenant people. Our community life is to reflect Him. The deepest relationships that all Christians can and should experience is found in the pool (i.e. baptism) and on the table (i.e. through the Lord's Supper). This could come as a challenge to us young people, who tend to be non-committal and shape our lives and schedule around what is convenient. Lev 20:1-8, the Old Testament equivalent of Acts 2:42-46, actually speaks of a much deeper involvement in each other's life. It is not the kind of life where we just hang out when it's fun and check in for 2 hours a week. It speaks of a deeper relationship, one that is actually concerned with the moral well-being of another to the extent of calling out sin and encouraging others to pursue holiness. Who is your primary spiritual community?
(C) Myth: God leaves me to try my best to be holy. Truth: God loves us too much to leave us unsanctified. (Lev 20:6-9)
God gives a third situation and warns the people about it. Following the prohibitions against idol worship in the form of child sacrifice, the people were also forbidden to turn to mediums and necromancers (Lev 20:6). God would set his face against any who did so.
At the end of this passage, God summarises his instructions and tells His people why they should obey. God's people were told to consecrate themselves and be holy, because they worshipped a God who is holy (Lev 20:7). But there is something else. As they obeyed His statutes, God also promises to be the one who sanctifies them (Lev 20:8). It is easy to read these chapters in Leviticus and assume that these are lists of good things that we ought to do to try to become holy. But this pursuit of holiness is not dependent wholly on our efforts. These verses remind us that this holy God also loves us, and promises to sanctify us.
These 8 verses in Leviticus show us how serious idolatry is. God in his grace, has revealed the severity of this sin, because pursuing and whoring idols is the path that leads only to death. This is why idolatry is not harmless, but it corrupts the heart and everything else. Not only that, we are to be concerned with the idolatry of others too as a reflection of this love shown to us. God's people belong to each other. And finally, as we continue to obey His statutes, He has not left us alone to try harder at being holy. As Christians, we know that we grow in holiness and sanctification because we have been made alive in Christ, who bought us with His blood.