19 “You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness. 20 And you shall not lie sexually with your neighbor’s wife and so make yourself unclean with her. 21 You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. 22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. 23 And you shall not lie with any animal and so make yourself unclean with it, neither shall any woman give herself to an animal to lie with it: it is perversion.
24 “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25 and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. 26 But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you 27 (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), 28 lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. 29 For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people. 30 So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs that were practiced before you, and never to make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 18:19-30 ESV
God not only commissioned Moses to lead the people of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt, but to take them all the way to Canaan, the land He had promised to give as an inheritance to the descendants of Abraham. As the Israelites stood at the base of Mount Sinai, they were roughly halfway to their final destination, but they were far from ready to conquer the land that God had destined to be their home. During their four-century-long absence from Canaan, the Israelites had taken on many of the moral and social customs of their Egyptian captors. They had adopted the Egyptian gods as their own. They also ended up lowering their moral standards by assimilating many of the depraved sexual vices of the Egyptians into their daily lives.
While they may have left Egypt behind them, they were still carrying a lot of these depraved and destructive practices with them as they journeyed to Canaan. And they would soon discover that the land God had given them as their inheritance was filled with sinful people who made the Egyptians look like rank amateurs. And how did these nations develop their disposition for sin? According to the apostle Paul, their sinful behavior was a direct result of their rejection of God. In his letter to the believers in Rome, Paul describes the downward moral spiral that took place after the fall.
But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.
Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. 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. 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 1:18-27 ESV
Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul points out the moral decline of humanity after sin entered the world. At one point, all mankind had an awareness of God, as His divine attributes were evident all around them in the created world. But in time, these very same people began to worship the creation instead of the Creator. In an effort to make sense of their place and purpose in the world, human beings began to speculate and experiment with all kinds of things that might provide them with a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. But in their unwillingness to honor God, they ended up rejecting or replacing Him with gods of their own making. As Paul puts it, “they traded the truth about God for a lie,” and God allowed them to do so. He abandoned them to their shameful desires.
The book of Genesis reveals that the moral decline of humanity was quick and quite comprehensive. Mankind’s fall from the pinnacle of God’s creative order was dramatic and surprisingly sweeping in its impact. According to the book of Genesis, the sinful state of the world became so perverse and pervasive that God was forced to take action.
The LORD observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. – Genesis 6:5 NLT
And the LORD said, “I will wipe this human race I have created from the face of the earth. Yes, and I will destroy every living thing—all the people, the large animals, the small animals that scurry along the ground, and even the birds of the sky. I am sorry I ever made them.” – Genesis 6:7 NLT
This determination by God led to the worldwide flood that destroyed all humanity, except for Noah and his family. When the floodwaters subsided, God began again with Noah and his three sons: Ham, Shem, and Japheth. Along with their wives, these men were commissioned by God to repopulate the world, and they did as God told them to do. Genesis 10 reveals the nations that came from the three sons of Noah, and ends with the following statement: “These are the clans that descended from Noah’s sons, arranged by nation according to their lines of descent. All the nations of the earth descended from these clans after the great flood” (Genesis 10:32 NLT).
But despite God’s gracious gift of a second chance, mankind simply repeated the pattern all over again. They turned their backs on God, replacing Him with lifeless idols made by human hands, and making the pursuit of pleasure their highest priority. Paul describes such people in stark and degrading terms.
They are headed for destruction. Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth. – Philippians 3:19 NLT
At one point, Paul warned his young protege, Timothy, about the sorry state of the world in “the last days.” He described the people of their day as “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:4 NLT). And this was not just his opinion regarding the unsaved and unchurched. Paul was warning Timothy that, as the end draws hear, even the people of God would be guilty of these things, “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5 NLT).
And Leviticus 18 reveals that God knew the Israelites would be just as susceptible to adopting and adapting the ways of the world. That is why He spends so much time warning them to avoid the sexual sins of their past and future neighbors.
These taboos were far from arbitrary or puritanical; they were purposeful and practical. God knew exactly what He was doing and why He was doing it. He had chosen the people of Israel to be His royal priesthood and a holy nation. These strict social and sexual standards were designed to illustrate what true human flourishing should look like. Sexuality had been God’s gift to mankind. It was through the union of one woman and one man that God had planned to fill the world with more of His image bearers. But with the entrance of sin into the world, humanity’s ability to mirror the image of God became distorted. Seeking to satisfy their own desires, human beings began to push the boundaries of God’s divine decrees and, in doing so, revealed their true intention to “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5 ESV). In other words, they wanted to be the determiners of their own fates. They wanted to decide what was right and what was wrong. They wanted the freedom to determine what was true and what was false. And their relentless pursuit of autonomy had led to idolatry and every imaginable form of moral depravity. God’s moral order had been turned on its head, with men having sexual relations with men and women with women. Even the practice of bestiality had become commonplace and completely acceptable among the nations of Canaan.
But God had a different standard for His people. Their lives were to reflect their status as His chosen people. So, when they arrived at the land of Canaan, the Israelites were to avoid the mistakes of the land’s current occupants. The whole reason God was preparing to replace the Canaanites with the Israelites was that they had defiled the land. In the 400 years since Jacob had left Canaan, the various nations who remained behind had defiled themselves and the land.
“Because the entire land has become defiled, I am punishing the people who live there. I will cause the land to vomit them out.” – Leviticus 18:25 NLT
“All these detestable activities are practiced by the people of the land where I am taking you, and this is how the land has become defiled.” – Leviticus 18:27 NLT
Everything God declared to be off-limits to the Israelites was considered acceptable behavior to the Canaanites. What was considered common and kosher to the Canaanites was to be recognized as unholy and unacceptable to the people of God. The status quo was never to be the determiner of godly behavior. The ways of the world, no matter how prevalent and permissible, were never to dictate the behavior of God’s people. They were to be holy, just as He was holy. And while His ways may not always make sense or appeal to our fallen natures, they are always right and just. As God told the prophet, Isaiah:
“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
“And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so my ways are higher than your ways
and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT
That’s why God told the Israelites, “So obey my instructions, and do not defile yourselves by committing any of these detestable practices that were committed by the people who lived in the land before you. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:30 ESV). None of this was up for debate or discussion. God wasn’t asking for their opinion or permission. His ways were better. His methods were holy, just, and right. They were His chosen people, but to enjoy all that He had prepared for them, they would need to live in keeping with His perfect will.
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.