Leviticus 20 – Punishments for Laws Already Given
A. The penalty for sins of idolatry.
1. (1-5) Molech worship.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Again, you shall say to the children of Israel: ‘Whoever of the children of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell in Israel, who gives any of his descendants to Molech, he shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones. I will set My face against that man, and will cut him off from his people, because he has given some of his descendants to Molech, to defile My sanctuary and profane My holy name. And if the people of the land should in any way hide their eyes from the man, when he gives some of his descendants to Molech, and they do not kill him, then I will set My face against that man and against his family; and I will cut him off from his people, and all who prostitute themselves with him to commit harlotry with Molech.
a. Who gives any of his descendants to Molech, he shall surely be put to death: The worship of the horrific idol Molech was mentioned in Leviticus 18:21. Molech was worshipped by heating a metal statue representing the god until it was red hot, then by placing a living infant on the outstretched hands of the statue, while beating drums drowned out the screams of the child until it burned to death.
b. I will set My face against that man and against his family: The penalty for Molech worship was death and if the sentence was not carried out by Israel, God declared He would set My face against that man and against his family. God will prosecute if the legal system of Israel failed to.
i. Sadly, even a man as great as Solomon at least sanctioned the worship of Molech and built a temple to this idol (1 Kings 11:7). King Ahaz of Judah gave his own son to Molech (2 Kings 16:3). One of the great crimes of the northern tribes of Israel was their worship of Molech, leading to the Assyrian captivity (2 Kings 17:17). King Manasseh of Judah gave his son to Molech (2 Kings 21:6). Up to the days of King Josiah of Judah, Molech worship continued, because he destroyed a place of worship to that idol (2 Kings 23:10).
2. (6-8) The penalty for involvement with the occult.
‘And the person who turns to mediums and familiar spirits, to prostitute himself with them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from his people. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God. And you shall keep My statutes, and perform them: I am the LORD who sanctifies you.
a. I will set My face against that person and cut them off from his people: In this specific passage, God gave nothing for Israel to do regarding the penalty. He simply said that He would execute the penalty. Involvement in such occult practices invariably separates someone from God.
i. This was the driving force behind the Ephesian church’s dramatic renunciation of magical and occult materials (Acts 19:17-20). Having seen the reality of spiritual warfare, they wanted to draw close to the LORD and remove anything that might hinder that drawing close.
ii. 1 John 4:2 makes it clear there are spirits who are not from God; such occult, Jesus-denying spirits must be rejected completely.
b. Sanctify yourselves… I am the LORD who sanctifies you: These are two important aspects of our walk with God. God will not force you to be separate to Him. He does the work, but He does it through our own cooperating efforts and yielded will.
B. The penalties for sins of immorality.
1. (9) The penalty for the cursing of a parent.
‘For everyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother. His blood shall be upon him.
a. Everyone who curses his father or his mother: Virtually all commentators agree this is not the outburst of a small child – or even an adolescent – against their parent, but the settled heart of an adult child against their parent. Such inter-generational warfare was not to be tolerated, and punishable by death.
b. Curses his father or his mother: This wasn’t merely saying something bad about or to one’s parents; it was likely the calling down of a death-curse on them.
i. “Elaborate curses, many of which appear to have the nature of magical spells, were current in the ancient Near East, and amongst superstitious people often worked with devastating effect since in the eastern mind the curse carried with itself its own power of execution.” (Harrison)
c. Shall surely be put to death: Even considering that this law applied to an adult child who threatened their parent, this was still a severe law. Yet as it was practiced in ancient Israel, it had a built-in protection for the rights of the child, according to Deuteronomy 21:18-21. This passage states that the parent did not have the right to carry out this punishment, but they had to bring the accused child before the elders and judges of the city. This meant that the parent – against all contemporary custom – did not have the absolute power of life and death over their children. As a practical matter, the judges of Israel rarely if ever administered the death penalty in such cases, yet the child was held accountable.
2. (10) The penalty for adultery.
‘The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death.
a. The adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death: God commanded the death penalty for adultery in ancient Israel. As with previous laws and their penalties, this was because of the exceedingly great social consequences of this sin. God commanded the ultimate penalty to discourage it.
b. Shall surely be put to death: As a practical matter, this death penalty was rarely carried out, as is the case in most of these situations where capital punishment is commanded. This is because any capital crime required two or three witnesses, and the witnesses had to be so sure of what they saw that they were willing to “cast the first stone” – that is, initiate the execution (Deuteronomy 17:6-7).
i. So, particularly in a case of adultery (or other sexual sins) there would rarely be two eyewitnesses willing to initiate the execution – and so capital punishment would not be carried out.
ii. This also helps us to understand what Jesus was doing when confronting the crowd who brought to Him the woman taken in adultery. By their presence and words, they claimed to have caught the woman in the act – but why then did they not bring the guilty man as well? And who was willing to cast the first stone – that is, initiate the execution? (John 8:1-12)
c. Shall surely be put to death: If the death penalty was carried out so rarely in ancient Israel (especially for these crimes), what good was it? It communicated loud and clear an ideal that Israel was to live up to, and it made people regard their sin much more seriously. Today, we have done away with this ideal, and people don’t care about such sins.
i. In ancient Israel, there was no stronger way to say simply: Adultery is wrong, cursing your parents is wrong, incest is wrong – and even if you “get away with it,” it is wrong, God regards it as wrong, and society regards it as wrong.
3. (11-12) The penalty for sins of incest.
The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them. If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall surely be put to death. They have committed perversion. Their blood shall be upon them.
4. (13) The penalty for homosexual sin.
If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.
a. If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death: Though God here commanded the death penalty for homosexual practice (under the guidelines of evidence in a capital case as described in Deuteronomy 17:6-7), we should note this was not a more severe punishment than what was commanded as the penalty for adultery or incest. Homosexual practices are sin, but sin in the same sense other sexual sins are.
5. (14) The penalty for marrying both a woman and her mother.
If a man marries a woman and her mother, it is wickedness. They shall be burned with fire, both he and they, that there may be no wickedness among you.
a. They shall be burned with fire: Adam Clarke had an interesting approach to the phrase shall be burned with fire, though not likely accurate: “It is very likely that the crime mentioned in this verse was not punished by burning alive, but by some kind of branding, by which they were ever after rendered infamous…. Branding with a hot iron would certainly accomplish every desirable end both for punishment and prevention.”
6. (15-16) The penalty for bestiality.
If a man mates with an animal, he shall surely be put to death, and you shall kill the animal. If a woman approaches any animal and mates with it, you shall kill the woman and the animal. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood is upon them.
7. (17-21) The penalty for other sexual sins.
‘If a man takes his sister, his father’s daughter or his mother’s daughter, and sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is a wicked thing. And they shall be cut off in the sight of their people. He has uncovered his sister’s nakedness. He shall bear his guilt. If a man lies with a woman during her sickness and uncovers her nakedness, he has exposed her flow, and she has uncovered the flow of her blood. Both of them shall be cut off from their people. ‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister nor of your father’s sister, for that would uncover his near of kin. They shall bear their guilt. If a man lies with his uncle’s wife, he has uncovered his uncle’s nakedness. They shall bear their sin; they shall die childless. If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They shall be childless.
a. They shall be cut off in the sight of their people: The penalty for these sins does was not death (as in the previously mentioned sexual sins), but rather to be cut off – that is, exiled or sanctioned within Israel until the sin was atoned for or cleansed through a ceremonial cleansing.
b. They shall bear their sin; they shall die childless: Other aspects of the penalties here belong to God alone – they shall be childless is a penalty only God can apply.
8. (22-26) Summation: Why God called Israel to such holiness.
‘You shall therefore keep all My statutes and all My judgments, and perform them, that the land where I am bringing you to dwell may not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the statutes of the nation which I am casting out before you; for they commit all these things, and therefore I abhor them. But I have said to you, “You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.” I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore distinguish between clean animals and unclean, between unclean birds and clean, and you shall not make yourselves abominable by beast or by bird, or by any kind of living thing that creeps on the ground, which I have separated from you as unclean. And you shall be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine.
a. You shall not walk in the statutes of the nation which I am casting out before you: The Canaanites who presently lived in the Promised Land were deeply involved in these sins, and because of that, God would use Israel to judge them and drive them out.
b. That the land where I am bringing you to dwell may not vomit you out: God pleaded with Israel to obey Him, that the same fate would not befall Israel. Unfortunately, eventually it did – and the land did cast out Israel, resulting in the exile both for the northern nation of Israel and the southern nation of Judah.
c. That you should be Mine: These laws were not only given so that Israel could possess the land; they were also so God could possess Israel – so they would be holy to Me, for I the LORD and holy… that you should be Mine.
i. Sometimes we think what God mostly wants is our obedience; but there is a sense in which we can give God our obedience without giving Him ourselves (such as perhaps the Pharisees did). What God really wants is us – and if that is truly given, the obedience will follow.
9. (27) Penalty for being a medium or practitioner of the occult.
‘A man or a woman who is a medium, or who has familiar spirits, shall surely be put to death; they shall stone them with stones. Their blood shall be upon them.’”
a. A man or a woman who is a medium, or who has familiar spirits, shall surely be put to death: If one consulted a medium, they were to be cut off (Leviticus 20:6); but if someone was the actual practitioner of these occult arts, they were to be executed under the law of Israel.
b. Their blood shall be upon them: This reminds us that it is a much more serious thing to lead others into sin than to sin ourselves – and so the penalty is greater, even as Jesus said: But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission