What if there was a place on earth you could get close to, a place so potently filled with God that going inside was fatal, so powerfully real that merely being in its vicinity awakened within you a feeling of awe and radical amazement?
The fact is, not such place exists on earth today. No Jewish holy place or Christian shrine or sacred space related to any other religion can claim to have the Divine Presence like the Holy of Holies did in ancient Israel. The Glory has departed from the world.
Keeping that manifestation of God in the midst of Israel was the goal of the priesthood and is a central concern of the Torah and prophets. Ezekiel recounted the departure of the Glory in stages with profound sadness in the days when Babylon came to level the Israelite temple to the ground. It is not at all clear if the Glory was in the Second Temple or if it was only a symbol of the Glory that had long departed. In any case, it is evident from the New Testament and rabbinic literature that people treated the Second Temple as if the Glory was present.
Two things would drive the Glory away from Israel’s sanctuary: breaking the covenant through moral transgressions or allowing the sanctuary to remain contaminated by failing to keep it ritually pure.
The purgation ceremony of Leviticus 16, which was practiced annually at Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and at other times if a severe contamination event occurred, was similar to ceremonies practiced in Babylon and in other cultures. As with many things in the Torah, Israel’s law was derived from existing cultural elements. The Babylonian ritual has so many similarities to Israel’s, there can be no doubt about the fact that Torah alludes to it (see Yeshua Our Atonement, Derek Leman, Chapter 2).
The differences between Israel’s belief and those of the surrounding cultures, however, could hardly be more different. “God” in the Torah is not a nature deity, a supernatural being who merely possesses powers over nature. He is the source and ground of all being. Adonai alone is God; there is no other. To claim that this God’s presence was manifested inside the shrine of Israel was no minor thing. The world has been impoverished ever since the Glory departed.
Following the death of Nadab and Abihu (1), materials for purging the sanctuary (2-5), preliminary procedures for purging (6-10), procedure #1: purging the sanctuary (11-17).
The opening words of the chapter carry us back to Leviticus 10, where Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abide had died in the tabernacle courts for mishandling sancta. The logic of the topical arrangement of Leviticus becomes clearer with this revelation. Chapters 11-15 have not been a random digression, but a deliberate explanation of how death is to be treated in Israel. The deaths of Nadab and Abihu in the tabernacle represent the ultimate case of death encroaching on God’s sacred space. The purity laws of Israel represent a way of life which is thoroughly about keeping the people of Israel separate from the forces of death and protecting sacred space from all the symbols of human death.
A common misreading of Leviticus 16 is that this is the chapter about Yom Kippur. Yet the holy day is not mentioned until vs. 29. This leads to a deeper realization: the purgation ritual for the temple described in this chapter is not just for Yom Kippur, but also for any occasion where the entire sanctuary has become contaminated. When Aaron’s sons died in the courts of the tabernacle, this resulted in severe contamination. Only a total purging could remove the defilement of human death, the very thing Israel was to keep separate from the sacred space. The general principle is that the sanctuary must be purged every year at Yom Kippur, but also in times of severe contamination whenever they may occur.
Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) divides the chapter into two basic procedures: purging the sanctuary (vss.11-19) and purging the people (vss. 20-22).
The first issue in the procedure for purging the sanctuary is that the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the tabernacle (later the temple) is off limits to everyone, including the high priest, except during this purging ritual. When the tabernacle was taken down and moved, the Holy of Holies was de-sanctified by the taking down of the walls of the tent and a family of Levites was charged with preparing the tabernacle for moving. God’s Presence would depart during this deconstruction so that the chamber was not off limits or dangerous. But at all other times, God was present as a cloud-encased fire above the Ark. The Ark itself was God’s footstool and above it we are encouraged to imagine his invisible throne, as a sort of portal between earth and heaven.
The procedures for purging the sanctuary and the people require Aaron to wear his vestments (but not his colorful outer garments), to use lots to choose one ram for a scapegoat (to be sent away bearing on it the guilt of the people) and another for a sacrifice, and to bring offerings for his own impurity and for that of the entire congregation. Upon entering the Holy of Holies he must put up a cloud of incense t protect himself from the fatal holiness of God’s Presence (vs. 13). Blood, which is ritual detergent, is dashed against the gold cover on the Ark, with its statues of cherubim (sphinxes) with wings outstretched toward one another. By purging the Ark cover, the high priest decontaminates the Holy of Holies, where the symbolic forces of death have begun to encroach. In so doing, he keeps the place of God’s dwelling on earth clean and free from human death.
The ordinary impurities and moral transgressions of Israel contaminate the altar outside the shrine. But pollution builds up and begins to invade the shrine itself and even the inner shrine, the Holy of Holies, becomes contaminated when Israelites do not follow purification procedures and because of unrepented transgressions. Once a year, if not at other times, this build up of pollution must be cleansed.
The strange ritual of the scapegoat has invited much speculation from readers over the centuries (see commentary below for details). In what sense can a priest “put sins” on an animal by reciting a litany of transgressions over it? How does sending the animal away to the netherworld, called by the name of a mythical demon (Azazel), result in any kind of absolution for the people? Is this ritual an effective means of providing justification (a change in personal status for the people, from guilty to innocent) or sanctification (a change in personal status from moral inferiority to an improved ability to be morally righteous)?
The scapegoat ritual does not result in either justification or sanctification. The custom is very similar to what the Babylonians did on the day they purged their temple and threw a ram into the Euphrates River. The issue is not “eternal forgiveness” or afterlife. It is about the deity accepting the people and remaining with them at their temple.
Even so, the fact that the scapegoat ritual was a sort of prayer for absolution points to a vital truth. We come to God seeking freedom from our guilt, desiring exoneration and relationship. Whatever change or transformation is possible, it can come only from God. The Torah does not provide the means, but merely raises the issue.
What if God has something more than a scapegoat ritual for us? What if our prayers for absolution have a possible answer? If so, that will be something revealed later than Torah. The prophets tell us what it will look like. “I will remember their sin no more,” (Jer 31:34). “I will write my teaching on their hearts,” (Jer 31:33). “Adonai your God will circumcise your heart,” (Deut 30:6). “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean,” Ezek 36:25). “I will put a new spirit in you,” (Ezek 36:26).
The Torah raises a question about absolution and transformation. The prophets say God will cause these to happen. The Hebrew Bible ends on an unresolved note. When will these things happen? Then a man came to Israel in the days of the Roman occupation and he said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24). If we believe his message, there is an exchange of our old life for a new one and it comes through Messiah, God’s answer to the ultimate need of humanity.
Completing procedure #1: purging the sanctuary (18-19), procedure #2: purging the people (20-22), service at the altar (23-24).
The sanctuary is purged in three stages: the Holy of Holies (innermost room, 12-16a), the Holy Place (outer room, 16b-17), and the altar of burnt offering (outside the tent in the courtyard, 18-19). The blood of the bull and the goat are applied to all three for purging the pollution.
As for the people, the ritual of the scapegoat is what purges them. Whereas sacrifices in general cleanse the Tabernacle/Temple, the scapegoat ritual is for the cleansing of the people.
The high priest lays both hands on the head of the goat (by contrast with the usual sacrificial procedure in which only one land is laid on the head of the animal). The meaning of putting both hands on the animal is something unique, beyond the ordinary. The fact that this goat will not be sacrificed, but released into the desert, is also unique. The high priests speaks over the animal, reciting a litany of the people’s sins. וְנָתַן אֹתָם עַל־רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר venatan ōtam ‘al-rōsh hasha’ir, “And he will place them [the people’s sins] on the head of the goat.”
This placing of sins on the animal is, of course, purely symbolic. It has no objective meaning. That is, the people will not increase in moral strength or compassion merely because of this ritual. The goat will be sent away into the desert, לַעֲזָאזֵל la’azazel, a strange expression which probably means “to Azazel,” that is, to a demon of the wilderness (vss. 8, 10, 26). Why the Israelites (and the Torah) would continue to believe in the existence of a demon named Azazel is a mystery. Perhaps the barren desert came to be called Azazel over time as a result of previous beliefs about desert demons. Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) notes that the text does not attribute any personality to Azazel and neither does he play any active role. He exists only in name, a symbol of the netherworld to which the moral guilt of the people is being banished.
In the Babylonian ritual for purging the temple (see Yeshua Our Atonement, Derek Leman, chapter 2) a ram was thrown into the Euphrates River. The existence of a similar “scapegoat” ritual in a religion outside of Israel (one with cultural connections to Israel) is a clue to meaning. The significance of sending away the animal with the people’s offenses on it is not a complete picture of redemption from sin. That is to say, many have made the scapegoat a sort of temporary Jesus-like atonement, as if once a year a scapegoat could redeem people from their sins.
Rather, the offenses of the people that might cause the deity to abandon the people are symbolically sent away. In reality the scapegoat ritual is more like a prayer for forgiveness than an actual justification or sanctification of the people. It is a ritual of absolution. The people remain morally culpable and imperfect. They ask God to banish their unworthiness by means of this ritual and to continue to dwell with them.
It is assumed in the Torah that at least some of the people will not obey the laws for ritual purity and that moral offenses will accumulate in the land. If this was not assumed, there would not have been a Yom Kippur.
Thus, on the one hand, the Torah is idealistic. “If you follow my statutes and completely observe my commandments,” the chapter on covenant blessings begins (Lev 26:3). Yet, from the outset, there is also a realism about people, about our tendency to only keep a covenant halfway, about our inability to live up to a moral code completely. And so, lacking the kind of total enlightenment that we need to be fully transformed (lacking circumcision of the heart, a new spirit, etc.) we exist even at our best with faith and biblical teaching as an imperfect people.
There seem to be three levels of righteousness depicted in the Bible. On the one hand, there is the middle ground. This is the nation of Israel keeping the laws of the covenant for the most part, mostly practicing the purification laws, and making up for failures on Yom Kippur. If the nation could achieve this middle ground, the blessings of Leviticus 26:3-13 would come to pass. It would be paradise on earth.
On the other hand, there is a higher level of righteousness held out as a possible attainment of humankind in the future. Variously described as having new hearts, circumcised hearts, a new spirit, a spirit given by God inside us, being sprinkled and cleaned and transformed, having God’s teaching written inside us, and so on (Deut 30; Jer 31; Ezek 36) this ultimate goodness of human beings is something we have not yet come even close to attaining.
And then the third level is reality. In the disappointing reality of human existence, we cannot even achieve middle ground. Even with the grace of Yom Kippur and purification offerings and divine forgiveness, Israel as a people could not attain to the covenant blessings. Nor could any other nation have attained them. Like alcoholics bottoming out over and over again, as a human race we have been hurtling through the centuries in a state of wretchedness.
The paradox of the human soul is our desire for the good and immortal mixed with our base, animal nature. The Bible indicates, strangely enough and contrary to all the evidence of history, that the good in us will triumph. The change that will come will be God-initiated and it will be foolproof, something that does not depend on us to make it work.
Meanwhile, those of us who care about all of this, what can we do? We can live at least the middle ground, observing God’s teaching, repenting when we go astray, and knowing there is grace with God always. We can believe in and look forward to the day of enlightenment and perfection that God will bring for us. Living in the middle of this paradox with God’s means of grace is a good place to be and one with which he is very pleased.
Completing the service at the altar (25), purifying those who have handled defiling elements (26-28), day of atonement (29-34).
Leviticus 16 has been about the need to cleanse the sanctuary (the tabernacle, later the temple) in cases of severe contamination (such as when Aaron’s sons died in the courtyard, with human death being the greatest of all impurities). Yet this purging ceremony is also needed annually to cleanse all of the unpurified impurities (the cases where Israelites did not practice the ritual purity laws) and moral offenses that have polluted the shrine. In vss. 11-19 the sanctuary is purged and in vss. 20-22 the people are purged through the scapegoat ritual.
The purification offering (usually translated sin offering) at the altar includes the other ram, those one not chosen by lot to be the scapegoat, and the bull which is the priest’s offering. The blood of both of these animals has been brought inside the tent and even inside the Holy of Holies. It has been applied to the cover over the Ark. Completing the service at the altar means burning the ritual portion. As for the rest of the purification offering, which would normally be eaten by the priest, it must be burned outside the camp because it has absorbed the pollution from the inner shrine.
The priests are immune to impurity while serving in the sanctuary. Thus the high priest does not need to decontaminate at all (Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) but only to change clothes and bathe. Milgrom says he is de-sanctifying himself, not purifying. He has been in the Holy of Holies and must not come out of the sanctuary bearing that holiness on his person. But the ones who handle the scapegoat, who take the impure remains of the purification offering outside the camp to burn them, they are Levites who are not priests. As such, they are not immune and they do contract impurity.
This whole procedure for purging the shrine of Israel must occur once a year at the very least. The death of Aaron’s sons in the tabernacle courts was an emergency. But even in a year with no severe defilements in the sanctuary, there would still be a build up of impurity. Not everyone in Israel would follow the purification procedures, which means impurities would remain in the land. And the people would fail to observe the covenant in various ways, bringing moral offenses into the land which also pollute the sanctuary. There would be many Israelites who failed to bring a purification offering. All of these unpurified impurities remained on the shrine, contaminating it, so that one day out of the year was reserved for a thorough ritual cleaning: Yom Kippur, the Day of Purgation (usually translated Day of Atonement).
On Yom Kippur the people are to “afflict themselves.” This is no doubt a reference to the usual customs of repentance. The Bible usually mentions things like wearing sackcloth, putting ashes on one’s head, and fasting as signs of repentance. All of these may have been intended for Yom Kippur. The one deemed most important by Jewish tradition has been fasting. Purging the shrine, keeping God’s favor with the people for another year, and sending the guilt of the people away with a scapegoat cannot be merely a ritual. The act of repentance by the people as a whole is equally necessary.
In the holiness laws of Torah, animal slaughter could only be performed as a sacrifice to Adonai. There were several reasons for this law. One given in this passage is to prevent the Israelites from presenting offerings on make-shift altars to various deities or to appease mythical demons whose mischief was believed to be averted by occasional sacrifices. To reign in the polytheistic urges of the Israelites, all meat was restricted, being allowed only from sacrificially offered animals. And all slaughter was to happen only at an official altar to Adonai.
Israel’s holiness level was such that eating meat was greatly curtailed, both by the kosher laws of chapter 11 (limiting the species which may be eaten) and the sacrifice laws of chapter 17.
The Torah for Israel is very much based on the condition of people living in the land. Interestingly, as people within Judaism and outside of Judaism today attempt to apply the Torah laws to modern life, this ideal is no longer a reality (except for Israelis, but even in Israel without a temple only a fraction of the Torah applies directly).
Many Bible readers, out of a desire to generalize everything and universalize it (make it applicable in some way to everyone), completely miss the specific context of the Torah. It is a lifestyle for a nation living in a small area in a specific covenant with God with a promise of a supernatural kingdom. However we decide to apply, directly or indirectly, the laws of Torah to modern life, we must never lose the specific, location-based reality from which it came.
Slaughter only at the sanctuary.
Chapters 17-27 are regarded by many scholars as coming from a different source than chapters 1-16. There is a greater emphasis in Leviticus 17-27 on moral vs. ritual purity, on the sanctity of the whole land vs. merely the sanctuary, and the sanctity of the people vs. merely the priesthood (Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, Anchor-Yale). Regardless of theories about sources, the shift in emphasis is a valid observation.
The slaughter rules of chapter 17 limit all slaughter (even just for food) to the sanctuary. That is, according to Leviticus 17, an Israelite may only eat meat if the animal was offered at the tabernacle (later the temple) and a portion was burned to God and another portion donated to the priests. But the rule is different in Deuteronomy (see Deut 12:15, 24), where slaughtering an animal for food anywhere in the land is permitted. Some harmonize them by saying Leviticus 17:1-7 is the rule in the desert while Deuteronomy 12 is the new rule after the people enter the land. Milgrom argues against this interpretation on several grounds.
The reality in ancient Israel, especially before the time of Hezekiah, is that there were altars and sanctuaries all over the land. In the historical narratives from Judges through Kings we continually read about them. Many commentators believe that multiple sanctuaries were permitted until the days of Hezekiah and that the “one sanctuary law” was an innovation from Hezekiah’s time. But, as is always the case with Torah, laws made later are read back into the time of Moses, as if Moses had commanded them. Leviticus 17 is realistic in this sense because it would reflect a time when there were sanctuaries all over the land and everyone could journey to one nearby to obey the law. But the wording in Deuteronomy reflects a time when there was only one sanctuary, the temple in Jerusalem.
Milgrom argues that it is impossible to say Leviticus 17 was the rule in the wilderness camp and that Deuteronomy was the rule once the land was inhabited. For one thing, it makes no sense during the wilderness encampment to imagine an Israelite preferring to hike outside the camp to slaughter meat. Rather “camp” in vs. 3 is a figure for the towns in the land of Israel. The “camp” of vs. 3 is a legal fiction since this commandment is really from a later time, but the word “camp” is used as a stand in for “town,” which is actually the organizing unit for Israel’s dwelling places. Since the laws made later were given under the pretense of having come from Moses, the word “camp” is used.
Furthermore, the other four laws of slaughter in ch. 17 are saying something new, so it makes sense vss. 1-7 are as well. They forbid non-sacrificial slaughter. Thus all consumption of meat according to this chapter is from offerings. Milgrom argues that the priests allowed non-sacrificial slaughter as seen in 1 Samuel 14 (Saul made a stone altar because draining the blood in the earth would be considered chthonic worship). Since people did not follow Samuel’s restrictions, a later group of priests (often called H, or the Holiness source of the Torah) tightened the law. Later, in Hezekiah’s time, it was loosened it for people who lived too far, since Deuteronomy (also thought to be a unique source in the Torah) insists on one and only one legitimate altar.
LEVITICUS 17:8 – 18:5
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you on the altar to ransom your lives; for it is the blood that ransoms by means of life” (Lev 17:11, translation by Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, Anchor-Yale). This most unusual verse, which declares a key principle in Leviticus, is in its specific context explaining why it eating meat with the blood still in it is not permitted (vs.10). Blood is life. Spilling blood causes death. Every death that happens evokes a response from God. Blood, of a person and also of an animal, cries out from the ground to God asking for justice.
The entire system of priestly laws with sacrificial offerings and purification procedures is about keeping all signs of human death away from God’s dwelling place. Death and sin do not belong in God’s abode. But what about the death of animals?
Animal blood has become for Israel a potent symbol of life. The power of life is in the blood and so blood has become the ritual detergent which Israel must use to purge the signs of human death. But animal blood too must be respected. Here is Leviticus 17, we find a law that is later overturned, that animal slaughter may only occur at God’s altar as a sacrifice (vss. 3-4). Ordinary slaughter of animals for meat is not permitted at all. But once the law changed so that there was in all the land only one official altar for God (in Hezekiah’s time) the law also changed and ordinary slaughter was permitted (Deut 12:15-16).
But even when ordinary slaughter became permitted, the blood still had to be treated with respect: “you shall pour it out on the ground like water” (Deut 12:16). In effect the whole land is holy, so draining the blood in the ground of the land of Israel has a similar effect to the earlier law that it must be drained at God’s altar.Offering the blood to God ransoms the crime of taking the animal’s life.
What are we to make of the prohibition of eating blood and the highly charged symbolism of blood as an agent of life? This is all a sign that the way things are now will change when God’s ideal is someday realized on earth. Death is going to be abolished, including the death of animals. Meat as food is a reality now. But Torah recognizes that taking the life of animals is wrong. It is a strange paradox. God permits in a limited way something which cannot go on forever if life is to swallow up death.
The blood prohibition is a step toward a death-free world. Vegetarianism logically follows as an advancement on the earlier principle, although the sacrificial system of Israel made it impossible to be a vegetarian (eating sacrificial meat was required). The meaning of offering the blood is quite simply to erase the signs of death with the symbol of life.
No private offerings (8-9), the sanctity of blood (10-14), meat found dead (15-16), overarching principle of holiness and divine statutes (18:1-5).
No animal sacrifices are allowed outside the sanctuary (private offerings encourage idolatry). And no Israelite is permitted to ingest blood when consuming meat. The blood prohibition is stated in the strongest terms. Blood is sacred as God has given it as a symbol of life. 17:11 is the basis of the entire system of blood atonement (purgation, cleansing). Blood as a symbol of life acts to erase defilement from transgression and impurity. To ingest blood is to disrespect animal life and is actually a crime similar to murder. Israelites are held to the highest standard, and it is only possible to eat meat, according to the logic of this chapter, if the blood is poured out on God’s altar so that it ransoms the guilt a person incurs for taking the life of the animal.
Regarding the eating of carcasses (meat found dead), understanding the requirement of Torah is not simple. There are four laws and they can be read as contradicting each other or they can be harmonized. Exodus 22:30 (31 in Christian Bibles) says all Israelites shall reject meat found dead as dog meat. Leviticus 17:15-16 seemingly permits eating meat found dead as long as purification procedures follow. Leviticus 22:8 forbids a priest to eat meat found dead. Deuteronomy 14:21 forbids an Israelite eating meat found dead but allows it to be given to a resident alien or sold to a foreigner.
In all these laws, only Leviticus 17:15-16 leaves unanswered whether it is permissible for Israelites to eat meat found dead. Can it contradict the other laws by permitting what is forbidden? The answer, it seems, is that Leviticus 17:15-16 is an accommodation to the reality that some Israelites will eat what is prohibited. In that case, when someone eats meat found dead, he must bathe and laundry an remain unclean until evening. And why is meat found dead prohibited in the first place? Because the blood of the animal has not been drained, much less offered on the altar as the rest of this chapter require.
Chapter 18 begins a section on holiness practices in the land which will be compared and contrasted with the practices of people outside of the covenant with God. Israel is not to simply follow the culture of their time, but to look to God’s instructions for a better way of life.
Culture often permits things that are unjust and even dangerous. But the Israelites are called to a counter-cultural way of life. It is not that culture itself is bad and neither must Israel avoid all cultural practices of their time. In fact, most Torah practices (animal sacrifices, festivals, agricultural laws, etc.) draw from the culture in which Israel lived. Rather than an injunction to “go against the culture,” the Torah’s stance is “culture has no authority in and of itself.”
Culture permitted incest. The act may have been frowned upon. But it was permitted. It seems as if (though we have little independent verification) people outside of Israel were aware of men of a household using widowed mothers, stepmothers, sisters, and aunts for sexual gratification.
Culture also permitted worship of Molech, which in extreme cases even involved child sacrifice. Molech was a chthonic deity, which is to say a god of the underworld. Blood was poured out onto the ground as an offering to the underworld.
What culture permitted, Torah prohibited. The practices Israel should follow were dictated by God’s teaching, by moral laws and respect for God-given symbols of life. Life should be lived deliberately and with meaning, not randomly and as if there is no meaning. All is not relative. Actions matter and consequences are important. Anything unjust should be prohibited. Life must be respected. Cultural practices must be evaluated by these guidelines. Cultural matters which are good (eating lamb and unleavened bread in the spring) may be incorporated into the Torah lifestyle. But unjust practices acceptable to culture (using a widowed sister in your household for sexual gratification) must be avoided.
Protections for single women subject to male domination (6-18), prohibition of menstrual and adulterous intercourse (19-20), prohibition of child sacrifice and Molech worship (21).
Chapters 18-20 are about holiness, a way of life set apart from the surrounding culture. Prohibitions and performative commandments give a way of life to Israel that looks different from the culture of the day. What culture permits is not necessarily permitted for the priestly and covenant people, Israel.
In this first section, the focus is not merely prohibiting sexual acts (incest) but also injustice (men of the household taking advantage of vulnerable women). All of the women mentioned (mothers, stepmothers, sisters, etc.) are potentially single, socially powerless women able to be exploited by men in the family. Mothers and stepmothers and sisters become widows. The prevalence of incest in the culture (which seems to be the reason these laws are mentioned in the first place) suggests that men found sexual release in women who were available and had few resources to protect themselves.
Milgrom (Leviticus 17-22, Anchor-Yale) adds more evidence to the discussion. If it was not assumed that all of these women mentioned were single and celibate then wouldn’t sexual relations with them already be forbidden by the adultery prohibition? Furthermore, the phrase “uncover their nakedness” seems to refer to celibate women whose nakedness was put away (i.e., who were celibate) as opposed to sexually active women whose nakedness was regularly exposed. Thus, for example, “uncover their nakedness” as a phrase is not used in passages prohibiting adultery.
Therefore, when the text says “do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife,” the assumption is that the father has died and the son is tempted to use his mother for sexual gratification. While this may be acceptable to the surrounding cultures, it is a crime in Israel. An additional concern is the rivalry between women in a household over the man’s affections. Leviticus prohibits this dangerous domestic situation of male dominance and female competition. If all sexual relations in a household are forbidden except between husband and wife, many dangerous and unjust situations are prevented.
Other transgressions related to sexuality include intercourse during menstruation, which fails to respect the symbolism of blood and which magnifies ritual impurity that contaminates God’s sanctuary.
Molech worship involves child sacrifice (probably literally) and the Bible depicts both Manasseh and Ahaz as having practiced this atrocity. In the book of Jeremiah and Ezekiel this practice is the epitome of Judah’s corruption. It may seem as if prohibiting child sacrifice and Molech worship is unrelated to the incest laws, but it seems these epitomize the worst of Canaanite culture and would be examples of the worst sort of crimes Israel could commit against God in the land.
The combination of sexual prohibitions in Leviticus 18 is not based on morality as the primary category. To be sure, some of the offenses listed have are related to moral offenses, such as males taking advantage of vulnerable females in the extended family household. But the injustice or immorality of these offenses is not the organizing principle or rationale. Rather than morality, the holiness laws related to sexuality are based on the symbolism of life and death, just like the purity laws of Leviticus 11-15.
That morality is not the basis for this list of prohibitions should be evident from the inclusion of one offense in particular: sex during a woman’s menstrual cycle. That some immoral actions are not included in this list should also be evident from the exclusion of a particular offense: a married man cheating on his wife with a single woman.
If the holiness laws of chapter 18 are not really about sexual ethics, then what are they about. The answer, which sounds strange to modern ears, is that they are about making the land holy so that God’s Presence in the temple will spread into all the land and so that the blessings of the covenant (see Lev 26) will come to pass. Israel can become a paradise on earth. If the symbolism of life and death is balanced properly and the people take ritual purity seriously (as well as moral purity, which is regulated elsewhere) then heaven will come down to earth in the land of Israel.
The vision of the priests of ancient Israel never came to pass. But it stands in the Torah as a precursor to a larger vision of a future redemption. Will the land of Israel, or more so the world itself, ever encounter holiness and the divine presence as the priests dreamed? Many of us think it will be so.
Prohibition of male same-sex relations and bestiality (22-23), conclusion that these pagan customs defile the holy land (24-30).
The list of prohibitions in chapter 18 has a common thread. All of them are about forbidden sexual unions with the exception of the law against Molech worship. Since Molech worship involved, in extreme circumstances, the killing of a child, it somehow fit into the idea of the chapter. The common denominator is the improper use of the life-giving male seed. It may seem a strange topic, but the logic of it fits with the earlier priestly laws as a sort of expansion.
Any discharge of semen, including marital intercourse, created impurity. Life has passed from the male and in the symbolic system of the priests, any time life is lost, a purification is needed. Now in the holiness laws of Leviticus some discharges of semen are considered more severe, being punishable with the divine punishment referred to as being “cut off” (karet, from the root כרת, vs. 29). Men who use women in the household (mother, stepmother, sister, aunt, etc.) for sexual relations, men who engage in Molech worship, men who engage in same-sex relations, men who engage in adultery or sex during menstruation, and men who have relations with animals are all included in the category of those who should be “cut off.” To be “cut off” in the Torah means to be childless and have your line of descendants come to an end.
Examining this list, three of the offenses seem less serious and more common by modern standards. Few people would regard sexual relations during a woman’s menstrual period to be a moral offense. Adultery is universally regarded as immoral, hurtful to the spouses who are betrayed, but at the same time has become so common we cannot imagine a person who has committed this act deserving to be “cut off.” Finally, males engaging in same-sex relations do not seem to necessarily be committing an offense worthy of such a severe punishment. The standards of sexual morality implied by Leviticus 18 seem to have a different basis than in secular or modern thought about sexuality.
To get at the heart of this issue, we should ask in each case about the inner logic of the chapter. Why are these offenses included in the list of abominations deserving of being cut off from the land of the living? The incest prohibition seems to be based on two principles: incest does not produce healthy offspring and this is a sin involving men taking advantage of vulnerable women in their household (in the ancient household, where extended family lived together). The sex during menstruation prohibition is based on the idea that menstruation is impurity and deliberately choosing to copulate during the time of impurity is mixing death with life. The adultery prohibition, interestingly, is only for the case where the woman is married to someone else (“your fellow’s wife”). The focus is on the male’s role in the sin, and here he is sinning against the other man, potentially stealing the other man’s right to have children with his own wife. Same-sex relations (again, only the male may commit the offense as it is worded here) is using sex for something that cannot produce life and the same with bestiality. Molech worship, since it sometimes involves child sacrifice, is about wasting life.
The common denominator is the misuse of the male ability to create life. It is about engaging in sexual gratification without respect for the principles of life and the laws of purity with their symbolic aim of keeping the forces of death at bay. This chapter is not about the moral issues involved in sexual offenses. Isn’t adultery between a married man and a single woman also wrong in a moral sense? Can we really say that sex during a woman’s menstrual cycle is morally offensive? If this chapter is not strictly about moral issues, but has more to do with the priestly laws of purification, then can we find in Leviticus 18 a universal law (one that applies outside of Judaism) against homosexuality?
It may seem strange, but this chapter does not give a moral basis for declaring homosexuality wrong. People who wish to define male same-sex relations as a moral transgression cannot do so from Leviticus. It does remain an issue within Judaism, however, where the purity laws are still to be upheld. If a Jewish man is expected to avoid sex during menstruation in order to be practicing Torah, it is also evident that Jewish men who wish to be Torah-observant cannot engage in same-sex relations. The Torah creates categories that are not based precisely on morality for restricting sexual choices.