Survey of the Book of Leviticus

Author: Moses is at least the source, and most likely the author of Leviticus. Throughout the book, we see God speak to Moses, giving him instructions for the Israelites. The book of Leviticus is essentially Moses writing down for the people the laws God spoke to him. The phrase "and the LORD spoke to Moses" appears multiple times in the book.

Date: Most likely written between 1440—1400 BC.

Purpose: Leviticus is almost a continuation of Exodus, and its events directly follow the events in Exodus. The Israelites had just escaped from slavery in Egypt and were living in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. The name Leviticus means "things pertaining to the Levites", but it is not only to or about the tribe of Levi. Israel was facing a new problem: God was dwelling in the tabernacle with the people, but His holiness is so pure and powerful that His presence cannot dwell with anything sinful or impure. This included Moses and the Israelites. Thus, there was a need for a religious system that purified the people and allowed for them to commune with God, and that system is written down in the book of Leviticus. The book is filled with God's directions to Moses on how the Israelites were to live morally and ritually pure lives so that their God who rescued them from their oppressors could dwell in their midst.

Key Verses:

Leviticus 1:4: "He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him."

Leviticus 17:11: "For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life."

Leviticus 19:18: "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD."

Themes: Leviticus deals with the theme of people's sinfulness and impurity in contrast to God's intense holiness. The words "clean", "unclean", and "holy" are used throughout to refer to the state of humanity versus the state of God. While they often coincide, there is a difference between ritual uncleanness and sin. A person could be ritually unclean due to disease or natural bodily functions like menstruation, birth, and sex, especially when not dealt with according to the ceremonial laws. But those natural functions are not sinful. Because God's presence was in such close proximity to His people, they needed to remain in a state of purity both morally and ritually.

True to its name, Leviticus also deals with the life of the Levites, the priests chosen to attend to the tabernacle, perform sacrifices and ceremonies, and come into the presence of the Lord on behalf of the people. Leviticus describes in detail the higher standard of living morally and ritually so that they could come before the Lord and not be destroyed because of their uncleanness.

Brief summary: The book of Leviticus relays the laws and rituals that the Lord spoke to Moses to give to the people. Chapters 1—7 deal with ritual offerings and sacrifices. Chapters 8—10 deal with the establishment of the Aaronic priesthood. Chapters 11—15 deal with ritual and physical cleanliness, particularly as related to things like childbirth, skin disease (leprosy), and bodily discharges. Chapter 16 speaks of the Day of Atonement.

Chapters 17—20 talk about practical holiness, giving laws about things like appropriate sexual relationships, loving one's neighbor, carrying out justice without bias, how to treat foreigners, refraining from divination, and not sacrificing children (as some of the pagan cultures around the Israelites did). After giving a specific command, God often concludes: "I am the LORD." In Leviticus 20:7–8 He says, "Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God. Keep my statutes and do them; I am the LORD who sanctifies you." God has the right to tell His people how to live. In Leviticus 20:22–24 He further explains, "You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them. But I have said to you, 'You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.' I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples."

Chapters 21—22 talk about ritual cleanliness for the priests and acceptable offerings. Chapter 23 speaks of the festivals the Jewish people were to observe, such as the Passover feast. Chapter 24 gives instructions for the lamp and the bread in the tabernacle. It also contains the well-known lex taliones wherein retribution is limited to an eye for an eye. Chapter 25 gives laws about property and showing kindness to the poor. Chapter 26 reminds the Israelites about blessings for obedience and punishment for disobedience. Chapter 27 concludes the book with laws about vows and things dedicated to the Lord.

The Day of Atonement is of central significance to the book of Leviticus and to our understanding of Jesus' work on the cross. It is held once a year to cover for all of the sins of people that may have been missed. On this day, and this day only, the high priest enters the Most holy Place in the tabernacle, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. After cleansing himself, the priest took two goats and put them in front of the tabernacle. Through casting of lots, one goat would become a burnt offering and the other would become a "scapegoat," sent alive into the wilderness. The priest would sacrifice a bull as a sin offering for himself. He would enter through the veil to the Most Holy Place with incense. Then he would sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on the mercy seat. He would do the same with the blood of the goat that he killed for the sacrifice for the sins of the people. He would then exit and sprinkle blood on the altar in the tabernacle. After this, the high priest laid his hands on the head of the live goat, confessing the sins of the people over it. The goat would symbolically bear the iniquities of the people as it went free into the wilderness. The high priest was then to bathe, and the bull and sacrificed goat were carried outside the camp and burned. This was a day of fasting and rest from work for the people.

Practical Application: While Leviticus is full of laws that we no longer have to follow because they have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, these laws reveal to us the magnitude of God's holiness. It is all too easy for Christians to let the world inform them on God's holiness and what He considers to be sinful or impure, but by looking at the laws in Leviticus we can see just how far our human nature is from God's holiness. We can rejoice in the sacrifice that Jesus made for us so that we can be cleansed of our sin once and for all (Hebrews 9:11–28), so that we no longer have to follow these rituals and sacrifices in order to be in the presence of God. Our position towards God may have changed when we put our faith in Jesus, but God's holiness has not changed. The blindingly holy God that we see in Leviticus is the same one that we come before today, and His holiness should still impact every part of our lives. First Peter 1:15–16 instructs followers of Jesus: "as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy'" (see Leviticus 19:2).

Related Truth:

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Survey of the Book of Exodus

What is the Torah?

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What is the basic timeline of the New Testament?

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