Leviticus 24 starts off with some little housekeeping details. On the Sabbath, the priests must bake twelve cakes and line them up just so and drizzle them with a lovely frankincense sauce, to be served au flambé. Aaron&sons get to eat the charred remnants.

God also wants a lamp to be kept burning (with pure olive oil only) all the time so that he doesn’t accidentally stub his toe every time he has to go to the bathroom during the night. Interestingly, both practices are to be followed “for ever throughout your generations” (v.3). So much for that.

The blasphemer

We actually get a little bit of narrative in this chapter (finally!) in the form of a story about that one time Shelomith’s son got into a fight. In the course of this fight, Shelomith’s son either “blasphemed the Name, and cursed” or “blasphemed the Name with a curse” (v.11), depending on your translation.

The boy is then taken into custody and held while Moses has a quick conference with God to determine what should be done in this, and all subsequent cases of a similar nature. God decides that this warrants the death penalty, so the Israelites carry it out.

Leviticus 24 - The Blasphemer by Niccolo Dell Abbate

The Blasphemer by Niccolo Dell Abbate

The whole narrative is over in five verses, but it’s packed with some very interesting details. For example, we’re explicitly told that Selomith’s son is a “half-breed” (Shelomith being an Israelite – the daughter of Dibri, from the tribe of Dan – but his father was an Egyptian), yet it’s implied that the person he fought with was a full-blooded Israelite. The crime is pretty explicitly the act of blaspheming, but I find the mention of the boy’s mixed parentage rather interesting.

Next, there’s the vagueness of the crime. Was the issue that the boy simply said the Name? Or was the problem that he said it as part of a curse? And given how seriously some countries take the charge of blasphemy, I think we’d all feel better if the authors had chosen to be a bit more precise. All the more so since the law (and its punishment) are to be applied to everyone, “the sojourner as well as the native” (v.16).

And then there’s the method of execution. To start with, anyone who overheard Shelomith’s blasphemy must lay their hands over his head which, as you will remember, is how sin is transferred from people into the Scapegoat and sin offerings. To me, this implies that hearing someone blaspheme is a sin, just as actually doing the blaspheming is. So those who overheard it must shove the sin back into the blasphemer to absolve themselves.

The execution itself involves “all the congregation” (v.14) stoning the person – that’s over 600,000 people (assuming that only the men are participating)! Talk about impractical!

As usual when a rule is this impractical to actually implement, there’s a theological motivation. According to my Study Bible: “It is held that blasphemy pollutes the community. Stoning, a communal mode of execution, is the means of purifying the evil from the midst of the people” (p.153). I also think that making execution a communal activity shares the guilt of taking a life – making it not the act of an executioner, but rather of the entire people (who, as a body, personify God).

Which is good because the very next line tells us that “he who kills a man shall be put to death” (v.17). Sounds like the set up to a rather vicious cycle!

An eye for an eye

To close off the chapter, we are given a few more laws regarding the death penalty and killing things in general. We are told, for example, that “he who kills a beast shall make it good; and he who kills a man shall be put to death” (v.21). Short of actually killing a person, any disfigurement or injury done to them must be done to you as well, repeating the lex talionis of Exodus 21:23-25 – “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (v.20).

“An-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye … ends in making everybody blind.” ~Gandhi