Leviticus (Lesson Thirteen: Blessings, Curses, and Vows [Chapters 26-27])
1. Covenant Blessings and Curses (Chapter 26)
As we have noted before, the Book of Leviticus is the centerpiece and climax of the Pentateuch; and the Book of Leviticus culminates in a list of Covenant blessings and curses. The Pentateuch itself also culminates in a similar (but lengthier) list (Deut. 27-30). This dual listing and strategic location of covenant blessings and curses underscore their importance for understanding the nature of the Pentateuch and the Mosaic Covenant as a whole.
Covenant Blessings – Stipulations and Enumeration:
Negative stipulations – prohibition of idolatry; positive – keeping Sabbaths and reverencing sanctuary; summative – obeying God’s commandments.
In essence, this brief list of stipulations indicates the nature of our obligation under the Mosaic Covenant in order to be assured of its blessings: we must do no sins of commission, which would all ultimately be an expression of idolatry, or seeking pleasure or fulfillment in anything other than God himself; nor may we commit any sins of omission, by neglecting to seek God’s face in the sanctuary and rest in his presence on the Sabbath. In other words, we must love the Lord our God with all our hearts, trust in him alone, and turn aside to no other gods or works or wisdom that we might be tempted to trust in or love more than him. The final, all-encompassing summation, that we must obey all of God’s commandments, underscores that our perfectly just God will not accept anything flawed or imperfect – as James would later express it, he who has offended the Law in one point is guilty of all (James 2:10).
After giving the stipulations of the covenant, God enumerates the covenant blessings, including peace and fruitfulness in the land, victory over enemies, and ultimately, his own presence, as he “tabernacles” among them and proclaims that he is their God and they are his people.
Following the list of blessings is a list of curses: if the people do not obey all of the commandments listed above, they will receive the opposite of what was promised for obedience – they will experience famine, culminating in the cannibalism of their own seed! – defeat by their enemies, disease, wild beasts, etc. – in sum, sevenfold punishment for sin (in other words, full and final retribution). The climax of the curses involves being driven from the land of God’s presence, so that the land might enjoy the sabbath rests that the people refused to partake of.
Of course, as the blessings of the Covenant demanded perfect obedience, and the people had an “uncircumcised heart” (vs. 41), and thus could not obey, the curses were certain to come at last. But God gives a surprising promise of grace after all this, based not upon the Law given to Moses on Sinai, but rather upon the free promise made to Abraham: he would remember his Covenant with the forefathers, humble their hearts, and bring them back into the land. Of course, this “humbling” implied a circumcised heart, which reinforces the similarity of this passage with the end of Deuteronomy: there, God also announces the Covenant blessings and curses, reveals that Israel’s uncircumcised heart will bring the curses instead of the blessings, and then, surprisingly, promises after all those things that he himself will circumcise their hearts, and enable them to obey and to return to the land of his presence.
The Law and the Gospel
All of this cannot be understood without recognizing that there are two utterly different and contrary covenants at play here: the one is the covenant made on Mount Sinai, which is just like the first covenant made with Adam in the Garden. This covenant says, “Do this and live” (remember Lev. 19:5). The second covenant is that made with the forefathers, in which God promises unilaterally to make Abraham fruitful, be his God, give him a land where he would dwell with him, and, as signified by walking through the animal halves alone, bear in himself the curses of disobedience. In other words, he promised all the rewards of the first covenant, with none of the stipulated works. This covenant says, “God will certainly circumcise your heart – believe in his promises, and do not say in your heart, ‘Who will go into heaven for us?’ (where the covenant blessings are perfectly expressed); or ‘Who will go into the abyss for us?’ (where the covenant curses of exile are fully expressed) – for Christ has come down from heaven and gone into the grave, to merit the rewards of the covenant and suffer its curses vicariously. Paul sees these two utterly different covenants both at work in the Pentateuch (see Rom. 10:5-13); and it is utterly crucial to understand both covenants – the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, the Law and the Gospel – in order to understand the entire book of Leviticus, or for that matter, the whole Bible.
As we look to these passages, then, we must understand them as teaching what the Christ would do for his people: the Law demanded perfect obedience for blessing and required cursing for disobedience; but the Gospel given to Abraham (and first given to Adam after the Fall, in Gen. 3:15), promised the blessings without the curses to him who believes (see Gen. 15:6). So then, in order to merit the rewards of the Covenant of Works, Christ came as promised, and perfectly obeyed the Law; in order to satisfy the promised curses of the Covenant of Works, he became a curse for us (Gal. 3:13), and suffered even exile from the Father in our place; and in order to apply that vicarious curse-suffering and blessing-meriting accomplishment to his people, and thus to satisfy his promise to Abraham to make him the father-by-faith of many nations, he sent his Spirit to circumcise their hearts, and make them willing to trust in Christ for salvation, and then to delight in obeying the Law which, when graven only on stone tablets and not in their hearts, was a yoke too heavy for them to bear.
2. Vows (Chapter 27)
The foregoing chapter seems a perfect conclusion to the Book of Leviticus; so why add another chapter on vows? Was it a later addition or appendix, as some scholars maintain? Almost certainly not: the chapter before the enumeration of curses and blessings was about the promised redemption of Jubilee; now this chapter shows the way to redeem those things which were vowed to the Lord. So then, the organization, with God vowing redemption by a Kinsman-Redeemer and the way in which to redeem vows as two bookends enclosing the climactic blessings and curses, is quite suggestive: God has vowed to redeem his people, and we see that indicated before and after the terrifying thunderings of the Law, so that we might not be overwhelmed by them, but rest instead upon Christ’s vow to redeem us.
This chapter on vows shows in practical terms how the tabernacle (later temple) would be supported: any Israelite could make vows of people, animals, fields, or houses, for the support of the sanctuary, and any of those vows could be redeemed by a set price. However, no firstborn/firstfruits of man, animal, or field could be vowed, because all firstborn belonged to the Lord already. In addition to the income from these firstborn and vows, the tithe of everything else belonged to the Lord to support his sanctuary.
We can learn several things from these principles: first, it is both a responsibility and a privilege that we as the people of God have to support the gospel ministers he has given us (see 1 Cor. 9:3-12); second, Christ has vowed to bring us to God, and thus he will pay the necessary price – which is his own blood! – to fulfill his vow (1 Peter 1:18-19); third, we now belong uniquely and eternally to God, because we are in Christ, the firstborn from the dead (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:20, and hence we are an assembly of firstborn (Heb. 12:23).