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Vayikra/Leviticus 18:3 Like the deeds of the land of Egypt ... you shall not do; and like the deeds of the land of Canaan ... you shall not do
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Commentators ancient and modern see our text as providing the context for the rules that follow, both in Vayikra chapter 18 and chapter 20, regulating forbidden relationships and prohibited sexual activity. Walter Kaiser says that "the scope of the whole chapter is set out in verse 3."1 The early rabbis report that "the Egyptians and Canaanites were steeped in corrupt and destructive practices and these were the practices that must be avoided, including homosexuality and bestiality" (Sifra 131-132), while Rashi comments that "[this] tells us that the practices and lands of the Egyptians and the Canaanites were the most degenerate of all nations." The danger is, according to the Abravanel, that "ordinarily a person can be expected to follow the practices of the land where he is born or (if he has moved) the land where he now lives." Rabbi Hirsch sets the context very clearly in the polytheistic cultures of the times: "To obtain grace from the gods, or at least to ensure their non-interference in projects and undertakings, becomes a consideration and purpose in the name of which conventions are regulated, and customs showing honour to the gods and supposedly gaining their favour become firmly embedded in the private and public life of the nations."
Writing as a modern commentator, with the advantage of many years of research, archaeology and documentary evidence, Baruch Levine is puzzled by our text. Given that chapter 18 is "a code dealing primarily with incest," he complains that "there is no explicit evidence that incest was widespread in Canaan or Egypt. At certain periods in the history of Egypt, it was the custom among the royal class to encourage brother-sister marriages. This was not likely to be imitated by the common people of another culture. Some of the tangential prohibitions of chapter 18, however, such as homosexuality and bestiality, were apparently quite common in Canaanite culture." Older commentators found the evidence in the biblical text.Ibn Ezra explains that the practices of Egypt is "a reference to the worship of the goat demons (see 17:7)" and that the practices of the land of Canaan "refers to 'those abhorrent things done by the people who were in the land before you' as 18:27 confirms." Quoting from later in the Tanakh, the Ramban cites "there were also male prostitutes in the land. Judah imitated all the abhorrent practices of the nations that the L-RD had dispossessed before the Israelites" (1 Kings 14:24, NJPS) to show that this problem existed before Israel got there and "You played the whore with your neighbors, the lustful Egyptians" (Ezekiel 16:26, NJPS) to claim that Egypt has a very lax moral culture in which Israel had partaken. "Accordingly," Hirsch concludes, "it is to the social and moral degeneration as it appeared in Egypt and Canaan that the introduction to the laws regulating sexual life and the building of families refers."
Lest we should think that these were all primitive peoples,Nechama Leibowitz points out that "Israel had left a highly sophisticated Egypt in order to reach a country that was anything but primitive. The Children of Israel were naturally drawn to the Egyptian ethos to which they were exposed for 210 years. An even greater danger loomed ahead in Canaan where - after forty years in the desert - they would find 'great and good cities,' 'houses full of all good things,' 'hewn out wells,' 'vineyards and olive trees' (see D'varim 6:10-11) and where, together with the material boons they might accept the local culture which the Torah calls 'defilements,' 'abominations' and 'abominable customs' (Vayikra 18:26-30). Material progress", she asserts, "does not necessarily spell moral advancement." We see material benefits all around us today, but we also see that - just when the pace of material progress is increasing - our world has taken a number of significant moral steps backwards in the last fifty years.
Israel's own history up until this point has hardly been free of questionable relationships. Abraham married his half-sister, Yitz'khak his cousin and Ya'akov two sisters who were also cousins. The people of Moab, from whom Ruth - David's grandmother - was to come, were the product of daughter-father incest, while Moshe's parents were nephew and aunt! Countering the idea that the patriarchs committed abominations by their choice of partners, Calum Carmichael sees the mention of Egypt and Canaan as a way of blaming the cultures in which they lived rather than the patriarchs themselves: "For the lawgiver, then, it was the host cultures in which the ancestors lived, not the ancestors themselves, that his people must be warned about."2
Samuel Balentine takes us in a slightly different direction when he points out that "obedience requires saying 'yes' to G-d and 'no' to other powers that vie for Israel's allegiance. The challenge is identified with Egypt and Canaan. The former is the power that enslaved Israel in the past, the latter the power that will tempt Israel in the future. Both are reputed to have built their powerful hegemonies in conjunction with sexual practices that chapters 18 and 20 prohibit."3 Tamar Kamionkowski takes this a step further, citing Reconstructionist rabbi Alex Weissman as suggesting that "Chapter 18 is more about Israelite distinctiveness than sexual morality ... If so, then [chapter] 18 can be read as promoting anti-assimilationist sexual practices, encouraging us to identify the problematic norms of the dominant, erotic culture and reject them."4 While not necessary endorsing everything that Weissman says, we can nevertheless see a striking similarity to our current day, when we too are surrounded by a dominant, erotic culture that seeks to impose its ideas about sexual morality on everyone else. If we are not to be assimilated, then we too must recognise and reject these practices as abhorrent and an abomination before the L-rd.
Back, however, to our text. Where is Israel? In the wilderness. Israel has left Egypt behind, way behind. Not just physically behind, on the other side of the Reed Sea, but behind in the sense that they had heard and responded to the call of G-d. They had come out of not only Egyptian slavery, but out of Egypt's pagan polytheistic culture, to follow and to worship the G-d of Israel. But they have not yet arrived in the land of Canaan yet. Reading forward, they are still at Mt. Sinai on their way to the Promised Land in a few months' time; reading in the context of the whole Torah, they are still at least 38 years away from Canaan. They have left one steady state - Egyptian slaves; they have withdrawn into the desert - a temporary time of miraculous provision and testing; they will emerge into another steady state - a sovereign nation and possessors of the Land. Right now they are betwixt and between, in what Victor Turner calls a liminal space - a time of formation and change. Like the young braves who leave the tribe as boys, go through a time of testing, moulding and transformation, then return to the tribe as warriors, Israel is in that time of change and metamorphosis. They must not go back to the ways of Egypt and they cannot enter into the ways of Canaan, for they have become something else: they are now G-d's holy people, set apart to worship and serve Him, unique and distinct from all the nations of the world.
Are we not also in that in-between space, having left the kingdom of darkness, set free from the power of Satan, yet still contained in this physical body that is mortal and - unless the L-rd should return first (may it be soon and in our days!) - subject to physical death as we make our final transition when "we will be like Him" (1 John 3:2, CJB). On that day we too will have our spiritual bodies - "When sown, it is an ordinary human body; when raised, it will be a body controlled by the Spirit" (1 Corinthians 15:44, CJB) - and will shine as He shines. In the meantime, we who know Yeshua have "already crossed over from death to life" (John 5:24, CJB), while in this life "we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we continue waiting eagerly to be made sons - that is, to have our whole bodies redeemed and set free" (Romans 8:23, CJB). We have been "sealed by Him with the promised Ruach HaKodesh, who guarantees our inheritance until we come into possession of it" (Ephesians 1:13-14, CJB).
Like Israel, though, we too must learn to recognise the threats that surround us. The first - a reminder of Egypt, our place of sin and bondage - is our old habits and thoughts. That may be our drinking habits, our financial management, our flirting or immoral lifestyle. These things are now officially dead to us, yet they still have the power to ensnare us if we go back and visit them. It may be that a change of company, friends and relationships will be necessary to shake off these things, but as Rav Sha'ul said, "Do not let yourselves be conformed to the standards of the 'olam hazeh. Instead, keep letting yourselves be transformed by the renewing of your minds; so that you will know what G-d wants and will agree that what He wants is good, satisfying and able to succeed" (Romans 12:2, CJB). The second threat is the thoughts of who we now are: "God raised us up with the Messiah Yeshua and seated us with Him in heaven" (Ephesians 2:6, CJB). This can make us a number of things: so detached from this world and life that we are incapable of being of any use to anyone including ourselves; proud and arrogant so that we think we have a right to use and abuse anyone to suit ourselves; and, perhaps worse, we think that we are immune from sin and temptation and can go anywhere and do anything on a value-free basis, with no risk of falling. After all, we are holy now, we have been justified: "neither powers above nor powers below, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God which comes to us through the Messiah Yeshua, our Lord" (Romans 8:39, CJB).
We must constantly be aware that although we have been justified, made alive in Yeshua and set apart from this world, we are still in a place of trial and testing, of change and transition - the desert of this mortal life - being conformed to the image of our Messiah "so that He might be the firstborn among many brothers" (Romans 8:29, CJB). In that trial, Yeshua has promised: "Remember! I will be with you always, yes, even until the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20, CJB). He encourages us to endure, saying, "I have said these things to you so that, united with Me, you may have shalom. In the world, you have tsuris. But be brave! I have conquered the world!" (John 16:33, CJB).
1. - Walter C. Kaiser, "Leviticus" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 612.
2. - Calum M. Carmichael, Law, Legend and Incest in the Bible, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), page 41.
3. - Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), page 152.
4. - S. Tamar Kamionkowski, Leviticus, Wisdom Commentaries, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018), 180.
Further Study: Jeremiah 10:2-5; Ephesians 5:7-11
Application: This is make or break! Are you still hankering after the Egypt you have left or unaware of the dangers in Canaan to come? How can you work in your liminal time to break the links of the past and be ready for the challenges of tomorrow? Ask Yeshua to show you where your danger points are and how He wants to fix them.
Comment - 01:51 26Apr20 Bonnie: So that united with Me you may have Shalom. How can two walk together unless they be agreed? (Amos 3:3) They that are Yeshua's are one spirit with Him. Will the wild ox consent to being tamed? (Job 39:9) Then Yeshua said, come to Me all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me ... (Matthew 11:28-29) One with Him. The two of us under one yoke. In agreement. With Shalom. This is where I long to be.
Comment - 13:28 26Apr20 Edward Bishop Sr: I can bear witness to the grip that the dominant culture has on the life of a person. As a child I was not permitted to do certain activities. I was taught to dress modestly. On Sunday afternoons we ate meals together and discussed the lessons from our class and the discourse presented by the sermon.
As we grew older, my older brother was drawn away from the teaching of our youth and moved quickly into the immoral life style of homosexuality. While my own choices moved my into immorality of a different avenue, I never quite yielded to full extent possible. I remained at the outer limits where I could slip unseen by others into the dark shadows of the vile life style I was playing around with.
Of course, by the time I decided to move completely into the darkness, I had lost control and plunged into the filthy waters of immorality by divorce - divorcing my first wife, the woman who bore my five children.
Hashem would not leave me alone and His Spirit chased me for several years through the darkness that engulfed my soul.
Until a Sunday morning in a small church, in central New Jersey, God's Holy Spirit broke the grip the enemy had on my soul and I was able to finally yield to the will of God.
The struggle continues with the lies of the enemy trying to creep back in. But, I will not go back to that life again.
To paraphrase an old hymn of the church, I have come home by the way of the cross.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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