Leviticus 20

Notes (NET Translation)

Chapter 20 contains many of the same laws given in chapter 18 but adds the punishments associated with the crimes.

1 The LORD spoke to Moses:

2 “You are to say to the Israelites, ‘Any man from the Israelites or from the foreigners who reside in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech must be put to death; the people of the land must pelt him with stones.

Recall that Molech is a false god who may have been associated with the underworld. Devoting a child to Molech was both a case of idolatry and murder. Stones were either thrown or hurled with a slingshot. Ordinary citizens (“the people of the land”) carried out the punishment. Deut. 17:1-7 implies that execution occurred after a trial. “According to tradition, this penalty was discharged by casting the guilty party from a high place; they stoned that person only if the fall was not fatal.”1

3 I myself will set my face against that man and cut him off from the midst of his people, because he has given some of his children to Molech and thereby defiled my sanctuary and profaned my holy name.

The phrase “I myself will set my face against that man” expresses the intent to punish. The form of punishment is cutting off the perpetrator from his people. Pagan worship defiled the sanctuary.

4 If, however, the people of the land shut their eyes to that man when he gives some of his children to Molech so that they do not put him to death, 5 I myself will set my face against that man and his clan. I will cut off from the midst of their people both him and all who follow after him in spiritual prostitution, to commit prostitution by worshiping Molech.

Verse 4 implies that people knew of the violator’s crime but did not execute him.

Hebrew mishpaḥah, “clan” (“kin”), designates the basic sociological unit in ancient Israelite society. It is presumed that the clan tends to act together in matters of worship, following the way of its leaders.2

This interpretation is bolstered by the fact that “all who follow after him” are also to be cut off.

6 “‘The person who turns to the spirits of the dead and familiar spirits to commit prostitution by going after them, I will set my face against that person and cut him off from the midst of his people.

The same root is deliberately used as an exemplification of divine measure-for-measure punishment: a person’s turning (facing) to forbidden practices is matched by God’s turning (facing) against such a person. The death penalty specified in v. 27 is not implied here. The cases are not equivalent: karet is prescribed for turning to a medium; death, for being one.3

7 “‘You must sanctify yourselves and be holy, because I am the LORD your God.

8 You must be sure to obey my statutes. I am the LORD who sanctifies you.

Instead of pursuing Molek worship and seances, the people must “sanctify themselves.” They sanctify themselves each time they obey the laws given by God. Sanctification involves affirmative action; it is exercising one’s will to do God’s will. Sanctification is also pursued by consciously avoiding any activity that defiles. Standing at the head of the family laws, this call to holiness also teaches that how one treats one’s parents and how one conducts oneself in sexual relationships directly affect the development of one’s character. Holiness is practiced at home as well as at the sanctuary. Thus every time the people obey God’s word, they activate the sanctifying presence of God in their midst. Yahweh does the sanctifying; he is present among his people as the Holy God.4

9 “‘If anyone curses his father and mother he must be put to death. He has cursed his father and mother; his blood guilt is on himself.

“To curse” means more than uttering the occasional angry word. 2 Sam. 16:5ff.; Job 3:1ff. give some idea of the venom and bitter feelings that cursing could entail. It is the very antithesis of “honoring.” To honor in Hebrew literally means “to make heavy or glorious,” whereas to curse literally means “to make light of, despicable.”5

The formula “his blood guilt is on himself” means that the guilty is deserving of death and that those who execute him are not guilty of breaking the law. “If a man breaks such a law, he does so knowing the consequences, and therefore cannot object to the penalty imposed.”6

10 If a man commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.

11 If a man has sexual intercourse with his father’s wife, he has exposed his father’s nakedness. Both of them must be put to death; their blood guilt is on themselves.

12 If a man has sexual intercourse with his daughter-in-law, both of them must be put to death. They have committed perversion; their blood guilt is on themselves.

13 If a man has sexual intercourse with a male as one has sexual intercourse with a woman, the two of them have committed an abomination. They must be put to death; their blood guilt is on themselves.

14 If a man has sexual intercourse with both a woman and her mother, it is lewdness. Both he and they must be burned to death, so there is no lewdness in your midst.

The Hebrew is also consistent with the corpses of the offenders being burned (cf. Jos. 7:25). This would deprive the offenders of proper burial.

15 If a man has sexual intercourse with any animal, he must be put to death, and you must kill the animal.

The rabbis offer several rationalizations [for killing the animal]:

  1. The animal now being disposed or trained for bestiality will lead a person into sin (Sipra Qedoshim 11:5; m. Sanh. 7:4).
  2. “So that the animal, when passing through the market, will not prompt the remark: ‘This is the one'” (m. Sanh. 7:4; cf. Sipra Qedoshim 10:8; Lev. Rab. 27:3).
  3. The Torah enjoined the proscription of all the (idolatrous) places and the destruction of its (Asherah) trees (Deut 12:2) because they are reminders of man’s shame(ful acts) (Sipra Qedoshim 11:5).

That is, according to the rabbis, the death of the beast serves as a moral lesson to man.7

16 If a woman approaches any animal to have sexual intercourse with it, you must kill the woman, and the animal must be put to death; their blood guilt is on themselves.

It is not clear whether “their” refers to (a) the man (v. 15) and the woman (v. 16) or (b) the woman (v. 16) and the animal (v. 16). If option (b) is correct it is not clear how the animal is guilty. Perhaps it merely means the executioner is not guilty of killing either the woman or the animal.

17 “‘If a man has sexual intercourse with his sister, whether the daughter of his father or his mother, so that he sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace. They must be cut off in the sight of the children of their people. He has exposed his sister’s nakedness; he will bear his punishment for iniquity.

The punishment in this verse is either banishment or early death. The singular in the phrase “he will bear his punishment for iniquity” is puzzling.

18 If a man has sexual intercourse with a menstruating woman and uncovers her nakedness, he has laid bare her fountain of blood and she has exposed the fountain of her blood, so both of them must be cut off from the midst of their people.

The “fountain of her blood” refers to the female genitalia.

19 You must not expose the nakedness of your mother’s sister and your father’s sister, for such a person has laid bare his own close relative. They must bear their punishment for iniquity.

20 If a man has sexual intercourse with his aunt, he has exposed his uncle’s nakedness; they must bear responsibility for their sin, they will die childless.

The Hebrew phrase “they will be childless” literally means that they will be “stripped” (of rights/honor?). Dying childless was regarded as a tragedy (Gen. 30:1-2; 1 Sam. 1:1-20; Ps. 127:3-5).

21 If a man has sexual intercourse with his brother’s wife, it is indecency. He has exposed his brother’s nakedness; they will be childless.

22 “‘You must be sure to obey all my statutes and regulations, so that the land to which I am about to bring you to take up residence there does not vomit you out.

23 You must not walk in the statutes of the nation which I am about to drive out before you, because they have done all these things and I am filled with disgust against them.

24 So I have said to you: You yourselves will possess their land and I myself will give it to you for a possession, a land flowing with milk and honey. I am the LORD your God who has set you apart from the other peoples.

Although the distinctiveness of Israel is a major theme in biblical literature, it is rare to read that God actively “separates” Israel, a notion conveyed by the Hifil verb hivdil, “to divide, separate.” In the following verses, the separateness of Israel, involving their duty to live differently from other nations, is the stated rationale for the requirement to observe the dietary laws, which are the subject of chapter 11.8

25 Therefore you must distinguish between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean, and you must not make yourselves detestable by means of an animal or bird or anything that creeps on the ground – creatures I have distinguished for you as unclean.

26 You must be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the other peoples to be mine.

27 “‘A man or woman who has in them a spirit of the dead or a familiar spirit must be put to death. They must pelt them with stones; their blood guilt is on themselves.'”

At first glance this verse seems out of place. Yet it forms an inclusio with verses 2-6 which concern chthonic worship, either by devotion to Molech (20:2-5) or communicating with the spirits of the dead (20:6). The NET translation almost makes it sound like the person is possessed by a spirit but this is not the meaning. The NIV translates the verse as: “A man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death.”

Bibliography

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.


  1. Hartley 1998, p. 333 
  2. Levine 1989, p. 137 
  3. Milgrom 2008, p. 1738-1739 
  4. Hartley 1998, p. 338 
  5. Wenham 1979, loc. 3700-3703 
  6. Wenham 1979, loc. 3706-3707 
  7. Milgrom 2008, p. 1751-1752 
  8. Levine 1989, p. 140 
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