For the modern reader Leviticus is a leading contender for the most baffling book in the Bible. Full of arcane rituals, limited explanation, countless repetition, and puzzling laws it is hard to understand. Yet it has recently become the focus of intense interest. As the third and central book of the Pentateuch it plays a key role in the revelation of God to Moses on Mount Sinai. In Leviticus Israel is instructed how to worship God, how to become a holy people, and what it means to live with others. Ironically for a book with such a poor reputation, it is here that we find the famous summary of the law: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (19:18).
‘Leviticus’ takes its English name from the Greek title, Levitikon, relating to the Levites. Although the Levites are never mentioned, it probably reflects an association of the Levites with the priesthood, and so communicates the priestly nature of the book. In Hebrew it is, as usual, the initial word, wayyiqra (‘and he called’). More accurate is the traditional rabbinic torat kohanim, the ‘priestly instruction.’
One outline of the contents of Leviticus is:
11–15 Purity and impurity
16 Day of Atonement (Yom Kippurim here)
17–22 Rules for behaviour
23–26 Calendars and the future
Although Leviticus lays out laws of worship and behaviour, they are set within the narrative framework of the exodus and God’s revelation to Moses on Sinai. It is closely linked to the account of the construction of the Tabernacle (Exodus 25–31), which is required for the rituals and sacrifices and also reflects a priestly tradition or source (P). The Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 is a climactic and central ritual. On this day the sins and impurities of Israel over the year are dealt with by a unique set of sacrifices and the ritual of the scapegoat. This marks a transition to the last part of the book (Leviticus 17–27), which is often called the Holiness Code (H; Leviticus 17-26) and expands the scope of the instruction to treat the general ethical and ritual behaviour of the whole people.
Pre-critical and conservative readers hold the view that Moses was the author of Leviticus, which portrays a historical account of Israel’s worship following the Exodus. However, this view may have placed authorship out of its historical order when regarded in the light of the ancient Near East. Most critical scholars consider that the institutions and laws describe largely reflect a later historical context. It is possible that later generations regarded its instruction as deriving from the authority of Moses, who was not so much the author as the originator of the overall vision of life before God that was expounded in detail in Leviticus.
The date of the priestly tradition reflected in Leviticus continues to be disputed. The scholarly consensus is that the final editing was exilic or post-exilic. However, a significant minority argues for a pre-exilic date. The discussion is complicated by the acknowledgement that later editors incorporated earlier sources.
The distinctive character of Leviticus 17–26 (the ‘Holiness Code’ or H), is variously explained. Early scholars thought that P had included an earlier law code and adapted it. But more recently some have attributed it to a later movement that incorporated P. Yet others are unconvinced by the hypothesis of H, preferring to emphasize the overarching literary and theological unity of Leviticus.
Why was Leviticus written? The traditional interpretation has been that this is divine guidance about how to worship God and live in the land that the Israelites are about to enter. Those who hold an exilic or post-exilic date consider Leviticus as either a practical or a utopian vision for how Israel is to behave on return from exile. Those holding a pre-exilic date suggest that they reflect the practice of Solomon’s temple. Yet the Tabernacle is not a temple, and Leviticus remains strongly rooted in the the revelation on Mount Sinai. One possible approach is to see Leviticus as an example of what it might mean to worship and obey God. The details allow readers to understand and apply for themselves underlying principles and goals. Its purpose is theological and pedagogical rather than historical.
The two parts of Leviticus (1–16 and 17–27) invite reflection on how worship and life are related in the present canonical book. How Israel worships its God cannot be isolated from requirements to behave justly and compassionately in the land. In different but complementary ways worship and law seek to deal with sin and shape a generous and harmonious society. Because God is holy and righteous, Israel in Leviticus is both encouraged to obey and warned that the consequences of disobedience are catastrophic (Leviticus 10, 26).
After the destruction of the temple in 70 CE the rabbis replaced the practice of sacrifice with the study of its laws. Some of the laws regarding impurity were retained and developed, as in the dietary laws (the practice of kashrut). In continuity with the approach of the New Testament Book of Hebrews, Christian interpreters saw Jesus as the fulfillment and end of the sacrificial system. Elaborate systems of typology were developed. The comment by Jesus in Mark 5:25-34 led to the setting aside of the purity rules of Leviticus 12-15 and their interpretation as symbolizing ethical principles. The emphasis on ethics and holiness in the Holiness Code was taken up and applied to the church.
The interest in history from the 19th century led to intense discussion about sources and dating, although this was largely the preserve of earlier debates. The work of the anthropologist Mary Douglas inspired fresh interest in the meaning and rationale of the laws of impurity. Others have taken up her project and sought to explore the coherence and meaning of this unique book.
Balentine, Samuel. Leviticus. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox, 2002.
Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics. Continental Commentaries. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004.