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The Book of Leviticus (from Greek Λευιτικός, Leuitikos, meaning "relating to the Levites"; Hebrew: ויקרא, Vayikra/Wayikra, "And He called") is the third book of the Hebrew Bible, and the third of five books of the Torah (or Pentateuch). The English name is from the Latin Leviticus, taken in turn from Greek and a reference to the Levites, the tribe from whom the priests were drawn. In addition to instructions for those priests, it also addresses the role and duties of the laity.
Leviticus rests in two crucial beliefs: the first, that the world was created "very good" and retains the capacity to achieve that state although it is vulnerable to sin and defilement; the second, that the faithful enactment of ritual makes God's presence available, while ignoring or breaching it compromises the harmony between God and the world.
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 it originated in post-exilic (i.e., after c.538 BCE) Jewish worship centred on reading or preaching. 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 (11:1–16:24)
IV. 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 one offerer, although in some cases the entire sacrifice is a single portion consigned to God—i.e., burnt to ashes.
Chapters 7–10 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 restrictions on 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 third 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.
The rituals of Leviticus have a theological meaning concerning Israel's personal relationship with its God. 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.
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 constitutes a major source of Jewish law, and there is evidence that it was the first book of the Tanakh taught in the Rabbinic system of education in Talmudic times. A possible reason may be that, of all the books of the Torah, Leviticus is the closest to being purely devoted to mitzvot and its study thus is able to go hand-in-hand with their performance. There are two main Midrashim on Leviticus—the halakhic one (Sifra) and a more aggadic one (Vayikra Rabbah).
New Testament writings such as the letter to the Hebrews speak of the blood of Christ, using the language of the sin offering in Leviticus. Gordon Wenham in his commentary on Leviticus expresses the idea that Christianity removed the need for animal sacrifice in these words: "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 Law of Moses, of which Leviticus is a central part. Christians therefore, unlike many Jews, do not observe Leviticus' prohibitions on a whole range of behaviors, from the ban on eating shellfish to the wearing of "fringes" on their garments. However, in both Christianity and Judaism, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 have historically been interpreted as clear blanket prohibitions against homosexual acts.
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