Thoughts and teaching on Leviticus chapter 17
This chapter can be divided up into six different sections, even though the final two in my division are normally considered as one - it can be understood why this is so when the initial phrases are compared and seen to be quite different in verbal formulae even though the intention is the same, but the subjects dealt with do need separate treatment and should, I feel, be partitioned accordingly.
The phrases which begin the final five divisions have common intentions and expressions and can be used as natural introductions to the legislation that follows.
17:1-2 - The preamble
17:3-7 - Meat eating (‘Any man of the house of Israel...’)
17:8-9 - Meat sacrificing (‘Any man of the house of Israel...’)
17:10-12 - Blood (‘Any man of the house of Israel...’)
17:13-14 - Meat hunted (‘Any man also of the house of Israel...’)
17:15-16 - Meat found (‘And every person...’)
The chapter bears similarities to Deuteronomy chapter 12 though this chapter will develop and amend the legislation given here to interpret how it applies when the Israelites enter and settle in Canaan.
17:1-2 (the preamble)
The header provides an introduction for the subsequent verses. It has unusual content, seeing as it addresses the legislation to both the High Priesthood and all the people of Israel. This will occur again in Leviticus only in 22:18 and, in both places, it’s evident that the subject matter affects both groups.
17:3-7 - (Meat eating)
Pp Deut 12:20-28
The law mentioned here is not only practical but, within itself, gives us the reason for it’s recording. In order to prevent the Israelites from continuing to sacrifice to false gods (17:7), any clean animal that was to be eaten had to be brought to the entrance of the Tabernacle and offered before God as a peace offering before it could be consumed.
It’s difficult to categorise this offering into any of the three criteria that a peace offering could be defined as (either for thanksgiving, as a vow or in freewill - Lev 7:11-18) so this may have been an added application that came into effect here. Under the normal provisions, there were different lengths of time that the meat could be eaten depending upon which type of peace offering it was, but there are no details here to give us any indication as to how long the meat remained ceremonially clean.
Harrison notes (page 179) that
‘This requirement points to a primitive phase in Israelite life, when domestic animals were too valuable for milk and milk by-products to be slaughtered for food’
and probably correctly sees the actual occurrence of meat eating as rare within the wilderness community. Evidence for this exists in the incident of Num 11:4-6 where, if there had been the possibility that their craving could have been satisfied by the large scale sacrifice of their cattle and livestock their words would probably never have been spoken - but their animals were more valuable to them alive (a continuing food source of milk and dairy products) rather than as a one-off feast of meat.
The legislation is an example of God being wise and preventing sin from occurring. If the Israelite was forced to kill any clean animal before the Lord, there could never be the thought that it was being offered to any god other than YHWH and, therefore, their superstitious offerings to ‘satyrs’ would have to cease.
Zondervan notes that the mention of the ‘satyr’
‘...is a reference to one of the demonically inspired pagan gods of Canaan, in the image of a goat, having a brutal and lustful nature, which was an object of worship for Israel and became a snare to them’
The word appears in Deut 32:17 where the verse stands as a prophetic warning to the people that, when they were to grow wealthy in the land, they would rebel against the Lord (as Ps 106:37 bears witness). It may have come to be a label for the goat as there doesn’t seem to be a reference to demonic spirits in either Is 13:21 or 34:14.
God realised that, when they came into the land, the legislation here given would not be practical when settlements of Jews would be resident at unrealistic distances from the place where sacrifice was being offered (initially the various sites for the Tabernacle, later the site of the Temple in Jerusalem) so reformed legislation was introduced in Deut 12:20-28. The Israelites were allowed to kill their own animals for consumption so long as they were careful to pour out the blood before it was eaten.
This represented quite a risk and, even though there were Levites resident throughout the cities of Israelite territory, they don’t appear to have been entrusted with the slaughter of the animal. That Israel did backslide and offer sacrifice to the demonic gods that they’d grown accustomed to serving in times past and by reference to the gods of the nations round about them, is certain by the mention in the Scriptures previously quoted, but the position of Leviticus chapter 17 in the history of Israel shows us that there was at least 38 years after its introduction before the nation were allowed to kill their own animals.
This period was the time in which the entire generation of Israelites died out through disobedience, and the reversion to satyr worship came upon subsequent descendants who may have had little or no first-hand experience of what their fathers had worshipped (Num 14:28-35).
As the reason for the legislation here is given, it seems reasonable to state that this rule is no longer binding upon the New Testament Church as the offering of sacrifice is not applicable. However, the principle does remain and is extremely relevant as believers seek to live lives before God that are pleasing in His sight. God would have His people safeguard themselves from giving to others what rightfully belongs to Him. That God changed the legislation for the nation’s entrance into the land shows us that He’s not primarily concerned with sacrifice being offered to Him but is more concerned that what he has materially given to the Israelites is not used in the service of false and demonic gods that lead His people astray from Himself.
The christian must think carefully how he devotes both his time and possessions throughout his day. The animal that was to be slaughtered was not a ‘holy’/set apart commodity but a common and everyday one - it hadn’t been offered to God as a means to secure atonement or to gain favour before Him. In like manner, those common items that we use (whether they be material possessions or natural talents) shouldn’t be employed in the service of false gods.
II John 10-11 gives flesh to the bare bones with a fitting example. Here John warns the believers not to support the travellers who were promoting a false Gospel - not that they were financially contributing to ‘funds’ but that they were allowing their own resources to accommodate and feed them. This giving of their resources was an affront to God and allied themselves with a work that was in opposition to the Gospel that they were seeking to promote.
Such dichotomy needs to be avoided.
17:8-9 - (Meat sacrificing)
Pp Deut 12:5-7, 10-14, 17-18, 26-28
Moving on from the previous legislation, God here makes mention of the necessity to only offer to Him a sacrifice at the specified place. In the parallel Deuteronomy passage, the instructions will be contrasted with the allowance to slaughter food animals anywhere within the land that was too far distant from where God’s name was to dwell (the place of sacrifice), reiterating the need for the people to remember that in only one place throughout their land could the sacrificial system be maintained.
This also was a safeguard upon the nation and made sure that, firstly, sacrifice would be offered in accordance with the requirements of the covenant and, secondly, that the Levite would receive adequate provision and maintenance as God’s ministers.
God was under no illusions that, if the people had been allowed to offer sacrifice to Him wherever they found themselves resident within the land, their hearts would soon be turned away from the purity of the sacrifices to be offered and there would be no real maintenance of the Levitical statutes that kept them looking towards Him. Within a few generations, their offerings could have evolved into sacrifices that depended more upon local customs and beliefs than upon the founding truth of the ceremonial laws of offering, with concepts of alternative gods creeping in to their minds and lives.
To maintain the need for a central place of worship prevented this from occurring, while continuing the unity of the nation (something that Jeroboam was soon to recognise when he came to power, providing his breakaway state with false gods to unite them against the southern kingdom of Judah - II Kings 12:26-33).
The implication of Deut 12:8-9, if the interpretation is correct, is that the Israelites had already cut loose from the restraints of the commands in Leviticus chapter 12 and were sacrificing according to ‘whatever is right in his own eyes’. This legislation was given to them shortly before they were to start to take possession of Canaan, 38 years or so after the Levitical instructions, so it’s particularly significant that the nation had already strayed into a way of sacrifice that was against God’s clear instructions.
We need to ask ourselves whether, under the New Covenant, there remains a central place of worship at which believers are to offer worship to God. A central place of worship implies a central residency of God - the place where God has put His name (Deut 12:11), synonymous for the place where God’s presence dwells.
Believers throughout the latter Church age have found themselves drawn to a localised place (referred to quite unbiblically as a ‘church’) to ‘meet with God’ and to offer their worship and praise to Him on a regular - usually weekly - basis. But the New Testament pulls away from this practice, seeing the ‘place where God dwells’ being believers themselves and not man-made structures (I Cor 6:19, II Cor 6:16, II Tim 1:14, Col 1:27).
Therefore, true worship of God should occur wherever believers are gathered together because that is the place where God dwells - instead of coming to meet with God, believers should be bringing God’s presence with them, thus setting apart for God any place in which they meet together.
The centrality of service, therefore, has been changed under the New Covenant and so too has the relevancy of this legislation.
17:10-12 - (Blood)
Pp Deut 12:16, 23-25
I have always taken verses such as Lev 17:9 which read
‘...that man shall be cut off from his people’
as being a command by God telling the nation of Israel that they’re to implement the judgment of God in putting the offender outside the camp of Israel. However, it’s true that it could also be taken to mean that God will be the Person who cuts the offender off from the nation. Here in 17:10, just a verse later, we read
‘...I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people’
where God sets Himself to take action against the offending Israelite. There has been debate amongst scholars as to what the former quote may mean when it stands alone but it seems best to understand it as implying both that God will take action against the offender (should the offence be one that can be performed in secret and go unknown) but, should the transgression come to light, that Israel must take preventative action to maintain their purity before God.
Here, though, God speaks out as being the Person who will directly judge an Israelite who eats the blood of an animal and who fails to allow it to drain away before the flesh is prepared and eaten. There’s no mention or implication that the Israelite is to do anthing (though I can’t believe that he was to keep silence should the matter come to his attention).
But why is ‘blood’ so important not to eat?
Two reasons are given. Firstly (Lev 17:11)
‘...the life of the flesh is the blood’
(not ‘the life of the flesh is in the blood’ as many translations assert). But why is the life of an animal considered to be ‘the blood’? Harrison (page 181) notes that
‘The blood is a highly complex fluid which contains cells, various forms of nourishment for the tissues, disease antibodies, hormones, and other substances, which when in balance maintain health and well-being. Thus the life of the flesh...is indeed in the blood...’
but his observations lay too much stress upon our present day knowledge and rely too little on the mind set of the ancient Israelite. Wenham is better when he writes (page 245)
‘At a basic level...when an animal loses its blood, it dies. Its blood, therefore, gives it life. By refraining from eating flesh with blood in it, man is honoring life’
Commentators have struggled with the ideas of whether the Israelites saw the blood as representing the life of the animal, whether it was really the life of the animal or even whether it represented life given up in death. But we need go no further than the Scriptures which tell us that ‘the life is the blood’ and to eat blood was therefore to eat life, whereas God only desires that man eats what’s dead.
Secondly, because blood is the life of the creature - whether of man or animal - and because blood has been given to the Israelite as an atoning offering that wipes clean, that gift must be considered to be holy and only used in this context of sacrifice (v.11-12).
If any person was to participate in the consumption of blood, he would be failing to recognise the special and significant use of blood that had been given to the nation to cover their sin.
If it was just as simple as this last point, we could consider that, under the New Covenant, this prohibition has been rendered obsolete for the blood of clean animals and birds no longer secures atonement now that Christ has offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice for all men and women. But there are a couple of passages that present a problem.
Firstly, why did the early Church lay upon the Gentiles the continuance of the Law’s observance when they met to discuss the relationship of the Gentile converts to the Mosaic Law? They exhorted the believers to (Acts 15:20, 29)
‘...abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity’
where the animal that has been strangled is one that hasn’t had its blood drained out from its body and so retains the fluid. If this law was no longer relevant to the New Covenant believer, why should it be laid upon him as necessary? Possibilities abound here, the favourite three being that, firstly, they included it to appease the Jewish believers who were insisting on it as fundamental, second, that they believed that it was still applicable and that blood consumption carried with it a curse and, thirdly, that they weren’t altogether sure whether it was or wasn’t relevant so included it to be on the safe side (as strange as that may sound, it’s a real possibility).
Additionally, before the Old Covenant was made with Israel and before the sacrificial system had been commanded that forbade its consumption, mankind was forbidden to eat the blood at the time when Noah and his family exited from the ark into the new world. God told them (Gen 9:3-5)
‘Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man...’
Here, the consumption of blood is tied in neither with sacrifice (ceremonial law) nor with the constraints laid upon participants in a covenant - but it’s commanded upon Noah and, subsequently, upon all his descendants.
It would be going too far to say, like certain sects do, that blood transfusions are specifically forbidden by Scriptures such as this as the burden of the verse is aimed towards dietary considerations. But it wouldn’t be going far enough to say that blood wasn’t important outside the covenant that was made with Israel. I’m not one for adherence to written codes (and the New Covenant is not a written code that should be observed but a relationship with God that must be experienced) but I cannot see how the prohibition against dietary consumption of blood is irrelevant under the New Covenant.
Therefore, all believers - whether Gentile or Jew - should abstain from the consumption of blood.
17:13-14 - (Meat hunted)
This supplementary rule adds a qualifying clause to the legislation that has preceded it in v.3-7 where domesticated clean animals were in mind. Wild animals that were fit for human consumption need not be killed at the door of the tent of meeting (it would have been impractical to have to catch everything that was wild and bring it to the tent to be killed - neither would it have been possible to kill wild birds unless they were in flight over the Tabernacle!) but the blood must still be allowed to drain from the body onto the ground and then to be covered with soil.
17:15-16 - (Meat found)
Pp Lev 11:39-40, Ex 22:31
Finally, chance finds of food in the wild are dealt with, giving a further example of what might happen to a hunter (or other person) when he was out catching food. No carcass was to be eaten if it could not be determined that it had been killed by man.
We can view this statute with our modern eyes and see a preventative rule aimed at restricting the spread of disease, but Wenham’s reason for it within the context of the covenant is that, when a dead animal was found, it would not be possible to determine whether the blood had been properly dealt with.
This, however, may be reading too much into the statute as the punishment laid upon the transgressor is simply that they remain unclean until evening. In Ex 22:31, food thus found (and presumably this includes domesticated animals that die of themselves) is suitable ‘for the dogs’ a strange command if the blood is still in it (Gen 9:5 - all animals must not eat the flesh with the life).
It seems likely, therefore, that the touching of the corpse was what was mostly in mind rather than the contamination of blood.
Any flesh that was eaten had to be killed - chance finds were forbidden.
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