Cut It Out or Be Cut Off

1 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons and to all the people of Israel and say to them, This is the thing that the Lord has commanded. If any one of the house of Israel kills an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or kills it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting to offer it as a gift to the Lord in front of the tabernacle of the Lord, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man. He has shed blood, and that man shall be cut off from among his people. This is to the end that the people of Israel may bring their sacrifices that they sacrifice in the open field, that they may bring them to the Lord, to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and sacrifice them as sacrifices of peace offerings to the Lord. And the priest shall throw the blood on the altar of the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting and burn the fat for a pleasing aroma to the Lord. So they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to goat demons, after whom they whore. This shall be a statute forever for them throughout their generations.

“And you shall say to them, Any one of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn among them, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting to offer it to the Lord, that man shall be cut off from his people.” – Leviticus 17:1-9 ESV

Leviticus 17-26 contains what has come to be known as The Holiness Code. Many scholars believe it was added to the Leviticus corpus much later, perhaps during Judah’s exile in Babylon. It appears to be a summary section that seems somewhat of place, containing language and style inconsistent with the rest of the book. Some believe these chapters include portions written by other authors that were later compiled, edited, and then placed within the book of Leviticus. But the evidence for these conclusions, while compelling, is far from convincing. There is no ironclad proof that these chapters were not penned by Moses. While they differ in style, they carry the same theme that has permeated the rest of the book, the theme of holiness.

These chapters stand out, not only because of their stylistic differences but also because their emphasis shifts from the priestly class to the average Israelite. God was calling all His people to a life of holiness – in every area of their lives. For the last few chapters, the focus has been on the Tabernacle and the sacrificial system associated with it. Chapter 16 dealt with the singular Day of Atonement, a once-a-year sacred event that took place within the context of the Tabernacle and was presided over by Aaron and his sons.

But in chapter 17, God turns his attention to a potential problem among His people. While He had provided them with a comprehensive sacrificial system and a sanctuary in which to perform all the prescribed rites and rituals, He knew that they would be tempted to seek alternative options that would be unacceptable and unholy. Their long tenure in Egypt had left them more than amenable to the worship of false gods, as the golden calf episode so clearly demonstrated (Exodus 32).

Verses 1-9 are not presenting a hypothetical scenario that might take place, but they deal with a pre-existing problem among God’s chosen people. Take a close look at verse 9.

“…the people must no longer offer their sacrifices to the goat demons, acting like prostitutes by going after them.” – Leviticus 17:9 NLT

Evidently, the people of Israel had adopted the pagan practices of their former captors, worshiping the false gods of Egypt, including “goat demons.” These were divine beings that were commonly portrayed with both human and animal characteristics. Separate from both gods and humans, these supernatural creatures were able to move between the divine and real worlds, causing great harm but also coming to the aid of all those who called upon them.

“‘They could be something like genies,’ says Egyptologist Kasia Szpakowska. ‘They would come to one’s aid as often as they acted as fearsome, dangerous creatures.’ Images of demons first began to appear in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1640 B.C.). Before this time, worship of the gods was highly centralized and mediated by the pharaoh, but during the second millennium B.C., all Egyptians were able to directly participate in religious life…It’s possible these demons—who likely numbered far more than 4,000—were more important to Egyptians’ everyday experience than were the remote gods venerated in the land’s great monuments. ‘An Egyptian demon is really any divine being not worshipped in a temple,’ says Szpakowska. ‘And they were everywhere.’” – Eric A. Powell, “The World of Egyptian Demons,”

One such “demon” was believed to have the form of a goat and inhabited the wilderness places. It is estimated that the ancient Egyptians had as many as 4,000 different demons they worshiped and feared. So, it seems that the Israelites had picked up on this propensity for worshiping and sacrificing to a variety of divine beings, including gods and demons. In fact, the book of Chronicles records the actions of Jeroboam, when he established the northern kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 12).

Jeroboam appointed his own priests to serve at the pagan shrines, where they worshiped the goat and calf idols he had made. – 2 Chronicles 11:15 NLT

God knew that His people had a built-in predilection for idolatry and unfaithfulness. So much so, that they would continue to struggle with remaining true to Yahweh, despite all He had done for them. He had provided the Tabernacle to serve as His dwelling place among them and He had given them the sacrificial system so they could remain holy and worthy of His divine presence. But it seems that they were still practicing the habits they had picked up in Egypt.

Between the time they had left Egypt and arrived at Mount Sinai, where God gave them His law, the people of Israel had been offering sacrifices to false gods. But now that the Tabernacle was complete and the sacrificial system was in place, those days were officially over. God would no longer tolerate their unfaithfulness. So, he laid down “the law.”

“Blood guilt will be accounted to any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox or a lamb or a goat inside the camp or outside the camp, but has not brought it to the entrance of the Meeting Tent to present it as an offering to the Lord before the tabernacle of the Lord.” – Leviticus 17:3-4 NLT

Anyone who sacrificed an animal for the purpose of worshiping a demon or false god was in serious trouble. Their actions were to be deemed a capital offense punishable by death. These verses are not dealing with the slaughter of an animal for food. This is a prohibition against offering sacrifices outside the context of the Tabernacle and for any other reason than worshiping Yahweh. God would not tolerate blood sacrifices of any kind that were not dedicated to Him. He alone could provide forgiveness and atonement and, for that reason, He alone was worthy of Israel’s undivided attention and undistracted devotion.

If someone slaughtered an animal “in the open field” (Leviticus 17:5), with the intent of offering its blood to a goat demon, they were advised to alter course and bring that animal to the Tabernacle as a sacrifice to God.

“And the priest shall throw the blood on the altar of the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting and burn the fat for a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” – Leviticus 17:6 ESV

The guilty party could escape the death penalty and enjoy life, by a simple act of course correction that demonstrated his commitment to Yahweh’s holiness and His status as the one true God. Even though his original intent had been evil and an offense to a holy God, it was never too late to do the right thing and demonstrate a change of heart. But for all those who dared to disobey God’s law and continue their obstinate pursuit of the gods, demons, and spirits of the Egyptians and other pagan nations, the penalty would be both harsh and fatal.

“Any man from the house of Israel or from the resident foreigners who live in their midst, who offers a burnt offering or a sacrifice but does not bring it to the entrance of the Meeting Tent to offer it to the Lord—that person will be cut off from his people.” – Leviticus 17:8-9 NLT

“The penalty for such idolatry and disregard for the one true God was to ‘cut [the guilty person] off from his people’ (Leviticus 17:4). The implication is that the crime is serious, as serious as murder, in fact, for the guilty person faced death. The use of this expression probably meant that God brought about the judgment.” – Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus

God takes holiness seriously. There could be no syncretism on the part of His people. He would not tolerate their worship of any gods other than Himself. While they might consider their habit of being equal-opportunity idolaters fully compatible with their status as God’s chosen people, God was not amused or willing to give an inch. He had made His position on the matter quite clear.

“You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods.” – Exodus 20:3-5 NLT

When it came to idolatry, God was quite adamant. Cut it out or be cut off.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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