10 “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. 11 If a man lies with his father’s wife, he has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them. 12 If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall surely be put to death; they have committed perversion; their blood is upon them. 13 If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them. 14 If a man takes a woman and her mother also, it is depravity; he and they shall be burned with fire, that there may be no depravity among you. 15 If a man lies with an animal, he shall surely be put to death, and you shall kill the animal. 16 If a woman approaches any animal and lies with it, you shall kill the woman and the animal; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.
17 “If a man takes his sister, a daughter of his father or a daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace, and they shall be cut off in the sight of the children of their people. He has uncovered his sister’s nakedness, and he shall bear his iniquity. 18 If a man lies with a woman during her menstrual period and uncovers her nakedness, he has made naked her fountain, and she has uncovered the fountain of her blood. Both of them shall be cut off from among their people. 19 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister or of your father’s sister, for that is to make naked one’s relative; they shall bear their iniquity. 20 If a man lies with his uncle’s wife, he has uncovered his uncle’s nakedness; they shall bear their sin; they shall die childless. 21 If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.” – Leviticus 20:10-21 ESV
Once again, chapter 20 mirrors chapter 18 but with one very important difference. While the earlier chapter contains a series of laws prohibiting immoral sexual activity, chapter 20 provides God’s judgments against any violations of those laws. To ensure that His covenant people took His commands seriously, God let them know exactly what the punishment would be if they chose to disobey.
That God had to go cover such a wide range of sexual sins reveals that He knew the scope of the dangers facing the Israelites when they arrived in Canaan. Yahweh was well aware of the decadent and depraved lifestyles of the land’s pagan inhabitants who regularly engaged in everything from adultery and incest to homosexuality and bestiality. He also knew that His chosen people would find the Canaanite’s no-holds-barred approach to sex to be highly alluring. Despite His clearly defined bans on such behavior, the Israelites would be tempted to adopt the more “progressive” ways of their more liberal neighbors. So, God let His people know the deadly consequences they would face if they chose to ignore His commands and emulate the ways of the lawless and licentious Canaanites.
In each case, the penalty was the same: Death. In the case of adultery, both the man and the woman were to face capital punishment. Their violation of God’s command concerning the sanctity of marriage was not to be taken lightly. From the very beginning, God had proclaimed, “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 ESV). Jesus picked up on this theme when He spoke to the Pharisees concerning divorce.
“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” – Matthew 19:4-6 ESV
The apostle Paul also quoted from Genesis when he called the believing husbands in the city of Ephesus to love their wives as Christ loved the church.
In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” – Ephesians 5:28-31 ESV
The author of Hebrews provides further insight into God’s views on the sanctity of the marriage relationship.
Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. – Hebrews 13:4 ESV
God intended marriage to be between one man and one woman. But a host of aberrations involving human sexual activity had sprung up ever since the fall. Mankind had come up with all kinds of ways to take what God had ordained and pervert it. And the apostle Paul describes how God allowed the deviant desires of fallen humanity to run their course, eventually resulting in the very behaviors outlined in this chapter.
God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved. – Romans 1:26-27 NLT
But the Israelites were to be different. The laws given to them by God were to regulate their behavior and keep them from going down the same sordid path as the rest of the world’s inhabitants. They were not allowed to be promiscuous or perverse in their pursuit of sexual pleasure. Adultery was off-limits. All forms of incest were strictly forbidden. Homosexuality, while acceptable among the pagans, was not to be practiced by God’s people. And something as grotesque and off-putting as bestiality was to be viewed as a direct violation of God’s order of creation.
The important thing to consider is that these activities were being practiced among the inhabitants of Canaan. They were not imaginary or hypothetical cases but real-life examples of human behavior apart from a relationship with God. With no guidance or oversight from the Creator God, mankind was left to operate according to its own selfish and self-satisfying passions.
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. – Romans 1:24 NLT
In Canaan, adultery was de rigueur, an everyday part of daily life. It was acceptable and even preferable. Any and all boundaries on sexual activity had long ago been abandoned. Mankind had made recreation the primary purpose behind sex instead of procreation. God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” had been replaced with the more self-serving mantra of “if it feels good do it.” Everyone was doing what was right in their own eyes and according to their own perverse passions.
This free-for-all behavior among the pagans is what led God to provide His people with detailed laws that prohibited their emulation and carried a high price for any violation. Disobedience was punishable by death because God knew that if this kind of behavior was left unchecked it would spread like cancer among His people. Sexual sin is insatiable and those who engage in it are never satisfied. What was once considered perverse becomes preferable and pleasurable. The taboos of yesterday eventually become tolerable and normal. Nothing is off-limits. No desire is left unmet and no rules are allowed to deny one’s passions.
As always, for God the issue was holiness. His people were to live set-apart lives that mirrored His will and demonstrated His divine plan for humanity. All of the perversions mentioned in this chapter are meant to illustrate just how far the human race had fallen from grace. These immoral behaviors provided ample evidence that humanity had followed the example of the first couple, who in their desire to be like God, succumbed to the enemy’s lies and ate of the forbidden fruit. Adam and Eve sought to know good and evil, the capacity to determine their own moral fate. They longed to be the autonomous arbiters of righteousness, making their own decisions about what was right and wrong. And that dangerous desire for self-determination had plagued mankind ever since. This is why God provided His people with a new and expanded set of laws designed to make it clear that He alone held the right to regulate human behavior.
And in the closing verses of this chapter, God will reiterate His call to holy living. The Israelites had been set apart by God so that they might demonstrate what righteousness looks like in everyday life. Adam and Eve had failed to live in obedience to God’s commands. Now, the nation of Israel had the opportunity to “be fruitful and multiply” in the land of Canaan, demonstrating to the world the benefits and blessings of living according to God’s will rather than the desires of the flesh. But for their lives to stand out, they would have to wholeheartedly buy into God’s commands or suffer the consequences.
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.