The first of these penalties, burning with fire, does not mean that those on whom it was inflicted were burnt alive, but that their dead bodies were burnt after they had been stoned to death, as in the case of Achan ( Joshua 7:25 ). It is the punishment for taking a mother and daughter together into the same harem ( Leviticus 18:14 ). Stoning with stones is appointed for crimes which are at once offenses against religion and morals, viz. giving of his seed to Molech ( Leviticus 18:2 ), and witchcraft ( Leviticus 18:27 ). The other form of putting to death, which no doubt was strangling, is the penalty assigned to cursing parents ( Leviticus 18:9 ), adultery ( Leviticus 18:10 ), marriage or intercourse with a stepmother ( Leviticus 18:11 ) or stepdaughter ( Leviticus 18:12 ), the sin of Sodom ( Leviticus 18:13 ), and bestiality ( Leviticus 18:15 , Leviticus 18:16 ). Cutting off from his people may be effected either by death ( Leviticus 18:4 , Leviticus 18:5 , and perhaps 6), which is the penalty for Molech-worship, connivance at Molech-worship, and dealing with witches; or by excommunication ( Leviticus 18:17 , Leviticus 18:18 ), which was the punishment for intercourse with a sister, or with one who was unclean by reason of her monthly sickness (see Exodus 31:14 ).
The phrase, bearing his iniquity, means that the man continues in the state of a criminal until he has been cleansed either by suffering the punishment of his offense or making atonement for it, which sometimes he might, sometimes he might not, do. The man who committed incest with a sister would "bear his iniquity" ( Leviticus 18:17 ), because he would be put in a state of excommunication without permission of restoration by means of sacrificial offerings. And so with the man who took his aunt by blood ( Leviticus 18:19 ) or by marriage ( Leviticus 18:20 ) as his wife,—he would not be allowed to recover his status by offering sacrifice. Childlessness, the punishment for marrying an uncle's or brother's wife, probably means that in those eases the offender's children should not be counted as his own, but should be entered in the genealogical register as his uncle's or his brother's children.
(See Le Leviticus 18:22 , Leviticus 18:17 , Leviticus 18:23 , Leviticus 18:9 , Leviticus 18:19 , Leviticus 18:12 .)
The difference between the religious and the secular law
is more marked in modern nations than in the Hebrew commonwealth; the primary object of the first being to forbid and prevent sin; of the second, to protect life and property. The distinction is shown by the separation of the eighteenth and the twentieth chapters; but as in the Mosaic legislation both the law which denounces sin and the law which pronounces penalties for crime proceeded from God, it was not necessary that the boundaries between the two should be marked and defined with the same exactness as when man is legislator; for man cannot venture to gauge the relative enormities of sins, and assign to them their respective punishments, except so far as he is led by the hand by the revelation of God. He can only judge of wrongs and injuries to his fellow-men. In the present age of the world, when the State and the Church are no longer identical, as they were in the case of the Israelites, each law fulfils its function best by confining itself to its proper sphere. The religious law, basing itself on the Divine Law, prohibits and denounces sin; the secular law, being an elaboration by the human intellect of the idea of justice in its various applications to the events of human life, condemns and punishes crimes, by which wrong is done to others.
The pursuit of knowledge by right means
is one of the highest and noblest occupations of the intellect of man, but the seeking after knowledge by unlawful means is so criminal as to lead God to cut off the presumptuous seeker from among his people. It was grasping after a forbidden knowledge by unrighteous means that brought death into the world ( Genesis 3:6 ). All dealing in necromancy and witchcraft involves this sin on the part of the inquirer into futurity, whether those whom they consult be merely deceivers or not.
Sin unto death.
The offenses described in this chapter were mentioned before. Such is our obtuseness that we need "line upon line." Adorable is that goodness of God which takes such pains with us. We have here—
I. PRESUMPTUOUS SINS AND THEIR PENALTY .
1 . Parents giving their seed to Moloch.
2 . Persons having dealings with necromancy.
3 . Children who curse their parents.
4 . Excesses in uncleanness.
II. THE RESPONSIBILITY OF WITNESSES .
1 . To withhold testimony against sin is to incur its guilt.
2 . The testimony against sin is a sanctification to the witness ( Leviticus 20:7 , Leviticus 20:8 ).
(1) The faithful witness thereby sanctifies himself.
(a) He clears himself of all complicity.
(b) He approves himself to God as zealous for his truth, purity, and honour.
(c) He fulfils the part of a true patriot; for nations are exalted by righteousness and ruined by crime.
Public duty may cost us inconvenience, but it must not be neglected.
(a) He will bring them to dwell in the land ( Leviticus 20:22 ). This possession was the earnest of the better Canaan. It was a "land flowing with milk and honey."
(b) He will watch over them as a proprietor over precious treasure. "They shall be mine" ( Leviticus 20:26 ; Exodus 19:5 , Exodus 19:6 ; Deuteronomy 7:6 ; Psalms 135:4 ). "Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord."—J.A.M.
Punishments assigned to presumptuous sins.
I. THE LAW OF SOCIETY RESTS ON THE HIGHER LAW OF GOD . All legislation should be thus divinely sanctioned. The Bible is not a statute-book for nations, but a book of principles—to give light to the mind and heart of man as man. We must not enforce human law on Divine grounds, but we can use Divine revelation to ascertain the most satisfactory laws.
II. PUNISHMENTS vary from age to age and country to country, but the reason of punishment remains. The honour of the Law satisfied is the way of life opened.
III. The comparison between the Law and the gospel suggested by this chapter reveals the grace of God, the progress of humanity, the ultimate destiny of the race. The gradual extinction of the sins is the extinction of the laws which provided against them. "If ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the Law" (see Galatians 5:1-26 , and comp. James 1:1-27 , James 2:1-26 ). The perfect law of liberty is a fulfillment of the old law, and therefore a blotting out of the handwriting of ordinances and nailing of them to the cross of Christ.—R.