For all it’s faults, Leviticus 26 would have ended the book with a bang and really tied up the narrative – such as it was – nicely. But with the usual narrative flair of the Levites, they just couldn’t leave it at that, and we get Leviticus 27 tacked onto the end instead.

In this chapter, we have a discussion of votive offerings (both made and promised), and how they might be redeemed if the owner changes his (masculine pronoun is deliberate because, hey, who are kidding?) mind.

Devoting a person

The discussion starts out strong with the rules for when a man “makes a special vow of persons to the Lord” (v.2). My interpretation of this is that the man is dedicating them to servile “lay” work in the sanctuary. If he changes his mind, or if they decide to buy their own freedom, the price structure depends on their age and gender:

  • Age 1month to 5 years: Boys cost 5 shekels, girls cost 3 shekels.
  • Age 5 to 20 years: Boys cost 20 shekels, girls cost 10 shekels.
  • Age 20 to 60 years: Men cost 50 shekels, women cost 30 shekels.
  • Age 60+ years: Men cost 15 shekels, women cost 10 shekels.

The value of the shekel is specified as being “according to the shekel of the sanctuary” (v.3), which presupposes the existence of a different value system. Indeed, the earlier Phoenician or Hebrew measurement was, according to my Study Bible, “heavier than the Babylonian shekel used in post-exilic times” (p.107). As in Leviticus 26, we’re seeing evidence for a late composition (or at least  a late editing) date for Leviticus.

If the standard rate can’t be afforded, an appeal can be made to the priest who will look over the votive person in question and assign them a new value “according to the ability of him who vowed” (v.8).

Gleaners by James Tissot

Gleaners by James Tissot

Obviously, there’s a bunch of ethical issues to unpack here, but I think that most of them are too obvious to warrant an in-depth discussion. There’s the fact that a family’s patriarch has the right to dedicate other human beings to service without their input, and there’s the fact that women are consistently valued as low as half what men are valued… I mean, really, there’s nothing good or moral about this passage – except maybe the small concession that a man has a special opportunity to buy back anyone he’s dedicated even if he’s too poor to afford the prices listed on the menu. But holy crap, that’s really stretching quite far to find anything that hasn’t horrible.

But there are some things that this passage is not. A Skeptic’s Journey points out that babies under a month old have “no value” and that this is a “a blow to religious pro-lifers.” The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible touches on this as well, pointing out that babies are “worth nothing at all.”

I don’t agree that we can really take that from the text. The value assigned to the people is not their worth as people, but rather their worth as servants (in other words, their market value rather than their moral value – the sin here being that it assigns a market value to people in the first place). I’ve had a newborn baby and, let me tell you, he did not pull his weight around the house at all. Of course, a one month old isn’t much better, but given the context I think it might be more likely that the point is to allow the baby to remain with its mother for at least one month, rather than saying that a newborn is not worth anything.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty to destroy the “pro-life” argument in the Bible. We’ve already seen a bit of this in Exodus 21, and ***SPOILER ALERT*** we’ll be seeing some more examples when we get to Numbers. But this passage, alone, isn’t really explicit enough to form any kind of argument.

Devoting animals or land

This next part is written in legalese and I had to look at external sources to really get a passable idea of the details (and, frankly, I’m still not sure I’m really there).

Essentially, an animal, once dedicated, is considered holy and can never be re-purposed back to profane use. Once it’s accepted by the priests, that’s it. It has to die.

However,  if the priests determine that the animal is unclean (if it has blemishes, for example), it can be sold and the money kept by the sanctuary.

If the animal is a firstling (the first born to a particular mother animal), it can’t be dedicated because it already belongs to God (as we saw in Exodus 22).

If a man dedicates his house, the priest gets to assign it a value. If the man wants to get it back,  he has to pay for it and add a 5th of its value on top.

If he dedicates his land, the rules depend on whether he originally got it as part of an inheritance or if he bought it. If he inherited the land, the value is based on what can be planted on it and how long until the next Jubilee year. If he wants it back, he has to pay for it plus add a 5th of its value. If he doesn’t redeem it, it becomes the priest’s at the next Jubilee (good deal for the priests!). If he’d bought the field, it reverts back to the original owner (the one who had gotten the field as his inheritance) at the next Jubilee.

“To be utterly destroyed”

Though some offerings can be redeemed, some can’t. I’m not entirely sure how this works, but I think it’s the difference between a pledged offering and an offering that’s already been handed over.

So, as I covered above, an animal that’s been devoted is made holy by that devotion, and it cannot be taken back and returned to a profane context. Unfortunately, here’s the passage that says this:

“No one devoted, who is to be utterly destroyed from among men, shall be ransomed; he shall be put to death” (v.29).

So do we take this at face value as a reference to human sacrifice?

Over at BibleStudyTools, the author argues that this passage means only that a person, once devoted, cannot be redeemed. Therefore, they must continue to serve the sanctuary until they die. This is not, the author argues, meant to be interpreted as an instruction to actively kill the person.

Over at the La Vista Church of Christ website, the author argues that the passage refers not to people who have been dedicated by a person, but to a person who has been doomed by God to die. Much like the plot of Final Destination, Death has set his sights on that person and they cannot change that fact.

Both of these explanations require some pretty complex linguistic manoeuvring to pull off, and, having no access to the Hebrew text, I really can’t comment. If anyone can read the original and comment, it would be greatly appreciated.

But I will leave you with this: There are two explicit mentions of human sacrifice in Leviticus, and both come down strongly against it. However, both (Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20) only forbid sacrifice to Molech. It’s easy to see Leviticus as claiming that the bad thing is not sacrifice itself, but sacrifice to the wrong god.