“Now if after all this, you do not obey Me, but walk contrary to Me, then I also will walk in hostility to you; and I, even I, will chastise you seven times for your sins. Then you shall eat the flesh of your sons and daughters.” (OSB)
Leviticus 26 presents what is called the “Blessings and Curses,” that is, God telling Israel what good things will come from covenant obedience, and the bad that will come from disobedience. This is the first time they are enumerated; the second listing is near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, chap. 28.
The “Blessings and Curses” serve at least two important functions. First, they preclude anyone from saying, “We didn’t know.” God, as a loving Father, tells His children ahead of time what the consequences will be of their free choices, saying, as it were, “Do you want the blessings I have promised you? Remain faithful; stay in communion with Me, the Source of Life. But know that if you disobey and go your own way, you will reap the disastrous fruit of self-destruction.”
Second, they function within Scripture as prophetic pictures of Israel’s future. As the reader of Scripture continues on into Israel’s later story, the reader hears and sees the “curses” of the Covenant played out in Israel’s historical life. And so we know on our “second reading” of the Bible that Israel will in fact choose “death/cursing,” and while we are filled with tension over that, we realize that the question is actually being addressed to us: Which will we choose?
The astute reader might notice that the list of “curses” (Lev 26:14-39) outnumbers the list of “blessings” (Lev 26:3-13) by almost 3 to 1. God is much more specific and descriptive of the bad than of the good! This is the case, of course, because He loves us. The blessings of communion with God are infinite and inexpressible: “As it is written: ‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him" (1 Cor 2:9; Isa 64:4; 65:17). By contrast, as an accommodation to our feeble nature, God must elaborate on the “bad” for us who remain in spiritual infancy, to dissuade us from what is harmful by fear of punishments.
In light of our previous discussions of Leviticus, we might detect a few ironies in the curse mentioned above. In Lev 17:11, we observed that God gave Israel the “life-soul-blood” of the sacrificial animals for the cleansing of the altar and the people. Rather than partaking of the altar, and its sacrifices and atonement, the way of cursing leads to cannibalism, to consuming oneself. Israel, who destroyed its own children in pagan sacrifice (Isa 57:5; Jer 32:35; Ezek 16:20; Ps 105:38), will end up eating her own children when the siege of the conquering Assyrians and Babylonians is arrayed against them (Jer 19:9). So, “because they treated infants unjustly, they will be slain” (Prov 1:32 LXX).
We see another irony in the character of God’s punishment: Israel will refuse to keep the Seventh Day, the Sabbath, and so God “repays” with a sevenfold (“Sabbatical”) punishment. In this, we see an important Scriptural principle, that punishment follows sin: those who worship idols become like them (Ps 113:16). St. Paul talks about this principle in terms of God “handing us over” to our own sins (Rom 1:20ff; cf. Wisdom of Solomon 14:22ff). Again, God does this as a loving Father, desiring us to repent, to turn and be healed.
But Israel, and humanity as a whole, does not turn, and so it falls under the curse of its own way. For this reason, those who are “under the Law” are under the “curse of the Law” that was activated through our disobedience. Christ willingly becomes a curse for us to redeem us from the curse, and to make a new covenant with new and precious promises, as well as greater privileges and responsibilities (Gal 3:10-14; Heb 8:6; 2 Pet 1:4)!