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The Book of Leviticus (from Greek Λευιτικός, Leuitikos, meaning "relating to the Levites"; ) is the third book of the Hebrew Bible, and the third of five books of the Torah (or Pentateuch). Its Hebrew name, Hebrew: ויקרא, Vayikra/Wayikra, comes from its first word, "And He called." The English name is from the Latin Leviticus, taken in turn from Greek and a reference to the Levites, the tribe of Aaron, from whom the priests descended. The book, however, addresses all the people of Israel (1:2) though some passages address the priests specifically (6:8). Most of its chapters (1-7, 11-27) consist of God's speeches to Moses which he is commanded to repeat to the Israelites. This takes place within the story of the Israelites' Exodus after they escaped Egypt and reached Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:1). The book of Exodus narrates how Moses led the Israelites in building the Tabernacle (Exodus 35-40) based on God's instructions (Exodus 25-31). Then in Leviticus, God tells the Israelites and their priests how to make offerings in the Tabernacle and how to conduct themselves while camped around the holy tent sanctuary. Leviticus takes place during the month or month-and-a-half between the completion of the Tabernacle (Exodus 40:17) and the Israelites' departure from Sinai (Numbers 1:1, 10:11).
The instructions of Leviticus emphasize ritual, moral and legal practices rather than beliefs. Nevertheless, they reflect the world view of the creation story in Genesis 1 that God wishes to live with humans. The book teaches that faithful performance of the sanctuary rituals can make that possible, so long as the people avoid sin and impurity whenever possible. The rituals, especially the sin and guilt offerings, provide the means to gain forgiveness for sins (Leviticus 4-5) and purification from impurities (Leviticus 11-16) so that God can continue to live in the Tabernacle in the midst of the people.
The traditional view is that Leviticus was compiled by Moses, or that the material in it goes back to his time, but internal clues suggest that the book developed much later in Israel's history and was completed either near the end of the Judean monarchy in the late seventh century BCE or in the exilic and post-exilic period of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. Scholars debate whether it was written primarily for Jewish worship in exile that centered on reading or preaching, or was aimed instead at worshipers at temples in Jerusalem and Samaria. Scholars are practically unanimous that the book had a long period of growth, that it includes some material of considerable antiquity, and that it reached its present form in the Persian period (538–332 BCE).
I. Laws on sacrifice (1:1–7:38)
II. Institution of the priesthood (8:1–10:20)
III. Uncleanliness and its treatment (11:1–15:33)
IV. Day of Atonement: purification of the tabernacle from the effects of uncleanliness and sin (ch. 16)
V. Prescriptions for practical holiness (the Holiness Code, chs. 17–26)
V. Redemption of votive gifts (ch. 27)
Chapters 1–5 describe the various sacrifices from the sacrificers' point of view, although the priests are essential for handling the blood. Chapters 6–7 go over much the same ground, but from the point of view of the priest, who, as the one actually carrying out the sacrifice and dividing the "portions", needs to know how this is to be done. Sacrifices are to be divided between God, the priest, and the offerers, although in some cases the entire sacrifice is a single portion consigned to God—i.e., burnt to ashes.
Chapters 8–10 describe the consecration (by Moses) of Aaron and his sons as the first priests, the first sacrifices, and God's destruction of two of Aaron's sons for ritual offenses. The purpose is to underline the character of altar priesthood (i.e., those priests empowered to offer sacrifices to God) as an Aaronite privilege, and the responsibilities and dangers of their position.
With sacrifice and priesthood established, chapters 11–15 instruct the lay people on purity (or cleanliness). Eating certain animals produces uncleanliness, as does giving birth; certain skin diseases (but not all) are unclean, as are certain conditions affecting walls and clothing (mildew and similar conditions); and genital discharges, including female menses and male gonorrhea, are unclean. The reasoning behind the food rules are obscure; for the rest the guiding principle seems to be that all these conditions involve a loss of "life force", usually but not always blood.
Leviticus 16 concerns the Day of Atonement. This is the only day on which the High Priest is to enter the holiest part of the sanctuary, the holy of holies. He is to sacrifice a bull for the sins of the priests, and a goat for the sins of the laypeople. A second goat is to be sent into the desert to "Azazel", bearing the sins of the whole people. Azazel may be a wilderness-demon, but its identity is mysterious.
Chapters 17–26 are the Holiness code. It begins with a prohibition on all slaughter of animals outside the Temple, even for food, and then prohibits a long list of sexual contacts and also child sacrifice. The "holiness" injunctions which give the code its name begin with the next section: penalties are imposed for the worship of Molech, consulting mediums and wizards, cursing one's parents and engaging in unlawful sex. Priests are instructed on mourning rituals and acceptable bodily defects. Blasphemy is to be punished with death, and rules for the eating of sacrifices are set out; the calendar is explained, and rules for sabbatical and Jubilee years set out; and rules are made for oil lamps and bread in the sanctuary; and rules are made for slavery. The code ends by telling the Israelites they must choose between the law and prosperity on the one hand, or, on the other, horrible punishments, the worst of which will be expulsion from the land.
Chapter 27 is a disparate and probably late addition telling about persons and things dedicated to the Lord and how vows can be redeemed instead of fulfilled.
The majority of scholars agree that the Pentateuch received its final form during the Persian period (538–332 BCE). Nevertheless, they also agree that Leviticus had a long period of growth, with many additions and editings, before reaching that form.
The entire book of Leviticus is composed of Priestly literature. Most scholars see chapters 1–16 (the Priestly code) and chapters 17–26 (the Holiness code) as the work of two related schools, but while the Holiness material employs the same technical terms as the Priestly code, it broadens their meaning from pure ritual to the theological and moral, turning the ritual of the Priestly code into a model for the relationship of Israel to God: as the tabernacle is made holy by the presence of the Lord and kept apart from uncleanliness, so He will dwell among Israel when Israel is purified (made holy) and separated from other peoples.
The ritual instructions in the Priestly code apparently grew from priests giving instruction and answering questions about ritual matters; the Holiness code (or H) used to be regarded as a separate document later incorporated into Leviticus, but it seems better to think of the Holiness authors as editors who worked with the Priestly code and actually produced Leviticus as we now have it.
Many scholars argue that the rituals of Leviticus have a theological meaning concerning Israel's relationship with its God. Jacob Milgrom has been especially influential in spreading this view. He maintained that the priestly regulations in Leviticus expressed a rational system of theological thought. The writers expected them to be put into practice in Israel’s temple, so the rituals would express this theology as well, as well as ethical concern for the poor. Milgrom also argued that the book’s purity regulations (chaps. 11-15) are based in ethical thinking. Many other interpreters have followed Milgrom in exploring the theological and ethical implications of Leviticus’s regulations (e.g. Marx, Balentine), though some have questioned how systematic they really are. Ritual, therefore, is not a series of actions undertaken for their own sake, but a means of maintaining the relationship between God, the world, and humankind.
The Priestly theology of sacrifice begins with the Creation, when humankind is not given permission to eat meat (Genesis 1:26–30); after the Flood God gives permission to men to slaughter animals and eat their meat, but the animals are to be offered as sacrifices (Genesis 9:3–4). Sacrifice is in a sense a gift (offering) to God, but also involves the transfer of the offering from the everyday to the sacred; those who eat meat are eating a sanctified meal, and God's share in this is the "pleasing odour" released as the offering (incense or meat) is burnt.
In Leviticus, sacrifice is to be offered only by priests. This does not conform with the picture given elsewhere in the bible, where sacrifices are offered by a wide range of people (e.g. Manoah the judge, Samuel and Elijah the prophets, and kings Saul, David and Solomon, none of whom are priests) and the general impression is that any head of family could make a sacrifice. Most of these sacrifices are burnt offerings, and there is no mention of sin offerings. For these reasons there is a widespread scholarly view that the sacrificial rules of Leviticus 1–16 were introduced after the Babylonian exile, when circumstances allowed the priestly writers to describe the rituals so as to express their worldview of an idealised Israel living its life as a holy community in observance of the priestly prescriptions. Other scholars think these changes came about earlier, during Judah's monarchy.
The main function of the priests is service at the altar, and only the sons of Aaron are priests in the full sense. (Ezekiel also distinguishes between altar-priests and lower Levites, but in Ezekiel the altar-priests are called sons of Zadok instead of sons of Aaron; many scholars see this as a remnant of struggles between different priestly factions in First Temple times, resolved by the Second Temple into a hierarchy of Aaronite altar-priests and lower-level Levites, including singers, gatekeepers and the like).
In chapter 10, God kills Nadab and Abihu, the oldest sons of Aaron, for offering "strange incense". Fortunately, Aaron has two sons left. Commentators have read various messages in the incident: a reflection of struggles between priestly factions in the post–Exilic period (Gerstenberger); or a warning against offering incense outside the Temple, where there might be the risk of invoking strange gods (Milgrom). In any case, the sanctuary has been polluted by the bodies of the two dead priests, leading into the next theme, holiness.
Ritual purity is essential for an Israelite to be able to approach God and remain part of the community. Uncleanliness threatens holiness; Chapters 11–15 review the various causes of uncleanliness and describe the rituals which will restore cleanliness; cleanliness is to be maintained through observation of the rules on sexual behaviour, family relations, land ownership, worship, sacrifice, and observance of holy days.
Yahweh dwells with Israel in the holy of holies. All of the priestly ritual is focused on Yahweh and the construction and maintenance of a holy space, but sin generates impurity, as do everyday events such as childbirth; impurity pollutes the holy dwelling place. Failure to ritually purify the sacred space could result in God leaving, which would be disastrous.
Through sacrifice the priest "makes atonement" for sin and the offerer is forgiven (but only if God accepts the sacrifice—forgiveness comes only from God). Atonement rituals involve blood, poured or sprinkled, as the symbol of the life of the victim: the blood has the power to wipe out or absorb the sin. The role of atonement is reflected structurally in two-part division of the book: chapters 1–16 call for the establishment of the institution for atonement, and chapters 17–27 call for the life of the atoned community in holiness.
The consistent theme of chapters 17–26 is the repeated phrase, "Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." Holiness in ancient Israel had a different meaning than in contemporary usage: it might have been regarded as the "god-ness" of God, an invisible but physical and potentially dangerous force. Specific objects, or even days, can be holy, but they derive holiness from being connected with God—the seventh day, the tabernacle, and the priests all derive their holiness from God. As a result, Israel had to maintain its own holiness in order to live safely alongside God.
The need for holiness is directed to the possession of the Promised Land (Canaan), where the Jews will become a holy people: "You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt where you dwelt, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan to which I am bringing you...You shall do my ordinances and keep my statutes...I am the Lord, your God" (ch. 18:3).
Leviticus, as part of the Torah, became the law book of Jerusalem's second temple a well as of the Samaritan temple. Evidence of its influence was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which included fragments of seventeen manuscripts of Leviticus dating from the third to the first centuries B.C.E. Many other Qumran scrolls cite the book, especially the Temple Scroll and 4QMMT.
Leviticus's instructions for animal offerings have not been observed by Jews or Christians since the first century C.E. Because of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., Jewish worship has focused on prayer and the study of Torah. Nevertheless, Leviticus constitutes a major source of Jewish law and is traditionally the first book taught to children in the Rabbinic system of education. There are two main Midrashim on Leviticus—the halakhic one (Sifra) and a more aggadic one (Vayikra Rabbah).
In the New Testament, the letter to the Hebrews in particular uses ideas and images from Leviticus to describe Christ as the high priest who offers his own blood as a sin offering. Therefore, Christians do not make animal offerings either, as Gordon Wenham summarized: "With the death of Christ the only sufficient "burnt offering" was offered once and for all, and therefore the animal sacrifices which foreshadowed Christ's sacrifice were made obsolete."
Christians generally have the view that the New Covenant supersedes (i.e., replaces) the Old Testament's ritual laws, which includes many of the rules in Leviticus. Christians therefore have usually not observed Leviticus' rules regarding diet, purity, and agriculture. Christians have debated, however, where to draw the line between ritual and moral regulations. For example, though Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 have historically been interpreted in both Christianity and Judaism as prohibiting homosexual acts, their context raises questions about their continuing relevance for many modern interpreters.
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