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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

Leviticus 17



Verse 1-2

These directions pertained to both the priests and the people. Those laws in chapters18-20 governed the lives of the common people only (cf. Leviticus 18:2; Leviticus 19:2; Leviticus 20:2). Other laws specifically for the priests are in chapters21-22.

Verses 1-16

1. Holiness of food ch17

We move from public regulations in chapter16 to intimate regulations in chapter18 with chapter17 providing the transition. In contrast to the first sixteen chapters, chapter17 says very little about the role of the priests. The emphasis is rather on mistakes that the ordinary Israelite could make that would affect his or her relationship to God. Food and sacrificial meals were a prominent part of heathen worship. Therefore what the Israelites ate and how they ate it demonstrated their consecration to Yahweh.

"The laws in this chapter deal with various problems connected with sacrifice and eating meat. These matters have already been discussed in chs1-7,11 (cf. Leviticus 7:26-27 with Leviticus 17:10 ff. and Leviticus 11:39-40 with Leviticus 17:15-16). This chapter draws together themes that run through the previous sixteen: in particular it explains the special significance of blood in the sacrifices ( Leviticus 17:11 ff.)." [Note: Wenham, The Book ..., p240.]

Verses 3-7

God did not permit the Israelites to slaughter sacrificial animals ( Leviticus 17:5) anywhere except before the altar of burnt offerings. This may seem to us to have created logistical problems. How could the priests handle all those sacrifices? However most of the Israelites and other ancient Near Eastern people rarely slaughtered animals. They did not eat as much meat as we do.

"Meat was eaten only occasionally, except perhaps for the rich, who may have had it regularly." [Note: The New Bible Dictionary, 1962ed, s.v. "Food," by R. P. Martin.]

The Israelites in the wilderness lived primarily on manna (cf. Numbers 11:6). They kept animals for producing milk, wool, bearing burdens, and doing hard work. Any Israelite who slaughtered an animal for sacrifice except before the altar would die ( Leviticus 17:4; cf. Leviticus 17:9-10; Leviticus 17:14).

"It appears ... that this phrase ["cut off"] may not only refer to premature death at the hand of God, but hint at judgment in the life to come." [Note: Wenham, The Book ..., p242]

Similarly the Christian who commits a "sin unto death" ( 1 John 5:16; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:30) dies prematurely at God"s hand. The reasons for so severe a penalty were two. First, each slaughter was to be an offering to God, an act of worship ( Leviticus 17:5). God owned the animal since He had given it life. Second, killing animals was commonly part of a pagan ritual connected with worship of the "goat demon" ( Leviticus 17:7).

The goat demon was a god that the Egyptians and other ancient Near Easterners worshipped. It was supposedly responsible for the fertility of the people, their herds, and their crops. They believed it inhabited the deserts. A goat represented this demon (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:20), and part of its abhorrent rituals involved goats copulating with women votaries. [Note: Harrison, p180.] The Israelites were at this time committing idolatry with this Egyptian god ( Leviticus 17:7). They continued to worship Egyptian deities for many generations (cf. Joshua 24:14) in spite of commandments like this one that should have ended this practice. Even today the goat is a demonic symbol in Satan worship. [Note: See Merrill F. Unger, Biblical Demonology, p60; and idem, Demons in the World Today.]

"Just as the narrative about the incident of the golden calf revealed the imminent danger of Israel"s falling into idolatry, so the present narrative demonstrates the ongoing threat. These two narratives play an important role in the composition of this part of the Pentateuch.

"The two narratives showing the threat of idolatry bracket the detailed legislation dealing with the office of the priest-legislation primarily directed toward preventing further idolatry. The narratives provide the priestly legislation with two vivid examples of Israel"s falling away after "other gods."" [Note: Sailhamer, p343.]

Verse 8-9

Leviticus 17:8-16 contain three laws that relate to each other and were binding on both the Israelites and the foreigners who lived among them. Apparently God permitted resident aliens to preserve some of their traditional customs.

The same prohibition against slaughtering sacrificial animals applied to the offering of burnt offerings and peace offerings. The Israelites were to offer these sacrifices only at the brazen altar for the reasons already explained.

Verses 10-14

God also prohibited the ingesting of blood ( Leviticus 17:11; cf. Leviticus 3:17; Leviticus 7:26-27; Leviticus 19:26; Genesis 9:4; Deuteronomy 12:15-16; Deuteronomy 12:23-24; Deuteronomy 15:23). From this law the Jews developed methods of draining or washing the blood out of meat that resulted in kosher (meaning fit or proper) meat. [Note: Harrison, p181.] The incidence of blood disease among livestock was much higher in ancient times than it is today. [Note: Fawver and Overstreet, p275.] Careful observance of this law would have resulted in healthier Israelites as well as obedient Israelites.

Blood is the life-sustaining fluid of the body ( Leviticus 17:11; Leviticus 17:14). It is inherently necessary to maintain animal life, thus the close connection between blood and life. Life poured out in bloodshed made atonement for sin. Consequently the eating or drinking of blood was inappropriate since blood had expiatory value and represented life.

"By refraining from eating flesh with blood in it, man is honoring life. To eat blood is to despise life. This idea emerges most clearly in Genesis 9:4 ff, where the sanctity of human life is associated with not eating blood. Thus one purpose of this law is the inculcation of respect for all life." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p245. Cf. Hertz, p168.]

The animals in view here seem to be those slain in hunting; they were not sacrificial animals ( Leviticus 17:13; cf. Deuteronomy 12:15). However the restriction about eating blood applied to all animals that the Israelites ate. Since God forbade eating blood before the Mosaic Law ( Genesis 9:4), which Christ terminated, people today should also refrain from eating it. What is in view is not simply eating "rare" meat (pink or red meat with a little blood in it) but larger quantities of blood either separately or as a kind of side dish. Eating raw, uncooked meat was also inappropriate.

Verse 15-16

God extended the sacredness of life in this third prohibition by forbidding the eating of clean animals that had died without slaughter. He did so because the blood remained in them. The penalty for the offending Israelite was not as great because the life had departed from the animal. Nevertheless His people were to respect the symbol of life.

"The faithful worshiper of the living God must preserve the sanctity of sacrificial blood, recognizing that life (signified by blood) belongs to God." [Note: Ross, p336.]

In an interesting irony, Jesus taught that His blood gives eternal life and commanded His disciples to drink it (symbolically; cf. John 6:54). Jehovah"s Witnesses refuse to receive blood transfusions because of the commands about blood in this chapter. [Note: E. S. Gerstenberger, Leviticus , pp243-44.]

Chapter17 introduces the laws that follow in chapters18-26. Yet chapter17 is also important in the larger context of the Pentateuch. It presents the Israelite people committing idolatry with the goat idol as the Israelite priests had earlier committed idolatry with the calf idol ( Exodus 32). In the golden calf incident the priests led the people in idolatry, but here they opposed the idolatry of the people. The priests had evidently learned from their error and the legislation that God gave following that failure. Additional legislation designed to regulate the priests" behavior followed the priests" failure with the golden calf (i.e, the priestly code, Exodus 35 - Leviticus 16). Now additional legislation designed to regulate the people"s behavior followed the people"s failure with the goat idol (i.e, the holiness code, Leviticus 17:10 to Leviticus 25:55). [Note: See Sailhamer, pp343-45 , for further development of these parallels.]


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Bibliography Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Leviticus 17:4". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". 2012.

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