Further thoughts and teaching on Leviticus chapter 18

Although sexual relationships are not directly being discussed, it hasn't stopped many modern translators from changing the older interpretative translation from one of nudity to 'sex' (a modern word that's used which allows the reader to be more confused in their understanding than other words that could have been employed).

Whichever is the best translation (and the 'uncover the nakedness' of the RSV is, perhaps, the best), it should be noted that the chapter is dealing with marriage relationships rather than sex outside marriage. The implications of the laws here described are mainly given to show the Israelites which marriage partners they may not have and, therefore, by implication, which partners are permitted. This appears to be the plain teaching from Lev 18:18 where 'uncovering the nakedness' of a sister is equated directly with taking her to be a wife.

It's only in that context, therefore, that the words could be taken to be referring to sex - and, then, sexual relationships that are part of a normal marriage relationship. When we get to Lev 20:10ff, we read of sexual relationships directly.

The RSV repeatedly translates a Hebrew phrase as ‘uncover the nakedness’ throughout the passage and I’m not totally convinced by the arguments of both Wenham and Harrison in this matter that sexual relationships is by far the best implication to use in the translation, especially as there seems to be good reason to take the phrase literally when the incident of Gen 9:20-27 is considered.

These prohibitions are also all directed at the men of Israel as the commands deal with unacceptable women that could be taken as wives and only mention men where it's the wife of that person who's being referred to (for example, 18:7 and 18:14) and the father (18:7).

Whichever translation is to be preferred, however, the point is that the passage is about marriage partners and not directly about sexual relations where no marriage exists.

Father and Daughter

It needs to be noted that sexual relations/a marriage relationship between a father and his biological daughter aren’t mentioned as being forbidden in either this passage or chapter 20 which follows. This is a tricky problem but it seems best to follow Wenham’s explanation on this in seeing this prohibition as already in existence amongst the Israelites and so not repeated here.

The implication of Genesis 19:30-38 appears to be that such a union was unacceptable in the eyes of the natural culture of the tribes and didn’t warrant a comment forbidding what was already accepted as illicit.

Wenham notes (page 254) that

‘It is expressly forbidden both in the laws of Hammurabi...and in the Hittite laws...In other words these regulations extend the prohibitions on incest already accepted in other parts of the ancient Near East’

It could be argued that 18:6 is included at the head of the passage to cover all the relationships within a family (which would include the father-daughter marriage relationship) and that what follows are simply examples that are drawn from the general rule.

This is quite possible and some will feel conclusive. However, the relationship between a father and daughter is so important that it's omission is staggering in the subsequent verses - and in the rest of the Scriptural record. Where a specific commandment would have been expected because of the uncommented on passage of Gen 19:30-38, the reader could all too easily accept the account as a demonstration of behaviour that was to be deemed as allowable in the sight of God.

When we read of the death sentence being pronounced upon a father/daughter-in-law relationship pronounced as 'incestuous' in Lev 20:12, we should naturally be amazed that no command exists for father/daughter where the familial relationship is all the stronger (it's clear that all manner of illicit relationships aren't mentioned here, of course, but that no specific commandment is given anywhere concerning father/daughter sexual relations is surprising).

Even in the Law's condemnation of both the children of Ammon and Moab (the offspring from those types of unions) there's no comment that they remain unacceptable to God because of the way they came into being (Deut 23:3-6) but because, rather, it's because of the way they dealt with the Israelites when they were travelling towards the fulfiment of YHWH's promise.

I feel it necessary to comment further and apply this to many of the denomination’s Fundamental Beliefs (or whatever they’re called) because the ones I’ve seen usually have a phrase which states words to the effect that the words of the Bible are the ‘all-sufficient rule for faith and conduct’. The reader should already be aware that I regard the Bible as having inherent authority, being infallible and that it’s pages should be referred to in order that believers might check out and test both experiences and intended courses of action.

But, if the Bible is silent on sexual relations between father and daughter, surely there needs to be some clarification as to the ‘all sufficiency’ that’s stated in the creeds? How that could be phrased, I have no idea but it does show the difficulty in trying to summate foundational truths into a precise few words when God and our relationship with Him is so much bigger.

We must also understand that, under the New Covenant, believers have the Holy Spirit who is to guide them both into what is right and away from what is wrong. A man or woman who walks after the Spirit will be guided to know the right path to take when the way isn't clear - or else, he will have enough knowledge of God to decide on what action would reflect His character.

We shouldn't be surprised that the Bible doesn't give command for each and every situation that a believer will necessarily encounter - for, then, salvation would be by observance of a written code and not through a relationship with YHWH by the work of Jesus Christ.

Sex during the menstrual cycle in marriage

A word of explanation needs to be offered here on the apparent conflict between the law of 15:19-24 and those found in 18:19 and 20:18. The first cited Scripture mentions that the man must bear uncleanness for a period of seven days if he should have sex with a woman while she’s going through her menstrual cycle and part of her discharge ‘is on him’ (that is, he’s marked by it), while the third speaks of the couple being separated from the camp of Israel and being removed out of their midst.

The most obvious solution is to see the former scenario to be referring to immediately before or after the monthly menstrual cycle when the woman was considered to be free from her discharge and sex took place, rather than, in the latter case, both partners knew the woman to be unclean and discharging fluid. The latter situation therefore calls for a stricter penalty as it’s a deliberate sin.

Categorical Law

This passage represents the first series of Laws in the book of Leviticus that’s tied in with the expulsion of the current inhabitants of Canaan (18:1-5,24-30). This will be repeated in 20:22-26 where the passage sits as a conclusion to another series of statutes that have, at their centre, sexual immorality as here.

This makes the statutes rather important - we aren’t dealing with legislation designed at keeping the nation ceremonially pure before God (even though the word for ceremonial uncleanness is used in verses 19, 24, 25 and 27 - and purity was to be maintained by the observance of these laws) but with legislation that would maintain their presence in the land of Canaan.

But, even more than this, the transgression of this moral code is seen to be the reason why the Canaanites were to be forcefully expelled from the land by the invading armies of the Israelites (the mention of the Egyptians as being transgressors in this matter appears in 18:3 but no punishment is there related to that nation as a result of their sexual relationships).

We read (Lev 18:24-25,27 - my italics)

‘Do not defile yourselves by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am casting out before you defiled themselves; and the land became defiled, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants...for all of these abominations the men of the land did, who were before you, so that the land became defiled’

Even though the Canaanites hadn’t received the statutes of the Law as given to Israel, they’re here described as being morally responsible for their sexual promiscuity and immorality – they’d no written code delivered to them by God on these matters and yet He’s judged their actions and decided that they must be expelled from the land.

This is significant for it shows us that the legislation given to Israel is that which God has laid upon the nations, it’s not covenant-specific to keep the nation clean (though the maintenance of the covenant and the continued presence of Israel in the land is the reason for the legislation - 18:26-28) but universal in scope and application.

For this reason, it seems right to assert that the entire list of rules which run from verse 6 to 23 are equally binding upon all nations and peoples of the world - that God holds mankind responsible to maintain sexual purity if they expect to remain within the land in which they find themselves resident. There doesn’t seem any reason that I can see to think that God’s reaction to the transgression of these laws is any different under the New Covenant age as it was under the Old Covenant and before (the transgression of the inhabitants of the land is spoken of even before the Covenant with Israel is made as being the reason for their expulsion - Gen 15:16).

Notice here that the punishment mentioned in these transgressions is only corporate - and it’s in this context that we should interpret them (individual punishment is spoken of in 18:29 but how that’s worked out whether through removing the offenders from the land or through execution will be detailed in Leviticus chapter 20. Here, the general solution is given - that the transgressors must all be removed from the holy nation by the holy nation in order to show to God that they’ll have nothing to do with Israelites or non-Israelite residents who practice such lifestyles - so keeping themselves pure and resident within the land).

A nation or region that sets itself against sexual morality and indulges in promiscuity and immorality (though I must repeat that the legislation here is primarily dealing with marriage ties) stands before God in the same position today as both Canaan who are condemned under the Law and Sodom and Gomorrah who were condemned before the Law (Gen 18:1-19:29).

Sexual transgression, therefore, isn’t a matter of breaking a written code (of having what’s unacceptable in God’s sight written down to be able to read and observe) but it does demand a response by God against any nation that chooses to sell itself out in that manner.

The actual laws may be upheld by many people - both God-fearers and God-haters (and there’s good evidence within genetic research to uphold them - see Harrison’s discussion for a treatment of the subject) - but, if these laws are to be considered binding upon men and women today, the law that a man shouldn’t lie with a woman when they both know that she’s in her menstrual discharge is equally applicable and mustn’t be glossed over.

The Church may uphold sexual relationships only within defined parameters and condemn both bestiality (18:23) and homosexuality (18:22), but there’s an obligation laid upon all who are married and having sexual intercourse within that relationship to make sure that it doesn’t occur within the woman’s discharge period.

‘Sex laws’ are also mentioned in the New Testament though they’re there mainly directed towards the christians, the believers, to remind them to keep pure before God - see, for instance, I Cor 5:1-2 for a case of incest, Gal 5:19 which speaks against fornication and I Cor 6:9 which speaks out against both the adulterer and the homosexual as being incapable of inheriting the Kingdom of God. The early Church also decided that sexual immorality was still necessarily to be avoided (Acts 15:29).

Though each and every case mentioned in the Old Testament isn’t mentioned in the New, there are sufficient representative types of sexual sin outlined to consider the Old Testament laws as being equally binding using the authority of the situations that are commented on.

Other Legislation

This chapter deals mainly with sexual transgressions with one notable addition.

Lev 18:21 seems a strange statute to put in the midst of these types of laws and very little is known about the actual reason for the sacrifice of infants in Ancient times (the sin of Molech will again be dealt with in chapter 20 in connection with the punishment commanded on sexual sin). There’s archaeological evidence that bears witness to the practice but the interpretation of what it symbolised at this time can’t be based on written records (as far as I can determine, Canaanite texts mention the rite but not the reason).

However, as in most of the cultic worship that Israel encountered and stumbled over, the reason should possibly be linked to fertility rites - giving to the god of the area the ‘fruit’ of the body in worship and, perhaps, as a request for continued favour.

As such, the position of the Law within the sexual immorality laws is quite justified.

The sacrifice, though, doesn’t comment on the modern day act of abortion as the infants sacrificed to the gods in Ancient time have been shown to be post-natal.

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