LEVITICUS 20: WOULD YOU STONE AN ADULTERER?
The heart becomes the locus of the next two commands in Leviticus 19:17-18. The second oldest recorded sin is one of the most universal and continuously difficult to conquer and reconcile: the sin of bearing a grudge, hating, or seeking revenge. By the time of the Leviticus commands, the sin of Cain murdering his brother because of hatred, had not been eradicated. Indeed, even after Jesus walked the earth and came to save the whole world from sin, we still have the gift of choice, and many still choose to hate.
While we may view Jesus’ teaching one of the heart and the Old Testament one of stone, this is not necessarily the case. God has always desired the hearts of his created humanity to be holy and pure, not full of hatred for fellow humans but filled with love.
Leviticus 19:17 says, “You must not hate your brother in your heart.”
It is very important to notice here that the tag line, “I am the Lord” comes with many of these prohibitions. We may ask, Why did God make so many specific laws? Why the repetition? But we are asking the wrong questions. The question ought to be, What can we learn about the nature of God from these laws, from the examples given? There’s something of the character and nature of God that we can glean from seeing his heart on matters relating to treatment of neighbors, the poor, sexual relations, and his desire for worship to be for him and not for Molech or other pagan gods.
Here consequences of unholy sexual relations and idol worship are laid down. Any person who gives his child to Molech—for perverse reasons ranging from prostitution to human sacrifice—“must be put to death.” The people of the community are to exercise the punishment by stoning (20:2). The repeated phrase in such cases—“I will set my face against that man and I will cut him off from his people”—is God’s separation of the unholy from himself and the community.
Even the ones who stand idly by and allow a member of the community to give children to Molech without repercussion, stand in judgment (20:4). The phrase, “close their eyes” illustrates how they might willfully neglect to punish the wicked. Even the use of mediums or spiritists is considered “prostituting themselves” (20:6).
Remember a key verse in this holiness code section comes here in chapter 20: “Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the Lord you God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the Lord, who makes you holy” (20:7).
More of those actions opposite of this consecration, those things that deserve death in the eyes of God, follow. For instance, to him who curses his own father and mother, “his blood will be on his own head” (20:9). Both man and woman who commit adultery together are to “be put to death” (20:10). Throughout the next eleven verses, punishments are spelled out for sexual sins that mirror those listed in Leviticus 18.
This is one of the texts where the new show, "Living Biblically" gets its humor. The character, at least in the book the show seems based in, carries a little pouch of pebbles and "stones" people who admit to being adulterers. He is "living biblically," trying to keep the law. Is following the law most important, learning the loving and faithful and holy intent of God most important? I wonder what the rabbis say about these texts today . . .
We know one rabbi who re-imagined this text in John 8. Read John 8 and re-imagine it for yourself. I remember telling the story in John 8 about the "couple caught in adultery" (I am not going to call it what some have referred to it as, because it takes two to be caught in adultery!) to some friends who had never heard it before. Each line of the story is gripping, moving, and the punch line(s) at the end of the story are incredibly life changing for the woman Jesus is talking to.
LORD, we don't know what to do with all the commands like the one in Leviticus 20:10 that both the man and woman who commit adultery are to be put to death. This is difficult to hear and understand. But here's what I'm learning, and I would ask that you keep confirming that it is true and right and loving, that any interpretation of these things that leads to violence is not a loving interpretation of your intent. Show us how to live holy lives, faithful lives, and how to hold one another to account without doing more violence than the pain of adultery has already caused. Show us how to think like the Rabbi Jesus when we come to these texts and when we meet people "caught in adultery."
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey: A New Generation Church of Christ in Tulsa. Greg's wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.