Leviticus

Leviticus is the third book of the Old Testament. Its very title makes reference to the fact that the book focuses on priestly duties and laws (as well as some moral laws). Levi, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, is the tribe assigned to be Israel’s priests.

All of the events narrated in Leviticus take place on Mt. Sinai, where Leviticus portrays Yahweh as the giver of the law. These laws are given in addition to the laws described in Exodus. All laws, whether found in Exodus or Leviticus, are said to given from God to Moses, God’s servant. Most biblical scholars understand the laws of Exodus and Leviticus to represent different traditions in Israel’s history, and that the laws of Leviticus reflect a later stage of the development of Israel’s faith. Many scholars have argued that these laws were not active until Israel’s return from exile (late sixth or fifth century BC), though more recently others argue that they have roots in Israel’s history before the exile, during the period of Israel’s monarchy (900-600 BC). Most argue that Leviticus is compiled from more than one legal tradition, just as Genesis and Exodus are complied from different traditions. Few, however, argue that these laws stem from the time of Moses (about 1300 BC).

Leviticus is 27 chapters long and breaks down into several sections. Chapters 1-7 cover sacrifices and offerings. Chapters 8-10 cover the priestly work of Aaron and his sons. Chapters 11-15 cover laws of ritual purity and impurity. Chapter 16 covers the Day of Atonement. Chapters 17-26 cover issues concerning holiness, and scholars typically consider this to be an older section of laws than the rest of the book. This section is often referred to as the Holiness Code. Here one may find laws on moral behavior, priestly regulations, the importance of the Sabbath Year and Year of Jubilee, and blessings and curses for obedience and disobedience. Chapter 27 rounds out the book with regulations about things vowed to God.

Within the Old Testament, Leviticus is one of the harder books to read all the way through. It is almost entirely a series of laws that are not only ancient and irrelevant for modern readers, but, according to the New Testament, are rendered null and void by the coming of Christ (covered in several places in the book of Hebrews; see especially Hebrews chapters 8-10). For this reason alone many Christians take a dim view of Leviticus and wonder why they should bother reading it at all.

There is no question that reading Leviticus can get a bit dry, and no one should feel less worthy for skimming much of it. Still, becoming familiar with Leviticus will help you understand something of the ancient world, where things like sacrifice and ritual purity were important. If anything, Leviticus reminds us of how very ancient Israel’s religious system was. Unless you have a genuine interest in learning about Israel’s sacrificial system and other such things, it may be enough to come away with a good feel of the kinds of things that were important back then, without feeling the need to bring Leviticus into your personal life.

Also, as Christians, we can read Leviticus with the big picture in mind. In the New Testament, Jesus is described as the final installment of many of the elements we see in Leviticus. Jesus is compared to the tabernacle in John 1:14 (and the temple in John 2:19-22); he is the new and better high priest in Hebrews 4:14-5:10; he is the true sacrifice in Hebrew 10 and John 1:29 (where Jesus is referred to as the “lamb of God”) Becoming familiar with Leviticus will help us understand the terms in which Jesus was described by the early Christians. For an ancient reader familiar with these concepts, such descriptions are stunning and help us understand the earliest understandings of Jesus’ identity.

 – Peter Enns