An Overview of the Book of Leviticus

John Jelinek
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Leviticus gets a bad rap. It is the butt of everyone’s favorite jokes about Bible reading plans and losing interest in reading Scripture. But despite its perception, the book of the Leviticus is a rich book, full of God’s wisdom and worthy of our attention.

Do you find yourself confused about the book of Leviticus, or even disenchanted with it? Here’s an overview for you that may enhance your study of this important portion of God’s Word.

Who Wrote the Book of Leviticus?

Since general questions about the authorship of the Pentateuch are addressed elsewhere in this volume (see the introduction to Genesis), this section addresses corollary supporting information found in Leviticus itself. The substance of the book is the direct speech of God with Moses (“the Lord called to Moses,” 1:1), revealed over some span within the forty days (cf. Ex 40:17 with Nm 1:1) when the people were near Mount Sinai.

The book repeatedly designates Moses as the recipient of the Lord’s words (e.g., 1:1; 4:1; 6:1, 8, 19, 24; 7:22, 28; 8:1). If there were a red-letter edition of the Bible in which God’s speech in the OT directed to an individual or individuals was highlighted, nearly all of Leviticus would be in red. In this sense God is the Author of Leviticus and Moses recorded the inspired revelation as he received it from the Lord.

When Was the Book of Leviticus Written?

With the exception of Jerome and later Ibn Ezra (12th century) and Andreas Carlstadt (Luther’s rival), few challenged the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch before the 19th century (for examples, see G. Herbert Livingstone, The Pentateuch in its Cultural Environment [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1974], 220–21). Arguments for the documentary hypothesis and its atomistic and evolutionary approach to texts that arose in the 19th century are not justified in an impartial reading of the books. As Allen Ross has observed,

Whatever one thinks about the formation of the Pentateuch, it is clear that Leviticus cannot be isolated from its present setting in the Pentateuch. Its teachings assume the reality of the sanctuary with all of its furnishings (recorded in Ex 25–31) and the existence of that sanctuary assumes the reality of the covenant itself. That covenant was made with promises to the fathers. . . . All the legal and cultic instructions that follow form the content of the covenant, providing the details for the worship and service of the covenant people (Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of Leviticus [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002], 19).

The content of Leviticus with the rituals and purity rites fits with what is known of other cultures in the same period. Julius Wellhausen advocated that the language in Leviticus is later than that of Exodus. But linguistic analysis and intertextual studies have raised doubts as to the validity of this theory (A. Hurvitz, “Linguistic Criteria for Dating Problematic Biblical Texts,” Hebrew Abstracts 14 [1973], 74–79, and Mark Rooker, Biblical Hebrew in Transition: The Language of the Book of Ezekiel [New York: Continuum, 1990], 54–64). In sum, there are compelling reasons to consider Moses as the author of Leviticus as well as the entire Pentateuch, and therefore to date the composition 1440–1420 BC (see the introduction to Genesis for a discussion of the Documentary Hypothesis).

What Is the Purpose of the Book of Leviticus?

Soon after God delivered His people from Egypt He gave Moses numerous instructions for Israel, including many details on how they could access His presence for fellowship and worship. Leviticus explains the role of worship in the nation of Israel. When Moses told Pharaoh that God required His people to sacrifice to Him and thus acknowledge His higher authority over them (cf. Ex 3:18; 5:3), God had these prescriptions for worship in mind. Whereas many read the book as a litany of outdated rituals pertaining to an alien and bygone era, when properly interpreted, it is vitally instructive on how to approach God in worship.

Some might wrongly conclude that nothing of value can be derived from the outdated rituals of the emerging nation of Israel. Does not Jesus’ death on the cross eliminate the need for animal sacrifices? Is not Leviticus outdated with its bloody rituals that have no bearing on the present day? Yet Paul wrote that all Scripture is profitable (2Tm 3:16-17). After all, Leviticus was written in the context of the struggling nation of Israel and its departure from Egypt. It had relevance then, as now, in that God’s law was given to address the kinds of daily situations the people would encounter en route to and within the promised land.

5 Reasons to Study the Book of Leviticus

Why is this book here? What relevance does it have to anyone reading it today? Leviticus gives a deepened understanding of the holiness of God to a people who were not fully acquainted with His character. One should study Leviticus for these five reasons.

1. A Better Understanding of Sin

First, proper interpretation of the book will deepen one’s understanding of the nature of sin as an offense before the holy God. The book deals repeatedly with the obstacle of man’s sin and fallen condition. Sin is presented as affecting man’s experience in several ways.

First, sin excludes man from nearness to God (sacred space is to be maintained in order to accommodate the distance sin creates between men and God). Leviticus thus assists in rounding out the revelation of the nature of God that He personally revealed to the patriarchs in Genesis, to Moses, and to the nation in Exodus (showing the extent and excellencies of His holiness in liberating them from bondage in keeping with His promises to Abraham). Also, the tabernacle was the observable display of the Lord among His people. The establishment of His covenant with them at Mount Sinai had marked that spot as holy—a place where the Israelites had encountered the divine. But the mountain was not the permanent residence of God’s people. How then could they retain the holiness and the sanctity of this location after they left? The layout and rituals assigned to the tabernacle answer this problem (James K. Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai [New York: Oxford University Press, 2005], 201–2). Though small in comparison to Mount Sinai, the tabernacle was portable and, more importantly, it was designed by the Lord Himself. There the encounter with the divine could take place on a regular basis. It would house, as it were, the holiness of the Mount Sinai experience and the very presence of the Lord as Israel traveled to the promised land.

Second, sin excludes humanity from having a true knowledge of God (it prevents proper perceptions and application of truth that honors God).

Third, sin excludes humanity from communion or fellowship with God, the Creator. God’s relationship with sinners is assumed throughout the book, including their need for reconciliation to Him.

2. A Greater Love for the Atonement

Second, exploring atonement symbolism will expand one’s understanding of the nature of the redemption God provides for sinners. The way to redemption is highlighted wherever there is substitution in the worship rituals. One life or one thing is presented in place of another. Substitution implies humanity’s guilt, the need for atonement, and the need for propitiation (satisfaction of the divine wrath against sin). Further, in God’s plan for redemption there is imputation, the transference of guilt from the guilty party to another through substitution. Then there is death. Sacrifice requires the death of the substitute (i.e., unblemished animals). The redemption God has provided is based on His righteousness and the satisfaction of that righteousness, not His pity. God’s redemption is possible only through the blood of innocent victims (cf. Heb 9:22). Redemption is intended to produce holiness. God’s redemption does not excuse people from the need to be holy and distinct in their behavior.

The animal and grain sacrifices of the OT were symbolic of the way the Lord extended His justice tempered by His mercy to sinful people. When Israel was enslaved in Egypt, their God distinguished Himself from the Egyptian gods as the God of redemption. The God who revealed these rituals for His people is the same God with whom people are to relate today. Learning about the rituals points to the character of the God behind them. He is a redeeming God who, though unseen by human eyes, desires interaction between Himself and His people. Involvement with the God of Israel focuses on sacrificial prayer, praise, and giving. These same relational and redemptive elements are found in Israel’s legislation and its symbolism. The God who brought Israel out of bondage to slavery still redeems His chosen ones from slavery. Believers today hear His call to be a “holy nation” (1Pt 2:9, though the Church is not the new Israel) and will be brought into His dwelling place at the end (Rv 21:3).

3. A Firmer Grasp of God’s Holiness

Third, one will grasp more deeply God’s desire to dwell in holiness with a holy people and grow in appreciation of the incarnation of Christ. One of the things humanity learns about God in reading the Pentateuch is that the world is in the state it is in because people are out of fellowship with the holy God. God created humanity for fellowship with Him and even created a place, Eden, where humanity could live in fellowship with Him. Eden was a “sacred space,” as John Walton has called it (Old Testament Today: A Journey from Original Meaning to Contemporary Significance [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004], 122–24). Leviticus gives a glimpse not only of what was lost when Adam sinned, but also a sense of the measures that must be taken to restore a temporal, earthly sacred space. As such, it is vitally instructive for one’s attempts to worship God today. Further, it foreshadows the act of Messiah taking on human flesh to tabernacle among mankind (cf. Jn 1:14).

4. A Deep Appreciation for Sacrifice

Fourth, comprehending the sacrificial system can assist in evangelism, for it portends the Messiah’s ultimate and final sacrifice for sin. The sacrifices serve as illustrations or life lessons that depict the richness of the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ. No singular sacrifice prefigures all that was accomplished at the death of Jesus, but collectively there is a richness and a fullness that point distinctly forward to that event. Someone reading a textbook on the anatomy and physiology of sharks, but who has never seen a shark, has a wholly different appreciation of sharks than the one who has seen sharks at an aquarium. The one who has not only seen sharks, but has swum with sharks, has an even greater appreciation than one who merely casually observes them from a distance at an aquarium. The textbook presents the “shadows” of shark existence, but an encounter with a shark is the “substance.” Similarly, one can appreciate salvation without reading all of Leviticus, but to understand Jesus Christ’s sacrifice in its fullness one must understand what the Father did in bringing His Son to that moment on the cross that effected our salvation. The picture of God as found in Leviticus prepares believers for a fuller understanding of the final sacrifice of Jesus, and it can help explain why the death of Christ was needed to expiate (remove the guilt of) sin and propitiate (turn away) God’s just anger against sin.

5. A More Robust Biblical Literacy

Fifth, through Leviticus readers gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of certain Old and New Testament passages (particularly in Romans and Hebrews). Leviticus provides a framework for understanding the millennial sacrifices (Ezk 40–48). Many NT texts are better understood against the background that Leviticus provides (e.g., Paul being “poured out as a drink offering,” Php 2:17). The finality of the offering of Christ as presented in Hebrews assumes a knowledge of Leviticus (cf. Heb 7:26-28; 9:12, 26, 28).

The Lord’s desire to maintain His presence in the midst of His people prompted the record that is known as Leviticus. What that record teaches about His character is still relevant and instructional today.

What Is the Background of the Book of Leviticus?

The events of the book of Leviticus occurred during Israel’s exodus from Egypt to Canaan in an approximately one-month period between Ex 40:17 and Nm 1:1. Exodus 40 states that God’s instructions for erecting the tabernacle in the wilderness were completed “and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (v. 34). On a larger scale the whole of Leviticus is encompassed by the narrative of the treaty between God and His people at Mount Sinai, extending from Ex 19 through Nm 10 (see David A. Dorsey, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999], 72). In this broader setting the holiness of God forms the theological basis (Ex 19–20) on which the liturgy for worship was built. Leviticus communicated to God’s people the steps necessary to ensure His presence in their midst as they set out for Canaan.

Leviticus records the historical fulfillment of commandments given by God in Ex 29 (the legislation to ordain priests) and Ex 40:1-16 (the command to ordain the tabernacle as a center of worship with its priesthood). Leviticus expands on Ex 40:17-38, which records the partial record of that fulfillment. Leviticus gave the nation of Israel a guide on how to maintain the place where God dwelt with His people and how they would be holy before Him.

As has been noted above, many portions of the Bible make sense only in light of God’s instruction in this book. The death of Christ and all that is implied and explicit in the atonement of our Lord finds its origin in the Levitical portrait of the holy God.

In some ways Leviticus can be classified as legal literature with its apodictic (prescribing) and casuistic (if . . . then) elements. Apart from the brief narrative section in chap. 10, the book presents the legislation of Israel’s manner of approach to God. Legal literature, however, may seem daunting to the average person, as seen, for example, in an attorney’s office with its volumes of technical court cases. The legal literature of Leviticus, however, involves the practical aspect of worship of the one true God.

Most contemporary believers do not think of prescriptions for the order of worship because the NT does not prescribe a specific worship form or liturgy. Compared to the freedom and spontaneity with which believers today worship the Lord, the rituals in Leviticus may seem like empty repetition. Yet in Leviticus, the priest, when properly exercising his duties, was looking for far more than just external obedience on the part of worshipers. Without a clear and sustained vision of God’s holiness, any act of worship could quickly degenerate into an irreverent routine.

What Is the Structure of the Book of Leviticus?

A popular, two-part approach to Leviticus considers the means by which believers can approach God, and the means by which their approach can be maintained before God. In this light the book may be viewed as having two major parts:

Part 1: The Means of Access to God: Sacrifice (chaps. 1–10).
Part 2: The Walk before God: Sanctification (chaps. 11–27).

However, the book may be more appropriately divided along the lines of chaps. 1–16 and 17–27. If God was to dwell among His people according to His revealed purpose at Sinai (cf. Ex 25:8; 33:17) and in keeping with Moses’ petition for the Lord’s very presence to accompany the nation (cf. Ex 33:15-16), then “sacred space” must first be created (establishment of the tabernacle, Ex 40:1-33; Lv 1–16) and a national holiness and purity must be maintained (Lv 17–27) (Richard Averbeck, “Sacred Space and Sacred Community in the Old Testament and the New Testament,” paper read at the Evangelical Theological Society Annual Meeting, Danvers, MA, November 18, 1999.)

Leviticus 16 is the theological center of the book. On the Day of Atonement, the holiness of the tabernacle and the holiness of the nation are central. Thirteen times in chap. 16 the word “atonement” is used in referring to the result of the five varied sacrifices performed on that day. Two blood atonements were made on behalf of the priests and the people (vv. 3, 5); a scapegoat offering was made on behalf of the entire congregation (vv. 20-22); and two burnt offerings were presented for the priests and the people (vv. 23-24). The point is clear: atonement for sin is required in order to maintain a “space” in which God may dwell with His people. These rituals not only cleansed the tabernacle of God’s dwelling with blood (vv. 32-33, referring back to vv. 1119), but they also cleansed the people (vv. 29-31), making them fit for His inhabitation as well.

For Further Reading:

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