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No. 43: Leviticus 27

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 43
November, 1992
Copyright 1992, Biblical Horizons

I recently had the privilege and pleasure of reading the first draught of Gary North’s Economic Commentary on Leviticus, which will be out some time next year. Gary’s comments on Leviticus 27 were stimulating, and caused me to take another look at the passage. The results, which I sent to him, I now present also to you.

To make much sense of this essay, you will need to have Leviticus 27 in front of you.

This chapter concerns vows and payments made to God. Of particular interest is the first section, which begins, literally, "Anyone who makes a special vow, in estimation (value) of your persons to Yahweh." Then follows the value of the persons dedicated. Recent commentators have assumed that since persons cannot be given to the sanctuary, these values are the equivalent of persons.

That is, I want to give my son to the sanctuary to serve God. But my son is not a Levite or a priest. Thus, to fulfill my vow, I give his value in money. This "desanctifies" my son, fulfilling his vow for him, and removing him from the danger that comes from being too near to God. Only the Levites and priests might get so near to God, for only they were consecrated. For other people, drawing so near was dangerous: God would treat such persons as if they were priests or Levites, and weigh them accordingly. Since they would not be qualified, God would judge them.

Some older commentators suggest another view, which I have come to think is correct. They maintain that in fact laymen could and did serve at the sanctuary. There were lots of "menial" tasks to perform around the Tabernacle and Temple that did not involve drawing near to the holy places and touching the holy things. Thus, there was lots of room for people to dedicate themselves or their family members to sanctuary service. In this view, the values listed in Leviticus 27:3-8 are gifts that should accompany the person being dedicated.

These values are significant amounts of money. Scholars have noted that they come close to the prices that human beings commanded on the slave markets of the ancient world. Thus, the accompanying gifts were roughly the value of the persons themselves. It is this fact that has caused more recent scholars to see the values as substitutionary.

Nothing in the text, however, suggests substitution. Indeed, the word translated "make a special [vow]" in verse 2 ("difficult" in some versions), is used for times when a person vows himself to serve God. In fact, the only other time this verb is used in this form is in Numbers 6:2, where it refers to the Nazirite vow. (Numbers 6 deals with ending the vow, and thus says nothing about how one enters the vow.)

The Nazirite vow could be temporary, as Numbers 6 describes, or permanent, as in the cases of Samson, Samuel, and John the Forerunner. One of the requirements of the Nazirite was that he let his hair grow long. The Song of Deborah begins, literally, "That long locks of hair hung loose in Israel, that the people voluteered, praise Yahweh!" (Judges 5:2). This verse indicates that at least sometimes when men took up arms for holy war, they took the Nazirite vow. Would all these men be so rich as to be able to pay these assigned values? By no means, but Leviticus 27:8 allows the priest to decrease the required payment.

A female who took such a vow, like Jephthah’s daughter, would not be going to war, but would be engaged in some kind of sanctuary service, as she was (Judges 11:31, 39-40).

This passage in Judges gives us another slant on this special vow. Jephthah pledges to offer as an Ascension ("whole burnt sacrifice") the first person to come out of his house (flock and herd animals were not kept in the house). The Ascension Offering pictured the believer’s ascent into heaven to the throne of God, as I have showed in my paper The Whole Burnt Offering: Its Liturgy and Meaning. Jephthah’s daughter ascended to the hill of Yahweh to serve Him.

Returning to the holy war, when we look at Exodus 30:11-16, we see that each time the host of Israel was mustered–not "census," but "muster" is the word in this passage–each man gave half a shekel as a ransom for his soul. He was drawing near to God, to the holy war camp (Dt. 23:9-14; 2 Sam. 11:6-13; Amos 2:11-12–hey! look these verses up and read them, because they make a point essential to this essay), and thus came under a special threat from God. Ransom was needed. The money was given to the sanctuary.

With all this information in place, we can understand much better what is going on in Leviticus 27. Leviticus opens with the Ascension and Tribute Offerings (Lev. 1 & 2). In these offerings, the person offered himself (through an animal substitute) and a tribute (grain) to God. Here at the end of Leviticus, we return full circle to the same idea: Person and tribute are offered to God when a persons enters special service.

Tribute is required whenever we draw near to God. Twice the Torah states, "you will never appear before Me emptyhanded" (Ex. 34:20; Dt. 16:16). The tribute is required, and therefore "ransoms" the person from the penalty attached to not paying the tribute.

One thing that emerges from this study is that when an Israelite was mustered for holy war, he did not necessarily take the Nazirite vow. This muster tax was suficient for his dedication. The Nazirite vow was the "special" vow, and involved an additional, and much more costly tribute. The Nazirite was a "holy warrior extraordinaire." His was a special or "difficult" vow because it was so expensive, both in the tribute required, and in the sacrifices required (see Numbers 6). Only a person to whom God had already given considerable power could become a Nazirite, at least ordinarily.

The Ultimate Nazirite, who had all the power and wealth necessary, was Jesus Christ, who took the vow (not to drink wine) just before His crucifixion (Mt. 26:29). Did Jesus pay money to enter the vow? In a sense yes, for Judas was given 30 shekels of silver for Him (Mt. 26:15), but gave them to the sanctuary (Mt. 27:5). 30 skekels was the price of a slave (Ex. 21:32; Zech. 11:12). Thus, the priests valued Jesus as less than a free man (50 shekels), but in a roundabout way, the Nazirite dedication money was paid during the time when Jesus was under the Nazirite vow.

Let me now provide a brief overview of Leviticus 27 as a whole. The first section concerns the special vow of persons, and any vows of animals (vv. 2-13). The second section concerns dedications to God of houses and lands (vv. 14-22). These are not called vows but "sanctifications." What these two sections have in common is that both are valued in terms of the sanctuary shekel, not in terms of the common or national currency. (Notice that Church and State in Israel maintained two different sets of money, a rather radical cultural separation of the two!) The muster money of Exodus 30:13 had to be offered in the sanctuary shekel, as was the valuation of the Levites (Num. 3:47) and the reparation offering (Lev. 5:15).

The second half of Leviticus 27 also has two sections, dealing with things that are given to God but are not valuated in terms of the sanctuary shekel. The third section of the chapter deals with firstborn animals (vv. 26-27), and the fourth section deals with things that are banned and tithes (vv. 28-33). Banned things are "vowed" (Num. 21:2), and tithes are an imposed vow (Gen. 28:20). Tithes go to the Levites rather than to the sanctuary, so they are not "sanctified" (Num. 18:21-32, contrast the holy things given to the priests, Num. 18:8-20).

Thus, the chapter as a whole has an ABBA structure:

A. Things specially vowed and valuated by the sanctuary shekel.

B. Things sanctified and valuated by the sanctuary shekel.

B’. Firstborn animal may not be sanctified, because it is already Yahweh’s.

A’. Things vowed but not valuated by the sanctuary shekel.

Why is this chapter where it is? Why it is at the end of Leviticus? I think there are two things to bear in mind. First, all the various kinds of vows are brought together here in order to draw together all the discussions in Leviticus. We cannot discuss the sanctification of houses and lands until after we have read the laws of Jubilee in Leviticus 25.

Second, it seems to me that the vows here are great privileges. God allows these people to pay tribute to Him, because He is their King. But the people are sinful and unclean! Only after we have set in motion all the sacrifices and cleansing rituals of Leviticus are we in a position to draw near and offer such vows. Thus, it is fitting that Leviticus end with a discussion of these great privileges.

Those who want to study the passage and master its details will find the following outline helpful. The passage breaks down according to the Hebrew conjunctions, which separate various sections. Here is an outline for study:

I. Things valuated by the sanctuary shekel (vv. 2-25)

A. Vows of men and beasts

ish ki, he who, v. 2, adult male

and if, v. 4, adult female

and if, v. 5, child

and if, v. 6, infant

and if, v. 7, aged person

and if, v. 8, poor person (cp. Lev. 5:7, 11)

and if, v. 9, sacrificial animal

and if, v. 10b, if he exchanges it

and if, v. 11, unclean animal

and if, v. 13, redemption

B. Sanctification of house and land (vv. 14-24)

NOTE: men parallel house, beasts parallel land

ish ki, he who, v. 14, house

if, v. 17, Jubilee

and if, v. 18, after Jubilee

and if, v. 19, redemption

and if, v. 20a, no redemption if not redeemed

and if, v. 20b, no redemption if "sold"

and if, vv. 22-24, dedicates land under lease

Closure of 1 & 2: v. 25, the sanctuary shekel

II. Addenda: Things not valuated by the sanctuary shekel (vv. 26-33)

B’. Firstborn of animals

akh, yet or also, v. 26, sacrificial animals

and if, v. 27a, unclean animals, redemption

and if, v. 27b, unclean animals, sale

A’. Vowed things

1. Banned

akh kol, yet or also all things, v. 28, property

kol, all, v. 29, persons

2. Tithed

vkol, and all, v. 30, tithes of crops

and if, v. 31, redemption

vkol, and all, v. 32, tithes of sacrificial animals

and if, v. 33b, if he exchanges it