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Eschatology 101: Prophetic Language in Leviticus 18:24-30 (Part 2)

Eschatology 101: Prophetic Language in Leviticus 18:24-30 (Part 2)

*Note: this article is polished & re-posted*

In this series we are looking at Old Testament passages that contain varying shades of prophetic or "apocalyptic" language. So today's passage might be a let down because it does not contain the type of language that we normally associate with "apocalypse language". That is partially because we don't understand what language type the prophets use in Scripture. And it is partially because even casual symbolism in the Old Testament can be dragged forward into the New Testament for prophetic purposes. So let's take a look at one example.

The following passage from Leviticus comes early in the development of Israel as a nation. It's clear practical implication can be seen frequently throughout the history of Israel. This passage in a sense is fulfilled many times in small ways and once during Israel's great exile to Babylon. In the end though, it will provide some insight into a unique passage within the book of Revelation.

“Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people. So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs that were practiced before you, and never to make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God.” - Leviticus 18:24-30

The language of this passage is not overly confusing. In fact this passage gives us a great opportunity to recognize how simple language can mean complex things. The word here translated "vomit" (קִיא) (also in Leviticus 20:22) is a stern warning to Israel. There are a couple significant points of interpretation here.

1) This language is figurative.

The land had not literally ingested Israel and proceeds to "vomit" them out. This language can mean that (Jonah 2:10) because the word retains that meaning. But every usage does not require a literal enactment of vomiting, stomach juices, etc.. Instead the figurative analogy of removal, defilement and disgust are meant by the word.

2) This language is fulfilled by Israel defeating its enemies.

The original inhabitants of the land are going to be vomited out by the land. Check. But who is going to do this? The Scriptures say the land. In actuality and historically shown, it is the nation of Israel that does this. As the people move into the land and fulfill the promise they will be the means God uses to punish the sinful nations and remove them from the land. Is there a contradiction here? Of course not. And there really shouldn't even be a misunderstanding. This figurative language speaks for itself.

3) This language will be fulfilled of Israel.

This one goes hand in hand with the previous point. No one denies that Israel perverted God's law and the worship of God. No one denies that God brought judgment on them through outside nations. So we should acknowledge that the "land vomited out" Israel through the historical actions of Assyria and Babylon. Natural means are described as the cause but the Lord uses nations to fulfill those means in history.

4) This language is covenantal.

God in bringing judgment and warning tells the people that they will be "cut off" (כָּרַת). This is significant since it is often used of covenant making and separation (Gen 17:14). In fact the unique language of "from their people" almost ensures that this is speaking about the rejection of these sinful people from the covenant. In fact their rejection is an expulsion hence the "vomit" language.

5) This language is used in Revelation.

This point is less important that the previous points. This point includes some thematic stretches that not everyone will inherently agree with. But it shows how all of the language above can get transferred to a New Testament passage that often confuses people.

In Revelation 11:2 there is a paltry use of the English language in our translations. Often time the translation is something like this "do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out". But the word translated "leave that out" is actually  ἐκβάλλω. This word is used consistently in the New Testament as "cast out" and is the word used for the expulsion of demons (Matt 7:22; 8:31; 9:33; 10:1, etc). What is important though are the references to people being cast out (Matt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30).

From the many NT uses, there is a clear link to purity of God's temple, purity of God's people and prophetic judgment linked to this word. There are more normal uses certainly but the rendering of this text demands more than simply "leave that out". This "expelling" is so that the nation can stomp and tread upon the inhabitants. This not casual language. This is violent apocalyptic language.

Kenneth Gentry provides many useful insights in the use of this word but I'll highlight only two,

Ekballo is used for excommunication from one's faith community (e.g., 3 John 10). This is significant in that the Jews are constantly "casting out" Christians either from their synagogues or their cities. A key issue in Revelation is the persecution of believers by the Jews. 

The clearest, most detailed, historical example of synagogue excommunication appears in John's Gospel. There the parents of the blind man whom Jesus healed (Jn 9:1-7) feared being "put out of the synagogue" (aposunagogos, not ekballo, v. 22). After the Jews confronted the man himself, "they put him out" (exabalon auton exo, Jn 9:34-35). John mentions this danger also in Jn 12:42-43 and 16:2, though employing the other, uniquely NT term, aposunagogos. In 16:2 they believe they are doing God a spiritual service (latreian). Latreia is used of tabernacle/temple service, making it appropriate for our concerns in showing the temple's judgment (Ro 9:4; Heb 9:1, 6)... 

And though the common LXX and New Testament term for divorce is apostasion (from apolyo, to set free), we find the LXX using forms of ekballo when speaking of a divorced woman as one "cast out" (Lev 21:7, 14; 22:13-14; Num 30:9; Eze 44:22). Each of these cases (except for Num 30:9) appears in levitical discussions. The two Lev 21 statements forbid a priest from marrying divorcees because he is "holy to his God." Interestingly, when Ezekiel uses the term (ekbeblemenen, Eze 44:22) of divorced women whom priests are forbidden to marry, he does so while speaking of the temple and in defining the difference between "the holy and the profane" (Eze 44:23). These levitical uses remind us of Revelation where John is speaking of the temple and worship while distinguishing between that which God accepts (the inner temple, the naos, 11:1) and that which he rejects (the outer temple, the physical structure itself, 11:2).

Closing out this point, I hope it can be seen that though the same word may not be used (only one analogy to vomit is used in the NT 2 Peter 2:22), the imagery of expulsion and covenant rejection are seen in both texts.

Historical events demonstrate the fulfillment of the land vomiting out Israel. Historical events demonstrate the expulsion from the temple correlates to the Olivet Discourse. Hopefully we have come to see how figurative language like "vomit" can be fulfilled in history and mirrored in the Greek New Testament. As we move forward through other passages we will look at more obvious imagery links that are duplicated in the Old and New Testament.

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