Notes (NET Translation)
1 The LORD spoke to Moses:
2 “Speak to the whole congregation of the Israelites and tell them, ‘You must be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.
To have a close relationship with God, the Israelites must imitate God. Holiness requires that the Israelites are distinct from other nations. Ex. 19:6 says Israel will be to God “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” But holiness also involves drawing closer to God. The laws and commandments of Lev. 19 outline what Israel must do to be a holy people.
The gulf between the sacred and the profane was not meant to be permanent. The command to achieve holiness, to become holy, envisions a time when life would be consecrated in its fullness and when all nations would worship God in holiness. What began as a process of separating the sacred from the profane was to end as the unification of human experience, the harmonizing of man with his universe, and of man with God.1
3 Each of you must respect his mother and his father, and you must keep my Sabbaths. I am the LORD your God.
The Hebrew word yare (“respect”) literally means “to fear, revere” and is often used in the phrase “fear God” (vv 14, 32).
There have been only two occasions in history, during the French and Russian revolutions, when cultures attempted to organize themselves around a ten-day cycle instead of a seven-day cycle. Both of these attempts were abandoned because workers were not able to function properly working nine consecutive days. The Sabbath law not only recognizes man’s need to have a day of rest after a six-day work week but also to have a day set aside to draw near to God and discover the reason we work in the first place.
No rest leads to social disintegration and chaos. The importance of the Sabbath is also evident in Leviticus 23, where the Sabbath legislation occupies the first position in the discussion of Israel’s worship calendar. The violation of this law also was singled out as the cause for Israel’s exile from the land. The observance of the Sabbath has always been a defining law for the Jewish people. During the intertestamental period the Jews chose death rather than resisting the enemy on the Sabbath (1 Macc 2:31–38). This was because the observance of the Sabbath was viewed as “equal to all other precepts of the Torah” (Exod Rabb 25:12). Among some Jews the Sabbath day was considered a foretaste of the world to come.2
4 Do not turn to idols, and you must not make for yourselves gods of cast metal. I am the LORD your God.
5 “‘When you sacrifice a peace offering sacrifice to the LORD, you must sacrifice it so that it is accepted for you. 6 It must be eaten on the day of your sacrifice and on the following day, but what is left over until the third day must be burned up. 7 If, however, it is eaten on the third day, it is spoiled, it will not be accepted, 8 and the one who eats it will bear his punishment for iniquity because he has profaned what is holy to the LORD. That person will be cut off from his people.
Cf. Lev. 3; 7:11-34; 22:21-25.
9 “‘When you gather in the harvest of your land, you must not completely harvest the corner of your field, and you must not gather up the gleanings of your harvest.
Regarding pe’ah, “the corner, edge” of the field, there is no limit or minimum as to the space or quantity to be left unharvested in the corners of the field. Tradition set the minimum at one-sixtieth of the yield, according to the Mishnah Pe’ah 1:1–2. The Mishnah recommends taking into consideration several factors, such as the abundance of the yield, the overall resources of the owner of the field, and the current needs of the poor.3
In the ancient Near East the reaper cut the stalks of grain with one hand and caught what was reaped with the other. The gleanings (leket) are that which falls to the ground during reaping. Ruth 2 describes gleaning by the poor.
10 You must not pick your vineyard bare, and you must not gather up the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You must leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.
The vineyard was not to be picked bare, perhaps meaning that grape clusters that were not fully formed were to be left behind. These were to be left to mature and could then only be picked by the poor and the foreigner.
These people rarely had land of their own, and had to rely on selling their labor to buy food. This law entitled them to a small amount of free food each year at the expense of the more affluent members of society.4
These decrees undercut the strong human temptation to greed in the presence of plenty. This standard of generosity is prudently formulated. On the one hand, it does not place an added burden on the landlord, for he does not have to pay for the collection of these gleanings. On the other hand, the poor and the foreigner maintain their dignity, for in place of a handout they are given the privilege to labor for their own needs. They have to expend effort to benefit from God’s grace manifested through the landlord’s generosity.5
11 “‘You must not steal, you must not tell lies, and you must not deal falsely with your fellow citizen.
12 You must not swear falsely in my name, so that you do not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.
Oaths were sworn in God’s name so a false oath treats God’s name as if it is not holy, thereby profaning it.
13 You must not oppress your neighbor or commit robbery against him. You must not withhold the wages of the hired laborer overnight until morning.
One example of oppression, the practice of holding back a hired day-laborer’s wage, is mentioned. This practice deprives that laborer of the possibility of purchasing food for his family for the evening meal and for the following day (Deut 24:14–15; cf. Jer 22:13; Matt 20:8). An employer may not use for his own convenience and profit an accounting practice that works a hardship on his laborer’s family. A laborer who has not been quickly paid cries out to God for relief, and God will hold the employer responsible for causing this undue hardship (Deut 24:14–15; cf. Jas 5:4). God judges severely those who mistreat their laborers for personal gain.6
14 You must not curse a deaf person or put a stumbling block in front of a blind person. You must fear your God; I am the LORD.
The verb killel (“curse”) literally means “to treat lightly”. It is the opposite of to honor or to treat with respect. Although the deaf and blind may be ignorant of who mistreats them, God is not and therefore should be feared.
15 “‘You must not deal unjustly in judgment: you must neither show partiality to the poor nor honor the rich. You must judge your fellow citizen fairly.
16 You must not go about as a slanderer among your people. You must not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is at stake. I am the LORD.
The interpretation of this verse is difficult. The second sentence can be interpreted as: (1) do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is in danger, (2) do not be silent in a legal case against your neighbor, or (3) do not make your livelihood in a manner that endangers another.
17 You must not hate your brother in your heart. You must surely reprove your fellow citizen so that you do not incur sin on account of him.
People should be open with each other in giving and receiving advice (cf. Mt. 18:15-22; Gal. 6:1). It is not obvious how rebuke prevents the rebuker from incurring sin.
The most probable suggestion is that whoever rebukes a man and stops him from sinning is freed from the guilt of that man’s sin (cf. Ezek. 33). At the same time, by open rebuke the aggrieved party may save his own feelings from overflowing into a sinful action as Cain’s did (Gen. 4).7
18 You must not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the children of your people, but you must love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
Love is expressed through action. Cf. Mt. 5:43; 19:19; 22:39-40; Mk. 12:31, 33; Lk. 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; Jas. 2:8.
19 You must keep my statutes. You must not allow two different kinds of your animals to breed, you must not sow your field with two different kinds of seed, and you must not wear a garment made of two different kinds of fabric.
Milgrom notes that the sacred sphere, the sanctuary and its officiants, included mixtures of various kinds. The priests were allowed to wear some clothing made of two different kinds of fabric. The curtain closing off the Holy of Holies was a mixture of linen and wool. The cherubim on the curtains and in the Holy of Holies look like hybrid animals. This verse indicates that the Israelites were to achieve holiness by practicing the proper ritual and ethical behavior, not by crossing into the sacred sphere.8 Lay Israelites were allowed to wear tassels made of linen and wool (Num. 15:38-39).
20 “‘When a man has sexual intercourse with a woman, although she is a slave woman designated for another man and she has not yet been ransomed, or freedom has not been granted to her, there will be an obligation to pay compensation. They must not be put to death, because she was not free. 21 He must bring his guilt offering to the LORD at the entrance of the Meeting Tent, a guilt offering ram, 22 and the priest is to make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the LORD for his sin that he has committed, and he will be forgiven of his sin that he has committed.
Some legal background is required by way of explanation. The law of Exodus 21:7–11 allows a father to sell his preadolescent daughter as a slave to another Israelite. This was usually done out of extreme deprivation or indebtedness. When the slave girl reached marriageable age, her master was required to do one of three things: marry her himself, designate her as his son’s wife, or allow her to be redeemed. . . .
The situation projected in our passage is as follows: An Israelite slave girl, here called shifhah, was pledged by her master to another Israelite man. The designation had already been made, but had not been finalized by payment to the girl’s master or, possibly, the man had not yet claimed his bride. Legally, the girl was still a slave and unmarried. If at this point, an outsider had carnal relations with her, he would have caused a loss to her master because, no longer a virgin, she would be less desirable as a wife, and the prospective husband would undoubtedly cancel the proposed marriage.
In parallel circumstances, Exodus 22:15–17 stipulates that one who seduced a free maiden who was not yet pledged as a wife had either to marry her himself or pay her father the equivalent of the marriage price (mohar). In our case, the option of marriage was ruled out because the girl had been pledged to another man — leaving only one way to deal with the situation. The man who had had carnal relations with the girl had to pay an indemnity to her master to compensate him for his loss. Presumably, since the marriage was called off, and the young woman rendered undesirable, the owner would have to continue maintaining her in his household.9
It is worth noting that only the man was considered blameworthy, not the female slave. Being a slave, the woman may have felt she had little recourse in resisting a male who was a free man and thus more powerful both in the social and economic spheres.10
23 “‘When you enter the land and plant any fruit tree, you must consider its fruit to be forbidden. Three years it will be forbidden to you; it must not be eaten. 24 In the fourth year all its fruit will be holy, praise offerings to the LORD. 25 Then in the fifth year you may eat its fruit to add its produce to your harvest. I am the LORD your God.
The Hebrew phrase translated “you must consider its fruit to be forbidden” literally means “you shall treat as foreskin its foreskin with its fruit.” Its meaning is debated. Levine thinks it may refer to trimming the trees but notes the rabbis taught that all fruit from the first three years had to be destroyed by burning. Milgrom thinks the foreskin is the fruit while it is enclosed in its bud:
The closed bud, then, is the foreskin that should be plucked before the fruit (i.e., the penis) emerges. I checked with the Berkeley Horticultural Nursery, and this is precisely what is done. The juvenile tree is not pruned — the branches are not thinned or trimmed — but its buds are removed (alternatively, the buds are allowed to flower, and only those that are pollinated and bearing fruit are removed).11
26 “‘You must not eat anything with the blood still in it. You must not practice either divination or soothsaying.
The Hebrew literally says you must not eat over the blood. In light of Saul and his warriors eating over the blood and inquiring of the dead in 1 Sam. 14, many commentators think verse 26 is alluding to some form of idolatry.
Joseph divined with his cup according to Gen. 44:5, 15. Apart from this reference we do not know exactly what magical devices are covered by this ban on divination and soothsaying. The surrounding nations made abundant use of magic in attempts to predict the future (cf. Isa. 2:6; Ezek. 21:26ff. [Eng. 21ff.]). Israel was forbidden to employ such devices, because she was in a special relationship with God and he made his will known through the prophets, or indirectly through the priestly Urim and Thummim (Exod. 28:30; Lev. 8:8). When God was silent, the people were expected to walk by faith and live in accordance with God’s general will declared in the law.12
27 You must not round off the corners of the hair on your head or ruin the corners of your beard.
This law is to ensure that Israelites avoid pagan mourning rites.
28 You must not slash your body for a dead person or incise a tattoo on yourself. I am the LORD.
Slashing the body was a common mourning rite in the ANE (Deut. 14:1; 1 Kings 18:28; Jer. 16:6; 41:5; 47:5; 48:37). The tattoo in this verse appears to be an incised brand. As an example, a slave could be branded with his owner’s name. It is debatable whether this prohibition is associated with idolatry or not.
29 Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, so that the land does not practice prostitution and become full of lewdness.
A person in heavy debt might be tempted to make his daughter a prostitute.
30 “‘You must keep my Sabbaths and fear my sanctuary. I am the LORD.
Holiness has both a temporal and a spatial aspect to it.
31 Do not turn to the spirits of the dead and do not seek familiar spirits to become unclean by them. I am the LORD your God.
A “familiar spirit” is the spirit of a deceased relative, friend, or acquaintance. Cf. 1 Sam. 28. Necromancy was associated with ancestor worship.
32 You must stand up in the presence of the aged, honor the presence of an elder, and fear your God. I am the LORD.
Standing up was a sign of respect.
33 When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. 34 The foreigner who resides with you must be to you like a native citizen among you; so you must love him as yourself, because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.
35 You must not do injustice in the regulation of measures, whether of length, weight, or volume. 36 You must have honest balances, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin. I am the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt.
An easy way to practice deception in commercial transactions is to use false measures (cf. Deut 25:13–16; Ezek 45:10–12). A corrupt merchant would have two sets of weights and measures, using a bigger measure for receiving and a smaller one for distribution (cf. Amos 8:5; Mic 6:10–11). Such a double standard increases profits greatly. Weak members of society are struck a double blow, getting fewer goods and paying more.13
37 You must be sure to obey all my statutes and regulations. I am the LORD.'”
Hartley, John E. Leviticus. Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1992.
Levine, Baruch A. Leviticus. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.
Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 17-22. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
Rooker, Mark, and Dennis R. Cole. Leviticus. Kindle Edition. Holman Reference, 2000.
Wenham, Gordon J. The Book of Leviticus. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979.