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Introduction to the Book of Leviticus

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Title of the book

The name "Leviticus" is derived from the title in the Latin Vulgate, meaning "relating to the Levites", which had been taken from the Greek Septuagint O.T. title. The title is accurate in that the book appears to be concerned mainly with the ministry of the Levitical priesthood. In the Hebrew scriptures it was named, "and he called", which are the opening words of the book. The Jews also called it the "Law of the Priests" and the "Law of Offering".

Setting for the laws

However, the book is not just a manual for the priesthood, most of it applied to all Israel, explaining the part the ordinary people had to play in the worship. It includes what the people had to sacrifice, when they had to go to the tabernacle, what they had to bring, what he had to do there, and what he should expect the priest to do there. We should notice carefully the major part the offerer played in each of the sacrifices.

Major parts of the book are addressed to the people, when "The LORD told Moses to speak to the people of Israel". These are: the regular offerings (ch 1-3). We should notice all the "you"s in the instructions. Aso, the offerings for sin (ch 4-6), the rules for eating meat (7:22-38), the lists of unclean animals (ch 11), unclean discharges (ch 15), the general laws (ch 18-20), the appointed festivals and feasts, Sabbath year and Jubilee, blessings and curses, and vows (ch 23-27). The final summary of the book also states this, "The commandments that the Lord gave to Moses for the people of Israel on Mt. Sinai" (27:34)

Only certain parts of the book are specifically addressed to Aaron and the priests, when, "The LORD told Moses to command Aaron and his sons". These include the specific instructions for the priests for each offering (6:8 - 7:21), the leprosy laws (ch 13-14), the Day of Atonement (ch 16), and call for holiness and the rules for priests eating sacrifices (ch 21-22).

We need to observe carefully who is being addressed in each section of the book.

Leviticus is a set of laws set within the framework of a continuing narrative. Each section is introduced with "The LORD spoke to Moses ...". The recipients of God's commands was, normally Moses (1:1, 4:1, 5:14), sometimes Moses and Aaron (11:1, 13:1), and once Aaron alone (10:8). There are also two short narrative sections: the ordination of Aaron (ch 8-10), and the man stoned for blasphemy (ch 24).

Historical setting for Leviticus

The book forms part of the revelation received by Moses during the year the Israelites spent on Mt. Sinai following the Exodus from Egypt. They were on Mt. Sinai from Exodus chapter nineteen until Numbers chapter ten. There is no geographical movement in Leviticus.

The instructions look back to their deliverance from Egypt (11:45, 18:3) and anticipate the conquest of Canaan (14:34, 19:23, 23:10, 25:2). Even though it is very a different book, it follows on naturally from the end of Exodus.

Theology of Leviticus

The book of Leviticus need to be seen in its context between Exodus and Numbers. The making of the covenant and the construction of the tabernacle in Exodus are the foundation of Leviticus. On Mt. Sinai, Moses was the mediator when God made a covenant with his people, and they agreed to keep it (Ex 24). Exodus comes to a climax with God's glory filling the tabernacle. "The sanctuary that I may dwell in their midst" (Ex 25:8). The tent was to be the means by which sinful man may fellowship with a holy God.

The Presence of God

We need to appreciate that it was an awesome thing for Israel to have the presence of God in their midst. God was always present with Israel. He dwelt in their midst in the tabernacle. This is shown in the arrangement by which the tribes each camped in their assigned positions around the tabernacle (Num 2). God’s glory filled the tabernacle (Ex 40), and he led them by a pillar of cloud and fire through the wilderness.

The presence of God with his people is the central concept of Leviticus. All the sacrificial rituals took place "before the LORD" (eg. 1:3). The regular offerings make a "pleasing odour" to the LORD (eg. 1:9). God spoke regularly to Moses from the tabernacle (eg. 1:1). By offering sacrifices, the priests approach the LORD (eg. 16:1). If priests approached in the wrong way, they died! (10:2)

On certain special occasions the divine glory appeared in visible form, so all the people would recognise his presence without any doubt. These included: the giving of the law on Sinai (Ex 19), the completion of the tabernacle (Ex 40), and the ordination of the priesthood (Lev 9:23-24), which was predicted (9:4,6). Sometimes his glory appeared visibly in judgement, whether on Aaron's sons (Lev 10). We should contrast 9:23-24, when fire came out and consumed the offerings, with 10:2 when the same fire consumed Aaron’s sons. God’s glory also came upon Korah and his supporters (Num 16).

God's presence with his people was the basis of the legal requirements. The whole of life was to be lived in the presence of God, including the most mundane aspects of life. The phrase, "I am the LORD your God" appears many times in ch 18-25, often acting as a refrain after each individual law (eg. 19:2,3,4,10), laws about the way they treat their neighbours.

Leviticus also distinguishes between the general presence of God with his people, and the place of his presence above the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies in the tabernacle, often called the "tent of meeting". Sacrifices performed on the altar of burnt offering in front of the holy place, were "before the LORD" (eg. 1:5). God spoke to Moses from the tent of meeting (eg. 1:1). Only the high priest was permitted to enter the presence of God in the holy of holies, and only once a year, after specified rituals and blood being shed (ch 16).

God's real presence in the tabernacle was at the heart of the covenant, and the centre of his purposes, in the New Testament as well, "The Word became flesh and dwelt (tabernacled) among us ... we have seen his glory” (Jn 1:14).

Holiness

This is the main theme of the book. Yahweh is a holy God, who requires of his people "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" . This is repeated many times eg: (11:44-45, 19:2, 20:7,26, 21:8). God is holy, therefore he requires both the priesthood and the people to be holy.

The priests were instructed to distinguish: between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean (10:10). Animals are divided between those which are clean, and those that are unclean (ch 11). Similarly, illnesses are divided between those which make someone unclean, and those that leave him clean (ch 12-15). So there seems to be a contrast between: what is holy and what is common, as well as between: what is clean and what is unclean. Any object or person is either holy or common, but a common thing or person can either be clean or unclean.

Clean things can be sanctified to make them holy, but unclean things cannot. Holy things may be defiled and made either common or even unclean. Clean things become unclean if they are polluted, but can return to a state of cleanness by being cleansed.

How does this double contrast work?

Holy
To Defile To Sanctify
Common or Clean
To Pollute To Cleanse
Unclean

The unclean and the holy must never come in contact with each other, the result can be death! Cleanness is a state between uncleanness and holiness, and is the normal condition of most things and people, so cleanness is not transmitted to other things. However, things may become unclean by touch (eg. 11:39-40, 14:36), and similarly, some things become holy by touch (Lev 6:18,27).

Cleanness

Cleanness has two special aspects. Firstly cleanness is purity, and being physically clean. In many instances, water is used to wash something unclean to make it clean (eg. 11:25). Secondly, cleanness is being normal. A person who is not diagnosed as having leprosy is declared "clean" (13:13), even though they may still be suffering from some blemish.

A clean animal is one which behave or move in a normal way for its type. It needs to have cloven feet and chew the cud. Fish need to have fins and scales. Something that is clean maintains the order of creation, without confusion or mixing.

Uncleanness

Anything which is not clean is declared "unclean". Most uncleanness are considered not normal, and a deviation from the normal state of affairs. The greater the deviation from the norm, greater the degree of uncleanness and the greater difficulty of cleansing (sacrifice, not just washing). Uncleanness results from natural causes (disease or death) or through sin. Uncleanness is completely incompatible with holiness (eg 22:3).

Uncleanness can be temporary or permanent. Permanent uncleanness cannot be altered. Some animals are always unclean (ch 11). It is not transmitted, so there are no rituals to cure it. Temporary uncleanness can be either short-term or long-term. Temporary uncleanness can be transmitted to other things, mostly by touch (eg. 15:4-12). Short-term, more normal uncleanness only needs washing and a period of time to clear (eg. 15:16-17). Long-term, more unusual uncleanness need a sacrifice as well (eg. 15:2-15)

Severe uncleanness such as persistent skin diseases cause uncleanness, so the sufferer was expelled from the camp (13:45). This seems harsh, and was not primarily done for hygienic reasons. The unclean and the holy must not come into contact. The camp of Israel was considered holy, with the holy presence of God in their midst in the tabernacle. Any uncleanness in the camp would pollute the tabernacle.

This is summarised in 15:13
"Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, so that they do not die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst."

The ceremonies on the day of Atonement were for cleansing the tabernacle from any uncleanness that had contaminated it through people's negligence (15:31, 16:16,19)

Holiness

Holiness characterises God himself and all that belongs to him, "Be holy, for I am holy". God's name is holy because it expresses his character (20:3). His name is profaned by sin, such as (18:21, or swearing falsely (19:12). God demonstrates his holiness in judging sin (10:3).

People and objects can also become holy. Anyone or anything given to God becomes holy (19:24), so the priest's portions of the sacrifices are holy, the tabernacle and its equipment are holy and the Sabbath and religious festivals are holy (Lev 23). A person dedicated to the service of God is holy, especially the priests (Lev 21:6).

The process of being made holy is sanctification. Things or people are made holy both by God and by men: "You must sanctify him (the priest) ... for I the Lord sanctify you" (21:8). However only people called by God can become holy. There is a refrain: I am the LORD your sanctifier" (eg. 20:8). It was not possible to become holy by ritual action or moral behaviour. So holiness is a state of grace which God calls people to, and is confirmed by offering sacrifices and obedience to the law.

Through the covenant on Mt. Sinai, the whole nation was made holy. Before making the covenant, they had to separate themselves from all uncleanness (Ex 19). The most important way for the people to show holiness was by obedience to God's law (eg. 19:1)

Uncleanness is a substandard condition caused by disease, abnormal bodily processes, or sin. It was the duty of every person to return to cleanness through washing and sacrifice because uncleanness was incompatible with the holiness of God's covenant people.

A good definition of holiness based on the Book of Leviticus is: “Separation to divine service in a state of wholeness and completeness”.

Holiness also involves a maintenance of the order of creation, without any mixing or confusion. Holiness demands that people should conform to the class to which they belong. This is why the mixing of male and female roles is forbidden (18:22-23). It also requires that different classes of things are not confused or mixed, like sowing field with two different types of seed (19:19).

In the N.T., all Christians are saints (or holy), because we have been called to be God's people, just like Israel. Holiness must be expressed through holy living (1 Pet 1:15), where he quotes the Leviticus motto: “Be holy for I am holy”.

Sacrifice and Atonement

The writer of the Book of Hebrews summarised the OT sacrificial system as follows: "Under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins." (Heb 9:22). Throughout Leviticus, the blood shed by a sacrificial animal is for cleansing and sanctification. Sacrifice reverses the effects of sin and human infirmity, which profane the holy, and pollute the clean. Sacrifice cleanses the unclean, and sanctifies the clean to make it holy. The priests are anointed with the blood of a sacrificial ram (8:23-30). A cured leper was anointed with blood to cleanse him from ritual uncleanness (14:6). The sin and guilt offerings were designed to cleanse the person from sin (ch 4-5). During the ceremonies of the day of Atonement, each part of the tabernacle was sprinkled with blood, "to cleanse it and to hallow it from the uncleannesses of the people" (16:19)

Contact between the holy and the unclean results in death. Sacrifices cleanses the unclean, making this contact possible. Sinful mankind can then come into the presence of the holy God.

The covenant between God and Israel on Mt. Sinai was sealed when blood was sprinkled over the altar and over the people (Ex 19). This covenant made Israel into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex 19:6). In some ways when a person became unclean through sin or infirmity they had to repeat the process of sanctification through sacrifice and be brought back into fellowship with God as part of his holy people.

To be made clean, they had to be declared clean, or forgiven, by God. Merely repeating the ritual was not enough. At the end of each ritual for the sin offering, it says this: "The priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven" (eg: 4:20).

Uncleanness not atoned for by sacrifice was in danger of causing death. Sometimes death immediately, before it was possible to offer any sacrifice (eg. ch 10). Following the death of the guilty people, no animal sacrifice was required. The sacrifice for the uncleanness had been done.

Atonement

This is the basic understanding of the word "Atonement". Sin deserved death, but the death of an animal substituted for the death of the guilty person. The English word, “atonement” is a translation of the Hebrew word "kipper". This is a difficult word to determine its exact meaning. It could refer to the wiping clean or cleansing, when the blood is sprinkled or wiped on the horns of the altar or the lid of the ark of the covenant to purify it (4:25, 16:14). Otherwise it could mean to ransom, or to cover, but this is less likely. It is most probably derived from the Hebrew word "Koper", meaning "ransom price". A "koper" was the money a condemned man could pay as a ransom to escape the death penalty (Ex 21:30). An animal sacrifice would then make atonement for someone because the death of the animal would act as a ransom from the death penalty the person deserved for their sin or uncleanness. We see this in Leviticus, “I have given the blood to make atonement (ransom) for your lives, for the blood makes atonement (ransoms) at the price of a life” (17:11)

As an important part of each sacrifice, the worshipper had to lay (lit. "press") his hand on the sacrificial animal (eg. 1:4). "You shall lay your hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be acceptable in your behalf as atonement for you". The laying on of hands shows that the person bringing the offering is identifying with the sacrifice, and that the animal is taking their place. On the Day of Atonement Aaron had to lay his hands on the "scapegoat" and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel. The goat was then sent away into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people (17:21-22).

Jesus was the once and for all sacrifice which atoned for sin, which ransomed us from the death that we deserved for our sin. "He has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Heb 9:26)

The sacredness of blood

Repeated many times through the book is the command that the blood of an animal is not to be eaten. At the first time meat eating was permitted, Noah was forbidden to eat the blood (Gen 9:4). In Leviticus the eating of blood is consistently prohibited (Lev 17:10-14).

Two reasons are given. The first is that the life of the flesh is in the blood. This identifies the life of the animal with its blood, if the animal loses its blood, it dies! If the life is in the blood, then to refrain from eating blood respects and honours life. To eat blood is to despise life. The second is that God has given the blood making atonement for your lives on the altar (17:11).

So, the blood makes atonement and represents the life of the animal which is paid as a ransom instead of the life of the human. The life of an animal is represented by its blood being sprinkled over the altar. Because animal blood atones for human sin it is considered sacred, and therefore should not be eaten.

The Priesthood

The priesthood in the Old Testament had a wide range of functions. They led the people in offering sacrifices at the altar, they taught the law to the people. They were in charge of health and of the tabernacle. A priest was the intermediary between man & God. They were the musicians in the tabernacle, and responsible for the religious festivals. They also acted as judges to decide legal cases, and discovered the will of God (Num 27:11), using the Urim & Thummin (Ex 28:30, 1 Sam 14:41). A person would serve as priest from the age of twenty. Priests were chosen from the tribe of Levi. The high priest had to be a direct descendant of Aaron. Only the high priest was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies, only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. The other Levites had more practical jobs, such as caring for sanctuary, and cutting the wood for the altar.


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