Overview of the Book of Leviticus

Question
Overview of the Book of Leviticus
Answer

Overview of the Book of Leviticus

Author: The author is Moses.

Purpose:

To guide the Israelites in the ways of holiness, so they would be set apart from the world and receive blessings instead of judgment as they lived near the special presence of their holy God.

Date: c. 1446-1406 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • God is holy, and he requires holiness from his people.
  • God's people invariably failed to keep the requirements of holiness, but temporary atonement could be found in the sacrificial system.
  • God called his people to pursue holiness in every aspect of their lives out of gratitude for the mercy he had shown to them.
  • God offered wondrous blessings and threatened judgment so that his people would repent and offer vows of commitment to him.

Author:

That Moses is the author of Leviticus is a conclusion derived from the book's date and occasion and from Old Testament and New Testament references to Moses as the author of the Pentateuch. See "Introduction to the Pentateuch."

Time and Place of Writing:

Leviticus reports the words of God to Moses and his brother Aaron, but it never states when and how these words were written down. This makes the date of Leviticus somewhat uncertain. The majority of critical interpreters place the writing of Leviticus in the exilic era (c. the sixth century B.C.), many centuries after Moses. This view is improbable because the content of Leviticus does not fit such a late period: The worship of the second Temple differed significantly from that enjoined in Leviticus, and Leviticus is presupposed or quoted by earlier books such as Deuteronomy, Amos and, most obviously, Ezekiel. The book reflects the ideals of worship and holiness that were accepted in Israel from the time of Moses to the fall of Jerusalem in 586/587 B.C.

The book of Leviticus reports events that took place for the most part at Mount Sinai. For this reason, Moses could have compiled this book for the first generation of the exodus. Yet it is likely that he brought this book to completion along with the rest of the Pentateuch on the plains of Moab in order to instruct the second generation of the exodus how to live in the promised land. For additional discussion, see "Introduction to the Pentateuch."

Original Audience:

Leviticus, the Latin form of the Greek title of the book, means "about Levites." The Levites were the tribe from whom the priests were drawn, and they had the responsibility for maintaining worship. The title is apt, because the book is primarily about worship and fitness for worship. However it is addressed not solely to priests or Levites, but also to lay Israelites, telling them how to offer sacrifices and how to be pure, a requirement for entering the presence of God in worship.

Purpose and Distinctives:

Perhaps no other Old Testament book represents a greater challenge to the modern reader than Leviticus, and imagination is required to picture the ceremonies and rites that form the bulk of the book. However, it is important to understand the rituals in Leviticus for two reasons. First, rituals in all societies enshrine, express and teach those values and ideas that society holds most dear. Although many aspects of the rituals of Leviticus seem obscure to modern readers, the Old Testament Israelites knew why particular sacrifices were offered on specific occasions and what certain gestures meant. By analyzing the ceremonies described in Leviticus, we can learn about the most important ideas of Old Testament Israel. Second, these same ideas were fundamental for the theology of the New Testament. The concepts of sin, sacrifice, and atonement found in Leviticus are essential for interpreting the death of Jesus in the New Testament.

Leviticus is part of the covenant law given at Sinai. The ideas that inform the whole Mosaic covenant are also presupposed here, including God's sovereign grace in choosing Israel and his requirement of loyalty. Certain themes are especially prominent in Leviticus. First, God is present with his people. Second, because God is holy, his people must also be holy. Third, atonement for sin through the offering of sacrifices is of paramount importance. These themes may be elaborated as follows:

(1) The divine presence. Every act of worship took place "before the LORD" (e.g., Lev. 1:5), who dwelled with his people in the Tent of Meeting. Because of God's special presence in the Most Holy Place, entry was barred to all but the high priest, and he was allowed to enter only once a year on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:17). Although God's presence is usually invisible, he did on special occasions (e.g., the ordination of the priests) become visible in a cloud of fire (Lev. 9:23-24). It is the greatest of God's gifts that he deigns to dwell with his people (Lev. 26:12).

(2) Holiness. "Be holy, because I am holy" (Lev. 11:45) is the theme of Leviticus. Human beings are meant to be like God in his character. That involves imitating God in daily life. The holiness of God involves his being the source of perfect lifelife in its physical and moral dimensions. Animals offered to him in sacrifice were to be free of defect (Lev. 1:3), and priests who represented God to Israel and Israel to God were to be free of physical disabilities (Lev. 21:17-23). Those who suffered discharges (particularly of blood) or disfiguring skin diseases were barred from worship until they were cured (Lev. 12-15). Physical health is seen to symbolize the perfection of divine life. But holiness is also an inward matter, one of attitudes issuing in moral behavior. The theme of holiness is especially emphasized in Leviticus 17-25 - chapters that are chiefly concerned with personal ethical conduct - and is summed up in Leviticus 19:18 with the command to "love your neighbor as yourself."

(3) Atonement through sacrifice. Since no one was able to live in perfect accordance with God's law, a means of atonement was essential so that moral lapses and physical failings could be pardoned. To this end Leviticus gives the fullest descriptions of the sacrificial system (Lev. 1-7), the role of the priests (Lev. 8-10, 21-22) and the great national festivals (Lev. 16, 23, 25) introduced in the Old Testament. These great ceremonies were designed to make possible the coexistence of the holy God with his sinful people through temporary atonements for sin. These sacrifices had no power in and of themselves to atone for sin, but depended upon the merits of Christ's then future atonement (John 14:6; Heb. 9:15; 10:11).

Christ in Leviticus:

Through its symbols and rites, Leviticus paints a picture of God's character that is presupposed and deepened in the New Testament message about Christ. Leviticus teaches that God is the source of perfect life, loves his people and wants to dwell among them. In this we see a foreshadowing of the incarnation, when "the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (John 1:14).

Leviticus also clearly shows human sinfulness: No sooner were Aaron's sons ordained than they profaned their office and died in a fearful display of divine judgment (Lev. 10). Those who were suffering from skin diseases or bodily discharges, as well as those with moral failures, were barred from worship because their imperfections were incompatible with a holy and perfect God (Lev. 12-15). Here we see Leviticus teaching through symbolism the universality of human sin, a doctrine endorsed by Jesus (Mark 7:21-23) and Paul (Rom. 3:23).

Caught between divine holiness and human sinfulness, humanity's paramount need is for atonement. It is here that the book has the most to teach the Christian, for its ideas are fulfilled in the atoning work of Christ. He is the perfect sacrificial Lamb who takes away the sin of the world (Lev. 1:10; 4:32; John 1:29). His death is the ransom for many (Mark 10:45), and his blood cleanses us from all sin (Lev. 4; Heb. 9:13-14; 1 John 1:17). Above all, Jesus is the perfect High Priest who enters not the earthly Tabernacle once a year on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), but the heavenly Temple forever. He offered not merely a goat for the sins of his people, but his own life (Heb. 9-10). The rending of the Temple curtain when Jesus was crucified was a visible demonstration that his death opened up the way to God for fuller access by all believers (Matt. 27:51; Heb. 10:20).

Furthermore, while Leviticus focuses on keeping Israel separate from surrounding peoples, the New Testament opens the Kingdom to all nations and thus abrogates observing food laws (Mark 7; Acts 10) while at the same time insisting on the moral principles symbolized in the dietary regulations (John 17:16; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1). The holy God of Leviticus is shown in the Gospels to be Christ, who offers life, health, and holiness to all who follow him.

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Pentateuch

Copyright:

Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries and adjunct Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL.