3.26 Conditional Acceptance of Israel
God was giving Israel possession of the lands currently inhabited by the Canaanite tribes He had rejected. However, Israel's tenancy was conditional, as He made clear in Lev 20:22-26.
"Keep all my decrees and laws and follow them, so that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out" (Lev 20:22).
Israel was made subject to the same behavioral standards that the Canaanites had failed to uphold. God may be severe, but He is consistent, and there is no hint of favoritism towards the Israelites. In fact, He held Israel to a higher standard because of His own choice of them:
"Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy" (Lev 19:1).
"You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them. But I said to you, 'You will possess their land; I will give it to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey. I am the Lord your God, who has set you apart from the nations'" (Lev 20:23-24).
The theme of holiness is repeated throughout the book: Lev 11:44-45, Lev 20:7, Lev 20:26, Lev 21:8, Lev 22:32. It is not enough for the Israelites to turn FROM the nations, they must turn TO the Lord. Here is the crux of Leviticus. The conduct demanded of Israel is derivative of God's holiness, and a mirror of His character. Obedience to law is the consequence of divine election. This principle underlies all the other laws. Israel has been "set apart," therefore Israel must "make a distinction between the clean beast and the unclean" (Lev 20:25), and between righteous and unrighteous conduct. The exercise of moral discrimination is the condition of their inheritance of the Promised Land.
We see also the limitations of Leviticus and of the entire legal mode of spirituality. Despite the severity of Leviticus, for Biblical faith legal obedience is not the goal but only the sign of a deeper heart commitment. Obedience to law is a higher form of circumcision, yet with the same limitations. Circumcision was a sign of the Covenant, of being God's possession. But it is quite possible for circumcised men to act in immoral ways -- for example, the slaughter of the Shechemites by Simeon and Levi, and Joseph's brothers' selling him into slavery. Similarly, regarding the law, one can perform the rituals out of duty or habit, but not with passion or even sincerity. Thus we see that Leviticus, focusing as it does on behavior and not on the inner man, is necessary, but not sufficient to produce a moral individual.
The true objective of Leviticus was that the people of Israel would be holy, set apart unto God, in the heart, not just the habits. Legal obedience was intended to be the sign of inner commitment, but it was only the shell and not the substance, as the later history of Israel made clear. Righteous behavior was meant to signify the purity of internal spirit. But these are two different realms, related but not identical, as different as Aaron and Moses. One was only a priest, the other was the friend of God.