We’ve been hearing a lot about the statutes and ordinances in Leviticus but, apart from a few enforced with either the death penalty or exile, there hasn’t been too much word of reward or punishment. That’s what Leviticus 26 is for.

But first,  it’s important that you know what the main rules are. After all, there’s no way that you could possibly just remember them, since we’ve only read them a few dozen times.

  1. No idols
  2. Keep the Sabbath

As David Plotz points out, we’ve already heard these two rules “at least 15 times. By contrast, ‘thou shalt not kill’ rates only half a dozen reminders.”

The Carrot

Of course, God promises some rewards for properly following these rules:

  • There will be rain in the right season and good harvests.
  • Israelites won’t be threatened by either “evil beasts” or invaders.
  • The enemies of Israel “shall fall before you by the sword” (v.7), and do so easily even when the Israelites are outnumbered.
  • The people will be fertile.
  • There will be such bumper harvests that the Israelites will still be eating their stored food when the new harvest comes.
  • God will hang out in Israel and not hate the Israelites.

The Stick

But, if the Israelites don’t follow the rules:

  • God will send terrible diseases to the Israelites.
  • The Israelites will have bad harvests (either because seeds will be eaten or simply because the yield will be poor).
  • Something about making the heavens like iron and the earth like brass.
  • God will send wild beasts among the Israelites, to kill their children and cattle.
  • God will send invading armies to conquer and rule over Israel. These invaders will “scatter you among the nations” (v.33).
  • If the Israelites try to hide from the invaders in walled cities, God will send diseases to get them anyway.
  • There will be starvation.
  • God will make the Israelites “eat the flesh of your sons, and […] eat the flesh of your daughters” (v.29).
  • God will destroy the Israelite places of worship. He will “cast your dead bodies upon the dead bodies of your idols” (v.30).
  • God will make the Israelite cities desolate and he “will not smell your pleasing odors” (v.31).
  • Any Israelites who survive all of this will be made paranoid, so that they run away from a driven leaf “as one flees from the sword” (v.37).

If, after all this, the Israelites become humble in their “uncircumcised heart” (v.41) (quick note: if you are circumcising the heart, you’re doing it wrong), God will “remember” his covenant with the patriarchs and he won’t “abhor them [the Israelites] so as to destroy them utterly” (v.44).

A few final notes on Leviticus 26

One thing that leapt out at me when reading this chapter is the mention of an invading army scattering the Israelites (v.33-39). This is, of course, what actually happened to the Israelites during the Exile period. Yet Leviticus was, supposedly, written many hundreds of years before that ever happened. Of course, the easy explanation for a believer is that this is prophecy (it is, after all, coming from the mouth of God as a future consequence for not following his ordinances). But that’s not a very interesting answer.

Moses Viewing the Promised Land by Frederic Edwin Church, 1846

Moses Viewing the Promised Land by Frederic Edwin Church, 1846

My Study Bible is very charitable, suggesting that these verses “indicate familiarity with the policy of deporting conquered peoples, a policy used effectively by the Assyrians (2 Kg. ch. 17)” (p.157).

Collins is a little more direct, saying that “the reference here to ‘the land of their enemies’ clearly presupposes the Babylonian exile” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.82). I think that if not added entirely during or after the Exile period, this chapter was certainly edited at that time as an attempt to explain the tragedy of the Exile (and solidify priestly power since, of course, there’s always the implied threat that it could happen again so you’d better listen to the priests this time!).

I also found it interesting to see that the punishments get more than double the number of verses than the rewards (11 verses for the rewards and 26 for the punishments). As a parent, this hits rather close to home. There’s a lot of debate in parenting circles over discipline and how it should be used. I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but what I’ve found is that punishing bad behaviour doesn’t achieve the effect I want. My son might stop doing the behaviour for the moment, but he’ll be upset with me and his take-away lesson is that “mom is unfair” and “therefore I can’t let her catch me.” Whereas when I praise him for good behaviour and explain to him my reasons for not wanting him to do certain things, even when he has the opportunity to do something I wouldn’t want him to do (like, say, run out into the road), he simply doesn’t do it.

What astounds me is how little the God we’ve seen so far seems to respect the Israelite people. Rather than talking to his Children and explaining to them why he’s making these rules – as I always try to do with my own son – he instead counts on his power to enforce rules. “You must obey me because I could crush you.” It smacks of the Pearl’s child-rearing handbook To Train Up A Child. Frankly, I find this reward/punishment system truly reprehensible, since it depends entirely on “might makes right.”

The last point I want to touch on comes from A Skeptic’s Journey, in which the author points out that the covenant God made with Abraham and the rest of the patriarchs depended only on them circumcising their children. If they did this, the Israelite portion of the covenant was considered fulfilled and God’s portion was to give them Israel.

But in Leviticus (and, to a certain extent, Exodus), God suddenly changes the rules. Suddenly, circumcision isn’t enough (and, in fact, is hardly even mentioned). Instead, he brings in all of these rules that affect every area of life and, in some cases, could very well lead to death (as we saw in our discussion of the Jubilee).

It seems an awful lot like God broke his covenant with Abraham, or at least shifted the goal posts. Worse than that, because Abraham agreed to the initial covenant he was given, the Israelites are now subject to horrific punishment for not abiding by the new “fine print.” It hardly seems fair.