Our passage today begins with chapter 19, which continues the idea that what we do and who we are is based on Who God is. Seven times in this chapter we see the formula “I am the Lord your God.” This is that literal “I, I am your God” that we saw in Exodus 20 with which God began Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:2). Another eight times He says simply: I am the Lord. This chapter is all about Who God is. This is because God is the One Who saved Israel. He has already saved, He has already promised, and now He commands. The constant reminder of Who He is points us to the salvation and the promise which should result in obedience.
And God’s command for obedience here begins with the pinnacle of all the laws, all the ceremonies, all the exhortations for the Christian in his or her walk: we are to be holy, because God is holy (19:2). Some say this means Israel was to be consecrated, as in, following the purification laws of God and the ceremonial laws. But the word “holy” here in the Hebrew is not the word used elsewhere for “consecrated.” While the command is literally impossible if we understand the requirement to he holy as God is holy, that is the point. We need a holiness that isn’t ours in order to be that holy. This can only be accomplished by Christ Who, after expounding what the law truly means (that “higher standard” we are called to), quoted Leviticus 19:2 (Matt 5:48).
After the call to holiness, God reiterates the fifth, fourth, and seventh commandments (vv. 3-4), while twice repeating “I am the Lord your God.” He then expounds the keeping of the commandments as a whole when He commands a practical way to love others (vv. 9-10). He then reiterates the eighth, ninth, and third commandments (vv. 11-12) before again offering practical ways to love others. In verse 18 God commands (in the context of anger and vengeance) “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the commandment like the greatest commandment, on which Christ says the whole Law depends (see Matt 22:34-39). That is exactly what God already told Israel here in Leviticus chapter 19. The practical love of neighbor is how the Ten Commandments are obeyed. You can say you have no other God’s and that you do not take His name in vain, but to show it you must obey the commands to not steal, not lie, not covet, etc., in their fullest meaning. You can say you love God, but to show you love Him you must love others. In other words, if you say you love God, but ignore the plight of the hungry or hold onto unwarranted anger (as two examples of many), you are fooling yourself.
In Leviticus 19:19, we see those things wherein Israel should be different than the world around them. These things are not sinful in themselves, but they make God’s people distinct in the world. That is what loving our neighbor ultimately does. Verses 20-22 is another law given for the protection of the victim of another’s sin. Verses 23-28 we see another call to Israel to be different from the world around them.
Verse 29 shows that the destruction of the family profanes the whole land. You can’t keep the Sabbath and reverence God’s sanctuary if you commit such sins – the outward acts do you no good at all! Verse 33 again shows that God’s people are His spiritual people, not a physical people.
Chapter 20 expands upon previous commands by detailing the required punishment for breaking them. God begins with the sacrificing of children. Again, like selling a daughter into prostitution, such outright disregard for the sanctity of the family profanes everything else one does, and even the whole land! That is why the Israelites are called to put the offender in such a sin to death. And we see that these commands about families are all implied in the fifth commandment (20:9).
Next come punishments for sexual sins. Note that the punishment for many of these sins is the same as child sacrifice. The family is so sacred that any profaning of it is punishable by death. God then reminds Israel of the promise (v. 24), and tells them that obedience should result from faith in the promise (the “therefore” of v. 25), and that ultimately, what is required is holiness (v. 26).
Chapter 21 addresses the holiness of the priests. They are to be set apart to God in a special way, so much so that they can only mourn death if the dead is one of their closest relatives. This is because holiness and death are incompatible (hence, sin brings death). We see again the importance of the family unit here, as the relationship with them is different than all others.* Throughout the whole chapter, we see that the priests have special requirements placed on them. And in verses 21-23 we see why – they are in the presence of God in a special way. This points us, yet again, to the absolute holiness required to be in God’s presence. Sin can in no way ever enter His holy presence.
All three of these chapters focus on the holiness of God and the required holiness of His people. This shows us that the sacrifices for atonement that were made over and over again did not result in holiness. Certain, specific sins may have symbolically been forgiven, but none of the sacrifices commanded in the Old Testament could make the person holy. Only one sacrifice could ever do that, and that is where God is pointing Israel: to the holiness that is not theirs, but that they yet need to enter into His presence and be holy as He is holy. This is where not just the sacrifice of Christ, but the perfect life of Christ, is shown to be absolutely necessary for our salvation.
*In 21:4, many modern translations make it seem as if the wife is excluded from this family bond, but that is not so. The word here in question is the word בַּ֫עַל – Baal. In our English translations, we know this as the word used for the pagan God of fertility worshiped by the Canaanites. The word is variously translated in the Bible as: Baal, leader, owner, chief, husband, man, master, ally, possessor, prince, noble, citizen, and more. Here, the ESV continues the idea of mourning for the family and renders this verse “he shall not make himself unclean as a husband among his people and so profane himself.” Other modern versions follow suit using the word “husband” or “relative by marriage” or some variation thereof. The KJV translates this best (rarely will you hear me say that!): “But he shall not defile himself, being a chief man among his people, to profane himself.” It speaks to the special role of the priest as called to superlative holiness among the Israelites. That God would consider the marriage bond of less importance than any other family bond flies in the face of the rest of Scripture.