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Introduction to LEVITICUS

The name Leviticus comes from the ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint, which titled the composition Leueitikon, that is, [The Book of the] Levites. The Levites are not, however, the major characters of this book. The title rather points to the book as useful to the Levites in their ministry as worship leaders and teachers of morals.

The last verse of Leviticus sets the book in its scriptural context: "These are the commands the LORD gave Moses on Mount Sinai for the Israelites" (27:34). An expanded translation makes that context clearer: "These are the commands [covenant obligations] the LORD [Yahweh, the covenant GOD] gave Moses [the covenant mediator] on Mount Sinai [the covenant place] for Israel [the covenant people]."

First, Leviticus cannot be understood apart from GOD's purpose for His covenant people. In the account of Moses' struggle with Pharaoh in Exod. 4-12, GOD repeatedly called for the freedom of Israel to worship Him (4:23; 7:16; 8:1; 9:1; 10:3; 12:31). In a real sense the exodus deliverance was incomplete until Israel began the worship of GOD at Sinai (Exod. 3:12), thus fulfilling GOD's goal for the exodus. Israel was set free fro Egyptian slavery and brought into a new, covenant relationship with GOD precisely so that they might be free to worship.

Second, Leviticus cannot be understood apart from GOD's desire to be with His covenant people. But because a Holy GOD cannot condone sin, Israel's experiment in idolatry with the golden calf (Exod. 32) presented GOD with a dilemma. Twice GOD warned the Israelites: "You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you" (Exod. 33:5; also see 33:3). How could a holy GOD continue to go with a disobedient and rebellious people? Exodus 34-40 and the Book of Leviticus answer that question.

Author: Moses, according to tradition.

Date: Around 1445 B.C.

Theme: The holiness of GOD and the purity of the believer in daily life.

Key Words: Holiness, offering, sacrifice

Leviticus is an Old Testament book filled with worship instructions for GOD's Chosen People, the Hebrew nation. The Levites, members of the tribe of Levi, were the priestly family of the nation; the title of the book seems to indicate these instructions were given specifically for them. But Leviticus was actually a manual of worship for all the people. Because of its emphasis on holiness, sacrifice, and atonement, the book has an important message for modern believers.

Author: The book of Leviticus is the third attributed to Moses in the Old Testament. In 1:1, the text refers to the Word of the LORD that was given to Moses in the tabernacle of reunion; it constitutes the basis of the entire book. The priests and Levites have preserved its content.

Date: The experts have dated the book of Leviticus between the epoch in which Moses lived (according to some, in the 15th century B.C. and others in a much later age: the 12th century B.C.) and the epoch of Ezra (6th century B.C.). If the authorship of Moses is accepted, the writing of Leviticus dates back approximately to the year 1440 B.C. The book, which contains little historical information that is useful to determine the exact date, describes the system of sacrifices and worship that preceded the time of Ezra and relates how it was instituted.

Background: The theology of the book of Leviticus links holiness with daily life. It goes beyond the question of the sacrifice, and deals with the theme of worship; likewise, it explains the work of the priests in detail. The concept of holiness affects not only the relationship that each individual sustains with GOD, but also the relationships of love and respect that each person should maintain with his neighbor. The code of holiness permeates the work because each one should be pure as GOD himself is, and due to that, the purity of the person makes up the foundation of the holiness of the entire covenant community. Jesus' teaching: "Therefore, all things that you wish men would do with you, thus also do with them; because this is the law and the prophets" (Matt. 7:12), reflects the text of Lev. 19:18: "Love your neighbor as yourself".

Content: Leviticus received the Hebrew name of Vayikra, which means "And He called". The title is taken from the first phrase of the book, the way ancient works were titled The modern title of "Leviticus" derives from a Greek translation of the work and means "Questions concerning the Levites". The title can cause confusion because the book deals with many other themes relative to purity, holiness, the priesthood, the holiness of GOD and of the believer in daily life. The word "holy" appears more than 80 times in Leviticus.

Leviticus has sometimes been considered a difficult to understand work; however, according to primitive tradition, the education of the Jewish child began with the teachings of this book. It deals with character and the will of GOD, especially about the theme of holiness, which the Jews considered something of primary importance. They thought that before turning to other biblical texts, children should be educated about the holiness of GOD and the responsibility that each individual has to live a holy life. Holiness (Kedushah in Hebrew) is a key word in Leviticus, and describes the character of the divine presence. Holiness signifies being set apart from the profane and is contrary to the common or secular.

Another important theme in the book of Leviticus is the sacrificial system. The burnt offering (olah in Hebrew) is appointed to provide expiation, and allowed the person who offered it to eat the meat of the sacrifice. It was sometimes presented on some festive occasion. The sin offering (Chatta't in Hebrew) is employed to purify the sanctuary. The guilt offering (asham in Hebrew), also called the offering of restitution, is presented because of violating the sanctity of GOD's or some other person's property: Sometimes the violation is for swearing falsely. When someone profanes the sanctity of GOD, an offering of atonement is required.

After the sacrifices, the liturgical calendar occupies a special place in the book of Leviticus. The Sabbath year is dedicated to commemorate the emancipation from bondage in Egypt, of the enslaved people, as well as the redemption of the land (see also Exod. 21;2-6; 23:10,11; Deut. 15;1-11,12-18). The year of Jubilee remembers the fact that the land of Israel, as well as its people, belongs to GOD, and not any individual. Therefore, the land must rest after each 49 year period (Lev. 25:8-17), which confirms GOD as its owner: The holiness of GOD and of his character permeates the entire book of Leviticus as well as the need for the congregation to approach him with pure hearts and minds.

Historical Setting: The Book of Leviticus belongs to the period in Israel's history when the people were encamped at Mount Sinai following their miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt. At Sinai Moses received the Ten Commandments and other parts of the Law directly from GOD. He also built and furnished the tabernacle as a place where the people could worship GOD (Exod. 40). Just after the tabernacle was filled with GOD's glory, Moses received instructions for the people regarding worship of GOD in this holy place. It is these instructions which we find in the Book of Leviticus.

Theological Contribution: The Book of Leviticus is important because of its clear teachings on three vital spiritual truths: Atonement, Sacrifice, and Holiness. Without the background of these concepts in Leviticus, we could not understand their later fulfillment in the life and ministry of Jesus.

Atonement - Chapter 16 of Leviticus contains GOD's instructions for observing the Day of Atonement. On that day the high priest of Israel entered the most sacred place in the tabernacle and offered an animal sacrifice to atone for his own sins. Then he killed another animal and sprinkled its blood on the altar to atone for the sins of the people. New Testament writers later compared this familiar picture to the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf. But unlike a human priest, Jesus did not have to offer sacrifices, "first for His own sins and then for the people's for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself" (Heb. 7:27).

Sacrifice - The book of Leviticus instructs the Covenant People to bring many types of sacrifices or offerings to GOD: burnt offerings, grain offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, and guilt or trespass offerings. These were considered gifts by which a worshiper expressed his loyalty and devotion to GOD. But a blood offering - presenting the blood of a sacrificed animal to GOD - went beyond the idea of a gift. It symbolized that the worshiper was offering his own life to GOD, since the Hebrews believed that "the life of the flesh is in the blood" (Lev. 17:11). Again, this familiar teaching assumed deeper meaning in the New Testament when applied to Jesus. He gave His life on our behalf when he shed His blood to take away our sins.

Holiness - The basic meaning of holiness as presented in the Book of Leviticus is that GOD demands absolute obedience of His people. The root meaning of the word is "separation." GOD's people were to be separate from, and different than, the surrounding pagan peoples. This is actually the reason for GOD's instruction that his people were not to eat certain unclean foods. Only a clean, undefiled people could be used by Him to bring about His purpose of world redemption. Leviticus also makes it clear that the holiness demanded by GOD extended to the daily behavior of His people. They were expected to practice kindness, honesty, and justice and to show compassion toward the poor (Lev. 19:9-18).

Special Considerations: The blood of bulls and goats so prominent in Leviticus had no power to take away sin. But each of these rituals was "a shadow of the good things to come" (Heb. 10:1). They pointed forward to GOD's ultimate sacrifice, given freely on our behalf: "So Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many" (Heb. 9:28).

The above three sections were taken from the Illustrated Bible Dictionary, pps 646-647.

Theme: (HBH) The overall burden of the Book of Leviticus was to communicate the awesome holiness of Israel's GOD and to outline the means by which the people could have access to Him. This is in line with the great central covenant theme of the Pentateuch, a theme that describes the relationship between the LORD and Israel as one of Great King and vassal (servant) people. Just as a servant had to follow proper protocol to approach the king, so Israel had to recognize its own unworthiness to enter the sacred precincts of GOD's dwelling place. The gulf between the people and their GOD could be bridged only by their confession of their unworthiness and their heartfelt adherence to the rites and ceremonies prescribed by Him as a precondition to fellowship.

Literary Forms: (HBH) With the exception of a few narrative passages (Lev. 8-10) and a blessing and curse section (Lev. 26), Leviticus consists of legal material, particularly of a cultic (or ceremonial) nature. Much of this legal material is highly structured in an almost poetic form (Lev. 1-7 and to a lesser extent Lev. 11-15). The final part of Leviticus (chaps. 17-26) is a looser collection of legal material known as the "Holiness Code," an appropriate term given the prevailing notion of holiness there.

The legal form of most of Leviticus (prescriptions and statutes) suggests that it is part of a covenant text. In fact, it deals withe the covenant requirements that regulate the means by which the nation and individual Israelites could enter into and maintain a proper relationship with the LORD GOD. In this sense Leviticus, like much of Exodus, is a body of covenant stipulations designed to help close the gap between GOD's holiness and humanity's sin.

Purpose and Theology: (HBH) Israel was "a holy nation," that is, a nation set apart to be GOD's special people. As such, Israel was called on to accomplish a special mission for GOD on the earth by virtue of His saving act. (Compare Lev. 22:32-33: "I am the LORD, who makes you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your GOD.") Having accepted this covenant role at Sinai, Israel became GOD's vassal, the mediator of His saving grace to all the nations of the earth. (See "Purpose and Theology" in the Exodus commentary.) Israel's inability to abide by the requirements of GOD's covenant, however, threatened its status as "a holy nation."

To be a holy nation Israel had to have a means whereby that holiness - or separatedness - could be maintained. Israel needed a set of guidelines stipulating every aspect of that relationship between the nation and its GOD. GOD's people had to learn the relationship of holiness as a position and holiness as a condition. AS a position holiness means the setting apart of a person, object, or institution for the use of a god. It has no necessary ethical or moral corollary; Israel's pagan neighbors set apart "holy" prostitutes for the service of their gods. Israel set apart a holy place (the tabernacle), rituals (the sacrifices), persons (the priests), and times (the Sabbath, the feasts, the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years). Whatever has not been designated as holy is common or profane. AS a condition holiness comes to embody moral purity and righteousness. GOD's own personal holiness entails not only His remoteness and uniqueness but also His moral perfection. persons and things that He sanctifies and declares holy must also exhibit moral uprightness. The Holiness Code of Leviticus 17-25 stresses holiness as a moral condition.

Leviticus outlines how Israel could offer GOD appropriate homage to cultivate and maintain the relationship brought about by mutual commitment to covenant. Because Israel was unable to live up to its covenant commitments, they could not approach the holy GOD. Only GOD could provide a system to purify the sinful people and their worship place so that they could appear before and serve the Holy One. These sacrifices rendered a person righteous who by faith accepted the atoning benefits of the sacrifices. GOD also provided a system of offerings for a person to express proper understanding of and thanksgiving for the benefits of His grace. The holy people also had to be taught about and continually reminded of the strict lines that separate the holy from the profane by seeing examples of these differences in everyday life.

A thing was holy or unholy only as the sovereign GOD declared it to be such in line with His own inscrutable criteria and His own inherent holiness. In His sovereignty GOD listed unclean animals, separating them from the clean ones. He described certain diseases and certain fungi and other phenomena as unclean. Those who came in contact with the unclean became unclean as well. Even bodily secretions were unclean, their appearance being sufficient to mark the individual so affected as unholy.

The apparently arbitrary nature of the categories of clean and unclean makes it clear that holiness is essentially a matter of divine discretion. The sovereign GOD made these distinctions for educational purposes. Israel as a people separated from all other peoples had to learn from everyday and commonplace examples that GOD sits in sovereign judgment over all things. They had to learn that He alone reserves judgment about whether or not a person, object, or condition conforms to His definition of holiness. Only in this way could Israel understand what its own holiness was all about and how that holiness was essential if it were to live out the purposes for which it was elected and redeemed.

If Israel was called on to be holy, it was all the more necessary for the priests, who in a sense were the "moderators of the mediators," to be holy before GOD. The nation with its individuals had access to the LORD but in a limited way. Only through the priests was perfect access achieved. Clearly the priests had to measure up to unusual standards of holiness. Leviticus therefore addresses the matter of the consecration and instruction of the priests as well.

Finally, the sovereign GOD ordained not only principles of access by which His servant people might approach Him, but He also designated special times and places. Thus Leviticus, like Exodus, instructs the covenant community to meet the LORD as a community at the tabernacle, the central sanctuary that He invested with His glory as a visible sign of His habitation among them. He could not be approached randomly or whimsically. No king holds audience at the discretion of his subject. Rather, the king establishes regular times of assembly with his people when he receives their tribute and addresses their concerns. Likewise, the LORD revealed a calendar of ritual, a schedule according to which the community as such could (and should) appear before Him to praise Him and to seek His face on their behalf. Sabbaths, new moons, and festival days were therefore set aside for the regular encounter of the servant nation with its sovereign GOD. Times and places were not irrelevant, as Leviticus makes clear. In a covenant context they attested to the rule of the LORD among His people and to their need to come where and when He decreed for them to do so.

Personal Application: The book of Leviticus can be wisely applied, collectively and personally, to the life of the contemporary Church. GOD's holiness, and his great desire to maintain a close companionship with his people, was the central question for the people of ancient Israel, as it is for GOD's people in our days.

Christ Revealed: Christ (the Messiah) isn't specifically mentioned in the book of Leviticus. However, the sacrificial system and the work of the high priest in the text of Leviticus are things that anticipate the work of Christ. The book of Hebrews refers to Christ as High Priest and uses the text of Leviticus as a basis to illustrate his work. Some have used extreme forms of allegorization of the book of Leviticus to refer to Christ, but this method of interpretation should be employed with the highest caution to assure that the original historical and cultural significance of the book isn't lost. This has the life and worship of ancient Israel as its central theme.

The Holy Spirit in Action: Although the term "Holy Spirit" isn't mentioned in the book of Leviticus, GOD's presence is perceived throughout the entire text. The holiness of GOD's character is reiterated constantly when holiness in the conduct and worship of the people is spoken of. GOD isn't seen as in the pagan rites of that period where idols were venerated, but as the One who dwelled in the midst of the people while they worshiped him. They should be holy as their GOD is.

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Introduction to Leviticus - Ch. 1 - Ch. 2 - Ch. 3 - Ch. 4 - Ch. 5 - Ch. 6 - Ch. 7 - Ch. 8 - Ch. 9 - Ch. 10 - Ch. 11 - Ch. 12 - Ch. 13 - Ch. 14 - Ch. 15 - Ch. 16 - Ch. 17 - Ch. 18 - Ch. 19 - Ch. 20 - Ch. 21 - Ch. 22 - Ch. 23 - Ch. 24 - Ch. 25 - Ch. 26 - Ch. 27 - Truth in Action throughout Leviticus


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The Priesthood and the Offerings ("Exploring the Old Testament" by C. E. Demaray, PhD, Donald S. Metz, D.R.E. and Maude A. Stuneck, PhD; edited by W. T. Purkiser, PhD; published 1967 by Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City)
The people of Israel were prone to lose the consciousness of GOD's presence in their midst and to turn their attention to other gods. Even while Moses was in the mountain, the people of Israel fell into idolatry by worshiping a golden calf. Only the remarkable intercession of their leader (Exod. 32:30-32) saved them from complete destruction. When the sanctuary was finished according to the instructions given, it was dedicated to GOD, and the people were made to feel that GOD was actually dwelling in their midst. Now that the Tabernacle was constructed and a central place of worship set up, there was need of a guidebook for the priests, and the people must receive instruction for worship at the Tabernacle. Leviticus develops and enlarges upon the ceremonial laws recorded in Exodus, and becomes the basis for later developments in Judaism.

The first sixteen chapters of Leviticus provide instruction in (1) the way of access to GOD through the various sacrifices prescribed. The last eleven chapters are concerned with (2) the way to maintain fellowship with GOD. The sacrifices were gifts brought to a holy GOD, serving the twofold purpose of illustrating the need of atonement for sin and consecration to GOD. They were object lessons in holiness, given to the people during a stage in their spiritual development when they could best learn by having the abstract concepts of righteousness and purity acted out before them in beautiful ceremony and symbolism. The utter abhorrence with which GOD views sin and pollution, the sublime truth that without the shedding of blood there can be no remission of sins, and the absolute necessity of scrupulous holiness on the part of those who would worship Jehovah are all set forth in most striking fashion. The key to Leviticus is holiness, a word not used until after the crossing of the Red Sea. The demand for holiness is expressed in a key verse, "Ye shall be holy: for I the LORD your GOD am holy" (19:2).

GOD's requirements concerning the sacrifices and sin offerings in the first sixteen chapters of Leviticus reveal the great fact that man must first have all defilement removed before he can have fellowship with a holy GOD. There were five main types of offerings, as follows:

  1. The whole burnt offering (Lev. 1:1-17; 6:3-13) was an expression of worship and devotion, a symbol of dedication of one's self to GOD. The worshiper sought no blessing for himself, but offered his best to Jehovah, and waited at the altar until he saw his gift consumed by fire. Acceptable animals for this sacrifice were to be clean and without blemish. They might be oxen, sheep, goats, or pigeons, the latter being available even to the poor man.
  2. The meal offering (Lev. 2:1-16; 6:14-23) was a thank offering possible for the lowliest worshiper. A few small cakes or wafers were baked upon the hearth, made with finely ground meal, oil, and salt, but without leaven.
  3. The peace offering (Lev. 3:1-17; cf. 7:11-38) indicated fellowship with GOD. A portion of the offering was burned at the altar, and the remainder was reserved for a feast which the worshiper and his guests might enjoy.
  4. The sin offering (Lev. 4:1-35; 6:24-30) was an acknowledgment of guilt, and unlike the first three was not said to be "a sweet savour unto the LORD." For all sins committed through ignorance, whether by a priest, a ruler, or any individual, a sacrificial animal was required, with confession of the sin committed.
  5. The trespass offering (Lev. 5:1-6:7; 7:1-7) was for an intentional offender. This involved more than was required for sins of ignorance. The guilty one must not only offer sacrifice, but must also make restitution with added compensation to the one wronged. Both the sin offering and the trespass offering were made as an atonement for sin.
  6. The Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:1-34) was the climax in the system of offerings which showed the way of access to GOD by sacrifice. The high priest entered the Tabernacle alone and sacrificed a bullock for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He cast lots over two goats to decide which should be sacrificed as a sin offering and which should escape into the wilderness. After the sacrifice of the bullock for himself and his household, he sacrificed the one goat for the sins of the nation and sprinkled its blood for the purification of both Tabernacle and altar. Placing his hands upon the live goat, known as the "scapegoat", he confessed the sins of the nation. The goat was then taken away into the wilderness, there to bear away the sins of the people.