I grew up in New Jersey. Which means I’ve been “cut off” multiple times. However, I’ve never been “cut off” in a Levitical-sort of way!
Leviticus 7:20 says, “the person who eats of the flesh of the sacrifice of the LORD’s peace offerings while an uncleanness is on him, that person shall be cut off from his people” (all Scripture in ESV). What does it mean, to be “cut off” from the people?
Jacob Milgrom, a revered Jewish commentator who wrote a 2500+ page 3-volume commentary on Leviticus, notes 19 different categories or reasons that a person could be “cut off” in Israel (Vol I, pg. 458). These include eating leaven during Passover (Ex 12:15, 19), working on the Sabbath (Ex 31:14), eating blood (Lev 7:27) or fat (Lev 7:25), duplicating the sanctuary anointment oil (Ex 30:33), blasphemy (Lev 24:15), illicit worship (Lev 20:2-5), illicit sex (Lev 18:27-29) and, as was the case in our passage this Sunday, eating a sacrifice in a state of impurity (Lev 7:20-21).
The offenses are clear that can incur the penalty of being “cut off.” But what does it actually mean to be “cut off”?
There are four major possibilities:
1) To be banished from the community. Most commentators who hold to this position emphasize the phrase, “from the people”—“that person shall be cut off from his people.” Of course, death would also do this, but the specification of “from his people” may indicate that in view here is the excommunication from the land of Israel (or from the gathered tribes of Israel, as is the case during the 40 years of wilderness wanderings).
The weakness of this position is that there are no clear examples of it in the biblical literature, whereas there are clear examples of most of the other possibilities. The strength is the phrase “from his people,” which could indeed refer to the community of Israel, though this phrase is clearly linked with physical death in other Scriptures (cf. Lev 20:3-5 below).
2) To be killed – either by the community (death penalty) or by God via divine judgment. This has strong support in Scripture, as there are examples of both the community of Israel putting someone to death (and the term “cut off” being applied to that capital punishment) and God exterminating an individual.
Compare Exodus 31:14 with Numbers 15:32-36 “You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people” (Ex 31:14). Notice how “shall be put to death” is parallel with “shall be cut off from among his people.” Surely being “cut off” for not keeping the Sabbath refers to premature death. When we compare it to the actual violation in Numbers 15, we see that the congregation puts the individual to death via stoning (though God does command it).
But we see a strong interplay between the community putting the individual to death and God doing the work of “cutting off.” This is seen most clearly in Lev 20:3-5:
“3 I myself will set my face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given one of his children to Molech, to make my sanctuary unclean and to profane my holy name. 4 And if the people of the land do at all close their eyes to that man when he gives one of his children to Molech, and do not put him to death, 5 then I will set my face against that man and against his clan and will cut them off from among their people, him and all who follow him in whoring after Molech.”
Here, the penalty of “cutting off” is surely death. God at first declares that He will cut off the person who sacrifices their child to Molech (a foreign god). But verse 4 indicates that this means He expects the Israelites do put the man to death. And if they do not, verse 5 shows that God Himself will do so. This passage demonstrates that even when God uses first-person language for cutting off an individual, it could still mean that the Israelites do the work of executing the sinner (vs 3). But it could also mean God Himself executes the sinner (vs 5).
3) “Cut off” can mean the person is made childless or his genealogical line does not continue due to judgment from God. Leviticus 20:17, when compared to other verses in the same section, offers strong evidence for this theory: “If a man takes his sister, a daughter of his father or a daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace, and they shall be cut off in the sight of the children of their people. He has uncovered his sister’s nakedness, and he shall bear his iniquity.”
Several phrases are used here to describe the penalty for this person’s incestual sin: “they shall be cut off”; “he shall bear his iniquity.” The entire chapter of Lev 20 uses several different phrases to describe similar penalties for incest and sexual immorality. Look especially at verse 20: “If a man lies with his uncle’s wife, he has uncovered his uncle’s nakedness; they shall bear their sin; they shall die childless.”
Since most of Lev 20:10ff seems to describe the same penalty for similar sins (sexual immorality; incest), it appears that “dying childless” may be a synonym or parallel way of saying, “cut off.” Having one’s posterity abruptly stopped was a grave thing indeed for a patriarchal society.
4) “Cut off” may indicate an individual is separated from God for eternity. This theory has been around since some of the earliest Jewish writings. The idea stems from the argument that to be “cut off” is the opposite of being “gathered to” one’s people after death (cf. Gen 15:15; Num 20:24; etc.). If one is “cut off,” they will not enter the realm of paradise upon death, but will be removed from their spiritual people. This possibility may also be combined with some of the others (i.e., a person may be removed from the earth via execution by the community and consequently barred from entering eternal paradise).
The usage of the term rejects attempts to summarize and simplify. Context can sometimes help decide what the term specifically means in location, but even then—as with the passage in Lev 7 or 20—there can be considerable ambiguity or lack of clarity. Therefore, it’s best to avoid dogmatic assertions about what the term means unless the context allows for such assertions. It’s enough to know that to be “cut off” indicates a serious offense against God.