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Introduction to the Book of Leviticus

Third Book of the Bible & of the Pentateuch

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What is Leviticus?

The Book of Leviticus is a record of the laws which Israelites believed God handed down to them through Moses. They believe that following all of these laws, exactly and precisely, was necessary to retain God's blessings both for them personally and for their nation as a whole.

One important aspect of these laws is that they were supposed to set them apart from other tribes and peoples — the Israelites were different because unlike everyone else, they were God's "Chosen People" and as such followed God's chosen laws.

The word "Leviticus" means "concerning the Levites." A Levite was a member of the clan of Levi, the group from which one family was selected by God to oversee the administration of all the religious laws. Some of the laws in Leviticus were for the Levites in particular because the laws were instructions on how to conduct worship of God.

 

Facts About the Book of Leviticus

  • Leviticus is the third book the Bible, the Torah and, the Pentateuch
  • Leviticus has 27 chapters & 659 verses
  • Chapter & verse divisions are of Christian origin
  • Leviticus has very little narrative and no physical traveling

 

Important Characters in Leviticus

  • Moses: Leader of the Israelites, receives the laws from God and gives them to the people
  • Aaron: Moses' older brother, chosen by God to be the first high priest

 

Who Wrote the Book of Leviticus?

The tradition of Moses being the author of Leviticus still has many adherents among believers, but the Documentary Hypothesis developed by scholars attributes the authorship of Leviticus entirely to priests. It was probably many priests working over multiple generations. They may or may not have used outside sources as the basis for Leviticus.

 

When Was the Book of Leviticus Written?

Most scholars agree that Leviticus was probably written during the 6th century BCE. Where scholars disagree is on whether it was written during the exile, after the exile, or a combination of both. A few scholars, though, have argued that Leviticus may have been written down in its basic form before the exile. Whatever outside traditions the priestly authors of Leviticus drew upon, though, may have dated many hundreds of years prior to this.

 

Book of Leviticus Summary

There isn't a story in Leviticus that can be summarized, but the laws themselves can be separated into distinct groupings

  • Leviticus 1-7: The system of sacrifice and offerings that's at the heart of Israelite worship of God
  • Leviticus 8-10: The initiation of Aaron and his sons into the new priesthood
  • Leviticus 11-16: Explanation of ritual purity and ritual pollution, along with the use of atonement to treat ritual pollution.
  • Leviticus 17: Holiness
  • Leviticus 18: Sex
  • Leviticus 19-20: Miscellaneous laws and regulations involving family and other interpersonal relations.
  • Leviticus 21-22: Rules and regulations for priests
  • Leviticus 23: Religious festivals
  • Leviticus 24: Blasphemy and the importance of human life
  • Leviticus 25: Yearly cycles
  • Leviticus 26: Blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience
  • Leviticus 27: How the people should pay to support the priesthood

 

Book of Leviticus Themes

Holiness: The word "holy" means "set apart" and it is applied to many different but related things in Leviticus. The Israelites themselves are "set apart" from everyone else in that they were specially chosen by God. The laws in Leviticus designate certain times, dates, spaces, and objects as "holy," or to be "set apart" from everything else for some reason. Holiness is also consistently applied to God: God is holy and a lack of holiness separates something or someone from God.

Ritual Purity & Uncleanliness: Being pure is absolutely necessary in order to be able to approach God in any way; being unclean separates one from God. Losing ritual purity can happen for lots of different reasons: wearing the wrong thing, eating the wrong thing, sex, menstruation, etc. Purity can be maintained through strict adherence to all the laws on what can be done where, when, how, and by whom. If purity is lost among the people of Israel, God might leave because God is holy and cannot remain in an unclean, impure place.

Atonement: The only way to eliminate uncleanliness and regain ritual purity is to go through a process of atonement. To make atonement is to be forgiven of some sin. Atonement isn't achieved simply by asking for forgiveness, however; atonement only comes through the proper rituals as prescribed by God.

Blood Sacrifice: Almost all the rituals necessary for atonement involve blood of some sort — usually through the sacrifice of some animal which loses its life so that an unclean Israelite can become ritually pure again. Blood has the power to absorb or wash away uncleanliness and sin, so blood is poured or sprinkled.

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