Biblical Commentary

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18



The book of Leviticus is a book of laws—laws given by God to the Jewish people, God’s chosen people—a holy people—the covenant people. Jewish people revered these laws (even though they often disobeyed them), because they understood that these laws were faithful—would revive their souls and make them wise (Psalm 19:7-11).

The title of this book, Leviticus, is derived from the LXX (the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures), and means “Having to do with the Levites.” The Levites, of course, were the tribe charged by God with the religious affairs of the nation, and this book dictates to them exactly how to conduct those religious affairs. It begins with instructions for burnt offerings (chapter 1) and moves on to cover grain offerings (chapter 2) and other offerings (chapters 3-7). It then moves to other priestly concerns (chapters 8-10), clean and unclean foods and animals (chapter 11), rites of purification (chapters 12-15), the Day of Atonement (chapter 16), the slaughtering of animals (chapter 17), and proper and sinful sexual relations (chapter 18).

Chapter 18 ends with the words, “I am Yahweh your God.” This phrase (sometimes shortened to “I am Yahweh”) provides the rationale for Godly behavior on the part of God’s chosen people. They are to obey these laws because the laws come from Yahweh, who is their God. The phrases “I am Yahweh” or “I am Yahweh your God” recur 14 times in chapter 19 (vv. 3, 4, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 23, 28, 30, 31, 32, 34, 37). All but the first occurrence closes (or anchors) a section of this chapter.

Chapter 19 is distinctive in that the laws that it prescribes are focused on “the congregation of the children of Israel” (v. 2). The first 18 chapters were concerned with corporate holiness (holiness for the nation of Israel), which was to be achieved by cultic observances. Chapter 19, however, is concerned with individual holiness. It repeats, in some form, most of the Ten Commandments. It defines what it means to be a holy person under God.


1Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, 2“Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and tell them, ‘You shall be holy (Hebrew: qadosh); for I Yahweh your God am holy” (Hebrew: qadosh).

“Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and tell them'” (vv. 1-2a). This book starts out by saying, “Yahweh called to Moses, and spoke to him out of the Tent of Meeting, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and tell them….'” (1:1-2a). The formula, “Yahweh called to Moses,” is repeated periodically, emphasizing Moses’ role as prophet (spokesperson for Yahweh) and mediator between Yahweh and the people of Israel. Moses is to address the whole congregation of the people of Israel—a huge congregation. He is to leave no one in the dark concerning Yahweh’s expectations.

“You shall be holy (qadosh), for I Yahweh your God am holy” (qadosh) (v. 2b). There is an emphasis on holiness in the Hebrew Scriptures that begins with the account of Moses at the burning bush. There God told Moses, “Don’t come close. Take your sandals off of your feet, for the place you are standing on is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). That verse gives us a clue to the meaning of holiness. Nothing could seem more common and less holy than ordinary dirt, but the Lord told Moses that the ordinary dirt on which he was standing was holy ground—holy because of the presence of God. God is holy, and God’s presence sanctifies (makes holy) all that it touches—even the soil beneath Moses’ feet.

That burning bush episode further tells us that God expects people who find themselves in holy circumstances to respond by acting reverently in the presence of the holy. In the burning bush episode, Moses was to demonstrate his reverence in two ways: First, he was to maintain distance between himself and the holy burning bush. Second, he was to take off his sandals to show reverence for the holy ground on which he was standing.

The Hebrew word, qadosh, means holy in the sense that God has set aside a person or thing for a holy purpose. Thus the sabbath is holy, because God established the sabbath as a day of rest and worship. Israel is holy because God chose Israel to be God’s covenant people. The tabernacle and temple are holy, because God set them aside as places for people to worship and to experience the presence of God. Priests and Levites are holy because God set them apart for his service.

All holiness is derivative—derived from God’s holiness. The sabbath is holy because God made it so. The tabernacle and temple are holy because of God’s presence. The nation Israel is to be holy because they are in a covenant relationship with God.

Leviticus 10:10 says that Aaron and his descendants (the priests) “are to make a distinction between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.”

Some things that are unclean can be cleansed, at which time they might become candidates for sanctification (being made holy). However, Jewish law prescribes certain things that are always unclean, and those would never be fit for sanctification.

To be chosen by God to be a holy people is a great honor, but it confers obligations as well as privileges. As God’s holy people, Israel is obligated to live as a holy people. This requires obedience to God’s laws. As noted above, the book of Leviticus spells out in some detail what God expects his covenant people to do in response to being chosen as God’s people. Our text includes a few of those obligations.


While these verses are not included in the lectionary reading, the preacher needs to be aware of them. Yahweh requires reverence for parents and observance of sabbaths (v. 3). He warns the people not to turn to idols (v. 4). He spells out the proper way to make peace offerings (vv. 5-6) and warns that people who eat the offerings improperly will be subject to punishment, “because he has profaned the holy thing of Yahweh” (v. 8a). “That soul shall be cut off from his people” (v. 8b).


9“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, neither shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not glean your vineyard, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the foreigner. I am Yahweh your God.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, neither shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not glean your vineyard, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard (vv. 9-10a.). These verses tell landowners not to harvest all of the produce of the land. Reaping implies grain, so this verse deals with the harvests of grain and grapes. However, it suggests a principle that could also be implemented with other harvests, such as olives or figs.

Landowners are to leave the edges of their fields unharvested and are to leave the gleanings (that which the harvesters accidentally drop) where they fell.

These verses leave much to the discretion of the landowner. How close to the edge of the field is the landowner permitted to harvest? How much must he leave? Rabbis debate that sort of thing endlessly in an attempt to spell out with exactness the requirements of the law. Later, they will establish a rule that the landowner must leave 1/60th of the produce for gleaners to harvest.

“you shall leave them for the poor and for the foreigner. I am Yahweh your God” (v. 10b). The purpose of leaving produce in the field is to give poor people an opportunity to gather food for themselves and their families. We should note that the landowner is not required to harvest the last part of the crop to give to the poor. The law requires him to leave it, and the poor people must harvest it. That affords them a small measure of dignity that would be missing if they had no requirement to work. It also affords them dignity that they would incur if they had to beg.


11“You shall not steal (Hebrew: ganab).
You shall not lie.
You shall not deceive one another.
12You shall not swear by my name falsely, and profane the name of your God. I am Yahweh.”

“You shall not steal (ganab). You shall not lie. You shall not deceive one another (v. 11). These are three prohibitions against deception in this verse. The first is against theft—taking property by stealth or deception. This would include cheating someone. It would also include theft—the taking of property without violence. The second prohibition is against denying something that is true, while the third is against affirming something that is false (Bailey, 229).

“You shall not swear by my name falsely, and profane the name of your God. I am Yahweh” (v. 12). The Third Commandment has already addressed this issue. It says, “You shall not take the name of Yahweh your God in vain, for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). God’s character and identity are tied up in God’s name, so using God’s name to do something dishonorable would profane God’s name and God himself. People are not to use God’s name to give assurances that they don’t intend to honor. This would include using God’s name in connection with an oath sworn falsely—or using God’s name in connection with any sort of deception or dishonorable activity.


13“You shall not oppress (Hebrew: ashaq) your neighbor, nor rob (Hebrew: gazal) him.
The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning.
14You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind; but you shall fear your God. I am Yahweh.”

“You shall not oppress (ashaq) your neighbor” (v. 13a). The word ashaq means to oppress, defraud, deceive, or get deceitfully. The specific prohibition here concerns defrauding a neighbor. Israelites would usually use the word neighbor to mean a fellow-Israelite, although some would have the grace to extend their understanding of neighbor to include resident aliens.

“nor rob him” (gazal) (v. 13b). The Hebrew word that is translated “steal” in verse 11 is different from the word translated “rob” in this verse. The prohibition in verse 11 was against using deception to gain possession of another person’s property. The prohibition in this verse is against using force or violence to take property.

“The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning” (v. 13c). Some people today live from paycheck to paycheck, meaning that they reach the end of a pay period with nothing left from their last paycheck. They have no financial cushion, so a late paycheck can cause them pain. In the primitive agrarian economy of the Old Testament, laborers often lived day to day. They needed to collect their daily wages at the close of each day to enable them to feed their families for the coming day. This verse, then, reflects God’s concern for the poor. It requires employers to pay wages at the close of each day so that their employees might not suffer unnecessarily.

“You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind; but you shall fear your God. I am Yahweh” (v. 14). This verse extends God’s concern for vulnerable people to the deaf and blind. While it doesn’t specifically mention disabilities other than deafness or blindness, it establishes a principle that surely extends to people with other sorts of disabilities, such as physical deformities or mental disorders.

The film, “10,” starring Bo Derek, established a ranking system to rank members of the opposite sex according to their beauty, with one being low and ten being high. A friend once told us of group of young men shouting “One” or “Three” or “Five” or “Ten” as young women walked past. When these young men shouted “One” or “Three” or “Five,” they were telling the woman who was passing that they considered her to be ugly or, at best, less than beautiful. While verse 14 doesn’t specifically prohibit telling someone that he or she is ugly, it suggests that God will hold people accountable for any kind of mocking behavior directed at vulnerable people. Also, such behavior is a clear violation of the requirement of verse 18 to “love your neighbor as yourself.” People who love their neighbors would never mock them or exploit their vulnerabilities.


15“You shall do no injustice in judgment: you shall not be partial to the poor, nor show favoritism to the great; but you shall judge your neighbor in righteousness.
16You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people.

You shall not endanger the life of your neighbor. I am Yahweh.”

“You shall do no injustice in judgment: you shall not be partial to the poor, nor show favoritism to the great; but you shall judge your neighbor in righteousness” (v. 15). Elders administer justice at city gates (Deuteronomy 21:19; Joshua 20:4; Ruth 4:1-12). This verse requires them to render justice impartially.

It seems natural that God, with his concern for the poor and vulnerable, would prohibit elders from deferring to “the great.” People with money or political influence can hire lawyers to plead their cases and can lean on cronies to render favorable decisions—but God requires the elders not to be influenced by a person’s wealth or power. They are to render justice impartially—unaffected by the enticements of wealthy petitioners.

The more interesting thing is that this verse also prohibits the elders from being partial to the poor. God established particular protections for poor and vulnerable people in verses 9-10 and 13b (as well as elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures). However, when it comes to justice, God requires elders to observe complete impartiality. Charity is a virtue under most circumstances, but exactness is a higher virtue where justice is concerned.

“You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people” (v. 16a). Our word “slander” today has to do with making false statements about other people. Our word “gossip” can mean spreading tales about other people, whether the tales are true or false. Both slander and gossip have the potential to damage people’s reputations. The Hebrew word used in this verse would certainly prohibit the making of false statements about other people. It most likely would also prohibit the spreading of gossip (whether true or false) as well.

“You shall not endanger the life of your neighbor” (v. 16b). This brings to mind the story of the murder of Naboth by Jezebel to enable Ahab to buy Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21). While the meaning of verse 16b is somewhat uncertain, it certainly means that God is outlawing violence for personal gain.

“I am Yahweh” (YHWH—Yahweh) (v. 16c). As noted above, this phrase (or the longer version, “I am Yahweh your God”) is used a number of times in this chapter to conclude or anchor various passages. This phrase establishes the authority behind the laws outlined in these passages. The people are to obey these laws because Yahweh has established a covenant with them and has given them these laws. Their part of the covenant relationship is to obey God’s laws.


17“You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him.

18You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people; but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am Yahweh.”

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him” (v. 17). The first two parts of this verse are related. Hatred often grows out of jealousy or perceived injustice, and has the potential to lead to violence. Cain, angry because God honored his brother’s offering but not his own, killed his brother (Genesis 4:3-8). Esau hated Jacob for cheating him out of his birthright, and Jacob had to flee for his life lest Esau kill him (Genesis 27).

The God-given remedy for hatred is non-violent confrontation. God requires angry people to “rebuke” their neighbors. The Hebrew word translated “rebuke” here means “argue” or “chasten” or “correct” or “plead” or “reason together” or “rebuke.” The idea is that God will not permit the offended party to sulk and thereby to allow his/her anger to morph into hatred. Instead, God requires the offended party to take the initiative to address the issue with the offender. God will hold the offended person guilty—as guilty as the offending party—if the offended person fails to try do this.

In the New Testament, Jesus expands on this law. He reminds his listeners of the prohibition against murder, and then says, “But I tell you, that everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna” (Matthew 5:22).

Jesus goes on to say, “If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

In other words, Jesus warns us that anger and hatred put us in danger of judgment. They also set up a block to proper worship.

When Jesus says “If…your brother has anything against you” (Matthew 5:23), he makes us responsible for trying to find an amicable solution if our brother feels that we have injured him.

In other words, whether we are the offended party or the offender, we have an obligation to take the initiative to resolve the situation amicably. We are not obligated to insure the success of the reconciliation, because we cannot control our brother’s/sister’s response. We can, however, make our approach in a manner designed to draw the offended person to us rather than pushing him/her further away.

“You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people” (v. 18a). The Hebrew word translated “take vengeance” in this verse has to do with using violence to redress a perceived wrong. The Hebrew word translated “bear any grudge” has to do with guarding or cherishing something—in this case, cherishing a hurt—hanging onto a grievance.

“but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am Yahweh” (v. 18b). When asked which commandment in the law was the greatest, Jesus quoted this verse from Leviticus, saying:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40; Mark 12:29b-31; see also Luke 10:27).

As noted above, Israelites would usually use the word neighbor to mean a fellow-Israelite, although some would include resident aliens. However, in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), Jesus redefined “neighbor” to include a Samaritan, whom the Jews would have seen as an infidel. The other twist in that parable was that the Samaritan was not the one in need but the person providing assistance. Although, in other circumstances, the injured man would probably not have recognized the Samaritan as his neighbor, the Samaritan made the man his neighbor by acting neighborly.

The earlier verses in this chapter give the reader an idea what a person would do if he/she loved his/her neighbor. There is nothing namby-pamby about this kind of love. There is no requirement for the lover to become a doormat for the beloved. This kind of love requires the lover to confront the beloved when necessary, lest festering wounds turn septic and love turn to hate.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan