You shall not walk in the statutes of the nation that I am sending away before you. – Vayikra/Leviticus 20:23
HaShem is speaking after the list – taking up most of chapter twenty of Vayikra – of sexual activity that is not permitted among the Israelite people. Many of the actions, including incest and bestiality, are still illegal or considered morally repugnant in society today. The text implies that these activities were practised by the nations that were occupying the Land of Israel before the Israelites got back from their four hundred year sojourn in Egypt. The list is preceded, in the first few verses of the chapter, by a shorter list of occult and pagan worship practices also practised by the current inhabitants of the Land that are also equally forbidden to the Jewish people. Together, they are all listed as “an abomination” and HaShem abhors or detests them; they are matters of deep divine disgust and loathing.
Two matters of syntax open this text for us. The first is the use of the negative particle lo at the start of the verse. When a prohibition is given, the particle al is often used – “Al tifreu Do not dishevel your hair” (Vayikra 10:16, NRSV), “Al tifnu Do not turn to mediums or wizards” (19:31, NRSV) – and has an immediate sense about it. You shall not now, or in a moment of crisis, do that thing. When the text uses lo, the prohibition is more permanent – “lo tikach You shall take no bribe” (Shemot 23:8, NRSV), “lo tenasu Do not try the L-rd your G-d” (D’varim 6:16, JPS). You shall never, now or at any time, do that thing. In this context, then, the prohibition against these forbidden sexual activities does not simply apply to the ancient Israelites while they were in the desert or occupying the Land. It does not just apply to the geographical location of the Land itself, or as long as there is a Tabernacle or Temple standing as a focus for Jewish worship. It is noticeable that the New Covenant writers pick up and confirm most of these prohibitions as applying to believers in Yeshua. These things are and remain an abomination to our G-d.
Targum Onkelos changes the Hebrew “in [the] statutes [of]”, to the Aramaic , “in [the] customs [of]”, using a Greek import word , translated ‘law’ in Greek, but used for ‘custom’ in Aramaic. The Hebrew word hok is derived from the root ,hkk “to inscribe”, denoting one of several kinds of laws, the most important being one that has been inscribed in stone, either literally or figuratively. The Targums usually render that biblical Hebrew word using the Aramaic equivalent, a word that literally means ‘enduring’. However, all the Aramaic translators and the early rabbinic commentary on Vayikra, the Sifra carefully distinguish Israelite laws from heathen laws, by using different words for them, even though Scripture uses the same words for both. The targumists and Sifra do not want to suggest that the heathen laws are enduring, and so they downgrade or weaken the heathen laws by substituting the imported word , meaning ‘custom’. Heathen customs and practices have no permanence, no endurance, no lasting value. As the prophet is later to say, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our G-d will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8, ESV).
Maimonides explains the larger context in which these laws are framed: “You know from the repeated declarations in the law that the principal purpose of the whole law was the removal and utter destruction of idolatry, and all that is connected therewith … The law prohibits us from imitating the heathen in any of these deeds, and a fortiori from adopting them entirely” (Guide for the Perplexed 3:29). As people called to be holy, any form of idolatry must be an anathema to us; heathen or pagan practices – in any arena, but particularly in that of sexual activity because of its physical or carnal appeal – must be rejected in every form.
Hirsch adds, “Beware of copying their dogmas, manners or morals; every moment of your existence in the Land gives you this warning. For everything that I have forbidden you is just what made the inhabitants before you become so degenerate, that I could not endure them.” Just as the disgusting customs and behaviour of the Canaanites caused their removal from the Land when Israel came up from Egypt, the Israelites were in turn removed from the Land – by the Assyrians and the Babylonians – because they had adopted the heathen behaviour and morals of the surrounding nations and had become undistinguishable from those nations: an abomination to the L-rd our G-d.
Given the clear and repeated warning that people who engage in these sorts of practices “will not inherit the kingdom of G-d” (1 Corinthians 6:9, ESV), “will have no share in the Kingdom of G-d” (Galatians 5:21, CJB), “has [no] inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of G-d” (Ephesians 5:5, NRSV), Rav Sha’ul’s words to Timothy seem to have a direct application to us today: “But flee from these things, you man of G-d; and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11, NASB). None of us who are called to be men and women of G-d should have anything to do with the things that are an abomination to G-d. Not now, not never!
But let’s take a step back from the immediate particularities and think a little more about “the customs of the nations”. This is really rather more than just the sexual proclivities of a small but noisy minority within modern society. The societies in which we live, driven as they are by “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2, NASB), relentlessly work to co-opt and assimilate us into their agenda, diluting our message and emasculating outreach for the kingdom. Walter Brueggemann suggests that, “Christians in our culture are greatly tempted to accept the definitions of reality that are given us by the dominant voices of our culture … the free market system and the values that grow from there … the seduction that getting and having and using is the main mode of humanness. Not only does such a dominant system then come to appear normative and beyond fundamental criticism. It also seems ordained and authorised to be enduring, so that we cannot think apart from it, cannot remember a time without it, and cannot imagine a future time when life should be shaped differently.”1 Many people these days do not think, cannot think and see no purpose in thinking. They have bought into the social vision of modern society – equality and toleration at all costs – and have been convinced by society’s constant drip-feeding that this is an appropriate manifestation of the kingdom of G-d; that if we can only become equal and reach a position of tolerating everyone’s own eclectic aberration as being “their right”, then there will be peace and harmony. Society misrepresents the dereliction and abnegation of morality and absolute standards of right and wrong as an acceptable and necessary sacrifice that individuals must make in the interests of not causing offence or emotional stress to others. We are urged to empathise with folks in distressing situations (often of their own making, or pushed upon them by their handlers) and offer comfort, affirmation and tolerance, rather that use reason, discernment and compassion to offer advice and practical help that could actually resolve the problem.
On the contrary, Os Guinness asserts: what is needed is people who will resist the thinking of the dominant culture and act out of time with the spirit of the times. He identifies some common virtues of history’s unheeded – and unwanted – messengers: “discernment of the times; courage to repudiate powerful interests and fashion; perseverance in the face of daunting odds; seasoned wisdom born of a sense of history … and … a note of authority in their message born of its transcendent source.”2 Messengers are badly needed; the time is running short and the buffers are approaching with startling clarity when seen through the lens of the kingdom of G-d. Guinness asks, “If resistance thinking is so important and untimely people are so vital, where do we find the counterperspective that frees us from the distortions of our own situation? How do we arrive at a true perspective from which to be constructively untimely? How do we establish the vantage point from which to resist effectively?” He offers three answers: an awareness of the unfashionable, an appreciation for the historical and paying constant attention to the eternal. Like the ancient Israelites, we must recognise the permanent and irrevocable laws of G-d, that sit forever in judgement over the customs and preferences of men. Like the early church in the days of Rav Sha’ul, we must not participate in any way in or give credence to those things that are forbidden: you simply cannot have what you cannot have. Like the patriarchs, we must always have in mind the eternal city to which we have been called; that alone will endure, while the current age, fashion and culture will pass like the wind.
1. – Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress), 126-127.
2. – Os Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness, (Grand Rapids, MIL Baker), 85,95-96.
Further Study: Isaiah 59:21; Matthew 5:17-20; 2 Timothy 2:22-26
Application: Do you want to please people and avoid offending them, or are you prepared to offer a more faithful assessment of the world in which we live? Will you have enough compassion to speak the truth and offer a real hope that can be within everyone’s reach if they will but ask?