Lesson 4 of 4
In Progress

Theological Themes in Leviticus


The rituals for the Day of Atonement are detailed in Leviticus 16. Once a year, the high priest is to enter the holy of holies and to offer sacrifices to make atonement for himself, his fellow priests, and the people of Israel. In this way, the sanctuary and the people are cleansed from sin so that the Lord might continue to dwell in their midst. The writer of Hebrews discusses the Day of Atonement in Hebrews 9, where Jesus becomes both high priest and sacrifice.


There are a number of links between Leviticus and the P account of creation in Genesis 1: the concern with boundaries and separation (Genesis 1:4-7; Leviticus 10:10); the phrases “of every kind” or “according to its kind” (Genesis 1:20-25; Leviticus 11:13-22); the emphasis on “seasons” and Sabbath (Genesis 1:14; 2:1-3; Leviticus 23:2-8; 26:2-4); and the use of the number seven (Genesis 2:2-3; the seven speeches of Leviticus 1-7; the seven days of the ordination service in Leviticus 8:35). The priestly writers of Leviticus relayed instructions on how to maintain or restore the good order that God established at the beginning in creation. They sought to restore the world–or at least Israel–to the state of being “very good,” as God created it (Genesis 1:31).


Leviticus uses the words “holy” some seventy-six times, referring to God, the priests, the people, the sacrifices, the priestly vestments, and other things. The holiness of God is the source of all other holiness: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (19:2). The people’s holiness consists not only of ritual purity, but also of ethical living (19:3-37).

Presence of God

Leviticus envisions the tabernacle as the dwelling place of the Lord in the midst of the Israelites. Its purity must therefore be strictly maintained, so that a holy God can reside in the midst of a sinful people without destroying them (see 10:1-2). The theological claim is that the Lord God, the creator of the world, actually dwells with God’s people.


In Leviticus 26, provision is made for the very literal “redemption” of land and people. If an Israelite falls on hard times and sells his land or himself to another, the land or the person should be “redeemed” (that is, bought back) by his nearest relative. If there is no one to redeem the land or the person, both should be released in the Year of Jubilee.


The priestly writers give a special prominence to the Sabbath (most notably in Genesis 2:2-3). Here in Leviticus, that emphasis continues: the weekly Sabbath is prescribed as the first of the regular “holy convocations” and “appointed festivals” that the people of Israel are to observe (23:1-8). Even the land is to observe a Sabbath year, when it must rest and lie fallow (25:1-7). Every seven “weeks” (or “sabbaths”) of years, the whole community is to observe the Year of Jubilee, when slaves go free and land is returned to its ancestral owners (25:8-55).


Leviticus views worship as central to the life of the community. The majority of the book (chapters 1-10, 16-17, 21-24, 27) is devoted to instructions about or descriptions of worship–sacrifices, other offerings, proper priestly vestments, the duties of priests, and the liturgical calendar. Worship is one of the primary means by which the Israelites maintain holiness.