A Higher Standard

“None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness. I am the Lord. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether brought up in the family or in another home. 10 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your son’s daughter or of your daughter’s daughter, for their nakedness is your own nakedness. 11 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, brought up in your father’s family, since she is your sister. 12 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is your father’s relative. 13 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister, for she is your mother’s relative. 14 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother, that is, you shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt. 15 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter-in-law; she is your son’s wife, you shall not uncover her nakedness. 16 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness. 17 You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and of her daughter, and you shall not take her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter to uncover her nakedness; they are relatives; it is depravity. 18 And you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.” Leviticus 18:6-18 ESV

We live in an age in which sexual boundaries and mores seem increasingly non-existent or simply ignored. What was once normal and accepted insights into human identity and sexuality have been turned on their heads. The once non-negotiable taboos of the past have been rejected as antiquated and out-of-touch with our modern sensibilities. And as the people of God, we find ourselves pressured to compromise our convictions just to remain relevant and avoid rejection by our more enlightened neighbors.

The Israelites were in a similar situation – whether they realized it or not. They had no idea what awaited them in Canaan, the land that God had promised to them as their inheritance. None of them had ever set foot in the “promised land,” and it had been four centuries since their ancestor, Jacob, and his family of 70 arrived in Egypt as refugees from the famine in Canaan. After more than 400 years in Egypt, they had long ago forgotten what things were like in their former homeland. They had no idea what the moral and religious atmosphere in Canaan was like. But God knew and He was preparing them for the worst.

You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. – Leviticus 18:3 ESV

They had just come out of a far-from-ideal situation in Egypt. There, they had experienced the indignity of living as slaves, but that had not always been the case. For decades, they had lived as the guests of the Pharaoh, occupying choice acreage in the lush and fertile land of Goshen. The original 70 Jacobites expanded rapidly and filled the land. And as their numbers grew, they became increasingly more amenable to their new surroundings. They acclimated to the ways of Egypt, accommodating themselves to the local customs and social conventions, even adopting many of their false gods as their own. So, by the time they left the land of the Pharaohs, they had become fully Egyptianized and quite content to carry their acquired tastes and customs with them when they crossed the Red Sea on their way to Canaan. In fact, years later, long after they had conquered and occupied the land of Canaan, Joshua would warn them:

“Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell” – Joshua 24:14-15 ESV

God had known all along that His people would struggle with idolatry. That’s why the very first commandment He gave His people contained prohibitions against idolatry.

“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…” – Exodus 20:3-5 ESV

But there was another pressing problem facing the Israelites: Their propensity for immorality. And it’s no coincidence that idolatry and immorality seemed to go hand-in-hand in the ancient pagan world. Gross sexual sins were often associated with the worship of the false gods of Egypt and Canaan. In the process of trying to satisfy their gods, the Canaanites and Egyptians concocted rites and rituals that also satiated their sexual desires. Cult prostitutes plied their services in the pagan temples, providing a rather bizarre form of worship that was quite popular among the male population.

But all of this was off-limits to God’s people. He had given them His Tabernacle and a stringent set of laws concerning its proper use. There was to be no borrowing from the Egyptians or Canaanites. Their rituals and rites were unacceptable and had no place in the worship of Yahweh. But in order to drive home the need for His people to remain distinctively different from the rest of the nations of the world, God gave them a list of banned sexual activities. And the very fact that God had to put these prohibitions in writing accentuates the fact that His people were already predisposed to living this way. What stands out is that, in this passage, God deals with everything from incest to bestiality. These were not simple moral indiscretions, but gross sexual sins of the worst order.

And it’s interesting to note that there is a direct link between this passage and Genesis chapter 9, which outlines the sin of Ham, the son the Noah.

“This passage tells how Ham, the father of the Canaanites, acted with moral abandon when he saw the nakedness of Noah and for his lack of filial respect a curse was pronounced on his descendants, who would act with the same moral abandon.” – Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus

According to Genesis 10, the sons of Ham were “Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan” (Genesis 10:6 ESV). So, the Egyptians and Canaanites were the descendants of Ham, and the descendants of Canaan, Ham’s son included “the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites” (Genesis 10:16-18 ESV). In other words, most of the occupants of the land of Canaan were descendants of Ham and would mirror his immoral behavior.

Ham had been guilty of uncovering his father’s nakedness. There has been much debate as to the exact nature of Ham’s sin but it seems that he had walked into his father’s tent and viewed him in a drunken and naked state. It is not so much that Ham viewed his father’s naked body but that he dishonored his father by gossiping about it to his two brothers. And when Noah sobered up and realized what his son had done, he was angry enough to curse Canaan, the son of Ham. Ham’s moral indiscretion proved costly.

And in chapter 18 of Leviticus, God repeatedly uses terms like “nakedness,” “uncovering,” and “seeing” when describing the sins of the Canaanites that the Israelites were to avoid. No Israelite as to “approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness” (Leviticus 18:6 ESV). And God drove home His point by using that phrase over and over again.

“You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife…” – vs 8

You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter…” – vs 9

You shall not uncover the nakedness of your son’s daughter or of your daughter’s daughter…” – vs 10

To put it bluntly, God’s people were forbidden from having sexual relations with any of their relatives. Throughout Leviticus 18, God uses the term “uncover the nakedness” as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. The relatively innocent-sounding sin of Ham had turned into unmitigated moral excesses of the worst kind. While Ham had been guilty of seeing his father naked, his descendants were guilty of committing every sort of sexual perversion the human mind could come up with. And it is sad to note that God had to provide such exacting detail to His list of unacceptable sexual activities. He was blatantly graphic in terms of His description of the sexual sins that were off-limits for His people.

The possibility of these sins taking place among His people was real. In fact, there is a good chance that some of these sins were already prevalent among the Israelites while they were in Egypt and as they made their way to Sinai. But the temptation would only increase when they arrived in the land of Canaan. So, God laid out His law in great detail so that His chosen people could never claim, “We never knew!” From this point forward, they would have no excuse.

When it came to sexuality, the Israelites were to live according to a higher standard; once provided to them by God. Every area of their lives belonged to Him and He expected their behavior to reflect their status as a royal priesthood and a holy nation. They were not descendants of Ham, but if they followed the example of their distant relatives, they would live to regret it. Disobedience would bring curses. But obedience would bring the blessings of God – in every area of their lives, including their sexuality and social interactions. During their years in Egypt, God had blessed them so that they increased in number. And He would continue to do so as long as they remained faithful to Him and obedient to His stringent standard of behavior.

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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