Orienting Data for Leviticus
■Content: various laws having to do with holiness before God and with love of neighbor, including sacrifices, ritual cleanness, and social obligations, as well as laws for the Levites regarding their priestly duties.
■Emphases: getting it right with regard to worship, for both people and priests; institution of the priesthood under Aaron; laws protecting ritual cleanness, including atonement for sins (the Day of Atonement); laws regulating sexual relations, family life, punishments for major crimes, festivals, and special years (sabbaths and jubilees)
Overview of Leviticus
The title of this book (by way of Latin from the Greek levitikon) means “pertaining to the Levites,” which not only aptly describes its basic contents but also gives a clue as to why it is so often unappealing to contemporary readers—not to mention that it has so little narrative (chs. 8–10; 24:10–23 are the exceptions). But with a little help, you can come to a basic understanding of both its contents and its place in the narrative of the Pentateuch—even if the nature of, and reason for, some of the laws themselves may escape you (for this you may wish to consult a good commentary; e.g., Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus [see How to 1, p. 268]). It is important to note that Leviticus picks up precisely where Exodus left off—with the Lord speaking to Moses “from the Tent of Meeting” and saying, “Speak to the Israelites and say …” From that point on, the movement from one section to another is signaled by the phrase, “The Lord said to Moses” (4:1; 5:14; 6:1, 8; and so forth). It will be no surprise, then, to discover that the first main part of the book (chs. 1–16, commonly known as the Levitical Code) has primarily to do with regulations for the people and the priests related directly to the tabernacle, which appeared toward the end of Exodus (chs. 25–31; 35–40). This code outlines easily. It begins with offerings by the people (1:1–6:7), followed by instructions for the priests (6:8–7:38). These are followed (logically) by the institution of the Aaronic priesthood (chs. 8–9) and the judgment on two of Aaron’s sons who thought they could do it their own way (10:1–7), with further instructions for the priests (10:8–20). The next section (chs. 11–15) then begins with a new rubric, “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron” (11:1, emphasis added; see also 13:1; 14:33; 15:1, but nowhere else in Leviticus). Here you find laws that deal especially with ritual cleanness (purity)—with a view to avoiding what happened to Aaron’s two sons. Here also appears for the first time the very important injunction, “Be holy, because I am holy” (11:44, 45). This is followed, appropriately, by the institution of the Day of Atonement (ch. 16). What follows (chs. 17–25) is commonly known as the Holiness Code, which is governed by the repeated charge to “be holy, because I am holy” (beginning in 19:2 and throughout). But now a significant part of being holy is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). Thus the section is a collection of various laws dealing with one’s relationship both to God and to others. At the end are requirements for the sabbath and jubilee years (ch. 25), while the book concludes with covenant blessings and curses (ch. 26) that provide a formal conclusion to the covenant structure that began in Exodus 20. The book itself concludes with an appendix on vows and tithes (Lev 27).
Specific Advice for Reading Leviticus
In order to get the most out of your reading, you need to remind yourself of two things: (1) These laws are part of God’s covenant with Israel, and therefore they are not just religious rites but have to do...