Stand Your Ground. Stay the Course.

26 “You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes. 27 You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. 28 You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.

29 “Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, lest the land fall into prostitution and the land become full of depravity. 30 You shall keep my Sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord.

31 “Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God.

32 “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

33 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

35 “You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measures of length or weight or quantity. 36 You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. 37 And you shall observe all my statutes and all my rules, and do them: I am the Lord.” Leviticus 19:26-37 ESV

When the Israelites finally arrived in the land of Canaan, they would find themselves facing a myriad of temptations that would put a strain on their relationship with Yahweh. This section of laws was designed to regulate the choices they would make when they inevitably had to interface with the pagan nations of Canaan. They would be entering a land whose preexisting occupants were not followers of Yahweh. According to Deuteronomy 7, when Israel was preparing to enter Canaan for the first time, the land contained seven different nations: The Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites.

These distant relatives of the Israelites were the descendants of Ham, one of the sons of Noah, but they had long ago abandoned their worship of Yahweh. As Moses prepared the people of Israel to enter Canaan for the first time, he warned them about the “detestable customs” of the land’s occupants.

“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. 13 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

So, God took time to reemphasize those laws that specifically dealt with the problems associated with Canaan. Verses 26-28 cover behaviors that God has already addressed but that would prove to be very tempting in the land of Canaan because they were prevalent among the seven nations that lived there. God’s ban on the consumption of blood was not practiced by the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, or Jebusites. In fact, many of these groups had their own elaborate religious rituals where they offered blood sacrifices to false gods like Baal and Molech. As part of these rites, the drinking of blood was actually encouraged because it was believed that the blood could endue the worshiper with energy or power. 

God warned the Israelites about incorporating any of these cultic practices into their worship or daily lives. Each of the admonitions contained in this passage deals with behaviors that were common practice among the Canaanites and were associated with the worship of their false gods.

“Do not eat meat that has not been drained of its blood. Do not practice fortune-telling or witchcraft. Do not trim off the hair on your temples or trim your beards. Do not cut your bodies for the dead, and do not mark your skin with tattoos. I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 19:26-28 NLT

Superstition and an obsession with the dead pervaded the Canaanite mindset, taking the form of fortune-telling and witchcraft. Ancestor worship and attempts to communicate with the dead were common among the Canaanites. But the Israelites were to have nothing to do with such practices. They were not even to emulate the fashion and hairstyles of their Canaanite neighbors. The reference to trimming the hair of their temples and beards was probably a warning against copying the look of the cultic priests. The Israelites were forbidden to take on the outward characteristics of the pagans, including disfiguring their bodies through ritual scarring or the use of tattoos. All of these things were closely associated with the idolatrous worship of the Canaanites.

“According to Babylonian-Assyrian religion, gods who represented the superior natural forces could be directly influenced by charms and spells to direct their power against evil demons who sought to work ill. This was sacred magic, and embraced under its scope, enchantment, sorcery, incantation, and witchcraft” – W. Carleton Wood, “The Religion of Canaan: From the Earliest Times to the Hebrew Conquest,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 1916, Vol. 35, No. 1/2 (1916), pp. 1-133

Magic, potions, bodily disfigurement, worship of the dead, and the consumption of blood were just a few of the pagan rituals the Israelites would find themselves confronting in the land of Canaan. And God knew they would be tempted to incorporate many of these pagan practices into their worship of Him. But God demanded distinctiveness among His people. He found the practices of the Canaanites abominable and unacceptable because they were associated with the worship of false gods. Everything about these rituals and rites was an affront to Yahweh’s status as the one true God and His chosen people were to have nothing to do with them.

God even had to go so far as to ban Israelite fathers from allowing their daughters to become prostitutes. This is most likely a reference to the practice of cult prostitution that was prevalent among the Canaanites.

“A peculiar feature of the Mesopotamian and Canaanite culture was ritualistic prostitution. To the temples of the goddesses of fertility (Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte) were attached bordellos served by consecrated women who represented the goddess, the female principle of fertility… The existence of sacred prostitutes shows that the individual worshipers received in this way communion with the divine principle of life and a renewal of their life forces.” – Eugene J. Fisher, Cultic Prostitution in the Ancient Near East? A Reassessment. Biblical Theology Bulletin

That Israelite fathers might even consider doing such a thing is an affront to our modern sensibilities. But it simply reveals the moral decline that had taken place among the nations of the earth by that time. In humanity’s flight from God, they had abandoned all reason and made the pursuit of personal pleasure their highest priority. The apostle Paul describes this moral descent in far-from-flattering terms.

Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles.

So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. – Romans 1:22-26 NLT

God knew that anything done in the name of religion could become a gateway to all kinds of sins and excesses. Cultic prostitution would not stop at the temple but would make its way into the very fabric of Israelite life. If one could justify sin by spiritualizing it, it was just a matter of time before it pervaded every sphere of daily life.

That’s why God reemphasized His law concerning the Sabbath. That one day of the week had been set apart for the exclusive worship of Yahweh. It was to be a regular reminder that He was the one and only God, and He alone was worthy of worship, glory, and honor. There was no place for mediums or necromancers among God’s people. They didn’t need witches and diviners. They had the all-powerful God of the universe dwelling in their presence and providing for their every need. There was nothing they could gain from the pagan magicians and cultic priests of Canaan.

Instead, God’s people were to honor the elderly, show care and concern for the foreigners living among them, and treat one another with honor and respect. There was no room for deceit or dishonesty among God’s chosen people. Those were the ways of the pagans. Their false sense of piety was marked by moral decay and pervasive sin. But God had given His people His law so that they might stand out from the crowd. That’s why God ends this section with the admonition: “You must be careful to keep all of my decrees and regulations by putting them into practice. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:37 NLT).

The real test would come when the Israelites entered the land of Canaan. When that day came, the true battle would be for the hearts and souls of God’s people and not for the land. Gaining control of Canaan would be relatively easy because God would give His people victory over their enemies. But winning the battle against moral compromise and ethical accommodation would be far more difficult. To defeat the urge to concede moral ground to the enemy was going to require obedience to God’s commands. The Israelites were going to have to pursue holiness more than their own happiness. They would need to make pleasing God a higher priority than seeking personal pleasure. The world of Canaan would offer a host of alluring options but the people of God would have to stand their ground and stay the course. They would need to heed the words God used to open this chapter: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2 ESV).

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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