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Summary of Leviticus

SUMMARY

Located at the center of the Pentateuch, Leviticus is a book of law that demonstrates a concern with many different aspects of daily life. It contains detailed instructions regulating the offering of sacrifices, the duties of priests, the liturgical calendar, the sexual, dietary, and economic practices of the Israelites, and many other issues of ritual and moral holiness. Its name reveals its intended audience – the Levites, those set apart as priests and other religious leaders (though much of Leviticus is also aimed at ordinary Israelites). Set at Mount Sinai in the time before the 40-year wilderness wanderings, Leviticus offers the children of Israel instructions on how to live as a people set apart by God, a people called to “be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (19:2).

SO WHAT?

Leviticus offers a vision of the holiness of the LORD, a God who seeks to dwell in the midst of God’s people.  Leviticus also issues a call to holy living for those who are in covenant with this God. While the shape this holy living takes for Christians will differ significantly from the life envisioned by Leviticus, the call to “be holy” is still one that should be heard today. Leviticus offers a vision of how that holiness might be lived out in relationship with God, with one’s neighbor, and with the larger community.

WHERE DO I FIND IT?

Leviticus is the third book of the Bible. It lies in the center of the Pentateuch, between Exodus and Numbers.

WHO WROTE IT?

Leviticus itself does not include any claim of authorship. Biblical scholars attribute its composition to two primary sources, the Priestly source (P) which is responsible for chapters 1-16, and the Holiness source (H) which is responsible for chapters 17-26. There is debate over which of these sources is older, though it is agreed that both P and H were from priestly circles in Israel. The P source is also responsible for the material that surrounds Leviticus, that is, Exodus 25-40 and Numbers 1-10, as well as other significant portions of the Pentateuch.

WHEN WAS IT WRITTEN?

As with all the books of the Pentateuch, Leviticus is a product of various sources, time periods, and redactors. The book probably reached its final form sometime in exilic or postexilic times (late sixth to early fifth century BCE), though it likely contains earlier material. Some scholars date the earliest traditions in Leviticus to the pre-monarchic period (12th to 11th century BCE), though other scholars dispute this claim and date Leviticus to the Persian period (late sixth to fourth century BCE)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Leviticus is a book of laws regulating the offering of sacrifices, the duties of priests, the liturgical calendar, the sexual, dietary, and economic practices of the Israelites, and many other issues of ritual and moral holiness.

HOW DO I READ IT?

Leviticus is challenging to read, as it is filled with detailed instructions about things like how to conduct various kinds of sacrifices, how to treat various types of skin disease, and other matters of ritual purity that seem to have no relevance to modern Christians. As you read Leviticus, realize that you are reading not a narrative text, but a ritual text, whose theology is expressed in the details of the rituals and in the worldview behind them. Keep in mind that the priestly writers of the book believed certain things about God and the world. They believed God created the world in a very ordered way, with distinct boundaries (see Genesis 1), and that ritual practices mirrored and actualized those cosmic boundaries in order  that the holy God could dwell in the midst of sinful people without destroying them.