Let’s remind ourselves of the flow of Leviticus in the preceding 23 chapters. The first section of chapters 1-10 dealt with the offerings, before moving on to a series of laws to help the people distinguish between clean and unclean things in chapters 11-17. Lev 18-22 contained a series of instructions that dealt with the holiness of the nation of Israel, and in Lev 23, we just spent weeks looking at a series of Feasts and important celebrations in the national calendar of Israel. However these verses in Lev 24:10-33 differ from the rest of the book thus far. Let's take a closer look at how it differs, and why it's important.
(A) God’s holiness and God-centered instincts : engaged with (Scripture), waiting and seeking God (Lev 24:10-12)
These verses in Lev 24 are a narrative, marking a break from the usual pattern of instruction that we've seen in the preceding chapters. The only other place with a narrative was in Lev 10, with the death of the sons of Aaron for offering unauthorized fire before the Lord. These 2 narratives seem to serve as bookends to the book of Leviticus, as both accounts have to do with people dishonoring God and not treating Him as holy.
A background story is given in Lev 24:10-12 to help us understand the important context that holds this whole section together. It is recorded for us that an Israelite man argued and fought in the camp with a man from a mixed background. During the fight, the man of the mixed background blasphemes and cursed by the Name. What is the Name? "Yahweh" is the Hebrew name that God revealed in Exo 3:14. Therefore whatever he said, he would have said something inappropriate for the name of God.
In response, the Israelites brought him to Moses (Lev 24:11b) and put him in custody (Lev 24:12). Verse 11b inserts a description of his mother's name and clan, and finally we learn of his identity because thus far, we only know of his crime, and he has been referred to as the man with an Egyptian father. His identity only became clear before the judge, Moses. This was why the people brought him to Moses. Why, then, did they hold him in custody (Lev 24:12)? There must have been a gap of time between verse 11 and 13. They took him to see Moses and they wanted to be very sure that their next steps were something that God wanted them to do -- not what they wanted to do, and neither should it be what Moses wanted them to do.
What can we learn from this account? Firstly, it is important to note the persons involved, as well as the location of the crime. The fighting took place within the camp, and involved an Israelite as well as another of mixed parentage. Secondly, the nature of his crime is not so much the horizontal fighting, but the tarnishing of God's name and God's person in God's presence (for they were in the camp). It is critical for us to understand what we should do with that name!
Thirdly, the people also did not presume on God to judge this man. In Exo 20:7, the commandment and consequences of taking the Lord's name in vain was told to them. From the 10 Commandments, they knew that the man's blasphemy and cursing was serious, and it mattered to God. They heard and knew God's commandments and his character. The God who gives words, also speaks with lightning and trumpet, with smoking mountains (c.f. Exo 20:18-21). This picture of God reverberates through the rest of the book, and even in Leviticus. This is why they knew to bring him to Moses. They knew that taking the Lord's name was no small matter. But at the same time, they waited to seek the Lord's direction as to how he should be judged. God's Word was not just for "back then" in Exodus, but was also for the "now" when incidents happen. The people of God had a God-centered instinct. It is an intentional, automatic reverence for God that sees life revolving around who God is, as a result of their living relationship with Him. Because of who He is, and who He says He is, His word and commandments matter for their lives. Do you have a God-centered instinct? This passage also reminds us that there is nowhere else that we can hear God's voice apart from the Word. We want to be people who wait on God, and not be presumptuous. God is not here just to endorse our plans! God-centered instincts will seem weird by the standards of the world, but Christians know that reading and obeying His Word is exactly what God commanded us to do.
(B) God’s holiness and divine judgement : the seriousness of blasphemy (Lev 24:13-16)
Lev 24:13-16 gives us God's response to the situation. There are 4 actions given to Moses:
"Bring out of the camp" (Lev 24:14a) -- Note the location again. The incident took place within the camp, but the consequences of his actions led to him being led out of the camp. To leave the camp will most definitely involve walking him through the community. He has to be brought away from the presence of God, and everyone will witness it.
"Let all who heard him lay their hands on his head" (Lev 24:14b) -- This is a picture of the community taking responsibility. What do you think this does? It is probably judicial, and signals that this crime was also witnessed by people. This crime was not committed in secret, and the consequences are also known to community. Unlike Lev 10:4-5, where the sons of Aaron were consumed by fire as a result of God acting, the punishment here is performed intentionally by their fellow Israelites.
Let all the congregation stone him" (Lev 24:14c) -- All the congregation is involved. Everyone participates, and it is not just restricted to Moses or the leaders.
"Speak to the people of Israel, saying" (Lev 24:15) -- God, when He deals with us in discipline, never deals in abstractness. Everything was spelt out clearly. This whole judicial act was also meant to teach the people something.
In Exo 20, we are told that anyone who curses God shall bear his sin. In Lev 24, the consequences are spelt out further. Those who blaspheme the name will be put to death, and this is for both the sojourner, as well as the native. Misusing the name of the Lord is a serious matter. Yet at first glance, we might be offended by this, and even dub the consequences as cruel.
The key to understanding this passage comes in knowing the value of the name of the Lord. Why? Because God's name counts for something. R.C. Sproul, in The Holiness of God, explains it this way:
“The idea of holiness is so central to biblical teaching that it is said of God, “Holy is his name” (Luke 1:49). His name is holy because He is holy. He is not always treated with holy reverence. His name is tramped through the dirt of this world. It functions as a curse word, a platform for the obscene. That the world has little respect for God is vividly seen by the way the world regards His name. No honor. No reverence. No awe before Him.”
What is the value of the name of your God, if you could attach a monetary value to it? What would you pay for some else to hear God's name praised? If you can put a price on it, you can understand the value of His name. What is the value of God's glory? When we understand this, we can understand why a blasphemer needs to be stoned. Blasphemy against the name of the Lord (the name given to His people as a trust) is worth a life, your life, if the crime is committed. Is God an egomaniac? This is the God who utters Isa 48: 9-11. From time to time, we need to jump into Leviticus again to remind ourselves of the worth of God. When we read the Bible as God intended for it to be read, we realise again and again that God himself is worth everything. Even our lives. For us today, what do we do when we hear the name of God being misused and taken in vain? Is God saying anything to you today, about the way you treat His name?
(C) God’s holiness and personal responsibility : to be impartial and obedient (Lev 24:17-23)
But what is the connection between this case study and the rest of this chapter? In both verse 16 and 22, we read that this particular set of laws apply to both the sojourner and the native. Ethnicity does not matter when it comes to obedience to the law of God. This is why the details given about the people involved are so important here. The sojourner, or in this case the man of mixed parentage, and the Israelites are all bound to the law of God. The law of God rules over the people of God in the presence of God. Lev 24:17-22 goes on to lay out 3 situations to flesh this out, emphasising once more that there is equity in God's presence. God has laid out this principle in Lev 19:33 previously. In this chapter, this principle is fleshed out and given an added level of seriousness.
How does this passage conclude? We are told explicitly "[t]hus the people of Israel did as the Lord commanded Moses". This emphasises the obedience of the people to the Word of God. If we compare this narrative with the only other instance of a narrative in Lev 10:1-3, we realise that this case is slightly different. In Lev 10:1-3, the sons were killed by fire, but here, the blasphemer was put to death by stoning. In the former, God acted swiftly, but in the latter, the people were involved in the judgment. It's probably not just about justice, because God could have sent fire to judge the blasphemer. His justice here requires the obedience of His people, and He has designed it that way. He could have done a million other things to the blasphemer, but God was also trying to teach His people to be a certain kind of people. They were to be people who were concerned about the holiness of God, taking their role to honor and respect the name of God. This was for all the congregation, not just the leaders or fathers.
What about us today? If we are honest with ourselves, this message has probably been lost in many of our churches. We've lost something of the focus on the holiness of God, and reverence that come with it. As young people, we are also often reluctant to grow up and tend to think about our relationship with God as a personal thing, best developed when left to our alone time with worship music when it's all just about "me and God". Something about the personal reverence, and us playing our role in the community has been lost. Even in Lev 24, we see something of how God intends for His relationship with His people to be lived out in a community, and the community that displays His holiness is also involved called to the sometimes unpleasant task of discipline. How can we apply this today? One simple application is to recognise that we have all been called to do something in the community, not just the ones that are "holier" or have a leadership role in the community. And the holiness of God should be our all-consuming passion.
Lev 24 is a case study on blasphemy and misusing the name of the Lord. An honest reflection and consideration of the way we use our words or even what we think will most likely cause us to identify with the blasphemer. What then, does the New Testament say to us? From Lev, we know that outside the camp is where unclean things go to, and in Lev 24, that is where the stoning and judgment takes place. This location is important, because sinners are cast out there, signifying a break from community and the presence of God. This is just like how Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden after they sinned and were sent out from the presence of God. In Heb 13:11-13, we read of how Jesus "suffered outside the gate". He died outside the camp, because He did not die as a righteous man. He was led outside the camp and died as a blasphemer, for that was the charge laid on Him by the religious leaders. Yes, Jesus died for blasphemers (c.f. 1 Tim 1:13-14) so that blasphemers could be brought back into the camp. This is the hope that we have! And in response, Heb 13:13 calls us to also go outside the camp and bear the reproach He endured. Now, we are called to go out. If it means suffering for Jesus' sake, it is worth it because that is the value of the name of God.
What is God's name worth to you? How does the value of God's name change the way you live today?