THE XXI COMMANDMENTS (of Leviticus 19:1-18)

…had (this passage of scripture) been handed down in the normal way some people might say, “This part doesn’t really apply to me; God was instructing somebody else.” By addressing the people as a whole, the message, in fact, became more personal. Through Moses, God was talking to and addressing every individual. No one has special status, no one was exempt. Each person was expected to look at themselves and adapt the precepts of holiness that were being taught and apply them to themselves.



THE XXI COMMANDMENTS of Leviticus 19:1-18 –

If you include the rest of the verses that makes up this list of rules of the road you wind up with 39 commandments. That is most likely the result of putting the original list of ten in the hands of the Levites, the religious authorities of the day.

On the website Torah from Dixie Rabbi Norman Schloss says that in this passage of Leviticus, sometimes referred to as the Holiness Code, we get an in depth look at the list of the cardinal rules given by God to Moses which are to govern the conduct of people. Moses’ formula for being better people is very straight forward and practical: Be kind to the poor person; Don’t lie, cheat or steal; Have a fair and just judicial system; Make provisions for the poor and the immigrant. Don’t hate your neighbor; Don’t send your neighbor to war. Challenge those who do evil. Don’t be vengeful; Don’t slander or speak badly of others; and, as Jesus quoted, Love your neighbor as yourself….


The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them:

1.      You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

2.      3You shall each revere your mother and father, and

3.      you shall keep my sabbaths: I am the Lord your God.

4.      4Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves: I am the Lord your God.

5.      5When you offer a sacrifice of well-being to the Lord, offer it in such a way that it is acceptable on your behalf. 6It shall be eaten on the same day you offer it, or on the next day; and anything left over until the third day shall be consumed in fire. 7If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is an abomination; it will not be acceptable. 8All who eat it shall be subject to punishment, because they have profaned what is holy to the Lord; and any such person shall be cut off from the people.

6.      9When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.

7.      11You shall not steal;

8.      you shall not deal falsely; and

9.      you shall not lie to one another. 12And

10.  you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.

11.  13You shall not defraud your neighbor;

12.  you shall not steal; and

13.  you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.

14.  14You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

15.  15You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.

16.  16You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and

17.  you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

18.  17You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin;

19.  you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.

20.  18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but

21.  you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.


And the first thing about this passage is that it starts out with God telling Moses “Speak to the entire congregation of the people . . .” This means that these precepts were given to the people en masse. The simple explanation is that because of the importance of these rules, they had to be told to all of the people at one time so that there would be no misunderstanding.

An early 20th century work on Jewish thought says that this was important because had this section had been handed down in the normal way some people might say, “This part doesn’t really apply to me; God was instructing somebody else.” By addressing the people as a whole, the message, in fact, became more personal. Through Moses, God was talking to and addressing every individual. No one has special status, no one was exempt. Each person was expected to look at themselves and adapt the precepts of holiness that were being taught and apply them to themselves. Let me try that again. You want to be holy? You’ve been called to be holy. In this, God is speaking to you as well as everyone else. You are expected to look at your own life, adapt the precepts of holiness that are presented and apply them to your self. While the standards remain the same the work that each individual has to do to raise their level of closeness to God is personal. Thomas Kelly helps us address that personal work when he wrote that: “…the Living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders. God the lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us. …all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to his secret presence and working within us.”

Imagine if you had to pick the most ideal surroundings for being a better person. Where would you choose to be? Perhaps you would pick a mountain cabin, away from hectic pace and frustrations of everyday life. Or maybe you would pick an exotic island in the South Pacific. Surely, anything would be better than your present situation. If we look at the great thinkers of the past, that is exactly the settings that they chose. Thoreau at Walden Pond, the Dhali Lama in Tibet, the Desert Fathers, Christian monks, who supposedly attained the peek of their spiritual lives in seclusion. The Shem Mishmuel, that early 20th century work of Jewish thought, seriously challenges that notion. It states that the only way to achieve holiness and closeness to God is through interaction with other people. It would be very easy not to speak evil or slander another if you were living the life of a recluse in the northern Rockies. But, drive to work everyday, go shopping, watch the evening news, walk around with your friends and you still don’t speak evil or slander another – now that’s an accomplishment. That’s a step up in holiness. The truly great spiritual leaders in contrast to the spiritual seekers we just mentioned, all were involved with the daily problems and failings of themselves and others in their communities, but they overcame the adversities and achieved greatness.

Jane Litman asks what if you have a leaky faucet, and you call a plumber to come and fix it? The plumber arrives, fixes your faucet, and gives you a bill. You gratefully write out a check and hand it to the plumber. Do you feel holy? Probably not. But that is exactly how this passage of Leviticus evaluates your behavior in this situation.

When is the last time you felt holy? Happy? Yes. Busy? Yes. Excited? Yes. Even deeply moved? Yes. But holy? Take a moment and think about it: Was it last week, last month, last year–perhaps never? For us, such times are rare indeed. It’s like we reserve “holiness” for someone else, maybe someone like Mother Teresa who devoted her whole life to helping others. We don’t tend to think of our own lives, our own experiences, as holy. But this text instructs all of us within the faith community to “Be holy, because I, Adonai your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Jesus told his disciples the same thing. He said in Matthew 5: 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. This expression of Jesus about perfection refers to people whose intent is to not be satisfied with anything short of touching the ideal. These aren’t people with a conceit of perfection, rather it is about those who aspire, like the Apostle Paul, who are singled minded in their desire to be genuine citizens of God’s kingdom. All persons who take this road have one great aim – Godlikeness. God’s children aspire to never sinking below the ideal of showing impartial, benignant and gracious love even to the unworthy. Let me clarify that word benignant – it is a great word that our obsession with medical oncology has dumbed down. We live with the polar differences between something being malignant, meaning life threatening and something declared benign- which we think to mean ordinary, usual, expected and normal. No, when something is benign it is a step above the ordinary and normal – it is kindly and gracious. That requires effort.

That God is holy is fairly self-evident, but how does that make us holy? According to Genesis 1:26 we are created in the image of God. In our Judeo-Christian tradition, being created in “the image of God” doesn’t refer to a physical likeness, but rather a moral possibility. The doctrine of imitatio dei, is that God is the role model for human behavior. Thus when God sends angels to visit Abraham after his circumcision, this is a sign that it is holy for us to visit the sick. We approach God not only through meditation, faith, and study but through moral acts. Being holy is largely about how we treat other people. That something you can’t miss when you study how the Prophets critiqued the culture of their day and pointed out the injustice, abuse and lack of simple respect for other human beings.

Protestant theologians typically de-emphasize imitatio Christi, or the imitation of Christ fearing that it might lead to an emphasis on works at the expense of faith. But Harold Shulweis expands on a concept of actively imitating God. He maintains that when we pray to God who makes peace, what we are really saying is that the act of making peace is godly, or sacred. When we pray that God is just, we know that justice is holy. Shulweis calls his theological insight “predicate theology,” meaning that the most important part of prayer is our description of what is godly, the predicate rather than the subject of the prayer. According to Shulweis, the most important part of prayer is not so much about praising the transcendent nature of God, but about emphasizing for ourselves which godly behaviors are spiritual and holy. Prayer is a lesson in how to live in a godly way, not just at rare moments, but as we live our day-to-day normal lives, even when we write a check to the plumber, the auto mechanic or the dentist.

This is put clearly in Deuteronomy 30:11-14: “The commandments I command this day are not extraordinary, not far away, they are not in the heavens…. Not across the sea, rather the instruction is very near, in your mouth and in your heart.” The Twenty-one commandments of Leviticus 19 form a handbook for the religious concepts of the imitation of God and predicate theology. It teaches that we mere human beings are holy because God is holy. Our holiness is demonstrated through performing godly acts. But these godly acts aren’t superhuman. Holiness consists of ordinary everyday godly acts, such as taking care of our families or looking after the rights of the poor and strangers. Choosing honesty and truth–that’s godly. Paying those who do work, treating disabled people with respect, refraining from malicious gossip–that’s holy. Honoring elders, taking time for study and reflection, forgiveness–that’s sacred.

In our society, we imagine that only other people are holy. That they live in faraway places and that they are fundamentally different from us. This gives us an excuse to distance ourselves from both the responsibilities and the joys of the sacred. We distance ourselves from our own identification with God. But you don’t have to be Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama to be holy. God–or at least the experience of Godlike holiness–is available to all of us in the most mundane of acts.

Holiness is a spiritual discipline but one that is available to us at any moment. It is more a matter of mindfulness than dramatic behavioral change. So next time you take a walk on Sunday instead of doing errands, remind yourself that you are doing something sacred. When you say something good about another person, or even just greet a stranger at a meeting or party, attend to your spiritual leading. And next time you have a leaky faucet fixed, as you pay the plumber, take a moment to appreciate that you are both holy.

This entry was posted in Messages. Bookmark the permalink.