“By Which a Man May Live”: The Meaning of Leviticus 18:5
Leviticus 18:5 stresses the importance of keeping God’s Law during the Mosaic era as the basis for living. Its truths also appear in Ezekiel 20:11, 13, and 21. Paul even alludes to Leviticus 18:5 in Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12. The verse reads: “So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them; I am the Lord.”
Not all agree on the meaning of Leviticus 18:5. Sometimes this verse is used to support the idea that eternal life is based on Law-keeping. But there is a more accurate understanding What Leviticus 18:5 is stating is this: As God’s covenant people, Israel is in a relationship with God. Since Israel already belonged to God, Israel (both corporately and individually) is to obey Him by keeping all His commandments. Obeying God’s commandments will result in Israel remaining in and living abundantly in the land of promise associated with the Abrahamic Covenant.
What follows is an attempt to support this position.
Israel Belongs to God
The first seventeen chapters of Leviticus focused on God’s holiness and the significance of offering and sacrifices. God’s presence among His people means His people are to be holy (see Lev. 11:44-45). Leviticus 18:1-5 then functions as a preamble to what follows concerning God’s expectations for His people, Israel. Three times God declared the foundational truth that He is Israel’s God:
- 18:2: Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, “I am the Lord your God.”
- 18:4: “I am the Lord your God.”
- 18:5: “I am the LORD.”
Just before the giving of the Mosaic Covenant in Exodus 20, God also claimed the people of Israel as His own when he declared, “I am the LORD Your God,” (Exod. 20:2).
Israel too had committed themselves to the Lord. Exodus 14:31 states that the people of Israel already had “believed in the Lord,” which is similar language to Genesis 15:6 where we are told that Abram “believed in the LORD.” At Mount Sinai, the people of Israel declared, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” (Exod. 19:8; cf. 24:3, 7).
So Israel had believed in God and Israel belonged to Him. As Thomas Schreiner observes, Leviticus 18: “is addressed to those who belong to the Lord.” This is because “Israel has been redeemed from Egypt and liberated by God’s grace.” (40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law, 59).
Significantly, the command for Israel to obey God’s commandments in Leviticus 18:5 is within the context of a covenantal relationship between God and Israel. This expected obedience is not presented as a means for a relationship with God, but rather the proper response of a people already belonging to God. As Daniel Block states, the Law of Moses was not given as a means of salvation, but “as the grateful response of those who had already been saved” (“Law, Ten Commandments, Torah,” in Holman Dictionary).
Put another way.
It is not:
Obey to become My people.
Because you are My people—obey!
Leviticus 18:5 begins with, “So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments …” The “statutes” and “judgments” refer to the laws of the Mosaic Covenant. This includes the entirety of the commands in the legal sections of the Pentateuch. These are in contrast to the “abominable customs” of Egypt where Israel previously was enslaved (18:30). Israel was enslaved to Egypt and under its laws, but now Israel belonged to God and was expected to obey His commandments.
Living and Long Life in the Land
Next, obeying God will result in living—“by which a man may live if he does them” (Lev. 18:5). The “may live” here refers to long and abundant life in the land of promise. It means remaining in the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant in the land. It contrasts with death and being cut off and removed from the land of promise. Other passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy show that obedience is linked with living a long and prosperous life in the land:
Lev. 25:18: You shall thus observe My statutes and keep My judgments, so as to carry them out, that you may live securely on the land.
Deut. 4:40: So you shall keep His statutes and His commandments which I am giving you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may live long on the land which the Lord your God is giving you for all time.”
Deut. 5:33: You shall walk in all the way which the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you will possess.
Deut. 30:16: in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it.
Also, what immediately follows Leviticus 18:5 supports this understanding of life in the land. In Leviticus 18:6-23 God offered a long list of sexual sins to avoid that characterized both the Egyptians and the Canaanites. Then with 18:24-25 God said other nations were being removed from their lands because of sinful actions. Disobedience is linked with removal from the land:
Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. 25 For the land has become defiled, therefore I have brought its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants.
So the nations were being “spewed out” from their lands because of sinful activities. What is important here is that Leviticus 18 is declaring that sinful activity leads to expulsion from land.
Leviticus 18:26-29 then explicitly states that keeping God’s commandments is necessary for Israel to avoid being removed from the land:
But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you 27 (for the men of the land who have been before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become defiled); 28 so that the land will not spew you out, should you defile it, as it has spewed out the nation which has been before you. 29 For whoever does any of these abominations, those persons who do so shall be cut off from among their people.
For Israel, the consequences for disobeying God’s commands in Leviticus 18 involve being spewed out from the land and being “cut off” from among the people. On the flip side, obedience means continued blessings in the land.
Also, Leviticus 26 will spell out what obedience means. Walking in “My statutes” and keeping “My commandments” (26:3) will lead to rains, agricultural abundance, successful harvests, satisfaction with food, security in the land, lack of harmful beasts, success over enemies, and God’s presence (26:3-12). However, disobeying God’s commands means a reversal of these blessings and dispersion from the land (26:14-45). Leviticus 26, therefore, is a commentary on what living means. So “may live” in Leviticus 18:5 refers to abundant living in the land of promise.
What are some theological implications from Leviticus 18:5?
First, that “may live” in Leviticus 18:5 is referring to life in the land of promise for Israel is well-established by the context of Leviticus 18. Thus, this verse does not teach that Mosaic Law observance is the basis for eternal life. As Schreiner notes, “Therefore, in context the verse should not be construed as legalistic or as offering salvation on the basis of works” (40 Questions, 59).
It is true that later Jewish tradition will use this verse to claim eternal life is based on law-keeping. And there is great debate as to whether Paul has eternal life in mind when he quotes Leviticus 18:5 in Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12. That is a topic for another post. But in its own context, Leviticus 18:5 is primarily about abundant life in the land.
Second, law-keeping in Leviticus 18:5 seems related to what those in a relationship with God are expected to do. Because Israel belongs to God they are commanded to obey. Thus, Mosaic Law keeping seems more related to sanctification at this time than initial justification. During the Mosaic Era, keeping the Mosaic Law was required for all within Israel as a way to express obedience to God. Abraham, the chief example of justification through faith alone (Gen. 15:6), established that justification occurs through faith apart from the Mosaic Law (see Gal. 3:17).
Third, law-keeping for Israel is both a corporate and individual manner. Israel as a whole was to keep God’s laws and would be held accountable for keeping the Law. Passages such as Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 30 predicted that Israel as a corporate entity will be held accountable for covenant disobedience. And both predicted a coming dispersion and removal from the land for disobeying God’s commands. Hundreds of years later, Ezekiel 20, with its three connections to Leviticus 18:5 (Ezek. 20:11, 13, 21), indicts Israel as a whole for Mosaic Covenant disobedience. It is also true that individuals within Israel were required to keep the Mosaic Covenant as well (see Deut. 27:15-26). Individuals within Israel could be cut off from Israel through flagrant violations of the Law.
Fourth, as mentioned, this post has not addressed the use of Leviticus 18:5 in the New Testament—most notably Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12. The use of Leviticus 18:5 in these two verses is heavily debated with many good scholars disagreeing with several different views concerning how Paul is using Leviticus 18:5. Some think Paul quotes Leviticus 18:5 contextually, while others believe Paul is using it non-contextually whether through typology or reinterpretation. Others believe Paul is addressing a Jewish misunderstanding of the Law in Galatians 3:12. These issues are too complex to address here but I hope to address them in a later post.
Michael Vlach Bio
Michael J. Vlach, Ph.D. (Twitter: @mikevlach) is Professor of Theology at The Master’s Seminary where he has been teaching full time since 2006. Michael specializes in the areas of Systematic Theology, Historical Theology, Apologetics, and World Religions. Dr. Vlach was awarded the “Franz-Delitzsch Prize 2008” for his dissertation, “The Church as a Replacement of Israel: An Analysis of Supersessionism.” He blogs here.
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Thanks for posting this helpful article.
G. N. Barkman
Some classical dispensationaists won’t like this take. Too bad …
Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.
I too am thankful for this article.
Bravo. Well done. I think you are spot on!
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