19 “You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material.
20 “If a man lies sexually with a woman who is a slave, assigned to another man and not yet ransomed or given her freedom, a distinction shall be made. They shall not be put to death, because she was not free; 21 but he shall bring his compensation to the Lord, to the entrance of the tent of meeting, a ram for a guilt offering. 22 And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the Lord for his sin that he has committed, and he shall be forgiven for the sin that he has committed.
23 “When you come into the land and plant any kind of tree for food, then you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden to you; it must not be eaten. 24 And in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy, an offering of praise to the Lord. 25 But in the fifth year you may eat of its fruit, to increase its yield for you: I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 19:19-25 ESV
In the following section. God emphasizes the distinctive nature of holiness, calling His people to their lives in such a way that their set-apart status as His children is clear for all to see. There was to be no blurring of the lines; no compromising of His holy standards, in a vain attempt to blend in with the culture of Canaan. These verses seem to focus on Israel’s eventual entrance into the land of Canaan when they would find themselves surrounded by pagan nations whose morals and ethical standards were far different than those found in the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant.
So, God highlighted various laws that were intended to differentiate the Israelites from all the other nations living in the land of Canaan. To our modern sensibilities, these laws may sound arbitrary and even strange. But it is important to consider the context of Canaan and the need for God’s people to remain distinctively different and set apart from all the people groups who currently occupied the land. For the Israelites to conquer and occupy the land promised to them by God, they would have to remain faithful to His calling to be a holy nation and a royal priesthood. There could be no compromising or accommodating, no bending of the rules, or lowering of God’s standards – especially when it came to worship.
That’s why God starts out this section with the five-word command: “You shall keep my statutes” (Leviticus 19:19 ESV). His rules were not up for debate or discussion, and He would not tolerate any effort by the Israelites to blend in and get along with their pagan neighbors. God knew that His people would be tempted to accommodate and make concessions in an effort to get along with the Canaanites. Yet, He was not calling the Israelites to blend in; He was commanding them to stand out. In fact, when it came time for the people of Israel to begin their conquest of Canaan, Moses would deliver a powerful reminder of God’s expectations.
“When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, be very careful not to imitate the detestable customs of the nations living there. For example, never sacrifice your son or daughter as a burnt offering. And do not let your people practice fortune-telling, or use sorcery, or interpret omens, or engage in witchcraft, or cast spells, or function as mediums or psychics, or call forth the spirits of the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord. It is because the other nations have done these detestable things that the Lord your God will drive them out ahead of you. But you must be blameless before the Lord your God. The nations you are about to displace consult sorcerers and fortune-tellers, but the Lord your God forbids you to do such things.” – Deuteronomy 18:9-14 NLT
What stood behind God’s call to distinctiveness was the unique relationship the Israelites enjoyed with their Creator-God. They alone had been set apart to be His chosen people. They alone had been given His law to regulate their lives and the sacrificial system to guarantee their ongoing relationship with Him. He had promised to dwell among them and had designated the Tabernacle as His earthly dwelling place.
In the very next chapter, God will reiterate His call to holiness, reminding the Israelites that they enjoy a one-of-a-kind status as His chosen people.
“You must be holy because I, the LORD, am holy. I have set you apart from all other people to be my very own.” – Leviticus 20:26 NLT
Everything about the Israelites was to be different and distinct, down to the way they bred their animals, sowed their crops, and fashioned their fabrics. Notice how God emphasizes His prohibition against mixing things that don’t belong together.
“Do not mate two different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two different kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven from two different kinds of thread.” – Leviticus 19:19 NLT
There was an order to God’s creation, and He expected His chosen people to adhere to it. Mankind has a propensity for taking shortcuts and making compromises. But, as a principle, this tendency to take the easy way tends to violate God’s way. Making concessions and compromises may appear to be the right thing to do but it makes a life of distinctiveness difficult to maintain. God knew that full-blown apostasy began with small and seemingly innocent concessions.
In verses 20-22, God deals with another improper form of “blending” or “mating;” that of an Israelite man and a slave girl. There are a number of issues at play here. First of all, the man is guilty of having sex with a slave girl who is probably a pagan. To make matters worse, the girl has been betrothed to another man. So, the situation involves several layers of impropriety. The man has had sex outside of the bonds of marriage. On top of that, he has committed this sin with a pagan slave. But because the woman was betrothed to another man, the sin involves adultery. So, God demands that the man pay compensation to the woman’s husband-to-be, and then offer the proper sacrifice in the Tabernacle to pay for his guilt and to receive atonement.
Israelites were not free to have sex with whomever they wished. There were rules and standards. Though the girl was a slave, she still had rights. Her diminished social status did not render her open game for another man’s inappropriate sexual advances. This was the kind of “detestable customs” Moses was talking about. While the Canaanites might approve of such conduct, God did not.
From this rather blatant example of inappropriate “mating,” God shifts His focus to the topic of planting and harvesting. When the Israelites arrived in Canaan, they would be expected to cultivate the land so that it might be fruitful and productive. But God wanted His people to depend upon Him for all their needs. God was giving them a land that was extremely bountiful. There would be no lack of food or water. And Moses knew that the blessings of the land would tempt the people to forget about the provision of God. So, he later warned them:
“So obey the commands of the LORD your God by walking in his ways and fearing him. For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land of flowing streams and pools of water, with fountains and springs that gush out in the valleys and hills. It is a land of wheat and barley; of grapevines, fig trees, and pomegranates; of olive oil and honey. It is a land where food is plentiful and nothing is lacking. It is a land where iron is as common as stone, and copper is abundant in the hills. When you have eaten your fill, be sure to praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.” – Deuteronomy 8:6-10 NLT
God wanted them to plant trees, but He also wanted them to trust Him for all their needs. So, He implemented a five-year moratorium on eating any fruit that the tree produced. For the first three years, the fruit was to go unharvested. In the fourth year, the fruit was to be dedicated to God. And finally, in the fifth year, the fruit of the tree was available for the owner to harvest and enjoy. This five-year delay was intended to teach God’s people to wait on Him. It was also meant to eliminate the risk of self-sufficiency.
“Beware that in your plenty you do not forget the LORD your God and disobey his commands, regulations, and decrees that I am giving you today. For when you have become full and prosperous and have built fine homes to live in, and when your flocks and herds have become very large and your silver and gold have multiplied along with everything else, be careful! Do not become proud at that time and forget the LORD your God…” – Deuteronomy 8:11-14 NLT
God was to be their provider and protector. But because He was giving them a land that was naturally fruitful and filled with all kinds of wonderful things to eat, they would find it easy to become self-reliant and no longer in need of His help. The very blessings of God could end up distracting them from their dependence upon Him.
One of the things that would set apart the people of God from their pagan neighbors was their complete and utter reliance upon God for all their needs. And that reliance began with their unwavering commitment to keep His commands. God would not tolerate compromise or complacency among His chosen people. The greatest risk they faced was allowing the richness of the land to diminish their reliance upon the Lord. And this was the very charge Jesus leveled against the church of Laodicea.
“You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” – Revelation 3:17 NLT
Jesus saw this church as having made unacceptable compromises. It wasn’t that they were living in complete rebellion, but that they had made harmful concessions that had left them with a “lukewarm” and ineffective faith. They weren’t living set apart and distinctive lives in the midst of the culture. So Jesus warned them to alter the trajectory of their faith and return to Him.
“I correct and discipline everyone I love. So be diligent and turn from your indifference.” – Revelation 3:19 NLT
And God was calling His chosen people to avoid the need for His discipline by living in keeping with His commands. That’s why He opened this section with the words, “You shall keep my statutes” (Leviticus 19:19 ESV). God didn’t want His people to become lukewarm and ineffective. His desire was that they remain obedient, dependent, and faithful so that the rest of the world might see His presence and power made manifest through their lives. They had been set apart to stand out, not blend in.
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.