Commands and Consequences.
With chapter 26 we come virtually to the end of Leviticus proper. It caps off the whole book and verse 46 summarises everything from the first 25 chapters. This is a chapter of two halves, as complementary as two sides of a coin but at the same time a study of contrasts. What we have here is God laying out the consequences of both keeping and breaking His covenant.
This is what we know as the Old Covenant, the profound agreement between God and His chosen people the Israelites. It was unveiled at Mt. Sinai in the latter part of Exodus, and Leviticus has been filling in the detail. Now at the end of Leviticus we have it spelt out for us what it means if that agreement is honoured or disregarded.
God’s covenant is a wonderful gift and a great responsibility. Each party in the agreement has its own duties and benefits. God’s part was to dwell with His people, to bless, protect and provide for them; in return He gets their loving worship and obedient service. The Israelites’ part was to obey what God asked of them and to honour Him as their lord and leader; in return they would know all the blessings that flow from the hand of God.
The first half (verses 1-13) spells out in summary what God requires, and exactly how He will reward obedience. He forbids idols and expects them to forsake all other forms of worship (v. 1); He expects them to observe the Sabbath rest and revere His dwelling place among them (v. 2); and He commands them to ‘follow my decrees’ and ‘obey my commands’ (v. 3), which is basically a way of summarising everything He has just been saying. In return He promises a dazzling range of rewards: a benevolent climate of rain and sun (v. 4), fruitful abundance and material well-being (v. 5), safety and security (v. 5), freedom from fear and protection from human and natural hazards (v. 6), success in war (vv. 7-8), population growth (v. 9) and most importantly His willingness to accept them, live among them and have a relationship them (vv. 10-13).
The second half (verses 14-45) offers up the opposite scenario. Disobedience and rejection of God by the Israelites will result in punishment and suffering. For every blessing in the first section there is a corresponding curse: disease (v. 16, 25), defeat (v. 17, 25), failure (v. 17), hunger (v. 20), natural disasters (v. 22), destruction of idols (v. 30) and unimaginable suffering (v. 29). It’s longer than the blessings section and pretty horrific. It culminates in the ultimate punishment: forfeiture of the land, subjugation by enemies and scattering among the nations (vv. 32-34). If that sounds familiar that’s because (spoiler alert) it was exactly what did happen at the end of 2 Kings.
Basically, the Israelites get what they deserve – rewards for being good or punishment for being bad. They would reap what they sow. Anyone who thinks that principle is confined only to the Old Testament should read Romans 2:6-8, Galatians 6:7-10 and James 1:22-25. Obedience always has been, and always will be, the key to blessing.
The second half of Leviticus 26 is not pleasant reading. It vividly evokes the worst experiences of the ancient world, from cannibalism to genocide. It’s the kind of passage that makes you cringe to read. If you only ever want to read nice things, don’t read the Bible. It’s the kind of passage that people point to when they assert that the God of the Old Testament is savage, angry, vengeful and bloodthirsty.
Those people have a point, but they tend to close their eyes to the context. For them passages like these are used to justify their own preconceptions, not read with an open mind and an understanding of everything else God has said and done. Yes, God is capable of great anger and vengeance. But that’s not all there is to it. He’s also a God of love and gentleness. It’s not a case of either or, but of both and. God is loving and wrathful. It’s like those two sides of the coin again. He is so loving that He won’t allow people to indulge endlessly in things that will harm them; and He’s so wrathful because He hates the things that damage and undermine what He loves. A God who was all love and no anger would be impotent. Cuddly, but unable to look after us. A God who was all anger and no love would just eradicate us in an eye-blink without a second thought. Who would want either extreme?
Thankfully the God of the Bible is neither all love nor all anger. He is the uniquely perfect blend of the two. Nor is He all anger in the Old Testament and all love in the New Testament – He is just as loving in the Old as in the New and just as angry in the New as in the Old. He doesn’t change, He is that same blend of love and anger all the way through from Genesis to Revelation. Likewise, He offers the same alternatives of blessing and punishment throughout.
God knows best and He has the right to dictate the terms of the deal, since He initiated the covenant. That goes for both the Old and New Covenants, before Jesus and after Him. He does what any good leader, manager and father would do: He sets out clearly beforehand what will happen as a result of our choices. We can’t claim ignorance or that we weren’t warned. It’s also worth noting that all of this was only set out after God had rescued His people – grace was already at work before any concept of obedience comes in. Moreover, it’s precisely because God has already redeemed the Israelites that He is entitled to lay down this law.
Before the end-game of destruction and exile in 2 Kings the Israelites lurched haplessly through an endless cycle of disobedience, punishment, restoration, obedience and blessing. No sooner had the covenant been given than they rebelled; and no sooner had they been restored than they sinned again. They got a taste of a lot of these punishments again and again throughout the Old Testament. The very fact that this entire chapter has to be repeated in Deuteronomy 28 shows that they had completely messed up their part of the covenant before they even reached the Promised Land.
But just as they were given ample opportunities to repent and turn back to obedience in that long saga, so in this passage it’s noteworthy that God punctuates the flood of punishments with dams of restraint. Four times, in verses 18, 21, 23 and 27 He allows room for repentance. Turn back at any of those points and the punishments revert to blessing. Plough on stubbornly from those pauses for breath, and the punishments keep flowing. If, having been warned, and reminded of the consequences, we choose to continue going our own way, everything that follows is our own fault. We can’t then turn around and complain about being badly treated.
It’s equally important to stop and realise that at the end of all the awfulness there’s still room for restoration (vv. 40-45). God stops short of utterly destroying them, abiding by His promise to Noah (Genesis 9:11). He will not abandon us completely, or forget our relationship forever. Thus He holds the door open to the homecoming after the exile of Israel’s remnant, and thus He hints at the new and better covenant which will one day be ushered in by Jesus.
But just as obedience still unlocks blessing today, so repentance is still necessary for restoration. In the New Covenant, just like the Old, there is a consequence for rejecting God. Only this time it’s permanent and irreversible. Not only that, but the New Testament and Christian experience teaches that there are consequences in this life for disobedience. We can hinder our intimacy with God, jeopardise our relationship with Him, fall short of our potential, miss out on opportunities and forfeit rewards. We’re not so modern or sophisticated or advanced that the lessons of Leviticus don’t ring true.
Yes, the grace of God through Jesus has fundamentally changed our outlook and instituted a much better system and an even better deal than the Israelites had. Yes, it’s largely true that God no longer punishes every sin directly. But the age-old rhythms of obedience=blessing and disobedience=suffering remain true and unchanged. There’s also no guarantee of pleasantness or comfort if we honour God. That’s never how it worked. What is guaranteed is that God will bless and provide for those who honour Him.
Therefore let us read this chapter with new eyes. Let us give God our obedience and walk in His favour. Let us learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before and side-step the misery that is caused by disobedience. And let’s remember and worship God for who He really is, the complex, fully-rounded revelation of His nature and character: the loving God who punishes the loveless, and the powerful protector who protects the avenges the wronged. Anything simpler doesn’t do Him justice.