Further thoughts and teaching on Leviticus chapter 24:10-23

The first problem we have when we approach this passage is to try and adequately define the word translated by the RSV as ‘blasphemed’ (v.11) and ‘blasphemes’ (twice in v.16). While the word ‘steal’ may conjure up adequate definitions in our own mind when we use the word, the word ‘blasphemy’ is a somewhat misleading word that’s chosen to be used here.

The Hebrew word (Strong’s Heb number 5344) is translated just five more times in the Old Testament with a word that’s similar to ‘blaspheme’ - the word ‘curse’ in Numbers 23:8, Job 3:8, Job 5:3, Prov 11:26 and Prov 24:24 - but none of these give us an adequate explanation of the concept behind the word. TWOTOT, after outlining the shades of meaning of the word elsewhere in the OT, poses a question with regard to the translation ‘blaspheme/curse’ which it fails to go on and answer but which probably indicates the two alternative concepts behind the word. They write

‘...this verb also translates curse, blaspheme. Is this so because one is thereby distinguishing another as bad (so Koehler), or is there not a closer tie with piercing, striking through [the apparent root meaning of the word]?’

This would indicate that the concept behind the word ‘blaspheme’ as used in Leviticus chapter 24 is one of damage. That is, the words spoken that were considered to be blasphemy were words that injured the character of God - they maligned Him. Very simply, it would mean that God was spoken evil of. Ungers lists two alternative definitions of blasphemy even though he fails to adequately illuminate why the concept is warranted. He writes

‘1. Attributing some evil to God, or denying Him some good which we should attribute to Him (Lev 24:11, Rom 2:24).
‘2. Giving the attributes of God to a creature - which form of blasphemy the Jews charged upon Jesus (Luke 5:21, Mtw 26:65, John 10:36)’

This being the case, the type of blasphemy that we find levelled against Christ in the NT is in sharp distinction from that of the OT, the latter being, if between humans, a case of libel or slander - a statement or declaration that was inaccurate and which tarnished their good name or reputation. But the charge of ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ (Mtw 12:22-32) would carry with it an Old Testament concept - namely, of attributing evil to a work of the Holy Spirit when it was obvious that what had transpired was a work of God.

Ungers concludes his entry by stating that

‘The Jews, from ancient times, have interpreted the command, Lev 24:16, as prohibiting the utterance of the name Jehovah, reading for it Adonai or Elohim

but this hardly seems the correct reason that lay behind the offence seeing as the root of the word used means to ‘pierce’ or ‘break through’. Simply speaking, God’s name was never grounds for a charge of blasphemy in the OT but using it in a way that brought injury to God was, such as equating Him with an evil characteristic that was an inaccurate description of the Person He is.


The similarities between the punishment for blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mtw 12:22-32) and blasphemy against the name (Lev 24:10-23 - where ‘name’ throughout the Bible is sometimes used as a summary of the entire person) are strikingly similar.

We saw above how the type of the sin against the Holy Spirit was paralleled with the sin against the name and how they’re both a type of attributing God with an evil characteristic or attributing a work of God as evil. Therefore the punishment is identical in principle.

In the OT, blasphemy resulted in the physical death of the offender (Lev 24:13) but, in the New, it results in the spiritual death of the offender (Mtw 12:31). Though North follows the line that the death penalty is still mandatory for blasphemy (that is, a definition of blasphemy that’s Biblical rather than the concept he uses), it appears that the Old Covenant’s sentence was a temporary decision which foreshadowed the teaching of the New - that blasphemy against God precludes the possibility of the forgiveness of sin which, therefore, seals the fate of an individual.

However, in a society in which Law is built upon the character of God, blasphemy against God should be met with the death penalty because it undermines the secure foundation upon which the Law has been built. Attributing evil to the Person who sits behind the lawmaking is to speak evil of the Law itself and to be putting oneself above or outside the Law. And, if that’s done, the covenant that exists between God and His people (looking back at the Old Covenant and the context of the incident of blasphemy) is undermined.

Therefore, blasphemy isn’t just a few ill-spoken words (such as a curse would be) but lays siege to the very foundations of the entire covenant that God has made with the nation. If our present society was built upon the character of God and laws were being made that adequately reflected His will, then blasphemy would be an offence that would need to be legislated against in Law. But, as it is, we have a humanistic foundation to our Law (in the UK, that is - and, judging by what I see of the US, it’s very similar there) and therefore ‘blasphemy’ against God’s name isn’t as serious to society even though it’s still a transgression that precludes any possibility of the forgiveness of sins.

North views the death sentence as being a matter of restitution based upon the inclusion of the v.17-21 in the passage which deal with offences that require this principle applying to them. If this is the case (and I don’t believe that it is) then it would need to be shown how ‘an eye for an eye’ applies to blasphemy against the name.

That is, if the transgressor is meted out with a similar punishment to that of what he’s given, how is the death penalty an adequate retribution? How can it be said that he’s killed anyone in order for his own life to be the payment for it? Or, bringing it to an extreme, how can it be said that, by his blasphemy, he’s killed God or a part of Him and must now pay for it with his life?

North doesn’t explain this and the more I thought about it, the more I realised that the label of ‘restitution’ can’t adequately be applied to this case - but if anyone would like to explain it to me, I’d be happy to listen.

So, why the inclusion of 24:17-21 within a passage that deals with blasphemy?

Because the situation in which the blasphemy took place was a fight that was ensuing between two men - one a man of Israel and the other a descendant from a marriage between an Israelite and an Egyptian (Wenham actually translates the word for ‘quarrelling’ with ‘fighting’ and the AV’s ‘strove together’ is much nearer to the concept behind the Hebrew word than the RSV’s translation is here. It’s the same word that appears in Ex 2:13 where the RSV translates the clause as ‘two Hebrews were struggling together’).

The verses are relevant to the fight that had been the source of the blasphemy. Therefore, Moses instructs the people by reminding them that injury suffered must be meted out to the aggressor (24:19-20) - a good incentive for the Israelites not to brawl with one another and cause personal injury, for whatever victory they think they’ve won will actually be a defeat that will be imposed upon them (the Scripture actually speaks of a ‘disfigurement’ so it probably indicates an injury which is more than just a few cuts and bruises)!

Also, the verses outline the ultimate penalty should a life be taken (24:17-18, 21) but inserts clarification that it’s just the life of men and women that requires the death penalty where, by contrast, the death of an animal must only receive the penalty of a monetary payment.

Restitution is, therefore, an issue in this passage because it may have needed to have been made in the case of the fight that brought about a much more serious offence.

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