Question: "What laws were given to Israel in exact response to pagan practices?"
Answer: In Leviticus 18, the Lord contrasts the laws He gives to the Israelites to those of the nations surrounding them. A look at some of the details of these laws offers much insight both for biblical understanding and contemporary applications.
Leviticus 18:24 says, “'Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled.” What were “any of these ways”? Chapter 18 focuses on immoral sexual practices, including incest, bestiality, same-sex activity, and adultery. In addition to prohibiting sexual immorality, Leviticus 18 addresses the heinous practice of sacrificing children to Molech (verse 21).
Following this list of commands, the Lord says that it was these sins that defiled the land of Canaan: “This is how the nations . . . became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Leviticus 18:24–25).
Three times in the final verses of this chapter, the Lord calls the sexual sins and child sacrifice “detestable things” (or “abominations” in some translations). Again, the emphasis of Leviticus 18 is on living differently from the surrounding nations, specifically Egypt and Canaan. In contrast, the Israelites were to live as “clean” before Him.
Further, the “abominable” actions listed in Leviticus 18 were the reason God removed the Canaanites from the land. This people group had lived in rebellion to God and His ways, and the Israelites were given their land instead.
What contemporary applications can be made from these verses? First, many of the sinful practices of an ungodly society are related to sexual immorality and the exploitation of women and children. Second, God’s people are clearly commanded to live in a manner distinct from the surrounding culture. The goal is not to “fit in” but to “stand out” as people who live by a moral standard given by God.
Immediately following Leviticus 18 is a passage that focuses on God’s holiness and the command to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:1, 18). The goal in these commands is not simply to declare what God is against, but also to emphasize who He is, His greatness, and the positive response His people should have toward Him and toward other people.