What Does Being “Cut Off” Mean in the OT?

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:

  1. childlessness and premature death
  2. premature death caused by God
  3. capital punishment administered by a human court
  4. cessation of existence after death so as not to enjoy eternal life
  5. 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].”

photo credit: 270:365 via photopin (license)

This post first appeared February 28, 2015.

How Do the Righteous Speak?

Jesus himself said that “the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Matt 12:34b). It is an undervalued axiom in our culture that what we say—whether verbally, over text, or on social media—these acts of communication reveal our hearts.

Proverbs provides some of the most pithy and helpful statements on how a righteous man communicates. Often Proverbs will contrast the righteous and his communication style and the non-righteous man. What follows are only a few examples from Proverbs on how the righteous one’s communication is described.

  1. The Righteous Brings Benefit by His Words.

The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life,
But the mouth of the wicked conceals violence (Prov 10:11).

The lips of the righteous feed man,
But fools die for lack of understanding (Prov 10:21).

I have known some people who I literally cannot listen to enough. It seems that every time they speak, they are literally feeding me and providing me with something that will sustain me in life. That is the mark of righteous speech. The words of the righteous provide tremendous benefit to all those who will listen. As Proverbs makes clear elsewhere, this is largely due to the fact that the righteous individual is also wise—having a mastery on the issues of importance in life.

  1. The Righteous is Valued because of His Words.

Righteous lips are the delight of kings,
And he who speaks right is loved (Prov 16:13).

The tongue of the righteous is as choice silver,
The heart of the wicked is worth little (Prov 10:20).

The lips of the righteous bring forth what is acceptable,
But the mouth of the wicked what is perverted (Prov 10:32).

In line with the previous point, those who speak well and benefit others are prized because of their intrinsic value. This is no surprise.

  1. The Righteous Speaks with Wisdom and Insight.

The mouth of the righteous flows with wisdom,
But the perverted tongue will be cut out (Prov 10:31).

The one who is righteous is also necessarily wise. Therefore, the speech of the righteous is imbued with wisdom, understanding how the world works and helping others see that through his or her speech. In contract, there are also those who simply deserve to have their tongue cut out because they twist and deceive people—they hurt instead of help.

  1. The Righteous Thinks before He Speaks.

The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer,
But the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things (Prov 15:28).

Oh how much we need this listen more than ever. Our society prizes the quick and witty, but Proverbs highlights the prudent and thoughtful. There is a time for haste, but the wise man or woman knows that should be the exception and not the rule. Those who are righteous know time and thinking must precede helpful communication.

What is your favorite Proverb on communication?

Elijah: Man of God or Coward?

One of the most epic stories in the Bible is where Elijah squares off against the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. There are 450 prophets of Baal, and just 1 Elijah. Yet through a dramatic display, Yahweh shows himself to be the true God, and Elijah convinced the people to slaughter the prophets of Baal (1 Kgs 18:40).

After the contest, Yahweh brings rain upon the land, relieving a 3 ½ year drought. Ahab, the king of Israel, sees all of this. Then, he returns to Jezreel and tells Jezebel, his Baal-worshipping wife, what Elijah had done. She sends Elijah a message, in which she promises to make him like the prophets of Baal (i.e., dead).

What is Elijah’s response?

Actually, this is where there are two diverging ideas. One idea follows the majority of English translations and claims that Elijah becomes cowardly and flees Jezebel and begins to mope over his existence. This idea is backed up by the translation, “Elijah was afraid” (1 Kings 19:3).

The problem is that there is good evidence that the Hebrew reads “Elijah saw.” In fact, the consonantal spelling of “Elijah was afraid” and “Elijah saw” are actually the same. It is only the pronunciation that is different. Older English translations translated this phrase as “Elijah saw,” but most modern translations have gone to “Elijah was afraid,” citing non-Hebrew evidence and the context that Elijah’s fear was the motivation for fleeing from Jezebel.

In contrast to the majority opinion, I don’t think Elijah was a coward, nor was he afraid of Jezebel.

First, with regard to the Hebrew reading, it is much easier to change “he saw” to “he was afraid.” But it doesn’t make sense for a scribe to edit “he was afraid” to “he saw.” Hence, by that simple test, “Elijah saw” is much more likely to be the original reading.

Second, the overall context lends support to Elijah’s boldness. I mean, come on! He literally just stood on a mountain alone against king Ahab, the people of Israel, and 450 prophets of Baal! It is unlikely in the extreme that Elijah would buckle at the knees at the sound of a boisterous woman like Jezebel immediately following such an experience.

So, if Elijah was not afraid, why did he run? If we take the reading as “Elijah saw.” To answer this, we must ask what did Elijah see? The best explanation seems to be that Elijah saw that the repentance from Baal worship to Yahweh which he hoped to inspire was short-lived. Ahab did not depose Jezebel. Rather, he allowed (and possibly encouraged) the threats against Elijah’s life. Thus, the leadership of Israel did not return to Yahweh. The people were not showing signs of long-term revival. Thus, Elijah’s proclamation, “I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kgs 19:4). In other words, just like his predecessors, Elijah could not bring about the heart change that the nation needed.

But still, why did Elijah run south? Why did Elijah ask God to kill him? If our observations are correct so far, we can surmise that Elijah ran, not because of fear, but to escape Jezebel killing him. If Jezebel were to kill the prophet Elijah, it would be seen as a victory for Baal. Elijah could not stomach the thought of glorifying Baal, so he went far south where his death would not have a link to Jezebel or Baal worship. There, because of his brokenness, Elijah asked God to take his life. Elijah realized that he had failed to affect repentance in the nation, and it broke his heart. He was done.

This picture of Elijah is a bit different than the picture painted by the majority of commentators. Yet, I think it provides an accurate picture of Elijah. He was not an unfaithful prophet who stopped trusting in God and feared Jezebel. Rather, he served the Lord faithfully and had his heart broken by the stubborn, unrepentant spirit of his people.

The Feast of Booths and the Kingdom of the Messiah

If you are reading this article, congratulations! You are one of the few and the daring to spend your time investigating the Old Testament ceremonial laws. The only question you are asking yourself right now is—is reading about the Feast of Booths worth it? And yes, it is. In fact, the New Testament assumes you know about the Feast of Booths!

Many people grow up in church with an insufficient emphasis given to the details of the of the Old Testament. It is also likely that few Christians ever get a lesson on the Feast of Booths. After all, if Christ has fulfilled the Old Testament, why would we want to know about the details found in OT? To answer this question, follow along with me and I will show you some of the important benefits to knowing about the Feast of Booths.

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What is the Feast of Booths?

The Feast of Booths (Sukkot in Hebrew) was important for those in the OT and the NT. It was one of three times a year where all of the males in Israel were mandated to come to Jerusalem before God (Deut 16:16). The Feast of Booths was an 8 day celebration (beginning Tishri 15 on the Jewish Calendar), which happens to be in September/October in our calendar. During this feast, the people would live in temporary shelters (booths) and give offerings to the Lord (Lev 23:36). According to Lev 23:42, this was for native Jews only.

The Purpose of the Feast of Booths

The purpose of the Feast of Booths was to remind Israel that God brought them out of the land of Egypt, redeeming His people and giving them salvation from Egypt (Lev 26:43). Israel went from living in Egypt to the wilderness at Sinai, and their temporary shelters during the Feast of Booths was to be a reminder of when the nation lived in temporary shelters coming out of Egypt. It was a reminder of God’s faithfulness and goodness to Israel.

The Feast of Booths and the Kingdom of the Messiah

There is a very interesting detail found in Zechariah 14 concerning the kingdom of the Messiah. Zechariah 14 describes the return of the Messiah and His victory over those who oppose the people of Israel. After having secured His kingdom, Zech 14:16 says:   “Then it will come about that any who are left of all the nations that went against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Booths.”

Here we see the application of the Feast of Booths given to the nations being ruled by Israel in the Messiah’s kingdom. Previously the Feast of Booths was applicable to the Israelites. However, in the Zechariah 14 world, the nations will be obligated to worship and commemorate the Lord’s faithfulness and redemption. According to the prophet Zechariah, there will be severe penalty for those who choose not to celebrate (Zech 14:18-19).

It seems that the significance of the Feast of Booths undergoes a change in significance at this time. Maybe the Feast of Booths is for the nations their own memorial of their wilderness wanderings away from God?

The Feast of Booths and the Transfiguration

Interestingly, Zechariah 14 seems to be the background of the Transfiguration in Matt 17. After Peter sees the glory of the Messiah, he proclaims that he will build three booths if the Lord allows him (Matt 17:4).

Was Peter just a crazy man who suddenly decided to camp out? No, he realized that Zechariah 14 prophesied that when the Messiah comes in His kingdom, then there will be a multinational celebration of the Feast of Booths. Peter wanted to get a head start on the celebration! However, it was not yet time for Jesus to set up His kingdom, and so it was not yet time to commemorate that celebration.

In the case of the Feast of Booths, the details of the Old Testament help us understand the Messiah’s future kingdom. Additionally, this information also sheds light on why Peter acted the way they did during the Transfiguration. After all, like a good Jewish schoolboy, Peter would have relied upon the Old Testament as the main basis for his theology. Thus, we are reminded again that we ought not to neglect a detailed study of the Old Testament, for it forms the foundation upon which the New Testament builds.

photo credit: Begemot via photopin cc

This updated article originally appeared, Sept 23, 2014.