Crime and Punishment (Leviticus 20:1-27)

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On Monday, 15 April 2013, in the city of Boston in the United States, two bombs exploded, killing three people and injuring more than 180. Moral outrage was the response from around the world. President Barack Obama said that the perpetrators would be found and would “feel the full weight of justice.” What will that look like? What should it look like?

In our own country, at the same time, there was the ongoing trial of a group of men accused of murdering a young lady by setting her alight in an alleged satanic ritual. If found guilty, what should be their punishment?

At the same, time the trial was taking place in Philadelphia of Kermit Gosnell for the murder of at least two women who came to him for abortions, as well as the murder of several babies who died because he severed their spinal cords.1 For anyone with any moral sense, that case too would cry for “the full weight of justice.” Again, assuming Gosnell is found guilty of murder, what will justice look like? What should it look like?

In another local case, Johan Kotze is accused of hiring three men to gang rape and murder his wife. The man’s son was also murdered. In the case of a guilty verdict, should Kotze receive the death penalty? Why, or why not?

We live in an evil world and the victims of man’s sinful crimes cry out for justice. Crimes call forth punishment. But on what basis do we call for justice? Leviticus 20 sheds some light on this matter.

The book of Leviticus is God’s revelation of His boundaries: boundaries that those who claim to be His people are to respect; boundaries that they are to obey. Such boundaries are God’s means to enable us to be practically holy. They are boundaries that God established, and therefore those who love God respect and adhere to them. But when those boundaries are violated then there are consequences. There are penal consequences. Where there is crime, there is a corresponding punishment. Those who love God will respect His penal sanctions. This is the theme of Leviticus 20.

In this this we will attempt to answer the following questions:

  • What are the various penal consequences/punishments mentioned here?
  • Why are they prescribed?
  • What are the various crimes to which they are attached?
  • Who was to carry them out?
  • What do they have to do with us?

We should establish up front that not all sins are necessarily crimes, but all (biblically defined) crimes are sins. What distinguishes them is that sins infringe upon God’s right to be obeyed while crimes are sins that also infringe on the rights of another human being.

Covetousness, for instance, is a sin against God, but not necessarily a crime—though of course it may lead to other sins and therefore crimes against others (in the form of theft, for example). Adultery, on the other hand, is a sin against both God and man. It is therefore a crime and there is thus corresponding punishment legislated by God. It is these kinds of sins—sins which become crimes—for which God mandated specific punishments in this chapter.

It is also important for us to note that, for the most part, the world makes much of crime while minimising sin. As I will attempt to show you, sin is a far more serious thing than crime. Crime may lead to the death penalty; sin brings the verdict of the second death. As I trust you are beginning to appreciate, this is an enormous chapter.

Crime and the Community

This chapter (at the end of the Holiness Code) is a corporate call to holiness; a call to consecration; a call to separation (see vv. 7-8; 22-26). But this call to holiness had a unique context: “Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Again, you shall say to the children of Israel . . .’” (vv. 1-2).

After the revelation of God’s prohibitions in chapters 18 and 19, God now reveals His mandated punishments for the violations of those laws. Scholars speak of that list being apodictic (a straightforward declaration of what is prohibited), whereas in chapter 20 the listing is casuistic (that is, here we have the stated consequences for when and if the aforementioned laws are broken). Because we have considered the laws before, we will not take the time to explain them. We will rather focus on the penalties that are prescribed.

God revealed that, if the nation of Israel would be holy, they must take seriously God’s revelation concerning both what constitutes a sinful crime as well as its corresponding punishment.

Note that the call was to the covenantal community; it was a corporate call for them to respect God’s boundaries, both by obeying them and by punishing those who transgressed them.

God wanted His people to know both what constitutes a crime and its consequent penalties. And where penal consequences were called for, the community (in most, if not all, cases) was to carry them out. This answers the “who” question when it comes to responsibility for jurisprudence.

Without going into too much detail, it is clear that God expected His covenantal community to carry out His revealed sanctions upon criminals. No doubt, the elders in each tribe or community acted as the official court. In other words, the Old Testament did not endorse vigilantism. Nevertheless, when it came to capital punishment, the community was called upon to participate (see v. 2).

Without elaborating, the church under the new covenant is also called to identify sin in its midst and to even mete out punishment (2 Corinthians 2:6). But there are limitations to our authority. We are not to exercise either corporal or capital punishment! God has ordained government (the state) to do so (see Romans 13). And, yes, I believe that government is duty bound before God to submit to God’s revealed law-word when it comes to such issues as penal consequences. But that subject will have to await another sermon!

In summary, God’s people were to be holy in every area of life, including the bedroom (chapter 18) and the courtroom. Again, let it be noted that all of God’s people were to be aware of both the law and the consequences of breaking the law. Fair warning, as in Genesis 2, had been given.

We too, under the new covenant, are equally responsible to know God’s expectations as members of His faith community. And we are expected to hold one another accountable. This is one reason we at BBC make an issue of covenanted church membership and why we publicly—and corporately—bring people into membership. It is also why we publicly and corporately remove people from church membership. Holiness is a community concern.

Criminal Activity

In vv. 2-21 we read of criminal activity and its attendant punishment. In these verses, we answer the questions concerning which crimes receive what punishments. The crimes and punishments fall under two broad categories.

Spiritual Adultery

In vv. 2b-8 we learn that the community was to guard against false religion.

Whoever of the children of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell in Israel, who gives any of his descendants to Molech, he shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones. I will set My face against that man, and will cut him off from his people, because he has given some of his descendants to Molech, to defile My sanctuary and profane My holy name. And if the people of the land should in any way hide their eyes from the man, when he gives some of his descendants to Molech, and they do not kill him, then I will set My face against that man and against his family; and I will cut him off from his people, and all who prostitute themselves with him to commit harlotry with Molech.

And the person who turns to mediums and familiar spirits, to prostitute himself with them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from his people. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God.

And you shall keep My statutes, and perform them: I am the LORD who sanctifies you.

(Leviticus 20:2-8)

I believe that civil government should take its cue from Scripture (and, as God’s ministers, must serve according to His dictates) and therefore these penal sanctions do have relevance for our day. In other words, civil government would do well to follow God’s prescribed penal sanctions when it punishes criminals. But what we need to see as preeminent in this study is how serious a matter sin is. We must never lose sight of the theological reality that sin is at the root of crime. But further, behind all sin is some sort of idolatry; some sort of false worship.

Sin entered the human race when Adam doubted God’s goodness and placed his own desires above God’s command. He obeyed his own lusts rather than God. It was nothing short of gross idolatry, and that same tendency is at the root of all sin.

The Structure

It is to be observed that the opening and closing verses of this chapter address the matter of false religion. This entire passage is framed by what we might call religious crimes (see vv. 2-6 along with v. 27). That is why we find the metaphor of “prostitution” or “whoredom” here. If God’s people followed any god but Yahweh, they were guilty of spiritual whoredom.

All sin is religious at its core. That is, belief affects behaviour. And so, before jumping into questions about the validity of these penal sanctions for our day and age, let it be noted that the fundamental lesson here is that crime—as defined biblically —is, at its core, religious in nature.

I would argue from Scripture that if vv. 2-6 and v. 27 were taken to heart by our society, as a whole, there would be little use for a police force. That is, if the majority of our nation would teach their children to bow to the rightful King, and if the majority of our nation turned to God’s Word as its source for ultimate knowledge, then this would be the safest nation on the planet. In fact, to use language from this chapter, South Africa would be a place “flowing with milk and honey.”

But fundamentally, the key to such “millennial” living is homes where Jesus is acknowledged and honoured as King. Until that happens, expect a lot of crime and, for the most part, very little punishment.

Everything in between these framing verses dealing with false religion is a matter of disorder in society. The one flows from the other. This is a major theme in the Bible, and nowhere perhaps is the evil connection more clearly seen than in Romans 1:18-32.

Look at any culture where Christianity has not taken a foothold and you will encounter unmistakable evidence of the presence of the sins enumerated in this chapter. The same can be said of places in which Christianity has lost its foothold. The onslaught of promiscuity and the pervasiveness of sexual deviancy is witness to the reality that when a people turn to another King (the meaning of “Molech”) then social disorder, moral degeneracy and subsequent cultural chaos ensue.

This underscores the need for a biblical foundation (rooted in spiritual renewal) in our land before even beginning to talk about capital punishment.

Molech Worship

The sin of Molech worship was a serious form of false religion in the ancient world—and it continues to this day.

The word “Molech,” as noted, means literally “king.” The Septuagint uses the Greek term Basileia, meaning king or ruler.

When parents offered their children to Molech in sacrifice (either as a literal sacrifice or as a cult prostitute) they were recognising this false god as king rather than Yahweh. This was a gross form of idolatry. It was an affront to God. It was recognising a false god as the true and sovereign God. It was a denial of Yahweh’s lordship. And the same problem persists today.

Too many parents—perhaps even a majority—point their children, either knowingly or unwittingly, to the wrong objects of worship: their own false objects of worship. In the end our children are destroyed and our culture is increasingly corrupted.

There are many ways in which parents today are guilty of sacrificing their children to Molech.

When parents turn over their responsibility for the nurturing of their children to the state then they are recognising a god other than Yahweh. We as a nation have collectively done so. The family, not the state, is responsible for the education of children. (And, by the way, neither is the church responsible!) In fact, fathers bear the primary responsibility. This does not mean that parents must do the educating, but they are responsible for what their children are taught. Fathers, who is King—according to the ones teaching your children?

When parents allow the world to dictate the value system of their children, then Molech has moved into the home. Who are your children’s heroes? Is your child a believer or—God forbid—a “belieber”?

When parents allow the cult of sports, recreation and entertainment to shape the child’s life (especially on the Lord’s Day) then Molech has been given preeminence.

When parents teach their children (usually implicitly) that money is king, then the molech of materialism will soon have our children in the embrace of his evil arms.

If we fail in these areas then, as in the case of the literal worship of Molech, a grave crime has been committed against the child. It is no less true today. As Rushdoony insightfully notes, “The primary offense against the child is religious; it means anything other than seeing the child as God’s property and as an object of our stewardship. . . . A culture which is indifferent to child abuse has no future.”2

If we offer our children to the molechs of our age, we can expect some painful consequences.

Before moving on, we must at least mention that the entire community was to be on the lookout for the welfare of the children. The community was to hold Molech-worshipping parents accountable. How are we doing with this?

Extrabiblical Revelation

The passage concludes with a reference to the sins of necromancy (v. 6). This, of course, involved a medium purporting to be able to make contact with the dead—like the television personality John Edwards; and like the witch at Endor (1 Samuel 28). This, of course, was prohibited earlier, but here the penalty is prescribed: “I will set my face against that person and cut him off from his people.” (This phrase will be explained later.)

It is a serious breach of faith to seek ultimate knowledge apart from God’s Law-Word. It is a serious affront to God when you reject God’s revelation for some other type of authoritative knowledge. It opens the door to Molech worship. When God’s Word is rejected for another means to know about ultimate issues of life and death, you have embraced false religion. And with such an embracing you can expect chaos: ancestor worship, humanistic psychology, postmoderns playing fast and loose with Scripture, etc.

Separation

In vv. 7-9 passage we find a partial answer to the question of why such punishments. The simple answer is that such punishments are means to motivate holy living. As Vasholz comments, “Punishments are intended for the welfare of God’s people and to maintain their privileged status as the people of the true and only God.”3

Holy living is the result of a commitment and dedication to obeying God’s revealed will and Word. Interestingly, in this context at least, holiness begins in the home. And so does a crime-free society!

God’s command comes thundering forth: “You must not offer your children to Molech, you must not go to the astrologers and the fortune tellers. You are to be different—very different indeed from the surrounding nations. Your nation is to be crime-free because your nation is to be holy.”

Yahweh set them apart by His grace when He saved them from Egypt. Therefore they were to be committed to no longer walking like the Egyptians, or like any other pagan nation. In the words of v. 7 they were to consecrate themselves to be holy. They were to deliberately, intentionally live in a way that was countercultural. And to love and obey God is countercultural indeed!

Profanity in the Home

But note, very importantly, that in identifying another instance of crime and punishment, v. 9 begins with the word “for.” This word connects what is about to be said with what has just been said. There is, I believe, a very significant connection. .

Sowing and Reaping

There is an implicit assumption that, if one is guilty of idolatry, and if one is guilty of sorcery—that is, if one is guilty of spiritual adultery—then what follows are children who defy their parents’ authority. In other words, if you defy the first four commandments then expect your children to defy the fifth.

But why does this follow on the heels of the exhortation to holiness? God is saying, “Listen, my people: If you do not turn away from the temptation to spiritual adultery then you can expect the heartache of reaping what you have sown—in your own home. If you profane my home, then you will profane your home!”

The painful consequences of this may indeed by death. Yes, God prescribed the death penalty for those who cursed their parents.

The phrase “his blood will be upon him” is a euphemism for “he is fully responsible for whatever happens—even to the point of the loss of his life.” This individual had been forewarned and could not plead ignorance. In other words, he no one to blame for his death but himself!

To curse someone is to call down some judgement upon them. But since God is the only being with the ability to do that, and since quite obviously here it was not Yahweh who was being invoked, then a false god was being called upon. Do you see what happened? The child really was the son of his father. The father had pointed the family to false gods, and the child had learned well.

Parents, if you do not consecrate yourselves—and your home—to be holy in response to God’s gracious redemption in your lives, then don’t be surprised when your children arise to dishonour you. If you dishonour their God by serving false gods, then they will (in some way) dishonour you (see Ephesians 5:18—6:4; 1 Corinthians 3:16).

When idolatrous families become the norm, then social disorder can be expected. I can’t say it better than this: “In due time, God brings radical judgment on cultures which despise the Name and honor of God, and who feel that transgressions of His law are nothing at all.”4 Is this where we are today?

Sexual Perversity

Verses 10-21 continue to highlight sins against God in the form of crimes against the family.

The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death. The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them. If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall surely be put to death. They have committed perversion. Their blood shall be upon them. If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them. If a man marries a woman and her mother, it is wickedness. They shall be burned with fire, both he and they, that there may be no wickedness among you. If a man mates with an animal, he shall surely be put to death, and you shall kill the animal. If a woman approaches any animal and mates with it, you shall kill the woman and the animal. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood is upon them. If a man takes his sister, his father’s daughter or his mother’s daughter, and sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is a wicked thing. And they shall be cut off in the sight of their people. He has uncovered his sister’s nakedness. He shall bear his guilt. If a man lies with a woman during her sickness and uncovers her nakedness, he has exposed her flow, and she has uncovered the flow of her blood. Both of them shall be cut off from their people. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister nor of your father’s sister, for that would uncover his near of kin. They shall bear their guilt. If a man lies with his uncle’s wife, he has uncovered his uncle’s nakedness. They shall bear their sin; they shall die childless. If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They shall be childless.

(Leviticus 20:10-21)

These verses repeat the God-ordained boundaries for sexual activity and hence for marriage, as revealed in chapter 18. Again, these are laws which have much to do with family life. In that culture, community life was far more close knit than it is today, and so sexual violations would be more openly known. These laws expected that the community, even family members, would hold one another accountable.

The principles addressed here are timeless, for they address the issue of order: God’s order. These are moral issues and therefore they clearly are carried over into the new covenant.

Without taking the time to repeat our previous studies, we can summarise by noting that the only permissible sexual relationship is that which occurs between a husband and his wife, who are legitimately married within proper relational boundaries. In our day, I must qualify that further by saying that sexual intimacy is only allowed between a natural male and a natural female in the bonds of the marriage relationship.

God’s Just Punishment

We will now address what God specifically revealed concerning the punishment for those who violated His revealed laws.

The Sanctions

Several different forms of punishment are addressed in our text.

Capital Punishment

The death penalty is prescribed for several heterosexual offenses, as mentioned in vv. 10, 11, 12, 14. It is further prescribed for the sexual deviancy of homosexuality and bestiality in vv. 13, 15-16. Capital punishment is also prescribed for those who were mediums or sorcerers (v. 27).

Under old covenant law, the death penalty was usually carried out by means of stoning. This required a verdict founded on at least two or three witnesses and was carried out by the community. This protected the innocent from being falsely put to death.

Childlessness

In vv. 20-21, God warns of childlessness as a result of crime. The word literally means “stripped” and refers to being stripped of one’s progeny. This may, of course, be a literal judgement of being barren, but it may also refer to having one’s children stripped of the right to the inheritance. Some think that it could refer to one’s children being deemed illegitimate (cf. Jeremiah 22:30). Whatever the exact nature, God meted out the punishment—it would seem directly.

Bear their Guilt

In v. 19, God speaks of those who would “bear [their] guilt” as a result of their criminal activity. The exact meaning here is uncertain, but perhaps it speaks to the issue of living with the sense of shame in the community. Perhaps either childlessness or being cut off (see below) would apply here as well.

Cut Off

The sanction of being “cut off” is mentioned in vv. 3, 5, 6, 17 and 18. But just what does it mean? Is this a euphemism for “put to death”? This does not appear to be the case.

In vv. 2-3 the offender was already dead, having been stoned. And yet God says, “I will set my face against that man, and will cut him off from his people.” That sounds somewhat redundant. In vv. 5-6, those are said to be “cut off” who had been silent rather than coming forward to condemn idolatry. It is also used with reference to those who consulted mediums. But since the death penalty is clearly prescribed for mediums (v. 27), it would seem that to be “cut off” must be a different type of punishment.

I believe that this phrase refers to the act of excommunication; and in this chapter it is clear that God was the one doing so. Yes, the community was to exclude the individual(s) from covenantal privileges, acting on God’s behalf, but more than this is probably implied.

In other words, God was actually prescribing a far more severe penalty than physical death: This was the ultimate declaration of spiritual death (see Revelation 22:14-15).

Bear in mind that, in the historical context of this revelation, “his” or “their” people (vv. 3, 5, 6, 17, 18) were those who had been publicly identified as God’s people. From the time of the crossing of the Red Sea (see 1 Corinthians 10:1-13) and from the giving of the law at Mount Sinai, these people had been identified as God’s people. That is, they were in a covenant relationship with God. And so, with this sanction God was saying, “If you violate these rules then I will cut you off from me as your Redeemer. By doing such perverse things you clearly identify that you do not belong to me. And I will cut you off so that the rest of the people know this.”

The point here is that the guilty individual was cut off covenantally from God. He lost any hope of spiritual life. In the words of John, he had committed “the sin unto death” (1 John 5:16).

Worse than Death

We should—must—learn from this that there are some things worse than death; namely, spiritual death. We should also learn from this that to be blessed with a covenantal connection with God is a glorious privilege that we may not take for granted. We must not treat this privilege lightly.

It is a great privilege to be born into a believing family. It is a great privilege to be baptised and to thereby be identified with the covenant community of God. It is a great privilege be a covenant member of a biblical local church.

With all of these privileges, one has greater responsibility. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. And we do well to remember that “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

New Covenant Relevance

The question remains to be answered, however, what relevance does this text have for us in the new covenant?

You shall therefore keep all My statutes and all My judgements, and perform them, that the land where I am bringing you to dwell may not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the statutes of the nation which I am casting out before you; for they commit all these things, and therefore I abhor them. But I have said to you, “You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.” I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore distinguish between clean animals and unclean, between unclean birds and clean, and you shall not make yourselves abominable by beast or by bird, or by any kind of living thing that creeps on the ground, which I have separated from you as unclean. And you shall be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine.

(Leviticus 20:22-26)

A Lingering and Controversial Question

A legitimate question is, what about the penal sanctions revealed and commanded here? Do these carry over into our day? This is an important question that should not be swept aside with a wave of the dispensational hand. After all, if God deemed these offences to be so grave that He ordered the ultimate penalty, surely we should be careful of too lightly dismissing them as merely relevant for another age.

But there are also questions here with reference to who is responsible to carry these punishments out in a society? and, are these laws only applicable for a theocracy? as well as are there any parallels here with how the New Testament church handles such crimes in its midst?

All too often, believers approach such a chapter flippantly rather than with a commitment to thoughtful exegesis. For instance, I read in a sermon this week where a pastor said, “Now if we simply want to argue for capital punishment for all of these crimes listed in Leviticus 20 then we might find ourselves arguing for too much. After all, do we really want the death penalty for a husband who sleeps with his wife while she is in her monthly cycle?” My answer to that is threefold.

First, why not? If God called for it under the old covenant, why should we think that God’s call to holiness is any different in our day? And, by the way, the penalty for a man sleeping with his wife (intentionally) during her monthly cycle was not physical death but rather excommunication.

Second, this is a poor approach to Scripture. After all, we are not called to be pragmatic in our exposition. We don’t decide whether or not to submit to Scripture based on whether or not we are comfortable with the outcome.

Third, be careful of jumping to unwarranted conclusions. These verses require much thoughtful meditation. I believe that, once we apply our minds to the passage, we will see both what the Lord is saying and what He is not saying. This has particular relevance with v. 18.

It is true that many of the laws revealed in Leviticus are of such a nature that they have been fulfilled in Christ. One thinks particularly with reference to laws having to do with the sanctuary. We need to be careful in our interpretations to know what laws are to be kept and those which are not. But having noted this, though some commandments are no longer binding on the new covenant believer, nevertheless there are abiding moral principles that do remain and must be honoured.

So, in the light of this, we need to consider the lessons that we can learn from this chapter. In other words, what are the transcendent principles here that God expects for us to live by today?

Application

Let me note two broad areas of application from our text as we begin to wind down our study.

A Call to Holiness

We are called to be holy. Christians are called to be different from the unbelieving world in all ways. We are to be different in the moral (vv. 2-21) as well as in the mundane (v. 25)—and even in our approach to the judicial.

Why is it that we find these passages so difficult, if not disturbing? Why do they make us feel so uncomfortable? Why do they seem so irrelevant in a world of Twitter and globalisation and terrorism and nuclear threats? The answer can be found in the sad observation that, largely, we have lost sight and sense of the transcendent. We have lost sight of the ever-present triune God, the one sovereignly present in every sphere of life. And therefore we tend to compartmentalise our pursuit of holiness. We keep it in a religious box. Let me explain.

Our approach to justice depends upon our value system. As Tidball states it, “Penal codes reflect the various values we assign to things. The heaviest penalties are reserved for offences against what we value highly, the lighter penalties for what we hold lightly.”5 In our society it is likely that one will serve equal or more time for theft than for rape, attempted murder, or even for murder itself. Perhaps one of the reasons that we find these penalties in Leviticus 20 so shocking is because we do not value the preeminence and holiness of God. We view crimes against man as worse than sins against God.

A proper appreciation of this chapter will go a long way towards helping us to see the heinousness of sin. As Wenham noted, these verses “remind us that however lightly modern man regards such conduct, in God’s sight it constitutes grave and serious sin meriting the severest censure.” When we understand this, we are in a better place to appreciate the holiness of God, and are motivated to be holy as He is holy.

But further, as we come to appreciate how much that God hates sin, we will also appreciate increasingly God’s grace to us. By His mercy and grace, He has not cut us off!

God is Holy, and this means something! It means that He is serious about His people not sinning. It means that He is serious about His people living differently from the world. It means that He could not care less about what those who reject Him think of His laws and therefore of His ways. He has set boundaries in place in this world and He expects for them to be respected. He permits no trespassing; violators are always punished.

Corporate Accountability for Holiness

But let us also observe the principle of corporate accountability for holiness. We see this particularly in vv. 2-5.

Harrison observes in this regard, “By overlooking the offence they imply a certain sympathy towards it, and such an attitude would demoralize the covenant community very quickly. Stern sanctions are therefore needed as reinforcement for the ideal of holiness.”6

The same holds true today for the church of Jesus Christ. It holds true for BBC. Note that many of the sexual sins listed here were not merely a private affair, but rather the family and wider community were aware of the disorderly relations. And therefore the community was responsible to punish the guilty. The exception would be the case of v. 18. This would, most likely, only be known by the couple involved in the trespass. However, even here, if it became known then the community was responsible to deal with them and to cut them off.

For some reason, many view Jesus as being different than God in the Old Testament. This influences how they interpret the law in the light of the New Testament. That is, God seems awfully uptight, hard to please and very restrictive under the old covenant, but He seems a lot nicer in the person of Jesus. Of course, this is fallacious thinking. Jesus is God, and since God does not change, His moral requirements are no different now than then.

Consider, for example, Matthew 5:21-42. This is merely a sampling of the wrath of God that is revealed under the new covenant; the wrath of God under the lordship of Jesus (John 5:22-30). For this reason, God holds us accountable to hold one another accountable (see Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13).

But finally, we learn from this that God is gloriously gracious! Though He warned His people of the consequences of not living lives of holiness, He nevertheless assured them, “‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples” (v. 24). God had set them apart, and though He was serious about what He required of them, He nevertheless was sure to keep the promises that He had made to them.

Our Crimes but His Punishment

We need not only a law-giver but a law-keeper as well. We need this because we have not, and cannot, keep God’s law.

As we have seen, there is one major thing worse than physical death: spiritual death. We have committed sinful crimes against God and there is, quite literally, hell to pay. But thank God for the Lord Jesus Christ, who took that punishment for us! As Ross put it, “Although these activities are still punishable sins, the glory of the gospel message is that forgiveness comes because the Savior has taken on himself the death penalty for all sins. Those who turn from false beliefs and base practices to trust in him find a new life of holiness and righteousness.”7

Have you been guilty of spiritual adultery? Have you been guilty of idolatry? Have you been guilty of sexual sin? Have you failed to live a holy life? If so, you are under a seriously severe death penalty. A pastor I heard preach recently said, “Hell is being in the eternal everlasting presence of God without a Mediator. Heaven is being in the everlasting presence of God with a Mediator.” If you admit that you have failed, then look to God’s provided Mediator.

How can Christ act as Mediator on our behalf? “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’)” (Galatians 3:13).

You might think that you are not a criminal, and perhaps you are not—at least in the common usage of that term. But if Christ died for sinners such as yourself, then indeed you are a criminal. Those who know that they deserve the ultimate death penalty—those who know that they deserve to be cut off forever from God and His grace—are the very ones who can know His grace!

Repent, call upon the name of the Lord and be saved. There is no better time than right now. Come to God through Christ, confessing your crime and accepting that the punishment was paid by Jesus Christ your Lord. That, my friend, is the ultimate story of crime and punishment in Leviticus 20.

Show 7 footnotes

  1. You may have not heard much about that particular case. I googled “CNN, Gosnell” and came up empty.
  2. Rousas John Rushdoony, Leviticus: Commentaries on the Pentateuch (Vallecito: Ross House Books, 2005), 253.
  3. Robert I. Vasholz, Leviticus: A Mentor Commentary (Ross-shire: Mentor, 2007), 244.
  4. Rushdoony, Leviticus, 255.
  5. Derek Tidball, The Message of Leviticus: Free to Be Holy (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005), 256.
  6. R. K. Harrison, Leviticus: Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), 205.
  7. Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 371.