We are now at the beginning of our third series in Leviticus. Chapter 18 marks the beginning of what is sometimes called the Holiness Code, because it is about God’s instructions on how to be holy. While we understand and refer to the Pentateuch as the Law, we often overlook the fact that there are three main divisions within the Old Testament law – moral, ceremonial, and civil. Moral laws such as the ten commandments (Ex 20:1-17) are based on the character of God and extends from the Old Testament into the New Testament. Ceremonial laws deal with worship and the priestly procedures as they are related to the various sacrifices through which the people of the Old Testament were cleansed of their sins. Civil laws dictated Israel’s everyday life and pertained to the organisation of the nation. This series is going to focus more on civil law and its function in shaping Israel’s identity.
(A) God’s People: Called to be a set apart and holy nation (Lev 18:1-5)
Although Leviticus 18 contains a long list of unholy practices regarding sexual immorality and idolatry that are to be avoided by the Israelites, the chapter begins and ends with “I am the LORD your God” (Lev 18: 2, 30). The placement of this phrase is crucial, because it is a shorthand way of reminding Israel that the personal and covenantal God had rescued them from captivity in Egypt. In doing so, the LORD (or YHWH) establishes His ownership and authority over Israel and grounds the subsequent commands in His Lordship of them (In Lev 18:4b,5, see the marker “therefore”). God, then, is the ultimate reason for who we are and how we ought to live.
Second, in verses 3 to 5, Israel is told not to do as “they” do in Egypt and Canaan, and instead follow God’s rules and statutes. We thus see a clear line being drawn between the people of God and the people living in the surrounding nations through the use of pronouns and contrasts. They are called to be set apart from other pagan nations by living in a different way.
Being different from other nations is not the only purpose of walking in God’s ways. “If” is a conjunction that indicates consequence, and it is used in verse 5 to explain the result of following God’s laws – life. The people of God were created to experience God’s blessing and favor (Gen 1:26-28). It is for this reason that He gave them laws, in this way enabling them to dwell within the sphere of His favor and live an abundant life according to the blessing He intended and promised their forefathers. Such obedience was not meant to merit relationship with God, but to acknowledge that they already belonged to the holy God who had redeemed them by grace and provided the best ways for them to live.
In this sense, Israel’s national identity is rooted in a God who demands that they reflect His Holy nature, because they are His, and He is holy. What does this mean to be a holy nation then? According to 1 Pet 2:9-12, to be a holy nation is to carry out a certain kind of work as His royal priesthood – a sort of ministry is implied, and it seems to be one that “proclaim[s] the excellencies” of God. To be a holy nation also entails a certain way of living – that is, to abstain from the passions of the flesh and conduct oneself in an honorable way that points others to God, thereby fulfilling the work given to the people of this nation.
What does this mean for us today? Where is your identity found? Does holiness figure highly on your priorities today? Do you live in a distinctive way that sets you apart from the world? Can the people around you attribute your behavior to God’s grace?
(B) God’s People: Called to be aware of sin and turn away from it (Lev 18:6-23)
A large portion of the passage lists a range of unholy practices God’s people are specifically instructed not to engage in:
|Lev 18:6-18||Incest||Uncovering nakedness relates to the dignity of a person, given to us by God. Within the family exists a certain order and social
structure instituted by God. As such, committing incest subverts that structure and trust. We might also have a desire to impose power that messes the structure and order up, as Reuben did in Gen 35:22. notice also that there is completeness in the instructions, which seems to cover all bases. Perhaps God knows people are inclined to look for loopholes.
|Lev 18:19||Menstrual uncleanness||This is a matter of ceremonial uncleanness – slightly
different from the moral and civil laws that we are looking at here
|Lev 18:20||Adultery||This is speaking about giving in to worldly passions and lust. There is also the issue of greed and taking what you cannot have – the ‘forbidden fruit’. Remember also that this is also in the moral law of the ten commandments. Jesus, when He came, did not
abolish the laws against adultery; He made them stricter.
|Lev 18:21||Idolatry||This speaks about the rejection of God and murder. This is slightly different
because this is not about sex, but in the broader scheme of things, this is
about God enacting laws to protect the family unit.
|So much that can be said about homosexuality,
especially today. But both of these are about perverting God’s original design
There are a few reasons as to why these laws were issued to the Israelites as the first of many civil laws regarding everyday living:
God’s people lived in a sinful world where sexual immorality and idolatry were perhaps most prevalent in the surrounding nations. These sins threatened to turn them away from Him.
God knew His people’s hearts. They were all sinful people who had violated His statutes before, and He knew they would be tempted to give into sin.
Sexuality is tightly linked with purity and cleanness, even today – and holiness is about keeping pure.
Exposing nakedness reminds us of original sin, when Adam and Eve tried to cover their nakedness.
Sin is a reality we must face as Christians. Everyone is a sexual sinner and an idolator. Therefore, we need to understand the sin from the outside, that is, the sin we live amongst. We also need to understand the sin within ourselves, and the temptations we give in to.
(C) God’s People: Called to hold on to holy identity (Lev 18:24-30)
The closing verses of Leviticus 18 warns Israel that making herself unclean through these unholy practices would result in the land becoming unclean. In this sense, it is implied that Man’s sin is not simply about the people involved in it. Sin is an offense to their surroundings, and to God the Creator Himself. The punishment for this offense is that they are vomited out by the land – not just sent away, not just they perished, but hurled out. The word “vomit” indicates a natural reflex in which the body expels something unnatural. In the same way, sinful persons are expelled from the land and cut off from among their people (Lev 18:29), because they are so horrid and contrary to God’s original design for creation that there is no way that they could have stayed. They are rejected by their people, and they lose all sense of identity and belonging.
It is thus clear that the consequence for committing sin is to be cut off from God’s people. Today, if we persist in sin, we too will be cut off and rejected by God. The problem is, we are woefully unable to fulfil God’s laws and are sinful in every way. However, there is a difference. Although the Israelites found their basis for being a holy nation in the law, we find our basis for being a holy nation in the fulfilment of the law, Jesus Christ. Because Jesus was vomited out by the land and cut off from God in the place of undeserving sinners like us, we are clothed with His holiness and made pure and clean in the eyes of the Father.
The question is – are we part of this holy nation? Do we believe that the blood of Christ covers our sins and cleanses us completely? And if so, is it obvious to others that we belong to a nation that is not like other nations? Our lives should clearly tell that story.