Throughout the Old Testament there are numerous times where it is said of an individual, a family, or a nation that they will be “cur off.” But what exactly does that mean? The main theories are as follows:
- childlessness and premature death
- premature death caused by God
- capital punishment administered by a human court
- cessation of existence after death so as not to enjoy eternal life
- proclamation of God’s judgment
In evaluating what this phrase means, it is helpful to examine the main offenses in which being “cut off” is an appropriate penalty (Stuart, Exodus, 284).
- failure to practice circumcision (Gen 17:14)
- failure to eat unleavened bread during Passover (Exod 12:15, 19)
- illegally manufacturing or using the sacred anointing oil (Exod 30:32–33, 38)
- violating the Sabbath (Exod 31:14)
- eating sacrificed food while ritually impure (Lev 7:20–21)
- eating the fat or blood of a sacrifice (Lev 7:25, 27)
- slaughter/sacrifice outside the tabernacle (Lev 17:4, 9)
- forbidden sexual practices (Lev 18:29; 20:17–18)
- child sacrifice (Lev 20:2–5)
- necromancy (trying to divine the future by contact with the dead; (Lev 20:6)
- worship function by a defiled priest (Lev 22:3)
- failure to observe the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:29–30)
- failure to commemorate Passover (Num 9:13)
- defiant, intentional sin (Num 15:30–31)
- failure to purify oneself after contact with the dead (Num 19:13, 20).
When examining these passages there are a couple of helpful observations. First, the nature of many of these offenses indicate that they could take place without others knowing about them. Second, in some of these passages, God himself says He will be the one who cuts off the individual guilty of certain offenses (cf. Lev 20:3).
These observations seems to indicate that the penalty of being “cut off” is not something a human court enforces, but something that is divine in nature. Numbers 15:31 gives insight into why individuals are “cut off” from the people: “Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt will be on him.” Two reasons: (1) he despised the Word of God and (2) he flagrantly broke God’s commands.
In putting all of this together, it seems best then to understand the “cut off” formula to be something like a divine curse. In other words, the individuals who are rebel against God’s gracious covenant are put under the divine judgment which inherently belongs to covenant breakers. This doesn’t mean the individual will die immediately, but his rebellion and disobedience has sown God’s covenant curses (Lev 26; Deut 28) which will include eventual death. The cut off formula could perhaps be rephrased like this: “Because you are rebellious against your God and have broken His covenant, now then the curse which disobedience brings will belong to you [and usually the family as well].”
This post first appeared February 28, 2015.