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Book of Leviticus

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Book of Leviticus (/lɪˈvɪtɪkəs/) is the third book of the Torah and of the Old Testament. Most of its chapters (1–7, 11–27) consist of God's speeches to Moses, in which he is commanded to repeat to the Israelites. This takes place within the story of the Israelites' Exodus after they escaped Egypt and reached Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:1). The Book of Exodus narrates how Moses led the Israelites in building the Tabernacle (Exodus 35–40) based on God's instructions (Exodus 25–31). Then in Leviticus, God tells the Israelites and their priests how to make offerings in the Tabernacle and how to conduct themselves while camped around the holy tent sanctuary. Leviticus takes place during the month or month-and-a-half between the completion of the Tabernacle (Exodus 40:17) and the Israelites' departure from Sinai (Numbers 1:1, 10:11).

The instructions of Leviticus emphasize ritual, legal and moral practices rather than beliefs. Nevertheless, they reflect the world view of the creation story in Genesis 1 that God wishes to live with humans. The book teaches that faithful performance of the sanctuary rituals can make that possible, so long as the people avoid sin and impurity whenever possible. The rituals, especially the sin and guilt offerings, provide the means to gain forgiveness for sins (Leviticus 4–5) and purification from impurities (Leviticus 11–16) so that God can continue to live in the Tabernacle in the midst of the people.[1]

Scholars generally agree that Leviticus developed over a long time and that it reached its present form in the Persian period (538–332 BC).

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The book of Leviticus. We know you’ve been avoiding it cause it’s weird. So let’s fix that. Now remember the story of the Bible began with humans in God’s presence, but they were banished because of their rebellion. However, God wants to be in relationship with us, so He chooses one family that he will use to restore the world back into His presence. Tim: And so God’s presence comes to dwell in a tent right in the middle of Israel… Jon … and that’s great! But it creates a problem: because it’s so intense that Moses can’t go in and other priests who enter inappropriately… they die. Well, wait, if God’s presence is good, how is it all of a sudden dangerous for people? So think of it this way: God’s presence is like the sun - it’s pure power and goodness. And when something mortal and corruptible gets close to such pure power it’s destroyed. And so the word “holiness” is used in Leviticus to describe God’s pure and powerful presence, which like the sun is both good and dangerous. So the point of Leviticus is to show how corrupt Israelites can live near God’s goodness without being destroyed. Now in the book there are three ways for how this is all going to work out and these are gonna seem strange to you but just hang in there with us. Jon: The first one is rituals, the second is this idea of the priesthood, and the third is a bunch of purity laws. Tim: Now, the book is broken up into seven sections each solution is explored in two sections of the book. The Rituals are here. The Priests are here. And the Purity Laws go here. Jon: Now the first solution, rituals, involves a lot of animal sacrifices. And so Leviticus begins with detailed instructions for how to make these sacrifices. Some are ways of saying “Thank You” to God and others are simply ways of saying “I’m Sorry.” Tim: And here at the end of the book there are some more rituals and these are about observing sacred days and festivals; they are all celebrations that retell some part of the story of how God rescued Israel and set them apart from the nations. Jon: The second solution to the holiness problem has to do with priests. You see, being directly in God’s presence is really dangerous, so He appoints priests as special representatives who can go into His presence on behalf of others. Tim: So in this section we have a story about how the priests are ordained into the priesthood. And then this other section explains this set of higher standards the priests have to live by, because they work so closely to God’s presence. Jon: The third solution in this book is all about Purity Laws, and this is by far the hardest thing to understand for example in this section we’re really concerned with knowing whether you’re “clean” or “unclean”. Tim: Or another way of saying that is being “pure” and “impure”. Here’s what we need to know to understand this: when you’re in a pure state you can be near God’s presence, when you’re in an impure state you can’t. And so it was really important for Israelites to know what state they’re in at any given moment. Jon: So the first thing we have is a list of pure and impure animals. Tim: Yah, this list of animals is divided up by where they live: so, on the land in the sea, in the air. And the text is just not clear about why certain animals are impure or why touching or eating them makes you impure. What is clear, however, is that avoiding these creatures will set Israel apart, and it will remind them that God’s own holiness should affect every part of their lives including what they eat. Jon: After the food laws we get a lot of random rules about things like skin disease, touching dead bodies, what to do with bodily fluids… Tim: …But they’re not random. All of these are things that the Israelite’s associated with life and death, which are sacred things because God is the author of life. Jon: OK. But simply coming in contact with these things makes you impure? Tim: They do, but we have to keep in mind that it’s not wrong or sinful to be ritually impure - you just wait a few days, take a bath, offer a sacrifice, and you’re pure again. What is inappropriate is entering into God’s presence when you’re in an impure state. Jon: Now there’s more purity laws over here in this section. Tim: Yah, these focus on Israel’s moral behavior. So these are laws about social justice, healthy relationships, having sexual integrity. Living by these laws will make Israel into a morally pure people who can live near God’s presence. Jon: Those are the three solutions. Now you’ve probably noticed that they surround the very center of this book, and it’s here that we find a really important ritual called The Day of Atonement. Tim: Yah, so Israel’s a big tribe now, and odds are there’s a lot of sin happening that goes unnoticed that people are not deal with. And so one time a year the priests would take two goats, and one of those goats is killed and its blood is carried right into God’s presence where it symbolically covers, or atones for, Israel’s sin. Jon: Yah, that’s kinda weird... Tim: Well, the meaning of this sacrifice is explained in the next chapter where God says that the blood of a creature is its life, and so the goat’s life is offered as a substitute - it’s receiving God’s punishment for Israel’s sin so that the people don’t have to. Jon: That leaves the second goat. Tim: Yeah, the priest puts his hands on it, and then he confesses all the sins of Israel - it’s like he’s placing the sins on the goat. And then that goat gets cast out forever into the wilderness. It’s called The Scapegoat. Jon: Yeah, I’ve heard that word before. Tim: Yeah, it’s this very powerful image of how God is graciously removing Israel’s sin. Jon: But lets be honest, sacrifices in general it seem so barbaric. Tim: Well, you have to remember that in the ancient world sacrifices were the main way of buying favor from the gods. But the problem was that those same gods they’re unpredictable, they’re fickle, you never know if they’re gonna ignore you, or are they going to turn on you. So it’s in this cultural setting that we see Israel’s God as totally different. He does get angry about human corruption but it is never arbitrary. And He loves people, so He provides this clear way for Israel to know with confidence that they are forgiven, and that despite their corruption they are safe to live near His presence. And so that makes the book of Leviticus actually a revolutionary statement in its day. Jon: So that’s Leviticus. But Israel is still at Mt. Sinai in the middle of the wilderness, they need a place to live. T: Yes, the land God promised to Abraham, and so the journey to that land is what the next book of the Bible is all about.



The English name Leviticus comes from the Latin Leviticus, which is in turn from the Greek Greek Λευιτικόν, Leuitikon, referring the priestly tribe of the Israelites, “Levi.” The Greek expression is in turn a variant of the rabbinic Hebrew torat kohanim,[2] "law of priests."

In Hebrew the book is called Vayikra (Hebrew: וַיִּקְרָא‬), from the opening of the book, va-yikra"And He [God] called."[2]


(The outlines provided by commentaries are similar, though not identical; compare those of Wenham, Hartley, Milgrom, and Watts)[3][4][5][6]

I. Laws on sacrifice (1:1–7:38)

A. Instructions for the laity on bringing offerings (1:1–6:7)
1–5. The types of offering: burnt, cereal, peace, purification, reparation (or sin) offerings (ch. 1–5)
B. Instructions for the priests (6:1–7:38)
1–6. The various offerings, with the addition of the priests' cereal offering (6:1–7:36)
7. Summary (7:37–38)

II. Institution of the priesthood (8:1–10:20)

A. Ordination of Aaron and his sons (ch. 8)
B. Aaron makes the first sacrifices (ch. 9)
C. Judgement on Nadab and Abihu (ch. 10)

III. Uncleanliness and its treatment (11:1–15:33)

A. Unclean animals (ch. 11)
B. Uncleanliness caused by childbirth (ch. 12)
C. Unclean diseases (ch. 13)
D. Cleansing of diseases (ch. 14)
E. Unclean discharges (ch. 15)

IV. Day of Atonement: purification of the tabernacle from the effects of uncleanliness and sin (ch. 16)

V. Prescriptions for practical holiness (the Holiness Code, chs. 17–26)

A. Sacrifice and food (ch. 17)
B. Sexual behaviour (ch. 18)
C. Neighbourliness (ch.19)
D. Grave crimes (ch. 20)
E. Rules for priests (ch. 21)
F. Rules for eating sacrifices (ch. 22)
G. Festivals (ch.23)
H. Rules for the tabernacle (ch. 24:1–9)
I. Blasphemy (ch. 24:10–23)
J. Sabbatical and Jubilee years (ch. 25)
K. Exhortation to obey the law: blessing and curse (ch. 26)

VI. Redemption of votive gifts (ch. 27)


Vaikro – Book of Leviticus, Warsaw edition, 1860, page 1
Vaikro – Book of Leviticus, Warsaw edition, 1860, page 1

Chapters 1–5 describe the various sacrifices from the sacrificers' point of view, although the priests are essential for handling the blood. Chapters 6–7 go over much the same ground, but from the point of view of the priest, who, as the one actually carrying out the sacrifice and dividing the "portions", needs to know how this is to be done. Sacrifices are to be divided between God, the priest, and the offerers, although in some cases the entire sacrifice is a single portion consigned to God—i.e., burnt to ashes.[7]

Chapters 8–10 describe the consecration by Moses of Aaron and his sons as the first priests, the first sacrifices, and God's destruction of two of Aaron's sons for ritual offenses. The purpose is to underline the character of altar priesthood (i.e., those priests empowered to offer sacrifices to God) as an Aaronite privilege, and the responsibilities and dangers of their position.[8]

With sacrifice and priesthood established, chapters 11–15 instruct the lay people on purity (or cleanliness). Eating certain animals produces uncleanliness, as does giving birth; certain skin diseases (but not all) are unclean, as are certain conditions affecting walls and clothing (mildew and similar conditions); and genital discharges, including female menses and male gonorrhea, are unclean. The reasoning behind the food rules are obscure; for the rest the guiding principle seems to be that all these conditions involve a loss of "life force", usually but not always blood.[9]

Leviticus 16 concerns the Day of Atonement. This is the only day on which the High Priest is to enter the holiest part of the sanctuary, the holy of holies. He is to sacrifice a bull for the sins of the priests, and a goat for the sins of the laypeople. A second goat is to be sent into the desert to "Azazel", bearing the sins of the whole people. Azazel may be a wilderness-demon, but its identity is mysterious.[10]

Chapters 17–26 are the Holiness code. It begins with a prohibition on all slaughter of animals outside the Temple, even for food, and then prohibits a long list of sexual contacts and also child sacrifice. The "holiness" injunctions which give the code its name begin with the next section: penalties are imposed for the worship of Molech, consulting mediums and wizards, cursing one's parents and engaging in unlawful sex. Priests are instructed on mourning rituals and acceptable bodily defects. Blasphemy is to be punished with death, and rules for the eating of sacrifices are set out; the calendar is explained, and rules for sabbatical and Jubilee years set out; and rules are made for oil lamps and bread in the sanctuary; and rules are made for slavery.[11] The code ends by telling the Israelites they must choose between the law and prosperity on the one hand, or, on the other, horrible punishments, the worst of which will be expulsion from the land.[12]

Chapter 27 is a disparate and probably late addition telling about persons and things dedicated to the Lord and how vows can be redeemed instead of fulfilled.[13]


The Tabernacle and the Camp (19th Century drawing)
The Tabernacle and the Camp (19th Century drawing)

The majority of scholars have concluded that the Pentateuch received its final form during the Persian period (538–332 BC).[14] Nevertheless, Leviticus had a long period of growth before reaching that form.[15]

The entire book of Leviticus is composed of Priestly literature.[16] Most scholars see chapters 1–16 (the Priestly code) and chapters 17–26 (the Holiness code) as the work of two related schools, but while the Holiness material employs the same technical terms as the Priestly code, it broadens their meaning from pure ritual to the theological and moral, turning the ritual of the Priestly code into a model for the relationship of Israel to God: as the tabernacle is made holy by the presence of the Lord and kept apart from uncleanliness, so He will dwell among Israel when Israel is purified (made holy) and separated from other peoples.[17] The ritual instructions in the Priestly code apparently grew from priests giving instruction and answering questions about ritual matters; the Holiness code (or H) used to be regarded as a separate document later incorporated into Leviticus, but it seems better to think of the Holiness authors as editors who worked with the Priestly code and actually produced Leviticus as we now have it.[18]


Sacrifice and ritual

Many scholars argue that the rituals of Leviticus have a theological meaning concerning Israel's relationship with its God. Jacob Milgrom was especially influential in spreading this view. He maintained that the priestly regulations in Leviticus expressed a rational system of theological thought. The writers expected them to be put into practice in Israel’s temple, so the rituals would express this theology as well, as well as ethical concern for the poor.[19] Milgrom also argued that the book’s purity regulations (chaps. 11–15) are based in ethical thinking.[20] Many other interpreters have followed Milgrom in exploring the theological and ethical implications of Leviticus’s regulations (e.g. Marx, Balentine), though some have questioned how systematic they really are.[21] Ritual, therefore, is not a series of actions undertaken for their own sake, but a means of maintaining the relationship between God, the world, and humankind.[22]

Kehuna (Jewish Priesthood)

The main function of the priests is service at the altar, and only the sons of Aaron are priests in the full sense.[23] (Ezekiel also distinguishes between altar-priests and lower Levites, but in Ezekiel the altar-priests are called sons of Zadok instead of sons of Aaron; many scholars see this as a remnant of struggles between different priestly factions in First Temple times, resolved by the Second Temple into a hierarchy of Aaronite altar-priests and lower-level Levites, including singers, gatekeepers and the like).[24]

In chapter 10, God kills Nadab and Abihu, the oldest sons of Aaron, for offering "strange incense". Aaron has two sons left. Commentators have read various messages in the incident: a reflection of struggles between priestly factions in the post–Exilic period (Gerstenberger); or a warning against offering incense outside the Temple, where there might be the risk of invoking strange gods (Milgrom). In any case, the sanctuary has been polluted by the bodies of the two dead priests, leading into the next theme, holiness.[25]

Uncleanliness and purity

Ritual purity is essential for an Israelite to be able to approach Yahweh and remain part of the community.[8] Uncleanliness threatens holiness;[26] Chapters 11–15 review the various causes of uncleanliness and describe the rituals which will restore cleanliness;[27] cleanliness is to be maintained through observation of the rules on sexual behaviour, family relations, land ownership, worship, sacrifice, and observance of holy days.[28]

Yahweh dwells with Israel in the holy of holies. All of the priestly ritual is focused on Yahweh and the construction and maintenance of a holy space, but sin generates impurity, as do everyday events such as childbirth and menstruation; impurity pollutes the holy dwelling place. Failure to ritually purify the sacred space could result in God leaving, which would be disastrous.[29]


Through sacrifice the priest "makes atonement" for sin and the offerer is forgiven (but only if God accepts the sacrifice—forgiveness comes only from God).[30] Atonement rituals involve blood, poured or sprinkled, as the symbol of the life of the victim: the blood has the power to wipe out or absorb the sin.[31] The role of atonement is reflected structurally in two-part division of the book: chapters 1–16 call for the establishment of the institution for atonement, and chapters 17–27 call for the life of the atoned community in holiness.[32]


The consistent theme of chapters 17–26 is the repeated phrase, "Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy."[28] Holiness in ancient Israel had a different meaning than in contemporary usage: it might have been regarded as the "god-ness" of God, an invisible but physical and potentially dangerous force.[33] Specific objects, or even days, can be holy, but they derive holiness from being connected with God—the seventh day, the tabernacle, and the priests all derive their holiness from God.[34] As a result, Israel had to maintain its own holiness in order to live safely alongside God.[35]

The need for holiness is directed to the possession of the Promised Land (Canaan), where the Jews will become a holy people: "You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt where you dwelt, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan to which I am bringing you...You shall do my ordinances and keep my statutes...I am the Lord, your God" (ch. 18:3).[36]

Subsequent tradition

Portion of the Temple Scroll
Portion of the Temple Scroll

Leviticus, as part of the Torah, became the law book of Jerusalem's Second Temple as well as of the Samaritan temple. Evidence of its influence was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which included fragments of seventeen manuscripts of Leviticus dating from the third to the first centuries BC.[37] Many other Qumran scrolls cite the book, especially the Temple Scroll and 4QMMT.

Leviticus's instructions for animal offerings have not been observed by Jews or Christians since the first century AD. Because of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, Jewish worship has focused on prayer and the study of Torah. Nevertheless, Leviticus constitutes a major source of Jewish law and is traditionally the first book taught to children in the Rabbinic system of education. There are two main Midrashim on Leviticus—the halakhic one (Sifra) and a more aggadic one (Vayikra Rabbah).

The New Testament, particularly the Epistle to the Hebrews, uses ideas and images from Leviticus to describe Christ as the high priest who offers his own blood as a sin offering.[31] Therefore, Christians do not make animal offerings either, as Gordon Wenham summarized: "With the death of Christ the only sufficient "burnt offering" was offered once and for all, and therefore the animal sacrifices which foreshadowed Christ's sacrifice were made obsolete."[38]

Christians generally have the view that the New Covenant supersedes (i.e., replaces) the Old Testament's ritual laws, which includes many of the rules in Leviticus. Christians therefore have usually not observed Leviticus' rules regarding diet, purity, and agriculture. Christian teachings have differed, however, as to where to draw the line between ritual and moral regulations.[39]

Contents according to Judaism's weekly Torah portions

A Torah scroll and silver pointer (yad) used in reading.
A Torah scroll and silver pointer (yad) used in reading.
For detailed contents see:
  • Vayikra, on Leviticus 1–5: Laws of the sacrifices
  • Tzav, on Leviticus 6–8: Sacrifices, ordination of the priests
  • Shemini, on Leviticus 9–11: Tabernacle consecrated, alien fire, dietary laws
  • Tazria, on Leviticus 12–13: Childbirth, skin disease, clothing
  • Metzora, on Leviticus 14–15: Skin disease, infected houses, genital discharges
  • Acharei Mot, on Leviticus 16–18: Yom Kippur, centralized offerings, sexual practices
  • Kedoshim, on Leviticus 19–20: Holiness, penalties for transgressions
  • Emor, on Leviticus 21–24: Rules for priests, holy days, lights and bread, a blasphemer
  • Behar, on Leviticus 25–25: Sabbatical year, debt servitude limited
  • Bechukotai, on Leviticus 26–27: Blessings and curses, payment of vows

See also


  1. ^ Gorman, pp. 4–5, 14–16
  2. ^ a b Berlin & Brettler 2014, p. 193.
  3. ^ Wenham, pp. 3–4
  4. ^ Hartley, pp. vii–viii
  5. ^ Milgrom (1991), pp. v–x
  6. ^ Watts (2013), pp. 12–20
  7. ^ Grabbe (2006), p. 208
  8. ^ a b Kugler, Hartin, p. 82
  9. ^ Kugler, Hartin, pp. 82–83
  10. ^ Kugler, Hartin, p. 83
  11. ^ "Leviticus 25 NIV". Retrieved 2014-09-24.
  12. ^ Kugler, Hartin, pp. 83–84
  13. ^ Kugler, Hartin, p. 84
  14. ^ Newsom, p.26
  15. ^ Grabbe (1998), p. 92
  16. ^ Levine (2006), p. 11
  17. ^ Houston, p. 102
  18. ^ Houston, pp. 102–03
  19. ^ Milgrom (2004), pp. 8–16.
  20. ^ Milgrom (1991), pp. 704–41.
  21. ^ Watts (2013), pp. 40–54.
  22. ^ Balentine (1999) p. 150
  23. ^ Grabbe (2006), p. 211
  24. ^ Grabbe (2006), p. 211 (fn. 11)
  25. ^ Houston, p. 110
  26. ^ Davies, Rogerson, p. 101
  27. ^ Marx, p. 104
  28. ^ a b Balentine (2002), p. 8
  29. ^ Gorman, pp. 10–11
  30. ^ Houston, p. 106
  31. ^ a b Houston, p. 107
  32. ^ Knierim, p. 114
  33. ^ Rodd, p. 7
  34. ^ Brueggemann, p. 99
  35. ^ Rodd, p. 8
  36. ^ Clines, p.56
  37. ^ Watts (2013), p. 10
  38. ^ Wenham, p. 65
  39. ^ Watts (2013), pp. 77–86


Translations of Leviticus

Commentaries on Leviticus


External links

Online versions of Leviticus:

Related article:

Brief introduction

Book of Leviticus
Preceded by
Hebrew Bible Succeeded by
Old Testament
This page was last edited on 22 November 2018, at 02:42
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