- 1 Introduction
- 2 Summary and Comment of Leviticus
- 2.1 Part I Rituals for God’s Presence, 1:1–15:33
- 2.2 Part II A Hinge, 16:1–17:16
- 2.3 Part III Living in Light of God’s Presence, 18:1–27:34
- 3 Conclusion
- 4 Recommended Essays in the Commentary
- 5 Bibliography
- 6 Invitation to Comment
Leviticus is the third book of Moses in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). The second book, Exodus, ends with a cloud covering the tent of meeting that prevents Moses from approaching it. Leviticus then begins with God calling to Moses from this shrine and commanding him to relay God’s words to the people. These speeches of God make up the book of Leviticus, except for two short narratives (Lev 10:1-2 and 24:10-12). Numbers, the book that follows, begins with a census of the people, marking a clear break from the material in Leviticus.
The initial speeches in *Leviticus describe rituals focused on the tabernacle, which was located at the center of the camp, and it also gives the rules for the ritual purity needed to approach the tabernacle, or sometimes even to live in the camp (on ritual, see Yoder, 27–30). The people also need to know how they can live with a holy God in the days and years ahead. Beginning in chapter 18 are the laws concerning morality that must be maintained by individuals and by the nation as a whole. Given the context of Leviticus in the Pentateuch, we see that these speeches address people who were slaves only recently delivered from bondage. Leviticus gives them a “national” charter for worship and daily life.
But of what relevance is Leviticus today, especially for those in Western societies where the sense of the holy has been greatly diminished? From Leviticus we learn above all that God is gracious. God freely forgives even unknown and unaccounted wrongs. This is particularly evident during a special annual event, the Day of Atonement or Day of Cleansing (Lev 16). Further, God is not an angry God in Leviticus, and the instructed sacrifices are not motivated by an angry or hostile God. In fact, the first three chapters of the book answer the question, What should a person do who simply wants to thank God for all God’s goodness and generosity? These rituals were given to help people express their gratitude.
Although a God of grace, God is also holy. The holy God is now in Israel’s midst, and they are to make themselves holy in order to be in proper relationship with this God. Although God makes Israel holy (Lev 20:8), the Israelites are responsible to maintain their holiness (20:7). God’s holiness necessitates a holy way of life on the part of the people (19:2). Ethics matter (see Yoder, “Worship and Ethics” [320–21]). Israel is to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6 NRSV)? But How? The answer is the purpose of Leviticus 18–27. Becoming and being holy is still relevant for God’s people today.
God is a present God. Israel has a history with God. They were delivered from Egypt and guided and cared for through the wilderness. Now, in Leviticus, God’s presence is found in their very midst (ch. 9). This presence is both a boon and a hazard (10:1-2). In Western society, having largely lost the sense of awe for God’s holiness, Leviticus can prod us to think about a holy God who is present and how to recover a sense of God’s holy presence (see Yoder, “Holy and Holiness” [302–4]).
Leviticus is also valuable for those who wish to better understand the New Testament. It gives us the plain sense of items, expressions, and practices that are referred to symbolically and metaphorically. For example, to say that Jesus was tabernacled among us (John 1:14) recalls the presence of God that in Leviticus came to earth and dwelt in the tabernacle. It can also help us look below the surface of certain texts, such as the proclamation of John the Baptist about Jesus, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NIV). Note that in Leviticus it was a living goat who carried off Israel’s sins, and this goat remained alive. Missing this point has led to a misunderstanding of Leviticus and perhaps of the reference in John.
Date, Setting, Author
The date of Leviticus is unclear. No events or persons outside the Israelite camp in the desert at Mount Sinai are mentioned; therefore, traditionally it has been dated to the presumed time of Moses, the thirteenth century BCE. Most scholars, however, are divided between dating its material to the time of Hezekiah (early seventh century) or to the time of exile and return from captivity (sixth century), or later. These datings are based on presumptions concerning literary and intellectual development within Israel, historical aptness, and notions about the genre of law and its relationship to practice (see Grabbe 1993; Hartley 1992, Introduction [xxxv–xliii]; Levine 1989, Conclusion [xxi–xxxix]). On scholarly approaches, see Yoder, “The Traditional Western Method of Exegesis” (318–20) and “Plain Sense Interpretation” (307–9).
Form and Rhetoric
Leviticus may be divided into two parts connected by a hinge. The first part, chapters 1–15, describes rituals to be performed. These regulations—though not all the details necessary to perform the rituals are included—often follow a pattern found in legal texts. First, a general proposition is given, followed by individual cases and their solutions. For example, chapter 1 begins with a general heading, “when a person wishes to bring a sacrifice, then . . .” (v. 2 AT). The specific case then follows: “if it is a burnt offering of cattle, then . . .” (v. 3 AT). Verse 10 stipulates the regulations if it comes from the flock. Verse 14 does the same, this time offering a bird.
In many outlines of the book, only two parts are indicated: chapter 16 is included with chapters 1–15, and chapter 17 is included with the final section. However, these two chapters do not align well with this understanding. It seems best to consider chapters 16 and 17 as forming a “hinge” between the two main parts of the book. The Day of Cleansing, chapter 16, with its rituals of purification, illustrates the cleansing power of blood while chapter 17 explains why blood has this cleansing power. In chapter 18 we begin the ethical part of the book marking a break in content from previous material.
The last part, Leviticus 18–27, consists of moral commands. These may follow the pattern of apodictic laws, in which a single case and the punishment for disobedience is given. For example, Leviticus 20:2: “Anyone who [does this] will be put to death” (AT). Compare with Exodus 21:15: “Anyone striking a parent will be put to death” (AT; for apodictic law, see Yoder, “Law” [304–6]). A list of prohibitions for which the entire community is punished is found in chapter 18. There are also positive and negative commands that have no punishment for noncompliance (e.g., Lev 19:17-18).
The structure of Leviticus and its literary style have been well studied (see Yoder, “Literary Style” [306–7]). For the structure of the book as whole, see the diagram in Milgrom 2004, 7, and its surrounding discussion.
Summary and Comment of Leviticus
Part I Rituals for God’s Presence, 1:1–15:33
Rituals for Sacrifice at the Sanctuary (1:1–7:38)
The rituals in this beginning section of Leviticus may be divided into two classes: voluntary rituals and obligatory ones. Significantly, Leviticus begins with the voluntary rituals, describing three different types: 1) an offering in which the animal or bird is entirely burnt up on the altar (ch. 1, the burnt [up] or whole offering). The person bringing the offering gains nothing from it. 2) An offering comprised of meal, either raw or cooked, which is “enriched” by oil and partly sprinkled with frankincense (ch. 2, the grain offering). The priest retains most of the offering, burning the part with frankincense. Again, the lay person gets nothing. 3) An offering of which part is burnt on the altar, part is retained by the priests, and part by the laypersons (ch. 3, the peace or well-being offering). The aim of all these rituals is to provide “a pleasing odor” to God (e.g., 1:9). Practically, the last two offerings provide flour and meat for the priests and their families. The peace offering, which provides meat for the laity, is used at celebrations and feasts (see ch. 23).
The obligatory rituals begin in chapter 4 and continue to 6:7. The goal of these rituals is forgiveness. These rituals are necessary due to an unintentional trespassing of a negative command (ch. 4) or to not doing something one should have done (5:1-4). The cause may also be the result of an error (5:14–6:7).
In these forgiveness rituals, what happens between bringing the offering and God’s granting of forgiveness? The best understanding is that these are purification offerings that “cleanse” the altar rather than the supplicant. Once the sinner provides cleansing for the altar by means of the animal’s blood, God forgives (see Yoder [288–94]: “Atonement,” “Atonement as Transfer,” and “Atonement in Christian Thinking and Leviticus”; also “Cleansing Offering” [297–98]).
The placing of a hand on the head of the animal is an identification gesture—“this is my sacrifice”—rather than a gesture that transfers the sin of an individual to an animal that is then killed in place of the sinner. We find this gesture first in Leviticus 1:4 where the offering is voluntary; there is no forgiveness of sin and so no transfer of sin to the animal, as is done in Leviticus 16:21-22, where the high priest places both hands on the goat as he confesses the sins of the people and thus transfers them to the goat. The goat that now bears the sin is not sacrificed, and none of its blood is shed. Instead, it is taken out of the camp and is alive when it is released (Yoder, “Scapegoat” [316–17]). This is an elimination ritual, not a forgiveness ritual.
Further, the name of the sacrifice has been mistranslated as sin offering. In chapter 12, a ritual following childbirth uses the same offering to obtain purification. Birthing is not a sin, of course. This is a cleansing ritual, not a sin ritual. In Leviticus 8:15 (cf. 9:15; 14:49, 52), Moses takes the blood of a bull (brought as a “sin”/purification offering) and daubs its blood on the horns of the courtyard altar, thus purifying the altar. Moses then pours out the remaining blood at the base of the altar, hallowing and cleansing the altar. (The Hebrew term in 8:15 is translated make atonement in the NIV, which clearly does not fit the context. What has the altar done that it needs atonement? It does, however, need cleansing to serve its holy function).
In chapter 4, the transgressor’s inadvertent sin has affected the altar. After becoming aware of their sin, they offer a purification sacrifice that expunges the altar from the effects of their sin. Having made expiation, wiping away the results of their sin, they receive forgiveness.
Chapter 5 introduces a new type of cleansing sacrifice for the nonperformance of a positive obligation (see 5:1-5). This offering is often translated as a guilt offering. Later in the chapter restitution or compensation is also required (5:14–6:7). This is a graded offering, the offerers bringing what they can afford. The grain offering is the least expensive offering. As a purification offering, it has neither frankincense nor oil added to it (5:11) as is the case with the regular grain offering (see ch. 2).
A focus on priestly participation in the preceding rituals runs from 6:8 (Heb. 6:1) until the close of this section at 7:38. However, a new ritual begins this unit: keeping the fire alive on the courtyard altar (6:8-13). The offering to sustain the fire before the first sacrifice of the day is called the tamid offering (“perpetual fire,” NRSV). After 6:19-23—instructions for the priestly offerings to be given at their ordination (ch. 8)—the remainder of this unit is devoted to priestly instructions concerning the offerings described in 1:1–6:7. The entire section giving instructions for worship at the sanctuary closes with their summary and a statement of their importance (7:37-38).
Inauguration of Worship at the Sanctuary (8:1–10:20)
The first step is the ordination of priests (ch. 8). First Moses washes them and then dresses the high priest with all his regalia. He then anoints the tabernacle and its contents (v. 10) as well as the altar and the basin in the courtyard outside the tabernacle. He next anoints Aaron, consecrating him. After ordination to office, the priests are commanded to stay in the tabernacle for seven days (v. 33). They are in a liminal state, no longer ordinary Israelites but not yet serving as priests.
When the seven days are over, the inauguration of worship at the tabernacle proceeds (ch. 9). Purification offerings for the priests and for all the lay Israelites are made. Aaron blesses the people and offers three sacrifices: the purification offering, the whole offering, and the peace offerings. (Note the order – the cleansing offering comes first, then the freewill offerings.) Along with Moses he now enters the tabernacle. Upon their exiting the tabernacle, the “glory of the LORD” appears to all the people and fire comes forth and burns the whole offering and fat pieces on the altar. In response the people worship God, their faces to the ground.
A brief narrative begins chapter 10. Two of Aaron’s sons took their own fire pans, which had inappropriate material in them, and attempted an offering. As a result, a fire burst forth and killed them. This led to a discussion between Moses and Aaron that was resolved when Moses explains why this happened, and Aaron asks whether, if he had eaten the meat of the sacrifice, that would that have been satisfactory. Moses answers yes, that is what should have been done.
Purity for Worship (11:1–15:33)
An Israelite must be ritually pure before entering the courtyard of the sanctuary. It is important to recognize that sin does not make a person ritually impure. Nor is ritual impurity a sin. The rituals for the forgiveness of sin in chapter 4 could not occur if sin made a person ritually impure: the sinner would not be able to enter the sacred precinct. On the other hand, if ritual impurity comes from food eaten, no sacrifice is required. There is no sin, so forgiveness is unnecessary.
The pure and impure animals, chapter 12, are grouped according to their kind, with mammals coming first. In the case of mammals, the distinctions between pure and impure are clear, and examples of both are given. This is not the case with birds. Instead we find a list of prohibited birds (vv. 13-19). The criteria for this and other lists are not entirely clear. For birds, many of the forbidden are birds of prey. Also, animals are classed by appearance. For example, the bat is a mammal, but it has wings and flies like a bird so it is in the list of birds.
Other causes of ritual impurity are found in chapters 12 ?15, which form a unit. The rituals made necessary by birthing in chapter 12 mark the beginning of human life. Chapter 15 contains rituals concerning procreation—intercourse and menstruation. The remedy for the latter is like those for eating meat from impure animals (ch. 11)—no ritual sacrifice needed.
Chapters 13–14 give the regulations concerning blemishes. The identification of blemishes causing impurity is found in chapter 13. Those bearing such blemishes become unclean and must live outside the camp (13:45-46). The ritual for those so diagnosed and who have been expelled from the camp follows in chapter14. Next follows the diagnosis of houses and their purification rituals (14:33-53). The discussion of blemishes is concluded by 14:54-57 and indicates that chapters 13 and 14 form a unit within the outer shell of chapters 12 and 15.
Part I of Leviticus ends with a warning against uncleanness/defilement in the camp (15:31; vv. 32 and 33 refer back to the previous case and form its conclusion, not the conclusion of this section). The impurity of the people impacts the tabernacle.
Part II A Hinge, 16:1–17:16
The great Day of Cleansing (or expiation), chapter 16, is linked to the narrative in chapter 10. The two sons of Aaron have died in the tabernacle, and their corpses have defiled it. A ceremony is now needed to restore the tabernacle to the pristine purity it had at the end of chapter 9. This restoration ceremony must clean the sacred area and its furnishings from all the sins and impurities of the people. Although instigated by an event, this ceremony becomes an annual ceremony of cleansing.
This ceremony is prefaced by a warning against entering the most holy spaces at will. When the high priest does enter, he must wear special clothes (v. 4). When he completes the ceremony, he will then remove these special garments and leave them in the tabernacle, wash himself, and put on his regular garments (vv. 23-24). These two rituals envelop the ceremony itself.
The ceremony proper begins with several purification sacrifices and the setting aside of a live goat (vv. 5-11). Before Aaron can cleanse the most holy, he must first create a protective screen of smoke between himself and the most holy (vv. 12-13).
Now Aaron can take the blood of the sacrifices, the purifying element, and enter the tabernacle shrouded by smoke (v. 12). Aaron now proceeds to purify the tabernacle, beginning in the inner chamber with the ark of the covenant, working backward to the courtyard altar. This sprinkling of blood cleanses the holy place and objects from the effects of the people’s impurities and transgressions.
The final movement of the ceremony is an elimination ritual. The sins and impurities that were cleansed away are transferred to the living goat who now bears them. He is led away by the person available for this task, never to be seen again (vv. 21-22). This goat, now impure, is left alive in the wilderness. He is not a sacrifice. Since the one leading this goat is impure by contact, he must launder his clothes and bathe before he can enter the camp (v. 26).
Chapter 17 is about blood. What is to be done with the blood of slaughtered animals and why must their blood be applied to the altars? Animals that can be sacrificed must be slaughtered at the tabernacle so that their blood and fat parts can be offered upon the altar. Otherwise the slaughter is regarded as murder (vv. 1-8), and the person doing this will be cut off from his people. The blood of game animals is to be drained and covered with earth (v. 13).
Blood contains the life force of animals. This force empowers it to expiate, or cleanse (v. 11). This is also the reason that sacrificial animals must be slaughtered at the altar and their blood applied to it.
Part III Living in Light of God’s Presence, 18:1–27:34
In the foregoing chapters, holiness is granted not gained. In chapters 8 and 9 we find that holiness is granted through ordination. The tabernacle becomes holy by being anointed. In chapters 18–27, however, holiness is something gained through obedience. Israel becomes a holy nation and retains its holiness through keeping the rules for holiness now set forth.
The material in chapters 18–27 is more diverse than that of 1–17. In spite of this diversity, the key theme in these chapters is holiness. God is holy (19:2) and thus demands that Israel must also be holy (20:26). God makes Israel holy (21:23). Nevertheless, the maintenance of holiness demands obedience (20:7-8). Holiness is both a national matter and an individual matter.
Holy Living (18:1–22:33)
Chapters 18–20 instruct Israel how to live a holy life. Chapter 18 concerns sexual behavior as does chapter 20. Sandwiched between them is chapter 19 with instructions for living a holy life in relationship to others. Holy people do not gossip (v. 16); they love their fellow (v. 18); they treat immigrant and citizen alike (v. 34); they use honest weights and measures (v. 36). We also find rules on grooming (v. 27), animal husbandry (v. 19), and so forth.
Chapters 21 and 22 describe priestly relationships. Leviticus 21:1-15 discusses whose funerals priests may attend and whom they may marry. The restrictions for the high priest are more stringent than those for a regular priest (vv. 10-15). Only a purified priest may touch the meat of offerings or come near the altar. Otherwise he would profane God’s presence and be cut off (22:1-3). If priests are ritually unclean, they will die in the sanctuary (vv. 4-9). Not all priests may serve at the altar. Those with certain handicaps are prohibited from doing so, although they get the same allotment of food as do the other priests (vv. 16-24). As for the laity, they must never eat grain or meat from an offering to God. To do so would profane the offering (22:10-16). Further instructions about the offerings brought to the sanctuary are given in 22:17-30. In the end it is God who sanctifies the people whom God delivered from Egypt. The exodus, an example of God’s grace, is followed by obedience on the part of the people so that God will not be profaned.
Holy Time (23:1–25:55)
In Israel’s year, the months are numbered from the spring, but years are completed in the fall due to a holdover from another calendar. The structure for Israel’s annual festivals is given in chapter 23. The sabbath heads this list and is termed a holy convocation as are the annual festivals (vv. 2-3). The first festival is Passover, which is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the first month (Aviv = Nisan) and comes in the spring. The festival of unleavened bread occurs on the next day, the fifteenth, and lasts for seven days (23:4-8). The raising of the first sheaf of harvest comes next (vv. 9-14). Following the raising of the first sheaf, they were to count seven sabbaths. On the day after the seventh sabbath, the festival of weeks (Pentecost), a harvest festival, begins (vv. 15-21).
Instructions to leave part of the harvest for the poor and immigrant are found in 23:22. Following these harvest festivals is New Years, set by the calendar on the first day of the seventh month (vv. 23-32). The day of expiation, the purification of the sanctuary, is observed on the tenth day of the seventh month (vv. 26-32; the ceremony is described in ch. 16). The last festival is again a harvest festival. Following the ingathering of grain on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, the people are to live in booths for seven days, celebrating the time they spent in booths after God saved them from Egypt (vv. 39-44; see Yoder, “Calendar” [295–97]).
Various objects kept in the sanctuary and instructions about how to maintain them seems like an afterthought (24:1-9). So far Leviticus has not mentioned the lamp, the lampstand for several lights, the gold table, or the offering of bread placed on it. One might think that this paragraph about an “eternal light” would fit with the “eternal” fire on the altar that the priests are to keep (Lev 6:8-13). The construction of these objects is described in Exodus 23:25-37.
A second narrative begins with 24:10, which recounts a charge of blasphemy brought against a man whose father was Egyptian but whose mother was Israelite. He was placed in prison until Moses understood how to handle such a case (v. 12). God tells Moses to bring the man outside the camp (a nonholy place), the accusers are to place their hands on his head, and the whole congregation will then stone him. In addition, God states the rule: anyone who blasphemes, Israelite or non-Israelite, should be put to death (vv. 13-16). Appended to this rule is the more general principle of lex talionis—an eye for an eye. See also Exodus 21:23-24 where the next law rules on striking a slave. It does not carry the same penalty as striking a fellow Israelite. In Leviticus the same law applies to everyone—Israelite and foreigner alike (vv. 17-22). The sentence is carried out in verse 23.
The Jubilee Year law occupies almost the entirety of chapter 25. But before discussing the Jubilee year, the regulations for the sabbatical year must be given (25:1-7). After seven sabbatical years, forty-nine years, the Jubilee, or year of release (v. 10), is announced by the blowing of the trumpet. The name Jubilee comes from the Hebrew word yobel, the term for a ram’s horn that was used as a trumpet.
The basis of the release year was God’s ownership of the land. Israel was God’s tenant on the land, not its owner. Thus, the land could not be sold permanently to another because the one using the land did not have a title to it (25:23-24). Note the differentiation between open land, land in a walled city (vv. 29-31), and Levitical cities and land (vv. 32-34).
The release of indentured servants and slaves is also part of the Jubilee law. Israelites are God’s indentured servants, and their release is covered in verses 34-43. An Israelite may not be enslaved by another Israelite because they all belong to God (v. 42). However, a non-Israelite may be bought and held permanently, and their children will also belong to their owner (vv. 45-46). Israelites who have become the possession of non-Israelites are also to go free at the time of Jubilee (vv. 47-55). The chapter ends with the reminder that all Israelites are God’s servants, “bought” by God through their freedom from slavery in Egypt.
The Promise and Danger of Covenant (26:1-46)
The book proper ends with blessings and curses that will accrue to Israel depending on their obedience to God with whom they have a covenant (ch. 26). Blessings and curses, which are also found toward the end of Deuteronomy in chapters 27–28, seem to be part of covenant making—detailing what will happen to someone who breaks covenant with another (see Yoder, 268, for bibliography). While judgment will fall on Israel for disobedience, God’s punishment does not break the covenant (26:45-46). Rather, God will remain in a covenanted relationship with Israel. The final verse, 26:46, is a summation of what has gone before and marks a completion.
Addendum: Vows, Dedications, and Tithes (27:1-34)
Leviticus concludes with an addendum regulating pledges, dedications, and the tithe (ch. 27). The cost of redeeming a vowed pledge depends upon its worth. A “chart” of redemption prices is given in verses 2-13. Then the dedication, or consecration, of houses or land and their redemption is described (vv. 14-25). However, animals or things already belonging to God obviously cannot be dedicated to God (vv. 26-29). The chapter and book end with tithes and their redemption (vv. 30-33). The final verse, verse 34, repeats the summary ending already given in 26:46.
Leviticus is a book about human relationships with God. The first part describes the worship of God and the maintenance of spiritual relationships with God. The last part instructs how to live a holy life in harmony with a holy God. It was given to be the foundation for liturgy and ethics for a people in formation.
Recommended Essays in the Commentary
Atonement as Transfer
Atonement in Christian Thinking and Leviticus
Cleansing Offering (in Leviticus)
Hebrews and Leviticus
Holy and Holiness
Radical Reformation and Mennonite Use of Leviticus
Scapegoat (in Leviticus)
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- Bergen, Wesley J. Reading Ritual: Leviticus in Postmodern Culture. JSOTSup 417. London: T&T Clark, 2005.
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- Yoder, Perry. Leviticus. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald, 2017.
- Zenger, Eric. “Das Buch Levitikus als Teiltext der Tora/des Pentateuch: Eine synchrone Lektüre mit kanonischer Perspektive.” In Levitikus als Buch, edited by Heinz-Josef Fabry and Jans-Winfied Jüngling, 47–83. Berlin: Philo, 1999.
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