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Vayikra/Leviticus 20:6 And the soul who turns to ghosts and to mediums to fornicate after them, I will set My face against that soul and I will cut him off from among his people.
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Set towards the end of a block of verses that explicitly names and prohibits the worship of the pagan god Moloch - an ancient Canaanite god whose cult demanded child-sacrifice - our text includes those who are involved with the worship of or contact with the dead among those who are liable to the death penalty and being cut off from among the people.Ibn Ezra would have HaShem say that "the same applies to one who turns away from Me to follow ghosts and familiar spirits as to one who gives his offspring to Molech." The text contains both strong language and unusual words, so let's start by seeing what we can learn from them.
Both halves of the verse use the root , to turn either the neck or head, or to follow. The root is most often seen in its derivative noun (plural ), face or countenance. In the first half of our text, the verb - the Qal 3fs prefix form - matches the fs noun , soul or person. In the second half of the verse, HaShem will turn (My faces) His face against the person who has turned away from Him.
Ghosts and mediums - rendered as "ghosts and familiar spirits", both supernatural, in the NJPS, "mediums and necromancers", both people, in the ESV - show some uncertainty as to whether they are people, spirits or a combination of both. , a masculine plural noun with a feminine plural form, comes from the noun which seems to be used interchangeably as a ghost or spirit, and a medium who consults a ghost. - changed byTargum Onkelos to , from the root to remember, so "those who remember" - comes from the root to know, suggesting "those who know". In both cases, this implies secret, forbidden or false knowledge by those who pretend to know or remember things from beyond death.
At the beginning of the second quarter verse the verb - - here as , the Qal infinitive - provides a shock. David Clines offers three meanings: to be or act as a prostitute, to fornicate, to whore after.1 All three speak of offering, providing or seeking illicit sexual activity: sex before or outside the covenant relationship of marriage. This verb is matched in the last quarter of the verse by to cut - in our text, , the Hif'il 1cs affix form with a vav reversive to give the future tense, so "I will cut off" - a poignant word choice since this is the verb used for making, literally 'cutting', a covenant. Just as illicit sexual activity - fornication or adultery - was the grounds for divorce, the cutting off of a marriage covenant, so illicit spiritual activity will be the grounds for the cutting off of the covenant between HaShem and those of His people who turn away from Him in this way.
What is going in this verse and why is it placed with the verses about Moloch? RabbiHirsch explains that "just as the follower of Moloch does not believe that purely and simply depending on G-d's Management and on the dictates of His Will as contained in His Torah is sufficient to ensure the happiness of his children and the prosperity of his family, so do these seekers of oracles not find it sufficient for the general well-being for which they strive. Like the follower of Moloch, they, too, deny the exclusiveness of the government of G-d affecting everything." Being religious people, these people are not denying that HaShem exists or claiming that the spiritual world is irrelevant to life in this world; on the contrary, they very much believe in the power of heaven. However, they don't believe that HaShem alone is the only source of blessing and power. Seeking to maximise their benefit, they play the field, trying to serve several, or perhaps all, of the seemingly available gods. This completely denies HaShem's exclusive and monogamous covenant with His people.
While, as Tamar Kamionkowski points out, "the ban on practising necromancy and certain types of divination appears three times in Vayikra, with the punishment designated for such practices becoming more severe in each successive case: declaration of impurity (19:31), being cut off from one's people (20:6) and the death penalty (20:27)",2 the root - "which is used in sexual contexts for marital infidelity ... is used here and elsewhere in the Tanakh as a metaphor for the infidelity that results from the worship of other gods" - is a metaphor, borrowing a word from one context and applying it to another to illustrate what that other context is like. Mark Rooker makes it clear: "the metaphor is particularly meaningful because the relationship of Israel to the L-rd is one of a covenant relationship."3 When Israel commits idolatry, serving other gods, she commits spiritual adultery again HaShem, her covenant partner, to whom she is supposed to be faithful.
It is important to see the severity of the punishment meted out for spiritual fornication: both the physical death penalty - those who worship idols are to be stoned to death - and the spiritual death penalty, being cut off from the people. The latter means being removed from the covenant and hence ceasing to being covered by the promises and benefits of being part of G-d's people. In Jewish terms, this means losing one's share in the world to come. We can see how the Apostolic Writers view this: "it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of G-d and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of G-d to their own harm and holding Him up to contempt" (Hebrews 6:4-6, ESV), adding their own metaphor: "land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from G-d. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned" (vv. 7-8, ESV).
Rav Sha'ul writes to the believers in Corinth to express his concern for them - "I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Messiah" (2 Corinthians 11:2, ESV) - they, as part of the Body of Messiah, have entered into a covenant, typified as a marriage, with Yeshua. He uses the same image again to the congregations in Ephesus: "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Messiah is the head of the church, His body, and is Himself its Saviour" (Ephesians 5:22-23, ESV). Just as the husband and wife in a marriage have made public vows to be faithful to each other - forsaking all others - so Yeshua has made a public commitment to His disciples by His death for them on the cross and each disciple has made a public commitment to Him in their confession of Him as Saviour and Lord and their baptism, into His death and resurrection. That is the covenant; that is the ground on which we all stand: "one body and one Spirit ... one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one G-d and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (4;4-6, ESV).
Now, surely, no true follower of Yeshua engages in idolatry or spiritual fornication. That is simply unthinkable; we don't worship idols or give any power or credit to superstition, false gods - really, non-gods - or other rivals to Yeshua; we don't do alternative spirituality. That's a given, otherwise the words from Hebrews above apply to us and we would cease to be part of the covenant on a non-reversible basis. That said, we do need to be very sure that we don't, either by word or deed, sail too close to the wind or give any impression that we are doing any of these things. Walter Kaiser observes that "consulting mediums and spiritists in the hopes of belief that they possess supernatural powers is another form of stealing glory from G-d and robbing G-d of the worship that belongs exclusively to [Him]. It is another form of profaning and prostituting the worship of G-d."4
In particular, we must be extremely careful about our language, the words we - often in ignorance or unintention - use. So many believers still absent-mindedly talk about 'luck' - wishing someone "good luck" for an interview or first date - or talk about 'chance' as if it had an influence on their lives. Those who hear us, whether friends and family or relative strangers, may assume that our words have significance and are thus non whole-hearted about following Yeshua. We must work really hard to break the old speech habits of our own lives before we became believers and those of the world around us to ensure that we correctly ascribe all decisions to the One who actually makes them: our Father in heaven! That way, instead of stealing or diverting His glory to another, we ascribe everything to Him. Our faces are turned towards Him at all times and His to us; we stay focused on Yeshua and not only follow Him alone but are seen to follow only Him. That is our life and our witness!
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 101.
2. - S. Tamar Kamionkowski, Leviticus, Wisdom Commentaries, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018), page 223.
3. - Mark F. Rooker, Leviticus, The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), page 267.
4. - Walter C. Kaiser, "Leviticus" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 624.
Further Study: Psalm 119:9-11; Galatians 3:2-5; Hebrews 10:28-29
Application: How can you be sure today that your words contain no casual attribution of authority or status to any other source than Yeshua? The Psalmist gives us the answer: "How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to Your word" (Psalm 119:9, ESV). Ask the Holy Spirit to guard your mouth today and stop you before you inadvertently say something that you and heaven will regret.
Comment - 23Apr23 09:26 Joshua VanTyne: Thank you for the drash. May the words of our mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in His sight...oh that His face, light of His countenance is towards us.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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