Holy to the Lord

26 “But a firstborn of animals, which as a firstborn belongs to the Lord, no man may dedicate; whether ox or sheep, it is the Lord’s. 27 And if it is an unclean animal, then he shall buy it back at the valuation, and add a fifth to it; or, if it is not redeemed, it shall be sold at the valuation.

28 “But no devoted thing that a man devotes to the Lord, of anything that he has, whether man or beast, or of his inherited field, shall be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing is most holy to the Lord. 29 No one devoted, who is to be devoted for destruction from mankind, shall be ransomed; he shall surely be put to death.

30 “Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the Lord’s; it is holy to the Lord. 31 If a man wishes to redeem some of his tithe, he shall add a fifth to it. 32 And every tithe of herds and flocks, every tenth animal of all that pass under the herdsman’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord. 33 One shall not differentiate between good or bad, neither shall he make a substitute for it; and if he does substitute for it, then both it and the substitute shall be holy; it shall not be redeemed.”

34 These are the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai. Leviticus 27:26-34 ESV

These last nine verses almost appear to be an afterthought, as if Moses ran out of steam or couldn’t come up with a better ending. But with this closing, he records God’s final words concerning the need for His chosen people to behave with integrity. Throughout the book, Yahweh’s expectations that the Israelites live up to His holy standards have been clearly and repeatedly articulated. He has left little to the imagination and nothing up to their discretion. When it came to maintaining their relationship with Him, there were rules to be followed that were intended to govern virtually every area of life.

But God knew that those whom He had set apart to be His royal priesthood and a holy nation would find it difficult to walk according to His ways. They would be constantly tempted to reject His authority and question His faithfulness. In fact, they had already proven their propensity for apostasy with their worship of the golden calf. And the omniscient Yahweh knew that His children remained just as obstinate and stiff-necked as ever, even after having received all His laws contained in the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant. While they had eagerly vowed to keep all His commands, God knew that they would fail to follow through on their commitment.

That seems to be why God ends this book with an entire chapter on the need for His people to maintain their vows and avoid any hint of hypocrisy. When it came to fulfilling their vows, cutting corners or seeking loopholes was strictly forbidden. They were not to seek workarounds or ingenious ways to game the system.

Yet, God knew that was exactly what His people would tend to do. The prophet Jeremiah provides Yahweh’s less-than-flattering assessment of the human heart.

“The human heart is the most deceitful of all things,
    and desperately wicked.
    Who really knows how bad it is?
But I, the Lord, search all hearts
    and examine secret motives.
I give all people their due rewards,
    according to what their actions deserve.” – Jeremiah 17:9-10 NLT

That’s why God ends this book with a series of warnings involving “secret motives.” The first involves attempting to give something to God that already belonged to Him. According to the Mosaic Law, all firstborn children and animals belonged to the Lord.

“Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.” – Exodus 13:2 ESV

Yet, a clever Israelite might come up with the idea to rededicate a firstborn as a fulfillment of a vow or pledge. This would have been a cost-saving measure, giving to God what was already rightfully His. But this would have been nothing less than an attempt to cheat God. In a sense, anyone who tried to do this was trying to scam God, using His own property to pay off their vow. It would be like stealing flowers from someone’s garden and then giving them back as a gift.

God also makes it clear that those firstborn animals were unredeemable. In other words, they could not be purchased back. They were the permanent possession of the Almighty and considered wholly consecrated to Him. But unclean animals could be redeemed as the valuation price and the 20 percent tax were paid in full.

The next area of emphasis involved those things that had been devoted to God. The Hebrew word (ḥērem) refers to a “devoted thing, proscribed thing, banned thing, cursed thing.”

“The basic idea of the Hebrew word is that the person or thing was devoted to God; it could either be sanctified for use in his service or utterly destroyed. But it was banned from possession or use by humans.…So if anything had been devoted to the Lord b some such means, it could not then be vowed as a gift to him. The devoted thing could not be sold by a priest and could not be redeemed by the owner.” – Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus

God makes it perfectly clear.

“However, anything specially set apart for the Lord—whether a person, an animal, or family property—must never be sold or bought back. Anything devoted in this way has been set apart as holy, and it belongs to the Lord.” – Leviticus 27:28 NLT

Once something was devoted to God, there was no going back. You could not renege on the commitment. This stipulation involved not only people and animals dedicated to God, but also individuals and entire communities that had been devoted to destruction.

“The word ‘devoted’ in the text is the same word used for ‘putting something or someone under the ban.’ This was true of cities, person, and things committed to total destruction because they were an offense to the Lord.” – Kenneth A. Matthews, Exodus: Holy God, Holy People

Once again, God is setting up boundaries that were intended to keep the Israelites from making unwise and unholy decisions. If something or someone belonged to God, whether as a gift or as that which had been devoted to destruction, there was no going back. According to the law, “If an ox gores a man or woman to death, the ox must be stoned, and its flesh may not be eaten” (Exodus 21:28 NLT). The owner was not allowed to dedicate that condemned ox as a gift to God and the animal was unredeemable. In essence, it belonged to God, and because God had ordered its destruction, that was the only option available.

The final section involves the giving of a tithe. God had ordered His people to give a tenth of all their produce and flocks as an offering to Him. This was used to care for the needs of the Levites, who received no inheritance of land in Canaan.

“You must set aside a tithe of your crops—one-tenth of all the crops you harvest each year. Bring this tithe to the designated place of worship—the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored—and eat it there in his presence. This applies to your tithes of grain, new wine, olive oil, and the firstborn males of your flocks and herds. Doing this will teach you always to fear the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 14:22-23 NLT

But God knew that the Israelites would find this command to be onerous and difficult to keep. So, He reminds them that this tithe belonged to Him and was to be treated as holy.

“Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the Lord‘s; it is holy to the Lord. – Leviticus 27:30 ESV

They were forbidden from holding it back. To do so would have been like robbing God. And centuries later, the prophet Malachi recorded Yahweh’s stinging indictment of His people.

“I am the Lord, and I do not change. That is why you descendants of Jacob are not already destroyed. Ever since the days of your ancestors, you have scorned my decrees and failed to obey them. Now return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.

“But you ask, ‘How can we return when we have never gone away?’

“Should people cheat God? Yet you have cheated me!

“But you ask, ‘What do you mean? When did we ever cheat you?’

“You have cheated me of the tithes and offerings due to me. You are under a curse, for your whole nation has been cheating me.” – Malachi 3:6-9 NLT

Knowing their predisposition, God provided His people with a concession. While all animals that had been dedicated to God were unredeemable, a portion of the produce that had been tithed could be redeemed. God allowed His people to redeem back a portion of the grain they had dedicated to Him so that they might feed their flocks or their families. He was gracious and kind in this respect, but all animals that had been dedicated to Him remained His and were to be considered holy.

The book of Leviticus ends with the simple statement: “These are the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai” (Leviticus 27:34 ESV). As they stood at the base of Mount Sinai, the people were in possession of the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant. They had the Tabernacle standing in their midst, which assured them of God’s constant presence among them. They had been given the sacrificial system as a means of receiving forgiveness and atonement for their sins. And God had renewed His covenant promise to lead them to the land of Canaan where they would receive their inheritance. They were Yahweh’s chosen people and they could expect to receive great blessings from Him, but those blessings would be directly tied to their obedience to His commands. He would continue to lead them, provide for them, and reside among them as long as they remained faithful to Him. The road to Canaan lay before them and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was committed to going with them. But He expected His people to trust and obey – in all things. They were considered holy to the Lord but their lives needed to reflect that reality. Holiness is not a label; it is a way of life. 

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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