LEVITICUS 26-27: GOD LOVES FOREVER
Leviticus 26 reinforces human capacity to participate in the outcome of God blessing them. In other words, they were not left to the whims of gods or of a God who arbitrarily blessed or cursed but could be certain that if they kept their end of the covenant, they would prosper and be blessed.
Chapter 26 may have been the original ending. Some who study ancient texts believe chapter 27 was added later. One thing is certain: Leviticus 26 is similar to endings in the ancient Near Eastern treaties. And though Leviticus is no ordinary treaty, it is a life-or-death covenant with God. Blessings would flow from God if they kept the covenant, but curses and devastation would come on Israel if they broke covenant with Yahweh (see also Deuteronomy 28-30; Exodus 23:25-33; Joshua 24:20-21).
Throughout Leviticus the goal has been to explain to Israel what life in the presence of a holy God of the universe would be like. God chose to dwell with them in the tabernacle, to communicate through Moses and Aaron, to be pleased with aromas of their burnt offerings and incense, to pour out forgiveness just as they poured out atoning blood of goats and bulls. All this took place as a covenant with the one who redeemed Israel from slavery and committed to be their God. And they would be his people.
Compare the covenant with parenting. Experts tell us that giving children choices and consequences of those choices is good parenting. Though the parallel quickly breaks down, of course, the Lord models this good parenting pattern of choices or consequences. God’s goal is keeping the covenant (26:45). No matter what happens to the Israelites, no matter how far into idolatry and evil they go, God will not break his part of the bargain.
God therefore is a covenant maker and keeper, and these last chapters of Leviticus serve to remind his people of the covenant that God made with them, his dramatic redemption of an entire nation from slavery, and his relentless pursuit of his people either to bless them and bring them rain when they take the proper place as his slaves turned obedient servants, or to bring punishment for their sins “seven times over” when they reject him.
Several word patterns appear in this chapter and the words are vivid and motivational to Israel and for us. Here we see a shorter form of the commands and concerns of God such as forbidding idolatry and observing Sabbaths and honoring the presence of God in the tabernacle, and the focus is on the consequences.
First, the Lord lays out the consequences of right and holy living as described in the previous chapters of Leviticus; the if-then statement comes in Leviticus 26:3-4: “If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, [then] I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit.”
The Lord continues to pour out promises of blessing in several areas: plentiful rain and crops (26:4-5,10), peace and security (26:6-8), favor of God (26:9), presence of God (26:11), walking among them and being their God (26:12), liberation from slavery (26:13), ability of Israel to walk with heads held high (26:13).
But blessing comes only with obedience. Is His love conditional? He does love and pursue and discipline unconditionally. He has established a covenant with Israel that has not and will not fail. When Israel goes wrong, he pursues with chastening, punishment in order to bring them back.
We often speak of unconditional love. God’s love is indeed unconditional, but another way to say it is that God’s love is “steadfast” and His covenant has conditions for Israel to keep in order for Israel to receive the blessings of God.
By breaking the covenant, Israel incurs the wrath of the holy God. The list of curses in the event of disobedience or breaking the covenant, is much longer than the blessing section. This, again, mirrors the pattern of treaties in the ancient Near East, which had long sections of punishments and shorter sections on blessing. Since the curses, or consequences, are much more extensive than the blessings, a list of them would be tedious and in the process we might miss the whole point: keeping the covenant through holy living.
The section on punishment for disobedience or spurning the covenant (26:14-39) is a six-fold warning against breaking the covenant. A seventh statement (26:40-46) is very important as God’s reversal of the curse and return of blessing if Israel confesses their sins.
Each warning is unique but similar enough to raise the question about whether this section may have been used in the ritual worship of Israel as a chant or recurrent oral warning to Israel against disobedience. A few other examples of repeating phrases are “if you do not listen to me,” “I will punish you seven times over,” and “if in spite of these things you do not accept my correction but continue to be hostile toward me.”
The objective of noticing such repeating phrases is the same objective we have returned to throughout Leviticus: to learn what concerns God and how he wants us to live the holy life he requires in his presence. God wants us to listen to him (26:14, 18, 21, 27), he wants to break down stubborn pride and hostility in his people (26:19, 21, 23). He doesn’t expect perfection, because he gives opportunity for confession (26:40) and paying for sin (26:41).
The language of God’s chastening Israel for breaking covenant is vivid. The sky like iron and unyielding bronze soil will be God’s atmosphere for breaking stubborn pride. If that doesn’t affect his people, he will continue with more punishments—reminiscent of the progressively worse plaques in Egypt. Wild animals will attack Israel and rob their children, “multiply your afflictions seven times over, as your sins deserve” (26:21). If Israel continues to spurn correction and continues to be hostile, God himself will show them what hostility really is: enemies will attack, they will withdraw into their cities for security but will be afflicted with sickness and given into enemy hands as starving, desperate people (26:23-26).
Then if in spite of this, Israel still did not repent, God’s anger (26:28) would burn toward an unrepentant people and strike them with such a severe famine that Israel would cannibalize their own children (26:29). Meanwhile the high places would be destroyed and dead bodies would be piled on top of the heap of idols. Many would be scattered, exiled, and the land of Canaan would be laid waste so much that the nations would marvel at it. If any remained, they would cower so much that a windblown leaf would terrify them and send them screaming and running for their lives, even though no one is pursuing them. Any remaining people would waste away in the land of their enemies because of their sins and the sins of their fathers (26:36-39).
The section, however, does end with a note of hope. Confessing Israel’s sins and the sins of the fathers will lead to God remembering his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (26:40-41). And God will not only remember the people but the land itself (26:42). In fact, there is a vital connection between the Israelite people and their land. Without them the land lay fallow and desolate (26:43), but despite this and the sins of the people, the Lord chooses to not completely destroy them as a sign of his covenant keeping. The statement, “I am the Lord their God” emphasizes the permanence of the covenant: God is the God who makes and keeps covenants.
The chapter ends with the reminder of God’s redemption of Israel from slavery that was done in the sight of all the nations. The conclusion reminds the people that these laws were established at Mount Sinai as a way to maintain a holy relationship between God and Israel.
My life got better when I learned the mantra, “Under promise and over deliver!” The converse cautionary version was how I’d often lived: “Over promise and under deliver.”
This last chapter of Leviticus, of course, is more serious than a business mantra. Lives and God’s honor is at stake.
Though it seems Leviticus 27 may have been added later to the book, it is a good addendum to the keeping of the sacred space for God that focuses on the ongoing dedication of people, property, and animals to God through vows.
The major focus on vows in this text and others (see also Deuteronomy 23:21–23; Ecclesiastes 5:2–7; Proverbs 20:25) is not the requirement to make extra vows but the desire of God that if people do in their zeal make vows to the Lord, that they keep them.
Much is made in this chapter of the surcharge of twenty percent to be paid when someone dedicates a person in service of the priests and tabernacle, an animal, or property and then wants to get that person, animal, house, or piece of land back. So the major emphases are keeping vows and paying an additional fifth of the value if one wants to go back on that commitment. But there is also a concern for the priests to have limitations. In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, priests abused the privileges of land and sacrifices for their own gain. This was unacceptable to God.
The first section (27:1-8) concerns dedication of individuals to the service of God, the tabernacle, or the priests. A good example of a vow of a person is Samuel. The story is moving and worth another reading and will go far in understanding Leviticus 27:1-8.
Hannah was harassed by her co-wife Peninnah because Peninnah had children and Hannah didn’t. Though their husband, Elkanah, tried to comfort her, she rose in the presence of Eli by the doorpost of the Tabernacle and cried out “in bitterness of soul” (I Samuel 1:10), wept much and prayed to God. In her distress and zeal she made this vow: “O Lord Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head” (I Samuel 1:11). Later in the story (I Samuel 1:19), the text says “the Lord remembered her” and Elkanah and Hannah conceived, she named him Samuel, which sounds like “heard of God.” Then she dedicated Samuel to the service of Eli and the priests (I Samuel 1-3).
The next section (27:9-13) is singularly concerned with animals used for vows being ritually pure, an earlier issue in Leviticus related to sacrifices. No deception would be tolerated from a person attempting to dedicate an animal that is bad and wouldn’t have been much use to the person in the first place. Perhaps a person could reason, this animal is second-rate, so I can both cull it from my herds and make a vow at the same time. An animal so dedicated could be redeemed if a person needed the animal back, but twenty percent was added to the value to get it back.
Houses and land (27:14-25) were also used for vows to the Lord, and as with animals, the priest judges its value. If the man who dedicated it wants it back, he would pay an additional twenty percent to the priest. This all strikes us in the twenty-first century as implausible, that a person could give up his house then ask for it back and be penalized twenty percent of its value, but the emphasis here is on keeping vows. If one makes a vow, the expectation is to keep it, thus the stiff penalty for one who goes back on a vow or dedication of service, animals, house, or land. In the case of land, redemption of property was subject to the cycle of Jubilee and values were set or pro-rated according to the number of years until Jubilee (27:16-25).
Here is an example of a dedication of a field, and it may adjust our understanding of what was happening in the early church to know that dedication of land was not unique to the new Christian zeal. Certainly those dedicating land were zealous for the new way of following Jesus the Christ, but they were acting in very Israelite ways in response: “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:36,37).
Juxtaposed with that account of Barnabas is the chilling account of Ananias and Sapphira being struck down for their deception of trying to pass off a capital gain for themselves as a total dedication to the Lord (Acts 5:1-11).
The last section again presses the point that everything belongs to the Lord. This should not be missed in the intricate and sometimes difficult to understand details in this text, such as the phase, “No person devoted to destruction may be ransomed; he must be put to death.” Phrases such as this are both hard to decipher and given a few options, none are very satisfying. This may refer to the practice of setting a person or property aside for divine use.
The logic of Leviticus 27 goes something like this, according to Jacob Milgram: proscriptions are “most sacred” and irredeemable. Offerable animals, be they firstborn, tithes, or consecrations, are also irredeemable, and non-offerable consecrations, such as impure animals, land, houses, and crops (except when they are proscriptions), are redeemable.
Indeed, God wants us to listen to him (26:14, 18, 21, 27), he wants to break down stubborn pride and hostility in his people (26:19, 21, 23). He doesn’t expect perfection, because he gives opportunity for confession (26:40) and paying for sin (26:41).
Lord, no matter what happens to the Israelites, no matter what happens to us, regardless how far into idolatry and evil Israel goes, how far in idolatry and evil of our own, still you have kept your end of the bargain. You are a covenant maker and keeper, dramatically redeeming an entire nation from slavery, and still today you relentless pursue us either to bless us or to bring punishment for our sins “seven times over” when we reject you.
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey: A New Generation Church of Christ. 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.