By Mary Jane Chaignot

Leviticus is the third or middle book of the Pentateuch. In Hebrew the book is designated by its first word - wayyiqra - meaning "and he called." Its English name comes from the Latin Vulgate, which garnered it from the Septuagint. It is an appropriate designation since most of the book deals with priestly matters and the priests were of the tribe of Levi. Therein, of course, lies the biggest problem with the book. The first few chapters describe the "when, what, and how" regarding sacrifices, including what the layperson can expect of the priest during the whole process. It's hard to see any value in these instructions for modern people. The rest of the book isn't much different. The bottom line, then, is that most people either skip the book altogether or skim through it real fast!

The fact of the matter is that even the ancient Jews weren't able to fulfill the instructions described in Leviticus because the Temple was destroyed in 70CE. At that point the canon was still open, so if they truly thought these words had no value, they could easily have left them out. But they didn't, and that fact should give us pause.

So, what redeeming thoughts can be derived from examining this book? One scholar put it this way: "The book of Leviticus, being part of Holy Scripture, reveals various aspects of God's atoning purpose when he used sacrifice, and the priesthood necessary to administer it, in order to accomplish his loving will for all men within the bonds of the covenant that he made with Israel." It suggests that the regulations and rituals of the book have a meaning beyond their literal value. Indeed, the book speaks to a people who are living in community with the divine presence. That's hardly an outdated concept.

It helps to know that the book was written (finalized and edited) during the sixth century, after Israel had been exiled to Babylon. Without country, temple, or king, the priests had a long time to think about their situation -- and how to prevent it from ever happening again. Even though the book repeatedly states: "The Lord said to Moses...", it does not claim that Moses was the one writing these things down. It is true that some of the language and rituals pre-date the exilic period, but it was during this time that the ideas were fine tuned and honed by the priestly writers, writers who were desperate to find meaning in their despair. Eventually they would come to realize and record their fundamental beliefs that when people are sincere, God forgives totally.

The book of Leviticus, then, is a record of God's words to His people. Four main topics are covered. God's enduring presence is presupposed; He isn't there just for times of worship but is involved in every aspect of their lives. Everything they do is done in the presence of God. That requires them to be holy, which raises the whole issue of cleanness and uncleanness. People standing in relation to God need to be holy, sanctified, clean. End of that conversation.

But what happens if they become "unclean" through contact with sin, sickness, or death? Are they relegated to the fringes of community life? Not at all. That is where the whole concept of sacrifice comes into play. The main point of the sacrificial system was to restore the relationship of individuals to God or to each other. Sacrifices could be done for individuals or whole communities. Needless to say, different situations required different sacrifices. Leviticus lays this all out, complete with the various duties of all involved parties -- God, the worshipper, and the priest. Under girding this relationship, of course, is the notion of the Sinai covenant. Leviticus follows Exodus, wherein the covenant is established. The covenant is the foundation for everything that happens. If there were no covenant, there'd be no basis for a relationship.

Having said that, then, the book is divided into four main sections, though not all scholars are in agreement with the divisions.

  • Chapters 1-7 detail laws relating to sacrifices.
  • Chapters 8-10 give instructions re: the priesthood.
  • Chapters 11-16 discuss the issue of uncleanness and its resolution.
  • Chapters 17-27 describe the holiness code.

Sacrifices: 1:1-7:38

  • 1:1-2
    • Introduction
    • God calls to Moses from the tent of meeting and reveals his will
    • Moses is to pass this information on to the community.
  • 1:3-17
    • The Burnt Offering (or something which goes up in smoke)
    • Purpose is not explained, but effects are
    • Generally thought to be the means for soothing the relationship with God
    • To be done on daily basis, describes which animals to use, and how to use them.
  • 2:1-16
    • The Grain Offering (Less expensive form of burnt offering)
    • May represent God's ownership of the land
    • Can be used by itself to express joy and thanksgiving
    • More often used in connection with larger ritual process.
  • 3:1-17
    • Offering of Well-Being (Peace offering)
    • Differs from the burnt offering in that only the fat is burned. The rest of the animal is eaten by the worshipers, essentially making it a fellowship meal with God and the worshipers as participants.
    • Its celebration marks various points in Israelite history
    • These are voluntary sacrifices, done in gratitude to God.
  • 4:1-5:13
    • Sin Offerings -- or better known as Purification Offerings
    • Used primarily to restore the sanctity of the temple or surrounding areas. This is when someone does something wrong inadvertently. This is not intended to be in disobedience to God, but covers those situations that are unintentional. Such sins are taken seriously out of concern that God may abandon His people if the temple is thought to be defiled.
    • Purification deals both with the offender and the surrounding area.
    • It matters who the sinner was -- different sinners require different sacrifices.
    • The sin of an anointed priest defiles the community more than an ordinary person and a more thorough purification process is needed.
    • Guilt is essential, even though the act was unintentional.
    • 3-12 discuss sins of priests
    • 13-21 -- sins of the community as a whole
    • 22-26 -- sins of a ruler or an ordinary person
    • 27-35 -- some purification requires goats, others sheep
  • 5:14-6:7
    • Guilt Offerings -- or sometimes thought to be Reparation Offerings
    • Deals with things that ought not to be done (on purpose).
  • 5:14-19
    • First example involves sins against God
    • Violates the boundaries relating to holy things; trespasses against holy property.
    • If a person uses an item inappropriately that had been dedicated to God
    • Reparation requires ritual enactment.
  • 6:1-7
    • Second example involves sins against others
    • Cases involving the use of God's name in vain in uttering false oaths in court
    • Makes God a partner to malicious dishonesty
    • Confession of the sin is required in addition to ritual enactment
    • Effects of the rituals include: expiation of sin, forgiveness, and new life.
  • 6:8-7:38
    • Burnt Offerings -- "How To" instructions
    • Addressed to the priests. Include the sacrifices previously mentioned
    • Specifies how to clean the ashes from the altar while maintaining the fire
    • Ashes are holy and cannot remain in the camp, but cannot be placed in unclean place either. (Much like today's concerns re: hazardous waste!)
    • Each type of sacrifice is treated separately, telling the priests how to handle the blood, what parts can be eaten, by whom, and how. If these are not followed to the letter, the whole sacrifice can be invalidated.

Inauguration of the priesthood: 8:1-10:20

The first seven chapters focused on sacrifices. Now the story picks up where it ended in Exodus. Moses has built the tabernacle and now inaugurates Aaron and his sons as priests.

  • 8:1-36
    • The Ordination of the Priests
    • 1-5 The whole congregation is assembled and called to witness the ordination
    • 6-9 The uniform. Much attention is given to the clothes of high priest, draws attention to the office rather than the individual.
    • 10-13 The actual anointing -- both of Aaron and of the tabernacle
    • 14-17 Purification Offering -- cleansing of area, making it holy (Lev. 4ff)
    • 18-21 The Burnt Offering -- offering a ram for expiation of their sins (Lev 1ff)
    • 22-30 The Peace Offering -- oil and blood meant to sanctify Aaron and his sons (Lev 3ff) Blood smeared on tips of ear, thumb, big toe -- parts stand for the whole
    • 31-36 Final instructions to Aaron -- told how to eat the sacrifice Needed to sacrifice daily for seven days -- long process
  • 9:1-24
    • Aaron's First Sacrifices
    • After a week of preparations, Aaron is ready. So on the eighth day, he takes over the duties of high priest, essentially running through the gambit of all the various sacrifices. With the people in attendance, Aaron faithfully executes every detail. Then the "glory of the Lord" appears to the people and fire comes from the Lord and consumes the offerings upon the altar. This is seen as a sign of God's approval. Aaron passes all the tests. He's in.
  • 10:1-20
    • Death of Aaron's two sons
    • Just when everything should be going well, disobedience sets in.
    • 1-3 Two of Aaron's sons make a "strange" (unholy?) offering.
    • They are immediately consumed by fire
    • 4-7 Moses commands two other sons to care for the bodies, forbids mourning
    • Sins of brothers could not be condoned, hence no time for grieving
    • Unlike first two sons, all commands are followed to the letter
    • 8-11 God speaks to Aaron directly
    • Regardless of his son's actions, Aaron is still high priest
    • 12-18 More sacrifices are offered; two of Aaron's sons didn't eat when they should have.
    • 19-20 Aaron tries to intervene on their behalf.
    • It worked! Shows God's graciousness to those who make mistakes compared to those who blatantly and carelessly enter his presence.

Instructions on Purity: 11:1-16:34

If the first seven chapters were a virtual "how-to" book regarding sacrifices, then these chapters are a handbook for the priests in terms of purity matters. At issue is how to keep the sacred space pure, and how to restore purity when it has been violated. The answer to the second part is through animal sacrifice. The answer to the first part is knowing what to avoid and what is ok.

  • 11:1
    • The Lord "said to Moses"
  • 11:2-23
    • A list of edible and non-edible animals
    • Douglas' work on purity issues suggests that there was a system under girding the various categories. Animals mainly fall into three groups:
    • -- air
    • -- land
    • -- sea
    • Clean animals are those which follow the standard types.
    • Unclean animals are those which transgress the expected -- such as fish without fins; insects that fly but also have legs; pigs that have cloven feet but don't chew their cud. Ancient Israel saw themselves as a people of God and different from the outside world; in like manner the same standard was applied to the animals.
    • Every time the Israelites ate meat or sacrificed, they were reminded of their special and holy status before God, by limiting their consumption to animals that were as "pure" as they were.
  • 11:24-40
    • Carcasses
    • Regardless whether it's a clean or unclean animal, all carcasses transmit uncleanness when touched.
  • 11:41-43
    • Anything that swarms is unclean
  • 11:44-47
    • Rules are repeated; rationale is given
    • Israel maintains its holiness before God by avoiding eating or contact with animals that are not holy.
  • 12:1-8
    • Uncleanness of childbirth
    • It is not the mom that is unclean, nor the infant. It is simply the discharge that accompanies childbirth. It is another one of those ambiguous moments. The mother brings forth life but in the process loses some of her own life through the loss of blood.
  • 13:1-44
    • Problems with skin diseases and growths
    • Skin eruptions were oftentimes seen as God's punishment for some wrong doing, hence, this was mainly a religious issue.
    • Priest's job was to declare the uncleanness, decide what actions should be taken, and after healing had occurred, perform the ritual purification that was required.
  • 14:1-57
    • Purification Rituals post disease
    • Rituals had nothing to do with healing or curative efforts. Only concern is to purify what had been unclean.
    • 1-32 How to restore the person who was unclean; move him/her from outside to back inside the camp, i.e., society.
    • 33-57 How to restore a "sick" house. All household items were lost; house had to be repaired. Then ritually made pure. If it happened a second time, house was destroyed. Impurities might be like fungus, or mold on walls. (Think about the climate)
  • 15:1-33
    • Bodily discharges
    • Males and females with bodily discharges were unclean. Even normal intercourse and menstruation had its purification requirements. Abnormal discharges required a special and lengthier process. Any bedding, chairs, saddles, or dishes touched by an unclean person became unclean. Anyone touching those items, or the person, immediately became unclean as well, and was required to go through the purification process. The idea was to protect the integrity of the body. Reproduction issues are important because they involve life and death, beliefs about divine blessings, and affect the whole society.
  • 16:1-34
    • The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)
    • Once a year, the camp needed to be purified, and the sins of the people were to be forgiven. It was the time when the high priest entered the Holy of Holies. Obviously a sinful man cannot stand in the presence of God, so he had to be made pure first. Then the whole community was cleansed and integrity was restored.
    • 20-22 The Goat
    • As part of the ritual, a goat was sent out of the camp into the wilderness, a visual reminder of the reality of sin and the need to send it out of the camp.

The Holiness Code: 17:1-27:34

Has to do more with social interaction than formal worship.

  • 17:1-16
    • Rules about sacrifice and blood
    • No domesticated animals were to be killed outside the tabernacle; all blood needed to be drained before any meat could be eaten. (This only worked while they all lived together around the tabernacle. Deut. 12:20ff modifies this once they are living in the "land.") The idea was that the life of the animal was given by God and could only be taken in sacrifice to God. If an animal was killed in the wild, its blood had to be poured out in respect for God.
  • 18:1-30
    • Rules governing sexual behavior
    • Begins with a basic plea to avoid acting like the heathen. It includes a list of both prohibited and permitted sexual partners. The instructions indicate a very close connection between rituals and ethical/moral issues. Whole idea was to protect the integrity of the family.
  • 19:1-36
    • How to live a holy life
    • This chapter covers a whole series of laws leading to practical holiness. Parents are to care for their children; children are to honor their parents. Israelites are commanded to love their neighbors as well as the resident stranger. It indicates that every aspect of life is under God's domain. There are echoes of the Ten ommandments throughout.
  • 20:1-27
    • A list of penalties for those times when people transgress the rules
    • This is what was supposed to happen to the person who broke the rules. The idea was always to protect the society, to keep the camp pure and holy before God. It demands that the community be responsible for itself and its members. Sometimes punishment from God is expected, but primarily this is a community issue. Usually the offenders were "cut off" from the community; ometimes they were stoned to death.
  • 21:1-23
    • How to maintain the holiness of the priests.
    • Basically a how-to list of what priests could or could not do (couldn't touch dead bodies). There were restrictions on whom they could marry (must be a virgin); what happened if a family member misbehaved, or they got sick. They were held to a higher standard than ordinary members of the community, primarily because of their functions within that community.
  • 22:1-33
    • A reminder to the priests to respect their offerings and their position Reminds them never to take their position for granted. They must remain worthy of their charge to be God's intermediaries for the people, in every aspect of their lives -- including what they ate, and how they ate it. Getting enough food was considered part of their "salary." Animals were also to be without blemish.
  • 23:1-44
    • The Sacred calendar
    • Lays out when all the special feasts are to occur -- five in all, corresponding to previous lists. The feasts are: Unleavened Bread, Weeks, Booths, New Year's Day, and the Day of Atonement. In addition there are instructions re the Sabbath and Passover.
  • 24:1-33
    • Additional regulations
    • 2-9 how to care for the lamp in the tabernacle
    • 10-23 how to handle a case of blasphemy
  • 25:1-55
    • Sabbatical and Jubilee years
    • The Sabbatical year occurs every seventh year, meaning that the land is to "rest". God will provide a bumper crop in the sixth year so all will have enough. Additionally, every 50 years will be a time of release for slaves, debts, and land. This Jubilee year reminds the Israelites that the land belongs to God and they are merely stewards for him. Hence, if land has been leased or rented (perhaps to pay a debt), it returns to its initial owner.
  • 26:1-46
    • Blessings and Curses
    • Describes rather definitively that obedience leads to blessings; disobedience leads to curses. Blessings will include fertility, abundance of crops, success against enemies, and the presence of God. Curses include the opposite of these, ending with the loss of the land and exile.
    • 40-46 Hope, for when all hope is gone
    • Israel has merely to repent and make amends; then all will be restored. Exile will not be the final answer. The nation will never be totally destroyed, but the people are to be held accountable for their actions.
  • 27:1-34
    • Concluding remarks on vows and tithes
    • If a vow is made involving a person or animal, how much will it cost to satisfy the vow? Chapter 27 is all about economics. Vows can be redeemed. Land has a value. But some things belong only to God (the firstborn) and cannot be bought or sold.
  • 34
    • Summary
    • It declares that all these laws were given directly to Moses at Mount Sinai (or not!) These are not meant to be final, but the intent is that's all they need for now.

We will continue our overview of the Old Testament with a look at Numbers, which basically resumes the story where Exodus stopped. Now, however, people have a better understanding of what's expected of them in their relations with each other and with God.


Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.

Farmer, William. The International Bible Commentary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998.

Noordtzij, A. Leviticus, Bible Student's Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982.

McGrath, Allister. NIV Bible Commentary. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988.

Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson. Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995.

Wenham, GJ. The Book of Leviticus, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1979.