Critical Introduction of Leviticus
The book of Leviticus is probably the least read or taught book in the church. Now, there is a reason for this, several I believe.
- It is difficult to understand and relate to life today.
- Many of the rituals and regulations found in it are not meant for Christians, so why study them?
- The style of writing is repetitive and challenging so reading the book is difficult and simply becomes a necessary chore in the process of reading the Bible from beginning to end.
In preparing for this class, I relied on various resources but one commentary that was extremely helpful was the: Truth for Today Commentary – Leviticus by Coy D. Roper. This set of commentaries on the 66 books of the Bible are all well written and edited by scholars affiliated with the Churches of Christ. I highly recommend this series for reading and Bible study.
I. Critical Introduction to the Book of Leviticus
Before we study the actual text, it is always helpful to do a "critical introduction" of the book – things like author, time, reason for writing, relationship to other parts of the Bible, theme, and outline, so we can establish context and purpose to better understand what the book is about and why it was written in the first place.
A. Pentateuch – Greek word meaning five books
This term (in the Greek language - five) was used to refer to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. In the Hebrew language, these first five books were referred to as the Torah:
- The original meaning of the word Torah was – teaching, guidance, direction, or law.
- Eventually the word was exclusively used to refer to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
- This is why the Jews often referred to these books as the books of the Law, or the Torah.
There were five books, and each had a particular focus in telling the story concerning the beginning of the relationship between God and His chosen people. For example:
- God brings the creation into being.
- The need for salvation arises as a result of Adam's sin.
- God's plan for salvation is initiated through Abraham's family.
- Abraham's family becomes the nation of Israel through its miraculous liberation from Egyptian slavery.
- God makes a covenant with the Israelites to be their God and they, His people.
- God anoints a leader, provides a law as well as religious elements to maintain an exclusive relationship with His chosen people.
- God provides a religious system and practice to cultivate the attitude and virtue of holiness among His people.
- God is holy and He requires that His people be holy, as well, in order to dwell in His presence.
- God's people are identified and numbered.
- Israel fails to keep God's statutes.
- God, by grace, brings His people into the Promised Land.
- Israel is exhorted by Moses to keep all of God's laws in the future in order to be a holy nation and thus remain as God's people.
A summary of all five books is found in the book of Exodus as God addresses His people through Moses, the leader God has put over them.
3Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: 4'You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you to Myself. 5Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; 6and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel."
- Exodus 19:3-6
The book of Leviticus contains the system of sacrifice used in the practice of the Jewish religion. This taught them the meaning and ways to exercise and cultivate the virtue of holiness required of God's people.
B. Name – Leviticus
In the Hebrew Bible the name of each of the first five books is derived from the first word in the Hebrew text of each book. The book of Leviticus, therefore, was originally named after the first word of the text, WAYYIQRA = "…and He called out." (Leviticus 1:1) "Then the Lord called out to Moses…"
The present name, "Leviticus" comes from the Septuagint (70), which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament produced in 250 B.C. During that period, the Greek culture was so influential that many Jews became Hellenized, no longer able to speak or read the Hebrew language. In the third century B.C. Jewish scholars were given the task of translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The work was eventually finished in the second century B.C.
Some claim that there were actually 72 scholars used, 6 for each of the tribes of Israel. In the end, the translation was referred to using the Roman numerals LXX, which is the number 70 (a reference to the number of Jewish scholars used to translate the work). The Greek name given to the third book in the series (Leviticus) meant: pertaining to the Levites.
The Levites were one of the twelve tribes of Israel and the tribe from which both Moses and Aaron came. In Exodus 40:12 God tells Moses to anoint his brother, Aaron, as High Priest and his sons as priests. From this moment on, therefore, the role of High priest was only open to direct descendants of Aaron's family.
In Exodus 32:26 the tribe of Levi stood with Moses to put down a rebellion and God rewarded them with the task of caring for and moving the Tabernacle complex and furnishings while they were in the desert. Later on, when the people settled in the promised land and the Temple was built replacing the Tabernacle as the place of worship, the Levites were again charged with its maintenance and protection.
Therefore, the priests were all descended from Aaron's family who were part of the tribe of Levi. All of the caretakers of the Tabernacle and Temple were descended from other families in the tribe of Levi. Because of this special work, the Levites did not receive a tract of land for their own possession as the other tribes received, instead God gave them 48 cities to live in which were scattered throughout Israel. They also received a portion of the gifts and sacrifices brought by the people for the priests to sacrifice.
The book that bears their name (Leviticus) is a book full of laws whose purpose was to reveal God to His people and teach them what was required to be holy – what God wanted from His special people then and now.
The book of Leviticus does not name its author except to say the laws contained in it were originally given to Moses by God, and he was to give them to the Israelites.
1Then the Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, 2a"Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them,"
- Leviticus 1:1-2a
Moses, therefore, has traditionally been credited with writing not only the book of Leviticus but all five books of the Pentateuch or Torah. There are many passages that say Moses wrote down the Laws and events found in the Pentateuch (i.e Exodus 17:14; Numbers 33:1; Deuteronomy 3:19). There are also passages in the New Testament that claim the same fact, that Moses wrote the Books of the Law (i.e. Matthew 19:8; Mark 12:26; John 1:45; Romans 10:5);
Documentary Hypothesis – Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918)
The Documentary Hypothesis was a liberal view which held that rather by than a single author (Moses), the Pentateuch was put together over a period of centuries by unknown editors (redactors) from a number of written sources which themselves were derived from various oral traditions. Wellhausen claimed that the Pentateuch's final form was derived from four major documents:
- Document J – for YEHWIST (or JEHOVAH)
- Document E – for ELOHIST
- Document D – for Deuteronomist
- Document P – for Priestly
Briefly stated, the Documentary Hypothesis gives Moses credit for recording the Law in Exodus 20, but claims that the majority of the material written in the Pentateuch comes from sources other than Moses:
- All of these patched together over the centuries by unknown editors.
- The prophets
- Written material from the time of the Jews' exile in Babylon
- Various codes of holiness contained in ancient manuscripts
The Documentary Hypothesis is a weak argument because:
- There is little evidence supporting the claim that the Pentateuch was written over centuries by many authors.
- In order to accept this hypothesis one must reject God's role in the production and preservation of the material.
- The Documentary Hypothesis is based on an evolutionary view of the development of Israel's religion which has been proven to be false.
- There is evidence proving the early date of the writing of the Pentateuch (1450-1400 B.C.), which is 1,000 years earlier than the Documentary Hypothesis' date of 450 B.C.
The historical record claiming Moses as the author, along with Jesus' confirmation of this fact enables Christians to confidently believe, claim, and teach that Moses is the sole author of the Pentateuch.
Those who reject miraculous intervention and espouse the Documentary Hypothesis put the final formation of the Pentateuch, including the book of Leviticus, at about 500-400 B.C. – the start of the intertestamental period (the time from Malachi to John the Baptist). Conservative Christians who accept the full inspiration of scripture and God's dynamic interaction with mankind, date the book at the time the Bible describes its production, during the life of Moses, its author – 1445 B.C.
E. Historical Time Frame
Leviticus contains the laws and ordinances God gave the Israelites through Moses during the year the people spent camped before Mt. Sinai. It was written after the building and dedication of the Tabernacle described in Exodus, and before their entry into the promised land described in the book of Numbers. Aside from the instructions about the priesthood and sacrificial system, it contains several historical notes:
- The consecration of the priesthood – Chapters 8-10
- The punishment of Aaron's sons – Chapters 8-10
- The punishment of a blasphemer – 24:10-23
The theme of the book of Leviticus, in a word, is "Holiness." Its purpose was to promote holiness so that Israel might become God's "Holy Nation."
...be holy, for I am holy.
- Leviticus 11:45
This theme of holiness is supported and applied in practical ways throughout the book. For example:
- God's holiness required submission to His will. Failure to obey not only regressed one's growth in the virtue of holiness, but also had terrible consequences (i.e death of Nadab and Abihu, as well as the blasphemer).
- Holiness among the Jews required them to carefully observe the rituals of the Law. God defined the elements of Holiness in every setting and society. For the Jews, a holy life was seen in the practice of the sacrificial system, as well as keeping the Law.
- God charged the priests with the responsibility of providing instruction, assistance and an example of a holy life for the people to learn and emulate.
- It was a combination of obeying the Law, observing the sacrificial system, and loving one's neighbor as oneself that produced the holy life pleasing to God.
G. Value of Leviticus for Christians
We often fail to recognize the application of this book for our lives today since most of it deals with archaic rituals in the sacrificing of animals and food. However, the principles contained in Leviticus are timeless and quite pertinent for our lives as Christians. Dr. Roper lists five modern applications for today's Christian:
Value of Leviticus for Christians Today
1. The emphasis on "Holiness" is directly applicable for us today because this is what God is calling us to do.
15but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; 16because it is written, "You shall be holy, for I am holy."
- I Peter 1:15-16
2. The sacrificial system (the shedding of blood to redeem the sins of the people) was a preview of what Christ would do for us today. Knowing more about these sacrifices helps us to appreciate and understand more perfectly Christ's sacrifice for us.
3. There is a relationship and similarity between the various sacrifices that the Jews offered then and the sacrifices we as Christians offer today:
- We offer our bodies as living sacrifices when we serve God with good deeds – Romans 12:1-2
- We offer a sacrifice of praise with our lips – Hebrews 13:15
- Our financial support of the church and its various works in preaching the gospel is a "fragrant aroma," an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God – Philippians 4:18
Today, we have different objects, different methods of offering, different rituals (we now serve as priests), but the same God, the same result, and the same motivation (love and holiness).
4. Leviticus should help us rethink our attitude about ritual itself. We want to make church services more entertaining, less formal, dress up the rituals with music, drama, and emotion. Leviticus teaches us that God gives the rituals, not man. Today, we only have two rituals and five practices given to us by God:
- Rituals: Baptism and Communion
- Practices: Praise, Prayer, Preaching, Teaching and Giving
Leviticus teaches us that we should follow God's instructions concerning these things and as the ones who want to be the holy people of God, we should also give ourselves over to these rituals and practices of the New Testament with heartfelt devotion and whole-hearted participation.
5. Leviticus reminds us that we become holy through a sacrifice of blood, and maintain that holiness through obedience to God's commands. The true requirement behind these commands is the same as it is for us today: that we love God wholeheartedly and love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
- Galatians 5:14
H. Leviticus – Outlines
There are various ways that this book can be outlined. Remember that the overall theme is holiness, both God's intrinsic holiness and man's way to holiness.
Outline #1 – Harper Study Bible
- The way of approach to a holy God – Leviticus 1-16
- Maintaining fellowship with a holy God – Leviticus 17-27
The first part of this very brief outline explains how one finds forgiveness and a right relationship with God. The second part deals with the maintenance of that relationship.
Outline #2 – A More Expanded Outline
- The Offerings (Leviticus 1-7)
- General Regulations (1:1-6:7)
- Priestly Regulations (6:8-7:38)
- The Priesthood (Leviticus 8-10)
- Consecration (8)
- Installation (9)
- Consequences of Disobedience (10)
- Cleanliness and Uncleanliness – (Leviticus 11-16)
- Regulations (11-15)
- The Day of Atonement (16)
- The Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-27)
- The Sanctity of Blood (17)
- Moral Laws (18-20)
- Priestly Regulations (21-22)
- Worship Calendar (23)
- Oil, Bread, and Blasphemy (24)
- The Sabbath Year and Jubilee (25)
- Rewards and Punishments (26)
- Vows and Tithes (27)
The theme of the book of Leviticus is centered on holiness, so the outline we will use for our study will be one that follows the general theme of holiness, outline number three.
Outline #3 – Training for Holiness (the subtitle for this series).
- Attaining Holiness – (Leviticus 1-16)
- Through Offerings (1-7)
- Through a Consecrated Priesthood (8-10)
- By Distinguished Between the Clean and the Unclean (11-15)
- By Observing the Day of Atonement (16)
- Practicing Holiness – (Leviticus 17-27)
- Individual Responsibility to Keep God's Moral and Ritual laws (17-20)
- Priestly Responsibilities (21-22)
- The Nation's Responsibility to Promote Holiness (23-25)
- Reasons for Practicing Holiness: Blessings and curses (26)
- Evidence of Holiness: Vows and Valuations (27)
Of course, this is simply a general framework for the material contained in the book of Leviticus, a tool to help us know what we're talking about and where we are when we begin adding detail in our study. There are many more information points that we will add to each of the headings contained in the outline – so keep it handy as a general roadmap to navigate the book itself.
Read: Leviticus 1-10
In the following chapter we'll examine more closely this idea of holiness, collective holiness, and begin our study of the text.