Thoughts and teaching on Leviticus chapter 26
1. Lev 26:1
2. Lev 26:2
Conditional Blessings - Lev 26:3-13
Conditional Cursings - Lev 26:14-39
Conditional Restoration - Lev 26:40-45
Concluding Word - Lev 26:46
Thoughts on some of North’s statements
Leviticus chapter 26 is an unusual passage in that it has few direct instructions as to what the Israelites were to do but it does have parallels in other OT Scripture - notably Deut 28:1-68 but also less expansively in Ex 23:23-33 and Joshua 24:20 (we’ll take a brief look at these below). It can be fairly daunting trying to come to grips with a chapter as long as this so it’s best divided into five clear sections as follows:
1. Lev 26:1-2 - Introductory Commandments
2. Lev 26:3-13 - Conditional Blessings
3. Lev 26:14-39 - Conditional Cursings
4. Lev 26:40-45 - Conditional Restoration
5. Lev 26:46 - Concluding Word
Even so, section three remains fairly large. This passage, therefore, is best divided further into five sections which each begin with the action of the Israelites which would prompt the resultant negative action against them by God:
a. Lev 26:14-17 - ‘But if you will not hearken to Me, and will not do all these commandments, if you spurn My statutes, and if your soul abhors My ordinances, so that you will not do all My commandments, but break My covenant...’
b. Lev 26:18-20 - ‘And if in spite of this you will not hearken to Me...’
c. Lev 26:21-22 - ‘Then if you walk contrary to Me, and will not hearken to Me...’
d. Lev 26:23-26 - ‘And if by this discipline you are not turned to Me, but walk contrary to Me...’
e. Lev 26:27-39 - ‘And if in spite of this you will not hearken to Me, but walk contrary to Me...’
In the divisions made, Lev 26:1-2 could be taken to be no more than two unrelated commands, but it’s clear from other places in the Law where conditional promises of blessing and cursing are given that they form an integral part of the message of obedience. For example, in one of the three parallel passages (Ex 23:23-33), before the blessings of the covenant there’s a clear command against following after false gods and an instruction as to the necessity of destroying everything associated with them (Ex 23:23-24).
Again, Joshua 24:20 seems to be a summation of what had already appeared in the Law, Joshua summating it in one straightforward warning. It’s also tied up with the forsaking of YHWH to serve false gods and the way He’d consume them
‘...after having done you good’
Therefore, although Lev 26:1-2 might be taken to be two unrelated commands that sit uneasily within the context of a passage about the blessings and cursings (and equally strangely as a conclusion or logical inference following on from the legislation of the sabbatical and Jubilee years - Leviticus chapter 25), they’re seen to be an integral part of the message. Service to God is necessarily being tied in to faithfulness and the repudiation of everything that was clearly disobedience to the revealed will of God in the Law.
The parallel passages cited at the very beginning of this section (Ex 23:23-33, Deut 28:1-68 and Joshua 24:20) are all similar to Leviticus chapter 26 but none have an identical structure.
Firstly, Ex 23:23-33 begins similarly with a statement about false gods (Lev 26:1-2) and is followed by details of the blessing for obedience (Ex 23:25-31).
Finally, a concluding warning is given so that nothing ill should befall the nation (Ex 23:32-33) - but there are no direct curses and no hint of a restoration should the nation find itself being judged by God which forms a lengthy section in Leviticus chapter 26.
Perhaps Deut 28:1-68 is the closest parallel and the one which immediately springs to mind when most people read the Levitical one (it was the one that popped into my head when I began reading).
However, an introductory command not to serve false gods is missing, the chapter starting with details of the blessings (Deut 28:1-14) followed by the cursings (Deut 28:15-68). But there’s no promise of a restoration at all and the reader is left wondering whether God’s eventual discarding of the nation was to have a finality about it which was irredeemable - it’s only Lev 26:40-45 which offers the hope of a way back into a relationship with God for the nation.
Finally, Joshua 24:20 is probably best taken to be a summation of what’s already gone before as I’ve previously observed. Even so, it deals with the forsaking of YHWH and the certainty of the destruction that would fall upon them if they chose to do such a thing.
A progression of severity is also discernible in the Levitical passage where each of the five subsections detailed above under the ‘cursings’ seem to get gradually worse with each refusal of the nation to sit up and take notice of the state their nation has fallen in to, culminating in the removal of the Israelites from the land, their scattering amongst the nations and acts of human degradation which those who were to read this in the first generation would surely have recoiled at.
This seems also present in Deuteronomy chapter 28 (v.15-68) which ends in the near annihilation of the national identity and, perhaps, in Amos 4:6-11. In the NT, a similar situation is described as having fallen upon the nations of the world in Rom 1:18-32 where the progression of severity of God’s judgment is seen in the threefold statement that God ‘gave them up’ (v.24,26,28) to their own desires when the judgment of God was insufficient to bring them to their senses.
The idea isn’t that God has set Himself on a course from which there’s no return but, rather, that He’s willing to turn His inevitable judgments around to restore His people should they realise their plight and repent. As such, the progressive severity of the cursings are an example of God’s mercy and not of vindictiveness, a way that men and women can assess their own standing before God and turn from a course of rebellion for forgiveness and healing.
It’s a significant comment on our own society that finds us experiencing ever more severe acts of violence and distaste as each year passes by and yet, even though we could wake up to the fact that even though we’ve tried to do things our way no restriction of evil has come from it, we continue blindly onwards and remain on the brink of destruction through our own freewill choices.
Concerning parallels of this sort of literature in the world of its day, Harrison comments that
‘In the ancient Near East, it was customary for legal treaties to conclude with passages containing blessings upon those who observed the enactments, and curses upon those who did not’
This needs to be clarified, however, for the agreements or covenants made were normally made between two parties who called upon a third one (considered to be greater than themselves - the ‘god’ or ‘gods’) to be a witness to the agreement ratified (in my exposition of ancient covenants as echoed in the Bible, the reader will find this point under the section ‘The Offering of a Sacrifice’ on the web page here).
The Old Covenant was particularly unusual, though, for it was God Himself who was one of the two parties of the contract who’d watch over the observance of the commands. After all, there was no third party ‘greater’ who could be appealed to.
Again, God isn’t speaking to individuals - that is, He isn’t declaring that all the blessings and cursings would come upon individuals within Israel depending upon their obedience or rebellion. Rather, He’s speaking to the nation and telling them how they stood before Him as one unit. So much so that, when Achan chose to disobey the commands of God, it was the entire nation that found it couldn’t stand before its enemies (Joshua 7:1-15).
The text is plain enough that, even though it was one man who’d transgressed the covenant, it was (Joshua 7:1)
‘...the people of Israel [who] broke faith...’
and God’s words to Joshua (Joshua 7:11) record Him as saying
‘Israel has sinned; they have transgressed My covenant...’
It’s important to be precise in this matter for it’s too easy for us to look at the Law in the present day and expect that God’s hand must be upon us because we’ve done right in the midst of a group of believers who are doing wrong - many people labour under such a misapprehension even in the Church because they take the Law as being equally binding as it was in the Old Testament, not realising that the basis upon which we serve God has radically changed (see my notes on ‘Covenant’).
We should be careful not to lose sight of the basis of the Old Covenant which was made solely with a nation and not individuals - the covenant either stood or fell by the corporate reaction to it.
God’s hand, quite rightly, will favour the man or woman who does right in His eyes and remains faithful to that which has been committed to them but when that individual is part of a group before God, it doesn’t follow that God must bless the group because of the righteous in their midst.
Though God does do this for the sake of the person he has regard for (the righteous man or woman acts as a first fruits offering to God where the part offered to Him makes the whole acceptable - see my notes on First Fruits) it shouldn’t blind us to the importance that every individual must remain pure before Him and wholly following after Him, being obedient in everything that God’s commanded.
I’ve noted above that these opening two verses could be considered to be no more than unrelated commands - but that it’s also clear from other places in the Law where conditional promises of blessing and cursing are given that they form an integral part of the message of obedience (Ex 23:23-33, Joshua 24:20). Therefore, although Lev 26:1-2 might be taken to be two unrelated commands that sit uneasily within the context of a passage about the blessings and cursings (and equally strangely as a conclusion or logical inference following on from the legislation of the sabbatical and Jubilee years - Leviticus chapter 25), they’re seen to be an integral part of the message.
Service to God is necessarily being tied in to faithfulness and the repudiation of everything that was clearly disobedience to the revealed will of God in the Law.
It’s tempting to see the first two verses as representing three negatives (v.1 - in which the middle pair is seen to be one prohibition making not four but three negative commands) which are offset by two positives (v.2 - the sabbath and the sanctuary). However, I feel it best to accept Lev 26:1 as representing but one command with four aspects, seeing as each of them deal with the forbidding of anything taking the place of YHWH.
Lev 26:2 is then set up as the antithesis of the ban on idolatry and can be seen to be two aspects of the one positive command which have been singled out for specific mention.
1. Lev 26:1
There are a catalogue of terms employed in Lev 26:1 to give a broad definition of the types of objects and concepts that the Israelites were refused to either make or possess - it was the army’s responsibility as they came upon such cultic objects during their conquest of the land (and also the ordinary Israelite who might discover those missed by the army) to utterly destroy them (Ex 34:13, Deut 12:3).
It’s much easier to think of each of these labels as being the totality of all types of objects of false worship rather than to take each word or phrase one by one and explain them - but, seeing as we might miss out on the concept of idolatry which is special to us, it seems better to at least touch upon some definition for each of the words employed.
The RSV’s ‘idols’ (Strongs Hebrew number 0457) is defined well by TWOTOT who note that the word
‘...comes perhaps from a root meaning “to be weak, deficient”. It is used primarily in Scripture to describe vain objects of worship - that is, the gods of this world, whether literal idols made with hands, riches or deceitful men’
The worship (service or adoration) of empty ideas or concepts - and not just physical objects that were bowed down to - must be included amongst the concept, therefore. In other words, the believer is being expected to conform his own mind to the mind of God, to think His way, with His standards and purposes (Rom 12:2, Eph 4:23). Although the words which follow are more specifically related to physical objects, this hits at the root of the problem by introducing the idea of non-conformity over as wide a range as possible.
The second word translated ‘graven image’ by the RSV (Strongs Hebrew number 6459) is defined by Hartley as being indicative of
‘...divine figurines made out of a variety of materials’
and that, according to Harrison, they were a
‘...cultic representation of deity such has been found at several sites in Canaan’
something which to us is more a generic term than meaning anything too specific. Simply, it means the object which became the focus for one’s worship and which even today exist not only in the primitive areas of the world but within the ‘cultured’ and ‘sophisticated’ Western organisations that verbally declare their allegiance to God. The fourth of the descriptions seems to be similar to this word (see below) but there it’s specifically made from stone whereas this could be made from any type of material imaginable. There’s certainly some degree of artistic input expected with the creation of these objects.
The ‘pillar’ is an interesting word (Strongs Hebrew number 4676), more so because it’s also used in a positive sense in the Old Testament. Hartley states its meaning simply as
‘...stones of various sizes set up as pillars’
but Harrison is more illuminative when he observes that it
‘...was apparently made of stone and was probably intended to comprise a tangible indication of the presence of El or Baal, the two principle deities of Canaanite religion’
It seems to have meant a stone which was stood on one end to be higher than it originally was when laid flat upon the ground - it didn’t have to have any carving or relief on its surfaces which would be the case for the stone defined below and, as such, may be best seen in the UK in the presumed-Druidic circles which are scattered throughout the length and breadth of the land (and to which our new Archbishop of Canterbury seems to be inexplicably drawn to worship, I note).
My wife came to a unique observation regarding why such stones were placed into this position - she’d brought some elongated stones for the garden to provide some ‘vertical’ breaks with the greenery and, as she stood back to look at the mix of colour and texture, she realised that stones look better stood up than laid flat.
I’m not sure that that’s sound enough to be put into the mindset of an ancient worshipper but it certainly does remain a point of interest that a vertically placed stone or pillar stands out and draws attention to itself - even modern day garden designers use the impressions that they make to add interesting features and breaks. It begs the passer-by’s attention and calls men and women to have regard for it.
But, far from having only a negative aspect, they were set up in the Bible in positive ways, too, it appears (Gen 28:18, 35:20). But the fact that they’re forbidden in the Law would make one think that the term had been almost exclusively applied to a stone set up which had religious, anti-YHWH, significance (it does, however, appear in a non-cultic use later on in the OT). Even if other stones were set up to mark boundaries and experiences, the application here is primarily or exclusively meant to represent an object of cultic significance.
Finally, ‘a figured stone’ employs two Hebrew words (Strongs Hebrew numbers 4906 and 68) and, according to Hartley
‘...refers to stones with an engraving of a deity or a symbolic representation of a deity; they could be small such as boundary stones or massive stones erected as stele’
Harrison is more specific, citing an archaeological discovery that contained
‘...some carved picture of a Canaanite deity such as one depicting Baal hurling thunderbolts, dated about 1800BC and unearthed at Ras Shamra’
It’s TWOTOT’s definition of the word that’s distinctive, however, for they note that the word is often taken to have come
‘...from the hypothetical root...“to look at”...Hence [the word] became “that which is visible”, “that which can be beheld”...’
It probably meant a stone representation of any god - even YHWH - which was supposed to give a visible revelation of some aspect of their character or appearance. The surprising concept behind this word is that even depictions of God going to war against His enemies would have been forbidden - or, rather, that they should still be considered to be forbidden.
As God is the One who can’t be seen, He’s also the One who can’t be adequately represented by anything earthly or by any imagery that could then be bowed down to as being God Himself. The Israelite was meant to know God but not to have any object that he could point to and say that it formed a representation of the One he served.
2. Lev 26:2
Pp Lev 19:30
The use of the plural word ‘sabbaths’ in this verse may mean more than it’s generally taken to mean. Hartley simply sees its use as a restating of the fourth of the ten commandments (Ex 20:8-11 - as do Wenham and Harrison, it has to be said) but a plural is an unusual way to state that a single day a week is to be put aside for rest.
With the commandments surrounding the sabbatical and Jubilee years having just drawn to a close in Leviticus chapter 25, one is immediately drawn to the attractive proposition that the statement is meant to be taken as descriptive of all the periods of rest which had been laid down in the Mosaic Law.
This might seem purely fanciful to some, but the idea of ‘sabbaths’ as representing the sabbatical years and not the weekly sabbath is clearly intended in three specific verses in Leviticus chapter 26 (v.34,35,43) where YHWH speaks about rest being given to the land because of the Israelites disobedience in the matter.
To quote just one of these three verses to confirm the point, I reproduce Lev 26:34 which observes that
‘...the land shall enjoy its sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies’ land; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its sabbaths’
The only way a land can enjoy its sabbaths is with the observance of the sabbatical year not with the celebration of the weekly sabbath.
It is, perhaps, better to understand the reference to ‘sabbaths’ in Lev 26:2 not to refer to the weekly day of rest at all because the context doesn’t demand it.
The problem here is that we immediately think of a weekly cessation as being implied because it’s that concept which is always uppermost in our minds, few of us realising that the sabbatical and Jubilee years were equally ‘sabbaths’ as other periods when rest was expected.
When such a statement is employed, for example, in Lev 19:30 (which is a carbon copy of both concepts of Lev 26:2), without context we should at least expect it to refer to the sabbatical and Jubilee years and probably also include within it the idea of the weekly day of rest. It’s the context of Lev 26:2, however, which demands an almost exclusive interpretation of it meaning annual observances.
On the web page that dealt with Lev 19:30, I noted that Harrison saw the verse as a consequential statement following on from Lev 19:29. Whereas there the thought was of the defiling of the land, the following verse concerned the maintenance of its sanctity. However, like Lev 26:2, he perceived that the way for this to take place was through ‘sabbath worship’ which tied it in with a weekly rather than an annual event.
However, in the context of the defilement of the land which precedes it, the statement seems the more likely to be referring to the annual festivals rather than to the weekly ones because the land’s defilement of Lev 19:29 is being contrasted with the way to keep it holy to God in Lev 19:30.
It may seem a strange concept to our own minds, therefore, but although the defilement of the land could be considered to come about through various defiling actions, it’s purity or righteousness still had to be maintained through an action - that is, it wasn’t enough for the Israelites to be only sexually righteous but they were expected also to give the land a rest from cultivation as God required.
Reverencing the sanctuary seems to be set as a contrast to the forbidding of the false forms of worship outlined in Lev 26:1. It isn’t that God is concerned to simply state the need for the observance of the service outlined in the Mosaic Law but that, as Hartley writes (my italics)
‘Yahweh demands exclusive worship from His people’
where the repudiation of what’s false is set apart from the acceptance of what’s true.
Lev 26:2 appears to be a logical contrast of Lev 26:1 where the defiling of the land through idolatrous practices is to be offset by the maintenance of the land’s purity through the observance of the land’s need for rest and the acknowledgement that the Tabernacle and, later, the Temple were the recognised ways to maintain purity.
In this way, the people aren’t thought to be able to do as they please with the land or within the land - they have a responsibility to keep both themselves pure and the ground upon which they’ve been planted.
Lev 26:3-13 Pp Deut 28:1-14
As we’ve previously noted, Deuteronomy chapter 28 is the parallel - and much lengthier - passage of blessings and cursings contained in the Law. Even so, it’s only the Levitical passage that has statements regarding the Israelites’ restoration back into the land (implied in Lev 26:43) and restoration with God (Lev 26:44-45) following their national disobedience, judgment and exile - therefore, we might say that the current passage enhances the one which follows and which was spoken about 38 years after this one for it’s only here that the promise exists that YHWH wouldn’t forsake the covenant even though His people had done so.
Comparisons between the two passages show them to be covering fundamentally the same ground even though Leviticus is recorded as being spoken by God Himself while Deuteronomy is from the mouth of Moses. Both open with a conditional statement that shows that the blessing that follows is dependent upon obedience to the covenant of commandments (Lev 26:3, Deut 28:1-2), a clear indication that the nation would have been able to perceive God’s hand upon them and have been assured that they were keeping to the covenant when all these things took place. As such, God was giving them tangible evidence of their obedience (or disobedience).
The two major principles in these passages are those of prosperity and security.
The former covers such areas as abundant rain (Lev 26:4, Deut 28:12 - torrential downpours aren’t meant but rain at the appropriate times and in adequate measure. At some periods during the year, rain would be considered to be a curse rather than a blessing) to provide abundant harvests (Lev 26:4-5, Deut 28:4,8,11) that were to lead consequently to abundant food provision (Lev 26:5,10, Deut 28:5), abundant provision in breeding new cattle and large families to produce new Israelites to inhabit the land (Lev 26:9, Deut 28:4,11). Indeed, they were to become more prosperous in everything and everywhere than one could have imagined (Deut 28:3,6,8,12) and have so much of an excess that they’d be able to lend to the nations of the world rather than to have any need to borrow (Deut 28:12).
Indeed, they would be regarded as the kings of the world - the ‘heads’ or ‘top dogs’ (to use a common phrase) - instead of being the lowliest of the peoples (Deut 28:1,13). As such, we would have to conclude that the respect with which they’d be regarded would contribute to the success of the time when the message of the Gospel would be proclaimed with the advent of their Messiah (the promise to Abraham wasn’t just that his offspring would be blessed but that in them the nations of the earth would themselves find blessing - Gen 12:3, Gal 3:8) - a person is much more willing to listen to someone they respect than a person that they think little of.
With regard to their security, peace would come in their land from both man and wild beast (Lev 26:5-6) - while their armies would go out to war, secure in the knowledge that they wouldn’t suffer defeat (Lev 26:7-8). Even if enemies did rise against them, they’d flee for their lives because of the fear of the Israelites that would be put upon them (Deut 28:7,10).
Perhaps the greatest security possible was that God Himself would dwell in their midst (Lev 26:11-12) because they would be His special people throughout the entire earth (Lev 26:12, Deut 28:9) and the fear of the nation put upon those round about them would surely have been a reflection of the fear of YHWH in their midst.
Again, though, we should take care to note that these are corporate promises and blessings - that is, a believer who was wholly true to the covenant shouldn’t think that these would fall to him as his right but, rather, they depended upon national maintenance of the covenant. Although it would be equally wrong to think that a man after God’s own heart wouldn’t be in a favorable position before YHWH, it’s only the consequence of national obedience that would guarantee the promises listed here.
Many have sought to show that, because God has become the curse for us, we should naturally fall under the blessings of Jesus Christ that are defined in passages such as these. Therefore, material prosperity is almost guaranteed because it’s upon the basis of the obedience of Jesus Christ that these are now seen to fall to individual believers.
But Paul is plain in Gal 3:10-14 that, although the curse of the Law has been removed in Christ, it’s the blessing of Abraham that now falls to the recipients of the work of Christ which is based not upon obedience but grace (paralleled in Gen 28:4) - in the same way as Abraham’s covenant relationship was also based upon grace and was one-sided, God obligating Himself and writing nothing into the response expected.
It’s incorrect, therefore, to think that either the blessing or the curse of the Law are now in effect for the Old Covenant has been fulfilled under which the chosen nation served. The basis of God’s blessing upon individuals rather than a group (such as the nation of Israelites) is the blessing of Abraham and isn’t conditional upon obedience to a written code. Indeed, the basis of God’s blessing upon each and every man could be said to have always been grace rather than works.
North is totally correct here (page 542 footnote 1) when he writes
‘It is a theologically and psychologically disastrous misinterpretation of God’s promises of wealth to place them within an exclusively personal or individual framework. The individualism of the “positive confession” charismatic movement is an example of just such a false interpretation of covenantal, corporate promises’
Even so, North’s statement (page 555) that
‘Corporate responsibility flows from individual responsibility’
can be seen to be the nature of the nation’s obedience. Individuals were expected to remain individually obedient to the demands of the Mosaic Law upon them and, as a consequence, the nation would find itself under God’s favour as promised. Individual responsibility to be obedient to the covenant, then, was collectively blessed as outlined in Lev 26:3-13.
Although North sees Lev 26:13 as being the opening verse of a passage which runs to the end of v.17 (quoted at the head of his Chapter 35), it seems best to take it as a fitting conclusion and explanation of what’s preceded it in v.3-12. The positive blessings for obedience are contrasted with the slavery which was their experience in Egypt when, although they did the will of their masters, they received only trouble for their efforts.
From out of a time of persecution, therefore, the nation has been redeemed to ‘walk erect’ and to take their place amongst the nations of the world - transformed from being the tail to the head, from being of no worth to a people who all the nations would fear. In this way, the work of God - which would come through the nation’s obedience - is seen to be something which is worth striving after corporately.
Lev 26:14-39 Pp Deut 28:15-68
The RSV divides this passage up into five specific paragraphs (v.14-20,21-22,23-26,27-33,34-39) but it seems to miss the more logical divisions which exist in the text which take the worsening of the Israelites’ condition for continued disobedience and to have these as the headers to each new passage.
As I mentioned in my introduction to this chapter, it’s better divided up as follows:
a. Lev 26:14-17 - ‘But if you will not hearken to Me…
b. Lev 26:18-20 - ‘And if in spite of this you will not hearken to Me...’
c. Lev 26:21-22 - ‘Then if you walk contrary to Me, and will not hearken to Me...’
d. Lev 26:23-26 - ‘And if by this discipline you are not turned to Me, but walk contrary to Me...’
e. Lev 26:27-39 - ‘And if in spite of this you will not hearken to Me, but walk contrary to Me...’
where the quoted words which begin the last four sections can be seen to be a follow on from the Israelites’ refusal to return to obeying the demands of the covenant after calamities sent by God have befallen them. The judgment here is progressive and designed to wake Israel up to the consequences of their own actions in ways that should see them think back to the demands of the Law.
Indeed, they need only to cast their minds to this passage or the one in Deuteronomy to sense the problems as being a direct result not upon bad fortune but upon a definite work of God against them. North is correct when he writes (page 577)
‘Negative corporate sanctions in history are designed to restore covenantal faithfulness on the part of God’s people. They are not judgments unto oblivion but judgments unto restoration’
This idea of waking the nation up, of calling them to repent and turn back to the covenant they made with YHWH is also present in the five progressive judgments which befell the northern kingdom of Israel in Amos 4:6-11 where, after each of the descriptions of God’s hand against them (v.6,7-8,9,10,11), Amos records God as observing
‘…yet you did not return to Me’
The dramatic warning of the consequences of one man’s sin in the incident of Achan and the stealing of the devoted items (Joshua 7:1-8:29) should have woken the nation up to how quickly God would move against a covenant-breaking nation but, even so, the progressive pouring out of judgment was to give Israel ample time to realize it’s transgressions and turn from them back to YHWH.
In this way, even in wrath God displays mercy (Hab 3:2) for in it he provides opportunity for repentance.
Just how quickly Israel should have perceived that all wasn’t well with the state of their nation before God comes from a quick consideration of the first judgment detailed in Lev 26:14-17. The very first experience of the nation recorded in Judges 2:11-15 was that they were unable to stand before their enemies in battle (Lev 26:16) and yet, even when judges were raised up for them to push them back (Judges 2:18), the people soon forsook the way of God once more (Judges 2:19). In the end, what became a temporary inability to stand against their enemies was turned into a permanent arrangement through sin (Judges 2:20-23).
This first judgment (Lev 26:17) of being
‘…smitten before your enemies…’
was soon transformed into the possession of parts of their land by their enemies, described in Lev 26:17 as being the time when
‘…those who hate you shall rule over you…’
This first occurred in Judges 3:7-8 in the form of Cushan-rishathaim, the king of Mesopotamia who ruled over them for eight years until God raised up Othniel as the deliverer of His people (Judges 3:9-11). Subsequently, Israel once more rebelled and Eglon took possession of the city of palms (probably Jericho) before God raised up another deliverer called Ehud (Judges 3:15-30).
The disobedience which saw Jabin king of Canaan oppress the Israelites was again a fulfillment of the curse of Lev 26:17 and, yet again, God raised up Deborah and Barak to defeat the enemies after 20 years (Judges chapters 4 and 5).
It could be argued with some justification that Lev 26:16’s curse that the nation would
‘…sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it’
was part and parcel of the oppressing enemy people and nations that were coming against them but this experience is spelt out in the life of the nation in Judges 6:1-6. Moreover, we read of Gideon (Judges 6:11)
‘…beating out wheat in the wine press, to hide it from the Midianites’
- not the best place to carry out threshing for the dust and chaff would probably have been uncomfortably aggravating both to his respiration and skin. The one curse which we don’t seem to have a direct record in the Bible as occurring is that of disease (Lev 26:15 - ‘consumption and fever’) - but, if the people were as under-nourished as would appear from the lack of provision being reaped from the land, illnesses of this type may have been present in the land in great numbers for natural resistance would have been reduced.
‘Sudden terror’ - the first of the three ‘illnesses’ specified - may well be a reference to a mental disorder of unknown origin as Wenham maintains (that is, he gives the explanation without citing a cause) but it could equally well be a result of the continued attacks of Israel’s enemies which resulted in frequent oppressive panics descending upon the people for the least justified reason - people who frequently experience fear often have lives that are filled with it. Harrison, however, envisages it as being the result of
‘…calamities of a medical nature…’
of which the following two descriptions are taken to be representative. Hartley, however, sees the terror as the result of
‘…an unexpected, dreadful happening’
rather than for it to be taken to be a state of mind.
What I’m trying to demonstrate is that the preliminary judgments of God recorded for us in Leviticus chapter 26 are exactly the ones which the Law indicate would befall them for their disobedience to the demands of the covenant. Although we might point to a couple of other judgments contained in the latter passages (such as Lev 26:26), it appears that God kept to His schedule of the cursings detailed in the Law and, through the period of the early judges, fired the first shots across the nation’s bow to warn them of more severe judgments which were to follow if they didn’t turn round their lives to serve only YHWH.
I don’t intend going through each of these judgments individually but there are a number of phrases that need a brief comment on.
Firstly, we should note that YHWH speaks about punishing the nation ‘sevenfold’ for its sins (v.18,21,24,28) where the numerical value is best understood to be speaking to them of a complete outpouring of His wrath upon them. God is saying that He won’t water down the punishment that was to befall them but allow His wrath to have its full and final outworking upon them if they forsook the covenant.
The Book of Revelation in like manner also notes sevenfold judgments and outpourings of God’s wrath that bring to a conclusion the period for the preaching of the Gospel, before the return of Jesus Christ and the setting up of a fully visible and unopposable Kingdom.
Secondly, cannibalism (v.29) was known towards the latter years of the split kingdoms of Israel and Judah (II Kings 6:24-31 notes that it took place during the siege of Samaria by the king of Syria, while Jer 19:9 and Ezek 5:10 both have the prophets announcing that cannibalism would shortly fall upon the city of Jerusalem, the fulfillment being recorded in Lam 2:20 and 4:10 which are Jeremiah’s first hand observations after the fall and destruction of Jerusalem) and were followed close on the heels by the exile of the nation away from its inheritance of land (v.32-33). It was the northern kingdom who seem to have been scattered farther and wider amongst the nations than was Judah (v.33) simply because most of those who returned from Babylon were the exiles from the southern Kingdom.
The Assyrian policy of integrating subjugated people into other controlled areas seems to have largely worked though many of the Jews still retained their cultural identity even in Asia Minor - it seems likely that the Jews found here were descendents from the first Jewish settlers removed there in the conquest of the northern Kingdom.
Finally, I’ve previously covered the idea of the sabbath rest of the land above in Lev 26:2 and noted there that the word ‘sabbaths’ more rightly means ‘sabbatical and Jubilee years’ than the weekly rest day sown into the Creation (Gen 2:3). This began to find a fulfillment in II Chr 36:21 upon the overthrow of the city of Jerusalem in 586BC under Nebuchadnezzar.
The ultimate fate of the nation of Israel following persistent disobedience, then, was to be annihilation throughout the earth (Lev 26:36-39) even though they’d been promised to be raised up as heads above all others (Deut 28:13). What ultimately saved the nation in exile was, firstly, God’s grace (that He’d provided for a way back to Himself) and, secondly, the nation’s repentance.
When the call came for the return to the land, a number heeded it and came as the nucleus of the rebuilding of the new nation from which the Messiah was to be brought to the earth for the salvation of all people.
Repentance changes things.
In the case of Nineveh, the city discovered that even a categorical statement of approaching doom and desolation could be reversed when they took the message seriously and did something about their spiritual condition before God (Jonah chapter 3).
But, however much we’d like to apply this later situation to the Israelites’ plight before God in the exile, we would be doing the text a great injustice if we were to leave it there. As I showed on my web page that dealt with the adulterous relationship of David and Bathsheba (II Samuel 11:2-12:25), while forgiveness is freely bestowed upon those who genuinely repent, it doesn’t follow that the judgment which falls upon the sinner - or the natural consequences of their own actions - will be removed.
David’s confession (II Sam 12:13) following the realization that his sin hadn’t been covered and was still odious to YHWH was immediately accepted by His intermediary, Nathan the prophet (II Sam 12:13), even though the demands of the Mosaic Law would have had him put to death for adultery (Lev 20:10, Deut 22:22) and murder (Ex 21:12). But the consequence of his sin that the sword would never depart from his house and that his wives would be taken by another (II Sam 12:10-12) was fulfilled in the person of his son Absalom (II Sam 16:20-22).
Therefore, although God will remove the guilt of a man’s sin through repentance, it doesn’t follow that the judgment of God which is placed upon an individual or group because of their sin will be removed. This was also the case with the Israelites in the Levitical passage for, although YHWH would recognize the nation’s repentance (Lev 26:44) so as not to
‘…spurn them, neither…abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break My covenant with them’
He was still definite in His judgment (Lev 26:43 - my italics) that
‘…the land shall be left by them, and enjoy its sabbaths while it lies desolate without them; and they shall make amends for their iniquity because they spurned My ordinances and their soul abhorred My statutes’
In this case, then, repentance wasn’t a ‘make everything better’ option for it still meant that the nation was to experience the hand of God against them until the wrong they’d done had been deemed to have been paid for. So, too, we must realize that the sin issue is dealt with whenever a man or woman turns to God and genuinely repents of their sin - but the judgment of God which might be currently resting upon them or the consequences of their own sinful actions might not be removed overnight - if at all.
If YHWH had removed the consequences of Adam and Eve’s first sin, we wouldn’t have inherited the rebellion that we have - or have been born into the world with an attitude which centers the universe around ourselves.
It’s interesting to note here that the first thing YHWH remembers when the nation repents (Lev 26:41) is the covenant that He made with Jacob, Isaac and Abraham (Lev 26:42 - and in that unusual order, too) and not that which was made with the nation at Sinai.
God will go on to announce that He won’t break His covenant with them (Lev 26:44 - where the covenant made with the original nation is always expected to be the one which binds their offspring into an observance of its demands) and will remember the covenant that was made with those who received this first statement of YHWH’s intent to restore the disobedient nation (Lev 26:45 - that He speaks of their forefathers is an indication that even if the nation had rejected Him immediately, there would have been sufficient time before an exile in which the nation would have been given opportunity to repent. At this time in Israelite history, the present listeners were expected to begin to take possession of the land within a couple of years, three at the most - Cp Num 1:1 with Deut 1:2).
It was to Abraham that the original promise had come to multiply his descendants (Gen 15:5) and to give him and his descendants the land to possess (Gen 15:7,16), confirmed to Isaac directly (YHWH mentioned only the increase of His descendants ‘for…Abraham’s sake’ in Gen 26:24 and this also seems to be implied in Gen 26:4-5. He promised to give him the land in Gen 26:3) and then to Jacob (promised that his descendants would be innumerable in Gen 28:14 and given possession of the land in Gen 28:13. These were both given to Jacob independently of any promise given to Abraham - slightly differently than it was given to Isaac).
God is here honouring the faith of the fathers in not wholly wiping out the nation before Him, judging them because of their sin but allowing repentance to restore them back into a covenant relationship. This doesn’t mean that any one of them were in the same relationship with YHWH that Abraham, Isaac or Jacob were but merely that God will be seen to fulfil the promises given to His followers even though situations and people might contrive themselves against it.
I remember a prophetic word given to a fellowship a number of years ago in which God seemed to be speaking of a future time of favour with the instruction
‘I will bless you, in spite of you - not because of you’
In other words, what was to happen would be poured out upon them because God chose to do the work by His grace and not because there was anything that merited His favour towards them. Such a statement might seem rather harsh but it shows us what we’re to think of God’s sovereign choice - it moves independently of His people.
Here in Lev 26:40-45, the impression that’s created initially is that God will open His arms wide in mercy because of the covenant and relationship He’d made with the founders of the nation, not on the basis of their righteousness before Him.
Finally, Lev 26:41 makes it sound as if we need to find an adequate answer for the question as to how the Israelites can make amends for their iniquities for it reads as if it’s a matter of their own freewill and not a consequence that comes about by God removing them from the land to allow it to have rest.
Perhaps it’s best to take the statement as being explained in Lev 26:43 for it there appears almost as an explanation of what the nation’s exile from the land achieves. It seems better, then, to take the making amends as something which is brought upon the nation by God rather than something which they willingly take upon themselves.
For the statement that these words were given to the people ‘on Mount Sinai’ see my previous web page.
This verse sits as a conclusion to what would be expected to be a large volume of material for it reads that what’s preceded it
‘…are the statutes and ordinances and laws which YHWH made between Him and the people of Israel on Mount Sinai by Moses’
The only place in Leviticus where anything remotely similar is found is Lev 19:37 where the command
‘…you shall observe all My statutes and all My ordinances and do them…’
occurs as a summation of the laws which have just been delivered. However, there the speaker is YHWH Himself but, in Lev 26:46, it seems to be an early scribal addition which brings to a conclusion an extensive section (Harrison sees the verse as showing that the authorship of the preceding was Moses but this doesn’t answer any question raised as to the origin of the concluding verse).
Indeed, had it not been for the presence of chapter 27, it would have served as a perfect concluding word to the entire Book. Something similar occurs there also (Lev 27:34) which is possibly why the scroll found its conclusion at that point, Num 1:1 giving the reader the specific date of the census which was taken shortly before their march from Sinai towards Canaan.
It strikes me that Leviticus chapter 27 must have been put together in similar fashion to today’s appendices at the close of books for there appears to be an additional treatment of some of the themes which have occurred previously (and of some new areas which needed treatment) - as if some of the Israelites had said
‘Yes, Moses, we understand - but what about…?’
It would show that YHWH was willing to be questioned about His commandments rather than for Him to expect unswerving and blind obedience to the letter of the Law.
If the supposition is correct, Lev 26:46 would stand as the original end to the Book which was added to before the nation left Sinai on their way to the Promised Land. There was sufficient time for this to happen as the conclusion of the Book of Exodus seems to envisage them at Sinai before the year was up after their deliverance from Egypt, the next date being in Num 1:1 during their second year.
Thoughts on some of North’s statements
As on the previous web page, it seemed best to consult North’s chapters on Leviticus chapter 26 once I’d completed my own brief overview of the text. The chapter is a difficult one to deal with verse by verse as I and other commentators have found but for North to only deal with verses 3-6,9-10,13-17 and ignore the promise of restoration following repentance was a little surprising.
Even so, some of his observations need dealing with head on and many need to be answered with Scriptural texts that undermine the main thrust of his teaching in a few vital places. This isn’t to say that North is ‘all wrong’ - very few people are (not even me) - but much of the danger has been not to deal with relevant Scripture and to use other, less essential passages to uphold beliefs that can be shown to be on fairly shaky ground.
The only chapter I want to deal with here is chapter 33 (‘Nature as a Sanctioning Agent’) in which he opens by quoting Lev 26:3-6. North makes some puzzling statements here which need dealing with briefly (I’ve decided not to pull each and every peculiar saying out and comment on as that would have been to revert to my primary aim back in 1998 to analyse most of what North had written. What I’ve selected below must suffice).
His opening sentence is a case in point. He writes (page 541) that
‘The theocentric message [of Lev 26:3-6] is that God is the sovereign sustainer of the creation who personally intervenes into the realm of nature in terms of His covenant’
There can be no dispute from Bible believers that God does indeed sustain His Creation (Heb 1:3) - that He gets personally involved in the maintenance of what He spoke into being by His word of Authority (Heb 11:3). If ever there was a time when God stood back and took a nap (figuratively speaking), the entire created order would disintegrate into chaos.
This isn’t the point here, though - it’s what God will do for the benefit of the land that’s being given to Israel to possess that’s in view and not the world as a whole. Therefore, it would have been better for North to have written that
‘The theocentric message is that God is the sovereign sustainer of the provision which He gives to His people’
so that we see God not simply giving good gifts out of His grace (the land) but that He’s concerned to sustain them after they’ve been given through the continued obedience of His people (the rain). The reader may feel that I’m nitpicking (okay, I admit it…) but it’s important that we don’t impose truths from other places in Scripture onto texts that can be allowed to yield different teaching and so broaden our understanding of the character and purposes of God.
It’s a bit like giving someone a car in a nation that has no petrol by which to drive it and no garage in which it can be repaired - though the example cited isn’t by any means a perfect analogy.
On the same page, North goes on to write (page 541 - my italics) that
‘Rain in due season was promised by God for all the land within the boundaries of national Israel, not just for the land belonging to covenant-keeping individuals’
North’s first statement is correct (even though it would be better phrased that rain was to be sent for the Israelites’ land rather than the land within the national boundaries - the rain was given to the people rather than the land so that abundant crops would be provided for) but the italicized words are enigmatic.
As all the land within Israel was to belong to Israelites (as opposed to holdings within cities which could be held by non-Israelites - the implication of Lev 25:29-30 paralleled with Lev 25:47 where it’s noted that strangers and sojourners could become rich and trade within the land), the promise was given to all Jews. The real problem, however, is that North sees the bestowal of rain as being not just for the covenant-keepers but, presumably, directed towards the land rather than the people and their response to the Law.
But Lev 26:3 is plain that rain would only be given if the nation was to
‘…walk in My statutes and observe My commandments and do them’
so that disobedience would have effectively threatened the continuance of the abundant rain. We’ve already seen in my notes on Lev 26:3-13 that we should think of this blessing as a corporate and not an individualistic one but the basis of its receipt wasn’t solely defined by the boundaries of the land - indeed, the stipulations in the text were that it would only be provided if the nation remained faithful to the covenant.
North’s description of some men and women (page 542) as
‘…publicly law-abiding covenant-breakers…’
seems like a contradiction in terms - the Covenant with the nation was to be sustained by the continued obedience of the nation to the Mosaic Law. How could a covenant-breaker, then, be law-abiding? About the only way to understand the phrase is to imagine that by ‘law-abiding’, North must mean an upright citizen to the civil law and, by ‘covenant-breaker’, one who’s disobedient to the religious law. However, there’s no clear distinction in the Mosaic Law between the two and, more than this, to be a religious law breaker would immediately forfeit one’s right to be included in the nation of priests to God.
I don’t have an adequate solution but, until the phrase is defined in a way which is in keeping with Biblical phraseology, the term sits uneasily in the paragraph for these are one of two types of people (along with ‘covenant-keepers’) who are said to
‘…call forth these promised blessings through the generations’
Covenant-breaking - if taken as literally as North writes the phrase - is seen to be part and parcel of how God’s abundant provision for the Israelites is to continue.
His further comment on pages 542-3 is equally baffling. He notes that
‘The nations outside the land could become the recipients of God’s common grace [as opposed to God’s special grace defined to include the special provision of the Law here in Leviticus chapter 26], but only if they outwardly obeyed the terms of God’s revealed law’
What he’s saying here is that God would continue to allow provision to come upon the Gentiles outside the land of Israel so long as they were obedient to ‘God’s revealed law’. But what is this revealed law meant to be? The only context in which his words sit is to see it as meaning the Mosaic Law. Little help is given from his further quote in Chapter 34 (page 557) that
‘Societies that obeyed the covenant’s external laws would prosper; those that rebelled would not’
But what is meant by ‘external laws’? And where do we find the promise of blessing upon only the obedient who dwelt outside the land and, more especially, where do we find the Law that had been delivered to them for their perusal and observance?
When Jesus was supporting His instructions to His disciples to ‘Love your enemies’ (Mtw 5:44), He noted (Mtw 5:45) that
‘...[God] makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust’
and general provision for any land is seen to be not on the basis of works of the law but purely a reflection of God’s grace. The Gentile who lived outside the Law was to receive rain and sunshine for the growth, ripening and harvesting of his crops even though they lived in rebellion to YHWH but the provision of the covenant-keeping nation would far exceed anything that they would receive because of their obedience to the covenant.
Jesus’ words are to demonstrate God’s kindness towards the disobedient (North’s ‘Common Grace’) but aren’t meant to undermine the riches of God’s blessing of the Israelites as a result of their obedience to His covenant.
North imagines that YHWH was willing to accept a certain percentage obedient to the covenant in order that He might bring the promise of blessing upon the whole nation. On page 545 he defines the question that needs answering as
‘...How many people in Israel had to obey God’s law in order for the nation to receive these promised visible blessings?’
On the previous page (page 544) he’s gone some way to answer what he muses on afterwards. He writes (my italics) that
‘The Bible never mentions a specific percentage of the population that must obey God in order for God’s positive, visible sanctions to become predictable in history...What the Bible teaches is that the number of active covenant-keepers must be large enough to represent the nation judicially. The society must be marked by widespread obedience to the civil laws set forth by God’
What he is, in effect, saying is that there have to be ‘enough’ covenant-keepers for God to accept their representation as a type of first fruit offering to God (the idea of them being ‘first fruits’ is nowhere stated by North but I’ve put it into language that’s Biblical and that the reader can check up on here). He lifts up the example of Hezekiah in II Kings 20:1-6 and asserts that the king’s repentance caused the nation of Judah to be spared from the advance of the Assyrian nation - but this is being extremely generous to the text for nowhere do we read anything resembling a prayer of confession and the receipt of forgiveness which pushed back the advancing enemy. Rather, Hezekiah appeals to God on the basis of his own righteousness and God responds by adding fifteen years to his life and by assuring him that the Assyrian wouldn’t be able to take the land during his reign.
What he appears to be trying to do here is to prove the untenable link that if one man was righteous, God might still pour out his covenantal blessings on the entire nation. But the real danger is that North hasn’t used the one definitive event in the early conquest of Canaan which answers the question perfectly.
When one man, Achan, sinned in the matter of those items which were devoted to destruction (Joshua 7:1-15), the entire nation lost the blessing of undefeatability in war (Lev 26:7-8). In other words, North’s question is actually wrongly conceived - the question shouldn’t be phrased as to how many were needed to be obedient for the nation to receive the blessing but how many disobedient Israelites did there have to be for the blessings to be lost?
In this way, we see that the blessings of Lev 26:3-13 stood or fell with the entire nation - not with a high percentage or representative percentage of the nation. To put it crudely, it’s not ten righteous that secure the blessing but one who’s disobedient that removes it.
A quick observation is all that’s needed on North’s statement that the Bible is (page 548 - my italics) God’s
‘...incarnate written word...’
for, in the normal interpretation placed upon the italicised word, it makes no sense at all for he appears to be saying that the Bible is ‘word made flesh’. Perhaps he means something like
‘The Bible is God’s thoughts committed to writing’
but, even then, there are records of men and women who said things which were less than God’s will which need a correct interpretation and which can’t be blindly accepted as the voice of God committed to writing - notably, Job’s friends were rebuked by God for misrepresenting Him.
‘Incarnate’ is, I feel, the wrong term - but, not being sure just what North means presents me with a difficulty to suggest an alternative. Perhaps it’s necessary just to remove the problematical word itself. The dilemma of meaning is even more highlighted when a few words before in the same sentence he writes about
‘…[God’s] incarnate living Word, Jesus Christ…’
for it seems unreasonable for one to assume that the same word employed in the same sentence can hold anything other than the same meaning unless defined when each occurrence takes place.
Perhaps it was a slip of the pen that the publisher hasn’t picked up on? I sincerely hope so…
North’s statement (page 553) that
‘What determines the fruitfulness of a field today [now that the Old Covenant has been fulfilled and removed] is adherence to God’s laws...’
is poppycock (this is a spiritual term transliterated directly from the Greek popikok). I don’t have any other word for it, sorry. If this was the case, the most righteous farmer would have the biggest yields or tonnage per acre - or, to put it another way, you could rely on the moral integrity of all those farmers who had the greatest harvests and condemn those who had the least yield as being wicked.
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