Lesson 3 of 4
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Introductory Issues in Leviticus

The place of ritual

Leviticus is filled with detailed instructions for various kinds of rituals–what parts of sacrificial animals are to be burned, what is to be done with the animals’ blood, how to lay the people’s sins on the head of a goat, when to wash in water in order to be ritually clean, etc. (See, for example, chapter 8 for the many rituals associated with ordination.) Much of this material, with its attention to blood, body parts, and sacrifice, may seem rather arcane to modern readers. It is difficult to ascertain what the details of the rituals signify. Nevertheless, we can discern much of the theological worldview behind these rituals: that God made the world with certain boundaries between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean (Genesis 1; Leviticus 10:10); that this ordered world is good, and ritual helps maintain that good order so that the world does not descend into chaos; and that ritual also helps ensure that the holy God can dwell with God’s holy people (Leviticus 20:25-26).

Ritual impurity

There are many laws in Leviticus dealing with matters of ritual impurity, which is not to be equated with sinfulness or moral failure. Many situations of daily life–menstrual period, sexual intercourse, skin disease, childbirth–make one ritually impure or unclean (see Leviticus 13-15). That is, these circumstances make one unable to approach the tabernacle until going through the necessary time and rituals to make oneself clean again. Sometimes a sacrifice is required to make a person clean (see, for example, 12:6-8), but this sacrifice is not to be equated with the guilt offering given by those who have, in fact, knowingly sinned (see 19:20-22).

Sacrifice and meaning

The sacrificial system of ancient Israel understands life, both animal and human, as immensely valuable. It also takes sin very seriously, as a contamination that can disrupt the good order God places in creation and that can potentially return the world to chaos. To cleanse sin from the community, and particularly from the sanctuary, life is required. Specifically, the life of an animal, and especially its blood, is required for atonement and cleansing of the people and the sanctuary. Life is so highly valued that the Israelites are strictly forbidden from eating blood, “for the life of every creature [is] its blood” (17:14). Even the blood of a non-sacrificial animal is to be poured out on the ground and covered with earth instead of being eaten (17:13). Blood, as the essence of life, is to be used for atonement, not casually consumed. The writer of Hebrews understands this priestly theology of sacrifice and portrays Jesus as both high priest and final sacrifice.

Types of sacrifice

The first seven chapters of Leviticus describe several different types of sacrifice: the burnt offering, the grain offering, the offering of well-being, the sin offering, and the guilt offering. The first three of these offerings are voluntary; the last two are required. The burnt offering (in which the whole animal is consumed by fire) serves various purposes, including atonement (1:4). The grain offering, as its name suggests, is a gift of grain, cooked or uncooked, of which a portion is burned on the altar and the rest is given to the priests for food (2:8-10). The well-being offering–the sacrifice of an animal in which much of the meat is consumed by the priests and the one who brings the sacrifice–is offered at times of joy and thanksgiving (chapter 3). Both the sin offering and the guilt offering make restitution for sins against God and neighbor (chapters 4-5). When the one sinned against is the neighbor, the sinner must first make financial restitution to the one wronged before bringing his or her sacrifice to the altar (6:1-7).

When did the priestly writers live? 

Virtually all biblical scholars attribute the writing of Leviticus to the Priestly source (P), with the writing of the Holiness Code (chapters 17-27) attributed specifically to the Holiness school (H), a part of the P source. There is debate, however, over the dating of the P source. The older scholarly consensus, through the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was that P was late, a postexilic (fifth century B.C.E.) redaction of the Pentateuch. This view unfortunately sometimes denigrated P as representing a decline in Israelite religion, from the ethical and spiritual heights of the prophets to the rigid legalism of the priests. More recent biblical scholarship has argued on the grounds of linguistic evidence and evidence from other ancient Near Eastern cultures that P is preexilic, written for the most part before the Major Prophets (Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Second Isaiah). This more recent scholarship has emphasized the positive contribution of the priestly writers to biblical theology.

Worship and justice

One can divide Leviticus roughly into two parts: chapters 1-16 and chapters 17-27 (the Holiness Code). The first part of the book is primarily concerned with sacrifices, ritual purity, and the duties of priests. The Holiness Code, while it discusses rituals and worship, also emphasizes holy living in all aspects of daily life: eating, sexual relationships, harvesting, relationships with neighbors and with servants, caring for the poor, caring for the land, honesty in financial transactions, etc. (see especially Leviticus 19). The structure of the whole book would seem to suggest, then, that holy living arises out of right worship and that worship of the Lord results in justice toward one’s neighbor.