The name of the book in the Hebrew Bible is its opening word, wayyiqraµ, ‘and he [the Lord] called’. The name Leviticus is derived from the ancient Greek and Latin translations of the Hebrew Scriptures. It was given to the book doubtless because it contains many instructions relating to the work of the levitical priests. However, it is not entirely appropriate for two reasons. First, because not all the tribe of Levites were actually priests but only those of a particular family within the tribe. And secondly, because a lot of the book is directed at the ordinary Israelites, not merely the priests, addressing issues of their lives in relation to worship, family morality, social and community living, economic dealings etc. The book was as important for the ‘laity’ as for the ‘clergy’.
The book is set out as a record of part of God’s revelation to Moses while Israel were camped at Mt Sinai, shortly after their exodus from Egypt. It is not explicitly stated that Moses wrote the book himself (cf. the way that some parts of the Pentateuch are attributed to him, e.g. Ex. 24:4, 7, Nu. 33:2). However, those who would maintain the traditional dating would argue that if it was not actually written by Moses, it must have been edited by someone close to him. It certainly bears the mark of careful and intelligent organization.
For a long time, however, critical biblical scholarship has argued that the book comes from priestly circles and represents their prescription for the Second Temple of the post-exilic period. Along with other parts of the Pentateuch, it is thus assigned to the material referred to as P, i.e. the latest of the hypothetical sources of the Pentateuch. Those who broadly adopt this view, however, recognize that P includes a variety of material which may in its origins be very much earlier than the exile. The date of the final editing of a text is no sure indicator of the date of origin of its contents. Furthermore, some of the reasons for the late dating of the so-called priestly material no longer seem so cogent. Detailed and elaborate rules for sacrificial worship and descriptions of sanctuaries are known from ancient Near Eastern societies much older than the Mosaic period and need not, therefore, be assigned to a later development in Israel. And comparison of laws in Leviticus with related laws in Deuteronomy and other parts of the OT often indicate the likelihood of the levitical text being earlier. If Leviticus were written almost a thousand years later than its literary setting, it has succeeded to a remarkable degree in avoiding anachronisms, and instead has some aspects of terminology which were no longer current in the later period. For these and other reasons, some scholars regard the material in Leviticus as much earlier in origin than the exile, but not necessarily Mosaic.
The fact that Leviticus is a carefully ordered document can be instantly seen from the outline of contents below. There is a definite sense of logical progress. The end of the book of Exodus has described the setting up of the tabernacle and all that was necessary for the sacrificial worship of Israel to take place. So Leviticus opens with a virtual handbook of sacrifices, explaining first in layman’s terms what parts in the proceedings were to be played by all involved, what kind of animals were appropriate for which purpose and what was to be done with them etc. It then gives some extra rules for the priests’ benefit. That section is then followed by a narrative of the ordination of the priesthood who would perform these sacrifices. But the priests had other duties, primarily the responsibility to teach ordinary Israelites the distinctions between what was holy and what was common, and between the clean and unclean. So the next section deals with that. Life for the Israelites under the covenant involved much more than proper worship and ritual purity, so the remainder of the book goes on to set out a wide variety of personal, family, social and economic responsibilities, all designed to enable Israel to maintain that national distinctiveness (holiness) for which God had created them. The economic realm of land and property becomes a major focus towards the end of the book, thus giving it a forward look as the reader moves on to Numbers and Deuteronomy and follows the progress of Israel towards the promised land. The book thus has a literary balance of its own, as well as a well-sculpted fit into its place in the grand theme of the Pentateuch as a whole.
The balance of the book can be seen from another perspective. In Ex. 19:4–6 God had given to Israel, even before making the covenant and giving the law, an identity and role in the midst of the nations. They were to be a priestly people and a holy nation. It could be said that Leviticus falls into two halves reflecting each of these. Chs. 1–17 are mainly to do with areas of priestly responsibility, whereas chs. 18–27 are saturated with the call for Israel to be holy in every practical area of life (so much so that 17–26 has been given the name ‘the Holiness Code’, or H, in critical terminology). Others have suggested that these two halves of the book reflect the double commandment to love God and to love your neighbour. The first half of the book leads up to the great climax of the Day of Atonement (ch. 16), on which right relationships were restored between the nation and God. The second half reaches its climax with the Year of Jubilee (ch. 25), when right relationships were to be restored among the people. Each half also has a historical object lesson about treating God with contempt (chs. 10, 24).
God made a promise to Abraham which included three particular points and one universal goal (Gn. 12:1–3, 15). He promised Abraham a people, a relationship of covenant blessing and a land. The ultimate purpose was the blessing of all nations. Leviticus touches all of these, but is particularly focused on the second of the three specific promises. The first part was already in the process of fulfilment; Israel had indeed become a great nation (Ex. 1:7). The third, possession of the land, still lay ahead, and is the focus of Numbers and Deuteronomy. The important issue for Leviticus is how to maintain that relationship between God and Israel which had been established through the exodus and the making of the covenant (Ex. 24). And the answer is that God himself provides the means, by his grace. The relationship which had been established by God’s redeeming grace (in the exodus) could only be sustained by God’s forgiving grace (as Israel had known since the golden calf incident, Ex. 32–34). The sacrificial system was not a means of buying favours, but of receiving grace. And the practical obedience to the law in the later chapters was not a matter of achieving holiness, but of living out the distinctiveness which God had already conferred on the nation. Only by appropriate response to God’s grace could Israel continue to enjoy their greatest blessing, which was the presence of God in their midst, symbolically localized in the tabernacle but felt in every area of everyday life. Anything that threatened that presence of God or polluted his dwelling place was to be rigorously dealt with. We should remember this positive aim behind the atmosphere of severity in some sections.
For the Christian, the grace which Leviticus offered through the sacrificial system is now found wholly in Jesus Christ, and the sacrifices provided the NT authors with a rich imagery for interpreting the significance of the cross. Likewise, the demand for holiness, in Leviticus a badge of Israel’s separation from the nations, is transformed in the NT into the call to Christian distinctiveness from the world. But the moral challenge of Leviticus, as of the whole OT law, cannot be confined to the church. God created Israel to be a light to the nations. Their distinctiveness was to enable them to model the ethical standards and direction of life that God ultimately wants for all. The book thus has important lessons for the understanding of our salvation, our personal sanctification and our social ethics. Leviticus is a part of those Scriptures which, according to Paul, are able to make us wise for salvation and are profitable for teaching us how to live (2 Tim. 3:15–17).
G. J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, NICOT (Eerdmans, 1979).
C. J. H. Wright, Living as the People of God (IVP/UK, 1983), published in USA as An Eye for an Eye (IVP/USA, 1983).
———, Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament (Marshall Pickering, 1992).
J. E. Hartley, Leviticus, WBC (Word, 1992).
OT Old Testament
NT New Testament
NICOT The New International Commentary on the Old Testament
WBC Word Biblical Commentary