Leviticus 20 – Penalties for Laws Already Given
“Whereas Leviticus 18 addresses the would-be offender of a God-given decree, Leviticus 20 addresses the Israelite community, which was responsible for seeing that violations of Law receive their just reward.” (Mark F. Rooker)
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.
i. There are some who believe that in the worship of Molech infants were not burned to death; they were only passed through a fire in a ritual in honor to the idol. It is possible that this happened in some cases, but it seems certain that at least one aspect of the offering of infants to Molech was actual human sacrifice.
ii. Shall surely be put to death: “This is a very emphatic construction in Hebrew which may be translated literally, ‘dying he shall die.’” (Peter-Contesse)
b. The people of the land shall stone him with stones: In the case of child sacrifice to Molech, God commanded that the execution be carried out by stoning, performed by the community (the people of the land). This was to show that this was, in a powerful way, a sin against the community and would be punished by the community.
c. If the people of the land should in any way hide their eyes from the man: To ignore great evil is in itself evil.
d. 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 would prosecute if the legal system of Israel failed to.
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 Israel nothing to do regarding the penalty. He simply said that He would execute the penalty. Involvement in such occult practices will always separate someone from God.
i. This was the driving force behind the Ephesian church’s dramatic rejection of magic and occult materials (Acts 19:17-20). Their hearts were turned to God, so they automatically turned away from mediums and familiar spirits.
ii. Adam Clarke on familiar spirits: “A spirit or demon, which, by magical rites, is supposed to be bound to appear at the call of his employer.”
iii. 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. Consecrate yourselves…. I am the LORD who sanctifies you: These are two important aspects of our ongoing walk with God. In His normal way of dealing with His people, God will not force them to be separated unto Him. He does the work, but He does it in and 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 was punishable by death. This was a crime against the family and the community.
i. “Unlike other ancient Near Eastern civilizations, in Israel crimes of a religious nature or against family life received the strongest punishment. This pattern contrasts with the cuneiform laws of the ancient Near East, where violations resulting in economic loss tended to be treated more severely.” (Rooker)
ii. This command against cursing one’s parents was quoted by Jesus as He spoke to the religious leaders (Mathew 15:4, Mark 7:10). Jesus observed that they used clever, hypocritical tricks to avoid fulfilling the spirit of this command.
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 according to Deuteronomy 21:18-21, and as it was practiced in ancient Israel, it had a built-in protection for the rights of the child.
i. Deuteronomy 21:18-21 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 customs of that time – did not have the absolute power of life and death over their children.
ii. As a practical matter, the judges of Israel rarely if ever administered the death penalty in such cases, yet the child was held accountable.
iii. His blood shall be upon him: “This expression indicates that the person who committed the act is alone responsible for his own death. The blame cannot be shared with anyone else.” (Peter-Contesse)
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. Adultery murders marriages, and 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 was the case in most of the situations in chapter 20 where capital punishment was commanded. This is because any capital crime required two or three witnesses, and the witnesses had to be so certain 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 the death penalty would not be carried out.
ii. This also helps us to understand what Jesus did when He confronted the religious leaders who brought to Him the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-12). By their presence and words, they claimed to have caught the woman in the act of adultery – but they did not also bring the guilty man. No one was willing to identify themselves as a witness and start the execution of the woman (to cast the first stone).
c. Shall surely be put to death: Even though the death penalty was carried out so rarely in ancient Israel (especially for these crimes), it still did good for Israel to have it. This penalty in the law of Israel clearly communicated an ideal that Israel was to reach for. It made people regard their sin much more seriously.
i. In ancient Israel, this was the strongest way to simply say: Adultery is wrong, cursing your parents is wrong, incest is wrong. Even if those who commit these sins escape the penalty, God regarded it as wrong, and the community of Israel regarded it as wrong.
ii. “As moral laws the sexual offenses are still applicable during the age of the church, though like the crime of cursing of parents the capital punishments for these offenses were limited to the time when God’s people constituted a redeemed theocratic nation (John 8:1-11). Thus the capital punishments for these sexual offenses were not intended to be executed beyond Israel.” (Rooker)
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.
a. The man who lies with his father’s wife: The specific laws against incest were more completely explained in Leviticus 18:6-18.
i. Perversion: “It carries the idea of ‘confusion’ or of something that is out of harmony with the normal order of creation. In view of the context it may be legitimately translated incest here.” (Peter-Contesse)
b. Both of them shall surely be put to death: In Leviticus 18 the penalty for the crime of incest was not explained. Here, God declared that in ancient Israel it should be punished by death. Incest is a sin that murders families and was not to be permitted.
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: The specific law against homosexuality was previously mentioned in Leviticus 18:22.
b. They shall surely be put to death: Though God here commanded the death penalty (under the guidelines of Deuteronomy 17:6-7) for the practice of homosexual sex acts, we should note this was the same punishment as for adultery or incest. Homosexual practices were regarded as these other family-killing sins.
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. If a man marries a woman and her mother: This was spoken against previously in Leviticus 18:17.
b. They shall be burned with fire: The death penalty was also commanded for this sin in ancient Israel.
i. Adam Clarke believed the phrase shall be burned with fire did not refer to execution. “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.
a. If a man mates with an animal: The sin of bestiality was spoken against previously in Leviticus 18:23.
b. Their blood is upon them: God commanded the death penalty in ancient Israel for such perverse sexual expressions. Those who committed such acts were responsible for their own death.
i. And the animal: “Lest the sight of such a beast should bring that loathsome sin to remembrance.” (Trapp)
7. (17-21) Penalties 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. If a man takes his sister, his father’s daughter or his mother’s daughter: The specific laws against incest were more completely explained in Leviticus 18:6-18. Here, penalties against these sins are stated.
b. They shall be cut off in the sight of their people: The penalty for these sins was not death, as in most of the sexual sins previously mentioned in this chapter. Rather, the penalty for these sins was that the offending parties would be cut off – that is, driven out. They were exiled from Israel or excluded from the community within Israel until the sin was repented of, atoned for, or cleansed through a ceremonial cleansing.
c. They shall bear their sin; they shall die childless: The last two sins in this section (sexual activity with an aunt or adultery) bear penalties that seem to belong to God alone – they shall be childless.
i. “Dying childless was regarded as a tragedy in biblical times…. In a sense dying childless was a form of death because the guilty party’s name became extinct.” (Rooker)
ii. Peter-Contesse suggested another idea on the word childless: “The root word here means ‘stripped,’ but it has traditionally been understood to mean ‘deprived of children.’ It is so translated in Genesis 15:2 to describe Abram. But in this context it is more likely that it means ‘stripped of posterity,’ indicating not only that the guilty parties would not bear any children, but also that any offspring that they already had (separately) would be taken from them.”
iii. Matthew Poole offered one more suggestion: “Or shall not be reputed their genuine children, but bastards, and therefore excluded from the congregation of the Lord, Deuteronomy 23:2.”
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.
i. May not vomit you out: “The very land referred to in this word of the law of God, stands today at the centre of the earth, a standing witness to the truth. There it has been for ages, fruitless and barren, and yet naturally there is no land more fertile. Men corrupted it, and it vomited them out.” (Morgan)
ii. “The principle is of the widest application. Whatever the territory man reigns over, it is affected by his character. If he be polluted and corrupt, then all that is under his sway becomes polluted and corrupt.” (Morgan)
c. I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples: One reason for many of these laws (and the strong punishments supporting the laws) was the fact that Israel was God’s chosen nation, separated…from the peoples. This is an important reason why God wanted them to distinguish between clean animals and unclean and other aspects of this holiness code.
i. Israel was chosen – separated…from the peoples – because they had and have an important role in God’s unfolding plan of the ages. They were chosen to receive the covenants, chosen to receive God’s revealed word, and chosen to be the lineage of the Messiah. They were not chosen for eternal salvation, as if being of Israel guaranteed their salvation.
ii. Paul and Barnabas were separated by the Holy Spirit for the special work He had them to do (Acts 13:1-2). There is a sense in which every believer is separated unto God for His purpose and plan. “What an honour is this! To be for God Himself: to do His errands, to fulfill His behests and give Him pleasure! Rejoice greatly when God says, ‘Thou art Mine.’” (Meyer)
d. 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 am holy…that you should be Mine.
i. This demonstrates that God wants more than robotic obedience from His people. God wants relationship with His people, and their loyalty within that relationship (that you should be Mine). Both relationship and obedience are important, but God doesn’t want our obedience to Him apart from relationship.
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: In ancient Israel, if one consulted a medium, they were to be cut off – excluded from the community of Israel (Leviticus 19:31, 20:6). But if someone was the actual practitioner of these occult arts, they were to be put to death under the law of Israel.
b. Their blood shall be upon them: The medium or the one who dealt with familiar spirits in ancient Israel bore the responsibility for their own death. They were guilty before God and the community.
i. The medium or the one who dealt with familiar spirits in ancient Israel led others into sin. 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)