‘Aaron Casting Lots,’ East Window of the Lincoln Cathedral,
window built by Ward and Hughes, installed in 1855, Lincoln, United Kingdom

Chapter 16 is all about how Aaron (and later high priests) should conduct the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. God relates – through Moses – that it should be the tenth day of the seventh month, and it’s the only day of the year that Aaron can enter the Most Holy Place of the Tabernacle (the ‘Holy of Holies’). God will signal that it’s Yom Kippur by appearing as a cloud on the ark of the covenant’s atonement cover. Aaron should then bathe and put on a special linen outfit, and then get a bull for his own sin offering, a ram for a bunt offering, and two male goats for a ritual that will provide atonement for the whole Jewish community. Aaron will cast lots for the two goats to randomly decide which goat becomes a sin offering for God, as it’ll be imbued with the sins of all Jews and driven away into the wilderness, and also which is literally from where the term scapegoat comes. There’s a lot of sprinkling of blood from the bull and goat about the altar and the burning of fat on the altar, and then both Aaron and the guy charged with driving the scapegoat into the wilderness must bathe (but not together, I guess).

Additional Info! Yom Kippur is still the holiest day of the year in Judaism, and it’s still observed on the tenth day of the seventh month. While it’s not mentioned in the Torah, Jews believe that God writes each person’s fate into the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah and then He waits until Yom Kippur to ‘seal’ the judgment. In between those days, Jews are to improve their spirituality and behavior and on Yom Kippur they confess their guilt, asking forgiveness for not living up to God’s standards and atone for their wrongdoing and wrongliving. Modern day Jews observe Yom Kippur with a 25-hour period of praying and fasting, with much of the day in synagogue services. Jewish repentance is called Teshuva, which involves acknowledging the sin, regretting having committed the sin and resolving not to commit it again and to confess it again before God. Jewish confession is called Vidui, and the text for the main confession comes from Maimonides, a medieval Jewish philosopher, who structured it as: “Please God! I have intentionally sinned, I have sinned out of lust and emotion, and I have sinned unintentionally. I have done [such-and-such] and I regret it, and I am ashamed of my deeds, and I shall never return to such a deed.” In addition to this statement, there are two more formal confessions and either is done as part of daily prayers and especially on Yom Kippur: Ashamnu (the short version) and Al Cheyt (the long version) – additional fun fact: both forms of these confessions are usually chanted in a sort of upbeat melody, and they’re also acrostics, where the first letter of each line forms a word when reading down the page. For a great explanation and example of praying the Ashamnu, watch cantorandopera.

Chapter 17 forbids Jews from eating blood. God says that if anyone kills an animal meant for an offering anywhere but in front of the tabernacle is guilty of bloodshed and must be cut off from the community. He explains that up until now, people were doing animal sacrifices any-old-place and by themselves, and not bringing the animals to the tabernacle for the priests to handle. Also: no more sacrifices to goat idols; it seems that the ‘Thou shalt have no other Gods before me’ commandment would have covered that, but these are the Israelites we’re talking about and we know that they need to have rules repeated multiple times. Then God states that an Israelite who eats blood should be cut off from the community, because a creature’s life is in its blood, which is why it’s used atone for people in the sacrifice rituals. If one hunts or kills an animal not meant for sacrifice, they need to drain out the blood and cover it with earth.

Additional Info! According to Baruch J. Schwartz’s book The Holiness Legislation: Studies in the Priestly Code, ‘nefesh‘ is a Hebrew word used in the Torah meaning ‘life,’ referring to the life force that the ancient Israelites believed flowed in blood through both animal and human circulatory systems. When God in the Torah indicates that blood is used to atone for sins, the verb used is “kof-peh-resh,” which has two meanings: 1) to wipe away or erase, and also 2) to make payment, as in a ransom. To Schwartz, then, blood as a life force doesn’t cleanse sins away – the sins are cancelled as Israelites are basically ‘paying’ God the life force from the animal in return for their own life force, upon which their spiritual lives depend. This is interesting to me, as Christians have a lot of songs and sayings referring to being ‘washed’ or ‘cleansed’ by the blood of the Lamb (Jesus’s sacrifice), but this scholar in particular translates God’s directive here in Leviticus to indicate that blood sacrifices are more transactional payments of blood for blood. To me, this still makes sense in a ‘Jesus’s life for our lives’ sense, but it’s interesting to think about.

So, Chapter 18 is all about unlawful sexual relations, which is probably why you never hear pastors using its verses as text for sermons very often. Up front, God says, “All those things that folks allowed in Egypt – you can cut that out right now.” He then explains that the following are now forbidden:

  • Sex among close relatives
  • Sex with your parents or siblings or grandkids (see above)
  • Sex with in-laws (apparently, this needed to be spelled out)
  • Sex with a woman on her period
  • Sex with your neighbor’s spouse
  • Sex with animals
  • Sex with a man as one has sex with a woman

So ancient Egypt sounds like an ‘anything goes’ kind of culture. Also interesting: even though Abraham did it, taking your wife’s sister as another wife is now off the table.

Alternate Viewpoints: Leviticus 18:22 (the one about not having sex with as man as one does a woman) is often used as a clobber passage by people who condemn homosexuality. Many scholars, though, have studied this and similar verses, and while there’s no real consensus on what the literal translation of the ancient Hebrew likely was, there’s some agreement among Biblical and historical academics (not preachers, though) that in the ancient Near East, this verse did not refer to homosexual acts, but rather to acts of aggression. Steven J. Patterson in his work Religion is the Fourth R explains that male on male sex in the ancient world was believed to have three purposes: 1) domination/aggression, 2) cult or ritualistic rituals and 3) recreation (something to be done if women were not available). He states that there were relationship-based homosexuals in ancient times but their practices were never really mentioned in texts. The way the wording goes, those three purposes were probably the situations prohibited, and that male gay sex related to love wasn’t included. Also, the fact that women aren’t included in the verse leads some to think that the issue is not with homosexuality per se, but rather sex that’s not meant for those in relationships. Take this info as you will.

Coming up next in Leviticus: even more spiritual laws. Yay.

2 thoughts on “Leviticus 16 – 18: Rules About Scapegoats, Eating Blood and Unlawful Sexual Relations

  1. I think it is interesting that scholars have a much more liberal translation of the restrictions concerning homosexuality than pastors, as you indicate. It warrants more brave discussions to be had amongst all Christians. Would you not say that it has had a bearing in determining “sides” in the United Methodist denomination?


    1. I definitely would say that. It’s interesting, though; the more I read from Biblical scholars, the more ‘different’ their views are from those of pastors. For example, when looking at Paul’s letters in the NT, most scholars agree that a great deal of those letters wasn’t written by Paul, but just attributed to him later by the people who compiled the info and translated it and didn’t know really who wrote it, but it sounded like Paul to them so they included it. Later, I hear pastors discuss the letters like every word was from Paul, and because of his experiences, this legitimizes the verses within. Like in 1 Timothy, where ‘Paul’ says that women should dress modestly – most scholars don’t think that was Paul, but added in later. But because we revere Paul, many people take great significance from that verse. Interesting stuff.


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