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What did it mean when God "cut off" a person in the Old Testament?

by Stephen Davey

Dwight asked: In Leviticus, Moses describes someone who is unclean who disobeys God’s commands as being “cut off” from the people. Does that mean he/she is to be banished from Israel, ex-communication or is it a sentence of execution?

Thanks for that question, Dwight.

This phrase “to cut off” appears numerous times through the first five books of the Bible, which we call the Law. God spoke to Moses and explained why a person would be cut off, saying, “Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him” (Numbers 15:31).

But the interesting thing about this text is that the sins Moses described leading to someone being “cut off” are sins of the mind and heart, not just of the body. So, the Jewish leaders and Israelites may not have been able to know if someone had committed a sin, so they could not banish, or execute that sinner in every case. Because of that, it seems unlikely that this phrase refers to a human judgment or punishment.

The end of that verse, “his iniquity shall be on him,” indicates that this is not a call to action for the religious leaders to take action against a person, but rather is a reflection of that person’s guilt before God, who is the ultimate judge and will hold their iniquity against them in the final judgment.

To put it more simply, being “cut off” from God means to be cast away from His fellowship and to face His wrath. And, by the way, there are millions of people around the world today who are “cut off” from God, because they have not received His offer of salvation. The saving grace of the gospel is the only rescue from being eternally cast away from God forever.

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