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Introduction to the Book of Leviticus

Table of Contents

General Info

Similar to the other four books of the Pentateuch, the Hebrew title comes from the first word of the book, namely wayyiqra’, meaning "And He (God) called".  We get our English title "Leviticus" from the Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT), in which the book is called leyitikon, meaning "things concerning the Levites".  It was so named since it relates primarily to the Levites, the Jewish tribe descending from Levi, son of Israel (Jacob).  Because the Levites were the tribe of priest, Leviticus has also been called a "Handbook of the Priests" or the "Law of the Priest" (Talmud) however, the book is about much more than priestly duties.

In Genesis, God promised to make the descendants of Abraham (the Jewish people) into a great nation.  In Exodus, God fulfills this promise.  We also saw God instructing the Israelites on the methods by which they were to maintain a relationship with Him by giving them the law and constructing the Tabernacle.  Now, in Leviticus, God lays out the regulations for conducting worship at the tabernacle under the direction of the priests who were sons of the Levite Aaron, brother of Moses.  These practices not only taught the people what God required of them, including how to integrate service and love into their daily lives, but they also revealed much about the Holy God Himself.

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Brief Survey

Exodus ended with the Glory of God filling the Tabernacle.  This led directly into Leviticus, which opens with God speaking to Moses from the Tent of Meeting (the Tabernacle).  In the first seven chapters, He gives Moses instructions regarding the Israelites approaching Him through the sacrificial system, along with some additional directions for mediation by the Levites (priests).  In chapters 8-10, we then witness the institution of the priesthood, as Aaron and his sons are ordained as the first priests.  In chapters 11-15, God provides the laws on ritual cleanness, teaching the people how to be pure and acceptable for worship.

We come to the focal point of Leviticus in chapter 16, the annual Day of Atonement on which the High Priest made sacrifices for himself and for the people.  This pre-figured the ultimate Day of Atonement at Calvary, where the blood of Jesus washed away the sins of those who had or would believe in Him (Heb 9:11-14, 10:1-10).

The remainder of the book (chapters 17-27) can be referred to as the holiness codes.  In this final section, we find the significance of the blood, blessing and curses, and addition moral instructions.  This section also contains the establishment of many Jewish Holy Days, including the feasts and festivals, the Sabbath year, and the Year of Jubilee.  The holy days and codes taught the Israelites how to be holy, or set apart from the other nations, unto the one true God.

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Relevance for Christians

While Leviticus was the first book that the Jewish children studied in the Synagogue, many modern Bible readers rush through or skip the book altogether, thinking that these old rituals have no meaning for us today.  Quite the contrary, since the theological themes of Leviticus were often a primary focus of the NT authors as they formed their thoughts, and much of their writings used OT terminology.  In Leviticus, we find the foreshadowing of many teachings of the New Testament such as the seriousness and penalty for sin, and the necessity of a mediator between man and God who can offer an appropriate atonement for our sin.  This is accomplished at the cross in the NT by our ultimate High Priest, Jesus the Messiah.  A Messianic Jewish teacher used to tell me, "If you want to greatly increase your understanding of God’s holiness, study the book of Leviticus".  It is also here that God charges us to "be holy because I am holy" (Lev 11:44-45).

 We no longer offer animal sacrifices to God since this system was fulfilled by Christ at Calvary.  Yet, studying these rituals (chapters 1-7, 16) and the priesthood (chapters 8-10) enables us to see the gravity of sin and to understand the basis by which Jesus offers salvation to those who believe and trust in Him.  The laws on ritual cleanness (chapters 11-15) teach us about our need for healing and righteous living.  In the holiness codes (chapters 17-27), we learn the significance of the blood, the moral and ethical behavior that is pleasing to God, and even about the character and nature of God Himself.

We must continue to pursue justice today, but we’re no longer bound by certain civil prohibitions such as not trimming the edge of your beard or wearing clothing made from two kinds of cloth.  These civil laws were enacted primarily to set Israel apart as God’s chosen people.  While God still has special plans for the Jewish people, all believers, both Jew and Gentile, are now one in Christ (1Cor 12:13, Gal 3:8, Col 3:11).

Finally, many Christian holidays and celebrations are based on the original Jewish festivals (chapter 23), with additional meanings derived from the NT.  For example, the Jews celebrated Passover as commemorating the birth of Israel and looking forward to the coming Messiah.  Christians now observe Passover as the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice and looking forward to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.  In addition, the Passover and Firstfruits foreshadowed the events which Christians memorialize on Good Friday and Easter, the shedding of the blood of the Lamb at the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of the Christ as the First Fruits of a future resurrection of all who are in Christ (1Cor 15:20, Rom 6:5).  The Jews mark Pentecost as the giving of the Law at Sinai, while Christians remember the occasion as the coming of the Holy Spirit at the birth of the Church.

See Typology in Leviticus for the importance of NT persons and events foreshadowed in Leviticus.  For additional information, please check out the Leviticus chapter of our Bible Commentary Plus section for articles on other topics of relevance to us today.

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Key Verses

He [an Israelite] is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him. (1:4)

I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about on the ground. I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy. "Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the Lord your God. (11:44-45)

For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life. (17:11)

You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them. I am the LORD. (18:4-5)

The LORD said to Moses, "Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: 'Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy. 'Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. (19:1-2,18)

"Keep my commands and follow them. I am the LORD. Do not profane my holy name. I must be acknowledged as holy by the Israelites. I am the LORD, who makes you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the LORD." (22:31-33)

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Author and Date

Like most of the OT books, Leviticus does not explicitly identify its author.  The book begins by saying that "God called to Moses and spoke to him", then refers to God speaking to Moses over 30 times throughout the book, including its ending.  The Pentateuch explicitly states that Moses wrote down at least parts of the law (Dt 31:9:24) so, in the unlikely event that Moses was not the author, he was certainly the source.  Many other books of the Old and New Testament refer to Moses as the author, including several quotes from Jesus.  In addition, both Jewish tradition and the early Christian church identified Moses as the author of Leviticus.

Most of the book’s material was probably recorded during the desert wanderings in the latter part of the 1400s BC.  Some modern critics claim that the Pentateuch was written during Israel’s exile in Babylon (sixth century BC), long after the time of Moses.  The religious practices recorded in Leviticus argue for the earlier date.  During the exile, Judaism was primarily oriented around the rabbi and the synagogue, and would not be concerned with the priesthood and the Tabernacle.

See Introduction to the Pentateuch - Author for more information, including modern challenges to the authorship.

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Historical Background

In Genesis, we witnessed God’s choosing of Abraham to be the ancestor of the nation of Israel.  We then saw God’s promise renewed in Isaac and Jacob (Israel), and observed God’s preservation of His people through Joseph in Egypt.  After about 400 years, a new dynasty arose in Egypt, who feared and enslaved the Israelites.  Exodus then recounts the story of God delivering His people from Egyptian bondage, their initial wanderings in the desert, and the giving of the law at Mt Sinai which established them as His chosen people.  It ends with Moses and the Israelites having finished construction and assembly of the tabernacle (aka Tent of the Meeting) for the purpose of God manifesting His glory among the people.

Leviticus continues the story with its entire content delivered at Mt Sinai within a few weeks after the completion of the tabernacle, between the first (Ex 40:1, 34-35, Lev 1:1) and second month (Num 1:1) of the year.  In Exodus, the people received the Ten Commandments, plans for the Tent of the Meeting, and instructions for the institution of the priesthood.  Now in Leviticus, Moses primarily records God’s instructions regarding worship and appropriate conduct for the Israelites as His covenant people, but also includes some other narratives related to the tabernacle.

See Intro to the Pentateuch for the timeline chart.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

During their stay in Egypt, as recorded in the latter chapters of Genesis and the early chapters of Exodus, the Israelites had adopted many pagan ideas and customs from their Egyptian masters.  They had been greatly influenced for hundreds of years by a culture which embraced false Gods, idols, and immoral practices.  In Exodus, the Israelites were delivered from Egyptian bondage, reminded of their heritage, given the law, and guided in their building of the Tabernacle.

The purpose of Leviticus is to provide further instruction to the Israelites about relating to God as His chosen people.  It describes how the nation is to properly address and atone for her sins and impurities so that the holy God may dwell in their midst.  This is done through the offering of appropriate sacrifices, keeping the moral and civil laws, and observing certain ceremonial laws relating to diets, diseases etc.  Moses also records additional guidance for the priests and other spiritual leaders.

The overarching theme of Leviticus is holiness.  God’s people are to be holy because He is holy.  As human beings, true holiness can never be completely obtained in this life, however holiness can be imputed (or credited) to us through a proper relationship with God.  Thus, we are to strive for holiness and worship the Lord as holy.  Holiness, as commonly used in the Bible means to be separated from sin and set apart exclusively to the Lord for his purpose and for his glory.  Spiritual holiness in Leviticus is symbolized physically by an absence of defects.  For example, neither sacrificial animals nor priests can have any deformities.  A person with visible skin disease was banished from the camp until pronounced whole by the examining priests and the required sacrifices were offered.

A related theme stems from the covenant at Sinai, in which Israel is established as a theocracy, thus becoming the earthly symbol representing God’s kingdom.  As Israel’s "King", the Lord established his administration over the nation, regulating all aspects of her religious, communal and individual affairs in order to instruct His people in holiness.  Each particular law and sacrifice had both a physical and spiritual meaning for the people.

Finally, we see the theme of atonement, which involves the removal of any sin which comes between a person and the holy God.  The atoning offering (sacrifice) represented the life of the sinner, an animal given in his place to die by the shedding of blood so that he might live.  Blood was the symbol of life as ordained by God (17:14), so the blood of the offering represented the life of the sinner.  By grace, God accepted the death of the animal in exchange for the sinner’s life (17:11).  This of course, looks forward to Jesus’ "once for all" perfect sacrifice on the cross, bringing atonement and redemption to us by His shed blood (Eph 1:7, Col 1:20, Heb 9:12,14).

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

Like Exodus, Leviticus is a historical epic and a book of law which is primarily delivers its material through narratives.  It is not an exhaustive historical account, but focuses on events illustrating God’s dealing with His people at this particular time in history.  The law portions provide us not only with moral and ethical instructions, but a glimpse into the very nature and character of God.  See our Genre Analysis of the Laws and Narratives for more information on interpreting these types of literature.

Leviticus is one of the more difficult books of the Bible to interpret, primarily due to the rituals and ceremonies which are no longer in effect.  In addition, many words had a much different meaning than they do today.  We must be cautious not to impose any modern implications that are foreign to the author’s original intentions.  Instead, we must analyze each event or instruction within the context of God’s covenant promises to the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph etc) and within the overall history of God’s Plan of Salvation contained in both Testaments of Scripture.

With this in mind, we’ll briefly explore the primary interpretive challenges of Leviticus, along with the relevance to Christians today.  For more detailed information, please check out the Leviticus chapter of our Bible Commentary Plus section for articles on typology, the sacrificial system, the Jewish festivals etc.

The Corporate Identity of the Jewish Nation

In our modern western society, a person usually thinks of himself or herself primarily as an individual first, then secondarily as part of a family or community.  By contrast, a Jew’s identity was wrapped up in his membership within the community as the "children or people of God".  This mindset was so ingrained, that a group of people were commonly addressed in the singular as a common unit.  The OT prophets would often include themselves in asking for forgiveness of sins for a certain group as if he was a participant even when he was not present at the time the sin was committed.  The high priest would also represent the entire populous on the Day of Atonement (ch 16).  Since each individual was so closely identified with the Israeli community, his sin could infect the entire society if not properly addressed.  Similarly, Christians are to unified as the "body of Christ" as they minister to the world.

Civil, Ceremonial, and Moral / Ethical Laws and Commands

Modern scholars typically divide the instructions and statutes of Leviticus in civil, ceremonial (or ritual), and ethical (or moral) laws.  Almost all agree that the civil laws were binding upon the nation of Israel only.  Most see the rituals as being fulfilled by Christ and no longer binding to Christians under the new covenant.  There is still much debate as to the authority of the moral and ethical laws on NT Christians.

The people of Israel in the days of Moses made no distinction between the ceremonial and the ethical laws.  There was no division between the sacred and secular spheres of life.  The rituals held as much importance in relation to being "holy to the Lord" as did the moral instructions.  The pagan nations sacrificed to their gods in order to manipulate them and to gain their favor.  By contrast, the Jewish sacrifices were designed to purify the people so that they could approach the true God.

Christians today are no longer expected to offer animal sacrifices since Jesus sacrificed Himself "once for all" to fulfill the old covenant laws.  He also lived a perfect life under the law so that all true believers are imputed with His righteousness (Rom 8:4, 2 Cor 5:21).  Therefore, all those who have accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior are no longer under the "legal" authority of the law (or under the "penalty" of sin), however, Christians should keep the ethical and moral laws in order to maintain a proper relationship with God.  We should also be familiar with the various old covenant laws since all reveal something about the nature of man, the holiness of God, or both.

Holy, Clean and Unclean

We already talked quite a bit about holiness, so we’ll just mention the term’s relationship to cleanness.  In this sense, the word "holy" speaks of a moral state, as being morally pure.  Most modern readers tend to think of the terms "clean" and "unclean" as being used to refer to a "hygienic" state.  In Leviticus (and ancient Jewish religious culture), the expressions refer to the ritual or ceremonial state of a person or object.  Whether one was clean or unclean determined what a person could do and where they could go.  A person who was "ceremonially clean" was acceptable to God in the sense that he or she could participate in worship and other religious activities such as the sacrifices or festivals.  An "unclean person" could not participate in worship and in some cases, was temporarily banished from the camp until his state changed.

We can attempt to illustrate the states of "clean" and "unclean" using a modern analogy.  Suppose a person wished to participate in a scholastic sport.  If he or she meets the required criteria such as grades and an adherence to any applicable rules, he or she is "acceptable" to participate in the sport.  However, if this person breaks a rule, he or she can be temporarily barred from the activity until once again deemed acceptable to play.  Notice that this condition says nothing of the person’s talent or ability to participate, only their eligibility.  Likewise, an Israelite’s cleanness is no guarantee of his current spiritual condition, only of his eligibility to participate in worship and other activities while he or she remains in this ritual state.  That said, a person who primarily maintained a "clean" condition would generally be more spiritual than one who was often in a state of uncleanness due to a casual attitude toward God's instructions.

While an unclean person could be "cleaned" by following the proper protocol, some objects such as certain types of animals were unclean by definition and would always remain so.  A person would become unclean by coming into contact with an unclean object.  These "rules" may appear petty and picky to the average person, but by calling the Israelites to ritual purity in all aspects of life, God was constantly reminding them to strive for moral purity also (20:26).  In addition, due to God’s holiness, any unclean object is repulsive and should never be brought into His presence.  That said, true believers can humbly approach Him because we’re covered by the blood of Christ.

The Sacrificial System

The sacrificial system was instituted by God as a constant reminder of the sinfulness of man as contrasted with His holiness, and to foreshadow the Person and works of Jesus Christ, particularly His ultimate sacrifice as the Lamb of God.  The atoning offerings (those marked by the shedding of blood), by looking forward to the work of Christ (Heb 9:25-26), restored the people’s relationship to God that was damaged by their sin.  Sinful man could not approach the holy God without His divine provision of providing His own Son as the perfect sacrifice as an atonement (see "Themes" above) for our sins.  The non-atoning sacrifices (grain and peace) were offered to honor and express thanks to God.

The Jewish Festivals

One of the most unique and rewarding challenges in Leviticus involves interpreting the various feasts, festivals and ceremonies.  Moses usually leaves out many of the intricate details about the various elements which comprise these rituals. Our best approach is probably to initially look at the different functions of the procedures.  In general, the ceremonies may address the condition of humanity, stress certain truths about God, allow the people to approach God for worship or petitioning, or a combination of these or other functions.

For each ceremony, we can then investigate how the individual elements contribute to the overall functions and purposes of the ritual.  Our examinations and resulting conclusions should also be interpreted within the broader context of NT references.  Finally, we can explore the Church traditions and the modern Christian celebrations which originated from these Jewish ceremonies (see "Relevance for Christians" above).

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The first sixteen chapters of Leviticus deal with regulations concerning the ceremonials or ritual laws given to Israel. The remainder of the book pertains to moral and ethical issues.  The book can be further subdivided by the offerings or sacrifices (chapters 1-7), the establishment of the priesthood (chapters 8-10), laws regarding cleanness and uncleanness (chapters 11-15), and regulations and festivals on holy living, often referred to as "the Holiness Code" (chapters 16-27).

1:1 – 6:7 The Five Main Offerings (Burnt, Grain, Fellowship, Sin and Guilt)
6:8 – 7:38 Additional instructions for Priests regarding the Offerings
8:1 – 10:20 Institution of the Priesthood; Ordination of Aaron and his Sons; The First Services and Sacrifices in the Tabernacle
11:1 – 15:33 Laws on Cleanness and Uncleanness – Regulations and Cleansing
16:1 – 16:34 The Annual Day of Atonement
17:1 – 17:16 The Meaning and Handling of Blood
18:1 – 20:27 Moral Laws; Call to Holiness and Punishment for Disobedience
21:1 – 22:33 Regulations for Priests and Acceptable Offerings
23:1 – 23:44 The Annual Feasts and Festivals (Passover, Firstfruits, Weeks, Trumpets, Day of Atonement, Booths)
24:1 – 24:9 Rules for the Tabernacle
24:10 – 24:23 Punishment for Blasphemy
25:1 – 25:55 The Sabbath Year; Year of Jubilee
26:1 – 26:46 Covenant Blessing (for obedience) and Curses (for disobedience)
27:1 – 27:34 Tithes and Offerings Vowed to the Lord

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