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Old Testament: Leviticus

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Washington National Cathedral, Mose, Lawrence Saint Located at the center of the Pentateuch, Leviticus is a book of law that demonstrates a concern with many different aspects of daily life. It contains detailed laws regulating the offering of sacrifices, the duties of priests, the liturgical calendar, the sexual, dietary, and economic practices of the Israelites, and many other issues of ritual and moral holiness. Set at Mount Sinai in the time before the wilderness wanderings, Leviticus offers the children of Israel instructions on how to live as a people set apart by God, a people called to "be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy" (19:2).

So What?

Leviticus offers a vision of the holiness of God, a holiness that is wholly "other" and yet seeks to dwell in the midst of God's people. Leviticus also issues a call to holy living for those who are in covenant with this God. While the shape this holy living takes for Christians will differ significantly from the life envisioned by Leviticus, the call to "be holy" is still one that should be heard today. Leviticus offers a vision of how that holiness might be lived out in relationship with God, with one's neighbor, and with the larger community.

Where Do I Find It?

Leviticus is the third book of the Bible. It lies in the center of the Pentateuch, between Exodus and Numbers.

Who Wrote It?

Scholars attribute the composition of Leviticus to two primary sources, the Priestly source (P) of chapters 1-16, and the Holiness source (H) of chapters 17-26. There is debate over which of these sources is older, though it is agreed that both P and H are from priestly circles. The P source is also responsible for the material that surrounds Leviticus, that is, Exodus 25-40 and Numbers 1-10, as well as other significant portions of the Pentateuch.

When Was It Written?

As with all the books of the Pentateuch, Leviticus is a product of various sources and redactors. The book reached its final form sometime in exilic or postexilic times (late sixth to early fifth century B.C.E.), though it undoubtedly contains earlier material reflecting ancient traditions. Some scholars date the earliest traditions in Leviticus to the premonarchic period (twelfth to eleventh century B.C.E.).

What's It About?

Leviticus is a book of laws regulating the offering of sacrifices, the duties of priests, the liturgical calendar, the sexual, dietary, and economic practices of the Israelites, and many other issues of ritual and moral holiness.

How Do I Read It?

Leviticus can be challenging to read, as it is filled with detailed instructions--like how to conduct various kinds of sacrifices, how to recognize various symptoms of skin disease, and other matters of ritual purity that seem to have no relevance to modern Christians. As you read Leviticus, realize that you're reading not a narrative text, but a ritual text, whose theology is expressed not in stories, but in the details of rituals and in the worldview behind them. Keep in mind that the priestly writers of the book believed certain things about God and the world. They believed God created the world in a very ordered way, with distinct boundaries, and that ritual mirrored and actualized those cosmic boundaries so that the holy God could dwell in the midst of people prone to sin without destroying them.

AUTHOR: Kathryn Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament

I. Setting the Story (1:1)

The Lord speaks to Moses at the "tent of meeting" (the tabernacle) and instructs him to speak to the Israelites. The statement, "The LORD spoke to Moses," is repeated many times throughout Leviticus, followed by the content of God's speech, that is, the laws.

II. Laws Concerning Offerings and Sacrifices (1:2-7:38)

Moses receives detailed instructions on how to conduct various sacrifices: burnt offerings, grain offerings, offerings of well-being, sin offerings, and guilt offerings.

III. Ordination, Worship, and Disobedience (8:1-10:20)

A. The Ordination of Aaron and His Sons (8:1-36)

Acting on God's instructions, Moses ordains Aaron and his sons into the priesthood. The ordination ritual uses special vestments, sacrifices, and anointing with oil. After the ritual, Aaron and his sons are instructed to remain at the tabernacle for seven days, which is the period of ordination.

B. Worship on the Eighth Day (9:1-24)

The Israelites assemble in front of the tabernacle on the eighth day, and Aaron and his sons offer sacrifices for themselves and for the people. The glory of the Lord appears to the people, and fire comes out from the tabernacle to consume the sacrifices.

C. Aaron's Sons Offer Unholy Fire and Die (10:1-7)

Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu offer "unholy fire" at the tabernacle and are consumed by fire from the Lord. Aaron and his remaining sons are forbidden to mourn, but the Israelites are allowed to do so.

D. Instructions to Aaron (10:8-11)

The Lord speaks to Aaron directly, instructing him about his duties to "distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean" (10:10).

E. Priestly Error and Resolution (10:12-20)

Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron's two remaining sons, treat the sin offering incorrectly and are reprimanded by Moses. Aaron speaks to Moses, and the issue is resolved.

IV. Laws concerning Ritual Purity and Impurity (11:1-15:33)

A. Clean and Unclean Animals (11:1-47)

The Lord gives laws to Moses and Aaron about clean and unclean animals, that is, those that can be eaten by the Israelites, and those that are forbidden to them.

B. The Ritual Impurity of Childbirth (12:1-8)

The Lord instructs Moses about the ritual impurity of a woman after childbirth and the sacrifices prescribed for her to become clean again.

C. The Ritual Impurity of Skin Disease (13:1-14:57)

Moses and Aaron receive detailed instructions about skin diseases: the different kinds of skin disease; when a person should be confined and/or declared ritually unclean by the priests; what should be done with clothing or houses infected by "skin disease" (mold); and the purification ritual for a person healed of a skin disease.

D. The Ritual Impurity of Bodily Discharges (15:1-33)

The Lord instructs Moses and Aaron on the ritual impurity of bodily discharges, such as blood and semen, and prescribes procedures for restoring ritual purity.

V. The Day of Atonement (16:1-34)

Moses receives instructions from the Lord about the Day of Atonement, the one day a year when the high priest enters the holy of holies, the innermost part of the tabernacle where the ark of the covenant resides. The high priest offers there sacrifices for himself, his fellow priests, and the people, to atone for sin.

VI. The Holiness Code (17:1-27:34)

Marked by the refrain "I am the LORD," these chapters of Leviticus are commonly called the Holiness Code by biblical scholars. These chapters are concerned not so much with sacrifice and ritual purity/impurity as they are with ethics and holy living.

A. The Slaughtering of Animals and the Eating of Meat (17:1-16)

Instructions are given for the slaughtering of animals for food. The eating of blood is prohibited.

B. Laws concerning Sexual Practices (18:1-30)

The Lord gives instructions to Moses about prohibited sexual practices and warns that the land will be defiled if the Israelites engage in such behavior. A theme is sounded here that is repeated throughout the rest of the book: the Israelites are to distinguish themselves from the nations around them, who do not follow these laws.

C. Laws concerning Ritual and Moral Holiness (19:1-20:27)

The Lord gives laws to Moses for the Israelites. These laws govern many aspects of life: the Sabbath, sacrifices, harvest, sexual matters, agriculture, the occult, respect for elders, and justice in legal matters and in the market. A refrain is repeated many times, "I am the LORD your God." The Lord calls the people to holiness: "You shall be holy to me; for I the LORD am holy, and I have separated you from the other peoples to be mine" (20:26).

D. Laws concerning the Holiness of Priests (21:1-24)

The Lord gives laws to Moses for the priests, who must maintain a higher form of holiness than the general population.

E. Laws concerning the Offering of Animals at the Tabernacle (22:1-33)

Moses receives instructions from the Lord about who can eat the meat of sacrifices and about what kinds of animals are acceptable as sacrifices.

F. The Liturgical Calendar (23:1-44)

The Lord instructs Moses about the appointed festivals the Israelites are to observe: the Sabbath, Passover, the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Offering of First Fruits, the Festival of Weeks, the Festival of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Festival of Booths.

G. The Lamp and the Bread for the Tabernacle (24:1-9)

The Lord instructs Moses about the tabernacle lamp and the bread offered weekly in the tabernacle, bread to be eaten only by the priests.

H. A Blasphemer and Laws concerning Bodily Injury (24:10-23)

The son of an Israelite and an Egyptian blasphemes the name of God and is killed, according to the word of the Lord. The Lord also instructs Moses about the punishment for murder and bodily injury: "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" (24:20).

I. The Sabbatical Year and the Year of Jubilee (25:1-55)

The Lord instructs Moses about observing a sabbatical year every seventh year, when the land lies fallow. The Lord also instructs Moses about the Year of Jubilee, observed every fifty years, when the land lies fallow, Israelite slaves are released, and property sold because of economic hardship is returned to its rightful owners.

J. Blessings and Curses (26:1-46)

The Lord promises blessings for the Israelites if they obey the laws given to them, and curses if they do not obey. The curses include exile from the land of Israel, but the Lord promises not to destroy the Israelites completely for the sake of the covenant made with their ancestors--with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

K. Vows and Consecrated Offerings (27:1-33)

Moses receives instructions about the making of vows; the consecration of houses, land, and animals; and the offering of other things to the Lord.

L. Concluding Statement (27:34)

The last verse of Leviticus sums up the setting for the book: "These are the commandments that the Lord gave to Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai."

AUTHOR: Kathryn Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament

Set in the time of Moses, as the Israelites are camped at Mount Sinai, the book of Leviticus purports to be written for the people of Israel on the verge of their wilderness wanderings. It is to be a guide for them during their time in the wilderness, and when they enter the promised land ("When you come into the land..." 19:23). While many of the traditions Leviticus describes are undoubtedly ancient, scholarly consensus places the date of its final editing in the Babylonian exile or soon after (late sixth to early fifth century B.C.E.). If this consensus is correct, the final editors of Leviticus drew on ancient traditions in order to provide a much needed theological foundation for their community. The priestly vision in Leviticus of a structured, ordered world and the promise of an enduring covenant (26:44-45) would have served as a powerful sustaining theology for a people caught up in the chaos of exile as well as for a people trying to rebuild a life in the land of promise.

AUTHOR: Kathryn Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament

The place of ritual. Leviticus is filled with detailed instructions for various kinds of rituals--what parts of sacrificial animals are to be burned, what is to be done with the animals' blood, how to lay the people's sins on the head of a goat, when to wash in water in order to be ritually clean, etc. (See, for example, chapter 8 for the many rituals associated with ordination.) Much of this material, with its attention to blood, body parts, and sacrifice, may seem rather arcane to modern readers. It is difficult to ascertain what the details of the rituals signify. Nevertheless, we can discern much of the theological worldview behind these rituals: that God made the world with certain boundaries between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean (Genesis 1; Leviticus 10:10); that this ordered world is good, and ritual helps maintain that good order so that the world does not descend into chaos; and that ritual also helps ensure that the holy God can dwell with God's holy people (Leviticus 20:25-26).

Ritual impurity. There are many laws in Leviticus dealing with matters of ritual impurity, which is not to be equated with sinfulness or moral failure. Many situations of daily life--menstrual period, sexual intercourse, skin disease, childbirth--make one ritually impure or unclean (see Leviticus 13-15). That is, these circumstances make one unable to approach the tabernacle until going through the necessary time and rituals to make oneself clean again. Sometimes a sacrifice is required to make a person clean (see, for example, 12:6-8), but this sacrifice is not to be equated with the guilt offering given by those who have, in fact, knowingly sinned (see 19:20-22).

Sacrifice and meaning. The sacrificial system of ancient Israel understands life, both animal and human, as immensely valuable. It also takes sin very seriously, as a contamination that can disrupt the good order God places in creation and that can potentially return the world to chaos. To cleanse sin from the community, and particularly from the sanctuary, life is required. Specifically, the life of an animal, and especially its blood, is required for atonement and cleansing of the people and the sanctuary. Life is so highly valued that the Israelites are strictly forbidden from eating blood, "for the life of every creature [is] its blood" (17:14). Even the blood of a non-sacrificial animal is to be poured out on the ground and covered with earth instead of being eaten (17:13). Blood, as the essence of life, is to be used for atonement, not casually consumed. The writer of Hebrews understands this priestly theology of sacrifice and portrays Jesus as both high priest and final sacrifice.

Types of sacrifice. The first seven chapters of Leviticus describe several different types of sacrifice: the burnt offering, the grain offering, the offering of well-being, the sin offering, and the guilt offering. The first three of these offerings are voluntary; the last two are required. The burnt offering (in which the whole animal is consumed by fire) serves various purposes, including atonement (1:4). The grain offering, as its name suggests, is a gift of grain, cooked or uncooked, of which a portion is burned on the altar and the rest is given to the priests for food (2:8-10). The well-being offering--the sacrifice of an animal in which much of the meat is consumed by the priests and the one who brings the sacrifice--is offered at times of joy and thanksgiving (chapter 3). Both the sin offering and the guilt offering make restitution for sins against God and neighbor (chapters 4-5). When the one sinned against is the neighbor, the sinner must first make financial restitution to the one wronged before bringing his or her sacrifice to the altar (6:1-7).

When did the priestly writers live? Virtually all biblical scholars attribute the writing of Leviticus to the Priestly source (P), with the writing of the Holiness Code (chapters 17-27) attributed specifically to the Holiness school (H), a part of the P source. There is debate, however, over the dating of the P source. The older scholarly consensus, through the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was that P was late, a postexilic (fifth century B.C.E.) redaction of the Pentateuch. This view unfortunately sometimes denigrated P as representing a decline in Israelite religion, from the ethical and spiritual heights of the prophets to the rigid legalism of the priests. More recent biblical scholarship has argued on the grounds of linguistic evidence and evidence from other ancient Near Eastern cultures that P is preexilic, written for the most part before the Major Prophets (Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Second Isaiah). This more recent scholarship has emphasized the positive contribution of the priestly writers to biblical theology.

Worship and justice. One can divide Leviticus roughly into two parts: chapters 1-16 and chapters 17-27 (the Holiness Code). The first part of the book is primarily concerned with sacrifices, ritual purity, and the duties of priests. The Holiness Code, while it discusses rituals and worship, also emphasizes holy living in all aspects of daily life: eating, sexual relationships, harvesting, relationships with neighbors and with servants, caring for the poor, caring for the land, honesty in financial transactions, etc. (see especially Leviticus 19). The structure of the whole book would seem to suggest, then, that holy living arises out of right worship and that worship of the Lord results in justice toward one's neighbor.

AUTHOR: Kathryn Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament

Atonement. The rituals for the Day of Atonement are detailed in Leviticus 16. Once a year, the high priest is to enter the holy of holies and to offer sacrifices to make atonement for himself, his fellow priests, and the people of Israel. In this way, the sanctuary and the people are cleansed from sin so that the Lord might continue to dwell in their midst. The writer of Hebrews discusses the Day of Atonement in Hebrews 9, where Jesus becomes both high priest and sacrifice.

Creation. There are a number of links between Leviticus and the P account of creation in Genesis 1: the concern with boundaries and separation (Genesis 1:4-7; Leviticus 10:10); the phrases "of every kind" or "according to its kind" (Genesis 1:20-25; Leviticus 11:13-22); the emphasis on "seasons" and Sabbath (Genesis 1:14; 2:1-3; Leviticus 23:2-8; 26:2-4); and the use of the number seven (Genesis 2:2-3; the seven speeches of Leviticus 1-7; the seven days of the ordination service in Leviticus 8:35). The priestly writers of Leviticus relayed instructions on how to maintain or restore the good order that God established at the beginning in creation. They sought to restore the world--or at least Israel--to the state of being "very good," as God created it (Genesis 1:31).

Holiness. Leviticus uses the words "holy" some seventy-six times, referring to God, the priests, the people, the sacrifices, the priestly vestments, and other things. The holiness of God is the source of all other holiness: "You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy" (19:2). The people's holiness consists not only of ritual purity, but also of ethical living (19:3-37).

Presence of God. Leviticus envisions the tabernacle as the dwelling place of the Lord in the midst of the Israelites. Its purity must therefore be strictly maintained, so that a holy God can reside in the midst of a sinful people without destroying them (see 10:1-2). The theological claim is that the Lord God, the creator of the world, actually dwells with God's people.

Redemption. In Leviticus 26, provision is made for the very literal "redemption" of land and people. If an Israelite falls on hard times and sells his land or himself to another, the land or the person should be "redeemed" (that is, bought back) by his nearest relative. If there is no one to redeem the land or the person, both should be released in the Year of Jubilee.

Sabbath. The priestly writers give a special prominence to the Sabbath (most notably in Genesis 2:2-3). Here in Leviticus, that emphasis continues: the weekly Sabbath is prescribed as the first of the regular "holy convocations" and "appointed festivals" that the people of Israel are to observe (23:1-8). Even the land is to observe a Sabbath year, when it must rest and lie fallow (25:1-7). Every seven "weeks" (or "sabbaths") of years, the whole community is to observe the Year of Jubilee, when slaves go free and land is returned to its ancestral owners (25:8-55).

Worship. Leviticus views worship as central to the life of the community. The majority of the book (chapters 1-10, 16-17, 21-24, 27) is devoted to instructions about or descriptions of worship--sacrifices, other offerings, proper priestly vestments, the duties of priests, and the liturgical calendar. Worship is one of the primary means by which the Israelites maintain holiness.

AUTHOR: Kathryn Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament