V. Israel’s Holiness Code: Living before a Holy God (Leviticus 17:1–26:46)

17:1-6 Beginning with chapter 17, the focus of Leviticus turns to the subject of how God’s people were to be holy in their everyday lives. For this reason, these chapters are often called Israel’s “Holiness Code.”

23:6-8 Connected to the Passover was the Festival of Unleavened Bread, during which the people were to eat unleavened bread for seven days (23:6; see Exod 12:17-20). This was to serve as a reminder that they had “left . . . Egypt in a hurry” (Deut 16:3), having no time to put leaven (yeast) in their bread dough to make it rise.

23:9-14 During the week of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Israelites were to bring the first sheaf of their barley harvest to the priest (23:10). This custom became known as the Feast of Firstfruits, honoring God for the firstfruits of the spring barley harvest. Before they could eat from the crop, the people had to give an offering to God (23:14), acknowledging his provision and signaling their ongoing trust in his future provision. In the New Testament, Paul describes the risen Lord Jesus as the “firstfruits” of those who have died (1 Cor 15:20). His resurrection is the promise that all those who trust in him will also be raised to life when he comes (see 1 Cor 15:22-23).

23:15-22 After seven complete weeks starting from the day after the Sabbath, the day [they] brought the sheaf of the presentation offering (thus, fifty days after the Feast of Firstfruits), the Israelites were to celebrate the Festival of Weeks (23:15-16). Seven weeks from that day brought the people to late spring and the wheat harvest. Thus, the offerings included bread . . . as firstfruits to the Lord (23:17). Later Jewish tradition connected the Festival of Weeks to the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. The festival also became known as “Pentecost” from the Greek word for “fiftieth.” This, along with Passover and the Feast of Shelters, was one of the three “pilgrim feasts,” for which God required the attendance of every Jewish man in Jerusalem. It was at Pentecost, when thousands of Jewish pilgrims were in Jerusalem, in fact, that the first disciples of Christ would receive the Holy Spirit, thus marking the church’s birthday (see Acts 2:1-4).

23:23-25 On the first day of the seventh month, the people held a scared assembly with rest, commemoration, and trumpet blasts (23:24). This became known as the Festival of Trumpets—modern day Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. In the Old Testament, trumpet blasts called God’s people to worship or to war. In the New Testament, trumpet blasts are said to precede the rapture (see 1 Thess 4:16-17) and God’s end time acts of judgment (see Rev 8).

23:26-32 Ten days after the Festival of Trumpets was the Day of Atonement (23:27). The high priest was to enter the most holy place on that day to make atonement for the sins of the people (see Lev 16). But the people themselves were not to do any work (23:28, 31) and were to practice self-denial under threat of severe penalty (23:27, 29, 32). For those who trust in Christ, he is the once-for-all “atoning sacrifice” for sins (Rom 3:25; 1 John 4:10).

23:33-36 Lastly, there was the Festival of Shelters (or “Tabernacles” or “Booths”), which was observed for seven days (23:34). It was named for the temporary structures the Israelites were to build and live in during the festival to commemorate God’s provision for them during the years when they lived in shelters in the wilderness after he brought them out of . . . Egypt (23:42-43). John records an occasion when Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Festival of Shelters (see John 7:2, 10). During the festival, the Jews would perform a ritual in which they poured out water before the Lord to commemorate his water miracles during the exodus. It was likely during this tradition that Jesus cried out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. The one who believes in me . . . will have streams of living water flow from deep within him.” This “living water” was the Holy Spirit (John 7:37-39).

24:1-4 Chapter 24 turns to the responsibilities of the priests in the tabernacle. The first of these duties was to keep the lamp burning (24:2). This is a reference to the pure gold lampstand in the Lord’s presence (24:4). This lamp stood in the holy place of the tabernacle, and the Lord commanded that the priest continually tend to it with olive oil (24:1, 4). Jesus, who was foreshadowed by this lamp, would later say of himself, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). You’ll never have to worry about his light going out.

24:5-9 The second of these priestly duties was to bake twelve loaves of bread for every Sabbath and arrange them on the pure gold table before the Lord (24:5-8). These twelve loaves represented the twelve tribes, and the bread was known as “the Bread of the Presence” (Exod 25:30). It was set out each week as a reminder that the twelve tribes of Israel were always in the Lord’s presence, and perhaps reminding them too that the first of their grain harvest belonged to the Lord. The priests were to eat the bread that was replaced by the new loaves each week. Bread was a common staple in the Israelite diet. To live, you ate bread. Thus later in history, when Jesus said, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35), his meaning was clear: Come to me if you want to live.

24:10-12 The seriousness of God’s holiness is here demonstrated in a dramatic way through the story of a man who cursed and blasphemed the Name (24:10-11). The “Name” of course refers to God’s name, “Yahweh” (typically rendered in English Bibles as “Lord” in small caps). In a fit of anger, this man lost his temper and cursed God’s name. Evidently this transgression had not occurred before, since no one knew what to do about it. The people put him in custody until Moses could seek the Lord’s decision (24:11-12).

24:13-23 The Lord spoke, and he did not hesitate: Bring the one who has cursed to the outside of the camp and have all who heard him lay their hands on his head; then have the whole community stone him (24:13-14). The witnesses put their hands on the man’s head as a sign that their testimony was true, and the people stoned him to death (24:23). This was a lasting reminder to the community that blasphemy was not to be tolerated.

Between the pronouncement of the offender’s sentence and its execution, the Lord gave a series of laws often called the lex talionis, or law of retaliation (24:17-22). The principle here is that the punishment should fit the crime. This concept of proportionate justice is woven into our own legal code today, and few people seem to have a problem with it. But these laws, including such detailed instructions as fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth (24:20), have been so twisted, misapplied, and ridiculed over the course of history that their original wisdom and purpose have almost been lost. Importantly, they were not an invitation for individuals to exact private vengeance; they were statutes to be administered by the duly appointed leaders of the community. These regulations actually prevented excessive revenge by limiting the response to the severity of the crime. The penalty for cursing your covenant God was the severest of all.

25:1-7 The subject changes again here as the chapter deals with the special years that Israel was to observe: the Sabbath year and the Year of Jubilee (25:8-55). The Sabbath year was to be observed once the people of Israel were living in Canaan and planting crops. They could plant and harvest for six years in succession, but there was to be a Sabbath of complete rest for the land in the seventh year...: [they were] not to sow [a] field or prune [a] vineyard (25:4). Thus, the land itself enjoyed a Sabbath rest in the seventh year, even as God provided a Sabbath rest for his people every seventh day.

Skipping the harvest for a full year sounds like a risky idea for an agriculturally-dependent people, but remember that the Israelites were not ordinary farmers. They were the people of God who needed constant reminders of their utter dependence on him for everything. Tragically, as time passed, Israel disregarded God’s command to observe the Sabbath year—not for a mere decade or two but for 490 years! That’s seventy Sabbath years they would neglect to observe, and God would keep count. When he sent them into exile in Babylon, they remained there for seventy years—one year for each Sabbath year they violated (see Lev 26:33-35; 2 Chr 36:20-21). If God’s people wouldn’t give his land rest, God himself would do it in spite of them. It would be an unforgettable reminder that the land and everything in it ultimately belongs to God.

25:8-12 The principles of spiritual and social justice behind these regulations are foundational. In fact, I believe that anytime these principles are implemented, they will prove transformational for any society.

After seven sabbatical years—that is, seven times seven years—the fiftieth year was the year of Jubilee. The Israelites were to consecrate this year and proclaim freedom in the land for all its inhabitants (25:8-10). All those in servitude were set free and property reverted to its original owners. This was to begin with the Day of Atonement (25:9; see Lev 16:1-34; 23:26-32), the day set aside to atone for the individual and corporate sins of the nation of Israel. The Day of Atonement marked the time when Israel got right with God through the shedding of blood—that is, through the slaying of a sacrifice. In other words, they didn’t get to enjoy the Jubilee (i.e., God’s involvement in their economy, society, and politics) without first getting their sins addressed by God. Getting right spiritually had to come first.

Many people want God to do things for them without coming to him for atonement (or even recognizing that they need it). They cry out for justice, or ask God to pay this, fix that, or vindicate them, while skipping the very thing that inaugurates God’s Jubilee—that is, addressing personal and corporate sin. But God’s wrath against sin must always be addressed if we intend to enjoy the blessings of God’s aid. This comes through having a relationship with Jesus Christ. But don’t miss this: you can’t have the benefits of the Messiah without entering a relationship with the Messiah. You can’t have deliverance from your problems without the King who delivers.

25:13-34 A primary feature of the Jubilee was the return of all property in Israel to its original owners (25:14-17)—the only exception to this rule involved property in walled cities (25:29-30). This was based on the following principle: The land is not to be permanently sold because it is [God’s], and [the people are] only aliens and temporary residents on [his] land (25:23). There were occasions when Israelites had to sell their land, or sell themselves into servitude because of poverty. But since they and their land really belonged to God, any such sale was temporary. There was also justice for the land buyer in that he didn’t lose out completely when the property reverted to its original owner at Jubilee. The price he paid was based on the number of years since the last Jubilee, which meant that what was being sold to him was actually the crops the land would produce (25:14-17).

Since the land was to enjoy a second consecutive year of rest following the Sabbath year that preceded the Year of Jubilee, the people might have wondered how they would have enough food during that time (25:20). But God assured them that if they would only obey him, he would provide and appoint [his] blessing. The land would produce so abundantly in the sixth year (the year before the Sabbath rest) that there would be abundant food during the two years without harvest (25:21-22).

God made it clear that no one could refuse to allow the redemption of land during Jubilee. He said, You are to allow the redemption of any land you occupy (25:24). Notice that God did not use the word own. Again, the people were only temporary residents in his land (25:23). Given this universal requirement, the question would inevitably arise concerning an Israelite who was too poor to redeem his land. He would obviously miss out on its productivity, so he could turn to his nearest relative for help (25:25). But if that was not possible, the poor man had to wait until Jubilee to get his land back (25:28).

25:35-55 The rules of Jubilee also concerned the people of Israel who were poor, who had been sold, or who had sold themselves into a form of indentured servitude to pay a debt (25:35-43). The poor were to be treated with respect and hospitality, never taken advantage of or charged interest. If an Israelite did sell himself for service, he was to be treated as a hired worker or temporary resident instead of as a slave (25:39-40). His station was only a temporary condition that was to be reversed during the Year of Jubilee, when the indentured man and his family were released to return to their clan and ancestral property (25:41).

Israelites were not to be sold as slaves because they were God’s servants whom he brought out of . . . Egypt (25:42). Foreigners whom the Israelites had purchased were not eligible for release during the Year of Jubilee (25:44-46). They could be held for life and even passed on to future generations as part of an inheritance. Often in ancient Israel foreign peoples became slaves as a result of war. Such refugees might have no other means of subsistence. In contrast to other nations in the ancient Near East, Israel was required to grant protection and justice to slaves (see Exod 21:20-21, 26-27; Deut 23:15-16). Also, see commentary on Eph 6:5-9.

The final section deals with the case of an Israelite who became poor and had to sell himself to an alien or temporary resident (25:47). The same rules of release applied: Either a relative of the poor man could pay off his debt and release him, or if the indentured man prospered he could redeem himself. If neither of these was possible, the Israelite was set free during the Year of Jubilee. For the Israelites are my servants, God explained. They are my servants that I brought out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord (25:55). Just as the land was God’s, so also the people in it were his.

The principles of Jubilee relating to servitude, redemption, and freedom have great meaning to us as believers today. We are God’s possession since he bought us back from slavery to sin by the blood of Jesus Christ. We are free from sin and death, but we are servants of God.

26:1-2 This chapter of blessings and cursings for either obedience or disobedience to the law of Moses is similar in form to the ancient treaties between kings and their subjects found in the lands around Israel. In this case, the king is the Lord who lays down the rules to be followed by his subjects in a covenant relationship with him. The basic commands the people were to obey in order to enjoy God’s blessings were stated up front: Do not make idols for yourselves . . . keep my Sabbaths and revere my sanctuary. Why? I am the Lord your God (25:1-2).

26:3-13 What blessings would God provide in return for faithfulness? Abundant rain for a rich harvest and peace and protection from enemies (26:4-8). The land would be so fruitful, in fact, that the people would have to clear out the uneaten portions of the previous harvest to make room for the new (26:10). This was all possible because of the greatest blessing of all: God promised to take up his residence among the people, walk among them, and be [their] God (26:11-12). None of this was because they had sought him out—but because he had sought them out. God said, I am the Lord . . . who brought you out of the land of Egypt, so that you would no longer be their slaves. I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to live in freedom (26:13). This is in line with a well-known New Testament teaching: “We love because [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

26:14-17 But how different life would be if Israel rejected the Lord and his cov-enant! In that case, God would rain down curses on Israel—literally reversing the blessings God had just laid out for obedience (26:14-20). Sadly, Israel eventually disregarded God’s law and covenant and encountered these terrible judgments. The people would experience wasting disease and fever that [would] cause [their] eyes to fail and [their lives] to ebb away (26:16). They would also taste defeat at the hands of their enemies instead of enjoying divine protection from them. In fact, things would get so bad that they would flee in paranoid terror even when the enemy wasn’t after them (26:17).

26:18-22 The curses for disobedience also fell on the land. God warned that he would make the sky like iron and [the] land like bronze (26:19), a graphic picture of drought that would produce a famine so severe that the people’s efforts to raise crops would be useless (26:18-20). The Lord also would send wild animals into the land that would kill people as well as their livestock (26:22), a sharp contrast to the promise that God would “remove dangerous animals from the land” (26:6).

26:23-26 Continued disobedience would bring a sword against Israel, to execute the vengeance of the covenant (26:25). This means God would give them over to their enemies. They would also suffer from pestilence (26:25), and food would become so scarce that it would lead to rationing and constant hunger (26:26).

26:27-46 Yet, the consequences for continued disobedience would grow worse. When God’s patience with Israel’s stubborn unfaithfulness would finally run out and he would send their enemies against them, conditions would become so desperate in the accompanying siege that the people would resort to cannibalism (29:29); this was a horrifying judgment on persistent idolatry. Eventually, the people would even be exiled from the land (26:33), so it would finally have all of its unfulfilled Sabbath rests (26:34-35). But still the Lord’s judgment on sin would not be finished. Even in captivity the Israelites who survived all the other disasters would be subjected to fear and would ultimately die in the land of their exile. They would waste away because of their [sin] . . . and because of their fathers’ [sins] (26:39).

Anyone who feels the Lord was being too harsh in the punishments he threatened should reread the various phrases describing Israel’s deliberate and prideful disobedience. Note the “if” clauses (26:14, 15, 18, 21, 23, 27) and the statement about the people rejecting God’s ordinances and [abhorring his] statutes (26:43). The Israelites would not be innocent bystanders who ignorantly displeased God. They would quickly grow into a nation that established a lengthy pattern of idolatry and hatred toward the God who had rescued them, ignoring his warnings and expecting his blessings anyway.

Thankfully, there would remain a ray of hope amid all the suffering promised. This is an indicator that there is always hope for people who will turn to God in humble sincerity, brokenness, and repentance. If the people experiencing God’s judgment were to do this (26:41-42), God would remember the covenant and restore them (26:45).

Note the last phrase in 26:39: because of their fathers’ iniquities along with theirs. It hints at the reality of the generational curse, which I believe is still an operational concept in God’s economy and is, in fact, tearing lives and families apart today. A generational curse may be defined as a pattern of behavior inherited or passed down from one generation to another due to rebellion against God. Parents pass down to their children their physical traits, including the color and texture of their hair and their basic body build. But just as there are biological traits handed down to our children and even grandchildren through DNA, there are also spiritual characteristics that get passed along—for good or ill.

This verse, then, points to the fact that many of life’s problems—addictions, bad habits, and slothfulness to name a few—are like trees in that they have deep roots. Thus, some sins, attitudes, and tendencies get handed down from generation to generation in some families. God made inextricably clear to his people the importance of imparting spiritual truth and love for him to their children and grandchildren by teaching and modeling a godly life to them (see Deut 6:4-9). Likely modeling the wrong things is just as potent. Grandpa’s alcoholism or Great-Grandma’s explosive temper can and often does show up in their descendants.

The point of trying to identify and frankly discuss any generational curses that might be alive in our families, though, is to break them—not to bemoan what our fathers and mothers did. We often want to blame our sin on our pasts: “Well, you know, my daddy did this; therefore, I . . .” or “My momma used to tell me, so I . . . .” Instead, we need to own up to our iniquity and confess our part in any generational problems that have a hold on us.

God teaches in Leviticus, and other places, that the first step in breaking such a curse is to confess and repent of our participation in it. God called on the Israelites to confess both their sins and the sins of their fathers (26:40), which were not dealt with in their fathers’ generation and so continued to poison the stream of Israel’s relationship with God. Confession and repentance are a potent remedy.

Many today think that talking about generational sin is a waste of time because what’s done is done: Let’s just forget the past and move on, they say. But that’s not what God says. His people were to repent of their fathers’ sins and their own. Taking this radical step can break the chains of iniquity that have shackled generations. It opens the pathway to God’s blessings.

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