Introduction to Leviticus
Theme and Purpose
The book of Leviticus goes into deeper detail about the divine-human relationship put in place on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19–40). Leviticus assumes that Israel is sinful and impure, and it describes how to deal with sin and impurity so that the holy Lord can dwell among his people.
Problems in Understanding Leviticus
Readers may find Leviticus difficult to understand because they lack firsthand experience of the practices it describes.
Ritual vs. ethical commands. Chapters 1–16 describe various “ritual” regulations, while chs. 17–27 focus on ethical commands. Because the rituals of chs. 1–16 are unfamiliar, they are often seen as being disconnected from the ethical emphasis of the later chapters. It is more accurate, however, to see the entire book as being concerned with Israel’s being holy to the Lord.
Unclean, clean, holy. Leviticus often uses these terms differently than today. Modern readers might think of “clean” vs. “unclean” as being the same as healthy vs. unhealthy. In Leviticus, however, these words do not refer to hygiene. Rather, they describe the types of actions a person may or may not engage in, or the places he may or may not go. For example, those who are unclean may not partake of a peace offering (7:20). A modern analogy might be registering to vote: a person who is “registered” may vote, whereas a person who is not registered may not vote. The ritually “clean” person is not necessarily more righteous than one who is ritually unclean, just as a person who is registered to vote is not necessarily more righteous than a person who is not.
Even though ritual states and moral states are different, however, the ritual states in Leviticus also seem to symbolize grades of moral purity. By constantly calling the Israelites to ritual purity, the Lord was reminding them of their need for also seeking moral purity (20:24–26).
NT relevance of commands in Leviticus. What does Leviticus have to do with the church today? The sacrificial system of Leviticus has ceased for the people of God; it has been fulfilled in the coming of Christ (see Heb. 9:1–14, 24–28; 10:1–14). However, studying these laws is important because the sacrifices point to different aspects of the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice of himself.
Second, the Holiness Code (chs. 17–27) deals with sanctification, that is, how one lives in the covenant community. The NT applies to Christians the same principle stated in Leviticus 11:44, “be holy, for I am holy” (see 1 Pet. 1:16). On the other hand, several details of the Holiness Code concern more symbolic aspects of holiness that are no longer followed in the Christian era (such as laws prohibiting garments with two kinds of cloth, Lev. 19:19, or prohibiting the shaving of the edges of a beard, 21:5). Further, the NT envisions a people of God transcending national boundaries. Therefore, current civil governments need not follow the OT civil laws (such as capital punishment for adultery; 20:10), although of course all governments must pursue justice, and Leviticus may certainly help in this regard.
- The holy Lord is present among his people (Ex. 40:34; Lev. 1:1). They must therefore admit their sin and impurity and strive for personal holiness.
- In order to approach God, worshipers must be wholehearted in their devotion (1:1–6:7; 22:17–30).
- Those called to be spiritual leaders, such as priests, bear a heavier responsibility than the laypeople (chs. 4; 21). In addition to the outward holiness that the priests receive when they are ordained, they must maintain inward holiness (chs. 8; 9; 10; 21).
- As is seen in the Day of Atonement ritual (ch. 16), the total cleansing of sins and uncleanness happens only when the innermost part of the tabernacle is purified. Humans, by themselves, can never achieve complete purification from sin.
- Atonement is a gracious act of the Lord (17:11).
- Five Major Offerings (1:1–6:7)
- Handling of the Offerings (6:8–7:38)
- The Establishment of the Priesthood (8:1–10:20)
- The Laws on Cleanness and Uncleanness (11:1–15:33)
- The Day of Atonement Ritual (16:1–34)
- The Handling and Meaning of Blood (17:1–16)
- The Call to Holiness (18:1–22:33)
- Holy Times (23:1–25:55)
- Blessings and Curses (26:1–46)
- Vows and Dedication (27:1–34)
The Setting of Leviticus
c. 1446 b.c.
The book of Exodus finishes with Moses and Israel having constructed and assembled the tabernacle at the base of Mount Sinai. The book of Leviticus primarily records the instructions the Lord gives to Moses from the tent of meeting, but also includes narratives of a few events related to the tabernacle. (Regarding the date of the exodus, see Introduction to Exodus, and note on 1 Kings 6:1.)