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Leviticus

Leviticus appears to be the Law that Moses wrote to act like a constitution for the people. It seems primitive and brutal to modern ears, but it was more merciful than the contemporary Egyptian and Assyrian laws that Moses probably based it on; "...underlying all the minute detail is a grand plan, which was to create a society that was fair and honoured God." [9]

"In his fascinating and enlightening book Surprised by Hope (SPCK, 2007), Tom Wright points out that the Jewish people celebrated the beginning of harvest as well as the end. Passover was celebrated at the beginning of their wheat harvest and Pentecost similarly at the start of their barley harvest. At these festivals the firstfruits of the respective crops were presented to the Lord. They celebrated at least two harvest festivals every year." [8] It has been suggested that the festivals were adaptations of pre-existing agricultural celebrations, as many festivals are today[1 p.136].

Leviticus contains detailed instructions concerning various kinds of offerings, as indicated in the structure below.

People's duties regarding offerings

Burnt offerings 1:1–17

Grain offerings 2:1–11

First­fruits 2:12–16, 23:10

Peace offerings 3:1–17, 7:28–34

Sin offerings 4:1–35

Guilt offerings 5:1–6:7

Wave offerings 7:32

Priests' duties regarding offerings:

Burnt offerings 6:8–13, 7:8–10

Grain offerings 6:14–18

Consecration offering 6:19–24

Sin offerings 6:25–30

Guilt offerings 7:1–7

Peace offerings 7:11–21, 7:28–34

Forbidden foods 7:22–27

Consecration and vestments of the Priests 8:1–36

Sacrifices commence 9:1–10:20

Clean and unclean foods 11:1–47

Childbirth 12:1–8

Medical conditions 13:1–15:33

Entering the sanctuary 16:1–19

Scapegoat 16:20–34

No private sacrifices 17:1–14

Animals that die naturally 17:15–16

Sexual relations 18:1–30

Child sacrifice 18:21, 20:2

Commandments and consequences 19:1–20:27

Priestly rules 21:1–22:33

Calendar 23:1–34

Sabbath 23:3–4

Feast of the Passover 23:5–9

Feast of First­fruits 23:10–22

Feast of Atonement 23:23–32

Feast of Tabernacles 23:33–33

Sanctuary lamps and loaves 24:1–9

Blasphemy incident 24:10–23

Seventh year 25:1–7

Jubilee year 25:8–23

Redemption 25:24–55

Blessings and curses 26:1–46

Miscellaneous rules 27:1–34

The references to sabbaths emphasize complete rest, with a few mentions of offerings (on the day after the sabbath) or worship.

"Leviticus is a very practical book. Think of it as an instruction manual. Imagine someone has said to you ‘you need to work hard to be as holy as you can’ and you say to them ‘but what does that mean in practice?’ This conversation, when it happened in Ancient Israel, produced the book of Leviticus. We need to understand that the practical details may have changed for us but the need to be holy has not." [4]

Commentary

1:1–17 People's duties: Burnt offerings

See also 6:8–13 and 7:8–10. The patriarchs offered burnt offerings at key moments: Noah (Genesis 8:20) and Abraham with Isaac (Genesis 22) so the principle was long-established, and its purpose in this context is not explained.

1:4

A hand on the animal's head indicated ownership[5 p.143] and so identified the person who would benefit from the sacrifice; but the animal was then handed over to the priest.

1:5–9

The animal's body is divided into three categories: the blood is especially holy, representing the animal's life (17:11) and must be sprinkled on the altar; the inner parts are reserved for a burnt offering to the Lord; and the extremities may be eaten. The term "burnt offering" is literally "that which goes up" which implies that God is above[5 p.143–4].

The types of creature which may be eaten include scaly fish (11:9) yet the list of those whose blood may not be eaten omits fish (7:26) implying that fish blood may be consumed. Perhaps only warm blood is counted as having life within it.

Another interpretation is that the "life" that is in the blood is the breath of God, as in Genesis 7:15, a breath that can be extinguished by drowning in the case of animals and birds, but not fish.[7]

2:1–11 People's duties: Grain offerings

See also 6:14–18.

2:12–16 People's duties: Firstfruits

See also 23:10. Offering the first batch of a long-awaited crop requires great trust that a full crop will follow, an echo of the patriarch Abraham's willingness to offer his son Isaac (Genesis 22).

2:13

"Seasoned with salt" is quoted in Colossians 4:6. The RSV translation[3] makes it a reference to the covenant between God and his people.

3:1–11 People's duties: Peace offerings

See also 7:11–21 and 7:28–34.

4:1–35 People's duties: Sin offerings

See also 6:25–30.

5:1–6:7 People's duties: Guilt offerings

Shekel: see Appendix 2 Money.

See also 7:1–7.

6:8–13 Priests' duties: burnt offerings

See also 7:8–10.

6:14–18 Priests' duties: grain offerings

See also 2:1–11.

6:19–24 Priests' duties: consecration offering

6:25–30 Priests' duties: sin offerings

See also 4:1–35.

6:25–30

The important feature of the Sin Offering is that the animal was given grace to transmit holiness (verse 27).

6:30

See Leviticus 17:10–14 and comments on Matthew 26:28.

7:1–7 Priests' duties: guilt offerings

See also 5:1–6:7.

7:8–10 Priests' duties: burnt offerings

See also 6:8–13.

7:11–21 Priests' duties: peace offerings

See also 3:1–17 and 7:28–34.

7:22–27 Priests' duties: forbidden foods

See also 11:1–47 and 17:15–16.

7:26

See Leviticus 17:10–14 and comments on Matthew 26:28.

7:28–34 People's duties: Peace offerings

See also 3:1–17 and 7:11–21.

7:27

Blood: see comment on 1:5–9.

7:32 People's duties: Wave offerings

8:1–36 Consecration and vestments of the Priests

9:1–10:20 Sacrifices commence

10:3

Perhaps Aaron was silent because he knew he should have spoken to his sons earlier.

11:1–47 Clean and unclean foods

See also 7:22–27 and 17:15–16.

12:1–8 Childbirth

This law would ensure that a woman would be left alone and obliged to rest for a while after child­birth[6].

13:1–15:33 Medical conditions

14:4

Hyssop: See Appendix 2: Hyssop

14:6

Hyssop: See Appendix 2: Hyssop

14:49

Hyssop: See Appendix 2: Hyssop

14:51–52

Hyssop: See Appendix 2: Hyssop

15

cf. Jesus's statement "it is not what goes into a man that makes him unclean, but comes out".

16:1–19 Entering the sanctuary

16:20–34 The Scapegoat

16:21

See comment on Mark 14:46.

17:1–14 Private sacrifices

17:10–14

See comments on Matthew 26:28. This command is repeated without the explanation in Leviticus 6:30, Leviticus 7:26, and Leviticus 19:26.

Blood: see comment on 1:5–9.

17:15–16 Animals that die naturally

See also 7:22–27 and 11:1–47.

18:1–30 Sexual relations

18:21

Child sacrifice: see also 20:2.

18:22

The English translations of this verse clearly say that some (I do not know which) acts between men are abhorrent to God, apparently a euphemism for something sexual. The text formed part of the covenant Law, and speaks of abhorrence that is a feature of God. It does not ban love or desire, nor does it apply to women's relationships.

The Hebrew is unclear, reading literally "you shall not bed a male the beddings of a woman" (the word for "woman" in Hebrew also means "wife"). The same is true of Leviticus 20:13.[2] Tension between homo- and hetero-sexuality is apparent in Genesis 19:4f and Judges 22:19f. See also Deuteronomy 22:6, Leviticus 20:13, Matthew 19:5, Romans 1:27, Ephesians 5:31, 1 Timothy 1:10.

The question is, does this apply to Christians today? Christians are not under the Law (see Appendix 2 Law), but that does not mean we are free to sin (Romans 6:14–15). A comparable question, that of circumcision, arose in the earliest days of the church, and the conclusion then was that Christians are free apart from abstaining from fornication and from consuming meat sacrificed to idols, blood, and the meat of an animal that was strangled (Acts 15:28–29). the Ten Commandments are also considered applicable to Christians. So Christians are not bound by this verse, but should avoid promiscuity.

18:28

cf. Leviticus 20:22.

19:1–20:27 Commandments and consequences

God's people are to be visibly different from their neighbours, not worldly.

19:2–4

Jesus paraphrased this "be perfect..." (Matthew 11:28). Holiness involves loyalty in key relationships: with God, with parents, and with self.

19:6

This is a practical instruction: cooked meat would be unsafe to eat after being kept out in a warm climate without refrigeration for more than a day and a half.

19:9

See Leviticus 23:22.

19:11

See comment on Exodus 20:16.

19:13

cf. Deuteronomy 24:14–16, Romans 4:4, Luke 10:7, James 5:4.

19:18

cf. Mark 12:31. In Romans 12:19 Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32:35, but the same idea appears in this verse.

19:26

See Leviticus 17:10–14 and comments on Matthew 26:28.

19:27

Pagan rituals involved hair cutting.[1 p.86]

20:2 People's duties: Child sacrifice

See also 18:21.

20:13

See comments on Leviticus 18:22.

20:25 Clean and unclean animals

Certain types of creature were classified as unclean regardless of what they had or had not done, and there was no remedy to convert an unclean animal into a clean one. However, unclean creatures are not alienated from God; all types of creature, clean and unclean, were saved in the Ark and promised God's protection in Genesis 9:12. The effect of classifying an animal as unclean was to make the Hebrews leave it alone, not using it for sacrifice or food. The division was apparently lifted in Peter's vision at Joppa (Acts 10:9–15).[6]

Creeping on the ground: cf. the deceiving serpent in Genesis 2.

21:1–22:33 Priestly rules

22:2

See comments on Amos 2:7.

23:1–34 Calendar

23:3–4 Sabbath

23:5–9 Feast of the Passover

23:10–22 Feast of First­fruits

23:22

This is a repeat of Leviticus 19:9, and confirms the "Feast of Weeks" harvest festival commanded in Exodus 34:22–26. The consequences of failing to keep this law are fore­told in Amos 8:6bf. This law is addressed to rich land-owners, and does not address the need of the poor to glean in other places (cf. Ruth 2:2).

23:23–32 Feast of Atonement

23:33–33 Feast of Tabernacles

23:34

According to Nehemiah 8:17, this law and many like it were not kept from the death of Joshua to the return under Nehemiah and Ezra.

24:1–9 Sanctuary lamps and loaves

24:10–23 Blasphemy incident

24:20

cf. Matthew 5:38f.

25:1–7 Seventh year

25:8–23 Jubilee year

25:24–55 Redemption

25:49

This restriction was fulfilled by Jesus our redeemer who is described as our "brother and sister and mother" (Matthew 12:50).

26:1–46 Blessings and curses

26:8

This promise was reversed in Isaiah 30:17.

26:30

High Places: see comment on Numbers 33:52.

27:1–34 Miscellaneous rules

27:3

Shekel: see Appendix 2 Money.

27:25

Shekel: see Appendix 2 Money.

27:30

This is a holy tithe (which according to Numbers 18:26 went to the Levites, who had to tithe it again) not to be confused with the sabbatical tithe in Deuteronomy 14:22 which the giver consumed.

References:

  1. Coggins, R Introducing the Old Testament Oxford University Press, 2nd edition 2001
  2. Revd Paul Kennington, verbally
  3. Holy Bible Revised Standard Version Glasgow: Collins 1946 (NT)/1952 (OT)
  4. Gooder, Paula Help, it’s Leviticus! Q&A with Paula Gooder Online: https://www.biblesociety.org.uk/explore-the-bible/bible-articles/help-its-leviticus-qa-with-paula-gooder/ accessed 24 March 2017
  5. Stackert, Jeffrey Leviticus in: Coogan, Michael (ed) "The New Oxford Annotated Bible — New Revised Standard Version, With The Apocrypha (New York: OUP inc 2010)
  6. Read, Nick in New Daylight 29 November to 8 December 2018
  7. Richard Whitekettle "A Study in Scarlet: The Physiology and Treatment of Blood, Breath and Fish in Ancient Israel", in Journal of Biblical Literature Vol 135 no 4 2016 (Atlanta, USA) p.692
  8. Gravelle, Paul in New Daylight 19 August 2019
  9. Lowson, Geoff in New Daylight 3 December 2019

© David Billin 2002–2020