Old Testament

What Does it Mean to be Cut Off in the Old Testament?

photo of a log cut off

Throughout the Old Testament there are numerous times where it is said of an individual, a family, or a nation that they will be “cut 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 by Juan Gomez on Unsplash

This post first appeared February 28, 2015.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

3 Comments

  • Michael

    From my understanding Leviticus 11-15 are about ritual impurity which was only sinful if a person entered the tabernacle or Temple court unclean. Uncleanness would ve solved by a waiting period, washing, and/or sacrificing. However, leviticus 18-22 is about moral impurity, so these laws were about sins that were punishable by death.

    Some say there is a contradiction in lev 15:24 and lev 20:18, about sexual intercourse during menstruation. In lev 15:24 a man becomes unclean and simply has to wait 7 days, just like the woman herself would. However, in lev 18:19 and lev 20:18, the man and woman are cut off (put to death) for having menstrual sex, which is it, death or wait a week for having sex with a menstruating wife?

    • Peter Goeman

      I believe the difference between Lev 15 and Lev 18/20 can be deduced by intentional motivation. The assumption is that you are to avoid relations during that time, but what if it starts earlier than anticipated or later depending on a variety of factors? Lev 15 seems to cover the issue of relations during unforseen bleeding. Lev 18 and 20 seem to cover high handed rebellion where it is known that she is menstruating, but the individual doesn’t care. That’s how I would read it at least. It is a good topic for a full blog post though to show the differences.

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