There are two realms and the holiness chapter (Leviticus 19) calls the people of Israel to live for God’s realm even though it is wholly other from this realm. Long recognized as a treasure from the Hebrew Bible, this chapter is aptly called the decalogue (ten commandments) of holiness by Jacob Milgrom (Leviticus 17-22, Anchor-Yale). Jesus drew inspiration from it, finding here the second greatest commandment (Leviticus 19:18) which he added to the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), thus pairing the love of God and neighbor as the way of life which he preached to Israel.
“You shall be holy” (קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ, kedoshim tihyu). The author of this second half of Leviticus, widely thought to be different from P (the priestly author who wrote the first half), goes beyond “purity” and calls for “holiness.” Whereas in the first half of Leviticus keeping the people separate from impurities by means of rituals of purification seemed a sufficient level of sanctity, we find here in the second half an intensification. The people must go beyond ritual purification and aim for the divine realm itself, for holiness. “Holy” means “compatible with God’s realm.” Everything pertaining to death and violence and the pursuit of power is antithetical to God’s Presence.
When H, as the presumed author of this section is often called (the H standing for “holiness”), gets to actually specifying the ways of life that are “holy,” the topics are all over the board. This chapter will be a seemingly disorganized blend of ritual, social, moral, and individual commands. Honor your parents. Revere the Sabbath. Flee idolatry. Observe the laws for eating sacrificial meat. Follow the laws of agriculture in which gleanings and the corners of the fields are left to feed the poor. Do not steal, defraud, or use God’s name to make false oaths. Pay laborers quickly. Protect the deaf and blind. These are just the topics in vss. 1-14, with more to come.
The vision of Leviticus 19 is absolute. It is like being commanded to “be perfect.” We may have to admit that we cannot completely fulfill this vision. To paraphrase the rabbis from Pirkei Avot, even if we are unable to complete the commandment, we are not free from trying. If it is true that the author of this section was H, some unknown priest from Judah, we can imagine the perfect setting for his commandments. They would seem to be most fitting during the days of Isaiah, when Assyria had devastated the land, and it seemed the people needed a new commitment to return to the covenant with God.
The most enduring idea of the chapter, in addition to the call to love neighbor in vs. 18, is that of living for the realm where God dwells, the realm known as “the holy.” It does not mean ignoring this world, but it does mean transcending it. We transcend this world when we refuse to accept death and decay and selfishness and violence. We transcend this world when we believe in God as good and pure and redeeming. We rise above the inevitable pull of death when we put our hope in the God of life. The call to holiness manifests itself in us when we live for that vision, firmly planted in this world but rising in our minds and aspirations toward God’s world. “Be holy for I am holy,” is a call to attain to God and all the things he loves.
Introduction: Imitatio Dei (1-2), revere parents (3), no idols (4), how to treat sacred meat (5-8), leavings for the needy (9-10), honesty (11-12), justice for the helpless (13-14).
Chapter 19 is, in the words of Jacob Milgrom, “a miscellany of commands” (Leviticus 17-22, Anchor-Yale). There does not seem to be a topical category that ties these diverse instructions together. The key, rather, is in the special way the author uses the word “holy.” Whereas the earlier parts of Leviticus have called the people to keep a system of ritual purity, in chapters 17-26 the calling seems to be intensified, not just to live in a state of ritual purity but to go beyond that into holiness. To understand what Leviticus means by holiness it is best not to associate it with ideas found in modern religions, but to look to Leviticus itself for our definition of the concept.
Kedoshim tihyu (קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ, “you [plural] shall be holy”). This concept is what ties the seemingly unrelated commands of the chapter together. Ki kadosh ani (כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי, “for I am holy”). To understand what holy means we have to consider what God’s holiness signifies. In their encounters with God and through God’s Presence in the tabernacle, Israel learned that he is ultimately unapproachable. The goal of the entire system of sacrifices and worship at the tabernacle was to allow the people to come close to God, but no one was able to stand in his direct presence. God is other, beyond. Things in our realm are tainted with death and exposure to God’s realm is fatal to us because of a total incompatibility between holiness and impurity. When something, an object or a person is considered “holy” in the priestly writings it means “designated for and made compatible with God’s realm.” Holiness is about people and things “brought into close relationship with the deity” (Milgrom).
The commandment to “be holy” is ultimately impossible to fulfill in its complete sense. It is similar to a command to “be perfect.” We cannot make ourselves compatible with the direct Presence of God. But the revelation of God’s demand, “you shall be holy for I am holy,” is understood to mean a way of life that Israel can set as a goal and aspire to. “Holy” is a higher standard than “pure.” This has led many to think the author of this last half of Leviticus is different than P (the priestly author whose work is throughout the Torah, but especially in the first half of Leviticus). Many refer to the author of these chapters as H (the holiness author). Quite possibly he (probably a priest, so most likely a male) lived in Judah when Assyria had devastated the land. He intensified P’s call for purity into a mission to become holy.
Leviticus 19 has been regarded as a treasure among the chapters of the Hebrew Bible. There is a reason for the power and authority this chapter seems to command. It is the central thesis of H. Milgrom compares it to the decalogue (Ten Commandments), referring to it as the decalogue of holiness. Just as the Ten Commandments are given as the epitome of the covenant made at Sinai, so Leviticus 19 is the essence of H’s call to “holiness.”
What brings these commands together and unifies them into a whole even though they seem to be unrelated topically? They are either positive commands about intensifying the pursuit of holiness or negative commands about escalating intolerance for all things related to death and impurity. Ritual and moral, social and individual, the subjects of these teachings may vary, but what they have in common is the aim to imitate God and to belong to his realm.
Honor your parents. Revere the Sabbath. Flee idolatry. Observe the laws for eating sacrificial meat. Follow the laws of agriculture in which gleanings and the corners of the fields are left to feed the poor. Do not steal, defraud, or use God’s name to make false oaths. Pay laborers quickly. Protect the deaf and blind. So the holiness commands begin. The author is not talking about something abstract and merely philosophical, but is enjoining Israel to live for the realm beyond where God is instead of accepting the ways of death that characterize this world.
If the people of Israel are going to exist in close relationship with God, the stakes have to be increased. The author of this section seems to be looking at examples of problems in Israel’s Torah-keeping. If the author is from the later part of Hezekiah’s reign, when Judah was devastated by the Assyrians, this program of holiness is intended as a way to get back to nearness with God. It is a restart. A path to redemption. The goal is to seek the promises of the covenant, “I will look with favor upon you, and make you fertile and multiply you; and I will maintain My covenant with you” (Lev 26:9, JPS translation).
Topics in this section include avoiding mixtures (which had magical significance), clarifying an obscure legal case (betrothed slave women who are seduced), social justice and equity (not only in court, but in personal dealings), and care for and even love for one’s neighbor.
The priestly sources of Torah in particular have a concern for the immigrant [alien, sojourner]. The passion some people in Israel had for nearness to the deity led to what is perhaps the greatest religious insight in history. True relationship with a God like Israel’s — not a nature deity, not a dualistic force — requires a total respect and concern for God’s creatures. If God is One, then humanity is one, sourced in him. It is not possible to posit some caste system or socially striated levels of justice. God is One and human beings are all his.
It is impossible to love God and lack concern for people. Religion is directed toward people as much as toward God. Jesus was so right to add Leviticus 19:18 to the Shema. This is also evident in the Ten Commandments, which combine obligations toward God with those toward people. If a person focused on loving people, and did it as a way of showing love to God, this would be pure, biblical religion.
Impartial justice and protecting your neighbor’s reputation (15-16), love and forsaking vengeance (17-18), mixtures reserved for the sacred (19), relations with a slave (20-22).
The holiness author (H, as he is known) continues his call to Judah in his time (the latter years of Hezekiah seem a likely setting) to bring back God’s blessing on the land by increasing the practices of purification and righteousness. In this decalogue of holiness (like the ten commandments, but focusing on the people being holy) he mixes ritual and moral commands.
Vss. 15-16 concern social justice, one of the two issues the prophets of Israel targeted as the defining reason God handed Israel over to her enemies (the other being idolatry). Jacob Milgrom (Leviticus 17-22, Anchor-Yale) cites the rabbis from Sifra (a collection of midrash on Leviticus) saying that social injustice led to five things: “polluting the land, desecrating the Sabbath, removing the divine Presence, defeating Israel by the sword, and exiling it from the land” (Sifra on Kedoshim 4:1). Milgrom argues this is not just injustice in the courts, but involves all the dealings of the people with each other in business, agriculture, labor, and daily life. H calls for an end to unfair decisions, partiality in justice, and inequity between people in dealing with one another (such as the wealthy taking advantage of the poor).
Vss. 17-18 concern relationships with “your brother” (an Israelite) and “the children of your people” (also Israelites) and “your neighbor” (potentially anyone). In the famous saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” Milgrom argues the reference is only to fellow Israelites. The basis for his argument is first that the previous statements are clearly about fellow Israelites. Second of all, when the text later says “you shall love the alien [immigrant] as yourself,” he takes this as adding what was not commanded before. In other words, he thinks vs. 18 commanded love for Israelites only and vs. 34 adds immigrants as objects of the command. But Richard Elliott Friedman disagrees (Exodus, HarperOne). The priestly author (P) has had a consistent emphasis on justice and care for immigrants. Furthermore, he suggests vs. 34 is a clarification, not an addition. If someone thought neighbor love did not include immigrants in the land, vs. 34 sets them straight.
Jesus added Leviticus 19:18 to the Shema [Deuteronomy 6:4-5], thus expanding for his followers the creed of Israel, adding love of neighbor to love of God. Jesus further said this commandment is about what we “do for others” (as we desire others to do for us). Hillel, the great Jewish teacher who preceded Jesus in Jewish history emphasized the converse side of neighbor love: “do not do to others what is hurtful.”
Vs. 19 concerns mixtures that are forbidden. This section is especially hard for modern readers to understand. Outlawing mixed breeding of animals? Mixed crops in a field? Mixed fiber in a garment? The key to understanding this lies in ancient thinking. Mixtures belonged to the divine realm (this all stems from the magical world view of ancient people, where “magic” is a force above the gods). Thus, sphinxes (like the cherubim in Israel, which were carved on the Ark cover and woven into the tabernacle fabric) were mixtures of animals (e.g., lions with eagle wings, etc.). Thus, using mixtures in animal breeding, agriculture, and weaving may have been associated with magic (incantations, charms).
Vss. 20-22 are extremely complicated. Milgrom says this is, from a legal point of view in the ancient Near East’s way of viewing laws about adultery and slavery, a marginal case. The H author is investigating cases where Israelites may have offended God without a clear law to prohibit their actions. The case of a slave woman (who is the property of her owner) who is betrothed (thus also making her the property in another sense of her future husband) who is seduced by another man, represents a legal puzzle in the ancient system. To whom does the seducer owe damages? This woman in a sense has two owners. H’s solution is that the seducer owes damages to God in the form of a reparation offering (often translated guilt offering). The monetary payment will go to the priests for use in the sanctuary.
There are two different settings for the section of Leviticus known as H (standing for holiness). One is the fictional setting. These are commands God related to Moses and which have been passed down through the centuries to Israel. The other is the actual setting. These are teachings of a circle of priests in Hezekiah’s time. How can priests in Hezekiah’s time write Torah and attribute it to Moses?
Literary conventions like this (attributing something in the eighth century to a previous time period) were not regarded as lies. They revealed a deeper truth: what God had shown to Moses on Sinai echoed and reverberated through the centuries and continued to guide Israel. Priests, in some ways like prophets, heard from God through practicing their work in proximity to God’s Presence in the temple and applying the principles of the divine nature revealed many centuries earlier through Moses.
H seemingly lived in the latter days of Hezekiah. Descriptions of the condition of the land in the book of Isaiah tell us that the Assyrian armies had ruined agriculture and laid waste to orchards. Many fruit trees survived, but people lived on the fruit of the land without being able to practice large-scale agriculture. “Everyone who remains in the land will eat yogurt and honey,” Isaiah said (7:22). In other words, they will subsist off of their flock animals and the fruit trees remaining in the land. They will be unable to farm on a larger scale, lest the enemy come and destroy them again.
Thus, in Leviticus 19 we see H’s program for Judah to restore the agriculture of the land and return to the blessing of God. This time, Israel must do it correctly, with utmost reverence for God’s laws. The fruit of the trees should not be eaten for the first four years of the planting, but dedicated to God and carefully “circumcised.” Similarly, during Sabbath years, grape vines will be like Nazirites (banned from drinking/producing wine, Lev 25:5-11). By refraining from immediately enjoying benefits from restored orchards, Israel will dedicate them to Adonai and seek his blessing rather than immediate gratification. This delayed gratification approach to restoring the land is a way of worshipping God and seeking the greater blessing that comes from the covenant.
Holiness in Leviticus is a desire to be as close to God as possible, forsaking all other loves and forgetting all other ideas about how to live the successful life. The divine covenant with Israel becomes a way of life affecting everything, including crops, food, calendar, and possessions.
Fruit of the land (23-25), separation from death (26-28), protection of children from concubinage (29), honor Sabbath and sanctuary (30), forbidding of spiritism/incantation (31), honoring the elderly (32).
If the author of this section of Leviticus (thought to be a priest from the time of Hezekiah, referred to as H, which stands for holiness) is from the latter years of Hezekiah’s reign, this section on fruit trees makes a lot of sense. We know that when the Assyrian armies devastated Judah, leaving only Jerusalem to stand (see Isa 1:9-11 for a poetic description), the people could not practice agriculture as normal. Orchards were in ruins, though of course many trees survived. In H’s time, the fruit trees needed to be brought back.
But H’s theory is that Israel needed to do this in a greater mindset of holiness than in previous generations. Unlike the early days of settling the land (Joshua’s time and the Judges period), the Israelites needed to be totally committed to the covenant with God. This even had implications for agriculture and restoring the orchards of the land. Fruit of the first three years is “uncircumcised,” which is to say unusable and to be destroyed. In the fourth year it is holy (offered as firstfruits) and become available to its owner starting in the fifth year. The idea is that with immature trees the fruit is to be “circumcised” (the buds pinched off before they mature; see Lev 25:5, 11, about grape vines being “Nazirites” in Sabbath years).
Vss. 26-28 contain seven prohibitions which Milgrom (Leviticus 17-22, Anchor-Yale) shows all relate to rituals of death magic. In vs. 26, though English translations say “you shall not eat anything with its blood,” the Hebrew reads “you shall not eat over the blood.” This is possibly a reference to a kind of chthonic worship (a magical ritual) pouring blood into the ground and, apparently, eating a meal over the blood. This interpretation makes all the elements of vss. 26-28 fit together: they are all related to death magic. The much-quoted ban in vs. 28, which seems to prohibit tattoos, is also an example of a class misunderstanding. The ban is not on marking the skin (a tattoo) but on a form of death magic which involved marking the skin. Note, for example, that God has Israel tattooed on the palm of his hand (Isaiah 49:16, “you are engraved on the palm of my hand”).
Vs. 29 concerns a practice which has been much misunderstood. Older scholarship suggested that there was such a thing as a “cult prostitute,” a woman who engaged in sexual acts with men as a sort of magical rite for generating fertility. On many fronts in archaeology and literary investigation, this kind of prostitution has been shown to be a misreading of the evidence. It does appear, however, that some women worked for temples in a variety of capacities, including being wet nurses and engaging in prostitution, with their income taxed by the temple (Milgrom). Thus, for example, we read in Hosea 4:13-14 about a practice in the northern kingdom of Israel of prostitution related to the temple. It happened in Jerusalem too (2 Kings 23:7). It is unclear here if the Hiphil form of the verb means fathers sought profit from their daughters’ prostitution or simply allowed them to choose this occupation (the difference between “making her a prostitute” and “allowing her to be a prostitute”).
Vs. 30 is a sort of shorthand description of Israel’s holy life, sanctifying time (Sabbath) and space (sanctuary/temple). אֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ et-shabtōtai tishmōru, “My Sabbaths you shall observe,” וּמִקְדָּשִׁי תִּירָאוּ umiqdashi tira’u, “and my sanctuary you shall revere.” The statement is a kind of essence of holiness. All of the regulations H is urging Israel to follow have to do with these two things: being set apart for God by valuing what is most important to him and living life purposefully and specifically for God. Sabbath is the epitome of a cultural practice that differentiates Israel from the nations. Others regard this day of the week as nothing, but Israel regards it as an eternal sign of the relationship with God (Exodus 31:13). The sanctuary of Adonai is the place where his nature (as the God of life, who opposes death) is made known.
Vs. 31 forbids necromancy (consulting the dead), which Milgrom suggests violates trust in God on several levels: ancestor worship is a sort of idolatry and seeking readings of the future implies that God is not in charge of it. Vs. 32 makes respect for age enforceable by divine displeasure (those who disrespect the aged incur God’s anger). These commands are related to the larger issue of following the God of life who overcomes death.
Immigrants. Why do they matter so much in Torah? Variously called “the alien, the sojourner, the stranger,” they are singled out in Torah as a protected class. Other literature in the Near East mentions widows and orphans, but as Richard Elliott Friedman argues in Exodus (HarperOne, 2017) there is something unique about the Torah’s emphasis on immigrants.
He makes the case that the Levites (including the priests) were originally a nomadic, unattached group. And since the authors of four of the Torah’s five sources were Levites (E, P, H, and D, but not J), we see commands to respect the immigrant all over the Torah.
There could be another reason why immigrants are singled out so much in Torah. Israel is called to be different, unique, holy. One of many ways a people can be close to God is to treat fellow human beings in ways that exceed normal social codes of respect. We expect to have to treat our own well, our fellow citizens and even more so our family and friends. But to treat the other, the alien, the outsider with love equal to that we have for our own selves forces us as human beings to transcend our nature. Justice and love are not based on kinship or even relationship, but ultimately on respect for the dignity of human beings as God’s children.
Immigrants are a test case, a socially commonplace phenomenon. Does Israel wish to bring covenant blessings, the supernatural promises of Leviticus 26:3-13? Then Israel will need a higher motive of love than is ordinary in human nature. וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ v’ahavta lō kamōcha, “you shall love him [the immigrant] as yourself.”
Protecting aliens and helpless (33-34), honesty in scales and business (35-36), conclusion: Keep all God’s statutes (37).
The whole chapter has been about the epitome of holiness, an alternative version of the ten commandments (Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, Anchor-Yale). Issues so far have included the general call to “holiness,” honoring parents, observing the Sabbath, forsaking idolatry, sacrificial and other foods, social justice and equity in personal dealings, protecting vulnerable classes, loving one’s neighbor, avoiding mixtures, forsaking death magic, ridding the land of prostitution, and revering Sabbath and sanctuary.
The next subject is the immigrant (גֵּר ger, variously translated “stranger, sojourner, alien, resident alien”). Richard Elliott Friedman details the case that the Levites (including the priests) were originally an unattached, nomadic group (Exodus, HarperOne 2017). The numerous passages in the Torah about concern for the immigrant (all from Levite sources E, P, D, and H) are unique, he argues, among the law codes of the world. Orphans, widows, and certain other classes of people were listed in idealistic codes as protected classes. But the concern of the Torah for the immigrant is strictly an Israelite (Levite) characteristic belief.
Immigrants then (and now) could easily be taken advantage of, being for the most part without a support system of family and clan. As a marginal and less protected class, they could be exploited in a number of ways. The H author commands that they be treated as a “citizen” (אֶזְרָח ezrach, “native-born”). This does not mean that all categories which apply to Israelites must also apply to immigrants. We see, for example, in Exodus 12 that there must be “one law” for the immigrant and the citizen, but nonetheless immigrants may not eat the meat of Passover (Exodus 12:48-49). The meaning, rather, is that regarding equal treatment in matters of justice and personal dealings, immigrants are protected.
Even more than protecting the alien, H says they count as “neighbor.” The “love your neighbor as yourself” command of vs. 18 is now applied to immigrants, “you shall love the immigrant as yourself.” Why mention immigrants separately from “neighbor”? Milgrom (Leviticus 1-17, Anchor-Yale) argues it is because vs. 18 is only about loving Israelites and vs. 34 adds immigrants to the command. Friedman’s argument makes more sense: the author knew that people might not include immigrants if it was not specified. The later verse clarifies, saying in effect, “Yes, aliens too.”
Vss. 35-36 round out the section with a call to the highest integrity in trade and business. When inequity is permitted in society, this will bring divine wrath (as we see, for example in the preaching of Amos and in the book of Isaiah in places like 1:21-26; 3:13-15; 5:8-10). Instead of being the “holy” people Israel is called to be (as in Exodus 19:6, “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”), if injustice is permitted in the land, Israel will be ordinary. And all the ordinary wars and diseases will come upon Israel that afflict other nations.
Therefore the chapter ends with a summary of Israel’s unique place with God. This is the nation freed from Egypt. And with that privilege comes responsibility to observe carefully all the stipulations of God’s covenant. The law, conceived this way, is not merely about legal requirements. It is about an ever-improving world, guided by love, justice, and kindness. The land of Israel should be filled with such love. The vision for holiness suggests a vision for Israel as an alternative to the lands of evil, an ideal land of love and justice. It is not difficult to move from this vision into the ideal of the messianic age.
Sometimes the literary structure of the Bible reveals an artfulness with a larger message. We see that happening in Leviticus 18-20. Rather than discussing ritual and sexual offenses against the holiness of the land of Israel in a linear fashion, the author of this section interrupts the flow by sandwiching chapter 19 between the first and second half of theme. We find the structure: ritual and sexual offenses (ch. 18), the ten commandments of holiness (ch. 19), and again ritual and sexual offenses (ch. 20).
The author, H, wants the land to be rebuilt in his time (late in Hezekiah’s reign) with an intensified program of holiness. Nothing the people of the land will do should violate the strictest interpretation of allegiance to One God and his holy nature. Whether the issues are ritual (the purity laws which are a symbol system about life versus death) or moral (actual offenses against what is good), anything that would keep Israel again from achieving paradise through God’s blessing should be rooted out completely.
Molech worship is a ritual and moral offense, including within its rites the act of murdering a child. As such it was liable to execution (for the capital crime of murder) as well as being cut off (a divine punishment, for the ritual crime against God’s call for life). Necromancy (consulting mediums to speak with the dead) was less serious, and was liable to the divine punishment of being cut off, but not execution. The offense in necromancy was an affront to God’s kingship, assuming that the dead were outside of his domain and could be consulted by magic.
Molech worship (1-5), necromancy (6), consecration (7).
Chapter 20 is almost a repeat of chapter 18, with some subtle differences. Milgrom (Leviticus 17-22, Anchor-Yale) discusses the obvious question: why rewrite the injunctions of chapter 18? The answer has to do with the place of Leviticus 19 in the Torah and in the book of Leviticus. Chapter 19 is the center, not only of Leviticus, but of the Torah. The heightened theme of holiness and the transcendent call for holiness in Leviticus 19 is the epitome of priestly religion. Like Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, Leviticus 19 is a “ten commandments,” but centered on “holiness.”
Why chapter 20, then? It is part of the chiastic literary method of the ancient world. A chiasm is a structure like an spearhead, where the central point is the tip of the spear and is surrounded by a stepped series of parallels (e.g., D-C-B-A-B-C-D, with A as the tip of the spear). The structure of Leviticus 18-20, then, is a chiasm, which chapter 19 as the center (sexual and ritual practices that violate holiness in ch. 18, the essence of holiness in ch. 19, and again sexual and ritual practices that violate holiness in ch. 20).
Some things in chapter 20 that are unique and which give it a purpose of its own include the discussion of penalties for offenses and a positive motive for keeping the holiness laws (in vs. 26).
The Molech worshipper is to be executed by the court (a penalty not mentioned in ch. 18). Yet even more will happen to this individual. He or she will be “cut off” (כָּרֵת karet). The meaning of karet is debated. Milgrom’s opinion (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale, 457–460) is that it is about bringing an end to his entire line of descendants (extirpation, see Psa 109:13) and possibly also a denial of afterlife (see Num 20:24; 27:13; 31:2; Gen 15:15; 47:30; Judg 2:10 for the notions of being “gathered to his kin”). Evidence is strong that being “cut off” means something different from either exile (which is a different punishment mentioned in this chapter) or execution. The Molech worshipper receives both penalties (execution and being cut off by God).
Necromancy (consulting mediums to speak with the dead) is punishable by karet but not execution (vs. 6). Vs. 7 wraps up this sub-section with the overriding principle for this chapter: that the land should be holy and free from these offenses.
Given some negative associations with the word “holy” arising from the history of Western religion, vs. 20 (“I am Adonai who makes you holy”) needs to be seen in the context of the entire holiness section of Leviticus (especially chapters 17-20).
To be holy is to go beyond mere legal requirements, to imitate God, to be guided by love, justice, and kindness. It is to be part of an ever-improving world directed by God’s laws.
What does it mean for God to say he is the “one who makes you holy”? Was it by declaring Israel as the Chosen People that God made the nation holy? Or was it more than that. Was it giving laws and a way of life to Israel that God “made” Israel holy? That is, did God create holiness by declaring Israel holy or enable holiness by showing Israel the roadmap?
It seems the answer of the holiness author, H, is that God has given the roadmap and it is the people’s responsibility to attain to it. Even so, this does not negate the fact, highlighted by the prophets, that God in the future will bring about a condition of holiness in humanity which humanity itself could not achieve alone.
Keep the statutes (8), cursing parents (9), adultery (10), incest (11-12), same-sex relations and other sexual issues (13-21), keep the statutes to keep from being spewed out (22).
The penalties for various violations of statutes continues. Acts forbidden already in Leviticus in chapter 18 are given their penalty here in chapter 20. Most involve the death penalty with some notable exceptions. Vs. 17 concerns a half-sister and the punishment is being cut off (karet, see notes on 20:1-7). It is unclear how being cut off (their line of descendants will be divinely brought to an end and they may be denied afterlife) can be seen by the community. Perhaps the court declares this divine penalty publicly.
In vs. 18, the violation concerns a sacred substance (blood) and thus the penalty is karet. Vs. 20 reinforces the notion that some penalties are divine acts and not enacted by human courts (the couple will die childless).
The holiness perspective (which some, including Milgrom, take to be a separate school of thought reflected in chapters 17-27) is not just of the holiness of the Temple, but the whole land. Thus, the people are to keep the statutes and also to be holy as God is holy in the land. Otherwise, the land will spew them out (which obviously happened in the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles). The land is holy and can only be occupied by a people desiring a better world as defined by God.
“For I, Adonai, am holy,” God says in vs. 26. This is the rationale for Israel being holy too. The root idea of holiness is something or someone separated and designated for a purpose.
God has a purpose: life. He is separated from what opposes that purpose: sin and death.
Can human beings, or a single nation like Israel, create a land dedicated to life and opposing the forces of death? No nation has yet succeeded in getting very far with it. Yet we read in the prophets of a future time when humanity will be enlightened and even of the death of death.
To be holy in an unholy world is to live for that vision now. It means not to wait until holiness arrives on earth, but to exemplify it now while we are waiting.
Separation from pagan customs (23), a separated land given to a separated people (24), the separations of ritual purity (25), the holy people separated from the nations and to God (26), mediums and spiritists (27).
Vs. 26 is an inclusio, a repetition of 19:2 which serves as a sort of bookend. The text from 19:1 to 20:26 is between literary bookends, a unit about holiness. Holiness is imitating God in his separation and doing so according to God’s teaching (and not making up our own ideas of separation).
As God is separate from death and the transitory things of this present world, so Israel as the ideal people is to create a people and a land separated symbolically from death and actually from evil. This separated people and land is an expression of God’s will for the whole world, all of his creation. It involves both ritual and ethical separation.
No one can say why vs. 27 appears to be out of order. It seems to be an appendix. It would have fit very well into the chapter earlier, especially with vs. 6. It may have been added later.